The Colored Lens
Henry Fields, Associate Editor
Table of Contents
- Cephi by Philip A Kramer
- Death and Two Women by Les Berkley
- Lavender Footsteps by Michael J. Wyant Jr.
- Lifesong by Nathan Batchelor
- Party’s End by Jen Sexton-Riley
- Peaches by Leigh Anna Harken
- The Barber and the Black Canary by Marilee Dahlman
- The Water Dragon by Joanne Aylott
- Traveling by Starlight: A Journey of Two Ways by Lindsey Duncan
- Walking the Line by Alexandra Grunberg
- Zombies Can’t Take the Train by Greg Greenberg
By Philip A Kramer
The drone hovered outside the window of the high-rise, gazing at the occupants of the 36th floor. A man in a white shirt and striped tie was eating a sandwich at his desk, oblivious to its presence.
Four hundred and thirty-two feet below, Jerry Donovan held his finger above the remote’s trigger and regarded the man in the video feed. He did not know him; he never knew any of them.
Just then, the man stopped his chewing, and turned his head to the window, a piece of arugula dangling from his lips. He locked eyes with the camera.
Jerry pulled the trigger.
A jet of water and soap suds speckled the one-inch pane of glass between them and dribbled down into the window seam. Jerry fingered the joystick forward until the two-foot long squeegee made contact with the window. The drone dragged the squeegee downward, wiping away the soap and the residue of city smog.
The man in the striped tie began to chew again, watching the drone’s progress with distracted disinterest.
Jerry shifted on his makeshift stool on the sidewalk and gazed about at the throng of pedestrians moving around him. Like his drone, the people who looked at him barely seemed to register his existence.
At times, he missed being up there, suspended by a few ropes hundreds of feet above the sidewalk. He thought the advent of window-washing drones would put him out of the job, but they still needed operators. Whether it was safer to cling to a high-rise or sit on a crowded Los Angeles sidewalk, had yet to be determined. It had not stopped his boss from taking away his hazard pay. Fortunately, the city was due to expand, to push out into the Santa Monica bay. The sooner it did the better, in his opinion. The sidewalks were getting too crowded.
When his drone arrived at the thirty-fifth floor, all of his bitter musings evaporated.
Jerry sat straighter and maneuvered his drone to the next window. A small, rare smile tugged at his lips.
Along the length of the room sat five equally spaced desks, each occupied by a person staring at a computer monitor. Closest to him was a woman with large, dark-framed glasses and brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a white blouse beneath a slender dark gray business suit.
Jerry did not know her name, but he gazed in on her for a few minutes every week. Unlike other windows, he always took his time with this one.
It would have felt creepy, stalker-ish even, but she never failed to give him a smile and a wave. Today was no different, and her face brightened when she caught sight of the shadow of his drone on the carpeted floor.
Jerry dutifully sprayed the window with the cleaner.
The joystick was slippery with sweat, and he took a moment to wipe his palms dry on his pant legs.
Then he went for it.
The camera view pitched and yawed with the motions of the drone, and he unconsciously leaned from side to side, squinting into the camera feed. A moment later, spelled out in relief among the soapsuds, was the word “Hi.”
Through a clean part of the glass, he could see her smile broaden, and a hint of amusement in her eyes.
Then she broke her gaze to look at the office door. A tall man with immaculately styled brown hair entered the room. A face red with fury highlighted his scowl.
The man spoke, but the words were inaudible to Jerry. The woman stood, a white-knuckled hand grabbing the edge of her desk. Her face remained stoic, even as the man slammed a piece of paper down in front of her.
Mouth agape, Jerry stared into the feed as the man continued to shout, drawing the attention of everyone in the office. The man stuck out his hand, a single finger pointing to the door. Jerry didn’t have to hear him to known what he’d said.
Jaw clenched, the woman watched him leave and then sat down in her chair, staring at the piece of paper. Blood drained from her face.
Jerry loosened his grip on the remote when its sturdy plastic creaked in protest.
A moment later, determination crept over the woman’s features, and she looked up, straight at his drone.
Startled, Jerry set the drone to cleaning the rest of the window.
The woman stood, folding the piece of paper and pocketing it, and then approached the window. Jerry brought the drone to eye level. She stepped right up to the window, pressed her hand to the glass, and looked down.
Jerry frowned and then his eyes widened. He looked up from his stool to locate his drone suspended next to the 35th floor of the building across the street. He could just make her out beyond the hazy sky reflected by the window.
Throat constricting, he looked back at his video feed to see a sparkle in her eyes and a smirk curling one corner of her lips. She’d seen him. She turned around and walked straight for the door on the far side of the room.
Jerry gulped and hurriedly finished with the window.
Now was a good time to take his lunch break, he decided.
He yanked back on the joystick and steered the drone across the street and down to where he stood on the sidewalk. Its buzz grew louder as it drew nearer, causing even the most distracted pedestrian to look up.
He cordoned off a five-foot-by-five-foot landing site on the street with four collapsible traffic cones, much to the annoyance of the driver waiting to claim the charging station he now blocked.
Jerry set to work with practiced efficiency, detaching the propellers, battery pack, and washer-fluid receptacle and storing each inside the large wheeled case that had served as his stool.
Just as he was loading the frame and controller in the case, the hard clicking of approaching footsteps lifted above the general bustling of the crowd. A pair of small black shoes appeared in his periphery.
Swallowing, Jerry stood from his crouch and turned to face the owner of the shoes.
It was the woman from behind the glass.
Her eyes searched his for several moments as if she struggled to connect the lanky man with untidy hair before her to the persona of the drone.
A car honked at them.
Jerry scrambled to retrieve his cones and leave room for the driver to park.
“I’m sorry you witnessed that,” she said as he added the cones to his other equipment. She put a hand to her forehead and shook her head. “I’m so embarrassed.”
Jerry didn’t know what to say, so gave a one-shouldered shrug.
“I’m Cassy by the way.”
“Jerry,” he said, and shook her extended hand.
“Well Jerry,” she said, considering him. “I could use a drink. Care to join me?”
“I was just…” he stammered and then collected himself. “Yes I would.”
Jerry set off down the sidewalk alongside her, tugging his case after him. They merged with the lunch crowd that was just beginning to pour into the streets.
He concentrated on the back of the person in front of him and tried to ignore the awkward silence between them.
“You realize that ‘hi’ backwards reads ‘ih.’” She said abruptly.
Jerry’s stomach fell, and he covered his face with a palm.
“I’m an idiot.”
“At least it wasn’t ‘olleh’ or ‘yeh.’”
Her laugh made the embarrassing oversight worth it.
“What bar were you thinking?” Jerry asked after they had walked east for a couple blocks.
“I think I have a few bottles at my place,” she said. Jerry was still reeling from her answer when she spoke again. “Do you like to play games?”
“Well I…” he stammered. “Where is this going?”
“That came out wrong,” she said, flushing. “I meant video games. I assumed with you flying a drone…” She trailed off.
“Sure. I love video games. I’d hardly call my job one though.”
“How far can that thing fly, anyway? Can you work from home?”
“I have to be within a mile or so for the controller and receiver to communicate, but they want us on location in case we lose signal. It won’t fall out of the sky or anything. It lands automatically, but we have to make sure we clear a place for it.”
As he described the less-than-riveting details of his job, she led him into the lobby of a modern, recently constructed building. They entered a small elevator and rode it to the fifteenth floor and proceeded down a hallway that smelled of new carpet.
“Come on in,” she said, holding a door open.
Inside the condo, a large fish tank, a hundred gallons at least, stood against one wall. A television comprised nearly the whole of the wall opposite the door. Whirls of color bounced across it in a pattern reminiscent of an old screen-saver. Only a solitary ergonomic chair faced it.
“Is that a TFG console?”
“One of their first,” she said, her hands on her hips.
Jerry left his case by the door, walked over, and ran his hands along the chair’s back and then down along an armrest. His finger grazed a small black surface, and a touch-pad came to life. A moment later, the entire wall lit up, revealing the last thing he expected to see.
TerraForm Games had revolutionized the gaming industry. No longer did gamers waste hundreds of hours performing virtual tasks; they had something real to control.
If it hadn’t been so expensive, Jerry would have purchased the operating rights to one of their Lunar and Martian Rovers long ago. It was the ultimate sandbox game, casting regolith into any number of shapes with 3D printers.
What appeared in the display before him was not the surface of Mars, the moon, or even the cloud-tops of Venus. He was staring at an underwater palace through the camera of a TerraForm Games submersible.
Fish darted across the screen and in and out of a large white structure. It wasn’t coral, though there was certainly some of that too, growing on the rough angular walls, the tall support columns, and inside open windows. The palace was too small to be accessible by humans and made entirely from the white stone. Above it all, was the rippling surface of the water no more than one-hundred feet above.
Below the camera feed, the screen was divided into two sections. One displayed a large topological map of the Santa Monica bay, including longitude, latitude, and depth. The palace appeared as a small angular bulge, and hundreds of other structures lay beyond, just out of sight.
The other section of the display was a text box, an event log or status window from the looks of it. The last message read:
::SUBMERSIBLE IDLE_ BATTERY CHARGING_ AWAITING OPERATOR INPUT::
“I call her Cephi.” Cassy said from beside him, he hadn’t heard her approach. “Since she looks a little like a Cephalopod. A Squid,” she supplied at his blank look. She stuck out a hand, gesturing toward the chair. “Care to take the helm?”
He didn’t need to be asked twice. He sat down and reached for a button that resembled his drone remote’s joystick.
It took a moment, but the camera view began to move, causing a few fish to dart away. He neared the palace and passed beneath an arch into what looked to be a small courtyard.
“Did you build all this?”
“It took a couple years, and the help of some friends, but yeah. This is all mine.”
“What’s it made of?”
“Calcium carbonate, the same stuff that mollusks and coral use to make their shells and skeletons.”
She leaned down, her ponytail swinging into his face for a moment as she toggled another button forward. When she stood straight again, and Jerry was no longer distracted, he saw that an armature had extended into the sub’s field of view. Several servo boxes separated the arm into segments, and two long tubes stretching down its length.
“This is the 3D printing arm. One tube carries concentrated calcium chloride isolated from the seawater by osmotic and chemical filters. The other tube contains carbonic acid, the dissolved form of carbon dioxide. When they mix at the end of the probe, they form insoluble calcium carbonate.”
“What can you print?”
“Anything really, so long as I have enough calcium chloride and carbonate stored. There’s another arm too, the manipulator.” She leaned over him again, but he was ready for it, and saw the buttons she pressed. Another arm with pincers moved into view on the opposite side of the camera feed. “It helps to steady the object during printing and move things around afterward.”
Jerry had steered up to a wall spotted with coral and anemones like some kind of vertical garden. The vibrant colors of red and blue coral were surpassed only by those of the fish surrounding them. Some of the yellows were so bright as to be fluorescent.
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll destroy what you’ve printed?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cassy’s features darken, but a weak smile replaced it by the time he focused on her.
“At first, I guess, but making them at home here has now become the unofficial purpose of the game. Yeah, I got into it to build an underwater paradise, but then I realized how shortsighted I was. Did you know over ninety percent of the carbon dioxide we produce is dissolved in the oceans, slowly acidifying them? Our subs have captured thousands of tons of it, but that’s nothing compared to reefs, and those are mostly dead now.”
Jerry looked out at the garden of coral and schools of fish. Each appeared to be thriving within the artificial home she’d created for them.
“These seem to be doing well enough.”
“Right? We had no idea it would happen,” she continued, excitement brightening her features. “The new regulations have helped clean up the water around here, but we never expected this. Coral and tropical fish don’t normally come to these northern latitudes, but with the oceans getting warmer, these are the new tropics. They latched on to our artificial reef and made it their own.”
“So the reefs won’t disappear after all?”
“If this reef and others around the coast are allowed to prosper, it will easily outpace any of our efforts to reverse climate change.”
Jerry blinked. Her tone had become somber.
“That’s amazing. So why don’t you sound excited?”
Cassy mashed another button on the touch-pad and held it.
Cephi rose, first slowly, and then with surprising speed. Once it had cleared the top of the coral garden, he could make out large spires, squat domes, and even part of a labyrinth in the distance. Other subs idled around the structures or moved between them like the fish. The subs were a squatter version of a submarine, with two propellers at the tail end and two small arms hugging its sides. Cassy was right, they did resemble large squids.
