The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- To Be Continued by Dustin Engstrom
- Regeneration Gap by Brian Koukol
- Cruising by Matthew Harrison
- Continuance by Michael Siciliano
- How Many Angels? by Nicholas Stillman
- Saint Ouroboros Day by Robert Penner
- Walkabout by Pascal Inard
- Five Hundred Terabytes by Rui Cid
- The Rachel Who Loved Me by J.A. Becker
- The Clockwork King by Simon Kewin
- Dragon Moon by Linda Burklin
- For Whom the Voice Speaks by Mark Rookyard
To Be Continued
By Dustin Engstrom
The door swung open. “I do not hesitate,” he said, eyes glazed over, forehead cut and bleeding.
“Good,” said Mary, holding the shovel tightly, lips pursed. She was ready. Her eyes said it and more. Swing.
I gave up on any rational way of storytelling a long time ago. That’s not to say I can’t tell a story simply. It just takes on different beats than most stories out there. The above is from my latest story. She Walks Alone. It’s a terrible title. Sounds like a rape-victim western. It’s about a waitress in the Midwest who kills a psychopathic trucker. Typical thriller variety. My publisher wanted something sexy but suspenseful. The strong heroine angle is popular now. She kills him with a shovel and walks out of the café alone into a snowstorm. Yeah, I know. Cliché stuff.
Yet there was something in this story that hit a nerve with a woman actually living in the Midwest. Like I said, my stories may be typical, but my storytelling is definitely off the beaten path. The only reason, at least I assume anyway, for it getting published. This woman got ahold of my contact information somehow and wrote me the following email:
Dear Mr. Kyle,
I have just finished reading She Walks Alone after a friend recommended it to me. I don’t know how you know what you know. We must meet. I will be in Seattle on Sunday. Please meet me at my hotel lobby at noon. The address is below.
He’s still alive, Mr. Kyle. I didn’t kill him.
Of course I blew it off at first as some deranged fan’s idea of a joke. Or she just wanted to jump my bones. Either way it turned me off completely. A nice “liked your story email” is much preferable. But of course more often than not these days, people sound off on social media. They love you or hate you. I couldn’t quite make out what this was, but it seemed more in the like you column. But under crazy and possibly dangerous. The fact that she was going to travel halfway across the country to meet me is scary enough. But then to believe that she was the character in my story? Or at least it seemed that was what she was alluding to. My character’s name was Mary not Martha, but I suppose delusion is delusion regardless of accuracy.
That Sunday I wasn’t even thinking about the email or Martha Anderson. I was at home working on my next manuscript. My cell phone buzzed. It was my friend Connie. She wanted to do lunch as she had something exciting to tell me. I said sure, showered, dressed, and went out. I didn’t even think about the fact that the lunch spot was in a hotel. I just knew it was a place Connie frequented. I walked through its lobby to get there.
I knew her at once. She was standing near a table, the light softly focused on her face. She was clutching her beat up bag looking desperate and completely out of place. Her eyes darted around the room fervently. She wore tight jeans and a dark leather jacket. Her makeup was loud and her hair too poofy. She looked like a groupie of an 80’s hair band.
She leapt forward at the sight of me like a bumbling child. I suppose I was scared when I realized what was happening. But mostly I was just annoyed. I had forgotten about Martha Anderson until that moment. Seeing her brought the whole ugly thing into focus and my face tightened. She immediately apologized.
“Mr. Kyle… Mr. Kyle, I’m sorry. But I had to see you. Thanks for coming. Please, could we sit down and talk?”
The desperation ebbed and flowed as she tried to control it. She wanted to assure me of her urgency, yet tried to keep it down enough not to annoy me further. I hesitated. I was just going to tell her that there was a mistake. I was going to meet a friend. But then I thought, Connie can wait a few minutes. I was early anyway. What harm could it do? Then I looked at her bag again. There could have been any number of weapons inside it. I was acting stupid. I needed to get away.
She pulled on my arm and I looked into her eyes. Tears were beginning to swell. Regardless of whatever insanity lay inside the woman, I’m a sucker for displays of human emotion. I sighed and relented, letting my body drop from its tension. I let her lead me to a seating area of the lobby by a big window. I figured, well, we are in a public area. People on all sides. I decided to speak for the first time.
“Miss Anderson. I really don’t understand what this about. What did you mean when you said ‘He isn’t dead’?”
“Bill. Bill isn’t dead. Oh, I know you called him…Brian or something in your story and me, Mary…but that’s not what matters. What matters is you got everything else right. The snowstorm, the shovel, down to the details of the truck. The feathers he had hanging from his rearview. The crack in the middle with the stuffing coming out. The way he…his hair. It was so unsettling I cried for an hour after I read it. I don’t know how you did it. Did you talk to someone? Do you know him? I just have to know. Please.”
She waved her hands around a lot. Every time her purse strap would fall from her shoulder, she’d swing it back up again. She’d look me in the eye for a moment, but realizing it was too much and that she may start crying, she’d turn away. But her eyes would always search for me again. I could smell donuts and coffee from the coffee stand across the lobby and became distracted by it. I mean, what was I supposed to say to this woman? Yes, I met Bill in Fargo and we hatched a plan to find you and put you through a wood chipper? He’s at the coffee stand now getting donuts with Bob from Twin Peaks.
I turned my hands over and shook my head. “I just made it all up, Miss Anderson. I swear. Look, you seem in earnest. But either this is some sort of sick joke or you’re off your meds…I don’t know. And frankly, I don’t care. Good luck to you. I’m going to meet my friend now. Please don’t follow me. Have a nice time in Seattle.”
I stood slowly watching for a big reaction. But her head was bowed and I realized that she was crying. Again, I’m a stupid sucker. “Are you going to be all right? Can I get something or someone for you?”
“No. No, thank you. I don’t know why I thought… It doesn’t matter. Thank you for your time. I’m sorry I wasted it.”
She stood, brushed by me, and quickly made her way to the elevators, wiping her face and pulling up on her bag. That was not what I expected at all. I expected a big scene or more babbling or something. But not a quick, apologetic exit. I felt as if I was being pulled into a mystery, yet I knew all the while the whole idea was ludicrous. The woman was just some goofy fan and if I wasn’t careful, she could have a shovel waiting for me too. But I was just so taken aback by her fear and her commitment to her story and her reaction to my rejection of her claims.
I tapped her softly on the shoulder as she waited for the elevator and she spun around, shocked to see me standing there. She wiped her face again, her eyes big and anticipating. “Mr. Kyle?”
“Listen. Um. I’m probably going to regret this, but… Have you had lunch yet?” She shook her head tearfully, thankfully. “Why don’t you have lunch with me and my friend? On me. You can tell us your story—”
“I couldn’t tell anyone else, Mr. Kyle. Telling you was hard enough…”
“It’s all right. You can trust Connie. She isn’t like most of my friends, who are bunch of gossips. She’s discreet, trustworthy. I promise. And if you don’t feel right about anything, you can go at any time.”
Why was I trying to convince this woman to have lunch with me? Moments ago I wanted nothing more than to get as far away as possible, but now… I suppose she intrigued me. She was a project. A puzzle to solve, a gift to unwrap. There was something more to this whole ordeal and I wanted to see what was inside, behind all the tears of desperation. Research, it was research. At least, that was what I was convincing myself of at the time. After lunch, it would be much, much more.
“Hello,” said Connie cheerfully, putting out her hand. Martha shook it hurriedly, her eyes cast down, clutching tightly to her bag. “Please. Sit.”
“I owe you one,” I whispered to Connie as we all sat down. She smiled her biggest fake smile at me as if to say, “Fuck you very much”.
A waiter came and took our drink orders. We then looked to Martha, who sat like a little girl in a seat too big for her, her bag in her lap with her arms around it as if it were some sort of life saver.
“Martha,” I started. “Perhaps you could start with what happened to you and how you think it is so similar to my story.”
She fidgeted a little, looking at Connie thoughtfully, sizing her up. She must have decided she could trust her, or thought, “What does it matter?” because she shook herself from her childlike behavior, sat up, and began her story.
“I was working in a diner off Route 10. It was the dead of winter, and so we mainly got truckers and the odd snowmobile or the stranded or lost. One night we were closing and Jack, the cook, went home. The other waitress left me to close by myself. I didn’t think anyone was still there…but he was sitting in the corner, watching me. I then remembered him from earlier in the night. Bill, he said his name was. He jumped me. We fought. I was able to knock him down and make it out the back door. But no one was around. For miles. And the snow was coming thick and heavy. There was a shed behind the diner where we kept supplies. I found a shovel and when he found me I hit him as hard as I could. I walked out into the storm and flagged down a car.”
“Did you not have your own car?” asked Connie.
“He had slashed my tires,” said Martha.
“Very similar, Tommy,” said Connie, turning to me.
“Please don’t call me that,” I said flatly.
“In Tommy’s story though, she kills him. You don’t believe this…Bill to be dead?” asked Connie.
“No, he isn’t dead. When the police finally came, the only trace of him was his blood in the snow. He’s been watching me. Waiting. He may have even followed me here, I don’t know,” said Martha. She was on the defensive now and I realized it could come to a confrontation if Connie didn’t ease up on her.
“All the way to Seattle?” said Connie, eyebrows lifted.
Martha clutched her bag tighter. I was about to say something when the waiter came and asked if we were ready to order. After we had ordered (Martha only ordering a small salad), Connie sat back and surveyed our guest. I didn’t think of Connie as unkind, or at least not overly judgmental, but something was eating away at her. I realized she must have been bent out of shape because of the news she had so wanted to give was being derailed by a possible lunatic telling tall tales.
“Are you staying at this hotel, Martha?” she asked.
“Yes. My friend, who sent me your story,” said Martha, turning to me, “was the one who encouraged me to come here. She paid for everything. The plane ticket, the hotel…” She suddenly looked very dejected. “I don’t know why I came here, Mr. Kyle. I felt very compelled until the moment I saw you. I’ve come to see though that you have no idea of the truth and that your story is just some kind of freak coincidence.”
“Probably. But what if it’s not?” said Connie.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well, let’s look at the facts. Martha had a traumatic thing happen to her that is eerily similar to the events of one of your recent stories. A friend gives her the story and encourages her to come out here to see you. Someone is pulling some strings somewhere, Tommy. You act like you’re completely aghast by the whole situation, but are you really?”
Connie looked at me gravely. I must have looked even more aghast. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying… I’m willing to bet Martha’s friend is a friend of yours too.”
The sentence hit me like a shot. But before I could say anything or Martha either (her mouth had fallen open at the suggestion), something hit the window next to us. A bum, from the look of him; battered clothes, dirty face, was slamming his shoulder into the window directly at us. “What the hell?” said Connie. He was gaining momentum, the window was shaking violently.
“It’s him; it has to be!” shouted Martha, flinging upward in a flurry.
“Now, calm down,” I started, standing as well, my eyes searching for anyone to come help. The homeless guy was continuing to bang into the window with heavy force. I tried to see his face, but it was obscured by a hoodie and a full, scraggly beard.
Our waiter came bouncing into view. “I’ve called hotel security,” he said hurriedly. He turned and we saw two security guards rush into the restaurant from the lobby. One of them was talking into a walkie-talkie clipped to his arm. The other left through the street entrance and began to approach the homeless person. The whole of the restaurant was watching us and it felt as if every eye was upon me. I felt nervous and jittery. I kept looking to Martha, who looked like a trapped mouse, not sure which way to run. Connie pulled her to her seat with a gentle tug, telling her it would be all right and to stay calm. It was a very kind moment. I felt like hugging her. But no one was looking out for me. I continued to stand there gawking like an animal in the street.
I could see the security guard mouth the words, “We’ve called the police,” to the homeless man. He was undeterred. He kept banging up against the window. I think (and maybe I imagined it) I could see it beginning to crack. Connie was pushed up against Martha now and they watched, eyes wide. I walked over to the waiter.
“This is ridiculous. Where are the cops? Why don’t they remove the guy?”
The waiter gave me a “Oh, come on man, I just work here” kind of look. “I’m so sorry, Sir. They’re doing their best, I’m sure. I don’t believe they are allowed to touch anyone without previous provocation.”
“Well, slamming up against the window at us while we’re trying to have lunch is provocation enough for me.”
I don’t know what got into me but I stormed out the front door to join the security guard. I heard Connie say worriedly, “Tommy, what the hell are you doing?” but I kept going without turning back. The security guard put out his hand and asked me to stay back, the cops were on their way. Seeing me though, standing there on the sidewalk, the bum stopped slamming into the window and stood there, a little unstably, looking at me.
“Do you know this guy?” the security guard asked me.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I tried to see into the man’s eyes, but it was nearly impossible. As if reading my thoughts, the man removed the hoodie and I could see him plainly. His eyes were drops of fiery pain.
“What do you want?” I said.
But he said nothing in return. A cop car pulled up and two cops got out. One talked to the security guard while the other confronted the homeless man. He didn’t even seem to notice them, he just kept staring at me. And then he walked away. The cops didn’t follow, they just let him go.
“But he was destroying private property,” I argued at them. “You should arrest him. He interrupted our lunch and scared the hell out of my friends.”
They were asking me a lot of questions now and ushering me back inside. I was fixated on watching the bum stumble down the street, until he turned a corner and was gone. It seemed like they were all talking at me now, asking questions. I looked up at the waiter saying, “He was eating alone.”
I looked to the window where we had all been sitting. Connie and Martha were gone. “Where are they?” I asked.
“Who?” asked a cop.
“My… friends I was having lunch with,” I said.
“You came in alone, Sir,” said the waiter. “You ordered a small salad and then that man showed up and started banging against the window.”
“No. I came here with my friend, Connie, and a woman I had just met, Martha. They were sitting right there.”
I pointed at the table and noticed there was only one drink sitting upon it and only one chair pulled out.
“Can we call someone for you, Sir?” asked a cop. He was tall and broad and looked like a football player. He loomed over me like a giant. But his voice was kind and it reminded me of someone.
“Who are you?” I said. The waiter scoffed and walked away. I felt a hand on my shoulder, turning me out the door. They all assumed I was crazy. I felt like Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
“We’re getting you a cab. Where do you live?”
I don’t know who was asking at this point, probably the cop. Everything was getting fuzzy. I almost had a drunken mobility at this point; I was wobbly and confused. Something was not just wrong, but out of sorts.
After they put me in a cab, I told the officers I was fine and could tell the driver where to take me. They seemed mollified and the driver turned out into traffic.
“Where to then?” asked the driver.
I told him an address and sat back into the crunchy, leather seat. I was mulling over everything that happened in the last couple of hours and trying to make sense of it. Did I just imagine it or was someone playing some sort of game with me? The thought had occurred to me once already. That’s why I was going directly to the source of the question.
Knocking on the door of a townhouse in Queen Anne, I felt a slight drizzle beginning to pat me on the head. I looked up. Clouds were moving quickly over the neighborhood and growing darker by the second.
The door suddenly sprang open and Connie stood on the other side with a surprised expression on her face. She was wearing a bathrobe and her hair was a mess. I had never seen her without makeup. She looked like she had been scrubbed raw. This wasn’t possible. I had just been with her at the hotel, literally minutes prior.
“Tommy,” she said, pulling her robe tighter together. “What are you doing here?” She looked behind her then back at me and attempted a smile.
“What in the hell is going on?” I demanded.
“What do you mean?” she tried innocently.
“Look, it’s been a strange couple of hours. Can I come in?”
“No! Yes, I mean. Yes, of course. Only just… uh, sit down. I’ll be right back, okay?”
I shut the door behind me as she scuttled off down the hall and out of sight. I sat down and sighed. I stared into her empty fireplace wondering what was happening to me. I couldn’t stop shaking. Yet in truth, I felt as if the world were shaking and I was sitting still. I held up my hand and looked at it. I looked old. I felt old. Suddenly I felt very emotional and distraught. Everything that I had done in my life, particularly my work; what was it worth? Who was I? My mind was swimming and spiraling and I had to calm down or I really was going to have a break. I tried (as much as one can try) to meditate while waiting for Connie. I closed my eyes and focused on my breath and the anchor of my body to her chair. After a few minutes, I truly did feel less disoriented. I was almost relaxed.
My eyes sprang open at the sound of Connie’s feet on her wooden floors. She had slipped into a tight pair of jeans and a t-shirt and pulled her hair back from her face. She sat down opposite me and smiled a little too widely.
“So? What’s up?” she said.
“Uh. What’s with all of theatrics just now?” I said, sitting up. I must have slumped down into the seat. I think I had been falling asleep more than meditating.
“Connie. It’s me. And I’m not talking to you over the phone. I’m here. I’m a writer. Which means I’m better at observation than most. What is going on?”
She sighed heavily and gave me a resentful glare. She shifted uncomfortably, watching me for any reaction. Her eyes relented eventually. “I can never keep anything from you, can I? Well, I was going to call you and ask you to lunch and tell you everything then. But then you show up here out of the blue. It was just rather unexpected.”
“What do you mean? I just came from lunch with you.” I was testing the waters. Obviously I hadn’t or didn’t or it was all in my head. But I needed to know what she knew and if she was in on the charade.
“Darling Tommy, it’s eight thirty a.m. Why on earth would we have just come from lunch? Are you all right? Are you on a new medication or something?”
A noise broke the silence that followed, of me staring at her incomprehensively, shocked by the announcement that it was still morning. A man came shuffling into view, eyes dewy and guilty. It took me aback to see, after a moment of scrutiny, that it was my editor.
“John? What are you doing here?” I said.
“John,” said Connie irritably. “We talked about this.”
“I know, but… Well, your conversation was a bit worrying to me so I thought maybe I could help. Tom, are you in fact on any drugs?”
I was completely out of my head by this point. I struggled to stand. I must have appeared to be on something. My movements were shaky at best. I could see myself being unsteady, but I couldn’t control it. My body was as limp as a wet towel and my mind was a churning jumble. Connie stood too and I saw John leap forward at me as all the spinning became too much and I collapsed, like a puppet clipped of its strings, banging hard against the floor.
“John. He’s waking.”
The room came into view through blinking bleariness. Connie was above me looking concerned. John brought a glass of something dark and told me to drink. I coughed up the whiskey, but I was up and awake now.
“Tommy, are you all right?”
Everything stopped. Connie and John looked frozen in time as if waxworks inside a museum. I stupidly waved my hand before their faces. Nothing. I pinched myself, believing I truly was dreaming this time. Everything else that occurred that day could have been explained, but this… I was at a loss.
“Hello? Hey come on, stop playing around,” I said.
“Oh, they’re not playing around.”
The voice came from the hall. The hair on my body stiffened. “Who’s there?”
Footsteps, like the echoes of dream, came clacking down the hall. A tall man appeared to fit those shoes. I fell back at the sight of him. He was so clearly rendered I hardly thought I could be awake anymore. I thought I must be dead. His eyes were sunken and his lips long and pursed. His dark hair fell into his face and he brushed it back just as I had written him to do. He wore a flannel shirt with a pack of Marlboros in the front pocket. His skin was weathered and wrinkled and his smile, along those creepily long lips, made him look like a villain from an anime. He wore beat up blue jeans and leather skin cowboy boots. He brushed the hair from his eyes again and pulled a smoke from his pocket. Taking his time, he lit it with a zippo that bore a naked woman on its front, erotically thrusting out her chest.
“Tom,” he crooned. His voice was so cracked and harsh, it sounded as though he was always whispering his last words upon his last breath. But there was also, underneath all of that hardness, a satin-like swoon, as if Dean Martin were in there somewhere. “You are in a little bit of a corner, ain’tchya?”
“What…how?” I managed to say. My crotch felt wet and hot and I realized I must have peed myself.
“Oh. Tsk tsk, little boy. So confused and lonely. Maybe someone needs to shake that head of yours. See what comes out, eh?” He circled around the sofa and sat on the edge. Getting a clear view of me, he looked down to see my wet pants. “Oh,” he whined. “You’ve wet yourself. Tsk tsk, you sure are a little boy. Where’s my girly girl now, I wonder? Hmm? Come on, I haven’t got all day.”
“W-what?” I stuttered.
“What? How? That all you gonna say, little boy? So disappointing. I don’t like to be disappointed, you know that. So where is she?”
“Who…whom do you mean?” I said.
“Martha, you twat. Who do you think? Listen, this isn’t going to go well for you if you don’t start squawking. And I mean soon. You know where I keep my weapon of choice.”
I did. A Bowie knife sheathed in a leather case stuffed down his right boot.
“Listen, I don’t understand what’s going on here. I met Martha for the first time today at a hotel downtown. And that’s where I left her…or thought I did. And that’s all I know, I swear.”
Heat and adrenaline were rising up within me. I felt more alive and more aware than I had in months. My eyes were glued open watching my creation strut around Connie’s townhouse, while Connie and my editor stood solid and unmoving. He had taken out his knife at this point and was pacing back and forth, brandishing it in the air as if he were up to bat.
“I like this place. This city. It suits me,” he said.
“I really doubt that,” I said.
“Really? You don’t think so? You live here.”
“You and I are quite different. What do you want from me? I don’t know where Martha is and I don’t know how and why you are here.”
He frowned and flung the knife into the floor. It made a harsh, splintered noise as it rocketed into the wood. I jumped and my back cracked.
“Listen little boy, I don’t want to be here anymore than you do. But here I am,” he said, palms out, walking toward me. His smile had come back and I knew what that meant. “Do you really think I want to fuck you and not her?”
He was at my throat almost at once. I didn’t have time to back away, I had been too concerned with the pain in my back. As he strangled me, his crazy eyes were pressed close to mine. His breath was like smelling death. When he let go and backed away, I coughed for what felt like minutes. He pulled the knife from the floor and muttered under his breath, “This isn’t fucking Deliverance.”
I caught my breath eventually and shifted my legs to the floor and sat up best I could. “While I appreciate that, Brian—”
“Bill. Sorry, Bill. While I appreciate that, what do you want me to do?”
It was like waking from a dream. One moment here was there, the next Connie and John were awake and looking at me funny as I was staring at nothing and no one.
I went home after that. I took a handful of sleeping pills and slept for a number of hours. When I woke it was night. I looked at my phone. Twenty missed calls and seven texts. I flung the phone to the floor and buried my head under my pillow. Then I heard an odd sound, like breathing, and I turned on the light. I sat up, pulling the covers over my chest like some girl in a movie. “Who’s there?” I said.
The door creaked open and for a half a second I thought I was going to die. Here was Bill coming to kill me in my bed. For no other reason than I told him he wouldn’t like Seattle. But the person who came inside my bedroom was Martha.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
“How do you know where I live?” I asked. It was barely relevant at this point, but I was still living under the delusion that there would be some kind of realistic explanation for the last day.
“You gave me your card,” she said. “At the restaurant.”
“I did?” I said, blinking and trying to remember. She nodded. “All right. Um. Hand me my pants.”
She rushed over to my chair and took my pants to me, looking at me like a puppy in trouble. I suddenly didn’t feel vulnerable anymore and so I dressed in front of her. She watched quietly, her fingers flitting around her purse nervously. Once I was dressed, I gestured for us to leave the bedroom and escorted her to the living room. Once she was seated, I walked sleepily to the kitchen and poured us each a big glass of red wine.
“Here,” I said, returning to the living room and passing her the glass. She took it thankfully. “So,” I said, sitting down opposite her and taking a grateful swig of the wine. It immediately warmed me. “I’ve had a really fucking weird day, Martha. And I’m starting to think this all leads back to you somehow. Would you mind explaining to me what happened at the hotel? Where did you go?”
She took a big gulp of wine and wiped her mouth afterward a little shamefully. “Mr. Kyle, you’re in danger. They’re getting closer now. I don’t know how close, but close. And Bill…”
“Hold on. Who’s close? Who are you talking about?”
“I really mustn’t say.”
“Come on, Martha, give me a fucking break here.” I was up and pacing. “You pop into my life, a little too conveniently, and next thing I know a homeless guy is nearly attacking us, you disappear with Connie, Connie is fucking my editor, and Bill shows up—”
“You saw Bill?” Wine swept down her front as she stood. “Oh. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here.”
“Here. It’s okay. Let me get something for your shirt.”
“No, no. Thank you. I should go. I can’t stay.”
“Please. At least let me call you a cab.”
“No, I can’t wait!”
She was screaming. Her eyes were watering and her face was red. I took her by the shoulder. “I won’t let him harm you. Fuck, how is he even real? How is any of this even happening?”
“Good questions, little boy.”
We both turned to see Bill saunter slowly into the room, looking like a ghost in the dim light. He was waving the Bowie knife in front of him, as if being plagued by a swarm of bees.
“Mr. Kyle…” Her voice was strangled. I pushed her behind me. She picked up a ceramic vase and held it before her defensively.
“Get out of my house right now.” I tried to sound calm but it came out all fluttery. “And leave her alone.”
“I should applaud you, little boy. Taking such steps to protect your creation. But you know I am going to do what I came here to do. Neither of you can stop me. And now really, did you actually think you could? She only got away from me because you never finished writing the god damn story.”
My heart skipped a beat. “What? Of course I did. How else would Martha have read it and come here?”
“That’s what they told her to say,” said Bill. He was around my sofa now. Martha and I backed up instinctively. Martha was in serious defense mode now. She was clutching the ceramic piece in her hand so tightly, I thought she was going to crush it.
“And who is they?” I said.
“Tsk tsk. Time will tell you. Step aside now, little boy. I have unfinished business to take care of.”
I turned to look at Martha. Her face was set and determined. She nodded at me, a little tearfully, but also a little defiantly, and brushed me aside. “Martha,” I pleaded, but she only nodded at me again and pushed me farther aside.
“I’m not going to let you,” she said to Bill. “I’m not going to let you.”
“Let me what, girly girl? Twist this big knife into your abdomen? Too late for that, I’m afraid. This is how they want it to end. And they want him,” said Bill, pointing the knife at me, “to witness it.”
“I’m not going to let you touch me,” she said. “You won’t ever touch me.”
Bill laughed. His hoarse cackle sounded like an engine backfiring. It was so abrupt and shocking that I stumbled backward and tumbled into a chair. He saw his opportunity and leapt at Martha, who swung as hard as she could. The vase went crashing into the side of his skull. Even though I could see it cut the side of his head, he still came at her. She shouted as he dug the knife into her stomach and twisted sharply. They both swung to floor in a heap, a lamp going down with them.
I pulled myself up quickly, but it wasn’t fast enough. When I stood over them, Bill was digging his knife in and whispering into her ear. A knock pounded at my front door and I turned my head in its direction. When I looked back down, Bill was gone and Martha was choking on her own blood. I knelt down and took her hand.
“We’re going to get you help,” I said.
“He never touched me. Thank you, Mr…”
Her eyes fell still and I pulled down her eyelids with a deep sadness in my heart. All of the muddling confusion and want for answers was replaced by an eruptive anger. The knocking was still pounding and so I stood up and strode to the front door and swung it open, ready to break someone in half. It was Connie. She stepped back at the sight of me.
“What the hell, Tommy? I’ve been calling you all day. What are you doing? And why do you look like that?”
“Get in here,” I said, pulling her inside.
“Jesus. A little rough, aren’t you? What gives?” she asked as I pushed her aside and shut the door. Taking her by the arm again, I pulled her into the living room. “Ow! Tommy!”
“Look at this!” I shouted as I drug her to the spot where Martha was sprawled out dead on my floor. But there was nothing. Not even a drop of blood. The lamp was still knocked over, but other than that and the wine, there was no trace that Martha or Bill had been there. I dropped Connie’s arm.
“Thank you. Fuck. What? Are you doing some night time redecorating?”
“She was right… there. Just… a moment ago,” I said, tumbling back into my chair feeling defeated.
Connie found Martha’s glass of wine and picked it up. “I see you were expecting me. Or was it someone else?” She took a drink from the glass and then stared at it. “There is lipstick on this glass, Tommy. Are you having some kind of weird romance I don’t know about?”
“You’re one to talk,” I said.
“About that. Look…”
“Never mind that. I have more important things to figure out right now,” I said. “Did we have lunch today?”
“No. We’ve been over this. You showed up at my place this morning ranting about having lunch with me when it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet. Tom. Seriously, what is going on with you? John and I are really worried.” She sat on the edge of the chair that Martha had sat in. I regarded it and the glass she was holding for a long time until she interrupted my train of thought. “Tommy. Hello? Talk to me, please.”
I shook myself and looked into Connie’s eyes. They seemed sincere. “Okay. Look, if I tell you everything that’s happened to me today, you promise not to laugh or have me locked up? I’m still struggling to figure this thing out, okay?”
She shrugged and nodded. I realized that was about all the commitment I was going to get from her. She would react in the moment, regardless of how much I prepared her for it. I stood and took the lamp from the floor and put it back in its place. The bulb had been shattered. I thought about the first moment I saw Martha and how she had looked shattered. I had felt she was my responsibility. Someone wanted me to feel that way, so that when she was truly and irrevocably broken, they could watch me try and pick up the pieces. I swung around to Connie.
“Let’s go get lunch,” I said.
Connie shook her head. “What?”
“Or dinner, or whatever. Just wait here while I get dressed.”
“Tommy!” she called after me as I left the room to change.
The hotel looked innocuous on first glance. I didn’t see our waiter from the afternoon. This time it was a waitress and she smiled at us in a friendly enough way when I asked her if we could be seated by the window.
“Okay, Tommy, we’re here. Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” asked Connie, as we took our seats, the same seats from earlier in the day. Another person came over and poured water. He too smiled politely at us. I looked on them with suspicious eyes, all of them. Even Connie, who was becoming irate with me. “Tommy, for fuck’s sake.”
“Listen, you’re just going to have to trust me, okay? I think I might be following a thread here and I want to see where it leads. I’ll explain everything, I promise. For now, just go with it,” I said. I knew she wasn’t going to just go with it. That wasn’t her speed. But she slowed down at least, flapping her cloth napkin over her lap as if she were spanking a baby, then looked up at me and sighed.
“Fine. You’re buying. And there will be lots of drinks.”
“Fine, good. Order whatever you want.”
I waited. Connie ordered drinks and she sipped from a cocktail, her eyes wandering around the room, waiting for something to happen as well. I wondered if we were waiting for the same thing. I sighed and sat back.
“Well, I guess that’s it,” I said.
“What is?” asked Connie.
“My big intervention. I thought for sure this would be the end of it, that I would get some answers. Maybe the whole thing is in my head.”
“Very astute of you, Thomas,” said a voice from behind me. Connie’s eyes lit up. I turned around to see John above me. He was smiling a little too broadly. He pulled out a chair and sat down. The waitress came and he ordered a glass of wine.
“John?” said Connie. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come to see how Thomas is getting on. That’s why you’re here too, am I right?” said John, adjusting his sleeves by pulling on the end of them. He was eerily calm and smug. Much more so than I knew him to be.
“Why are you here, John?” I said, leaning forward.
“Hm. Did you enjoy your day, Tom? Was it something of an ending for you? I suppose not. You look at everything as if it is a beginning, don’t you?”
His glass of wine came and he swished the liquid around in the glass, nodding a thank you to the waitress.
“John, what the fuck are you talking about?” moaned Connie, slamming down her cocktail on the table with a thump.
“Connie,” said John. “Go to the bathroom for a good ten minutes and don’t come back until those minutes are up.”
Connie jumped up, tossing her napkin to the table, and left for the bathroom without so much as a word or a glance my way.
“Connie?” I called out to her but she didn’t turn back.
“Now we can talk,” said John. “That is what you wanted, is it not?”
“Wait, are you…? Oh,” I said, sitting back again, realization coming over me. “Why?”
“I don’t believe that question is relevant,” said John, smirking. It irritated me.
“It’s absolutely relevant. It’s the only fucking relevant question to ask. Why the fuck did you put me through this today and how?”
“First off. I didn’t put you through anything. At least not personally.”
“So you didn’t act alone,” I said, folding my arms.
“Tom, you talk as if there is some conspiracy against you. There is no such thing. We simply want it to end. Endings are important, are they not? I mean…don’t you feel compelled to write it now? The whole story. What happened to Martha out there on the snowy highway…”
“I did finish that story, John. You worked on it with me.”
“No. We planted that idea in your head. But you never actually finished it. You believed you had because it focused your energy on the characters, not the ending. You thought you knew what happened…but it is just one of many possibilities.”
“So by that logic, what happened in my living room was a possible ending.”
“Yes, exactly. Look at us as your own personal committee. We help you, Thomas. Tighten the bows.”
I thought about this for a moment. It was a little too convenient. “Let me ask you something, John. Are you and the rest of the committee omniscient? You can manipulate time, people, circumstances?”
“No. But we can set your brain ablaze,” said John. The smile had slipped away.
“So I’m dreaming right now? All of this,” I said, waving my hand at the room, “is in my head? None of this is real.”
“Well, define real, Thomas? What’s real to you here could be very real to the synapses firing in imagination land of that brain of yours.”
I didn’t buy it. Nor did I buy his smug act. There had to be a trigger to make him sweat. Something he didn’t want me to know.
“The homeless guy,” I said.
“What about him?” said John, the smile edging its way back into his lips.
“What was the point of him? I mean, he got me out of the hotel, got me confused. But you could have had Brian or Bill or whatever you want to call him, show up at any time. Why wait? And if you were controlling my characters, then why have me run around like I’m in some Hitchcock film? The answer was simple all along, according to you. You wanted me to see an idea for the ending to my story.”
My attention was turned to the window. Bill and the homeless guy were looking in. They were standing only a couple feet apart, staring through the window. But they weren’t watching me, they were watching John. John may have flinched at the sight of them, but it was so subtle, I almost missed it. He sat up, pulled another swig of his wine, and leaned forward toward me.
“However you want to spin it, Tom. It is what it is.”
“Is it?” I asked, my eyes veering toward the figures behind the glass.
Connie reappeared. She smiled at both of us as if nothing odd was happening. John stood and she took him by the arm. “Goodbye, Tom,” he said. “Good luck with the ending.”
“Bye, Tommy,” said Connie. “I’ll call you.”
They walked out through the lobby of the hotel. Obviously they weren’t going to go by way of the front door. But I would. I paid the tab and made my way to the sidewalk. Bill and the homeless guy turned to face me.
“What now?” I said.
“Little boy is smarter than he looks. That’s good for you. This way,” said Bill and he and the homeless guy began to walk away from me down the street.
Following them, I found myself wondering all the while what was real. I looked down at my hands, the street, the people passing by. I even pinched myself and slapped my face. Bill and homeless guy didn’t look back.
We eventually turned into an alley and walked through the back door of a café. Inside, the smell of coffee was overwhelming. Couples, sitting across from one another, sipped coffee and shared gossip. The baristas looked like modern hipsters, bearded and tattooed. One of them was eyeing the homeless guy distrustfully. Bill ordered three coffees and we sat down in a corner, the baristas ignoring us for the moment.
The homeless guy spoke first. “I know you have questions,” he said to me. “But it’s better to wait until we can show you.” I nodded and sipped the coffee. It tasted burnt. “There is something magnificent about the human imagination. Something elusive too. There are colonists who don’t think the same way. But they could, should we be able to persuade them.”
“Why would you need to?” I asked.
Bill answered. “Imagination is a kind of fuel. Without it people go hungry. They are dying, but they don’t want any medicine because they believe it poison.”
“Are you not able to supply it yourselves then?” I said.
“No,” said homeless guy simply.
“So John is…what, one of these colonists?” I asked. The coffee was making me feel lightheaded and I suddenly wondered if it was spiked somehow.
“Your editor John is still John,” said homeless guy. “They are able to take on guises and masks. They wanted to stop us from developing you to write more beginnings.”
“I think that’s enough for now. Drink your coffee,” said Bill forcefully. I shut up, but wondered whose side Bill was on. Was he a colonist or one of the…whatever he and homeless guy were or…my head began to whirl around in shaky circles. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and soon enough the room became a spiraling blur of wooden floor.
I heard voices. They were whispering voices like the sounds of birds chirping back and forth far off in the distance. My eyes eased open heavily. The first person I saw was Bill. He was smiling at me, but not the devilish smile of which I was intimately familiar, but a happy, serene sort of smile. He seemed happy to see me.
“Do you hurt much?” he asked softly.
“I…hard to move,” I managed.
“Hm, yes. It’ll wear off. Stay still for now. They’re coming.”
I turned my head sideways and saw a group of people coming down a corridor. They were the whispering birds, all in and out of each other’s ears. I was lying on a kind of table or alter and the room was so big and open and bright, it felt like a church.
The whispering people surrounded me and Bill and were silently looking down at me. Bill nodded at me, as if I was meant to say something ceremonial. I gave him a look like, “Look buddy, this is your show, not mine”.
“Well,” said Bill, slapping his hands together suddenly, which made me jump. I didn’t feel so heavy after that. “Let’s get on with it then.”
Fear came over me as if I were perched over the top of a tall building looking down. I had the thought that the whispering people were going to tear off their faces and ugly, big-eyed alien faces would be underneath and they were going to probe me and take my insides.
The group of people began to laugh all at once. Bill smiled down at me. “Why would we want your organs?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. What do you want? What am I doing here?”
“Saving the colonists, child,” said one of the people. She looked like a woman and sort of sounded like one too, but could have easily been a man. She or he seemed like a hybrid. The others too had a vague androgyny about them. It all seemed very natural.
My head hurt and I closed my eyes again. I heard Bill say something about it passing soon. I saw a wavy kind of blue energy behind my eyes. I saw a once great people divided. Hurried and pushed out by their government, they settled on Earth, to settle, to colonize.
I flung upward. “Why would you save them? Get them out! Get them out of here!”
“Let’s try again.”
The homeless guy no longer looked homeless. He was dressed in a long, white robe that seemed to glow. I felt like I was in the original Superman film.
“Your references amuse me, Thomas,” he said.
“What am I doing here?” I asked. The church or whatever, was empty now, but for us. The light played shadows on the concrete-like floor. I looked out at the light. It was something like the sun, yet less organic maybe. It felt like it had heat but also a computer’s brain working in at me, a spotlight watching.
“We are sending you back,” he said.
“Where am I now? Naked and kidnapped and…”
“Your flesh nor your sex interest us, Thomas. They must not be allowed to colonize your planet. They will take your imaginations and crush them to dust. We tried to intervene in their plans. They thought if your story had an ending it would be the end of it. Scare you into submission. But we have tried to develop your skills. We have been working on you for some time. And…many others. We want there to be the creation of many new beginnings. They want you and the other imaginationists to stop altogether. Your civilization would break down. No more stories would mean no more living. And yet, the colonists would suffer the most.”
“So Martha was theirs and Bill was yours,” I said, letting his words sink in.
“Yes,” he said and sat before me.
My entire body itched. He was so serene and elegant, I wanted to hug him. But I was also furious. My mind couldn’t catch up. “Why do you want me to go back?”
He chuckled a little, like a child with a secret. “You’ll see.”
The story I’ve just told you was up on the silver screen. The cinema down the street from my apartment. I struggled home, letting it all flex and stretch around in my brain. But it felt like so much cotton in my ears. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t think.
I pulled out my laptop and went to Wikipedia. Martha Fantasia. She had written the screenplay. I found her agent’s email and wrote her a note, hoping it would get to her.
The next day I was stepping off the plane at LAX, looking desperately for a Starbucks. Waiting in line for a coffee, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. It was an email from Martha’s agent. The screenwriter wanted to meet with me. How did noon work for me at this address? I clicked reply and answered: I’ll be there.
She didn’t look anything like the character in the film, who was also named Martha. She looked very Hollywood. Sunglasses, perfectly styled hair, thin and stylish. She stood up at the sight of me, pulling off her shades.
“Please,” she said, gesturing toward a chair. “Sit.”
It was the outside patio of a café. Of course, it was LA after all. I sat. A waiter asked if I would like a drink. I ordered a beer and sat up to get a good look at Martha.
“How did you do it?” I asked.
“Do what?” she said.
“Get it so perfectly?” I asked. “The film. It all, all of it, happened to me.”
“Yes, I know you named me Tim in the film…”
“Thomas. The reason I agreed to meet with you…”
A homeless guy came up to our table and that’s when Martha wanted to know what the hell was going on.
