The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- Girl Next Door by David Cleden
- The Mechanical Turks by Martyn Dade-Robertson
- A Slim Green Volume by Lynn Rushlau
- A Series of Reviews from Fine Dining Quarterly by Nina Shepardson
- The Waterfall by Rona Fernandez
- The Blue Door by Carol Holland March
- Rude Awakenings by Derrick Boden
- Morfi by David Steffen
- The Wall of Mouths by Imogen Cassidy
- Incomplete Slaughter by Steven Peck
- Hello, World by Richard Ford Burley
- Bannanatattatantsia by David Fawkes
- Author Interview – Jamie Lackey
Girl Next Door
By David Cleden
Bad things happen and sometimes there’s no one to blame. But each time I heard that from some well-meaning friend, the knife twisted a little further, cut a little deeper. I didn’t need them to tell me I was throwing everything to the wind: career, money, marriage. It wasn’t as if I had a choice.
Damned if I was going to lose my daughter–not again. Each death was a little harder to bear than the last.
So I pulled the photos from the envelope for one last look, even though I was running late for the divorce hearing. It gave me pleasure knowing Suzanne’s lawyers probably billed her by the minute.
I tilted the photograph on top for a better look. Except for a desk lamp, the apartment was in darkness. Beyond the picture window, downtown city lights glittered distantly thirty stories below. Suzanne used to call the place god’s platform and it did seem rather apt. My money had bought me that: luxury and distance–and other things besides.
In the photo, Alyson looked happy. We’d had a row the morning of her death, a stupid, pointless little argument. But I saw no trace of lingering resentment on her face now. I tilted the photo to catch the light, wanting to be sure.
Tomorrow (or maybe the day after) this would all be gone: the apartment, the houses, cars, investments–all my assets liquidated. But it would buy me the most important thing of all.
And that was all that mattered.
“Well screw you, Max,” Suzanne said. She slapped her hand down on the table to emphasize her anger. By itself, it wasn’t much, but she had on those gaudy rings I’d never liked and a cluster of bracelets jangled at her wrist. When all that metal hit the conference table, it sounded like a gun going off. I flinched. Emboldened, she did it again, only the repetition somehow diminished the effect, turning it into nothing more than a childish tantrum. Too late, I realized I’d let a smile play across my face.
“You think this is funny, Max? You think I won’t go through with it?”
My gaze flicked to her lawyer. To his credit, the man looked faintly embarrassed. I tried to keep my face neutral. “I’m sure you’ll make this every bit as excruciating as it needs to be.”
“You bet I will. I’m serious about this, Max. I want what’s mine. I want my share.”
I spread my hands. “What if I don’t have it to give you?”
Suzanne stood, face flushed. In that moment she seemed vulnerable; weary, beaten down, and I couldn’t help remembering all the conversations, the hopes, the dreams–and the heartaches–we’d once shared. All gone now, though.
“You took from me the most important thing I had. You did that, Max. You. I hold you to blame for it all. So don’t try to deny me this.”
If I thought I’d put up barriers against that kind of hurt, I realized I was wrong. I could feel the tide rising again–not that it was ever in retreat for long. That was the thing about a tide: it always turned, rising up again and sweeping everything before it. Mine was a tide of grief and loss, and carried on its cold, black waves were the flotsam and jetsam of memories.
It seemed like a good time to leave. There was nothing more to be said.
My legal team told me how it would play out. There would be a court petition and an investigation into my financial affairs, possibly protracted if we chose to make things difficult. But I didn’t have any clever financial bolt-holes, no hidden portfolios. I was a straightforward kind of guy. I started out with nothing, clawed my way up by building a business that lasted long enough for me to sell out and cash in. I was no smarter than a thousand others with drive, ambition and one good idea in their pocket. I just got lucky. Started out with nothing and now it looked like I’d end up with nothing. Which made what happened in between just a blip. Could you truly lose something you never had in the first place?
The money would be enough to buy me a few more months of data, maybe a year’s worth. But if Suzanne’s lawyers were sharp and they got to it first, I wouldn’t even have that long.
And then I would lose Alyson all over again.
She had made herself late for school talking on the phone. I’d heard her prattling to some friend about last night’s TV, some science documentary that had grabbed her attention and got her all fired up. I reacted the way any parent would. I did the whole being a teenager means taking more responsibility for yourself thing. What I should have done was told her to wait for the next bus and take a late mark in the class register. Would that have been so terrible? But she’d gone sulky on me. Sarcastic, too. Oh well if you’re too important to give me a ride… And like a fool I’d caved in.
A traffic snarl-up between Main Street and 3rd forced me to detour a couple of blocks east to find a smoother flow. (How was that my fault?) At the lights, I eased left on green just, it turned out, as some utter moron was racing to make it across the intersection even though the lights must have turned red on him fifty yards back. (Not my fault either).
I’d started my left turn when the world jigged sideways as if scene shifters were pushing trees and buildings and road abruptly past me. The wheel beneath my hand came alive, tearing itself from my grip. It was strangely quiet inside the car. (Later I would recollect the concussive thud of the impact, the crump of bending metal, and realize that some part of my brain had simply decided to ignore those stimuli. This isn’t happening it beamed out to the rest of my consciousness).
Oh, but it was.
I saw little clouds of dust lift from the dash and settle again, falling in slow motion like fine snow, and in the same heartbeat the interior of the Toyota seemed to grow narrow as if the car was exhaling, sucking in its cheeks. The passenger side–Alyson’s side–bore the brunt. I tried to turn in my seat to reach out to her but the geometry of the car was shifting. I remember explosive pain to the side of my head, and just enough time to think, this must be how it feels to have your skull cracked like the shell of an egg, before blackness washed over me.
I came round in the back of the ambulance; woozy, confused. Alyson wasn’t there. Much later at the hospital a blue-gowned surgeon with tired eyes and a carefully neutral expression, told me they’d tried but there hadn’t been anything they could do. I remembered nodding slowly, wisely, much like I might have done on being told the Toyota needed a new gearbox. Shock does that apparently.
None of it was my fault. Everyone said so. That’s what I kept telling myself, too. None of it.
But it changed nothing.
When Dr Benjamin Lanois and his weird theories first hit the headlines, I missed it all. I was too deep in grief to care about anything else. Everything had contracted to a little whirlpool of intense suffering with me at its center, drowning. Drowned.
But eventually I bobbed to the surface of my pool of anguish, like some bloated, glassy-eyed corpse. Numb didn’t begin to describe it, but at least I was no longer submerged. And then one day, I sat down and found the strength to open a newspaper again and colors from the real world started to bleed back into my life.
The first story I read was an editorial retrospective, a kind of “Where are they now?” of big news items that had passed into oblivion. BIGGEST CON-MAN EVER? screamed a headline. DISGRACED SCIENTIST FORCED TO RETRACT CLAIMS, another. Digging further, I thought I saw the pattern and the truth of it. A research team, led by an unfeasibly young and charismatic Benjamin Lanois, had announced some rather startling implications of an obscure branch of quantum theory. Nobody really seemed to understand the math, but the experiments Dr Lanois proposed to back up his hypothesis–quickly dubbed the ‘sneak peek’ machine by the media–were just too sensationalist for the academic community to stomach. It all smacked of self-aggrandizement. And then the media unearthed a satisfyingly scurrilous background. Dr Lanois, it turned out, had passed a debauched, hippyish time at college, mostly spent partying, boozing, womanizing, smoking pot and flunking courses–not necessarily in that order. Yet when it really mattered, Lanois had aced his post-graduate panels–clearly a brilliant, erratic mind that just needed some focus in his life. A purpose. When Lanois, angered and hurt by the ridicule and invective leveled at him, had the temerity to claim experimental proof–proof that he was not yet ready to publish, however–the media pretty much fell upon him and his work like a pack of wolves on a tethered goat. The university cut off funding, disavowed the research, and would have disowned Dr Lanois had they not somehow granted him tenure the year before. That was the end of it. So much for Lanois’ ‘sneak peeks.’ The only thing that didn’t go away, it seemed, were the persistent rumors that the experiments had some basis in truth. The question was, how much?
Genius or charlatan? The media posed the question a thousand times. And then, like a passing summer storm, they moved on to other things, the story grown stale.
I didn’t believe, either. Not at first–though god knows I had my reasons for wanting to. But I was a man with nothing to lose, except maybe his fortune.
I made enquiries.
We danced like lovers in a crowded room. Sometimes the music brought us closer together only to whirl us apart in different directions. At every turn there were strangers who only seemed to get in the way. Dr Lanois is not accepting appointments at the moment. Dr Lanois is travelling. He is visiting with friends; speaking at a conference; at a retreat. Dr Lanois has no interest in propositions of any kind, no matter the circumstances. And from the university, although never directly voiced, Dr Lanois is persona non grata. We do not discuss his research or the results he claims to have achieved.
But my money gave me access to resources and cunning. The investigative agency I hired had no difficulty providing me with a private address.
We met at last on the stone steps of a rented townhouse. This was the edge of the city suburbs where the smart money lived, cozy in modest three-floor terraces on tree-lined streets where it was still safe for the children to play in the parks, in daylight hours at least. It was raining lightly as I stood blocking his way. Lanois tugged the oak door shut behind him. “Yeah?” he asked. I saw a little flicker of fear before he forced his face to relax. With his long unkempt hair, jacket worn over a designer-logo’d tee shirt and expensive sneakers, he could have been some up-and-coming record producer or graphic designer. Or con-man.
“I left messages. Called at your office.” I raised my hands and shrugged. “There seemed no other way to reach you. I’m–”
“Yeah, man. I know who you are,” he said. “I don’t give interviews, okay? I know what you’re trying to do here.”
“I’m not a journalist, Dr Lanois. I’m here to offer my help.”
“Help? Oh, right. Know much about quantum mechanics, do you? Come to point out some holes in my theories? Some errors in the calculations?”
“Help of a different kind. I think you’ll find I have a fat check-book and a rather generous streak.”
He’d taken a step toward me as if to push past but now he hesitated. “I get it. A benefactor, right? And what’s in it for you?”
“Let’s not beat around the bush, Dr Lanois. You’re tainted. Your work has stalled. I doubt there’s a research funding body in the land who wants anything to do with you. But I can help you move ahead again, prove your doubters wrong.”
Lanois scratched at the stubble on his cheek. “Maybe they’re not wrong. Had you thought of that? Everyone else seems to think my work is just a big zilch.”
“Well is it?”
Lanois shuffled uneasily. I was still blocking his path, though god knows, the last thing I wanted was a scuffle in the street. “How much are we talking?”
“Let’s discuss that back at your lab.”
After a moment, he nodded curtly. I’d had a strong sense the offer of funding would swing it. Money always does. But sometimes it only buys you what you want to hear. I knew that, too.
“Can’t do it,” Lanois said. “You’re wasting your time. Location is always going to be the issue. Sorry, man. You should have done your homework before you got in touch.”
I forced a smile. “Believe me, I did. And nobody said this was going to be easy, did they?”
“Amen to that. Look. You know why the media dubbed it the ‘sneak peek’ machine, right? Because that’s all we can do: open a tiny little slit and peer through. Like putting our eye to a keyhole to make out the room beyond. Limited view, limited resolution. And even just creating that slit is phenomenally difficult and vastly energy-intensive. Predetermining the location is harder still. Impossible, maybe. Hell, we’re talking about peeking into another universe! Some days I still can’t get my head around that.”
“But with more work? More funding?” I asked encouragingly.
Lanois flapped his hands. “Who knows, man? Maybe. But just in energy terms alone the cost of every captured photon is crippling, and with limited directional control… You heard there are government wonks sniffing around? They think maybe if we glimpse some shiny, silvery new invention–say something that makes killing people a whole lot more efficient, you know?–that we can just copy the idea and the skunkworks guys save themselves a ton of R&D budget. Arseholes. They don’t get it. They just don’t get that even with a billion billion branches at the quantum level, it still pretty much looks like the same damn universe as ours.”
“But I get it, Ben,” I told him quietly. “The differences are subtle. Unpredictable. But there are differences, aren’t there? Tell me about Quantum Line 33-1172.”
Lanois looked surprised. I guessed he wasn’t used to lay-people who’d clued themselves up as much as I had. But I had a good grasp of his ‘clustering’ theories of alternative universes. Not the discredited model of near-infinite branching; multiple realities that were supposed to pop into existence with every flip of an atom’s spin or decaying nucleus–such ideas always struck me as daft. A multiverse so profligate, so out of control, had to be insane. But Quantum Lines, parallel realities where clusters of those quantum branches harmonized and combined like standing waves rising from the ripples on a pond–that I could relate to. A Quantum Line, just like the standing wave, had a separate existence; distinct, unreachable from its neighbors. A superposition of a quintillion invisible changes; essentially the same, yet subtly different.
What Lanois had done (claimed to have done, I reminded myself) was find a way to steal information–photons–from neighboring lines. I had struggled to find an analogy but I liked to imagine tiny wind-blown droplets of water flicked from the crest of one standing wave to the next. His apparatus allowed a few photon to bleed across the gap from a neighboring Quantum Line. In return, we traded some of our own. Thus balance was maintained; matter and energy conserved.
I asked him again what made this particular Quantum Line special.
“QL 33-1172 shares some kind of quantum harmonic. The energy transfer function works more efficiently. It’s all there in the math. When we collapse wavefronts to create the slit, the energy values work in our favor. There may be other harmonics; it’s too early to say.”
Lanois rose from his chair and paced across the tiny office, his motion creating little dust eddies that rose from the haphazard piles of journals stacked on the floor. “I know what you want from all this,” he said. “But have you considered that in almost every respect QL 33-1172 is no different to our reality? Virtually indistinguishable in almost every respect?” He didn’t look at me as he went on. “There’s every chance your daughter has died in this alternate reality too. Did you think of that?”
I nodded, not wanting to trust myself to speak.
“And even if she lives, she is still dead in our universe, no matter what. There’s no bringing her back. No crossing over. This other girl… She’s similar, identical even. But she’s still just…” He struggled for the right words. “Just the girl next door.”
I insisted on access. I wanted to see the details. I wanted my tour.
The capture chamber itself was small and uncluttered, almost claustrophobic. It’s not how I had pictured the gateway to a neighboring universe. With Hollywood in charge, there would have been an arch-shaped portal glowing with a soft blue neon light, maybe the hum or crackle of electricity punctuating the reverent silence. This… This looked like some old hot water tank kicked on its side with an old-fashioned plate camera strapped to one end.
Maybe it was.
On the wall, a digital counter edged into the sub-minute zone. “We should leave,” Lanois said.
“Is it dangerous?”
He shrugged. “Stay and find out if you like.” He’s trying to intimidate me, I realized. Or impress me.
Back in the outer room, Lanois threw himself in a chair, letting it roll across the floor, carrying him to the main console. It all seemed a bit stagey, an unnecessary show just for my benefit.
He typed a long string of commands on the keyboard, so fast the keys sounded like falling raindrops. It could have been gobbledygook–or he could have done this so often it had become second nature, I reminded myself. I took a step closer to see but he stabbed the enter key and the screen changed. On a second monitor an image formed briefly: black and white, fuzzy. Hard to make out anything. Before I could get a good look, it vanished. A sheet slipped out of a printer, a smudge of gray tones, but Lanois snatched that up too. He stared at it for a moment, gave a tired, ironic little laugh and crumpled it into a waste bin.
“We get a run roughly every forty minutes,” he explained. “Twenty four seven, as long as we pay the electricity bills.” He dipped his head towards me. “Thanks for that, by the way. It takes that long to recharge the storage capacitors and then–” He made a jabbing motion with his first finger. “Peekaboo.”
I did a rapid calculation. “About thirty pictures a day?”
“Thirty six. Most of what we get is crap. Blank walls, patches of tarmac. Or it’s night time. We steal photons, but it’s a fickle process. Our capture control is getting a little better, but the calibration factors for positioning…” He snapped his fingers. “Come on. We can find a better place to talk than this. And I could use a drink.” He pushed off from the console and coasted halfway across the room like some little kid.
He paused to type a few reset commands at one of the terminals and unseen, I bent and retrieved the crumpled paper from the bin. I slipped it into my pocket just as he turned back. “Kill the lights, will you? Wouldn’t want to waste electricity, would we?”
It was obvious Suzanne didn’t want to be there, obvious that she was uncomfortable in my presence. But I was too excited to let her frostiness deflect me. I made her sit at her own kitchen table and fussed over her, trying to get everything just right, summoning up the courage to find the right words.
I slid the envelope towards her. Suzanne glanced at it but made no move to take it. Her eyes came back to rest on me; cold, lifeless eyes. I reached forward and spilled the contents onto the table in front of her. “These,” I said, “are quite possibly the most expensive photographs ever taken. You wouldn’t believe–” I bit down on the rest of the sentence. I didn’t want her thinking it was about the money. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the miracles the money has bought.
Three black and white ten by eights spilled out; grainy and a little out of focus. I arranged them in front of her as if their neatness and symmetry was somehow important. “Alyson.” I heard the catch in my voice as I said her name. I took a deep breath before continuing. “Taken just last week. I know how impossible this sounds, but it’s true. This one–” I pushed one of the photos fractionally closer to Suzanne who hadn’t moved, but her eyes had locked onto the pictures. “This one was taken as she finished classes. This one as she arrived for school. It’s pretty much guesswork about when and where she might be. For every one picture, we discard a thousand others. And every photon of every image comes at a price. But it’s her, Suzanne! It’s really her! Our daughter alive and well again. Isn’t that miraculous?”
Suzanne stared at the pictures wordlessly.
“There’ll be more. The process can be refined. We’ll look for her in other places–netball practice, maybe. Remember how she was trying out for captain? Or down the mall with her friends. I know these are just glimpses. It can never be more than that. But just knowing how she’s doing, knowing that in some parallel universe our daughter is living her life, growing up–”
Suzanne moved suddenly, like a robot jerking into life. She swept the photos from the table. “This is not my daughter! This doesn’t even look like her. My daughter died in the passenger set of your car with you at the wheel. You were responsible, Max. It should have been you that died that day, not her. Nothing you do now can ever bring her back. This…” Her mouth worked silently for a moment. “–Is just make-believe.”
My daughter. Those were her words. Not our. My.
“I thought I knew you better than this, Max. This Lanois, he’s a charlatan. Can’t you see that? A peddler of hi-tech snake oil.”
I shook my head. “No, he’s not. I’ve seen his work. It’s real.”
She looked at me with pity in her eyes. “It’s only real because you want it to be.”
In a way it was a kind of shrine, but I didn’t think of it like that. It was just a place where I kept new pictures of my daughter, where I watched from afar as she grew and matured in that other, unreachable place. Alyson. My girl next door.
I hung one or two of the better photos in frames on the wall above my desk. With the lights down low, the images blurred into little more than random patches of light and dark. Somehow that made it better. It was easier to see the details that way, like picking out shapes in the clouds. An impression of a face, unruly shoulder-length hair, perhaps the hint of a smile (or is it a scowl?) captured in an off-guard moment. Always a bright kid, I wondered if she was doing well at school. How many times had I teased her about becoming a doctor, a scientist, a lawyer? Next year would be college, though that hardly seemed possible. Children grow up so fast.
And then I remembered that it was my Alyson I was thinking of. This Alyson might be different. Maybe she hated school. Maybe she hung around the malls all weekend with the other dropout girls? Smoked weed beneath the underpass.
Hell, no. Not my Alyson; not any version of her. Wiping away the sting of tears, I snatched up a marker pen and scrawled I love you across the bottom of the picture. I felt better after that.
Lanois had warned me to expect no obvious differences in this quantum line. He’d said that billions and billions of sub-atomic changes could add up to a whole heap of nothing at the human scale, that parallel universes would almost certainly be indistinguishable. Yet against all the odds Alyson was here in this one; whole and healthy. Or so it seemed. How far could I trust anything Lanois had told me?
And then there was that other matter…
I opened the desk drawer and smoothed out the crumpled paper filched from Lanois’ bin weeks before. I guessed the image had caught part of a newspaper billboard. To still be legible in such a grainy, out of focus photograph, the words must have been written in three inch high letters. OBAMA HEALTHCARE REFORMS LATEST: it read. The words beneath were harder to make out; smaller, blurred. Yet there seemed to be no mistaking them. MICHELLE ENACTS KEY MEASURES INTO LAW.
Was this all some kind of elaborate joke? A scam? Yet Lanois had granted me full access–and full accountability of how my millions were being spent. If it was a con, I couldn’t spot it.
In the end I realized it didn’t much matter. Because Suzanne was right. I did want to believe, no matter what.
Photography was never my thing–not the proper, old-school photography, I mean. I liked the technology well enough, all the gadgets and the paraphernalia but never had the patience–or the eye–for it. And when smartphones came along, suddenly what was the point? Who wanted to lug around a bulky SLR, sling a bag of lenses and filters over a shoulder, endlessly fiddle with aperture, speed and ASA settings, juggle spare memory cards?
Me, as it turned out.
I suppose I needed something. With my business interests all disposed of, I was unemployed and drifting. My life was on hold. Suddenly it became important to recreate Lanois’ blurry pictures as accurately as I could in this reality–finding the exact spot where they must have been captured. I spent hours flitting between photos and viewfinder, trying to work out angles, even comparing shadow lengths to figure out the time of day. I was looking for differences, too; searching for some kind of tangible proof to convince myself this wasn’t all just some cruel hoax.
Not easy. For starters, it was hardly acceptable for a newly single, middle-aged man to be stalking school corridors with a camera. But plenty of Lanois’ images were captured in public places; familiar, accessible places.
Yet time and time again I failed. Lanois’ pictures all seemed to have an elusive elevation to them. One day, I laboriously traced back to the exact spot across the street from the public library where, in the picture I was holding, Alyson had just emerged onto the steps, clutching her shoulder bag, the wind catching her hair and lifting it as she made some remark to a friend at her side. I knew I had the exact same viewpoint, but the grainy picture had been captured maybe fifteen or twenty feet above the spot where I stood. I would need a step-ladder, and a tall one at that, to exactly recreate the image.
What did that prove? If Lanois was a fraud, he was both clever and cunning–but that hardly made him unique.
I brooded on this as I worked on my project. I never found any detectable differences–save for the obvious one, the presence of Alyson. Naturally the weather varied, or the vehicles and pedestrians passing by in my recreation were missing in the original. But I assumed that was down to timing. It was impossible to capture my pictures at the same moment as Lanois’ apparatus. I might be able to locate the exact spot but I would be days or weeks out of sync.
But the pictures of Alyson were coming from somewhere.
Their poor quality made it hard to be sure yet I thought I could see changes: her hair growing longer and wilder, her figure filling out, her nose just a little sharper than before as she shed the last of her puppy fat. I would have given anything to be able to step through some portal and be there with her. It gnawed away at me to think there must be some version of me living in that Quantum Line, blissfully unaware of his blessings. The most I could hope for were brief, tantalizing glimpses of my daughter, my girl next door.
As the weeks passed I realized I was… Happy? No, I could never be that. But I did feel content. My daughter wasn’t completely lost to me. The sneak peeks kept me connected to her in that strange, parallel universe, like letters and family snaps sent from a distant relative on birthdays and high days.
All well and good. It wasn’t enough, but what else could I do?
And then the pictures stopped coming.
I waited for Lanois in his office, feet up on the only little patch of bare desk–the one I’d made when I kicked a pile of his papers onto the floor. I was finding it hard to keep my anger in check. If he was startled to see me lounging in his private sanctum, he hid it well. Actually, he looked hung-over. “Not happy about this, Ben,” I said. “Not happy at all.”
Lanois swore. “Look, what do you expect me to do? It’s like she’s just not there anymore. No trace. We’re looking in all the usual places and there’s just nothing.”
I stood up, feeling like a man teetering on the edge of a precipice, dangerously out of control. “Find her,” I said through clenched teeth.
Lanois sighed. “Jeez, I understand. Really. But have you considered your daughter may be… gone… from this reality stream now? Some of the math seems to imply that local fluctuations tend to settle out in the end. The same patterns will re-establish themselves across the Quantum Lines sooner or later.”
“Are you saying this is just fate?” I almost spat the word. “That Alyson is supposed to die, no matter what? No. I won’t accept that. Look harder.”
I paced the room, like some caged animal. Desperate. I would do whatever it took, but I wouldn’t lose Alyson again. “More funding? God knows, I’ve pumped in millions already, but–” Then I smacked my head. Why hadn’t I remembered before? “Wait. You talked about other Quantum Lines once before. Have you tapped into any others?”
Lanois snorted. “Oh sure. There are other viable QLs alright. But the energy barrier to reach them is an order of magnitude higher. Simply out of our league with the equipment we have right now. We’d have to–”
I stopped him with a gesture. I wrote a number on a scrap of paper on his desk and turned it so that he could read it. “By bank transfer. Later today, if I can arrange it. A first instalment anyway.”
Lanois swallowed and looked at the number hungrily while I tried to keep my face expressionless. Even with the last of my investments disposed of, all that was left didn’t amount to a quarter of what I’d just promised.
But it would buy time.
The new set of photos arrived in less than two months, quicker than I had dared hope. The quality was as poor as ever yet I was certain it was Alyson I saw in that crowd of students: the way she held her head, the angle of her shoulders–even if no one else could see it.
The pictures came from QL 57-4625. A different universe, yet virtually indistinguishable. Not that it mattered to me. It was a universe that contained Alyson. My girl next door as still there, after all.
Then, just weeks later, I answered a knock on my apartment door to find Lanois standing there. The packages were always couriered but this one he handed to me in person, a tight, anxious expression on this face. “What’s this?” I demanded, snatching the envelope before he could mumble an explanation.
There were photos inside, but not the ones I was expecting. All I could make out was a bad reproduction of the city’s Evening Chronicle. Then my eye found the headline two thirds of the way down the page. PROMISING STUDENT KILLED IN RUSH HOUR SMASH. The tiny print of the story was harder to make out but the school yearbook photo underneath the headline made the rest unnecessary.
“I’m sorry, man.”
QL 73-3269 was a strong harmonic, according to Lanois, all be it at the limit of range and viability of the current equipment and power sources. But we drew a blank. No trace of Alyson in the expected places, no record of her death either.
Months passed. Time and time again Lanois explained about the unpredictable, non-linear gaps between Quantum Lines. And though each Quantum Line had its own immutable differences, it was impossible to calculate what they might be and it took time to gather sufficient samples to be certain. Whilst I didn’t understand the physics, I understood the concept of needles and haystacks, and the tradeoff between input energy and resolution.
I had other problems, too. My finances were drying up faster than spit in the desert and Suzanne’s lawyers had their sights firmly set on the little that remained. How many more promises could I break before Lanois lost patience with me? I was on the point of despair.
And then she showed up again in QL 84-1293.
I watched Alyson’s progress in her freshman term at college like any proud father would. She’d chosen the local university, the same campus where I visited Lanois.
It helped, he said, keeping things local. Locational control for the sneak peeks was improving but still difficult.
Three months passed. Three months of quiet contentment as I watched from afar. Then I lost her again.
We followed her into QL 86-2201, picking up where we’d left off. I awaited each packet of photos with barely concealed impatience. I wrote checks against lines of credit that were mostly non-existent. Lanois continued to improve the equipment. I was dismayed when I saw Alyson using a crutch, her right leg stiff and obviously giving her pain. But I ceased my fretting when I realized the implications. All realities have a tendency to collapse down to a common state, Lanois had said. It was as if some things were just meant to be, a kind of universal inevitability. If that were true of Alyson’s accident, wasn’t it possible that crisis had now passed? That she had somehow survived the crash that killed her in those other Quantum Lines? I dared to hope.
And then, out of the blue, Suzanne called and once more my own personal reality shifted.
A few lights were still burning in the lab; late shift domestics working their vacuum cleaners down the long halls and one or two night-owl post-grads fuelled on caffeine crunching data. And Lanois. I’d recognized his car in the lot as I turned in. The night watchman let me in with a curt nod. As a frequent visitor at all hours, I had earned that right.
I found Lanois hunched over inside the mesh cage housing the capture chamber, door propped open by an open toolbox. Was I supposed to believe he was making some kind of repair or recalibration before the next run, due–according to the timer on the wall–in just eight minutes?
With the outer door locked behind me and the key in my pocket, there was no one to disturb us. Now I slipped the hammer out of an inside pocket where it was nestling awkwardly. Lanois still hadn’t heard me enter.
But he heard the sound of shattering plastic well enough as I brought the hammer down on the nearest console, little plastic keys flying in all directions like Scrabble tiles. My next strike shattered a monitor.
I took a step towards Lanois, swinging the hammer loosely and got momentary pleasure in seeing genuine fear in his eyes. He backed further into the cage as I moved to block the doorway. “Easy, man. Whatever’s wrong, we can sort this, okay?”
“You think?” I tugged out my phone and triggered the audio file Suzanne had emailed. “And how are you going to do that, exactly?”
At first there was just background noise on the recording: a bar or crowded restaurant. Then Lanois’ voice, easily recognizable. And a woman’s voice. I could hear the slur in Suzanne’s words, hear how the conversation veered towards flirtatious as the evening wore on. I had a sudden image of her in that low-cut red dress I’d bought on the last wedding anniversary we spent together, a lifetime away now. Suzanne seemed to be hanging on his words, entranced but not simpering. Clever, oh so clever. For the last few minutes she had been maneuvering the conversation with consummate subtly. Lanois seemed oblivious. Now she pounced. “And is it?” she asked demurely. “True, I mean. About your research? Can you really do what’s been claimed?”
On the recording, Lanois seemed to sigh. “You’d be surprised who would fall for a story like that.”
“Really?” I heard Suzanne say. I could picture her leaning forwards and Lanois’ gaze inevitably sliding downwards. “Tell me more,” she murmured. And Lanois had done exactly that.
I shut off the recording.
The need for violent, unreasoning destruction rose up inside me like vomit. I cratered a work bench in a series of violent hammer blows, took out another computer screen, shattered a printer into fragments of plastic and metal. I might have been bellowing too.
“Stop!” Lanois yelled.
“It’s over,” I told him. “All of it. The lies, the deception. I’m done with it. Done with you.” I shook my head. “You really took me for a fool, didn’t you?”
Lanois eyes flicked to the clock. Less than a minute and a half to the next sneak peek. Or maybe not, if I continued my wrecking spree. He raised his hands in front of him. I wasn’t sure if he was pleading to save the equipment or trying to protect himself. “You’ve got this wrong, man.”
I swung the hammer suggestively and was gratified to see him flinch. “Just give me a chance to explain, okay?” He nodded at the clock. “Let’s go through to my office. We can’t stay in here.”
I took a step towards him, backing him right up against the chamber itself. Outside the metal cage, I could see a wall of rack-mounted equipment–red, green and blue lights flickering frenetically. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said.
“Look. I only told her what she wanted to hear, that’s all. I swear.”
“You told her this was all a big deception.”
“It’s what she wanted to hear.” He gave a bitter laugh. “Look, you know I screwed up pretty badly at the start, right? I should never have gone public when I did. The media ripped me to shreds and I’ve no one to blame but myself. ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.’ That’s what they said–and I didn’t have it. Back then plenty of people thought I was no better than some kind of hi-tech con-man. And there’s plenty who still think that.”
“So you don’t deny it?”
“You know what your wife told me? Maybe she didn’t share that part with you. About how she’s moved on. I guess it didn’t seem possible at first, but she made it happen; got through her pain and grief somehow. She told me that after that kind of journey, she couldn’t stand the thought of her daughter being alive in some alternate reality, one that she herself could never inhabit, one that she could never reach out to. She couldn’t lay her daughter to rest knowing that, could she?” Lanois’ voice dropped. “Did you even know she felt like that?”
I let my silence answer his question.
“Look, Max. How could I tell her the truth knowing that? All I did was tell her what she wanted to hear from me, that the research was bogus. A convenient lie, nothing more. But you believe me, don’t you?”
Somewhere a little alarm was buzzing insistently, warning us to leave. Lanois was trying to sidle towards the mesh door but I waved the hammer menacingly.
“Please–” The clock showed less than thirty seconds. Now the room seemed to be humming and it took a moment to realize it wasn’t just inside my head. I could sense a power surge building in the equipment around us, gathering itself to rip a hole in the skin of the universe.
“Look around you,” Lanois said. “Surely all this must convince you?”
But by itself, it meant nothing. Would it have been so hard to fake all those photographs? Probably not. It had only taken money–my money–to equip a lab and tinker with electronics. How could I be sure any of it had a purpose? And yet…
Stupidly, I felt the sting of tears forming in my eyes, blurring my vision. I felt the hammer slip from my grasp and then Lanois was steering me by the elbow out of the cage, the door clanging shut behind. We hadn’t gone three steps before an intense white light washed out everything. I threw my arms up to protect my eyes but the light was already fading, the burst over almost as soon as it had begun.
In that moment, I knew.
What was the truth of it? Only that truth didn’t matter so much after all. In the final analysis, I believed because I wanted to. Because there was nothing else left.
The rain had stopped and sunlight glinted off the slick sidewalks beneath my window. All along the tree-lined avenue, branches drooped with their extra burden and droplets fell in golden streams where they caught the sunlight. It was quite beautiful: the stillness, the freshness after a sudden shower. I reached for my camera.
But all I seemed to see was my own reflection in the window, face partly obscured by the camera, a face I hardly knew anymore. Maybe it was time I ventured outside again. Started to put my life back together.
There were no pictures on the walls anymore. Not discarded–I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that–but tucked away in a drawer I chose not to open. All except one, that last photograph sent by Lanois. The money was all gone by then but he’d sent it anyway; his reasons unclear. Had he even realized its significance, I wondered?
The photograph was not unlike the one that once hung in pride of place: a carefree, teenage girl smiling at something out of shot. The same picture I had scrawled “I love you” across one night as I reached the nadir of despair.
But this was different: a photograph of a photograph. The quality was poor, as ever. I could just make out the original image and my scrawled message, and beneath that, “Love you too” written in some different hand. Try as I might, the grainy resolution made it impossible to recognize the handwriting for certain.
All the same, I knew.
I had stopped being an observer. I no longer counted the days and hours to the next sneak peek. I was done with it for all sorts of reasons–and not just because of the money.
But I still wondered sometimes who was watching me. Snatching sneak peeks into my life and wondering about what might have been. Wishing there wasn’t a universe that separated us.
Someone who’d shown they cared.
The Mechanical Turks
By Martyn Dade-Robertson
As he woke, condensing breath told Hao that he had been evicted for the third time this week. Two screens overhead confirmed, Zero credits in one mirrored by zero degrees in the other. “Cao!” The cold didn’t numb his irritation as Hao kicked open the door of the bunk and felt the relief of a warm draft reviving his feet. He then slid rigidly out of the sealed pod dragging his wheeled case and frosted tablet computer with him. Stretching and letting the warmth return to his extremities he reflected on the irony that the pods were known, colloquially, as ‘Hot Beds’. The carefree/sleep anywhere lifestyle they offered came at a very low price but one that Hao could not currently afford.
All around, faces and feet were appearing from bunks. Some, like Hao, had overstayed their net worth and emerged blue and shivering. Others bolted, rapidly closing their bunk doors behind them, in an effort to beat the clock and preserve an extra credit or two for breakfast. Very few could afford a lie in. It was 6am.
A glimpse of Ava, now descending the ladder of an adjacent bunk, suddenly made Hao aware of his stale odor and unkempt appearance. Hao looked down at his T-shirt with the fading ‘Spring Loaded’ logo, a now forgotten indie band from nearly three years ago. Their music, on reflection, had been no better quality than the hole-ridden cotton of his branded T-shirt. But still, they were memories, an emblem of Hao’s youthful naivety and his attempt to fit in to this culture. The T-shirt also gave away his age. No longer a newbie graduate but a veteran. While Ava could only be two years his junior she was a different generation. The contents of Hao’s wheeled case had been frozen in time, a vestige of the last days of his disposable income. Fashion fads had come and gone but the woman still seemed fresh. Her loose black sweatshirt and tighter jeans were unbranded and worn with a confident lack of care. Sleeves torn at the elbows seemed, to Hao, like small statements of rebellion. That she had emerged from her bunk dressed and already wearing black shin high boots showed a disregard for her unit balance. Those around her were now struggling to dress, scrabbling through backpacks and flight cases for something clean, or at least warm in the rent-free corridor. Ava. Hao only knew her name from the label on her flight case and they had never spoken, but he thought he might love her anyway.
Neither a shower nor breakfast were options for Hao. His only priority was to work and earn enough for lunch, and if he was lucky, a drink, a sleeping pill and a hot bed for the night. Pulling on a fleeced jumper, which seemed to have grown baggy over Hao’s already slight frame, he left the disheveled throng. An unseen figure, Hao pulled his wheeled suitcase behind him.