Cephi broke the surface, and then crashed back down, sending waves in all directions. Rivulets of water flowed across the camera lens, but when the view cleared, they looked out over a broad expanse of water at the coast. The tallest skyscrapers of Los Angeles were visible in the distance, but only as a hazy backdrop to the much closer buildings of Santa Monica.
A small fleet of barges in the foreground partially obscured their view. Several figures in hardhats scurried along the decks and rails of the ships.
“All that we’ve done, all that we’ve built here. It won’t last another day.”
Jerry’s stomach sank.
“The City Expansion Project?”
She nodded and clenched her jaw.
Just to the left of the Santa Monica beach, large hills and mountains loomed over the city. They had been beautiful and green once, but now strip mines and construction roads scarred them.
“For over a dozen miles off the coast, the water is no more than a couple hundred feet deep, the only depth at which reefs can grow. With the mountain so close to the water’s edge, all they have to do is push all of that dirt in. They’ll have flattened a mountain and filled in the bay at the same time. All the more area to build on.”
Jerry shook his head. Just earlier that day he had been hoping the expansion would be underway soon to relieve some of the sidewalk congestion. Now…
“They have to know what’s down here. Why would they bury a reef?”
“Someone from the Fish and Wildlife Service did a survey, but concluded the species here weren’t protected under the Endangered Species Act, even though the list hasn’t been updated in years.” She balled her hands into fists.
“There has to be a way.”
“I’ve tried everything, we’ve tried everything,” she said, motioning toward the edge of the screen. For the first time Jerry noticed a message feed showing hundreds of unread messages, most marked as urgent and with a fair number of expletives in their subject lines. The other subs.
“It even cost me my job.”
Cassy pulled a piece of paper from her back pocket, the one her boss had slammed onto her desk. Jerry took the slip of paper and unfolded it. It was an email correspondence between a Cassandra Thomas, CP and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, specifically, the Species Survival Commission. Several emails detailed her apparent pleas to move Heliopora coerulea, Blue coral, from Vulnerable status to Endangered. Their only response was that it would be discussed at their next SSC meeting in three weeks. By then it would be too late.
“I don’t understand. Why did this get you fired?”
“I’m a paralegal. Our law firm represents the city and this construction project. My boss found out I was trying to stop it and…”
“I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do to help,” he wanted to reach out and comfort her, lay a sympathetic hand on her shoulder, or let her cry on his. He held back. He may have looked in on her for over a year, but she’d known him for less than fifteen minutes.
“Maybe there is,” she said cryptically, and then backed away from the chair and approached her fish tank. She stared in at several of the bright blue fish.
Puzzled, Jerry stood from the chair and followed her. The fish nearest him was the largest of the fish in the aquarium, about eight inches long and with a large knobby forehead. The aquarium’s overhead lights illuminated a lacework of orange across its blue scales. Cassy’s dark-framed glasses reflected the entire scene.
“Cheilinus undulates, the Humphead wrasse. They are on the endangered species list. Don’t even ask how I got my hands on one. It wasn’t exactly legal, but at least it’s in my hands and not the belly of someone who thinks its rarity makes it more delicious. If I could get him out to the reef, and capture video of him swimming around, it would put a wrench into their construction plans.”
“That doesn’t sound legal either.” Jerry said, rubbing at his neck. This was all moving too fast. All he had wanted was to have a drink in the company of a woman he had admired from afar for so long.
She shrugged a shoulder.
“People dump their fish and let out birds all the time. It’s illegal, sure, but it’s not something they send people to jail over. I would have done it already, but the entire reef is now in a construction zone. They’ve closed the beaches and they won’t let any boats on site.” She turned to him and swallowed. “But a drone with a water tank could reach it.”
A chill rippled across his skin and then it was gone, replaced by a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“This was why you asked me out for a drink?”
Cassy looked to the floor.
Jerry’s nostrils flared, and he turned around, walking back to the chair and gripping the headrest.
He should have guessed she had an ulterior motive. What would a girl like her want with him? He ground his teeth as he stared at the distant city through the camera feed. The forty-three-story high-rise he’d been washing was visible from this angle, its windows reflecting the sun overhead. He should leave now and get back to work, finish the windows before the building manager filed a complaint.
Just beyond the skyscrapers was the sky itself, hazy from the pollution settling over the valley. Despite the city’s efforts to improve air quality by promoting the electric car and the use of solar charging stations, it continued to deteriorate.
He had never looked to the ocean for answers, but Terraform Games had, and they had gamers: the most dedicated workforce on the planet. They had invested millions of dollars, thousands of hours into the reef, and now they were all counting on him. If he went back to washing windows, he would be condemning all that vibrant and beautiful life to death.
Cassy was wringing her hands together and chewing on her lower lip as she watched him.
“I’ll do it.”
She smiled and hopped up and down on her toes. She looked like she might throw her arms around him, but thought twice and settled back on her heels. She took off the blazer of her business suit and threw it over the chair.
“Then let’s get to work.”
“Now?” He gaped at her.
“Now is all the time the reef has left. The construction begins tomorrow morning.”
“It could take some time to modify the drone, and I’ll need to be nearby when I fly it.”
“That won’t be a problem. I have a friend with a boat that can get you close enough. But we both can’t go. I need to stay here to film the fish once you deliver it. If we don’t get video, it could hide, and we might not be able to find it again before tomorrow morning.”
She took a step forward and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I’ve seen you fly that thing. You’re good. I have every confidence in you.”
The touch sent a pulse of warmth through him, and he suddenly found a confidence that hadn’t been there a moment before.
They set to the task of preparing the drone, all plans to have a nice, relaxing drink forgotten. Jerry washed out the fluid reservoir and then, at Cassy’s instruction, washed it out twice more. He didn’t know what the washer fluid was made of, but it couldn’t be healthy for fish.
The reservoir was large enough to hold over two gallons of water from her aquarium, more than enough for the fish. The problem was the release button. He would need a way to dump the contents of the tank into the bay remotely.
After some minutes of staring at the drone and scratching his head, Cassy asked if he could just drop the whole reservoir into the bay.
“The fish could swim out and I’ll buy you a new one.”
That made the problem easier, but it didn’t solve it. He had no way to release the reservoir remotely, otherwise drone operators might inadvertently send twenty pounds of washer fluid and reservoir down onto the heads of pedestrians on the sidewalk. After some tinkering, he routed the tube of the spray nozzle and wedged it into the manual release switch. With a press of the remote’s trigger, the water pressure was sufficient to trigger the release. Cassy brought him a glue gun to fix the tubing in place, and they tested it several times with the reservoir full.
While he made the last adjustments, Cassy contacted a friend of hers who owned a boat.
“I’ve taken it on trips to Ventura and Santa Barbara,” she said to him after hanging up the phone. “It’s large enough to set up your drone, and I think you’ll like Leon, he’s a really nice guy.”
Jerry hated him already. Any guy who would drop everything to do this for her would definitely have a thing for her. He was proof of it.
After he packed up his drone, Cassy wrote the coordinates of her underwater palace on a piece of paper, and he put it in his pocket. Then she programmed her number into his cellphone.
“Call me if anything goes wrong, and I mean anything.”
They loaded the fish in the reservoir last, which took some doing as they chased it out of it hiding place among the coral and anemones. Her only instruction was not to take too long getting it in the bay. Ammonia from the fish’s waste would build up rapidly in the small volume of the reservoir and the oxygen would plummet. It was an endangered species, she reminded him. It was irreplaceable.
Once they had secured the fish in the reservoir, Jerry strapped it to the top of his case and wheeled it to the door.
Cassy was wringing her hands again, and he could see how desperately she wanted to go with him.
“Could you ask another sub to record video?”
“It’s best we keep what we are doing quiet. The fewer people know the better.”
Was she lying to him about the legal repercussions of what they were planning? She was being exceptionally careful not to leave evidence behind. But if he knew all the details, would that really change his mind?
She walked him to the elevator down the hall.
“You too,” he said.
They did not embrace or even shake hands; they simply looked into each other’s eyes for enough time to feel awkward, and then a little while longer.
When the door finally closed and descended to the first floor, he had the shape of her soft smile and every contour of her face burned into his memory.
The car Cassy had called for him waited outside. With his case in the trunk and the fish reservoir in his lap, he passed the thirty-minute ride south to Long Beach in silence.
It was just after 3pm when he wheeled his case onto the marina and checked his phone.
Jerry looked up to see a blonde-haired man wearing a T-shirt and swim shorts. He was tall and well-muscled, a fact that was hard to ignore as he raveled a rope between his hand and bicep. If he wasn’t a surfer, or body builder, or even an up-and-coming Hollywood actor, Jerry would lose all confidence in stereotypes.
“The one and only,” he said, smiling with too-perfect teeth. Leon grabbed his hand briefly, forgoing the shake, and returned to coiling the rope.
“This the boat?” Jerry asked, gesturing to the vessel moored to the dock beside them. It was larger than he had imagined and much more luxurious. It had a small wheelhouse in the forward section and assorted snorkeling gear and coolers cluttering the aft part of the deck. He could picture the many hundreds of parties the man had hosted here, parties to which Jerry would never have been invited. As if to confirm his suspicions, stenciled on the side of the boat was its name, The Good Time.
“This is her,” he said, and threw the rope on the last remaining part of the boat where the deck was visible beneath the clutter.
Leon helped move his case onto the boat and Jerry set the fish reservoir gently inside the wheelhouse and out of direct sunlight.
While Leon navigated the boat out of the marina, Jerry cleared a space on the cluttered deck to assemble his drone.
Just after they passed a pair of buoys, he had to find a place to sit as Leon lay on the speed.
“How do you know Cassy?” Leon called back over the rushing wind.
“We just met today, actually. She needed my help with a project of hers.” He had overheard a part of their conversation over the phone and knew she hadn’t told him everything. Leon seemed pleased by this answer, possibly having feared Jerry was her new boyfriend.
What had Cassy said? You’ll like him? He’s nice? To her maybe. It must have irked Leon to no end that Cassy hadn’t accompanied them on this trip. At least they had that in common.
“She want you to put some Christmas lights on that palace of hers or something?” He had obviously not figured out there was a fish in the opaque plastic reservoir on the floor beside him.
“Something like that.”
The boat rounded Point Vincent and Santa Monica eased into view. The mountains beside it were visibly shorter than they had been months ago, the thousands of tons of earth now sitting inside a fleet of barges in the bay.
They passed a few fishing boats, but before long, they were the only ones out in the water. They came to a series of floating buoys strung together in a wide arc around the construction site, at least a mile away from the nearest barge. It wasn’t a high barrier, and they could have driven the boat right over it, but the bright red of the buoys suggested that action would be unwise.
It didn’t matter. This was the perfect spot.
Leon slowed the boat to a stop within twenty feet of the barrier and turned off the engine.
Jerry cleared more room on the deck and opened his case. He had to snatch a piece from Leon, who had pulled out one of the propellers and was spinning it with a finger. He had to hurry; the fish couldn’t live much longer inside the reservoir.
“It’s a drone,” Leon said stupidly as the last piece clicked into place. How he couldn’t tell that from its parts was a mystery.
“Yup,” Jerry replied as he stepped around him and into the wheelhouse to retrieve the reservoir.
Despite the confirmation, the appearance of the reservoir made Leon look just as confused as he had a moment ago.
Jerry checked on the fish, which huddled next to the edge of the tank in apparent fear, but seemed healthy enough. He then connected the reservoir to the drone.
With the remote, he primed the spray tube with a few presses of the trigger, and as expected, the reservoir detached. After reconnecting it, he paused and stood. That was all there was left to do. The familiar task of assembling the drone had momentarily chased away his anxiety, but now that he was done, it swept back in and rocked him like the waves against the boat. This was it.
According to his phone’s GPS, the coordinates Cassy had given him were no more than one thousand yards away. He could not see any evidence of the reef from the surface, but knowing that such a beautiful place existed below filled him with awe.
He messaged Cassy to let her know they’d arrived and to expect to see the reservoir in the water within a couple minutes.
”Thank you, Jerry. You are my new favorite person,” she replied.
He stared at the screen for a long moment before Leon broke his trance.
“So what next?”
He entertained the idea of showing Leon the message, just for the pleasure of watching the man sulk. Maybe later, after he made sure the fish was at home in the water.
He took up his remote.
The drone strained against the weight of its full reservoir, but cleared the edge of the boat without any obvious problems.