By Brian Koukol
Fritz couldn’t draw his self-portrait in crayon. Not unless they made a color called “liver” to match the spots that dappled his thin and aging skin. Seafoam might work for the obvious and pliable veins that shone through like some anatomical model, but the electric white of his sporadic hair wouldn’t even show up on paper. Not that anybody used paper anymore. Or crayons.
He glanced away from the back of his decrepit hand in disgust, focusing instead on the immaculate and voluptuous young woman forcing his weak arm through the sleeve of a threadbare shirt at the bedside. Erma.
She wore natural trousers that clung to her ample backside, stacking ineffability on top of perfection. Her face, free of the finest of lines and wrinkles, broadcast an unattainable air of apathy.
“The sweater, too,” he said after his shirt was on.
“No,” she replied. “It’s ancient and pilling all over the place. Besides, it’s too hot for a sweater.”
“I like it warm in the morning.”
“You like it warm all the time, old man.”
A small sting, but more than enough to crush his token resistance. Oblivious to her victory, Erma slipped a pair of sensible, elastic-waisted bottoms onto him and then transferred him to his mobility chair with a dispassionate hug. Fritz savored the contact, hollow as it was.
Her task complete, Erma sashayed to the bedroom door. Fritz watched her go, licking his chapped lips with a dry tongue, forgiving her insouciance in a quick uptake of breath. There was no outlet for his desire, but it was still there, even after all this time. She looked like she had twenty-two years, if that. They’d been married for seventy.
And then he was alone, blanketed in the quiet fug of his own making. Antiquated paper books on sagging shelves insinuated their musty potpourri into every available surface. An unintegrated mobile that hadn’t rung in twenty years wallowed on the bedside table. Three pairs of archaic eyeglasses waited for him on a desk of scattered miscellany. He panicked for a moment before finding the fourth, his favorite, already on his head.
After mustering the motivation, he rolled out of his homey cave and found Erma sprawled across the lounge in her own bedroom, a cold and minimalist wasteland echoed by the rest of the flat. She was on the phone, yapping away at the integrated hardware embedded in her palm.
“Who was that?” he asked after she’d hung up.
Her smile vanished. “Gabor,” she said. “From work.”
“Have I heard of him before?”
“Who can keep up?” she asked. “Here.” She held her palm in front of his face, showcasing a photo.
“Not so close,” he said, leaning back until it came into focus.
It was a man, Slavic, with thick, healthy hair and tasteful liner accentuating his eyes. He looked to be mirroring at about twenty-five.
“How many years does he have?” Fritz asked.
“One hundred thirty.”
“Ooh. An older man.”
Erma uttered a noncommittal grunt.
He studied the photo some more. “When was this taken?”
“The work-only party?”
“Then why is there a child on the edge of the frame?”
“Don’t be a bore, Fritz,” she said, returning the hand to her porcelain cheek. A grin, concealed too late, flashed across her rosy lips. “That reminds me. I have a Safety Committee meeting tonight.”
“Can I come too? I could use some fresh air…”
“Sorry, my dear, meeting’s at a second floor walk up. Maybe next time.”
His jaw tightened. “Is He going to be there?”
“Who? Gabor?” she asked with a yawn. “Probably.”
“Are you two sleeping together?”
“Honestly, Fritz, what kind of question is that? Of course we’re sleeping together.” The grin returned. “Amongst other things.”
His head sank. “I wish you knew how bad that hurts me.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said, inspecting her lustrous hair for split ends. “I haven’t left you. Everyone says I’m an angel for everything I do for you. That I deserve something for myself. Even your mother.”
“She probably just feels guilty for how she treated my father.”
Erma stood up. “I don’t have time for this,” she said. “So the treatment didn’t work on you two. You age. So what? We all have problems.” She glided out of the room.
“And what are your problems?” Fritz asked, chasing her into the hallway. “Herpes?”
She stopped at the front closet and opened the door. An electronic melody chimed from within. “Herpes has been eradicated for decades, old man,” she said. “And I’m not going to debate my love life with you.”
Servos whirred and The Thing staggered out of the closet beside her.
Fritz stopped. “No,” he said. “Put it back.”
“You need help,” she said. “Chemise can’t take care of you until she’s healed and presentable again, so Helping Hans will have to do in the meantime.”
“I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Don’t talk so stupid. What if you fall again?”
Fritz sighed. “Fine. But I’m not calling it that.”
“What? Helping Hans?”
A digital manifestation of a smiling face illuminated on The Thing’s facial display.
“Does someone need a Helping Hans?” The Thing asked in an earnest, mechanical voice.
Erma pointed at Fritz. “There’s your man,” she said.
The Thing pivoted on its rickety legs and staggered toward Fritz. “Greetings, Chemise Beauregard,” it said.
Fritz glared at his wife. “Tell me again why we settled for a secondhand robot?”
“Because Chemise charged a lot less to reprogram her RehaBot than the price of a premium rental,” she replied, strutting to the front door and inspecting herself in the mirror beside it. “We’re on a budget, silly. A cleft in my chin isn’t going to pay for itself.”
After Erma left the flat, Fritz and The Thing stared at each other for a good five minutes. That is to say, Fritz stared at it while it just stood there like the over-engineered floor lamp it was.
Eventually, his eyelids grew heavy from the lack of stimulation and then drifted shut. His jaw slackened and his mouth fell open. A bead of saliva grew at the corner of his mouth.
Fritz jerked to attention at the sound.
“It is 8:30 AM, Chemise Beauregard,” The Thing said. “Time for your porridge.”
Fritz frowned. “Maybe I don’t want porridge today. Maybe I don’t want to eat anything at all.”
“Chemise Beauregard, your body’s glycogen stores are nearly depleted from overnight fasting. Such an eventuality may be deleterious to your salubrity.”
“Try that again,” Fritz said. “In English this time.”
The Thing’s voice rose in pitch. “You need yum yums for your tum tum.”
Great. A machine with a sense of humor. “I hate you, robot.”
“Your complaint is noted, Chemise Beauregard. Also, my name is not robot. It is Helping Hans.”
“I’m never going to call you that.”
“But you must, Chemise Beauregard. It is my name.”
“And my name is Fritz.”
The Thing beeped. “I’m sorry, Chemise Beauregard, but the alteration of your appellation lies outside of your security permissions.”
Fritz’s bad eye twitched. “Fine. Then I’m calling you Floor Lamp.”
“Chemise Beauregard, please refer to me as Helping Hans.”
“Make me, Floor Lamp.”
“Enabling physical violence against humans lies outside of your security permissions.”
“Wait,” Fritz said. “You can enable that?”
“Discussion of a disabled skill tree lies outside of your security permissions.”
“Well, what can you do?”
“I can assist in all instrumental and basic activities of daily living such as hygiene, shopping and meal preparation. For example, it is five minutes beyond your scheduled dose of porridge. Shall I prepare it for you?”
Fritz’s stomach grumbled, but he considered starving himself just to piss the robot off. “Fine,” he said after deciding he was getting a bit too old for that sort of thing. “Make me some porridge. Get your rocks off.”
“I do not understand your idiom,” Floor Lamp said, “but I will prepare your porridge.”
Fritz watched the robot stagger into the kitchen and get to work, wondering why the engineers had given it rickety legs instead of caterpillar tracks or something more stable. Purely to aggravate, no doubt.
“Not that one,” he said as Floor Lamp withdrew an open box of macadamia milk from the fridge with its soft, lifelike arms. “The goat milk.” Real milk was one of the last pleasures that remained to him.
The robot hesitated for a moment, no doubt referring to a labyrinth of security permissions.
“Of course, Chemise Beauregard,” it said at last.
“There’s only the two of us here,” Fritz said as it swapped the milks. “You don’t have to use my name every time you talk to me.”
“I’m sorry, Chemise Beauregard,” it said, “but modifying—”
“Shut up,” Fritz said.
Surprisingly, it did.
In welcome silence, Fritz watched as Floor Lamp poured the milk into a saucepan and cranked on the inductor beneath it.
“You’ve got it set too hot,” he said, relying on his ears since his chair was too short to afford a view into the pan. “You’ll scald it.”
“That is my objective, Chemise Beauregard.”
“What? Why? You’ll ruin it, you idiot!”
“All animal products must be heated to eighty-five degrees centigrade in order to render them safe for human consumption.”
Fritz’s jaw tightened. “Don’t ever cook me a steak…”
“Steak and all red meat lie beyond your dietary restrictions as recommended by—”
Before long, the roiling milk took on the unpleasant aroma of charred dust.
“You’re burning it,” Fritz said in resignation.
Floor Lamp dipped one of its gross little hands into the pan. “My sensors do not detect combustion,” it said.
“Use your nose. Can’t you smell that? And get your damn hands out of my food.”
“My scent detection is limited to that which is deemed dangerous to humans.”
“Well, you’re in danger of scorching this human’s expensive goat milk.”
Finally, when it deemed it appropriate and not a millisecond before, the robot killed the heat and stirred in two scoops of amaranth, forming an unappealing and gelatinous mess that found its way in front of Fritz at the table.
“I’m not eating this,” Fritz said, eyeing the black flecks that dotted the surface of the mound. “It’s burnt.”
“All animal products must be heated to eighty-five—”
“Get the milk carton,” Fritz said.
Floor Lamp complied.
“Now read it. Right there, in big letters. Pasteurized. It’s already been heated to a safe temperature, and by machines that actually recognize what burnt is.”
The robot stuck its fist into the center of the bowl. “This meal is fit for human consumption,” it declared.
“Not if I can’t choke it down.”
“You must eat, Chemise Beauregard.”
“Then cook it again. Correctly. And put in some vanilla or syrup or something, damn you.”
“Added sugar is—”
“Blueberries. There are blueberries in the fridge. Fruit. Healthy fruit. Now shut up and cook.”
“A second preparation will exhaust the supply of animal milk.”
“I don’t care. Just do it.”
Ten minutes later, a fresh bowl of porridge—free of black flecks and covered in blueberries—appeared in front of him. Surprisingly, it looked better than even what the real Chemise could make.
Fritz dipped a spoon with a shaky arm and struggled to get a scoop that contained several berries. The porridge gyrated on the utensil as he brought it to his mouth. Then, with the characteristic jerk of a failing nervous system, it threw itself onto the table.
“Chemise Beauregard, I am authorized to assist you in feeding.”
Fritz’s nostrils flared. “Babies get fed,” he said. “Men eat. Even old men like myself.”
He squeezed the spoon tighter, which only aggravated the shaking. Dismissing this feedback, he stabbed the quivering gruel and exhumed a sunken berry. Bracing his elbow against the table, he turned the spoon toward his mouth. It wavered in front of him. He tried to time its movements. Then, he lunged for it.
Scarcely had the mush crossed his lips, when its rancid flavors triggered his gag reflex. His throat tightened, his tongue spasmed, and the food found its way right back into his bowl.
“For the love of Job,” he said, scraping his tongue with the napkin Floor Lamp had tucked into his collar without asking. “The milk’s gone off.”
“Chemise Beauregard, where are you going?”
Fritz had grabbed his sun-bleached Panamanian walking hat, slapped it on his head and directed his mobility chair to the door.
“Out,” he said.
“‘Out’ is not a sufficient destination,” Floor Lamp said.
“I’m going to the market for some more milk, Warden.”
“Exiting the apartment is inadvisable.”
“You want me to eat, right? The only way that’s happening is if we get some more goat milk.”
Floor Lamp hesitated, its display changing to a stylized clock face for an instant before reverting to an annoying smile.
“Chemise Beauregard, we will go to the market together.”
“No,” Fritz said. “You will stay here. I will go to the market alone.”
Floor Lamp blew past him with an unexpected burst of speed, blocking the way.
“Such an action lies outside of your security permissions,” it said.
“Get out of the way.”
“I am afraid I cannot.”
Fritz sighed. Was this what his life had come to? Hated by his wife, abandoned by Chemise, and now under the thumb of a glorified toaster? He might not have much, but he would have his goat milk, even if it took his last shred of dignity to get it.
“Fine,” he said. “We go to the market together. But I’m wearing a sweater.”
It was a sunny day, kissed by an invigorating breeze and hovering at a warm twenty-five degrees. Asexual pine trees free of dangerous cones shaded the nonskid sidewalk from the gentle heat of the morning sun. A projected billboard on the windowless facade opposite broadcast the slogan, “Better Late than Dead” to all who happened by.
Fritz rolled along the sidewalk in front of a staggering Floor Lamp, hugging the sturdy, spindled railing that segregated pedestrians from street traffic. On the other side of it, lanes of autonomous taxicabs of various lengths and capacities ambled along the inductive tarmac.
A chubby man, mirroring at about thirty and sporting a black guayabera stained in condiments of various vintages, shook his head in disgust as he passed. Fritz’s gaze dropped to the coated sidewalk. He hated going outside. Back in the flat, and especially with Chemise, he could almost forget how revolting the rest of the world found him and his kind, but all that ended when he crossed its threshold.
A bulky robot tasked with clearing any wayward pine needles approached. Fritz skirted the creeping machine, nearly bumping into an agitated constable obscured on the other side.
“You know better than to run in public,” she was saying to a male model hunched over in front of her. “Do you have any idea how bad a closed head injury can be? One fall from a standing position and you’re dead. Forever.”
Fritz and Floor Lamp continued on until they were stopped by a nearby intersection. Retractable concrete posts lined the corner in front of them, preventing any further movement until the signal changed. In the meantime, Fritz found entertainment in an impatient goddess with an elaborate hairstyle simultaneously mashing the pedestrian crossing button and berating a robotic facsimile of a Galapagos tortoise. Then the bell sounded and two rows of posts emerged from the tarmac in front of them, framing the crosswalk and stopping traffic onto the main avenue.
Fritz glanced at an empty taxicab slowing to a halt at the posts, annoyed. Despite being nearly flush to the street to avoid a tripping hazard—and therefore accessible to his chair—the seats were packed too tight to allow him entry.
There were no provisions for the infirm in this perfect society. People didn’t age. Other than the two and a half percent that fell victim to untimely accidents, they didn’t die either. Unless they were resistant to the treatment, like him. Then they were alone, separate and unequal. Quasimodo cowering in the bell tower. Repulsive visitors and harsh reminders of the legacy of the once indelible genocide of an inescapable death.
And if one of those perfect people should break a leg or suffer an unsightly burn? Sequestration until they were presentable. Like Chemise.
The posts lining the corner retracted and Fritz rolled across the street with Floor Lamp. He eased over the drainage grate that rendered unsafe curbs obsolete and reached the sidewalk on the other side.
He felt the eyes on him. He knew what they were thinking. That he had no business outside. That he should wait for oblivion in a dark, discrete corner well out of sight of the respectable.
Too bad. For the most part, they were all old, both he and these bespoke images of a vain and shallow god, but only he had grasped the mantle of debilitation and plumbed its secrets. Wisdom like that could only be purchased in fucks; he’d given them all to the cause.
Further down the road, a rare yet instantly familiar sound forced a smile onto his pinched lips.
In a world of enduring life, there was little need for propagation—only one in twenty-five couples were granted such permission. He and Erma never even had a chance at such a chance. His intolerance of the treatment was genetic, passed down by his father in a reckless illegal conception before his parents had aged apart. Fritz would never have done something so selfish. When weighing the shame of a mortal life against the cautious vanity of immortality, the only ethical choice was sterilization.
Still, kids had a certain vestigial pull on him.
Up ahead, cutting between the cautious immortals going about their daily routines, were two of them. Even more miraculously, they were identical twins. Girls.
Fritz caught flashes of them through the crowd. Matching navy blue school jumpsuits trimmed in fluorescent safety stripes. Padded helmets lining flushed faces. Dirty hands and missing teeth. If childhood could be distilled to its essence, these two would be the visual representation of it.
As he watched, a pair of hands grabbed the kids by their collars, jerking them toward an alcove and out of the way of foot traffic. The violence of it startled Fritz, so he peered into the alcove as a concerned citizen. An angry parent knelt between the twins, pointing.
Fritz followed the index finger to a pair of maintenance robots dismantling a section of mangled, vandalized railing and instantly understood. There would be nothing stopping the twins from running onto the tarmac. Sure, the autonomous vehicles were programmed to avoid human casualties in such a case, but the fear of possibility remained.
As he rolled past the kids, Fritz thought back to his own youth on the farm and all the dangerous encounters that could’ve gone bad, but instead shaped him into the rich and dynamic character he had once been. Suddenly, he felt like encouraging the kids to run into the street—for their own good, of course.
But it wasn’t his place. He’d missed any opportunity at that, thanks to the selfish choices of his parents. Of course, if they hadn’t made those choices, he wouldn’t be alive to have kids anyway, but at least then he wouldn’t know what he was missing.
Fritz glanced up at Floor Lamp, staggering like a drunken idiot beside him, a facetious and condescending smile plastered across its digital display.
“Wipe that stupid look off your face,” he said.
The grin dissolved into the dark background without protest.
Fritz frowned. He was turning into Erma.
A smirking robot greeted them inside the market.
“Happy, happy,” it said, motioning to an antiseptic gel dispenser on the pole beside it. “Washy, washy.”
Fritz immediately hated it.
“No thanks,” he said as Floor Lamp greased up its eerie arms with the stuff. “It hurts the cracks in my hands.”
“But you must, sir,” the robot greeter said. “It is store policy.”
Fritz wasn’t about to argue with another machine. He tried to push past it.
The greeter blocked his way. “Happy, happy. Washy washy.”
“That’s not going to stop me,” Fritz said. “And you can’t touch me, robot. It’s not in your programming.”
“That’s correct,” a deep voice said from behind the machine. It belonged to a burly man, mirroring at a ripped and mature thirty-five. “If it was, I’d be out of a job. Now wash up, old man.”
Fritz sighed and took some gel from Floor Lamp. It burned. Then he made to pass the bouncer.
“Not so fast,” the burly man said, gripping his shoulder. “You’re looking a little pekid, Gramps. I think you should wear a mask.” He produced a crumpled surgical mask from a pocket and strapped it to Fritz’s sneering face. “There we are.”
“And thank you for choosing Bountiful Mercado, your friendly neighborhood food store,” the greeter added.
Fritz grumbled and rolled deeper into the store. The mask was hot and stifling, but he tried not to pay attention to it.
“Today’s weather forecast is sunny,” a prerecorded broadcast said over the public address speaker. “Make sure to visit our pharmacy for a free skin cancer screening and premium mutagen detox. Don’t let melanoma and its costly repair sneak up on your family.”
They made their way through the produce section en route to the milk, passing the bins of apricots (danger: contains pits) and pineapple (caution: peel before serving).
“Telomeres getting shorter?” The PA rabble-rouser asked. “How can you tell for sure? Anything can happen if you stop being vigilant. Come in for a complimentary scan.”
Fritz surveyed the cold case of dairy products and analogs, heavy on the analogs. There was an obvious gap in the space of the shelf reserved for fresh goat milk. They had a few cartons of cow milk, but it had defeated his digestive tract in a war of attrition long ago.
Instead, and after much grumbling, Fritz settled on a box of shelf stable, ultra pasteurized goat milk next to the peanut butter (warning: may contain peanuts).
The voice on the PA droned on. “Telomere scanning has been linked to blindness in rats. Is your family next? Visit our litigation kiosk to discuss possible compensation and set your mind at ease.”
Fritz paid for the milk with his bank card, much to the nostalgic delight of the bouncer, and made for the door.
As he and Floor Lamp exited the store, the voice on the PA was still blathering away.
“Frivolous lawsuits are clogging up the justice system. Will it be there when you need it? How can you know for sure?”
Fritz bounced along as fast as his sluggish jalopy would take him, not caring about anything other than getting the milk home.
“Hey, no speeding,” a fat hedonist in a muumuu said with a chuckle and a grin as she waddled past.
Fritz paid her no mind. He kept a hard grip on the box in his lap. Floor Lamp limped along beside him.
A tanned man with a round head and sunken eyes, handsome against all odds, ogled the pair of them.
“You two racing?” he asked, looking around to see if anyone would join him in the joke. “My money’s on the robot.”
But he didn’t matter. Neither did the approaching gap in the safety railing. Or the twins.
At least until one of them parted the crowd, bumbling into Fritz. She hit hard, smashing against his milk hand and knocking the box free. It fell to one side, splitting at a weak seam and washing across the textured sidewalk. The girl fell the other way, landing on her backside. She stared up at him for a long second as if offended and then disappeared back into the sea of meticulous people, goat milk dripping from her cuff.
“Oopsie,” Floor Lamp said. “Shall we return to Bountiful Mercado for a replacement?”
Fritz slumped forward in his chair. All that work—to get the milk, to be proactive, to impact his circumstances—wasted. “I’m tired,” he said at last. “You go. I’ll wait here.”
“Patient abandonment lies outside of your security—”
“If you make me go with you, I’m going to have a heart attack or something. You can’t endanger a human life, so you have to leave me here and do it yourself.”
Floor Lamp placed a finger against Fritz’s chest. “Your heart is running within norms.”
Fritz bit his bottom lip. “But I’m so hungry,” he said at last, playacting a wobble. “I might pass out without my porridge…”
The clock appeared on Floor Lamp’s display. “Pull to the railing and wait right here. I shall return in haste.” And then it was gone.
Fritz closed his eyes. He didn’t move to the railing. He stayed where he was, letting the noise of the city and the throng wash over him. He removed himself from the scene. He was an ear, a curious ghost—present, but not.
“Get out of the way, you old fossil,” somebody said, shattering the illusion.
Fritz opened his eyes as the culprit, a scowling man in tangerine jodhpurs, stormed past with a facsimile of a miniature pony. Behind them stood the dangerous gap in the railing.
Two maintenance robots were working the mangled segment back into shape, leaving just enough room for a determined person to push through and onto the tarmac. They couldn’t restrain a human with force—not even if a life was in jeopardy.
Throwing oneself into traffic was the easy part, Fritz reasoned. The hard part was successfully getting hit. Taxicabs drove staggered across the lanes, leaving room to swerve if they couldn’t brake in time. And if congestion should force them abreast, they would crash into their brethren before colliding with an unprotected pedestrian, betting on their innate safety measures to protect their passengers. The AI utilized a complex algorithm to mitigate human fatalities in any given situation.
Fritz glanced at the passing taxicabs. He’d need to find a way to make plowing into him the least worst option or it wouldn’t work.
A sudden, urgent hiss caught his attention. One of the twins was standing in front of him, baring her teeth and brandishing an accusatory index finger.
“Wait,” Fritz shouted as she turned to run back into the crowd.
She spun to face him, looking positively feral.
“Are you bored?” he asked.
The girl cocked her head.
“I know something cool we can do. And destructive.”
She considered this. Then she ripped the Panama hat from his head and scrambled back into the crowd.
“Hey! Stop her!” he shouted, looking for a sympathetic eye in the crowd. He couldn’t find one. Nobody gave a shit.
Fritz closed his eyes. What had been a playful lark moments before coalesced into something much more solid. But he couldn’t do it alone. If he rolled onto the tarmac by himself, it wouldn’t cause much more than a commotion. And he’d always hated being the cause of a commotion. Better to just go home, eat his insipid robot porridge, and wait for Erma to return and whittle away at his traces of self-worth.
He felt an impatient presence and opened his eyes to the source. Both twins stared at him expectantly.
“Mister,” the one with the milk-soaked cuff said. “What’s this I hear about something cool?”
The corner of Fritz’s mouth edged up into a half smile. He forgot about the hat. “Wanna cause a car crash?” he asked.
The feral one’s face brightened.
“That sounds dangerous,” the other one said, adjusting her padded helmet.
“It’s perfectly safe.”
“How do we do it?” the feral one asked.
“Easy. Just run into the street here.”
The cautious one peered through the gap. “I don’t want to be in a car crash,” she said.
“You won’t,” Fritz replied. “They’ll swerve out of your way and crash into each other. They have an algorithm, you know.
“We know,” the twins said.
“So will you do it?”
“Yes!” the feral one said and then broke for the gap.
“Wait!” the other one shouted, bounding after her sister.
Fritz didn’t have time to think. He jammed his controls forward and followed.
The kids scrambled through the gap and across the tarmac to the inner lane, bounded on the far side by the center divider.
Fritz heard panicked shrieks from the crowd of pedestrians as he bumped over the drainage grate and into the outer lane. He turned his head and stared straight into a barreling taxicab.
The calculus of the algorithm was basic enough to be done in his head. Two immortal children were more important than one mortal invalid. The taxicab couldn’t crash into the center divider without risking the kids. It couldn’t plow into the compromised railing without risking those on the sidewalk. There was no time to stop. The only choice was to run him down.
His smirk morphed into a sneer as he took one last look at all the beautiful people surrounding him. He’d show those chickenshits the abiding freedom of fearlessness. He’d show them how no one was well and truly a man until they died like one. He’d show them—
The oncoming taxicab’s brakes squealed as it veered into the inner lane and obliterated the twins.
Fritz’s jaw dropped. One little body flew into the air, headless, twisting over the center divider before splintering the front windshield of an empty vehicle speeding in the opposite direction. The other one disappeared into the wheel well of the taxicab that struck her and was scoured to paste.
A scream erupted from the sea of traumatized onlookers and Fritz recognized the scolding parent of the twins from earlier.
“What have you done?” the parent shrieked, pressing against the railing, hesitant to travel beyond.
Showering sparks drew Fritz’s eyes back to the carnage. Metal and electricity spewed from the guts of the wheel well surrounding the smeared body. He couldn’t find his words.
“Do you have any idea how expensive those were?”
Fritz searched the street until he found the decapitated head. There was no blood, only murky fluid pooling at the base of the neck. Instead of bones and flesh, tubes and jelly protruded from the separation. He looked back at the wheel well. The sparking mess wasn’t coming from it, but rather the pulverized appliance mashed inside.
They weren’t kids at all, just more god damn robots.
All eyes were on him now. He had made a commotion. And he was in big trouble. So, naturally, he played the only card he had left.
“Ma na rama la bronk,” he shouted, slurring the sounds. He cocked his head to one side and set an arm rigid. His foot turned in. He let a little drool slip down his chin. “Bar rar lemur.”
A knowing murmur spread through the crowd. His laughable performance had passed as some vague affliction of the mortal and elderly. They couldn’t prosecute the infirm.
“Who’s going to pay for this?” the parent asked.
Fritz realized he was asking Floor Lamp, who had reappeared beside him with a replacement box of goat milk.
“I do not believe Chemise Beauregard has sustained any additional damage,” the robot said. “There will be nothing for you to pay for.”
“Me? Your idiot has cost me two brand-new facsimiles!”
A pair of constables emerged from the crowd.
“What’s going on here?” one of them asked. Fritz recognized her as the one he had nearly bumped into earlier.
“That thing killed my children,” the man said, pointing at Fritz.
“Gaga boba predo,” Fritz said.
The officers frowned and turned their attention to the crash site. “They don’t look human to me, Sir.”
“Human, no. But we think of them as our children.”
“Well the law doesn’t. If these bots suddenly got rights, Jenkins here would have to start paying for sex all over again.”
Her partner shrugged.
She raised her hand and silenced the man.
“What’s your patient’s name, bot?” she asked Floor Lamp.
The constable mulled it over. “Sounds like a woman’s name,” she said.
Her partner adjusted his crotch and studied Fritz. “Could be a woman,” he said. “Geriats all look alike to me. Doesn’t help that they cut their hair short. Imagine it down to her shoulders.”
The constable brightened. “Oh yeah. I see it now.” After another glance over the scene, she turned to Floor Lamp.
“All right, bot. Take Miss Beauregard home. She shouldn’t be outside anyway.”
The robot complied.
“Chemise Beauregard, shall I open the door?”
Floor Lamp stood in front of the flat, goat milk in hand.
Fritz glanced at the box, wondering why he didn’t feel jubilant. He’d completed his goal, braving the hostile outside world in the name of breakfast and dignity, but he felt nothing. In fact, he found he no longer had any interest in the milk whatsoever. What he did have an interest in, however, was the door across the hall. Chemise’s door.
“Come with me,” Fritz said to Floor Lamp, heading over.
He braced one arm with the other and knocked. That is to say, he tried to knock. His frail arm managed some combination of bump and scrape, certainly nothing loud enough to be heard inside.
Reluctantly, he turned to Floor Lamp for help.
“Knock on the door.”
The robot complied.
Something rustled inside the flat, but the door didn’t budge.
“Open up, Chemise,” he said. “It’s just Fritz.”
After a brief hesitation, a youthful voice on the other side of the door asked, “Are you alone?”
“Yes. Well, no. I’ve got The Thing with me.”
“Hold on a second.”
That second rolled into a minute and then more as Fritz and Floor Lamp waited. Indecipherable noises emanated from inside.
Finally, the door opened a crack. Chemise, or what he assumed was Chemise, stood on the other side, her face shrouded in a craft project of wrapping paper and adhesive tape. Two eyes, one still tinged red from her accident, peeked through irregular holes. Despite the inviting heat emanating from within her flat, she wore a concealing light jacket and sweatpants.
“Come in, quick,” she said. “Someone important might see.”
Fritz and Floor Lamp hurried inside. As soon as they had cleared the threshold, she slammed the door behind them and set both latches.
“What are you wearing?” Fritz asked, eyeing the pattern of starfish on her paper mask.
She turned away from him. “I’m hideous.”
“I look much worse, I’m sure.”
“You don’t count.” She glanced at Floor Lamp. “But it does.”
Fritz’s eye twitched. “You’re embarrassed of what a robot might think about you?”
“They record everything. There’s no telling what might get out.”
“Then shut it down.”
Still at the door, Chemise uttered a lengthy alphanumeric key. Floor Lamp’s display darkened and its frame sagged forward into a balanced and neutral position. Rigid limbs relaxed. The milk tumbled to the ground. Fritz gasped, but the box held intact.
“What was that sound?” Chemise asked, her view blocked by the robot’s frame.
“It dropped something it was carrying when it shut down.”
“No,” Fritz said, trying to play it off. “Just some milk.”
“Milk I can handle,” she said. “I still have a fridge at least. For now. Had to sell most of the other furniture. Beauty costs, you know, especially when you’re not working.”
Fritz looked around the flat. It was a studio, the smallest floorplan in the building, and what furniture it once had was conspicuously missing. The bed was a mattress on the floor, the former hanging artwork reduced to discolored shadows on the walls. Luckily, Fritz had brought his own chair.
“Much better,” Chemise said.
He turned his attention back to her and forgot all about the furniture.
The concealing pants and jacket were mounded at her feet, replaced by a red tank top and clinging athletic shorts that exposed the blossoming body beneath. The paper mask was gone. Fritz barely noticed the wrist brace she wore or the superficial bruises and abrasions on her face as he got lost in the iridescent algae of her green eyes and contrasting black hair, blued by the warmth of the lighting. She was the spitting image of his high school sweetheart, Eugénie. Or did Eugénie have blonde hair? He couldn’t remember, but he knew that they had perfection in common.
“You’re staring at me,” she said.
“Sorry about that.”
“Is it my face?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Er… I mean your face is beautiful.”
A smile. “And you’re blind, old man.”
“Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Back to business. “So what did you want, anyway?”
Fritz swallowed. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. All he’d known was a desperation to see her. He pointed his chin at Floor Lamp, going with the first idea that popped into his head.
“This piece of junk won’t stop calling me Chemise Beauregard and it’s driving me nuts.”
She stifled a giggle and walked over to the machine. “What do you expect from a subletted RehaBot?” she asked, caressing its metal. “It’s easy to change the chart beneath the patient’s name, but the name itself is pretty much hardwired into the cortex. It’s like the security permissions—if you want to change those, you’ll need a whole new cortex and then you might as well buy your own custom job.”
“Don’t even start about the security permissions,” he said. “Damn thing won’t stop telling me about them.”
She nodded. “Anyway, I can’t change the cortex, but I can change how the voice emulator treats the signals from the cortex. Does that make sense to you?”
“Ish.” He noticed his diction changing, reverting back to that of his teenage years. It happened whenever he spent time with Eugén—with Chemise.
“It’ll cost you though,” she said, bending over in front of him to snatch up the milk. As if by reflex, he looked down her shirt, at the tops of shadowy breasts young and arrogant enough to stay in place without the crutch of a bra. He remembered breasts like that. He’d first seen them in Prentice DeMaio’s boathouse at the tail end of a bush party in the tenth grade. Only these weren’t Eugénie’s. They belonged to Chemise. And she wasn’t sixteen, but ninety-five.
Fritz was lost. Was he a lascivious old man salivating over a nubile teenager or a married man lusting for a peer? Either way, he was sad and alone and likely unable to properly process his longing.
Chemise stood back up.
“I’ll pay you whatever you want,” he said.
And if that wasn’t enough to keep her young and in her flat, he’d pay her more. She’d probably sleep with him for money. She was desperate. It could be like sleeping with Eugénie all over again. For a minute, maybe he could forget everything. Maybe that’s all he needed. His wife didn’t matter. The Erma he’d fallen in love with was dead, replaced by the frivolous hussy that shared his flat.
But he couldn’t do that to Chemise. Besides, he couldn’t even get it up. He was a dirty old man trying to relive past glories. He should be ashamed of himself.
She smiled. It hurt to watch. “In that case, let me put this milk away and see what I can do.”
It was going to take Chemise a while to sort things out with Floor Lamp, so Fritz looked around the flat for some way to busy himself. Open
The curtains were drawn, no doubt to defend against the nonexistent prying eyes that might be hovering outside the window, but a small crack of sunshine snuck through where the fabric met. The rest of the room was illuminated by soft lighting that evened out any skin imperfections. Even the backs of Fritz’s ancient, liver-spotted hands took the hint.
An open cardboard box of vintage paper books by the window piqued his interest and he snatched up the one on top. It was an old hardcover on child rearing, from back when that was still a big thing. He had no idea why Chemise would have it. Her body mirrored sixteen, but her eggs were ninety-five and had long since aged beyond viability. Even frozen, they were dust. She was as likely to have kids as he was.
He glanced over at her. She was hard at work, chewing on a strand of her glorious ebon hair in concentration. Maybe the idea of a baby filled her emptiness, like remembering Eugénie filled his. Maybe she flipped through the pages in the dark, lonely nights of insomnia, like he flipped through memories of that boathouse.
“All those dust-catchers you’re leafing through are for sale, by the way,” she said. “A former client gave them to me and I’m looking to turn them into cash.”
Or maybe not.
He opened the front cover to a grayscale image of a sleeping infant, content in its mother’s loving embrace. Smiling despite himself, he licked a finger and turned the first page. His eyes may not have been able to resolve the blurry words, but the pictures would be more than enough.
“I can hear your stomach over here,” Chemise said.
Fritz snapped to alertness and sucked the spit back into his mouth. He hadn’t even noticed his hunger, so engrossed was he in a teething pictorial.
“I’m pretty much done here,” she said. “Just need to wait a few minutes for the boot to complete. Why don’t we get you something to eat, Fritz?”
He stiffened. She’d called him Fritz. Not Old Man or Gramps, but Fritz.
His guts tingled. Odd that such a trivial thing could raise his spirits so.
“Okay,” he said.
She wiped her palms on the back of her flattering shorts as she walked into the tiny kitchen. “I don’t have any amaranth, but I have some grits…”
Fritz hated grits, but he’d eat lead filings if it meant he could spend more time with her. Hell, he’d drink bleach if he could just fill in for her palms for a while.
“Sounds great, Génie.” he said.
Chemise cocked her head, but then shrugged it off.
“We can use your milk,” she said.
He put down the book and rolled over to the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen from the rest of the studio. She was a whirlwind on the other side, bending and pivoting and generally taking her lithe body for granted. He felt it in his chest.
Like everyone else around, she was painfully attractive. Everyone but him, that is. He was an old man, a promise unfulfilled and nearly forgotten. And she wasn’t Génie, but Chemise. Why did their names have to be so similar? Why did they have to look so alike?
This modern world was ridiculous. Old people playing teenager. Immortals afraid of apricot pits and pineapples. Open hostility to the less fortunate. It wasn’t right.
He shook his head. It may not have been right, but it was the world they had created for themselves. Although it did have its perks, he thought, looking Chemise up and down. It had only been a couple of days, but he had sure missed her.
“How long until you make your reemergence to society?” he asked as she heated the milk.
“Should be a week or two for the cuts to heal. Then another month for the scar treatment and collagen synthesis, which is about when my wrist should be back to normal.”
Fritz listened to the milk bubble away on the stovetop, wondering why she wasn’t stirring it.
“They say the redness in my eye should resolve on its own,” she continued, “but I don’t know. What do you think?”
He thought she should put the grits in before the milk scorched, but he didn’t say that. She was so beautiful and youthful and innocent and he didn’t want to spoil it with his old man grumpiness.
“I think you could go out right now,” he said.
She turned to face him, horror plastered across her face. “Absolutely not,” she said, then stepped to a hanging mirror on one side of the kitchen, abandoning the stove.
Fritz cringed. “I bet you make some mean grits,” he said, hoping she would get the hint.
She didn’t, instead pulling at her lower eyelid and inspecting the result.
“Even if this is redness clears up, I think I’m gonna get my sclera whitened…”
The milk was starting to burn. He could smell it.
She tugged at the corner of an eye. “I’m getting a wrinkle!” she said, alarmed. “Fritz. Look at this. I’m getting a wrinkle.” She turned from the mirror and leaned over the breakfast bar to show off her find. Her firm breasts pushed against the countertop, opening the neckline of her tank top and inviting him into its shadows. He fought the urge to adjust his bifocals.
“I don’t see any wrinkles,” he said.
“Then you’re blind, old man. They’re right there for anyone with decent eyes to see. I’m a hideous old crone.” She sighed. “One more thing I’ll have to find a way to pay for.”
“I don’t think you need to change a thing,” he said.
“Easy for you to say. You’re one giant wrinkle. What’s another crease to a raisin?”
Fritz frowned, feeling a crack in the fantasy.
“The milk is burning,” he said.
“Ack!” She yanked the spitting saucepan off the heat and inspected it. “It’ll be all right,” she said and then dumped in the grits.
No, it wouldn’t. Nothing would ever be all right again.
She took the grits off the stove way too soon, slapped it in a bowl and then dragged a sealed cardboard box over to sit on beside him. Using her legs as a makeshift table, she nestled the bowl between her thighs. He thought of Prentice DeMaio’s boathouse, to a time when he had been that bowl, and closed his eyes. He could feel her heart beating beside him. No. Make that his own heart, throbbing in his ears.
He reached for her hand.
“Here comes the taxicab,” she said in an overexcited tone.
His eyes jerked open to a spoonful of undercooked grits snaking toward him.
There was no time to react, so he opened his mouth and took it.
“Oopsie,” she said. She’d misjudged the entry and smeared a glob of crunchy grits onto his lower lip. Before he could suck it into his mouth, she scraped it with the spoon and did it for him. Like he was a fucking baby.
But she had her other hand pressed against his knee, so he didn’t say a word. Instead, he grabbed the hand.
She gave him a patronizing smile and pulled it free, but not without a gentle, condescending pat.
“Beep beep,” she said, bringing forward another spoonful. “Better let it into the garage. It’s time to check the tire pressure.”
It was demeaning as hell, but she was beautiful and he was hungry. He took the bite and worked the pulverized corn with his stained teeth. They called it grits for a reason.
He took her hand again. He deserved at least that much after putting up with this indignity.
She rubbed the liver spots on the back of his hand with a pristine thumb. A warmth radiated through his body as she played with a squirmy vein. The heartbeat in his ears quickened. Then she shuddered and tore her hand free in disgust.
He frowned. She wasn’t supposed to pull free. She was supposed to look at him like he was a man. She was supposed to want him. To understand him without words. Like she had at the boathouse.
He seized her hand.
“Stop it!” she said, ripping free. “I don’t want to touch that rough old thing. It hurts.”
He scowled at her, snapping back to reality. “We’re the same age,” he said. “We’re both ninety-five.”
She leapt to her feet. “I’m sixteen years old,” she said, holding her head high. “I’ll always be sixteen years old. A thousand years after you’re dead, I’ll still be sixteen years old.”
He reached for her, longing to caress her soft skin. “Let me hold you,” he said. “Please. Just for a minute. I want to feel young too. It’s not fair. Please. I don’t want to be alone. Help me forget. Just for a minute.”