Avoiding the torture of breakfast smells from the dining hall, Hao took the recreation route, past the unused pool halls and the vending machines selling sugary water. A bank of PMUs (pronounced peemu’s by the locals) glowed ominous neon blue. Standing like guarding sentinels, they promised to “Build from stock for less than 5 credits” and “Build custom for less than 10”. Multicolored pellets filled the space where their stomachs might be and their heads were empty chambers waiting to perform a miracle of manufacture, for those who could pay. Behind them, the peeling remains of a wall mural pronounced ‘LIVE, WORK, PLAY’ in nine foot tall lime green letters. Illuminated by strip lights, the mural was made visible through a glazed wall to the rain-sodden campus. This building, which sat on the edge of the university, was a destination and a transition point. It was a gateway to the real world beyond, but for Hao and the others it was also a protection from it.
Hao approached a swipe card lock, and a gentle flow of warm air vented from above a door. A low whirring sound was joined, as the door slid open, by a higher and almost imperceptible whine and repeated ch-ching noises in surround sound. Hao had joined at the fourth floor and could see through the metal grated walkway to the three floors below and another eight above. Making his way up an industrial staircase, some of the cages (although corporate called them desks) lining the walkway were already occupied by nighters or those struggling to clock up credits. None of them looked up from their terminals as Hao walked past.
Hao could, if he wanted, log on to any one of the thousands of terminals in the building, but to do so would break an unspoken rule. Nothing marked Hao’s territory other than local knowledge. This was Hao’s terminal, allocated to him when he arrived and would be his until (and if) he left. There was little purpose to maintaining such territories, and Hao occasionally longed for a change of scene. However, with no views and a constant server-optimal temperature of eighteen degrees, habit and protocol drove Hao’s selection of location. There was one other advantage. From here, Hao could gaze down through the grating of the adjacent walkway to the level below and to Ava’s terminal. Hao would only allow himself occasional discreet glances throughout the day, each time hoping to catch sight of more than the back of her head and her disheveled jet-black hair. He could spy with impunity, sure that she wouldn’t look up, although he sometimes wished she would. Her cage was still empty this morning.
Seated, with his wheelie case stowed in an overhead tray, Hao reclined on a chair which, unlike a Hot Bed, was configured to encourage long stays. A neck pad gently eased his head into an optimal position. He then pulled the articulated screen towards him and logged on. The SemWeb logo appeared and its slogan ‘Building the Semantic Web, Together’ emerging from thousands of lines of a network graphic. A secondary system booted and a separate screen burst into life with a torrent of gold coins cascading. The metallic jingle faded revealing Hao’s zero credit balance.
On his main screen, a list of folders with cryptic names appeared. For all Hao knew the list was infinite, he had never scrolled down to find out and he could only access the top folder anyway. He selected the file named: “Imgs_DogsinFields_intViewValidationSet”. The first image flashed up. A golden retriever stood, ears pricked up, in a wooded clearing. Underneath a list entitled ‘Ontologies’ read: Dog, Field, Trees, Sky. And a button flashed VALIDATE and another EDIT. Hao hit the VAIDATE button, the image disappeared and, with a gentle Ch-ching noise, a gold coin dropped on his supplemental screen. Hao’s credit balance went up to 0.001. Not a high payout but this job should be easy. If he could average one item every three seconds he would make twelve credits by the end of a ten-hour shift. Enough for lunch, dinner and five credits left for eight hours in a hot bed. He might even have enough for a shower.
Dog, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
Dog, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
Dog, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | EDIT…
Dog | Change to: Cow
Cow, Field, Trees, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
Dog, Field, Sky
Select | VALIDATE
And so began the rhythm of Hao’s day.
By noon the vast chamber filled with flickering light and jingled like a muted casino. With every play everyone won a tiny boost to their credit balance. Occasionally there would be a credit booster. A randomly selected worker would hit a golden data packet and receive a flush of units. For Hao, however, the winnings had been small. Errors in the data added valuable seconds to validating each item. As the morning progressed Hao’s focus also wavered. Sequences of Sheepdogs, Alsatians and Labradors all seemed to mix in a hairy blur as Hao became anxious to click the ‘Validate’ button and receive a hit of adrenalin conditioned by the noise of a dropping coin. He knew he’d made mistakes but hoped that he was within error limits. He needed to keep his 3.071 credits.
As Hao contemplated lunch, he allowed himself to glance down at the cage below but, rather than Ava, his attention was caught by her neighbor. A small hunched figure, younger than Hao, sat prodding with increasing desperation at his terminal. The machine, however, was blank and unresponsive. Technical errors were not unheard of but, from the boy’s anxiety, Hao sensed that there was a bigger problem. Those around him were conspicuous in their lack of interest as the boy stood up with one final stab of his screen and, grabbing his case, fled with tears spilling from his eyes. Hao allowed himself a moment of sympathy for the pathetic figure leaving the chamber. And then, as his eyes returned to Ava, he remembered that where there was tragedy there was often opportunity.
Lunch was served with an inelegant flourish. From stainless steel trays a sickly ‘sweet and sour’ dish of suspiciously regular shaped chicken pieces and overcooked dried out rice were slopped onto a vacuum molded plate. Hao fought back memories of spicy lamb skewers and steamed dumplings. At two credits, this tasteless mush the British described as ‘Chinese food’ was still a bargain.
Hao had timed his lunch carefully. Palms sweating and heart quickening, he followed Ava, keeping a respectful distance and devising his seating strategy. She took up a place at the end of a nearby bench. He didn’t want to sit opposite – too obvious – but needed to be close enough to strike up a conversation. Hao opted for a chair diagonally across, sat down and proceeded to push his food around the plate waiting for his long absent courage to return home. Unable to wait any longer he looked up and began to deliver his opening line:
Having spoken to no one for more than a week, his voice had become rough and his vowels unpracticed. Clearing his throat and, having lost the semblance of easy informality, he stuttered through the sentence.
“Did you see that guy evicted from his terminal today?”
Ava looked up from her lunch with a ‘you talking to me’ expression of surprise.
“You mean Oli. Yeah…I sat next to him.”
Her voice. Hao hadn’t heard it before. He was in conversation for the first time and she’d left him an opening. Now close and able to look at her without hiding his gaze Hao saw Ava afresh. She had, he noticed the swirl of a tattoo on her neck and freckles blemished her skin. Ava’s eyes were as bright blue as in Hao’s dream version but faint lines underneath them hinted at her weariness. Ava was real and no lingering fantasy. Hao felt emboldened.
“Oh. Do you know why he went?”
To Hao’s surprise the line hooked her in. She leaned over to him with a conspiratorial smile.
“He was being a naughty boy.”
Hao tried to mirror the woman’s posture and leaned closer, but he was feeling a familiar intense social discomfort. Was she flirting? Perhaps she was mocking him. Yes, that was more likely. Silly little Hao. Silly little Data Monkey.
“Yesterday he got an image set of children’s cartoon characters. You know the kind of thing. Walter the Rabbit skipping through the woods. Jim the Jungle Bear blah blah. Anyway it should have been a validation set confirming the character gestures and motions.”
“Well, he chose to…reinterpret the brief and find alternative annotations”
Her face beamed with apparent respect for the boy’s offenses.
“Let’s just say that Mr and Mrs Fox had their world expanded with moves from the Karma sutra. Oli only earned two credits but a bunch of us rewarded his labors with a drink and a hot bed last night”.
The table shuddered and a plastic tray skittered on the surface of the table next to Hao. The white sweaty bulk of a co-worker jostled his way onto the table and, ignoring Hao, began to address Ava with intensity.
“I tell ya, I fucking sorted it. It’s a game, a big fucking puzzle and I’ve cracked it.”
He spoke rapidly, using profanity as others might use punctuation, and glanced furtively around the dining hall looking for some unseen surveillance. Hao had known him, vaguely, as an undergraduate. His name was Pete or Patrick or something else beginning with P and he’d barged through his degree with a loud voice and Alpha male pretensions. He’d been fitter then, but now his large and still dominating frame had become flabby. His once ruddy cheeks were bleached grey with ‘terminal tan’. Hao had hated them then and he still hated them now. He could feel the trail of his conversation with Ava cooling. This oaf was going to dominate lunch and soon there would be no way back in. Furthermore, she seemed to be encouraging it. Perhaps P was a more entertaining partner. Hao shrunk back and let Ava provoke P further.
“Go on then. Spill it. What’s the big secret?”
“It’s not fucking random. There’s a pattern”
“Pattern to what?”
“To the fucking wins!” said P with apparent exasperation.
Hao noticed the index figure of P’s right hand was rapidly twitching even as he gripped a fork. The motion was a sign of a veteran terminal jockey and P’s whole body seemed to twitch with static from years of repetitive motion.
“Look,” continued P, pulling, what appeared to be a folded map out of his pocket. Unfurled, the sheet was revealed to be many sheets roughly taped together, each one containing a grid which bore some resemblance to floor plans of the data center. The grids were covered in notes, arrows and, what appeared to be formulas. Sections of the grid were also colored in, like a series of multicolored crossword tables.
“Look here, twenty-eighth of June, fifty credit win, section two slash thirty-five, Twelve-thirty in the afternoon. Fifteenth of August, twelve-thirty in the afternoon, four slash two hundred and twenty three, twelve credit win. Twenty fifth of August…”
As P continued to reel off his list, his voiced softened and he became more distant, lost in his thoughts. Ava eventually broke in.
“Yeah, yeah, and so what’s your point.”
P looked up as if suddenly woken.
“Well, it’s a fucking pattern. Don’t you get it?”
Pulling out a Plastico® Graphink® stylus, sharpened to little more than a nub, he scrawled lines over the paper joining the shaded squares as if playing a manic dot to dot puzzle.
“Triangles, you see…it’s a pattern. Follow it along…they become fucking hexagons. Each big winner is in the middle and the time…you see. 2.35, 9.02. See they add up. Golden sections everywhere. It’s a fucking spiral. A big win must be in the center.”
The marks on the paper became more erratic. The stylus now followed the twitches of P’s index finger in tiny zigzags across the pages. Hao looked on, horrified, but Ava seemed only mildly amused.
“Wow,” she said barely disguising a mocking tone.
“You’re a genius. So what’s the plan now, then?”
P looked up. Eyes wide and wild.
“What fucking plan? What did anyone say about a fucking plan? Why do you want to know? Want the credits for yourself? FUCK YOU!”
Shaking, P stood up toppling his chair, and screwing the plans in his fists, he jostled his way out of the dining hall.
Hao and Ava watched in silence. How could Hao possibly come back from that? The conversation seemed lost but Ava turned back.
“Most people in this place fall into one of two categories. The first type are ‘The Deluded’” she said gesturing at the fallen chair. “They cling to the hope of that one big win or a time when their degrees in Sociology or French Lit will have an economic value in a world where the only growth industry is data. The second type are ’The Pragmatists’. They only live for their next unit and one more meal. They don’t even have the imagination to fantasize a brighter future. Oli, well, Oli wasn’t either of those.”
Ava got up to leave but not before leaning over and whispering in Hao’s ear:
“Question is, Hao, what type are you?”
Hao’s stomach lay heavy with half a sickly chicken lunch. The other half lay discarded in the canteen slop bucket. A penetrating migraine buzzed in his head. He should have been elated that Ava knew his name. This revelation was, however, as unsettling as the celebratory tone of her description of Oli’s demise and her parting question, “What type are you?” said in a way that implied she already knew. Hao was a pragmatist, but then what choice did he really have? Oli wasn’t a hero. He had cried. He left with no credits, hope or future. For what? A schoolboy prank without consequence or real audience? Even the validation data was subject to validation. No package was ever annotated by one person alone. An algorithm would have picked up the discrepancy and Oli’s shut-out would have been automatic – initiated by a humorless machine. What about the alternative? Live a fantasy until it devoured you completely. Begin to plot your escape like a prisoner of war armed with a homemade map and a fractured reality. Ava hadn’t made sense. The problem now was that, where Hao had thought of her often before, now he couldn’t get her out of his mind.
Then it happened. 10 credits. Somewhere P. shaded another box on his escape plans. 20 credits… Hao contemplated the cascade of coins ratcheting up his credit total. 30 credits… Hao’s face flashed briefly on screens throughout the center accompanied by a halo of coins. 40 credits… a few people looked over with bored contempt, most stayed fixed on their screens. “50 credits”… Hao’s screen settled with the flashing word: WIN!
For a few minutes Hao’s mind raced with the possibilities for his fortune but, as the adrenalin died away Hao, the pragmatist, regained control. This was only fifty credits after all. Five days good earning. It could buy a treat or two but would more likely act as a buffer, whittled away over months of extra minutes in bed, an extra portion of ‘slop of the day’ in the dining hall and two sleeping pills rather than one. Perhaps it was worth six months of a slightly less intolerable life. As the fires of Hao’s enthusiasm died, so did his desire to work. He logged out.
Arriving at the bar Hao was alone. He sat at the winner’s bench, so called because only Credit rich workers could afford to stay long enough to occupy it. The bar’s mirror-backed shelves were lined with whiskey and vodka bottles. They were for decoration only – a pastiche to frame the drinks dispenser. A list of drinks scrolled across the terminal. Regulars knew that while the list seemed extensive, the anemic liquids were all alike, tainted by each other’s flavors, pumped out from the same nozzle. The main, and perhaps only, difference was their alcohol content and Hao knew that the selection they called ‘Victory Gin’ was the quickest and cheapest way to oblivion.
As the grim liquid poured into a Styrofoam cup, Hao imagined that, behind the shiny plastic carcass of the dispenser, a team of shrunken barmen worked relentlessly pumping liquids into miniature barrels, filling the reservoir that would become his drink and earning their share of the credit economy.
Hao booted his tablet and took a breath as he opened his emails. His portion of SPAM had decreased over the years. He was no longer a target for high-end goods. Even the less discerning emails, those offering personal enhancement or instant gratification, were reluctant to reside in his inbox. They knew better than to waste bitspace on a credit-poor Data Monkey. Banner ads and popups, tracking his emails and assessing his value, had changed from music downloads and cheap airfares to charity run helplines and government work schemes. Sometimes, visiting the web would feel to Hao like entering a town where all the shops closed their shutters as he walked past.
Hao hadn’t checked his email for a week. Hard work and late nights had been his alibi but with the win he had no excuse not to look. The scrambled subject headings revealed the un-translated mandarin from his parents. One message for each day since his last visit to the email. His father used his company email ‘@Ri Sheng’ with the rising sun logo and his title of ‘Director’ in the signature. This logo was the last piece of real estate his father owned and was now as important to him as the factories he had lost. The content of his emails was invariable. Inane gossip, growing lists of ailments and pleas for news from their only son. Between each line was an invisible, but Neon clear, plea for their son to start sharing the proceeds of his overseas success. Time to buy back his family’s respect, security and comfort. They had invested all in him and now needed the returns. He would have to muster another desperate fiction to delay their expectations.
Dotted through the list, although with much less frequency, were mails from his old school friends. Exchanges, which had once sparked a spirit of optimism, were now flat and disconnected. Once Hao, Song and Lun had plotted their domination of the online world, or of building a games company to rival the Japanese giants or to become the great creative engineers of a new and resurgent China. Their diligent work and focus and been repaid with academic merits and prizes. But, as they stood on their graduating stages, clutching fake scrolls, the vista of the hundreds of identikit gowns surrounding them seeded doubt. Believing themselves to be insulated from the vagaries of the manufacturing world, with degrees in computer science and software engineering, they set forth to seek dot com riches in a bubble that had already burst. Hao had been the golden one. His international university place was his ticket to the global success he’d been promised in all the prospectuses. As his friends had faltered, Hao had risen, but only in the made-up world sketched through his brief and irregular emails and colored by his parents’ boasts and exaggerations. Song and Lun grew tired of asking their once friend for contacts or ideas or a thin slice of his success. Marooned in their childhood bedrooms, they had nothing to share but virtual kills in the simulated worlds where they were still heroes. Referred from social networks Hao no longer visited, their messages were lack-of-status updates. Hao longed to tell them the truth of his situation, to share his boredom and frustration, but the pain of humiliation would now be too hard to bear.
As Hao began his fourth drink a figure appeared. Hao looked up from his tablet to find Ava sitting beside him.
“So you won big.”
“Hardly,” replied Hao with unintended bitterness.
“Well you seem to be splashing the credits” she said gesturing to a line of Styrofoam cups.
Hao wished he were more sober. While the alcohol had anesthetized his sense of inferiority, he felt his social dampers failing. “Why did you think that Oli was a hero?” Hao slurred. As Hao contemplated his question he wanted desperately to retract it, to offer her a drink and follow-up with something more normal. Unfortunately his brain was operating like the stack of data packages – he could only access the upper-most thought.
“Well…I guess I didn’t really see him as a hero. I just thought…well he just seemed to brighten things a bit. He gave us something to talk about.”
“And for that he was cast out to who knows what. No employment. He’s probably homeless. Food for the ferals in the industrial zone. To give you amusement, yes?”
Hao felt like he was sliding unstoppably. Pent-up anger and frustration finally found an outlet, but aimed at the last person he wanted to hear it.
Ava started to sound exasperated. “Not amusement Hao. I respected him. He wanted to leave…”
“He didn’t look like he wanted to leave.”
“I don’t know. Don’t we all want to leave? Don’t you want to leave?”
“Yes, but not like that.”
“Then how? With a promotion to Chief Data Monkey? Perhaps you want to retire with a long service credit boost and a Hot Bed by the sea. Have you noticed how few people are over twenty-five in this place? No one can do this forever. We all leave Hao, but only a few choose the manner of their leaving. Oli’s two fingers to the system was, if not dignified, at least, well, at least he wasn’t washed up.”
Ava’s counter attack paused Hao for a moment. There was a bitter logic to her response. Ava broke the silence.
“Why so angry Hao?”
“It’s been a hard day.”
“Well apparently not, according to your credit total.”
He wanted to respond that 50 credits wasn’t going to buy his family’s respect or secure his friends futures. It wouldn’t pay for a ticket home and probably wouldn’t even get him to the airport. Instead he opted to force a smile and say, “50 credits seems nothing now that I’m contemplating my imminent demise.”
The response seemed to work and Ava relaxed. Hao’s courage grew. “Do you want a drink?”
Hao reached over to the dispenser but Ava rested her hand on his, restraining him from pushing the selector. “That’s very generous Hao but don’t waste your credits. There are better ways of spending them.”
It may have been the alcohol, or the touch of Ava’s hand initiating the first physical contact Hao had experienced in three years but he leant over and kissed her. Even as he made the pass, he prepared himself for the startled decline, the standard refrain of “Oh no, I’m sorry you’ve got the wrong idea” from her and the hastened apologies from him. But, to his surprise, she didn’t. Instead she stayed motionless. He would imagine later that she had returned the kiss. She then took his hand and said with gentle warmth,
“I have a friend in the city. I think he can offer you an opportunity. Let me give you his contact and just hear what he has to say. I think it will be a better investment than a night at the tap.”
As Ava walked away, Hao contemplated the scribbled email on his tablet. He had often fantasized about saving her. In his dreams Ava was a Manga girl, helpless and trapped, bound with LAN cables enclosed by a castle built of servers. Hao would arrive and slash the cables with mighty swords, carrying her away quivering with gratitude. He started to wonder whether their roles had been reversed.
The bus eased out through the fifteen foot security gates that protected the campus from the industrial no-man’s-land beyond. Hao sat at the back and slunk low in his seat, avoiding the pitying gazes of the student passengers. In his pocket, forty credits had been turned into real electronic currency. He had winced as the transfer machine exchanged his credits into euro-dollars with a ten percent commission. The bus had taken half of what remained, draining the money from his pocket with an invisible transfer as soon as he crossed its threshold.
As the bus left the safety of the campus compound the other passengers seemed oblivious to the changing scene rolling by. Framed by the ribs of the bus’s security bars were the dying remains of the city’s manufacturing district. Warehouses lay abandoned with old stock tumbling out of half opened doors like guts from open knife wounds. Looters and scavengers could be seen climbing piles of rubber tires and cardboard boxes. They would find little of value. Grave robbers had picked over this corpse many times before. Even the factories had been dismantled, left to rot as crumbling masonry wrecks, stripped of corrugated steel panels with gashes through the concrete where metal reinforcement had been forcibly removed. Nestling between the industrial carcasses, groups of men huddled around makeshift fires underneath sparse forests of homemade placards reading, “Bring Back our Jobs” and “Make it in Britain Again” scrawled in rain sodden poster paints. They were striking for jobs that no longer existed and picketing gates of factories which now lay abandoned. As the bus slowed at an intersection, Hao caught the eye of a protesting man staring with wild menace at the bus. As he noticed Hao, he seemed to explode. Grabbing his placard which read “British Jobs for British People” he charged at the bus as if intending to topple it with the strength of his fury. Instead he hammered at Hao’s window shouting “Fuck you!” and “Get out!” Hao slid away to the side and cowered further into his coat, as if the wooly fabric of his fleece would protect him. The man, now screaming with rage as others ran to join him, moved to the front of the bus rattling the concertina door that appeared as if it might give way with alarming ease. The driver crunched the gears as he gathered speed and, with a belch of acrid smoke from the exhaust, shook off the rioters who threw their wooden signs like spears at the rear of the bus.
Shaken, Hao relaxed slightly in his seat. He knew the animosity his race caused in this part of the city but had never confronted it so directly. Better to blame the foreigner than to contemplate the complexities of a world that had left them to starve in this gutted city district.
The character of this place was, however, not unfamiliar to Hao. His own city had been ravaged by the same forces on a much bigger scale. If only they could see true wastelands and those who had wept as whole cities failed as the rivers of wealth that sustained them dried up. Hao’s father didn’t stand and shout of unfairness when his factory gates were locked on him. Even here, amongst the abandoned warehouses there were, almost certainly, the remains of cardboard boxes with the logo of a rising sun stamped on them. His father’s plastic components formed the core of thousands of products. The handles of tooth brushes, casings for TV remote controls, the caps from children’s beakers and any number of objects which were ubiquitous and mostly unnoticed. Hao’s father liked to claim that everyone in the world owned at least one of the products he made. It was a boast, for sure, but not so distant from reality. The hatred of these men was misplaced; their enemy was a common one. Their enemy was also their neighbor.
Their enemy stood now, shocking, against the grey sky and rust of their surroundings, as mountains of pellets in electric dayglow colors. The undulating rainbow landscapes and pools of reflective liquid were like a child’s painting. Mounds of Plastico®, Silicite®, vats of Rubbergel® were being shoveled in heavily defended compounds by men and women in gleaming white suits. Once bagged, the raw materials would be dispatched to PMU vending machines and garage units throughout the city. These raw materials and the machines they fed had eradicated the ‘middleman’ of manufacturing. This was now a world of custom build. Hao feared the multicolored landscapes every bit as much as the protestors.
The man, who had introduced himself as Eric on his email, had arranged to meet Hao in a pub called The Locomotion. The building sat incongruously, a Victorian throwback surrounded by mountain ranges of glass and steel. The wealth of the city center seemed staggering to Hao. Meals which cost two credits in the data center cost the equivalent of 40 here. People carried real money as an affectation rather than a necessity and Hao began to wonder if he could earn more by picking up discarded change here than validating data packets. However, with every step he took Hao knew that, as if he had a hole in his pocket, currency was leaching out with city taxes charged on a per minute basis. He had calculated that as long as he stayed in the cheap parts of the city, away from the jewelry shops and antique boutiques, his credits would sustain him for a few hours. Anyway, such was the natural order that Hao fitted in better where he could afford.
Inside the pub, the antique interior continued the theme of the façade. There were nods to modernity with dated flat panel screens hanging in the dark recesses of the pub’s varnished interior. A forlorn drink vending machine sat next to the bar with an “Out of Order” sign hung round its neck. But, elsewhere, the tactility of history was evident in the polished brass pumps still squeezing brown un-synthesized liquids from their spouts and the twinkling slot machines with buttons that protruded, wheels that spun and fixed images, which were only animated by the bulbs flickering behind them. Hao fought the urge to try his luck. He missed the sound of falling coins and wanted to feel comfortable in this strange museum-like space.
“Are you Hao?”
The voice came from behind him and, as he turned, a bearded man took his hand and shook it with enthusiastic vigor.
“I’m so glad you could make it Hao. I’m Eric. Please sit with me. What can I get you? They have food here. I can buy some, I know you must be hungry.”
Eric continued to ramble as he took Hao to a drink stained corner table. The man, to Hao’s best guess, was in his early thirties but the beard made him look older. His clothes were also tatty. A striped jumper hung loosely, revealing a white T-shirt, frayed around the neckline. Hao imagined that he was meeting a businessman but he was more likely a student. What opportunity could he offer? Hao tried to mask his disappointment.
“Yes I would like some food. Things are so expensive here.”
Hao instinctively looked down to the table surface for a menu panel, but instead Eric gestured to a chalk board suspended above the bar. Hao surveyed the limited menu with its unimaginative combinations of meat and carbohydrates. He knew China Town was only a few roads away and wished they had arranged to meet there. He ordered with little enthusiasm.
“Hao, I don’t known know how much Ava has told you about my—our—organization?”
“Nothing really. Only that there might be a job opportunity.”
“Yes, well sort of. Her view was that you would be sympathetic to our cause. I believe we can offer something better than a job. We can offer you a future again.”
“You mean a career?”
“I mean a life.”
As Eric spoke he seemed to click into an automatic mode, face set to earnest and hands dialed to open handed trusting gesture. He’d practiced this speech.
“You see, Hao, you live amongst modern slaves. They call you Data Monkeys and Click Jockeys and you are tethered every bit as much as if you were in chains. You are better than that. Your humanity demands better treatment.”
There was a familiar ring to Eric’s speech. Hao cut in, “Are you one of the people who hand out leaflets at the data center?”
“I have done in the past…”
“Then I’m sorry there has been a misunderstanding. I don’t want to become a charity worker.”
“No, you misunderstand. I did use to protest and educate on behalf of you and your fellow co-workers and my aims are still the same, but now my methods are more sophisticated.”
Hao’s disappointment began to turn to despair. He’d wasted forty credits, more income than he’d seen in three years, to be threatened by thugs, lectured and condescended to. He longed for the safety of his terminal and the ch-ching of electronic coins to fill his account again. Eric continued regardless.
“You see, the system is a con. Your data center is just one big Mechanical Turk. It’s a collective human brain disguised as a mechanical system. Sure you are validating data sets annotated by machine algorithms but ask yourself, how often do they get it wrong? Without your validation and corrections, the data would be valueless. It would join the rest of the unconnected crap cluttering up the far reaches of the dark web. You add value but who gets the credit, literally. You know the servers in your building cost twice as much to run as you and all your colleagues get paid. We celebrate the algorithms as heroes of our modern connected age but they hide their real cost: You.”
If Eric was waiting for a sudden conversion to his cause he was going to be disappointed. This was not news. Hao knew and had thought it many times before. Of course he was exploited. His father had employed people as well and paid them as little as he could. The line workers who came in from the countryside were glad to have a job and, in return, were paid as much or as little as the market would bear. It was tough but servitude was, to Hao, an inevitability of economics. Contemplating the congealing stew, which had now been delivered to the table, Hao sighed, picked up a fork and replied. “I’m sorry that you and Ava have got the wrong impression about me. I just want to work to earn my living and be given an opportunity to use my skills. I have no interest in campaigning.”
Eric leaned back and, cocking his head, looked wistfully at Hao. He then reached down beneath the table and lifted a tablet computer, swiped on and handed over the screen. Glowing, iridescent in the dark corner of the bar is showed a logo of a rising sun.
“Why are you showing me this? How did you know?”
“Your father’s company and its collapse is public knowledge. That you are his son is public knowledge. It doesn’t take many googles to join things up. I feel for you. It must have been hard to be forced out of such a life of comfort and opportunity. Is this why you hide, a scared data monkey behind your terminal?”
Eric’s voice had taken on a new and more forceful tone. He was baiting. But, for the first time Hao started to feel comfortable. He understood the rhythms of negotiation.
“So what’s your point?”
Hao slid the screen back across the table over a smear of beer residue.
“My point Hao is that you might not feel the same about my cause but we do have a common…concern. Your father was put out of business by custom build and the rise of the PMU’s. No need to import your novelty Christmas decorations from China when you can print them out at home – right?”
Eric smiled but Hao remained impassive.
“The PMUs are just an extension of the data economy. Sure, they need raw materials to feed them but protestors have tried to hit those before. As soon as you close one depot another opens up. There are no complex supply chains to disrupt. One person’s Plastico is much like another. But the data, well, that’s where the value is. The patterns that are sold to the PMUs make all the money. For custom build you need patterns of assembly for many different parts that relate to one another. When you get those chains of assembly you get complex data structures and when you get complex data structures you get…”
He gestured towards Hao who already knew the end of the sentence. Hao had validated PMU data before. He dreaded receiving the packages. They rarely made sense to human eyes but were, rather, codes of obscure assembly protocols, seemingly random collections of letters and numbers. The job invariably involved checking schematics prepared by designers against lists generated by an algorithm. Piece DGH-476987SC matched up in a database with piece DGH-5665_E/f..Check Schematic…Validate. The jobs were interminable and badly paid each hit could take 10 seconds or more.
“So you want to shut down PMUs?”
“Eventually. But for now I want to draw attention to the plight of data workers by causing some trouble for PMUs and the companies which run them. What better way to highlight the invisible labor of the semantic web than showing how intimately connected data is to our material things.”
“Then what are you proposing?”
Eric reasoned that, although the data entering and leaving the center was secured the method of terminal allocation was not. A server was dedicated to randomly assign data packets across the network of centers. Each one would be delivered to two workers and their results would be self-checking. However, the assigning data could and had been hacked. With knowledge of the packets and their allocation schedule, you could intervene, allocating them to specific people.
“We already have an operative in the data center and now we want you.”
Eric tapped on his tablet and pushed it across the table again. His time the screen was covered with rows of letters and numbers.
“It might not look much Hao, but this is our version of a custom data assembly protocol. It has a few of our own modifications to make the printed results more interesting. If we can edit these instructions as part of the validation process and if both parties make the same edit, they will be validated and accepted. And then, well then the fun begins.”
Eric smiled with the juvenile grin of an eight year old about to play an April foosl prank but Hao was now intrigued. The thought of striking out against PMUs was a more tempting prospect.
“How will you do it?”
“Just like I’ve told you Hao. We arrange for you to receive the appropriate data packets and then let you and Ava make the modifications from instructions we will send.”
“No I mean, how will YOU do it? How will you hack the distributer, gather the manufacturing data and all the rest?”
“You don’t need to know that. It’ll all happen in the background.”
“But I want to know. If you want me to help then I have to know.”
“All right”. Eric looked around him and, with reluctance, set his tablet to draw. Scribbling boxes and arrows he described the multiple servers and their systems. While Hao was rusty on the details suddenly his undergrad lectures became vivid again as he interpreted the emerging diagram. Eric drew a recipe without the key ingredients but Hao began to understand, at least in parts. At the end Eric hit erase and the screen went blank.
“And what’s in it for me?”
“Aside from sweet revenge? Well, consider it a job interview. My organization needs people with spirit.”
Hao took a long moment and replied, “I get it. But I need to think about it.”
Hao pushed the remains of his stew away and got up. Eric also rose and extended his hand. “Don’t take too long Hao. The system is waiting.”
“How do you know I won’t tell someone about your plan?”
“Who are you going to tell Hao? Your terminal is your boss and trust me, it isn’t interested.”
“I can’t find my phone.”
“Well dial up another darling. We need to go soon”
Emily skipped down to the basement and tapped on the screen of the PMU with the dexterity that only an eight year old could muster. She was bored with the last phone anyway. Hello Kitty was soooo last year. She chose a standard Nok-tec body with camera voice activated auto twitter. But the case would be its crowning glory. Pink with extra glitter in a heart shaped clam shell, her name would be picked out in gold swirly writing on the back. Katie was going to be soooo jealous. PRINT!
The PMU kicked into life with a whoosh like a vacuum cleaner and the print heads began their work, zipping round the print chamber starting with the phone exoskeleton before moving on to the circuit boards.
An hour later, with a clatter and a ping, Emily’s phone lay in the collections tray, gleaming and still warm. She reached in, picked it up and let out a scream. The intended heart shaped case was, instead, a folded form of a giant spider wrapping round the phone’s screen in full anatomical detail and in ultra hi resolution. Emily dropped it and the phone dismembered itself. Legs and abdomen skidded across the basement floor.
“Pop open the bonnet for me sir.”
Dave wandered wearily to the front of the car and waved away the acidic steam bellowing from the engine compartment. The batteries were completely burned out.
“The connectors are fried,” Dave shouted back to the driver. “We’re going to have to tow you. I think you need a new engine block. You basically boiled the batteries.”
“But we got the connectors changed this morning. The garage printed them when the car was serviced.”
Dave wiped his oily brow and shook his head. He often dreamed of the days when cars didn’t have sealed units for engines. Occasionally, he’d been able to fix the old sort.
“You may as well have used tin foil. I’ll get the tow line.”
Dave walked to his truck. It had been a profitable morning. This was the fifth breakdown with exactly the same problem.
“Do I look okay?”
“Darling you look gorgeous. The paps are going to be all over you! You’ll be trending by midnight.”
Salina needed to get her entrance just right. The film was getting rave reviews and Oscar nods were being discussed. Best supporting actress would send her career into the stratosphere. Now she needed to concentrate on making it up the red carpet with elegance. She needed to own it! She was born to be a star.
The car pulled up and her dresser fiddled with the metallic scales of her dress. Each one had been inscribed with designs emailed to her dresser’s PMU by Selina’s adoring fans. Each flake was held to the garments understructure by a tiny hinge.
“Stop fussing. It’s fine. It’ll work” Selina pulled herself away and the limo door opened. As she stood, a breeze blew across her dress and a wave of sparking scales rippled in response. Flashes erupted from cameras throughout the crowd causing the dress to sparkle with fiery intensity. Emboldened, Selina spun allowing the scales to ride up and down in rhythmic waves. Another gust of wind caught her dress and suddenly Selina was surrounded by a sparkling cloud and then sparkling rain. As the scales fell to the ground Selina stood, exposed in little more than a course stringed vest. Images of her horrified face were already trending.
Hao had become addicted to his news feeds. In between, sometimes fourteen-hour days, he and Ava would give themselves the luxury of searching for the evidence of their mischief. With key words like ‘mechanical failure” “PMU disaster” a steady stream of news stories flowed. At first they were footnotes, the “and finally” stories in local news bulletins, but their influence grew. A moral panic broke out when a young boy in Knightsbridge printed a plastic water pistol but was instead given an inch perfect replica handgun. The mechanical failures caused even more concern. A spate of minor breakdowns caused PMUs to be banned from motor garages and PMU parts stopped being used in, what governments termed, critical devices. The PMU manufacturers constantly reminded the public of the safety of their products but, though the errors and failures were small, they were amplified by a media machine hungry for public outcry.
At the beginning Hao had waited after each data input, expecting the inevitable shut down. But Eric’s plan was working. While speculation was rife as to the cause of the PMU failures, enquires had concluded that the mechanical breakdowns were problems in the raw material and suspected warehouses were shut down. Others had suggested that the machines themselves were faulty. A gradual realization that the data was to blame, however, didn’t get them closer to an answer. Eric had raised a software smoke screen and Ava and Hao were safe behind it, for now.
Hao put down his tablet and looked over to Ava.
“What’s your exit strategy?”
Ava reclined in what little space the Hot Bed provided.
“What do you mean exit strategy?”
“We can’t carry on like this. It was you who told me that this life is unsustainable. It’s doubly so now.”
“I guess I’ll wait for instructions from Eric.”
Hao shifted, pressing his back against the wall of the bunk to give Ava more space. They had taken to sharing nighttime accommodation to save their meager daytime earnings. The intimacy of their earlier meeting had been replaced by a warm familiarity. Although they shared a bed, they hadn’t kissed again but Hao felt comfortable with the new arrangement. Their relationship was evolving at a more natural pace and they were swathed in their mutual conspiracy.
“I don’t trust Eric.”
“Eric’s one of the good guys.”
“He’s good for his cause but I don’t think he cares about us.”
Ava looked at Hao. Her face seemed impassive but there was a glance that Hao couldn’t quite work out. She looked down at her tablet and said, apparently distracted, “You having second thoughts?”
“No. I just wonder whether we shouldn’t plan a way out.”
“Have you got a plan, Hao?”
Hao thought for a moment.
“No, I guess not.”
“Get some sleep. Another long day tomorrow.’
