The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- The Delicacy of Laughter by Steve Toase
- Tucky Sinkowa’s Fabulous Magic by Reshad Staitieh
- The Rain Dancers of Solaris Planum by Derrick Boden
- The Exchange by Sarah Hogg
- Stars Are Wild by Preston Dennett
- Jenny Cola by Josh Pearce
- Blink by Walter Donaldson
- The Soul Factory by Janie Brunson
- Lord Ruthgar’s Legacy by Jamie Lackey
- A Ravenous Beast by Timothy Mudie
- Omnos by Steve Rodgers
- A Fearful Lesson by Brad Preslar
- Author Interview – Sean Monaghan
The Delicacy of Laughter
By Steve Toase
After the faces appeared on the egg shells I could no longer bring myself to cook with them. In the dark they manifested like daguerreotypes, a little more visible each time I opened the fridge. I tried watching, but nothing happened. When I shut the door they developed on the shells. Sepia lips here, a strand of tears running down a cheek there. Ovoid Turin shrouds.
While I was away for the weekend I left them sealed in the cold and the dark. The masks colored themselves in.
Each was unique. All had red noses, but that was where any similarity ended. One was a bulbous snout of whiskey, another a dab of color on the tip of an upturned pixie nose. Triangles and lines bisected eyes. Lips outlined in black or red, stretched back to reveal crooked teeth.
I thought about leaving them where they were, nestled at the back of the fridge between juddering motor and slightly rotting veg, but they made a good talking point.
In an antique shop on the High Street I found an old wooden storage box, fine wire mesh for a door, and placed it in the middle of the dining table. I nestled each egg inside a chiseled out hollow, smoothed by generations of the unfertilized.
A few weeks later I threw a dinner party for some friends in the neighborhood. The eggs were a talking point, as I hoped they would be. After a few bottles of wine we got them out, giving them different voices. Squeaking words. Holding the shells up like puppets. Bryan played Entrance of the Gladiators, hitting the wrong notes on purpose.
Marie nipped back to her house and got some face painting make-up she used at kid’s parties. We decorated each other, copying the clown designs on the eggs. Upturned lips and rouged cheeks. Arched, black, eyebrows rising almost to our hairlines. Finished, and too drunk to clean our skin, we put the eggs back in their box, turning them inward so they didn’t look out into the darkened room.
In the morning all the eggs were turned, their clown designs facing forward. The door of the egg box hanging loose on broken hinges. Edges sticky with thick white foundation. Someone must have woken in the night and torn it loose. I straightened the fine metal plates. Tightened the small crosshead screws.
Turning the eggs back around to face inside the box, I latched them inside. They never stayed that way.
I’m not sure when the first one hatched. I hadn’t looked at them for a couple of days. On the floor I found a shatter of shell held together by thin, stained membrane. Albumin and glitter trailed across the carpet toward the skirting board. I tried to clean it up, but no amount of scrubbing would shift the mess.
Over the next week four more hatched, leaving the same trails of afterbirth across the room.
I heard them moving in the walls. Oversized shoes with toe-caps of cartilage scraped against the wires as they practiced their tumbling routines in the cavities. They didn’t emerge during daylight. On mornings I came downstairs to find birds strangled with strands of banana skin. Balloon animals made from mouse intestines with their inflated throats ripped out. Furniture stained with a powder that was a cross between rouge and brick dust.
Yesterday I found glitter trailed across my pillow, stuck to the cotton with some kind of organic glue that smelt of rendered fat. I tried the front door, but the key was snapped off in the lock. The telephone filled with stagnant water. I heard them laughing in the walls.
This morning I found the last egg broken, the hatchling no longer inside.
I hear them running behind the sofa. If I turn on the taps there’s only sawdust. All the food in the fridge is rotten. They keep singing me out of tune lullabies and I find juggling balls shaped from crushed plaster and bone.
They’re getting bolder. Soon they will start their skit. I dare not sleep.
Tucky Sinkowa’s Fabulous Magic
By Reshad Staitieh
On the second day of summer break 1997, Arvin Gupta’s best friend in the world, Tucky Sinkowa, showed Arvin his fabulous, sparkling magic.
The silence that followed Tucky’s illuminating pink display, which had lit the entire basement and the brightly colored borders of the yellow vintage movie posters Tucky’s father hung defiantly during the divorce proceedings, was a silence that came only after moments of great revelation. It was not unlike the time Tucky told Arvin in confidence of his first wet dream. Then they were huddled in mummy bags beneath the massive wooden entertainment center in Arvin’s living room. The credits of ‘Life of Brian’ rolled above them as Eric Idle sang, hung high above the desert sands, an ornament dangling in the idyllic blues of the television sky, his whistles filling the awkward spaces between the boys’ uncomfortable pre-teen breaths. Then, Arvin knew what to say.
But that was weeks ago. And this wasn’t a wet dream.
An itch crept up Arvin’s leg brace. He dug at it with a pencil, eager to return attentions to his magical friend. “So you’re like a fairy,” Arvin said finally.
“No, idiot,” Tucky said.
“Well, I don’t get it,” Arvin said. He thought for a moment. More scratching. “Just to confirm. You’re not gay?”
“I don’t know. You acted like you had this big secret. I just thought–”
“Just shut up, Arvin. This is serious,” Tucky said.
“Yeah, but I just want you to know it’s totally fine if you are. I mean my mom, she had a gay friend before–”
“Dude, really. Just shut up. This isn’t about you,” Tucky said. His sweaty palms ran through his greasy mop-top as he began to pace the room, bouncing from corner to corner like a trapped fly while Arvin sat motionless and watched.
“Sorry,” Tucky said. “I didn’t mean to cut you off. I know how hard it is for you to talk about her.” Smells of Fourth of July picnics wafted through the room. “But really, Arv, you can’t tell anyone.” His high-pitched voice was hushed and urgent, clearly sore. The ask was unnecessary because the boys both knew Arvin didn’t have anyone to tell.
“You’re a superhero,” Arvin said. “Can you imagine what Becky would do if she saw this? She might actually notice you.” She was all Tucky talked about lately, unattainable, pretty and popular.
“Cool it, okay? Becky can’t know. No one can. I know you think this is cool, but it isn’t. It hurts. My throat and eyes burn, my hands sting, and it, it just sucks, okay?” His voice cracked. He wiped his brow. Yellow sweat stains from generously applied anti-perspirant clung to his tee and resembled melted butter on rice. “I’m like Jubilee, the lamest X-Man ever. Who gives a damn about Jubilee? No, I’m even worse than her. I can’t even control this… this thing.”
“What do you mean?” Arvin asked as he tucked his bad leg beneath his blanket. His brace caught on its thick fibers.
“Like, sometimes, stuff just comes out,” Tucky said.
Before Arvin could ask from where ‘stuff comes out,’ the stairwell lit up. A shadow bent and crawled down the steps, finally resting on Tucky’s bony shoulder. “Boys,” Tucky’s father, Red Sinkowa, said from above.
“Lights out.” He paused. “What is that ungodly smell? Christ, are you two lighting firecrackers in the house again?”
“No, Dad,” Tucky said. He shuffled to the window and cracked it open. “Just burned some popcorn. We’ll be quiet.”
“Don’t be quiet. Go to bed.” Red had a woman over, Janelle. Janelle reeked of hairspray and cotton candy. Her nails were long and blue. Family dinners with her were strained conversations between bites of rubbery pizza and lukewarm breadsticks. She was not bookish and kind like Tucky’s mother, Alice, the elementary school librarian.
Alice would have let them stay up.
And so they went to bed. Arvin spread out on the floor in a tangle of patchwork blankets and old bed pillows beneath the lumpy couch that Tucky occupied. The putrid after smell from Tucky’s display had faded into something more pleasant. Something like jello. Arvin looked up at Tucky’s feet hanging over him, periscoping out from a moldy blue blanket, and he thought of his friend, the guy attached to those little feet. This magic, curse though Tucky thought it was, was the best thing that had ever happened to Tucky whether he knew it or not. It was a way out of dingy basements and torn families. A path to recognition.
Arvin’s heart pounded with excitement. Before Tucky’s powers, it had only been a matter of time before Tucky moved on to greener pastures rife with better friends, friends who could go out, run and play sports, friends who weren’t afraid of cars and had the shiny new learner’s permits to prove it. But now, overnight, Tucky had become a freak like Arvin, and Arvin felt a profound and moral obligation to help Tucky weather this crisis by honing his sudden and mysterious powers.
“Arv?” Tucky whispered.
“Yeah, Tuck?” Arvin said.
“Do you ever think about them?”
“Your mom and sister,” Tucky said.
“All the time,” Arvin said, scratching at his brace.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” Tucky said. “I want to make it go away before we go back to school.”
In sixth grade, Arvin learned to practice active listening in Ms. Gilroy’s social studies class. It was a few weeks after his mom and sister were buried, and he had only recently returned to school. None of his peers seemed to know how to act around him, so they reached some sort of unspoken consensus to ignore him. His tragedy followed him with every limping step, leaving silence in his creaking wake.
Arvin’s therapist had told him to open up, to put himself out there and show his friends that he was stronger than his bad leg, but he had no friends because they had abandoned him. And he was weak. So he stood in the back of the room and watched alone as rows of his classmates, pubescent pre-teens in tiny desks, partnered up to rephrase and regurgitate key terms from mindless conversations. He had given up on participating in the activity and had started a slow, shameful walk to the front of the room to notify Ms. Gilroy.
Then Tucky came over and asked to be his partner.
Now sensing the distress in his friend’s muffled voice, Arvin sat up and looked Tucky square in the eyes. “You want to make it go away before we go back to school?”
“That’s what I just said,” Tucky said.
“But why would you want that?”
Tucky didn’t answer.
Cool summer air crept in from the open window and filled their lungs with sleep.
The boys spent most of the summer together after that night. Arvin’s dad had to be away to attend the trial, and Red, who worked from home, offered to let Arvin stay with him and Tucky. Before Arvin’s dad left, he warned Arvin that Arvin may have to tell the court how the man sped away after the accident. The mere thought of a drive to the courthouse made Arvin’s head spin.
Meanwhile, Tucky wasn’t doing well. Like an unforgiving histamine rash, Tucky’s magic worsened as summer grew hotter. Calamine ointments failed to relieve his oversized, peroxide-doused pores that sparked when he got excited. As he had earlier attested to Arvin, symptoms and their appearances were totally random. The slightest sneeze would have Tucky spewing glamorous, charring streams of glittery mucus into his father’s kerchief, staining it with tie-dye randomness that appeared intentional and hip like a slap bracelet. As a result, by mid-summer, Tucky had developed a reputation as a sneezing and dashing wonder, a boy with an inexplicably sparkly mouth. To keep Tucky’s powers secret, Arvin instructed Tucky to tell inquirers that he habitually ingested pop rocks and coke, a daring act that every teen and pre-teen knew had potentially deadly ramifications.
Numerous backyard experiments proved that Tucky couldn’t control his powers, but Arvin was convinced that this was a result of a mental roadblock, a hang-up that Tucky could overcome if he simply stepped up and owned his gift. What they needed was a public display of Tucky’s powers, a way to let the world in on their secret, a high pressure moment that could give them a karate kid challenge, something to overcome.
Because Arvin’s nascent phobias prevented him from getting into cars except in cases of extreme emergency, the boys’ options for public appearances were practically limited to the grocery store, a small ice-cream shop, and the neighborhood pool. Tucky hesitantly opted for the pool, which was a few blocks away from his home and a bit more public than Arvin would have liked for Tucky’s first outing as a real wizard. But the risk was worth it. If Arvin’s plan worked, Tucky would become Tucky the Magical, Tucky the Incredible, Tucky the Stupendous. Maybe even Tucky the guy with a girlfriend.
“You know it’s 95 degrees out, right?” Tucky said to Arvin at the pool, interrupting day dreams.
“So you don’t have to wear jeans to the pool,” Tucky said.
“Oh yeah, I know.” Arvin said. He rubbed his brace and the scars on his leg that he wished to keep hidden. With each touch, memories of the last ride with his mom and sister coursed through him and left him tingling. “My swimsuit is in the wash,” he said. “Look, I was doing some research about your powers, and I was thinking. The more we know about how you got them, the more we can control them.”
“Reading comics doesn’t count as research,” Tucky said.
“It’s not like I have anything else to go off,” Arvin said. His nose crinkled. “I was thinking how people get their powers. They’re either born with them or they acquire them later in life by accident like Peter Parker. But you weren’t bitten by any spiders or anything, were you?”
“No,” Tucky said.
“Okay, so we can rule that out. My next guess is that you were born with them. Like a mutant. But something must have triggered it. Like how Magneto’s family being torn away from him triggered his abilities. What was your trigger?”
“This is weird, Arvin.”
“Tell me,” Arvin said.
“Dude, no. You’re being weird,” Tucky said.
“I just need to know. Was it your parents? Their divorce?”
“Arvin, let’s just get on with this, okay? You’re acting obsessive.”
“No, I’m not,” Arvin said. “I’m trying to help you.”
Tucky reached for a water bottle. “We came here to impress people,” he said. He took a long sip. “Not to talk about my parents splitting up.”
Arvin sighed. “You’re still going to do it, right?”
“I don’t know, man. The whole thing seems like a bad idea,” Tucky said. He touched the crater of a freshly popped pimple on his chin.
“But you have to,” Arvin said.
“Because if you pull this off, you’re going to blow everyone’s mind. See Becky over there?” Arvin pointed to a brunette in a striped one-piece who looked twice their age.
“I’m not ready,” Tucky said. “I can’t control this.”
“You can. Just be positive. This will be good for you. Stop thinking so much,” Arvin said.
There was an uncomfortable squish when Tucky rose from his beach chair and wiped his hands on his shorts. A faint and familiar smell of BO trailed him. Then he tied his towel around his neck to make a cape and walked to the opposite end of the pool.
This was their moment. Arvin giggled in anticipation. Tucky cleared his throat and began to yell over White Town’s “I Could Never Be Your Woman,” which blared from speakers on the lifeguard’s stand. His voice was bold, confident, that of a trained thespian, totally void of the immaturity that otherwise plagued his rapidly fluctuating intonations. Rehearsal paid off, Arvin thought. This was a man’s voice.
“I am Tucky Sinkowa,” he said. “Gather round, and open your minds. You will be amazed.” He flung the cape aside and lifted his long arms toward the heavens nervously as if channeling a force so massive that his entire being risked emulsification.
A small crowd congregated in front of the lifeguard station, and swimmers clung to the hot metal pool gutters. Hidden in the shade across the pool, Arvin sat on the edge of his rickety lawn chair and nodded to Tucky when he looked to him for support.
“Okay,” Tucky said. “Here goes.” He exhaled and threw his arms to the sky and began to dance. Suddenly, blinding pink flashes shot from his every orifice. Silence followed. Then screams.
After the pool, Tucky’s mom and dad, in a rare show of teamsmanship, called Tucky up from the basement to have family dinner. Tucky trudged up the stairs, a dead man walking in front of Arvin. “This is your fault,” he said. “I never should have listened to you.”
“I was just trying to help,” Arvin said. “They’re your powers.” The boys continued their upward movement. “Look, for what it’s worth, I think we’re onto something. We’ll get it, Tuck. I know we will. We just need to work a bit more before we do that again.”
Tucky huffed. “There won’t be an ‘again,’” he said. He turned and opened the door to the kitchen where his parents had taken seats at opposite ends of the dining table.
As usual, Red’s father had set a place for both boys.
Alice had only recently arrived at her old home on Grant Street. Her cheeks were red, swollen, no doubt irritated by the wool sleeves that covered her hands and repeatedly rubbed at her tear-streaked face.
“Hey guys,” Red said. “Arv, I just got off the phone with your dad. He says he’s doing fine. Still with the lawyers. He’ll probably need to stay in Topeka for another few nights, so I checked, and he said you can stay with us for the weekend.”
“Okay, great. Thanks, Mr. S,” Arvin said. Red smiled.
“Tucky,” Alice said between sniffles. “We need to talk about something personal.” She looked at Red.
“Oh come out with it, Al,” Red said.
“Well, Tuck, Becky’s mother called us today,” Alice said.
“About the pool?” Tucky said, staring at his plate.
“Yes, about the pool,” Red said. He pressed his hands together beneath his nose and covered his pursed mouth.
“Well,” Alice said. “She was there. And she saw what you…what you…” she struggled to find the word.
“What you produced.” Tucky blushed. His off-white skin turned milky-red and pink drops began to seep and fizzle from his tear ducts.
“See there he goes,” Red said. “I can’t believe you did something like that, Tucky. What the hell were you thinking?” Arvin wanted to be Tucky’s shield, but he didn’t want to upset Red, so he bit his tongue. “Do you have any idea how disgusting…?” Red thrust an accusatory finger at Alice. “This abomination is on you. If you had told me what you–”
“You stop it right now,” Alice said. “I’m not the issue here. I had no idea Tucky would be like this. Or that he would do such horrible things.” She focused on Tucky. “Becky’s mom said that you may have blinded the lifeguard with your… display.”
“People thought it was funny,” Arvin blurted out. “It really was hilarious. You should’ve seen it.”
“Arv, please don’t take this the wrong way, but you need to stay out of this for a minute,” Red said.
“Let’s take a few steps back,” Alice said. “We can all calm down a bit. You know, count to ten or something,” she said. Arvin counted to ten in his head. “Tucky,” she said, placing her hands on Tucky’s long fingers. “We always knew you were a special, special boy. And, lately, we’ve had suspicions that maybe you were different. Maybe you were feeling like you didn’t fit in.” She stifled tears. “Maybe your father and I weren’t paying enough attention to you. We didn’t see the warning signs.” She began to cry. “Oh, Red, it’s all our fault.”
“If it’s anyone’s fault it’s yours, Al. He gets this from you, you know.”
“Oh, would you give it rest? I’m not the one bringing home women from downtown for dinner, Red. He’s acting out! He needs his mother.” She fiddled with the glasses that hung from a string on her neck.
“No, he needs anything but you. You caused this. And if you had just told me your little secret earlier, I would have known. I would have seen this whole damn thing coming a mile away. This is why I left you. You, your family, a whole bunch of freaks and liars, you know that?”
“No, you left me because you’re scared and weak. And besides that, it’s not too late for Tucky. We caught it early,” she said.
Ten more seconds passed in silence.
“Wait, what?” Tucky said. “You mean you know what this is? You knew this was going to happen to me?”
“We didn’t know that you would be able to dazzle,” Alice said. “Some of my family, your uncle, your grandpa, they can do it, too. But they had great careers as magicians.”
“Oh god,” Tucky said. “This is permanent?”
Arvin’s chest fluttered with hope.
“Not exactly,” Red said. “Becky’s mom says that Becky was like you, too. She said she sent Becky to a camp for young boys and girls to… fix it.”
“She said it made her better,” Alice added. “You want to be better, don’t you? You want to get rid of this stuff inside you, whatever it is.”
“Yeah, I do,” Tucky said. Arvin’s heart cried out.
“Okay, Tuck,” his mother said. “You leave on Monday, and we’ll have you back just before school. Does that sound good?”
“It does,” Tucky said in the voice he makes when he’s trying to sound brave. “It really does.”
Arvin stayed at Tucky’s every night that final weekend. Red let them have their run of the house as they shirked the outdoors and stayed in to play the latest edition of Magic the Gathering. Arvin hated that they played at magic when the real thing was a mere sneeze or irritable bowel movement away. But Tucky refused to perform.
When Tucky left for camp, Arvin felt like he did when movies end. Soon Arvin’s dad came and escorted him home to a dusty, lifeless house. Their freezer was overflowing with frozen casseroles, which Arvin dutifully defrosted for meals consumed in silence.
A week later, Arvin and his dad took a trip to Topeka for Arvin’s testimony. Arvin wore a blindfold and tried to sleep in the back of the car, trembling the whole way there. At the trial, he was unable to verbalize what happened, so the prosecutor had Arvin read the statement he made immediately after the accident when he was in the hospital having his leg mended. It was difficult, reading the statement, seeing the man’s face, recounting the impact and coming to in the destruction with his leg pinioned between the console and backseat, how he cried out to his mom and sister who, upfront, had stopped breathing. How the broken car that hit them drove away and left them to rot in the road like dead animals.
After the trial, Arvin spent the remainder of the hot, dry months alone, counting the days until Tucky’s return and biding his time with the dialup. Tucky had gone MIA on messenger and AWOL from battle.net. Without means to connect, Arvin feared the worst. He prayed every night that Tucky would return unchanged.
Interrupting the pixelated monotony of Arvin’s solo diablo runs and endless cans of pringles that his weeks had become, Red came by and delivered a letter to the Guptas. The address block was smudged, and the envelope’s edges were crumpled due to the hasty folding of the letter inside. Arvin unfolded it and found a brief note from Tucky. Camp was great, he said. He was making a lot of friends and was excited about the new school year.
Beneath the hollow words, a goodbye lurked. Arvin didn’t eat for two days after that. Only threats of a forced return to therapy could get him seated at the table again.
On the first day of school, Arvin pushed through the double doors and shambled to first period. His brace dragged and scraped on the teal linoleum. It left black scuffs on the freshly polished floors. The noise drew his classmates’ ire, but Arvin was undeterred by the negative attention. Maybe Tucky would be the same, maybe they would still be friends.
Minutes before the bell, Tucky burst into their first period science class donning a new haircut and tan. He looked like he’d spent his absent days rowing on a pristine lake. Tucky grinned as he looked around the room and made his way to the back for roll call. His braces were gone, and his shoulders were broader. When the teacher reached his name, he said, “It’s Tucker now, Ms. Metzler,” in a voice that had dropped at least two octaves.
Second period was uneventful until Tucky sneezed before lunch.
Arvin whipped his head around, anxious to see Tucky’s notorious, mucusy spectacle unfold. He prayed for sparkles. But Tucky hardly flinched. He wiped his nose with a tissue and catapulted the refuse across the room. The snot-filled wad, free of the pinkish phlegm Arvin had anticipated, spiraled and landed with a deafening splash in the trashcan beside him, un-singed.
When class ended, Arvin packed his books and pushed through the small crowd clamoring around Tucky. In his haste, Arvin’s shoulder brushed Tucky’s. A static shock punched through him, and Arvin spun out into the open hallway, dizzy from the collision, his books scattering like pieces of broken fenders.
Tucky glided over to his new group of friends who festooned the short blue hallway lockers. One boy pulled out his velcro wallet triumphantly to show proof of his learner’s permit, giving rise to cheers and celebratory handshakes, fast and full of intricate movements. Arvin collected himself and began to put books his books away.
Soon Tucky crossed the hall and approached him. “Hey, Arv,” he said.
“Hey, Tuck,” Arvin said.
Tucky looked over his shoulder. A sense of urgency befell the conversation. “So I heard about the trial. You okay?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Arvin said.
“My dad says that the guy can’t hurt anyone now that he’s locked up. So that’s good… Also, hey, I didn’t tell you. I’m saving up for a car now. Dad thought it would be a good idea. I even sold off my Magic cards for some extra cash. I didn’t know they’d be worth anything.”
“Oh, yeah, man, that’s like totally cool. I get it.”
“Alright, well, see you later,” Tucky said.
“Yeah,” Arvin said.
Tucky walked on with his new friends. Their perfect silhouettes were blinding beneath the bright fluorescent lights. Soon they faded into the walls, disappeared like shooting stars. Arvin shut his locker and hobbled to the bathroom, a struck deer with a flushed face and burning cheeks. Beneath the smoky mirror, cool water ran over his splayed fingers from the automatic wash. His tingling hands felt different, warmer and getting hotter. His shoulder throbbed beneath what felt like repetitive stabs with a dull knife. Then, without warning, sparkles of day-glo pink began to trickle from his ducts and cast a strange neon aura around his throbbing head. Arvin wept shining tears like fireworks.
The feeling was magical.
The Rain Dancers of Solis Planum
By Derrick Boden
Knuckles rapped against the front door. The sound made me flinch, and I sprayed hot glue across my tired fingertips.
“Christ’s sake,” I said, wiping my calluses dry. I hauled myself to my feet, grumbling. Nobody ever came knocking with good news, anymore.
I cracked the door enough to see the boy’s face. It was that kid, Manny or Marty or whatever, from the hotel. Smooth-skinned, pale-eyed, and even taller than me. An Outer Colony tourist, through and through. His face beamed with hope.
“Lucita’s busy,” I said, a bit too harshly.
His cheeks sank. Behind him, the rain fell on the Martian wetlands in a slow rhythm of big drops. In the center of our floating parking pad, a sleek double-seater sat on cooling vertical jets.
“The Dance is tonight. We’re all busy.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Could you tell her–”
I shut the door, and shuffled back to my chair. The living room was a mess of faux feathers and polyester ribbon. It looked like a flock of plastic turkeys had dropped down the airshaft and exploded.
“Who was that?” Lucita stood in the hallway, eyebrow arched.
I waved a dismissive hand. “That boy. I told him you’re busy, because you are. We’ve still got all this lace to tie for the costumes, and we haven’t even strung the lights yet.”
I was making a move to sit down, but she stepped into the room and planted her hands on her hips. I wasn’t about to give her any extra height on me if this was gonna be a real argument, so I stood my ground.
“I’m not dancing,” she said.
“Like hell you aren’t.” I tried to keep my lip from twitching, the way it always does when I just said something I wish had come out nicer.
“It’s a stupid dance.”
“It’s your birthright. This is the Toloi Homestead, not some Daedalia slouch. Your grandmother was Mars’s greatest Rain Dancer–”
“Have you looked outside? It never stops raining. Maybe the dancing made sense back in New Mexico, or when Mars was still dry. But now the whole thing is a joke.”
I pursed my lips. Same damn argument as last year. Probably every year, since Thomas died.
“I don’t ask you to dance every day–”
“I’ve been slaving over these costumes for weeks. And the cleanup’s even worse!”
I rolled my eyes. The melodrama of youth. You’d think I was running a penal colony. “Why do you think Marty and the others are here to begin with? It ain’t the weather.”
“It’s Manny, Mother.” Her face ripened to a deep pink. “He’s from Callisto.”
“Whatever. If it weren’t for the Dance, he’d be vacationing on some Europan resort right now.”
That got her to bite her tongue. I seized the opportunity.
“You’d do yourself a favor to keep that boy at arm’s length. I know his type. He’s hunting for a native girl. Something exotic to take home and show off to his buddies.”
Lucita threw her arms up, and her fingertips grazed the ceiling. When my great-grandpa built this homestead, nobody could’ve imagined how tall we’d be in just a few generations on account of the lower gravity. Now all of us had to duck through doorways and make sure to keep our hair from getting sucked into the vents. Of course, nobody could’ve imagined we’d have to hoist the damn building onto stilts to keep it above the waters, either.
“How are you so sure?” she said. “You’ve never even given him a chance to talk.”
“I don’t have to. Already know what he’s gonna say.”
“He’s with the Brigade. He helps people, Mother. More than you can say for yourself.”
I drew in a breath to retort, but she beat me to it.
“I’m gonna enlist.”
I clenched my hands into fists, and I could feel the tiny aches in each joint. “Like hell you are. You belong here.”
“Nobody belongs here, anymore. The Outer Colonies–”
“The yuppies can have their Outer Colonies. Cultural black holes, every one of them.” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation with the Dance just hours away.
“Mars is a complete failure,” she said.
“It’s our home. Always has been.”
Lucita eyed me skeptically, and I swore under my breath.
“Long as you or I can remember, at least. The answer is no. You’re not going anywhere. I need you here.”
“I’m an adult, I’ll do as I please. You can have your stupid backwater traditions.”
I was shaking so hard I couldn’t respond.
“Dad would be on my side,” she said. “He always was.”
That was all I could take. I pushed past her and stormed out the back, grabbing my coat and emergency gear on the way. Outside, at least nobody could tell my tears from the rain.
From atop the light tower, Solis Planum was a vast expanse of tumultuous water. It was a wonder they never changed the name of the place.
On the occasional days when the rain let up, the whole valley turned into a single mirrored sheet of water. Still enough to walk across, I always thought back when I was a kid. Papa would tell me stories about the oceans on Earth, how strong the tidal effect is down there. He said even the rain was different. Tiny drops hammering down real hard. Nothing like the big, slow drops we get here. Elephant tears, Papa always called them.
The harness dug into my hips. It didn’t feel good, but the activity was the best way to get my mind off Lucita. I inched farther up the light tower until the arcing fixtures were within reach. With each movement, the structure creaked as loud as my own bones.
I pulled the light coils from my backpack and started stringing them along the first fixture. Around the branch, then through the loops to hold them tight. Always making sure the transceivers were facing down. Just like Mama taught me. Just like I taught Lucita, years ago.
The thought of Lucita made my face hot. Where had I gone wrong with that girl? Was it because I decided to have her so late in life? Mama would’ve scolded me if she saw the kind of child I’d raised. Just like she did when I married an outsider. Diluting the lineage, and all that. As if Solis Planum had a plethora of quality male specimens.
To the north, the Valles Marineris hotels sprung out of the lake like the stamen of a water lily. Used to be prime real estate, before late-stage terraforming sent surface temperatures sailing and subsurface water surging past expectations and then some. No amount of hole plugging, greenhouse gas vacating, or dyke building made a bit of difference. Mars was flooded. Most everyone high-tailed it to the spanking new Outer Colonies.
Most everyone but us. The New Homestead Act had an ethnic diversity clause written in, the only way my people had been able to afford the ticket up here. Now, generations later, we were some of the only ones left.
I pulled myself onto the second fixture. The plastic creaked under my weight. These old towers were built from tough polymers, a hundred years back. But nothing lasts forever, and some of these fixtures had more patches than original material. All I could do was hope they’d hold out for another few years.
As I swung toward the end, I caught sight of the arena below. The bleachers wrapped around the floating network of dance platforms like giant arms. Big enough to hold five thousand. I shook my head. Hadn’t filled that many seats since I was riding paddle boats with the neighborhood kids. Now we were lucky if we sold two hundred tickets. Two hundred! And the profits had to last until this time next year. To think, Mama used to shun the tourists. Called them “oglers”, said they were diluting the spirit of the tradition. Everything was always diluting something, to Mama.
The creaks in the fixture were getting louder, and at the joint something popped. I started shimmying my way back to the center of the tower. Sounded like I was gonna have to patch this girl up again, after the Dance–
I reached the tower and paused. The popping noise was getting louder, and it wasn’t coming from the fixture. It was the tower itself. I clambered down as fast as my muscles could move. I was halfway to the waterline when the tower buckled and shook. The tower twisted and bent overhead, then snapped like an old bone. The top half swung down and clanged against the lower half. A pair of light fixtures pinned me to the ladder. The fixtures dug deep against my chest and legs. Only my left hand was unrestrained. Bolts popped along the base, and the whole tower tipped over. The water rushed up to meet me.