Chemise stood just out of reach, her arms crossed.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” she said.
“Please. I’ll pay you.”
“I’m not a whore,” she said. “Especially for a thing like you.”
“No. Not sex. Just a hug. I just want a hug. I’ll pay. Whatever you want.”
“Hug your robot.”
As if on cue, Floor Lamp chimed on the other side of the room.
“There,” she said. “He’s booted.”
Chemise stepped into her sweatpants and hid her inviting breasts within the jacket. Then she put on the paper mask, banishing that blue-black hair and those algal eyes to a place well beyond Fritz’s reach.
Floor Lamp came to life at her touch.
“Hello, Frederitz,” it said.
As Fritz came over, Chemise backed away.
He should’ve just admired her from afar. He should’ve stayed a compliant baby. Now those breasts were gone to him forever. And so was the brain connected to them. A patronizing contact was better than no contact at all.
“Have this thing do a diagnostic when you get home,” she said. “And say hello to your wife for me.”
Fritz’s gaze dropped to the ground. He should’ve just faked a stroke. That would’ve fixed everything.
“Let’s go, Floor Lamp,” he said.
“Frederitz, my preferred appellation is Helping Hans.”
He turned to Chemise. “You couldn’t have fixed that?”
She crossed her arms again. “You’re lucky I didn’t program it to molest you in your sleep. Creep.”
Fritz slumped in his chair and followed Floor Lamp out of the little studio and back to his own door. His head was so heavy. He couldn’t find the strength to hold it up.
“Hey,” Chemise called out across the hall.
Fritz spun to face her, smiling and suddenly enervated. She’d forgiven him. He could go back to being her compliant baby.
She leaned from her doorway, holding his goat milk by three distasteful fingers.
“Take this liquid flesh with you,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
The smile fell from Fritz’s face and he nodded to the robot, who retrieved the box.
When she was gone, they reentered Fritz’s flat. It was cold and sparse and smelled of deionized water.
“Frederitz,” Floor Lamp said. “Shall I make you some porridge?”
“No. Just put that away. We need to do your diagnostic.”
“The most efficient test requires a blank sheet of paper,” it said as it placed the milk in the fridge. “Do you have this?”
“In my bedroom.”
Fritz led the way down the sterile corridor and into the warm, complex fug of home.
“On the shelf,” he said, motioning to the bookcase.
Floor Lamp staggered over to it and withdrew a dilapidated paperback.
“What is this?” it asked.
“You’ve never seen a book before?”
“I have. But the rules of etiquette and conversation dictate a facetious ignorance on my part.”
“You certainly talk like a bookworm,” Fritz said.
Floor Lamp scanned the cover. “The Caves of Steel,” it said. “What is it about?”
“I’m sure you already know.”
“The recollection of facts is healthy for an aging human brain.”
Fritz picked a piece of hard cornmeal from his teeth. “It’s about a man and a robot that team up to solve a crime.”
“That sounds highly improbable. Do you read it often?”
“Nah. My eyes don’t get along with the small text.”
“I would be happy to read it to you, Frederitz.”
“Just do the diagnostic. Paper is to your left.”
Floor Lamp returned the book and carried a piece of yellowed paper to the dusty reading table nestled against the shelves. It pressed a pinky finger against the sheet and scrawled a measured, meticulous pattern of brown on the surface. Then it did the same thing with blue. And green. And a rainbow of colors.
When it was finished, it presented Fritz with an impressionistic sketch of a young ginger boy leaning against a dilapidated split rail fence beside a meandering creek.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It is you,” the robot replied.
Fritz squinted at the picture. “Do you mean the fence?”
“I mean the human.”
He shook his head. “Then you better whiten his hair, wrinkle his skin and collapse his weak little body into the grass.”
“It is not illustrative of your body, but you.”
“Well, I am my body. And my body is me.”
“Not so. One could take my cortex and place it in another body and I would still be Helping Hans.”
“There are thousands of Helping Hanses out there…”
“True. But I have a unique serial number. Attach my cortex to a smart toaster and I would still be 032-9471.”
“And trapped in a toaster.”
“But I wouldn’t be a toaster. I would be 032-9471.”
Fritz pursed his lips and then pointed to the picture. “So this is really how you see me?”
“This is how you are. And that is what I see.”
Fritz shook his head. “You know, Floor Lamp, you might just be my only true friend.”
“I am not programmed to emulate friendship, Frederitz.”
“And I’m not programmed to be a cliché, but here we are. I could kill you for making me one,” he said, smiling.
“Murder of Helping Hans lies outside of your security permissions. Might I suggest you allow me to read to you instead?”
“How do you feel about hugs?”
“They are acceptable, Frederitz.”
“Then come here, 032-9471. Why don’t we start with that?”
By Matthew Harrison
The cruise seemed to have been going on forever. How many days now since they had left Vancouver? Brad leant into the breeze with his elbows on the rail, gazing disconsolately at the distant snow-capped mountains that slipped slowly past. And there was the curious way the sea seemed to curve up to the horizon, almost as if the ship sat at the bottom of a great bowl.
A few other passengers, some standing, some in deckchairs, were sharing the view, while the inevitable attendant watched them, oblivious to the wind. Turning, Brad could see the ship’s broad wake extending behind them, diminishing to a white line that curved through the channel between the islands. Islands, sea, mountains–endlessly changing, and always the same.
The wind gusted; Brad turned to go in.
“Had enough?” came a quiet man’s voice from beside him.
Brad turned to see an old man in a deckchair, his head turned enquiringly. “Nearly!” he said with a laugh. “It seems ages since we left Vancouver. How many days is it now?”
The man grunted and turned to gaze again at the horizon. He wore a cap and sunglasses and was wrapped in blankets. Must be very old, Brad thought. In truth, that had been one of the disappointments of the cruise. Cruising was a retirement thing; his mates’ ribbing about ‘the pick of the Alaskan lasses’ had proved sadly wide of the mark. Most passengers were like this chap, in their declining years. There were few young people, fewer children.
Brad tried again. “I can’t remember our last landfall.” This was almost true–somehow the smooth succession of days made it hard to track the passage of time.
The man nodded. “My wife feels the same.”
As if on cue, an angular but sprightly woman tripped out of the swing doors from the ship’s interior and grasped the back of the deck chair.
The old man raised a limp hand. “Elsa, have you met my young friend?”
The woman smiled, her face crinkling into lines, and extended a bony hand. Brad clasped it and introduced himself. Elsa proved responsive and, glad of the contact, Brad vented his frustrations with the cruise, the sameness of everything, the unvaried food.
“Oh, my daughter’s just like you!” Elsa said delightedly. “You must meet her–don’t you agree, Henry?”
The taciturn figure in the deckchair inclined his cap, and Brad also agreed. It was determined that they should meet at lunch. “We are the Ullmans,” Elsa confided; “the waiters will know our table.”
Excusing himself, Brad glanced once more at the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The sameness was uncanny: he could almost swear he had seen a particular double peak before. It was if the mountains were sliding past them on an endless conveyor belt. As Brad stepped into the warmth of the ship’s interior, his last impression was of Henry gazing fixedly at the horizon like the eternal watcher in some Greek legend.
At lunch, to Brad’s surprise, Henry came to life. He had been a professor of philology, spending many field trips learning the dialects of the Inuit people in the far north. Brad listened, fascinated.
“I suppose that’s why you chose this cruise?” he said. Then, feeling rather lame, he added, “Although I guess the Inuit are much farther north than this.”
“Oh, Dad and Mom have been everywhere!” interrupted Terry. She–big-boned and cheerful–was the daughter, and a less-likely offspring of her emaciated parents could hardly be imagined. Terry was almost as tall as Brad, and heavily built as if from generations of farming stock. Her check shirt and jeans struggled to contain her heavy frame; Brad recalled the strength of her handshake. He shifted his seat gingerly away from her.
“Yes, we’re going to the Aegean next,” Elsa chipped in. “The Peloponnese! Warmth and sunshine and Greek ruins!”
Brad was intrigued. “So you are… regulars on these cruises?”
“They’re permanent fixtures!” Terry giggled, her broad shoulders shaking.
Edna explained that you got discounts for repeat trips. Given that everything was included–full meals, accommodation, even entertainment–it worked out very economically. In fact–she glanced to the next table and lowered her voice–some retired couples lived on-cruise.
“We practically do,” Henry said drily.
“Well, dear, we do return to land from time to time,” Elsa reminded him tartly. “Not quite addicts!” She smiled at Brad.
Trying to defuse the tension, Brad said that cruising was a fine way to live. Why, his own company (he was in insurance, he belatedly recalled) should develop a cruise package as a retirement product!
That, Terry said, would be a sure-fire winner. At least on this ship!
Realizing he had stumbled into a family minefield, Brad tried to change the subject. What activities did Elsa like on board?
It turned out that dancing was Elsa’s dream. “You shall accompany us tonight to the Lyceum.” (This was one of the bar-lounges on the ship) “My husband is such an old stick,” she confided, “he won’t dance at all!”
As Brad smiled his nervous acceptance, Terry rolled her eyes. Her father kept his counsel.
Contemplating the evening’s prospect with rather mixed feelings, Brad made his way up to the top deck. The sheltered pool area was a sun-trap, and with a blanket it was possible to sit and watch the film. But it was a cartoon; Brad grew bored. Shifting his deckchair, he watched the grey shapes of islands floating past, and then decided to go back to his room. Walking along the low-ceilinged corridor he found himself wondering again how many days it had been since they set out. He couldn’t recall, and as he lay down for a nap, he wondered briefly why this lapse of memory caused him no surprise. Come to that, he couldn’t remember much about his former life.
Lulled, perhaps, by the gentle hum of the ship, Brad slept longer than he had intended. Rushing to wash and change, he slipped on a dark shirt and trousers, and then hurried back up the long corridor. He got confused about directions and staircases, and made up for it by trotting the last leg of the journey to the Lyceum.
The bar was larger than Brad remembered, and in the darkness illuminated by disco lights, he could not at first find his hosts. He marched up and down, peered at tables, until suddenly a lady in glittering sequins rose and grasped his arm.
“Brad, you’re panting! What a keen young man we have with us tonight, Henry!”
Her husband grunted an acknowledgement. Dressed in a Tuxedo, he was almost dashing. And Terry also had an elegant evening gown. Wishing he were better-dressed, Brad sat down, and complimented the family on their attire.
The band struck up, ‘The Tennessee Waltz’. With a, “Come on, we’re not letting you go to waste!” Elsa seized Brad’s hand and led him out to the dance floor. “Go easy on him, Mom!” Terry called after them.
Brad did not actually know the waltz. But when he stepped back from Elsa and started to go through his shuffling party routine, she stopped him with a, “Follow me.” And he found himself embraced by her angular form.
It was embarrassing to feel his partner’s body against his–and such an old woman too! What would his mates say? Given their disparity in size, Elsa could hardly steer his bulk around the dance floor, and he smiled at her efforts to tug and push him along. But as the song progressed, Brad found himself relaxing, until he and Elsa were moving together in time with the music. The sensation was surprising: Brad found himself liking it.
Elsa had hardly led Brad back to their table, when Terry stood up. “My turn,” she said with a nod to her mother. And Brad found himself led back to the dance floor.
The contrast between mother and daughter could hardly have been greater. Terry steered him around bodily, wedged against her great bosom. But while her mother was elegance herself, Terry clumped along, counting the beats and cursing under her breath when she could not keep up. Brad, resisting at first, finally went with his partner’s strength and had the satisfaction of wheeling her into a turn for a graceful ending. The band gave a final blast and as the dancing stopped everyone cheered. The two parents, standing at their table, greeted the couple on their return with a special round of applause.
As Brad sat down, a waiter came up, receiving their order with an impassive face. The contrast between his demeanor and the tumult on the dance floor struck Brad as odd. Glancing round, he saw Elsa looking at him anxiously. He smiled to reassure her. It was, after all, just a dance; it wasn’t their last night on Earth!
The following morning, Brad had breakfast in the Vista cafeteria with a fellow-passenger he had met earlier. As he strolled out, he spotted the Ullmans, and went over to greet them. Elsa was delighted to meet ‘our dance master’, and Terry, when she returned from the buffet, gave him a smile that spoke of a certain understanding–although what that understanding was, Brad hardly knew. But it was Henry, in one of his energetic bouts, who engaged Brad deep in conversation.
Henry was interested in Brad’s likes and dislikes on the cruise. He ranged over the various entertainments, which on the vast liner were extensive, and Brad responded, usually in the positive. Why not enjoy what was on offer?
Then Henry asked, “How do you see the future?”
Brad was taken aback. “You mean, my career?”
“Mm, no, no,” Henry said nonchalantly. “Just the future of this cruise. Or of cruising generally…”
It still seemed an odd question to Brad. How much future was there to this cruise? he wondered aloud. They must surely be back in Vancouver tomorrow, if not tonight.
Henry tried another angle. “Suppose the cruise were to extend another week or two. Would you be able to keep yourself amused?”
The dancing of the previous night was fresh in Brad’s mind, and he could say honestly that thought he would, although it depended on the company.
“What if it were permanent–like retirement on board? Some people do become permanent cruisers, you know.”
Unsure what his host was getting at, Brad retorted, “I’m not retired yet.”
Henry sat back, murmuring, “Quite so, quite so.”
That seemed to satisfy him, for he returned to his plate and chewed bacon thoughtfully, while Elsa tried to interest Brad in the seventies pop quiz being held that afternoon. But when Brad had allowed himself to be persuaded, not least because of Terry’s enthusiasm, Henry returned again to the subject of cruising. Did Brad understand that it wasn’t just Alaska? Why, he and Elsa had been on cruises all over the world. How did that sound?
Brad saw that Elsa was patting her husband’s arm warningly, but to humor the old man, he said that it didn’t sound a bad life. Perhaps when he was older, he would keep it in mind.
Yet Henry persisted. “What about now? How would you feel if you were just to go on cruising indefinitely?”
“Daddy!” Terry said reproachfully, to which her mother added her, “Now, dear, don’t bother our young friend.”
Brad, magnanimous in front of the ladies, said that he should be able to cope with it. “In fact,” he went on, “I’m not sure we are even going to finish this Alaskan cruise. It seems to be going on forever!”
On the way to the seventies quiz that afternoon, Brad saw a strange thing. Two waiters were talking in the corridor ahead of him, and then they slipped through a side door. As he passed, he glanced casually into the doorway, expecting to see some kind of storeroom. Instead, the room was filled with instrument panels. But stranger still, one of the waiters was standing with his back to the other, holding what appeared to be his hair–a toupee?–in his hands, while his mate applied an instrument to the back of his now-bald head. Brad saw all this in the moment of passing, and the tableau remained etched in his mind’s eye.
He tried to describe it to Terry as the MC tested the microphone and other passengers trickled in for the quiz. What on earth did it mean?
“God knows!” Terry said cheerfully. “Why don’t you ask Dad?”
Just then the MC’s voice boomed out welcoming everyone, and the quiz began.
As the sounds of crooning ballads and punk rock numbers poured out into the auditorium, orchestrated by an MC who played tunes, joked and pirouetted like an automaton, Brad wondered briefly what he was doing there. This was music for his parents’ generation–and indeed Henry and Elsa were animatedly filling in their quiz sheets. But then Brad recognized a tune, called excitedly to Terry, and then they were both engrossed in the competition.
Terry, perhaps because of her parents, turned out to know more of the songs, and Brad concentrated on filling out the score sheet. The quiz ended, he hurriedly completed the sheet, then Terry grabbed his hand, and they rushed out to the MC together, just coming second to another couple. The applause from the audience felt good; Brad bowed, and gave Terry’s broad shoulders a squeeze. They were almost a couple. They could do things together. They really could.
On the promenade deck, afterwards, Brad chatted with Terry while their parents walked ahead. It turned out that the young woman was a tour guide taking visitors around the sights near Calgary. “It’s kind of a busman’s holiday for me here,” she said ruefully.
“Why don’t you propose another kind of holiday?” Brad suggested.
Terry looked down, and Brad was surprised to see that she was biting her lip. “What is it?” he asked with genuine concern. He patted her shoulder tenderly. “What’s the matter?”
Terry flashed an angry glance at him. “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see how hard it is, keeping everything going, keeping all that” she gestured to the islands on the horizon “out there? Keeping everyone sane?”
Brad stepped back in shock. “What…? What do you mean?”
Terry, her hands on her ample hips, looked at him in disdain. Then, as Brad opened and closed his mouth, she seemed to relent. “You really don’t understand,” she said, more softly. “We’re here for generations–God knows if we, our descendants, will ever get there–and we have to make the best of it we can.”
Then, as if he were a child, she drew him gently to the rail. The breeze gusted, blowing her hair over her eyes. She drew the hair back, then with the same hand pointed to the horizon. “Look!”
Brad looked. He saw the islands, interspersed with channels in the grey sea, ever-changing and always the same. He looked down to the sea, eighty feet below the rail, and saw how it curved up towards the horizon, and how the grey sky, mirroring the sea, in its turn curved up overhead, sea and sky forming a gigantic cylinder through which the great vessel ploughed on and on seemingly without progressing. And that cylinder itself journeyed through what vast spaces?
His eye fell on a crew member nearby, who stood watching them, neither curious nor attentive, just there. He recalled the two waiters, the way the voyage itself seemed never to have had a beginning, the dimness of the memories of his former life. And he understood.
They had finally arrived in Vancouver–or at least the semblance of the mountains and broad harbor of that city was visible from the windows. Brad had packed; his luggage was in the holding area, and he was waiting for disembarkation in the Vista lounge with the Ullmans among the crowd of other passengers. The mood was subdued. This was, seemingly, the end of the holiday, the parting from friends made during the cruise.
A solitary child had wandered over from a neighboring table. Brad said, “Hi.” The child looked at him with soulful eyes, then wandered back.
“Too few children, always too few,” Henry muttered to himself.
“Well,” Elsa said, “I do hope we haven’t bored you, Brad.” She was looking at him earnestly, almost quivering.
Brad mumbled, not at all. He had enjoyed the cruise, he really had.
“Of course he has, Mom,” Terry broke in. “Who wouldn’t enjoy dancing with you?”
Brad roused himself, and said what a pleasure it had been to get to know them. He had learnt a lot–he nodded at Henry–not just about dancing. He glanced at Terry, but she was engrossed in her handbag. Brad hoped they could keep in touch.
Henry cleared his throat. “You know, we’re going on another cruise.”
“Yes!” Elsa broke in excitedly. “Around the Aegean. Think of it–warm seas and sunshine after this northern gloom!”
Brad asked how they would get there. How was the plane?
“There is no plane,” Henry said quietly.
“No, that’s the beauty of it,” Elsa said excitedly. “The cruise ship just keeps on cruising!”
Brad thought of the distance from Vancouver to the Aegean, the impossible distance. For a moment, his reality wavered. But he just said, “That’s very nice.”
“What Mom means,” Terry said quietly, “is, would you like to come with us?”
Brad looked at them. He saw Elsa’s entreating gaze, Henry agitatedly fingering his luggage labels, Terry, her handbag forgotten, looking at him directly.
Brad glanced around the lounge–the passengers quietly talking or just staring at the wall, with nowhere to go. The attendants watching, always watching, for the slip that would let them take you out of the whole thing. For a moment panic rose in him–he wanted to rebel, to shout his defiance, to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. But Terry was still gazing at him with quiet confidence. Was that a smile playing on her lips?
“Why not?” he said. And as with a little cry Elsa embraced him, he saw Terry truly smile.
By Michael Siciliano
I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suites, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.
I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Shiny Oxfords complete the ensemble.
Where am I?
I turn my head from side to side. Plain walls, evenly-spaced doors and room placards, stand stoic guard down carpeted corridors. Each side is a mirror of the other. Ceiling-mounted lights illuminate the carpet’s brown and black diamond pattern. Clean and orderly. A five-star hotel, four at the least. But which one, and how did I get here?
A worse question occurs to me, one that drives out the others. Who am I? My name is there, ready to be taken but each time I reach for it, it slithers away like a wriggling eel.
Think, damn it. Think.
My mind bumps into one wall after another. It’s an awful feeling. Lost, helpless, insecure. The answers are beyond those walls but they’re impenetrable, inscrutable, silent.
I push myself up, stand on stiff limbs, and gaze at the painting again.
A pinprick of memory stabs through the wall. I owned this painting, or rather a reproduction of it. Sunday afternoon on some island I’d never heard of. I made an important decision, a life changing one, while staring at this painting. I squeeze my eyes closed, take in the darkness, and reach for the full memory. All I get are the dregs. Nevertheless, they’re powerful. There’s a bone-deep sadness there, a twinge of fatalistic resolve, and even a little curiosity. Despite their power, I can’t resolve these feelings into anything concrete.
My hands tremble as I smooth down the wrinkles on my dress shirt.
The hallway is quiet. Not even the sound of guests, ambient street noise or the ever-present buzz of hotel air-conditioning. I stand there concentrating, listening. I make out the faint electric hum of the hallway light bulbs. It’s like I’m in the vacuum of space, where sound waves die unheard, and the hum is my spacesuit keeping me alive in an airless void.
Sudden inspiration has me patting my jacket. I find a pair of glasses in my breast pocket but ignore them. I almost weep with relief when my hand comes down on the bulge of a wallet in the inner pocket of my jacket. I pull it out. It’s a dark leather like the chair, but more worn. Soft and pliable, where the chair had some strength left. Barely breathing, I rip it open. Inside is a driver’s license, credit cards, and a hundred dollars in twenties.
The license says my name is Jacob Sheppard. Jake. It doesn’t feel right. My name should fit, shouldn’t it? It should feel as uniquely mine as my hand or foot.
The picture on my license is of a man in his late thirties. Pale skin. Dark reddish hair. Trimmed mustache and beard, blue eyes framed by glasses. A hand to my face confirms the mustache and beard. I rub at it, feeling the soft facial hair.
The credit cards are mine too if the silver lettering is to be believed.
I still can’t dredge up anything about myself and it turns my stomach sour. A hundred hastily-formed explanations coalesce and then melt into oblivion under scrutiny until only one remains.
I’ve had an aneurism or something similarly catastrophic. I need medical help.
“All right. All right,” I mumble, tamping down the panic. “Go get help. There’s plenty of people who can help.”
Turning to the right, I see elevator doors. Taped to one of them is a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Scrawled on it, in dark green crayon, are two words.
The message is for me, I’m sure of it, so I snatch it off the door, fold it and jam it in my pocket.
Gratitude and fear mix. The second word is ominous, but someone’s guiding me and that bolsters my courage.
I take the elevator down and when the doors glide open, I look out on an empty lobby. Sunlight pours in through tall plate-glass windows. The striated marble floor, buffed to a high shine, reflects the glare.
The elevator dings, prompting me to step out. I take two tentative ones and peer around.
The reception desk has no one behind it, but above in gold lettering is the name Cheshire Hotel. It means nothing to me, and there is nothing familiar about the empty lounge bar, or the abandoned concierge desk. The entire lobby appears pristine, the smell of some lemon-scented product hanging in the air. The hum of the ceiling’s florescent lights are my only company.
“Hello?” My cracked voice echoes about the lobby, rebounding off the walls and empty furniture. I clear my throat and try again. “Is anyone here?”
No answer. The hotel can’t be closed, and there’s no sign of it being under renovation. It’s midday or at least looks like it. There must be guests in the rooms above, and if there are, there must be hotel staff to cater to them, but no one’s around.
I find the phone at the concierge desk, pick up the handset, and listen. No ring tone at all. I try dialing, but the buttons don’t produce tones. So much for calling nine-one-one.
The emptiness and silence gives me the creeps. I’m like a lone man wandering the interior of a snow globe.
Outside, parked cars line the street and more buildings stand tall across the way, but there are no pedestrians. And worse, no traffic. Not a single car, minivan, or box truck passes. There are no waiting vehicles at the intersection.
My blood runs cold. Has there been some disaster? A chemical weapon attack? If that were the case, there’d be evidence of panic, of chaos, and there is none. Fear washes through me, and I force myself to turn away from the windows. The hotel lobby must have some clue to make sense of this hollow madness.
A flash of bright yellow catches my eye by the check-in counter. It’s out of place in a room so meticulously orderly and clean. Another piece of construction paper lays crooked on the hardwood surface. I hurry over to it and read. The words Saint Mary’s Confessional and Hurry are scrawled in that same handwriting.
Another memory breaks through. I made a confession to a priest, but not in a church. He was a small man, wizened and wrinkled, with kind eyes. Soft hands enclosed one of mine on a hospital bed. Reluctantly, I confessed to a series of illegal acts. I should’ve been guilty but all I felt was pride and a touch of fear. What if he broke our confidence and told someone? He wouldn’t do that, would he?
The crisp construction paper folds neatly and I tuck it away beside the first. These notes are my only clue. They’ve been left for me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Without anything else to go on, it’d be foolish to ignore them.
All right. I’ll find Saint Mary’s.
A map on the concierge desk names the city Larenden. It means nothing to me.
I unfold the map, lay it on the desk and smooth out the creases. The city is a grid. Avenues run east/west and streets north/south. Doesn’t take me long to find the Cheshire Hotel. Another thirty seconds to find Saint Mary’s. It’s twelve blocks west and four south. Not difficult at all, but I decide to take the map in case a problem arises.
A disturbing thought hits me as I make my way to the entryway. What if I’m locked in? An image of me tossing a chair at one of the windows comes to mind, but when I push on the door’s bar it swings open.
A shroud hangs over the city. It feels like I’m deaf.
The dry, crisp air of an autumn day, scented by automobile fumes, closes around me. It is the odor of every city and it’s comforting in a way. Though there is no traffic there must have been recently. I inhale deeply and cough it back out.
The faded street sign on the corner marks the avenue in front of me as twenty-eighth and the cross-street as Darby. I orient myself, turning west on twenty-eighth and stride in that direction. All the while, my eyes dart from side to side looking for someone, anyone. The streets, and all the shops I pass, are deserted.
For all I know, I could be the last man on Earth. I don’t know what that’d feel like, but not this. As contradictory as it seems, I feel claustrophobic out in the open, phonophobic in dead silence.
I watch the traffic lights change as I walk, clicking from green to yellow to red. At the corner of twenty-eighth and Galice, the faintly-illuminated red palm on the opposite side pauses me.
It occurs to me I know the basics. What a hotel is and how it runs. What buildings and automobiles are? How a city should look, sound, and smell. I knew what a phone was and I knew to dial nine-one-one for help. And I know that a red palm means to stop. It’s like someone took an eraser to my brain, but strategically left knowledge that I’d need to survive. That implies someone did this to me on purpose and that feels like paranoia so I put it out of my mind.
I’ve moved on to Benton Street when I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. My heart leaps. Something low to the ground slides smoothly between parked cars. It might be a dog. I break into a trot and close on it. At this point, even a dog would be a relief.
It boils out of the space between a blue minivan’s rear bumper and the front fender of a white VW bug. A cloud of roiling, opaque smoke hovering six inches above the pavement. It’s dark gray and angry. Neon-blue electric flares flick out of it like tiny lightning bolts. My heart jolts as if hit by one of them and I come to an abrupt halt. My initial thought is that it’s some bizarre weather phenomenon, but that’s dashed as the floater moves to intercept me.
Shock holds me paralyzed until it gets close enough to touch. The hairs on the back of my neck spike. The floater makes a sound like angry surf pounding a shore, and lunges at my legs. I cry out and backpedal, but too slowly. Where the smoke touches my legs pricks of pain heighten to lances. I curse, take another step back and kick at it with all my might. My dress shoe passes through it, and electric shocks stab at my foot, but it rears back as if I’ve hurt it.
I don’t know the rules of this engagement. None of it makes sense, but I know when I’ve injured an enemy.
I steady myself and when the floater comes for me again, I kick. Another angry wave emanates from it but this time the electric shock to my foot and ankle is so severe, I lose balance and fall to the cracked pavement. The floater dissociates in front of me as I lay mesmerized. Curls of smoke lift into the breeze, separate and vanish again and again until there’s nothing left. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Trembling, I stand and test the foot. The pain has died down and it can take my weight, but my shoe looks like someone took a scouring pad to it. The laces are scorched. I shudder to think what that thing would have done to my bare skin.
The floaters must be the key to this whole thing, and there must be more. One of those creatures couldn’t depopulate an entire city, not when I dispersed it with a few kicks. Now I have an enemy. Though this isn’t good news, it’s better than gnawing, uncertainty.
I hurry down the street, passing empty shops and buildings, scanning the way ahead for more floaters. The sign for a sporting goods store, Sports One, appears ahead. I’d be better off with a weapon. I try the front door and it’s open. The interior is dark. A cursory glance at the register shows I’m alone. Racks of men’s and women’s exercise clothes create a commercial labyrinth. In the back, footballs, basketballs and baseballs are arrayed on a wall. Beside them is what I’m looking for. A wooden baseball bat. Wood won’t conduct electricity. I grab one, step away from the rack and take a smooth practice swing. It makes a satisfying swish through the air.
I used to play baseball, but not outside. No one does that anymore. I played virtually like everyone else and was on a team. I was a pretty good second baseman. I remember that now. I have a decent arm, but was a flop as a pitcher.
Frustrated, I grind my teeth. I remember baseball, but not where I am or how I got here. It’s maddening.
Unease hits me when I pass the register. It feels strange to leave without paying, so I fish out a twenty and drop it on the counter. I don’t know if anyone will find it but the thought of shoplifting disgusts me.
Before leaving I peer out the window and freeze. Two floaters glide along the sidewalk and halt, hovering over the place where the first dispersed. Their inscrutable alien appearance makes my skin crawl. The construction paper messages said to hurry, but making a mad dash for it seems reckless. I have to play it smart.
I skulk in the shadows, watching as they circle the crime scene. The floaters split up. One goes north, the other south.
Taking the opportunity, I slip out, and continue toward Saint Mary’s at a jog.
At twenty-sixth and Taylor, I’m spotted again and by the time I run two blocks west there are four floaters behind me. Each of them skim over the dirty pavement, roiling and bubbling like miniature storm clouds.
My breath is labored now, forced through heaving lungs. I run full out for a hundred yards only to stop and bend, leaning on my bat, free hand resting on a knee while I gasp for air. I’m not overweight, but I’m definitely out of shape.
I turn south once more, cutting through the empty tables of a sidewalk café. Flimsy chairs clatter to the bricks when I bull my way through. I glance back over my shoulder. They’re gaining on me.
Sunlight dims when real clouds, thick scudding white ones, ten thousand feet up, obscure the sun. It’s like they’ve sided with their smaller, more vicious, brethren.
A floater glides around the corner at twenty-fifth and Taylor, cutting me off. My heart lurches. They have to be communicating somehow. I swivel my head seeking an escape route. There are plenty of buildings I could hide in, but I’d just trap myself unless there’s an unlocked back entrance. A sixth and seventh cloud round the corner ahead of me.
My Oxfords clap on the asphalt, and my thigh muscles burn with fatigue, as I sprint across the street toward an alleyway between a restaurant and a hair salon. The alley is shrouded in shadow. If it’s a dead end, I’ll have to turn and fight. Maybe keeping all of them in front of me will help, but there’s seven of them, and I don’t like the odds.
The thought of being cornered sends panicky flares through my mind. Even with the bat, I can’t fight seven floaters. They’ll rush me all at once. I’ve never been prey before. A dark encroaching dread sends the pit of my stomach sinking. The floaters are intelligent and must be planning my demise in an incomprehensible alien language. How can I survive such odds?
If a virus, hunted by antibodies, could think and feel, it’d feel like me.
The alley turns right, herding me south as it narrows. I skid to a halt at a back door that must belong to the hair salon, but it’s locked tight. I curse, wrenching at the handle and consider trying to smash my way in with the bat, but that’d take too long. A glance behind me shows a darkening fog of cloud creatures coming my way.
I race to the end of the alley and find it blocked by a chain-link fence. Through the diamond shaped links I see dim sunlight reflecting off the darkened asphalt of twenty-fifth avenue. I heave the bat over the fence and it clatters to the pavement on the other side. I jam the toe of one shoe into the fence and lift myself up. The Oxfords chafe and I wish I had thought to grab running shoes in Sports One.
I scramble to the top of the fence and watch in horror as the floaters mill about underneath me. Despite the fact they can hover, it doesn’t look like they can fly.
An ungainly lurch from the top of the fence sends me to the dirty pavement on the opposite side. I land with a jolt and a lance of pain shoots through my left ankle. Grimacing in pain, I reach for the bat, but pull my hand back when the floaters begin to flow through the fence. Dark gray smoke puffs out through the gaps, expanding on my side, as if they are forcing themselves through. Cursing, I abandon my weapon, and limp to the end of the alley.
By the time I get to the street, my twisted ankle has dulled to a low throb. Adrenaline and cortisol must be flowing through me in gallons.
I glance around and see no floaters. I’ve caught a break.
In the distance, the majestic bell-tower of Saint Mary’s glints tall and white in the sun. My safety, and the explanation for all of this, awaits me there. I hope.
When I get to the steps of the cathedral, my lungs feel like they’re going to explode. I stop, put both hands on my knees, and draw in a big lungful of air. I peer behind me and my jaw drops.
I can’t count the number of floaters moving toward me. There are too many.
I barrel up the steps, praying all the while that the doors are unlocked. I grab one of the ornate handles and pull. It swings open and I dash inside, over a vestibule’s crimson carpet, and through a second set of doors into the nave.
The interior is beautiful. Colored light from stained-glass windows bathe deep rosewood pews and a spotless marble floor. High arches, at least thirty feet over my head, cascade into the distance. I choose an aisle and hurry down until I see the confessional off to my left in the transept. There’s a bright yellow piece of construction paper taped to the entrance.
I yank it off the door and unfold it. More dark green crayon.
Don’t be afraid, it reads. There’s a light inside. Touch it and you will understand everything.
Don’t be afraid. The phrase triggers another memory.
I was in an operating room laying on a gurney. A chubby-faced nurse was connecting wires to implants in my brain. She said don’t be afraid. The absurdity of it angered me. Of course I was afraid. Telling me not to be didn’t help. A malignant brain tumor was months away from killing me. My only hope was a new and dangerous procedure called an extraction. What could be more frightening?
An extraction. The details elude me, but I can make assumptions on what that might entail, and it doesn’t comfort me one bit.
The loud surf-pounding noise of the floaters breaks me out of my rumination. It echoes through the cathedral, calling to me.
I throw open the confessional’s door, step inside and slam it shut.
Directly in front of me, a rip in the world hangs in mid-air, an open wound on reality. Fuzzy violet light streams from it, like a black light. My eyes tear and my stomach does queasy flips when I try to peer through the glare.
Instinct tells me to get as far away from this thing as possible, but I need to understand.
Gritting my teeth, I move forward, and thrust my hand inside.
It pulls me in like I weigh nothing. My mouth opens in a silent scream.
The world is data. I am data.
A maelstrom of information swirls around me, every bit as violent and aggressive as a hurricane. The force of it is too strong, and I am overwhelmed. I attempt to close my eyes only to realize I have none. There are no such base things as eyes, ears or hearts in this place. No corporeal tissue to live, die and rot. No brains to be eaten by cancer.
I reach into the tempest and imagine what I want. It doesn’t so much appear before me as meld with me.
Jake Sheppard. Born July 12, 2235 in Dueron, South Nebraska, American Confederacy, to Abel and Judy Sheppard. Never married. Parental application rejected 2257. Profession: Neuro-Programmer. Extracted: November 20, 2286. Died January 23, 2287. Cause of Death: Inoperable Glioblastoma Multiforme.
Extracted. There’s that word again. I search for it and the answer melts into me.
Extraction: A procedure developed by Dr. Lihwa Tseung and Dr. Lindsay Barnam in which a patient’s consciousness—their memories and associations—are transferred/translated into digital format and stored for future use.
The realization of what I am sends me spinning, and for a moment I question my existence. I feel sick, like I need to vomit, but I don’t have a body. I shouldn’t have physical reactions.
I’m a copy of Jake Sheppard extracted two months before his death.
I want my memories back, every last one. As if on cue, the maelstrom of information slows and envelops me like a cocoon, seeping in, combining with me. I attempt to categorize and sort the memories and their inter-connections. As I do, my understanding grows.
I’m in a virtual space called Dimensions. It’s not really a game, though some treat it as such. It’s a simulated environment, or rather seventy-three thousand different ones, where users interact with one another and decide for themselves how to use the space. Larenden is one of them.
Several years before my death, I sampled Dimensions, enjoyed myself and soon became deeply immersed. The virtual world held adventures, excitement and delights that the real one did not. And like any addict, I let my real life crumble around me while I indulged.
Not long after, the seizures began and I was diagnosed with multiple malignant brain tumors. I was terminal. When I was informed, and treatment was suggested, I realized the best case scenario would leave me weak and rotting on a hospital bed for my last few months. That’s not how I wanted to live out the rest of my life so I refused treatment. I sank into a morose depression until one day, encased in my bodysuit, wires connected to my implants, I realized the answer was in front of me the whole time, and I was qualified to pull it off.
As a former Neuro-programmer, I was aware of the developments in my field. Extraction emerged and became a controversial technology, banned by the government until further study, and reviled by every major religious group. But I was undeterred. I used my contacts. I begged, borrowed, and in one case stole the money I needed to have myself illegally extracted, and digitally smuggled into Dimensions.
Jake Sheppard died in his sleep at Hettering Medical Center, but a copy of me lived on in the virtual world. Immortality. Or as long as Dimensions’ vast server array remained operational.
I frolicked among the environments, enjoying a pain-free existence while pretending to be a live user. I became a true ghost in the machine. How long that went on, I don’t know. Time has a different feel in the virtual world.
I must have been reckless at some point and tripped a security measure. Dimensions’s anti-viral program kicked in and hunted me. But I wasn’t some half-assed Direct Action or Polymorphic virus. I was a living, thinking human being and initially evaded them.
I could have made a copy of myself, like a true virus, but the concept disturbed me to such a degree that I discarded the notion. Though I existed because the original Jake Sheppard copied himself, it was only out of necessity. The human body is fragile and easily destroyed. Data is not. I wanted to make a backup of myself in case I was caught, but was threatened by the idea of another me. A copy would feel the same way.
Dimensions’s anti-viral program has an intelligence of its own. Not a sophisticated one, but still smart. They learned my tricks and trapped me in Larenden. Or so they thought. I discovered a way out. I could slip out of Larenden unnoticed among all the routine data traffic during an administrator’s reboot. From there, I could hop to another environment and lie low until the obnoxious little floaters went back to hunting uploaded patch viruses.
I wreaked havoc in Larenden. Destroying and modifying code, trying to force the administrator’s hand, all the while evading the anti-viral program. This random vandalism placed the environment ‘under maintenance’, but didn’t cause the reboot I needed. It became clear I’d have to find a way to do it myself, and I did, but it takes time to break through the security routines. Time the anti-viral program won’t give me.
The only way to survive was to hide my code amid the background of the city, confusing their attempts to find me. But they adapted, and sought my computational thought patterns. There was only one reasonable response to this. Change my thought patterns. It was tantamount to lobotomizing myself with the hope of reversing the effects later. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
I gave an encryption key to a copy of me, but stripped the copy of all traceable memories, leaving only enough to propel him to the conference room of Bright Star Bank. Once there, he saw the tear in the world and merged with it, unlocking my full personality. I almost succeeded. The anti-viral program showed up at the last moment and forced me to try again from a different location.
A health food store named Brain Foods, the stairwell of the Shinju Office building, a run-down bowling alley, Selek parking garage, and now Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
I break through seven of the ten security walls meant to keep hackers out of administrative functions before the floaters arrive. It’s an improvement. Last time I only managed six. I create a simulacrum of myself, bristling with fake defenses, but hollow on the inside. A decoy. When the anti-viral program attacks it, I slip away.
Where to next? A closer location. Sports One. I find it in the programming and make another rip in the world, right beside where I took the bat. I can’t risk large coding changes in any one location so I place my drone back in the Cheshire Hotel and leave notes on the elevator door, the reception desk and in Sports One. Lastly, I change the character’s dress shoes into sneakers. Every little bit helps.