Once it was over the water, a frightening thought occurred to him. It was one thing to crash his drone into a building or botch a landing on the street. He could always recover it. Now, with over a hundred feet of water between him and a sunken drone, it would be lost forever.
The drone reached twenty feet in the air before he steered it over the barricade. He maintained the altitude and watched the drone shrink into the distance with its precious cargo. It was perhaps the first fish to achieve sustained flight, he mused.
He flipped on the remote’s viewing screen and was treated to an expansive view of open water, beyond which lay an equally expansive city.
The drone was closing in on the score of barges floating in the bay. The behemoth flat-bottomed ships sat low in the water under the tons of dirt and rocks. Only the wheelhouse and a narrow walkway along the sides of the vessel were accessible to crew. On the closest barge, a small group of crewmen followed each other like ants around the dirt mound. As his drone approached, he could see one of them pointing out over the water. At him.
Another man split off from the group and ran back along the path with one hand on the railing and the other holding his hardhat in place.
Jerry tensed and pushed the joystick forward, increasing the drone’s speed. He needed to drop off the fish and return before anyone came to investigate.
Just before the drone reached the coordinates, the man emerged from the door of the barge’s wheelhouse and scurried back, holding something.
Leon’s thick finger tapped the screen.
“What’s that?” he said uncomfortably close to Jerry’s ear.
“I don’t know.”
The man stopped halfway back to the group and put the object to his shoulder. It was some kind of rifle or cannon with a fat barrel. It was pointing directly at his drone.
Then the camera feed went black.
Heart racing, Jerry looked up, expecting to see a cloud of smoke and drone debris. Instead, the distant drone slowed its forward motion and hovered in place.
In horror, Jerry watched as it began to execute an automatic landing, but there was nothing but water beneath it.
He fed more power into the propellers, but the drone continued its descent.
Jerry pulled the trigger once, then twice, but there was no splash to indicate the drone had dropped its reservoir.
The anti-drone device had done its job. None of Jerry’s signals were getting though.
He watched with heart-stopping helplessness as the drone hovered down into the water. When it hit, the propellers shot a plume of spray and mist into the air. Then it was gone.
“Dude. That sucks,” Leon said with a tsk.
Thunderstruck, Jerry dropped the remote to the deck of the boat and stumbled to the railing.
The fish was still in the reservoir. If it didn’t get out soon, it would die. Without the fish, thousands of tons of mountain rock would cover the reef by this time tomorrow. Cassy would never forgive him if that happened.
“We’re going out there.”
“No way, Dude. It’s gone.”
“We have to. The fi—” Jerry took a deep breath. “Cassy would want this more than anything in the world right now. I swear, you will be her new favorite person,” he said. It wasn’t exactly a title he could give away, but he would say anything to get this boat moving.
Leon bit his lip and looked out over the water toward the crash site.
“Alright. But the second I see any boats coming after us, I’m gone.”
Leon started the engine, and Jerry squatted down to keep from falling over as the boat lurched forward and whipped around.
The barricade was of little hindrance to the boat. They sped between two of the buoys where the line connecting them sagged well below the water.
The phone in his pocket was buzzing, but he ignored it. He could not talk to Cassy now, not until he set the fish free. But how could he get to it?
The pile of junk he leaned against shifted, and a pair of goggles rolled out into the space he had cleared on the deck.
He grabbed them and sorted through the rest of the pile. He pulled out two matching flippers and checked their size against his shoe. It would have to do. Once the flippers were on, he took off his shirt and placed it and his cellphone, keys, and wallet, in their own pile on the deck.
“I think this is it,” Leon said, laying off the gas.
Jerry stood and saw what had clued him off. A fragment of the safety barrier that surrounded the drone’s propellers drifted in the water.
He took a few deep breaths, lowered his goggles over his eyes, and launched himself over the side of the boat.
His eyes stung with saltwater as the impact jostled his goggles loose. He surfaced and adjusted them until they were tight against his face.
Leon had brought the boat around, his eyes wide as he stared at Jerry.
Holding his breath, Jerry dove again.
Below, shimmering schools of fish meandered through a city of white stone. The top of the closest structure, a spire, was twenty feet below, but it was five times that far to the ocean floor. He stared in awe for a few seconds before searching for the wreckage of his drone.
He saw it then, sinking to the bottom. The drone was largely intact, and he could just make out the reservoir above it, the small amount of air inside providing some buoyancy.
Fighting the urge to dive after it, he surfaced for a fresh lungful of air.
The boat was idling twenty feet away, and Leon was waving for him to swim back. His other hand was pointing out over the water toward the barges. Two small dinghies had separated from the ships and were speeding toward them.
Now was the time to get out of the water and leave if they had any chance of getting away.
Jerry shook his head, first to convince himself, and then for Leon. The man dropped his hands and leaned his head back as if to beseech a god to pluck Jerry from the water for him.
He ducked back beneath the waves and kicked off in the direction of the drone. The flippers propelled him faster than he would have expected though desperation surely played its part. He closed the distance to the drone in under twenty seconds.
He grabbed the first thing that came within reach, the two-foot long rubber squeegee. It reminded him just how much trouble he would be in once his boss got word of the drone’s loss. Hauling the thing to the surface was not an option. Already his lungs ached with the breath he held, and the interior of his goggles were fogging over. He needed to set the fish free while he still could.
While he positioned himself atop the drone, nearest the reservoir, they descended into a bed of coral growing on the roof of some kind of flat-topped structure. He pressed the manual release button, but the reservoir did not pop free. The crash must have jammed it.
For his next attempt, he tried to brace his feet against the drone, but the flippers were making it impossible. He stuck a finger between his ankle and the flipper and pried one off and then the other. With them gone, he could fit his feet on the crossbars that attached the propellers to the drone’s chassis.
His ankle brushed against a red spindly-looking coral, and it burned like the red-hot embers of a fire. It took all his willpower not to suck in a lungful of water at the sudden pain.
Repositioning his foot, he heaved, and finally, the reservoir came free. It floated up a few feet and rotated, releasing its trapped air. The bright blue fish darted out and away, and past a looming silver shape.
It was Cephi. Cassy had found him.
Even as he pointed frantically in the direction the fish had gone, the submersible continued toward him. She had to have seen it. If she did not give chase, the opportunity to save the reef would be lost forever.
He could not care about that now; he had to get to the surface. Panic quickly overcame him when he looked up. The glimmering surface of the water was so far away. He pushed off the drone and kicked his legs.
Without the flippers, he was moving too slow. Darkness was condensing along the periphery of his vision, and his diaphragm spasmed, trying and failing to suck in the salty water.
Then something passed before his eyes. A mechanical arm with pincers at the end. Cephi’s manipulator arm. The moment his fingers closed around it, it lurched upward. He held on with all his might as he and Cephi rocketed toward the surface.
They had barely breached before Jerry was gasping in a breath. For a moment, he was weightless, and he luxuriated in the feel of the air passing across his lips and filling every inch of his lungs. Then he crashed back into the water losing his hold on the sub. Somewhere along the way, his goggles had disappeared, and he had to wipe and blink away the stinging water.
Hardly a minute had passed since he dove after the fish, and now that he was on the surface again, he could see Leon over a hundred yards away, speeding back the way they had come. From the opposite side, their two pursuers were quickly approaching Jerry’s position.
Cephi was floating just feet away. He splashed over and draped his arms over its cool metallic surface to wait for rescue.
Cassy had chosen to save him instead of getting footage of the fish. He had put her in that position, and while he was glad of her choice, he was now to blame for the destruction of the reef.
“Thank you,” he said to the sub. He was pretty sure she could neither see nor hear him, so belatedly located the camera among a bunch of other unidentifiable ports and lenses on the front of the submersible and gave her a thumbs up.
It was another minute before the boats arrived and hauled him out of the water. The crew had little to say in the way of chastisement, perhaps out of consideration for his near-death experience. The captain of the boat, however, a tall man with a mustache and black security baseball cap, had several choice words to say about the unnamed man who had left him there to drown.
They bandaged the red blisters on his ankle from the fire-coral and gave him a shirt, towel, and cheap flip-flops. That was what he wore to the police station where they charged him with trespassing on a construction site.
His one allotted phone call was to his mother, who said she would be on the next flight from Idaho. So as not to worry her unduly, he stuck to his story of joyriding his drone with some new friends. He had never lied to her before, and this made him sulk on his cell’s cot until he fell asleep.
The next morning, he woke to a smiling police officer knocking at the bars to his cell. He left a folded sheaf of paper between the bars, and Jerry slipped out from beneath the thin blanket to retrieve it.
It was a printed article from the Los Angeles Times. The cover page made his pulse quicken.
“City Expansion Project Halted Due to Endangered Fish.”
The text remarked that the beautiful and little-known artificial ecosystem off their coast had received a stay of execution due to the sudden appearance of an endangered species of fish.
Jerry breathed out a sigh.
Another sub had seen the Humphead Wrasse after all.
Also mentioned in the article, the near-simultaneous but seemingly unconnected rescue of a drone enthusiast named Jerry Donovan by a TerraForm Games submersible.
He flipped to the next page and was awed by several of the images printed there. One was a shot of the aforementioned fish peering out from the shelter of a large orange sea anemone’s tentacles. Other images included the vast collection of structures the TFG operators had printed over the years, and the massive explosion of life on the artificial reef.
The article concluded with a caution to the rest of the industrialized world. “The ecology of Earth is far more complex than we ever appreciated. The death of one is to the detriment of many. Ultimately, our lives depend on the smallest of theirs.”
An hour later, Jerry was let go. The construction company had enough of a PR nightmare to deal with than to press charges against a man who almost died on their construction site.
As he was being discharged by the clerk in the front office, he caught sight of Cassy sitting in the waiting room.
She smiled when she saw him holding the printed article.
“This time,” he said as he guided her out of the station. “We better be going out for a drink.”
Death and Two Women
By Les Berkley
In his bed-chamber, hung round with tapestries that emblazoned tales so ancient that the matter of them had been long forgotten, the Old Lord lay dying. His breathing made the only sound in the room save the mantel clock, and his bloody spittle flecked the linens.
At the foot of his bed, the Lady Myrilla sat in her cushioned chair, making the last neat hem stitches in his burial shroud; black work for a dark day. Her hair white as the linen, her eyes the faded blue of summer sky, she awaited the inevitable change of worlds. Her hands fell into the rhythm of the mantel clock while thoughts tumbled over in her mind, pleasure and pain, bitterness and joy in turn. The past washed over the present, yet she held the future at bay: the new age she could not bear to imagine.
Beyond the mullioned window, past the crenellated wall of the outer keep, the sea beat its own measure on the rocky strand. The waves advanced and withdrew, moving the shells and twisted, bleached driftwood now forward, now back. Straining her eyes, the Lady could see at the limit of her vision the mist-shrouded topmasts of carracks and ships of war, dancing to the long, steady swell.
He was a better Prince than a husband, though he never did me harm by word or deed. He would talk to me as though I were one of his Privy Council, and I loved that in him. My mourning I have done already, but I will never stop listening for his step.
A soft, almost tentative knock sounded at the door. “Enter,” the Lady said, threading her needle through the cloth.
Aramond, the Lord Chancellor, pushed the door open, his ironwood cane tapping on the stone floor. Myrilla presented her hand, and he made his way across the room, taking her hand in his own and kissing it. His middle finger bore the ring of his office, heavy with gold and holding an anachite diamond, sovereign against all poisons, natural or compounded by men.
He then went along to the head of the bed, steadying himself with one hand on the carved serpent that wound its way ’round the bed frame in a reflection of that great Worm which circumbinds the world. With an effort, he bent to touch the Lord’s brow.
“How long?” the Lady asked.
“An hour. Two perhaps, but no more.”
“Can you not, then, conjure against death?”
“Never so, most serene Lady.” He leaned on his cane, and pulled a chair next to Myrilla, with the dragon’s head of his staff against the arm. “We must talk, and not in fancy-dress phrases.”
“Go to! You were never a plain-spoken man.” In spite of the shadow that lay on the room, she smiled. “Let me have your last counsel.”
In his distant apartments, Egan the Young Lord paced the floor, waiting for another’s death to set him free. In the half-light of curtained windows, his eyes fell on those curious and perverse objets d’art with which his whims had furnished the chamber. A painted satyr whipped a nymph; a sculpted adder writhed like a living thing as the light shifted here and there.