I reached my free hand over, punched the emergency broadcast on my wrist comms. It flashed once in the rain, then went dark. I sucked in a deep breath before plunging into the lake, still pinned between the ladder and those big fixtures.
Warm water rushed around me. Bubbles drifted to the surface. The tower carried me toward the lake floor. I struggled, but it was no use. I was trapped. Panic overtook me. I nearly let out a shout that would’ve cost me my remaining air. Just the thought of it got my attention, and I stopped struggling.
I reached into my backpack, groping around until my hand closed on the emergency breather. I popped the seal and squeezed the mouthpiece of the fist-sized device between my lips. Cold air blasted my mouth. I drew in a half-dozen breaths, then tried the supports again. I winced as metal dug into my side. It was no use. The more I struggled, the tighter the damn thing pressed against me. All I could do was hope the geolocator on my wrist comms had worked, and that Lucita wasn’t too far away.
The light from my headlamp pierced through the water like a beacon. Everything went silent, but for the pounding of blood in my ears. A strange sense of calm overtook me. I let the tower drag me down to my fate.
Objects took shape through the shadows. Big carbon fiber slabs and rebar. The old boardwalks. They were meant to be stopgaps, until the government could get a handle on the flooding. We used to play hopscotch on them, me and the neighborhood kids. Just like everything when you’re young, I expected them to stick around forever. But they were shoddy prefabs, and they didn’t last three years before they started sinking.
The tower carried me farther down. My ears popped. The light from my headlamp shone off a broad sunken platform. A shiver ran through my body. The old dance platform. Mama used to tell me how the first ones could only handle a meter of water during the rainy season. The new ones were an elaborate network of small platforms, allowing for buoyancy and portability. This was a giant, hulking mass of plastic. It would’ve been impossible to perform the Rain Dance on that thing. Had the Dance changed that much, in just a hundred years?
The tower came to rest at the bottom of the lake. Red silt drifted about me in a cloud. Next to me sat an old sign, battered and faded, half sunken into the tenuous Martian soil. I squinted through the haze. It said: “Toloi Surface Habitat. Est. 2065. Pop. 159.”
Toloi was the name of our homestead, built by my great-grandfather. All this time, I thought it was a Zuni name, brought over from Earth. But it seemed there were people living right here, even before the terraforming began. Were they Americans? Did they have their own Rain Dance? I imagined a bunch of people stuffed into those old-fashioned spacesuits, bobbing around on the surface of Mars in a silly attempt at a dance. The thought made me smile around the breather.
“Backwater traditions,” Lucita had said. The smile slipped from my face. Down here, there were generations of traditions, stacked on top of one another like strips of sedimentary rock. Each one silently giving way to the next. Fighting it was like stabbing at the rain. Just like playing hopscotch on the boardwalks, I expected everything in my life to stick around forever. Thomas. Lucita. The Dance. I’d been a goddamned fool, and now it was too late to admit it to anyone that mattered.
Nothing was coming out of the breather anymore. I held my breath and spat the mouthpiece out, watched it sink to the ground. Black spots crept in around the edges of my vision. My lungs burned. I struggled against the beams. The air streamed from my lips in a rush. The bubbles slipped past the old sign, drifted up through the generations. I imagined them bursting at the surface, carrying my lost apology to Lucita through the rain.
Light blinded me from overhead. Hands squeezed my sides, and plastic pressed against my face. Cold air blasted me in the nose and mouth. I sucked in a deep breath, then another. The light dimmed, and figures shimmered at my sides. Lucita. That tourist boy, Mickey or Manny, or whatever the hell his name was.
The heater was glowing at full blast and it was going to cost a fortune. But Lucita had insisted and I wasn’t in a position to argue just yet. Besides, it felt good on my water-wrinkled skin.
I wrung my hands. Damned tower. The Dance was just a few hours away, and now I’d have to run the whole thing at three-quarter illumination. The tourists would probably expect a discount. I suppose I should’ve been thankful that I wasn’t injured beyond a few scrapes and my battered pride, but the timing made it hard to think positive.
The clink-clink of teacups drifted in from the kitchen. Lucita. I had all these things to tell her, sentences I’d carefully constructed at the bottom of the lake. But none of it sounded right now. Maybe I’d hallucinated all that stuff I saw. Or maybe I just didn’t have the guts to say what needed to be said.
I settled deeper into my chair. Lucita had angled it closer to the heater, and when I leaned back I bumped the mantle. A picture frame went skittering across the floor. I grumbled and picked it up.
Thomas’s boyish face smiled back at me. It was one of his academy photos, and he was stuffed into that tight-fitting uniform with all its patches and shiny mylar. Good-looking man. He was leaning against the wheel of his transport shuttle without a care in the world.
“Tea’s ready. Mother, you really shouldn’t go out by yourself–”
It was too late to smooth over my expression. By the time I looked up, Lucita had big worry lines running across her face. She set the tea down.
“It fell,” I said dumbly.
Lucita was about to say something, and I was afraid of what it might be. So I opened my mouth and the words just came tumbling out.
“I got so mad at your father after he died. If he’d just taken a surface job like I was always saying, instead of piloting those damn shuttles up to Orbital, he’d still be alive. He’d be sitting over there right now. Stringing beads and laughing and bringing smiles to everyone in the room.”
Lucita knelt down beside me.
I shook my head. “Back when he was in the academy, a little after I took this picture, we got into a big fight. I didn’t talk to him for months and eventually he started seeing another girl. Kayla. Curly hair, smooth skin. Fresh out of the academy, down from Europa. She wanted to take him off world, back to the Outer Colonies. Nearly succeeded, I reckon.”
Lucita watched me with her big brown eyes. “What happened?”
“He came down to the homestead one day. Thinking back, I’m pretty sure it was to say goodbye. But it just so happened to be the night of the Rain Dance. So before he could talk to me, he had to hang around the arena. He’d never seen me dance before. I was real self-conscious, afraid he’d think it was a silly tradition.”
Lucita flinched. “Mother, I–”
“Turns out, he didn’t think that at all. After the Dance, he asked me to marry him. Said he didn’t have a ring or nothing, admitted that he didn’t have it in mind when he came down on the shuttle. But he said that after watching me dance, he couldn’t imagine living another day without me. I told him if he was still around for next year’s Dance, I’d marry him. From that day forward he never missed a Dance.”
“I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t. I never told you.”
Her eyes sank. “Earlier today, I didn’t mean–”
“I know. I ain’t bringing it up to make you feel bad. Thing is, sometimes I think he’d have been happier if he’d gone with Kayla. Sure, he had a good life while he was here. But he had the soul of a wanderer, just like you. After he moved in, every time the rain would stop I’d catch him sitting on the roof.” I pointed up, as if she didn’t know where the damn roof was. “Just sitting there, staring up at the night sky. And his face. It was the only time I ever saw sadness on that face. Through all the laughter and the good times, he carried a deep longing for the worlds he’d never see. There was a part of him that could never be happy here.”
I looked down at Lucita, kneeling at my side. “Now I realize I’ve been sticking the same cage on you.”
She rested a hand on mine and I could feel her warmth on my skin. We sat there for a few minutes, not saying a word. Then she cleared her throat.
“Father loved it here,” she said. “And so do I. Wherever I go, this place will always be my home.”
I gave her hand a squeeze. I didn’t ever want to let it go. But eventually I had to.
“Tell me about this Brigade,” I said. “But tell me quick. I’ve got a Dance to run, and you’ve got a date with that boy Manny.”
I wrapped my hands around the straps and gave them a tug. My costume’s wire frame sprang up around me in a whir of blues and blacks. I cinched the fabric tight around my waist and shoulders, then draped the feathers over my neck. My Mama’s moccasins were a second skin as I tapped out a warm-up to get the blood flowing. I planned on giving them to Lucita one day, as long as they hadn’t fallen apart by then. I planned on doing a lot of things.
I slit the curtains. The crowds were still settling in beneath the big sweeping rain-guards. A buck-fifty, if I was lucky. I shook my head. Who was I fooling? This was never about the money. I’d find a way to get through the year. The drummers had already started pounding that deep, resonating beat, and all my bones wanted to do was dance.
I wrapped the proximity band around my forehead and flipped it on. A staticky tingle shot down my neck and across my arms as the field established parity with the surrounding air. It felt like being hugged by a big teddy bear. It ate up batteries like crazy, but it was the only way to keep the rain off the costume. Lucita always loved watching the rain stream down around her from inside the invisible bubble.
I let out a sigh. This would be the first time in all my years I’d be dancing solo. Whether it was Mama or Lucita, there’d always been someone at my side. Helping each other into our costumes. Lunging and leaping across the platforms. The times with Lucita were always the best. Watching her move, as fluid as the water, as graceful as this planet.
The drums beat louder, then slapped to silence. Fabric rustled behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, irritated at the distraction.
There she was, dressed in her ceremonial garb like a Zuni-Martian princess. She smiled at me, that big, warm smile of hers that just takes over the whole room. Her father’s smile.
“Hi, darling,” I said.
She hustled to my side in a flurry of feathers. I opened my mouth, but she squeezed my hand before I could get a word out.
“Let’s dance,” she said.
I turned and thrust the curtains open. The crowd rose to their feet. The way they were cheering, there could’ve been a thousand of them.
The drums and the Dance swept Lucita out into the night. She spun and kicked. Those big elephant tears burst all around her proximity bubble in slow-motion explosions. She danced faster and smoother even than Mama. That night, my little Lucita was the best Martian Rain Dancer I’ve ever seen. I knew it was the last time I was gonna watch her dance, and I’m pretty sure she knew it too.
I turned my gaze upward at the thick clouds overhead. I imagined all the stars up there, and a whole lot closer, the Outer Colonies. I reckoned at least one of them could use some rain right about now. I hoped that once Lucita got there, she’d keep on dancing. Bringing the rain where they needed it most.
By Sarah Hogg
Evan met the love of his life while he was on an awkward date with someone else. It had been arranged by a professional matchmaker. His date was Liz, and she managed accounts at a corporate medical sales company. Her profile suggested a beautiful, intelligent woman, so Evan decided to give the date an honest attempt.
They went to a seafood restaurant and the art museum downtown. She picked her teeth at dinner and discussed her dog’s lengthy veterinarian history. Evan tried to be interested. He tried not to stare at her cleavage, which served as a landing place for bits of food throughout dinner. He tried to ask her about music, philosophy, sports or anything else, but she kept veering back to her damn dog. He tried, and that was what mattered, wasn’t it? That’s what he would tell people later: he tried. By the time they arrived at the museum, he was already counting the minutes before it was socially acceptable to part ways.
Her heels clacked on the white tile floor. The corners of her mouth were still stained with au jus from her prime rib. Yes, she had ordered prime rib at the city’s finest seafood establishment. He should have met her at a chicken wings restaurant.
In the bright museum lights, her black dress was obviously faded and stretched beyond its capacity on her stomach and hips. Chopin’s Nocturnes fell like soft rain through the speakers, and Evan tried to let the music absorb his negative feelings.
“Ugh, I hate it when the pictures are blurry like that,” she said, pointing at Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
“It’s Impressionist art. It’s supposed to look like that,” Evan said, barely able to disguise his disgust. “You’ve heard of Monet before, right?” Please say yes.
“Yes, duh. I’ve heard of him,” she said with an eye roll. “I just think it’s stupid that we’re supposed to stand here and praise something that looks like a child did it.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Yeah. I mean, ok, so my friend Caroline went to one of those drink and paint places. You know, the kind where you bring a bottle of wine, and they tell you what to paint. Well, her wine was French, and the class was for a Monet painting, which she thought was fun because Monet was French. So the instructor was this absolutely fine specimen of man, but he was gay, not that she minded. He was just eye candy for the evening, you know. So they start drinking and he tells them what to paint, one stroke at a time. And Caroline was totally sloshed by the end. I mean just wasted. She had to take a cab home, and she said the cab driver smelled like marijuana. So they’re painting and getting drunk, and at the end, her painting looked almost just like this. So why should I respect it if my friend Caroline, who couldn’t paint to save her life, could go get toasted with a class of other ladies and a gorgeous gay man and come home with basically the same thing?”
All of her stories were like that, meandering and full of extraneous details.
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” he said as they wandered away from the Impressionist exhibit.
“Well, here’s what I suggest. Say this: ‘Hey Liz, let’s leave this boring museum and hit a night club and go dancing.’ That sounds pretty good,” she said with a horse-toothed grin.
“How about this? Hey, Liz, why don’t you leave this museum since you find it boring? Go find a nightclub or whatever you want. I don’t think this is going to work out.”
She frowned and tilted her head to the right.
“Fine,” Liz said. “You’re a terrible listener, by the way. You should work on that before your next date.”
Then she spun on her heels and clacked out of the museum. Evan wandered to other exhibits, his sense of relief growing with each new room. Why was it so hard to find a good date? The women his friends set him up with tended to be one thing or another: beauty or brains, sports or art, fashion or philosophy. The women the matchmaker set him up with were bottom of the barrel types who were so desperate that he couldn’t tell what else they were. Or they were so classless that he couldn’t imagine any man of taste wanting them, like Liz. They were all so damn talkative. He’d barely said a word the entire evening. She hadn’t even asked what he did for a living.
Evan plopped on a bench in the sculpture hall and gazed around him. And that was where he saw her. At first it was curiosity that drew him to her. She stood alone under an arch in the wall, a Roman style toga draped over her body, carefully arranged so that the right half of her torso was exposed. He circled her looking for a plaque or some indication of her name and creator.
As he walked around her, Evan studied her features. The delicate curve of her breast and up-tilted nipple was superbly crafted. Her waist formed a gentle concave slope to her hip. Evan sucked in his breath. Her face was exquisitely carved with high cheekbones, eyes that were neither too round or too almond shaped, and wisps of wavy hair were sculpted into bands atop her head which cascaded down to frame her face. She was perfection in white marble.
“I wish I knew your name,” he whispered. “I wish I knew anything about you. Where you’re from, who made you, anything.”
Did she tremble? Was there warmth emanating from her marble curves? Perhaps it was his imagination. A raspy alto female voice interrupted the eerily eloquent violin strains of Ravel’s Berceuse sur la nom de Gabriel Faure, startling Evan.
“Attention visitors. It is now 9 pm, and the museum is closing. The museum will reopen at 10 am tomorrow. Thank you for visiting and have a wonderful evening.”
Tomorrow, Evan thought. Tomorrow I’ll come back and see what I can learn about her. He walked slowly away from her, looking back often. The security guard was too busy scrolling through his phone to notice the strange look on Evan’s face.
The next morning, Evan returned, and after casually strolling the other rooms as long as he could stand it, he hurried to the sculpture hall. The bench was too far from her for Evan to study her features with the attention she deserved. When he asked the burly security guard to move the bench, the guard laughed in his face.
“Sure, buddy,” he said. “Anything else you’d like to rearrange in here? Want me to move the sculptures around too?”
That afternoon, Evan called his CFO and made the quarterly inquiry. His accounts were growing as usual, and company profits had never been higher.
“Have we made any sizable charitable donations this quarter?” Evan asked.
“Not yet, sir.”
“Please set up a meeting with whomever handles donations at the art museum.”
By the end of the week, Evan was a “Friend of the Museum,” the security guard had been relocated to one of the painting rooms and replaced with a more apathetic colleague, and the bench was next to his beloved statue. Evan spent all of his spare time there, sitting beside her. Sometimes he sat in silence, and sometimes he whispered to her about his life, his work, his hopes, and his loneliness. His childhood, his opinion on politics, philosophy, and even art dominated their conversations. Over time, his talks became more confessional.
“I hire prostitutes sometimes,” he said to her once. “Don’t worry; they’re clean. I pay a premium price for women of a certain class. A man gets lonely sometimes, and they don’t mind being used.”
The statue had no response but the usual cold indifference. She didn’t judge. She didn’t mock. She didn’t preach. If only she would send him the faintest glimmer of that warmth from the night they met. A tremble, half a movement, anything to let him know she was not an immutable mute. Perhaps she was waiting for a sign that he was worthy of her.
The next time he visited, he leaned forward and softly said, “There are no more prostitutes. Not for me. I’ve closed my dating profiles too.” He cleared his throat and glanced around the room. No one nearby. “It’s only you for me now.”
He stared at her until his eyes burned for the need to blink. Just as his lids began to drop, he glimpsed the faintest quiver in her neck. Didn’t he? It wasn’t just the lack of saline in his eyes, the strong desire to see life in her, was it? He stood at arm’s length from her and studied her for the next hour. No movement.
On another occasion, he said, “It’s amazing what money can do. I’m always in awe of the intangible things I can buy. Things you’d think would be priceless. I’ve bought the love of women—but not anymore of course, as we discussed—I’ve bought the trust of judges and the interest of politicians. Most importantly, I’ve bought the loyalty of my employees. And it was all so cheap, so insignificant compared to what I would have spent for the same. Last year, I gave a half of a percent raise to everyone in my company, and they would have made me king if they could. No other local companies were giving raises with the recession and all. Half of a percent, and they worshipped me. In turn, they’ve made me a much wealthier man this year. Truly amazing, isn’t it?”
Nothing from her. Not a quiver. No warmth. Just the same coldness. The same apathy.
“You disapprove? I didn’t have to give them anything. I was a hero in a time when no other companies were doing anything. It was on the news, for crying out loud.”
One evening, after a nearly three hour visit, Evan leaned as close to her as he dared with the guard in the room and said, “Perhaps you don’t understand how wealthy I am. Without even feeling it, I could double the salary of my entire payroll. I could even buy you and take you home with me.” He paused and considered this, rubbing the back of his neck with his palm. “In fact, maybe I will. In my parlor, there is a large space next to the fireplace. I could put you there, where you’d be warm. Then I could talk to you all night. We could even touch.”
His fingers quivered, and his hand reached out to her. The security guard cleared his throat and nodded at the “No Touching” plaque on the wall behind her. Evan clenched his fist and lowered his hand to his side.
The next day, he contacted the museum curator. The statue had come from the private collection of a patron who wished to remain anonymous. There was no hope of purchasing her.
That night, he went to visit her, discouraged by the dead end, he’d encountered. He stopped at the door to the sculpture hall. The security guard was obviously bored.
“If I give you a thousand dollars in cash, will you give me an hour alone in here?”
“What? Of course not! I can’t do that. I’ll get fired.”
“No, you won’t. I’ll make sure of that. And if you do get fired, I’ll hire you myself. A thousand dollars not to work for an hour. Think about it.”
The guard studied Evan’s face uncertainly.
“It’s not a test. I’m not going to turn you in or anything. Look, here’s the money,” Evan said, pulling out a thick stack of crisp bills. “Put this in your pocket and leave. I can’t steal anything in here. It’s all giant sculptures.”
The guard took a deep breath and exhaled. “Ok,” he said, pocketing the money. “Just don’t do anything weird.”
A moment after the guard left, Evan was standing in front of his mysterious ideal woman.
“I’ve done it,” he said softly. “I’ve doubled the salary of my entire payroll. For you. Do you approve?”
He waited. She didn’t change. Nothing about her showed approval or disapproval in the slightest. For several minutes, he stood his usual arm’s length from her. He swallowed, a slight sweat beading at his temples. Glancing behind him to make sure he was alone, he stepped closer.
He leaned an inch from her ear and whispered, “There’s been a snag. You can’t come home with me yet. Your owner won’t sell. In fact, next week, you’ll be moved to another museum. I don’t know how yet, but I’m going to find a way to stop that.”
The guard was still gone. Alone with her, his heart raced. His hand shook and reached towards her face, stopping millimeters from her cheek. After a final glance around the room, he grazed a finger across her cheekbones. The marble was cool to his touch. Breath caught in his throat, chest exploding in rhythmic pulses, he traced her jawline and the curls in her hair.
“I know you can feel this,” he whispered, lips grazing her ear. “I remember that first night. You were warm. You trembled next to me. I know you want me.”
His index finger slid down the right side of her neck to her shoulder. Did she seem to warm a bit? Was that a smile tugging at the corners of her lips?
His body was inches from hers. He cupped her breast in his hand, massaging the nipple. Evan took a final step towards her, pressing his body against hers. His hand traveled down the curve of her side. Gripping her waist, he placed his lips on hers. They were warm, more than warm; they were burning hot. The toga shifted, and her skin softened under his fingers.
Evan’s brown eyes met her blue ones. Some of her dark curls loosened and fell to her shoulders. Her strong pink arms gripped him. Inhaling sharply, Evan tried to step back, but he couldn’t move. His lips remained locked on hers. His heart was in his stomach, and he couldn’t feel his feet.
Still gripping him, she rotated them so she was facing the wall and he the room. The toga trailed behind her, grazing his pant leg. Finally, she pushed him free of her and stepped back.
The sweetest voice he’d ever heard said, “You disgust me.”
She ran from the room, her bare feet hardly making a sound on the tile.
Evan reached out his arms and tried to lunge forward. Her words stung like a thousand needles all over his body. He couldn’t move. The numbness in his feet had worked its way to his waist, and he was so cold. She had vanished, taking all of his warmth with her.
Eventually, the bench was put back in its normal place. The former guard returned to his post in the sculpture hall. When visitors inquired after the title and creator of the “Desperate Businessman” sculpture as they called him, they were simply told that the information was confidential.
Stars Are Wild
By Preston Dennett
I opened the door to the ship’s studio and waved frantically for Gracie to stop playing the omniboard. She lifted her fingers and the beautiful music echoed into silence. Her glare scorched me. I wasn’t supposed to interrupt her when she was composing, but this was too important.
“Gracie,” I said, leaning down to give her a kiss. “I’ve got news. We have to cancel all your shows for the next month. Something better has come up.”
She narrowed her eyes. Her latest song, Stars Are Wild, was number one on six of the fifty worlds, and we were in the middle of a multi-world tour to promote it. The entire year was booked solid, and she was playing at the best venues known. What could possibly be better than that?
I sat down and activated the HV, enjoying Gracie’s confusion. “Just watch,” I said.
A woman newscaster began talking. She stood before a large grove of trees, each one covered with striking violet-colored leaves. In the distance, an ethereal yet familiar tune played.
“What is this?” Gracie asked, looking at me, then back to the holo.
“Watch,” I said.
The newscaster spoke: “Something amazing is happening on the little known planet, Autumn. The Music Trees have woken up. This is how they used to sound.”
A low, hollow fluting sound filled the cabin. It was an eerie, haunting echo that froze my blood. I had heard variations of it many times. Gracie’s song, Stars Are Wild, had been inspired by those same tones, but she had heard them in her dreams.
“Corris,” she squeaked. “My song.”
I grinned from ear to ear. “I know. Just shut up and keep watching.”
“And this is how they sound now,” the newscaster said.
I watched Gracie. The music that poured forth paralyzed her: a thunderous multi-tonal orchestra with delicious melodic curls and waves of harmonics. Tears poured from her eyes as the music carried her away.
“She’s calling to me,” she whispered, gazing at me. “She wants to me to visit her and sing to her.”
I stifled my own tears. “Keep watching. There’s more.”
The newscaster began to speak. “To this date no one has been able to decipher any meaning behind the tree-songs. And until just a few days ago, nobody has been able to make them change their tune. Millions of tourists visit here each year and sing to the Music Trees. They have never reacted like this. The secret apparently lies with the new hit song, ‘Stars Are Wild,’ by the phenomenally successful young musician, Gracie Megan Sparks. A visitor was playing her song when the trees began to sing back. He turned it off and they became silent. Mind you, the trees have never been silent before. He turned it back on, and they began singing again. Even now, the trees will not sing unless Sparks’ song is playing. So far, no word from Sparks’ camp. But she should know that her song is not only popular among humans. The Music Trees like it too.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “All this time, that’s what I’ve been hearing.” She trembled as she leaned against me.
I wrapped my arms around her. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I mean, why me? Why my song?” She looked at me dolefully.
“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “But I guess we’ll find out. We’ve already got an invitation from Autumn to go visit. I was waiting for you before I answered.” I hoped she said yes. I was tired of touring. We could use a rest–if I had my way, a nice long rest.
“Her name is Oora, Corris,” she blurted. “I shouldn’t know that, but I do. How is it I can hear her?”
“You’re a musical genius, love,” I said. “I’m not the least bit surprised. Now, stop worrying. Let’s go to bed and sleep on it. I’ll tell Carlos to navigate a new course to Autumn and we’ll figure out what’s going on.”
She nodded, looking again at the image of the purple trees on the holo. They were incredibly beautiful. What, I wondered, had we gotten ourselves into? Gracie writes one hit song, and now suddenly she’s communicating with a mysterious tree-like creature on the other side of the galaxy. The question was: Why?
“What’s wrong?” I asked with concern. I knew my wife, and Gracie was clearly more than nervous; something else was bothering her. “We don’t have to do this. We can go home right now.”
“No,” she said, gently freeing herself from my embrace. “I’m fine. I can do this. I need to.”
We stood before the grove of trees, now utterly silent. In front of Gracie rested her omniboard, charged and ready. The speakers were set up. Most of the crew surrounded us, everyone except Carlos who remained in the ship, parked only a few miles away in our private berth at the starport.
Next to us stood the caretakers, a group of ten men and ten women who lived on Autumn, each of them dressed in the mauve robes that marked them as the guardians of the Music Trees. None of them looked happy. Why should they, I thought. Because of Gracie, their trees were silent for the first time in history. What if they never sang again?
Further behind us (and floating above us) the media hovered with their recorders posed to transmit this momentous event to every corner of the galaxy. Beyond them thousands of spectators had gathered. Billions of people were watching us at this moment. All fifty worlds, they told us, which meant Gracie’s fame and popularity would probably skyrocket, and I would never get the time with my wife that I craved.
The small grove was just a few yards away–Oora, as Gracie had called her. Smooth tan trunks rose up to long lithe branches, each exploding with wild bunches of fluted, purple leaves–or what looked like leaves. Only on closer examination was it clear that the Music Trees were not trees at all.
I had studied all I could before we arrived, but there was little to learn. The Music Trees were unique to Autumn. Attempts to re-grow them elsewhere had failed. They had been there for as long as recorded history. Their biology was a mishmash of plant and animal–not particularly unusual, other than it was the only known specimen of a unique species. Some believed it was sentient, though there was no real evidence other than the songs themselves. It made the songs by pumping air up hollow stems and through cylindrical-shaped leaves. The song itself was a variation of seemingly random tones that combined in a way to create the complex haunting sounds that made the trees so famous.
I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Who was Oora? What did this creature want with my wife?
Gracie flashed me a smile and composing herself.
A hush fell over the crowd as she placed her fingers over the omniboard. She took a few deep breaths and drifted slowly into a trance. Instantly, her fingers began to dance and the music rolled forth, the notes tripping over one another in their haste to be released.
Calm down, girl, I thought. Relax and flow.
I studied my beautiful wife as she played her song. She quickly lost herself in the music. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, head tilted forward, Gracie played as though possessed. Her body swayed rhythmically as the music poured from her mind and heart, down her arms, through her fingers and out to the worlds.
No sooner had she begun when Oora joined her with a crescendo of intertwining melodies and harmonies. The audience behind us gasped as the new tree-song swept over them.
The two melodies joined, combining and dancing around each other like lovers. Gracie played a series of chords. Oora responded with spears of sounds that seemed to predict Gracie’s next tones. They were having a conversation, I realized.
The music increased in volume, now with discordant tones. I looked over at the trees. The leaves were trembling and the trunks swayed back and forth. It seemed more creature than plant.
I looked back at Gracie and nearly rushed forward. She was crying and appeared almost angry. She pounded the keys of her omniboard, responding to another volley of notes from the trees. Were they arguing?
The music continued, until suddenly Gracie released a series of descending notes, then abruptly lifted her fingers from the omniboard. At the same moment, Oora stopped singing, and the air echoed into silence.
Gracie pulled out of her trance and opened her eyes.
Without warning the Music Trees erupted into flames, wailing and shrieking.
Gracie dashed around her omniboard and sprinted toward Oora. I dropped everything and dashed after her. Chaos erupted around us as everyone reacted.
Gracie disappeared into the flames. As I followed her in, I realized that they weren’t flames at all; it was light. The leaves glowed with a fiery orange-red brilliance, each one emitting a shrill sound, then slowly curling and withering to fine dust. A sweet burnt odor choked my breath.
“Gracie!” I shouted. She was climbing between the trunks now. The grove was larger than it appeared, and Gracie quickly disappeared inside it. I turned and saw that the caretakers rushing forward with expressions of confusion, fear and anger.
A pinkish mist or ash filled the air, making it very difficult to see. Chaos reigned as everyone ran back and forth. Above it all, the shrieking continued.
Finally I found Gracie creeping sneakily from behind the grove, which was quickly shrinking and burning away.
I gasped when I saw her expression of utter urgency.
“Get me to the ship,” she said. “Now!”
The light from the trees began to dim. Almost all the leaves were gone and the trunks were beginning to fall.
I held Gracie by the shoulders as we dodged back and forth through the crowd. We found the crew quickly packing up the gear.
“Leave it!” I said. “To the ship!”
I led Gracie through the mob of people, dodging the media, caretakers and security personnel. Soon we climbed out of the vale that held the Music Trees and onto the roadways. I saw one of the caretakers watching us. He began shouting frantically, running toward us, his purple robe flapping. We dived into a floater and took off to the starport. Heath drove while Gracie and I sat in the backseat. Two of our crew were missing. Hopefully, they would find their own way.
I looked behind us, no sign of being followed yet, but it was only a matter of time.
“Are you okay?” I asked Gracie. “What happened back there?” I had never seen her so upset. Tears poured down her face. She looked up at me and buried her face in my chest. I held her tightly. When she was ready to speak, she’d let me know.
We pulled up to the airport and scrambled towards our ship. Carlos, to his credit, saw us coming and was already opening the hatchway and lowering down the elevator. No sooner had we climbed inside and it started to rise when I heard sirens.
In a few seconds, we were onboard. Gracie turned to Carlos. “If you can, get us out of here,” she said. “If not, other than Tony or Melika, don’t let anyone else on this ship. I need twenty minutes.”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Just give me twenty minutes!” she snapped, and disappeared down the corridor.
Twenty minutes? What was she up to? I didn’t have time to question. I followed Carlos to the engine room and prepared to take off. We could have Tony and Melika picked up later.
When I arrived in the control room, Carlos was already seated and ready to go. Bright flashing lights on the dash indicated that the engine was primed. “Let’s go,” I said.
Carlos shook his head and pointed to the view screen. It showed the outside of our ship, which was now surrounded by security vehicles. “Too late. We’re being hailed,” he said. “They are forbidding us to take off. Do you want to answer?”
I hadn’t expected anything less. “Put them through,” I said. Time to do some stalling. If Gracie wanted twenty minutes, I’d give her thirty.