In one of these iterations, he will get to the rift with enough time for me to break through the security walls. Once that’s accomplished, I’ll force a reboot and escape.
I’m alive, and I want to continue living.
I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suits, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.
I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Oddly, I’m wearing sneakers.
Where am I?
How Many Angels?
By Nicholas Stillman
Two of the three experimenters learned that God exists and that He values human life. They made this greatest of scientific discoveries almost an hour ago. Conrad remained outside the capsule in the atmospheric suit, delivering last month’s results. Technically the most isolated man alive, he still didn’t know. Chase sat stunned and staring on the flattened padding of his swivel chair where he practically lived for eight years. Millet, however, spent most of the hour with the lab rats.
“I still can’t believe it,” Chase said to the tiny screens nearly pressed to face. “I mean, I believe it, but…you know what I mean. The shock won’t leave. God exists. And He values human life.”
Millet stretched in his chair and tried not to bump into anything important–which meant everything. He felt no awe, only a steady joint stiffness from eight years of this capsular confinement. He felt the months of training in the test tank stacked on his bones too, that cramped, extra time required for a psychological evaluation. The discovery of God hadn’t done much for him to relieve the cravings for space and freedom.
He also still had work to do, preferably with some grace now that you-know-who watched for sure. He exhaled extra hard at the curved wall of the capsule, the experiment station which immured him and his two colleagues. His long sigh seemed almost visible, for in here the breath always bounced back to the breather. The rows of switches and gauges numbered in the hundreds just in the small patch of wall pushed up to Millet’s face. It looked the same everywhere. The three experimenters lived in a squalid eggshell of controls which, like the men, clustered in the smallest space achievable by science.
Millet left his chair–everyone’s chair–and clambered around Chase to the opposite side of the capsule. He pressed his hand down on Chase’s shoulder twice. It lessened the risk of toppling while he maneuvered half stooped. Despite the paper-thin tawny coveralls they wore, the balding environmental technician didn’t notice. He kept gazing slack-jawed at the onscreen data, the proof of God. No one reacted to getting used as a crutch forty times a day anyway.
Still hunched, Millet leaned toward the little station of the capsule he could call his. He didn’t have to walk to it, but just bend closer to the segment of wall with the greasier controls. There at stooped chest level, the row of three lunchbox-sized chambers remained closed. Their black doors still gleamed a little in the fluorescent light, despite eight years of accumulating smudged fingerprints. One chamber never got used; it served as a backup. The other two each contained a live rat.
Millet knew this despite how the chambers forbade a single photon to enter or leave with the doors closed. He had sealed the rats in there himself. Nonetheless, a little white light above each door indicated “filled” or “unfilled.” They helped on those dreary days when Millet forgot what work he had done earlier. No one would need the idiot lights today, though, nor ponder over Schrödinger’s cat problems. No one forgets anything on the day man discovers God.
Now, Millet threw the switches in the long sequence which always annoyed him. He had done it exactly 24,000 times before. Even Chase could probably flick the switches in order just from hearing the constant rhythm of snaps and seeing the procedure peripherally.
Over the years, however, only Millet ran the chambers. He pushed the flashing red button a final time and heard the expected buzz muffled by the middle chamber door. A hissing sound followed. Whatever mist remained of the vaporized rat now suctioned away into a vast tank below the capsule.
He killed the last rat the eight-year experiment required. This final death punctuated mankind’s greatest discovery. As always, Millet leaned his forehead on a familiar bit of wall oddly devoid of buttons and dials. The spot cooled his head briefly, a relief from the sudden heat of the chamber doors. While bending his head today, Millet wished he could vow to never harm another animal. But he couldn’t.
“Twenty-four thousand and one rats,” Chase said without looking. “Congratulations.”
The last rat to die served as a post-experiment test of the equipment. Millet, although having killed so many, still felt a pang in his gut. The cruelty of man’s thoroughness had created both the God box and witch burnings.
All the other rats, though, through their deaths combined, squeezed out a message to God in His dimension. By killing so many sentient animals in perfect timing, man had asked God if He values human life. A response at all meant that God necessarily exists.
Millet mustered a smile at the wall, for he at least had that answer. The experimenters gained irrefutable proof. God had sung a reply to every rat which asked a quantum snippet of the question, and He had ignored the rats man intended for Him to ignore.
Each rat had to exist in a witness or no-witness state at their individual times of death. The states measured God’s responses in a sort-of quantum Morse code. A rat functioned as a bit, a zero or a one in God’s eyes, potentially. The brief observance of God by a rat left a different reading than a death with God choosing to hide. For reasons Conrad understood much better than Millet, the animals had to die in a matter of Planck seconds for a reliable measurement. Hence the vaporization.
Only at the experiment’s end could the team look at the data and see that God’s message had gotten through. He had let some of the dead rats observe Him as man requested, with each assigned rat “witnessing” God in His own dimension for a Planck second. The readings pieced together a message to and from Him one death at a time. Though the rats didn’t have time to truly perceive the Almighty, God certainly saw them, and the machines recorded the blip of interaction.
Millet did some standing push-ups off two of the chamber doors. After eight years of staying blind to it all, he and Chase now knew the results before any other people alive or who had ever lived.
“God exists,” Chase droned again. “And he values human life.”
Chase rubbed his big, oily forehead. His hairline raced back a bit every time he did so. At least Millet believed it did. At times, he felt bored enough to imagine his own hair growing an atom at a time.
“Think of all His power,” Chase said. “He can live in a dimension where nothing can live. He reacts in one Planck unit of time–an eternity between each of our rat deliveries.”
“I’ll think about it later,” Millet replied.
Millet opened the leftmost chamber and gently picked up the white, panicky rat inside. He closed the door and let the rodent scurry from one hand to another.
“I guess we all have plenty to think about,” Millet continued. He stared at the back of Chase’s head, at the thick ring of hair struggling to stay there. “Maybe you’ll write the first of many new bibles to come.”
Chase said something in the dreamy drone of a stoned philosopher. Millet ignored him as he had learned to ignore the capsule’s stuffy air. He crept two steps to another control station and turned a saucer-sized dial. The whole time, the rat screeched and squirmed in the cage of his fingers. Millet looked from his guilty free hand to Chase’s oblivious head and back to the dial. The needle on the gauge below it settled into the red zone. Red meant death for the man in the atmospheric suit outside.
The white rat screeched again, and Chase turned to look. Something hot fell into Millet’s hand. The rodent urinated. They often did, and a hand made a better basin than the already sticky capsule floor.
“Not going to kill that one?” Chase asked as he folded his fingers behind his head.
“No need,” Millet said. “This one served as a backup in case the final chamber test failed, which it didn’t.”
“Well,” Chase said with a mild smirk, “vaporizing him would save a trip all the way back to the cage hall.”
“Yeah,” Millet replied. He faked a reciprocal grin. “But I like this one, the luckiest rat in the universe.”
Chase turned in his swivel chair, and only then did Millet step away from the atmospheric suit controls. Among all these dials, Chase would probably miss the one currently set to kill Conrad. Ironically, the buzz of hearing from an omniscient God kept him distracted.
Millet hoped so, anyway. Conrad, their superior, the quantum physics doyen, truly deserved to die. He shall asphyxiate in the suit wondering if one colleague killed him or both. He shall die alone in this strange pocket of reality not knowing just yet if man had found God.
Millet took half a step and opened a heavy steel door. Everyone wished for an even thicker door because the smell beyond somehow slipped through it. Rat urine and droppings.
Rat urine and droppings. Rat urine and droppings. It soaked into the old paper shavings and produced an added wet-sock smell. After years of Conrad’s torments, Millet didn’t mind so much. He braced and let the wall of stench waft out and hit him. Then, out of kindness toward Chase, he slid into the rat hall and slammed the door behind him.
The hall beyond had rat cages for walls, thousands of one-square-foot identical pens. A stack of six cages reached the ceiling, and a grid of these ran interminably down the hall on both sides. Millet–and only ever Millet because he handled the rats–had to walk sideways just to fit between them. A single row of fluorescent tubes lit up the ceiling for as far as anyone could see. Chase and Conrad came in here once a month, and only to hold their breath and stare down the hallway. It relieved the eyestrain caused by the cramped capsule and the three-man sleep closet. It reminded the men that greater distance existed at all.
The rats, one to a cage, toiled in their paper shavings. The mass-produced bedding, which Millet regularly vacuumed out and replaced, kept their tooth growth in check and soaked up their biowastes. Small enough shreds fell through the mesh floors of the higher cages and through the mesh ceilings of the lower ones. The daily rain of balled-up waste reminded Millet of the hierarchy which pinned him here. He took orders from a hundred bosses above him, with all their demands foisted via Conrad. The susurrus of the rats, as they ran in circles and chewed, formed their own sort of protest.
“Don’t complain, y’all,” Millet mumbled to the thin band of a hallway. “You live better than we live. And you die better than we die. You have a God of your own.”
Millet held up the rat in his hand. Its beady pink eyes could never sense mercy, and the place still reeked. God or no God, only that mattered most days.
Millet handled the rats. He had taken on far more tasks than those prescribed by the Science Institute eight years ago. At the behest of his two superiors in the capsule, he had to deal with the rat odor problem or at least try. Only the trying seemed possible, and everyone knew that. Conrad had never flat-out deputed him to pick up individual rat droppings and package them far down the hall. Nor had the chief demanded that Millet scrape every bar of every cage floor with his fingernails. But Conrad had fiendishly implied these things.
Why? Because it degraded another man. It defiled God’s living property.
Millet sidled several meters down the hall and carefully placed the squirming rat back in its cage. He closed the little door and wiped his hands on an alcohol-based sanitizing cloth. He had hung the wipe in advance by poking a corner of it through the cage wall. Millet now pulled the cloth out and pocketed it in his coveralls so the rat would not chew it up and poison itself.
In today’s rush to read the experimental results, Millet only had time to wash one armpit. A capsule wash meant a hard wipe down with these disposable cloths. Millet felt tempted to finish the job in here, even with rat urine on the rag.
He mustered a long sigh and wished the rats understood what everything meant. No more of them would get bred and fed for vaporization. These ones served as spares in case a rat pandemic killed several hundred. Mankind took the God experiment quite seriously.
No such rat plague broke out over the eight-year message to God. When the capsule returns home in another month, any contingency rats will become classroom pets. For now, though, the rats belonged to Millet.
He returned to the capsule door, dragging his hands along the cage walls. Some of the rats would startle from his fingers rattling by, and that tiny interaction had to count for something. It would jar their boredom for a second. Maybe God would smile.
The rats had emboldened Millet, despite their pervading stench that so irked the great humans. Killing thousands of things with eyes, with their pink hearts in their eyes, had desensitized him. He had, over the years, vaporized enough life daily to build up to murdering Conrad.
Millet slipped into the capsule and closed the door with his usual speed and expertise. This time, he didn’t feel the habitual reluctance for returning here. The place became visibly roomier without Conrad, like a refrigerator just cleaned out. Millet inhaled the sweet air as though a big window had opened. Even with the salty aroma of unbathed skin, the eggshell smelled like another universe apart from the rat hall.
Chase still stared at the switch phalanxes on the ceiling, or the dial-riddled wall, or the nothingness where Conrad normally lounged. He ignored Millet as usual. He just sat, marinating in the wonder of high school stoner philosophy talks relived all at once. God exists. And He values human life.
Millet sat in Conrad’s favorite chair. The capsule enveloped him and embodied the control-freak nature of man. The switches waited, yearning. The buttons craved fingers. They would make loud, affirming clicks to reassure man that he had control and dominance over every corner of physics. But what did any of it matter, now that they knew God ruled everything?
“I wonder what Conrad will say when he finds out,” Chase said. He spoke to the fake, blinking stars on his control grid. “I mean, he could have gone outside to send the data packet a little later. Talk about patience. Do you think…maybe we should have waited to read the final results with the three of us present?”
Millet sprang up and feigned a casual stretch.
“I don’t think he’ll mind,” Millet said.
“You don’t seem too awestruck about the discovery,” Chase said. “God exists, man. And He values human life.”
“I had years to contemplate either outcome,” Millet said. He strolled in two baby steps to a blank segment of wall, one of the few cabinets in the far-flung capsule. “I guess I already processed whatever I could. You know, thinking of every bad thing I did growing up.”
“I hear you. God–I mean gosh. All that internet porn I watched…”
Millet opened the cabinet. He did so rarely, because no real space poured out to greet him. The little compartment looked as stuffed as always with flashlights, first aid kits, and other slender emergency supplies.
Up top, mostly obscured, sat the black box with the green button–the activator. The novel-sized brick had a charming, intentional clunkiness to it. Designed for easy hookup and usage by someone in the bulky atmospheric suit, the activator reminded Millet of a cartoon remote control. It had two big sockets in one side, so even a child could plug in the heavy cables on the communications terminal outside.
Only controlled packets of information could leave the capsule walls. Likewise, only scrutinized messages got in so nothing could contaminate or influence the experiment. The quest for God forbade games of telephone.
“Don’t forget to take the activator when you head out there,” Millet said.
“I won’t,” Chase sighed. “Jeez, can’t I have a moment to appreciate God, our potential creator?”
Chase joked, but Millet thought up a serious reply anyway.
“Back home, some would argue you had your whole life to appreciate Him.”
“Yeah,” Chase mused, “you have to wonder what God will think of the stragglers. Heck, it will take decades more of these excruciatingly slow experiments to learn what He thinks of anything. Did He partake in the writing of any of our holy books? Does He want organized religion or iconoclasm? Does He smell the ‘sweet smoke’ of all those rats you zapped, or does it make Him sneeze?”
Millet tried to shake those questions out of his head, out of the whole capsule. He wanted to declutter the cabinet for easier access to the activator. But cramming everything back in would require a sort of game of 3D Tetris.
He closed the cabinet and fell in Conrad’s seat again. His head felt sandy. Stress sand. Some of it would never go away. Millet wondered who had the more squalid life. Himself with the supposed honor of finding God first, or the choking masses back home? He glanced at the bitty screen that still displayed the last updates packet. The number 80,000 glowed on the screen. It burned into his retinas, forming an afterimage when he closed his eyes.
Roughly 80,000 people starved to death each day from the global ash cloud and its impact on agriculture. The “Big Boom” of Yellowstone’s supervolcano gave humanity no time to build enough indoor farms. They wouldn’t help much anyway. The roads needed for supplying them lied buried in a foot of ash.
The activator worked as the second key needed to switch on a giant nuclear bomb. The subterranean explosions, if activated, would shudder the Earth and plug the supervolcano. The bomb would also shorten Earth’s lifespan by about half a billion years by irreparably altering the mantle’s lava flows. Mankind simply wanted God’s permission first. With modern experiments hinting that God might live multidimensionally, people had to know if He felt man deserved to survive by killing the planet sooner.
God had apparently answered “yes” today. But people would keep dying as the ash spewed and the world waited for proof of divinity. For the past few days, the three experimenters had squirmed more than the rats.
Millet sat in reverie until he heard three dull clacks booming through the capsule’s two-meter walls. He smiled.
Chase froze and turned only his eyes to Millet. “Did you hear that?”
Millet leaned back. He wanted to say, “Maybe God did it.”
Chase spun to the row of tiny screens at his station. Their thick glass looked almost bulletproof, designed to endure years of bored finger tapping and clumsily leaning elbows.
“Oh my God,” Chase said. “It says here Conrad just disconnected his umbilical line. Why did he do that?” He looked at the curved ceiling with its hard plastic switches hanging up there like bent stalactites. “Why did you do that, Conrad?”
Chase spun in his chair again and raised his hands as if to karate chop what little space they had. Then, he slapped the control panel.
“He’ll die,” Chase said. He waved has arms majestically at nothing in particular. “He’ll die no matter what we do.”
“I killed him, Chase,” Millet said. He gestured at the one dial set to red. Even in here, it looked so far away. “I turned his oxygen all the way off so he would die.”
“Oh, I think you know. Pick any ten reasons. Or a hundred. You’ll guess right on all of them. I think society will understand.”
Chase fell back in his seat. Though as far from society as possible, he stared at Millet with the judging eyes of many. His mouth drooped open, as though his soul leaked out there. Both men sat silently, doused in facial oil and sweat which soaked into their papery, disposable coveralls.
“You can only call a man ‘scrotum’ so many times, Chase,” Millet finally said. “Each time you beat the dog, it wants to bite you a little more. I did some crude math on the subject. I merely took a few hours off his life for each time he called me ‘scrotum.’
“You know, he could have kept banging on the capsule, and you probably would have seen his low oxygen reading and fixed it. But then he’d live to make it back here–with me. Disconnecting his umbilical line seems safer, I’d say. Chase, did you really want someone like Conrad talking to God officially, on the payroll, dripping with money, out of all the devoted, chaste, innocent worshipers on Earth?”
Chase continued to gawk. He looked like he had taken too huge of a hit from a bong. Finally, he rubbed his huge forehead and brought his right forearm down like a lever.
“Millet, why did you commit murder when you know God exists? You will have to answer to a God who just told us He values human life. Our whole experiment asked Him that one question, over eight years, and you couldn’t wait another goddamn month to get away from Conrad?”
“As bad as it sounds,” Millet said, “the murder has more than a touch of extra sacredness now. We don’t know if God will punish me or not. But if He does, just knowing about that upcoming punishment makes every second of life more precious and stretched out. I did something no man has ever done. Experimenters do that, Chase. Maybe God appreciates a man who stands up for himself. We don’t know.”
“We do know God values human life.”
“But a man like Conrad cuts years off of other people’s lives by adding pernicious stress. The Science Institute would probably give Conrad a sinecure to run more experiments. Eight years with him in charge might drive some co-workers to suicide. I did God a favor.
“Back home they’ll view us as primacy, as God’s angels, the first men to talk to Him with any evidence of doing so. Can you imagine the citizenry emulating Conrad? The world will improve without his apotheosis. Maybe God wanted him as far from man as possible. I didn’t even plan for him to disconnect the suit.”
He had planned on Chase using one suit, the spare, to haul the other back into the airlock. He had planned on feeding Conrad’s corpse to the rats, a few grams to each cage.
Chase laughed silently at the ceiling. “Angels? You’ll leave this prison of ours only to enter another one.”
“I figure I’ll serve only a few years. Prison will smell like Heaven. They have sinks and taps in jail, you know. Time will blow by, especially after eight years in this kettle with Conrad. Or, if the time feels stretched out, I’ll enjoy not having to answer to God yet. Hell or no Hell, the food will taste great.”
“I don’t know about food for murderers,” Chase said. “The supervolcano has a way of sorting out who deserves to eat.”
“Don’t worry about me. You just get that activator hooked up. Otherwise, 80,000 more people will die than necessary. It takes almost a day to do a round trip outside.”
“I know! I run life support. You run death support. And your job ended one rat ago.”
The quip hurt Millet’s chest a little. He hated hierarchies. He might even hate God, the ultimate hierarchy.
“I guess you get to sleep on Conrad’s spacier mattress now,” Millet said.
Millet stood and paced. Given the crampedness, it looked more like spinning. Chase half rotated in his chair–everyone’s chair–so he could still see Millet. His right hand danced over a keypad. His eyes tried to watch both the tiny screen and the entire capsule to his left.
Millet saw the familiar form of his psychological profile appear onscreen. Abbreviations jammed themselves into boxes, and units of measurement hung in four-point font at the bottom. Millet had peeped at Conrad’s file many times.
“You know, Chase,” Millet said, “we all change after eight years. Nearly all of our bodily atoms get replaced by whatever they put in those food packets. Technically, we’ve replaced our old selves. I consist of rations now, Chase. Conrad-loathing rations. I have found a truth above the truth. If God values life, He must hate jerks too.”
Chase read only the first baby screenful of compressed data. He stopped to rub his face harder than usual. Still, an eye peeked out at Millet between two fingers.
“We talk to God by killing rats,” Chase muttered. “Maybe we went too far with the quantum physics too. It makes people inhumane, men like Conrad who understand it too well. It takes a soulless robot to contact God.”
“Well, worry about all that later,” Millet said. “Conrad would have returned around this time. So you’ve got to hurry on outside to deliver the next packet–the revelation. Then, you’ve got to hook up that activator and push the button. Otherwise you’ll have 80,000 times more of God’s wrath to worry about.”
“Outside?” Chase shouted. “You just killed the last man to go out there.”
“Chase, even if you think I’ll kill you–which I won’t–you’ve got to do this anyway. People have freaking candles lit worldwide as they wait for this packet. They’ve lit candles while volcanic ash dumps heat and hell everywhere. Plants and people die as we speak. I don’t have the suit training, life-support man.”
Chase jumped up off his chair. He waved his arms and expertly avoided striking any panels. “How do I know you won’t cut my oxygen?” he yelled. “Conrad never called me ‘scrotum’ once!”
“Of course not,” Millet replied. “You have a cool-sounding last name.”
“So you’ll probably kill me because you had it so much rougher.”
“I said I won’t.”
Chase shrugged to the heavens, in whatever odd direction they lied, and rolled his eyes. He sat in his chair again and flared out his elbows. He and Millet could both feel the glorious space of Conrad’s absence.
“Thousands die as you sit there,” Millet said.
Chase stood and joined Millet in the pacing. They looked like sick dance partners.
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Millet asked. “We’ve fit three in here. Two seems easy, and for a mere month. Why kill more?”
“Alright,” Chase said.
Chase opened the airlock door, a steely chunk of wall that constituted a scary portion of the capsule. From then on he mumbled, mostly to the 800-pound metal suit strapped to the right-side wall. It stood in the tiny closet which functioned as an airlock.
“I’ll have at least enough air to reach the communications terminal. If you kill me, I’ll have already told the world about God. If I make it back here, I’ll worry then about you killing me in my sleep.”
“You could have killed me in my sleep,” Millet said. “But neither of us killed the other in eight years of opportunity. Don’t distract yourself with worry. Only Conrad deserved to die.”
Chase clambered into the big, gorillalike suit. Begrudgingly for both men, Millet helped him don the helmet. He had haggardly done so for every one of Conrad’s data packet deliveries. He would suit up Conrad like a good little wench.
He would kneel before the great, ugly knight to hand the monster his tools. Chase made it clear now, however, that suiting up took only one fourth of that time. Conrad had simply dawdled, adding another card to Millet’s crap deck.
Once fully suited, Chase awkwardly grabbed the heavy coil of his umbilical line, his lifeline, off the wall clamps. He stood there, looking stunned and slack-jawed through the two-inch glass visor. He wore that expression for minutes as the suit conducted automatic safety checks.
Millet realized that Chase had always shown a hint of this dumbfoundedness. Chase’s brain crunched away on the calculus of self-preservation. It would do little more. Only now, seeing the man’s face framed in the big glass circle, did Millet learn the truth. A lifetime of research and numbers had drained Chase’s soul too. He still looked like a mindblown high schooler because he had never processed the higher ideals.
Chase had at least mumbled something meaningful on this day of revelation. Science really did chip away at men’s hearts. For today, though, Millet forgot his four years of undergrad spent with a calculator stuck in one hand. Watching Chase nudge like a robot, he blocked out every number ingrained in his head.
The time came for Millet to leave the airlock. Chase stood alone, a stooped, dopey beast of armor. Millet could sense Chase’s watery demeanor underneath. Chase knew his life could end half a dial turn away.
He snapped a big, clunky toolbox into his pincer of a hand. The million dollar box resembled Lego man’s toolkit.
“Promise you won’t kill me,” Chase boomed through the glass. His breath hit the visor and faded with each syllable.
“I won’t, Chase,” Millet said. “I swear to God.”
The door closed on its own, and Chase went away. During his outside mission, all of mankind would learn of God today.
Unfortunately for some people, Millet and Chase forgot about the activator still stowed in the cabinet.
Saint Ouroboros Day
By Robert Penner
The Sisters of Beneficent Misery orphanage and girls’ school sat precariously at the very top of the only hill in Orangeville. When Rita saw it for the first time, from the outskirts of the town, she thought it was about to topple over. It looked like such a shithole she nearly started to cry.
“Jesus-Christ-Mary-Mother-of-God,” she said. “That’s the dump you’re going to ditch me in?”
“Rita!” snapped Auntie Margie. “Watch your fucking mouth!”
“Oh God,” moaned Rita. “It looks like a prison, or a mortuary, or a lunatic asylum. I’m going to die of typhus in there. While you’re getting drunk at the Legion I’m going to die of typhus. It’s a certainty: I’m going to get typhus and die.”
Auntie Margie scrabbled around in her handbag for her smokes and ended up spilling cigarettes all over the vinyl seat.
“Just a couple of hours more,” she muttered and jammed the lighter into the dashboard, “a couple hours more.”
Rita glared out the window at all the clapboard houses with their neat lawns and their picket fences.
They pulled up at a four-way and a kid on a banana-seat sat at the corner staring at her. She gave him the finger.
A tall, slow-moving sister called Martha showed Rita her bed and left her in the room. There were five other beds, a crucifix hanging over every one. A single dusty shaft of light shone down on the warped floorboards from a narrow window high up the wall. Rita dropped her bag on the floor and threw herself facedown onto the itchy blanket. The pillow smelled like a hospital. A fly was battering its head on the window: buzz-buzz-bump, buzz-buzz-bump, buzz-buzz-bump. Rita lay there for about fifteen minutes before a bell rang. A moment later there was a clatter of footsteps on the stairs and the hall echoed with shouts and laughter. The door burst open. Rita did not open her eyes.
“It’s the new girl,” someone whispered and Rita lay perfectly still.
“She’s asleep,” someone else said.
“Or dead,” squeaked a new voice.
The floor creaked.
“Or faking,” said the first voice right at her shoulder.
Rita rolled over and looked at the girl standing beside her. She had blonde hair pulled back in a pony tail and was wearing a navy jumper and a tartan skirt.
“Faking what?” she asked. “Being bored?”
The girl smirked at her and Rita looked at the door. Three more girls stood there, all in the same uniform.
“What a bloody boring dump this place is,” said Rita.
“And I suppose you came from somewhere ever so much more exciting?” said the blonde girl.
“Yes,” said Rita. “I did. I came from somewhere much, much, much more exciting. When’s supper?” she asked and sat up. “I’m starved.”
The food was so bland Rita had to keep asking for more salt. She asked five times. She was seated at the end of the table by a little girl with brown hair and thick glasses. Sitting across from her was a girl with straight black hair and dark eyes. The blonde girl was at the far end of their table opposite a tall girl with a thick thatch of dark curls.
“Where are you from, Rita?” the little girl asked her.
“What’s your name?” asked Rita.
“Julia,” said the little girl.
“I’m from the North Pole, Julia,” Rita replied. “Pass the ketchup, please.”
The blonde girl smirked at her again and Rita winked back.
“Okay, not quite the North Pole,” she said, “but pretty close. I was born on an island in the Arctic Ocean: Ouroboros Island.”
“What a funny name,” said Julia.
“It’s a Norwegian word,” said Rita. “It’s the name of a giant snake that is stretched right around the world in a big hoop and holds it all together. Ouroboros Island is where the head bites the tail.”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said the blonde girl.
“What’s your name?” asked Rita.
“Well, Maureen,” said Rita. “If that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard you should pay more attention to the crap the priests talk on Sunday morning.”
That night Rita watched Sister Martha out of the corner of her eye. The girls were in their nightgowns, kneeling at their beds with their hands clasped. Sister Martha was praying as well. Even when she knelt she looked long and languid. A coil of dark hair had escaped from her habit. She tucked all the other girls in before Rita. Her dark eyes glittered in the flickering fluorescent light.
“Who had this bed before me?” Rita asked.
“A very wicked girl called Natasha McFadden,” said Sister Martha. “Who never said her prayers but just pretended.”
“What happened to her?” asked Rita. “Where’d she go?”
“She snuck out of the orphanage one day,” said Sister Martha, “to go sledding down the back of the hill and she hit her head on a tree in the Protestant churchyard.”
“Did it kill her?”
Sister Martha smiled.
“She came back here,” she said, “and we bandaged her up and put her to bed.”
Rita let herself relax.
“Right here,” whispered Sister Martha and brushed the hair from Rita’s forehead. “Right in this very bed. Then Natasha McFadden fell asleep: and she never woke up.”
The town kids at the pool hall were telling Maureen and Rita about a movie playing at the Dreamland. It was called The Exorcist. The boys were particularly excited about the scene with the crucifix.
“You Catholics,” Simon Clarke said as he was lining up his shot, “are always getting possessed.”
“That’s right,” said Rita and stubbed out her ciggie on the back of his elbow.
Simon knocked the eight ball clear off the table.
“Jesus Christ!” he shouted. “What the hell!”
“It wasn’t me,” she said. “I’m Catholic. It was my devil.”
Rita dug around for another smoke and watched Maureen soothing Simon’s outrage. Teddy Sutton and Mike Watters were leaning on their cues grinning. Sarah Hart was sitting on the bench, back rigid against the wall, arms crossed, glaring at Maureen.
That night Rita asked Sister Martha if it was true only Catholics got possessed.
“Who told you that?” asked Sister Martha.
“The town kids,” said Rita and at the same time Maureen said: “Simon Clarke.”
They were in their beds and Sister Martha was standing by the light switch.
“Well it’s true,” said Sister Martha and the girls all gasped.
“Did they tell you why?” asked Sister Martha.
“No,” said Rita.
“Because the Protestants are going to burn anyways, so it’s the Catholics the Devil wants to catch.”
She flicked off the light.
Maureen stood on books piled up on a chair and blew smoke out the window. Lily, the tall girl with the curls sat on the unused bed in the corner with Sophia, the girl with the dark eyes and the straight black hair.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” said Lily. “It’s a sin.”
“I don’t care,” said Maureen.
“And it’s bad for you.”
“I don’t care about that either.”
Rita lowered Ripley’s Believe It or Not to watch.
“Every night I pray that you’ll stop being bad,” said Lily, “because it’s my duty to try and save you from hell.”
Maureen ignored her.
“That’s funny, Lily,” said Rita. “Because every night I pray that you’ll stop being a mean judgmental bitch, and that’s not working either.”
“Tell us about Ouroboros Island,” said Julia.
Rita and Maureen were smoking behind the small brick building at the bottom of the park by the river while Julia watched them. The building had something to do with the sewers and the air down there was always funky. Mike and Teddy had covered the back of it with a spray paint scrawl of “Led Zep” and “AC/DC” and “Fuck You” and “Boner.” They had also painted a huge cock and balls on the concrete slab where the girls stood. Julia didn’t like her feet to touch the thick, confident lines, but the other two didn’t care.
“There were no trees,” said Rita. “In the summer we lived in a corrugated metal hut by the harbor and my dad would dig up teeth and knuckles from the old Viking graveyards and organize them in little plastic boxes. My mom would go hunting for seals and whales with the Eskimos. If it was raining, I’d stay in the shed and read comic books or listen to the radio or build robots out of spare parts. If it was clear, I’d help my Dad count bits of bones, or go out with my mom onto the blue ocean. When it was sunny it was so bright you could hardly see. It’s because the air is so thin at the top of the world. The light comes smashing down in a great big wave and crashes into the water. It’s like being in the middle of an explosion. You have to wear sunglasses all the time or you’ll go blind.”
“Did the robots actually work?” asked Julia.
“Sometimes the wind would blow,” said Rita. “But we were so close to the North Pole it was only ever the south wind. It came rushing up from the cities and the towns and countryside down below. You could smell where it came from. Indian winds all smelled like curry and cinnamon and cows; the Chinese like jasmine and tea and opium; New York like automobile exhaust and hot dogs and money, money, money.”
“What about Orangeville winds?” asked Maureen.
“Most of the time they smelled like the dumpster behind the Sisters of Misery kitchen does on Sunday after the fish heads have been in it for a while, but sometimes, if they came blowing through on a rainy day, you might catch the faintest whiff of one of Mike Watters’ wet farts.”
“The way I want to cash out,” Rita said, “is spontaneous combustion.”
“What’s that?” asked Julia
“Sometimes people catch fire for no reason,” Rita said. “They burn right up. Nothing left behind but shoes, there’s pictures in Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
“It sounds like bullshit to me,” Maureen didn’t even look up from her magazine.
“It’s not,” said Rita. “It’s true. It runs in my family.”
“Really?” asked Maureen. “Is that what happened to your folks? On Ouroboros Island? Nothing left but smoking shoes?”
“No,” said Rita. “I already told you how they died. My dad had a heart attack and when my mom found out she made herself a bright blue Drain-o cocktail.”
Maureen turned back to her magazine.
“How do you want to die?” Rita asked her. “I’m guessing you expect to expire from pleasure at the cinema while Simon Clarke finger fucks you through a double feature.”
Maureen flipped the page.
“I want to drown in a swimming pool,” said Julia. “In a clean, blue pool with tile around the edges and then a green lawn and palm trees and a white stone wall with broken glass on the top.”
No one said a word.
“In a movie star’s backyard,” said Julia: “In Palm Springs.”
“I want to die in my sleep,” said Lily, “while I’m dreaming about being in heaven with my mom.”
“Oh God, Lily,” said Rita. “You are such a bring-down.”
“The way you should want to die,” said Sister Martha from the door and the girls all jumped, “is when you can still taste the host on your tongue, just before the wicked thoughts creep back in.”
When they had finally been chased into bed and Sister Martha turned off the light Lily called out to her.
“Do all Protestants go to hell?”
“Yes,” said Sister Martha, “and the Atheists and the Jews and Catholics lukewarm in their faith.”
“Is there nothing we can do to save them?”
“You can baptize them as they die,” said Sister Martha, “if they are lucky enough for you to be there.”
“Don’t you need holy water for that?” asked Rita.
“You can use whatever is at hand,” said Sister Martha. “When I was still in high school in Thunder Bay a drunk Protestant drove his car into a tree near my bus stop. He flew right through the window and landed at my feet in a pile – like a bird with a broken back. When I saw the windshield cleaning fluid leaking from the wreck I knew immediately what to do. I used it to cross his forehead and gave him his last rites. I knew it worked because he grew calm, and smiled at me, and the air was filled with scent of roses. I could hear the leaves rustle as his soul rose to heaven.”
“How did you know he was drunk?” asked Rita.
“How did you know he was a Protestant?” asked Maureen.
“Good night, girls,” said Sister Martha and closed the door.
Rita had followed Maureen all the way to the diner where the Greyhound stopped, arguing the whole way. They were almost finished with their plate of fries when Sister Martha came sweeping in, Julia tripping after her. Some women eating pie and drinking coffee a few tables over, shopping bags at their feet, all turned to watch
“Julia, you little rat,” hissed Maureen. “You’re so dead.”
Sister Martha looked down at her placidly.
“I’m leaving,” said Maureen. “I’ve had enough. I hate this town, I hate school, I hate the orphanage, and I hate you.”
“You are not leaving,” said Sister Martha.
“I am,” said Maureen, and began to cry. “I’m leaving.”
Sister Martha waited. Julia stood beside her, perspiration gleaming on her forehead, breathing heavily. Rita sucked noisily on the dregs of her float.
“I hate you,” said Maureen.
“Come,” said Sister Martha and extend her cool, dry hand. Maureen stared at it awhile, then wiped her eyes and stood up. Sister Martha put a long arm around her.
“Get her bags,” she said to Julia.
“Pay the bill,” she said to Rita.
One of the women at the other table said: “The reason there’s no Protestant orphanages in Orangeville is because Protestant girls aren’t such whores that they’ll open their legs for anyone who calls them pretty and can dance a two-step.”
“The reason there aren’t any Protestant orphanages in Orangeville,” Sister Martha said, Maureen tucked tightly into her side, “is that when Protestant girls make a mistake their mothers take them to a crone on Albert Street who tears the mess out of their bellies with a butcher’s hook and throws the poor unbaptized things into the gutter.”
“Sister Martha has not been feeling well,” said the young priest and cleared his throat. They were in an otherwise empty classroom. The girls sat at desks in a rough half circle about him. He was perched on the edge of the teacher’s table.
“Not everything she has been telling you is strictly true,” he added.
“Are those two claims somehow connected?” asked Rita.
The priest blinked at her.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“Does her feeling unwell have something to do with the things she says?”
“Well, yes, I suppose you could put it like that,” said the priest.
“But I didn’t put it like that,” said Rita. “You did.”
Maureen was fluttering her eyelashes at him and chewing on her pencil.
“You see,” said the priest. “A brain can get overheated by fever, and all stirred up by anxieties, it can start producing all sorts of disconnected ideas.”
“Disconnected with what?” asked Rita.
“Why, with reality,” said the priest.
Maureen slid a little lower into her chair and let her knees swing open a smidge.
“Sister Martha told us that if we ran around the church widdershins three times and stood on our heads while we recited a Hail Mary backwards then demons would appear,” said Rita.
“Is that true, girls?” the priest looked around at the others.
“We don’t know,” said Maureen. “We haven’t tried it.”
“It’s obviously not true” said the priest. “I meant is it true that Sister Martha really told you that?”
“Like I said,” said Rita: “Demons.”
“She also said that Protestant babies bite their mother’s boobs,” said Julia, “because they haven’t been baptized and the Devil makes them do it.”
“That’s not true either.”
“She really did say it, Father,” said Rita. “We all heard her.”
“I meant about the babies,” said the priest. “It’s not true.”
“They don’t bite boobs?” asked Julia.
“I don’t know,” said the priest. “But if they do it’s not because the Devil made them do it.”
“Was it also a lie when she told us that the priests use magic to turn wine into the blood of Christ?” asked Maureen.
“No,” said the priest. “It’s not a lie per se, but it isn’t really the priests and it isn’t really magic.”
The girls stared at him.
“Look,” said the priest. “Whatever it was precisely that Sister Martha told you isn’t important. What is important is that if you are confused about things you come and talk to me or one of the other fathers about your concerns.”
“I choose you,” said Maureen.
“Slut,” said Rita under her breath.
“I beg your pardon?” the priest frowned.
“What about the sisters?” asked Rita. “Are they as good as a priest? Or are they all liars like Sister Martha?”
“Sister Martha isn’t a liar,” said the priest.
“But you said…” began Rita and the priest cut her off.
“I said Sister Martha has been unwell,” said the priest. “She will be leaving us shortly. And if you are confused or concerned about her behavior or the things she said please talk to any of the fathers, or, indeed, any of the sisters, and they will be happy to help you out directly or refer you to someone who can.”
“Sister Martha said if you have carnal relations on a grave your baby will be born with second sight,” said Lily. “Is that true?”
“Certainly not,” said the priest.
“That only works if you do it while you’re having your period,” said Rita.
“None of it is true,” said the priest and stood up. “It’s all rubbish.”
The girls stared at him.
“So if you have any concerns,” he said. “Any concerns at all, please talk to me or one of the other fathers.”
“Or sisters,” added Julia.
“Yes,” said the priest and strode to the door, “or any of the sisters.”
“I’m glad we had this talk,” he said and stepped out, closing it firmly behind him.
“What an idiot,” said Maureen loudly and through the frosted glass they saw his shoulders slump.
Sister Elizabeth who was old and had a German accent oversaw the girls that night. She told them Sister Martha was leaving in a day or two for Sault Ste. Marie. Rita asked if she was being sent to a lunatic asylum for a lobotomy but Sister Elizabeth didn’t know what a lobotomy was. When the girls explained it to her she laughed, because she thought it one of Rita’s stupid jokes. That night Rita dreamt there was a glittering black snake coiled around the orphanage, she heard Sister Martha whispering “she fell asleep and never woke up, she fell asleep and never woke up,” and saw Sister Martha’s dark eyes, black as a slough in the middle of the night.
The next day Rita skipped breakfast to have a ciggie inside the janitor’s shed. She was peering through the half open door and saw Sister Martha come out of the chapel. As Rita watched Sister Martha staggered slightly, clutched at her chest, and looked down to see white smoke rising from between the fingers of her clenched hand. The smoke crept up her throat and coiled around her head like a crown. The air was filled with the smell of roses, the perfume of them, rich and heavy and indolent. Sister Martha looked up, smiling slightly, her face glowing. Then her eyes fluttered shut, she lifted up her chin, stretched out her arms from side to side – fingers extended, and thrust out her steaming chest. Martha’s secret, shining heart burst into white flame and Rita screamed. The nun began to rise into the air, rotating slowly, arms still stretched out, radiant face turned to the sky. She was singing “Ave Maria.” There was music everywhere, falling like rain from the glorious blue heavens, pouring into the courtyard, pouring in from off the roofs of the chapel and the dormitories and offices, pouring down the brick walls into the graveled yard.