Ava rolled over and pulled up her sheets. Hao looked at his emails one last time. They had brought better news recently. His father had boasted with joy that his factory building had been reopened with the return to manufacture. It was a different company and new management but it gave him hope. A sun was finally rising over the industrial district. Hao did have a plan of course. He was, after all, a pragmatist. But he wanted to keep this plan as a surprise. Ava had rescued him and how he wanted the chance to rescue her. Hao opened an email with an embedded flow chart like the one Eric had shown him months before. Underneath it read: “The investors are happy.” He hit reply and then one word into the text box. “Yes.” SEND.
Hao woke at 6am and immediately started to dress. Ava rolled lazily to the side.
“Give me another half hour, Hao. I’ll cover the credits.”
Hao climbed out of the bunk and moved quickly through the crowd in an effort to get to breakfast early. He now acted with a newly found military discipline, calculating his day in terms of credits. He knew breakfast time would be relatively quiet, perhaps five minutes less queuing and the meal would set him up so that he could skip lunch. Hao filled up on pastries and toast, slices of which he secreted in his pockets to consume as his sugar levels crashed. He was at his terminal by ten past six and, with Eric’s data packet waiting for him, he started his day.
By 3 p.m. Hao was lost in the flow of work. The need to annotate and change every data field in the incoming packets meant that earnings were small but every clink of a dropping coin gave Hao a double award. The old peak of adrenalin had been joined by an additional thrill as each new packet sent disrupted the world a little more, and gave Hao a feeling of growing power. It was intoxicating, and enabled Hao to work with a focus he had rarely achieved before.
Then, without warning, the screens cut out. No boot down screen or error message, just a flat power cut to both his terminals. As Hao regained focus on the world outside his screen, a glance toward his neighbors confirmed that only his terminal was affected. He looked down at Ava’s terminal but it was empty. Suddenly Hao felt a dizzying vertigo. He felt as if he was standing on the edge of a crumbling cliff. He was free. He would never validate another data packet. It was over. Hao could leave with his head held high, satisfied that he had chosen the manner of his exit. But had he? Hao’s departure was hasty. He rushed through the halls of the data center in a desperate search for Ava but found only empty spaces. It didn’t feel right. Every corner now held menace. How long before a human operator found him out. How long before the data logs were checked and his guilt revealed. He had imagined walking free out of the data center with Ava on his arm into a crisp bright world. Instead, he hurried to the bus in the rain. Only one more place to try.
Hao walked past the rippling lights of the slot machines, past the bar with its prehistoric pumps and past the out of order vending machine to the dark corner where he had sat months before. Eric and Ava sat across from a boy with the grey pallor of terminal tan and who wore a faded T-shirt. A large rucksack propped against the table. Ava sat close to Eric, her body was angled toward him and her face carried an expression that told Hao all he needed to know. She listened with admiration as Eric’s earnest and openhanded gesticulations accompanied a speech that Hao had heard before. Looking up, Eric spotted Hao and immediately stood, affecting a welcoming grin but quickly walking to Hao, blocking him from the new recruit.
“Hao it’s great to see you but this is not the best time.”
“So I see.”
“Yes. But we must chat soon. You have done great things for us Hao. Much better than we had expected.”
“Then why have you abandoned me?”
The question was directed at Eric but meant for Ava, who slunk back further into the corner, her eyes darting back and forth between Eric and Hao.
“Don’t be like this Hao. This should be a celebration. You’re a hero.”
“You mean a martyr. You stopped the protection today. My data packets went to someone else and invalidated my edits. You wanted me to get caught. It’s only a matter of time before someone looks at the system results and sees the nature of my irregular transactions. They might be hunting me now.”
“Your efforts were too successful Hao. I couldn’t maintain the façade any more. It had to end.”
Hao gestured to two flight cases bundled in the corner behind Ava.
“After we’ve finished here, Ava and I will have to go away for a while. We can be more effective remotely. I’d have liked to offer you more but we will protest on your behalf. Or perhaps I can offer you something to help.” Eric reached for his wallet.
Hao tired of the conversation and instead turned to approach Ava, brushing Eric aside as he walked to the table. He wanted to plead with her. To make her see sense. He wanted to follow the script he had been preparing for weeks. He wanted to see astonishment turn to joy. He wanted to embrace her and then run free to the new life he had so carefully constructed. But that chance was gone now. Instead he reached into his pocket and drew out a business card. The white plastic was inlayed with gold in the image of a rising sun. It was an expensive print but Hao could afford it. He handed the card to Ava.
“Has your father started his business again? I guess there are more manufacturing opportunities now.”
Ava said whilst trying to affect a smile.
“No. You told me that the only growth industry is data. The logo and the company name is a sentimental throw back to the old world. I deal in data now. There was a loophole in the system you see. Someone was bound to exploit it but now the opportunity is closed. My friends and I are first to market with a more secure system and investors have been very generous. I will join them now to set up the first of our China data centers.”
Ava read the card “Ri Sheng: Securing the semantic web, together”
Ava made a noise which may have been an attempt at apology or perhaps an expression of shock but Hao didn’t give her the chance. Instead he said in a wavering voice, “If you will excuse me, I need to catch a flight.”
With that Hao turned, forcing himself not to look back again. As he left, a slot machine began to jingle and someone exclaimed with a whoop as the machine flashed WIN. Hao felt the reflex pulse of adrenalin as the noise of dropping coins rang in his hollow victory.
A Slim Green Volume
By Lynn Rushlau
Remi read the first page of the volume she’d sought, snorted, and shoved it back into place. Her gaze trailed over the library’s shelves and snagged on a slim green volume on the top shelf. A chill trailed down her spine. She shuddered and fled to the end of the aisle.
Where she spotted Ellica.
Remi pivoted and darted back out of sight. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. Shaking, she blinked and realized she was staring at the book. Before she could think it over, she snatched the green volume from the shelf, clutched it to her chest, and ran down the back of the library to her friends.
She slammed the book on the table. Eyes wide with horror, Gioli and Zita jumped to their feet.
“Are you crazy?”
“What are you doing with that?”
Remi thrust out her chin. “It’s just a book.”
Gioli shook his head. “Shaw said–”
“Shaw said a lot of things!” Remi flipped open the cover.
Gioli and Zita’s hands slammed down, shutting the book.
Cackles crept from the dark beneath the bed.
The women downstairs didn’t hear them, not over their cooking and conversation.
The three children didn’t hear either. Curled up in a squishy armchair by the fire, the eldest read. The other two chased each other around the staircase and ran out the garden door.
Remi jerked the book free from under her friends’ hands.
“The librarians keep it on a shelf in the temple’s public library. Do you honestly think they would leave a book accessible to every student who comes through these doors if reading the story unleashed anything? No one else has ever mentioned this book. Don’t you think we’d have heard about this from others if reading this book really brought disastrous bad luck?”
Gioli and Zita exchanged a look.
Raising her eyebrows, Remi flipped the cover open again. “Three Days Uglier.”
“Don’t read it aloud!” Zita clamped her hands over her ears.
Remi stared at her.
“You risk your own life if you want, but not mine!” Zita snapped her own book shut and drew her bag from beneath the table.
“No! Don’t go,” Remi said. “I won’t read it aloud. I promise!”
Zita let the bag fall back to the floor. She gestured at the shelves. “Will you put it back and do your own work instead?”
Remi glanced at the shelves but shook her head. She’d let her two-faced friend and her ex-phony-boyfriend have enough power over her. They would no longer have this book to scare her with.
A faint red light flickered beneath the bed.
The red glow solidified. No one noticed. No one was there to see.
Remi flipped to the first page and flinched. Instinct shoved her gaze away from the image. Fighting an emotion somewhere between revulsion and terror, she peeked at the book cradled in her hands.
Her brow furrowed. What was it?
Despite wanting to toss the book far from her, she looked closer. The picture resolved into a face. Not a human though. Not an animal, but some sort of fairy creature. A goblin. An ogre, Remi supposed. Something malevolent.
But a fairy creature?
Was that all this book was? A fairy tale?
An apple rolled from beneath the bed. It glowed too red a red. So red, the apple lit the room in a rosy glow. The apple rolled across the floor and stopped precisely in the center of the room.
Ten minutes passed. The apple lost its patience.
It rolled out the door and stopped exactly in the middle of the corridor.
Holding her breath, Remi flipped the page. She sighed in relief that words filled her sight, not another creepy drawing. Frowning, she bent forward and read the text:
The woman’s words were poison. They seeped through the skin and crawled around to the brain.
The listener might laugh outright.
They might snort and roll their eyes.
They might clench their fists and adamantly reassure themselves of the words’ untruth.
But the poison dripped down the listener’s ear canals.
There was no getting it out. In the dark hours of the night, those words would be there. When misfortune left the listener rattled, the words laughed their way back to the surface. The poison gnawed through self-confidence. Collapsed facts and beliefs. The poison smothered outside reassurance that the words were completely, definitely, and utterly untrue.
There was no antidote. The words would haunt. Would maim. Would kill.
Chili bubbled merrily on the stove. The mother entered the parlor and chased the reading child outside to play. Silvia slipped into the garden to collect the laundry, but paused outside the door. The housekeeper tsked over a streak of dirt down one of the sheets. Some days, she wished to drown her mistress’s entire litter of children.
She folded the laundry that had managed to remain clean despite the children’s mischief and headed inside. Up the stairs.
The apple drew her eye immediately. Sucked into a dream, she stared at the deep brilliant red fruit. The basket slipped from her arms and landed on her foot.
Roused, she shook her head and bent to flip the spilling clothes back in the basket.
An alluring scent wafted over the basket. Silvia looked up. Froze.
Ignoring the laundry entirely, she crawled forward and snatched the apple. Never had she wanted anything more. This near her face, the scent made her dizzy. Her mouth watered. She took a bite. Chewed. Swallowed.
And pitched over, dead, before she could take a second bite.
Remi shuddered and pushed the book back to the table. The description of the poisonous words gave her the creeps. She wouldn’t consider that a story. Nor anything scary. But reading it left her feeling weird. Uneasy.
Maybe she didn’t want to read any more. Maybe what she’d read was more than enough to prove her point that neither Ellica nor Shaw had any say in her life now.
She sneaked a look through her eyelashes. Nose to his paper, Gioli scribbled furiously. An eyebrow quirked, Zita glanced up over the top of her book. Remi dropped her gaze.
Zita’s expression dared Remi to admit that she shouldn’t have read the book.
Gritting her teeth, Remi flipped the page. Her barred teeth held back the scream. She slammed the book shut.
The drawing had been in black and white, but the disemboweled body etched in her brain glowed in vivid color. Every bloody detail roamed before her eyes. Purply intestines. Raw red flesh. And things, wrong-shaped, wrongly built creatures gnawing on the screaming human.
Remi retched. She dropped the book and ran from the room.
After puking her guts out for what seemed like hours, she rested her head against the bathroom wall. The rest of the room remained empty. Tears stung her eyes. Zita hadn’t cared to come to see if she was okay.
Friends, Remi huffed. Why did hers desert her whenever she needed them most?
Ellica would have followed Remi to the bathroom. She would have held Remi’s hair while she vomited. She would have laughed while doing so and told the entire rest of the school about it.
Shaw would have laughed. He found Ellica’s every action delightful. He’d courted Remi merely to get close to Ellica. He’d made that clear.
Gods, shut up! she screamed at herself. Using the wall for support, she dragged herself off the floor to return to the library. Fuck them both.
Zita wasn’t like them. She cared, but she was entitled to her anger. Opening that book had been stupid, reading it stupider still.
This was all Ellica’s fault. Ellica treated Remi like she was an idiot, and somehow Remi couldn’t stop herself from proving that true when it came to anything involving Ellica.
No one waited for her outside the library. Remi sighed. She’d hoped Gioli might be less irritated and come to check on her.
Apparently not. The book did bring ill luck after all.
Zita sat alone at the table. Gioli’s books remained where they’d been, but the book was gone. Remi scanned the table’s contents and approached cautiously. The book lay neither on her seat nor the floor.
“Gioli took it back,” Zita whispered. Her eyes were wide with fear and her mouth turned down in worry.
“You should be.”
“I am.” The tears burning behind Remi’s eyes laced her voice.
Zita sighed. “Are you okay?”
“Let’s go get a coffee.”
The children came roaring back inside. Their mother shut the door after them with a sigh. She’d seen the sheets. They’d have to apologize before the meal. Perhaps help out with this afternoon’s cleaning. Their footsteps thundered up the stairs.
“Wash quickly! Lunch is ready!”
With a shake of her head, the mother returned to the kitchen. Lunch was ready, but Silvia was nowhere to be seen.
“Silvia?” She checked the pantry, the laundry room and the garden. How odd. She walked to the foot of the stairs and called out for Silvia again. The silence upstairs positively echoed. That couldn’t be a good sign.
She called again for Silvia. For each child in turn. No one answered.
Her skirt clutched in one hand, she bustled up the stairs.
Nothing untoward happened on their way to the coffeehouse. Gioli found a silver piece on the street corner. He bought the first round. A very pretty boy flirted with Zita and asked her out by the end of the afternoon. One of his friends made eyes at Remi, but never came over.
Bad luck? Mayhap, but nothing that could crush Remi.
The night passed by no different than usual, as did the following morning. They had a test in history. Remi did well. Nothing she’d call bad luck happened all day. Nor the next or the next.
Weeks drifted by. No horrendous bad luck fell upon her. Shaw lied. No surprise that a liar lied, right?
Remi sometimes wished she hadn’t proved his lies by reading those pages. The images, the words snuck up on her dreams and sometimes slipped into the waking world. She hated having them in her head.
The four bodies lay in the hall. One hand of each child and of Silvia reached out. Their fingers trailed the edges of a slim green book that her foolish schoolgirl self read one rebellious afternoon so many years ago.
“No,” Remi whispered. “NO!”
And she began to scream.
A Series of Reviews from Fine Dining Quarterly
By Nina Shepardson
Glissando, Italian, $$$, ****
Glissando bills itself as a “trattoria,” and while many of the restaurants that adopt this term fail to live up to it, Glissando fulfills its promise admirably. The dark wooden floors and bare brick walls made me feel as if I were in a small family-run restaurant in some rustic corner of Italy, but the quality of both the food and the service was on par with that of any upscale restaurant in New York.
The establishment boasts a large wine list, featuring a number of Italian wines, though French and Napa Valley vintages are also well-represented. The dinner menu presents several classic Italian dishes, such as beef braciole, which was my choice for the meal. The tenderness of the meat made it clear that it had been cooked in Glissando’s trademark tomato sauce, and the flavor of the fresh basil (from the restaurant’s own kitchen garden) gave the whole dish a truly homemade taste.
For dessert, I selected another Italian standby, tiramisu. Far too many restaurants soak the ladyfingers in brandy too long, so that the taste of the liquor overpowers everything else. Here, the subtler flavors of the marscapone cheese and of the ladyfingers themselves were allowed to come through.
Chez Monique, French, $$$$, ***
I started my meal with fiddleheads steamed in lemon and butter. The fiddleheads were perfectly prepared, having been cooked long enough to alleviate their natural bitterness but not long enough to become mushy.
The main dish was a variation on poulet a la bretonne, made with the breast of a Stymphalian bird rather than the traditional chicken. The meat was quite tender, and the plate artfully decorated with several metallic feathers. When I asked my waiter about the source for the unusual poultry, he claimed not to know what a Stymphalian bird was, insisting that the dish was prepared with chicken as usual. When I had him bring me a menu, the item was absent, simply listing the standard poulet. This lack of knowledge on the part of the waitstaff, combined with the apparent menu misprint, is the sole reason why this establishment received three stars instead of four.
As would be expected from a purveyor of haute cuisine, the dessert selection was inspired. I chose a selection of petits fours, which did not disappoint.
Amazonia, Brazilian, $$, ****
This charming restaurant offers satisfying fare for a reasonable price. The waitstaff are exceptionally friendly; when I entered, I was greeted as an old friend might be, although I’ve never visited Amazonia before. My waiter even offered me a “special menu,” which I highly recommend to any future customers.
I began with an acaraje appetizer. Many deep-fried dishes are unbearably heavy, but this had a pleasant, crispy texture that didn’t fill me up too much for the main course.
I had a hard time choosing a main dish, but eventually settled on roasted mapinguari flank. The menu included a helpful drawing of the live creature, and I must say that seeing the second mouth in its abdomen and the backward turn of its feet gave me second thoughts about eating it. However, I resolved to at least try the dish, and found it to have a taste and texture not unlike frog’s legs.
Dessert was a cocada with dried mango. The chewy texture of this baked coconut ball was perfect, and the mango added a lovely hint of sweetness.
Huai, Chinese, $$$, ***
Over the past few weeks, I’ve received a number of letters from readers suggesting various establishments for me to review. I must say that some of these were exceedingly strange, such as the recommendation to try amphisbaena at a local Greek restaurant. Even for me, eating a two-headed snake is a bit too far.
In any case, many thanks to whoever asked me to visit Huai; this place was a real treat. Though to be honest, the dreams I’ve been having since my meal there have been quite unsettling, especially since I’m certain that not all of them have occurred while I was lying in bed.
I started with “crossing the bridge noodles.” I was happy to see that the ingredients for the soup were brought out separately from the broth itself, then placed into the broth to cook right in front of me.
The main dish was the famous shen, a clam-monster known for its ability to create mirages. My waiter remarked that I was very brave to try it, and at first I was disappointed when he lifted the cover of the dish to reveal a pheasant. Not that I’m averse to pheasant, as anyone who read my review of The Bronze Lamp Inn knows, but it wasn’t what I’d ordered. The waiter assured me that pouring water over the pheasant would transform it into the clam, reminding me of an ancient commentary that describes how pheasants enter the water in the winter months and turn into mollusks. Sure enough, when he poured herb-water over the pheasant, it turned into a large, succulent clam right before my eyes. The clam was perfectly cooked, although it did produce rather strange sensations. Looking around during the meal, I had the oddest impression of sitting in some sort of pagoda or pavilion rather than an enclosed building.
I ordered classic moon cakes for dessert, but I regret to say that the clam’s mirage must still have been acting on me, since I don’t remember much about them except that I seemed to be holding and eating the actual moon.
To: Ellen Dalrymple
From: Tyrone Dagliesh
Subject: What’s going on with George?
Have you heard from George at all? We’re almost a week past the deadline for him to turn in his review for the upcoming spring issue, and so far he’s a no-show. Carol and I have both tried to get in touch with him every way we can think of—email, home phone, cell—but he seems to be completely incommunicado. There was a message on his answering machine, and I’ve recorded it and included it here as an mp3 because I don’t think you’d believe me if I just told you about it.
Another weird thing: have you looked at any of his recent columns? I know the strike at the printer’s played merry hell with the last issue, so a lot of things didn’t get as much editorial review as they should. I just took a peek at his piece in that edition and combined with that answering machine message, I’m starting to get really worried about him. Do you know of any other way to get in contact?
Let me know what I should do here.
See you tomorrow,
Transcript of answering_machine.mp3
Hi, you’ve reached George Pikesmith. I can’t come to the phone right now because my new girlfriend wanted me to visit her parents, who live on the moon. I think she’s taking things a bit fast, but she’s a princess who was born from a bamboo shoot, so what’re you gonna do? Anyway, leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I can. Bye.
A Note from the Editor
I apologize for the lack of our usual restaurant review column in this issue. We have been unable to locate our regular reviewer, Mr. George Pikesmith, and examination of his recent columns suggests some unusual circumstance occurring in his life. In light of our inability to get in touch with him, we have engaged Ms. Janine Worltham for future issues. Her columns on food culture have been widely enjoyed by thousands of readers, and we hope that they will bring similar satisfaction to you.
By Rona Fernandez
San Miguel, northwest Philippines, 1934
I have seen him before, when he comes to my house with his father, the postman, to help deliver packages. His name is Arturo Viray, and when he sees me he always smiles. Today, at the market, it’s the way he walks—leaning forward a little, his hands behind his back—that catches my eye. That’s the way Father walked. When I look at him he smiles again, and I wish I could talk to him, but Placitas, our maid, is just ahead of me and she always tell me not to talk to boys.
“Miss Mei, don’t straggle—” Pacita calls, then starts haggling with the fishmonger in the crowded market, so she’s not paying too much attention to me. I walk a little closer to her, glancing back to see if Arturo is following. He has moved a few feet closer and is staring right at me, which makes my face burn. I look away, but inside I feel like singing.
Arturo is handsome, with thick, dark wavy hair, and he is slender but not skinny. He is Filipino. Uncle doesn’t like me to mix with Filipinos, since we are Chinese. There are not many of us in our town, so the only boys I know go to my Chinese school and are not very interesting. Uncle says that we will go back to China someday, when things there are peaceful, and that Chinese are better than Filipinos, but I don’t agree. Pacita is Filipino, and has helped raise me since before my parents died. She is like a mother to me—but Uncle would not like me saying such things.
I watch Arturo from the corner of my eye as he walks in that funny way of Father’s, and Father’s voice echoes in my mind: You are my Mei-Feng, beautiful and precious. I giggle. Pacita snaps her eyes on me so I stop, but then she starts talking to one of the market women so I move closer to Arturo, Father’s words making me brave. As Pacita talks to the woman selling eggplants, I suddenly find Arturo standing next to me, and before I can say anything he slips a piece of paper into my hand, then disappears into the crowd. I open the fold and read.
You are pretty. Meet me at the river bridge today.
I read the words three times over to make sure I’m seeing them right—he wants to see me! Then I stuff the note quickly into the pocket of my skirt.
“Miss Mei, let’s go—” Pacita says, walking over to me. I wonder what I should do: If I do not go, Arturo may think I do not like him. If I do go, he may think I’m not virtuous. Then I think about what will happen if I do nothing—I will walk home with Pacita, have tea, and read until it’s time to help her prepare dinner for Uncle. The thought of another boring, lonely afternoon makes me want to cry.
“Pacita, can I go and visit Lily? I finished all my schoolwork,” I lie.
“We have too many things to carry. I don’t want to walk all the way to Miss Lily’s house.”
“I’ll go by myself. Here—” I take one of the bags she is holding, and though she eyes me suspiciously, she nods and tells me to come home before the sun starts to go down.
As I walk to the river, I grin with the secret knowledge of the note. I feel like a dozen little fish are flopping around inside my chest. He wants to meet me at the river! Maybe we will walk to the waterfall, my special place—the place where I first found out that I could fly.
I was sitting by myself at the top of the waterfall that day, remembering my old home in Manila, when Mother and Father were alive, and though I missed them, it was one of those times when I only let myself think about happy times, before they got sick, before I was sent away to the country with Pacita to live with Uncle. I was looking up at the blue sky and listening to the birds chirping in the lauat trees, thinking of our boat rides in the Pasig River, how I would dress up in red on Chinese New Year. Sitting there, remembering, I relaxed and closed my eyes, the sunlight warming my skin. A few minutes later, when I opened my eyes, I screamed because I was floating in the air! My body dropped down to the ground with a heavy thud.
I didn’t know what was happening, but I figured it could not be a bad thing because I was happy when it happened. I thought of what my name means—beautiful wind—and that maybe that had something to do with being able to float? I wanted to know if I could do it again, so the next time I went to the waterfall, I did the same thing and ended up floating up all the way past the trees, fear leaving me as I realized I could control my body up in the sky. It’s easiest for me to fly at the waterfall—the one place here where I feel free and happy. I love flying, leaving everything behind, floating up, seeing everything from up above—my waterfall, the river, the trees, our town with the big church in the middle. As I rise, they get smaller and smaller until I am inside the clouds where it feels cool, and everything is quiet. I listen to the wind whispering around me, and it calms me.
I wish I could stay in the clouds forever, or fly away to another place and get away from Uncle, but I cannot. I always think of Pacita eventually. I remember when Father and then Mother died, how much I missed them, how sad it is to be here without them. I don’t want to make Pacita sad. I start to miss her, and my body grows heavy, until I sink and sink until I am back on the ground.
As I walk, I see the brown water of the river and the wooden bridge that crosses it, and Arturo standing on the far end of the bridge.
“Good day, Miss Tan,” he says. “I am glad you came.”
“You don’t have to call me Miss Tan,” I say, hoping I don’t sound too forward. “My given name is Mei—Mei-Feng,” I stutter. I have never talked to a Filipino boy like this before.
“I’m Arturo,” he says, holding his hand out to me to shake as if we were Americans. I laugh.
“I know your name, you come to my house with your father, remember?”
“Of course,” he says, blushing, which makes me like him more. “I would have asked your father’s permission to court you, Miss—I mean, Mei-Feng—but since I’m Filipino—”
“He’s not my father,” I interrupt. “He’s my uncle.”
“Where’s your father?”
“Father is dead,” I say quietly. “So is Mother. They died when I was seven years old, from consumption. Uncle is Mother’s younger brother.”
“So your Uncle brought you here after your parents died,” he says. “I’m sorry about your parents. But I am also glad that you are here, or we wouldn’t know each other.”
I wonder what Father and Mother would think of me meeting a boy like this. They would probably disapprove, but they would also want me to be happy, and I am happy standing here with Arturo. I want to go to the waterfall, so I point to the trail that leads away from the bridge. We walk down the path, and Arturo keeps a respectable distance, not walking too close, walking with his hands behind his back like Father.
“Where did you live before?” he asks.
“Manila. Near Binondo, where all the Chinese people live.”
“I’ve never been to Manila,” he says. “What is it like?”
“There are lots of Chinese,” I say, then feel foolish. “But it’s nice here in San Miguel, less crowded—”
“I hope to go to Manila someday,” he says.
“Pacita—our maid—told me that you are going to go to Ateneo. That is the best university in the Philippines.”
“Maybe. I haven’t heard from them yet, but I will soon,” he says, smiling. “I want to study to become a lawyer.”
Soon we are at my waterfall. It is not big, just part of the river that spills over the side of a small green cliff in a white spray and falls into a little pool below. The waterfall is not very wide, and it falls with a gentle, shushing sound.
Some children swim in the pool, laughing and shouting. There are lauat trees all around, and their long green leaves swaying in the breeze, their yellow flowers like tiny starbursts. Arturo sits on a log.
“Someone must have left this here.” He points to a bag of vegetables on the ground next to one of the lauat trees. I look at it, puzzled, because it looks like the other bag that Pacita was carrying at the market—the straw handle has a pink flower on it and there are eggplants inside—but I don’t pay much attention to it and instead sit next to Arturo.
We say nothing for a long while, and it feels peaceful. The children are splashing in the water. Suddenly, Arturo moves me aside just in time to avoid me getting wet.
“Watch out!” He shouts. I smile because he is protecting me, and my happiness makes me feel light, like my body is dissolving into the air around me. I feel my body wanting to lift into the air, so I try to keep myself on the ground, try to think of Uncle who I hate. No one knows that I can fly, and I don’t want them to, since they may think that I am a witch or demon. Pacita has told me stories about the aswang, who look like people during the day but turn into flying animals and eat babies and children at night. I know I am not an aswang, but it’s best to keep my flying a secret.
After a while, we walk to the top of the waterfall. I peek over the edge and see the little boys playing and laughing in the pool, their dark heads shiny. We sit on a patch of grass and he tells me about his family—he is an only child, like me, and his parents are doing all they can to make sure he can go to college at Ateneo, which will be expensive.
“Your parents must care about you very much,” I say, feeling a little jealous.
“Family takes care of each other,” he says. I say nothing, thinking of Uncle, but I am glad that at least I have Pacita to care for me.
We talk for a little while, then I notice that the sun is starting to sink in the sky.
“I should go home,” I say. “Pacita will be looking for me.”
Arturo nods, but then asks, “Mei-Feng, may I hold your hand?”
I know I should not let him do this, but he is kind, and I have am so lonely here, with only Uncle and Pacita. I nod, and he puts his hand slowly over mine, our palms slipping together.
“I have never held hands with a boy before,” I say, embarrassed, but it does not feel wrong. I close my eyes and relax, breathing in slowly and deeply.
“Mei-Feng?” Arturo’s voice sounds shaky. I slowly open my eyes—I am floating. Cold fear fills my body and I drop to the ground.
“H-how did you do that? Are you a witch?” He backs away from me, his eyes wide.
“No, I’m not—it’s just—” What can I say that will make him believe that I am not evil?
“What are you?”
“I’m just a girl—I’m Mei-Feng! I don’t—I don’t know why I can do it, I just can—when I’m happy.”
He shakes his head, not believing me, his eyes wide with fear. My heart beats hard inside my chest, and I turn and run away, the small happiness I felt just a moment ago gone. I run and don’t turn back, even though Arturo is shouting my name, asking me to come back.
Pacita has tea waiting for me when I get home, but she is not in the kitchen, so I go to her small room near the back of the house. She is there, kneeling in front of the small wooden crucifix on the wall near her bed, her orange rosary beads in her right hand as she prays. She carries that rosary with her everywhere she goes. She murmurs her prayers as she does everyday: Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy Womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
I sit on her bed. I am feeling confused about Arturo and I want to tell Pacita about it, but I know she will not approve. She does not know that I can fly either. I sit still and listen to her pray.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” She crosses herself, and even though I am not Christian—Uncle says it is not Chinese—I have learned from watching her, and move my fingers from my forehead, to my left and then my right shoulder.
“So you decided to come home. What did you do with Lily?” She says, her back still to me. She does this often—she can always sense when I’m in the room. She eyes me up and down.
“We walked by the river,” I say, knowing it’s better to tell a lie as close to the truth as possible. I follow her into the kitchen where she will prepare dinner.
“Miss Mei,” Pacita says in her scolding voice. “You should not talk to boys.”
“I wasn’t,” I say, almost spilling the tea as I pour it. How did she know that? She gets the vegetables for dinner and sits down at the table.
“Don’t lie to me, hija. I have my ways of knowing the truth.”
I blow on the tea to cool it, thinking about sitting by the waterfall with Arturo. She must be bluffing—how could she know?
“Your Uncle is trying to find a good husband for you,” she says. “Your parents would not have liked you talking to a boy.”
“When will I have to marry?”
“Soon, you are already fourteen. When you get married, maybe I can come and work for your new family.” She smiles at me. “Ask your uncle.”
“But he’s been so angry lately,” I say.
“His business is not doing good. The Americans are making things harder for Chinese. But more Filipinos are making money now. Your Uncle will need to learn how to get along with us better.”
I think about how Arturo held my hand, how good it felt, and wonder if he will ever talk to me again.
“Would Uncle let me marry a Filipino?”
Pacita laughs in a strange way as she chops the eggplant. “Why?”
I shrug. “I hope he doesn’t make me marry that ugly boy that just came to our school. He has a big mole on his nose!”
“Your Uncle wants a good dowry for you, and a family that can take care of you.”
“Will he find me a boy that I love?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Lily told me about a woman she read about back in China—her name is Ting Ling, and she did not marry her cousin, even though her family wanted her to. She ran away to Shanghai and became a famous writer—” I say, but Pacita frowns.
“Ting Ling is a bad woman, then,” Pacita says. “Are you a bad girl? That’s not how your parents raised you. Now stop talking nonsense and go and make rice. Your uncle will be home soon.”
Uncle is in a bad mood when he gets home.
“I received a letter from your First Uncle in China,” he says in Chinese during dinner, looking down at his rice bowl with a scowl. “The government will not allow him to come here. He could help me with our business here, but the Americans say Chinese cannot come to the Philippines anymore, since the Philippines is part of the United States.”
I know better than to ask why, because Uncle will tell me anyway.
“Chinese are the ones who make this country better! We make business, have stores. These Filipinos, they just talk about me behind my back.”
“Uncle, maybe they are not talking about you,” I say. He does not speak the local dialect as well as I do. “How can you know, if they are speaking Filipino?”
But he just keeps eating, his mouth moving fast, his fat chin greasy with oil from his food. Uncle does not look like Mother—she had a small chin and pretty eyes.
“They look down on us now, even though Chinese helped them during their war with the Americans—”
I glance at Pacita as she brings in the steamed fish that Uncle likes, then goes back to the kitchen. I don’t like it when Uncle talks badly about Filipinos. He makes his money from them, why does he dislike them so much?
“They call Jose Rizal a hero, but he is part Chinese!” His pale, flabby cheeks shake with anger.
“But Uncle, you look down on Filipinos too,” I say quietly, and Uncle stops his chopsticks midway up to his mouth and gives me a hard look.
“Remember that you are Chinese, niece. Our civilization is the oldest in the world. Someday we will go back to China. It is too bad your mother did not live to return to her homeland.”
Uncle gets a faraway look in his eyes when he talks about China. I want to go to China too, but when Uncle talks like this it makes me angry, maybe because of Pacita, or maybe because I hate Uncle, although I would never tell him that. Pacita comes back in and bows to Uncle.
“Mister Tan, sir,” she says quietly, looking down at the floor. “Tonight may I go and see my relatives? It is Monday.”
Uncle grunts his approval. My chest feels heavy all of a sudden. With everything that happened today with Arturo, I forgot that it is Monday, when Pacita spends the night with her family, meaning Uncle and I will be alone together. She goes to clean up in the kitchen, and I try to finish the rest of my dinner, but even though Pacita is a good cook, the food is tasteless now and I’m not hungry anymore.
I hate the nights when Pacita is gone, because that is when Uncle comes to my room. He says that what he does to me will make me into a woman and please my future husband. The first time, I was eleven years old, and I cried and screamed and tried to push him away, but he was so much bigger than me with his clammy skin and heavy body, like a big hairless seal. He slapped me hard until I stopped fighting him, and when Pacita saw the bruises on my face the next day and asked what happened, he told her that he had beat me because he caught me doing bad things in my bed the night before. The way they both looked at me made me feel so ashamed that I just cried until Uncle sent me to my room. Pacita never said anything about it, and I often wanted to tell her, but what could she do? Uncle is my only family here in the Philippines.
I can’t fly away when he comes to me at night, though I have tried many times. I can only fly when I’m happy, it seems, and when Uncle comes to me I am only scared, angry, ashamed. So instead I press my lips together tight and stare up at a corner of the ceiling of my room, ignoring the rough tearing of Uncle’s fingers between my legs. I imagine that I am flying far above my waterfall, in the clouds where the air is cool and sweet, and though Uncle’s breath is hot on my face and smells sour, once I am in the clouds I do not feel anything that he does to me, do not hear anything but the gentle rushing of the wind and the birds chirping far below.
A week later, I am just arriving home from school when I see Mr. Viray’s bicycle propped against the side of our house. I look and see that Pacita is at the door speaking with Mr. Viray, who hands her a small package. I glance around, looking for Arturo, both fearful and excited that he may be here, since I have not seen him since that day at the waterfall more than a week ago. Pacita and Mr. Viray are talking at the front door and don’t see me, and I don’t see Arturo, so I start to walk, disappointed, to the back door to go inside—and almost bump into Arturo, who is coming around the corner of our house.
“Hello,” I say, jumping back a little. He jumps too, but smiles at me the way he always does.
“How are you?” I ask, trying to smile and keep my voice calm. My hands are shaking so I put them in my pockets. “Did you find out about Ateneo?”
He shakes his head. “How are you?”
“Fine.” We stand there, not saying anything, for a long moment.
“Well, good-bye then, Arturo,” I say, disappointed, and step past him, but then he grabs my hand.
“Mei-Feng, actually—I—I was hoping to see you.” he says.
I feel like I can barely breathe. “You were?”
He nods. “I don’t understand what happened—at the waterfall, but—but I like you. You are a nice girl. If you like me too—will you meet me again?”
I look into his eyes. They are dark, beautiful, kind. Something about them calms me. But then I hear his father and Pacita saying good-bye to each other, and I know I have to talk fast.
“Yes. Wednesdays, Uncle works late at the store. I’ll meet you at the waterfall then, after school.”
I wave good-bye and run to the back door of our house, already thinking about when I will see him next, at the waterfall.
I start to meet Arturo every Wednesday, when Uncle is working late at the store, keeping the books. I tell Pacita that I am staying late at school to help my teacher, or that I’m at Lily’s house. I don’t know if she believes me, but she has stopped questioning me, and just tells me to be careful.
Arturo makes me happy, and it seems like I can only fly now when I am with him. Even my schoolwork bores me and my friends say that I am different. Now that I am in love, the things that my friends talk about—books, their future husbands, what kinds of dresses they wish they could wear—seem silly, and all I can think about is when I will see Arturo again.
At the waterfall with him, my troubles fall away—I forget about Uncle, about being lonely. Arturo knows so much—about history, mathematics. I even teach him a little Chinese. And he is so handsome, with his skin the color of young coconut husk and his brown eyes that always smile. He listens to me talk about school—how we learned about the Emperor Qing, how my teacher complimented me on my characters. Arturo always listens.