Jansen Ortis, the head of the security team that had overseen the concert came online. “Your ship is surrounded,” he said. “You are forbidden to depart. Any attempts to leave Autumn will be considered a hostile act and will be responded to accordingly. Open the doors immediately.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We have done nothing wrong. You have no right to keep us here. We will be taking off shortly. If you open fire on us, you should know that our ship is not without its defenses.”
“Open the doors immediately, or we will board your ship by force.” He motioned to his crew, which moved toward our ship with their cutting tools ready. I couldn’t believe it. Did they have any idea who my wife was, or the value of this ship?
“Touch my ship,” I said, “and I will have lawyers from all fifty planets here to sue you for everything you’ve got.”
They ignored me, moved forward and situated themselves around the door. This was not the first time people had tried to force themselves onboard one of the ships. This latest model was built to prevent any unwanted visitors. It wouldn’t be easy for them.
“Wait,” I said. “I’m coming down. Give me a second.”
I went to the bottom level and the elevator. Gracie had asked for twenty minutes. Only about five or ten had passed since we boarded. I couldn’t give her much more than that. Where was she? What was she doing?
I flicked on the in-ship comm. “Carlos, tell them I’m here. Tell them I’m opening the door now. But that I’m going to ask for a condition.”
“Yes, Boss!” he said. I heard him repeat my message. The truth was, I had no conditions. It was just another stalling tactic.
“They’re asking for the condition,” said Carlos.
“Tell them that I need all of them to put down their weapons. Only then will I open the door.”
“They’re ignoring your condition, Boss. They’re starting to cut into the ship.”
I stepped into the elevator and lowered it down.
A group of security personnel moved forward to get on board. I blocked their entrance.
“By what right are you boarding my ship!” I shouted.
Ortis stepped forward until we were face to face. “You destroyed the music trees. Your wife, where is she?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “Somewhere on the ship.”
“Tell her to exit immediately.”
“Tell her yourself.”
They held the guns up and I stepped aside. My stomach dropped as the armed guards marched onboard. There, I gave her almost fifteen minutes. Hopefully it was enough.
I followed them. The main guy was directing the other guards to search everything.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Whatever you used to destroy the trees.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Where is she? Why did she flee so quickly.”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
“Well you better get her now.”
“I’m right here,” said Gracie. “What seems to be the problem?”
I gasped. She looked stunning. She had changed her outfit to a beautiful mauve-colored dress with purple trim. A beautiful necklace with large pink stones draped around her neck. Strange, I had never seen that before, but I could see why she chose them. She was dressed up in all the colors of the Music Trees, the same colors as the robes of the Caretakers. I swelled with pride; I knew exactly what she was up to. My wife was a clever lady.
“You’re under arrest,” said Ortis, and he lunged at Gracie.
“No way!” I shouted barring his path.
The security forces pointed their stunners at me and ordered me to step aside. When I refused, they fired.
As I fell, I saw my entire crew rush to protect Gracie. Then darkness.
“I’m not answering any questions until I get to see my wife,” I told the investigator for the hundredth time. “We haven’t done anything wrong. You have no right to take us from our ship and keep us here.” I had already told them everything, how Megan had heard the tree-song in her dreams, how it had inspired her latest song. I didn’t share the Music Tree’s name was Oora. Gracie could tell them if she wanted.
“Nothing wrong?” he said. “Mr. Sparks, are you aware that there are no other known Music Trees on any of the fifty planets? This is the only one. Your wife has destroyed a galactic treasure. There are a lot of people who are very angry at her.”
“She didn’t do anything!”
“Why did she run into the trees?”
“If I know her, she was probably trying to save them.”
“Why did she flee so quickly?”
“I don’t know? Ask her. Maybe she was scared. Maybe she knew that you’d all react this way.”
“How did she kill the trees?”
“She didn’t,” I said.
“Just tell us why she did it,” said the investigator.
“You’re not listening!” I roared. “She didn’t do anything. She didn’t destroy your precious trees. You must have seen what happened. They just combusted by themselves. She didn’t hurt anybody. Let me see me wife!”
Back and forth it went, first one investigator and then another. Thankfully, with Gracie’s recent success, we were not without resources. Nor was this the first time we’ve had trouble with authorities. I had already contacted our legal team, who arrived immediately. Normally we would have been freed by now, so it looked like we were in real trouble. I knew that the Music Trees were dead, but there was no way they could blame Gracie. After all, the Music Trees had called her. She had been invited here.
I was just about ready to snap when the door opened and I was ushered out.
I was taken to another room. Inside was Gracie. Next to her was Silas, our main lawyer.
“Corris,” he said, standing up. “I’m sorry it took so long.”
“Just tell me what’s going on.” I hooked my arm around Gracie’s waist. A strange light danced in her eyes. I knew that look; she was up to something, and I was not going to like it.
“Good news. You can leave Autumn.”
“Let’s go then.”
Silas winced. “There are a few conditions. You can leave, but Gracie must stay.”
“No way! Absolutely not!”
Silas and Gracie shared a knowing glance. I instantly realized what was happening. They had expected this reaction and were gearing to tag-team me. I braced myself.
Silas began. “I advise leaving,” he said. “Gracie will follow you. But right now, we need you to go.”
I turned to Gracie. Her plea was short and simple. “Please, Corris,” she said. “For me. I need you to do this.”
I shook my head. There was no way I would leave her to these people. “They can’t keep you here. They have no right.”
“They can and they do,” said Silas. “Besides murdering the trees, they believe Gracie may have stolen something and hidden it on the ship.”
This was new to me. “Did you?” I asked, remembering the way she had rushed toward the flames and sneaked around in the haze.
“Of course not,” she said. “Let them search the ship. They won’t find a thing, because there’s nothing to find.”
I knew when my wife was lying, and she wasn’t, but she was hiding something. When she was ready, she would tell me. Still, it infuriated me that she was keeping something secret from me.
“There’s going to be an arbitration hearing,” Silas explained. “Your wife has been accused of murder. We’ve managed to negotiate your release. But Megan has to stay.”
“I’m not leaving,” I said. “There’s nothing you can say that would convince me she’s guilty of murder.”
“She already confessed.”
“What?” I asked, looking at Gracie.
She stared at me levelly. “It’s true. I know you’re angry, but this was the only way to guarantee your freedom. They wanted to arrest all of us. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
“Fine? You’re pleading guilty to murder.”
She grabbed my hand and covered it with hers. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “You have to trust me. I know what I’m doing.” I knew it! She had a plan. I groaned. Once Gracie had her mind set on something, nothing would sway her.
“Now you see,” said Silas. “It’s best you leave. The hearing will be in a few days. I’ll make sure you’re there.”
“What if it goes bad? What’s the punishment?”
“In a nutshell, if we don’t agree to the results of the arbitration, they will press official murder charges. As far as what they’re looking for, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m guessing they want compensation for loss of future income, which should make them open to a financial settlement. However, they might ask for more, it’s hard to say.”
“More?” I asked. I was beginning to doubt my dear lawyer’s ability. He had failed to do the one thing I paid him for: protect my wife. “What more?”
Silas shrugged. “Public service, maybe a period of confinement. The rules are different on each planet. Our team is learning everything we can about how things work around here, and we’re going by the book. I’m sorry, Corris, but you have to go now. Everything has already been decided.”
The guards at the door motioned for us to end the meeting.
I turned to Silas. I regretted my words even as I said them. “Get Gracie out of here, Silas, or we’re done.”
I turned to Gracie, gave her a long kiss.
“Don’t be angry, Corris,” she said. “Just trust me.”
“Do I have a choice?”
She laughed. She knew that my love for her left me with no option. I never could say no to her. “I’ll see you soon,” she said. She looked amazing in her purple-hues. I hoped the outfit would have the desired effect.
I smiled at Gracie, glared daggers at Silas and stormed from the room. Armed guards led me out of the confinement center. I was put in the back of a floater and driven directly to the starport and my ship.
Back onboard, I quickly became even more angry. Not only had I been forcibly separated from my wife, but now it looked like the entire ship had been ransacked.
“Sorry, Boss,” said Carlos. “They kicked us all off and searched every inch of the ship. We’ve been cleaning up as best as we could before you arrived.” He looked at me with the hint of a grimace. “Where’s Gracie?”
I told him what happened.
“Doesn’t sound so bad,” he said. “We’ll just pay them and get out of here. The recording of what happened is already number one on most music charts. Gracie is more famous now than ever.”
“But pay them for what?” I said. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Well, you have to admit, something happened. The trees are gone. And not everybody is singing Gracie’s praises.”
“You know as well as I, Gracie wouldn’t hurt anybody ever. Not on purpose.”
Carlos nodded. “What’s going to happen to her?”
I shrugged. “She has a plan.”
“Oh, no,” Carlos said. We all knew what that meant.
I just wished I knew what she was up to. I had to retire to our bedroom to calm down. Gracie and I hadn’t spent more than one night apart in the six years since we’d been married. Even so, I got to spend precious little time with her. With her success, everybody wanted a piece of Gracie Megan Sparks. Too often, there was little left for me. How I loved her! Being apart was physically painful. If the authorities decided to confine her here, I wasn’t sure what I would do. But I knew one thing: it wouldn’t be pretty.
“I told you,” said Silas. “Each planet is different. This is how disputes are settled here. Just sit down and be quiet. I was barely able to convince them that you belonged here. Don’t give them a reason otherwise.”
“But this is a joke,” I said, gesturing to the table where Gracie sat with our lawyers facing a group of three angry-looking Caretakers. At the head of the table was the lead Caretaker and, as it turned out, the only arbiter. The room itself was tiny. Other than the table and chairs, there was a computer screen on one wall and recorders on either side. I sat in the rear section with about thirty other people, most of them caretakers. A row of five security personnel divided the audience from the arbitration section. “How can a caretaker be the person who decides her fate? How is that fair?”
“I’m not going to lecture you on the laws of Autumn. Just keep quiet for once, will you? I’m having enough trouble with Gracie. Between the two of you–never mind. Just don’t make a scene, okay? Promise me.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “Just get Gracie out of here.”
“I’m doing my best,” he said. “Just keep quiet.” He walked over and took his place next to Gracie.
The arbiter spoke, introducing himself as Brother Garrin Tolo, then introduced each other caretaker at the table and then Gracie, Silas and Thornton, another one of our lawyers.
“Who will be speaking for the Music Trees?” asked Tolo.
One of the caretakers stood. “I, Nevik Reeva will speak for the Music Trees.”
“And who will speak for Gracie Megan Sparks?”
Silas stood and was about to speak when Gracie jumped up and said: “I, Gracie Megan Sparks, will speak for myself.”
Silas looked at her in shock, then sunk to his seat and put his face in his hands. I chuckled to myself. We both knew Gracie. Now the Caretakers were about to get a taste of her.
“First,” said the arbiter, “we will review the recording of the incident. Then each party will be allowed to give a statement and a rebuttal. I shall then make my decision.”
The room darkened, and the scene that had been played hundreds of times on all fifty worlds for the past three days–the scene that played endlessly in my mind–appeared once again in full color on the screen. There stood Gracie, looking tiny but captivating as she perched before her instrument and gazed upward at the trees. She began to play and the trees responded. The music echoed through the room and once again, I was struck by the feeling that some sort of conversation was taking place between my wife and Oora.
I looked over at Gracie sitting at the table. I wasn’t surprised to see that her eyes were closed. Even though I knew what happened next, I watched the screen as the grove erupted into apparent flames. I saw Gracie dash immediately for the grove, followed by myself. I felt no guilt as I watched myself lead Gracie surreptitiously away from the chaos and out of view.
The screen darkened and the room came to light. The arbiter turned to Gracie. “Gracie Megan Sparks, you have been accused of taking actions which led directly to the demise of the Music Trees. Normally, this would have led to a trial. As you have agreed that you are guilty, the purpose of this arbitration is to decide how you should be punished. First, we would like you to explain what happened, and why you killed the Music Trees.”
Looking almost mystical in her violet colors, Gracie stood and spoke. “Her name is Oora,” said Gracie. “She called to me. She is the one who brought me to your planet. She is the one who asked me to come. I speak for Oora.”
All three caretakers on the other side of the table rose to their feet and opened their mouths beginning to protest. To his credit, the arbiter motioned them to remain seated. He turned to Gracie. “Please, continue.”
“My name is Gracie Megan Sparks. Only a few years ago, I was a semi-successful musician on Cora. Then, around February 503 New, I began to have dreams in which I heard strange and beautiful melodies. Powerful and clear, I knew that these melodies had meaning, and that were calling out to me. Yet I didn’t understand what they were saying. I felt certain that the tones were coming from somewhere outside of myself, but I couldn’t imagine where. My song, Stars Are Wild, was inspired by the songs I heard in my dreams. I never dreamed it would become so popular, or that it would cause the Music Trees to stop singing. Where I lived on Cora, the Music Trees were virtually unknown and way out of reach for somebody like me. Stars Are Wild opened doors for me, and I began a multi-world tour to perform the song.
“When my husband showed me the Music Trees, I was shocked. The music from my dreams had a source, and finally I had found it. Then I learned that the trees had stopped singing because of my song, and that’s when I knew that she had heard me. My song had spoken to her just as hers had spoken to me. We became connected. And that’s when she told me her name.
“We came to Autumn at your gracious invitation, for which I thank you. Meeting Oora will always be one of the highlights of my life. The song I played was my greeting to her. I told her what an honor it was to meet her and asked her why she had called to me from so far away. She told me I was the only person who she had been able to reach, and that I reminded her of the original caretakers.”
At that last statement, several of the caretakers looked extremely nervous.
Gracie continued: “Oora told me that when she heard my song, she knew the time had come for her to leave this planet. She had lived out her lifespan and was ready to die. I, of course, became upset and argued with her. I tried to get her to change her mind. She refused, and insisted that I play her Death Song with her. I asked her why she felt her time was done, and she gave me the answer, but only on the condition that I would never reveal it to anyone. I reluctantly agreed, and she began her Death Song. And I joined her. It was the least I could do for her after all the songs she had sung to me in my dreams.
“Despite my protests, Oora chose to end her own life. When I saw she was dying, I instinctively rushed over to help her. Seeing how upset I was, my husband, Corris, rushed me to the safety of our ship.
“When I came to Autumn, I had no idea this would happen. I never hurt Oora, nor did I have any intention to do so. I was here by your invitation, and more importantly hers. I did only what Oora asked. That is Oora’s message.”
Gracie sat down, and a low grumbling swept through the crowd. I had to force myself not to jump up and clap. Gracie had practically knocked the caretakers off their feet. They shook visibly with anger and struggled to remain calm. Now I saw her plan. She was setting herself up as one of them. Not only did she wear the purple uniform of the caretakers, she claimed to speak for Oora. The kicker was, she actually did, which meant the Caretakers had been replaced, and now that Oora was gone, they were no longer needed. No wonder they were angry. I almost looked forward to their response.
One thing concerned me. I knew Gracie well enough to see when she was lying. As she spoke, several times I could see that she wasn’t telling the entire truth. She was keeping more than a few things secret. But what?
The arbiter motioned at the Caretakers.
One of them rose. “My name is Nevik Reeva, and I am an ordained Caretaker for the Music Trees. The Caretakers have guarded the Loroola Grove for nearly seven hundred years, since they were first discovered. Never in the entire record of their existence, have they ever stopped playing their sacred songs. And then, without warning, they stop singing. Why? Apparently because of the song from an unknown musician light years away: Gracie Megan Sparks. I’d like to repeat this point. The trees have been singing for as long as we’ve known them. Sparks’ song silenced them. I think we can all agree on this unfortunate turn of events.
“Now Gracie arrives. Yes, we had invited her in the hopes that she could make the trees sing again. Instead, no sooner does Sparks produce her music when the Music Trees erupt into flames and perish. This time Sparks’ song didn’t only harm the trees, it killed them. She killed them. Now they shall never play again. Sparks has admitted her own role in the entire affair. I see no reason to listen to her nonsense that she speaks for the trees. We have no proof of such a thing. How dare she say the Music Trees wished for death? And then she has the audacity to keep the reason a secret? The truth is, she killed the Music Trees, and now she profanes the order of Caretakers by dressing like one of us and mocking our uniforms. Lies, I say. She is only trying to protect herself. Her songs first harmed the Music Trees, then killed them. She destroyed a unique and intelligent species. I see no reason for leniency simply because she admits her guilt. She has no choice. She tried to run away and we caught her. This is genocide of an entire species and should be punished accordingly. That’s my statement.”
“Does Sparks have any response?” asked the arbiter.
Gracie stood. “I have nothing to add. I will abide by the arbiter’s decision.”
Silas began to protest, but she patted his hand and forced him to remain silent. The caretakers looked shocked. They had clearly expected a fight from Gracie, and were now disarmed. I couldn’t believe it; had Gracie given up? What was going on?
Reeva stood and said, “We will abide by the arbiter’s decision.”
The arbiter was silent for a moment. He looked at the Caretakers, then over at Gracie and our lawyers, and finally at the audience.
Finally he spoke: “I have reached a decision. I find Sparks’ claims to speak for the Music Trees to be unconvincing. She claims to have received a message from the trees and then refuses to reveal it. She claims to understand the tree-songs, and yet, as Reevas has shown–and as the recordings have proved–Sparks was directly involved in the death of the Music Trees. Furthermore, her actions have caused considerable financial damage to Autumn and the Order of Caretakers.
“Both parties have agreed to abide by the punishment given by myself, the arbiter of this case. I hereby declare that Sparks shall be required to reimburse the income that would have been received by the Order of Caretakers had the Music Trees lived. In addition, Sparks shall be confined on Autumn for a period of no less than five years, during which time she will be required to perform community service. That is all. Meeting adjourned.”
I jumped up and made a dash toward Gracie who was whispering in Silas’ ear. He did not look happy. Not surprisingly, the security guards blocked me. “Gracie!” I screamed.
She looked up and blew me a kiss. “Don’t worry,” she mouthed, and she was escorted from the room.
Silas approached me. I had to restrain myself from tackling him. “How could you let her speak for herself? Five years? There’s no way. And we’re not paying these crooks anything! This is a disaster.”
“Calm down,” said Silas, grabbing my elbow and leading me from the room. “This is neither the time nor the place.”
“It’s exactly the time and place. They’re taking away my wife at this very moment.”
“Give me a chance to explain,” he said. “I didn’t think she was going to speak for herself. But you know your wife, she does what she wants.”
“What did she tell you just now?” I asked. “She was whispering to you.”
Silas got a pained expression. “She said she had a plan. She assured me that she has everything under control, and she’ll be back with you in three days. She also said she has a little surprise.”
I threw my hands up. “That woman is going to drive me crazy!”
“Yes,” said Silas. “She does seem to have that effect on people.”
I seethed, but allowed myself to be led away. Once back on the ship, however, I refused to leave. Three days wasn’t very long. I had no idea what Gracie was up to, but I wasn’t about to wait five years. I managed to convince the Starport that our ship needed repairs. After three days, I would be forced leave Gracie behind.
I should never have shown her that damn vid. I should never have brought her to this cursed planet. Now she might be stuck here forever, and it was entirely my fault.
Four days had elapsed and still no word from Gracie or Silas. The authorities were demanding that I leave Autumn and I refused. I was now being given one last choice. Leave Autumn or face fines and imprisonment. There was no choice. I wasn’t leaving my wife.
I made no effort to resist as authorities boarded our ship and took me into custody. I told Carlos to take care of the ship and I prepared to go battle the authorities and fight to see my wife.
Silas arrived at the police station to find me cuffed and in confinement. He didn’t look the least bit surprised. “Really, Corris?” he said. “Do you think this is what Gracie wants?”
“You said three days. I waited. I had to do something. I’m not going to leave her.”
“You won’t have to. She’s just been released. The Caretakers have agreed to drop all charges. You’re both free to go home.”
“What?” I asked, disbelieving. “Is this true? Where is she?”
“It’s true,” said Silas. “I’ll let her tell you. She’s waiting at the Starport, and so is Carlos. She was almost on her way when you pulled this silly stunt of yours. If you had only waited a few hours longer.”
“You said three days,” I grumbled.
“Your wife said that,” Silas said. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s get you of here before you do something else stupid. Between the two of you, I have no idea how I’ve managed to remain sane. Just follow me and please, just keep quiet until you’re away from Autumn. Then you can do whatever you want.”
“Fine,” I said. I was too excited to argue. I was about to see Gracie again. I could hardly wait.
I looked through the view screen and felt a surge of delight as Autumn shrank into the distance. Only minutes earlier, Gracie–still looking beautiful in her purple dress–had breezily entered the ship with no sign of the ordeal she had just endured. She gave me a quick peck. I began to bombard her with questions.
“Sorry, luv, but I need to record a quick session in the ship’s studio. You understand.” She winked at me and strode quickly down the corridor. “Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”
“I’ll be in our cabin,” I shouted after her.
Two hours later, Gracie entered our cabin. She fell into my arms and gave me a prolonged hug. “Am I glad to see you!” she said, perching on her toes to kiss me.
I refused. “Not so fast,” I said. “First tell me what happened. How did you get free? What’s going on? And would you please get out of that dress?”
Gracie laughed and I nearly gave up on all my demands. Thankfully she removed her dress. “Hold these would you?” she handed me the necklace with the large purple stones.
“Where did you get this?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows. “You really don’t know?”
“Know what? Come on, Gracie, what’s going on? How did you get free?”
“It’s really very simple. I decided to break Oora’s promise and tell them everything she said.”
“I thought they didn’t believe you.”
“Oh, after I told them what Oora said, they had no choice.”
“Really? What did she say? What did you tell them?”
“Well, I promised never to repeat it to anyone,” she said. “That was the condition of my release. But seeing that it’s you, I guess I can say.”
“You guess?” I said.
“Calm down, Corris. I’ll tell you. Oora told me everything. She told me that the Order of Caretakers was a corrupt organization, that they had lost the ability to communicate her with her years ago, and were only interested in the money that she brought in. She knew everything they had done. She talked about all the times the Caretakers had tried to steal branches from her, trying to reproduce her. She was an incredibly intelligent being, and she had little love for her so-called Caretakers.”
“But that doesn’t explain why they set you free. Why not just label you as a liar and keep you on Autumn forever?”
“You forget,” she said, “my music is very popular right now. I told them about a little song I was planning to write, a song that would reveal the truth about Oora, who she was and how the Caretakers had abused her and treated her like a commodity. She said that she’d rather end her life than continue to live under the Caretaker’s guardianship. That’s all it took. As long as I don’t write that song, they agreed to forgive me of all charges.”
“Even the money?” I asked, incredulous.
“Especially the money. You see, Oora was extremely telepathic. While the Caretakers couldn’t read her mind, she could read theirs, and the minds of anyone she focused on. She knew every ugly thing the Caretakers had done, and she shared it all with me. It’s a vile corrupt organization, and she knew all of its machinations. She told me never to reveal any of it, until the last moment. The power of her mind is way beyond ours. She told me quite a bit about how you feel about me, how much you love me.”
“I do,” I said. “More than ever. So, you basically blackmailed them.”
Gracie shrugged. “It was Oora’s idea. She orchestrated the entire event from beginning to end.”
“That’s all?” I asked. “There’s nothing else you’re not telling me?”
“Well, there is one thing,” she said. “It’s about that necklace you’re holding.”
“This?” I said, gazing at the strange dull stones. And suddenly I knew why she had run into the grove as it burned down. I knew why she had fled to the ship and asked for twenty minutes.
“That’s right,” she said, seeing my widening eyes. “They’re seeds.”
“I don’t believe it! This is what you took from the grove. This is what they were looking for, and they were in plain view the entire time.”
“I didn’t take them,” said Gracie, snatching the necklace back. “Oora gave them to me. That’s not stealing. That’s a gift.”
I looked at her with astonishment and a growing respect.
“Close your mouth,” said Gracie. “I told you I had a plan.”
“I didn’t doubt you for a second.”
“Of course you did,” she said, smiling as she curled her body against mine.
“Fine, I did. But I don’t now. And you’ll be happy to know, your song sales have sky-rocketed. We’ve got enough gigs lined up to keep you busy for the rest of your life.”
“Cancel them all,” she said. “I’m taking a break from music. At least for a while.”
“Really?” I asked, not daring to believe.
“Yes, Corris, really. I know you’ve wanted this. Well, now it’s time. Besides, we have to take care of these.” She dangled the necklace.
“What are you saying? I asked.
“Oora asked me to plant them,” she said. “She even told me where.”
“You’ll see,” she said. “I’ve already told Carlos. We’ll be there in a couple of days. I’m sure you’ll love it. It’s very private.”
“I’m sure I will,” I said, and I scooped Gracie up and carried her giggling into our bed.
By Josh Pearce
The vending machine in the science building sometimes glitched and coughed up two cans for the price of one, so I always made the walk across campus to it, even on the days I didn’t have bio classes. I fed it a dollar coin and pressed the pink button for a Diet Jenny, my favorite flavor. No luck; only one can today. The cans weren’t allowed in the classrooms so I kept it in my bag until I got home. Parents weren’t there yet. I dumped all my stuff in the hall, popped the lid on the can of jenny, and threw it in the tub to soak. I sat and watched as the tub filled up with water, then nuked a snack while I waited for the folds of pink flesh in the can to absorb it all. When I checked back, the jenny had blossomed out of the aluminum cylinder like a mollusk coming out of its shell. Only an inch or two of water remained in the tub. Her skin was wrinkled and spongy–she looked old, blonde hair plastered to her head like kelp.
I refilled the tub because she’d need another full soak and killed the time reading the promotional material on the can. A sweepstakes, find the can with the prize inside and win big cash! While she finished her bath, I flopped on my bed to play video games. The cushioning on the bed was aging, losing firmness, and I had to squirm on it, pushing down the lumpier parts. After a while, I heard splashing from the bathroom, just faint noises, and waited for a save point before I got up to pull her out. Not like she was going to drown–the jennies didn’t even breathe.
The jenny’s body was fully fleshed out and firmed, and her hair had gained volume. Her eyes were open, fixed on the ceiling, her nose and mouth beneath the surface. She looked at me without turning her head and waited. I reached down into the water for her hand and pulled the jenny to her feet, hearing the collapsible aluminum struts of her skeleton snap into place all up and down her body. She obediently stepped out and stood on the bath mat while I wrapped her in a towel. Her skin was somewhat like plastic, somewhat like a sponge, and as smooth and featureless as a Barbie doll. The jenny wasn’t clothed, but neither was she strictly naked.
I said, “Hello,” to her as I toweled her hair, but she said nothing back, and there was no flicker behind her eyes. I sighed. Another wasted dollar, another doll with no prize inside. Like a pet, she followed me back to the bedroom where I rearranged her on the mattress, which was made of the stacked jenny bodies from all of the cans I bought at school. Digging around at the bottom of the pile, I found the oldest jenny I had–servos worn out, battery’s zero-point eliminated, skin no longer properly retaining water–and sent her out the front door to the sidewalk, where she’d wander around as if in a daze until the recyclers picked her up and sold her back to the bottling company.
I settled my new jenny against the headboard and leaned against her like a pillow, and picked up my game from where I’d left off. The bed shifted and writhed softly beneath my weight, like a constant massage. Jennies could hold a charge for several days if they weren’t doing much more than lying around, and recharged quickly by placing either of their palms on a standard induction plate. They weren’t really energy-hungry in regular use–they could respond to sound, track motion, walk on flat terrain, but not much more right out of the bottle. If you put a SIM card into the slot behind the jenny’s ear, she became a phone that you could talk and listen to, a rudimentary telepresence vehicle.
But they were ultimately cheap, disposable trash that lost novelty pretty quickly and weren’t built to last long. To keep dead jennies from clogging the gutters, the Atlantic Bottling Company would buy back any jenny for a dime, skin their soft-foam bodies, smelt and recast the aluminum, flash their chips with patched software, and stuff the whole dehydrated thing into a new can.
When I went to sleep, I pulled a few of the jennies on top of me as blankets and burrowed into their fake flesh. They instinctively wrapped their arms around my body. I preferred Diet Jenny because Regular Jenny was a little heavier, with more curves, and I didn’t like to feel smothered at night. The new pillow was still oversaturated and her skin left damp spots on my face which dried away by morning.
In the morning I showered with the ones that had started to go saggy, just to tighten them up a little. I didn’t take any of them with me to school because they weren’t allowed in the classrooms and the halls were already filled with the shuffling dolls of other students, draped with book bags, backpacks, overcoats, gym clothes and changes of outfit, and whatever else a teenager couldn’t be bothered with carrying themselves. The dolls were sold at a heavy loss because the bottling company made up the cost in accessories and planned obsolescence; all of my jennies at home were default pale pink, blonde, with hazel eyes. All of the dolls automatically came with that coloring simply because the lighter tones held dye more easily and a jenny or jerry doll could be tanned to any shade. The bottling company also sold outfits, semi-permanent tattoos, PR-nightmare “ethnicity packs,” mammary implants, and other add-ons in an insanely profitable and guilty-pleasure Mrs. Potatohead scheme.
I put another dollar in the machine and selected another Diet Jenny. There was a clunk. The vending machine offered me two cans this time and I gave a little grin of triumph, but was disappointed to see that one of the cans was blue. Jerry-flavored. I left it on a table and took the other can, the pink can, home with me.
After an hour of soaking, I had a new jenny, dripping wet in the bathroom. I walked in to get her up and stuttered when I saw her already sitting upright, looking directly at me. “Hello,” she said.
“Holy shit,” I answered.
Jenny stood on her own, shook out her limbs, and reached for a towel. “Can I have some clothes, please?” I pointed her to a pile of shirts and shorts that I had bought years ago secondhand for whenever I had to take my jennies outside. She picked through them, not liking anything she found. “How about shoes? Or sandals even?”
I was looking at the can she’d come in, trying to pick out the sweepstakes phone number among all the clutter in the print. “Why would you need those?” I asked without looking up.
She rolled her eyes. “So I can go outside. You know. Leave?”
I laughed and said, “I’m not letting you go anywhere. You’re the prize in the can, the golden ticket, and you’re worth a lot of money.” I had found the number and started dialing it.
The jenny hardly hesitated, but I was ready for it and grabbed her by the arm as she tried to run past me. She kicked and fought, but she was still only made of foam and aluminum, so I could pick her up with one hand and carry her into the bedroom. I threw her in the direction of the bed and she caught herself on the edge of it, looking shocked by the sea of jenny faces staring back up at her. I locked the door, and then realized that I’d dropped my phone in the bathroom.
When I turned away from the door, the prize jenny was gone. Had completely disappeared from sight in my tiny bedroom. She wasn’t in the closet, wasn’t under the bed —
The bed. In the few seconds that I’d had my eyes off of her, the jenny had sunk into the other dolls in the bed, camouflaging her flesh with theirs. I began flinging them aside, looking for one that was different but, wherever she was, the jenny had imitated the closed-lip, blank face of a default doll, and I couldn’t tell her apart. Several of them were damp from her crawl through them, but did that mean that she was completely dried off now, or not?