Across from him, on a soft-pillowed couch, Dame Rosalura, secretary of his inmost desires, lay curled in the way of a wild-cat, her skin pure and lustrous and her eyes cold as his were fiery. Her high-waisted gown of scarlet sendal dangled a little off one shoulder as she stretched her arm toward a wine bottle.
Between this Scylla and Charybdis, Gabriel the Court painter stood at his easel, slender arms shaking a little as he held his brush and pallet. “Will it please Your Highness be still for just a moment?”
“It will not,” the Young Lord said. “Let me see the damned thing, and it were best for you that it be finished.” He pushed the painter aside and studied the canvas. “It is done, and never so poorly as I’d feared. You’ve caught my lady wife’s simpering smile to the very life.”
Rosalura left her couch in a sinuous motion and stood beside her lover. “And there too am I, as you so sweetly commanded.” Indeed, to a discerning eye, her face emerged out of the murky background behind his, subtly rendered, but there to see. “This is well enough done. No more necessary.”
Egan motioned the painter to go. “Hurry to your catamite. You’ve done well for half a man.”
Dame Rosalura took a single long step to block the painter’s way. “My Prince,” she said, eyes flashing wide with pleasure. “Ah, I have o’erlept my time to name you so. Then call me prophetess to be the first.” She put a finger on Gabriel’s chest, where his smock hung open from the neck. Her other hand touched beneath his waist, and he hardened in spite of himself. “Shall I make a whole man of him?”
“As you wish,” Egan said. “But not just now. It were not seemly in my poor sire’s last hours.” He laughed. “Another time?”
Rosalura laughed. “When was I ever seemly? Save to feign it when needs must.” She pushed her hand forward, feeling the painter tremble and grow at once. “It would be so easy. Don’t be afraid. Egan will tell you I make an excellent gentleman atwixt the blankets.” She licked her lips, blood-red without rouge. “Oh, get out,” she said with another laugh, throaty and low. “You’ll keep. Think of me when you cover some boy with your paints. Make him look thus.” She raised her arms and held her scented black hair back from her face. “’Twill hold you for a while.”
Leaving his palette and brushes behind, Gabriel hurried out the door, slamming it as he fled.
Left alone with his mistress in that most private place, Egan ceased his pacing. “You said once that you might kill a man like that with your bare hands? I should wish to see that.”
“A man like that? Like that perhaps, but not our poor Gabriel. I never would murder a man with such art in his hands. Choose another some time, and we shall see.” As she said this, she drew back her shoulders a little, letting him better see her shape through the thin material of her gown.
Damn her. My tongue thickens with desire. Egan walked to the wall where hung a great map of the Adrian Sea and its shores. “Let us choose another subject for the mean while. See you here where the Papal States lie ripe for the plucking? Place but the crown on my head, and they fall. By this blow, would we not strike Venezia herself into the hazard?”
Rosalura chose her words with care. In a nigh-submissive tone, she said, “I am scarcely a soldier, but might not a stroke northward give us a buffer against the Germanies? Your father oft said that there the danger lay.”
Damn her twice. When I am Lord here, I shall have every foot of this fortress turned ‘till I find those papers she keeps in reserve against me. Then we will see which of us has the mastery. “When I need such a minx as you to teach me the art of war, I will happily resign my throne. Until then, I pray you watch your words, lest you find yourself returned to that gutter whence you came.”
“Well,” Rosalura said. “There was never horse nor man that threw me yet. I sought not to teach you, but only to remind you. So let you recall this: I know where your dead lie buried; who your intelligencers are, and who informs against you. So do others, lest you think the knowledge dies with me. Also, you are not the only one who knows how to compound an insalata Fiorenzana. Those herbs wait for any to pick them.
“You have nothing to fear from me. I will follow withersoever you choose, but never think I will be silent. This is the hour of our triumph; let us not quarrel over minutiae. She pulled him to her with surprising strength, kissed him hard with her tongue down his throat, then pushed away. “Now let me dress properly for the day.”
She closed the door behind her, and held herself from shaking until she was well down the corridor.
In the death-room, behind doors of dark walnut, carved with the shapes of the fantastical beasts of old, the Lady and her Chancellor spoke together. They kept their voices low, in respect to the dying, and to avoid prying ears.
“Aramond,” Myrilla said. “Can you tell me what is that ship yonder whose masts reach so above the others?”
“That is His Brittanish Majesty’s vessel Nonesuch, or some other ridiculous Anglish name. Seventy-four guns; her Captain bears a similarly absurd appellation.”
“And her business? Surely something I should know?”
“Indeed. Since the Emancipation, there has been a lack of commerce between the Anglish and their old partners in trade; viz, Moroc, Tunis and the like. It is His Majesty’s—or more correctly, the Prince-Regent’s—intention to improve the traffic in ivory, spices et cetera. He seeks to use our excellent deep-water anchorages, to (he avouches) mutual benefit.
“Quite naturally, upon hearing of the Lord Orvald’s illness, the Ambassador Plenipotentiary insisted on waiting until our master should enjoy better health. Should Your Serenity choose to believe that, I would denounce you as an imposter.”
Myrilla sighed, took up her sewing, then laid it aside once more. “They wait for young Egan? Or some other condition of weakness?”
“May I speak without reproach or censure?”
“When was it otherwise?” The Lady’s face showed naught save a deep calm that belied her inner storm. I was never a patient woman, yet all my life it has been forced on me.
“This then,” Aramond said. “Our realm stands in the same case as the Lord Orvald; that is, in extremis. We live or die by trade and shipping. Our soldiers are unexcelled, but they are also few in number. The mountains and fortalices keep us safe enough, but without access to the sea, we starve and die. No man gladder than I to know that the loathsome traffic in human cargoes is ended, but we must find new commodities. I fear that the Young Lord has not the least sense of this.
“He loves his luxuries, his cruelties and his mistress far above any duty he might feel. Certes he will take us to war, if only to please the masses, and so will wake that sleeping lion in our harbor with his seventy-four guns.
“I am told he intends against the Papal dominions, and there is no surer way to embroil us in the endless divisions of the Italiani ‘Domestic fury and fierce civil strife’, as the poet says, and we without the resources to maintain it. There is also information that should we open certain abandoned workings in the mountains, we might discover the bones of our lost comrades; and that if we were uncautious our own might soon be laid with them.”
The Lady Myrilla put her hand over his, reaching across the table. She had never found herself able to talk to Egan, to evoke any reaction beyond a bland smile. To the Lady, it was as though her son was not hers, but some changeling out of a dark world. “I will not contradict you. He is a chaos I cannot order or control.”
The old Chancellor closed his eyes, listening to the breath of the dying and he thought, the stuttering beat of his own heart. “Then his accession must be prevented? Could you die to see that accomplished?”
Myrilla considered that fate. Were Egan to die, his cousin Ibian would be, by operation of law, the next in line. A bookish lad, though competent in arms at fourteen, he had not been raised to rule, but there were sound heads to guide him. “They tell us that Death is only a door. I could open it with an easy conscience.”
“Then listen.” Aramond pushed back his robe and drew a scroll tube from his pocket. “I wrote this in a fair clerk’s hand two days afore now. It waits only for the Lord’s seal and sign-manual.”
He handed a paper to the Lady, and she read it over. “This is a codicil to my husband’s will. Names me regent for—whomever? The county Medor to follow in my stead should I be also gone? Surely it cannot have force unsealed and unsigned?”
“In ordinary circumstances, you are correct. We are not, however, in such circumstances. You know I am somewhat fond of conundrums? Here is one: should the Crown be set on Egan’s head, you and I would be banished or condemned on the instant. I cannot even guess how many would shortly follow us.
“This being so, he must die afore-hand. And with clear presents of the means, methods and above all the workers of his death, so that there can be no suspicion fall on you or yours. Hence the regency to stand, whatsoever else befall. Medor I trust more than any other, saving yourself.”
So I am to kill my own son, and die myself in the attempt.. We made him together out of desire, and it did not suffice to make him whole. He is all that is left from when I was young. Now I have only hours for what ought to be a lifetime of mourning.
Myrilla picked up her needlework, knotted and snipped the thread. They say the Gods of the North did thus. She looked again on the harbor and the mountains beyond shrouded in fog, seeking haply the farther shore. I am not ready to die, but then, how many ever are?
“Can you tell me your plan?” the Lady asked.
“To do so would be your damnation, or at least so the Fathers say. Myrilla, my oldest and greatest friend, you must trust me now.”
She raised her hand, and he kissed it. “You know,” she said, “Egan is no fool.”
“He sees the surface well enough,” the Chancellor said. “Makes him a good tactician, but a poor strategist. Dame Rosalura is far more to be feared. I have written instructions for Medor.” He unrolled the codicil once more and laid it on the table. “So hardly is the law administered, and so honored that neither we nor Egan may seem to violate one jot of it. You keep the Lord’s seal?”
“But me none of your buts, madam, I pray you.” He smiled, and she took the seal from her purse. A candle, a bit of wax and a scrap of ribbon and the task was complete.
When the wax hardened, the old Chancellor rose, looking now as though he ran a race with his master for who should sit first before the Thrones. “Turn away, Lady. This is black art, and should you witness it, it would imperil your soul as it does mine.”
He hobbled again to the head of the bed, leaning more heavily on his cane. Inking a pen, he pressed it into the dying man’s hand. “Scribé.” The pen moved across the paper. “It is done, and no man may question it.” He returned to the table and sanded the ink dry.
“You have the wine for the memory-cup? We will drink to Orvald when he is gone, and if Fortune favor, there are some will join him.”
Myrilla rose from her chair, crossed to the locked cabinet and brought out the bottle, stoppered with its cork, foil and waxen seal. Aramond took a syringe from his pocket and thrust the needle through the cork, taking care to leave only the barest mark. This he hid with a pinch of lamp-black rubbed well. “The death-lily. Not an unpleasant end. Very like hemlock, but more swift and sure.”
“End of our little tale, then?”
“No, madam: rather the beginning. We have only to wait.”
The wait lasted not long. Harder and more irregular came the Lord’s breath as though, the Chancellor’s plan being set in train, he himself was no longer required. All sound stopped, excepting the ineluctable tick of the mantel clock. The Lady walked to her Lord’s side and held her glass before his face. She grabbed the bell-pull and tugged twice to summon the inevitable. “Our Lord is dead. Call his Guardsmen in, and let the teller bells be rung.”
“Donn. Donn.” The bells tolled low, reverberating amongst the hills, past great houses and less over the pastures and steadings, even to the far borders and beyond.
At the sound, women fell to the earth, stricken with birth pangs though they carried no children. Beasts groaned in the field, and men stood wondering as the furrows bent and weaved as though waking from slumber. Such was the bond between the Lord and the land, sundered only by death which stopped ordinary time. All things waited until the clock could be once more wound.
In her own inner room, Dame Rosalura stared into her scrying glass, where the image of Lord Orvald’s deathbed hung, as though detached from the world like a painting in oils. Gone then, and peacefully. This gladdened her. She would’ve welcomed the painful death of an enemy; indeed, she had caused a few such. However, the Old Lord was not an enemy, only an impediment that time had removed.
Half-rising from her seat, she bent closer to the mirror, letting her hair fall like raven’s wings to either side. In the glass, the Chancellor and the Lady floated as in a magic lantern show. What would I do in their place? Why am I unsure? They are like me; they will not passively await the future. They will try to make it. It must be they have some stratagem in mind, but I cannot divine it.
As she watched, the Lady’s face filled the glass, and those eyes seemed for all the world to look into hers, though it was a thing impossible. She wants to know. Rosalura stared back, letting a smile steal across her lips. Why do I do this, tying myself to a man cruel, selfish and vain? For power? A little. The only power I have had is from my wit and my body; I should like to taste another. For pleasure? Yes. When I hunt boar or stag, the ride excites more than the kill. I need to jump the highest walls, and swim the current where it is most swift. If I am lost, so let it be.
A knock at the outer door woke her from her reverie. She rose and unbolted the doors. Egan stepped in, the brazen scales of his dress armor jingling, and his hob-nailed boots scraping the floor. Even as he made his little courtesy, the bells sounded.
“Our time,” he said, pantomiming the crown being placed on his head. “We should go by the secret way.”
“Not so, gracious my Lord.” Her smile held a world of promise, save at the corners where some doubt seemed to linger. “It is not so secret; in truth it would be the best place for an ambuscade, with no one to see. In the open corridor, there will be eyes to watch, and mouths that will not fear to speak.”