Girls and teachers and administrative staff all came rushing out to see what was happening and Sister Martha, ablaze, rose higher and higher into the sky, a flaming crucifix, the music and the scent of roses trailing in her wake. Up, up, up, she rose, still rotating, still singing, until she dwindled into a point of bright light, and vanished.
There was silence. A pair of shoes sat in the middle of the courtyard, Puma trainers, one on its side, the other upright, a thin trickle of black smoke rising from its open mouth.
By Pascal Inard
Wirambi knelt and dug the moist ground with his fingers. He rolled a lump of soil in a ball and rubbed it on his forehead in a circular motion.
“I am Wirambi, son of Witjiti and Kinawinta, of planet Alcheringa. Please accept me on your land, Guriyal, and protect me.”
He watched the echo of his words bounce on the cliff face and fall on the ground, which shimmered with spirit energy in a multitude of shades of purple.
Now that his presence had been accepted, he could continue his journey knowing he would be able to draw his strength from this land, infused with the power of his totemic ancestor.
He had landed his spaceship at the foot of a snow-crested mountain on planet Currunjiwal. In the time of creation Guriyal had made love with Tjunkaya on the summit of the mountain after saving her from the evil Darluvouduk, and their spirit children had wandered along his songline, populating the planets he had created.
The same songline Wirambi was following. He had eight-hundred and eighty-eight standard time units left to complete his interstellar walkabout. At his return to Alcheringa, he would turn eighteen and become a fully-fledged adult member of the Guriyal nation. Only then could he ask the beautiful Elandra to marry him.
But that was assuming he would return. Boys who could not come back from their walkabout in time for their eighteenth birthday never came back at all. They settled on other planets where they had the same status of second-class citizens they would have had on their home planet, but without the shame of facing their families and friends. There was a settlement of such outcasts on Alcheringa, but they kept to themselves and Wirambi had never spoken to any of them.
He was confident he would make it in time, too confident in the eyes of the elders who knew the dangers Wirambi was going to face.
Whether or not Elandra was going to accept him was a different matter. He had tried to approach her, but she had waved him off like an annoying insect. She only had eyes for the ugly Galypilu, the son of the shaman who must have put a spell on Elandra to make her fall in love with his son. Either that or her father saw a union with the shaman’s family as a way to increase his influence on the tribe.
But things were going to change on Wirambi’s return. He pictured Elandra listening to the heroic deeds he had performed during his walkabout, her eyes ablaze with love and admiration, Galypilu burning with jealousy.
Squawking interrupted his reverie. He chided himself for being distracted, but he reminded himself that thinking about Elandra wasn’t a distraction, it was a motivation.
Darluvouduk had been defeated, but his descendants had survived and they had recognized Wirambi as a child of their ancestor’s nemesis. Wirambi shrugged. He had Guriyal’s strength on his side, more than enough to overcome the black birds with scaly wings who were circling his spaceship.
Wirambi’s task on Currunjiwal was to walk to the summit of the sacred mountain and spill a drop of his blood, as an offering to Guriyal.
He checked the contents of his backpack: a gourd of water, a bag of Darrangara nuts, two bumarits, curved sticks carved from the sacred Galimbula tree he could use as weapons, a length of rope and a coat he had made from the pelts of three tree-dwelling animals that looked like burumins he had killed at his previous stopping place on planet Badagaroong. Not only was he going to need it to keep warm here, it was also evidence of his passage he had to bring home. He put it on top of his purple kaftan and looked around him, searching for something unique he could bring back from this planet. The birds flew away as if they had guessed his intentions.
When he reached the summit, Wirambi saw three black birds attacking a purple parrot on the snow. It was dodging its assailants and defending itself with its claws and beak as best it could, but the black birds were closing in on it. He walked towards them as fast as he could, his feet sinking in the snow. He took the bumarits out of his backpack and struck them together in the rhythm of a warrior dance. The birds glanced at him and then continued their attack. He threw one of the bumarits which hit the head of the biggest bird. It fell on the snow and the other birds flew away. Wirambi reached the birds’ prey and saw that half of its feathers had been plucked off and it was shivering.
“Fear not, son of Guriyal. I am here.”
The parrot emitted a soft cry.
Seeing a shadow cast over the snow, Wirambi turned around and hit a bird that was swooping on him with a bumarit. He didn’t see another bird coming from behind. It tore a piece out of his neck with its beak as it pounced on him and he felt blood trickling down his back. When it came back, he didn’t miss it.
The other bird circled him, squawking with rage at the sight of two of his kind lying dead on the snow and his stolen dinner.
Wirambi picked up the parrot and put it against his chest, covering it with his coat. He gave it some nuts which it nibbled slowly. The black bird gave up and flew away.
The sun made the snow sparkle, but the sharp wind stung his skin.
From where Wirambi was standing he had a spectacular view of the landscape surrounding the mountain. It was nothing like Alcheringa with its lively volcanoes and dense luxuriant forests. Here grass-covered craters, dwarfed by the sacred mountain, hinted at past volcanic activity. In the distance a small city had been built on the edge of a lake. Wirambi was accustomed to the smell of sulfur and Duralini flowers, but on Currunjiwal the air was barren of odors. These differences didn’t stop him feeling as much at home here as he did on Alcheringa or Badagaroong, because Guriyal’s spirit linked together the planets he had created, making them feel as one.
He glanced at the parrot. Its eyes were closed, but it was still breathing. There was no time to lose. He had to be back at the ship before nightfall. It was too risky to sleep in the open if that black bird came back for revenge with the rest of his flock.
Now that his blood had been spilt on the mountain and he had evidence of his visit on Currunjiwal, he would be able to leave as soon as he reached his spaceship, provided the parrot survived its ordeal. Bringing back the body of a dead totemic ancestor would bring bad luck not only to him but to the whole tribe.
He named it Kooriwan.
“Guriyal, you have entrusted me with your flesh and blood, and I will show you I am worthy of this honor.”
He pictured himself with Kooriwan spreading his wings and Elandra admiring its perfect purple color. “How brave you were, rescuing it from the evil sons of Darluvouduk. He is so beautiful and strong,” she would say. “You’re a brave warrior, Wirambi. You deserve to have a strong woman beside you.” She would then look at him knowingly and he would nod, all smiles inside.
He continued his descent, walking faster and ignoring the pain from the wound in his neck, hoping he was going to reach the spaceship in time to apply herbs that would stop an infection from the germs of the birds that could be fatal. What a humiliating and sad demise of his walkabout that would be.
Wirambi placed his coat on the co-pilot’s chair and put Kooriwan in the middle. He was relieved to see it was strong enough to stand up.
“You’re safe here, Kooriwan. We’re going to a far-away place where Darluvouduk won’t reach you.”
“Kooriwan,” the bird repeated.
“Yes, that’s your name, and I’m–”
Kooriwan knew his name. Wirambi’s heart soared. It was a sign he had been chosen by Guriyal himself to rescue his son.
He sat down in the pilot’s chair and instructed the ship to initiate the take-off sequence. Kooriwan and the spaceship took off at the same time, one landing on Wirambi’s left shoulder, the other flying above the sacred mountain, which after a few minutes became a tiny white dot on the surface of planet Currunjiwal.
Soon the spaceship flew past one of the planet’s two moons and Wirambi adjusted the course to go towards a yellow halo of energy, the Yarrundji jump point.
“We are going into Yarrundji, Kooriwan. Your father and the other ancestors created it.”
The bird didn’t answer, but Wirambi continued his narrative, grateful to have someone to talk to. Boys had to complete the walkabout on their own, but he had broken that rule for a perfectly good reason. He was privileged to travel with a son of his ancestor, and he was sure it was going to bring him luck.
“Jump points have to be a certain distance from planets and stars because their gravity interferes with them. The nearest jump point is forty time units flight from planet Currunjiwal.”
Wirambi had waited for his walkabout with a mixture of fear of the unknown, and excitement because it was the first time he was going into Yarrundji. It was an alternate region of space co-existing with the universe, allowing interstellar travel provided you sang the appropriate verse of your ancestor’s songline. Every planet, star and nebula in the universe had been sung into existence by the ancestors. Singing a songline was not only a way to navigate through the universe in Yarrundji, it was also a way to recreate the creation, but only if it was sung correctly. If the songlines ceased to be sung, or were sung incorrectly, the universe would no longer exist.
Every verse of Guriyal’s songline Wirambi had memorized allowed him to travel from one stage of his walkabout to the next. He put the spaceship on autopilot and practiced singing the next verse, which was going to take him to the Kataginga stellar system where another of Guriyal’s tribes lived.
Kooriwan repeated it faithfully.
“Well it’s your song, isn’t it? You must know it better than I do.”
Wirambi yawned. “I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I’m going to my bunk to sleep.”
Kooriwan followed Wirambi and nestled against his chest.
When Wirambi woke up, he told Kooriwan about his dream.
“I saw a woman, she was calling me. ’Wirambi, Wirambi,’ she said. ‘The whitefellas took my daughter away. Please help me find her.’ How does she know my name? I’m sure I’ve never seen her before.”
“Her name is Niningka. She’s on an island called Australia on Terra, the third planet from the sun.”
“I’ve never heard of it. In which songline is it?”
Kooriwan did not answer, but it had to be in one of the ninety-nine songlines. Wirambi knew the names of the ancestors to which the songlines belonged, but not the songlines themselves. That knowledge was reserved for the shamans of each of the ninety-nine nations. Ancestors and their descendants kept to their own songline, but somehow Kooriwan, son of Guriyal, knew where the woman in Wirambi’s dream was from, and where her planet was, even though it was in another ancestor’s songline.
“How do you know so much about that woman? Did you have the same dream as I had?”
Kooriwan did not answer. Wirambi dropped the matter. It was certainly just a coincidence that the woman had called him. There must be other people in the universe with the same name as him. The woman’s problem had nothing to do with him. He had more important things to do.
He was getting close to the jump point, twenty-eight time units to go before he could make the jump.
“Are you hungry?”
Wirambi didn’t wait for an answer. He shared a bowl of Darrangara nuts with his companion. He admired the stars, thinking that a lifetime would not be enough to visit all the stellar systems. There were some where no life existed, and when he had asked why the ancestors had created stellar systems to leave them empty, the shaman had rebuked him for asking too many questions.
Niningka called him again in his sleep.
“Wirambi, I want my Loorea back. Every day I think of her and I cry. The whitefellas won’t tell me where she is. I know she’s still alive, I feel it in my bones. Why aren’t you answering me? I’m not asking for much. Just help me find her.”
Wirambi woke up with his heart pounding. Kooriwan was looking at him knowingly, as if Wirambi’s dream was no secret to him,
“She called again and she really sounded desperate. Whoever she’s calling hasn’t done anything, unless it’s really me she’s calling. Hah! Imagine how Elandra would be impressed if I rescued Niningka’s daughter from those whitefellas, whoever they are. It would certainly take her mind off Galypilu.”
Wirambi stood up and sighed.
“This isn’t going to work. Terra isn’t in Guriyal’s songline, so I have to ask for permission to land there, otherwise I would be trespassing, but the ship’s comm system has been disabled for the walkabout. On the other hand, if she’s called me, then surely I don’t need permission. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m even considering this. I don’t know how to get there.”
Wirambi went to the pilot cabin. The jump point was approaching.
“Hold on, we’re going to enter the Yarrundji in one time unit.”
Kooriwan started singing a verse from a songline Wirambi had never heard. It described the great river of the Milky Way, Sol, the heart of the solar system, Mercury, Venus and Terra with its enormous oceans that covered most of the planet.
The bird had given him directions. He had no excuse now.
“Thanks Kooriwan, but if I get into trouble because I deviated from my songline or because I got delayed, I’ll tell the elders you talked me into going to Terra.”
Wirambi pulled the lever to activate the Yarrundji drive and a swooshing sound filled the ship. He felt every cell in his body vibrate and closed his eyes because he knew from the last time that the energy fields would leave him sightless for two time units.
When the hissing sound stopped he opened his eyes. There was only a dark-blue nothingness outside. He was in the Yarrundji and the ship was still, waiting for its pilot to give it directions.
Kooriwan was looking at him.
“Are you sure about this?” Wirambi asked.
The bird nodded.
While Wirambi sang the directions to Terra, a green light filled the cabin signaling that the ship was translating the songline into Yarrundji coordinates.
He finished with the ritual phrase that concluded every verse of every songline in the universe: “May Awakunduk protect us on our journey.”
Awakunduk was the very first ancestor, the father of all ancestors. Only shamans and travelers in Yarrundji were allowed to say his holy name.
A yellow line appeared outside, the path that the ship was going to follow to the closest jump point to planet Terra.
Doubts assailed Wirambi. Who were the whitefellas that he was going to confront? How was he going to save Niningka’s daughter? What if the real Wirambi showed up? Was Kooriwan really what Wirambi thought it was, or had the bird led him into a trap?
There was no turning back now.
Guided by Kooriwan, Wirambi landed his spaceship near a house resting on the same flat red ground he had seen in his dream. Kooriwan flew out of the ship, while Wirambi climbed down the ladder. He dug the dry soil with his fingers. He started ritually rubbing it on his forehead and stopped when he realized he couldn’t ask for protection from the ancestor spirit of this land because he didn’t know who it was. To be on the safe side, he asked Awakunduk.
A woman walked towards them, and when she was close enough Wirambi recognized Niningka. Like Wirambi she had a broad nose, curly black hair and dark skin, but unlike Wirambi who only wore purple clothes, the clothes she wore were all of different colors, making it impossible to tell which nation she was from.
She looked at the spaceship and exclaimed, “Is that you, Wirambi? Have you come down from the spirit island of Baraku in your canoe? It’s much bigger than I imagined.”
“Well yes, I am Wirambi, the one you called. I have come to help you find Loorea. And this is Kooriwan, the son of my totemic ancestor.”
“You can’t be Wirambi if your totemic ancestor is a parrot!”
“Wirambi is a bat, he’s my totemic ancestor.”
“What’s a bat?”
“You don’t know what a bat is? It has a furry body, little ears and black wings about this wide,” said Niningka, holding out her hands.
“So it’s a sort of bird then?”
“No it’s not. It doesn’t have a beak and it doesn’t lay eggs.”
“Hmm, interesting. As you can see, I’m not your ancestor. In fact I’m no one’s ancestor. I’m just a boy doing my walkabout.”
“Which mob are you from?”
“I’m the son of Witjiti and Kinawinta of planet Alcheringa.”
“You’re from another planet? So what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be doing your walkabout on your own planet?”
“No, that’s the point of the walkabout: you follow your ancestor’s songline to visit all the planets he created.”
“I’ve never heard of songlines with other planets. How could we follow them?”
“With a spaceship, like that one.”
“We don’t have them here, but Uncle Dingo said the whitefellas launched a rocket and they’re gonna walk on the moon when they get there next week. It’s gonna be on television, but only whitefellas have one.”
“Those whitefellas you keep talking about, who are they?”
“Hah! You don’t know what a whitefella is either? Don’t they have men with white skins where you’re from?”
Wirambi shook his head. No one had ever told him such an unthinkable thing existed.
“But why did they take your daughter?”
“Come on inside, I’ve made some tea. You can drink a cuppa while I tell you the story.”
Wirambi and Kooriwan, who had been quietly listening on Wirambi’s shoulder, followed her.
The smell of despair and sadness in the house overwhelmed Wirambi. He bowed his head as he accepted the cup of hot pungent liquid that Niningka offered him.
“One day, when Loorea was ten, I was at the grocery shop with her. There were two other mums with their children with us. The cops came and told us all to follow them. I asked why because we hadn’t done anything wrong, but one of the cops didn’t like that. He grabbed my arm and pushed me and the others into the van. Another cop said they were taking us to Broome. After a few minutes the van stopped and they threw me and the other mums out of the van. Loorea jumped on my back, crying, but the cop pulled her off and threw her back in the van.”
What strange place this is where innocent children can be taken from their mums, thought Wirambi.
“The cops pushed me and the other mums away, and then they drove off. We chased the van, calling our kids and yelling for the cops to stop, but they kept going and we were left there on our own. We walked to Broome, crying all the way. When we got there the next day we went straight to the police station but they said they hadn’t seen any kids. So now I have no idea where she is. I’ve spoken to other mums and the same thing happened to them. No one knows why the cops have done that. Uncle Dingo thinks they’ve sent the kids to the mines, but I don’t believe him. If they wanted people to work in the mines, they would take grown-ups, not the kids. That was seven years ago, and I’ve been asking Wirambi for help every day, but what can you do?”
“Loorea is in Perth,” said Kooriwan.
“Where’s Perth?” asked Wirambi.
“That’s the big city down south,” said Niningka. “But how would he know Loorea is there?”
“Trust me, he knows. He’s the one who gave me directions to get here.”
Niningka stood up and looked at Wirambi pleadingly. “We have to go there and bring her back. Please, I beg you. I cry every day, wondering where she is and if she’s OK.”
“Kooriwan and I will go, but you’ll have to stay here. My ship isn’t big enough and besides it could be dangerous. Do you have a holo of her so that I can recognize her?”
“What’s a holo?”
A picture of a girl who looked like Niningka but with lighter skin and the same age as Wirambi appeared in his mind. He looked at Kooriwan, wondering how he had done that.
“Don’t worry, Kooriwan will find her.”
Wirambi landed his spaceship where Kooriwan told him to, in an oval field with four large poles at each end.
Passers-by stared at the spaceship and the dark-skinned young man with purple clothes climbing down the ladder with a parrot of the same color on his shoulder. The spectators searched for the cameras and crew they thought were filming a scene from a science-fiction movie.
The colors of the electro-magnetic energy fields and radio waves flying above the ground in a chaotic manner gave Wirambi a headache.
“This is where Loorea lives,” said Kooriwan when they reached a weatherboard house.
Wirambi walked to the front door and tried to open it, but it was locked, an unknown concept for him. Houses on planet Alcheringa were always open and people could come in freely if they had to see someone for family or tribal business.
“Is anyone there?” Wirambi shouted.
The door opened, revealing a fat man with hair the color of a burumin’s fur and eyes as blue as the oceans of planet Terra that Wirambi had flown over.
“What do you want?”
“I’m looking for a girl named Loorea.”
“Piss off you boonga or I’ll call the cops.”
Wirambi shivered. The man was not a cop himself because he was threatening to call them, so why had they brought Loorea to this man’s house?
The man closed the door and Wirambi walked to a neighboring house, thinking that if he waited for Loorea to come out, he could speak to her. A short time later, he saw Loorea walking down the street towards her house; she wore a light blue dress and carried a bag on her back. He walked up to her and said, “Loorea, I’ve come to bring you back to your mum.”
“I’m not Loorea; I’m Jane and Mum’s waiting for me at home.”
They must have given her a new name, thought Wirambi.
“No, your real mum.”
“You’re lying, she’s dead.”
“She’s not. She asked me to find you.”
“Leave me alone!”
“It’s true. Look, she gave me this riji. It fell when the cops took you away.”
Wirambi showed her a pearl shell in which were carved a bat and mysterious symbols. A tear flowed down her cheek. “One day, I ran away because I was missing Mum. When the man who forces me to call him Dad found me, he hit me and said that Mum was dead and if I tried to run away once more he would give me back to the cops.”
“Don’t worry, Kooriwan and I will take you to your real home where your real mum is waiting for you, and no one will stop us, but we better be quick.”
“But that bastard is going to run after me. Do you have a car?”
“Even better, I have a spaceship, and you’ll be home in one time unit.”
“A spaceship? You’re having me on! Mum was right, I shouldn’t talk to strangers. I don’t know how you got my riji, but give it back!”
“Wait. I can prove I’m not lying. Just follow me and I’ll show you my spaceship. It’s parked over there, in an oval field.”
“OK, but if it’s not there, promise you’ll leave me alone.”
Loorea followed Wirambi and Kooriwan. They stopped when they saw a crowd around the field, and policemen inspecting the spaceship.
“Is that your spaceship? It’s very small. I saw the rocket they’ve sent to the moon on television, and it’s much bigger.”
“When boys like me do a walkabout, they always take a small ship. It’s only got room for two people, but that’s all we need.”
“But that’s cheating! You’re supposed to walk, aren’t you? That’s why it’s called a walkabout. I read about it in a book I got from the library. My so-called Dad was furious I was interested in aborigines. He said they’re evil savages and I should just forget about them and be grateful he saved me from damnation.”
“But we can’t just walk. We need a spaceship to travel to the other planets in our ancestor’s songline.”
“What do you mean other planets? Where are you from?”
“Never heard of it. I only know Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.”
“That’s because it’s not in your stellar system.”
“So how did you find Earth?”
“That’s what we call this planet.”
“After your mum called me, Kooriwan sang a verse of a songline to get here.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“I’ll explain later. You’ve got to trust me.”
Loorea hesitated. “But I haven’t got my stuff. I can’t just leave it.”
“If you go back, your dad will stop you. It’s your last chance.”
Loorea looked at the spaceship, at her riji and what she was going to leave behind.
“OK, but how are you going to get your spaceship back?”
“I’ll ask those men to leave it alone.”
“Don’t! They’re cops, they’ll lock you up.”
“Because you’re a blackfella, and your spaceship probably damaged the field.”
Never had Wirambi felt so far away from home. This place was completely alien and he didn’t understand why Niningka’s people were oppressed. Those whitefellas were barbaric, and primitive too: if they were just about to walk on their moon for the first time, it meant they were far from being able to travel to other stellar systems, which was just as well.
A van arrived and men dressed in white from head to toe started examining the spaceship with some strange instruments.
“What are they doing to my ship?”
“The way they’re dressed, I reckon they’re checking if it’s radioactive and if it’s got any alien germs. Then they’ll study it. They look like scientists, so they must be very excited to have found a spaceship.”
“They’re probably not going to sleep in it. As soon as they go, we’ll make a move.”
When darkness fell, the scientists, the crowd of onlookers and the policemen left, except for two police officers who stayed, apparently to guard the ship.
“What do we do now?” Loorea asked.
Wirambi was about to reply that he was going to take care of the cops when he realized that he’d left something on board.
“I’ve left my bumarits in the spaceship.”
“They’re two curved sticks made from the sacred Galimbula tree. I use them for hunting.”
“So you have boomerangs too. You know, you’re pretty normal for an alien. ”
“I have another idea. Kooriwan, go and fly around the cops; that should distract them for a while.”
Wirambi picked up some gum tree branches from the nature strip.
“Are you going to make some boomerangs?”
Wirambi shook his head and whispered, “Help me, we need as many as possible.”
Loorea and Wirambi carried the branches to the white posts behind the spaceship out of sight of the policemen. Wirambi broke off two sticks and cut a notch into one of them with his knife. He put this stick on the ground and placed some dry leaves and grass in the notch. Then he twirled the other stick vigorously with his two hands at a ninety-degree angle into the notch. After a few seconds the kindling ignited and he fanned it to create a flame which ignited the heap of branches. While the policemen went to investigate the source of the smoke, Wirambi and Loorea ran to the other side of the ship, where Kooriwan was waiting for them.
They climbed into the ship, and Wirambi asked Loorea to sit in the co-pilot’s chair.
“I hope they haven’t broken anything, or else we’re in trouble.”
The ship’s engine reacted to Wirambi’s command. Relieved, he pressed his palm on his heart.
Attracted by the noise, the policemen had turned around and were pointing their guns at the spaceship.
“Cops aren’t happy,” said Kooriwan.
The spaceship took off and soon it was flying above the immensity of the bush.
Loorea remembered the panic and the tears that had flowed incessantly during the trip to Perth in a van seven years ago, but not the scenery. Her “parents” never took her to the bush, so the sight of the red earth brought back memories of her previous life with her real family.
“Look at the people down there,” said Loorea. “They’re as small as ants.”
Loorea’s heart was filled with excitement and apprehension. She was going to see her mum again after mourning her for so long, she was going back to the people the whitefellas had tried to make her forget. She felt more white than black now and she wondered if they had been successful, but her heart spoke out. It knew where she belonged and she had to trust the voice that was telling her she was going home.
Wirambi witnessed Niningka and Loorea’s tearful reunion and listened to them talking about the years they had been separated. Loorea about her life in a white family, Niningka about births and deaths in their mob. After a while, Wirambi retired to the ship, but sleep eluded him as he lay on his bunk thinking about his family and his walkabout which he wasn’t sure of completing on time.
The next day Wirambi and Kooriwan prepared to leave Terra and went to Niningka’s house to say goodbye.
“Thanks for saving my baby,” Niningka said. “You really are worthy of your name, Wirambi.”
“I’m happy to see you two reunited. It was so unfair they took Loorea away from you, but where is she?”
“We had so much to catch up on that we didn’t sleep, and she left at the crack of dawn to Uncle Dingo’s camp; she’s gonna hide there for a while in case the cops come looking for her here. I asked her to wait to say goodbye to you, but she was too upset to see you go. She asked me to give you her riji if I didn’t mind and I said I would make her another one.”
Wirambi took the riji. “Thank you. I will show it to the elders to prove I was here. I’ll have some questions for them too. They teach us that that there are ninety-nine ancestors, but I don’t know why they’ve left out Wirambi. Do they keep his existence a secret because they think his people are primitives incapable of travelling across the universe and subservient to whitefellas? Why don’t they do something about it? We could save your people. Our technology is far more advanced than the whitefellas’.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure one day Wirambi will save us.”
A whirring noise filled the air.
“Helicopters,” said Niningka, looking worried. “You better hurry.”
Wirambi and Kooriwan made their way to the spaceship. It took off and had reached the exosphere by the time the helicopters were flying above Niningka’s house. She had asked Loorea not to tell anyone about how Wirambi had brought her home, and she would do the same. No one would believe them anyway, she figured.
Wirambi looked at Terra become a tiny blue dot. He didn’t regret answering Niningka’s call. He had made a mother and her daughter happy by reuniting them, but he hadn’t expected to fall in love with another girl in such a short time.
He looked at a holo of Elandra and wished he had one of Loorea. He closed his eyes and recalled Loorea’s soft dark eyes, her generous breasts, her golden skin and her musical laugh. Why did she have to run away so quickly? Why had she not stayed to see him leave? He imagined taking her in his arms and kissing her on the lips.
He stopped his fantasy, because that’s what it was. An impossible dream. He had another six planets to visit to finish his walkabout, and if Elandra resisted his charm, he would find and court another woman of his tribe. Loorea wouldn’t be accepted on Alcheringa. She was from a planet that the elders wanted to keep secret, but that was unfair. Loorea’s tribe had the same traditions, with their totemic ancestors and walkabouts. Maybe there were other planets like Terra where people were calling their ancestors to the rescue, and if any of his people heard the cries for help they ignored them, too scared to deviate from their songlines. Wirambi had been scared too, but his desire to impress Elandra had proven stronger than his deepest fears. Now the love he thought he had for Elandra had been replaced with an impossible one, and he was going to have to forget it.
Like all men of his tribe, Wirambi was proud of his excellent memory. He could recite every verse of his songline forwards and backwards. But as good as it was at remembering, would it know how to forget? Maybe with time it would, but right now, the more he told himself he had to forget Loorea, the stronger memories of her tugged at his heart.
He should have asked her to come with him, but it was unlikely she would have said yes after just being reunited with her mum. What sort of life could he offer her? They would not be able to marry and would have to live as outcasts. He thought he wouldn’t mind as long as he was with her, but what about her? Would she be happy away from her family? Her people were pariahs on their own land already. The only improvement on her life would be that she would no longer suffer oppression from whitefellas.
The jump point was now visible. He could still turn back, but if he did he risked being caught by the whitefellas and worse, being rejected by Loorea.
He was about to trigger the Yarrundji drive when Kooriwan said, “Loorea is scared of being found.”
“Yes, she must be scared the cops will take her back if they find her.”
“No, Loorea is scared of what you’ll say when you find her.”
“What do you mean?'”
Kooriwan said nothing but flew to the storeroom.
The door opened and Loorea walked out. Wirambi’s heart skipped a beat.
“How did that damn parrot know I was here?”
“More to the point, why didn’t he say something before? I’m so happy you’ve decided to come with me. I didn’t have a chance to tell you how I feel, but I’m in–”
“Don’t get carried away Wirambi. I stowed away because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life hiding from the cops like I was a criminal. I want to be free now. I’ve spent seven years trying to be like a white girl because I wasn’t allowed to be myself. I don’t care where you’re going, just take me with you.”
Wirambi lowered his head and swallowed hard. He started to think about what he could do to impress Loorea and make her fall in love with him, when Kooriwan said in an authoritative tone that surprised him, “Wirambi, activate the Yarrundji drive.”
Wirambi went back to the pilot’s chair and told Loorea to sit next to him and close her eyes. He activated the Yarrundji drive and after the hissing sound stopped, he told Loorea she could open her eyes again.
“Where are we?” asked Loorea.
“In Yarrundji, that’s how we travel to other stellar systems.”
“Wow, is that like hyperspace in Star Trek?”
“What’s a star trek?”
Wirambi sang the next verse of Guriyal’s songline. After he concluded with the ritual phrase thanking Awakunduk, Kooriwan said, “Now hear the story of the ancestor Wirambi: Awakunduk had one hundred children who he loved very much. But Wirambi was jealous; he thought Awakunduk loved Guriyal more than him because he had created him ugly whereas Guriyal had a beautiful purple plumage. One day, Wirambi told Awakunduk that Guriyal had formed an alliance with the evil Darluvouduk, and together they were going to rule the universe after killing him and the other ancestors. Awakunduk knew he was lying, so he banished him and told the other ancestors that from now on he only had ninety-nine children, and Wirambi’s name was never to be mentioned again.”
“What happened to Wirambi?”
“He was exiled to Yunupinga, the place of infinite nothingness that no one can escape from.”
“So that’s why his people never got their ancestor’s force and the knowledge of travel in Yarrundji that every other nation got. They were left to their own devices and ended up at the mercy of other people like the whitefellas on Terra.”
“My father thought it was unfair that Wirambi’s people suffered because of their ancestor’s misdeed, and he devised a plan to save them. When your parents were waiting for you, Guriyal whispered your name in their ears so that when you would go on your walkabout you would answer Niningka’s call.”
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“First, finish your walkabout. When we return to Alcheringa, I will repeat what I’ve told you to the elders, and Loorea will bear witness of her people’s oppression. I will tell them that Guriyal wants to adopt Wirambi’s orphans, and he has anointed you to be his emissary. You will tell Wirambi’s people that they have a new father and a new nation, you will bring them knowledge of Yarrundji and teach them Wirambi’s songline. But I must warn you: this journey will be dangerous, for there are many who will stand in our way.”
Wirambi did not hesitate. “No matter what trials await me, I accept this mission. I’ve seen suffering and injustice I didn’t know existed, and I am honored to play a part in Guriyal’s plan to stop them.”
“Wirambi, when I stowed away on your ship, all I wanted to do was run away,” said Loorea. “I didn’t think about the ones I was leaving behind, but you’re willing to fight for them even though they’re not from your mob. You’re a brave and generous boy who’s willing to fight for what’s right. Take me with you and I’ll go wherever you go.”
Wirambi looked at Loorea and saw a spark in her eyes that kindled a fire in his heart. He took her in his arms and saw Kooriwan smiling. Later when he thought about that unforgettable moment, he realized that parrots cannot smile, and wondered if Kooriwan had given him his faculty to read minds, the place where smiles are born.
Five Hundred Terabytes
By Rui Cid
With millions of lives at stake, I personally inspect every single line of code in the system. A deep breath escapes my lips. After seventy-two straight hours staring at the laptop’s screen, my headache escalates into a full-blown migraine. Closing my eyes, I allow the whirring sound of dozens of computer servers to drown out my own thoughts. Not that it matters. The Digital Eden project might’ve been founded by both Mariana and me, but the truth’s that she was always the real genius behind it. I just happened to be lucky enough to sit next to her in class at MIT, almost forty years ago.
From behind, someone opens the door. A quick turn of the chair and I confirm that Michael’s back. Since this room stores the mainframe server, it needs to be kept at a chilling fifty-five degrees. That’s how I know that his recurring visits don’t simply happen because Michael likes to chitchat. In these last three days I have reviewed the system’s code, over and over again, only to reach the same conclusion.
“Look, Michael. As far as I can tell, Mariana hasn’t changed the functioning of the system,” I say, shutting down the laptop’s screen and resting my hands on its lid. “Whatever happened with her reawakening. Digital Eden’s code seems intact.”
Dressed in an expensive suit, Michael loosens up the knot on his tie and stares at me. “For God’s sake, Vincent. It’s been more than a week since the system reported the error. What are you saying?” He asks. “That we still don’t know if Digital Eden was compromised?”
“Come on, man,” I say. “Even after the incident with Mariana’s reawakening, every single diagnostic test indicates that the system’s functioning perfectly.”
To be honest, if Mariana had really wanted to sabotage the system nobody could do a damn thing to stop her. Digital Eden was her dream from day one. With Mariana gone, I’m just the system analyst who helped her code and build Digital Eden. Someone capable of understanding how everything works, but powerless to overwrite anything that Mariana wanted to change. Getting up from the chair, I walk over towards the mainframe server. Its access panel slides open at the press of a button. Holding the laptop under my arm, I plug in a cable to connect it to the server. A couple of keystrokes are enough to access the information of all the servers in our system.
“That’s not what worries me. If something was broken with Digital Eden, half this country would know it by now,” Michael says, sitting down on the floor with his back to one of the servers. “What worries me is the possibility that Mariana sabotaged her own reawakening procedure.”
Silence is my only reply to Michael’s concerns. Instead of wasting time holding his hand, my attention focuses on the sea of information displayed by the laptop’s screen. At random, I pick a file out of the tens of thousands that Digital Eden manages every day in the city of New York alone. In this case, Digital Eden’s review of file number GH-197463 states that a Mrs. Helena Stewart, aged thirty seven, suffered a severe pulmonary embolism. The subsequent cardiac arrest led to her death.
Digital Eden then proceeded to check its servers for her clinical and personal information. Having found Mrs. Stewart’s registry as a citizen of the United States, the system analyzed the data to determine if there was anything that could exclude her from the reawakening procedure. Since her application satisfied all the criteria, Digital Eden requested that the latest copy of her consciousness be imprinted onto a cloned body. In the final stages of the reawakening, the system shows that a cloned body was readied and aged at one of our facilities to receive the copy of her consciousness. Digital Eden’s last entry regarding file number GH-197463 classifies Mrs. Stewart’s reawakening procedure as a success.
A random browsing of some of the reawakenings that Digital Eden performed last week demonstrates that everything’s fine. After what happened with Mariana, the system never once encountered another critical error. Every diagnostic test we ran. My review of Digital Eden’s source code. The inspections to our servers and consciousness imprinting facilities. Every bit of evidence supports the conclusion that nothing’s changed. Digital Eden seems to be working perfectly.
Out of nowhere, Michael pats me on the shoulder. When I turn around to look at him, he’s wearing a frown. “What happened to Mariana was a tragedy. I knew how close the two of you were,” he says. “But now I’m counting on you to help me manage Digital Eden.”
“Don’t talk about things you know nothing about,” I say, brushing his hand off my shoulder. “I’m not doing this for you.”
“That’s not what I meant. Mariana and I never saw eye to eye, but…” Michael mumbles and shakes his head. “I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry for what happened.”
Michael’s gaze drops to the floor and he steps out of the server room without speaking another word. Left to my own devices, I run a search in our servers for file number FB-749262. A knot tightens in my throat when the laptop locates the data for the reawakening of Ms. Mariana Ribeiro. The system’s review of the file shows that, on a Sunday morning, Mariana ingested enough barbiturates to induce a respiratory arrest. Called to the scene, the coroner pronounced her dead on the scene. Once Digital Eden updated the information regarding her death, the system triggered a reawakening request.
The early stages of Mariana’s reawakening went well. With nothing in her personal or clinical data to exclude her from being reawakened, a cloned body was readied and aged to receive a copy of her consciousness. Everything seemed normal. Except when it came time to imprint her consciousness onto a blank mind, an error occurred. File number FB-749262 registers a critical error that shut down Mariana’s reawakening altogether. Early on, I thought the problem might reside in the copy of her consciousness. That turned out not to be the case, when myself and dozens of system analysts combed over the file containing her consciousness only to deem it fully operational.
Desperate to force her reawakening to jumpstart, I tried every trick in the book. Rebooting the whole system. Swapping her identity with that of another citizen. Deceiving Digital Eden into imprinting her consciousness onto a different body. Nothing worked. That’s when I realized that her suicide and the error that occurred couldn’t be a coincidence.
Despite the botched reawakening procedure, her ghost remains in our system. The digital copy of Mariana’s consciousness contains her every dream, thought, and even emotion. Some people would even say that the file contains her very soul. Unplugging the cable, I disconnect the laptop from the mainframe server. While sitting back down on the chair, the migraine threatens to tear my head apart. But I suppose that’s what happens when you’re pushing sixty. My fingers hit the keyboard and the laptop returns to the source code of Digital Eden. If there’s any hope of understanding what might’ve caused the error with Mariana’s reawakening, then that hope lies in the analysis of Digital Eden’s source code.
Boxes of takeout food from General Tsang’s Palace lie scattered all over my office. I knock a few of them to the ground, searching the drawers of the desk for the car keys. Behind a photograph of Mariana, a metallic gleam betrays the keys’ location. Shoving the keys into my jeans’ back pocket, I walk over to the window. From the hundredth story of Digital Eden’s headquarters, the city of New York sprawls out as far as the eye can see. About to return home to catch a full night’s sleep, I watch the first drops of rain start to land on the streets.
Every bone and joint in my body aches. Enough to force me to sit down on the couch. Taking off my shirt, the stench of soy sauce and dried sweat serves as a reminder of these past three days. I fold the shirt into a pillow and rest my head against it to stare at the white ceiling. With my eyes in need of a few moments rest, the whole world begins to blur and a shroud of numbness dulls my mind.
Startled by the sound of the doorknob twisting open, I stand up. My heart skips a beat at the sight of Mariana walking over towards me. This must be some kind of hallucination because Mariana looks exactly like she did, forty years ago, when we first met at MIT.
“What a mess,” Mariana’s ghost says, sitting down on the couch. Her hand grabs my chin and turns my head. First to the left, and then to the right. “You need a shave. And a bath.”
“Yeah, I know,” I tell the ghost while my gaze lingers on every inch of her mocha colored skin. “That’s the first thing I’m gonna do when I get home. I only stayed here because I wanted to find out why you did what you did.”
She mumbles something to herself and gets back up. “You know why I did it, Vincent,” she says, heading for the window. “After those Washington suits took over Digital Eden, this was the only way I could get my voice heard again.”
Shaking my head, I follow her to the window. “What did you think was gonna happen, man?” I ask her. Below us, the city’s streets fill with a cacophony of people, cars, and neon lights. “Digital Eden was your idea. But your idea was always bigger than the both of us. You knew that.”
Mariana turns around to look at me. Her green irises burn holes through my soul. “Maybe I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she says. Taking a seat on the chair behind the desk, a swipe of her finger activates the computer. “But I never thought that something that the two of us built could grow so completely of our control.”
In the middle of the office, the computer’s optical sphere projects a holographic map of the United States of America. With all fifty states outlined in detail, a bright red dot begins to blink in the heart of New York. The system labels the dot as representing this building. Digital Eden’s headquarters. At once, a line materializes to connect the bright red dot in New York to a pale yellow one in Massachusetts. The computer quickly weaves an intricate pattern of connections over the holographic map of the United States. These connections originate in the red dot in New York and extend to every other state in the country. Above the elaborate tapestry composed of interconnected dots, the system loads real-time data regarding the status of every Digital Eden mainframe server. Federal funds subsidize the infrastructure required to keep Digital Eden functioning as a nationwide program. Twenty-five years ago, the Government consulted Mariana and me regarding the possibility of expanding our experimental system. But soon it became clear that Uncle Sam had plans of his own for Digital Eden.