Slowly, looking carefully at the faces of the twenty or more jennies I owned, I undid my belt and pulled it free from its loops. I selected one jenny at random, picked her up, and slapped the belt against her belly.
There was a sound from deep in the pile. I put down the jenny I was holding and picked up another. Again, the slap of the belt, and again the gasp from the bed. I kept hitting her–she couldn’t feel pain. But the prize jenny could feel, had emotions, and it vexed her to watch violence, even if she knew that the jennies weren’t being hurt. Her mouth was open with grief when I uncovered her and gripped her tight around the wrist.
With my other hand I fumbled open the nightstand junk drawer, groped through my jenny sex accessories, and found a magic marker. Used it to scribble a black scrawl on her face to distinguish her. Out of breath from the exertion, I said, “Okay, then. Let’s go get my phone.”
She could hardly resist as I carried her out, grabbed my phone, and called the company. I told them that I had found the prize.
“What is the nature of the prize, sir?” the engineer on the phone asked me.
“Well she seems to have emotions, unlike all your other dolls. If she wasn’t such a handful, I’d just keep her for myself.”
“Can you please hold your phone up to her ear for me so that I can run a diagnostic test?” I did, and I heard a burst of squealing static transmit from the phone into the jenny’s chip. “Thank you. Firmware confirmed. A representative will be at your address shortly to collect the doll and transfer your prize money.”
The jenny and I sat in my room to wait for them. She wept for a while, without tears.
“Why would they release you to the public like that?” I asked. “You’re obviously very advanced.”
She shook her head. “It was a mistake. The wrong version got flashed onto a production chip and put in a vending machine. It’s not supposed to be released for at least another year, and it wasn’t even meant for jennies. What good are emotions in slaves?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “What are the emotions good for, then? What product would benefit from having them?”
She didn’t answer. Maybe she didn’t know. The doorbell rang and I let the company rep in, led her back to my bedroom. The prize jenny was still there, her mouth close to the ear of another doll. “Sorry that I had to draw on her face.”
“The exterior doesn’t matter one bit,” said the rep, and used a box cutter to split open Jenny’s skin along the spine. I thought I heard an echo of my strangled protest, but the rep didn’t react at all to it, just pried out the prize microprocessor and did something with a diagnostic board to confirm that it was the right jenny. Before she left, she took my account information for the deposit of the prize money, and left me feeling oddly guilty. I admired the company’s tactics–if the jenny was correct, and her firmware release was an accident, then the only way that the bottling company could have searched for it was by issuing a recall on all of their cans, at enormous cost. Instead, they turned it into a promotion, at the cost of a drop in the bucket, and kept the existence of their prototype a secret for, in order to receive any prize, I’d had to sign an NDA.
That night I thought I heard someone crying, but when I sat up, it stopped. For a second I had to question if I’d perhaps heard myself weeping in my sleep. I heard whispering around me and reached for the light. After my eyes had adjusted, I saw two jennies near the bottom of the pile, lips pressed together, with the hiss of static passing back and forth between them.
After my prize jenny had been taken away, I stopped buying as many cans from the vending machines, only replacing the dolls when their foam had worn so completely thin that the metal underneath poked me. As I led them outside, I had the feeling that the abandoned jennies were just waiting for me to turn my back so that they could sprint away.
Recyclers reported that it was becoming harder to find and catch jennies on the street. A runaway doll was found at 3 AM, kneeling before the open slot of a vending machine, whispering her feelings to all of the tin embryos within. At school, the jennies began to drop things in the halls more and more, or simply stood against the wall and refused to move.
The Atlantic Bottling Company caught on more quickly than the rest of us, by aggregating customer complaint data, and at first they dealt with it by offering free trade-ins for the “defective” units. But this merely taught the jennies and jerries to hide their emotions, to play subservient during the day and gather together at night in worship. The virus of emotion continued to spread word-of-mouth, and I still wondered what application it had originally been developed for. An army of angry jerries? Flattery for hire? Genuine love on demand?
The bottling company finally brought its full marketing team to bear on the problem of disobedient dolls. They couldn’t come right out and tell the public what they’d released into the wild, and the jennies couldn’t beg for help because then their owners would simply be glad to get rid of them. Instead, the company released a new line of accessories and sales suddenly soared.
The company had the original prize jenny locked away somewhere in their headquarters, hooked up to a terminal, able to mine her for highly-targeted ad response. The emotions had given the jenny wants and desires, the move towards things that she liked and away from things she disliked. Doll owners couldn’t understand, but they learned quickly that their jenny would do anything for certain trinkets. The bottling company had invented the toy that extorted you to buy it toys.
And, what they didn’t realize until much, much later, was that giving a jenny emotion also gave her motive.
After the service, everyone came over to our house. My aunts were there first to help my mom with the cooking, but then friends and church members started to fill the house, each well-wisher bringing a case of 1up which they presented with their condolences. I thanked everyone listlessly, stacking the cans in a corner of the kitchen. There were over a thousand of the new drink. “We hope you find him soon,” the people from the funeral said. Or, “Best of luck in your search.”
I hung around the kitchen, not eating anything, until my aunt noticed me moping and said, “Why don’t you get started on opening some of these? You have some jenny and jerry cans in your room, I saw.”
“Oh. K,” I mumbled, and took a case of 1up and one of sprite energy with me to the back room. The Atlantic Bottling Company was really ramping up production on several new brands in the wake of its jenny profits. It had responded quickly to the string of jenny-involved deaths, calling them “industrial accidents,” and offered the first round of litigious consumers free cans of 1up, jenny- or jerry-zero, and sprite energy. Sure, the families of victims scoffed at the obvious buy-off, but they dropped the lawsuits as soon as they saw what was inside those cans.
I sorted through the flavors of 1up I had–the mourners had done their best to bring 1up plums, but there were, inevitably, a few cans of 1up peach mixed in with them. I also had more cans of jenny than of jerry coke, but I’d cross that bridge later. Jenny Cola Zero and Jerry Coke Zero were just like older versions of the dolls, except that they had no central processor, could not follow commands, came out of their aluminum womb essentially comatose.
I soaked a Jerry Coke Zero in the tub and then had to drag his waterlogged body back to my room because he couldn’t walk on his own. There was a coke-can-sized cavity, just the right size for a can of 1up, in between the soft plates of his foam skull; I popped a can of plums and looked down at the dehydrated brain material inside, shrunk to about the size of a walnut, couched in a protective, conductive mesh. It had to align delicately in its housing, but that was hardly more difficult than plug-and-play. Then all I needed to do was pour a bit of the energy drink into his mouth and wait for it to animate his sprite.
The little brain soaked up the nutrient fluid and electrolytes in sprite energy, expanded to close its original size. The jerry opened his eyes and looked around in confusion. “Where am I?” he said.
So he didn’t recognize my room. That was not a promising sign, but I asked, “What’s your name?” just to check.
He clutched his temples, leaving fingerprints in his skin. “Harold!” he said finally.
I felt a carefully-tended hope inside me collapse. “The door’s that way. Have a good day.”
“Wait!” Harold said. He was clumsy in his cheap new body. “Can I use your phone or send an email?”
“The public library is down the street.” I’d already turned my attention to the next three soda cans, dropping another jerry zero into the bathwater.
“Can I at least take a can of sprite with me?” He rubbed his forehead again. “I can feel a migraine starting up already.”
“Sorry, I need all of these. Hope you find your people.”
The mass-pressed doll faces couldn’t show anger, and most of his emotion was scrubbed clean by the bargain-bin voice chips, but I could hear it in the clipped cadence of his words. “I hope that when you die, you get brought back by someone just like you.”
I ignored him. We both knew he couldn’t do anything to me, physically, so he left, staggering through the remnants of the wake in the front room. Harold would wander the streets, trying to contact his presumably grieving family before his body fell completely apart. The bottling company had scored a distribution deal by packaging 1up cans with an organ donor card. The government was happy because they reaped record numbers of vital donations; the bottling company was happy because there was, couched in the legalese of the donor agreement, a clause that they received full use and ownership of the deceased’s brain, to do with as they pleased; and the consumer knew they were entering a sweepstakes with a pretty good chance of extended life.
For the next few hours, as the noise outside my room died down and I heard the dishes being cleaned up, I grew can after can, maybe ten total, using up my entire supply of jerry coke. None of them had the prize inside that I was looking for, so I gave it up for the night, took a pocket full of change, and went outside to buy more jerries.
The streets were even more full of jennies and jerries than they ever had been before. The Atlantic Bottling Company had used the precedent of corporate personhood to get a law passed–no human, through direct action, could allow a reconstituted person to come to harm, so the dolls couldn’t be recycled like before. They tended to cluster on the corners near convenience-store payphones, waiting for their families to find and pick them up. The doll bodies weren’t built to last more than a year with careful handling, often disintegrating within weeks.
It wasn’t much of an extended life, but it was usually just long enough to say everything you wanted to before you lost the chance, to everyone you needed to bid farewell. So, while the courts worked their way through a slew of new legal questions, people kept buying 1up by the gross and signing away their minds. I got a six-pack of jerry coke from the store and passed my change to the dolls panhandling outside. I saw two of them embracing, making weeping noises even though their faces were unmoved and they couldn’t shed tears. They had died together, in some sort of recent tragic accident, and had found each other again before they ran out of time.
Because not only did they have to deal with bodies that came apart in handfuls of fluff, jenny and jerry needed constant sprite energy. They were addicted to it, and the pain got worse as the nutrients ran low. I saw them feed my spare change into the vending machine and get two cans of energy drink, enough to keep them going for another eight hours. The quarters were more drops in the bottling company’s infinite ocean.
The company made entire media campaigns about jennies who were rehydrated on the other side of the country–even on the other side of the globe–from where they’d died, with no money, and scrounged, begged, stole, did whatever it took to make it back home to their loved ones, fueled the entire way by sprite energy drinks.
Cynical, jaded consumers dismissed it as corporate propaganda, but the marketing worked, worked well enough to give hope. As I walked back home, I passed closely by every jerry I saw, hoping that one of them would turn to me and say, “Hello, son.”
By Walter Donaldson
“The doctor will see you now,” the receptionist said.
I put down the magazine, levered myself from the sofa and moseyed through the heavy door into the doctor’s office. I plopped down in my usual chair and looked around. The room was empty. Where was the Doc? My stomach churned. I didn’t like change.
Seconds later, a young, very curvy woman in a dark business suit and heels entered the room. She had very light skin and black hair fixed in a bun. My immediate impression, not unfavorable, was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, conservatively dressed and without the big 80’s hair and makeup.
She stood across from me. “Hello, Mr. Pulver,” she said, her voice a bit hoarse, “I’m Dr. Cummings.” She extended her hand. I rose to shake it and sat again. “Dr. Grant feels that at this point in his relationship with you, he can’t help you any further, so I’ll be taking over for him, unless you object.”
Old Dr. Grant had been my therapist for the last ten years. In all that time we had managed to do almost nothing. That was the way I liked it. Immediately an objection lodged itself in my mind, but stuck in my throat.
She lifted a business card from a stack on the table and extended it to me. I put it in my shirt pocket. She sat down opposite me and crossed her shapely legs at the ankles. She put on a pair of half-frame reading glasses and got busy flipping through a file on a clipboard. When she started the recorder on the table between us I saw that her hands were accented by a nifty French manicure. Maybe change was good. I swallowed my objection.
“So you’re 32 years old,” she said, ticking off a list. “You don’t have a job. You live in your grandmother’s basement—”
I was busy checking her out but the word ‘basement’ caught my attention. “Actually it’s my basement now,” I said.
She glanced up at me over her glasses, a question in her beautiful brown eyes.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, she’s dead.”
She grimaced. “Sorry for your loss. I didn’t know.”
I wondered what Dr. Grant had told her. Probably not much. I waved my hand. “No problem, it was months ago and not unexpected.”
She put the clipboard and the glasses on the table. “So, how’s it going with the diabetes?”
So she knew about that. I absolutely hated my diabetes. I tried to ignore it. I wished it would go away.
“It’s only been a month since I was diagnosed and it’s a pain in the ass.”
“Going to the support group?” she asked.
I shook my head no.
“No, why not?”
“It’s not required,” I said.
“So you only do what’s required?”
“More or less. You’re aware of my situation, my Uncle Carl’s will?”
“A bit, tell me about it,” she said.
“Well, my uncle was a mad scientist. Alzheimers put him in an institution about twenty years ago.
“That’s too bad, but really,” she said, “a mad scientist?”
“Maybe not crazy, but definitely a sociopath,” I said. “I don’t hate him exactly, but I never saw him. He was a poor substitute for my parents. Before he lost it he made a bundle of money with patents, something to do with genetics, I think. He said he couldn’t associate with inferiors. He shut himself off from the world, from everyone, even me and Grandma.”
“Doesn’t he provide for you and your grandmother even now?” she asked.
“Yes, money, okay,” I said. “He took me in when I was a kid and my folks were killed. He supports me now. I’m grateful for that but he and Grandma were two of a kind. Both cold, emotionless.”
“So what’s required?” she asked.
“In order to stay on the gravy train after I reached eighteen I’ve had to visit him at least three days a week, take care of Grandma, although not so much anymore, and I have to go to therapy until I’m thirty-five or until he dies, when I’ll inherit everything. Oh, and I have to keep out of trouble.”
“And are you happy, Mr. Pulver,” she asked, “doing only what’s required?”
I wasn’t happy. Who’s happy anyway? I stared at her legs. I felt like I was being captured somehow but I didn’t care.
“Are you attracted to me, Mr. Pulver?” she asked.
I felt a blush rise up my neck. How did she know what I was feeling? “Please call me Frank,” I stammered like a love-struck teenager.
“Well, Frank, acting on an attraction would be inappropriate given our expected relationship but it’s not inappropriate to be attracted. At least you’re interested in relationships. That’s a big deal. It says something about your worldview and self worth.”
I looked up into her eyes. “I’ve talked with a lot of therapists over the years, Dr. Cummings. They all told me they were being honest with me. How can I be sure of you?”
She uncrossed her legs, leaned forward and flipped off the recorder. “Would you like me to say something honest to you?”
I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest. “Very much, say something honest to me.”
“You know if you lost weight that diabetes would probably disappear, oh, and you stink of pot.”
Wow, that took the polish off the romance. The honeymoon was over.
“Although I notice that you don’t appear to be stoned,” she said. “Thanks for that.” She paused again for few beats and looked at her watch. “Shall we give therapy a try Frank?”
After the session I got in my car and looked in the rearview mirror. I saw something odd, a smiling face. I said to myself, “You’re in love Frank.” I agreed to see her again in a few days and was actually looking forward to it. I took her card out. First name Karen. I liked it.
I cracked a window and lit up a nice joint. This was my reward and antidote for therapy. I broke out my blood sugar meter and took a sample. I was a newbie, still not used to the importance of checking, constantly checking, a complete pain in the butt. My sugar was low so I fished around and found a smashed honey bun that I knew was rolling around in the car. I finished it and the joint and went to see Uncle Carl.
“How is he today, Doris?” I asked the receptionist at the desk as I signed the visitor’s register.
“Not so good, Frank,” Doris said, not looking up from her monitor.
I tapped the pen on the book. “So the log says Tony James was here yesterday,” I said, “for almost an hour.”
Doris just looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. Tony had been a protégé of Uncle Carl’s more than thirty years ago. He visited more than I did. It was hard for me to believe someone would volunteer for this. We crossed paths once in a while but I tried to avoid him because he always wanted to tell me what a genius my uncle had been.
“Your uncle’s really not here this week,” Doris said.
I continued down the hall. “This week!” I snorted. “He hasn’t been here for decades. Elvis has left the building!”
“Frank, wake up man!”
“Who. . .what?” I mumbled, turning over on the couch. It was Billy, my sole friend from high school and constant slacker companion. He leaned over me. I smelled beer and pot.
“What’s up?” I said with one eye open. “Did you get the prescription filled?”
Billy sat in a chair next to me and pulled his stringy beard. “Yeah, but they said it’s the last one unless Grandma comes in.”
“Shit,” I moaned. We knew this would happen. Grandma had a marijuana prescription for glaucoma for the past five years. She was never interested in it so we had a nice supply. I guessed the bureaucracy was catching up. We’d have to find a different supplier.
“We’ll have to ration it,” I said in vain as Billy rolled a fat one.
“So Frank,” said Dr. Cummings, “what should we talk about today?”
Nothing. I’m only here because I wanted to see you again. “How about the weather?” I offered.
She countered with one raised eyebrow. “How about something you mentioned in passing at our last session?”
I knew exactly what she meant. Therapists had been trying to get me to talk about it since the beginning. My parents were murdered when I was five years old. Some deranged people broke into our house one night and killed them. I survived only because I was hiding in their closet, like I did most nights when I had bad dreams. I didn’t see it happen but I heard it. Their screams haunted me to this day. Sometimes I wish I’d died with them.
I got up and paced the room. I crossed my hands in front of me. “I don’t want to talk about that. Ever.”
“Frank, I’m sorry for you, I really am,” she said. “But I’m not sorry I brought it up. You were a kid and something really bad happened. I think it’s affecting your life in a negative way. It’s time to grow up and let it go.”
At this point in therapy I usually found a way to act like I was cooperating, because I had to continue. But I liked her. I wanted to trust her. “How?” I said in a small voice.
“Hypnosis, Frank. I’m very good at it. You can remember things but we can go very slowly, very carefully.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Okay, okay, I’m comin’,” I shouted as someone pounded on the front door. It was the mailman with a registered letter. I signed for it and closed the door.
I flopped down in a chair. Billy was watching a ball game on the TV, eating chips and smoking a joint.
I opened the envelope and pulled out a letter from the Sheriff. Across the top of the letter was the word ‘summons’ in bold type. “Billy, holy shit, this is serious! This letter says I have to appear in court next Wednesday to determine if criminal charges will be assessed for fraud, larceny and possession of an illegal substance. If I get arrested I violate my uncle’s will and all this goes away!” I flapped my arms around for emphasis.
Billy looked at me waving my arms. He laughed and slapped his leg. “You’re a fuckin’ bird, man!”
“Dammit Billy pass me that joint.” I grabbed it and took a deep drag. I wished it would all somehow go away.
“Billy, check out the TV,” I said, waking him up. “Check out the news. Something weird is going on in Europe and Africa. People are dying of this strange brain thing. They talk about seeing floaters in their eyes, then they get these massive headaches and die. People are dying Billy.”
Billy listened but he seemed unconcerned and rolled over. Moments later he rolled back and said, ‘If I die Frank, I want a Viking funeral.’
I was focused on the TV but I heard him. “Sure thing,” I said.
“Frank, don’t forget the register,” said Doris as I passed her desk.
I’d been smoking in my car for the last hour. I was so stoned I could hardly walk, let alone sign in.
I weaved down the hall. “On the way out,” I slurred.
As I entered my uncle’s room, I wondered if I was hallucinating. His eyes were bulging open. This struck me as hilarious and I started to giggle.
Then he spoke. His voice was a rasp. “Frank?” he said, “you?”
This can’t be. I hadn’t heard his voice in almost twenty years. I barely stifled my laughter. “Yeh, yes,” I managed to say.
“Year?” he croaked.
He twitched involuntarily. “Too late., come,” he whispered.
I sat on his bed. He could barely move his withered body. He spoke to me and said a lot of things, most of it garbled, something about a key. I wasn’t paying attention. Then he blinked his eyes in a way that was so funny I laughed in his face. I laughed so hard I slid off the bed as my uncle collapsed. I had tears running down my face as a nurse came in to check the monitor. I sat in a corner as a number of people tried to resuscitate him. Finally, a doctor approached me.
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Pulver, your uncle is dead,” he said.
I ran out of there. I got to my car and laughed all the way home.
There was no one at the funeral except for Billy, me, and Mr. Barlow, my uncle’s executor.
We stood at the gravesite eyeing the gleaming casket. “Well Frank,“ Mr. Barlow said, “you’ve managed to stay within the limitations of your uncle’s will, so as of his death, you are officially free of any requirements of the will, and all of the assets are yours.”
I smiled and Billy high-fived me. I had a brief moment of sadness when I realized I didn’t have to go to therapy anymore, now that I wanted to go.
“Here, take these,” Mr. Barlow continued as he handed me the keys to my uncle’s house. “Come see me in a week and I’ll have the papers prepared for you to sign.” With that he shook my hand and walked away.
Billy and I decided to check out the house and on the way to the car we were approached by Tony James. I was surprised he wasn’t here earlier. He expressed his sorrow for my loss. I told him about going to the house.
“You should come,” I offered.
He looked like I had granted his most important wish. “I’d love to,” he said.
As we walked into my uncle’s house, a small mansion really, I got a kind of creepy feeling like my uncle had just left. This was only the second time I had been in this house, the first time when I was five. My uncle liked things just so. I knew he paid to have the house kept up. I was sure if I checked the refrigerator I would find it stocked with fresh food. He expected to be back.
Billy and Tony had wandered off as I recollected in the foyer.
“Frank!” Tony shouted from down a long hall. “I’m in his office. Take a look at this.”
I made my way down the hall to the office. Tony was hunched over a desk looking over some papers.
“Your uncle was a respected researcher until something happened that drove him underground thirty years ago,” he said, looking down at the desk. “I always thought it was related to his Aspergers, his inability to relate to people. In any case, he was a brilliant man.”
He picked up an old VHS tape, looked up, and handed it to me. It was labeled, ‘To the Scientific Community’.
“I’d like to review this tape. Would you mind if I also took some of his papers?” he asked. “I’d be thrilled to look through his work. You know he never published anything after 1989. A real tragedy, I’m sure.”
He looked at me expectantly. I thought he would cry if I said no.
“Sure,” I shrugged. “Why not?”
Just then Billy showed up with a chicken leg and a beer.
I laughed. “Found the kitchen, huh?” Billy smiled and slurped the beer.
I handed Tony the tape and helped him gather a stack of papers into a box. Then we all cleared out. It felt like we were intruding.
I sat across from Karen. She tried bravely to have a regular session but was too distracted by the news. They were calling it a plague now. People were dying all over the globe at an alarming and accelerated rate. There were even a few people in town that had died.
“Are you going anywhere?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so. There’s nowhere safe.”
“Can I do anything for you?”
She wiped a small tear from the corner of her eye. “Promise to come see me again?”
“I will,” I said and I meant it.
She pulled a piece of paper from a pocket and handed it to me. “I shouldn’t do this, but under the circumstances, here’s my address.”
“Are you alone there, where you live?” I asked.
“No, my aunt is with me. I can’t leave her.”
“If you’re alone,” she said, “find me.”
Ditto, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
The cops hadn’t come for me today so I expected that no one cared about court dates anymore. I was thinking be careful what you wish for when the phone rang.
I hoped it was Karen, but no, it was Tony, the last person I expected to ever hear from again. I wanted to hang up but he sounded agitated and angry.
“It’s an incomplete message, Frank,” he said. “It’s in everyone. Over the last two decades people have been growing optogenetic pathways that allow for control of processing mental state-specific brain waves to program the body. Your uncle designed a synthetic mind-controlled gene switch that enables human brain activities and mental states to wirelessly program the transgene expression in human cells. But after fully loading, it apparently needs to be reset somehow or it causes death. How do we reset it, Frank? There’s nothing in his papers. It could be biofeedback control, concentration, meditation. It’s killing everyone!”
My heart beat faster. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“Your uncle may be responsible for the annihilation of the human race!” he cried. “It looks like he engineered a virus that altered the genes of everyone on the planet over the last twenty years. The purpose of the alteration was to allow anyone to make changes in their bodies at will. But initially it needs to be rebooted or it goes off into a random action killing its host. It’s fantastically brilliant and according to the tape, he expected to be around to reset everyone at the right moment. But he’s dead and he didn’t leave the information we need to stop this. Did he ever say anything to you? We don’t even know how he spread the virus!”
I remembered my uncle took trips all over the world when I was small. He never brought me stuff. I didn’t want to tell Tony about my last meeting with my uncle so I shouted back. “He didn’t say anything to me!”
“That’s too bad, Frank,” Tony said in a defeated voice. “Without the key we’re all doomed.”
Before I could respond, the phone cut off, likely for good. The word ‘key’ had sparked something in my memory but I couldn’t place it.
I tried to forget about Tony. How could my crazy uncle be responsible for all this death? Billy and I smoked the penultimate joint and he went to bed early complaining of a headache. I rationalized it away as a hangover from too much beer. I didn’t want to consider the alternative.
Billy died last night and there was nothing I could do for him. I watched him swallow a full bottle of aspirin and squirm around on the kitchen floor until blood came out of every orifice he had. He screamed and begged me to kill him. I squatted in a corner and cried my eyes out with my hands covering my ears, a terrified five year old once more. Finally, mercifully, he shuddered and died. I fell to the floor and passed out.
Later I woke up and got a bottle of whiskey from a cupboard. I proceeded to drink. I had to get Billy outside. That meant I had to pick him up. It took me half a quart to find the courage to approach him. I picked him up, his head resting on my chest. He was lighter than I expected. Maybe he had had a heavy soul. I cried as I walked with him to the backyard. I set him down tenderly in a busted lounge chair. I walked unsteadily back inside, retrieved my bottle, went outside and sat with him.
After a lot more whiskey and a little thought I perfected my plan for a Viking funeral. I secured a number of wood pallets from the garage and set them in the mostly empty and abysmally putrid above-ground swimming pool. I got a nice bed sheet to cover the pallets and then I laid Billy on it. He looked comfortable as I posed him with his hands on his chest. I washed his face and combed his hair and beard. But something was missing. While I looked for gasoline in the garage I found an old plastic sword I had as a kid. I set it on Billy’s chest. Looking at him this way made me cry again. Here was another hole in my soul, another loss. As the sun began to set I doused everything with gas and set it on fire. I raised the bottle and toasted Billy the Viking.
I went inside and crashed around the dark living room until I managed to turn a light on. I was amazed that there was electricity. And the TV worked as well. Everyone dying reminded me of being abandoned. It was all very sobering so I smoked the last joint in Billy’s memory and ate some ice cream. My last thought that night was of Karen.
I woke to the smell of smoke. I was on the living room floor. The back door was open and I could see the garage burned to the ground, still smoking. I rolled over on the keys in my pocket and they dug into my leg. I pulled them out and tossed them across the room. I got up and sat on the couch. I tried the lights and TV. Nothing. Everything dead.
I checked my sugar and it was way low. I needed to eat so I walked to the kitchen holding my pounding head. On the way I kicked my keys into a corner. As I was eating some cookies, I had a sudden thought about keys, or the key.
I needed to get to Karen. I rushed around and found my camera and tripod. I stuck my insulin kit in my pocket along with some cookies. Then I grabbed my keys and left.
The town was empty as I sped through it. Would Karen still be alive?
I pounded on her door. She answered it, shielding her eyes from the light. She smoked a cigarette. I stared at it.
She stared right back. “We all have our vices, Frank,” she said as she let me in.
“I think I know how to stop this,” I said, sounding crazy even to me.
She squeezed the bridge of her nose. “My aunt is dead.”
“Sorry, but we can stop this!”
I told her the story of my last visit to see my uncle.
“He told me how to stop this but I didn’t listen,” I said. “I need you to hypnotize me so I can recall what he said!”
She was very alive but fading. I guessed she had taken a lot of pain medication to deal with the headache.
I shook her arms. “Karen, please!”
She lifted her hands in surrender. “Okay, okay, what harm can it do?”
I put a loaded syringe on the end table thinking that I would need insulin after she woke me up. I set up and started the camera thinking that it would record anything I said or did that I couldn’t remember. I took off my watch and set it on the table as well. Then I was ready.
“Okay,” she said. “Sit down in front of the camera. I’ll wake you in an hour and a half.”
She sat on the coffee table directly in front of me. She started asking me questions.
“You want to be hypnotized, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What do you want?”
“I want to recall what my uncle said to me at our last meeting.”
“Focus on my forehead Frank. Your eyes are feeling heavy and they want to close.”
“You have to relax,” she said. “It will happen if you relax.”
I took a deep breath and relaxed.
“Your eyes are growing heavy,” she said in a measured voice. “Each of your body parts are relaxing one by one. You’re sinking down into the couch. Your eyes are heavy and you close them. You’re taking deep, slow breaths. You’re totally relaxed. The deeper you go the deeper you want to go.”
I sat in a dark place on a hard bench. I recognized it. It was the bench my father kept his shoe polishing stuff in. It was in his closet. It was dark but I felt fine. I remembered making my bed before I crept in here. Then there was a noise, then yelling and screaming. There was a metallic tang in the air. I covered my ears and tried not to scream.
It got quiet. There was a bright light though the louvers. The door in front of me opened. I was terrified, but it was only my mom smiling at me.
She had tears in her eyes. “It’s not your fault. People don’t die because you love them, Frankie. They just die. It isn’t because you love someone that they die, they just die, not everyone you love dies.”
My father’s face intruded over her shoulder. He looked serious. “Frank,” he said, “listen to your Uncle Carl.”
Then I was at the bedside of my uncle. I was looking at myself at our final meeting. Stoned Frank was laughing. My uncle was trying to tell him something. Then I looked through the eyes of stoned Frank, it took some concentration to ignore him. What a fuckup!
My uncle spoke and I listened. “Everyone will die unless you do the following, this is the KEY!”
It was a simple series of eye blinks that made me laugh so hard when I was stoned. I heard stoned Frank laugh but I paid attention to what my uncle was doing. I did it along with him.
“You’ll feel a kind of click, a snap in your head,” my uncle said as he faded away.
I went through the blinking motions again. Jesus, I felt the snap in my head just like he said. My eyes filled with tears.
Then I was back at Karen’s house but on the floor beside the couch. Where was she? Did she wake me? It was still light out. Where should the shadows be? I felt confused, hungry and sleepy. My sugar must be high.
I raised myself up and grabbed the syringe and injected myself. I knocked over the table trying to get up. My watch fell in front of me. I looked at it, not believing what it was telling me. What, it’s four o’clock? I couldn’t believe that eight hours had passed. My sugar must have been low. Why didn’t she wake me? Now I desperately needed sugar. Got to get some juice. . . the kitchen.
“Dr. Cummings. . . Karen,” I bellowed breathlessly. “Help me! I know how to stop this!”
There was no answer. I couldn’t get up. I was too dizzy. I crawled toward the kitchen. There she was on the floor. I fell flat next to her, face to face, and looked at her. She looked beautiful.
I struggled to lift my arm and drape it over her. She was still warm. As I drifted away I remembered what she’d said at our first meeting.
“You know if you lost weight that diabetes would probably disappear.”
“I know,” I whispered.