Egan’s face twisted for an instant, disfiguring the handsome countenance that served to fool so many. He held back the angry word that crouched behind his teeth, and the mask fell into place once more. “You are right.” He turned to his soldiers. “Stand you close, and have a care. The hour is near, but we must not slip before it chimes.”
“Should we—your wife?” one of the men asked.
“No. Her presence is not required.” Rosalura made no demurrer. She knew well when to choose her battles. She is a Vissicontini. I must make sure she gets at least outward respect.
Egan leaned to Rosalura and spoke sotto voce. “I cannot bear her mewling God, that has no joy save in penitence.”
“Ah, when you talk thus, I could very nearly love you.” Rosalura smiled and laughed inwardly.
They clattered down the passage, between the gilded hangings and painted faces of the long-vanished men and ladies who had walked that path before them. When they arrived at the Old Lord’s rooms, the soldiers sheathed their swords and stood at the opposite wall.
The new Lord knocked thrice at the door, in accordance with custom. Belinus, Captain of the guard, opened to the knock and stepped aside, his face the color of old copper and his expression inscrutable. Egan strode into the room with Rosalura a step behind. By strict observance she should not have been present, but no one chose to quibble in the house of death.
In his measured walk to the head of the bed, Egan acted with care and proper decorum, making the required gesture of closing the Old Lord’s eyes. “Farewell, my father. You ruled long.”
The correct formula was “long and well”, but again no one spoke.
Rosalura watched without expression. Only her clenched hands betrayed emotion as she studied the faces of the Lady and her Chancellor. Egan would dismiss both of them, of course, and his lover felt a quick pang of disappointment. These were worthy foes, and a serviceable counter-balance to the new Lord’s changeable ways. He might, she reflected, even order them murdered, and that needed prevention.
Her gaze fell next on the Guardsmen, their skin dark as the shadows that filled the corners of the room. Before the Great Emancipation, their grandfathers were chattel slaves. Now free, they were considered the finest soldiers in the realm, sworn to protect the Lord and his servants. They too, Rosalura understood, must go; not for their skin, but on account of their loyalty.
“Join us, my Lord,” Myrilla said to Egan. “Are you ready for the oath and pledge?” Once these were given, he would be ruler de jure even though the coronation would wait a few days, or even weeks.
Egan gave assent with as few words as possible. For a quick moment, his eagerness showed through the mask.
The Chancellor held the Three Books of Law in his hands, and Egan swore to keep the law, honor the high folk and the low and protect his lands from all dangers within and without.
That done, the Chancellor spoke almost in the voice of his young age, clear and resonant. Last words: would they could be nobler. “You may bring the wine and draw the cork. Look to the seals, that there be no treachery. Leastwise not in the sense you would expect.
The new Lord looked close at the bottle, cut away the waxen seal and drew the cork with a soft pop. Three golden goblets waited on the table. He filled them, and chose one at random. The old man took the other two, and held them for a moment before giving one to the Lady.
“With the Lord’s permission, may I say some foolish words?” the Chancellor asked. Egan nodded. “My worldly duties are now discharged, and I retire to a better place. I will think fondly of him that is dead, not least for the many private times we had when business was done.” He laughed as one does, remembering simpler pleasures. “I would amuse him with such artifices as lesser magicians are wont to use. “Card games, sleight-of-hand, shells and coins, and such little devices. All done now, unless we meet in some verier world than this dumb-show.”
Hearing this, Rosalura stiffened, aware in that moment that something was terribly wrong, but unable to set her finger on it. Her thoughts whirled in a gyre as she watched Egan wait for the Lady and the Chancellor to half-drain their cups before tossing his off at a single draught.
“Long life and health to the Lord!” The Guardsmen smote the hafts of their pole-axes on the stone floor.
“May the realm endure.” The three principal players set their cups on the table. Egan turned to Belinus, the Captain of the princely guard, ready to be accompanied to the Presence Chamber, where he would make the edicts customary upon accession, along with a few others he had long waited to speak.
As the bells of the fortress rang once more, now in the long descending peal that signified a new beginning, the Chancellor staggered and clutched at the gilded arms of his chair, his face ashen-pale. He sat and mastered himself, as the lowering sun cast the pattern of the window mullions on his robes. Comprehending in that instant all that had hitherto been dark, Rosalura gave a half-stifled scream.
Guessing at the doom that held him in its remorseless grasp, Egan reached for his dagger. Even as he sought to draw it, Belinus caught his wrists and bound them like steel fetters.
“Peace, my Lord,” the Chancellor said. “There is no mithradate. Neither will there be much pain, and the end is mercifully swift in coming. I will keep company with you on your journey whither our souls shall be weighed in the Scales. Thereafter, our paths may diverge.” He reached into his pocket, and set a trio of scroll pipes before him. “Here be testaments—mine and others—and my last worldly advice to those who follow. Summon, if you will, the county Medor: he should be apprised of these letters-patent.”
Rosalura shook with anger. For a minute or more, she cared not whether it showed, but then forced herself to relax. That old man has outplayed us. At least for now.
A knock sounded at the door. Each one in the room looked at the other, as if woken from a trance. When no one moved, Rosalura herself swung the door open. Ibian, nephew of the late Lord, stared wildly about the room, uncomprehending. At a sign from Myrilla, a Guardsman took him aside and whispered the news. When the brief explanation ended, the latest successor to the throne turned pale as ash, not knowing if he had found fortune or misfortune.
No sooner had the door closed again, than Egan slumped in his seat. His struggle with the Guard Captain had only quickened the action of the drug that now reached his heart. He tried to speak, but no longer could muster the strength. His eyes closed forever.
The Chancellor, calm at his own impending end, reached out his hand and took that of the Lady Myrilla. “This is fare-thee-well,” he said, low but clear.
“No. It is ’till-the-morrow, old friend.”
A moment later and Ibian, his youthful mind still churning with thoughts of an unlooked-for future, went to the side of the bed, and pressed his uncle’s dead hand as if looking for reassurance. Tears flowed and ran along his smooth cheeks. Rosalura studied him with a new interest. A well-formed lad, if in a womanish mode. Fourteen, as I hear. Well, never too early.
As these thoughts flittered by, there grew a certain curiosity in her eyes. Perhaps the Lady saw it, or else the Chancellor with the last of his fading sight.
“Have we an epilogue?” Rosalura’s words, spoken barely above a whisper, appeared to break some spell that had bound everyone to silence. Belinus said a few curt words to his men, and two of them hurried away.
The Lady stood up, confusion in her face and carriage. “How am I not dead? We three drank the selfsame wine; why am I spared?”
It came to Rosalura like a vision in her scrying-glass. Something very akin to giddiness took hold of her. “Sleight-of-hand. Oh, by the Forgotten Gods, he said ‘sleight-of-hand’. Your cup, Lady, look in your cup. What a loss that old man is; so clever, so clever. He told us in plain speech and we did not listen.”
Myrilla raised her cup, hearing a faint scratching sound. She tilted it so as to look at the bottom. There, below the remaining finger’s breadth of wine, nearly invisible to a casual glance, lay the Chancellor’s ring. Gold in the golden goblet, the ring set with anachite diamond, proof perfect against all poisons. Doubtless slipped into her drink when he handed it to her; the last gift of a faithful servant. Not to her, nor to him who was dead, but to the whole realm at once.
For her part, Rosalura gathered herself, took a few steps, and lifted the Chancellor from his seat, lightly as a mother lifts an infant from its cradle. She carried him to the bed and laid him beside his old master. “They should be together.”
“I ought to be with them,” Myrilla said, her tears now freely running.
“No,” Rosalura replied. “That would be to mar all.”
The two women stood with the dead in the empty room. Egan’s body had been carried away, but Aramond and Orvald remained side-by-side as in life. Outside the walls, fog covered all the world. Unwound, the mantel clock no longer told the seconds. A single taper burned on the table between Myrilla and Rosalura. Had there been one present to observe, he might have imagined that he saw two of the Forgotten Gods—gold-crowned Aphrodite and grey-eyed Athene—together in hourless silence; for once, without need of speech, awaiting a new day.
By Michael J. Wyant Jr.
“You never should’ve let her build those damned robots,” I mutter, making sure it’s loud enough Kammy can hear me.
Kammy lets out an exasperated sigh. “Em’s got a knack for these things,” she says in a voice that sounds like she’s pinching her nose. “If I don’t teach her how to program bio-silicate, who’s going to fix Taylor when he breaks down? You? Are you going to repair a Z-wave neural net, Olinda?”
I grit my teeth and finish lacing my boots. Maybe I can. Who knows what I could do before the accident? Maybe I’m a genius and none of us know it.
I suck in a deep breath as I stand, the scent of lavender and sweat swirling around me as I do. Kammy makes this oil we all brush into our hair. Keeps the lice away. I take another calming breath and put my hand on Kammy’s arm.
The air filtration system hums through the room and sends a hesitant vibration up into the soles of my feet. The air tastes stale and sterile. All the lights are off right now to save power. Boxes of slanting gray wash through the glass of the four south-facing windows and slash across the much-gouged wood flooring like a painting discarded by Van Gogh. The cabin is otherwise still as we gather our things.
Kammy turns and looks up at me. Her face softens slightly. She’s not a big woman, Kammy. If it weren’t for the hair she doesn’t let me cut, even her head would be tiny. Pretty much the opposite of me in every way, down to the fact she tans, and I burn in the summer sun. Her clothes are oft-patched rags of cloth we’ve found in storehouses over the years, just like mine.
“I’m worried,” I say, squeezing her forearm slightly. “The little wooden robot, Tony, seems fine enough, but that copper-plated one she made, the one she paired it with? That one keeps wandering.”
“She named it Joe for some reason. Em says they’re playing Hide and Seek,” Kammy mutters. “Don’t know why it keeps heading into the woods, though…”
Kammy opens the door and a stiff, frigid breeze sweeps into the large cabin. She grabs her old knapsack full of sensors and miscellaneous parts and steps outside. I follow, grabbing a couple walkies from their chargers as we leave. I close the door behind me with a sucking sound.
“There’s a storm coming,” Kammy says, staring off at the western horizon. “Half hour, hour. Looks bad. We need to find her.”
I hand her a walkie, then follow her eyes. A blushing crimson smears across the sky as the sun descends behind the incoming cloud front. It doesn’t look like much to me, but Kammy knows the weather by sight. She can even tell if the rains will be bad or good. Gives us time to get the fields covered.
Soft thuds come from the east side of the house as the old security droid, Taylor, wrangles the chickens. That’s how we found out Em was missing. Taylor was doing her chores while she took off.
“I’ll go northeast,” I say. “Em said she saw a rabbit up there the other day. Might’ve gone after it.”
Kammy nods still staring at the clouds. “Sounds good. I’ll go north. I’ve got to replace some sensors anyway and God knows you’re all thumbs with these things.”
I smile and follow her gaze to the dark smudge on the horizon. “Good or bad?” I ask.
We could use some clean rain. Just been sweeping acid rain these past few weeks.
“‘No green, the waters clean’,” Kammy intones, then waves at me to go. “Be back before sundown. Taylor picked up some weird movement on his sensors last night, but a couple of the sensors went down last week, so he isn’t sure what it was.”
I nod, a ball of anxiety forming in my stomach. Quick flashes fill my thoughts.
Blood. Screams. Disjointed recollections of a broken mind.
Then they’re gone, and I don’t mention them. I never do. The memories come more often than I’d like to admit. They’re never good.
“Be careful,” I say, my heartbeat fluttering.
“You too,” Kammy says, then heads north on the beaten path to the north field we clear every year.
I watch her until she disappears under the barren trees, then head to where Em said she saw that rabbit.
I try, and fail, to dismiss the panic rising in the back of my throat as I break through the tree line.
Frigid rain is starting to fall across the forest, droplets tip-tapping on fallen logs, stubborn snow, and black leaves like it’s a tin roof. Rolling thunder is constant now, a loud reminder that I need to hurry.
And I am. I’m being reckless as I run through the skeletal forest, the stink of rotting wood and decaying leaves around me. The sting of bare branches are lines of fire on my skin as I sprint.
I found their tracks. Em’s and her robots’. But I found the tracks of something, else, too. A cougar by the few tracks I see.
My heartbeat is in my ears. A pounding timpani accompanying the snare of the rain drops. Little disturbances stand out against the background morass like hot spots on a heating coil. A footprint here, a broken branch there.