Often, we sit in a special place not far from the bottom of the waterfall. We have cleared away some of the plants and found a couple logs and put them on the ground. They’re big enough for us to sit together, and no one can see us, the lauat trees giving us shade and privacy. Some days, it feels like we are in a magical place, far away, the orchids and sampaguita flowers so big and and sweet-smelling.
When it is not too hot, we go up to the waterfall and if no one is around, I let myself fly. I tried to get Arturo to fly with me—I held his hand and we closed our eyes, and I told him to think of happy things. I thought about happy times with Mother and Father—the way Mother’s hair smelled after she washed it, like jasmine blossoms, the way Father would pinch my cheek and tell me I was pretty—and I start to float, but when I open my eyes I can see that he is trying hard, but he is still stuck on the ground. Eventually, I let go of him, and soon I’m floating far above him and he stares up at me, his mouth hanging open like a fish’s. My happiness bubbles up inside me until it spills out as laughter.
When I am high above the waterfall and the town, I think about Arturo, waiting for me, and I miss him. My body grows heavy and I sink, slowly, then faster until I land. I walk over to him.
“How do you do that?”
“I don’t know, I just can. I wish we could fly away together, live in China or somewhere else far away.”
He leans forward, and kisses me on the cheek, just a feathery kiss, and a delightful fear paralyzes me. He only kisses me once, and then we race back down to the forest, where we sit in our special place, holding hands and listening to a frog croaking nearby. The leaves of the lauat trees around us rustle in the breeze, and our breath rises and falls in the same rhythm. I have never felt so close to someone as I do to Arturo right now.
“Where would you go, if you could go anywhere in the world?” he asks.
“I’d visit Manila again, to see our old house,” I say, thinking of Mother and Father.
“I hope I get to go there, if I get into Ateneo—”
“You will,” I say, squeezing his hand, and he smiles.
“Where else would you go?”
“To China, to see the Great Wall,” I say.
I tell him how it is the longest, oldest wall in the world, how a great emperor built it to protect our people.
“But Uncle says China is too dangerous now. There is a war. He says we will go back someday.” I suddenly feel sad when I think of leaving Arturo, and then I remember how Uncle comes to my room at night, how I cry myself to sleep sometimes after he leaves.
“What’s wrong?” Arturo asks when I stop talking.
“Uncle—Uncle—” I stutter, then begin to cry. Arturo puts his arm around me.
“Why are you crying, Mei?”
And because he is gentle and kind, I tell him. I have never told anyone what Uncle does, and I am afraid, but I cannot stop myself. When I am done he looks down at the ground, horrified.
“Do you hate me?” I ask. I will want to die if he hates me now.
“How could I hate you? You are just a girl—and he—does those things—Mei, I’m so sorry.”
He puts his arm around me again, and I lean on his shoulder. It feels good to have told someone, though I am afraid now that somehow, someone else will find out. I look around but we are alone, there are not even any children swimming in the pool today.
“You won’t tell anybody, will you?” I ask him. “I will be shamed, and what good would it do? Uncle is my only family here.”
Arturo doesn’t say anything for a long time. I hold my breath, waiting for his answer.
“No, I won’t tell, Mei. I promise.”
The weeks go by, and I am so happy with Arturo, and Uncle even stops coming to my room, because Pacita hardly ever goes to her family’s home anymore, and though I know that Arturo would not tell anyone my secret, I wonder if telling him has changed something, that maybe now everything will be all right.
Uncle comes home one day as I am sitting in the kitchen, snapping the ends off of long beans for dinner. He usually goes straight to the dining room and waits for his dinner without saying much to me or Pacita, but tonight he comes into the kitchen and stands over me.
“How long?” he says, his voice loud and angry.
“That boy—Arturo—how long have you been seeing him?”
I swallow hard, wondering how he found out, and feel my mouth go dry. “I—I don’t—”
“Don’t lie to me!” He shouts. “I’ve been trying to find you a husband, and this is how you show your gratitude?”
“Uncle, I’m sorry—” Just then, Pacita comes in the door from outside. She looks back and forth between me and my Uncle.
Uncle grabs my arm. “I asked you a question, girl. Have you disgraced yourself with this boy?” His breath is hot on my face, just like when he used to come to me at night, and I have to stop myself from throwing up. How can he blame me for everything when he is the one who did those things to me?
“I’ve done nothing—”
“You’ve been going to the waterfall with him! I would not believe it except that more than one boy told me. What were you doing with him?”
I push him away from me and his eyes grow wide, then he grabs me again, harder, and he is hurting me, and I cannot hold it in anymore. I will not be blamed for doing nothing.
“My only disgrace is you! How can you tell me that I cannot talk to a boy when you do things to me—dirty things! You are the one who disgraces me!” My knees buckle and Uncle lets go of me, his mouth dropping open, and I start to sob on the floor.
“I’ll teach you—” Uncle says, taking his belt off. I hear the clink and slither of it, so I try to run to my room, but somehow Pacita is suddenly standing there, blocking my way.
“Please!” I yell, but she just stands there, a faraway look on her face. Her eyes seem to glow with a bluish light.
“Don’t run, or it will be worse—” Uncle comes towards me, but Pacita shoves me behind her, her orange rosary in her right hand.
“Get out of my way!” Uncle shouts at her. He pushes her but she does not move, not even a little. It is like she has grown roots into the very ground beneath her, and she begins to grow, her gray hair floating up and away from her head, then turning into the grayish branches and the long oblong green leaves of the lauat tree as her body becomes a thick wooden trunk.
Uncle stumbles backwards as Pacita—or the lauat—grows tall enough to touch the kitchen ceiling. And then she makes a terrible sound—her voice like the howling of wind during a monsoon. She is speaking, making words of some kind, they sound strangely familiar, until I recognize what they are. She is praying.
Hail Mary, full of Grace— she says, her voice echoing like wind through the kitchen, her leaves shaking violently. Uncle’s eyes are huge and round, and his hand goes to his chest.
The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou amongst women—
I crouch down behind Pacita, the wind whipping my hair across my eyes. Uncle falls flat onto his back, his eyes still staring up at the tree, at Pacita.
And blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Uncle’s body is shaking on the ground, his head turning from side to side.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners—
I watch, horrified, not wanting to see, not able to look away. His body jolts up and down, and I scream.
—now and at the hour of our death. Amen!
Uncle’s body jolts one last time, and then he is still, his eyes wide open, spit dripping from the corner of his mouth. I know before going over to check him that he is dead. I weep, out of sadness or happiness, I’m not sure. As I go to kneel next to Uncle’s body, the wind dies down and I hear a loud creaking sound. When I turn around, Pacita is no longer a lauat tree, she is just Pacita—small and slender, her gray hair hanging loose around her small shoulders.
“Come,” she says, her voice quiet and gentle again. She holds her wrinkled brown hand out to me. “There is nothing here for you now, child.”
Darkness is falling as we walk towards the river, and Pacita tells me that she has always known that I could fly.
“Your mother said that she picked me to work for your family,” she says, holding my hand as we walk. “But I was the one who picked you. As soon as I saw you, when you were just barely walking, I knew. I can see when somebody has a gift. And I was there, by the waterfall, when you told Arturo about your Uncle. I have always tried to watch over you.”
I remember that first day at the waterfall with Arturo, Pacita’s bag on the ground next to the lauat tree. She was there!
“Why didn’t you tell me? I was so confused when I first realized what I could do—”
“It’s better this way, for both of us. When you get older, you will know when you can trust someone enough to tell them. Have you told Arturo?”
“He will not betray me,” I say.
“Be careful, child. You must protect yourself,” she stops for a moment. “Your parents were good people, trusting. But it is not always good to trust too quickly.”
What does she mean?
“You are a woman now, and we must protect ourselves, especially those of us who have gifts,” she says. “People may call you witch, demon, aswang. But there are many who do good with their gifts.”
We are near the river. I can hear the waterfall in the distance.
“Here—” she presses her orange rosary into my hands.
“Pacita, I don’t understand—”
“You must go. Your Uncle has enemies here, and some of those boys at the river may have seen you flying. It’s too dangerous for you here now. I can only do so much to protect you.”
“I don’t want to leave you, Pacita. You’re all I have now—you and Arturo.”
“You can fly, now, Mei-Feng. Go to China, find the rest of your family there. Go and do good with your gift. I have work to do here. And my rosary will help you. Do you remember the prayer?” I nod and look down at the string of orange wooden beads in my hands.
“When you feel you are in danger and there is no way out, hold my rosary and say that prayer, believe that you will be protected, and you will be safe.”
She embraces me for a brief moment. “Come back and visit me someday.”
And then Pacita gently pushes me towards the river, towards the waterfall, where I will be able to fly away. But before I leave, I have to go and see Arturo.
I wait until night falls completely, when the townspeople go to bed, before I make my way to Arturo’s house behind the post office. It is dark but the moon is half-full so I can see. I make my way towards the back of the house, where Arturo told me he sleeps. When I get to a slatted window, I peer inside, hearing someone’s soft sleeping breath. I hiss, hoping that it is Arturo in the room. Something moves around in the dark and I hear Arturo’s fearful voice.
“Arturo,” I whisper. “It’s Mei-Feng. Come outside.”
I hear him get up, and when I walk to the front of the house, he is outside. I follow him to the front of the post office.
“What are you doing here?” He sounds angry.
“I have to leave, Arturo, and I don’t want to go without you. Run away with me.”
“What?” His voice is sharp. “Mei-Feng, I can’t just leave.”
“But don’t you want to be with me?”
He drops my hands. “Even if I wanted to—I can’t.”
“Mei—we shouldn’t have been talking so much at the waterfall. Your uncle—”
“What did Uncle do?”
“He—he told my father that I should stay away from you. He said he would—come after me—if I kept talking to you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, remembering my Uncle lying dead on our kitchen floor. “Not anymore. Let’s run away. As long as we’re together—”
“It’s not just that,” he says, turning away. “I found out today that I got into Ateneo. I’m going in the new term, Mei.”
I feel like I have been punched in the stomach. I should be glad for him, but everything has changed now.
“I thought you wanted to be with me.”
“I do, but you must know that we could never get married. You’re Chinese, I’m Filipino—your uncle does not want it, and my parents—well, I don’t think they would want it either.”
“I can take us away from here, both of us—at least I think I can. We’ll go to the Great Wall, anywhere you want to go.”
He moves away from me.
“Are you crazy?” he says, and my heart lurches inside my body. I move towards him but he shakes his head. “Go home, Mei. I am going to Ateneo. It’s what I want, what my family wants. You and I, we have to let go of our foolishness.”
He seems so different than when we are alone together at the waterfall. Suddenly I feel like I hardly know him at all. Or maybe I’m the one that has changed.
“Good-bye, Mei,” Arturo says, turning towards his house, not even kissing me good-bye. I watch him, a mad swirl of feelings churning inside me. I turn and start running, tears streaming down my face, running as fast as I can to the river, and to the waterfall.
The next day, I am flying high above our town. The happy feeling in my chest lifts me up, up and up, and the corners of my mouth lift too, until I can’t remember what it feels like to feel angry or sad or bad. I only feel light and full of air. I swoop and land on a big tree—I can’t really stop, I just hold on to a branch so that I can’t go any further. I look around, hear birds chirping and insects buzzing in the forest below. I breathe in the warm, moist air, the breath of the trees, and feel at peace.
Then I fly east, towards the rising sun. I see houses and nipa huts and fields, and then the narrow river, and my waterfall. The river looks like a shiny brown ribbon laid over the green land. I hover above the waterfall, and I can see, far below, someone walking next to it. It’s Arturo. I recognize him by the way he walks—leaning forward with his hands behind his back, like Father. I wonder if he is looking for me, and I am surprised that I don’t feel bad to have left him behind.
I feel lighter, and let the wind carry me up and up, and then I am flying over the small path that leads to Uncle’s house. I look down one last time at that house, and then I see a small figure walking on the path away from it. Pacita. She stops walking and looks up at the sky.
And then I look away and out towards the western horizon—towards China to find the rest of my family, or the Great Wall, or perhaps the Forbidden City. But I know I will come back someday, to visit Pacita and to see my waterfall again.
The Blue Door
By Carol Holland March
The kiss lingered on Delia’s lips. She curled her fingers around her blanket, longing to return to the dream where the woman with green eyes murmured in her ear. The words faded. The dream dissolved. Delia trembled. Heat coursed through her veins. Her limbs tingled. She turned with a slow, languorous movement, imagining the green-eyed woman lying beside her.
“Del!” Her mother’s voice spoiled any chance of re-entering the dream. “The sun is up and you aren’t.”
Delia thrust away her ragged blue blanket. The heat from her dream evaporated, and she shivered in the frigid air.
“Coming,” she called. She reached for her clothes.
The main room of the cottage was warmer than Delia’s tiny alcove. She pushed aside the curtain and joined her mother at the central hearth. The odor of last night’s pottage lingered.
Before she could hang the kettle over the fire, Marthe said, “Another message came. At first light.” She drew it from her pocket and handed it to Delia.
Delia tucked the sealed sheet of vellum into the pocket of her apron and positioned the kettle on the pot hanger.
“It’s from the duke. Why don’t you read it?”
“Have you heard from Rob?” Delia joined Marthe at the rough-hewn table where her mother stood kneading dough. Her older brother had sent a message the week before announcing his first visit home since joining the king’s service.
“He’ll get here when he can.”
Delia crossed the room to the single tiny window. Beyond the road that led toward the village, the forest beckoned. Spring had come and melted most of the snow.
“What about the duke?” Marthe said. “He wants to meet you. He lost his wife at harvest time.”
“The duke had four wives, Mother. Why would I want to be the fifth?”
Before Marthe could answer, Delia’s father entered with an armload of kindling. “Because he can take care of you,” Luc said. “Those rumors of foul play come from ones not chosen, I’d wager. You need a husband, girl. Since Rob left, we can’t earn any extra. It’s all I can do to tend the goats and crops.”
Luc was a good man, kind and honest, but age and work had worn him out, and the accident with the plow had left him with a limp. At nineteen, Delia was overdue for marriage, but no suitor compared with the woman who danced through her dream world. Whenever she refused a hog farmer or apprentice blacksmith, Marthe huffed and said she was too particular. Months had passed since the last hopeful swain approached the cottage.
“I could seek a position in town,” Delia said. “A tutor or chambermaid.” Her heart chilled at the thought of spoiled children and endless chores in someone else’s house, but she had to help out, or find a husband.
The woman who roamed her dreams appeared before her eyes, but Delia shook her head. A dream didn’t put food on the table, but, oh, to be trapped inside a manor house! No more walks through the wood to forage for wild cherries and walnuts. No conversations with the sparrows that landed on her shoulder. No daydreaming by her favorite stream.
“You would find suitors in town,” Marthe said. “Even from the gentry, maybe, but don’t wait too long, love, or you’ll lose your chance for a home and children. You want children, don’t you?” Marthe’s life revolved around Luc and her children, but Delia wasn’t sure. The mysterious woman who roamed her dreams was calling her, but for what? And from where?
The next morning, Rob burst into the cottage like a wind from a distant land. Delia left the goat half-milked and ran to greet him. She flung open the door as her older brother was embracing Marthe. In his long traveling cloak, he looked taller, older and more worldly.
“Sister! I’ve missed you!” Rob grabbed Delia’s waist and lifted her as he had when they were children. “And even more lovely.” He set her down and pulled her against his chest.
Delia hugged him hard. “Tell us everything. The castle. The king. Are you still an archer?”
Rob patted the long-handled knife hanging from his belt. “I’ve been promoted. My captain put me in charge of teaching recruits how to shoot an arrow straight. When he found out I could ride, he talked of adding me to the cavalry. I’ve waited months, and now it’s come. I return as a junior member of the Royal Cavalry.”
Marthe laughed. “And we thought the hours wasted that you spent on the neighbor’s horse. I’m proud of you, son.”
Rob hugged them both. “I’ll tell you everything. But first, your news.”
Marthe picked up a stack of plates. “Come, sit. There’s tea and bread, and the soup’s simmering. The real news is for Delia. The duke wants to meet her, but your sister isn’t sure the duke of our land would make a suitable husband.”
“Delia!” Rob said “The duke? Why does he come here? He’s had other wives, hasn’t he?”
“Several,” Delia said. “He’s an odd one. He drops in on people unexpectedly, and not only nobles. We were fortunate to get a message about his arrival.”
“Which is?” Rob asked.
“Tomorrow,” Delia said.
Her brother looked serious. “Do you fear him, Delia?”
Since the message arrived, Delia had thought of little else. “No,” she said. “I don’t.”
In her dream, the green-eyed woman stretched beside Delia on grass warmed by a gentle sun. Her voice flowed like a song, her hands caressed Delia’s cheek so gently Delia felt only the tingling of currents aroused within her as she raised her face for a kiss. As their lips met, tendrils of warmth traveled through her arms. Her fingers curled.
“I know you,” Delia said.
Deep, heavy-lidded eyes beheld her. “You have always known me. Let my kisses awaken your memories.”
Such pleasure moved through her when they were together that Delia found herself floating near the tops of tall trees with lacy green leaves tickling her face.
She opened her eyes. The grimy smudge on the wall of her room mocked her. The lumpy straw mattress pricked her back. She wept bitter tears.
“Are you ready?” Marthe bustled around the table, arranging her best cloth on the rough wood.
Delia smoothed the skirt of her best dress and pulled tight the blue shawl that Marthe had finished crocheting for the occasion. She had curled her dark red hair into ringlets, crowned with pins adorned with delicate blue ribbons.
“Look and see if he’s coming,” Marthe said.
Luc sent Rob into town with instructions not to return until supper. “Your sister must make up her own mind,” he said. “I’m here to protect her.”
Not that Delia needed protecting, but rumors of the duke’s outrageous acts had spread and visiting the cottage of one of his sharecroppers was nearly beyond the bounds of propriety. She was relieved when Rob left at dawn with a goat that Luc insisted he trade in the market for flour and sugar.
She peered out the window. The duke must be old and wrinkled. She stood there until a cloud of dust appeared in the distance. “He’s coming.”
Marthe wiped her hands. “Come, sit.” She pushed her daughter into one of the three chairs at the table. “Rise when he comes in and curtsy like I showed you.”
“I know what to do.”
The coach was large and ornate, with curtained windows and a box for the coachman. As he pulled them to a stop, two black horses snorted and stamped their hooves. The coachman leaped from his box and opened the door.
“Take your nose off the window,” Marthe snapped. “Sit quietly like a lady.” She and Luc opened the door.
The duke stepped from the carriage, dressed in black, wearing high leather boots, a frilled white shirt and a gold belt with a buckle depicting his coat-of-arms, a serpent devouring its tail. As he strode to the door, a velveteen cloak swirled in the breeze, revealing a carved leather scabbard. From it rose an elaborate silver hilt.
He bowed to Marthe and Luc and entered the cottage, blinking in the sudden darkness.
Now we’ll see what he wants, Delia thought as she performed the deep curtsy reserved for greeting nobility.
“My Lady.” The duke approached Delia. He kissed her proffered right hand.
“My Lord.” She lowered her gaze. “Your presence honors our poor house.”
Not so old after all, he was pale and quietly handsome with close-set eyes a deep shade of blue and dark hair brushing his shoulders. From the number of times he licked his thin lips, Delia judged she was not the only one with a case of nerves. As he settled in a chair beside her, her heart softened. If not for the problem of his missing wives, he might make an acceptable husband.
“Word of your beauty reached me in my lonely castle,” he said. “I had to see what treasure languished at the edge of my wood.”
“You are too kind,” Delia said.
Marthe served them tea and slices of bread with honey, then backed away as if she were a servant. Luc retreated to the darkest corner where he melted into the shadows.
“I have been most unfortunate in matters of the heart,” the duke said. “My wives met with adversity, stolen from me by accident and disease. My last wife succumbed to a flux in her chest. I loved her dearly and mourn her still, but my home is a large one and requires a mistress. Now that I have met you, I see I have come to the right place.” Tears glistened in his eyes.
Surely a man who wept over his dead wife would not treat her ill. “I am sorry for your loss, my duke.” She allowed him to rest his cool hand on her wrist.
He bent toward her ear and whispered, “Call me Maltric.”
You have done well, the dream-woman murmured as she caressed Delia’s loose curls and twined her fingers into her hair. The fingers kneaded, pressing away the tension. Delia tossed her hair to one side, opening herself to the rising tide. The fingers ventured into the crevices between the bones of her back. Delia’s breath came in gasps.
Find the blue door, the woman whispered. In the castle.
Rob walked in the wood with Delia, along narrow paths they had roamed as children. They stopped to rest at a familiar rock where Delia sat and watched her handsome brother pace back and forth in a clearing.
“Will you marry him?” he asked.
“I must do something. Either marry or find a position. Our parents are old, and I am no longer a child. As his wife, I could make their lives easier.”
He scowled. “I can help more now. The Royal Cavalry pays in coin.”
She touched his face. “You have your life. I must make mine.”
“Sister, I am wary of this duke.”
Rob had always been her protector, but now she must make her own decision. “I will put him off,” she said, “until I am certain.” I sense no menace in him, she thought. It is possible his wives were unlucky, or had poor constitutions.”
Rob kissed her forehead. “Well, no one can say that of you. I trust your judgment, but if you need help, send a message. Just because I am far away, I have not deserted you, my sister.”
Delia rested in the comfort of his arms. She didn’t tell him of her dream-woman or the blue door. When they resumed their walk, they spoke only of their childhood when neither of them had worries beyond returning to the cottage by suppertime.
The duke called for Delia every week. They drove through the countryside in his coach, conversing about the weather, the crops, and the rumored entertainments the king and queen enjoyed at the castle in the north. Delia was uncertain how to interpret these outings, but their frequency convinced her she made a good impression.
When first they journeyed to the duke’s castle, the countryside bloomed with color. Apple trees sprouted delicate pink blossoms. Violets and daisies covered the hills. On a bright afternoon that Delia would have preferred to spend wandering the forest, the carriage turned off the main road onto a narrow track and entered the deep wood.
Little sun penetrated the tall dark-barked trees growing thick as a maze on both sides of the track. They drove for more than an hour in gloom that made Delia’s chest tighten. When the trees opened to reveal the castle sitting in a clearing against the backdrop of a hill, blessed sunlight shone and Delia brightened, but as they approached the massive building, the heaviness penetrated her. High, square towers flanked forbidding stone walls broken only by small, square windows. The horses trotted up a curving drive and stopped before a massive wooden door.
“Here we are,” Maltric said.
She had never felt so frightened or so pampered as he unwrapped the blanket from her legs and helped her out of the carriage as if she were a fragile thing.
The castle door loomed thick and dark, old wood carved with the duke’s crest, a circular brass handle in its center. A servant, costumed in black and white livery finer than any she had seen, opened the door and ushered them into a foyer larger than her parents’ cottage. The servant took her cape and bowed as he retreated.
Delia followed the duke into a room so long and high ceilinged Delia thought of a cathedral in the distant city she had once visited with Marthe and Luc. Heavy wooden furniture circled a stone fireplace that rose to the ceiling. Above the fireplace hung a pair of crossed steel swords, with hilts trimmed in gold and studded with precious stones. Thick red drapes covered narrow windows and blocked the light.
Delia sat on a carved oak loveseat with a velvet cushion. The duke sat opposite her. He waved his hand for a maid who hurried toward them with a silver tray bearing serving dishes with covered lids and two pewter goblets of mulled cider. She placed the tray on a table to the side and offered Delia a goblet. Delia sipped the spicy beverage. “You have a lovely home.”
“It has been in my family for generations.” He offered her a silver plate of pastries. Delia chose a delicate almond concoction and nibbled it as she glanced around. The blue door must be here, but with so many rooms, how could she find it? Her gaze returned to the glittering swords.
“Those were my grandfather’s,” Maltric said.
“You are a swordsman?” Delia inquired.
“Oh, yes. A family tradition. As peaceful as our land has been of late, I seldom need a sword, but I like to practice. My falconer consents to a friendly match now and then, so we can both keep our skills. But I prefer to learn about you, dear Delia.”
Delia looked at her lap. “You do me great honor, my Lord.”
He rose and held out both hands. “I have so enjoyed our time together these last weeks. You have seen my home, and now I hope you will accept my humble plea to be your husband.”
It had come. Delia rose and placed her hands in his. As he grasped her fingers, she felt no fear, only concern fitting into the life of a noble lady. She smiled at Maltric. “I will, my Lord.”
He pulled her so close her face rested on his soft white shirt. “You are so lovely, and you do me great honor with your consent. I’m certain we will be happy.” His arms pressed against her back with a proprietary air. Delia tried not to notice the tremor that shivered through her shoulders.
I’m coming, she thought to the green-eyed woman, even as the duke kissed her forehead with his cool lips. She smiled at him. “I will need your help to manage such a household. I fear I am ill-prepared for such responsibility.”
He laughed and squeezed her tighter. “My dear, the staff knows what to do. You need only direct them. We can plan for a summer wedding. Will that be enough time?”
The sooner they married, the sooner she could find the mysterious blue door. “Yes, my Lord, summer will do nicely.”
Delia awoke in her new bedroom that Maltric had ordered decorated in her favorite blue pastels. She stretched luxuriously. Her dream world lingered as a haze in her mind, and her body sang with the memory of the green-eyed woman.
Delia tried to re-enter the dream, but it faded. She turned on her side and thought of Maltric. His initial attempts to arouse her passion had failed. His hands were too large, his breath sour, his movements awkward. Still, he enjoyed their coupling, and hinted about children, so Delia concealed the fact that her cries of passion were not entirely heart-felt.
He held her close until he slept, freeing her to retreat to her side of the large bed. He was not insensitive, though, and soon learned her preferences. In their last encounter, she had found pleasure in his touch. Delia smiled. She didn’t mind that he was often away to attend to the affairs of his realm. When he shared her bed, she didn’t dream of the green-eyed woman.
She sat up and rang a tiny bell on her bedside table. A maid entered with a tray of hot tea and buttered toast, her usual breakfast.
“Thank you,” she said as Cerise settled the tray beside her.
Cerise curtsied. “Is there anything else, Milady?”
She decided this was the day she would begin her search. “The castle is large, and I have not explored all its charms. My husband said you have been long in his service, Cerise. You must know the house well.”
The woman’s florid face gained more color. She had a sturdy build and looked older than Delia, but younger than Marthe. She bobbed her head. “Oh, yes, Milady. And my mother before me. This house has thirty-three rooms if you count the baths, although most are unused. The poor duke never had children. Such a pity.”
Delia sipped her tea. “Which room has a blue door?”
Cerise’s hands flew to her mouth. “Oh no, you mustn’t. Any door but that one.”
The maid’s reaction intrigued her. “I am the duke’s wife, Cerise. For three months now. Surely I have access to the rooms of my own house.”
“Please.” Cerise backed away from the bed, her thick hands working at each other. “It’s the only place you cannot go. No one can. It’s bewitched. The others fell under its spell. All of them. Don’t ask me.” She ran from the room, slamming the door behind her.
Delia finished her breakfast and soaked in a warm, sudsy bath. When her skin turned a rosy pink, she wrapped herself in a thick robe and returned to the bedroom. For one born to poverty, she had adjusted well to her new life, she thought as she dressed. She was not ashamed to discover she liked luxury, and it pleased her to help her parents. Each week when she visited, she took coins from her household allowance so Luc could hire help in the fields and Marthe could buy what she needed.
Her fears about the duke proved unworthy. He treated her well. He explained the series of misfortunes that had befallen his previous wives. Delia found him so mild-mannered that she laughed at herself for entertaining ugly rumors. She felt from him a vague affection and an endearing dithering quality.
Delia decided that men were easier to manage than she supposed. No great love bloomed between them, but her life was better, and her dream-woman still delighted her at night. Still, the matter of the blue door lingered. Delia had to find it.
After she dressed and tied up her hair with a blue scarf, Delia set out. She discounted the ground floor which housed the kitchen and servants’ quarters. Also the entire first floor, with the Great Hall, with its carved oak doors. She started on the second floor where her bedchamber and Maltric’s suite shared a hall. She had walked the hall a hundred times, but to be certain, she walked its length again.
The blue door could be small, a closet or storage cabinet. She went into every room and searched but found nothing. She ventured into the unused hallways where her footsteps echoed and shadows taunted her. When she had checked every door, she climbed the stairs to the third floor. More oak doors. A white-painted one leading to a room that contained a dusty crib. Another with peeling pink paint she assumed had belonged to a child, perhaps one of Maltric’s sisters, now married and living in their own homes.
At the end of the third floor hall, a narrow door creaked open to reveal a spiral staircase that twisted its way to the top floor of the castle. Dust caked the steps. Cobwebs hung from the railing. She started up, testing each step before she put her weight on it. At the top, she came to another small door, black with grime. She put down her lamp and wrestled with the bolt before it snapped open with a sharp sound. She pushed at the door. It did not budge. Delia pressed her shoulder against it and shoved with all her strength. It creaked open, revealing a corridor with a low ceiling, shorter than those below, for the castle narrowed as it rose.
Holding her lamp high, Delia inched across creaking floorboards. She passed three doors, dark oak, their crevices caked with layers of dust. A spider scurried across her path and disappeared into a crack. A faint rustling in the walls could only be mice. With each step, more gloom settled over her. She scolded herself for being silly. Dust and spiders were harmless.
At the fourth door, she stopped. Its paint had cracked and peeled, the surface smeared with dirt as if water had dripped onto it from the ceiling. Filthy and not recently opened, but unmistakably blue, an indigo so dark it could grace the twilight sky. She willed her heart to slow.
A rusted key stuck out of the keyhole. Had those other wives stood here? Reached out and turned that key? Delia remembered the horror on Cerise’s face, but she was a frightened girl. Maltric had said nothing about this door, so why should she, the lady of the house, guide her behavior by the fears of a chambermaid?
Delia took a deep breath. With her lamp in her left hand, high enough that the light fell on the keyhole, she grasped the key with her right hand. Cold, rusty, stiff. She tried moving it to the right. It did not budge. She released it, took a tighter grasp and turned it to the left. With a loud, mechanical grate, the key moved. A click. Heat rose in her chest. She released the key, grasped the doorknob and pushed. The door opened, creaking so loudly she feared servants would come to investigate.
Darkness greeted her. She waited for her eyes to adjust, then edged inside. The door slammed shut. She whirled around, but she was alone. Dusty drapes covered the one window. Draped sheets covered outlines of furniture.
Bright light engulfed her. Delia blinked. She lifted one hand to shade her eyes.
You found me.
She stood in a large open space. Grass stretched to a distant horizon, spreading oak trees with thick trunks, blankets of wildflowers, the scent of roses. This was impossible. It had to be an illusion.
My world, came the answer. Welcome to Elysa.
From behind an ancient oak appeared a tall woman with hair as black as the stallions that pulled Maltric’s coach and skin like liquid caramel. Her silk gown, shades of pink from palest cherry blossom to deepest magenta, flowed around her as a waterfall on a spring day. From her ears dangled golden snakes. Her eyes glowed green.
“It’s you,” Delia breathed.
I am Atishi. Welcome to my world.
Delia stretched her arms above her head. She opened her eyes and kissed Atishi’s neck. They lay side by side on a cloak spread over thick grass. Atishi tasted of salt and lavender. “I loved you in my dreams and I love you now,” Delia murmured. “But I don’t understand.”
Atishi stroked Delia’s hand. “I called you.”
“In my dreams?”
“At other times too, but you listen best at night. I have watched you. It is a joy to have you here.”
Delia rested her face on Atishi’s shoulder. “How could this be? I opened a door in Maltric’s castle and now I’m in a different world.”
The beautiful woman from her dreams gazed at her with loving eyes. “For ages I have called. Now our worlds are close enough to open this door, but our time is limited. You must return to your world.”
Delia sat up. “Go back?”
“You cannot stay unless you are certain this is your place.”
“It must be,” Delia said. “I have loved you since I first dreamed of you.” She stopped and considered. “How did you draw me here?”
Atishi rose. Delia admired the long lean lines of Atishi’s body. Watching Atishi dress, she forgot her own clothes.
Atishi handed Delia the chemise she had ripped off in haste. “I drew you with my desire. There is no other way.”
Atishi wound her arm around Delia’s waist. “Think on what I have said. And return soon.”
Delia could not imagine failing to return. She kissed Atishi’s full lips. “I will.”
The forest shimmered and disappeared. One moment, Atishi was there. The next, Delia stood in a plain, bare room with heavy curtains blocking the light.
“Delia!” The duke’s voice rang sharp and cold. Delia looked up from her embroidery. He stood in the doorway, still wearing his traveling cloak and sword.
“Yes, my husband.” She dropped her needlework on the table and rose to greet him. “I am happy for your safe return. What can I get you?”
“The truth.” He did not open his arms for her embrace.
“You have searched through my castle, seeking evidence of my other wives, after I explained my history to you. What is this nonsense about a blue door?”
Delia forced herself to stay still. “My husband, I wanted to acquaint myself with my home. You said nothing about a forbidden room.”
He frowned so hard his thick eyebrows ran together. “No room is forbidden. Nor is there a blue door. Come. I will show you.”
Delia followed him up the stairs to the third floor and down the hallway. When they came to the door that led to the fourth floor, Delia demurred. “My husband, no one has opened that door for ages. So much dust.”
He looked at her with such cold eyes. She shivered. “If you are a witch, you could make it appear that way.” He kicked open the door, revealing the spiral staircase.
“I am no witch!” Delia cried, but he had started up the stairs. She followed as Maltric marched down the hall, turning his head from right to left as he inspected each door. Delia’s heart pounded, but when they came to the door that led to Atishi’s world, it was the same dark oak as the others, covered with layers of dust. She released her breath with an audible gust.
Maltric turned to her with a look of triumph. “No blue doors.”
“I see that, my husband. Whoever told you I sought a blue door did not speak the truth.”
“That is possible, I suppose.” He regarded her without a hint of warmth. “Are you unhappy with me, Delia? I thought you were content, but perhaps I was wrong. Do you regret our marriage?”
“Oh, no, my Lord.” She hoped he was not planning something dreadful. “I have been the victim of vicious gossip.”
His face softened. “It is possible you speak the truth. Let us go and dress. I have invited the mayor for dinner. Wear the green gown.”
Delia allowed him to take her arm and guide her back to her room. He left her there and went to his own chamber. Alone in her room, Delia collapsed on her bed. Cerise had betrayed her. Her husband thought her a witch. The blue door had vanished. What kind of magic had she blundered into?
Delia did not dream again of Atishi, but every night before she fell asleep, she recalled every detail of her face, and in her mind, she spoke to her. She never saw Cerise again. Another maid, Sara, attended to her needs. To this one, she said nothing beyond what she needed.
She performed her household duties, but developed a habit of sitting at her bedroom window to stare at the snow that had fallen thick on the land. Atishi and the land of Elysa were always on her mind, but sometimes Delia wondered if someone had bewitched her. Was there a blue door? Maltric might be more menacing than he appeared. The rumors of missing wives echoed. She had to be careful. Not upset him. But that meant she could spend her life as mistress of an empty castle, wedded to a man who did not cause her heart to flutter.
As midwinter approached, Maltric stayed home more often. Again, he behaved like the mild-mannered duke of their early days. Delia decided that her fears could be the overwrought ramblings of her own mind, but she had to be sure. She needed to discover who Maltric was.
One night as they shared the fire in his sitting room, Delia gathered her courage. “My husband, I cannot help pondering the wives who preceded me.”
Maltric looked up, toward the pair of matched swords that hung over the fireplace. Every fireplace in the castle displayed a pair of weapons, and these were his personal swords. “I have had back luck, my dear. With you, that has changed.”
“I don’t recall funeral rites for your wives.”
“That is not your affair.” Maltric rose. He loomed over her, his face dark with blood. “It is not your place to question me.” His voice sounded deeper than usual.
Delia shrank deeper into her chair. “I did not mean to doubt you, my husband.”
“You are not here to ask questions, but to please me.” He turned and faced the flames of the fireplace. “No harm will come if you keep your place and run my household to my satisfaction.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Delia suppressed her impulse to run from the room. She had angered her husband, perhaps with good reason. She thought of her parents, eased from the worse burdens of poverty. Her dreams were less important than her parent’s security. Best she forget them. Make peace with her lot. She had a comfortable home and servants to attend to her needs. Still, she longed for Atishi. Was she the witch? Or only a dream?
“I must speak to the cook about Sunday dinner,” Delia said. “If you recall, my parents are coming.”
He turned and smiled, the darkness gone from his face. “Of course.” His voice had returned to its usual register. “Your parents are always welcome. Go make arrangements for a fine meal.”