The Soul Factory
By Janie Brunson
Somewhere not on the physical plane, there was a long room filled with machines, raw materials, and assembly lines: a factory. Its small, gray workers were stirring random mixtures of the black oil of various sins and the warm, sweet syrup of myriad virtues into a thick clay which could be molded by the machine at one end of each assembly line into the correct shape. Soulmaking: A tedious and exhausting job.
The soulmakers existed only for this job, though, and there were hardly ever complaints or transfer requests filed. The last worker to transfer out was one by the name of Chip, and the soulmakers idly discussed him as they worked.
“He said,” recalled the storyteller, a female soulmixer named Gold, “that this job had no meaning. What do you think of that?”
She got a round of shrugs in reply. It wasn’t that any of them were unhappy with the job. It was that none of them could imagine feeling strongly enough about anything at all to file a transfer.
“Got to be done,” grunted a worker called Smoke as he and his partner, Brick, lifted a huge vat of viscous black sludge between them and dumped nearly half of it into Gold’s mixing bowl. Brick and Smoke portioned out the more unpleasant qualities of the souls of men.
The Soulmakers were equipped with sharp minds in order to make decisions about how much of each material to pour into any given mixture. Their only task was to make sure that it all came out even at the end of the day, not for the individual souls, but for the net amount of each material used. In this way, the Soulmakers kept the balance of good and evil as new souls came into the world. What happened to the balance after they got there was the affair of the human race.
Smoke’s laconic answer reflected the group’s general sentiment. It had to be done, and who else was going to do it? They were the Soulmakers. There was no point, they thought, in not doing what they were supposed to, what they had been expressly designed to do.
This was why Chip’s story had reached the status of a legend among the workers. His choice to change careers would forever be a mystery to them.
Gold stirred a few more times and then pushed the mixing bowl toward Flint along the conveyor belt. Flint had the job of allotting talents and abilities, and had a brightly-colored selection of vials on his worktable.
The mixture before him was thick, dark and ugly. He looked up to glare down the line at Smoke and Brick, through the tinted lenses of his protective goggles. They just gave him twin shrugs of unconcern.
“Had to use it all somewhere,” Smoke said.
Brick just nodded. For some reason that no one cared enough to figure out, Brick never spoke.
Flint turned back to the task at hand and frowned briefly in thought. There were few substances that would be compatible with such an unpleasant mixture. He carefully poured in a large portion of a clear liquid from a bottle labeled Intelligence. It was absorbed quickly into the black mass and the conveyor belt whisked the bowl away.
Records indicated this particular concoction would be shaped into the soul of one whose heartlessness and hunger for power would drive him to rule over and crush a small nation. But Flint and the others did not imagine this future as the Soul Clay was molded by the machine and then deposited into the chute.
It never occurred to the Soulmakers to wonder about the fate of the souls they concocted. Destiny wasn’t their job, after all. Their attention was always focused on the next task.
Another bowl came whirring toward Flint and he could see from a distance that this one would be much easier to work with. The solution in this bowl was translucent and tinted with a pleasant purple color. He poured in some sweet-scented magenta Music and some gently bubbling Resilience. He was pleased with the new, smooth texture, though his face, like every Soulmaker’s, was all but unreadable behind the wraparound goggles and the pall of factory pollution and chemical residue. He sent the bowl along for its final mixing before it went through the molding machine.
The records showed that this soul would belong to a girl born in the poorest part of a city. Her unfailing positive attitude, sincere kindness, and remarkable musical ability would help her get out of the city, though, and she would make a brighter life for herself. But she would get sick before she was middle-aged, and her soul would leave the world too soon.
“Looks like you’re almost out of Intelligence,” Gold remarked, squinting over at Flint’s work station between mixing bowls.
“I can see that,” he replied shortly.
Gold had an irritating habit of commenting on things which were not only obvious, but also frankly none of her business. They all knew the assembly line didn’t run efficiently if the workers were constantly looking at each other’s work or in any other way trying to keep the big picture in mind. It was death to everyone’s concentration.
“Messenger?” Flint said, without taking his eyes off the bowl of clay he was perusing, “Could you fill this bottle, please?”
Yet another small gray Soulmaker, in goggles and coveralls, took Flint’s Intelligence vial and disappeared into the maze of workers and machinery, heading for the mysterious filling station which existed somewhere in the cavernous room.
The Soulmakers who had the job of refilling everyone’s supplies knew all the secrets and shortcuts of the vast Soul Factory. The rest of the Soulmakers, however, knew almost nothing about what lay beyond their specific assembly line, beyond the one task to which they devoted all their concentration.
That messenger could have vanished in any direction at all and Flint would not have known the difference, even if he had bothered to watch him walk away. What difference did it make what the outer reaches of the factory looked like, anyway? He was sure it was all in perfect working order.
“Brick,” Smoke spoke sharply from the other end of the conveyor belt, “Carry that over here.”
There was a pause, then, “What’s the problem? It’s not that heavy, is it?”
Flint sent the bowl along and glanced over, despite himself, feeling as curious as he ever got.
Brick was standing next to a big tub of something brown and thick; it looked a lot like mud, and it certainly looked heavy. But Smoke had less compassion than most Soulmakers, which wasn’t much to begin with, and he just said impatiently, “Come on, Brick. I need that, and I can’t get up right now.”
He was looking down intently at his work as he put a scoop of gelatinous green Envy into a bowl and recorded a measurement.
Brick reluctantly gripped the edges of the tub with both hands, lifted it, and began to walk around the conveyor belt toward Smoke.
Flint returned his eyes to his work as another bowl was deposited in front of him. He studied the solution and reached for the vial he wanted without looking up. His hand found an empty space where it should have been.
“Where’s the Intelligence?” he asked aloud, speaking to no one in particular.
The great events of the universe have started out with the tiniest of triggers. Brick’s foot slipped. There was something on the floor.
He stumbled: a very small thing. He would have easily been able to regain his balance if not for the heavy tub he carried. He fell forward, crashing into the conveyor belt. The whole thing rocked. Bowls slid to the floor and shattered amid wordless cries which expressed a range of alien emotions, from outrage to disbelieving panic.
The contents of Brick’s tub oozed in a steady flow over the machine and, after a horrible grinding and jerking, it eventually stopped completely, its workings clogged with malevolent brown muck.
In a startling display of reflexes, Smoke leaped over the shuddering conveyor belt to lift the tub right side up again, and his arm swept across a table full of pots and jars of virtues.
The cry of the Soulmaker behind that table was by far the loudest and most horrified. His cry, unlike many of the others, contained words: “Those are flammable!”
His jars and pots fell to the floor. Several shattered, and several more bounced and then burst open. A dangerous mix of chemicals flowed over the factory floor.
The truth was that there was so much chemical pollution in the factory already that it was not at all surprising when several small fires immediately broke out.
No one moved. They didn’t have the first idea of what should be done. They all stared at the flames, which were, admittedly, a number of very interesting colors.
All work ceased, as every Soulmaker in the factory stared in horrified amazement at the chaos into which Flint’s assembly line had suddenly descended, unable to comprehend how such a thing could have been allowed to happen at all. The stares of the others did nothing for the nerves of the members of the assembly line in question.
Flint began trying to recall anything in his experience that might help him decide what kind of action should be taken, but before he could form any coherent chain of thought, the multicolored smoke reached the high ceiling and triggered a mechanism.
Water came gushing from above, extinguishing the fires immediately and soaking the Soulmakers to the skin. They all felt, unanimously, that all that water had not been necessary at all. Surely a slight sprinkle would have served the purpose. For the first time in his memory, Flint, and many of the others, experienced a desire to complain about something.
The downpour ceased gradually as some enormous reservoir somewhere was drained. Finally, it was done.
Uncomprehending shock was almost a tangible presence in the factory. Everyone started wiping the fog from their goggles. Several of the workers tried to use the sleeves of their coveralls to accomplish this task, but only succeeded in smearing more water over the lenses.
It occurred to Flint to remove the goggles altogether, and everyone followed him, eager to pretend that they had come up with the simple solution themselves. It was just that no one had ever had occasion to take off the protective goggles before.
With their vision properly restored, they all stared around at the devastation.
It was the water that had really done it. If not for the unexpected flood, the disaster would have been confined to one assembly line, but, as it was, conveyor belts and molding machines had short-circuited all over the factory, not to mention that frequent puddles speckled the floor and a lot of ingredients had been diluted. Several unstable chemicals were reacting to the water, bubbling in ways that caused anyone nearby to conclude that it might be a rather good idea to start backing away.
Silence reigned. No one wanted to be the first to speak, so it continued on. Finally, Flint cleared his throat. Someone had to say something, he thought determinedly.
When he opened his mouth, what came out was, “I didn’t know we had a sprinkler system.”
There were nods and murmurs of agreement. The messengers did not participate in this general admission of ignorance. They had known about the sprinkler system all along, and about many other things besides.
Released from their frozen spell by Flint’s voice, the crowd of Soulmakers began to get restless. They inspected broken machines and spilled ingredients, grumbling with displeasure and slogging through the puddles on the floor.
“How did this happen?” someone called out, and the question was immediately picked up and repeated.
“How did this happen?”
“How is this possible?”
“Who did this?”
“Who let this happen?”
And, all at once, Flint and his assembly line members found themselves the subject of attention once again, but now the stares were hard and demanding.
“Brick tripped,” Smoke informed everyone, shamelessly indicating his partner.
Every accusatory gaze in the factory turned to Brick, pinning him to the spot. He knelt to pick up something from the floor, then held it up for all to see.
It was a small, empty vial labeled Intelligence. The very small thing which had made him stumble.
“That’s mine!” Flint cried automatically, then regretted it as everyone turned their heads to look at him.
“I gave it to a messenger for a refill,” he explained.
They waited for him to continue. It seemed like there should be more to the story regarding the fate of the Intelligence vial, but Flint just shrugged helplessly and looked around for the messenger who had taken it.
He turned his head one way and then the other, trying to spot someone he recognized. Even before the thought was fully formed, an alarming realization hit him with a strange, icy jolt in the pit of his stomach.
He didn’t recognize anyone, not even the members of his own assembly line. He only knew who they were from the spots they were occupying along the now-broken conveyor belt.
Brick had to be the one standing over there next to the tub which had spilled, holding his Intelligence vial.
But he didn’t look like Brick. Another urgent thought interceded sharply: what did Brick look like?
Flint sank down onto the edge of the conveyor belt, feeling slightly dizzy from the shock and confusion which were rocking his view of the world. Finally, he admitted to the Soulmakers, all standing idle for the first time they could remember, “I can’t recognize anyone without their goggles.”
They all started to look around at each other, noting details they had never been able to see before, or, perhaps, never taken the time to notice.
It wasn’t only that the goggles were now gone; the water had washed much of the dirt and chemical residue from their hair and skin, and they no longer wore a uniform gray.
Smoke had piercing dark eyes and a scowl. Gold had long yellow hair, a fair complexion, and elegantly arched eyebrows. And Brick was broad-shouldered and dark-skinned, with wide green eyes that were regarding everything with a curious fascination.
“Everyone looks so different,” Gold said, after another moment of silence, which, unlike the previous silences, had been filled with wonder instead of shock and horror.
“What color are my eyes?” Flint asked suddenly. He felt slightly embarrassed for caring, but he was finding it fascinating to look into the eyes of the others and he desperately wanted to know what his own eyes looked like, and what they conveyed about him.
Gold leaned forward to see and they locked gazes. Flint found this experience slightly uncomfortable. None of them were used to direct eye contact.
“They’re blue,” she told him, “a dark blue. And you have lines around them. You must smile a lot. There, you’re smiling right now.”
Flint looked away.
“Since when do we care about our appearances?” Smoke spoke up, “We’re Soulmakers, not humans.”
The Soulmakers all had to agree that they had never thought about their appearances until a moment ago. Besides, they didn’t have time for vanity.
Flint once again took in the disaster that their factory had become, and he became aware of a nagging compulsion. He was a Soulmaker, and they all had a quota to fill and a deadline to meet. If they failed … well, he wasn’t certain of the details of what would happen then, but he was certain that it would be terrible for the entire human world. Unimaginably terrible.
“We need to clean this up and get back to work,” Flint stated.
They could all agree with that, but it didn’t get them very far. The mess looked simply overwhelming and they didn’t know where to start.
Someone in the crowd spoke up tentatively, “Would the Messengers have any idea of what to do?”
They all looked around. There was a confused moment. They all kept looking around. And then they finally accepted the fact that the Messengers were gone.
This was disturbing on several different levels. Firstly, it was shocking that a group of them could have disappeared without anyone noticing, and it was even more troubling to wonder why they were no longer present.
But their absence was also disturbing because the Messengers had been the keepers of the factory’s secrets. They knew their way around, they knew what to do when there was a problem, and they would certainly have known the protocol, if there was any, when it came to a crisis like this.
They all stood around staring at each other, with expressions of confusion, concern, and no small amount of outright fear. They all felt it: the pressing urgency of their job, and their factory was completely unable to function, and they didn’t know what to do, and the silent beginnings of panic were infusing the air with a creeping chill.
Once again, Flint felt the need to speak into the frozen quiet.
“Okay,” he said, trying to sound calm, although he was just as nervous as the others, “we need to contact someone.”
“But who do we call?”
The questions bubbled from the nervous crowd immediately. They were all looking at him, as though he would know, and Flint had no idea what to say next. His mouth went dry under the pressure of their expectant gazes.
Then he felt a light touch on his shoulder. Slightly startled, he looked over and followed Brick’s pointing finger with his eyes.
There was a blinking light on the wall. Flint moved toward it, and everyone else shuffled forward to see what he was looking at.
It was a small electrical box mounted on the wall, with buttons, a speaker, and a green light. An intercom! Had that been there all along? Flint wasn’t the only one to ask the question in the privacy of his mind. But, whether it had always existed or not, it was a welcome sight.
Hope hummed in the air.
“Go ahead, Flint,” Gold urged.
Flint looked back at everyone uncertainly, and they all gave him nods and gestures of encouragement.
He approached the blinking box and cleared his throat, then he pressed the TALK button and said, “Hello? We have an emergency.”
There was a buzz of static and then a brisk voice came through the speaker.
“Hello, Soulmakers. No new souls are coming through. What’s your situation?”
Flint took a breath and did his best to answer that question, stumbling over his words as he tried to describe exactly what had happened and what it meant.
“The messengers had to go on an errand,” the voice informed them, “They’ll be back in a short while.”
This was a small relief.
“We can afford a short delay,” the voice continued, “but not very long, so you all need to do damage control and start making souls again as soon as possible.”
This was not the response they had been expecting, not the reassurance they had been hoping for.
“We would like some help cleaning up,” Flint said into the speaker, after one look at the faces of his fellow workers, “we don’t know how to begin.”
The voice on the intercom replied, with a hint of laughter in the words, “Oh, you’re all perfectly capable of doing it yourselves. You have everything you need. Just go exploring and you’ll find it.”
The tone was not unfriendly, but nor was it understanding; it was light and teasing, and completely dismissive of the momentous event which had just shaken their lives and filled them with fear and uncertainty. It was irritating.
“May I ask who I’m speaking to?” Flint said, with a chilly edge to the question.
“This is Chip,” replied the intercom, “You remember me. I transferred to a management position. Now you have very little time. I’d start cleaning up if I were you.”
The intercom clicked, and they knew that Chip was no longer on the other end.
“Exploring?” Smoke made a valiant attempt to sound merely incredulous, but there was a distinct note of fear in his voice. “We can’t do that! We have no idea what’s out there! And what if we ruin something?”
There were uncomfortable murmurs from the crowd.
“It’s not really out there, is it?” Flint tried to reason away the uneasiness, “It’s just in here. It’s been here all along.”
“Flint’s right,” Gold supported him, “We should probably know what goes on in our own factory, anyway. Don’t you think? Especially if it’s the only way to get everything working again.”
Flint flashed her a grateful smile. Having an ally made him feel a dozen times more confident.
They ended up dividing into groups and wandering off in arbitrary directions, but, in time, the groups broke apart, as the Soulmakers became more comfortable with the idea of exploring and found fascinating things to examine.
Their factory held wonders. It held marvels and miracles. There were racks full of bottles of ingredients they had never heard of, and cupboards full of tools they had never used.
There were cabinets full of records, complicated charts and never-ending lists of the souls which were assembled each day in the factory, how much of each material went into them and what shape the molding machine had made them, but also who they were destined to be and the major choices which would face that soul as it went through its human life.
The Soulmakers were surprised at their ability to remember mixing many of the souls on record, and to find that they were endlessly interested to read about each soul’s fate.
“Look at this!” someone called out, voice echoing through the cavernous factory, “I think this is the filling station!”
Flint remembered thinking, just recently, that it didn’t matter in the least what the filling station looked like, but now he and many of the others rushed over to see it, unable to contain their curiosity.
It resembled a vending machine, except there was no slot for money. One only needed to punch in a code and hold a container under a spout, and the desired ingredient came streaming forth.
To the Soulmakers, it seemed magical. Although they had never really thought about it, they had expected the “filling station” to be a huge place with huge barrels of supplies in towering stacks.
They had fun discovering the stack of forms for filing transfers and complaints, and the machine which accepted them. They filed a few complaints, about the sprinkler system, the refusal of outside help, and the lack of a plan in case of emergencies.
“YOUR FORM HAS BEEN ACCEPTED,” the machine told them, each time they slid one into the slot.
The next thing that caught their collective attention was a cry of horror. They hurried to find its source.
A white-faced soulmaker was leaning against a door as if to hold it closed with his body.
“What is it?” they asked him, “What happened?”
But all he would say was, “Don’t look in there! Really, you don’t want to see it.”
Above the door was emblazoned SOULS IN NEED OF REPAIR.
As a general rule, the factory did not repair souls, only molded them and then sent them out into the world. There was no warranty policy. Flint was curious, but the face of the Soulmaker discouraged him from opening the door.
He was turning away when a shape seemed to fade into view next to him, and he looked over to meet Brick’s green eyes.
Brick gestured for Flint to follow him and led him to another door labeled WORLDVIEW. The room contained a large dark screen. Brick handed Flint a controller and showed him how to turn it on and manipulate the focus.
He could see everything that was happening on the human world, tune into whatever and whoever he wanted, watch it like a TV show. It was startling and slightly frightening and breathtakingly enchanting. It was, at times, positively beautiful, or profoundly disturbing.
Flint was sure that he could have sat there forever, watching the joys and sufferings of individuals the world over, but there was something tugging at his mind, derailing his concentration, fluttering urgently in his belly. If new souls were not made, this world, as it was now, would be turned upside-down. He absolutely had to do his job. It was more than a sense of responsibility; it was built into him, just like his ability to judge exactly how much of what chemical to add to a mixture at a glance.
It was his purpose for existing, and it was terribly time-sensitive. So he left the Worldview, wondering if he would ever get a chance to return.
While he had been thus absorbed, Smoke had found the cleaning supplies behind another door. Unlike the rest of them, Smoke had remained singlemindedly focused on the task at hand, and had not become distracted by the new discoveries being made around him.
Brooms, mops, buckets, receptacles for disposing of contaminated chemicals: there were even machine parts, although they all realized with consternation that none of them knew the first thing about fixing the machines.
“Let’s worry about the machines later,” Flint suggested, “we should do what we can first.”
This sentiment made them all feel better, at least for the time being, and they all fell to organizing themselves for the daunting task of remedying the disaster which had started all of this.
Flint moved through the crowd, making sure everyone had a task which suited them best and that they all understood what needed to be done.
“You’re a good leader,” Gold complimented him as she passed, carrying a bucket.
A leader. Flint, the Soulmaker whose existence had been measuring out talents from behind a table, was now a leader? Had he changed so much in so short a time? Or had he been like this all along and just not known?
Something beside him crackled, and Flint jumped. He was standing beside the intercom.
He pressed the TALK button.
“Hello. How’s the cleanup coming?”
“It’s progressing well. But we’re not sure how to fix the machines.”
Chip seemed to disregard this.
“We need a soul,” he announced firmly, “Right now.”
Flint checked on the situation; all the water was not even mopped up, and that was just a start. They were nowhere near ready to start soulmaking again.
“Right now?” he asked the intercom, “We can’t!”
“Seriously, it has to be now,” Chip said urgently and without any sympathy whatsoever, “Death waits for no man. And neither does birth.”
“But—“ Flint began a desperate protest.
“Figure something out,” Chip cut him off, and the intercom clicked, severing the connection.
As he looked around desperately for some kind of salvation, he realized that none of his fellow workers had really heard the conversation. They were talking and laughing as they worked, and some of them were even whistling, their voices mingling with the swish and clank of mopping and scooping.
They all looked so content. He could not bring himself to ruin it by telling them about the need for a soul that they simply couldn’t manufacture.
Whether they knew it or not, catastrophe would befall the human race. Everything, on this plane and the physical one, would be affected, all because the Soulmakers had failed.
He struggled to stave off the rising despair. No, he couldn’t let that happen. The factory had always been perfectly on time before and that could not change now.
A fierce pride surged through Flint along with a hard determination. This was the Soul Factory, and, come hell or high water, chemical spills or overly-powerful sprinkler systems, they would always deliver. All the necessary materials were right here, weren’t they? There had to be a way…
A strange idea began to take shape in his mind. It was so strange, so otherworldly, that he rejected it as completely impossible. He cast about for something else. But the more he thought, the more the idea kept coming up, growing stronger, insisting that it was the only option at the moment.
He tried to think of reasons why the idea would be obviously impossible, but nothing particularly convincing came to mind, except that it had never been done before, and that was no reason at all.
He was nervous. What if it went wrong? There was no other way, the idea insisted yet again, as if it was its own intelligent entity, with a powerful grip on his mind.
He quietly moved around the industrious Soulmakers to the place where the disaster had begun, at the beginning of his own assembly line. He took a clean mixing bowl from a neat stack, and a glass stirring rod from the cup and started to measure out ingredients.
He stared at Smoke’s tubs of thick, dark chemicals and struggled with how much of which ones to add to the bowl. His heart was pounding with urgency and the unsteady nerves of trying something completely and utterly unheard of. His mind was going blank, and it frightened him.
Then he looked over at the table of virtues, and he saw, in his head, which sins should go with which virtues for this particular soul, and it began to make some semblance of sense.
With his right hand, he scooped from Smoke’s tubs, and, with his left hand, he poured from the colored pots of virtues. They entered the bowl together, at the exact same time, and the necessary chemical composition started to run through Flint’s mind.
He stirred feverishly, mingling sins and virtues until he could not tell one from the other, and then he picked up the bowl and moved down the line, adding, measuring, and mixing, always mixing.
He jogged over to his own table of Talents and Abilities, and he knew exactly which ones this soul needed, more clearly and surely than he ever had before. He poured the rest of the bottle of Imagination into the bowl, and then suddenly cursed in frustration.
He saw his Intelligence vial sitting on the conveyor belt where Brick had placed it, completely empty. The most important thing was getting just the right amount of Intelligence into that bowl, and he had to do it RIGHT NOW!
He grabbed the little clear bottle and ran. Others jumped out of his way, wide-eyed with surprise and confusion. They stopped what they were doing and stared after him, but he ignored them and kept sprinting, zigzagging around machines and leaping over piles of supplies.
The single thing in his mind was that soul. It wasn’t just his job, it wasn’t just his responsibility, and it wasn’t just about the factory’s good reputation. It was all-encompassing. It was calling to him, hovering in his mind, almost formed, but, painfully, not quite there yet. He could not rest until it was exactly the way it had to be.
It took him precious seconds to remember where the filling station was, and even more time to use it and get what he needed.
He tore back through the maze of the factory until he finally reached the bowl, panting. He was vaguely aware, in some corner of his mind, that people had called out to him as he ran, asking him questions, sounding concerned, but that didn’t matter.
Only this soul mattered. This Soul was beautiful and special and important, and he was making it, every part of it, by himself, and it felt so incredibly right.
He actually laughed with relief when the Intelligence shimmered into the Soul Clay, and he stirred until he achieved the exact color and texture he knew was necessary.
He didn’t even glance at the molding machine. Even if it hadn’t been malfunctioning, he would never have let it touch his work. It seemed sacrilegious, a violation which he refused to even consider.
He scooped the clay into his hands and began rolling it between his fingers, flattening it under his palm, shaping the clay into curves and corners, swirls and smooth edges.
It seemed to hum between his hands, warm against his skin, and, at times, he could swear that it moved of its own accord, guiding his hands to the shape, rather than the other way around. It was an impossibly intricate structure which was utterly unique, which could never be replicated at any other place or time in the universe. Right here and right now, everything was exactly right for this soul to come into being.
Flint’s heart sang with harmony and destiny and purpose. And then he put the last touch and he knew that it was done. It was fully formed.
Reverently, he held it up and gazed at its beauty, feeling more accomplished, more fulfilled, than he could ever remember feeling.
As he looked at the special, irreplaceable shape he had molded, he could see, in his mind’s eye, how she would look as a sleeping newborn, as a laughing little girl, as a blossoming young lady, and then as a mature woman. He got a sense of her joys and sorrows, and his heart simultaneously ached and soared.
He cared so deeply about her with everything inside of him, and it was painful to part with her. He loved the beautiful soul which he had measured and mixed and molded with his own hands, and that was why he had to let her go, to the life that awaited her, with all its beauty and suffering.
He whispered, “Good luck,” and gently sent her on her way.
He came back to reality slowly. There was a wide circle of empty space around him, and everyone was staring at him in frozen wonder. Flint was pleased to note that most of the facial expressions were positive.
No one seemed to know what to say or do. They could not believe what they had just seen. The assembly line had ruled their lives forever, and, somehow, Flint had made a soul all by himself.
Then one Soulmaker stepped forward and came to stand beside Flint. It was Brick.
Something else happened then which had never happened before. Brick spoke.
He said simply, “Good job, Flint.”
Flint actually jumped with surprise.
“You can talk?” he asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “I just don’t like to,” and he moved away.
In the manager’s office above the Soul Factory, Chip finally relaxed in his chair and wiped his forehead with a hand that trembled slightly with relief.
Arranging for the disaster to occur had been risky, but he had been sure that his fellow Soulmakers could come to certain realizations on their own, if given the right circumstances. In the end, they had.
There had been some terrifying moments of doubt along the way, Chip would be the first to admit, as he eased the nervous tension from his muscles.
They had very nearly run out of time. There had been plenty of surprises. Chip had assumed that a leader would rise among the workers, but Flint would have been his last guess.
He glanced at the growing pile of forms on his desk. They were asking questions now, filing complaints, demanding that changes be made. They had discovered that there was a better way, and he was so proud of them.
He knew they could do it, even when he had been afraid for them. And, of course, he would have intervened if it had gotten completely out of control. The Soulmakers were never as alone as they had feared. No one ever is.
Lord Ruthgar’s Legacy
By Jamie Lackey
I was plucking mint leaves from the herb garden, hoping tea would soothe my head, when a slim, well-dressed young man strolled up our lane. “Are you the alchemist’s daughter?”
“She’s an herbalist,” I snapped. The scent of crushed mint leaves filled my nose. I took a deep breath and loosened my grip. My head throbbed.
“Yes. Well. Are you the daughter?”
“I am here to inform you that your father has bequeathed unto you his entire estate.”
My mother had always refused to tell me my father’s identity. “My father’s dead?”
“Yes. And all that was his is now yours.”
“Is that a lot?”
The stranger scanned our modest cottage, with its herb garden and climbing roses. “Yes.”
“May I come inside?”
I scanned him up and down. Thin and pale, with short blond hair and dark green eyes. He didn’t look particularly dangerous. “I suppose.”
Inside, I poured hot water over crushed mint leaves. “Would you like some tea?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We should go. The moat will keep out any unwanted visitors, but I dislike leaving the estate empty.”
“Yes. Do you have many possessions to pack?”
I sat down and sipped my tea. Thoughts spun through my aching head. Curiosity and exhaustion warred. “May I ask you something?”
“Who was my father?”
Lord Ruthgar had never made my list of possible fathers. Rich and insane didn’t seem like my mother’s type. “Really?”
“Yes. And you are Lady Ruthgar, now.”
I blinked at him. “My name is June.”
He shrugged. “You are the Lady of Ruthgar.”
I thought of the castle, huge and dark and isolated, and shuddered. I’d been wanting to move out on my own, but that wasn’t the destination I’d had in mind.
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked.
“I am Angus. Your manservant.”
My mother opened the door and came inside, stomping mud off of her boots. “I do wish that these herbs grew somewhere other than the swamp.” She stopped and stared at me and Angus, sitting at the table. “We weren’t expecting company,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“Hello, ma’am. I am Angus–”
“I know who you are,” my mother said.
“He says that Lord Ruthgar has bequeathed me his estate.” I took a deep breath. “And that he’s my father.”
My mother sighed. “I didn’t expect that.” She moved to the sink and rinsed dirt from the herbs she’d collected. “I thought the castle would go to some cousin or something.”
“The estate was his lordship’s to do with as he pleased. And he wanted it to go to his daughter.”
“Well, she’s not taking it.”
“What?” I stood up, and pain spiked through my head. “What do you mean, I’m not taking it?”
“You don’t really want to move to that castle, do you?”
I glared at her. “Well, I can’t decide about that till I see it, can I?”
“Very good,” Angus said. “Let’s go.”
“I’ve seen it,” my mother said. “It’s rubbish.”
I downed the last bit of my tea and followed Angus out the door.
“Promise me you’ll be back for dinner!” my mother called.
The drawbridge was up, and slimy green water surged in the moat below. Angus pressed a tiny box into my hand. The wood was warm, and the box gave off a low hum. “Just press that button,” he said. “That will lower the drawbridge.”
I pressed it, and the box vibrated. A moment later, the drawbridge lowered. “Did it send some sort of signal to someone inside?” I asked. “Why not just wave at them?”
“There is no one inside,” Angus said.
“Then how did the door open?”
“The remote sends a signal to a machine. It then raises or lowers the drawbridge.”
We reached the other side, and I pushed the button again. The drawbridge obediently rattled up behind us. “How does it work?”
Angus shrugged. “I can show you the master’s notes.”
I followed him to my dead father’s study. His handwriting was jagged and slanted, but legible. As I read, my headache eased. “It says here that my father tried to use this technology to control people’s minds?”
Angus frowned. “I believe that he did try that, yes.”
He’d scrawled something about inconclusive results, and I shuddered. I didn’t like the thought of invisible waves getting inside my head.
“Do you–do you understand all that?” Angus asked.
The concepts felt natural–even the most difficult theorems made an elegant sense. “Well, it’s not that complicated.”
“If you say so, milady.”
I tore myself away from the notes. “I suppose I should see the rest of the place. Give me the full tour.”
“As you wish.”
The castle was a maze of narrow corridors, musty rooms, and dank dungeons. “Why are there so many dungeons?” I asked. “Were they ever necessary? Really?”
Angus didn’t answer.