A deep paw print stands out in the mud. Four inches wide, but shallower than it should be. A large beast, then. Probably hungry. Starving.
Musk breaks across my nostrils and I know I’m close, but it’s the sound of Em’s cooing whisper that brings me up short.
She’s kneeling next to a fallen log in a crisscrossed mass of old trees. Everything is covered with a thick bed of gray moss and stubborn snow. Her little robots, Tony and Joe stand next to her. Tony looks like a hodgepodge assemblage of branches and bits of wire, more a scarecrow than droid. Joe is dented like a used cymbal, cyan smears coating his foot-tall body. The rest gleams gold in the remaining sunlight.
It’s colder here. Barely feels like the sun is breaking through the tangled branches above despite the shafts of light. Em’s breath mists around her head as she speaks to something in the log. Like her mother, she’s tiny. Less than four feet tall and thin as a rail, Em looks the way Kammy must’ve looked as a kid. Same hair, too, though Em lets it hang out in a ponytail to her butt.
The cougar is almost on her. It’s a massive beast, a male nearly seven feet long from nose to tail, but gaunt; all hard edges and bones. Patches of feverish skin shine through its tawny coat.
The wind shifts suddenly and that fur ruffles, the sharp, sterile scent of winter blowing away the stink of mud and rotted leaves for a moment. And taking my scent with it. The cougar’s massive head turns toward me, black nostrils flaring.
Fear shoots up my spine, but I don’t run. Instead, I drop into a crouch as it turns and leaps at me, both paws swatting, long transparent claws flashing in the fading light.
“Gotcha!” Em yells in triumph just as the big cat hits me.
We slam into the ground hard, a cacophony of breaking branches and crisped leaves, knocking the air from my lungs. The cougar makes a high-pitched squeal as I wrench its front paw around until it snaps. A rear claw catches me in the stomach and that sharp tug blossoms into searing pain.
The beast swats wildly, kicking, tearing. It’s jaws snap in the air as I manage to mount it like it’s a miniature horse.
From somewhere, Em screams, but I can’t look.
I wrap my arm around its neck and pull as hard as I can. A crack echoes through the woods and the body goes still beneath me.
Gasping, I slide off its back and fall into the muddy snow. Em’s standing over me then, tanned face flush from the cold and panic.
“You’re bleeding,” Em says, dropping to her knees and pushing on the wound. “Gotta keep pressure on it. We need bandages.”
I stroke her hair as she mumbles, the scent of her washing over me and mingling with the musk of the dead cougar. A flush of flowers and death.
“You’re… not bleeding,” Em whispers and pulls away bloody hands.
Cautiously, I sit up. “I guess not?”
There’s a hole in my thick winter jacket where the cougar tore into me with his back paws. There’s blood, too, a lot of it… but only a small slash, like someone cut me with a pocket knife. It’s sore, but that’s all.
Grunting, I get to my feet, Em steadying me. “Must’ve hit a vein or something,” I shrug.
Then I look at Em and her smile fades as she looks at the ground. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
“Hide and Seek,” Em mumbles.
Lightning flashes and thunder pounds soon after. The storm is getting closer.
“You could’ve been killed out here,” I say, pointing at the cougar. “By that, specifically.”
“Well, yeah, but–”
“But what?” I ask, crossing my arms in front of me.
Em grins and runs over to the downed tree she’d been crouched in front of when I arrived. Joe and Tony seem to sidle out of the way as she approaches. She reaches down and pulls something out, then turns around triumphantly.
“I got dinner!” Em yells, holding a massive hare with both hands.
She sets it down on the ground and wipes a bead of sweat off her forehead. “Well, Joe did, anyway.”
The little robot, which looks like it’s constructed from scrap copper and gears, bows at the middle, a tinny grinding sound accompanying the movement.
I try to frown and fail. Instead, I grab the cougar and sling it over my shoulders with a grunt. Em makes a face as I start walking home.
“You coming?” I ask, stifling my grin.
Em sighs dramatically and slings the hare over her shoulder. “Yeah. Just thought maybe you’d carry it since you’re here.”
“It’s your kill,” I say as we start heading home.
“Yeah, but you’re the strong one,” Em grunts.
I laugh and shift the cougar on my shoulders. This one’s going to be tough eating. “You know how we live,” I intone.
She nods and shoulders the hare with a grunt.
Thunder hammers in the distance again and the rain increases. And that ball of worry comes back as I realize Kammy’s probably still looking for Em. I stop and pull the radio off my belt.
It’s busted to hell.
“Dammit,” I mutter.
“What’s wrong?” Em asks.
I glance to the west and, through the spears of old cedar and pine, the darkness creeps toward us, snuffing out pockets of sunlight as it comes.
I clip the walkie back on my belt. “Walkie is broken. Time to run.”
Em groans but keeps up as we race the storm back to the cabin.
The storm wins.
“Kammy, this is Lynn,” I send over the transmitter in the cabin as I stretch on a dry shirt that’s a little too small for me. “Kemena, Olinda. Over.”
Panic feels etched into my skin, like an itch I can’t scratch. I dig at the wooden table with a chewed fingernail and repeat the call.
The crackle of seasoned wood usually helps me relax, but it’s only making things worse right now. Taylor stands watch over the large cast-iron stove, prepping ingredients for the stew. He’s a decent cook despite being a droid. The sharp scent of blood fills the room as he tears the skin off the hare in one swipe.
I try not to think about that.
Taylor is a beaten old block of metal. Can’t talk anymore, though. Lost his speech synthesizer someplace, but it doesn’t stop him from cheating at poker, the lousy bastard. Once upon a time, Taylor was a security droid for some mining company working in West Virginia. Designed like a brick wall and imbued with as much personality, Taylor stands well over six foot, with thick piston arms. Instead of a face, he has an array of tiny cameras surrounding his head that makes him look like a massive fly. The huge olfactory sensors planted in the middle of his face don’t help much.
Taylor’s fingers are remarkably well-formed, though, since they’d been designed to handle a variety of man-made weapons. He gives the best backrubs.
Kammy oversaw maintenance of him back at the mine, so when the riots broke out, she reprogrammed Taylor and took off as far north as she could go. She got lucky when she found the cabin; she’d had just enough time to get it ready for winter before her swollen belly stopped her completely.
She’d found me sometime around then. Says I was in real bad shape. I don’t remember much from before that, though every now and then those brutal memories flash.
This cabin is where she nursed me back to health. A surprising mix of rustic functionality and modern amenities, it’s a flexible space and one we’re lucky to have. The large, main area is dominated by the cast-iron stove, its twelve-inch stovepipe spearing the ceiling, smack dab in the middle of the room.
Beyond that, there’s two bedrooms, a bathroom, and two fireplaces: one on the east wall and another on the west. Both are dark while the central stove is lit. Miscellaneous pieces and parts spill out of the second bedroom that serves as Kammy and Em’s workshop.
Solar panels on the roof and the small solar farm in the clearing to the south provide more than enough electricity for the rest of our needs. Hell, in the summertime we even get to use the fridge and electric stove.
My bed is a couch tucked in close to the central woodstove. It’s an ancient thing of creaking wood and strained springs covered with what feels like burlap. I love it. In the summer I pull it up next to the wood fireplace and crack the windows on the west wall, so I can smell the fading flowery scent of sunset and watch the sun creep down past the pines.
Em is in the bathroom, cleaning up. She likes to help cook.
Taylor hammers out a complex series of short and long knocks. It takes me a minute to sort out the Morse, but I get the gist. Dinner in an hour.
Need to find him a damned notepad. He’s too specific with times. No one should need to know how to decipher ‘twenty-seven-hundred seconds’ in Morse code. I glance toward the windows. They’re barely lit now, the storm clouds all but blotting out the sun. Thunder rolls through the floor.
I put down the handset and take a deep breath. Maybe Kammy’s walkie broke, too. Maybe it got wet. Maybe she forgot to turn it on after I gave it to her.
A lot of maybes. Not one of them kills the ache in my gut.
“All right,” I mutter, forcing my voice steady.
I make sure to grab my coat on the way out, despite the deep slash across the bottom and the blood stains. I cleaned off most of the heavies when we got back, but don’t have time to sew it up right now.
Em comes out of the bathroom, doing some three-beat dance by herself. She’s smiling, almost like she’s forgotten about the cougar.
“You wash your hands?” I ask as I shrug into my jacket, keeping the worry from my voice.
“Yep,” she says with a grin, sweeping up next to Taylor, who slides over a cutting board, some dried rosemary, and a little knife.
I open the door and gaze out into the darkening field. Lightning flashes somewhere to the northwest, a white slash against the encroaching storm front. It’s nearly dusk now; even our muddy footprints from earlier are fading as the light dims. I scan the yard and the tree line intently.
That rock of guilt and worry grows in my stomach. A deep rumble shakes the earth.
“Em,” I say, pulling on my boots. “I’m heading out to get your momma.”
From the hook near the door, I swing down an antique Mossberg, bolt-action rifle, a handheld spotlight, and a waterproof bag of bullets. It’s much lighter than I like. We’re down to seven bullets, all of which I’ve already recast two or three times over the years. We ran out of gunpowder last spring.
That’s the main reason we haven’t had much meat this winter. Snares have been coming up empty and we need this gun for protection more than hunting. Can’t eat the chickens or we don’t get any eggs, either. I did think about killing that rooster a few times, though.
I pop a round into the rifle, make sure the safety is on, then loop it over my shoulder.
Just in case. No need to be stupid.
A gust of cool wind hits me in the face. A flash of lightning in the distance followed by an immediate thunderclap.
“Shut the door, Lynn!” Em yells. “You raised in a barn or something?”
I turn toward her and smile. She’s standing there just like her momma, hands on hips, head shaking disapprovingly. No worry or panic evident on her face, just the playfulness of a little girl.
“You know I was,” I answer, then step outside, leaving the girl behind, and head north to find Kammy.
The storm finally rolls in as I cut northeast toward the upper field. I’m in the trees, walking our path, breath misting in the chill air.
Thunder pounds. Everything is silent in the aftermath.
For several minutes the only noise is the crack of twigs and swish of wet, rotting leaves as I walk, as if the world is holding its breath. Then, like a deep sigh finally let free, the rain falls.
It sweeps through the cedars and bare maples like a summer wind, just a whoosh of noise. A flash of light and an immediate peal of thunder shakes the ground. I pick up my pace. The rain is chill, wet icicles tearing into my face and hands. It’s not snow, though. That’s good. The well is getting low and we need a little straight rain.
There’s no sign of Kammy on the trail, so I keep moving. I break through the tree-line twenty minutes later. The lightning and thunder is constant now.
Some god’s lightshow.
The spotlight is in my left hand, off, as I start up the hill. The rain is soaking through my jacket, but the chill inside me has nothing to do with it. Everything is fine, I tell myself.
I’m a horrible liar.
Boots sucking on the fresh mud, I make my way up the hill. Tiny waterfalls stream past me along the rocky paths I usually use to traverse this path. I avoid those despite the struggle. Walking up a waterfall is a good way to bust your face open.
A few minutes later, I pull myself to the top of the hillock and look to the north, where Kammy was heading.
Lightning flashes. A tree explodes in the forest.
There’s a body.
The world roars in anguish with me.
No. No. No.
I’m running. Bright slashes of light come with me. My screams are the thunder, shaking the ground.
I hit the ground next to it, knees sliding and cutting across pounded earth and old stone. A pool of darkness surrounds the body.
It’s in my arms. It feels like the cougar. Just meat.
The sky erupts and shows Kammy’s wide-eyed, too-pale face, an almost delicate line across her throat.
The world spins around me for an eternity.
Then something clicks.
Someone took her sensor bag.
The world slows. Raindrops fall like tiny diamonds.
Gently, I lay Kammy down and close her lids, my own eyes scanning the surroundings intently. Suddenly, everything is brighter. Tracks surround the hillock. Too many tracks. A group of people came through here. Someone struggled with Kammy.
I’m moving along with the tracks. They’re glowing in the night, a fading white aurora surrounding the dents in the ground. I don’t want to think about why that’s happening right now, so I push it out of my mind. Instead, my imagination fills the blanks and renders bodies amongst the movements. Kammy grabbed at someone. A struggle. Someone else bled on a rock. Somehow, I know it’s not Kammy’s blood.