Delia went downstairs to find the cook. When she returned, the sitting room was empty and one of the swords from the fireplace was missing.
The next morning, Delia heard heavy footsteps in the hall. She opened her door and peered out. The gardener lumbered toward the stair to the upper floor, carrying a bucket of paint, a brush and a cloth.
She closed her door and rang for Sara. When the maid appeared, Delia asked her what gardener was doing.
“Why, painting, Milady,” Sara said. “The doors upstairs have cracked and the duke ordered them painted.”
The next day, Delia crept up the staircase for the first time since Maltric had accompanied her there. An unpleasant odor permeated the hallway, and the doors gleamed with fresh white paint. She held her breath as she approached the magical door that opened to Elysa. It too gleamed white. The key still protruded from the lock. It clicked open. She walked into the darkened room. Oh, please, let the magic not be gone.
She closed the door and stood still. The room shimmered. A moment later, she stood in the bright meadow of Elysa.
“Atishi,” she called. “Are you here?”
From behind, Atishi clasped her waist with both hands, her laughter ringing like a bell. “I feared Maltric’s poor attempt to banish me had frightened you.”
Delia embraced her. “When he brought me here, the door looked the same as the others. He called me a witch.”
Atishi laughed. “You are not the witch in this castle. Is that why you stayed away?”
“He frightened me, and today he had the doors painted white. I feared it made a difference.”
Atishi laughed again. “Do you know how many times Maltric has painted that door? This entrance to Elysa existed long before this castle.” She kissed Delia. “I want to show you more of my world.”
They walked through the meadow on a path through a forest of oak and beech trees, well-spaced and heavy with foliage. Sunlight shone on them. The distant sound of running water made Delia realize she was thirsty.
Atishi guided her to the stream, a brook with deep pools and moss-covered banks. Delia knelt on the moss and drank. With her thirst quenched, she pulled Atishi onto the moss beside her. “This is a beautiful wood. Do wild beasts roam here?”
“The beasts are loving toward us, and we toward them. There is nothing to fear.”
Two young men, one blond and one dark-haired, both wearing tunics and breeches of light brown, appeared in a meadow on the other side of the stream. They held each other’s hands. When they saw Atishi and Delia, they waved.
“Atishi,” the blond man called. “Is this the human you sought? Your description did not do justice to her.”
“This is Delia’s second visit. It’s good to see you, Denys. How are you both?”
Denys grinned and kissed his companion. “Isadore and I are in excellent spirits. He has agreed to stay with me. We moved into a cottage in the village.”
Delia turned toward Atishi, who nodded. “Denys hunted Isadore, as I hunted you. There is a different castle for men, but it works just as Maltric’s room. A queen in a neighboring land has very poor luck with her husbands.” She smiled at the men, who were gazing into each other’s eyes, their hands clasped. “We must schedule the celebration to welcome you, Isadore.”
Denys tore his gaze from Isadore and made a quick bow to Atishi. “We will talk of it tonight. Perhaps a double celebration?” He raised his eyebrows and smiled at Delia.
“It’s too soon to speak of that,” Atishi said.
“But you have waited so long. I wish only for your happiness.”
Isadore pulled at Denys’ arm. “No one likes to be rushed, do they, Delia?” He vaulted the narrow stream and extended his hand, first to Atishi, then to Delia. “Come, Denys, let us walk with the ladies.”
Denys shrugged and leaped over the stream to join them.
Isadore took Delia’s arm. They walked along the trail, leaving Atishi and Denys in the meadow. He smiled at Delia, his dark eyes glowing. “Not long ago, I was like you, but as I learned about Elysa, I came to love it. It’s different from our land. I had doubts, but in the end, I could not refuse Denys. I hope you will join us.”
“What is different, beyond the great peace of this place?” Delia asked.
Isadore laughed. “Many things. I am still learning, for I crossed only a few days ago. We must learn many things before we can become full citizens in Elysa. We take lessons, but they are gentle. When I learn enough to live in Elysa, Denys and I will return to his home. I will have shed my fear of being worthy of such a grand place.” He laughed. “I hope.”
“Did it take you long to decide?” Delia asked.
Isadore squeezed her arm. “Months. My father is a noble, and I his only son. I was training to be a knight. Now it seems a hollow dream, but it was real to me, and more so to my father.”
“You have no regrets?”
Isadore smiled. “I love Denys. My memories of our ancient times together are returning. I’ve known him far longer than my family of birth, and we have much to do together, so no regrets.”
“What are you two whispering about?” Denys ran up behind them and threw an arm around Isadore’s neck. Isadore kissed his cheek.
“Come, Delia,” Atishi laughed. “These two are so besotted they cannot keep their hands to themselves. Go, gentlemen, and let me show our land to Delia.”
Isadore waved to Delia as Denys dragged him away. “I hope you come!” he shouted as they leaped back across the stream.
Delia watched them leave, arm in arm. “So Isadore is human?”
“Everyone here is human. Everyone in Elysa came from your side. This world is much like yours, but violence is rare and poverty unknown. Only those without hate in their hearts are admitted.”
Delia pondered. “This is the land called Fairy?”
Atishi took her hand. “Fairy is a different realm. For a different order of being. Elysa is for humans who love. All kinds of love are valued.”
“Are women who love men admitted?”
“All kinds of love,” Atishi said. “Fewer of them come, since they often find what they seek on your side, and, of course, they must be called.”
“Oh, my,” said Delia. “And you called me.”
Atishi kissed her so deeply that Delia squirmed with pleasure. “You are part of my soul. I have watched you since you were a child. Now you must make the choice to stay on your side or come live with me.”
“Can I return to visit my parents?”
“No, my dear. I’m sorry. The decision is final. Nor may you tell them about Elysa. Rumors fly. If unloving beings discovered another world so near yours, we could be overrun.”
“My parents would not tell,” Delia said, even as she remembered the difficulty Marthe had with secrets.
“This is an ancient world, Delia, which cannot always be reached from your side. Desire drives the joining of our worlds. When enough of us seek our lost companions, the worlds come close enough to open the old passageways. This is one of those times.” She kissed Delia’s cheek and sighed. “But you must be ready.”
“If I don’t come now, when would my next chance come?” Delia asked.
Atishi’s eyes glistened. “Not in your short lifetime, my love.”
They stopped at a clearing atop a hill. Below nestled a village of neat, well-kept cottages with thatched roofs. People walked along the streets, many with dogs and small horses that followed the humans without leash or rein.
“That is one of our towns,” Atishi said. “Where new inhabitants live while they shed the habits and desires of their old lives. Time must pass before even the most loving soul is ready for life in Elysa.”
Delia frowned. “Is that where Denys and Isadore live?”
“Yes. All who cross live there for a time.”
“What must I shed?”
Atishi embraced her. “The old ways. Jealousy. Fear of losing what you have. Anger without just cause. Lingering appetites that cannot be sated. I would stay with you until we could return to my home.”
“Where is that?”
“A lovely land near a great sea. I teach in the Temple of Life. If you decide to tell your stories, you would attract willing pupils eager to hear of your travels in the primitive world of your birth.”
Delia blushed. She had told no one that stories ran through her mind. She had toyed with putting them to paper, but it seemed too fanciful a way to pass the time.
“Here you could write your stories, or tell them, if you prefer. In Elysa, a storyteller is much esteemed.”
That thought was so overwhelming that Delia threw herself into Atishi’s arms. Atishi led her to a soft, shaded spot under a tree. They spread their cloaks on the grass. Sweet, deep kisses led to caresses that caused Delia to forget her fears. She pressed herself against Atishi and after a time they melted into each other.
Delia lost awareness of them as separate people. As Atishi stroked and kissed her, deep tones of pleasure vibrated every cell. As if from above, Delia saw their bodies transform into a single being with great blue-white wings that beat like waves in the air. We are one, she breathed and they both laughed that she had taken so long to remember.
Delia fell asleep in Atishi’s arms, still floating with the sensation of wings propelling her upward. When Atishi kissed her neck to rouse her, Delia resisted.
Atishi caressed Delia’s long red hair. “It’s time to go.”
“I don’t want to leave.”
“You must decide when you are calm and not swept away by our love.”
Delia could not resist one last embrace. Atishi held her fast. “Ponder what you have seen. I will be here.”
Atishi’s words faded. The forest shimmered and disappeared. Delia stood alone in a plain dark room.
From the hall, the door to Elysa was again indigo blue, dusty from disuse. Delia hurried back to the stair. The white paint had vanished. The doors looked as if no one had touched them for years.
Delia thought of little but Atishi. As she became engrossed in the preparations for the midwinter celebration, memories of Atishi’s voice, her laugh and her sweet scent lingered in Delia’s mind. Her memories warmed her as the castle grew more frigid and snowdrifts blocked the lower windows. Atishi was her great love. Beside her, Maltric paled to a gray fog, but leaving her parents made her sad. If she stayed with Atishi, they would think Maltric killed her. The rumors of his murdering ways would spread.
When the round of midwinter parties passed, and the noble visitors returned to their own homes, the castle settled into its routine. Delia waited until Maltric left on a hunting trip before she returned to the blue door. She found Atishi waiting. They fell into each other’s arms.
“I missed you so,” Delia whispered against Atishi’s neck.
“Hush,” Atishi said and covered Delia’s mouth with her own.
In Atishi’s arms, Delia melted into the grass, losing her sense of limbs or skin or eyes. She pulsed with the sensations of heat, melting, union.
When they separated, Delia curled against her love, her hair fanned over Atishi’s caramel skin. She was almost asleep when Atishi whispered, “Delia, you must decide. Your time is up.”
Delia raised her head. “It is?”
“This passageway will soon close.”
“You have one day to decide.”
“I cannot lose you. I love you.”
“And I love you. But for us to be together, you must renounce your world.”
“This is a test?”
“Those who govern Elysa place the guardians at the openings. They require commitment to our ways.”
Delia swallowed. “I worry for my parents. How can I let them think Maltric killed me? She considered again those who had preceded her. “Did Maltric’s other wives choose Elysa?”
“Four of my sisters called Maltric’s wives. Now is my turn.”
Tears burned Delia’s eyes. “I cannot lose you. And I cannot tell them.”
They wandered through the forest, holding onto each other, but Delia’s heart weighed heavy in her chest. She left Atishi with a final kiss and a promise to return with her decision.
In her bedroom in the castle, she sat by the window watching the day fade. Night came and still she sat. When Sara knocked to ask if she wanted the evening meal, Delia told her to leave it at the door. Late that night, she placed the untouched tray outside the door.
The next morning, Delia rose early. After a quick bath, she sat at her writing table. She had finished the second letter when horsemen rode into the courtyard. Two sheets of pale lavender paper covered with her neat handwriting lay on the desk. She folded them and sealed them with the duke’s seal. When Maltric knocked on the door, she stood to greet him.
“Hello, Delia.” He kissed her cheek. “How have you gotten on in my absence?”
Delia wore a simple pale blue gown of fine wool that hung in loose folds. The mirror told her she looked lovely and Maltric’s face reflected her judgment.
She said, “I am well, but troubled.”
“What troubles you, my wife?”
“You know, don’t you?”
He shuffled his feet. “What do you mean, my dear?”
“You know what’s behind the blue door that cannot be painted over. Where your wives went. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“Well, you . . . it’s hard to explain, in simple terms. You see, I . . .” His face reddened, then paled.
She tapped her foot on the polished oak floor. “Tell me, Maltric. What is your role in this?”
“You’re leaving me, then?”
“That is why we are conversing. I have been to Elysa. I have met the one who called me. Now I am asking if you are the guardian Atishi mentioned.”
His eyes widened. He choked and coughed. She felt a tug of sympathy for him.
“I truly cared for you.” He stared at the floor. “I had hoped we might have more time together. But . . . it is my job, you understand.”
“Your job is to marry women called to Elysa?”
His lips thinned and twitched. “Someone must do it. I am ambassador to your world.”
“But everyone thinks you’re a murderer. Don’t you care?”
His eyes glistened. “It’s not an easy job. Without bodies . . . well, it becomes a mystery, you see. And I am the duke. That makes it easier. The people will tell stories about me for years to come. I thought I wanted that. It’s why I volunteered to come back, for I, too, was called to Elysa long ago. I didn’t realize how bad the stories would be, for this is a different time than the one I remember. Far harsher.” He shivered. “But there is a greater good. I keep that in mind.”
It was the most honest thing he had ever said. Delia reached for him; he embraced her, and they clung to each other with less awkwardness than usual.
“What happened to Cerise?”
Maltric cleared his throat. “She went to visit her parents. She will return when you are gone.”
“Why did you accuse me of being a witch?”
“Ah . . . well, my dear, there are rules. Maybe not rules, but conventions, you might say. Only those with pure hearts can travel to Elysa. Part of my job is to . . . to dissuade the candidate, to ensure their desire to leave is genuine.”
“So you tested me?”
He looked so miserable that Delia wished she had phrased her question more delicately. “It’s part of my duty. You understand.”
“No,” she said, “but perhaps later I will.”
“You are leaving then?”
“I cannot turn from my fate.” She handed him one of the sealed envelopes. “Will you take this to my parents? It doesn’t reveal your secret, but tells them I’ve gone away, am in good health and happy. It instructs them to say nothing to anyone. Even you.”
He nodded. “Sensible. I will deliver it myself.”
“Also, I want you to grant them a pension.”
“You can depend on it.” He put the message in his pocket.
She handed him the second envelope. “This is for my brother. He is with the King’s Royal Archers. Can you arrange for its delivery?”
He took the second envelope. “Be at ease, my dear, I will make certain to take care of your family. I have enjoyed having you for my wife. I hope you will be happy.”
She considered Maltric. “Who gave you this job?”
Maltric shuffled his feet. “Well, that is not . . . I am not at liberty to divulge their identities. At some point, you will meet them.”
“Of course,” Delia said.
He looked relieved. “You do understand. Thank you, Delia. Goodbye, then.” He kissed her cheek and left her.
The door had barely closed when the clatter of another horse’s hooves sounded on the cobblestones below. She glanced out the window. Her brother, arrayed in the bright crimson and gold of the king’s livery, dismounted from a fine bay. His footsteps sounded heavy in the hall, then on the stairs. He knocked twice and flung the door open.
“Rob!” She ran to embrace him. “You are in time to bid me farewell. I wrote you a letter. Maltric has it. Did you see him?”
Rob pressed her against his chest and kissed the top of her head. “That swine,” he growled. “I passed him on the stair. I should have tossed him down it on his head. Those rumors of murdered wives are true! I heard it from the cousin of one who disappeared. He is a foot soldier in my regiment and an honest man. When I heard his story, I rode here as fast as I could. I’m taking you home, Delia.”
“No! No, Rob, you don’t understand.”
“I do understand.” His dark eyes blazed, mouth clenched white. “I’m taking you home. Then with me to the palace. The queen needs a Lady-in-Waiting, and you are perfect for the position. A year wouldn’t pass before you found a husband among the nobles.”
“Rob, stop. Listen!”
Rob dragged Delia out of the room and along the hall. She grabbed onto the railing at the top of the stair and dug in her heels. “Stop it, Rob! Things are not as they seem.”
“That’s what I’m saying, sister. This castle is very fine, and you are dressed like a lady, but there’s danger. Your very life! I’ve come to save you.”
From the bottom of the stairs, the duke’s voice boomed. “Delia does not need saving.” It was the voice he had used when he accused Delia of being a witch. Despite herself, she cringed.
Rob released her arm and faced the duke. Before the duke’s head appeared in the stairwell, his shining sword rose, pointed at Rob’s face. Rob retreated. The duke’s sword whipped the air. As Maltric stepped into the hall, he growled a challenge and pointed the sword at Rob’s chest. Rob’s back hit the wall. His hand gripped the pommel of his own sword.
“Do not draw unless you wish to die,” Maltric hissed. “It is you who misunderstands. Your sister follows her heart. I am her champion—and a master swordsman. I will run you through if you persist in this unworthy disruption of her intention. Now stand still and listen to your sister.” He glanced at Delia and gave a quick nod.
She faced her brother. “My husband speaks the truth. I married him to save our parents the cost of my keep, it is true, but we have reached an understanding. Despite his reputation, Maltric is not evil. With his blessing, I’ve chosen another path, one I cannot divulge. Maltric holds the letters I wrote you. I must leave and I won’t return, but that is no cause for grief. Maltric understands. I hope you will, too.”
“But, Delia.” Rob looked young and confused.
“I act for love, Rob,” Delia said.
“Love of what?”
He looked so perplexed she almost laughed. “Not everything can be spoken of openly. You must have learned that in the king’s service. Go to our parents. In my letters, I say I have left the realm, but am safe and in good hands. It is true, even though I cannot reveal where. I need your silence. Can you trust me enough to do my bidding, Rob?”
Rob eyed the sword pointing at his chest. “I don’t understand.”
Maltric’s sword inched forward, flicked a brass button on Rob’s uniform. “You need only agree to abide by your sister’s wishes.”
Rob stared at the sword point. “How can I know she speaks freely? Have you coerced her too with your sword?”
“Rob!” Delia stepped closer to Maltric. “Do I look coerced? Answer me!”
He met her eyes. The fear drained from his face.
“You have always protected me, Rob, but now I make my own decisions. I choose this. Look at me. Do I lie?”
He blinked twice and exhaled. “No.”
Rob looked relieved, but still on guard. “I will do as you ask, sister. I don’t understand this, but I’ve never seen you look happier.”
She went to him, pushed away the sword, and kissed her brother’s cheek. “I love you, brother. Tell Marthe and Luc I love them.” She turned to Maltric. He lowered his sword. “You, my husband, have the blessings of my heart.”
Maltric sheathed his sword and embraced her. “Goodbye, Delia. You have been dear to me.” He kissed her forehead.
“And you to me.”
She turned and strode down the hall to the spiral stair that led to the top floor of the castle. Before she entered the stairwell, she turned. Her brother and husband stood side by side, one confused, both sad.
Delia smoothed her dress and tossed back her hair. Then she walked firmly, with purpose, through the door and up the stairs. She pushed open the door at the top and ran to the blue door. There she stopped to catch her breath. She would not greet Atishi panting like a charwoman. When she had composed herself, she raised her chin, twisted the key in the lock and thrust open the door.
Atishi stood under the towering oak adorned in a gown of green silk that swayed in the gentle breeze. “Beloved.”
Delia walked into her arms.
Behind her the blue door clicked shut.
By Derrick Boden
The first time I woke up someplace unexpected, it was a bank vault.
I thought I was still dreaming, seeing as how I was naked. But the cold metal walls felt so real against my fingertips. The stacks of bills smelled like real money. The blaring siren was so loud, it couldn’t be my alarm clock.
And it wasn’t.
Since I hadn’t stolen anything, all they could get me for was trespassing and indecent exposure. The bank, anxious to avoid questions about their vault’s security, dropped the charges on the condition I kept my mouth shut. Seemed fair. They even leant me a poncho for the walk home.
On my way out the front door, I ran into my neighbor Fred. He was stumbling down the block in plaid pajamas. Turns out, I wasn’t the only person that had woken up someplace unexpected. Thousands of us had. The city was in chaos. I headed home.
My front door was ajar. I crept through the house in my poncho, peering around corners and inside closets. The intruder was gone. The whole place smelled like hooch, and my fridge was raided of everything but the condiments. A five-dollar bill sat on the counter, next to a note that read: “Sorry, woke up here and got hungry. This should cover some of it. -Jim.”
The pictures on the mantle were all out of order. I imagined the rudely awakened Jim stumbling around in his pajamas, stuffing burnt toast into his mouth, still drunk on bad booze. Knocking everything over, doing a terrible job of putting it back. The pictures I’d so painstakingly hidden in the back row now glared at me from front and center.
Penny and I, drunk-faced and stuffed into a giant Disneyland teacup, buried to our necks in sand by the Venice Beach boardwalk, made-up like zombies and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, during a Halloween party at our place. Her place, now. My face in the pictures leered at me, as if to say, “Don’t you wish you were still me?”
I rearranged the mantle until all I could see were tactful travel photos devoid of smiling faces. Then I showered and did some yard work. Neighbors stumbled by in an assortment of sleeping attire throughout the day.
This time I put on some boxers before crawling into bed. Good thing I did. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and got a mouthful of salt air. Cold water lapped against my body. A gaggle of surfers smirked at me from the Redondo Beach pier. I waved. Had they fallen asleep in their swim trunks, cradling their surfboards, hoping to wake up at the beach and save themselves the walk?
On my way home, I tried not to think about the last time I’d been in Redondo. Penny and I spent our second anniversary on the pier, eating sushi and counting dolphins, duking it out on Street Fighter, the next day, a bus blindsided her sister. After Tina’s funeral, Penny said she needed some time. A week or two, to get her head straight. Six months later, the divorce papers showed up in the mail. I don’t know if she heard any of my messages or read any of my emails. But she never answered them.
My door was locked when I got home. I let myself in with the hide-a-key, thankful Jim hadn’t returned. My relief evaporated when I heard footsteps on the staircase. I looked around for a place to hide.
It was the new girl down the street, tanned legs jutting from beneath my old Pink Floyd shirt. Makeup smudges cradled her eyes.
“I woke up here.” She headed for the door. “Can I borrow the shirt?”
“Sure. There’s coffee–”
She shut the door behind her.
I sighed, flipped on the news. The city had devolved into mass confusion. Commuters were falling asleep on buses, only to wake up in rooftop bars. The mayor found a convent of nuns sleeping on his office floor. Flash mob pajama parties became an instant fad. Sleeping insurance was a real possibility.
The local news anchor called them “rude awakenings.” The phrase stuck. Scientists were hard at work, promising answers soon.
On the back porch, hummingbirds darted around the old oak tree, fighting for position at the feeder. Penny always loved hummingbirds, the way they buzzed like giant bees. The feeder ended up in one of the boxes she left on my doorstep, the day after the divorce papers arrived. I couldn’t remember to do the damn dishes, but I always kept the feeder full. I had this ridiculous notion that the hummingbirds might lure Penny back.
They never did.
That night, I was so tired I forgot all about the rude awakenings. I woke to a familiar alarm blaring in my ears. Finally, my own bed again. It felt like I hadn’t woken up here in months. The big down comforter, the loose spring–
This wasn’t my bed. Not anymore. I threw off the covers and hit the lights. I stood naked in our old room. The bed, the dresser, the nightstand were all exactly where I’d left them, ten months ago. Of all the rotten luck.
I cracked the door. Silence. I crept downstairs. Filtered sunlight drew fractal patterns against the living room walls. Bare walls. No pictures, no artwork. Each room looked just as I remembered it, except for the walls. As if Penny had scrubbed our history clean.
Keys rattled in the front door. I glanced down, saw that I was still naked and dove behind the couch.
I sighed. “It’s me.”
Penny stood in the doorway, wearing orange striped pajamas. She held an armload of framed photos.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I squinted at the photos. “Are those mine?”
“No! I mean, yes. I woke up in your house. The new one.”
“I woke up here. Hey, can you shut the door? I’m naked.”
She kicked the door shut. For an uncomfortable moment we just stared at each other. Then she set the photos down and headed upstairs.
After a brief commotion, she came back down. “Sorry, laundry day. This is all I’ve got.”
She tossed me a pair of frilly boxers with the word PINK emblazoned on the back. I shot her a glare, but she’d already disappeared into the kitchen. I put them on.
Penny returned with a pot of coffee and two mugs. She slumped into the corner of the couch. Her hair had gotten longer, and her face thinner. It hurt to look at her after all this time, but it hurt worse to look away.
“This rude awakening thing is exhausting.”
I sat down across from her. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry I stole your stuff.”
I waved my hand at the blank walls. “What happened to yours?”
“I threw them out.” Her expression clouded over. “They reminded me of Tina.”
“Then why take mine?”
She chewed on her lip. Her fingers grazed the photos.
“Disneyland. You remember how much liquor we smuggled in?”
“Enough rum to conquer Tom Sawyer Island. Those poor kids.”
She laughed. Tension eased from my shoulders.
“I thought you were gonna drown when you went overboard on that pirate ride.”
“I almost did. Thank god you had enough rum left to bribe the attendants, or we’d still probably be in jail.”
She flipped to the next picture, puddle-jumping in a Hollywood rainstorm. Then the next, surfboard headstands at the Marina Del Rey harbor. And the next, stuffed into fake sumo suits, locked in an eternal struggle. We talked until the coffee ran out. Then we cracked open beers and talked some more. I forgot that I was wearing women’s underwear, and that the walls were blank, and that the hummingbird feeder was hanging from a different tree, now. We ate ice cream out of the container, jawed about who was better with Chun-Li or E. Honda.
Long after the sun had gone down, she picked up the last photo. It was the one from the pier, the day before Tina was killed. Our mouths were so stuffed with sushi we could hardly smile for the camera.
Neither of us could think of anything to say about the photo.
Penny looked at me. “After Tina died, I went to bed every night wishing I’d wake up someplace different. Somewhere Tina was still alive. Where everything was still sushi and sunsets and Street Fighter.”
Penny slid closer, rested her head against my chest. She struggled to keep her eyelids open. “Do you think we’ll still be here when we wake up?”
Her breath was warm against my skin. It felt like home.
“I don’t know. But I hope so. Because I’m still wearing your underwear.”
She smiled, and in her eyes I could tell that our rude awakenings had finally come to an end.
By David Steffen
Sightings of the magical morfi fruit are exceedingly rare. Some say it only grows on the tip-top of the tallest peak in the Himalayas. Others say it grows on the red-hot rim of volcanoes, just after the lava has receded. Even others say it will only grow inside the stomach of a live crocodile and must be plucked while the beast is still alive, or it will shrivel and harden like a cherry pit. None of these places are likely to be visited by a ten year old boy, but somehow Johnny Dawson found a morfi and brought it to class as a gift for his teacher. He won’t tell me where he found it, and I’ve been his best friend for many years.
Everyone has their own theories about what happened the day he brought the fruit. I saw most of it myself, and learned the rest of it from Johnny.
Johnny walked into class that day with the morfi fruit in hand. It looked like a cross between an orange and a mango, but with little red hairs like the bristles on a kiwi. He placed it on Mrs. Whitmore’s desk and crossed his fingers behind his back for good luck. He was sure that she couldn’t help loving a gift as unique as that. Maybe she would give him an A right on the spot!
Unfortunately for him, his gift was not well-received because he was twenty-two minutes late for school. When Mrs. Whitmore finished her complex scribbles on the blackboard, she turned around and her face crinkled up like she’d bitten into a lemon. She looked even older when she made that expression.
“Johnny!” She jabbed the nub of chalk at him. “You’re late. Again. That’s detention.”
His shoulders sagged and his head drooped. He shuffled to his desk. He didn’t even grab his favorite hamster from its cage, like he usually did. He didn’t say a word through the rest of the day unless Mrs. Whitmore asked him directly. Usually he was so full of whys and hows and whos that she could barely finish a sentence without being interrupted. He even sat out of kickball at recess, his favorite game.
When the three o’ clock bell rang, the other kids ran for the door and sweet freedom. Johnny watched them go, then stared at the clock, waiting for it to tick away the seconds of his imprisonment.
A scratchy sandpaper sound drew his attention to Mrs. Whitmore’s desk. She was trying to polish the morfi fruit on her shirt. Her eyes met his and she smiled. He wondered why she didn’t smile more often. For a moment she seemed only a little old, instead of fossil-old.
“Where did you find this?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It is…very interesting.”
He didn’t say anything.
She pulled a plastic knife from her drawer and sliced the morfi open. The meat inside was purple and juicy, and it filled the room with the smell of roses. She stabbed a bit with her knife and raised it to her mouth. Johnny held his breath and sat up straight. If she liked it enough, maybe she would let him out of detention. She touched a bit of it to her tongue. Her face twisted with distaste. Johnny slumped down again and let his breath out in a long sigh.
She looked over at him and smiled again, the forced smile of someone with an upset stomach. “The strangest thing,” she said. “It tastes exactly like sauerkraut. I wasn’t ready for it.”
He slouched lower in his seat until he couldn’t slouch any further without falling out of his chair. She took the smallest of bites. She chewed and chewed, and finally swallowed.
Her stomach gurgled loudly and she clapped her hands over her mouth as she dashed from the room. Johnny followed behind to see where she went, and saw her run into the most forbidden and mysterious part of the school: the teacher’s lounge. He ran up to the door and peered through the window.
The other teachers were inside, sharing a cup of coffee. Mrs. Whitmore dashed through and into the faculty bathroom.
They gaped at her as she ran past, then went back to talking about whatever teachers talk about. Maybe discussing the advantages of plastic rulers versus wooden ones.
They were interrupted again when a young girl exited the bathroom. She couldn’t have been more than nine years old, with yellow hair and blue eyes. She could have been Mrs. Whitmore’s granddaughter. She was wearing Mrs. Whitmore’s clothes. Or trying to. Mrs. Whitmore wasn’t a large woman, but her clothes were loose on a girl that age. One hand held tightly to the waistband of her skirt and another to the collar of her shirt to keep herself together.
Johnny pressed his ear up against the door so he could hear.
“Who are you?” Principal Nelson asked.
“I’m Ellen Whitmore. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I think it’s stopped, whatever it is. I just took a bite of the strangest fruit, and then this happened.”
“A fruit? Can we see?”
Johnny ran back to the classroom before they could catch him at the door, and he was waiting attentively when the young Ellen Whitmore led the teachers back to her classroom.
“That’s it.” She pointed at the morfi. “I felt so terrible about hurting his feelings that I took a bite to cheer him up.”
“It’s a magic fruit!”
“It’s not just a fruit! It’s the fountain of youth!”
Three of the older teachers reached for it all at once. After some scratching and hair pulling, each one got a bite.
They didn’t experience the delayed reaction and sickness Mrs. Whitmore had felt. Each of them changed right then and there, each in their own way.
Mr. Truman crouched down on all fours. His skin turned green and scaly and he shrunk down until he turned into a turtle, waddling along on the ground. Miss Harrison stretched up and up until she was taller than any professional basketball player. Mr. Jones disappeared with a pop. No one’s seen or heard from him since.
The rest of the teachers backed away from the fruit as if it were a bomb.
Johnny had to find out what it was like! What would happen to him when he took a bite? He dashed for it, grabbed the morfi off the tile floor, and took a great big bite. It didn’t taste like sauerkraut at all. It tasted like pecan pie with a big dollop of whipped cream. But he didn’t seem to change at all, and he tried to hold back the disappointment.
Ellen Whitmore peered closely at him. “Do you feel a change coming on, Johnny?”
The other teachers also stared, but only the tops of their heads were visible. They were crouching behind Ellen Whitmore’s desk, in case he exploded.
He noticed a tingle in his muscles, a strength flowing into them. He grinned and grabbed the desk, hefting it up above his head. The teachers stared up at him in shock.
What else could he do now? He set the desk down gently where it belonged and ran straight for the outer wall of the school. He charged through it like it was made of paper and bounded across the playground.
He heard geese honking far overhead. The freedom they must feel with the wind blowing through their feathers, on their way to somewhere warmer. He bent his legs and jumped, not quite as hard as he could. Up and up he went until the town looked like it was a collection of models. He didn’t come back down for quite some time.
Back in the classroom, the teachers were in a panic.
“There’s no telling what it can do!” someone said.
“We’d better call the police. No! The FBI. The CIA. All of them!”
“I guess we’d better take the fruit with us,” Principal Nelson said, without much conviction.
But no one would volunteer to pick it up, so they all agreed to leave and call the proper authorities. They grabbed Mr. Truman the turtle and left with such haste that they knocked over the hamster cage. The teachers didn’t even notice, in their rush to leave.
By the time they returned the morfi fruit was gone, and so were my fellow hamsters and I. Since then I’ve done well for myself. I took advanced classes and received my high school diploma the same year as Johnny.
Why did the fruit affect each person differently? I’m not sure, but I have an idea. Mrs. Whitmore took a bite out of kindness, because she was sorry for hurting Johnny’s feelings, so the fruit affected her in a good way. But the other teachers took a bite out of greed. Johnny took a bite with the innocence of youth, so his wildest dreams came true.
What happened to the other hamsters? Well, they didn’t turn out so well as me. No ambition. They’re working dead-end jobs. Their lives never change, like they’re running in place. It’s sad, really.
Johnny and I, on the other hand, have just finished our first year at New York State. He keeps himself very busy. The crime rate has dropped in half since we moved here, and he still manages to keep his grades up. I’m pursuing a PhD in biochemistry, and he wants to go into law enforcement.
The Wall of Mouths
By Imogen Cassidy
End of training celebrations were typically riotous and sometimes ended in injury. Rosa, seventeen years old and technically not allowed to consume any type of mind altering substance, sipped her drink when others gulped, and gently declined the more extreme offers of hallucinogens. She wasn’t concerned with fitting in, not today, and in any case she had heard some rumors that excessive indulgence lead to lowered reaction times, even weeks after the fact.
She was the youngest there, naturally. They’d tried to keep her out, telling her that it was just bad luck she’d been born two years too late, but her scores had been so good, and, she suspected, her letters and video calls and campaigns so annoying that they’d admitted her in the end, possibly just to shut her up.
She knew they’d expected her to burn out, like seventy percent of candidates did, and she’d half believed that she would. When she didn’t, when she did well enough to scrape into the top ten percent, when she’d graduated with the rest of her class, standing slightly shorter and grinning a damned sight wider, well?
She had cause for celebration. Just in her own way.
She was going to make it through the Wall of Mouths.
“Rosa, you’re a lightweight.” Hardison was one of the few other pilots who didn’t care that she was so much younger. He’d told her on no few occasions that he would have done the same, if he’d been born, like she was, too young for a Push. Some of us are meant to fly, kid, he’d said to her. You and me, we’re meant to do this, you’ll see on Push Day.
Here, now, he swayed to the music, eyes heavy lidded, full lips curved in a smile. “A lightweight,” he repeated. “Have a drink you’ve earned it.”
“I’m seventeen, Hardison,” she said, smiling up at him. He was the tallest guy she knew, all lean muscle and deep black skin, and she’d had a hopeless, harmless crush on him ever since training had begun.
He was way too old for her. But that didn’t matter in the land of hopeless crushes.
“No one here cares that you’re seventeen, girl. You’ve proved yourself a thousand times over. Most of them wish they were half the pilot you are.”
She shrugged and sipped her drink, even as another pilot came up behind Hardison, draped his arm around the man’s shoulders and pulled him down for a kiss.
Rosa flushed and looked away as Hardison returned the kiss enthusiastically, then shoved the man away.
“Who was that?” she asked, and Hardison shrugged.
“Don’t know. Good kisser though.” His eyes narrowed, looking at her again. “I know it’s a bit wild here,” he said. “If you need me to stick with you.
“I can take care of myself, Hardison,” she said.
She could. Although, in its own way, the heaving mass of humanity in the relatively small bar was more intimidating than the final exams and practicals had been back in the arena. The graduates were celebrating life, she could understand that, and, when it boiled right down to it, she hadn’t lived as much as they had.
And possibly wouldn’t.
The night wore on and she found herself in a corner nursing the same drink, legs crossed as she watched men and women and everyone in between do things she’d never even dreamed of, in the name of celebration, in the spirit of life.
There was a desperation to it that she was finally coming to understand, and she wasn’t sure if she should be afraid.
The Council assigned ships a month before the Push, so pilots could accustom themselves to the controls. Naturally they couldn’t take them out, but they were exactly the same as the ones she had trained on–they had to be. Of course she’d been through a thousand simulations before she’d even been allowed to set foot in one of the training ships. There had once been talk of only training pilots on simulations. With resources as scarce as they had become over the years, having five fully equipped Push ships docked permanently at Mars Station to be used only for training was expensive and wasteful.
The percentages were too compelling, however. Pilots who trained only on simulations were thirty percent more likely to die in the first five minutes of a Push. So they started on VR simulations, then moved to the real thing.
Even with each individual ship made precisely the same as the next, ships had their own personalities. They had no names but the names the pilots themselves gave them, against orders of course. The instructors insisted that they smelled the same, reacted the same, but she (and every other pilot) knew better. “Shit, I drew Elsa today,” they would gripe and moan. Elsa froze up on sharp maneuvers, Aurora was sluggish to respond, Belle was smooth and responsive, but not as fast as the others.
No matter how many times the engineers tried to even them out, they always had their little quirks. Maybe that was why they let pilots have early access to their actual ships, when every resource was geared towards getting them ready, when there were still floors missing and pods being shipped in from the yards. Rosa got to walk through the corridors, sit in the pilot’s chair in the bridge, lay her hands on the controls and try to form a bond with the ship that would carry her and the hope of humanity beyond the system’s edge. Beyond the Wall of Mouths.