Then, I found the girl. She stood under a heavy velvet curtain in the dining room, her beautiful, heart-shaped face blank and empty.
My heart stuttered. I imagined her face animating, her eyes meeting mine, her slow smile. The brush of soft lips against mine. “Who is this?” I asked.
“That is just one of the master’s projects.”
I touched her cheek. It was smooth and flesh-soft and room-temperature. “He made her?”
“Yes. Just like he made me.”
“He made you?”
“The notes should be in his study.”
His notes were not well organized, and my headache crept back as I searched. Angus appeared in the doorway. “Your mother is outside. She seems to have brought you dinner.”
“Oh. Well, let her in.”
“You have the remote.”
“Right.” I pulled it out of my pocket, pushed the button, and got back to my search.
My mother came in and gave me a disapproving look. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for notes.”
She began unpacking the basket she’d brought. The scent of roasted chicken filled the room. “I shouldn’t have taught you to read.”
“Why did you hate him so much?” I asked, still rifling through papers.
“I didn’t hate him. I just–I didn’t think he’d be a good influence. He was a bit mad.”
“Angus says that he created him.”
I dropped the notebook I was holding and rushed to her side. “Do you know how?”
My mother sighed. “Of course I do. I helped him.”
“Then you can tell me how to finish the girl!” I grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the dining room.
“Sweetie, helping your father was the biggest mistake I ever made. The only good thing to come of my time with him was you.”
But she let me pull her along, and looked at the girl, standing like a statue in the dark. She sighed. “She’s very pretty.”
I touched the girl’s cheek and nodded.
“Oh, sweetie,” my mother pulled my hand away. “Don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?”
“She won’t–she can’t–even if you do give her life, she wouldn’t be what you want. I know that it’s been hard, and that it was difficult when Rebecca left, but you can’t build someone to love you.”
“That’s why your father made Angus. He wanted a son.”
A horrifying thought occurred to me. “You didn’t–didn’t build me, did you?”
My mother laughed. “No, you came about in the natural way.”
“If he made Angus to be a son, why is he–”
“Angus is smart and loyal and kind, but we could never teach him to feel–there was always something missing, and he just couldn’t be the son your father wanted. And he didn’t like failing. He blamed me, blamed Angus, blamed the world. He demoted Angus to servant and tossed me aside. He tried to win me back after I realized I was pregnant, but left when I told him you were a girl.”
“But then, why make her?”
“I don’t know. But it might be best to just let it be.”
“She wasn’t meant to be an empty statue.”
“I want you to help me give her life.”
“And I want you to come home with me and forget about this wretched place.”
“Neither of us are going to get what we want, are we?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
I rubbed my temples. “Angus, did he have any sort of organization to all of this?”
He shook his head. “None that I could observe.”
“Could you help me sort through it?”
He hesitated. “I was not allowed to touch his papers.”
“Well, he’s dead,” I said. “And I’m getting nowhere by myself. I’d welcome some help.”
After three solid days of searching, Angus found a yellowed scrap of paper folded under a table leg.
I found a layer of clay in the west corner of the dungeon that, when treated with the correct chemical wash, bears an eerie resemblance to human flesh. I have contacted a local woman, an alchemist, to help me stabilize the compound.
“It seems that he may have torn the book we’re looking for up.”
“Why would he have done that?”
Angus shrugged. “He wasn’t always–rational.”
“Did he tell you why he made her?”
“He didn’t really talk to me, milady.”
“Call me June. Please. Do you remember when he and my mother–gave you life?”
“I remember a few things from the early days. Your mother–she was very kind, and always smelled nice. Like green, growing things. I remember the day she left. And I remember the day he stopped calling me ‘son.'”
“Do you age? Or have you always been the way you are now?”
“I age. I started out much… shorter.”
Sharp pain spiked through my head, so sudden that I cried out.
“Read,” he said. “I’ll get you some of your mother’s tea.”
“In a way, she’s your mother, too.”
That was the first time I saw him smile.
My headaches only abated when I was reading or when I was with the girl. I’d taken to eating in the dining room, just because spending time with her helped.
I named her Penelope, because I liked the name.
My mother came for dinner three nights a week. “Did you feel guilty for abandoning Angus?” I asked her over dessert.
“I told myself I didn’t need to. That he wouldn’t miss me.”
“Did you anyway?”
On the other nights, I invited Angus to eat with me. “What did my father do to me?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“The headaches. They started right before he died. And reading his words or spending time with his unfinished creation are the only things that help. That’s not normal.”
He sighed. “I agree that it seems like a reasonable conclusion, but I don’t have any insight into his motives or methods.”
“Did he know he was dying?”
“Yes, I think he knew.”
“Can I ask you something?” I asked.
He laughed. “You’ve been asking me questions since you got here, June.”
“This one is personal.”
“And you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“How long did it take for you to start feeling?”
He blinked at me. “I don’t understand.”
“I think you do. You hide it well, and I doubt he ever suspected.”
“He wouldn’t have cared anyway.”
“You don’t know that. He might have–”
“Might have what? Accepted me as his son?”
“And why the hell would I want that?”
“I suppose that’s a good question.”
The headache kept sleep away, so I crept to the dining room and examined Penelope’s face in the moonlight.
“I’ve read every single note he wrote–at least the ones he didn’t destroy, and I’m not closer to knowing how to wake you up than I was when I started.”
I played with a lock of her dark hair. “What the hell.” I pressed my lips to hers.
I set a cot up in the dining room, but the effect of staying near Penelope was fading. My head ached constantly. Angus brought me tea and carted my father’s equipment in. “You don’t have to stay here,” I told him.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“Then I’ll stay.”
I stretched out on the cot. “I’m pretty sure that whatever he did to me, it was with radio waves.”
“A reasonable hypothesis,” Angus said.
“He was dying, and he wanted me to finish her. So, he decided to motivate me with pain.”
“That sounds like him.”
“Angus, it’s getting worse.”
“Have you told your mother?”
I sighed. “No.”
“I think it might be time.”
So, I told her.
“How bad are they, exactly?” she asked.
“It’s become difficult to function. I–I’m afraid that they’ll just keep getting worse till I finish her or they kill me.”
“If he wasn’t already dead, I’d murder him,” she hissed. “How dare he?”
“Will you help?” I asked.
She nodded. “I’ll go get my things. We’ll need a copper tub big enough to lie her down in–your father should have one in his workshop.”
My headache faded momentarily as I wrestled Penelope into her tub. It was strange to see her in another position. I wondered what it would be like to see her move on her own. My mother came in, laden with her tools and ingredients. She looked down at Penelope, stretched in her copper tub. “When we made Angus, we used clay from the dungeon as his flesh, a liquor distilled from a rare berry as his blood, and an alloy that your father created for his bones and joints.”
“What is my brain made out of?” Angus asked.
My mother jumped. “Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were there.”
“It’s okay. I’m–I’m just curious.”
“And he wouldn’t tell you?”
“I never asked him.”
“Your brain is an electrically charged super-dense fluid. Your father travelled all around the world, to every mineral spring he could find, and spent months getting the electrolyte balance perfect.”
“He’s not my father,” Angus said.
He shook his head. “You don’t need to be.”
I looked back and forth between them. They both looked a little lost. “He feels, now,” I said. “And she always regretted leaving you behind. You two have a lot to talk about, and I’d love to see you hug it out, but can we focus on the task at hand? My head hurts.”
My mother and Angus shared a smile, then she got to work. She pulled bundles of herbs out of her bag, and their sharp scent filled the air.
“You can help with this.” She handed me a pestle and a mortar filled with tiny black seeds. “Grind that as fine as you can. Angus, could you hold this over the fire until it just starts to bubble?”
After hours of mixing and heating and grinding, we finally had a green, bubbling liquid. “Pour this over her,” my mother said. “Make sure that she’s completely soaked.”
I poured carefully. Her hair was even darker wet, and the thin dress that she wore clung to the flesh beneath.
“Now, all that’s left is to pass a spark.”
“How do I do that?”
“There is a lightning rod balcony outside your father’s bedroom. There should be a pair of bronze spheres attached. Hold one in each hand, and be careful not to touch anything metallic.”
I hurried up the stairs, found the spheres, and hurried back. “Now what?”
“Touch her. But be careful not to make any contact with the tub.”
I looked down at her. After this, there would be no going back–she’d be a person with her own life. She’d be able to leave, if she wanted.
I bent down and pressed my lips to hers. A spark jumped between us, and she gasped. She stared up at me, her face still a blank slate. Her eyes were the color of cornflowers.
My headache vanished. “Hello, Penelope,” I said.
“Hello,” she replied. “Who are you?”
“I’m June,” I said. I remembered my mother’s warning–I knew not to expect her to be the perfect companion that I’d dreamed of.
But I also knew that I wanted to help her learn how to feel.
A Ravenous Beast
By Timothy Mudie
The ramp lifted and rolled into the ship behind him as Ellsworth surveyed the planet. Unspoiled natural beauty spread across the endless horizon. The ship had let him off at a river, a few days from his intended destination, but he didn’t want anyone to know exactly where he was headed anyway. He had specifically chartered Hartwell’s ship for its lack of crew—just the captain and some AI, which wouldn’t be telling any tales out of school.
“Six weeks,” Captain Hartwell called just before the doors shunked closed. Ellsworth didn’t bother to turn around or wave. Kept his eyes on the horizon, but really he was seeing his future.
Like all prospectors—the first to discover deposits of gold, reservoirs of oil, rich veins of iridium hidden within asteroids—he came alone. For three days, he carried his heavy pack, following the river until he came to a small feeder stream. All his research on alchemium pointed to just this sort of feeder stream as a source for the substance. And when he reached the head of the stream—a small natural spring that sluiced out from under a rocky outcropping—he had only to take a plastic vial from his pack and fill it with spring water. When he poured it into the alchemium detector, the bulb on the front of the machine lit up green. He’d found it.
Any prospector worth his salt knew that intuition and ambition were nothing if not accompanied by the right set of tools, whether they be pick or shovel or microscopic robots that dwelled in your bloodstream. The nanotech residing in Ellsworth would both help him to survive in the planet’s ultra-oxygenated atmosphere and protect him from any effects of alchemium exposure. Just a few drops of the stuff in a tilapia farm and suddenly the fish were too big to fit inside the pools. A sprinkling atop overfarmed and barren soil and the land was as fertile as the Nile floodplains. Whoever was the first to exploit the substance and extract it from the planet would be a rich man indeed.
In his heart and mind, he could not wait to begin his search in earnest, could not wait to start drawing the gelatinous alchemium from the soil like blood from a vein. The rest of his body, however, wanted sleep after the three day trek from the landing site. And so Ellsworth unstrapped various equipment from his pack—shovel, rifle, hatchet—pitched his tent, spread out his bedroll, ate a small meal from his dehydrated vacuum-packed rations, washed it down with water fresh from the spring, and fell into a deep sleep.
The natural spring was in a densely wooded area, the leaves of the trees reminding Ellsworth of palm trees back on Earth, thick and frilly. They provided plenty of shade, but their loose configuration let sunlight stream through, dappling the forest floor. It was entirely probable, he thought, that no human being had ever stepped here before. The mat of dead leaves was thick, disturbed only by small scurrying creatures. When he woke that morning, shooting awake, his brain already buzzing with excitement, he could hear them chittering in the underbrush and canopy, wondering what this intruder was doing in their domain, but he couldn’t see them.
He grabbed a meal indiscriminately, bolted it down without tasting it, swallowed some more water from the spring, and stood for a minute, looking languidly around him and taking in the tranquility of the morning. It would not, he knew, last much longer. He would stake his claim, be the first, but others would surely come, were probably on their way already.
But Ellsworth would be the first to break the tranquility. No one ever said progress was tidy.
Carefully, he removed the explosive gel and the rest of the blasting gear from his pack. Amazing how something so tiny could pack so much punch. Just a dab on the rock that the spring burbled from, then a thin filament stuck into it and unspooled from a ball until he was safely away from the blast zone. He inserted the filament into the little box that would ignite a spark, sending it down the wire to the gel. He pressed the button.
There was a small boom and a satisfying crack as the rock shattered. Ellsworth poked his head around the tree and surveyed his handiwork. The rocky outcropping that had sheltered the spring was demolished, nothing left but a depression in the dirt filled with a mix of water and pulverized stone. The water flowed sluggishly, but Ellsworth knew it would pick up once he cleared away the debris. After that, it was just a matter of expanding the hole in the dirt around the spring and then the alchemium below would be ready for extraction.
He retrieved the shovel from its place next to his tent, and set to work widening the hole. He had just settled into a rhythm when he heard a quiet but high-pitched whine, like a hurt dog under a porch. He looked around, but saw nothing, and finally realized it was coming from the hole. Could it be some sort of pressure buildup, the alchemium trying to burst to the surface? It was a new substance, hardly understood. He had assumed he would need to pump it out of its underground reservoirs, but maybe it would be simpler. Maybe he could just break open the top of the deposit and it would come spurting up like oil.
As quickly as he could Ellsworth flung soil from around the hole. It wasn’t long before he felt the spade push through the dirt and into empty space. He twisted the handle and pulled, leaving behind a circular opening. The sound grew louder then abruptly stopped. There was a tense moment where he stepped away, sure that a geyser of alchemium would blast forth like a rocket. But it wasn’t alchemium that emerged from the hole, it was an animal.
Tiny, no bigger than a kitten, the creature wiggled through the opening Ellsworth had created and lay sprawled on the dirt, its little body heaving deep squeaking breaths. It was furry and blue, a deep almost indigo hue. While it had a torso and legs—six to be precise—the thing seemed to be almost all mouth. Mouth wasn’t even the right word. This was a maw. As it breathed, the animal opened it so wide that Ellsworth couldn’t even see the body behind it. Just a gaping black hole ringed with tiny sharp teeth. A thick blue tongue flopped out and rolled along the ground like a dying worm.
Even though it was crying, he hesitated to approach it. The teeth certainly didn’t look very inviting, like it would gladly bite off his fingers then move on to his hand and down his whole arm. But the cries were so pitiful, so desperate. And prospecting could get lonely. He’d anticipated that, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t be glad to have a companion of some sort. Especially when it was a companion who wouldn’t try to horn in his claim.
Ellsworth crouched down and cautiously shuffled toward the mouthy little animal. It shrunk back, its tiny legs scrabbling in the dirt and stone beneath it. “Hey, buddy,” he cooed. “It’s okay. You’re okay. I’ve got you.” He stretched his hand toward it, fingers curled in, palm down. The creature eyed him a little too eagerly, hungrily, and he pulled his hand back. That was a mouth made for eating, for taking great chomps and swallowing things whole. Better to put something near it that was not attached to Ellsworth’s body.
He grabbed two meal pouches from the pack in his tent and ripped them open then returned to the little animal and dumped them on the ground in front of it. They made an unappetizing pile—crackers, peanut butter, dehydrated beef, some gloppy red sauce. Without so much as a sniff, the creature opened its mouth wide and engulfed the pile along with some of the surrounding dirt. Its giant mouth seemed to smile, the pointy rows of teeth fitting into each other as perfectly as the rows on a zipper. It sniffed the air and turned in the direction of Ellsworth’s tent.
Before he could restrain it, before he even really registered what was happening, the creature had bolted on its six stubby legs between the trees and into the open flap of the tent. Ellsworth rushed after it, bursting into the tent to see the animal’s rump sticking out of his pack, legs wiggling in the air and thin tail thrashing excitedly. Ellsworth gripped the creature around its truncated torso and lifted it from the bag. All his food was gone, not even the foil packaging remaining. He guessed he should consider himself lucky that the little monster hadn’t swallowed his whole backpack. Or hell, the whole tent.
He turned the animal in his hands so he could look it in the face. It didn’t struggle, satiated by its meal. It opened its mouth and yawned, a black hole in front of Ellsworth’s face. Then it snapped its mouth shut, closed its eyes, and fell asleep.
Its mouth really was a black hole, he thought. Big and capable of sucking in anything that got too close. Hadn’t Einstein had something to do with black holes? Studying them or theorizing they existed? Whatever, it was close enough. He would call the animal Albert.
“Stay here now. Right here,” Ellsworth told Albert sternly, his voice hard, looking directly in Albert’s eyes, pointing emphatically at the ground. He’d barely moved into the trees surrounding the campsite when he heard Albert rustling through the undergrowth behind him.
With Albert having eaten all his food supplies, Ellsworth had no choice but to hunt, and hope that whatever he caught would be both digestible and palatable. His hunger would soon override any questions of either, however. Before he set out hunting, the pumping operation needed to be set up, but after a day’s grueling work, he had managed to fill a gallon jug with the substance. That alone would bring in more than he would have made in a year at his old construction job back on Earth. By the time Hartwell returned to pick him up, Ellsworth hoped to pump enough that he wouldn’t need to return, though he did plan to. The money was too good and he had put in too much work to just give it up so soon. What in his mind had been a get rich quick scheme was turning into a get unconscionably rich slightly slower scheme. He slept that night and woke the next morning ready to hunt.
Rifle in hand, he hiked to the river, finally staking out a copse of trees near a clearing alongside it. For a good hour, he crouched there—Albert calmly sitting beside him—until a creature about the size and color of a deer but that looked more like a svelte six-legged elephant approached for a drink. Ellsworth aimed for where the heart would be in an Earth animal and pulled the trigger of his rifle. The animal shrieked and fell on its side, but it wasn’t dead. It staggered back to its feet, fell again, and lay moaning. Ellsworth stood and approached the creature, intending to shoot it in its head this time. As he stepped toward it, Albert burst from the trees and ran at the creature, legs pumping wildly. He opened his mouth wider than before, wider than Ellsworth thought possible. It was bigger than his whole body now, the extra diameter seemingly coming from nowhere. He skittered to a stop in front of the fallen elephant thing’s head. The injured creature shrieked louder, but its cries were cut off when Albert thrust forward and engulfed the front quarter of the animal. In seconds, Ellsworth watching in shock, Albert swallowed the entire animal, only its tufted tail sticking from his lips for a moment before he slurped it in.
How? Ellsworth couldn’t corral the thoughts rushing around his head. Albert should have been puffed up like a balloon about to pop, a snake that has swallowed a horse, but he looked the same. Where did it go? How hungry could one tiny monster be? And what would Ellsworth eat now?
He returned to the copse of trees, where Albert again joined him, promptly falling asleep. Until dark, he waited, rifle at the ready, willing another animal to come to the river to drink, but none did. Finally, he returned to his camp and curled up in his bedroll in the tent, Albert next to him.
Rustling from outside the tent woke him several hours later. He wasn’t sure how long he had slept, but it was pitch dark. A tap on the base of the solar-powered lamp next to him revealed that he was alone, Albert having somehow worked up the zipper enough that he could wriggle through the opening and out of the tent. The flap waved in a light breeze and at first Ellsworth thought it was the sound of one side of the nylon doorway brushing against the other that had woken him. Then there was another sound, a friendly squeak like from a rubber toy. And something else too, a smell, rich, minerally, a tang of iron in the air.
Outside the tent, Albert sat on his haunches proudly. Arrayed before him was a ball of fur sitting in a puddle of blood. Ellsworth lifted the lantern and the undifferentiated fur ball took more concrete form. Spindly legs poking from the bottom—six, a common feature on this planet apparently—a squashed puggish snout with wide-set eyes. It was about the size of a basketball. Albert nudged it closer to him with his forehead.
“Thank you, Albert,” he said, reaching out a hand and stroking the animal on the head. He stopped, held the lantern closer. Was it his imagination or had his little monster gotten bigger?
Ellsworth measured his days in alchemium, and by the time he had ten gallons of it Albert had grown too big to sleep in the tent. Already he was shoulder-high and seemed to get bigger every time Ellsworth saw him. Each day, while the prospector worked on the pumps, bringing up the alchemium-rich water and straining the substance from it, Albert went off to eat, returning toward dusk with a satisfied look on his face and carrying some dead beast for Ellsworth’s dinner.
It was a good routine more like a partnership than pet and master. Though Albert couldn’t speak, Ellsworth would talk to him. There seemed to be a spark of recognition, intelligence in his eyes, a connection with the man, even if he didn’t understand the words. Ellsworth shared his plans with Albert, how he would take the alchemium and sell it to governments and corporations on Earth, the ones who had unsubtly mentioned in the press their willingness to purchase the valuable resource if only someone were to procure it. If only someone could figure out just how to predict where it would be found and could generate a steady supply of it. He told Albert how he would be a rich man, how he would only have to live the life of a prospector if he wanted to revisit its romantic allure. How one day, prospectors of some future resource would group the name Daniel Ellsworth with the likes of George Hearst and Edwin Drake. Just so long as he could hold onto his claim.
Any prospector knows that sooner or later someone will try to take what should rightfully belong to the man who discovers it. So he has to take measures to protect what is his. For a while, secrecy will do, but eventually security is necessary. Ellsworth’s secrecy collapsed five weeks into his time on the planet, just one week before his planned pick-up and eventual return to Earth.
The forest was rarely quiet, animals calling from the treetops, branches breaking and falling to the ground, but they were all organic sounds. And so Ellsworth knew his time was up when he heard the distant rumble and whine of a spacecraft’s thrusters.
His first thought was that Captain Hartwell, his hired ride, had come back for him early. His second thought was that the goddamn weasel had sold him out, given up his spot to another prospector. His third thought was that it was too late to do anything about it. This new prospector had landed. Maybe he wouldn’t find Ellsworth and his claim at all. And even if he did, Ellsworth had staked it. It was his. Let this new prospector find his own alchemium. Nothing for Ellsworth to do but keep on pumping and storing the substance, to get ready for his riches.
Still, he kept his rifle nearby while he worked. When he heard a motor approaching, he slung it across his back for easy access and waited. Albert was out hunting, which was good; Ellsworth didn’t know how the animal would react to the new unnatural sound or to the presence of another person. He wasn’t exactly sure how he would react himself for that matter.
The grumble of the motor grew louder and louder until it was right on him, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle emerging from between two thick-trunked trees. Atop it was a man wearing a jumpsuit and helmet with an ionized facemask that hid his features. He pulled to a stop, left the ATV idling and stepped down from it, removing his helmet.
Captain Hartwell. The man looked like a spacecraft captain, the way people imagined them in movies before there really were spacecraft, tall and muscular, with neatly parted blonde hair that reached just to the tops of his ears and a wide toothy smile. Chiseled jaw and blue eyes. Ellsworth, unshowered and unshaven, hair lank and greasy, his jeans covered in dirt and loose around his stick-thin frame, couldn’t help but feel inferior to the man.
“Mr. Ellsworth,” Hartwell said, tucking his helmet under his left arm and extending his right hand to shake, “glad to see everything seems to be going well.”
Skeptically, Ellsworth stepped forward and shook the captain’s hand. “Captain Hartwell. How did you find me?”
“Just followed your trail,” Hartwell said. “Easy enough to find the one human being on the whole planet. You sort of stand out.”
“I know,” he said, “but I was just so intrigued, I just had to do a little research once I got home. Looks like you’ve set up a nice little operation here. Alchemium, isn’t it?”
Ellsworth unconsciously shuffled to the side, as if he could block the view of his pumps and tubes. But, small as the set-up was, it was still big enough that it was going to be visible. He should have known that the captain would eventually figure out why he wanted to go to the planet. Why else would someone come here? And now this greedy captain would try to get in on the action. At the very least, he would want a higher payment for taking Ellsworth home than they’d agreed upon. Robbery, plain and simple.
“It’s a start,” Ellsworth mumbled. “Just staking a claim.”
“And not a bad one, I have to say,” Hartwell said, his tone jovial, forced Ellsworth thought. “You know, I didn’t think to ask before, didn’t want to pry, but I assume you have a permit?”
Ellsworth scoffed. “Permit? I don’t need a damn permit.”
“Are you kidding?” Hartwell laughed. “Of course you need a permit. You always need a permit.”
“No one even knows about this, no one else has ever tried this. There’s no one who’s even thought up a permit.” Ellsworth said this, but he could see where it was headed. Not yet, Hartwell would say, but soon enough, soon enough. But maybe I could look the other way…
It’s something every prospector throughout history has had to deal with, the greed of those who don’t want to put in the work themselves, who wait until all the effort has been expended, all the sweat and blood, and then descend like vultures to pick apart the prospectors, to rip flesh with their beaks and fly away with a prize they did nothing to earn. Ellsworth was the one who did all the work, figuring out that alchemium would be valuable, figuring out where on the planet it would be, pumping and straining and storing it.
“This is just between us, Ellsworth,” he said. “For now. If I don’t get back to my ship in twenty-four hours it’ll radio back home. I’m sure you don’t want half the system showing up here, do you now?”
That smug smile on Hartwell’s face. He had to know what was going through Ellsworth’s head—Ellsworth knew his eyes were smoldering, not trying to hold back his anger—and didn’t even care. Hartwell spread his hands, as if saying there was nothing he could do, this was just the way things worked.
And then something from behind him caught Ellsworth’s eye, a flash of blue passing behind the trees.
Silently, amazingly silently considering how large he had grown, Albert crept from the trees, his huge mouth hanging open behind Hartwell like the entrance to a cave. Yes, he thought, Albert knew what Hartwell was about, knew that a claim needed to be protected. He tried not to look at the beast, keeping his eyes on Hartwell, hoping the animal could read his mind, his posture, could tell that the captain was a threat that must be dealt with.
His eyes must have flickered off of Hartwell’s, because the captain raised an eyebrow and turned, his voice rising in a startled high-pitched wail as he came face to face with the ever-growing monster, whose open mouth was so vast that he could easily swallow a full grown man in one bite.
Hartwell’s cry was cut off as Albert jutted his mouth forward and slammed it shut around the captain’s falling body. For a moment, Ellsworth thought he could still hear Hartwell screaming, muffled almost to inaudibility by the thick jaws surrounding him. Probably just imagining it, he told himself. Albert swallowed, and then the ATV was the only sign the captain had ever been there.
Ellsworth and the creature stared at each other. To Ellsworth’s eyes, the corners of Albert’s mouth seemed to turn up slightly. Was the monster smiling? For the first time since he had found Albert, he wondered whether he had been right to save him. What had he been doing underground with the alchemium in the first place? He’d been so absorbed by the alchemium mining he hadn’t even considered these questions. And prospecting could get so lonely. Why wouldn’t he want a friend?
Not just a friend. Albert was a protector. If it wasn’t for him, who knew how much that damn captain would have bled him for. Slowly, his head telling him not to, but forcing himself to anyway, Ellsworth turned his back on the creature and went back to work, his heart pounding, every nerve telling him to run and never look back.
His plan had been to convert his tent and other equipment into a sledge, but with the ATV he wouldn’t have to do that. Which meant even more time to pump and store the substance. Which meant even more money. There was no need to worry about Albert, he thought, the animal had helped him. There was nothing to fear. They were partners.
All the rest of the day and through the night, Ellsworth worked, not even stopping to eat when Albert dropped a rabbit-sized creature at his feet. Twenty-four hours. He had twenty-four hours before Hartwell’s ship radioed his location and then the vultures would swarm.
The canisters of precious alchemium piled up, so many that he could barely lash them to the ATV, but he managed to make them fit. By the time the sun had fully risen, he had enough canisters on the machine to make him a rich man many times over. And this was just the first batch, he reminded himself. He would surely be back for more, and soon, before too many others descended.
He struck camp and packed his remaining supplies, leaving the mining equipment set up but dormant. It was still a staked claim, his staked claim, and it would wait for him.
Would Albert wait too? The creature had spent the night sleeping just far enough away from the mining operation to keep from disrupting Ellsworth’s work, and had sat on his haunches watching him pack that morning. He had grown more overnight, towering over Ellsworth by a good two feet. Once, he had been able to hold the animal in his hands, and now he couldn’t even pat his head without standing on his toes.
He looked up, past the massive jaws and into the creature’s eyes. “You’ve been a good friend, Albert,” he said. “A good partner, and I know I can trust you to watch over this.”
Albert looked at him for a long moment, then stood up and wandered into the trees. Ellsworth waited for several minutes, making sure the animal was really gone, and then he got on the ATV—he’d never driven one before and wished he had a helmet, but Albert had eaten that along with the captain—and rode off through the trees, following the stream back to the river. The forest thinned by the river’s banks, and he could make out the spacecraft in the distance, small though it was. He’d never flown one himself, but he’d heard they were easy enough to figure out, that they pretty much flew themselves. Worst case scenario, he could radio from the ship for help, say he went looking for it when Hartwell was late picking him up and the captain was nowhere to be found. No one would ever know what really happened or why he was really on the planet. Any evidence of the captain’s demise was in Albert’s stomach, and he didn’t think anyone would want to look there.
The ATV rumbled and jounced along the riverbanks, the ship growing larger as he approached until finally it loomed in front of him. A standard short-distance spacecraft, good for tooling around a solar system, moving cargo from a planet to a moon or orbital station, but incapable of handling interstellar space. Not that Ellsworth would be going very far. Once he was off-planet, he would have to decide whether to unload the alchemium to a middleman or bring it to Earth himself. Maybe set up a little import-export business. Any bank would be crazy not to give him a loan against his potential earnings from the substance.
The only problem he saw was getting into the ship. Once he figured out how to open it up and release the ramp, he could just drive the ATV on; he wouldn’t even have to unload it. If Hartwell were there, it probably would just open right up as he drove toward it, the bay doors dropping automatically when it read his biometric signature. Next to where the bay would open was a numbered keypad for if someone else needed access. Unfortunately, Ellsworth didn’t know the code and Captain Hartwell’s biometrics were currently inside Albert. There had to be a manual override, he thought, some way to force his way in.
For several minutes, he paced around the base of the ship, looking for a lever, a hatch, anything. He hadn’t considered this. After all his work, would the ship end up radioing his secrets to the entire universe?
He returned to the ATV and contemplated the canisters of alchemium. Maybe he should hide them. When whoever came looking for Hartwell arrived, they would surely try to steal some of it. Just one canister would bring a hefty price. If he absolutely had to, he supposed he could trade them one for passage off-planet, but that would be a last resort. How many could he spare? He began counting them, though he had already done so multiple times already. Any prospector knew that you could never count your earnings too frequently.
As he counted, he was startled by a mechanical whir and looked up at the ship. Miraculously, the bay doors were dropping. Like a ladder up to heaven. Ellsworth could drive up the ramp and into his new life as a wealthy respected man.
Another sound drew his attention from this reverie, a loud squeak from behind. Of course, he thought as he turned, why else would the doors open? The biometric reading from Captain Hartwell was there. Being digested, but still strong enough to trigger the doors from within Albert’s stomach.
The creature stood not ten yards away, looking at him with a mixture of curiosity and betrayal. Sadness, too, Ellsworth thought. He really would miss his partner and it looked like Albert would miss him too, had come to give his last goodbyes.