Then that person pivoted. Arterial spray washed away into the soil. Kammy hit the ground. They left her.
I shut my eyes. Hot tears mingle with the rain.
When I open them again, I see their path. Northwest.
A calm descends on me. I know what to do.
Rain speeds back up in a pounding rush. Thousands of tiny drummers hammering out a dirge for the fallen.
Kammy’s body cleanses itself in the rain.
There are five of them, though something tells me there are supposed to be six. The last one is off to the east. His tracks are deep and glow only faintly in the night, warm puddles of faerie fire in the night.
A fire crackles from underneath the stone outcropping. Kammy’s bag is open and they’re tossing sensors back and forth like they’re playing Hot Potato. Three men and two women. Steam and smoke waft away from their camp. I can’t see any bandages or wounds from here, but…
Their weapons are nestled in a niche under the outcropping, though there’s a knife here and there.
One of them has leaned a machete against a tree on the edge of the firelight. The undergrowth can get thick around here and it’s a versatile weapon.
I set down the rifle and spotlight outside the firelight. I’m only a shadow now and barely that.
I take the blade in my hand. It feels right.
The first one loses his head, a laugh still rumbling wetly from his throat. The next two, a man and a woman, barely manage to turn before I leave them screaming on the ground. The last, a tall, tough-looking blond woman and a short, stocky dark-skinned man go after their weapons.
The machete sticks in the woman’s skull and I let it go. The man swings a pistol around–a Ruger .45 I note. Barrel in my face, he pulls the trigger. He didn’t turn off the safety. I break his wrists, then rip out his trachea.
I leave their bodies where they fall. The whimpering and choking sounds begin to fade.
Let them rot where they lay.
I turn back toward the other tracks. There’s still one more.
A pall falls over me. The tracks have faded completely.
Too slow. I was too slow.
The world moves faster. Rain spatters in expanding pools of crimson, white roses blossoming and dying. The copper-scent of new death reminds me of the cougar.
A long, rattling breath.
Realization dawns on me.
I fall to my knees.
A black hole opens in my gut and it’s killing me.
Em and that godforsaken hare flash in my mind.
The sky cries with me as I stagger to my feet and grab the Ruger and ammunition–armor-piercing bullets of all things–off the dead man. I head back to get Kammy, whispering a small prayer for her soul.
I’m not a believer, but she is.
That’s what counts.
It’s spring now.
Em still cries. She spends every moment with the chickens and her robots. Joe doesn’t seem to wander anymore for some reason. He just walks around the clearing surrounding the cabin.
I’ll take little blessings where I can.
I can’t stop jumping at every noise. Things feel different now. I see things; hear things. Sometimes it’s like when I was in the woods, seeing glowing footsteps and slow-moving rain.
Other times it’s a surprise, like when Em was having trouble fixing Taylor’s cognitive programming last week after he shocked himself silly on the heater and lost the ability to tap out Morse code. She asked for help before thinking about who she was asking. Kammy was the AI programmer. I’m just a farmer.
Apparently, I’m a farmer that knows how to readjust neurolinguistics preprocessors and modify them for a Spectrum Model Security Droid. Maybe I’m a genius after all.
The sun is trying to break through the heavy morning fog. It’s failing, but it does make a beautiful little halo around the cross I built for Kammy’s grave just east of the cabin. There’s a line of cleared trees that goes almost to the horizon. I love sunsets, but she’d always been partial to sunrises, so here she lays, little purple flowers blossoming on her grave.
Moments of rebirth, she’d say with a smile, Em still asleep in her lap.
The ground is starting to even out under the cross. I try not to think on that much.
The Ruger is aimed at something twelve-point-five meters to the southwest before I know what’s happening. The air seems to shift, and I see a man-shaped blob moving through the fog. My aim adjusts for the incoming wind burst from the northwest. A little figure steps into the clearing in front of the shape, bright and flashing in the sun.
It’s Joe. What’s that little copper teapot doing?
I get to my feet, the pistol a reassuring weight in my hand as I focus back on the unknown person. “Best if you stop there and announce yourself.”
“Come now, Amy,” a man’s voice calls out, gravelly and low. “You know me. And I know you.”
He pauses. “Your voice is different. I like it.”
“Leave now,” I yell.
But he’s right. His voice tickles my brain. A sudden feeling of want–no, need–floods through me like a roaring flame. His name is on the tip of my tongue, tantalizingly close.
He’s taken a few steps forward while I’m disoriented and now I can see him. We’re of a height and build. His hair is a darkened, dirty-blonde like my own, but shorn tight to his scalp, like a budget buzz cut. He holds his hands out to his sides, far away from the gun belt on his hip and the long, thin blade on the other side.
He doesn’t smile but stares with eyes too green to be real. Like diagnostic LEDs on a circuit board. And they connect with me.
It feels like we’re touching across the distance. I can feel his heartbeat in my hands; his breath on my face. Deep inside me, I’m nauseous, as if a creature is trying to devour me from the inside.
The high, sharp voice catches me. I’m almost within reach of the man. His hand is extended toward me, the look of absolute sublime passion coating his face no doubt a mirror of mine.
Em steps up next to me, her small, brown fingers intertwining with my left hand. “Who’s this?”
And just like that, I’m free. The pistol sweeps back up into his face, just out of reach. He pulls a hand away from his own weapon. If I’d holstered my gun…
Slowly, I step back, Em tight in hand. Joe stutter-steps up next to us, buzzing something through his speakers.
“Olly, olly, oxen free.”
An ache fills my stomach. Hide and Seek.
The man stares at Em intently. A pink tongue flicks along his lips, like a lizard watching a fly.
“Who are you?” I ask him, my voice a forced croak through a sandpaper throat. “Why are you here? And what’d you do to Joe?”
I gesture down at the little copper traitor standing next to Em. That robot is getting taken apart when this is over.
He looks at me, head cocked to the side. His eyes don’t seem to be glowing, though they still look like two flecks of jade in the sunlight. “Call me Ted. And he’s been… a guide.”
Everything seems balanced on a knife-edge. My mind is running through scenarios. Most end up with him dead, though I’m injured in almost all of them for some reason. And Em gets hurt in many.
Only one ends with everyone safe.
“You need to leave,” I say, pulling Em behind me protectively. “Now.”
Ted’s face twitches. His shaved jaw flexes repeatedly and for just a moment I get the distinct feeling he’s going through the same scenarios in his mind. He stretches out his hand. His nails are manicured.
“I get why you killed my people. I would’ve, too,” Ted smiles, but at my lack of response it quickly turns into a scowl. “But how can you not know me? You have to feel it—”
“I don’t feel anything,” I lie, ignoring his reference to the people I killed. “So, unless you wanna find out just how much I don’t know you, you’ll leave. Now.”
For a moment it looks like Ted is going to say something, but instead he nods. His eyes flash that brilliant green again and a memory blossoms in my mind.
Tears blur my vision and Joe titters strangely at my feet.
“Something to remember me by?” Ted says with a smile, then backs out into the fading fog, and into the tree line.
Em’s shaking like a leaf, so I kneel in front of her and try to think of something to say. Her brown eyes leak tears that burn into my skull and I just grab her and squeeze.
After forever she whispers: “Did that man kill momma?”
“I don’t know, baby,” I whisper back, but I’m shaking now, too.
Em’s the only thing keeping me from falling.
Because I do know. He showed me. Somehow, he showed me.
And I know he’s coming back.
It’s pitch black out and I can’t see anything. New moon, overcast. Summer. Air thick as pudding stuck in a pressure cooker. Em’s light snores aren’t as loud as the grasshoppers sawing their songs outside the window.
The little droid, Joe, sits next to the door, it’s power supply pulled and stored. Tony, too. Better safe than sorry.
“You sure it’s him?” I ask Taylor, wiping sweat out of my eyes.
It doesn’t help much.
“Positive, Olinda,” Taylor purrs out, the confidence in the synthetic voice Em and I crafted for him scraping down my spine. “A path is becoming clear from the trap cameras. He is making his way southeast of our location. He is leaving.”
Bull, I think, but don’t say it.
That bastard isn’t gone.
Ted, a voice whispers to me from the darkness.
The Ruger feels small in my hand, but the trigger is still cool. Refreshing.
“Olinda? Lynn?” Taylor asks, his usual monotone rising on the end syllable. “Did you hear me? He’s leaving.”
Is that actual empathy I’m hearing or is it the fallout from whatever Em’s been doing to his brain? God knows what I did a few months back didn’t help. His cooking is downright horrible now. Still better than mine, but the quality has dropped substantially.
He does talk to Em a lot, though.
It’s good someone talks to her nowadays. I can’t.
Emptiness expands inside me, but I shove it back into the tiny hole reserved for it. That’s where it belongs. Right there next to that damned memory I shouldn’t have.
What did Ted do to me?
“I heard you,” I whisper, rubbing my arms against a chill no one else can feel. “But I’m gonna go check. To be sure.”
Taylor manages a harrumph, his speakers rattling in their casings as he turns toward where Em lays, unseen, on my couch. “That is inadvisable.”
Em’s definitely been messing with his brain.
“Take care of Em.”
Taylor makes a noise, then turns and stomps away, the rusting steel mounds that pass as his feet surprisingly quiet on the much-scarred wood floor. It takes me a minute to realize that’s as much of an assent as I’m getting out of him, so I grab the Ruger, my machete, the spotlight, and head out into the black.
It’s time to kill this son of a bitch.
The sun is rising over Kammy’s grave when I get back and I don’t care. I’m running, breathless.
I’m coming from the southeast, where Ted’s tracks led me.
The rooster crows.
The chickens are still in the coop.
His footfalls are more confident here, deep impressions.
Heel, toe. Heel, toe.
He walked right up to the back door.
The chickens hear me approach and start clucking in annoyance. It’s past time for them to be out. They know the schedule.
So does Em.
I sprint past the coop, the stink of their dander and acidic feces a hot tincture in my nostrils. The Ruger is in my right hand, the machete in my left. The back door is in front of me and I go to open it, clumsily slamming the hilt of the blade into the door, and my fingers slip.
Someone grabs the knob, turns through my sweaty hand, and opens the door from the other side. The Ruger is up, tight to my chest as I lean back into a low crouch, the machete falling from my hand.
The bullet punches a hole in Taylor’s chest.
The machete clangs against a stone.
I slap on the safety and set down the Ruger as smoke starts trickling out of Taylor’s chest and his many eyes unfocus. Fall. His arms hunch forward with the sound of a draining tub.
“Taylor!” Em screams, slamming into him hard enough to bust her lip open.
She doesn’t notice the blood trickling onto his rust-speckled carapace.
The eyes Em turns on me though…
Shame crawls in my every pore.
The slap takes me by surprise. I don’t even see it coming.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m so proud of her.
“Get your things and get out,” Em says in her too-high, child voice. “You’re a murderer.”
I try to explain. I point to the tracks. Em’s a good tracker. She’ll see.
But I tore through them. I ran through because I didn’t see any come out. They’re a mess… might as well be gone.
Em turns away from me. “I said: get your things and leave.”
She’s pulling at Taylor’s chest-plate with those tiny tanned fingers and losing the battle. His power-supply isn’t meant to be serviced. The plate is riveted, but she’s not giving up.
Em isn’t crying this time, but she is mumbling a short phrase under her breath as she goes to get her tools.
I catch a part and my chest clenches.
“…how we live…”
The chickens need out, so I go to the coop in a daze. Em likes to see them roam during the day. Seems to make them happy, so I let them. Might as well get a semblance of freedom occasionally.
I watch them for a while, just staring as they peck and claw at the ground. The heat is rising with the sun and so is the humidity, sweat misting on my forehead.
The little birds look so happy walking around for a while, then go back to their gilded prison. Don’t they know they could be free? To walk the entire yard? To go to the horizon?
To get away from this ill-conceived idea of a home.
An anger rises in me I didn’t know I had.
In the early days with Kammy, when I felt dumb and slow following the accident, after she saved my life, Em’s presence seemed so calming. Like she was a thing to be protected. To be saved.
Now this little bastard threatens me? Kicks me out of my own house?
Doesn’t she know she owes me? Her mother is dead, but we all die. That’s how we live. We persist. We survive.
Without me, she’d be dead. Without me, she’d be…
I kick a stone and it flies toward the front yard where it lands in a divot.
Just like that, the anger is gone and I’m sprinting toward the front door.