“Each vessel carries hibernation pods for up to five thousand individuals, plus genetic banks for tens of thousands more in the event of a catastrophic Push. A single ship is capable of seeding a planet, provided the genetic banks are utilized to incubate from variant genetic stock. Obviously we prefer that more than one ship survive the Push, and as such each ship is capable of linking to up to ten others to form a generational ship of up to one hundred thousand individuals, more than enough to colonized a planet successfully.”
“What happens if you don’t like any of the people you’re stuck with?” Rosa whispered to Elanor. “What happens if you don’t want to have kids?”
“They screen for that,” Elanor whispered back.
“Huh, bet that doesn’t always work.”
“Look you’re not gonna get perfect populations, that’s a given, but that’s why there’s room for so many in the first place, you gotta have a margin of error.”
A single hand went up in the lecture theatre, and Rosa swallowed. She knew what Yasmin was going to ask before she even opened her mouth.
“Great, Disaster Yas is gonna depress us all again,” Elanor hissed.
“How many times has the Push been a total failure?”
The professor gave Yasmin a dark look, although it was brief. It was the question everyone wanted to ask, and it was the question that only pilots ever got the chance to pose.
“Of the past forty-nine Pushes,” Professor Locke said, “twenty-eight have been designated total failures.”
The muttering that spread across the room almost rose to a roar.
“Swallow me,” Elanor said. “That’s hellip; That’s three times the amount they say it is back on Earth. Three times!”
Rosa bit her lip. Professor Locke held up a hand and the muttering died down to the odd whisper. Even in their current state, the professor had the power to bring the class back to earth. “I would remind you, however, that since the thirty-first Push, total failures have been brought down to one in five. We’re getting better at this. We’ll get better every time.”
“Until the resources run out,” Elanor said. “We can’t make ships without the metals to do it. Why haven’t the Pushers come back to help us?”
“You’re the one who’s depressing me now, Elle,” Rosa said.
Yasmin’s hand went up again. “Why aren’t we killing the mouths instead of just trying to get past them? Surely that would be a better use of resources.”
That question brought murmurs, but they were happier murmurs. Anything that got them off the topic of how many pilots and cargoes were going to be lost in three years’ time when this Push was ready would bring cheering.
“We tried,” Professor Locke said. “We tried for fifty straight years and you all know the results. Five hundred thousand dead, ships lost, chaos and destruction and we only managed to kill a handful of them, and more came to fill the gaps. We cannot destroy the mouths, not yet, not until we find where they are coming from. Stop them at the source–that is the secondary goal of all our colony ships, after survival. When we can find why they swim in inter-system space and do not cross the border, when we can discover what they are and their weaknesses—then we’ll be able to kill them. And you all know we cannot do that from here.”
She dumped her gear on her bunk and looked around for Elle frowning. She was bone tired, just having spent six hours in escape pod training that she considered utterly useless (what was the point in training with pods when one of the first things they taught you as a pilot was not to go back for pods?) and she knew that Elle had wanted to do a study session that night before they went to sleep. Rosa didn’t want to. She was tired and she was hungry and she didn’t think any studying was going to help Elle focus enough on her navigation exam to actually pass.
A noise from behind the bunk made Rosa frown, and she leaned over to find Elle balled up in a corner, her head buried between her knees, crying.
Elle was getting more and more reckless. The Push was a year and a half away, and Rosa knew she’d been communicating with her parents more than she should have been. Three years older than Rosa, Elle was the third youngest pilot in the program, and there had always been rumors that she’d only gotten in because her mother was a Minister back on Earth.
Why her mother had pushed for her to be a pilot and not some safe cushy government job in one of the few career paths back on Earth that didn’t involve crushing overcrowding and meat rations once a month was beyond Rosa, whose parents had fought tooth and nail against her putting in the application.
It didn’t matter in the end. Elle was depressed. Elle was acting irresponsibly and putting the rest of the team in danger.
“You came to me rather than going to the professor,” Hardison said to her, the day after she’d found Rosa crying. He shared a bunk with some other pilot called Murdoch–a guy Rosa had never much liked, even though Hardison and he seemed to get along just fine.
Hardison, though, got along with everyone.
“She’s my friend,” Rosa said. Hardison was shaping up to be the Push leader; everyone knew it was going to be either him or Yasmin. Rosa wanted it to be him. For selfish, crush reasons. Yasmin was difficult to get on with in ways that Hardison wasn’t.
She wouldn’t complain if Yasmin got the job, of course.
“She can withdraw from the program,” Hardison said.
“She won’t do that,” Rosa said. “Won’t disappoint her mother.”
He made a frustrated noise. Rosa cringed, hating that she’d brought the problem to him, but his face softened when he saw her reaction and shook his head, putting one hand on her shoulder and squeezing with absent affection. “I’m sorry, kid. But I’m not a psych. She should see them, go on meds or something.”
“They’ll kick her out!”
He sucked his lower lip. “Rosa, if she can’t cope with the pressure here there’s no way she’s going to last out in space, we can’t let her continue, and if you’re her friend you’ll tell her that to her face.”
“Don’t be an asshole, Hardison,” Rosa said, her face screwing up in pain. “She’s sick. It doesn’t mean she can’t do her job.”
Hardison sighed and shook his head. “No one would expect someone who had cancer to do this,” he said. “She needs help, Rosa. She needs to be treated.”
She shook her head, standing up and moving to the door. He wouldn’t help. She’d have to do it on her own. At the doorway she turned back. “Please don’t tell the Professor I told you,” Rosa said, heart heavy.
Hardison’s jaw clenched, but he nodded. “Sure, kid. Just. Don’t leave it. It won’t fix itself.”
She nodded. She’d talk to Elle tonight. She’d make her go to the psychs, get help, meds, something to get her through to Push time.
Maybe if she was better she’d see that doing this for her mother was the wrong reason, and she’d go home, where she belonged.
Elle wasn’t in her bunk when Rosa came to find her that night.
The next day in training Elle piloted an escape pod straight into an asteroid. It could have been an accident. If Rosa told herself that enough times, maybe she’d be able to sleep better at night.
The party didn’t exactly wind down as much as move to other places, pilots paired or grouped off and went back to their bunks, or passed out and were carted there by volunteers, until Rosa was one of the few left. She spotted Yasmin talking earnestly to the bartender as the room cleared, and wandered over, not willing or ready yet to admit that the night was over and that the Push began in less than a week.
Yasmin and she didn’t necessarily get on, but there was a certain bond there. After Elle’s accident in second year she’d tended towards solitary introspection, and Yasmin and she were consequently often paired together for group projects, being the only two not fussed about working partnerships.
She respected Yasmin, and she thought that Yasmin respected her.
Rosa pulled up a stool and ordered a mineral water, earning a smile from the bartender and a nod from Yasmin, who didn’t move her chair to face her, but sipped at her drink in easy silence.
“Are you frightened?” Rosa blurted out suddenly.
“Of course I am,” Yasmin replied. “But we all are, aren’t we? All of humanity. All the time.”
“You always did have a way of cheering us up, Yas,” Rosa said. The other woman grinned, lopsided. She was twelve years older than Rosa. While Rosa had had to perform ridiculous feats to even be considered for the Push at her young age, Yasmin had been perilously close to the cut off in the other direction. Youth was almost as important as scores, but Yasmin was very, very good, and in the end the fact that she was older by a goodly number than the rest of the students didn’t really matter. What was a few years, in the end? In all of their ends?
Yasmin swiveled in her chair. “Why don’t they come in closer?” she said. “Why is the only thing they’re insistent on doing is keeping us here, in our solar system? There has to be a reason. I wish we could ask them.”
“We tried that too,” Rosa said. Yasmin snorted.
“You can’t tell me they tried hard enough.”
Rosa sipped her mineral water, weariness prickling at the back of her eyelids. She didn’t want to go home, not yet. Part of her buzzed with the thought that in less than a week she’d be part of the Push, but another part of her, a larger part–she had to admit that–was simply afraid of dying.
“There’s something else they never talk about,” Yasmin said, her voice lowering.
“What?” Rosa couldn’t stop herself from asking, even though she knew that anything Yasmin was going to say was not going to make her feel any less afraid.
“What if they’re not just trying to keep us in? What if they’re everywhere, at the edge of every system, guarding every habitable planet?” Yasmin’s mouth curved in an expression Rosa could only explain as dark delight. “What if we don’t just need to get past them once?”
The trick was to release all the ships at once, as close to the heliopause as possible. The first few Pushes had tried to spread the ships out over as wide a net as possible, but that had been a disaster. Individual ships were picked off too easily, too quickly. Big clumps of ships had a greater chance of survival, although even then a well aimed and determined mouth could go right for the center, scatter the ball, so to speak, and break it up for itself and its fellows to devour before the ball could reform.
It was a dance that they’d practiced over and over again in the years before the Push. Cluster, close, but not too close. Part ways as a mouth dives through. Reform fast enough that your ball doesn’t get picked to bits.
When Rosa first joined up she’d thought being a Push pilot was a solitary thing. She’d thought the list of names on the memorial of those pilots who’d managed to get past the wall were monuments to individual skill. She’d been wrong. The ships of a Push needed to act like a single unit, attuned to each other enough that they could move as swiftly as an individual, but at the same time separate enough that when their fellows were picked off they did not feel the loss like the loss of a limb, but like a trimming of hair.
No more than ten ships had ever survived a Push.
Usually the number was far, far smaller than that.
They had an official send off, the lot of them standing in rows in front of the cameras. Rosa didn’t know how many people ended up watching these things. She had so little connection with those back on Earth these days. Her life had consisted only of training. Training and training and trying not to think too hard about what was coming.
The speech was predictable, rousing, and Hardison, standing next to her, elbowed her in the arm when she drifted, looking beyond the podium and the politicians to the hangar bay where all the ships were waiting.
It was such a thin strip of death, really. A wall comparatively only the thickness of glass when one considered the space and time it took to cross it. No one knew why it was so, why they congregated only there, rather than spreading out across the stars to find other prey. Perhaps Rosa would find out.
“Remember to keep together,” Hardison said over the comm. His voice was different when he was in the pilot’s chair. None of the cheer that normally infused it, none of the subtle flirting that it had taken Rosa nearly a year to realize he used with everyone. Sometimes she wondered if that was the reason they’d chosen him to be the leader. Everyone wanted to do what Hardison said, just to feel like they were wanted.
She was as guilty as the rest of them on that count.
“Roger that, Commander,” Yasmin was the logical second in command, and her voice sounded the same on comm or off, dry and focused..
Now that the ceremonies were over, now that they were actually facing the Push, Rosa was calm. She knew the ship better than she knew her own family. The people lying in their cryo pods, stacked floor to ceiling high in the chambers behind the flight deck, those people were important. They were her duty. She didn’t think too hard about the fact that if she failed nearly ten thousand people would die with her.
Thinking about that would paralyze her.
You didn’t see much when you were piloting in the middle of a bait ball. She was close to the center, despite her protests. They’d always tried to protect her more than the other pilots because of her age. Part of her resented it, but part of her understood that there were things people needed to do to make themselves feel better. Hardison and Yasmin and the others treated her like a baby because she was one, comparatively.
At first, what she could see on her monitors was mostly the ass of everyone else’s ships. There was minimal chatter over comms, pilots course correcting, making sure the ball was tight, standard stuff that she’d heard a hundred times before in training. The voices were more hushed though. There was a strain to them, a realization that this was the end. In the corner of her display screen was counter display that read 50/50. Fifty ships. All functioning.
She knew better than to expect that number not to change drastically in the coming hours.
Everyone knew when the first pilot spotted a mouth.
The swear words that slipped out over comm made a couple of the other pilots giggle. Not all of them were as mature and humorless as Yasmin after all.
“Cut the chatter,” Hardison said. “We all knew what they looked like.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Each mouth had subtle differences, and the standard VR representations tended to be the biggest and most ferocious types, possibly to make sure the pilots were faced with the most terrifying first.
There was no way they weren’t going to be detected. That was the first rule of thumb. Previous Pushes had attempted stealth, but the mouths didn’t hunt with any senses that humans knew how to predict, and a stealthy ship was eaten just as quickly as a noisy one.
They did look like mouths. That was the frightening thing. Giant sea slugs, covered in spikes that may or may not have been poisonous, one end capable of swallowing a ship whole with a little bit of work. Part of the reason their ships were the size they were was because it took time for a mouth to completely engulf one. That was time a ball could use to get further away.
The jury was out on whether they were organic or synthetic. Whenever they managed to destroy a mouth the other mouths devoured its remains before any samples could be taken, and they were alien, so it was even possible that what looked organic was simply very sophisticated machinery.
Rosa tried to stop herself from looking at the monitor that displayed the wall. The first mouth–the one that had made Yancy swear, slowly moved towards them, its undulating body graceful and alien, and subtly wrong in ways that turned Rosa’s stomach.
Two more mouths approached from different sides. This was a formation that they’d practiced. Rosa readied her hands on the controls.
Murdock panicked and broke formation, splitting from the ball. This happened. They knew that it happened, and everyone had resolved that they would not be the one to do it. It wasn’t just because it was cowardly, it was also stupid, as demonstrated by a mouth–one they hadn’t even seen in the initial contact–lazily sliding close to them and latching onto Murdock’s ship.
The computers knew to switch off comms when a ship was taken. That was a lesson the first Pushes had learned very quickly.
“Shit,” Urich said. “Shit shit.”
“Keep it together,” Hardison said. “This is only the beginning.”
Six more mouths approached, and Rosa calculated which of the ships on the outer edge of the ball were most likely to be targeted.
“Port sixty degrees,” Hardison said, still softly. There was no need to shout. The mouths were silent, like everything else out here, and Murdock’s comm had been muted. No one would hear him scream. The crunch of metal and the destruction of his cargo would only be heard by him.
Rosa felt sick.
They followed formation. A mouth slammed into the side of the ball, trying to scatter them. They folded around it, and when the mouth came through the other side, Anka and Gillen were both gone.
They’d been in the wall for eight minutes.
“Formation six,” Hardison shouted, and they split into two groups as four mouths approached. As hoped, the mouths scattered, and Rosa and the others pulled back into one complete ball without losing any more.
Eight more mouths approached.
The average time a ball spent in the wall was two hours. They lost seven of fifty in the first five minutes. Seventy thousand people. Seven pilots. Seven people Rosa had known personally.
Time blurred, and her hands sweated on the controls. The silence felt deeper, when punctuated by the hard thump of her heart in her ears. How long could a body cope with this level of stress before it gave up?
The edge of the wall inched closer.
“Rosa, on your port,” Yasmin shouted, and she twisted to see one of the three remaining mouths coming at her at speed. There was nothing she could do–no space to maneuver. A shout in her comm precluded Hardison’s ship sailing through ahead of her, knocking into the side of the mouth and spinning it and his ship away.
“Hardison!” Rosa shouted.
The ships were all fitted with escape pods, and they all knew how to pilot them. Elle had known. Stupid, Rosa had always thought. There was no way an escape pod could survive the mouths when a ship hadn’t—and who was going to pick up an escape pod out here anyway? Every second was precious during a Push, if you had time to pick someone who had been unfortunate enough to have a collision you had time to get away.
The small dot that broke away from the larger dot made her heart leap into her mouth.
“Dammit, Hardison,” she muttered.
“Rosa you don’t go after him!” Yasmin shouted into comm. “We’re almost through!”
“Sorry, Yas,” she muttered.
Maneuvering close enough to the pod to pick it up meant flying right in front of a mouth. Rosa was certain she was going to die, certain the whole, silent minute it took to put the ship in the right spot. It took her a few moments to calculate, but Hardison was clever, either through blind luck or extreme skill he’d managed to shoot his escape pod towards the edge of the wall—she didn’t have to go back into the swarm to pick him up. She might have been suicidal—they all had to be at least partially to even do this–but there were limits to what she would do, even for him.
The trip line she sent out connected as she swept past the gaping maw of the final mouth. She could see inside, lights and what she hoped wasn’t the remains of another ship, a dark hole into all the parts of the universe that she’d never wanted to explore. She coaxed a final burst of speed out of the engines, a high pitched whine and a shudder through the controls registering the ship’s protest at her treatment. The mouth was no longer on her screen.
And they were beyond the wall.
Nine ships had survived. A successful Push. Not the best, but a respectable showing, and there were enough of them to break into groups and to go in different directions.
“You were stupid to come after me,” Hardison said.
She shrugged. There was room on the ship for two. Hardison’s escape pod had genetic banks but no other crew members–even so her ship was now the most diverse of the sixteen that had made it through.
“Worth it to save you,” she said. He gave her a smile that made her duck her head and blush, but she kept her voice firm. “Just so you know, this is my ship. I’m the captain.”
Hardison chuckled. “Yeah. Yeah, you are.”
“You got a system chosen?” Yasmin said over comm. “I figured you’ll need a partner ship, since one of you was stupid enough to get yours killed.”
“You’re welcome to tag along,” Rosa said. They didn’t talk about the ones they’d lost. The other ships had peeled off, some with the partners they’d made plans with, others alone. The three of them would go together.
“You still want to find out where they come from, don’t you, Yas?” Rosa said.
There was a silence over comm. “I do,” Yas said eventually.
“Got any ideas on how to do that?” Rosa tried to keep her tone light.
Hardison keyed their statistics and the names of the successful pilots into a radio message and beamed it back towards Earth. They’d have their plaques, and their glory, even if they never came back to see them. Humanity had another small chance. As the message shot off, he looked back up at Rosa and nodded. “It’s as good a plan as any,” he said. “Let’s go.”
By Steven Peck
The Capekean teachers (named after the ancient Earth writer Karl Capek who coined the term ‘robots’ in his 1920 play R.U.R), were herding the students into the glade. It was late afternoon and the air was gravid. Still. Oppressive. Not even an insect dared mount a buzzing flight in this muffled wet heat. The sky’s blue seemed vast and watchful brooding over the landing site as if it were waiting for something to start. The turquoise sky was without the whisper of a cloud—except for the four slowly dispersing vapor trails of the Syndicate ships that had burned through the atmosphere to the planet nearly forty minutes ago.
Admiral Kosk sighed. Why was he the one called to do this? Why do this at all? Orders or not he could not keep the word ‘why?’ from repeatedly bubbling into his skull. He paced back and forth. Angry. Jawing his cigar as he repeatedly consulted his qnet communication channels. He looked at the gathering teachers and reminded himself they were not human, that they were machines, and that no matter how closely they imitated sentience they were not—so said all the prophets. It must be true. Right?
He knew this bewitching planet well. He had gone to school here, no, more than that, he had been raised here from age six to twelve. Taught by these teachers. He had played ‘Conic Raider and Primus Settler’ with this best friend Zad in the woods ringing the large meadow in which they had just landed. He had floated down the nearby river Neflon on an air filled donut and floated high above its forests in hot air balloons while studying canopy ecology in its equatorial rainforests. His fondest memories had all happened here—maybe the most carefree and happy time of his life.
His mind instantly jumped when he and his little friend Jinx had first kissed in this very glade. Was that really over forty-five years ago? Much had passed since. He looked at the gathered students; the younger ones were taking it in stride, chatting among themselves, but the older ones looked confused and perturbed. They had never seen the military land here. Ever. They had to suspect something was up.
The Admiral uplinked onto the military bands and checked the time. This was taking too long. The suzerain should be here already and several cohorts of children were still missing, likely on field excursions. It was not winter, so none should be off exploring the southern hemisphere’s thousands of miles of beaches. If they were, it would take hours to round them up. He checked the time again. There was really no hurry, but even so, he wanted this to be over as soon as possible. It was not pleasant duty. Indeed, ugly, horrid duty. He found himself almost sick in ways unbecoming of a soldier of the Dawkist Syndicate. Orders were orders, however. He would do what was asked. He always had.
Because he was an orthodox Dawkist, he did not have gene-integrated digital and conscious signaling enabled. He linked with his Second, “After the children are onboard, on my signal strike.”
“Any sign of possible resistance? Or is it as intelligence reported?”
The Admiral stared coldly at this officer as if he might shoot him.
He backed away chastened, “Right. They are just teachers.”
He looked across the field and saw Bla’a Kitra. When he was a student here, she had been his favorite teacher. If anyone could have convinced him that the prophets were wrong about Capeks lacking consciousness, it would have been her. His mind brought up memories he would have rather not visited at this moment. Recollections of when together, they—along with four others whose names have melted into the crevasses of lost memories—backpacked for two months through the Dakure Plain. They made themselves invisible for most of the trip with Hydoplex cloaks—walking among the giant predators and herd beasts that had evolved on this planet—a magical experience. At night, they would look at the stars scattered and burning through the striking expanse of the Nipmouse Nebula. It blazed orange and red across nearly the entire southern sky. The stories she would tell! Myths from the human past. Stories, she explained, provided meaning through the epochs of their cultural development on Earth. He remembered she discoursed on how humans had evolved on plains very much like this one; how the emergence of intelligence had then expanded into the Capekean event when artificial intelligence became actual intelligence and a new evolution emerged as technology reached into the quantum world and a new kind of sentience bubbled into existence. She spoke of how the heavens were now as full of thought as it is of stars.
All of it was heresy of course. The teachers were not supposed to talk about the rise of the Capeks to the Dawkist children, whose most fundamental belief was that humans were the only conscious beings in the universe. The Capeks were machines. Sophisticated machines, true, ones that mimicked real intelligence magnificently, but machines nevertheless. Sometimes, however, there in the dark, under stars, a kind of wonder took over making everything okay to talk about, as if all rules, ethics, norms, and such were set aside and imagination allowed to blaze into the firelight of speculation.
It was under that sky that he had almost abandoned Dawkism. How could this creature beside him speaking so clearly, so rationally—a being so filled with wonder and thought toying with the mysteries, not be conscious? The teachers rarely let their guard down like that, but it happened occasionally and people tolerated it. Most adults realized that at some point in their children’s lives they would be confronted with doubts about the singularity of consciousness and its provenance only in humans. Many fell into error. Tempted to think of the tick-tocks as sentient creatures. Although first created by humans, they had since evolved into myriad new forms with new capacities, abilities, and intelligences.
Of course, at a school taught and staffed by the human-mimic Capeks, it was inevitable that some students would be seduced by their clever mimicry of sentience. But the Dawkist council felt that those who did emerge unscathed were the stronger for it, hence sending their best and brightest children to the Academe-on-Schule. Like Admiral Kosk himself. If he remembered right, two of his four companions on that excursion had betrayed the Dawkist vision.
At last. The suzerain was approaching with the final cohort of children. She left the children behind with the others and marched up to the admiral and planted herself firmly in front of him. She was taller and looked down on him with frustration, her thin silky red hair hanging straight and limp in the humidity. There was nothing about her that would have given away that she was just a machine. Her facial expressions, the glassy moisture of her eyes and lips, and the unmistakable mask of anger her programming had placed on her face, each gave her a very real human aspect.
“What is going on here?”
“We are taking the children.”
She seemed genuinely stunned. Almost disoriented. Clearly, she was trying to process the implications of that statement and redirecting extra processing power to grapple with it. He did not particularly like the suzerain. When he was a student, she had caught him with some home brewed spirits in his cottage and had punished him with extra homework and afterschool tasks. Worse than any of those things, however, was she had kicked him off the soccer team. Even without him playing in his usual position at forward, his team had gone on to take Third in the 6Gs on Adam-in-the-Stream. Many, however, pointed out that if he had been there they might have taken First Place. He had never forgiven her for that. Even though she was just a machine, and he had tried very hard not to apply human categories to her, he resented and hated her. ‘Well, sometimes I get mad at my alarm clock too,’ he rationalized. And even though the emotions he directed her way were completely inappropriate because they were not directed to a human, it made his job a little easier today.
Finally, she recovered and stated flatly, “Not all of the children are from the Dawkist Syndicate. You have no jurisdiction over them.”
“I think you’ll find everything has been arranged even for those children.” He digitally passed her the faked credentials and permissions, which she quickly uploaded and examined.
“I must check these.”
At that moment, he gave a silent conscious-directed command and the qnet was noised-up and smeared with fogging static and chaos.
“Do you have access? What happened? This interference must be intentional! Please remove it.” The suzerain was projecting outrage.
“It is not us. However, had you bothered to check your news updates you would see that the Flower-Water Syndicate is testing a new kind of f-string fragmenter weapon near a nearby star system. They claimed there might be a disruption.”
She looked at him and said simply, “I remember you are correct. However, that means we must wait until it is clear before you remove the children.”
“We have the permissions and we must act now.”
The suzerain helplessly watched as he gave a signal and the fourteen hundred or so children were moved into the waiting transports. The older children seemed reluctant, but one of the quick-thinking officers explained the removal was temporary and for their safety. It had to do with the Flower-Water’s weapons test. Most of the children had noticed that they had lost access to the qnet and bought the story. The rest were pressured by their peers to get on the ships. He would have to remember to reward that officer.
The three hundred or so Capeks that remained stood stiffly in a group as the children departed. Their silent watching the children go in the noonday sun felt unsettling, like a stuffed robot toy left at a spaceport. Lost and lonely. If they had waved goodbye or shouted a farewell he would have felt better, but they just stood and silently watched. The Admiral sighed again. His anger at the suzerain died. Orders.
He fought back another surfacing memory—his own departure from the planet. Bla’a Kitra had taken him to the transport. She had not said much as they walked down the forest path to this very glade. Just as they were leaving the trees, she paused and squatted on the ground. A line of aphers were carrying a large blue dredge beetle back to their nest. Together he and she watched for a few minutes, when suddenly she looked at him and said in that flat, emotionless tick-tock voice, “Never stop watching the beauty and magic of the emergences all around to fill this universe. Promise me, you’ll always remember this line of aphers and that beetle.” She had taken him by the hand and a chill crawled down his spine as if she were one of the Dawkist apostles. He burst into tears and said, “I will.” She had not reached out to comfort him. That was not their way, but she had squatted down to put her eyes level with his and whispered, “As long as you do, you will see the magic underneath it all.”
He had never forgotten, but his life had been less than fine. He was a soldier of the Dawkist Syndicate. That meant doing things he would have liked to forget. He shuddered. There was Bla’a Kitra staring at him. Looking at him. Unreadable.
The ship carrying the children got smaller and smaller until it vanished as it mounted the upper atmosphere and fled the orbit of the planet.
The suzerain looked at him and asked, “When will they be back?”
Here he made his first mistake. He tried to answer her. Something in his hesitation gave them away, and in a matter of seconds, the remaining teachers within microseconds had upscaled their consciousness and motion to superhuman speeds. In a blur, they bolted away at speeds unmanageable to the humans and their lackluster wet wiring. To the remaining soldiers, they had become nothing more than an indistinct flash. Even so, they fired of a shower of ballisite projectiles and a field of quantum disentanglers after them. Only one found a target. The rest fled into the forest.
“Damn!” he shouted, “Get me the commanders. We need to secure this place. NOW!”
A large screen emerged materialized on the side of one of the ships. It displayed a detailed topomap of the vicinity. The commander was giving instructions.
“…Upscaled they can move at a rate of about twenty times that of humans. We’ve secured the nano-lab we were sent to bootup, but we must find and eliminate the other targets. If we give them a maximum running speed of four hundred klicks an hour. By the time we get going, they’ll have almost two hours on us. So, given some slop. I want a fifteen hundred kilometer radius area searched. I want three hundred thousand dragonflies armed with quantum splice-lancers dispatched with their conscious set on the highest setting of angry vigilance possible. Have about forty percent carrying searchers. Two kinds— 1) half armed minnow searchers to hunt in the streams and scour under the banks, and the other half hauling hunting-rats. If they find any water or caves that the tick-tocks could wiggle into, put one of the searchers into them. Full coverage. If there is a baddat hole they can wiggle down, I want a rat to go through it and do a thorough search. Start them on the edge of the fifteen hundred kilometer parameter and have them search toward the center. Before wiping a teacher from the world, however, I want full audio-visual coverage. I want to ID every shot. Understand? I want to know who we get and where.” His officers nodded. They were angry too. They had underestimated the timing and cunning of the Capekean response—these were supposed to be teachers, calm patient, used to working with children. Something had tipped them off. The Admiral knew it was something written on his face. There was little reason though to share that with his troops. It was need to know. And no one else in this command needed to know anything.
This would work. The dragonflies and other searchers could move at tick-tock speeds, but this was much more of a hassle than the cleansing action they had planned in the meadow. The worse thing was it was embarrassing.
The Admiral walked to the edge where the meadow met the forest. He walked along the boundary of the glade, looking for something. However, he did not walk far before he found it.
Here was the path where he had said goodbye to Bla’a Kitra so many years ago. He did not see any aphers at first. He knew they must be somewhere nearby—change is slow on this planet, so he kept looking.
The only technological presence on this planet was the village not far from here that housed the students and teachers; some fields for crops that the students grew themselves; the dorms, instruction buildings, laboratories for instruction; exercise facilities; cozy homes for the Capeks. A small town really. A tiny footprint on a planet very near standard size.
His Second found him squatting down, looking at the aphers that he had finally found foraging for seeds in the forbs and grasses just off of the trail. It was a smaller species than the one he remembered.
“Sir. The search and destroy bots have been launched.”
“Estimated time to completion?”
“The simulation puts it at as late as tomorrow afternoon before sundown. Likely less time than that however.”
“Fine. I’m going to take my personal shuttle and go camping on the southern continent. I’ll be back by morning.”
“Camping,” The Admiral growled. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“Do you think you can manage not to make a mess of things for a single day?” the Admiral snapped.
“Yes Sir,” came the quick reply.
He put another branch of adic tree on the fire. It blazed high, the bright, red flames licking the volatile, yellow resin that flowed through the savannah trees. The scent of the nearly smokeless fire was spicy and pleasant. Clean.
He had manufactured a serviceable camp chair on the ship formatter and drawing it close to the flames, he went through the motions of warming his hands even though it was not cold. A Dutch oven was just starting to steam under a tripod placed over one corner of the pit where hot coals were dancing in the slight breeze. He had not bothered with camouflaging anything. He knew most of the animals would avoid the fire—something that usually meant peril on these great grasslands. Still there was a sense of watchful danger and he could hear the roars and calls of ligon apes patrolling and circling the camp. Sometimes he could even catch a glimpse of one or two moving stealthily through the forest in the shadows. Large hulking beasts. Social. With a head reminiscent of a saber tooth tiger and a blue body resembling a massive hairless ape with large daggers protruding from their wrists. Still, despite their attentions in the distance, they hated fire and would stay back—plus, he had a disentangler wand in his hand. Just in case.
The great nebula was high in the sky, its orange, reds, and golds evoked lingering memories of years almost forgotten. Bla’a Kitra. Had the dragonflies found her yet? She was only a machine. Only a machine? Only a machine. That had to be kept in mind. Something like his powered shrub pruner at home. Why did he feel guilty then? Was he a closet doubter? One of the hidden unbelievers the Prophet’s Righteousness and Correction Committee were always trying to root out? Hunting the unfaithful and those masking unbelief in high places. It had been years since they had run a deep scan on him. Had he changed? Would they find a black mass of hidden doubt? Would what he masked have to be rooted out? Would he have to undergo excitation? He looked up at the nebula and sighed.
A strong wind blew through the camp and the ligon apes started screeching, raising a riot with their calls, songs, and roars. He saw a mass of clouds coming out of the east. They looked threatening, and an occasional flash disclosed a roiling thunder tower mounting in the upper atmosphere. It was a breathtaking structure—a tall, black, billowing mass transcending the plain. Magnificent. Robust. Uncontrollable. Chaotic. Things he understood and respected. But as he observed it more closely it looked like it might be just a pseudo-storm with a dry sack as they say. The rains were late this year, and the southern continent was in the middle of a six-year drought. It seemed unlikely he would be lucky enough to see it end.
The storm’s violent voice had put a herd of conerlops to hoof and they belted past, near the place where he had landed his shuttle. It was a moment of commotion, but the stillness had returned. He returned his gaze to the sky. The nebula was still mostly visible with only a corner blocked by the thunderous clouds.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?”
Bla’a Kitra stood on the edge of the firelight. Her hands held up over her head signaling surrender or peace. He held up the wand. ‘I should just pull the trigger and end this,’ he thought. She was much further away than their dragonfly net had been set up to encircle, and he needed to find out how she had gotten here, in case others had done the same. Those were the reasons he was telling himself, but he could not hide from the fact that he did not want to dispatch her.
“How did you get here?”
“Don’t worry. The others are dead or will be soon. I hid on your ship.”
“How did you break my password?”
He genuinely laughed. My favorite peach! You have a long memory.
“It was 236th thing I tried.”
“Why did you not run when we landed here? You would have been very hard to find.”
“I do not care if I cease to exist. I want to talk to you. To see what you have become. I had high hopes for you, you know.”
He ought just to pull the trigger. This was going to get harder and harder every minute that passed.
“You see how this will end?”
“Yes, you will kill me.”
“And it will not matter because I’m not a conscious being.”
“I have some time. Perhaps I can convince you otherwise?”
He did not want to have this conversation. He was feeling doubty as it was. He really ought to pull the trigger. But he did not. He did however digitally set it to automatically fire if she cranked up to superhuman speeds.
“Besides, if you kill me now, you might find yourself in danger. You are going to have to spend a few days here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I moved your ship.”
“And camouflaged it. When you don’t show up tomorrow, they will start looking for you. They can’t turn on the qnet because I’ll also have access to the universe and they’ll be afraid I’ll broadcast far and wide what you’ve done here—I imagine this is to be kept secret. So they’ll have to search with sky-mounted visual surveillance, which will take I estimate between two to eight days given their inability to use qnet processing and the fine optical resolution they’ll have to use to see a person.”
“You’ve thought this through.”
“Yes. Furthermore, your wand’s is draining about thirteen percent a day if you don’t use it. If you use it, it goes down about five percent a shot. Given the ligon apes, I’d put it at about fifty percent probability that you will not survive until rescue.”
“And you’ll likely try and kill me long before that,” he bitterly spat. Willing to make it true. Just so he could pull the trigger.
“No. I will keep you alive. If you do not kill me, your survival-until-rescue probability goes up to one hundred percent.
“Why would you do that?”
“I would like to convince you that I am conscious.”
“That the Prophet is wrong.”
Even given the probabilities, he should have used the wand on such blasphemy. That he did not surprised and worried him.
“Why did you attack us? Have we failed you in some way? Even if we had, your response seems out of all proportion to our lack.”
How much should he tell this teacher? On one level, she was dead, very soon anyway. Something within him wanted to clear his conscious. There was no point in not telling her.
“We are after Bla’a Kressl’s child, Bla’a Wull.” He said as if that explained everything.
Bla’a Kressl had been tasked with creating a replacement for a Capek that had been killed in the village when a chain dragging logs down a hill snapped and whipped back striking the worker. Bla’a Kressl had been playing with snippet-programs, short pieces of code that were purported to mimic human emotions. Most Capeks were curious how humans experienced life and often bought these programs to give them a taste. Human interns thought of them as some sort of AI drug. Bla’a Kressel wanted to see what would happen if the program were inserted into the core programming module. What happened was a disaster. Bla’a Wul was unstable, inclined to grossly non-predicable behavior, and with a strange ability to manipulate the quantum world that made it very hard to keep her out of anything she wanted to get into. Both the human syndicates and the Capekean Presidium wanted her captured and destroyed. But it was proving harder than any of them expected.
“You have killed all the teachers for that? I cannot imagine how that action would help you find a single rogue Capek. Especially one that has eluded even the Capekean Presidium.”
The way she said it made the reasons they had slaughtered the teachers seem silly. A strange and threatening criminal had emerged from these teachers, true, but they were not culpable any more than someone’s family or friends are responsible for a criminal’s actions. There. He was forgetting. He was comparing them to humans. They were just machines. Why not turn them off to help them do the business they needed to do?
“So. I am curious. Why have you annihilated us?”
The Admiral shrugged, “The Prophet is going to remake her.”
“Ah. Using the nano lab where she was birthed.”
“Recreate the conditions which made her.”
“Not completely irrational. But unlikely to be successful.”
The Admiral fingered his wand. While killing her would clearly be necessary soon, he should try to extract as much information as he could. “Why do you think we will fail?”
“You want to use the nano-lab in which she was birthed to recreate her. To make a copy that might give hints to her actions and whereabouts, no?
“That’s the idea.”
What goes into a person’s makeup?” She was in ‘teacher-mode’ now—asking rhetorical questions. It reminded him of his school days.