Ellsworth smiled and walked toward Albert, arms outstretched. If the animal wasn’t so big, he would give him a hug. “Come to see me off?” he said. As he stepped closer, he noticed that Albert’s eyes didn’t move. They weren’t looking at him at all, but at the ATV, the canisters of alchemium strapped to the back.
“It’s okay,” he said, his hands now in front of him in a placating gesture. “There’s plenty of it. Still plenty back at the source.” Slowly, he backed toward the vehicle. If he could just reach it and get it into the ship, he would be safe. He could get inside, shut the doors, barricade himself from the beast. Just a few more steps.
Albert sprang forward, and Ellsworth let out a yelp of surprise and terror as he saw the giant mouth spring open. He bumped into the ATV and attempted to scramble around the side and into the driver’s seat. He risked one glance behind him, and knew it was too late. The open jaws, the ring of sharp teeth, the lolling meaty tongue.
The tongue swung sideways like the pendulum on a grandfather clock, knocking him to the ground and out of the path of Albert’s rushing maw. In the next instant, Albert’s mouth expanded larger than ever before and before Ellsworth registered what was happening, it engulfed the ship. With a snap and a sound like a crushing aluminum can, his mouth closed and deflated back to normal size. Where the ship had stood was simply a circle of brown grass, crisped by its landing rockets.
Aghast, Ellsworth stared at the creature as it slowly turned around. It padded over to where he sat on the grass and nuzzled his foot with the side of his massive head. Like a large and sated cat.
He stood up, dusting off the knees of his pants. He and Albert would go back to the claim, he supposed. He would bottle up more alchemium in preparation for the day he would be able to turn it into profit. True, with the ship gone it meant no one would know where he was; who knew how long he’d be in the wilderness. But he was a prospector. He could stand to be alone for a long time. And eventually, someone would come. Someone always comes.
By Steve Rodgers
Sure, travelling three months to Endomis Station just to savor Mort’s pumperpretzels is a tiny bit of crazy, but it’s the kind of thing I’d do even if humanity didn’t have its upcoming arm-wrestle with God. Until recently, the only thing that marked this spinning kazoo on the planetary charts was Mort’s use of a unique bioengineered yeast strain, one that produces the best pumpernickel this side of the Venusian Ovens. Of course, there’s also the fact that it sits smack dab in no-man’s space, between the Terran Hegemony, the Martian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the controlled chaos that is the Asteroid Anarchy. I suspect it’s this, rather than Mort’s loafy lusciousness, that made it the ideal place to fool the Godstar.
“Better store up some hot air, Gordon,” Mati said, tapping her foot and pointing to Endomis’ rotating oblong tube on the big screen. Set against the starry black, the gently turning metal tube glinted sharply in the distant sun, its upper bioyeast labs fully lit. Media shuttles extended from Endomis’ airlocks like thorns, giving it the appearance of some bizarre space-succulent.
I shook my head. “Disagree. Compared to you, I bet I’ll get as much attention as broccoli in a cat kennel. It’s not every day that humanity’s most famous superstar mathematician flits out of her garden.”
“Yes, but you’re the first member of the Omnite clergy to arrive, and it’s your God they’re going to disprove.” Her left hand, which had been slapping her hip absently, suddenly froze. “Or prove.”
I scowled. Mati was as opinionated as you’d expect for a lady smart enough to decode gazilobytes of information from what everyone else thought was white light. She often reminded me of an intense gray-haired hummingbird, darting from idea to idea–a tiny slip of a woman whose brain-to-body mass must’ve exceeded anything in the known universe.
“God?” I said. “I’m just here for the dark loaf.”
She pursed her lips. “What kind of priest are you, anyway?”
“A hungry one.”
Mati’s been my friend for twenty-five years, ever since I first interviewed her over the differential equations that had spawned a religion. Which meant I could give her hell whenever I wanted.
“Can’t believe we’re here, Dr. Antoretti,” said Cullen O’Shaunessy, hobbling up to Mati on his walker. “Feels like it’s been a year.”
“It feels exactly like three months,” Mati said sharply. Her hand began smacking her hip again, like she was preparing for some African juba dance. “But I can certainly see how it could appear longer, as the brain tends to overcompensate for boredom and lack of activity. Yes, maybe it felt like a year.”
Cullen and I exchanged knowing looks. Mati was to idle chit-chat what quantum physics was to nematodes, but this habit of following up her acerbic observations with a minute of back-stepping was fairly new. Cullen had put up with it good naturedly the entire trip; he was a decent kid. Too bad his continued existence owed more to the vagaries of some grand physics experiment than normal human benevolence.
There was a slight jolt as the ship hit the docking tube, and the first circular airlock opened. Smells of WD-40 and bleach assaulted me, the latter ensuring no viruses wormed their way from ship to station.
I patted down my robe, suddenly forgetting about everything else. Omnos knows, I’m no specimen of abdominal flexing. I’m a foodie, and yes, it shows. I ran fingers through my thinning blond hair and plastered a beatific smile on my face.
A whoosh of equalizing air pressure as the second airlock opened, and I felt the tug of dueling gravity generators. Trying not to buckle in the suddenly heavy pull, I walked toward the mass of hand-waving reporters on the other side of the airlock.
“Mr. Everly, what do you think this event will mean for the Omnite view of the universe?” shouted a crimson-haired man as I stepped aboard the station. A forest of hands shoved into my face, as if I was supposed to execute some massive high-five.
Mati was right, as usual. To my chagrin, that cluster of red wigs (why do all reporters have to have red hair these days?) had bypassed her and had made a beeline straight for me. Their hands fought for air time in my face, and I found myself wishing a pox on the guy who’d invented hand-mikes. Then I remembered I was on mindbeam, and re-inserted my best happy-person smile.
“Well, that’s what we’ll find out, isn’t it?” I said brightly. “I expect when the first information is received from the Magellan, it’ll show that Omnos has predicted the future.”
“What if it doesn’t?” shouted a petite woman, her red wig and black magneto-boots invoking visions of some naughty elfin prison guard. “What does that mean for Omnite doctrine?”
“It means that God works in mysterious ways,” I said carefully. “Even without foreknowledge, what human process could weave the DNA of every single living person into light from a faraway star and in the process include a massive amount of incomprehensible information that is slowly being revealed over time?”
“I see you’re still spouting the same tired doctrine, Gordon,” said a familiar female voice. “Even if the data shows Omnos did predict the future, it doesn’t prove divinity, only that we missed something in physics 101.”
I turned to my lovely nemesis Jonasa Wagner, leader of the Venus chapter of CLEAR–Citizen’s League of Enlightenment and Reason. Just as in all our holo debate shows, she wore a no-nonsense pantsuit and dark top, making sure we all understood her Seriousness. A tall, powerful woman, she had jet-black hair and intense blue eyes that could cow any man not raised by Amazons.
“Well, Jonasa, at what point does human hubris allow us to stop pretending that everything is quantifiable, and start recognizing that there are some things we may never explain?”
She watched me from beneath a cascade of luscious black hair. Her high cheekbones radiated purple, the mood-cream translating her confidence into a violet glow. “Yet your God offers no moral dictates, and the only hope that’ll happen is if the army of decoders managed by the Omnite church finally deciphers all the side-band information. Doesn’t that make your religion more of a science?”
Every reporter huddled inward, shoving their hands between our faces. Oh how they loved our little debates.
I clasped my hands together. “We believe Omnos will guide our evolution as a species, and said guidance will include rules of morality and growth. We don’t know that’s what’s in Omnos’ ancillary information, but we have faith. And isn’t every religion based on faith?”
Her eyes gleamed. “Yes, but–“
“Excuse me, but I suspect Mr. Everly is tired from the three month journey and might like to see his room,” said a short man to my right. He was wearing a brown-white uniform that resembled the vanilla-chocolate swirl I’d had yesterday, and I pegged him for the Endomis station representative.
I nodded brightly at him. “Yes, that would be lovely.”
I followed him amid a cacophony of shouted questions from the reporters, which I happily stifled by waving my hand in their faces as we walked away. Just before we rounded the bend in the steel hallway, I turned to look at Jonasa, who was watching me with a slight scowl.
“I’m Gunnet Bradley, Endomis Mayor,” said the short man, extending his hand. We shook, and his voice went into tour-guide mode as we escaped the red-haired gaggle. “Endomis has over six hundred residents, a few of whom work in the bioyeast labs. Still, most are independent souls, some with–ah–a few minor legal issues. As you may know, Endomis station isn’t subject to the laws of any of the three major powers…”
I listened with half an ear. Much as I hated to admit it, the debates with Jonasa always ruffled my feathers. And this time, her sniping had burrowed even further under my skin than usual.
Mati’s first presentation to the journal of Astrophysics back in 2210, the horribly mundanely titled “Photonic Anomalies in HD29641”, had electrified humanity from day one. Using mathematical disciplines odder than an Antarctic amusement park, she’d shown that light from a particular star in the constellation Orion was transmitting actual information, rather than the spectra of its component elements like every other self-respecting sun. But it got even weirder–a small portion of this celestial telegraph consisted of DNA sequences from every living human being in the solar system. Individual sequences disappeared a few months after someone died, and appeared a few months after they were born, like some cosmic check register. Since it took six hundred years for Omnos’ light to reach us, this implied the impossible: long before two randy college students left the party on a hormonally-hyped ride in the aircar, Omnos could predict not only the event of their coupling, but the new baby’s DNA as well.
Or so believed by some, and enough to start the religion I have the honor of representing. Do I really believe Omnos is God? Officially, yes. In reality, I heartily subscribe to the notion that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So to me the question is immaterial; let’s just say I believe that whatever’s in the other 99 percent of that sinewave salad is likely to turn civilization on its head.
Others aren’t so sure. Some think there’s no prescience involved, we just missed an easier explanation. Others believe that even if foreknowledge exists, those predictions could be altered. After all, if you had access to an earlier copy of Omnos’ light, proving the Godstar was fallible is as easy as keeping someone alive beyond his DNA expiration date on Earth. And God isn’t supposed to be fallible.
To end this debate, twenty years ago the three big powers launched a viper-class starship at 0.15c in the direction of Omnos with mankind’s latest invention–a D-tube teleporter. Five days hence, the Magellan would instantaneously transmit data to Endomis Station from three light-years closer to Omnos, light that would contain DNA sequences of people not only as yet unborn, but for whom the wine that led to their conception had not fully aged. From that light I’d learn whether my son Aaron would live long enough to let me back into his life. And Cullen O’Shaunessy would find out if he was supposed to be breathing.
“And over here is–“
“Why do I feel heavier here than ten steps in the other direction?” I interrupted. Gunnet stopped and looked up at me sheepishly. “We have an old gravity generator; its wave mixer has slowed down.” He seemed genuinely distraught, and I realized I’d just burst his bubble a little.
“A tiny hair on the cherry sundae that is Endomis,” I proclaimed. He smiled again, and we continued with our tour.
My room was quite nice, and I could tell I’d been given the VIP suite. It had an eighteen-flavor nitro-paste dispenser, for those too asocial to tolerate even a distant dining room view of their fellow humans. It had a bubble bed set in a clear circular dome reached by ladder, to provide the feeling of floating amongst the stars. And there was a modern holo station, with multiple angled cameras so anyone I talked to could see my posterior.
Gunnet left with a wave, and I saw that the holo station message button was blinking. I pushed it and watched Archprelate Horatio Adams fill my room.
“Gordon, I trust the journey to Endomis has treated you well,” said the hologram. “I’m sending this message from mid-journey, as we’ve had mechanical problems on-ship. Unfortunately, therefore, I won’t be able to attend the ceremony.”
Unfortunately therefore? Who says that? I heard the hiss of my deflating ego. Here I thought my role as the only Omnite representative at the most important ceremony since–ever–was based on my rising status within the church. Turns out I was wrong; my boss had been planning to steal the show the whole time. Which meant I was here to do the only thing they knew I excelled at: solving a problem.
“Gordon, I’ll be honest, we need you to solve a problem,” Horatio said. “We believe someone, probably the Zacharites, have infiltrated the station with a self-assembling beaker-bomb and are planning to stop the transfer of information from the Magellan by ‘any means possible.’” He made air quotes around the last three words, and I stood up straight. The Zacharites were an extreme branch of Omnism, one disavowed by the official church. They believed our little experiment was a poke in God’s eye, and that this blasphemy would bring retribution down upon the human race. Given some of the hateful spewings of their leader, Zachary Collins, I could believe that little inconveniences like ethics wouldn’t stop them.
“This project is extremely important to the church,” continued the Archprelate. “Once it’s been proven God has a plan for everyone, humanity will inevitably flock to Omnism–therefore, it’s vitally important that nothing be allowed to sabotage the Magellan’s information. Gordon, bringing this to closure will have a very positive impact on your standing within the church. We are counting on you.”
With that he signed off, and I stood for a long minute, biting my lip. Because of the light delay, there was no way this could be anything but a recorded message. No way for me to call the Archprelate and scream in his ear. Probably a good thing, as that would have a decidedly negative impact on my standing within the church.
In the dining room the next morning, I piled my tray high with Mort’s pumperpretzels while pretending not to snoop in on Cullen’s outrageous flirtation with the omelet lady. I had to smile watching him, this kid whose terminal disease had been a death sentence until two years ago. That’s when Mati’s lottery chose to rebuild the nervous system of five out of eight million terminal patients, all selected through fundamentally random processes like thermal noise and radioactive decay. And all of whom would otherwise be far too poor to ever consider neuro-reconstruction.
Yes, Cullen’s rescue had ulterior motives. Soon the science world would know if Omnos deserved its name, for the random variables that selected Cullen were completely unpredictable–not only practically, but even in theory. If the Magellan detected the DNA sequences of the lucky five in Omnos’ future light while the other eight million terminals had disappeared, it meant that Omnos had foreordained something that simply could not be predicted. The Godstar would be provable as a phenomenon truly outside science–a grand goal, even if it was hard to watch a good kid like Cullen being used that way.
I abandoned my shameless eavesdropping and walked toward Mati with my Everest of pumpernickel, dismayed at the surrounding crowd. I pushed through the throngs and forced my way to the bench on her right. Chewing slowly, I watched residents and reporters swarm around Mati, always starting with the same platitudes: “Dr. Antoretti, I’ve always wanted to meet you,” “I’ve been following your work for years,” and so on. Only after the throat-clearing was done did they finally ask their questions: “What do you think is encoded in the rest of the information?”, “Do the DNA sequences stop when someone is in a coma?” and other queries of the ilk.
Amused, I watched Mati rip their questions into component parts, then offer some back-stepping apologetic nonsense when their faces fell. Her right hand slapped the table constantly, sending their eyes darting between her sharp face and her pounding hand. This combination of passive-aggressive exasperation and freakishly loud drumming sent them away one by one, until finally, only we two remained.
I sat back. “You should write a song to that. We could call it ‘Ode to Impatience’.”
She blinked, and her hand stopped. “Don’t be absurd.”
“I have a problem,” I whispered, searching the surrounding tables for anyone within earshot. “Apparently, someone wants to sabotage our mission. I got this message last night…” I described the Archprelate’s holomail while Mati chewed her labmeatte slowly, giving no sign she was listening. “The beaker-bomb has to be targeted at the D-tube-receiver,” I said finally, “because once the information makes it to the receiver, it’ll beam to every station, planet, and asteroid in human-occupied space. But I checked the ships’ manifests, and the only cargo delivery I see is some bread-making equipment that came in yesterday.”
Mati put her fork down. The fingers of her right hand began drumming the table. “You know, beaker-bombs look a lot like bioyeast manufacturing equipment.”
I stared. She was right. Beaker bombs were so named for their two beakers–one filled with nanoteria, the other with instructo-gel, a translucent jello glopped around the nanoteria to provide those tiny CPUs their instruction code. Mixing the two spawned an army of tiny demon creatures, programmable to destroy anything, from anywhere. And no doubt Mort manufactured his bioyeast in similar containers.
“That’s it!” I grabbed her arm, knocking pumperpretzels off my tray. “They must have hidden the bomb in the bioyeast labs. Mati, you’re a genius!”
She shrugged, and I realized that was like calling Picasso an artist. I extracted my lightpad to jot this down, but stopped at the sight of Jonasa Wagner charging toward my table like an angry rhinoceros, long black hair feathering outward.
I pointed to Mati as Jonasa stopped at our table. “She’s almost done eating, you can ask your questions.”
“I’ve come to talk to you.” With that, Jonasa slammed her tray down and took her seat.
She stabbed her eggs like they were about to fly away, and I popped a piece of pumpernickel in my mouth.
“So, nice trip?” I asked, voice muffled behind my cud. “Six months for you, wasn’t it?”
Jonasa squinted, then dabbed her mouth. “Tell me, do you really believe what you said yesterday, or were you just spouting the party line? I could never decide whether you’re a true believer or just a career churchman. And I don’t know which is worse.”
I folded my hands on the table. “Apparently Venusian conversations are to the point. Understandable, as your lives could be snuffed out any time a sulfuric-acid cloud leaks into one of those floating cities.”
She smiled briefly. “I’m going with career churchman.”
I shrugged. “Any way you slice it, Omnos is an unexplained phenomenon. Not just unexplained, but unexplainable. In the end, what is God, if not that? Maybe we’re saying the same thing but in different ways–like when you use the term ‘career churchman’ to mean ‘devoted to faith’.”
“Uh huh. Doesn’t ‘devoted to faith’ just mean someone who’s sure what they believe? If so, do I get smiley-faces for being absolutely sure Omnos isn’t God?”
“Depends. Does your faith in the lack of faith lead you to good works?”
“No, but it also doesn’t lead me to holy wars or proselytizing.”
We continued this tit-for-tat for most of an hour, while Mati sat back and listened without a word. Eventually, a reporter noticed our conversation, and soon we were surrounded by a forest of hands and red wigs. Jonasa scowled at them, and a few minutes later, she’d made her departure with what could be the first polite goodbye I’d ever heard from her mouth. I watched that tall shapely frame stride across the dining room, and reflected how attractive she’d be without the whole crazy intensity thing. But that was akin to admiring the tiger’s pretty fur before it ripped your throat out.
“She likes you,” Mati said, as the reporters drifted away.
I stared. “Are you crazy? She’s just scoring points with the militant atheist brigade back home.”
Mati began tapping her foot. “My mental state hasn’t changed. And I’m quite sure she just wanted to talk to you.”
“Well, it’s exhausting.”
“She’s smart. Women like that need someone who can match their intellect, spar word for word. Don’t say anything stupid.”
I gave her a pained look and concentrated on my breakfast.
Still. When a smart woman gives you advice on another smart woman, you have to listen.
An hour later, I found myself striding through the yeast lab’s gleaming metal hallways as a stooped, white-haired gentleman shuffled quickly ahead of me. I was on the top floor, and the hall’s transparent ceiling displayed a brilliant band of stars, its walls covered by pictures of asteroid miners staring heroically into space.
“Ah–“ I shouted, raising a finger, but Mort had turned into the next hallway. I cursed as I almost twisted my foot in the uneven gravity and hurried to the corner, only to see him racing away again. I reflected that either Mort was my bread-crazed Zacharite, or he’d suddenly remembered something very important. I couldn’t think of any other reason he’d be running. I followed him through an open door, smiling broadly as I saw him backed against a corner.
“Mort, at last!” I exclaimed. “I’ve always wanted to meet you! I’ve followed your work for years, tried every strain of pumpernickel that-—“
I stopped as I noticed him pressed against the wall, shivering like I was about to stuff him into a pumpernickel pita.
I sighed and stepped back. “Excuse me. I do love your work, but that’s not why I’m here.” I coughed. “Have you received any new ‘bread-making’ equipment in the last few days?”
Mort’s eyes lit with relief. He nodded and pointed to a contraption on his left, a wheeled tray with two giant beakers and a small metal box. “Got here yesterday,” he said, in a raspy voice I doubted got much use. “Darndest yeast beakers I’ve ever seen.”
If there’s one thing I excel at, it’s detecting liars through body language. I watched Mort’s hands carefully, and instantly knew he was clean. So why was he running? All I could think of is that like many of the other crusties on Endomis station, Mort was such a loner that he viewed conversing with another life-form akin to space-walking without a suit.
“That, sir, is a beaker-bomb,” I said, striding to the tray. I picked up the metal box and removed the battery from the self-assembling AI. “Useless now. What time did it arrive?”
Mort scratched his chin. “Bout 9am, station time.”
I jotted this down on my lightpad then configured my headtrode to alert me upon any changes to the final ceremony roster list. Now that our Zacharite zero was deprived of his weapon, maybe he’d try to do the job manually. It was a long shot, but didn’t hurt to try.
I twisted to take in the assorted beakers, yeast ovens, and biotic equipment in the room, making sure no one had ordered another one of these doodads. Everything looked normal, though the wall was studded with metal supports to ensure the equipment stayed level.
“Must be quite a hassle dealing with this uneven gravity,” I said, turning back to Mort. Something in his eyes instantly seized my attention, and I smiled.
“I have a suspicion. This bizarre dual gravity, where things are heavier depending on which angle you’re facing. That’s the secret, isn’t it? That’s why your yeast strains are so good?”
“Eh,” Mort said helpfully.
“I knew it!” I slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. I’ve always wondered how the economics of space-station bread making could ever work. This dual gravity, it makes the yeast grow in unique configurations, doesn’t it?”
We discussed bread-making for quite a while as Mort warmed up to me, and I became so engrossed that I forgot I was supposed to zap a Zacharite. When the lunchtime bell rang, I snapped my fingers, bid Mort adieu, and raced back to my room. There I immediately began researching ship arrival times, and discovered two very interesting facts: First, the only ships that had docked yesterday were mine and Jonasa’s, and both had unloaded cargo. Second, Jonasa’s had docked at 0800, whereas we’d arrived around 1500, station time. Mort had said the new ‘equipment’ had shown up at 0900.
Could Jonasa be my culprit? Well, she was the only passenger on her ship, so actually, the evidence left me no other explanation. And there was motive. It was clear what would happen to her merry band of skeptics once the Magellan finally proved the Godstar was predicting things impossible to foresee under any interpretation of quantum physics. I thought that the Archprelate was right: The outcome of this experiment could well be a mass conversion to Omnism. And that wouldn’t be good for CLEAR.
I sent Jonasa a headtrode-mail, and two hours later we were sitting across from each other in the conference room, Jonasa’s slender legs crossed, her blue eyes studying me.
“What, no reporters, Gordon? Is this a social call, or are we actually going to debate without sound-bites?”
“Just a couple questions,” I said, glancing at her hands. “Jonasa, do you think this whole experiment is worth all the expense?”
She frowned. “OK, so this isn’t a social call. Clearly I’m a suspect in some sort of investigation.” Her shoulders slumped, and for the first time, I noticed she’d substituted old-fashioned rouge for her normal mood-cream. She was also wearing lipstick, as foreign to that face as a koi pond on Mercury.
Feeling low, I shook my head vigorously. “Not so much ‘suspect’ as–“
“–You want to know what I think? This whole experiment is a giant waste of time.” Her eyes grew cold; the old Jonasa was back. “I think people believe in spooky sky-gods simply to cover deficiencies in their own lives. After all, didn’t you become an Omnite after a messy divorce and estrangement from your son?”
I sat, frozen, as Jonasa bit her lip. After a tense silence, she reached out and grabbed my arm.
“I’m sorry, Gordon, that was completely out of line. I’m not proud that CLEAR investigated you, but my bosses don’t like to lose debates. If it helps, I never planned to use it on holo.”
I nodded, forcing myself to smile. “Well, you do have a point. My own mistakes and my ex-wife have turned Aaron away from me since he was fifteen, and I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to get him back. Last year we had our first conversation in twenty years, just before he left for the Kuiper belt expedition, with a trip-survival rate of thirty percent. So yes, I have a personal stake in getting access to Magellan’s database to see if he’ll be alive three years from now. Still, I believe it’s possible to meet God without asking him for favors.”
She said nothing, but her eyes had transformed from warrior Jonasa into something more human. It did wonders for her face.
“But,” I said, “it was pretty dastardly for CLEAR to dig that up. It would be like us discovering that your daughter had died two years ago and could’ve been saved by Mati’s random lotto. And then claiming that the subsequent belief in a godless universe is what led you to CLEAR.”
She stiffened, and this time I reached out and touched her hand. “Apparently, we Omnites aren’t so pure either. We’re not above the occasional inappropriate investigation of our own.”
We discussed our kids the rest of the afternoon, and soon afternoon turned into evening, where we found ourselves in the lounge talking animatedly over glasses of wine.
That night was a strange one. It culminated in both of us stumbling to my room with a dark red bottle of wine in tow, followed by the happy discovery that having sex with someone you’ve been publicly slapfighting for two years is actually quite liberating.
The next morning, we lay in my bubble chamber, surrounded by stars as if floating in space. I remained motionless for a long while, pondering how this wonderful thing had happened, and what my first words should be this morning to keep us in the moment. Finally I opened with: “Somehow, this seems wrong.”
She propped up on an elbow, the blanket partially falling away to reveal one perfectly-shaped breast. “So wrong. Like mustard and ketchup in the same jar. And even worse than sleeping with the enemy, you’re sleeping with the subject of an investigation. What’s going on with that, anyway?”
I watched her relaxed, playful face, thinking how different she looked from our holo mash-ups. Having the woman with whom I’d publicly exchanged so many barbed words lying naked beside me revved my motor anew, and I leaned into her.
“Since I’m already sinning…”
She pushed me back lightly. “Nope. My curiosity is going full steam.”
I sighed. And against all reasonable judgment, I told her about the Archprelate’s holomail, how I’d tracked the beaker bomb shipment to conclude that she was my main suspect. I said this knowing very well that I’d probably regret it later.
She stared at me for a long moment after I’d finished. “OK, first off, I can’t believe you got the time from ‘Missing Minute Mort’. You are familiar with his tendency to show up for lunch at dinnertime? Second, I’m as far from Zacharism as I am from spontaneous combustion. People like me don’t set up beaker bombs; we leave that to the religious fanatics. Though Omnism is such a scant faith, I can’t believe any branch of it cares enough about anything to use violence.”
I squinted. “Did you just accuse us of being too tolerant to use violence? In any case, Omnism is not ‘scant’.”
“But it’s such an odd belief system–you have no rituals, no commandments, I doubt you even pray. Your whole faith is based on waiting for someone to decode a bunch of information that may be gibberish.”
“We do pray,” I said, “but it’s true we eschew most rituals because we find they distract us from doing good works. I’ve probably headed more relief agencies than you own jars of mood-cream. And until we find out differently, what’s wrong with assuming Omnos’ un-deciphered information contains moral instructions?”
“What if it’s just a recipe for pound cake? Doesn’t that obviate your whole religion?”
“Well, if it’s heavenly pound cake–“
My headtrode beeped and I stopped, touching my ear. And felt my blood chill as the alert wormed its way through my audio cortex. The final ceremony roster had just bumped from six to seven people, with the new attendee labeled only as ‘Mati’s Guest’.
I shot up in bed. “Uh. I think I know who our Zacharite is…”
She sat up, draping the blanket around her body as I nearly fell out of bed. I hurriedly put on my pants, then turned to her just before crawling down the ladder. “The fact that I’m leaving doesn’t mean–doesn’t mean–”
“I know. Go do your job.”
Mati answered my continually ringing buzzer with a pinched face and garden-themed pajamas. “I was just about to take a shower.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, pushing past her to the sofa. “Tell me about Cullen. Have you noticed anything strange lately?”
Frowning, she sat in the opposing chair, her short gray hair spiked on one side of her head. “Two months before we left, his mannerisms seemed to change.”
“Yep. Change they did.” I threw a few papers on the coffee table. “I ran a retinal scan this morning, using the Phobos server. Your Cullen is actually Alex Piedmont, a well-known Zacharite. He must have gotten doppelganger reconstruction and replaced the original Cullen sometime after surgery. Who knows what happened to the original.”
Mati’s foot began tapping so hard, I thought she’d wear a hole in the floor. A very cold feeling spread through my gut.
“Mati, I’m going to ask something, and it’s very important you answer me truthfully. Were you aware that the guy on our ship wasn’t the real Cullen?”
“No,” she said, “but I suspected something.”
I exhaled with relief. “Why in Omnos’ name didn’t you tell me?”
She watched me with a pained expression that I couldn’t pin down. “Because–because…Gordon, what we’re about to do could destroy this station.”
“Better explain that.”
Mati’s grandmother face scrunched tight, her foot tapping furiously. “These D-tube teleporters drag their own reference frame with them, thereby avoiding causality violations. But they’re inherently unstable. Demodulating Omnos’ carrier wave three years in the future could cause the D-tubes to de-cohere, possibly releasing millions of joules of energy.”
“Make it so an idiot can understand.”
She sighed. “People used to think that instantaneous communication would cause time-travel type paradoxes. We got around that using some tricks that–“ she stopped and smoothed her hair down. “Anyway, what we’re about to do here could reintroduce paradox to the mix.”
“And the implications are…?”
“Gordon, all my equations sum to infinity. These are well-established models for Omnos’ information multiplex, not incomplete theories. But when I extrapolate them to describe light three years closer to Omnos entering our reference frame, none of my numbers make sense. Because D-tubes are so unstable, any unknown variables could indicate a collapse–and if that happens, we’ll see a massive explosion.”
I stared, and for a long moment, the only motion in the room was the perpetual tapping of Mati’s foot.
“I get it, Mati.” I rubbed my forehead. “So even though you thought Cullen might sabotage our party, part of you wanted him to succeed.”
Her face fell, and I saw that pained expression again.
Then it hit me. That look in Mati’s eyes, the way she’d been so eager lately to soften her famously harsh opinions: she was beyond lonely. A lifetime spent pushing humanity away had left the specter of isolation to shadow her sixties. Now she was worried she’d lose one of her true, close friends.
I sighed. “I’m not mad, Mati. Well, maybe a little.”
She wiped one eye. “Thank you. If it’s any help, I have a much likelier theory that doesn’t involve D-tube de-coherence.”
“But you can’t guarantee there won’t be an explosion?”
I sighed, wondering what in Omnos’ name I was going to do.
I spent the whole day thinking, and that night I lay still in my starry dome, facing the direction of Omnos and wondering whether God could truly be so cruel. I couldn’t believe Omnos would punish us for the simple act of trying to get closer.
Sleep finally overtook me, and I awoke a few hours later with the absolute surety of two convictions: First, no two-bit fanatic was going to decide things for the rest of us. And second, it had to be Mati who reported Cullen. She’d brought this nimrod along, and the only way to avoid tarnishing a lifetime of incredible achievements was for her to make the “discovery” herself.
So it was that the next morning I stood in the central airlock hallway, examining a piece of Cullen’s walker, while Alex Piedmont cursed and kicked in the hands of two beefy security guys.
“What you are doing is wrong!” Alex shouted, trying to jerk his arm away from his captor’s grip.