“From the moment we got a prototype of Digital Eden to work, the world was bound to change,” I tell her. “You opened Pandora’s Box. Now you don’t just get to put the lid back on.”
“Digital Eden was born out of a simple notion. To prevent people from losing their loved ones too soon. I never meant for it to be used this extensively. I never meant for it to be used to cheat death,” she says. “It’s not Pandora’s box I fear. It’s the assholes who want to be holding the lid.”
“Even with bureaucrats like Michael in charge, we still made a difference. We still had a say in Digital Eden”, I yell at her. “Whenever a technical problem occurred, they always deferred to our better judgment.”
“Stop being so goddamned naïve. That might be true for now. But things will change,” Mariana says, her fingers hit the keyboard again. “Sooner or later, they won’t need you at all.”
At the press of a button, the holographic map of the United States fades way. In the digital void projected by the computer’s optical sphere, a bright green dot appears. Line by line, the computer projects the layout of the structure that surrounds the green dot. When several different sections of buildings align into the shape of a massive pentagon, I swallow hard. Although our servers recognize the existence of Digital’s Eden military counterpart, the two systems don’t share any data. Leaning over towards the desk, I place my hand above the keyboard and close it into a fist. The computer recognizes the gesture and turns itself off.
Too tired to get dragged into another argument over Digital Eden’s merits, I bite down on my tongue and turn around. Sitting back on the leather couch, the events of the past week sink in. “It’s been more than a week since you passed away. And you never even bothered to say goodbye,” I tell her. My eyes linger on her brown hair. “I miss you.”
Mariana walks over to me and rests her head on my chest. A warm flush spreads across my cheeks, as I feel her hand brush against mine. “I miss you too.” Mariana and I dated for a while, before realizing that we weren’t meant to be lovers. Only best friends. But, in this moment, I can’t help but entwine our fingers together. “You know I would have wanted to say goodbye, Vincent. So find out why I didn’t.”
Startled by the roars of falling thunder, I awake to find that Mariana’s already gone. If it wasn’t for my wristwatch, the darkness outside could trick me into believing that the sun hadn’t risen yet. The holographic cube that floats above my desk indicates that notifications arrived throughout the evening. With a verbal command, I order the computer to display the pending notifications. At once, the computer’s optical sphere projects a white canvas that covers the window’s surface in my office. A quick glance at the canvas reveals that most notifications concern a series of e-mails sent by Michael yesterday.
Walking over to the window, I squint in an attempt to concentrate on the text being displayed. The content of the messages exchanged between Michael and Digital Eden’s teams of system analysts seems straightforward. Last night, the final round of nationwide diagnostic tests was completed. Results indicate that the system remains in optimal condition and working at a hundred percent capacity. Michael then wrote to Digital Eden’s board of directors labeling the incident occurred with Mariana’s reawakening as a freak accident. A one in a million occurrence. In the messages that ensued, he presented a report on the incident to the proper Governmental authorities.
The most recent notification catches my eye, since it concerns an e-mail that Michael sent me only a couple of minutes ago. With the message’s subject line containing a single word, “Mariana”, I order the computer to display the message on the holographic screen.
Congress agreed that the malfunction that occurred with Mariana’s reawakening procedure should be withheld from public knowledge. In the past few decades, the degree of control over death that Digital Eden has afforded us quickly became one of the cornerstones of our society. Because the system requires people’s trust in order to function properly, we must ensure that not a word of this leaks out to the public.
I need you to purge Digital Eden of the copy of Mariana’s consciousness, along with all records of her reawakening procedure. Vincent, I realize how hard this must be for you. But if anybody found out what happened to her, Digital Eden could collapse. We must not allow Mariana’s doubts to undermine our life’s work. Together, we can help shape a better future for Digital Eden.
What a prick. Even I’m not dumb enough to believe that Michael would trust me with such a task. Returning to the seat behind the desk, my fingers press against the computer’s keyboard. The combination of keys shuts down the notification canvas to replace it with Digital Eden’s source code. In front of my eyes, lines of code hover mid-air. Not too worried about what Michael hoped to achieve by sending that message, I focus my attention on Digital Eden’s source code. Perhaps someday Michael’s armies of computer analysts can gain an understanding of Digital Eden that rivals my own. Meanwhile, however, all files concerning Mariana will rest safely hidden within one of the system’s many blind spots.
Behind me, the wind howls loud enough for the window to start rattling. The deafening growl produced by the storm renders it impossible to concentrate on anything, let alone review Digital Eden’s code. Even if I could concentrate, would it really matter? After three days without any answers? Before any more doubts creep their way inside of my mind, a flash of thunder ignites the entire sky. The sudden explosion of light reminds me of something that Mariana’s ghost said. Maybe she did try to say goodbye and I simply haven’t been able to decipher the message. Mariana’s suicide coupled with the sabotage of her own reawakening. There’s simply no way these two facts are unrelated.
The question concerning what kind of message could Mariana deliver through the use of Digital Eden, leads me to access the copy of her consciousness. Having already analyzed Mariana’s file before, I find nothing new. Her consciousness appears to be intact. Devoid of any signs of data leakage, cognitive corruption, or of a botched consciousness duplicating procedure. With a knot on my throat, I close the file to analyze instead the reawakening procedures of different people after she died. At the click of the mouse, my computer retrieves hundreds of files of reawakening procedures that took place in the days that followed Mariana’s death.
For each of the randomly retrieved reawakening files, I open the data concerning the consciousnesses that were stored and imprinted onto cloned bodies. In every file that flashes before my eyes, Digital Eden reviewed the respective reawakening as a success. Case file VD-678368 reveals that a Mr. Thomas Moore died of a ruptured brain aneurism this past Thursday. Digital Eden triggered a reawakening request mere moments after he was pronounced dead at the hospital. Friday morning, our imprinting facilities had readied and aged a cloned body to store a copy of his consciousness. By three in the afternoon, Digital Eden concluded the imprinting of his consciousness onto the blank mind. Then it hits me. Switching back and forth rapidly between the original copy of his consciousness and the file that ended up imprinted onto the new body. One small difference sticks out.
A five hundred terabyte discrepancy occurred during Mr. Thomas Moore’s consciousness imprinting procedure. Out of instinct, my hands move to the keyboard to determine something I already know. That this discrepancy can’t be a coincidence. Browsing through another batch of reawakening procedures confirms my suspicions. On Mr. Thomas Moore’s reawakening procedure. On Ms. Leah Summer’s. On Mr. Fredrick Stein’s. On Mrs. Elizabeth Bank’s. On Mr. Giuseppe Bernardo’s. On Mr. Gullaume Valjean’s. On Ms. Hannah Grace’s. Although the copy of a person’s consciousness varies greatly in file size, the five hundred terabyte discrepancy remains constant. To each of the initial copies of their consciousnesses stored in our servers, the imprinting procedure always added those extra five hundred terabytes. That’s how I realize that Mariana not only interfered with her own reawakening procedure. She changed something for all of us.
Opening and closing my hand in quick succession, I perform the gesture that makes the computer display Digital Eden’s source code again. Fingers glide down the track pad to navigate through the lines of code being projected mid-air. It takes a while, until I reach the section of Digital Eden’s code responsible for managing the imprinting procedure of a person’s consciousness. With my attention set on this specific part of the code, the disguised subroutine that Mariana added to Digital Eden finally becomes evident. At once, I get up from the chair and turn my back on the desk.
After making a decision, I tap fourt imes on the face of my wristwatch. The device dials an old contact on my list and patches the audio through the office’s sound system. A ringing tone echoes throughout the office, seemingly going on for an eternity. Or, at least, until someone on the other side replies to the phone call with a:
“It’s been a long time, Vincent,” says a disembodied voice. “Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, man. Everything’s fine. Just needed a small favor,” I reply. “My appointment for consciousness duplication isn’t coming up for another month, but-”
From the other side of the line, a burst of laughter interrupts me. “It’s alright. I get it. I’m old school too, you know?” He says. “I still remember a time when you were going in for these procedures every other day.”
“Thanks, man,” I say. “I appreciate it.”
“No problem. Stop by in a couple of hours.” In the background, muffled TV sounds grow louder. “We’ll get you sorted out.”
Before getting a chance to say goodbye, Arthur hangs up. Mariana sacrificed her life in order to pass along that five hundred terabyte message. As Mariana’s best friend, it’s my responsibility to experience her message for myself. I need to know why this meant so much to her.
When the control panel lights up, the elevator begins its descent into the building’s lower floors. After a while of roaming through corridors, I find the plaque that indicates the entrance to medical office 23-B. A knock on its door draws the sound of footsteps closer. On the other side of the door, a nurse answers and motions for me to step inside the waiting room. Before I get the chance to explain that Arthur’s expecting my presence, she asks to see the appointment for the consciousness duplication procedure. About to identify myself, I see Arthur open the door that leads to his medical office.
“Vincent, old friend,” the neurologist says, walking over to pat me on the back. “How long has it been?”
“Hard to say, man,” I say, shaking his hand and trying to smile. “But it’s surely been more than ten years.”
“Ten goddamned years. That’s what happens when you work in a building with seven thousand other people,” he says, nodding and asking the nurse to confirm everything’s ready for the consciousness duplication procedure. “Still working as chief system analyst?”
“Of course,” I say. “They always liked keeping me busy.”
Too tired to pretend that after ten years Arthur’s anything more than a stranger, I cut the conversation short and follow the nurse inside the medical office. No matter how many times my consciousness gets duplicated, the sight of the device for neural imaging and mapping never fails to send shivers down my spine. Composed out of a series of interlocked rings bound together by a metallic cylinder, the machine’s bulk easily dwarfs any man. When Arthur comes up from behind to grab me by the shoulder, my skin crawls. The psychiatrist gestures towards the control booth to the side of the machine and says that he needs to boot up the system. I nod at him and sit down on the bed that connects to the device for neural imaging and mapping. At once, the nurse brings me an IV tray.
Since the sight of blood makes me queasy, I turn my head to the side. The stench of alcohol permeates the medical office. The nurse pokes and probes at me, until, without warning, a surge of pain spreads throughout my hand. It doesn’t take long for the pain to ease, a sign that she managed to place the catheter. After a few adjustments to the roller clamp, a yellow liquid flows down through the IV line to make its way into my body. Already feeling the sedative relaxing my muscles, the nurse lays me down on the bed.
All of a sudden, lights appear to the flanks of the device for neural imaging and mapping. Its massive metallic cylinder hums in short bursts whose cadence seems to be increasing. “Alright, Vincent,” Arthur’s voice reverberates throughout the entire medical office. When the nurse returns, she covers my head with a cap full of electrodes and neural sensors. “Let’s get started, buddy,” the moment he utters that last word, I feel myself being dragged towards the center of the machine’s hollow cylinder.
By the time the top-half of the bed stops moving, my body’s already encased by several tons of expensive medical equipment. The first of the interlocked rings shrinks in size to fit around the upper section of my head. Close enough to my eyes, the ring’s sleek shape spins and envelopes my whole world in a grey blur. Little by little, the outer part of the grey blur starts spinning faster than its center and I realize that more rings have joined the first one. The device for neural imaging and mapping uses a combination of the rings’ motion and their divergent positioning to construct an image of the brain’s neural structure.
Even with the sedative hooked up to my veins, the crescendo of loud noises and bright lights turns my breathing into a quick succession of shallow bursts. As the entirety of rings work together synchronously, I shut my eyes in the hope that this ends soon enough. In darkness, the only thought that burns through my mind is Mariana’s face. A sigh escapes my lips as the sedative’s full effect kicks in. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I feel the cap of electrodes infuse a tingling sensation on most of my skull.
Stripped of any notion of time, I don’t know how long the machine’s rings have spun around my head. Out of nowhere, Arthur says something reassuring like, “Just try to relax. It’s almost over.” Not that it matters. One hour or ten. Right now, it’s the same. At some point, the head cap fires small electrical jolts into my skull. The spikes of electricity trigger a mixture of feelings, memories, and thoughts. Happiness and regret overwhelm me. Various scenes of a childhood spent in the Midwest play out in my head. My own voice echoes out a, “She’s brilliant”, in response to the first time Mariana spoke in class.
Every significant event of my life unfolds like a videotape caught on an infinite loop. Relived to the point of exhaustion, this amalgam of feelings, memories, and thoughts, begins to feel washed out. Each time a new cycle initiates, everything becomes less and less vivid. Eventually, it all fades away as my world reverts back to the grey blur of the machine’s spinning rings. The rings’ motion decelerates, slowly. When the device’s rings shrink in size and return to their original positions, its metallic cylinder grows dark and silent.
With the procedure finished, the device for neural imaging and mapping ejects me from its insides. The top of the bed slides outward into the medical office, where Arthur and the nurse are already waiting. While the nurse pulls out the catheter and helps me sit back up, the neurologist nods. It takes a few moments for my head to stop spinning around.
“All done, Vincent,” Arthur says, pulling the cap off of my head. “That bright little mind of yours is safely stored in Digital Eden.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Really appreciate it.”
As soon as my legs allow it, I bail out of Arthur’s medical office. Returning to the elevator, the climb towards the building’s rooftop takes less than a minute. Outside, the pouring rain drenches me to the bone. Step after step, I approach the rooftop’s edge. Grey clouds continue to blot out most of the sky, but the storm no longer threatens to rip out any trees. A knot tightens in my throat when leaning over the rooftop’s edge reveals the dizzying height that separates me from the ground. Confronted with the prospect of death, I wonder how much courage Mariana needed in order to embrace her own end. Mariana sacrificed herself to ensure that those five hundred terabytes reached all of Digital Eden. Since her message only awaits those that come through the other side of a reawakening, I take one last step towards the edge and plunge myself into the abyss.
On top of the desk, the digital frame displays a new photograph of Mariana every twenty minutes. Picking it up, I place the frame inside the small cardboard box that contains my personal belongings. Thirty seven years of my life devoted to Digital Eden and all that remains are trinkets. A coffee mug my mother once bought me. Old newspapers with headlines that feature the birth of Digital Eden. And some data nodules that detail how Mariana and I arrived at a functional prototype for Digital Eden. Looking out the window, the computer’s optical sphere uses part of its surface to project today’s newspapers covers.
Behind me, someone opens the door. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I immediately recognize Michael’s voice. “Do you really expect me to accept your resignation?”
“I don’t expect you to accept anything,” I say, without turning to him. Months after Mariana’s death, the newspapers’ covers reveal the rising trend in public opinion. Everybody, from the common citizen on the streets to most of the medical and legal professions, demands more regulatory supervision for Digital Eden. “My decision’s final.”
From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Michael sitting down on the couch. “Just how stupid do you believe me to be?” he says, burying his face between his hands. “Even I realize why you threw yourself from that rooftop.”
Closing my eyes, I set down the cardboard box on the desk to join Michael on the couch. “What are you worried about? I’m not a whistle blower,” I tell him. “If anybody asks, I’ll stick to our cover. Mariana wasn’t reawakened because she signed a DNR order.”
Michael shakes his head. “If you decided to spill any of Digital Eden’s secrets, I’d be the least of your concerns,” he tells me, reaching for a box of Beijing duck. “Did you find out what you were looking for? Do you know what Mariana changed in the system?”
Right now, Michael probably has his legions of system analysts combing through every line of Digital Eden’s source code searching for that answer. In the days that followed my own reawakening, I realized exactly what Mariana changed in the system and the reason why she did it. Digital Eden’s functioning remains the same, except for the part that governs the consciousness imprinting procedure. Once Mariana passed away, Digital Eden submitted a request for her reawakening and that triggered the subroutine she wrote. Her subroutine then began to add five hundred terabytes to every subsequent consciousness imprinting procedure that took place. But Mariana also chose to make this modification reversible, if only anyone knows where to look.
“What she changed in Digital Eden. Man, that’s something each person should experience for themselves. It’s nothing personal, Michael. But after everything that happened, I think Mariana was right,” I say, handing him a fork from one of the table’s drawer. “Maybe we did take Digital Eden too far. Maybe we should’ve let the hospitals decide how to use it.”
The man loosens up the knot on his tie and opens the takeaway box of food from General Tsang’s Palace. “For Christ’s sake, Vincent. I thought you were smarter than this,” he says, starting to chow down on the Beijing duck. “What do you hope to accomplish? Sooner or later, we will erase every trace of her from our system.”
“Never doubted that,” I say, ordering the computer to display today’s The Daily Bugle. On its cover, the newspaper features a poll that indicates that sixty eight percent of people support the implementation of further restrictions to Digital Eden. “Question is: Can you do it before it’s too late?”
“I’m not your enemy. I never was.” He sets down the box of takeaway food and walks away from the couch. “Goddamn it, Vincent. Things could’ve turned out so differently.”
“Maybe, but what did you expect? Mariana and I go back. Way back,” I tell him. “Digital Eden was her dream all along. In a way, we robbed her of that.”
With the tens of thousands of reawakening procedures performed by Digital Eden since Mariana’s death, it’s only a matter of time until Michael’s team figures it out. Sooner or later, enough people will start talking about how something feels different after their reawakening. Even if Michael’s team of system analysts only happens to stumble across the problem, Mariana never designed any of her modifications to be permanent. It might take months, or it might take years. But eventually Michael will be able to cleanse the system of those stray five hundred terabytes. Pacing back and forth in front of my desk, he shakes his head and grunts.
“When you leave this building, I want you to hand over your ID badge. Collect your things and make sure nothing’s missing,” Michael says, glancing over his shoulder. ”Once you step foot outside of these facilities, I can’t allow you to come back.”
“No problem, man,” I tell him. “That was the plan, anyway.”
All of a sudden, Michael buttons up his jacket and heads in my direction. Leaning down, he reaches out his hand to me. My brain needs a moment to process what he seems to be doing. “Best of luck out there,” he says, shaking my hand. “But I still think this is a mistake. You’re going to miss this place.”
“Thanks. You’re probably right,” I say. Michael managed to catch me by surprise. Heading for the door, he leaves my office before I can add, “But this is my decision to make.”
Truth be told, a man’s life amounts to nothing more than the sum of his choices. Closing my eyes, I concentrate again on the memory that shouldn’t belong in my brain. Each time the memory unfolds, the more vivid it becomes. One moment, I’m sitting on the couch of my office on the hundredth floor of Digital Eden’s headquarters. And, the next, I find myself whisked away to the porch of an old house staring at the night sky. A man smiles and motions towards the small telescope already pointed at the sky. Taking a step forward, my eye peeks through the telescope’s lens to glance at a Universe big enough to remind us of our insignificance. The man places his hand on my shoulder and explains that tonight we’re observing the Swan Nebula.
Amazed at how much the Nebula actually looks like a swan, I feel the man’s grip on my shoulder begin to tighten considerably. About to complain that he’s starting to hurt me, the man stumbles backwards. My heart skips a beat, as droplets of blood fall from his nose onto the hardwood porch. Without warning, he collapses on the ground and panic explodes inside of my chest. Screaming at the top of my lungs, I run over to the man to try to wake him. Childish hands pound against his chest, over and over again. Tears stream down my cheeks.
For almost everybody else, this recollection from Mariana’s past probably remains a blur on the back of their heads. Something that might feel a little off about their lives, but never being able to fully understand what that might be. That’s not my case because in the years that Mariana and I shared, she chose to tell me how she had lost her father. It didn’t take a genius to realize that Mr. Adriano Ribeiro’s death was the real reason behind Digital Eden. As my eyes open again, a rift through space and time returns me to my office.
Whatever else the future might hold, I hope to get a chance to atone for my sins. In the end, Mariana managed to make her voice heard inside our very minds. Passing down this memory onto others, Mariana found a way to share the regret she felt over seeing her vision of Digital Eden corrupted. Now, time can only tell if Digital Eden’s nature can change as a system designed to stave off death at all costs. Mariana always intended for the reawakenings to become a medical procedure used under exceptional circumstances. Not that either possibly matters to me anymore, handing over my resignation was the last thing I could do to protect Mariana’s wishes.
Freed from Digital Eden, I smile and reach for the pocket of my shirt to grab the plane ticket. Mariana used to say that someday we’d go to Portugal so she could show me that fisherman’s village where she grew up. After thirty seven years without a decent vacation, I’ll be spending this summer in the peaceful village of Nazaré. Who knows what can happen there. The travel agency boasts that anyone who tastes a Mediterranean summer never wants to leave Portugal. But that’s something I need to find out for myself.
The Rachel Who Loved Me
By J.A. Becker
My knees get weak at the sight of her. I start to sweat and my heart begins to hammer. My eyes go glassy and my pupils splay so wide they become like black holes. And I can’t think straight. I can’t even think simple thoughts, like calculating the diameter of a wormhole, which I could normally do in my sleep.
Once on Anterra, this backwater world filled with nothing but swamps, frogs, and bugs, I contracted a strange kind of brain fever. I went mad! Went all kinds of crazy. And what I felt and thought are the exact same things that I think and feel when she is near.
It’s annoying. It’s distracting. I hate myself for it. It’s like there was a revolt in my mind and my common sense lost and got the guillotine.
This is no kind of woman to be in love with. NONE! She was chosen because she was everything that I detest. Where I’m thin and neat and intelligent, she is not. Where I am outgoing, successful, and have a zest for life, she does not. Where I am complicated, she is not. Where I am anything, she is not.
Her kind was to let me focus on my important work and not entangle me with the encumbrances of love or any other complication. She was to be a simple subject for me to explore scientifically, objectively, soberly. Like dissecting the brain of a fetal pig, I care not for the pig.
Rachel, oh Rachel! You bubble into the room to pick up the garbage I’ve left on the floor and my head goes mad for you. I get all silly.
Please, let me pick that up. I’ll say. I’ve been so foolish to let that drop. No my dear, don’t worry. You could hurt your back bending over like that. Let me! Let me!
And then out she goes with a smile splitting her broad face and I can’t help but miss her when she’s gone.
I don’t know what I’m going to do.
I might have to kill her and start all over again.
I’ve forged on with the experiment. Ignored the little nigglings in my heart and slipped the nanites into Rachel’s morning oatmeal. By now they’ve hitched a ride on some hemoglobin and are up in her brain, burrowing into her synapses.
I’ve noticed no changes in her behavior, which is a good sign. With the others, everything misfired and they went into anaphylactic shock.
Decades of work may be coming to fruition. This is a very auspicious day.
I’ve figured it out.
I am a man and she is a woman and we are alone in this space station, way at the edge of known space.
Of course feelings would develop. That drive to procreate is deep in the marrow of our framework. It’s seeping out and corrupting my thoughts, making me think I actually feel something for the little toadstool.
But I don’t.
It’s just animal instinct. It’s just loneliness. I’ve been alone out here a long, long time.
Day of days!
I received the first transmission from the nanites. I’ve run the signal a dozen times through the computer because at first I thought there was some kind of mistake. But the translation is the same every time.
That’s the word I’m getting from her subconscious.
It seems the little dolt has fallen in love with me. I’ve confirmed it by breaking into her computer and reading her diary. What awful schoolgirl fantasies are there! Absolutely juvenile. They’re all about me and her getting married back on Earth in some quaint country church (what’s with woman and white steeple churches?). I don’t know where she would get any of those ideas. How does she even know what Earth is? Did she see it in our movie catalog?
Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I should just focus on the fact that my work, my years of sacrifice, are starting to amount to something.
I flushed her into space.
I wasn’t getting anything but romance-novel garbage out of her head. I can’t come to the board with data like that. They would laugh me out of the room.
It’s no matter. What matters is the nanites worked with her so they can work with the others.
On a side note, I’ve got to remind myself to delete this blog before I return. Wouldn’t want this getting into the wrong hands.
I kind of miss the old girl. There was something different about that one. Not sure what it was, but I almost feel sad she’s gone.
The nanites have taken to this new Rachel like a duck to water.
That’s all she thinks about. Day and night. It’s ridiculous.
Clean. Clean. Clean.
It’s funny how easy it is to create life, shape it, control it, and even end it, but when it comes to understanding it, it’s impossible.
That is, till now with my nanites.
I don’t know what the hell is with me. I should be singing, screaming, jumping up and down for joy. I’m almost able to collect whole thoughts now. The end is in sight!
But here I am, staring out the window at the stars and thinking about the Rachel who loved me. I didn’t realize at the time how unique she was.
None of the other Rachels have given two shits about me. There was something different about that one. I regret not realizing it at the time. There’s something I could have learned about the mind there. Perhaps the cloning procedure miscarried a little with her genome structure and she was in some way different? I don’t know. The logs don’t have that level of detail.
One of the Rachels found the other Rachel’s diary and went all kinds of crazy. I had to lock myself in the lab while she rampaged up and down the corridor with a fire axe.
The system was cranked up, so I could hear her thoughts.
Kill. Kill. Kill.
I was very lucky I could override the airlock in the corridor and bleed the oxygen out into space.
It’s been weeks, but I haven’t calmed down from that yet. I’m too scared to fire another Rachel up.
Haven’t instantiated another one in over a hundred days.
I can’t seem to do anything, but wander the hallways and think about that one Rachel. Why did she love me? Why did that one love me?
I’ve tried to move on. Put my mind into the formulas, remind myself I’ve been out here for years and I’ve nothing yet to show, but I just can’t get it together. I keep thinking about the Rachel I made five-thousand Rachels ago. The Rachel who loved me.
I remember when we kissed.
She was cleaning my desk and I stood up and head butted her in the mouth. Split her lip wide open.
I laughed at first. It was kind of funny to see how startled and hurt she was, like I’d done it on purpose. Then she looked at me in this kicked puppy dog kind of way and my heart suddenly went out to her. I touched her face, gently brushed her round cheek with the back of my hand. Then we kissed and it was salt and blood and wonderful.
My body aches for that kiss again.
What the hell is wrong with me?
I can’t make that Rachel again. I’ve tried and tried and tried.
They won’t kiss me–even when I’m sweet to them. I’ll get her to sit her in my chair while I run around the station, cleaning. But this doesn’t delight them.
So I abort and try again.
I force the kiss and they bite me. Hard. Took a fair sized chunk out of my lower lip.
This should be easy! I am superior to her in every way. She should love me the second she sees me. But this little toad feels nothing for me. I am to her as she is to me!
I feel like I’m back to day one of this project. No closer to understanding anything.
Read back through my diary. My God the horror of what I’ve done.
I’ve been so wrapped up in all this Rachel loves me nonsense I’ve lost sight of why I’m out here.
Nanites. Nanites. Nanites.
I am here to understand the mind. Not get laid!
The board is on my back. They want to see progress or they’re going to pull the plug. I need to buckle down. Need to put Rachel’s little heart into the corner of my mind and throw away the key. She is designed to be nothing and I should think of her as such.
Bear down man or you’ll lose everything you’ve worked for!
I can make Rachel love me.
It’s easy when you can hear entire thoughts. I just give her what she thinks. When she’s hungry, I provide her with food. If she’s cold, I make her warm. If she’s lonely, I give her company. And soon enough, her thoughts are silver bells:
I love him. I love him. I love him.
It was almost too easy!
I understand so much now. Love is need fulfilment. Plain and simple. I need; this person provides; and therefore I love them.
That’s why this Rachel loves me and that’s why the other one loved me. I provide.
The board is ecstatic. They’ve sent a ship, the Charon, to collect me. Soon I’ll be back on Earth, reveling in glory and riches!
I have stamped my name into the history books.
I am so proud of myself.
Had an odd conversation with Rachel this morning. The little dear thinks she’s coming back with me. I don’t know how the hell she got that into her head (the fantasies of women!)
She’s in a tizzy cleaning the station, prepping for what she thinks are “house guests”.
If she only knew. If she only knew.
Soon the Charon will dock at my station. I keep glancing out the window, hoping to see it. Rachel does too.
I’ve had to shut off her nanites. Her mind’s chatter was driving me mad. Babbling brooks, they say. It’s all white chapels and us walking down the aisles together, over and over again.
Rachel’s locked herself in her room. Won’t come out. She won’t tell me why. I haven’t bothered to turn her nanites on to know for sure. I don’t care. Too busy categorizing the data. Packing up for the big move. The end is in sight.
Something must have gone terribly wrong during this Rachel’s instantiation. She’s much cleverer than she’s supposed to be.
It looks like she’s tricked me. Me! It doesn’t seem possible, but there it is.
This morning I noticed my nanite software was still running and when I turned the volume up I heard something shocking. It was my thoughts being broadcast!
It seems she’s put the nanites into my food and has been listening.
The little witch!
She needs to be aborted, needs to be flushed. But she’s locked me out of the station’s controls. She must have heard the password in my mind.
God! When the Charon gets here she will be finished! She can’t stop them from docking. They’ll flush her tout suite when I tell them what’s happened.
I can’t wait.
I’m so upset I can barely write. Something unimaginable has happened. Something dreadful.
The little viper has destroyed the Charon!
I watched from the airlock window. It was just about to dock and Rachel turned the station and revved the engines!
Burnt them to nothing. Ten people immolated in an instant.
The little monster!
All this time and she was insane. How could I not have realized that? I could hear her thoughts as plain as day. It was love, love, love, and that’s it. How could I have missed this?
She’s locked me in my room, frozen the controls too.
I don’t know what to do. I’m so scared. I can’t sleep. I’ve been up for days.
My monitor shows that she’s fired up the cloning machine with a new genome structure. I can’t stop it though, only watch the DNA form.
What is the little psycho doing?
Doesn’t she love me! Doesn’t she know I can provide for her? How can you treat someone you love like this?
She’s mad. Mad! Mad! Mad!
I recognize the DNA structure.
The little cretin is going to clone me.
I don’t know why. It makes no sense. My mind is spinning at this. The whole thing has come lose.
There’s not much time. She’s running the sub-routines to open the airlock.
I was wrong. About her. About love. About everything. I understand what she’s doing. I applaud her. I love her. She is a genius in her cunning.
If I only knew her heart! If the nanites could only
The Clockwork King
By Simon Kewin
Siggurd held his sword to the statuette of the false goddess, preparing to dash it to pieces. The goddess gazed back, sorrow in her painted eyes. Her shattered temple sparkled all around but this last act of destruction froze Siggurd.
He heard the words of Father Ulrich, beaten into Siggurd during his year as an acolyte. Idols. False icons. They must all be destroyed. And it was true this goddess meant nothing to Siggurd. Still he hesitated. Perhaps it was simply the beauty of the statuette, the elegant lines of the brushwork. Perhaps simply the thought of all the hours that had gone into making it.
A life can turn on the smallest detail. So it was with Siggurd then, although he didn’t know it.
“Siggurd? Why do you not strike?”
Horst, his fellow acolyte, slashed at tapestries with his sword, reducing them to tattered shreds. He watched Siggurd, suspicion on his face. Siggurd could think of only one thing to say.
“I’m praying to Aednir. To consecrate the act.”
Horst looked unconvinced. Secretly, Siggurd envied his tall, broad-shouldered companion. Horst was never racked with doubts. He didn’t see the beauty of the temple. Didn’t see the gold filigree of the prayer-screens or the glasswork of the windows aglow with sunlight. This was a hushed place of glints and sheens, the air thick with sweet smoke from the swinging brass thuribles, and Siggurd secretly delighted in it all.
“Smash it,” said Horst. “Smash it now, then grind the unholy fragments into dust beneath your heel.”
Siggurd swung his sword. The statuette blossomed into a thousand fragments of brightly-painted plaster.
When they had finished their work, the two acolytes walked quietly from the ruined temple. Siggurd could still taste the dust of the shattered statuette in his mouth. He pulled his brown hood over his face so he couldn’t be identified. The temple’s entrance had been well hidden, down a meandering alley in the slums of Armon. Now the locals lined the dusty lane. None spoke or tried to stop them. They outnumbered the two acolytes thousands to one, could have torn them limb-from-limb. None of them moved. Siggurd noticed the restraining hands of more than one elder on the shoulders of younger, fiercer men. These people might not believe in Aednir but they knew what would happen if an agent of Aednir came to harm. Only the sharp looks in their eyes as Siggurd and Horst walked by showed their true feelings.
Their journey back to the Thingwir, Aednir’s mountain cathedral, took three weeks. It had been a successful mission all told: four heathen temples uprooted. Still, Siggurd felt little jubilation. His moment of hesitation over the statue troubled him more and more. How could he have been so stupid? Doubt was weakness, a denial of Aednir. And Horst had seen that moment of doubt.
The two acolytes spoke little as they swayed along on their horses through the summer heat, flicking uselessly at the swarm of flies that had come along for the ride. On more than one occasion, Siggurd caught Horst’s gaze upon him, a look of sly delight in the other’s eyes. A calculating look. Horst was younger and had arrived at Thingwir six months after Siggurd. Which meant Siggurd was ahead of him in line for elevation to the Fathers. Siggurd was in the way.
More than once Siggurd thought about fleeing. Escaping with the horses in the middle of the night. Or slaying Horst. Once, while his companion slept, Siggurd began, gently, to pull his sword from its sheath. Who would know it hadn’t been bandits? But Aednir saw all. The Fathers would find out. Eventually he let go of the sword and lay back down. Siggurd just had to hope Horst said nothing. Or that, if he did, the Fathers believed Siggurd’s version of events.
The single, conical peak of Thingwir loomed larger and larger above them as they approached across the steppes. Cold winds bit into them now. The horses labored and huffed with the long effort of the climb into the highlands. The swarm of flies had long since been left behind in the lazy warmth of the southern plains. Siggurd squinted up at the peak of the mountain, circled as ever by specks of black. The Holy Ravens; the eyes of Aednir. The peak seemed impossibly distant, up among the clouds rather than a part of the ground. As Siggurd led his horse through the stone archway at the mountain’s base he felt the weight of all that stone bearing down on him.
He spent the next three days in a state of grinding anxiety. Each time one of the Fathers addressed him his throat tightened and his heart hammered. He had given his own account of their mission and knew Horst had done so, too. The Fathers would surely know of his weakness. But nothing happened and after three days, losing himself in reassuring rituals of prayer and labor, Siggurd began to relax.
They came for him in the dead of night. A rough hand, shaking him awake in the darkness. A gruff voice, unmistakably that of Father Ulrich.
“Follow me, acolyte.”
Siggurd, shivering in his thin night-gown, did as he was told. He knew he wouldn’t be returning. In his first week another boy had disappeared in the night. They said he’d mocked Aednir. No one ever heard from him again.
Father Ulrich led Siggurd down winding stone steps, deeper and deeper into the ground. Siggurd thought about escaping. But they would surely capture him, sooner or later. He trudged along after the grey cloak of the Father, trying to think of ways to escape his fate. What would they do to him down here? Hurl him into some fiery pit? Break him on one of the torture engines the acolytes whispered about? He longed to ask Father Ulrich, plead his innocence.
The cut stones of the walls gave way to natural rock. More than once Siggurd had to bend low beneath the uneven ceiling. They were deep underground. The air smelled of earth and damp and the sickly tallow of the torches. Always Father Ulrich marched on ahead, barely slowing down.
They finally emerged in a large cavern lit by more guttering torches. Five Fathers stood waiting. An iron tank of cold water stood in the center of the room. Beyond, a line of cell doors had been cut into the rock.
Only then did Siggurd notice the black-robed figure standing in the shadows. Acolytes wore brown and the Fathers, grey. Only the Talons wore black: the private guard of the Wirfather, Aednir’s hand in the world of men. The acolytes and the Fathers alike lived in fear of the Talons. Their devotion to Aednir was absolute.
Siggurd did run, then, his reason finally deserting him. He turned and scrambled back up the stairs, desperate to be away from this underground chamber. This dead-end. Father Ulrich bellowed behind him, but Siggurd was too quick. Breathing panicky, he raced along passageways and up further flights of stairs. If he could find his way to the archway he could flee Thingwir. Flee and never return. Anything was better than that dungeon.
He ran into the iron grate without seeing it. Somewhere he had taken a wrong turning. Or else, the door had been sealed behind them as they descended. He pushed and pulled at the thick bars but it was no use. He was trapped. He raced back, hoping to find another passageway, another way out. Around a corner and straight into the arms of Father Ulrich.
“This way, acolyte. There is no escape.”
Now Siggurd was pushed forward, the Father behind him. Back down the steps and into the chamber. At a signal from the Talon, Father Ulrich dragged Siggurd across the cavern and threw him into a cell.
Inside stood a long, low wooden table with iron hoops riveted to it. Its purpose was clear. Dark stains mapped its surfaces. Siggurd bucked and screamed as the Fathers lifted him on and began to lock the hoops across his chest, his neck, his legs. The iron was cold, its edge sharp. He struggled but strong arms pinned him down until he was locked into place. The iron band across his neck was tight, half suffocating him as he struggled. He lay still, then, eyes wide, his chest heaving against his restraints.
The Talon stepped forwards. His face was invisible in the depths of his black cowl. “Leave us,” he said to the assembled Fathers. “Close the door behind you.”
When they were alone, the Talon stood for a moment, deciding which torture to inflict first. He walked to a corner of the room that Siggurd, his head clamped in place, couldn’t see. He heard the sound of something metallic being scraped across stone. A blade being sharpened with slow, careful strokes. Siggurd’s pulse pounded in his ears.
The Talon reappeared holding a delicate blade. Everyone knew about the tortures inflicted down here. The acolytes whispered about them at night to terrify new arrivals. Flaying was common. If, somehow, you survived, you were left alive for your skin to grow back. Then it was peeled off you again.
Saying nothing, the Talon walked around to stand behind Siggurd’s head. Siggurd’s scalp was shaved bald, as that of all acolytes was. He felt the briefest spike of cold as the metal of the blade touched his bare skin, and then the searing agony began. With infinite slowness and care, the Talon set about removing the skin from Siggurd’s head.
He knew screaming would make no difference, but Siggurd screamed anyway. He tried to writhe his head out of the way but the Talon responded by tightening some screws on the iron bands, clamping him into place. In the end, Siggurd could do nothing but lie and endure.
It was soon too much. He slipped into a delirium of confused nightmares.
He awoke in utter darkness. Sharp spikes of pain prickled all across the top of his head but he wasn’t hurt anywhere else. Was that what they did? Waited for you to regain your senses before returning to strip off more skin? He was no longer shackled to the torture table. The ground was cold beneath his back. Siggurd reached up to touch the top of his head, gently feeling the lacerations in his tortured skin. His fingers sent sharp pain lancing through him again. He whimpered out loud. No. He mustn’t do that. Mustn’t let them know he was awake. His only hope was to make them think he was asleep. Asleep or dead. He lay unmoving, listening for some sound, dreading to hear approaching footsteps, the rattle of key in lock.
Aednir brought justice but Siggurd’s sins had been so slight. Did he really deserve this terrible, drawn-out death? He lay for a long time before the cramps in his shivering muscles became too much. Slowly he stretched out and pulled himself to his knees. He began to explore the cell, reaching out with his hands as he crawled about. A small, square room; not the cell with the table in it. They must have thrown him in there to recover. Or perhaps they needed the table for someone else. He found the door, its metal colder than the surrounding stone, but no light crept in around the edges. Perhaps he was in some deeper level of the caverns.
Reaching up with his hand he found he had room to stand up. He rose to his feet and was just working some life back into his legs when he heard footsteps approaching, suddenly loud outside his cell door.
Siggurd threw himself back to the ground and closed his eyes. Perhaps they wouldn’t check him; perhaps they’d think he was still asleep and leave him be for a little longer. Sooner or later they’d come, of course, but any delay was worth it.
He expected the door to swing open, but instead there was a thin metallic scraping sound. A square of bright light flooded into the cell from the bottom of the door. Siggurd barely dared to breathe. The light cut out with another scrape and the footsteps receded.
Siggurd waited long minutes before moving. He crawled back across the cell, feeling with his outstretched fingers. He touched something lukewarm and liquid. Gruel. They were feeding him. It made little sense. Why would they keep him alive? To torture him for longer? He thought about not eating the food, staying in his corner. He kneeled there in the darkness, debating with himself. But he had to eat to live. He began to eat the gruel with the wooden spoon provided.
Afterwards, he explored the cramped cell with his hands. As he crept around, his fingers brushed slimy creatures that slithered away rapidly. The creatures made no sound. Perhaps there were hundreds of them, all over the ceiling. He imagined them hanging there, creeping down when he slept to slither and slide all over him.