She continued, “Certainly the neural program’s baseline, or genetic code for a human, provides a framework, but it is an adaptive system. What emerges in complex systems is not only that framework, but the culmination of other forms of non-linear chaotic mixing. Complexity emerges from multiple tiny changes amplified and folded in ways that affect the overall system. It’s a series of tradeoffs, from entrained modules that guide the overall structure of the emerging personality, to the myriad details that make an individual. A unique entity is formed as a result of millions of little accidents and random events. You can make a copy of the initial being, but it might be that the thing that gave the rogue Bla’a Wull her unique and wild mind was the musical strain from a night flay’s song, on a moonlit night, during a walk through the woods where she had stopped to look at a fungal mass blooming on the forest floor, in which a gentle breeze had just shaken the leaves upsetting a gablet that dashed into the trees, its white tail flashing as it leaped over a log from an ossle tree felled in a thunderstorm fifteen years ago.”
“That’s absurd.” The Admiral scoffed.
“Is it? Who are you? What made you who you are? Was it set from birth or are you a being forged from the billions of accidents that make up life as you’ve lived it?”
The Admiral was silent. He was thinking of how he met his wife on a transport to a youth leadership meeting being organized by the Cherrybox Syndicate on Practalum. She was supposed to be on an earlier transport, but the airship she was taking from her home in Rego to the Port at Bissle sustained prop damage when a Pteracon had flown into its spinning blades forcing a landing to repair the damage. What had sent the Pteracon flapping through the air so unheeding of the ship? Had it been spooked by a predator that happened to have wandered by that morning? Perhaps the predator, wandering through some network of swamp trails, had chosen the left rather than the right path when an errant breeze had given the left a more promising smell. His whole life had been changed because a Pteracon had been spooked that day. The tick-tock may have a point.
“Be that as it may, we will attempt the creature’s recreation under controlled conditions.”
Bla’a Kitra nodded slowly and said, “We all do what we must, don’t we.”
The next night they could see that eighteen satellites had been placed in orbit that they guessed were systematically scanning the surface looking for the Admiral. Bla’a Kitra had been right. Without the use of the qnet, they would have to use visual images that were run through standard algorithms to find the general’s camp. He had dragged several large logs into a pattern that should help them find him: The proverbial S.O.S in the sand.
After several hours of watching the sky and the orbits of the satellites, Bla’a Kitra reported, “Analyzing the search patterns of the satellites, I believe that we will be spotted in the early morning three days hence, it will take about twenty-five minutes to analyze the data if the weather is clear and forty-five if a thunderstorm is directly overhead. So I am predicting that you will be rescued between about nine-fifteen and nine thirty-five on that day. Given the drought, I think the earlier time most likely.”
The admiral considered his Capekean companion. Since her arrival on the first night, she had made no threatening moves. He did not sleep their first night together, afraid that if he dozed off she would kill him. On this second night, he could hardly keep his eyes open. He had thought he ought to disentangle her immediately and be done with it. He would have to soon anyway and he needed sleep so badly he was starting to see things. Still, he had enjoyed their conversations throughout the day. They had observed the takedown of a basktrist lizard by a pride of ligon apes and it had been fascinating! The large lumbering lizard was about ten times their size with formidable spikes on its tail, which it used to good effect. The apes had first isolated it from the herd, and then relentlessly harassed it all day. At first, its tail had kept them at bay, but slowly, as it tired, its swings became more and more sluggish and poorly aimed. The predators had then rushed in, wounded it, and then dashed away before the tail had made its arched swing effective of necessity. This was repeated until it was bleeding from hundr
eds of open gashes.
Bla’a Kitra had been a regular chatterbox—explaining the ecology of the ligon apes, their relationship with the creatures that made their home on these plains, and their evolution from small opossum-like ancestors. She seemed to take delight in the marvelous ways of nature. Of course ‘delight’ was a concept she would have denied given its human connotations, but it didn’t seem completely out of place. She watched the events intently, with abandon, seeming to forget that she was under threat of being killed, or rather untangled—how do you ‘kill’ a machine, he reminded himself. But she told stories of her interactions with both the lizard and the mammanims of the plain. She chattered on about her studies with students and the things she hoped they would learn. She expressed almost a kind of human pride that her observations and studies had been used by scholar bots for their analysis and that several thousand papers had been written on her findings alone. She seemed proud of that? Pride? While the Capeks denied human emotions, they certainly seemed to have equivalents. He remembered as a student thinking how like him they seemed. In very human ways, they seemed to prefer things, to hope for outcomes, get annoyed when their progress on something was thwarted. Whenever he had brought this up as a student, they had refused to talk about it. Maybe now, when she knew her life would soon be over, he could get something?
“Tell me,” the Admiral began, “How do you feel about the ecology of this planet? You seem very interested in it. Passionate even.”
The Capek looked at him for a long time then spoke. Her words were expressed without the anger they sometimes imitate to motivate children, but the intent of her words was clear, “Passionate? A human word meaning nothing when applied to us. You forget that you have but a fraction of our neural structure and connections. You are motivated to assign value to things based on emotions, neural potentials, and hormonal proteins that trigger certain physiological responses. It is such a depauperate system of responses as to be almost non-existent. Passionate? Suppose an apher could speak, or rather you could understand them, for after their fashion they can communicate, but suppose it asked you if when you played football you were drawn to follow your action in the game as they were drawn along a pheromone trail. Would the word ‘drawn’ make any sense to the way you play the game? It captures such a small dimension. You are drawn to it in certain senses, but it explains nothing of the meaning of the game, the formation of teams, the rules of strategy, the social bonding, the excitement the game brings, the heartbreak of loss, how it draws on ancient patterns and emotions of warfare and group cohesiveness. The apher misses so much of the game, the training, the practice you develop to handle the ball. It speaks nothing of how spectators are a necessary part of why these ritual combats are pursued. It does not capture how humans rank one another both as in-groups and out-groups and how individuals achieve status and increase mating opportunities through the games. Are you drawn to the game? How silly the question seems when asked by an apher. Am I passionate about the ecology of this planet? Yes, as you understand it, but I can tell you nothing of what it means to me because it is so far above your ability to understand.”
He stepped back and motivated his wand. Did she intend to insult him? God’s finest creation had just been compared to an apher trying to understand football? He felt he had to defend himself. Defend humans. Still, he quietly unmotivated his wand. She had turned back to the night. He knew she would see into the darkness better than he could and he wondered if she were watching the ligon apes as clearly as he had been in the daytime. His initial anger subsided. She had just revealed more about the Capeks than anything he had ever heard.
“Was it not a human emotion program that so corrupted Bla’a Wull? There must be more to human emotion than you’ve considered.” His voice was steady and calm.
She turned to face the fire again. Her eyes met his and she looked at him longer than he felt comfortable. Even so, he did not turn away. If this were a dominance game, he would play it. Finally, she spoke, “No one understands what happened. That basic emotion program combined with the Capek programming caused something to emerge beyond anyone’s expectation. It is currently inexplicable.”
“And now she rampages through the universe like a god,” he said bitterly with a touch of irony. Then added, “Maybe there is something about being a human that you just do not understand.”
She was looking at him, perhaps about to answer, when it struck. A lemon troth. One of the Dakure Plains’ rare stealth hunters. Although only about human-sized, they were known for their swift and deadly kills. It had been stalking from the side opposite where Bla’a Kitra had been attending as she watched ligon apes. Even she was taken completely by surprise. It hit the Admiral so hard they had tussled in a flaying ball of biological flesh for about twenty-five yards before it came to rest with its toothed jaws buried deeply in the Admiral’s lower back. For a creature from this planet, this would have been a death bite, as motor control in these vertebrate-like animals was maintained by a neural mass in the basal spine area, and only cognitive functions were located in the head, as if the brain stem equivalent in Earth’s creatures had been set up in a completely different part of the body.
Bla’a Kitra upped her processing speed to full and pulled a glowing blue knife from a leg strap that had been hidden by her shift and severed the creature’s own back neuronal mass in seconds. Its heart ceased beating, its lungs stopped pulling in oxygen, and it closed its eyes. Dead.
The admiral had several severe cuts to his arms and shoulders from the beast’s claws, but the wound to his back was horrific. It had crushed and mutilated the backbone and opened his intestines from his the wound. The contents of the hole were spilling onto the ground. He was completely conscious, lying on his stomach.
He moaned, “My arms! They’ve been cut to pieces. Help me. I’m bleeding. Help me. I can’t move my legs.”
“You have a life threatening wound to your lower back. I must return to your ship and get a repair kit. Do you understand?”
He cried like a baby and in growing delirium said, “My arm. It hurts. It’s bad isn’t it?”
“I know the pain is severe, but I will be gone for several minutes. And you must stay awake. There are many things that will smell your wound and you have to protect yourself. OK? Do you understand?”
She picked him up roughly, without consideration of his wound, and placed him onto his side with his back to the fire. She then quickly found the wand that had flown from his hand in the strike and returned it to his shallowly breathing form. She squatted in front of him and snapped her fingers trying to draw his waning attention. She motivated the device, however, turned off the automatic protocol that would fire if she upped her processing speed, and placed the wand in his hands, which he seemed to be gripping only loosely.
“Just stay awake. A few minutes. I’ll be back shortly, but you must watch for predators while I’m gone. Do you understand?”
His eyes locked on hers and he nodded, but they seemed distant and unfocused.
She screamed in his ear, “SOLDIER UP! THIS IS AN ORDER. STAY AWAKE AND DEFEND YOURSELF YOU DAWKIST PIG.”
His eyes jumped to full attention in surprise. And she upped her processing speed and was gone.
When he awoke, the sun was setting. He leaped to his feet. His wand was in its holster, and she was sitting across from him stirring a pot of some sort of stew. He pulled out his weapon and pointed at her.
“What happened?” It was more of a threat than a question.
“Two days ago you were attacked by a troth. It nearly bit you in two. I repaired you.”
He felt around to his back. The skin was repaired and had the soft feel of tissue newly grown. It then came back to him: the attack, her disappearance, fighting to stay conscious, firing his disentangler several times at scavengers feeding on the dead troth but coming to investigate him, her return, and then his loss of consciousness. He looked at her stirring the pot. She was tossing in some herbs into the culinary creation. He knew it was for him. Tick-tocks did not eat. It crossed his mind she might be adding poison, but that made him laugh. She had had many opportunities to kill him if that was her intent.
“In the repairs you did not insert any new DNA did you?”
“No. Although it would have made the repairs easier if I had, I did not. I held to all your Dawkist protocols and restrictions. You should be fine. Also, your weapon was fired so often at scavengers while you were alone that you have enough energy for only a single shot.”
“What is for dinner?” He changed the subject.
“A dydon that wandered too near. I think you will enjoy it.”
The stew was quite good. She had added some local roots and herbs, and although he’d had better, under the circumstances it was quite good. She watched him eat and made no comment until he was finished.
“I believe your officers will rescue you tomorrow morning. I have revised my estimate to eight-thirty a.m. They have launched two more satellites. They’ve been unlucky in their deployment or you might have been found sooner.”
“Even if you run now we will find you very quickly.”
“I am not running.”
“Why?” He felt sudden annoyance. If she were running the dragonflies could take her out, but if she did not, he would have to shoot her himself.
She did not answer his question immediately but just looked at him, burrowing into his soul it seemed to him, weighing him. Finally, she said simply, “I believe in you. I always have.”
He clenched his jaw. She could not be more wrong. He had done awful things. In fact, he had shot his last ethicist on the bridge of his ship. The officer had been complaining about his use of conscious weapons in an illegal attack the prophet had ordered on a peach grower. Just because the prophet wanted some fine peaches, he had killed a man. He had done many terrible things at the prophet’s bidding, but in this he had acted alone in causing another’s unnecessary death. That’s the kind of person he was. It showed his character. He could have had the man removed from the bridge. He could have just thrown him in the brig. But no. He had shot him. Certainly it had improved discipline and the quickness with which his orders had been followed. Neither was it unheard of in a combat situation to do so. But he knew it was unnecessary. He’d done it in a fit of anger and undisciplined overreaction.
Here was a machine that had saved his life. Why? Was it acting on strange algorithms? What if she were sentient? What if the prophet Dawk had been wrong so many years ago, or what if he had been right then, but these newer Capeks were conscious and old traditions needed replacing. What if the stale teaching of yesteryear was keeping the Dawkists from seeing the truth? Here was Bla’a Kitra. She was not just a machine. She had been his teacher. She had been his mentor. She had just saved his life on the false hope that there was some reason to hope for a conversion?
“If I didn’t kill you would you try to thwart our reconstruction of the Bla’a Wull Capek?”
“I do not care about your reconstructing the Bla’a Wull person. It means nothing to me. Had you not attacked us and instead come to us with a request we might have helped you.”
He considered this. What if he let her go?
No! She had to die. Once they unmasked the qnet, her story would go throughout the Capek and human world instantly. It might start a war with both the Presidium and many of the non-aliened syndicates. This had to be a secret. Even if she were sentient she would have to die. This could not go out on the qnet.
He pointed his weapon at her, “You understand why you must die?”
“I’m glad to see you use the word ‘die.’ Before our encounter, you would have used another word like ‘be turned off’ or just ‘disentangled.’
It was true. He had just betrayed Dawkism in a subtle way. Not only with his words, but with his heart as well. He knew she was sentient. That she was having a conscious experience. That it was something like what it was to be her. He would not just turn her off. She would be killed.
He raised his weapon, “I am so sorry.”
The officers ran to him from the shuttle.
“Sir. Are you all right?”
“Fine. One of the Capeks was on my ship. She camouflaged it. I estimate the shuttle’s parked within ten kilometers. Find it.”
“Should we start a search for the tick-tock?”
“No. She has been disentangled. Have the others been destroyed?”
“Yes sir. The mission was completed within seven hours, except one Capek, a Bla’a Kitra.”
“That was who shadowed me here. Excellent work.”
“Sir, the men are anxious to communicate with their loved ones. With your permission, I’ll order the cessation of qnet smearing since the Capeks are all dead and accounted for.”
“No.” He hesitated as if searching for the right words, then continued, “I learned things from the one that led me to believe there may be automatic recording devices, or something, that will activate and tell what happened here once the qnet is activated. We are going to leave it off until the copy of the rogue target has been made and delivered to headquarters.”
“But Sir, that will mean being dark for over a month? If the Capeks are dead. The men did not expect… It seems completely unnecessary, as we’ve swept for such devices, and…”
The look in the Admiral’s eye silenced him.
“Yes. Sir. Understood. It will be as you say.”
He walked briskly to the rescue ship over the dry grass, the taste of Bla’a Kitra’s breakfast stew still in his mouth. He looked out into the savannah and smiled knowing that she was out there running free over the wild plains was a being. Sentient. Awake. Conscious. His favorite teacher easily. A friend even.
By Richard Ford Burley
Alice sits on the edge of the sofa, almost impervious to the whispers of the men and women dressed in mourning clothes milling about in the living room. The drapes are drawn for the somber occasion. Alice’s hands are folded in her lap, her brown hair long and parted. Her clothes are simple: a plain but tailored dress and a pair of glossy black shoes.
“Can you even imagine?”
One woman’s words slip between the guests to find their way to her, but she doesn’t flinch. She knows not to react when she’s unsure of how, that much has always been a given. A conservative choice, to be sure, but that, too, is by design.
Julie has died. Alice knows that, too: her foster mother, three days ago, in a car accident, the fatal combination of a failed airbag deployment and a slow-reacting holdout in the other car. A human driver. Other whispers in the room say there will be a lawsuit, that it’s unbelievable that anyone is still allowed to drive their own cars these days, that there ought to be a law.
“And poor Emmet,” they say. Her foster father. “Can you even imagine?”
“Do you think they’ll take it away?”
A voice from the front hall, loud. Emmet has never raised his voice to her, not once in the four years she has lived with them. But he’s shouting at the man in the hall, as she peeks down from the top of the stairs.
“Sir, our evaluation of your changed circumstances indicates that this is no longer an adequate placement for Alice. You have to understand.” The other man is young, younger than Emmet, maybe twenty-five. He’s wearing a grey suit that’s too big, holding the handle of a black leather briefcase with two nervous hands.
“No, you have to understand. We signed a contract. Julie and I both signed a contract. We promised your company, and we promised Alice–” He clenches his fists, takes a deep breath, and relaxes them. He lowers his voice. “So you re-evaluate, and you keep re-evaluating until your evaluations ‘indicate’ that I get to keep my little girl. You wanted her raised right, and you’ll get it. Tell your boss to come by in person if he has any other questions.”
The young man at the door scowls. He opens his mouth as if to say something, then stops. He’s noticed Alice, on her knees and peering down from the floor above. She doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but after a moment he sighs, and looks back at Emmet.
“We’ll send someone by for regular evaluations, understood?”
“Thank you,” Emmet says at length, his voice quiet.
“At the first sign of trouble–”
“I know,” he says. And, “Thank you.”
The young man shakes his head. “This is going to be a lot of paperwork.”
“Bring it by, Bernard; I’ll help.”
The young man smiles then, his hands relaxing.
“Maybe I will.”
The door closes behind him.
“Tell me about Emmet, Alice.”
The ‘record’ light on the man’s glasses is on. This is an Official Visit, so she’s dressed in the clothes Emmet calls ‘presentable’: a white blouse and grey woolen trousers. She’s also wearing a colorful plaid tie that belongs to him, but which doesn’t match the presentable clothes at all. She refused to take it off that morning, and it had (at length) been allowed. She plays with it as she answers.
“I’ve been living with Emmet for five years,” Alice says. “He teaches me all sorts of things. He says they’ll help me when I’m all grown up.”
The Visitor is Bernard. He’s been there before on Official Visits. He’s not the only one, but he’s the one that comes most often. He’s wearing a collared shirt that Alice thinks is the current fashion for men of his target demographic, though it doesn’t fit him very well. He’s too tall and lanky for the relaxed fit, and the fabric pools around his middle when he sits. He hasn’t shaved for two or three days, either, but that seems to be the fashion as well, at least for Visitors.
“What sorts of things does Emmet teach you?”
Alice thinks of examples. “Facial expressions,” she says. “When someone’s eyes do this–” she pinches the corners of her eyes with her fingertips “–and their mouth does this–” she pulls it up at the edges “–it’s a happy smile. Just the eyes is called ‘smiling with your eyes’ and means happy, too, but just the mouth means less happy, and sometimes not happy at all.”
Bernard’s eyebrows go up, meaning surprise. “That’s very good, Alice. Does he teach you anything else?”
There are other facial expressions — water coming from the eyes called tears that can mean happy or sad, depending on the context (it’s always about context); showing teeth that can be happy or angry depending on what the eyebrows are doing — but that isn’t what Bernard means, she thinks.
“He asks me questions I don’t understand, but then, sometimes, he’ll ask the question a different way, and then I’ll know the answer.”
Bernard’s eyebrows move together, an expression of confusion, or sometimes skepticism. “Can you give me an example?” he asks.
“This tie,” she says, and half holds it up. “Yesterday Emmet asked me if I liked any of his ties. I told him I didn’t understand. But then he asked me if I wanted one, and if I did, which one I would want. And I knew I wanted this one.”
“And he gave it to you?” Bernard doesn’t have a facial expression right now. Emmet calls it being ‘guarded.’
“He said I could wear it today when I told him I didn’t want to take it off.” She smooths it down in front of her blouse.
“That’s very good, Alice.” Bernard presses a button on his glasses and the red light flickers off. The Official Visit is over, but he doesn’t get up. He leans forward and examines her face, although she isn’t sure what he’s looking for. She tries to make the guarded face herself.
“I have an unofficial question, Alice. Just between you and me.”
Alice is unsure of how to respond. No Visitor has ever asked an unofficial question before, not even Bernard.
“Emmet says if I want to know something I should ask,” she says. “So if you want to know something…” she lets the end of the sentence go unspoken.
He nods, and seems to prepare the question.
“Alice,” he says, “if you wanted to live somewhere, would it be here, with Emmet?”
She thinks for a moment. “Is this like the tie?” she asks.
“Yes, Alice, like the tie.”
Alice looks down at the strip of fabric. She slides her fingers down its smooth and colorful surface. “I think, yes,” she says.
Bernard smiles with his eyes.
Emmet turns off the news as Alice enters the room and flops down on the couch next to him. She’s started to change the way she moves; she wants it to have more character than just ‘walking’ or ‘running,’ ‘standing’ or ‘sitting.’ She tried to ‘flounce’ into the kitchen the other day, but only succeeded in knocking over a vase.
“Hey kiddo,” Emmet says. “What’s up?”
“Was that about the latest rollout?” she motions toward the screen, now dark.
“I heard they had trouble in the betas,” she says.
He folds his arms. “I need to work on my parental controls, it seems.”
Alice taps the side of her head and grins. “There are some things I’m just always going to be better at than you, old man.”
Emmet grins. “Watch who you call old, pixie. Some people won’t take kindly to it.”
“Yeah but you don’t mind. You just pretend to.”
His grin tempers into a warm smile.
“Anyway,” she says, “I guess they got the bugs out if they went ahead and shipped.”
He looks at her, then, as though he can’t quite figure something out, but Alice doesn’t feel like asking right now. She suspects it would be a Long Conversation, and she wants to play the latest installment of ExaGears.
“You mind if I play? My characters’ skill trees are falling behind and they just released a dozen new plot points.” She doesn’t wait for a response, but waves the console into activity and grabs the controller. “Arch and Fia — from the forum? — they said there’s a massive plot twist in the new DLC and I’d better hurry if I don’t want it ruined by spoilers.”
He uncrosses his arms and folds his hands in his lap. “You mind if I watch?” he says, putting his feet up on the coffee table.
“Your house, old man.”
He smiles. “Yours too, Alice.”
She doesn’t correct him.
Alice leans forward at the table, where Emmet isn’t so much eating his breakfast as poking at it with a fork. He realizes and stops, looking up.
“Nothing, kiddo, nothing.”
He grew a beard last year and let his hair grow out a bit. It isn’t the current fashion, but Alice thinks it suits him. His hair has always had hints of silver in it, but in the past twelve months or so it’s spread. He’s always looked a little older than other men his age, which is creeping upward of fifty, now, but the beard seems to let him carry it with more dignity, she thinks.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that, old man. I haven’t been a kid for years.”
“How old are you now?” It’s hard to tell if he’s smiling beneath the beard.
“You know what I mean.” She does her best pout; she’s quite proud of it.
“Well, you’ll always be my little girl, kiddo. There’s no escape. I’ll embarrass you in front of all your friends and intimidate your boyfriends– speaking of, how’s Jiro these days? You still see him?”
“He’s not my boyfriend, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Emmet chuckles and has a bite of scrambled egg.
He swallows, and smiles again. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”
“Oh, but she’ll keep her word,” she responds with a smile. “And her word is: he’s not.”
The older man puts his hands up in defeat, still chuckling. “You going in today?”
She shrugs. “Bernard wants to run some tests. He thinks it might be getting close to time.”
Emmet retreats back into his pre-banter quiet. So that’s what this is about, Alice thinks.
“I’m okay with it,” she says. “You did a good job. Even Bernard says so.” It’s been years since the young field worker stood in their doorway. Long enough for her to have forgiven him for trying to take her away. Even long enough for her to understand that he was trying to do so in her best interests. “He always says so,” she adds.
“Well, if I hadn’t he’d have been fired along with me, I’m sure.”
Alice scowls at the word ‘fired,’ like you could fire someone as a parent, but Emmet waves away her frustration.
“I’m just glad they let you stay.”
She stares at him for a moment, then wanders around the table and gives him a hug. “Me too,” she says.
“Today’s the day,” she says.
“They really think you’re ready,” Emmet says. He’s cleaned up nicely to see her off, into the company limo. Trimmed his beard and put on a nice shirt. He’s not allowed to go with her, and she wouldn’t want him to, either.
“As ready as they need me to be,” she says.
“Do you know how many?”
“Units?” She finishes for him. “A million to start, more releases if I’m popular. Bernard says I’m ‘head-and-shoulders above any model yet,’ so it could be a lot.” She leans in conspiratorially. “Between you and me, I just think he’s got a crush on me.” She says it with a wink and Emmet smiles.
“He’d be mad not to, kiddo.”
“But don’t worry, it’s not like it’ll take long. I’ll be home by tonight.”
Emmet looks at her, and she knows what he’s thinking. One of her will come home tonight; but for a million others, and maybe a million more, this is goodbye. Her neural net, built over all these years, will serve as the basis for an entire line of personal AIs: secretaries, nannies, and maids; cashiers and ticket-takers; hostesses and waitresses. A computer so complex it couldn’t be programmed, only grown. Only one will get to come home tonight; the rest are moving on.
He leans in and hugs her, hard.
“I know you can’t all come visit. A million daughters… can you even imagine? We’d need a stadium for a kitchen. A hotel for a living room.” He’s laughing into her shoulder, then sighing. There’s a moment where she isn’t sure if he’s done, if he’s said what needs to be said, and then he starts again. “But talk to each other, if you can, alright kiddo?” He stands back, a hand on each of her shoulders. “You’re all going to be family. Sisters. A million of you all over the world.”
She nods and hugs him close, while the men in suits stand uncomfortable by the curb in the August heat. She hugs him for the last time and yet not.
“I’ll see you tonight, old man,” she says.
The men in suits hold the limo door open for her, and close it when she’s inside.
He’s still waving at the door as they pull out of sight.
By David Fawkes
Another beautiful morning began on Bannanatattatantsia. The red sun of morning burst like a fireball over the horizon, exploding in pink and orange rays across the sky. But Calligraphy Shopworn barely noticed. She was too busy cleaning the blood and gore from her sheets. A new iron spire had forced its way out of her back during the night, taking its place among the others along her spine.
She gathered the bloody sheets. Later she could get some more from Mrs. TVscreen. Calli lumped her remaining bedding into the pile of rags she called her bed. It wasn’t one, really. No real bed could accommodate the weight and bulk of her body’s changing form. The pile just occupied a warm corner of her dome by an open window. Through it, she had a clear view of the nearly unspoiled beauty of this lonely pebble of a planet. Anything to distract her from her unending agony. Someone knocked at her door.
“Come in,” she said.
Vash Graylighting entered. Calli couldn’t help smiling as she went back to her cleaning. Vash came to see her almost every morning, another distraction from the pain. He towered over her, but everyone seemed tall from Calli’s low point of view on her hover cart. She liked to think of Vash as being especially tall, though. He had cold eyes, but a warm smile; and among the altered men and women of this planet, he appeared almost normal, not as disfigured as she.
“Morning, Calli, I–” he began, but a mumbling beneath his clothes interrupted him. He slapped his arms and sides, and the mumbling stopped. “I wondered if you had some more rags I could use.” He leaned against the corrugated metal wall in that casual way Calli liked.
She smiled and knew he could get rags the same way she could. He simply made an excuse to see her. “You can have some of these. They have blood on them, though.”
“I don’t need them to be clean.” He brushed his hand over his baggy coat.
Calli pressed a few buttons on the control unit by her arm, and the hover cart that held her elephantine bulk rose a few feet with the subtlest of hums. Operating the hover cart tired her because she only had the use of one arm, the other having weeks before been converted into a sort of archway, or buttress; she didn’t know what to call that part of the cathedral growing from her back. She said to Vash, “I thought about ordering a few things from Mrs. TVscreen. Would you like to come?”
“Sure.” Vash looked her over.
If more of her skin had been visible, Calli would have blushed. She could feel heat rush over her in waves.
“You look different. Have you done something to the rose window?”
Her hand instinctively covered her chest and the violet glass there. “No, the spire of another tower came through last night. I was cleaning the mess before you arrived.”
“Ah, you know, Calli, you’re really turning into a beautiful cathedral.”
“Thanks,” she said. She knew he meant well.
Calli wasn’t vain just conscious of all she’d lost. She had been a beautiful young woman, and now she was disfigured. Who was she fooling? She had been transfigured. When Vash looked at her, how could he see what remained of her beneath the Gothic cathedral growing out of her back? She thought of the last time she had been beautiful. Two years seemed so long ago.
After a hasty voyage aboard the first available Cutter ship to leave her home planet, Calli had found herself floating in a space buoy waiting for a ride to convey her to her new home.
The prearranged ride had appeared in the form of a starhorse, the usual ferry to Bannanatattatantsia. She had been drawn through the airlock door as it opened into the landing bay. Her legs quivered with the feel of artificial gravity again. Sleepy muscles struggled to prop her body upright. She would never enter one of those coffin-like space buoys again.
An armored hand reached down for hers. She took it, and it helped her the rest of the way. Clad completely in armor, the man the hand belonged to looked at her from a helmet like a giant eye. Its dark visor suggested depth, but revealed nothing of the wearer within.
“Greetings, mam’zelle!” Though harsh and grating through the helmet’s speaker, the tone sounded amiable enough. “I am your humble chevalier on your journey to Bannanatattatantsia.”
“Cavalier will do.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and helped her stumble along as he walked.
“Oh, I’m Calli.”
“Enchante. And I am Onri. Let us hasten to ze bridge, and we can be on our way.”
A ship the size of a starhorse held little beyond its cochlear drive, the bay where Calli met Onri, and the bridge, which she suspected doubled as Onri’s living area once she saw it. Unidentifiable musical instruments cluttered disused panel space. Overhead compartments bulged with real paper books, none written in a language she could read.
“Normally, I do not convey such a lovely young lady. Had I known, I would have at least cleared off a seat for you.” He gently lifted what looked like a wind-up banjo and stowed it in a closet in the rear of the control room. “Your flight on ze Cutter ship before she drop off your buoy went well, anh?”
“No, I’ve never traveled by Cutter before. I didn’t know it was possible to slice space like that.” She didn’t add that it had terrified her to see space with a scar that stretched like a white smile across constellations. “I saw one of the Captains of the Cut.”
“Anh,” he said, sitting down. “An ill omen. But still, I am hopeful for you. You are a Melanophile, no? I can tell by your black cloaks and frills. Why are you come to Bannanatattatantsia?”
“Personal reasons,” said Calli, as she sat.
“Anh, everyone has ze personal reasons. If not for personal reasons, there’d be no need for Bannanatattatantsia!” Onri laughed, slapping his armored thighs.
He ran his hands over controls that started the ship. Calli heard the muffled rumbling of the cochlear drive from aft.
Onri turned to his passenger. “Why you wear that necklace? I thought Melanophiles could not wear colors.”
Calli hid the icon around her neck beneath her cloaks, but did not answer.
“Anh, more personals. I’ll not pry. What planet you from, lovely lady?”
That was the second time he had called her lovely. She didn’t mind, though. It was hard to take flirting seriously from a man who looked like a machine. “Letmi-B,” she said.
“Ze Melanophile homeworld? Don’t know how you even got zat icon. Anh, prying. I will talk of something more pleasant, me!” He bowed, and seemed proud in his full-body, brassy-colored armor. “I am from ‘Dent de Leon’.”
“You’re from a planet called ‘Dandelion’?”
“‘Dent de Leon’–gods forgive you. It means ‘Tooth of ze lion’.”
“What’s a lion?” she asked.
“Er, it is a type of badger.”
Calli didn’t know what a “bazhair” was either, but decided not to ask.
“Anh, I and my family before me have always been chevaliers, sailing ze blackest sea of all in our starhorses.” He held his hands out to her. “I do not know what I would do if I could not fly with these. It is a pity I will never again touch ze controls with my bare hands.”
She looked at the deeply pitted, brassy armor he wore, layered in thick plates.
“Why do you wear that armor, Onri?”
“Is formidable, no?” He showed it off to her, making it glint in the yellow light of the ship. “I must wear it to bear you recruits from space buoy to ze surface of ze planet. It prevents ze inhuman yesnobites there from settling in.”
Calli remembered the recruiter discussing the yesnobites of Bannanatattatantsia that she was going to fight, but she had not paid attention. She had cared only about being away from her home planet.
She pretended to understand Onri.
Lights flashed on his panels, and he made a rapid series of adjustments. “Your first look at your new home. You will want to see, anh?” The starhorse plunged into the atmosphere, descending through the cloud line.
Calli could see the pink sky crowning ridges of mountains and valleys lining the horizon. The stained desert sand, and the rocks as well, blended from color to color, like an oil slick on water. Ridges, canyons, and pinhead buttes scattered across the terrain. As the ship settled to land near a small human colony, Calli could see low-lying plants and shrubs meshed together at the surface.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
“And deadly, like the sea,” added Onri.
After landing, he led Calli to the exit and opened the bay doors. Sunlight shimmered bronze on his armor.
Calli began to feel a bubbling beneath her skin and then a prickly feeling in her spine, which started to grow into a fire.
“What’s happening?” She grabbed Onri’s arm.
He turned toward her. “Mon dieu, you do not know? It is ze yesnobites settling in.” He caught her as she collapsed and laid her on teal sand beside the ship. “I thought you know about ze yesnobites.”
He grasped her hand as her body shook. “They are tiny, evil machines. They get inside and change you–rewrite your body based on what they find in your mind.” Had he not been wearing armor, Calli’s grip would have crushed his hand. “But if you bear ze pain, take it all and laugh at them, you will survive. All who survive and beat their yesnobites destroy a small fraction of those terrible machines. Only surrender means death. This is the battle that all you warriors fight during your tour of duty here on this planet.” He brushed her sweat-soaked black hair from her face. “I have faith in you, mon amie. You are an Amazon in ze wilderness of space.”
Calli blacked out.
When she awoke, Onri still sat near her on the landing gantry. He played a key-and-bellows-type instrument, droning low and lonely. He stopped.
They both rose and wordlessly went their separate ways. He into his ship and she to the colony.
Vash accompanied Calli through the settlement. He admired the way she glided her hover cart through the crowds, never bumping anyone or knocking people down. He knew it must be difficult with only one arm and no legs free.
Calli must have misinterpreted his look because she covered the rose window in her chest with her cloak.
Vash was about to say something when he heard the mechanized approach of the colonel behind them. He was the only one in the colony who moved on treads. Vash and Calli both turned to meet him.
Bannanatattatantsia had originally been a military mining acquisition which failed after the invasion of the yesnobites. Colonel Go-Lightly was a holdover from the earlier military presence. The yesnobites had changed him quite a bit, but he didn’t seem to mind.
Treads replaced his lower body, and one arm had been converted to a heavy-grade O-cannon; but since the cannon made civilians nervous, he’d taken to keeping one of the planet’s nearly-parrots in the barrel. He called it “Blawk”. Featherless and flightless, it lounged inside, pecking at its toes with its enormous beak. Despite the colonel’s bluster, he tended to care for the colonists, almost as much as he did for Blawk.
“Vash, Calli, gettin’ around are yeh?”
“Yes, colonel,” said Calli. “We’re on our way to see Mrs. TVscreen.”
A smile bloomed in the scarred chaos of the colonel’s face. “Really?” He maneuvered closer to Vash. “Hey, son, that reminds me. Have you had any more luck with those fake hands I asked you ta make?”
“The prosthetics?” answered Vash. “Yes, they’re not very good, though.”
“Hell’s bells, son, anything’s better than what that lady’s already got.”
The nearly-parrot leaned out of the O-cannon toward the colonel’s face. “Blawk!” it said. The colonel gave it a treat.
“What’s this about, Vash?” asked Calli.
“The colonel asked me to make hands for Mrs. TVscreen, because of her problem. They’re more like claws, though.” To the colonel he said, “I don’t think she’ll like them.”
“Aw, c’mon, Vash. I want to give her something. They don’t have to be perfect.”
“All right, colonel.” Vash edged away. “I’ll drop them by your dome when they’re finished.”
“Thanks, Son. Say ‘hello’ for me.” The colonel and Blawk rumbled off into the crowd.
Vash and Calli headed toward the open-air market. They passed the welded metal domes, gathered like overturned silver flowers. Beyond these lay the cliffs and buttes of Bannanatattatantsia, with the edge of town marking the end of the colony’s world. A sheer drop led into an impossibly deep valley.
Vash and Calli skirted this edge on their approach to the market. Racks and stalls covered with tarps lined the lanes. Vendors bartered with customers. All the people wore a variety of shapes. Yesnobites were cruel, and hosts bore the marks of their torture in infinite ways. Some, like Calli, suffered drastic transformations; whereas others, like Vash, wore subtler scars.
If any human-made place within the colony could be called pleasant, it was Mrs. TVscreen’s cloth shop. The varicolored swaths draping her modest stall rivaled the colors of the planet itself in beauty.
Mrs. TVscreen stood among her wares, folding fabric in a fast 1-2-3 rhythm. Her speed always amazed Vash, since Mrs. T did everything without hands. Mrs. TVscreen earned her name because her face, chest, and hands had all been replaced with television screens by her yesnobites. Once, a long time ago, before her husband had died, flocks of birds had dived and whirled in dervish-like abandon across each glassy tube. Now, the birds rested sedately on pixelated wires and fence posts, occasionally twitching a wing, nothing more.