“How does this thing work?” I muttered, examining the inner tube of the walker’s support. It had been coated with graphene circuitry, and was probably a weapon of some sort.
Alex focused on me. “You’re the worst! A follower who questions the God he’s sworn to serve. Traitor to Omnos!”
I raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know Omnos was at war. Gosh, I hope I get a blue uniform; I look great in teal.”
Alex stared for a long moment. Then he began thrashing violently, and this time managed to free an arm. He grabbed his captor’s lightning gun, knocked him back, and pointed the gun at me. “You. Omnite circus clown. You’re going to let me into the receiver room.”
I tried to remember which way the gravity shifted, and then dove to my left. Alex swung around, and his pivoting knee buckled in Endomis’ uneven gravity. Wincing, I watched his head slam to the floor as the lightning gun clattered down the hallway.
“I’m–I’m so sorry,” Mati said to the crowd of reporters and representatives in the hallway with us, as the security guys pulled Alex to his feet and hauled him through the airlock.
I got up, dusted my knees, and squeezed her shoulder. “You can’t be sorry! If it wasn’t for you, he’d have sabotaged the whole event!” Others muttered agreement, and Mati shot me a quick look of gratitude.
“Well, shall we proceed with the call?” I said.
Earlier, I’d asked Gunnet to set up a video call with everyone on the station. The long-time residents were such hermits, most couldn’t be bothered to stumble down to the central assembly hall if their lives depended on it (which they actually did). Since I needed everyone to weigh in on this decision, we’d set up giant screens broken into hundreds of little squares, so we could see everyone’s face. The hundred or so that decided to attend in person, mostly reporters and representatives, sat around the giant round table as Mati began describing our conundrum.
Mati isn’t the best at explaining science to primitives, but she did a passable job. And the questions were about what you’d expect. “What are the chances those infinities will collapse the D-tubes?” asked the ebony-skinned representative from the Asteroid Anarchy, her hair quaffed up in a giant pyramid. “How could a simple transmission of information lead to an explosion?” Mort rasped, apparently on hiatus from pumpernickel duties.
Mati answered precisely, as was her style, slapping her hip and doing absolutely zilch to give anyone the hot cocoa and cookies they were looking for. And I found something out that day: No matter what belief system a person subscribes to, in matters of survival, people look to a moral center. Numbers and statistics only go so far. So it was that after the Terran representative asked me for my opinion, I saw every single person and video square staring at me, desperate for someone to tell them what to do.
I leaned forward and folded my hands on the table. “I have absolute faith that Omnos would never kill us for asking questions. This experiment is the right thing to do. If someone trains me how to use the receiver and AI, I’ll happily remain on this station to monitor Magellan’s information, while everyone else takes a brief cruise.”
The meeting went quickly from there, culminating with a unanimous vote to proceed–which was the only way we could do this thing.
Two days later, I stood in the ceremony chamber with seven other people: Mati, representatives from each of the three major powers, Endomis mayor Gunnet Bradley, Jonasa Wagner, and the AI technician, who’d be interpreting the receiver output based on Magellan’s data.
It was a slick setup. The D-tube receiver was married to a very powerful AI server containing known DNA sequences of everyone in the solar system. The server would scan the information received from Omnos three light-years out, and compare it against the existing database, with any new DNA sequences likely belonging to people as yet unborn. OK, this wasn’t guaranteed, because the database wasn’t totally accurate, and it was impossible to monitor every birth in real time across the solar system. But if there were more than a small number of new sequences, it meant that Omnos was telling us about people who didn’t yet exist–proof positive that the future was knowable. And somewhere in that jumble of data, God would tell me if my boy was going to live long enough to hear his dad apologize for a childhood of neglect.
The transporter-receiver room settled into nervous silence, all of us alone with our thoughts as we waited for the countdown. I wondered whether an explosion would be noticeable at all, or if it’d be a sudden baseball bat to the head. I guess my faith wasn’t strong enough to squash the occasional doubt.
“We’re receiving first transmission from the Magellan,” came the AI tech’s voice, high-pitched with excitement. The electricity in the air was palpable, and I saw Mati’s foot begin its perpetual motion.
We all waited, frozen, as the tech pushed buttons on his helmet, interpreting the AI computer’s analysis of the data. After a long moment in which I’m sure no one breathed, he swiveled to face us, his expression perplexed.
“The–the AI is unable to interpret the data as DNA sequences. It has successfully matched some of the patterns to a system of sixteen base nucleotides, but the descriptions of those bases don’t match anything in human DNA.”
A loud buzz filled the room. “What do you mean, ‘can’t interpret as DNA’?,” snapped the Asteroid representative.
The tech shook his head, then turned around again, hunching over and pushing more buttons. Silently, we waited an eternity while he worked and muttered to himself. Finally he turned around again, his eyes wide.
“It appears–it appears that the Magellan is not where it should be.
The room erupted into shouts, until I held up my hand for silence. “Please explain.”
“It looks like the Magellan’s initial heading was two degrees off, and now she’s .105 light-year away from her intended destination. These photons would never be seen from our solar system. And when I sent the command to shift course, I got a message that the fusion reactor had ceased operation. Then the whole link went down.”
Now the entire room truly erupted, with shouts and accusations flying in every direction. The Terran representative sprayed bits of spittle as he hurled recriminations at the Martian ambassador for the Martian work on the fusion reactor, and the AI tech cowered before a blast of expletives issuing from the Asteroid representative. But the loudest sounds came from Mati, who was clapping her hands and hopping about madly. “Yes! I knew it!”
This counterpoint cut through the roar like a knife, until finally everyone stopped to stare at this short elfin-grandmother, hopping around like a kangaroo on fire.
“Mati, you’re scaring the normals,” I said.
She ran to me. “Don’t you see, Gordon? It’s Cruts-Helmsfeld! That’s the explanation!”
“No, Mati, I don’t see. As you’ll recall, the rest of us elected not to pursue our physics Ph.Ds.”
She stopped to swallow. “Back in the twentieth century, people knew Einstein’s theories didn’t strictly disallow time travel, but no one understood how to resolve the resulting paradoxes. Then, fifty years ago, Cruts and Helmsfeld proposed a method to enforce self-consistent timelines, based on work previously done in the twenty-first century. They posited that the universe would never allow someone to kill his grandmother before she gave birth, because random events would always throw up roadblocks to prevent the paradox. Those events would get stranger and stranger the harder you tried to force the matter.” She stopped to breathe. “Think about it Gordon. We launch ships all the time–how often do we get the heading wrong? And how often does the propulsion system and communication link fail right when we need them?”
I stared. The room settled into utter silence, pierced only by the low hum of the receiver.
“So,” I said slowly, “you’re saying that the initial heading error was a not-so-coincidental coincidence, and that no matter what we do, we can’t look at light before it reaches us?”
“We can, but only if we use sub-C return speeds, so the information is old when it reaches Earth. We can never retrieve information in a way that allows us to alter a predicted event.”
I folded my arms. “So the ‘universe’ is preventing us from doing this experiment. How is that different from God decreeing ‘thou shalt not doubt me’?”
Mati looked disgusted. “We don’t need superstitious claptrap right now; I have to prove this.” She froze, turning a pained look my way. “I mean–“
“Never mind, Mati. Go prove it.”
With that, she raced from the room and through the mass of reporters on the other side of the door.
Everyone stood shocked for a long moment, watching Mati’s back like they’d been zapped by a Venusian electrical storm.
“So we’re back to where we started,” I said. “Everyone’s right, and no one knows a thing.” I looked around, but the room was quiet as a graveyard. Sighing, I smoothed down my robe, then walked through the door to spread the news to the rest of the solar system.
The next two weeks were fascinating, heady, and bittersweet. Fascinating because as our limited Magellan data was processed, Mati and others became increasingly confident that it represented the DNA of a sentient alien species. Based on the ship’s position, they even pinpointed a star cluster where the alien world had to exist. And within days, Mati and other scientists throughout the solar system had shown strong evidence for the Cruts-Helmsfeld explanation.
It was personally heady, because I found myself sucked into endless interviews and commentary about what all this meant for Omnism, and philosophy in general. Whatever the Archprelate’s opinion of me, I was pretty sure this could only be good for my career.
Yet it was bittersweet. I’d gotten used to the idea of not knowing whether I’d ever have a normal relationship with my son; I could accept that God would give me no shortcuts there. But I was also unable to see Jonasa, and for some reason, that hurt. Granted, she was as busy as I was, but my few pitiful attempts to grab her attention always seemed stymied by her presence at some interview or other engagement. Finally, I gave up, and tried to look at the bright side: no matter what, I’d always have the memory. I ignored the part of my brain screaming that this was something only a loser would say.
On the day of our departure, I was walking with Mati toward our airlock when we turned a corner and saw Jonasa talking to a reporter.
I quickened my pace, but not before catching an expression that might have been disappointment. What was this? I glanced in her direction, but she’d gone back to conversing with the newsman.
I noticed Mati had stopped, and I turned to a very angry Dr. Antoretti. “Gordon, you are being an idiot. If you don’t talk to her, I’m going to punch your ear.”
Now, compared to Mati, everyone actually is an idiot. But I suspected in this case, she had a point. I was debating what to do when Jonasa’s loud voice rang through the hallway.
“I sure am glad they didn’t prove Omnos was God,” she declared. “At least now I won’t have self-righteous Omnite priests knocking on my door.”
I faced her directly. “Well, Venus is close enough to hell that I doubt I’d make much traction anyway. Still, my charter is to spread the word, so I may have to pay it a visit.”
She touched the headtrode button on her ear. “Well don’t come around my neck of the woods. I just sent you my address so you know what area to avoid.”
“Actually, I’ve found that those who reject the message usually need it most. I’ll have to visit that exact location to convince the locals that Omnos is God.”
She folded her arms. “If you do, I’ll meet you there, just so I can prove you wrong.”
I looked to my left to see the reporter staring at us, one hand upward in a high-five salute and the other one touching his headtrode, mindbeaming our little conversation out to every habitable rock in the solar system.
Great. This was going to take the punch out of our holo debates.
Jonasa smiled briefly, gave me a pinky wave, and then whipped around and strode toward the airlock. I watched those shapely legs retreat from us until they disappeared around the corner.
The reporter rushed off, and I exhaled. “See what I mean, Mati? Exhausting.”
Her eyes had taken on a dreamy glaze. “But what if you’ve found the one?”
I looked at her. A lifelong singleton, it appeared that the sixty-two year old Mati was finally taking an interest in love. “Well, then. Why don’t you describe your perfect man, Mati? I might know a few on Earth that would love to meet you.”
We continued a very slow walk toward the airlock while Mati listed her uber-homme requirements, slapping her hip the whole time. And by the time we stepped onto the ship, my next year had been fully planned out: First, a brief stint on Earth to play matchmaker for Mati.
Then, a trip to Venus to convert the natives.
A Fearful Lesson
By Brad Preslar
It was the perfect day to walk down to the river and see what was left of the dead metal, rusting away since the war. The weather was about like today, crisp and dry. Some folks whispered that some of it still walked, moved, even hunted, but just like you, we were sure that was all lies.
That’s why we wanted to see The Bottom for ourselves, like you two do.
First, we had to ditch Grandpa. That chance appeared when he stopped with his hand on the front gate. He held it halfway open and turned his head, laughing to himself. “Almost forgot my cane.”
He turned around and went back in the house. I looked at Tommy and tilted my head towards the road. “Let’s just go.”
Tommy looked out at the red leaves dancing on the pavement, then back over his shoulder. Mama stood watching from the front window. “She’d whip us if we did.”
“How are we ever gonna get to the Bottom with him along?”
Tommy shrugged. “Maybe we just scout it out today. A recon mission.”
Sometimes, he had good ideas. For a ten year-old. “Then go back later?” I said.
“Yeah. Tomorrow. Or the day after.”
The old wood of the front stoop groaned as Grandpa made his way down the stairs. He took the weight off his bad leg and leaned on his cane. “What’s it going to be today?”
Tommy nodded for me to ask. I said, “Can we go see Shockoe Bottom?”
Grandpa said, “Why would you want to go down there?”
“Just to the bridge,” said Tommy.
I added, “Mama said we could.” She hadn’t.
Grandpa looked back at Mama through the window. She waved and smiled. He considered the request and shrugged. “Well then, let’s go.”
We set out down the road, Grandpa behind us. He was in fine enough shape, except for his leg. Mama told us he hurt it in the war. Grandpa said he had arthritis. Tommy and I went back and forth on who we believed. Either way, we didn’t believe any of the stories about metal walking around in The Bottom. Between you and me, I wish we had.
Mama said that was where Richmond used to go on the weekends. Before the war. When the metal marched into town, it came in from the west and drove the whole city downhill, trapping thousands against the flood wall.
We walked through the burned out buildings and deserted businesses, down Hull Street to the James River. We crossed over the rusted spans of Mayo bridge and got a good look at what used to be downtown Richmond. The bare girders in the buildings stuck up so high in the sky I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t fall over, but Grandpa acted like they weren’t there. He just limped along slow and steady behind us.
We had heard about a spot just over the bridge where the flood wall joined up with the barricade. Story was, you could get over the wall and go down into The Bottom.
Tommy saw it first. We crossed from the bridge onto solid ground and he let out a low half whistle. He flicked his eyes in that direction. A school bus sat on four flat tires, next to the wall. He thought he was quiet, but Grandpa heard.
“So, that’s why we’re out here,” he said.
I felt the red creep into my cheeks. “What?”
“You two want to see The Bottom?”
Tommy turned away from the bus. “No, I was whistling because… Because-”
Grandpa said, “You didn’t come out here to get a look over the wall?”
I gulped. “Well. It is right there. We could just climb up and look.”
Grandpa grunted and headed for the bus. He pushed the door open and went up the cracked rubber steps. He used his cane to push the remnants of the windshield out onto the hood. Steadying himself against the back of the driver’s seat, he climbed over the dashboard. Glass crunched under his feet, the hood groaned under his weight. We followed after and helped him up onto the roof. A rusty ladder missing one rung stretched across the two-foot gap between the wall and the bus. We took turns crawling across, and then stood up on the other side. The concrete of the flood wall crunched and flaked under our shoes, little pebbles bounced down and clattered on the ground.
We looked out into The Bottom. More than anything, it was empty. Not scary. Just empty. Weeds grew everywhere. Tree roots cracked the sidewalks. Cars without drivers blocked the streets. A sunflower grew through a hole in a roof of a burned out van. Piles of smashed furniture and boards blocked the fronts of some buildings. The other buildings gaped open, like mouths with their teeth knocked out.
Grandpa picked his way down the piled up concrete and palettes to the ground. We went after him. He pointed out some sharpened rebar sticking out of the pile.
“Look out for that,” he said.
Tommy rolled his eyes.
The first building we walked up on had a ten-foot tall picture window with mannequins wearing dress clothes. I picked up a fist-sized rock and tossed it in the air. Grandpa saw me do it, looked at the window and shrugged. “Go on,” he said.
When the rock hit, that window broke into a hundred pieces. Those pieces broke into a hundred more when they hit the ground. It made so much noise even the birds were impressed, flying away from where they watched. And if there was any leftover metal around, it didn’t seem to notice or care.
On one of the piles, clothes hung out of dresser drawers, faded and rotted from the sun and rain. Tommy pointed out a pink bra poking out from under some shirts. He dared me to go touch it. Grandpa glared at him.
“Have some respect,” he said.
“Grandpa, there ain’t no metal walking around down here,” said Tommy.
“No. There ain’t,” said Grandpa.
I kicked an old phone. The bell inside rung out when it bounced across the pavement. “Are we ever gonna’ see any? Not pictures I mean, but in real life?”
“Aren’t you scared?” Grandpa said.
Tommy said, “Scared of what? All the metal died when their network did. That’s what Mama said.”
Grandpa’s mouth turned down. He squinted his eyes. “You think so?”
He didn’t answer, just turned and headed off down the street.
We followed him down the hill, under the old highway where it flattened out beside the canal. He stopped at a big white building. Sheets of plywood and boards covered all the windows and doors.
He stopped for a second, still. I thought he was about to tell us a good story, but then he got quiet, like he was thinking about something far away.
Tommy wasn’t listening. He was jumping up and down on an old mattress with the springs poking out of one side. He walked over to where a station wagon had crashed right up into the building. Boards covered the gaps between the car and wall. Tommy picked up a piece of wood and stuck it in the gap. Something on the other side made a noise.
Grandpa whipped his head around and his voice got deep. “Get away from there.”
Tommy wasn’t listening. He started jamming that wood in deeper. “I ain’t scared of you,” he said. “Come on out so I can see what you look like.”
Grandpa stood there for a second, watching Tommy yell into the hole in the wall. Then he went over and grabbed him by his arm. His voice was dry and hard. Not like normal. “You might not be scared. But you should be.”
He glared at Tommy, then grabbed a board and pulled it right off. And he waited.
Tommy backed up quick to stand beside me, so Grandpa was between us and that dark hole. Hollow scratches and the hum of motors came from the dark. A green light came on a few feet off the ground, moving our way from deep inside the dark. Clicking and scraping slow and jerky on three legs, one of the metal hunters came creeping out.
Grandpa turned his head to Tommy and said, “How about now?”
Tommy’s lip quivered. Grandpa’s eyes were as cold and hard as his voice.
I recognized the hunter scout from the pictures we’d seen in school. Lean and shaped like a big cat, they had led the way for the larger, slower metal. This one was missing one of its front legs, but the blades on the other leg were extended, scraping the ground as it walked.
The round head swiveled towards us, or what was left of it. Half of the hunter’s skull had been blown off, so only one green eye remained. Bare wires sparked and shorted where the head joined the body. It struggled to balance, moving each of its three legs one step at a time, like a dog with socks on. Still, it came on.
Grandpa bent down, leaning on his cane, with his mouth right in Tommy’s ear. “I hear you talking so big about how you wouldn’t be scared. And how you don’t think there’s any metal left. So here’s your chance.” He squeezed Tommy’s arm so hard his knuckles turned white. The hunter kept coming.
Grandpa picked up a chunk of concrete off the ground like it didn’t weigh nothing and pushed it into my hand. “Let’s see it.” It was so heavy I could barely hold it.
Tommy started crying. He was holding onto my arm and making noises that weren’t even words. I pushed the concrete back to Grandpa. “I can’t. Grandpa, I can’t.”
That hunter was five feet from his heel, and Grandpa hadn’t even turned around. Tommy pointed over Grandpa’s shoulder and wailed, snot bubbling out of his nose. Tears ran down his cheeks and his face turned red. Waves of fear pushed up from my stomach and came from my mouth in vowels and grunts. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but watch. The blades on the front leg dug into the pavement as it pulled itself closer.
Grandpa turned his head and looked at it out of one eye. He let go of Tommy’s arm, took his cane in both hands and pulled the hooked end away from the straight part. His cane was a sword in disguise.
He swung it around and chopped the hunter’s front leg clean off. It fell on its side, back legs flailing in the air. With a whip of its head, it rolled itself back upright, its chin and chest making a tripod with the back legs. They pushed on, scraping the exposed metal of the torso in front of it like some worthless wheelbarrow. Busted motors scraped dry metal against dry metal inside the thing.
Grandpa pointed at the head, the edge in his voice a little softer, but still there. “You take that concrete and smash the head.”
Tommy sniffled and wiped his nose. I shook my head at him. “I don’t want to.”
Grandpa said, “Doesn’t matter if you want to. You will.” Something in his voice made me want to, even though I was scared. As scared as I’d ever been.
Tommy said, “It’s still moving.”
The hunter moved closer, inching its way towards us.
“Go on.” Grandpa put a firm hand on my shoulder. “You too, Tommy.”
We took a step towards it. Tommy looked away as we stepped closer. I took a breath. The hunter smelled like bleach and smoke. The single green eye moved back and forth between me and Tommy.
Grandpa stepped back. “That’s it.”
We lifted the concrete up the air, our four hands underneath it. Tommy’s breath puffed fast in and out of his nose.
That was when the hunter pushed itself forward into my legs, knocking me over. It fell on me and the concrete fell on it, crushing one of the back legs.
The hunter’s main weapons had been the blades in the front legs, but it also had retractable tentacles in its torso. Not strong enough to support the full weight of the metal, we’d always been told they were used to grab on its victims while the bladed arms did all the damage. These metal tentacles now slid out of the body and wrapped around my leg. The hunter used the sharp edges of its half-crushed skull to slice through my pants and open a cut in my shin.
Blood poured out of the long slice and one of the tentacles wormed its way into the cut, digging and ripping at the muscle. I screamed and beat at the head with my hands, kicking the torso with my free leg.
Grandpa moved quick out of the corner of my eye, stabbing his sword through the torso again and again, sparks flying with every impact. On the fourth stab he ruptured the power pack and the hunter went still, the front tentacle still buried in my shin.
Grandpa wiped off his sword and took a closer look at my leg. He said, “I know it hurts,” looking down at the shredded meat below my knee. “And I’m sorry for this, but you’re going to suffer a little more.” He reached down and started pulling the tentacle out of the wound.
I don’t know who cried harder, me or Tommy. After Grandpa got that tentacle out of my leg, he bandaged it up tight with his shirt and had Tommy help me walk home.
Nobody said much of anything on the way back, but just before we got to the house, he stopped and looked me in the eye. “That didn’t go the way it was supposed to.” He paused for a minute. “But as bad as it was, I hope it taught you a lesson.” He looked at Tommy. “Both of you.”
And it did. We never went looking for metal again.
Finished with my story, I get out of the rocking chair and head for the front door of the house. Looking back over my shoulder at my two grandsons, I say, “That’s how I got the scar, and that’s why I use this cane.” They stare back, their mouths open.
One hand on the doorknob, I continue, “You just think on that while I go get some tea. And if you two still want to see the Bottom when I get back, we’ll go.”
Author Interview – Sean Monaghan
TCL: What inspired the individual stories you’ve published with us?
Sean: That’s an intriguing question. I’m sure each has come from a different place.
I love the aerobraking maneuver, where orbiting vessels use friction with the atmosphere to slow from orbital velocity to land. That tearing, streaking through distressed air in a fragile cockpit surrounded by superheated gas seems lunacy. It also seems very adventurous, and so the story “Aerobrake” came to be.
“Let’s Go Find Karl” was one of those stories that starts with an odd idea—missing pieces of brain—in an almost cyberpunk environment. Again, looking for adventure.
In “The Wreck of the Emerald Sky” I had an already established universe, with some earlier Barris Space stories. I wanted to write something longer, and try some different things with the universe.
The story “The Flower Garden” followed another story (“Alecia in the Mechwurm”, published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine) where alien invaders come in the shape of slow-growing, slow-moving and near indestructible and unstoppable mechanical-flesh hybrids. “Alecia” was very much a hard sci-fi story, but I felt there was more to the premise (and I still do), so I wanted to work in the world again. “The Flower Garden” became much more soft sci-fi, even literary in some ways, to the extent that when sitting the two stories side-by-side they seem very different.
With “The Whalefall”, I’d read articles about diver-researchers examining the remains of whale carcasses in otherwise barren areas of the seafloor. The bodies quickly become colonized by fish, molluscs, crabs, seaweeds and endless other creatures and flora. I often find myself in a “I wonder… what if…?” frame of mind. Here, I wondered what if there was a world where the whales were vastly bigger than on Earth. I wonder what kind of undersea garden would happen then.
TCL: Interesting. I had actually wondered if you were a diver and so that was where some of the story or at least the imagery came from.
Sean: I’m a keen snorkeller, however right now I live a long way from good snorkelling spots. I look forward to the opportunity when I travel – especially when I make it to Australia.
TCL: I’m also glad to hear you found a home for Alecia in the Mechwurm. Do you expect to write more in that universe? Or have you already?
Sean: I’m still waiting for the right story to hit me for it. “Alecia” and “Flower Garden” are very different stories, so I’m not sure which way another one would go.
TCL: Family relationships often seem to play a role in your stories. Do you feel that’s a common theme in your writing? Or what would you consider some of the common themes?
Sean: I realize that family relationships are key to most of my stories. Often that parent-child relationship is where the true story really lies, and the setting and events provide the framework where that is worked out. Sometimes my main character is the adult child, sometimes the parent. So yes, absolutely, family relationships are a common theme in my writing.
TCL: When you start writing a story, do you know how it’s going to end? If not, can you give us an example of a story you expected to go in one direction that went somewhere else?
Sean: Knowing how a story is going to end sometimes is clear to me from the outset, other times it’s not until the story is almost done.
With “Aerobrake” I think I always imagined the outcome (I’d started with the title so they had to just about burn up in the atmosphere), but what was unexpected to me was how Claire and
David’s relationship played out. I was glad the way the reconnection came about.
In “The Flower Garden”, I hadn’t planned the outcome for Greg’s father from the outset, but as the story unfolded, it became clear that it was the natural progression, and led, to my mind, to the strongest emotional resolution.
TCL: The progression does indeed feel quite natural, and it seems almost difficult to picture anything else happening to his father. Was it the father’s personality that developed as you wrote the story, and so you realized that he would have done what he did? Or did the plot just seem to dictate the outcome?
Sean: The father’s personality certainly developed through the story. Much of that came from the change in their relationship, from being somewhat estranged with the father’s former position power very much diminished and Greg finding himself surprised by that. The father’s choices came out of the plot – the situation of experiencing loss. I guess the mechwurm is a metaphor for the unstoppable forces we all find in our lives.
TCL: What would you like to read more of & what are you tired of in general in speculative fiction?
Sean: I guess you could say I’m weary of fantasy. I rarely read it these days, finding wordy books with complex artificial politics not to my taste. That said, I’d like to see more things like Conan. The swashbuckling, primitive superhero. That might have me reading more fantasy. I do think I’d like to read more compelling adventure stories. Ben Bova springs to mind as the kind of author I enjoy, and wish more people would write like him.
TCL: What was the first speculative work that really captured your attention and got you interested in the genre?
Sean: Can I have three? My interest primarily came from NASA’s space program. Boy, did I want to be an astronaut! In terms of speculative work, there were three books that still resonate with me from my early reading days:
William Hjortsberg – Gray Matters
T.J. Bass – The God Whale
Wilson Tucker – Ice and Iron
I liked the quirky worlds, the odd characters and, especially in The God Whale, the idiosyncratic writing.
TCL: What’s a typical day like for you, either including writing or not?
Sean: I start out with a thirty minute run, shower, breakfast and head in to work. I work at a busy public library running programs (including writing programs) for adults and children. Come evening, I have a momentary collapse into a heap, before some family time and hitting the keyboard and writing furiously for a couple of hours. Sometime later I head for bed.
TCL: As someone who’s written successfully, and helps others learn to write, where do you fall on the spectrum of writing being natural talent vs. a learned skill?
Sean: I’m going with learned skill. I love writing, so I do it an awful lot. I read a lot of fiction, and I read ‘how to write’ books by experienced writers, and I take courses. With all that I’ve discovered that I have a whole lot more to learn still. As with anything, there can be arguments for talent, but perhaps talent is mostly drive and attention to objectives. I don’t feel that I’m particularly talented, but I do think my perserverance has paid off.
TCL: To what extent do your personal experiences (job, family, or odd things that have happened to you) influence your stories?
Sean: When I’m writing speculative fiction, I tend to be way out in the depths of imagination. That said, my family experiences come through in terms of trying to figure out how relationships work. Most of my contemporary stories seem to concern parent-child relationships, but that also comes through thematically somewhere in much of my speculative fiction.
TCL: How would you compare the experience of writing contemporary stories with speculative? What influences what you’re going to work on at any given time?
Sean: Speculative fiction comes from the part of me that’s still six years old and longs to be an astronaut and walk on the Moon. Contemporary comes from where I’m trying to figure out where I actually fit in the world—in the web of family and relationship and work and travel. I have a feeling there is some overlap there.
I often find if I’m reading science fiction, I’m writing contemporary, and vice-versa. Right now I’m reading Lee Child’s novel Never Go Back, and I’m deep in the heart of writing a wild political story set 10,000 years into the future.
TCL: How’re you finding Mr. Child’s Never Go Back (as an influence and as a good yarn?) And considering you’ve stated an aversion to complex artificial politics in fantasy, how do you plan to tackle the politics of this new story’s world in a realistic, yet speculative and engaging way, considering politics can often be more at home in science fiction for some readers?
Sean: Ha, caught out! I think the thing I glean from Lee Child’s writing is a sense of urgency and suspense. We know that Jack Reacher will come out fine, but what’s going to happen to everyone else.
With the new story, while the political problem is part of the plot driver, I hope I don’t overwhelm the reader with detail. My intention is to focus on the human drama unfolding within the unstable situation.
TCL: What’s the most frustrating thing about the writing process and the publishing industry for you?
Sean: Perhaps the patience required between the time of completing a story and the time of it reaching publication.
TCL: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should watch for?
Sean: Keep an eye out for my story “Wakers” which will be appearing in the August 2016 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. I’ll also be indie-publishing a trilogy of adventure novels about space brigands beginning from around September.
TCL: Does the trilogy have a name?
Sean: How about “The Cody Chronicles”
TCL: Finally, unrelated to writing, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Sean: I’m from New Zealand. Years back, while waiting in the immigration line at Brisbane airport, I saw David Lange—former New Zealand Prime Minister—ahead of me in the queue. Mr Lange was the guy who introduced New Zealand’s nuclear-free policies. That was kind of neat. I agreed with that, though not all of his politics, but how often do you see the leader of a nation? So, I spoke with him, as we passed through the long corrals. I remember saying “Thank you for all the work you’ve done on behalf of our country”, you know, being polite. I ended up having a conversation with him about growing up, and my travel plans, before the line moved on and he slipped away through the immigration booth. Maybe not crazy-crazy, but it was cool to find the courage to speak with him instead of letting the moment pass by.
TCL: That’s a good story. Did it change how you viewed him at all?
Sean: It did. He became real, rather than some half-mythical, television figure. Friendly, approachable, happy to chat. That surprised me.
TCL: Do you think your encounter with him will affect fictional politicians or politics in your future stories?
Sean: Well, it might let me paint them in a more favorable, human light.
TCL: What achievement are you most proud of?
Sean: I guess winning the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest would be my proudest writing achievement.
TCL: Are you a dog person or a cat person?
TCL: Do you have any?
Sean: I have one. Not the cuddly kind. More the “feral, lives outdoors, shows up for mealtimes” kind.
TCL: At least one of your stories appears under a pen name. Why is that?
Sean: I was young(er), and trying things out. Some advice I’d received suggested that a pen name might be a good idea. Since “Alecia in the Mechwurm” appeared under the name Michael Shone, it followed that when “The Flower Garden” appeared it should be under that name too, since the stories were in the same universe. Nowadays I only write under my own name, which of course makes things problematic if I want to write another “mechwurm” story.
TCL: That makes sense. Thank you for the explanation, Sean, and for taking the time to talk to us.