He began to form a picture in his mind of his cell. It had rough walls like a natural cavern. Apart from the iron door, the only other feature was a small drainage hole in one corner, far too small to escape through. Cold, dank air breathed up from it. He experimented with dropping pebbles down to see how deep it went, but he couldn’t convince himself he heard them striking rock or water below. Perhaps the shaft went on forever.
No one came to drag him off to the torture cell. He stopped exploring and sat, staring into the darkness. After a time he began to see faces. He knew it was his mind starved of sensation, inventing phantoms, but he welcomed them. Father Ulrich with his look of sour disapproval. Horst with his sly smile. The statue of the goddess he had hesitated over. Then, overlaid on the goddess, his own mother, smiling at him as she tousled his hair. She’d been so proud of him going to Thingwir.
Before Siggurd had been born, before the Fathers of Aednir had come to their village, his mother had carved beautiful figures in wood. His older sister had told him all about them. Faces and figures so exquisite people would walk for miles to sit for her. His mother, it was said, could bring dead wood to life by the skill of her hands. But all that had stopped when the Fathers came. To create the likeness of life was to usurp Aednir. A terrible sin. His mother had turned to carving chair-legs and ox-yokes. But, every now and then, Siggurd would catch her with some new length of wood in her hands, turning it over and over as if seeing the shape concealed within. Carving with her eyes what her hands dared not.
Eventually he fell asleep again, until the arrival of more gruel roused him. Days – impossible to say how many – began to pass by like this. Siggurd was torn between relief at being left alone and a growing panic that he would grow old and die in his subterranean stone box. Then, gripped by sudden panic, he would hack at the walls with his spoon. He never got very far, the wooden implement making no impression on the stone. Once or twice he called out, longing for someone, anyone to reply, even if it was one of the Talons. No one did.
Then came the day his cell door was finally thrown open. Bright light flooded his cell, silhouetting a figure in the doorway. Siggurd, sprawled on the floor, squinted through his fingers.
“Come with me.” A voice he didn’t recognize. Grateful for the release, terrified of what would happen to him, Siggurd began to crawl forwards.
The Talon who had come for him waited and watched. Deciding, perhaps, where on his body to begin work next. Siggurd’s hand went to his head, remembering the agonies he’d endured. His scalp was covered with a stubble of hair, now, hiding his wounds. Did the Talon intend to start all over again? Was that what they did?
The Talon strode up a flight of rough stone steps. Siggurd pulled himself to his feet to follow. He glanced back once into the cell he had lived in. It was tiny; in his mind it had become so much bigger. Then he, too, began to climb.
He found himself counting as they ascended. One hundred, two hundred, three. The bare rock became cut stone once again. Daylight rather than the yellow glow of the torches illuminated their way. It made little sense. Surely it wasn’t this far back to the torture chamber?
Still they climbed, now ascending spiral staircases, crossing echoing hallways and onto more stairways. Was he to be hurled from the top of the mountain? Fed to the ravens? Siggurd’s heart hammered, from his growing alarm and the exertion of the climb. The Talon didn’t stop. His monstrous shadow danced on the walls. They climbed higher than Siggurd had ever been before. He had long since stopped counting the steps.
Eventually they arrived at an ancient wooden door studded with iron. Three more Talons stood on guard, their hands resting on their serrated swords. There were torches here, but they spat and flared in an icy breeze from somewhere. Siggurd’s chest labored and his head spun. He thought about his home. He wondered if anyone would tell his parents what had happened to him. He hoped not.
The Talons conversed in low tones for a moment, the one who had led him up nodding his head in Siggurd’s direction. Finally, the guards stepped aside.
“The Wirfather will see you now,” said the Talon.
Terror pounded within Siggurd. He had never even seen the Wirfather, who spent his days up here in silent prayer, communing with Aednir or watching the world through the eyes of the ravens. The door was pulled open and Siggurd was thrust inside.
He found himself in a wide room. Pools of torch-light were islands in a sea of shadows. He shivered, despite the exertion of the long climb. The night air from the windows was sharp with cold. In the east he could see the sky beginning to shade from black to purple. Some new day dawning. But in the room, away from the torches, the darkness was absolute.
He noticed the figure then. Four hissing torches had been set on gold stands around a table and a white-robed man stood beyond them.
The voice echoed in the cold air. It was all sharp edges, metal and ice. Siggurd’s throat contracted as he tried to reply.
“Wirfather.” Should he bow? Debase himself on the ground? He had no idea. The Fathers had not prepared him for this. The Wirfather was ancient, it was said, sustained by Aednir. He could strike you down with a simple wave of his hand.
“You are lately returned from Armon.”
“And tell me, did you find the statuette of their goddess so very beautiful?”
Siggurd’s last hope of survival vanished. He thought about trying to lie, but knew it was useless. Aednir could see into your heart, read your innermost thoughts. Which meant the Wirfather could, too. Perhaps if he told the truth he would be spared the worst of what was to come. He tried to form an answer, but no words would come.
“You come from a family of craftsmen and sculptors, do you not?” said the Wirfather. “Perhaps you recognized their work?”
A new shock rang through Siggurd: the thought his family might be punished for his mistake. The terror of that finally freed his voice.
“No, Wirfather. They would never carve false images. Only flowers, trees and other lowly creatures without souls.”
“But when you were growing up. In private. Your mother copied you, perhaps? Her beloved boy. Carved a likeness of your face?”
“No, Wirfather. Of course not. She would never insult Aednir so.”
“Yet she once did exactly that.” The words were spoken quietly, as sharp as an icicle slipping into Siggurd’s flesh. The Wirfather was right. But that was all so long ago.
“When I was just a boy,” said Siggurd. “She carved some butterflies. But then, after she had finished, the Fathers … learned that butterflies have souls. My mother destroyed her work immediately when she found out.”
These were dangerous words, he knew. Somewhere in Thingwir, legions of Fathers labored over animal specimens, examining their behavior and dissecting their living bodies. Occasionally they decreed this or that creature was, and always had been, a higher being with an immortal soul and therefore an aspect of Aednir. So it had been with the butterflies. Overnight, images of them became objects of heresy.
“These butterflies were beautiful?” asked the Wirfather.
“Mere shadows of the true creature.”
Siggurd could think of nothing to say but the truth. “Yes. But we didn’t know any better.”
The Wirfather stared at him for some time. Siggurd had the clear impression of his innermost thoughts being exposed. Weighed. Tested. There was nothing he could do to resist. Was that why he’d been sent on his journey with Horst? Devout, reliable Horst. Had the whole thing been a trial?
The Wirfather turned and shuffled through the shadows to a smaller table, another pool of light. He moved with a clear limp, as if one leg was shorter than the other. Was he really centuries old? He indicated that Siggurd should follow. A sheet of white cotton shrouded the smaller table, an assortment of lumps beneath it. More instruments of torture? Siggurd’s breath formed a faint mist as he exhaled.
The white sheet was pulled aside to reveal what lay beneath. The sight puzzled him: a jumbled assortment of wooden fragments, each intricately carved, polished curves ending abruptly in jagged splinters. The fragments had been laid out like the pieces of a puzzle. They formed the rough shape of a body. A stretch of leg here, a rib there. The wooden skull, at least, looked complete, although disconnected, its eye-sockets empty. The craftsmanship that had gone into it was wonderful.
“Do you know what this is, acolyte?”
Siggurd shook his head.
“Her name was Anarvon Astrogale, the first of the three miraculous homunculi of Endest. You know the story?”
Puzzlement filled Siggurd. He’d been steeling himself to meet his end, not engage in talk about children’s stories.
“Yes. I didn’t think they were real.”
“Oh, they were. Built by the master craftsmen of Endest, the jewelers and watchmakers, woodworkers and silversmiths. It is said each homunculus took ten years to fashion into life.”
“Indeed so. When the world learned what Endest had wrought they rose up in horror and revulsion. Endest is now little more than dust. Aednir spoke and those who tried to usurp him were destroyed.”
“That is to the glory of Aednir, Wirfather.” Siggurd shivered in the sharp wind through the open windows, not understanding anything that was happening.
“Three homunculi were made,” continued the Wirfather. “The third was part-constructed when Endest was overthrown. Catafar Cursimon. A poor, half-formed creature of glass and crystal, easily cracked and smashed. The other two escaped. Anarvon Astrogale here was found and killed thirty years ago. In the end it took forty Talons to bring her down. Five died and went to Aednir in the struggle with the demon.”
Siggurd’s anxiety began to return. A glimmer of where this must be leading. Was this why his torture had so abruptly stopped? Because of some new, worse fate set out for him? It would, at least, be a noble end. If he died pursuing it – when he died – it would be in the service of Aednir. Perhaps that would spare his family from further punishment. It was all he could hope for, now.
“What happened to the other?” he heard himself ask. The Wirfather looked up at him. Siggurd imagined a smile in the depths of that cowl, as if he had said the right thing.
“Borealis Banderwar. The homunculus of silver and brass. I will show you now where he is.”
The Wirfather covered up the shattered remains of the wooden demon and crossed to another table, the largest in the room. An image, greens and yellows and blues, was painted upon it.
“Here is a map of the known world, acolyte.”
Siggurd studied the drawing, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. The single peak of Thingwir lay at the center of the world, with an array of cities and forests and mountain ranges drawn around it. Here and there were marked terrible creatures: giants and river-serpents and men with faces in their chests and men that were half-horse. Whole sections of the map were completely blank, lands unknown. Around the edge of everything lay a circular sea and then, presumably, the edge of the world.
He picked out Armon, almost next to Thingwir. Yet it had been three week’s ride. The map covered vast distances. How far must it be to that great encircling sea?
“Here lies the land of Pirathia,” said the Wirfather. “Many leagues distant, up the Glass River, over the Tower Peaks and across the Red Plain. You have heard of it?”
“Missionaries returned from there recently with tales of a human machine that rules over the Pirathians with an iron fist. The Clockwork King they call him. It is, it can only be, Borealis, the last of the three miraculous homunculi of Endest.”
“This machine is their king?”
“Their tyrant. The homunculus is doing what it was made to do. The Craftsmasters of Endest created them to rule.”
“Why would they enslave themselves so?”
“Some devil possessed them, some madness. They thought to improve on the omniscient rule of Aednir with mere machines of wood and metal and glass.”
“But how did this Borealis become their ruler? Wouldn’t the people have fought it?”
“Pirathia is a lawless, brutal place, controlled by squabbling warlords and petty kings. Borealis must have built an army. Formed alliances to suit his evil needs. The homunculi are devious devices, built to attain power. Their ingenuity should not be underestimated.”
“And I am to go there.”
The Wirfather nodded. “This is to be your penance, acolyte. Free the Pirathians from the demon so the light of Aednir may shine upon them.”
“I am to kill the demon?”
“No. Not kill it. You are to bring it here so we can be sure it is destroyed. Aednir will not be content until the demon is melted down and returned to ore.”
Siggurd bowed his head. They both knew he was simply being punished for his lack of faith. To overpower the metal homunculus. To bring it back to Thingwir. To even reach Pirathia in the first place. It was all impossible.
“You will leave immediately. Study the map so you know the route.”
A faint glimmer of hope woke within Siggurd as he looked at the vast distances between Thingwir and Pirathia. He tried to suppress the thought so Aednir couldn’t see it in his heart. But here was a possible escape. Surely even ravens couldn’t fly over deserts?
“This is a sacred duty laid upon you. You failed before in Armon. Do not fail me again.”
Siggurd dipped his head in reply but did not speak.
An hour later Siggurd stood at the foot of the mountain. His breath billowed from his mouth in little clouds. His horse stood patiently, head drooped, while he adjusted her straps. She was old, surely not strong enough for such a long journey. They were both being sent away to die. High overhead he could hear the harsh cronks of the circling ravens. His only hope was to get as far away from Thingwir as possible. Could you outrun a god? He would at least try. Perhaps in some distant land, where the name of Aednir was unknown, he would be able to find safety and peace.
Horst emerged then from the shadowed gateway. He strode forward, something glinting in one hand. He wore a broad smile on his face.
“How fortunate you are to be given such an important mission, Brother Siggurd. I wish I were accompanying you once more, I really do.”
Siggurd resisted the urge to strike the younger acolyte in the face. “I am sure it won’t be long before you, too, are given such a quest,” said Siggurd. “Everyone in Thingwir would be very keen to see you go.”
Horst’s grin wavered but then returned. “I was instructed to give you this before you departed.”
He held out the amulet he carried: an eye-shaped red gem strung on a gold chain. Depictions of the holy ravens had been worked through the decorated mount. To depict a raven, especially one of Aednir’s, was a terrible heresy. But these talismans were made, or at least blessed, by the Wirfather himself. They were, effectively, the work of Aednir.
Siggurd bowed his head while Horst placed the amulet over his head.
“How can I ever thank you?” said Siggurd.
“Oh, no need. You deserve the blessing, for this is no ordinary amulet.”
“You will find it hard to believe, I know, but there are those who think about fleeing the church when they are out and about in the world. Aednir sees and knows, of course, but these amulets provide more … immediate restitution.”
“Now that you wear it, it is tied to you. If you stray from the path of Aednir – which of course is unthinkable for one so devout – the Wirfather will know. Wherever you are in the world, any act of heresy, even an attempt to remove the amulet, and he’ll know. The amulet will awake and choke the life out of you. Nothing you can do. Is Aednir not wonderful, Brother Siggurd?”
Siggurd didn’t reply. He turned his back on Horst, on Thingwir, and walked away, leading his weary horse by her reins.
He came close to death many times on his journey. His sword, once so heavy and clumsy in his hand, became more comfortable as he learned to wield it. For a month or more, the amulet afforded him some protection. Bandits and cutpurses, wary of Aednir, stepped backwards when they saw it around his neck. But the farther Siggurd roamed from Thingwir, the weaker the fear of Aednir became. After three months travel it became clear the amulet was a draw for outlaws rather than a ward against them. He took to wearing it under his tunic. Many times he thought about removing it altogether, tossing it into some lake or selling it at the market of the next town. But he couldn’t. He wasn’t at all sure he believed Horst, and the further south he travelled, the more distant the stories about Aednir seemed. But still he could never be sure.
His horse, who he had named Grani, proved to be more spirited than he’d thought. She carried him uncomplainingly up hills, across plains and through raging rivers. Perhaps she, too, was glad to be away from Thingwir. Her needs were simple: water and grass and a comforting pat on the neck, all of which Siggurd was happy to supply. As the weeks and months wore on he found himself talking to her more and more. Grani watched him with her round chestnut eyes as he talked of his childhood and his time at Thingwir. He asked of her all the questions about Aednir that filled his mind. She didn’t reply, but nor did she interrupt him.
The main feature of the map Siggurd had studied was the line of the Tower Peaks, a long mountain range that curved like a scimitar across the lands. He would have to cross those peaks, or else detour many hundreds of leagues around, passing through lands drawn only vaguely upon the map. At first it had seemed an impossible barrier, but then he’d seen the trail: a faint dotted line snaking up into the mountains and down the other side. High in the peaks it crossed a gorge where a bridge was marked. Here was a path he could follow.
More than once, as he and Grani toiled up the slopes, he had doubts. The trail, so clear on the map, was hard to find on the ground. Not many people passed this way. But they struggled onwards and upwards, both glad to be putting each extra yard between themselves and Thingwir.
After weeks of climbing they reached the top. Jagged peaks surrounded them. Siggurd’s breathing was labored as if the very air shunned the mountains. The bridge was there before them: a spindly, wooden crossing over a deep, steep-sided gorge, hundreds of feet wide. The central third of the bridge had no support at all. It swayed visibly in the wind.
The problem was the figure standing at the edge of the bridge. A tall, muscular man with a sword slung across his back. There had been faded words on the map but Siggurd hadn’t been able to read them. Perhaps they’d been some warning. As Grani trotted forward the figure strode to meet them, practicing swings through the air with his sword. Sunlight glinted off his cuirass and helm. Only as they neared each other did it become clear this was no man. The guardian was huge, perhaps ten feet tall. Siggurd had seen little sign of the fabulous beasts marked on the map but here, clearly, was one. A giant guarded the bridge.
“You must pay to cross,” said the giant, his words rough, only half-emerged from a muddy growl.
“I have nothing to pay with,” said Siggurd.
“That bauble around your neck,” said the giant. Siggurd hadn’t bothered to keep it hidden in the mountains.
Siggurd put his hand to the amulet. “I cannot give you this. If I remove it I will die. Aednir will kill me.”
The giant laughed, a deep rumbling laugh. “Then this Aednir will save me the trouble of killing you myself. Hand it over if you have no other means to pay.”
“No,” said Siggurd.
“Then return the way you came.”
“No,” said Siggurd again. “I must cross.”
The giant planted his sword into the dust of the ground. “Then there is only one way.”
“What is that?”
“You are both scrawny scraps of meat. But that horse of yours would fill my belly for a week.”
As if she knew what the giant was saying, Grani turned her head to glance back at Siggurd, alarm clear in her eyes.
“No,” said Siggurd once again.
The giant grasped his sword again. “Then I will have both of you and eat for two weeks.” He began to lumber forward, scything his vast sword in front of him, half-roaring, half-laughing.
Once again, Siggurd drew the sword the Fathers had given him. Surely Aednir would help him slay this monster? The giant’s face was unprotected; one well-timed blow would be enough. With a cry he urged Grani into a canter. The giant laughed then crouched, blade thrust forward for Grani to impale herself.
Grani did something unexpected then. She had been a faithful companion, plodding along at Siggurd’s bidding, never complaining. Now some fire awoke within her. She snorted and broke into a gallop, charging directly at the looming giant. Siggurd forgot his sword and grasped the reins to prevent himself falling off backwards. Grani raced forwards, her hooves thundering across the ground.
“Grani!” Siggurd shouted. She paid no attention, racing towards the waiting giant. Then at the last moment, that great sword directly in front of her chest, she leapt.
She had never shown any inclination to jump before, preferring to wade through streams or plod amiably around a wall if she could. Now, as if she had been saving herself all this time, she flew through the air, higher than Siggurd would have thought possible. For one dizzying moment he was in the sky, rising out of the saddle, the world and the giant and the sword beneath him.
Then the ground leapt up towards them. Grani stumbled with the impact, pitching Siggurd forwards. He managed to hold on with his legs. The giant roared behind them. Grani recovered and regained her stride. She shot forward again, ears back, and thundered onto the bridge. Siggurd could hear the giant’s great blade whistling through the air just behind them, the giant’s rapid clumping steps very close.
The blade whistled again and Grani jolted as if stung. The giant’s sword had opened up a red gash on her flanks. Siggurd thought she would crumble at last. But instead she hurled herself forward even faster, hooves clattering, off the bridge and onto the dusty rock of the other side.
She rode and rode, refusing to slow her pace, racing faster and harder than Siggurd had ever known. The roaring giant pursued them for a time but eventually gave up the chase. With one final curse he stopped.
Grani galloped on for several minutes before slowing to a canter, a trot. Finally she stopped and wandered over to a patch of scrubby grass to eat, as if nothing unusual had happened. Siggurd dismounted to examine her wound. She was still bleeding. He washed the cut with water from a bottle. It didn’t look too deep but they would have to take it slowly for a week or two.
He walked round to pat her neck. Froth still foamed from her mouth. She looked at him with her placid eyes, then bent down to resume her chewing.
She died, eventually, not at the hands of giants or bandits but because of a scree slope. Four months later, scrabbling down the side of a hill onto the desert plains of Pirathia, she slipped and tumbled, sending Siggurd rattling downwards. When he had recovered himself and worked his way across to her, he knew it was bad. She couldn’t stand, one of her forelegs bent at a bad angle. Siggurd could do nothing for her but give her a swift end. Still uncomplaining, she watched him as he brought his knife up to her throat. Tears filled his eyes as he struck.
When it was done, Siggurd sat with his head in his hands, leaning against her warm body. Once again, he was tempted to cast away the amulet. How had Aednir allowed this to happen? Or any of the other gods whose worshippers he’d encountered? There was no justice to it.
The amulet still around his neck, he set off alone for the city of Pirathia, half-falling, half-sliding down to the desert plains. He followed the meandering course of a river cutting across the sands. The loop took him many leagues out of his way, but he knew from the map it would get him there eventually, and its waters would keep him alive beneath that blazing sun.
Pirathia dazzled him as he approached. Its high walls were painted a blinding white. Beyond them, the clashing sun glinted off sloping roofs of gold and red. The city seemed to float above the shimmering heat-haze, as if not actually touching the ground. Somehow he had to get inside. Get inside and capture the tyrant who controlled it. Borealis Banderwar, the silver and brass homunculus. In all his months of wandering Siggurd had tried many times to think of an alternative path. Tried and failed. If, by some whole series of miracles, he succeeded in returning the homunculus to distant Thingwir, then perhaps the Wirfather would remove the amulet. And perhaps Siggurd would be able to resume his life. It was his only hope. In truth he knew he would die here, one way or another. He accepted it. Welcomed it even. It would at least be an end to his torments. And he was so far from home his family would never know. They would think him alive somewhere, wandering strange and distant lands.
At the walls he expected to be accosted by the guards, seized and slain without even entering the city, his red blood soaking into the red sands. But instead, as he approached, he saw wide-open gates and streams of merchants arriving and leaving, their trains of camels and desert horses laden with swaying goods. There were guards, clad in brightly polished brass, but they paid Siggurd no attention. He walked between them, conscious his clothes were little more than tattered rags now, under the teeth of the city’s portcullis and into Pirathia.
The city inside the walls hummed with activity. Merchants vied with each other to accost passers-by. Dazzling arrays of goods were piled high upon stalls: fruits and glass orbs and brass lamps and pots of colorful spices and items Siggurd couldn’t identify. The noise and smell and clamor made his head spin. None of it was what he’d expected. He’d imagined slaves; a population beaten down by the tyrant’s soldiers. Instead he heard the babble of conversation and laughter threading among the merchants’ calls. None of the words made sense to his ears, but their tone and meaning was clear. These were well-fed, contented people. Perhaps the homunculus had already been destroyed. Perhaps it had never been here.
And if that was the case, perhaps he did have a chance after all. If the Wirfather saw what the amulet saw, he would surely see the truth of the situation. Siggurd could make the return journey to Thingwir knowing he had done all he could. A rare flicker of hope flared within him.
He stopped to admire the carvings on one of the stalls: wooden figures of men and women, all portrayed with sinuous, flowing lines. Beautiful to see. He touched one, tracing his finger along the smooth curves. How his mother would have delighted in it. He was about to pick it up when he felt the iron grip of a gauntleted hand on his shoulder.
He spun round to find two guards standing there. Two guards and a third: a woman who was clearly their commander, her armor more elaborate, her hair braided with red gems. She stepped forwards, speaking harsh words. The woman seized hold of his amulet and, before he could react, tore it from his neck, pulling him to the ground as she did so. Siggurd lay in the dust, shocked, expecting his end to come from that blue sky at any moment.
Instead, at a curt word from the woman, the guards grasped him beneath his arms and began to haul him away. Siggurd tried to struggle to his feet, seeing suddenly the possibility of freedom. He hadn’t died. Aednir hadn’t struck him down. If he could shake himself loose he could escape into the hubbub of the bazaars. Flee the city and never return.
But the guards’ grip was too firm. Crying and writhing to no avail, Siggurd was hauled through iron doors into the sudden cool of some high, stone building. The guards dragged him down twisting corridors illuminated by flickering torches before throwing him into a small, dark room. The squeal and clang of the iron gate being closed upon him echoed around and around.
His long journey was complete: a trek that had started in a dungeon in the frozen cathedral of Aednir had ended in an airless, dusty cell in the fortress of Borealis Banderwar the homunculus.
Siggurd heard his torturer – or his executioner – approaching little more than an hour later. Crisp, purposeful footsteps approached rapidly, the stone walls outside his cell lit by a sudden bloom of blue light. Siggurd stood, although he knew it would make little difference.
But it wasn’t the brute armed with saws and spikes he’d imagined. Instead, his door was pulled open by a short, slight figure and the blue radiance came not from a torch but, somehow, from the man himself. His whole body glowed with it; a luminance that lit up the intricate, whirring contrivance of cogs and cables and springs making up his body. His silver and brass body. There could be no doubt. Borealis Banderwar himself had come to deliver Siggurd his fate.
As he stood awaiting the end, Siggurd found not fear but a sense of wonder filling him. The homunculus truly was miraculous: an intricate, living machine. The workings of his body were all visible but the craftsmen had also contrived to give the homunculus a face: glass eyes in a metal visage that moved and flexed as the cables and cams in the creature’s head worked. There was no other word: the homunculus was beautiful. Siggurd almost laughed with delight at the sight of him.
“My apologies for your treatment,” the creature said then, his voice clear and bright, lips moving in perfect time to his words. “My guards were told to be wary of invaders from the distant northlands. Your pendant gave you away, but now that I see you, I think my people may sleep safely in their beds for one more night.”
“You know of Thingwir? Of Aednir?”
The homunculus moved forwards to stand directly in front of Siggurd. “A little. I know many of the northern lands are under the thrall of the Wirfather. And he sent you to destroy me?” He didn’t sound angry, or incredulous. Merely curious.
“To capture you,” said Siggurd.
“Ah,” said the homunculus, as if this was a possibility that hadn’t previously occurred to him.
“What will you do with me?” asked Siggurd.
Somehow, the arrangement of wheels and brass plates in the creature’s face conveyed a sense of amusement. “Nothing at all. You are free to leave. We have nothing to fear from you. But if you would stay a while and tell me your story I would be delighted to hear it.”
“I crave knowledge and you must have seen much. But please, come upstairs where it is more comfortable. You require food and drink?”
The glowing machine turned and left, leaving the cell door wide open. Siggurd followed, expecting some trick, some fresh torment. But no one stopped him. He followed the homunculus upwards until they reached a wide, airy room. Finely carved limestone screens let in a filtered sunlight. In the center of the room, a table had been laid with all manner of foods: fruit and spiced meat and cheeses and jugs of colorful juices.
“Please, eat as much as you like,” said the homunculus. “I have no need of any of it, of course.” The creature pulled open one of the screens and walked onto a balcony to survey the city. Siggurd, famished, began to eat. From outside came the hum of countless people’s footsteps, their mingled calls and shouts and laughter. The voice of the great city.
After twenty minutes Siggurd sat back, unable to eat any more. The homunculus returned to sit beside him on the terracotta floor. Up close, the mechanisms of his body, the flexings and foldings of his limbs, were fascinating to see. Siggurd wondered at the workmanship that had gone into him. Several tiny cogs spun to and fro in the contraption’s chest as if they were his beating heart.
“So will you tell me your story?” asked the homunculus.
“What do you wish to know?”
“Everything. Please, leave out no detail however unimportant it may seem to you.”
“Starting from when?”
“From your earliest memories, if you’re willing. I have all day. All week if you need. Pirathia more or less runs itself these days.”
“And then I can leave?”
“You may leave now if you wish.”
“You aren’t what I expected,” said Siggurd. “None of this is what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“The Wirfather said you were a tyrant. That you had enslaved the people of Pirathia.”
The mechanical face rearranged its features into a smile. “He is right, in a way. I certainly became the king. We were designed for that. And there was a certain amount of fighting in the early days. Fighting and killing, although I tried everything to prevent it. But now Pirathia is at ease. There are no slaves here anymore. So, will you tell me your story?”
Siggurd sipped at some red fruit juice he couldn’t identify and then began with his earliest memories of his boyhood.
When he had finished, darkness had gathered in the room. Only the blue glow from the homunculus’s body lit the scene.
“I am sorry for your horse,” the machine said at last.
“Grani. She sounded noble. Strange as it may seem for one who is not actually alive, I abhor death. It is how I was constructed.”
“Why were you constructed?” asked Siggurd. “What were you for?”
“We were built to rule, as your Wirfather said. To bring order. My wooden sister Anarvon Astrogale, my crystal brother Catafar Cursimon and I. Endest had been riven by wars for centuries and each leader that came along only made it worse. In the end the Guilds and Craftsmasters decided enough was enough and began to construct a thinking machine instead. A device with no ties to any sides, no ancient resentments, no secret agendas. An uncluttered mind. That, eventually, became Anarvon. Ten years later I was built. Metal, it was thought, would last longer than wood. We were crafting Catafar from glass and crystal when Endest was attacked.”
“The Wirfather said the world rose up against you in revulsion.”
“It is true our neighboring Queens, Emperors and God-kings united to attack us. The first and last time they have ceased their squabblings and cooperated. But I suspect the real reason was fear for their own futures.”
“But you escaped.”
“We did. The people of Endest smuggled us away, thinking us too precious to lose. Ironic given that they, as living creatures, were the truly miraculous ones. Catafar was incomplete and couldn’t move quickly enough. He was taken away to be smashed to glass shards. Anarvon and I escaped to watch the destruction of Endest from afar. Beautiful, glorious Endest.
“And then you came here?”
“We decided to go our separate ways, to try and do some good in the world. I ended up here. The fate of Anarvon you have seen.”
“I don’t know what I should do now,” said Siggurd. “I don’t know where I should go.”
“May I make a suggestion?”
“Decide in the morning. Or the next day. You have travelled a hard road.”
Siggurd nodded in the darkness, although whether Borealis could see this or not Siggurd didn’t know.
Borealis rose to his feet. “Follow me. I will show you where you may rest.”
The following morning there was more food on the table. While Siggurd ate, courtiers carried ewers of steaming, scented water into a side-chamber, filling a bathing-room. All of it was for his own use.
Later, he sat on the balcony, gazing across the shining rooftops to the wide, red desert and the line of purple mountains. It was a long time since he’d had enough food to eat, or enough hours to sleep, and Siggurd welcomed both gladly. He saw no one save the courtiers. Once or twice he descended the stairs that led down into the bustle of the city and even walked through the city gates to stand with his feet in the burning sand of the desert. Each time he returned: partly in hope of completing his quest, but also because he wanted to see Borealis again. The homunculus dazzled and fascinated him.
But Borealis didn’t return that day, nor the next. It was a full week before the glowing artificial man reappeared. “Forgive me. I have been tying up affairs of state. I’ve brought your amulet back.”
“Did you find any means by which it could converse with Thingwir?” asked Siggurd.
“None at all. It is just an amulet. Either that or it functions in a way I cannot comprehend. But you are still alive so I suspect the former. Perhaps this Horst merely said what he said to frighten you. Or perhaps he believed it to be true.”
“Why are you tying up your affairs?”
“Because I am leaving Pirathia.”
“Where will you go?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Thingwir? But you must not,” he heard himself say. “They will destroy you just as they destroyed your brother and sister.”
“I have done all I can here, Siggurd. Pirathia is at peace. And from everything you have told me there is work to be done in the north. You should be pleased. You came to take me there and now you will succeed in your impossible mission. If you wish to come with me. And if we make it that far.”
“But you will go without me?”
“I will. Although I would prefer it if you came. We could fill the long journey with tales of all we have seen.”
Siggurd still hadn’t decided where to go next. He appeared to be free. Still, the north was his home and he missed it. He worried, also, about his family. If he didn’t return would they be held responsible? On the other hand, if he did return with Borealis, the Wirfather would surely consider his penance paid.
“I would happily go with you,” said Siggurd. “But I would not happily hand you over to the Wirfather. I would be buying my life with yours.”
“But I am not alive, Siggurd. I am only a clever, intricate thing. You are more important. I ask you to come – not least because you know the way – but it is your decision to make.”
Siggurd considered. He imagined himself standing on that balcony, watching the homunculus striding northwards into the distance. He knew, then, he would wish to follow. He needed to know how this story turned out.
“I will come,” said Siggurd.
“Consider,” said Borealis. “If you do return with me they may kill us both.”
“Why would they kill me?” asked Siggurd.
“Perhaps you were never supposed to return. Perhaps they expected you to die on your way here. The Wirfather may have sent you on this quest as a kindness.”
“In his terms, yes. Dying in the service of Aednir is better than dying as a heretic in the dungeons of Thingwir. Perhaps he thought he was saving your soul. But he may not be pleased if you return alive.”
Siggurd considered a moment more.
“I will travel with you,” he said.
The homunculus nodded his head, cogs in his neck whirring backwards and forwards to effect the movement. “I am pleased. But there is something else I must ask you, too. A small thing, and an odd one, but it might be important.”
“What is it?”
Borealis considered for a moment, features arranged into a frown. “You see, there was one thing in your story I didn’t understand. A puzzle. And now I think I have solved it.”
“You said they began to torture you. They tied you down to flay you.”
“But then they stopped, suddenly. Why was that? It made no sense to me when you recounted it.”
Siggurd shrugged. “I assumed they changed their mind. That the Wirfather decided to send me on this quest instead.”
“And yet there was that long delay between the two events. Many weeks, you said.”
“So how do you explain it?”
“I may be wrong. But, if I may, I’d like to shave the hair off your head. I believe there may be something tattooed there.”
Ten minutes later, Siggurd sat on a wooden chair while the Clockwork King of Pirathia shaved off his hair with a barber’s blade. The homunculus moved with swift, sure strokes, never once drawing blood, repeatedly dipping his steel blade into a bowl of water. Cascades of long, brown hair fell to the ground, collecting around Siggurd’s chair.
“Anything?” he said. “Do you see a message?”
“There are marks,” said Borealis. “I will reveal all of it and then we may see.”
A few more minutes and the homunculus stopped his cutting and scraping.
“Well,” said Siggurd. “What does it say?”
“Hold this mirror and I will angle mine.”
The top of Siggurd’s own head became visible in the glass he held in his lap. It was immediately obvious what the delicate blue lines upon his scalp were. Not words. A picture.
“That is Thingwir.”
“A map, I would say,” said Borealis. “You said there was only one entrance?”
“Yes. The main gates at the base.”
“Then here is another mystery. Look closely. There, on the northern flanks, this small symbol. It is surely a door.”
“A secret entrance?”
“I presume so.”
“The northern slopes of Thingwir are sheer cliffs for a quarter of a mile. No one can climb them.”
“No person, perhaps. But I could.”
“But … but why would the Wirfather reveal this door’s existence by tattooing a map of it onto my head? It makes no sense.”
“And more interestingly,” said Borealis, “why not even tell you about it? You might never have learned of the map’s existence.”
“Then how do you explain it?”
“I cannot. Yet it seems to me this is a trail given us to follow.”
“It seems to me it’s a trap,” said Siggurd.
“Sometimes the only way to disarm a trap is to spring it,” said Borealis. “Will you still come?”
Siggurd studied the blue lines on the bare, pink skin of his scalp. If it was a trap, it was a trap for Borealis, not him.
“I will,” he said.
The following morning they stood together at the gates of Pirathia. Despite the early hour, the red sand beneath Siggurd’s feet was already warm. The bright sunlight shone through Borealis’s body, illuminating the cogs and wheels within his chest, making his workings shimmer and glisten. The horse provided for Siggurd stood patiently beside them. Siggurd stroked her neck while he checked her straps were properly tightened.
“She is the finest Pirathia has to offer,” said Borealis. “A thoroughbred. Her name is Harmattan, the name of the wind that blows off the desert. She is swift, but whether she has the heart of Grani remains to be seen.”
“Where is your horse?”
“I have no need of one. I can run as far and fast as any steed.”
“But you must need food? Or at least sustenance of some kind?”
“I have a collection of spare parts that I may need, along with various oils and tools. Other than that I need only sunlight. I collect all my power directly. It is one reason I came south, where the sun is strong.”
“But we are travelling to the far north, where the light is low and weak. During the winter it is absent completely for three months. How will you survive there?”
“I will have to hibernate during the long night. I will be limited. But I will be fully functional in the warmer months. Everything will take longer to complete, but there is no way round it. It is late summer now and your journey here took the best part of a year. We can at least time our arrival at Thingwir for my period of peak activity.”
Borealis spoke to the gathered crowd then, thanking them, making them laugh with his recollections and his advice. Finally they set off, following the banks of the river that snaked its way through the desert towards the mountains.
Five months later, Siggurd and Borealis lay on a lip of rock and peered down at the ravine cutting through the Tower Peaks.
“There is the bridge,” said Siggurd. “And the giant.”
“A bridge troll, I think,” said Borealis.
“Can you kill it?”
Borealis considered for a moment, the familiar whirring from his chest as if he used his whole body to think. “I could. But I will not.”
“Why? I see no other way.”
“I was made not to kill. You know this, my friend.”
“But you kill when you have to.”
Borealis sat down behind the lip of rock. “Let me show you something,” he said. He began to turn some tiny brass screws in his chest, using an implement built into the tip of one of his fingers. He handed each screw to Siggurd to hold as he freed them. Finally he hinged off a round plate. Underneath were some numbers on dials. The numbers read 74.
“What is that?” asked Siggurd.
“This is the count of the number of people I have killed.”
“You keep a tally?”
“My mechanisms record the number automatically. Every time I directly kill someone these dials count up.”
“I do everything to preserve life, but my builders recognized that, sometimes, it is necessary to kill. I have told you many of the stories. One tyrant slain may save the lives of many.”
“You’ve also said you can never really know whether you’re doing the right thing.”
“Just so. Who can? But these numbers stop me going too far. You see there are only two dials? They can only count up to 99.”
“And if you kill a hundredth?”
“Then my workings will shatter. Certain strong springs will release and my mechanisms will be ripped apart, scattered into thousands of useless pieces.”
“But you could prevent that happening. Fix these springs within you.”
Borealis shook his head. “No. I cannot fix myself because I am not broken. These dials are a good thing. They are, if you like, my conscience. When I reached Pirathia they read 17. I had to kill fifty-seven people to bring peace to the desert lands. A high price to pay, perhaps too high, but I could have killed thousands to achieve the same end.”
“So, how can we get past this troll without killing it? It would take years to go the long way round.”
“The answer is simple,” said Borealis. “Grani is not here to save us and Harmattan, for all her speed, would bolt in terror before facing a troll. I think it is time to release him, let him run free. And then we will jump across the ravine, you and I.”
“My voltaic cells are fully charged. This slope will give me a good run-up for the leap across. Can you wrap your arms around my neck and hold on?”
“You can leap that far?”
“I have calculated the distance most carefully. Are you ready?”
“There is no other way I can see. But you may, of course, turn back with Harmattan.”
“No, no. I’m coming,” said Siggurd. Warily, he climbed onto the back of the homunculus.
“You will have to hold firm,” said Borealis. “I will not be able to support your weight. I will need my arms for the run and the jump.”
“Trust me, I won’t let go.”
“Good. Then let us try.”
“What do you mean try?”
But Borealis was already running, skimming across the ground with alarming speed. Siggurd clutched his hands as tightly as he could around the homunculus’s neck, enough to choke a real person. Borealis ran faster and faster, jolting Siggurd so hard that he bit his tongue. The lip of the ravine, the edge of the great chasm, was suddenly there, directly before them. The far side was impossibly, unreachably distant.
“Borealis! It’s too far. We can’t…”
With a great lurch, Borealis leapt.
They soared high into the air and out over the gaping drop. The world became a blur of rock faces and rushing wind, stifling Siggurd’s scream. His stomach lurched around within him. He caught a glimpse of the troll, watching them from the nearby bridge. Then the distant ground beneath them, a thin ribbon of glinting water running at the bottom of the ravine. Then the approaching rock-face of the other side, suddenly huge in front of them. He saw they weren’t going to make it. They would crash into that cliff and fall.
He was screaming again when the jarring impact came. But not the rock-face, the flat of the far side. Siggurd was thrown forward as Borealis crashed into the ground. Siggurd’s face and hands and knees scraped across rock as he tumbled forwards. Borealis curled himself into a ball and rolled along before smashing into boulders.
Siggurd came to a halt, dust filling his mouth. He lay on the ground and groaned. Borealis had come to a halt several yards farther on. Siggurd watched as the homunculus stretched out and began to check his limbs and inner workings.
“Did you really calculate you could make that leap?” asked Siggurd. “Because it looked very close to me.”
The homunculus considered the distance he had jumped. “I was fairly sure I could make it.”
“Fairly sure? You tell me that now?”