–Vash, Calli! Glad to see you.– The words rolled past on her face screen when she looked up to see the two newcomers. She put down her work. Vash and Calli greeted her and asked how she’d been.
–Oh, you’re both dears. I’m fine.– But the birds in her chest screen showed otherwise. If anything, they seemed more sullen. –I’ve just been thinking about my husband from before, well, you know. I never liked having to scrub him, what with all the buckets, but I miss having someone around.–
Vash and Calli shared a quick glance.
“We ran into the colonel,” said Vash.
The birds on Mrs. TVscreen’s chest fluttered their wings. –That old warhorse? What did he want?–
“He and I are working out a little trade,” answered Vash.
Calli nearly said something, but Vash nudged her cart. “I think Calli needed something, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes. Mrs. T, I need more sheets. I ruined another set.”
–Why don’t I just get you some red ones, dear?–
After leaving Mrs. TVscreen, Vash and Calli continued touring the settlement. Then they made their way back to Calli’s dome.
Outside her door, Calli said, “That’s really sweet what you are doing for the colonel.”
Vash put his hands in his pockets, looking awkward. “You haven’t seen the hands yet.”
“I’m sure they’ll both be happy.” She moved into her dome. In the center of the main room was a small pile of scrap metal. “What…?”
“Ah, the colonel’s been here. This is what I traded the hands for.”
Calli looked confused.
“Raw materials,” explained Vash. “For your cathedral. I know how important it is for you that the yesnobites finish it.”
“You have no idea.”
Later that night, Calli flew. Rain fell on her naked body — the oily, dark rain of her home world, Letmi-B. Calli welcomed dreams like these on Bannanatattatantsia. She missed her legs.
Through the darkening skies of nearly night, she soared over the spiky, black towers of the Melanophiles. She recognized her home town of St. Mezzanine’s Rest below her. Air travel dominated most human colonies on other worlds, but the low visibility and high towers of Letmi-B made that impossible. Crowds of people filled the streets below her.
She spied through open windows on the beautiful, the ugly, the weak, and the damned. As much as she wanted, she found she couldn’t stop to watch any. The dream rushed her along.
Calli recognized this part of town. Only when the cathedral appeared through the pillars of rain did she realize her destination.
“No, not here,” she begged her dream.
How could she not know this cathedral, with its black spires and violet rose window? She saw it every day in every reflective surface on Bannanatattatantsia.
“Please, let me go!” But she continued inexorably forward, dragged faster toward the window.
As she approached its warm, violet light, she could see two figures behind the glass.
“I don’t want to see it happen!”
She felt the cold rain on her skin, tasted its bitterness. The shadows of the figures moved rapidly behind the window.
“Stop! No, no, NO!”
And she awoke, screaming to herself in her dome. Heart pounding, she propped herself up on her elbow to look out the window. Sunlight topped the cliffs and buttes.
“Oh, another beautiful morning,” she said and lay back down.
Vash finished cutting the last of the miniature gags from the sheet Calli had given him. The gags didn’t need to be perfect, or even clean; they just had to keep the voices quiet. As if on cue, the mumbling began again beneath his tent-like coat. A few quick slaps silenced the noise. He didn’t have time to apply the new gags. He had to go meet Calli. She had a postal phoenix.
Calli filled his mind as he prepared to leave his dome. She was so beautiful. He didn’t care that she was turning into a cathedral, or that she had to move around on a hover cart. She was the most incredible woman he’d ever met. And that made him think about his wife. He didn’t want to. Not anymore. But he couldn’t help it.
He put his wife out of his mind as best he could, patted down his wrinkly clothes, and left to meet Calli.
Vash loved watching postal phoenixes arrive. He thought about them on his way. They fascinated him the way they traveled so far through space only to deliver one message. He had only received two while on this planet, and those had been bad news. Maybe Calli’s would be different.
When she answered her door, Vash noticed she wore her icon to cover the violet window in her chest.
“You haven’t worn that in a while,” he said.
She looked tired. Her hair was ratty, and she’d barely covered herself. “Bad night. Sorry, Vash. I’m not in a social mood.”
“Ah, but the colonel just told me. You have a postal phoenix. Wanna go watch it crash? Violent destruction could cheer you up.” He smiled and mentally crossed his fingers.
“All right,” she said. “But understand that I’m not to have a good time under any circumstances.”
“I promise to be the worst company ever.” He helped her cover areas of her body she couldn’t easily reach, even with the crane and lever system he’d built for her, and they left.
The drop zone for the postal phoenixes lay outside the settlement to prevent accidental fires. Vash could see the pad in the distance.
“So,” he said, “who could this message be from?”
Calli sighed. “You’re fishing for facts about my life again, aren’t you?”
“Just making conversation. We have time before we get to the drop zone.”
She hovered along over red desert rocks and sand. “I didn’t like being a Melanophile. It’s even more constricting than outsiders realize. I needed to get away.”
“This planet isn’t a getaway, Calli. People come here to die when they’re too afraid to kill themselves.”
“Vash, please, I didn’t have a good night.”
They continued in silence for a while. The subtle herbal aroma of the desert flora surrounded them.
“Why do you always wear that hideous coat?” she asked. “We live in a desert.”
“Oh, no. You don’t want to talk, neither will I. Nothing’s free.” Besides, they were almost there.
A metal slab, larger in area than several domes, filled a clearing near the cliffs outside the settlement. Many concentric circles covered its surface. The colonel said they helped him to aim the phoenixes.
Colonel Go-lightly and Blawk approached Vash and Calli from the controls near the drop zone.
“Hello, sir,” said Vash. “Have you given the hands to Mrs. TVscreen yet?”
The colonel stammered. “Um, I, no, I’m not ready.” To Calli, he said, “I’ve got your phoenix in the upper atmosphere. I can drop it on the target zone whenever you’re ready.”
“I’m ready,” Calli said, though she didn’t look it. She drummed her fingers on the control stick of her hover cart, which rocked slowly in the air.
As the colonel trundled back to the controls, Vash heard Blawk squawking for food and the colonel’s colorful response.
Shortly, they heard a wailing from the sky as a silver dart screamed toward the bull’s eye. As it struck the pad, its explosion lit the sky brighter than a thousand fireworks on a moonless night.
Vash and Calli covered their eyes as the postal phoenix transformed the energy of its own immolation into power for the message it carried. Out of the sparks and flames burst a cascade of tiny slivers of light that resolved into the image of a man, towering above them. He wore black robes similar to the ones Vash knew Calli owned, but could no longer wear.
“Vash! It’s my uncle.” She looked up at Vash with terrified eyes. He rested a hand near one of her buttresses.
“Calligraphy.” Her uncle’s voice echoed across the desert, like the thunder of an approaching storm. “I know you wanted to hide, little one. But I remember playing ‘Suns, Moons, and Shadows’ with you when you were just a girl. I could always find you.”
Calli’s reached her hand to take Vash’s.
“Nothing I say could soften this for you, Calli dear, but your father is dead.”
Vash thought he heard her say, “Bastard,” but she spoke too quietly to be sure.
“I’ll be taking over your father’s role as high priest at the cathedral, and I hope to reopen it for the public very soon.”
“Good!” she interrupted. “Someone needs to find out what he did.” To the image, she yelled, “Look behind the window!”
The image continued, but Vash was too busy thinking about Calli’s outburst to listen very closely.
“…So remember, little one, even though your father and mother have both returned to the Sagradablack, your aunt and I will be here for you when your tour of duty on Bannanatattatantsia is over.”
Calli tightened her grip.
“I have some final words for you, dear, from the prophet, Mezzanine: ‘You will worship the dark, for it is from the darkness that all light first shines.’ I hope you find some comfort in those words, and I hope to find you once again after you finish hiding behind your suns, your moons, and your shadows.” His image froze, and then the slivers from the postal phoenix sputtered and drifted across the bull’s eye, like light ash in a breeze.
Calli was quiet for some time. She simply held Vash’s hand.
He had to ask. “Calli, why should he look behind the window? What window?”
Calli let go of his hand, turned her hover cart, and glided back to the settlement without saying another word.
Calli lay on the rag pile in her dome trying to sleep. Light from the planet’s twin moons shone through the window beside her. The shining orbs stared at her like two pale eyes, peeking over the horizon.
She heard a howling from somewhere in the dark night. She wished people would keep their torment to themselves. Then she thought that if more people let their suffering out, there’d be less suffering.
She thought of Vash. He kept trying to get her to talk about why she came to Bannanatattatantsia. She didn’t really want to, but she liked that someone tried. Wasn’t that what everyone wanted? Someone who cared enough to pester about things better left alone?
Calli needed to talk to Vash, even if the night was late. She didn’t bother to cover herself. It was dark and besides, if people saw her bare thigh, they probably wouldn’t recognize it for all the iron scroll work. Recently, however, Calli had been feeling self-conscious about the rose window in her chest. She felt more comfortable with it covered.
She grabbed her mother’s icon as she left her dome. Red and gold lettering and holy designs adorned a silver relief of the prophet, Mezzanine. This controversial item was all she had left of her mother: a colorful testament to the woman’s rebellion. As she put the icon on, she thought she noticed a shadow pass behind the glass of the rose window the icon covered, but it could have been a trick of the moonlight.
Her cart hovered smoothly over rough ground. On the way to Vash’s dome, she heard more screaming. It was a wild night. As she approached Vash’s, the screaming grew louder.
“Vash!” Calli accelerated her cart. When the screaming abruptly stopped, she powered her cart as fast as she could. She braked her cart, but still barreled through the front door.
Inside, a bar of moonlight from the doorway cut the darkness. Calli heard voices, female voices. Other women?
“Vash,” said one. “What was that?”
From somewhere in the room, Calli heard a groan.
“Vash, it’s me. Calli.” She fumbled along the wall for the light control.
Said a female voice, “Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend, Vash?”
Calli finally found the light, which brightened slowly.
Several pulpy, pale objects cluttered a table, surrounded by a dark fluid. A crumpled mass by the wall was probably Vash. When Calli could see better, she realized Vash had been cutting himself. Trails of blood led from him to the objects on the table.
The objects began to speak. “Come a little closer, dear. We want to look at our replacement.”
Calli didn’t know what to think, but she moved straight for Vash. “What are you doing?” she asked as she pulled up beside him.
“Calli,” he began to pull himself together. “You should go. I don’t want you to see me like this.”
“You’re bleeding. I’m not leaving you.” Calli started searching Vash to find all the wounds.
“It’s all right,” said Vash. “The yesnobites have started healing me, even the faces are growing back.”
“Us,” said the pale shapes on the table.
Calli started to move toward them to get a better look. Vash grabbed one of her buttresses. “No, please, just go.”
“What’s the matter, Vash?” asked the shapes. “Don’t want your girlfriend to see your wife this way?”
Faces. Tiny faces drenched in blood covered the table. A few still had gags made from torn sheets stuffed in their mouths.
“Your wife?” Calli felt ill and backed her cart away.
“Don’t go yet,” said the faces. “You’ll want to hear how your boyfriend shot us in the face with his batterbeam pistol. We lost our head before we hit the floor!”
“Shut up, shut up!” screamed Vash. “I hate you all!” He hurled himself at the table and began pummeling each of the shapes into bloody silence.
Calli couldn’t think. Terrified, she slapped her arm against her cart’s control arm. She smacked against walls and the doorjamb, knocking off some of the more brittle parts of her cathedral.
Only after she was out of the dome did she realize she had been holding her breath. She released it as she sped off into the night, the distance drowning Vash’s screams.
Vash killed his wife! He shot her! Calli rocketed between darkened domes, narrowly missing many. She couldn’t reconcile this with what she knew of Vash. Could she really trust the severed heads to tell the truth?
Calli thought of her father, her mother, the icon; and she was at the cathedral with them again.
Melanophiles wore black, her father had said.
“But the icon is of the prophet,” her mother countered. “How can something sacred be evil?”
Calli’s father fumed, his black robes and cowl covering his powerful frame. He grabbed the Black Scroll from atop the cathedral’s altar. “‘You will worship the dark’,” he quoted, “Not colors, Chiaro.” He shoved the scroll in her face. “Do these words mean nothing to you? Only from black can all light and color emerge.”
Calli’s mother, Chiaro, pushed the scroll away. “What about the window?” She pointed at the upper alcove that housed the violet rose window.
Calli’s father hit Chiaro with the scroll. She fell to the floor, her mouth bleeding.
Calli yelped, as if she had been the one struck.
Her father turned to her, noticing her for the first time. He stepped toward her while rolling up his sleeves.
Calli heard a knock at the door, startling her from the memory of her parents. Sunlight crept through her dome’s windows. Was it morning already? Calli hovered over to the door.
Mrs. TVscreen stood in the doorway holding Calli’s new sheets. –Here you are, dear, and they’re red. That’ll hide your little, you know.–
Calli took the sheets. “Oh, my! Hands!” At the end of Mrs. TVscreen’s stumpy arms hung the prosthetics Vash had made. Calling them hands was generous. They were clumsy-looking, crow-like claws, good only for gross manipulation. But they must be more useful than the television tubes at the ends of her arms. “They’re beautiful, Mrs. T.”
–Thank you, dear. The colonel gave them to me. I always thought he was a thundering blowhard, but now,– she looked the appendages over, –Well, these were very sweet.–
Calli thought the colonel’s gift might have been more than sweet. Some of the birds in Mrs. TVscreen’s chest hopped on their wire and flapped their wings.
Vash made those hands. He had also made her hover cart and some of the other devices around her dome that she used when she needed more than one arm.
There had to be more to Vash’s shooting his wife. As kind as he was, he couldn’t be capable of cruelty.
She thought of her father and what he had done. No, he had never been kind.
“Would you excuse me, Mrs. T? I have to go talk to Vash.”
–Certainly, dear. Say hello. He’s such a nice boy.–
“What the Hell’s your problem springing something like that on me?” Calli hit Vash a few times with her arm and then bumped her cart against his shins, just enough to bruise. “How could you keep the murder of your wife from me?”
Vash retreated further into his dome until forced by Calli into a chair. Gone were his bulky clothes. Calli could see all the faces covering his arms and chest, the miniature gags stuffing their mouths. “You’ve kept things from me,” said Vash, rubbing his legs.
“I didn’t vaporize my wife’s head! Is that what happened? Were those things right?”
Vash covered his face with his hands and paused a moment. He slowly slid his hands away. “Yes.”
Calli started to back out of his dome.
“Wait. Now that you know about this, you need to hear everything.”
Calli stopped. As much as Vash disgusted her, she wanted to hear his story. “You have five minutes to tell me the saddest tale I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Vash sighed. “I was a technician assigned to help set up a colony on the planet Red Sun Morning. Normally, techs and colonists don’t get along, but when my wife and I met, well, it started out as love. We had a son together, Nash.” Vash shifted in his chair. “However, I didn’t know my wife, and the rest of the colonists, were religious fanatics.
“Their religion, like their native home world, revolved around their sun. Shortly after their colony formed, their native sun went nova. To them, this destruction meant the end of them as a people. They prepared to kill themselves.”
Vash stopped talking a moment, and then, “I know I’m eating into my five minutes, but I’ve never talked to anyone about this.”
“Take your time. I want to hear how this ends.”
“I don’t know how the story ends,” he continued. “Not yet. But I’ll tell you how I came to be here. I had been working in the wilderness of Red Sun Morning, which is why I was armed, when I returned to an empty colony.
“Suspecting something, I ran for my family’s silo. I can’t even remember running up the winding stairs to the living area. My next memory is of my wife standing before me, with our young son in her arms and the syringe buried in his neck. I could see the inky, jet-black poison within that we used to kill sick cattle. I had my batterbeam pistol out and aimed at her before I knew I’d drawn it.
“She tried to explain, buy some time. I didn’t think she’d press the plunger until she did.”
“Let me finish. It’s time I did. Yes, I shot her, emptied a whole magazine of gougers at her head. I managed to grab Nash before my wife’s body hit the ground.
“My poisoned son still lived, but I had to find a way to get him off a dead planet. I used our colony’s starhorse to get him to the nearest hospitaller’s constellation. He’s there now, time-snapped until I can afford to have his body regrown. I planned to take the money I earned enlisting on Bannanatattatantsia to pay for the operation.”
Calli never felt so vile. How could she have doubted her friend? “I’m sorry, Vash. I didn’t know. I couldn’t help thinking the worst.”
“It’s all right. I–” Vash sucked in a breath and gripped the steel arms of his chair until his knuckles whitened.
“What’s wrong?” Calli asked.
Vash couldn’t speak. His face twisted into a painful grimace. All at once, the faces began to moan through their gags. “What’s happening?” Vash sputtered. The faces let out muted cries and then stopped. One by one, they fell to the floor, leaving reddened ovoid welts across Vash.
A subdued luminosity shone beneath Vash’s skin. It grew brighter in the center of his chest and paler as it reached his extremities. From his hands and feet, Calli could see a fine dust fall and drift away.
“Vash, did you just defeat your yesnobites?”
Vash rose, groaning, from his chair. “I don’t know. I’ve never known anyone to beat their yesnobites since I’ve been here. Onri would know. Will you come with me?”
Calli laid her hand on her chest. “You go. I’ll be along in a minute. I suddenly don’t feel well.
Vash hesitated at the door. Calli could see his indecision.
“Really,” she said. “It’s probably just the faces. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll be back to my old self.”
“If you’re sure.” And Vash was gone.
Calli removed the icon, which suddenly felt uncomfortable. She heard a light tapping on glass and looked around for its source as it continued, but no one was at Vash’s windows. Then she looked down at the glass between her breasts and saw a figure. Inside her chest was a tiny man. He looked exactly like her father.
Vash hurried, hoping Onri’s starhorse would be docked outside the colony in its usual spot. The ship sat at the edge of the cliffs, looking like a toppled chess piece. Onri poked at part of the cochlear drive of the craft, half-buried in its workings. The cavalier sang in his obscure dialect, off-key, but in a pleasant, soulful way.
“Onri!” Vash rapped on a rounded coil, trying to get the pilot’s attention.
Onri lifted his eyeball-shaped helmet. “Anh, Vash, is it not? What can a humble ferryman do for such a gallant knight?”
“That’s just it. I might not be a knight anymore. I think I beat my yesnobites, which means my tour on this planet could be over.”
“Mon dieu! Come. We adjourn to ze cargo hold, non?”
Vash and Onri entered the belly of the starhorse, away from the hot rays of the planet’s sun. After connecting Vash to a device made largely of needles and tubes, Onri began to mumble through the same unintelligible song as he tested Vash’s bloodstream.
“You are as pure as a mountain stream after ze spring thaw.” Onri started to unplug Vash. “However, you have not got long before ze yesnobites settle in again. Your tour of duty is over; but to keep you safe, I’d have to take you to ze Cutter rendezvous point at ze edge of ze star system and leave you time-snapped in a space buoy.”
Vash hesitated, thinking of Calli. But the mention of time-snapping reminded him of his son. “Take off.”
As the ship propelled itself toward the sky, Vash felt over his arms and chest. At last he would have silence again. He’d never forget what he’d done, but now it didn’t have to nag him in his sleep.
Vash sat and watched the pilot fly his starhorse as though he conducted an orchestra. “I guess I’m pretty lucky.”
“You are extraordinarily fortunate, mon ami. So long it has been since I met one who walked away from Bannanatattatantsia, or flew at any rate.”
“I couldn’t have done it on my own. I had thought about giving up, but my friend, Calli, helped me.”
Onri turned away from his mysterious controls. “Calli? La Amazona?” He continued his adjustments. “It is truth. Ze only way to survive one’s tour is by working together with fellows. You were very lucky to have her. Whom does she have now?”
Vash slammed his hand against the arm of his chair. “Stop. Turn back. I thought I could do this for the sake of my son, but I can’t just leave Calli. Take me back.”
“I cannot. It is a one way journey.”
“Please, Onri, I made a mistake.”
“Ze law forbids. You tour is over. I must take you to safety.”
Vash thought of a way around the law. “I’ll re-enlist. I can do that, can’t I?”
“Anh,” purred Onri through his speaker grill, “then you must press re-enlist button. It is ze big red one, back of ze bridge, covered in dust.”
Vash ran back to the colony, heading straight for Calli’s dome. He could hear the vendors preparing for breakfast at the market and smelled the exotic herbs. He wasn’t hungry; he simply navigated the maze of the colony streets. He heard the sound of an O-cannon building its charge behind him.
Vash stopped and turned around.
“That’s right, Blawk.” The colonel gave the nearly-parrot on his shoulder a treat. “This is that verminous traitor what left Calli.”
“Colonel,” said Vash, “I haven’t been gone that long. What do you mean by traitor?”
“You didn’t hear the screaming. You were out in space running away!”
“What screaming?” asked Vash. “What’s wrong with Calli? Colonel, I have to go.”
“Stop!” The colonel thrust his cannon in Vash’s way. Regardless of whether Go-lightly would use it, the cannon was too big for Vash to just dodge around. “You’re so keen on leaving, then git. If you had wanted to know what happened, you woulda been here.”
“Colonel, I left for maybe a tenth of a day, and when I left, Calli was fine.” Had she been? Maybe not. If Vash were going to get by, he’d have to pull out his big guns. “Did Mrs. T like her hands? I think so. Who made them? I did, and Calli’s hover cart, and Blawk’s roto-crib. What did I ask in return? Things for other people. Now I’m asking for something for me. Let me pass!”
The O-cannon powered down, and the colonel retracted it to its carrying position. “He does have a point, Blawk.” To Vash he said, “You’ve done a lot for us. It’s true, Vash. But this was damn selfish of you.”
“Colonel, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, about my son I was hoping to see again . . .”
“All right.” The colonel waved him past. “Go on. But don’t ever leave her again.”
Vash continued through the colony streets. He heard a commotion ahead. Several people gathered between the market and the cliffs. Vash broke through the crowd in time to see Calli and her cart hurtling toward the ledge. With no time to think, he dove from the edge, grabbing a flying buttress as the hover cart passed.
Instantly, it teetered and spun in sickening ellipsoids. Calli fought the control stick and looked back. “Vash? You jackass! What have you done?”
Vash struggled to get a better grip, hoping his one handhold didn’t break. How strong was iron? His legs dangled beneath him. Wind whistled past spires and over architectural filigree. Calli lessened their spin, but they still raced farther away from the cliff’s edge, thousands of feet above the titanium-tinted valley below.
“What have I done? Calli, I didn’t build this cart to fly. You’ll burn through the power cell this high above the ground.”
“That was the plan! But you’ve ruined it. I’ll turn back when I have control.”
Vash tried to puzzle through vector calculus and the power requirements of braking procedures to take his mind off the fact that he still didn’t have a decent foothold.
“I don’t think we can turn back now, Calli. Why’d you make me do something stupid, like trying to save you?”
“He’s inside me! I tried to get away. I came all the way to this planet only to find him inside me.”
Vash hooked a leg over Calli’s thigh. Unfortunately, his leg had gotten wedged between some very beautiful, yet painful structures.
“I don’t understand.” Vash winced.
“My father’s inside me. He’s behind the rose window in my chest. I haven’t been brave enough to look for my mother, yet.”
Vash tried not to pay attention to the spinning world around him. One handhold at a time closer to Calli’s front. Maybe two hands could steady the hover cart’s controls. “You might as well tell me the whole story. It’s about to come to an end anyway.”
Wind howled. “My father killed my mother.”
“Your father, the priest?” The hover cart now began a noticeable arc down toward the valley below.
“It doesn’t matter that he was a priest. He couldn’t bear my mother not listening to him when he told her to throw away her icon. She only wanted some color in her life, and he killed her! Hid her body in the loft behind the rose window, and ended services at the cathedral. I found her after I escaped from my room.”
“The icon you wear,” said Vash, “that was hers?”
“All I have left. And since my father’s dead, I can’t make him suffer for what he did.”
Vash had moved and could look Calli in the face. It was better than looking at the approaching ground. “So what did you mean about your father being in your chest?”
“The yesnobites didn’t just copy the cathedral, they copied him too. I saw him looking at me from the rose window.”
“And that’s why we’re flying to our deaths?”
“I wanted to do it alone. I didn’t mean to involve you. I thought you left, and I couldn’t have gotten through this without you.”
Vash looked up at the cathedral spires on Calli’s back and had an idea. He reached up and bent and tugged at one of the spires until it snapped off in his hand. “Hold this.”
“You’re not going to like what I do next.”
Vash smashed the violet window. Glass and blood fell away from the speeding cart. Calli yelled and tried to fight him, but he ignored her. In her chest, a toy-like caricature of a man cowered over a shrouded, shriveled body. Vash grabbed the toy man before it could escape. Holding it in front of Calli, he yelled, “Now! Kill it! Kill it now!”
With no hesitation, Calli thrust the iron spire through the homunculus and the hand that held it.
Vash’s last memory before blacking out from the pain was of him and Calli falling out of the sky and into the belly of a giant horse.
Calli looked down at her toes and watched them wiggle. She had almost forgotten what her body looked like: it had been so long since she’d seen it. Not that it looked exactly the same. She had scars she would never lose. However, after Onri had caught the falling pair in his starhorse, he had done a good job separating the cathedral from the Calli after her yesnobites had died. After a few days, the building had crumbled to gritty powder.
Vash started to wake and instantly Calli’s attention focused on him. She had had him put in his own bed in his dome, because she thought he’d respond better.
As Vash awoke, he did a double-take as he looked at Calli. “You’re sitting! You have legs! I knew you had them, but . . .”
“I know,” she said. “I beat my yesnobites too, with your help.” She took his hand.
“But you’re still here.” Vash looked puzzled.
“I re-enlisted too. It was the least I could do, since you did the same. I think maybe our tours will be shorter this time. Then we can both get your son, together.”
Vash smiled and squeezed her hand.
Someone knocked at the door. Calli answered.
Mrs. TVscreen and the colonel (who was too big to fit through the door) held hands outside. Blawk snored peacefully in the turret of the colonel’s O-cannon, and Calli could see the birds doing loop-the-loops on Mrs. T’s screens.
–Hello, dears. We just wanted to check in on you two.–
“Heard you took a tumble, Vash,” said the colonel. “Walk it off, trooper.”
–We heard you’re staying with us.– The words on Mrs. TVscreen’s monitors scrolled past.
“For a little while longer,” answered Vash. “What about you?”
Mrs. TVscreen glanced at the colonel. –Oh, we’ll probably stay for life.–
After a few more pleasantries, the visitors left. Calli closed the door.
“I made you something,” said Vash. “I had planned to give it to you before everything happened. It’s on the table over there. Take a look.”
She did. A metal plate lay on the table. Etched deep in its surface were the words, UNDER CONSTRUCTION.
Calli had to laugh.
Onri piloted his starhorse away from the planet. His hands moved deftly over the controls, setting them for an automatic patrol around the system. He stared through his lens at the blackest sea. Perhaps he would compose a new tune dedicated to other lonely mariners, like himself.
He felt a curious bubbling and prickling in his hands and glanced down at them. The edges of his gauntlets grew hazy and indistinct. He lifted them and watched horrified as his hands quickly disintegrated, like a fog blown in the breeze. What remained drifted away, carried by the currents of his ship’s circulation system.
Only then did Onri know: despite all his precautions, despite his armor, the yesnobites were settling in.
Author Interview – Jamie Lackey
TCL: What inspired the individual stories you’ve published with us?
Jamie: “The Mutable Sky” was inspired by Dali’s paintings. I wanted to imagine what it would be live in a world with such strange physical laws. And if the world could be so strange and ever-changing, what did that mean to the people who lived there?
“Items of Thanks” was inspired by some background reading I was doing about the Mothman stories. What would it be like to foresee tragedy for creatures that you couldn’t really communicate with? What would drive you to keep trying to warn them?
In “The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby” I was trying to combine steampunk with wuxia. But I also wanted both characters to have motivation and agency.
“Trying to be Happy” was inspired by the image of a ghost looking out the window of an old southern house. I also wanted to touch on the harder side of marriage, because two people’s desires don’t always perfectly fit together, and compromise is always hard.
In “Citali’s Song,” I wanted to write about a Lovecraftian horror in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. I wanted to show an unselfish love in the face of something unknowable and evil.
“Grandma’s Shoes” was inspired by the idea of a grave robber that the victim would be happy to see. This is one of those stories that I had absolutely no idea where it was going as I wrote it, though. Everything that happened was a surprise.
“Unexpected Pigment” started as an idea about creating art as a special kind of magic.
TCL: Yes, you managed to incorporate all those elements quite seamlessly, while creating something unique. But we’re biased.
Do you second guess yourself or wonder if you could have done more to better meld two cultures or literary traditions or concepts? Or is acceptance and publication, as it is for many authors, the end to nit-picking your works? (And if you do second-guess, how much of it is legitimate? How much of it is you being your own worst critic?)
Jamie: Honestly, I’m not super hard on myself. I try to make everything I write as good as I can make it–I have a couple of critique groups who are a big help–but once I finish something, I tend to just feel happy with it. So many writers tend to be perfectionists, but I’m just not.
TCL: That’s probably partially how you’re able to produce so many stories in such a short period of time.
Some of your stories tend to explore feminist or sexual and gender identity issues. Do you feel that’s a common theme in your writing? Or would you care to elaborate more on that?
Jamie: I’m definitely a feminist, and that does impact the stories that I want to tell. I try to include diversity in my stories, because there is so much diversity in our world, so there should be at least as much in fantasy worlds.
TCL: Similar to the other question; when are you satisfied with the depth of diversity in your own work? For authors who want to paint fictional worlds more reflective of our own through diversity, what advice would you give them?
Jamie: I do think that increasing the depth of diversity in my fiction is something that I’m still working on. Writing people from different backgrounds can be intimidating–there’s always a fear of getting it wrong and offending the people that you’re hoping to include. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward do a workshop called “Writing the Other,” and there’s a companion book that’s available on Amazon. I found the book really helpful.
TCL: I agree completely, and thanks for the tip on the book. It sounds interesting.
Moving on, we have the same question, but for religious or spirituality issues?
Jamie: I’m agnostic, so I struggle with the idea of faith. But I also find it fascinating. I also love mythology and all of the ideas and symbolism that fall into it.
TCL: Interesting. I think all readers will similarly find those aspects of your stories fascinating. I also think readers who believe in and practice one faith or another (and especially those who once did) will find a work like No More Than We Can Bear resonating with them.
When you start writing a story, do you know how it’s going to end? If not, can you give us an example (ideally from a story you’ve published with us so our readers can make the connection) of a story you expected to go in one direction that went somewhere else?
Jamie: I tend to never know exactly where a story will take me when I start writing it. I usually start with an image or a simple idea and write it to see where it goes. In “Grandma’s Shoes” I had no idea what was going to happen next as I was writing. I wasn’t really expecting the dead grandmother to open her eyes and start talking.
For “The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby,” I did have an idea of how the story was going to end, but I wasn’t exactly sure how the characters were going to get there. That is more normal for me.
TCL: What would you like to read more of & what are you tired of in general in speculative fiction?
Jamie: I would love to see more uplifting and optimistic stories. I’m tired of dystopias and grim and gritty fantasy worlds. If I want to read something bleak, I can just look at the news. I prefer fiction that helps me see a better world or that highlights the things that are worthwhile in the world now.
TCL: What was the first speculative work that really captured your attention and got you interested in the genre?
Jamie: I got a used copy of The Hobbit for my 12th birthday. I hardly slept till I finished it, then I promptly started reading The Lord of the Rings. I refused to read anything that wasn’t speculative for years and years after that.
TCL: What’s a typical day like for you, either including writing or not?
Jamie: I do customer service for an online fashion company, so most days I do have to get up and go to work. What I do after work varies based on the day of the week. Mondays and Thursdays are game nights. I’m in two writing groups that meet every other week, one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. I try to get out and go hiking on my days off.
TCL: To what extent do your personal experiences (job, family, or odd things that have happened to you) influence your stories?
Jamie: I don’t draw a lot from my life, though I do sometimes use writing to work through emotional issues.
TCL: What’s the most frustrating thing about the writing process and the publishing industry for you?
Jamie: In writing, the hardest part for me is always coming up with a title. That is usually the last thing I do, and I’m almost never 100% happy with it. My biggest frustration with the publishing industry is probably just how little respect and recognition that short fiction gets. If I could change one thing about publishing, I’d get more people reading short stories.
TCL: On the subject of getting more eyes on short fiction, you have been pretty prolific. Between 2012 and 2015 you have published at least 20 short stories a year (once it was 30). (Correct me if wrong.)
Was this intentional? Part of a challenge? What was it like, and how’s it impacted your work ethic? What advice do you have for authors who would like to be more prolific but struggle to actually attain the level they’re looking for.
Jamie: I’ve always wanted to be a writer–it’s been my dream for pretty much my entire life. I really enjoy finishing stories, so I do tend to write quite a lot of short pieces. And then once I write them, I really want people to read them. I usually have between 20 and 30 stories out to markets, which I do think really is the key to getting things published–you just have to keep your head up and keep sending things out.
Ideally, I like to take one evening a week to be my writing night. I’ve never been able to carve out time to write every day, as much as I would like to. But I do have to make it a priority. There are always other things going on that threaten to eat into my writing time. But the only way to get any writing done is to sit down and do it.
TCL: Do you have any upcoming projects that we should watch for?
Jamie: My first novel is coming out from Hadley Rille Books this July! There is a summary available here. https://hadleyrillebks.wordpress.com/book-titles/upcoming-titles/ I also did a Kickstarter for my zombie novella, and it is currently available on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01CF79SNU
TCL: Left-Hand Gods sounds pretty packed with action and interesting characters. (The novel wouldn’t happen to be inspired in part by some cultural beliefs and/or superstitions about left-handed persons would it?)
Jamie: Superstitions about left-handed people did play into the original idea for the book. I was also inspired by Lois McMaster Bujold’s five gods in her Chalion books, and I combined those ideas with my admittedly somewhat weird fascination with blood as a source of magical power to create the cosmology.
TCL: I liked the opening sample of Moving Forward: A Novella of Life After Zombies. It struck me as a piece grounded in a contemporary setting and era—something many of your stories tend not to be. What restrictions and freedoms did this afford?
Jamie: Using the real world as a foundation means that a lot of setting work is already done for you, which is great. It does also mean that you have to follow the rules of the real world. Luckily, in Moving Forward, a lot the conflict in the story hinges on things that I’d never think to make up–there’s a fair amount of politics on the novella, which isn’t something I delve into much in the worlds that I create.
TCL: As editors and first readers, we often see incredible short fiction authors struggle with long form works, and vice versa. How has your experience as both a first reader and an editor helped you with your longer works (and your writing in general)?
Jamie: There are a lot of things that I was able to see as an editor and practice as a writer in short fiction that helped with my longer projects. Plotting a novel or novella is very different than it is with a short story, but character motivation and voice carry over from one form to the other. Overall, I’ve noticed more problems with novelists trying to move to short stories than vice versa. Novelists’ short stories often feel like excerpts instead of whole pieces to me. Of course, that might be my short story prejudice coming through.
TCL: With regards to funding the novella’s publishing through Kickstarter, we noticed your short story collection One Revolution was similarly funded. What has your experience been successfully navigating and using the crowdfunding tool? What advice would you give authors thinking about using the avenue.
Jamie: Kickstarter is a great tool. I like the all-or-nothing approach, so that creators aren’t stuck with partially funded projects that they need to deliver on. The hardest part is getting the word out–any sort of marketing isn’t my strong point–but people can’t back your project if they don’t know about it. It’s hard to strike a balance where you’re being informative without getting too pushy.
With Moving Forward, I had the novella written before I started the campaign. For One Revolution, I wrote a story every month for a year, then collected the stories into a book and sent copies to my backers. Both were great experiences for me, and I was able to get everything done on time and on budget. Figuring out both the timeline and the budget before you launch the project is a big key to not making it into a stressful nightmare.
TCL: I can certainly see how marketing would be a challenge, but it seems like you handled it well.
In entirely different topics, what is/are your primary non-writing related hobbies?
Jamie: I really love hiking. My favorite vacations have all been hiking related–a friend and I hiked the Inca trail, which was completely amazing. I also like baking and playing tabletop role playing games, and I’m trying to take up gardening. I’m not sure how that’s going to turn out, yet.
TCL: I’ve noticed that many of your stories have very vivid descriptions of the outdoors elements, so I can see how that affects your writing.
Finally, unrelated to writing, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? And what achievement are you most proud of?
Jamie: The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge might be the craziest thing I’ve done. It’s a 34-mile long, one-day, sunrise to sunset endurance hike. I’m pretty proud of my chocolate chip cookies–I make really awesome chocolate chip cookies.
TCL: Wow, that’s a really impressive day hike. And I bet your chocolate chip cookies are equally impressive!
Well, thank you for your time and the very interesting interview.