Borealis stood. “The odds were very good. And everything we do is a risk, my friend. I have never leaped so far before, it is true, but I thought I would make it. Sometimes you surprise yourself if you try something new. But I’m sorry if I alarmed you.”
“Just give me the odds next time, understand?”
Borealis bowed in consent. “I promise. And now we’d better leave. That troll looks rather angry for some reason.”
When Thingwir finally rose from the horizon in front of them, more months later, they ceased their long northward trek.
“We should circle around,” said Borealis. “Approach it from the north. The hidden door is that way and most will approach from the south.”
“The ravens see everything,” said Siggurd. “Aednir sees everything.” Was that true? Borealis clearly didn’t believe so. Yet Borealis was only a machine. Aednir was a god. Wasn’t it more likely Aednir knew they were approaching but chose not to act to stop them? After all, why should he? They were already doing exactly what the Wirfather had instructed.
“Let us find out,” said Borealis.
They journeyed for another week, toiling their way across a landscape of pine-wooded hills, always keeping the peak of Thingwir visible in the distance. Slowly it sidled its way around the horizon, sliding down to the east and, finally, the south. They were now farther north that Siggurd had ever been in his life. Although it was still summer on the northern tundra, the sun gave little heat, and icy winds from even further north cut through him. He had forgotten what true cold was like during his time in the south. Borealis, of course, didn’t notice the chill, but once or twice his movements were awkward, as if the low light was beginning to take its toll.
The wind at least provided some relief from the clouds of biting midges that swarmed across the tundra. When the air was still, and especially at dawn and dusk, they would appear from nowhere, turning the air black with their teeming flight. Siggurd suffered terribly. At first it was just his face and hands, but soon he itched all over as the tiny insects crawling under his clothes to find fresh flesh. Once again, Borealis was unaffected. The midges landed on him and, indeed, crawled inside him, coating his workings like a black scribble. He paid them no attention.
Only the smoke from a fire drove them away. In the evenings, as the blue sky darkened to purple and the diamond stars began to shine out, Siggurd collected grass and what twigs he could find and Borealis, triggering some flintlock mechanism within one of his fingers, touched a flame to them. Freed from the midges and warmed by the fire, they would sit there together, Siggurd staring into the flames, Borealis lost in his own machinations. Or else Siggurd would pick out the constellations and point them out to Borealis.
“There is the Sword, and here the Spilt Chalice. Then the three Ravens, circling around the Eye of Aednir.”
“In the south that Eye is called the North Star and it sits in the constellation of the Ice Bear.”
Siggurd nodded. He had learned that people had many different names for the constellations. That they grouped the familiar arrangements into different patterns. Another thought to trouble him. He had always been told Aednir had arranged all the stars. Yet further south there were stars he didn’t have names for. Hadn’t Aednir formed them also?
“Tell me,” said Siggurd, pushing the questions aside, “if you can climb the mountain, and if this doorway even exists, what will you do then? The Talons will capture you and destroy you. Dismantle you or melt you down. We could still leave without them knowing.”
Borealis sat on the other side of the flames, the heat rising off the fire making his features ripple and distort. “No. I will attempt the mountain tomorrow. And if I am destroyed, what does it matter? Machines can be rebuilt. It would be possible to create a device identical to me if the plans could be found. But you, Siggurd. There can never be another you. You must decide your course carefully.”
“It doesn’t trouble you to die?”
“It does, of course. The need for self-preservation was built into me. But this urge is subservient to the main reason for my existence. Life and the living are all that really matter.”
“But Aednir will not allow you to succeed. The Fathers and the Talons and the Wirfather will not allow you to succeed.”
There was a pause for a moment, while some workings within Borealis whirred and clicked. “Tell me, Siggurd, do you think Aednir really exists?”
Siggurd didn’t reply for a moment, struggling again with the delicious, forbidden thought he may not. “Everyone knows Aednir exists,” said Siggurd. “He created all this. He created you and me.”
“He didn’t create me.”
“He caused you to be made.”
Borealis nodded. “And yet I have talked to many people in many lands who know that another god created everything. And I have never been able to detect any proof of any of it. I am just a machine and perhaps I am incapable of understanding, but from my observations it appears Aednir – and all the others – exist only in peoples’ heads.”
“No. Aednir is real. Just because there are unbelievers elsewhere doesn’t change the truth.”
“I see,” said Borealis. He looked genuinely interested now, as if this was all a fascinating puzzle. “And all the suffering and death you described to me. The acolytes who disappeared. Or the way your mother was prevented from carving her wood. The senseless end of Grani. Why does Aednir allow such things to happen? Why does he cause them?”
“Just because we can’t understand Aednir’s design doesn’t make it less real.”
“I see,” said Borealis again. “There is certainly much I don’t understand in the world. But I suppose tomorrow we will find out the truth one way or another.”
“If I climb that mountain and find them waiting, then it must mean Aednir exists,” said Borealis. “The Wirfather’s trap, the Ravens, the amulet, all of it must be true. But if I enter Thingwir and no one prevents me, then perhaps the Wirfather does not see everything after all.”
“You mean we,” said Siggurd.
“When we climb that mountain. I am coming with you.”
“You are sure, my friend?”
Borealis grinned. “Ah. Good.”
“Are you sure you have enough power for this?” asked Siggurd. More than once on the trek southwards, Borealis had tripped and nearly overbalanced, something Siggurd had never seen him do in all their time together.
They stood now at the foot of Thingwir, the grey rock of the mountain a vertical cliff in front of them, the stone cold to Siggurd’s touch. High, high above, he could see the ravens circling around, their coarse calls quieted by the distance.
“I am sure,” said Borealis. “This low light does not suit me but my voltaic cells contain enough energy.”
“And the entrance? Can you see it?”
“There is a cleft in the rock, high up, in about the correct position.”
“I can see nothing,” said Siggurd, stepping backwards and craning his neck upwards. The rock was sheer all the way to the sky.
“It was easier to see as we crossed the tundra,” said Borealis. “I was able to focus in and study the rock face in close detail by employing a different set of lenses.”
“But you didn’t see that actual door?”
“I did not.”
“And if it isn’t there, will you have enough power to climb down again?”
Borealis calculated for a moment, cogs whirring with sudden speed within him. “No. I will lose all power part-way down and fall. The impact will destroy me.”
“And if you have me on your back?”
“It changes little for me. I will still have enough power to make the ascent but not the descent. It makes a great deal of difference to you, of course. As ever the risk is yours to take, Siggurd.”
Siggurd nodded. He could still walk away. He could make his way around the feet of Thingwir and tell the Fathers where the demon Borealis Banderwar was. He should do exactly that. Instead he said, “I will come with you.”
Borealis’s face worked its way into a clear smile. He knelt down in front of Siggurd. “Climb onto my back once more. Hook your hands through these leather straps so you won’t slip off when your fingers become numb.”
Borealis’s body was surprisingly warm as Siggurd climbed on. He watched over the machine’s shoulder as Borealis operated tiny wheels on his wrists, extending sharp metal talons from each of his fingertips.
“These will allow me to find purchase in the smallest of cracks,” said Borealis. “I have planned my route up very carefully.”
“I’m very pleased to hear it,” said Siggurd.
As they climbed, Siggurd’s hands soon lost all sensation, frozen by the icy chill, numbed by the leather straps cutting into his wrists. His hands were just dead things hooked through the thongs. Borealis, meanwhile, clung on to the cliff-face by only the spikes protruding from his fingertips. Such delicate, tiny spikes. Again and again, Borealis reached up to find some higher crack in the rock before hauling them both up another foot. Beneath and behind them gaped the great emptiness of the air, the plunge to the ground that would kill them both.
Siggurd didn’t dare speak to Borealis for fear of distracting him. He could do nothing but wait. The higher they climbed, the stronger the wind blew, threatening to pluck them from the side of the mountain. After a while, Siggurd closed his eyes and simply endured, trying to lose himself to childhood memories.
And so it came as a surprise when, after an eternity of jerking ascent, Borealis suddenly lurched forward, pitching Siggurd off his back and onto a ledge of rock.
“We are here,” said Borealis. The homunculus wasn’t out of breath, of course, but his words were mumbled and slow, as if he had little energy left. Siggurd nodded, his face muscles too cold to work properly. They sat on a narrow ledge of rock, high, high up, the ground so distant it seemed almost unimportant.
If the doorway wasn’t there they were doomed. And what would they do then? Sit and wait to freeze to death, or leap from the ledge to end it quickly? Siggurd climbed to his knees, not daring to stand on the narrow lip of rock, and began to study the rock face.
There was no door. But a fold in the rock rose vertically upwards for several feet. Patting with his numb hands, Siggurd found there was a narrow gap between one lip of rock and the other. Holding on, he rose to wobbling legs and, turning sideways, began to push his way through the crack into the darkness. For a moment he became stuck, his chest wedged between the two walls of rock. But, by standing on tiptoes, he found he was able to force his way through. He was suddenly falling into a wide, dark cavern within the mountain.
“Borealis. I am inside. The doorway is here.”
A moment later the homunculus appeared, his blue glow faint and flickering in the darkness. The two of them sat for a moment, relishing the solid ground beneath them. The calm stillness of the air.
“Well,” said Borealis. “It seems we are not expected.”
“What will you do?” asked Siggurd.
“Do you think you can show me the way to the Wirfather?”
“We need to climb,” said Siggurd. “But what will you do when we get there? Will the Wirfather be your seventy-fifth?”
“Perhaps,” said Borealis. “There will still be the Talons and the Fathers and all the other followers of Aednir.”
“Killing him might show them Aednir is not all-powerful.”
“Do you think that is what I should do, Siggurd?”
At some point in their long journey together, Siggurd had come to accept the stories of Aednir were just that. Stories. He had suffered too much at the hands of the Wirfather. Suffered for no reason. Thinking back, Grani’s death had been the turning point. It was hard to entertain such thoughts; he had known Aednir existed since he could think. Yet there was no trap. The amulet had only ever been pieces of intricately-wrought metal.
“I see no other way,” said Siggurd.
Lights flared all around them, then, flame running around the edge of the room as a spark was touched to a line of some oil. The light blinded Siggurd for a moment. He was aware of shapes moving into the circle of light. Many shapes, running to surround them. Squinting through narrow eyes he saw one of the figures approaching.
A grey-robed figure stood there. The Father waited for a moment then threw back his hood to show his face.
“Horst,” said Siggurd.
“Father Horst to you.”
“He has completed his quest,” said Borealis, stepping in front of Siggurd. “He has brought me here to the Wirfather as he was told to do. Do not harm him.”
Horst laughed. “Do you think us so dim-witted, demon? Do you think we don’t know what is happening here? You cannot protect Siggurd. We all heard the two of you plotting to slay the Wirfather. You will both be taken to him. You will both die this day.”
“I cannot die,” said Borealis.
“We shall see,” said Horst. He nodded his head and the Talons converged, some holding chains, some swords. Siggurd took out the knife he carried and prepared to fight. Horst, laughing, stepped forward, holding a blade of his own.
“And will you slay me, Siggurd? Or will you hesitate again, as you did in that temple. That moment when you revealed your true self?”
Siggurd swung, flashing the blade towards Horst’s face. But his muscles were still cold and slow and Horst dodged easily. The Father swung his own sword into the side of Siggurd’s head.
Siggurd staggered, putting his hand to his face. There was no blood. Horst had hit him with the flat of his blade. Siggurd gripped his knife in both hands again and prepared to attack.
“Borealis! Kill them! We can still escape.”
“No, Siggurd,” said Borealis.
The homunculus stood behind him. Thick chains had been wrapped around his body, pinning his arms to his sides.
“You can break free,” said Siggurd. “You can kill them all.”
Borealis shook his head. “No. I am too weak. I am sorry. The climb … I may have miscalculated. And I cannot kill so many. Put your blade down, Siggurd. It will achieve nothing.”
Siggurd looked back at the grinning Horst. The urge to kill the Father filled Siggurd. If Horst had said nothing after that day in the temple, none of this would have happened. Horst was to blame. But attacking him would only make things worse. They were beaten. They had walked into a trap. The Wirfather and Aednir had seen everything, known everything, after all.
Siggurd let his knife clatter to the ground.
The Talons bound the two of them to stone pillars in the Wirfather’s icy chamber, Siggurd with ropes, Borealis with iron chains as thick as Siggurd’s arm. A thin light shone through the windows, but the two of them had been deliberately placed in the shadows so that Borealis could not recharge.
“Leave us now,” said the hooded Wirfather to the Talons and Fathers who had hauled Siggurd and Borealis to the chamber.
“But, Wirfather,” said Horst. “We should remain to protect you. In case the demon escapes.”
“Aednir will protect me,” said the Wirfather. “The demon is weak, drained by its long climb. As I intended. Now, go.”
Horst and the rest bowed and departed, leaving the three of them alone. Borealis sagged from his chains, lifeless, all his energy spent. Siggurd struggled against his ropes but couldn’t loose himself. He thought about all his heresies, all his sinful thoughts. He thought about what the Wirfather would do to him. He and his family. He had failed this second test as well. He should never have listened to Borealis’s lies. His only hope was for a death that didn’t linger for too many days.
The Wirfather limped towards them, taking his time. As he approached, a spark kindled within Borealis. Wheels whirred within his head and the homunculus looked up.
“Catafar, my brother,” he whispered. “It is you isn’t it?”
The Wirfather stood unmoving for a moment as if puzzled. Siggurd thought he would strike Borealis for his heresy. But instead the Wirfather threw back his hood to reveal his face. His face not of flesh but of polished crystal. Glowing threads of some silvery metal ran throughout like the branches of a tree. By some trickery of the threads, a face was visible on the glass, projected from within. A face that expressed a deep sadness. The projected eyes moved, examining them, and then the projected lips parted as the crystal homunculus spoke.
“Yes, my brother. It is me. Or what is left of me.”
The Wirfather – Catafar – let his robe drop to the floor, then, showing them both what remained of him. His head and torso, half an arm and one leg. Crude lengths of metal replaced his missing limbs. A great crack ran diagonally up his body, as if he might split in two at any moment.
“They nearly destroyed you,” said Borealis. “I am sorry.”
Siggurd looked from one to the other: the metal and the crystal homunculus. Shock gave way to anger within him. “But … you didn’t tell me? You both kept this from me?”
“I am sorry, Siggurd,” said Catafar. “Sorry for everything you have been through. I couldn’t risk the truth escaping. I thought I could trust you, but even so. Even the bravest will buy their freedom with their secrets if they have to.”
“And I only suspected,” said Borealis. “It was another chance taken. But I also couldn’t risk Catafar’s identity being revealed.”
Catafar stooped awkwardly to retrieve his robes. He pulled a knife from his belt and began to saw at the ropes binding Siggurd.
“What happened to you?” asked Borealis.
“I killed seventeen of them when I was captured but I was too weak to fight them all. Far too weak. They brought me here, this fractured, broken wreck, for the old Wirfather to toy with.”
“Yet you managed to kill him?” asked Borealis.
“No, I could not,” said Catafar. “I was too broken. But before the Wirfather started work on me he began to talk. It transpired he had many questions. Doubts. And until I came he had no one to discuss any of it with. Apart from Aednir, of course, but Aednir has the annoying habit of never replying.”
“So he just … let you take over from him?”
“Eventually. We were together here for twenty years. Talking, arguing, debating. He was a good man, trapped in the role of Wirfather. A role he came to despise. He thought the Fathers had lost their way. All their brutality. But couldn’t bring himself to change them. That was too much for him. He was torn by his doubts, but we found a sort of understanding in the end. A friendship.”
“Is it possible, then, you are still carrying out Aednir’s plans?” asked Borealis. “By taking over?”
“Perhaps,” said Catafar. “I don’t know. I do know Aednir has never spoken to me. Perhaps our builders didn’t equip me with the right sort of ears. But in the end, the previous Wirfather thought Aednir was merely an … ideal. I’m not sure of the right words. A metaphor, perhaps. So, when he was dying, he told no one and let me become Wirfather in his place.”
“The Fathers didn’t notice?”
“No one questions the Wirfather. Blind devotion has its advantages. And few ever see me anyway, locked away up here in this icy chamber.”
The sadness returned to Catafar’s glass face. “I could do nothing to help our sister. I had her remains brought here for safekeeping. It is a strange thing but I have often found myself talking to the fragments of her body over the years. She has never replied either. And then I heard stories of the Clockwork King of Pirathia and knew it must be you. So I sent many messengers south. But only Siggurd, it seems, managed to reach you.”
“Only Siggurd,” said Borealis. “I have thought, often, of coming in search for you and Anarvon. But I didn’t know where to look.”
The last rope fell to the floor. Catafar stepped back and studied Siggurd. “We have much to thank you for. I hope we can repay you.”
“But how did you even know we were coming?” asked Siggurd. “Did you see through the amulet?”
Catafar’s face smiled. “That? No. It is just glass. I have been watching for you through my telescopes. Three days ago, finally, I spotted you heading south. And so I arranged for you to be brought here.”
Siggurd tried to work some life back into his limbs. “But I don’t understand. What now? Why have you done all this?”
Catafar began to fumble with the locks on Borealis’s chains, peering close as if his eyes didn’t function properly. “I am weak, Siggurd. A few minutes activity each day drains me. I can achieve little. And all the north is under the thrall of Aednir. I soon saw replacing the Wirfather would not be enough. Bringing enlightenment will take many years. Generations. I needed my brother and sister to help. To repair me, and then to lay plans with me. We must wean the people gently from their stories for fear of traumatizing them. We must shine a light on their nightmares. Disband the Talons and close the dungeons. I believe most will accept the change, given time. Although I’m afraid some never will.”
“Brother and sister?” said Borealis. “So Anarvon can be repaired?”
The chains rattled to the floor and Catafar stepped backwards. “I believe so. I have all the designs, but I lack the skills and the materials.”
He limped across the chamber and pulled back the sheet to reveal the shattered remains of the wooden homunculus, lying there just as Siggurd remembered.
Borealis joined him. He stroked the smooth curves of the polished wood. “Ah, Anarvon. What have they done to you?”
“We will need a very skilled wood carver to restore her,” said Catafar.
“Ah,” said Borealis. “Yes, I see.” Both homunculi turned to Siggurd.
“I’ve heard there is one who can bring wood to life by the skill of her hands,” said Borealis. “Is that not so, Siggurd?”
“Your mother,” said Catafar. “Will you bring her here? Your whole family? Your mother can carve again. Anarvon will surely be her greatest work.”
“For my mother to carve again. Is that … is that possible?”
Catafar looked up. The lights within his glass skull glittered. “There are many secret chambers above us where they and Borealis can dwell until these lightless days are finally over. But, yes. To the Wirfather anything is possible, my friend. My brave, noble friend. Will you go?”
Siggurd could see how beautiful Catafar must once have been. Catafar Cursimon and Anarvon Astrogale and Borealis Banderwar together.
“I will,” said Siggurd.
A day later, Siggurd strode out from the entrance to Thingwir. Before he left for his boyhood home he had one final task to complete. The Talons at the gate parted to let him pass. A short distance away, Horst stood and waited, holding the horse he had been given for his long journey.
Siggurd watched the fury and hatred playing across the tall Father’s face. But Horst said nothing. The Wirfather had redeemed Siggurd and made him a Father and that meant Siggurd was Horst’s superior by six months.
Siggurd took the amulet he carried and placed it over Horst’s neck. “I believe you know what this is for. Aednir sees all, does he not?”
“He does, Father,” said Horst, speaking very quietly.
“And you know the route you must take?”
“I do. South for the Tower Peaks.”
“Just so,” said Siggurd. “The troll who guards the bridge is a mighty warrior. But the way must be opened up, and you will surely be victorious in the fight. With Aednir on your side.”
Horst looked down to the ground but didn’t reply. He knew he was being sent away to die.
“Very well,” said Siggurd. “Now, go.”
Horst looked as if he wanted to reply. Instead he turned and plodded away, leading his horse by her reins.
Siggurd watched them for a long while. He felt sorry for the horse. Perhaps she would bolt before they reached the bridge. He hoped so.
He turned and strode back into Thingwir. He had much to do. He would leave within the hour to fetch his family. The journey home and back to Thingwir would take weeks.
Then, when they returned, his mother could begin her work.
By Linda Burklin
“I don’t get many requests to do soles,” the tattoo artist said.
Darla clenched her teeth. “No kidding.”
She had slathered her foot with a topical anesthetic, but the effects were wearing off and she was starting to wonder how she was going to walk home.
Greg, the tattoo guy, must have read her mind. “You walked here, didn’t you?” he said. “Why don’t I get my wife to take you home? I don’t know how far away you live, but it’s going to seem a lot farther going back.”
“It’s just a few blocks from here,” Darla said, “but I have to admit a ride would be nice.”
When Greg’s wife Lacy dropped her off, Darla hopped to the stairs leading to her little apartment over the garage. After trying various options, she got up the stairs by sitting down and pushing herself up one step at a time using her arms and her “good” foot. She hoped Mom wasn’t watching her through the kitchen window—and she was glad the weather had warmed up enough to keep her backside from freezing as she inched up the stairs.
After crawling through the door, she flopped onto her couch. She had expected the tattoo to hurt, but she hadn’t been prepared for the reality of the pain on the sole of her foot. Still, it was worth it if it made David smile. She pulled her foot up and looked at the bottom. It was hard to tell what it was going to look like when the swelling went down.
Two days later, she had her answer. Though the foot still hurt, the design was clear. Small blue overlapping scales covered the bottom of her foot. Lighter in the middle and darker around the edges, there were hints of green and purple in the darker borders of the scales, but the overall color was blue. After putting on her socks and clogs, she hobbled over to the main house and into the kitchen.
“Where have you been all weekend?” Mom asked. “David’s been asking about you.”
“I, uh, have something special to show David, and it wasn’t ready till now.”
“Oh? What is it?”
“It’s something private. Between him and me.”
Mom’s tolerant smile changed to a look of alarm as Darla limped past. “What happened to your foot? You’re limping!”
“I hurt it a little but it’s already getting better. I promise.” She couldn’t risk Mom being concerned enough to look at the foot.
Without pausing, she continued on toward the den that had been converted into a hospital room for her little brother David.
“Darla!” His face lit up when she walked in the door. “I missed you!”
“I missed you too, buddy.” She sat down on the end of his bed.
“Remember that dream you told me about last week?”
His brow wrinkled in thought. His bald head made his skin seem even more fragile and transparent than it had before. “The dragon dream?”
“Yes, that’s the one. Can you tell it to me again?”
“Well, I dreamed a huge blue dragon was flying in the sky. He was so beautiful! And somehow, in my dream, I knew he was going somewhere wonderful. Just looking at him filled me up with joy. But when I called and begged him to let me ride on his back and fly with him, he just said ‘I’m not there yet.’ Do you think there are blue dragons in heaven and that they’d let me ride them?”
Darla smiled at him. “I dunno, David. But I know if heaven has blue dragons, you can ride them as much as you want. Look, I want to show you something.”
She took the sock off her right foot and swung it up on to the bed so David could see it. His eyes widened till she feared they would pop, and his thin face lit up with a hundred-watt smile.
“You got a dragon-scale tattoo? That is so awesome! What did Mom say?”
“Mom doesn’t know. It’s our secret, okay?”
He nodded, grinning. “Are you going to get the other foot done?”
She had expected this question, had been bracing for it.
“Yes, as soon as this one stops hurting and itching, I’ll get the other one done. We can pretend I am a blue dragon—in disguise. It’ll be our secret.”
By June, two months later, scales covered Darla’s legs up to her knees. Her car savings fund took a hit, but she didn’t really care because the dragon feet made David happy. She began working extra odd jobs to cover the cost of her ink. She still hadn’t told her parents. She wore sneakers and jeans most of the time so there was no reason for them to suspect that under those faded jeans she had dragon legs.
David was thrilled. “If you have dragon feet, you should have a dragon name. A girl dragon name.”
They spent several delightful days discussing and discarding every dragonish name they could think of, before settling on the name “Indiglory,” to emphasize the beautiful color of the scales and the general gloriousness of being a dragon. From that moment on, David never called her Darla again unless Mom or Dad was in earshot.
That evening, however, Mom climbed up to Darla’s apartment after David was asleep.
“Darla, you know I’m thrilled you and David have such a close bond. I would never have believed a nineteen-year-old and a nine-year-old would be such good pals. But Dad and I are worried about you.”
“Why? Because I care about my little brother?”
“No, dear—because you care too much. When was the last time you went to a movie with your friends? When was the last time you talked about taking college classes? What kind of life are you going to have left after David dies?”
“Don’t say that! Why do you give up so easily? He’s not gonna die! He’s getting all the right medicine! I’m helping him get better!”
“I don’t deny that you’re helping him feel better, Darla. But you know as well as I do that the chances are very slim he’ll recover.”
Darla put her hands over her ears. “Don’t say that!”
The next Saturday she kept another appointment with Greg, wearing a long skirt that reached to her ankles.
“I’m ready for the thighs now,” she said, trembling inside.
She was a modest girl who hated baring her thighs to anyone. But Lacy had been working side-by-side with Greg on her tattoos, and that somehow made it more bearable.
The scales had been gradually increasing in size as they crept higher up her legs. She would never have believed she would think her legs looked beautiful covered with scales, but she did. It helped that Greg and Lacy were such gifted artists. Getting the inside of her thighs done was even more excruciating than her feet, but at least she didn’t have to walk on them. She lay with tears streaming down her cheeks, but she didn’t move or cry out. If David could tolerate what he’d been through, who was she to complain about the temporary pain of a tattoo?
She knew that somehow, her tattoos kept David going. Each new addition to her scales delighted him. They spent hours speculating on the details of dragon life. Since the first tattoo, she had read him two whole series of books about dragons, making a point to choose books that portrayed dragons in a positive, heroic light. They now referred to his room as his “lair,” and they piled all his most prized possessions under his hospital-style bed to stand in as his dragon hoard.
That night, as she lay awake in bed with her thighs burning, she asked herself how far she was willing to go. She had once thought she would stop at the soles of her feet. Now, she often thought of herself as Indiglory rather than Darla. How would she feel about her beautiful dragon legs twenty years from now? Thirty? It didn’t matter. David mattered. He never talked about his illness anymore. The dragon dream had captured his imagination—and for the rest of her life, the tattoos would remind her of her brother.
By July her back was done, complete with folded-up wings and tattooed spikes down the middle—except for the part where a rider might sit. Her car savings were severely depleted. But when she put a swimsuit on under her clothes, and then showed her back to David, he gasped in delight.
“Oh, Indiglory, the spikes are perfect! I always imagined them a solid indigo blue!”
At that moment, Mom walked into the room and stopped dead in her tracks, her hand over her mouth. Darla stood there in her swimsuit, her blue-scaled legs bare.
“Please tell me you just drew on yourself with markers,” said Mom.
“Isn’t it awesome?” David said. “She’s my dragon sister now! Her new name is Indiglory.”
“Turn around,” Mom ordered. Her voice shook in a way that Darla had never heard before.
Darla turned around, exposing her back to her mother’s scrutiny. She heard the horrified gasp, but she kept a smile on her face and winked at David.
“I have nothing to say,” Mom said. “I’m speechless. I’ll let your father deal with this.”
She all but ran from the room and slammed the door, but Darla could still hear the sobs that echoed from the hallway.
She braced herself for the confrontation to come, wishing she could keep her parents and David happy. It would have been easier to take if Dad had been angry rather than sorrowful.
“I can’t order you to stop defacing your body,” he said, “because you’re an adult and you’re earning the money to do this to yourself. But I just want you to know it grieves me to think you didn’t believe your body was attractive by itself. You’ll always be beautiful to me, Darla, but the tattoos don’t make you any more beautiful than you were before.”
“It’s not about beauty or vanity, Dad. It’s about David. It’s a private world he and I share. A world where I’m a dragon called Indiglory and he’s my little friend.”
“He has been talking about dragons a lot lately,” said Mom. “He barely notices his physical discomforts because he’s so focused on dragons. I can’t fault you on your motives, Darla.”
Now that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, Darla could get her hands and arms done. Lacy had misgivings about doing her hands.
“You may regret it someday,” she said. “I know you’re doing it for your brother, but someday you’re going to want to have your own life. It might be hard for you to do some things if you look like a giant blue lizard.”
Darla said nothing. Greg and Lacy were a second family to her now. How could they question her when she was single-handedly keeping David alive? Back in the winter, the doctor had said David would be gone before Easter—yet here it was August and he was still able to go outside every afternoon, to talk and eat and smile and laugh. Whatever the future cost might be, it was worth it. Her hands were inked with beautiful little scales, none larger than a quarter of an inch across. That night, Mom cried at the supper table.
Eyebrows were raised at work when Darla showed up with her newly inked hands and arms, but since it didn’t affect her ability to stock the shelves at Wal-mart, there were no repercussions.
By the beginning of October, her neck and chest were done.
“Don’t even think about asking us to do your face,” Greg said. “I promise you’ll regret it. Maybe not right away, but years from now when you have children of your own.”
“Chill,” she said. “I’m not ready to get my face done either.”
Temperatures fell as autumn progressed. During the warmest part of the day, Darla wheeled David outside to the back yard, after all but burying him under blankets and putting a thick fuzzy hat on his head. They talked about dragons and watched the leaves blow off the trees one by one.
“You’re almost all dragon now, Indiglory,” David said. “But you’re still my sister too. I like having a dragon for a sister. It makes me fearless.”
Darla smiled. “You’ve always been fearless, David. I’m the coward.”
He was even thinner now, and fear clutched at her heart when she looked at him. She couldn’t still pretend he was getting better, or deny what her eyes saw every day: her little brother was fading away.
When the shorter days of November came, they had to give up going outside. Darla kept David busy helping her draw a map of Indiglory’s dragon home world. For hours at a time, they discussed the history behind each feature on the map. David’s thin face lit up each time she laid the map out on the floor so she could work on it while he watched and made suggestions.
On December 3rd, the first snow fell, blanketing everything in white powder and transforming their little neighborhood into an enchanted dream world.
“Can’t you stay with me tonight?” David asked. “On a snowy night like this, I could use a dragon to keep me warm.”
How could she say no? She ran to her apartment to get an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt to sleep in. She giggled to think of having a sleepover with her little brother.
“Won’t you be cold with shorts on, Indiglory?”
“Dragons don’t get cold,” she said. “We keep our favorite humans warm.”
She climbed into the bed beside him, on the side without the tubes and wires, and carefully folded her arms around his impossibly fragile body as he snuggled next to her.
Mom came in. “What’s going on here?”
“We’re having a sleepover,” David said. “My dragon sister is keeping me warm.”
“Mom, could you please open the curtains before you turn off the light?” Darla asked. “We want the moonlight to shine in on us tonight.”
David yawned. “The first full moon after the first snow is the dragon moon.”
A frisson of excitement trilled down Darla’s spine. The dragon moon. It sounded so mysterious and tantalizing.
They lay awake for some time, whispering together and watching the moonlight on the snow. Finally, David fell asleep and Darla felt her own eyes drooping.
When she awoke, the moon was high in the sky and she felt something was wrong—not with David, but with herself. Ever so gently, she withdrew her arms from around David and slid from the high hospital bed onto the floor. Her feet felt weird. She walked over to where the moonlight came in through the window, and looked down. They weren’t her feet anymore. They were beautiful dragon’s feet, covered with glittering scales and complete with dangerous-looking talons.
She held her hands out. They, too, had transformed into dragon claws. The muscles of her arms and legs rippled under real dragon scales. It was incredible. Turning to look down at David, she was puzzled at how far away he looked, until she realized dragons were taller than girls. She flexed her shoulders and felt her wings unfurling behind her as they filled with the blood pumped from her dragon heart. If she didn’t get out of the house soon, she wouldn’t fit through the door.
Leaning down, she scooped up David in her dragon arms. He opened his eyes and they widened in the moonlight. His face filled with joy.
“It’s the dragon moon!” he said. “It made you real, Indiglory!”
“I have to get outside before I get too big. Do you want to come with me?”
He nodded, his eyes huge and bright in his pinched little face. He disconnected himself from all the tubes and wires and pulled on his old red bathrobe, now ridiculously big for him.
Hugging him to her dragon chest, she tiptoed through the house to the family room door, her long spiked tail dragging behind her. David giggled as she squeezed through the sliding door and popped out onto the patio.
“Come on,” she said. “Time to climb on my back. What could be better than riding a dragon on the night of the dragon moon? The snow can’t make you cold if you’re with me.”
She bent down and kissed his forehead with her dragon lips before he climbed on to her back and hooked his skinny little legs around her shoulders. Dropping to all fours, she spread her enormous wings out till they reached from side to side of their big backyard. Hot dragon blood coursed through her veins and filled her fierce dragon heart with strength and courage.
“Hang on tight!” she said.
David wrapped his little arms around her newly-lengthened neck. Even though she had never had wings before, she knew how to use them. Her mighty muscles lifted the wings and then brought them down. Just like that, she was off the ground. A few swift strokes and she and David soared skyward above the glittering moonlit world.
“Where are we going?” David asked, his voice full of joy.
“Wherever we want!” she answered, and they both laughed.
Denise Emerson lay awake in bed, worrying about David, her beloved only son. He was so frail now—he could slip away at any time. Thank goodness Darla was with him. If anything happened, Darla would let her know.
She heard a sound she couldn’t place at first. It sounded like someone was dragging something heavy through the house while making clicking noises. Yikes!
She nudged her husband. “Mark! I think there’s someone in the house.”
He sat up, alert. They heard the sliding glass door in the family room open.
“You stay here,” he said, swinging his feet over the side of the bed and stuffing his feet into his slippers.
“No, I’m coming with you.” The icy fingers of fear gripped her heart and she didn’t want to be alone.
Mark grabbed a baseball bat from the hall closet and they crept into the family room, where the sliding door stood wide open. Hand in hand, they ran to the door in time to see an enormous blue dragon spreading out its wings in the moonlight. David was on the dragon’s back in his old red bathrobe. His arms were wrapped around the dragon’s scaly neck, and while they watched, he laid his head down against that mighty neck. The dragon beat its huge wings, rose gracefully into the air, and soared across the full moon in the cold night sky.
She should be screaming or calling out, but instead she just watched that dragon—it must be Darla, somehow—fly away with her son. Hot tears welled from her eyes and cooled instantly on her cold cheeks.
“Well, they’re gone,” Mark said. “Both of our babies.” He sounded as forlorn as she felt.
He pulled the sliding door closed behind them when they finally walked back inside, and she said, “Don’t lock it. In case they come back.”
“They’re not coming back.”
He led her back to David’s room, the room where he had fought for life for over a year now. Eight months of that time had been a gift—a gift from the dragon that had once been their daughter. The door of David’s room was open and she heard Mark gasp in surprise as he crossed the threshold. She pushed past him to look.
Both of their children were still curled up on the bed. Darla’s eyes were open, her pearly white arms wrapped around the lifeless body of her little brother. There was no sign of a tattoo.
“Your tattoos!” said Mark. “What happened to your tattoos?”
Darla sat up and stared at her arms in the moonlight. “They belonged to Indiglory. I guess she took them when she took David.”
She looked at David’s body, stroked the soft bald head one last time.
“David’s dream came true, Mom. He rode home on a dragon.”
For Whom the Voice Speaks
By Mark Rookyard
“I love you, Jonathon,” Voice said.
“I know you do, Voice.” The sun was golden and the air was pleasantly warm in the vineyard.
“Are you well, Jonathon? Don’t you want to make wine today?”
“No Voice, not today,” Jonathon said.
“What about climbing?” Voice wondered. “You do love the mountains.”
Jonathon did love to climb and the winds there were always cool and the snow always white and soft. But no, he was just so tired lately.
“Not today, I don’t think, Voice,” he said. He tossed a grape and caught it in his mouth. He sat down. The grass was dew-wet and green.
“What about riding?” Voice said. The world shifted, tilted before him, and Jonathon could see a field in the distance. The horses there were sleek and well fed. Jonathon did love to ride.
“Not today, Voice. Perhaps tomorrow.” He got to his feet and began to walk.
Voice was silent for a time until Jonathon reached the ocean. The waves were white-tipped and the breeze brisk. The beach was golden with white pebbles and swaying palm trees.
“What about sailing?” Voice said. “You do love to sail.”
Jonathon threw a pebble and turned away. He walked through a desert where the sand was warm and the sun red.
“Is something bothering you, Jonathon?” Voice said.
Jonathon stopped. He could see a well that would contain cooling water less than a mile away. “Bothering me, Voice?”
“You seem restless today.”
“Am I?” Jonathon was thirsty, he realized. He walked on to the well. It was closer now. He wound the bucket up. The water was clear and fresh.
“Yes,” Voice said. “Is there anything I can do, Jonathon?”
Jonathon wound the bucket back down. “I don’t think so, Voice. I just sometimes wonder about the others.”
“Yes, Voice. The others like me. Why am I the last one? Why me?” He walked on again. The water had been refreshing.
“Why not, Jonathon? You’re no worse or better than any other. Why not you?”
Jonathon smiled. “You knew them all, Voice. Am I really no better or worse than any of them?” He came to a cool babbling brook in a green and pleasant land.
“There were many people here,” Voice finally said. The sun was bright once more, but not too warm. “But none I loved so well as you.”
“Do you ever get lonely, Voice?” he asked.
“Lonely? I have you, Jonathon.”
Jonathon nodded. “And I you, Voice. You truly are a wonder. But sometimes I want to share your wonder with another. You show me true beauty in the world, but who can I share it with?” There was a silence in the blue sky. “I think it must be a failing in me.”
A further silence in which the sky fell dark. Stars lit the night and the moon was yellow.
“No, not a failing in you,” Voice said. “Perhaps I have been selfish in thinking I could be enough for you.”
“Selfish? You, Voice? You gave me life!” Jonathon smiled, but there was a sadness in it, too. He remembered the Great Library with its books speaking of love and wonder, and wonder and love. What was beauty, the books had said, if there was nobody to share it with?
The world turned and the moon fell and the sun rose and a bridge of ancient stone spanned a rippling river.
“There was another,” Voice said. “Another who survived the plague. I kept her from you because I was afraid she would displease you.”
Jonathon saw her on the bridge. She was tall and slender with golden shoulders. “Or I would displease her,” he breathed.
“That too,” Voice said in an inflectionless voice.
She was named Helen, and Jonathon showed her the Great Library and the Barrier Reef and Victoria Falls. Helen hung upon his every word.
When he touched her skin, she was pliant and when he made love to her, she murmured appreciative words in his ear under vines that whispered in a warm breeze.
“Voice!” Jonathon called out one morning, a tiger cub nuzzling his palm.
“Yes, Jonathon?” Voice had been quiet a long while.
“I am old, Voice. My beard is white and Helen is still young and golden and appreciative.” He had read books in the Great Library, books where men had to fight for a woman’s love, where women were challenging and opinionated. Why wasn’t Helen like that? She laughed at his jokes and was quiet when he was restless.
“Have you thought of children?” Voice said, after a long pause.
“Children?” Jonathon thought of the children he would have. They would be perfect and studious and handsome. Their family would be happy beyond measure.
The very thought of it made Jonathon sink to his knees in exhaustion.
“I am done, Voice. I am an old man and I am done. All I ask of you now, for any love you have for me, is to show me the Truth of things.”
“The Truth?” asked the voice from the sky.
“The Truth,” Jonathon said.
The world turned, then. The grass beneath his feet fell away and the golden sun vanished from the sky, taking the white clouds with it.
Jonathon knelt upon a grilled walkway, the steel above him black and bolted. The window at his shoulder was small and round and showed a planet where the clouds were white and the seas blue.
“It took longer than your species could have ever imagined to get here,” Voice said. “You are the last survivor of tens of thousands.”
Jonathon pressed his hands to the window. The clouds on the planet coiled. “Take me there,” he said.
“It wasn’t the haven your kind had prayed for,” Voice said.
Jonathon fingered his white beard. “Tell me, Voice. Are there others like me there? Others of my kind?” He thought of the thousands upon thousands of silent chambers all around him and he gripped a cold steel pole as something shifted beneath his feet and distant engines began to rumble.
A long silence.
“I love you, Jonathon.” Voice finally said, cold and sterile.
Jonathon swallowed as he watched the planet draw near. “I know you do, Voice.”