Tracks walk to the north, down the path we’ve maintained for a decade, and into the blossoming tree line. They came from the front door.
He was in the house.
I’m going to be sick.
Behind me, the door opens.
“Lynn?” Em’s voice, small and scared, calls.
Gone is the forcefulness from earlier. She’s a child again. “I found a piece of paper on my toolbox.”
I take it from her small, grease-covered hands. She’s trembling.
It’s an envelope, but Em doesn’t know that. She’s never seen one before.
There’s one word scrawled in perfect cursive on the front.
My eye twitches and I want nothing more than to burn this thing and forget about Ted and Kammy dying and what happened to Taylor… but I don’t.
I tear open the letter with my pinky since my nails are bitten to the nub and read:
I see now what happened. You’ve bonded another in my absence. I can’t say I blame you as I know I’ve felt the compulsion several times over the past few years myself. However, I’m here now and it’s time for you to put away childish things.
You know your potential, Amy.
You know, deep down beneath all that patch-work programming they’ve covered you with, who you are.
You belong with me. Not anyone else.
Certainly not one of them.
That’s not how we live.
I’m giving you a week to make your choice…or I will make it for you. If I need to.
I will save you, Amy.
We belong together.
Something clicks in my mind.
Em is asking questions.
She read it with me. Her voice is a high-pitched whine and I can’t hear it over the pounding of the blood in my ears. My hands are shaking, and I rub the sheet raw between callused fingers, smears of dirt and residue imprinting on it.
I can’t breathe.
My chest constricts like a python wrapped around me. Like I tried to steal its frog and it caught me just in time to salvage a meal.
Drops of liquid splatter on the words. Words I know ring true. Words I thought moments earlier.
That’s not how we live.
Someone is sobbing.
Em tears the paper from my hands, leaving tiny fragments in my fingers. Her skin is hot as she covers my dirt-encrusted skin with oil-covered hands.
“Breathe,” Em whispers, like she’s cooing at a new chick. “Just breathe.”
The breath feels like sandpaper on a sunburn.
I can’t see.
My mind is a mess.
“What’s wrong with me?” I manage in-between choking gasps.
Em stares at me for a moment. She’s never seen me like this.
She pulls me close, pressing her tiny face into my midriff in a fevered embrace. “This is how we live, Lynn. This.”
I hug her back fiercely, inhaling the lavender in her hair, pushing Ted and his damned letter out of my mind and focusing on this small human in my arms. She’s a sobbing lifeline and we’re keeping each other from sinking into an abyss.
I squeeze and cry and shake and I won’t let her go because she’s all I have… because she might as well be my flesh and blood.
And I lose my breath in the choking sobs because I know something else. Something I can’t bear to admit, not yet. Not now.
We stand there for what seems like forever and I won’t let go, despite the heat and sweat and tears. I just stare as the fog fades to the blue of this June day and the sun scalds my skin as it climbs. Em holds on, too, unwilling to leave me alone.
I don’t let go because almost every part of me is screaming that Ted is right as terrible memories flood into my mind.
On the seventh day, Ted arrives.
He’s better dressed this time. Loose pants that billow slightly as he walks cover his high, well-worn black leather boots. They sparkle in the sun like he just polished them. He’s wearing some long, brown jacket. It has literal coattails. With the gun belt he almost looks like he’s a cowboy with that big Ruger Bisley at his side.
In short, he looks like an idiot. He always had horrible fashion sense, even during the Upstate Raids of 2307. Wore a bowler hat back then.
I’m not dressed for the occasion. Got nothing else to wear besides these stained jeans and the same shirt I had on when I found Kammy. The smell of her is finally out of it, though the pink hue running up the arms is an unfriendly reminder. Sweat coats my forehead and soaks the front of my shirt and under my arms. I can pick up a sickly-sweet tang to it now that I couldn’t before.
Almond-y. Like antifreeze.
I didn’t bring a knapsack. Nothing to bring besides the machete.
Em is inside the cabin with Taylor. She’s still crying but gets it. I think.
Taylor is gibbering a bit still, but we did a good job patching up his power source with parts from Tony and Joe. Luckily, I missed his CPU. He has the old Mossberg and four bullets. Had him take a few test shots yesterday. Only hit the target once, but he’s got all the right programming to teach Em. They have the Ruger, too, but it’s set aside for Em. For when she’s a little older. It’ll knock her on her butt right now.
She’ll need it to protect herself.
This world is horrifying.
Chickens cluck and sing off around the corner of the cabin. I scratch a line in the sand and smile. I’ll miss their little noises. Even that damned rooster.
I’m gonna miss Em.
“Amy.” Ted’s voice pulls my gaze as he approaches.
The name sounds familiar and foreign at the same time.
He leans to the side, one knee bent, hand on his Bisley like it’s a cane. I smile and sniff away a tear. He looks ridiculous.
I’ve missed him.
I wipe my hands on my legs, raising a small dust cloud. “Ted.”
He relaxes visibly, hand coming off the pistol, a thin-lipped smile cracking his sunburnt face. “I’ve missed you.”
“Me too,” I whisper.
And I mean it. I miss him.
But not covert ops. The subterfuge. The lying.
I don’t miss the killing.
There was so much killing.
“We had orders,” Ted says, his deep voice rolling across me soothingly as he reads my mind.
I read his back and feel the flush of warmth and success filling him. We’ve always been close. Always so close.
I force a smile at him. “We did.”
He picks up my hesitation and snaps the connection shut just as I feel his uncertainty.
Carefully, I pick my words, licking my lips in between each. “I’m coming with you, but I have conditions.”
Ted’s brown brows furrow. “What conditions?”
His eyes flash to the cabin.
“First,” I say, the words tumbling out faster than I want, “no more killing. Not like before.”
“Done.” Ted’s eyes are locked on the cabin, a faint glow overlaying his emerald irises.
“They’re not dead.”
It’s a statement and it hits like a shot to the gut. I hoped so much. There was only one way to keep Em safe. To give her a chance.
Ted stares daggers at me, his eyes flashing as he tears me apart with his eyes. “You’re still bound to that thing.”
His fingers dig at my mind and I fight, but I can’t stop it. He’s wheedling into my brain, prying away at any attempt to stop him.
He’s so much stronger than me…
I fall to my knees and grip the sides of my head.
“Please,” I hear myself beg.
Ted tears my world apart.
“You’re meant to be with ME!” Ted screams, almond-scented spittle hitting me in the face. “ME! Not some sack of meat. We’re the same!”
Ted grabs me by the forearms and lifts me, fingers digging into my skin. My brain is on fire.
He’s breaking down my mind.
I see my reactivation:
“Hi. I’m AM-E.”
“Hi Amy. I’m Kemena. Call me Kammy.”
I try to respond, and my voice doesn’t work for some reason. I smell burning circuits mingling with the scent of lavender.
Kammy stands over me with her swollen belly, a tiny frown on her face. She looks over at Taylor and nods toward me.
The hulking machine reaches down with gentle fingers and pulls me from some wreckage. I can’t feel anything.
“She’s something special, Taylor,” Kammy says, picking her way across the stones delicately. “She’s an AMTE-C model. Full AI immersion if setup right, though I wonder where her partner is. That could be trouble.”
She shakes her head then turns back to Taylor with a wry grin. “I’m gonna need your vocal processing unit though, hers is fried.”
“Not a problem, miss,” Taylor responds, his voice eerily familiar and… effeminate. “I aim to serve.”
Kammy makes a childish face, like when Em feels bad about something, and pats Taylor on the arm. “I wish I was good enough to give you full AI, old girl. I’m just not.”
And then it’s gone.
All of it. The entire thing.
“I’ll rip all of this from your mind, then we’ll kill it together,” Ted whispers feverishly, his irises spinning as he breaks through my barriers. “We’ll be together then. Kings ruling over peasants. Gods amongst men!”
Memories flash by me and are gone forever.
Em’s first steps.
Then he hits a wall and grunts.
“What is this?” Ted growls. He’s angry, but determined, fingers clenched around my forearms.
I can feel him slamming into a memory like a jackhammer. It’s a deep one, something anchoring me. In that moment, I know if it disappears, I go with it.
I breathe deeply, and it hits me. A scent brushes my nostrils. Flowery, yet fierce. Deep, yet delicate.
Em doesn’t say anything before she pulls the trigger, just like I taught her.
I’m showered in blood.
Ted grunts. The assault stops.
Em cries out and drops the pistol.
I get to my feet and stare at Ted. I can’t feel anything beyond the fire in my chest.
A cherry-sized hole leaks crimson fluid down his pristine, white shirt. He shakes his head, more confused than hurt.
Only a couple things hurt us for long, after all.
The machete is in my hand. A scream in my ears. His or mine? Maybe both.
Ted pulls his pistol, but he’s sluggish.
I lop off his hand, but he gets off a round, blasting a hole in my thigh.
“RUN!” I scream at Em and charge.
The world slows to a crawl. Spitting dirt around Em’s foot hangs in the air forever.
Despite his wounds, Ted pivots, plants a foot, and uses my momentum to launch me behind him. His knee collapses halfway through the toss and I land a few feet away.
On top of the Ruger.
I put a bullet in both his thighs as Em sprints away.
He falls back on his haunches with a grunt and stares at me, his Bisley on the ground in front of him still clasped tightly in his severed hand.
“We’re supposed to be together–”
“I was gonna go with you!” I scream at him, the barrel of the pistol shaking. “You just had to leave her alone!”
Ted sighs and grabs at his stump. It’s already stopped bleeding.
He looks back up at me. There are tears flowing down his face. “That won’t work.”
“Why?” I sob.
Ted takes a deep breath. There are no bubbles from the chest wound. “We’re one person, Amy. One person. Bonded. Forever.”
I shake my head. “That’s programming. It’s just programming, Ted.”
“Not to me,” Ted’s eyes flash and the intrusion starts again, but he’s not strong enough. “I’ll make you mine.”
I shoot him again, this time in the stomach and the hack attempts stop.
It’s temporary and I know it.
“I’m not yours, Ted. I will kill you.” For her. I add in my mind. I know he hears me.
And he laughs.
For a moment I’m taken aback enough that when he takes a swipe at the gun, he almost gets it.
“Why the hell are you laughing?” I ask, a swelling anguish rising in my stomach I can’t shove back down.
Ted spits out a glob of blood and wipes his mouth with a wrist that’s starting to show signs of a mass at the end. “As long as you’re alive, I’ll come back. That’s how we work! How we stay alive!”
He lifts his stub and points at it with his other hand. “Proximity helps, but eventually I’ll be back. Cut me up and scatter me across the world and I’ll find her on her sixtieth birthday and make her bleed until there’s nothing left, you traitor!”
“You’re lying,” I get out, but even I don’t believe it.
The AMTE-C android was a paired military system capable of deep cover operations and favored by the US military in the early 25th century due, in part, to our near indestructibility. If one android went down, the other would recover. It was just a matter of time.
I aim the pistol at his forehead. Like humans, our central processing units are stored in that cavity. Unlike humans, it’s a self-healing bio-silicate gel in a shared quantum state with its partner.
A literal soulmate.
Ted smiles at me, blood speckled teeth flashing. He holds his arms out to the side, like he’s pretending at being a martyr.
“You can’t do it. We’re the same. You don’t have the–”
A gunshot rings out clear across the field.
Ted falls forward in a heap. The Ruger trembles in my hand, unfired.
Taylor walks out of the house, the ground grunting in annoyance under his weight, Mossberg cradled in his arm.
“He’s a bit of a misogynist that one,” Taylor says through his voice processor. “And he was using up miss Em’s air.”
I let out a half-gasp, half-laugh and fall to my knees. I laugh because I know… I know I couldn’t have done it.
Em runs over to me from behind Taylor and envelopes me in a hug.
It’s a great hug and I soak it in, but eventually I push her away.
“What’s wrong?” She asks, a hint of desperation in her voice.
She was listening.
I take in a shuddering breath and put on my best smile as I grab her by the shoulders.
“I’m going to need to go away, okay,” I say and she’s already sobbing. “It’s okay, it’s okay–”
“It’s not okay! He’s dead! He’s dead!”
“–hey,” I catch her deep brown eyes. “It’s the only way you’ll survive.”
“No,” Em whispers, tearing watered eyes away from mine. “No.”
“You know how we live,” I whisper.
She screws her tiny face into a grimace. “Not like this. If it’s the connection, I’ll tear out the transmitter! I’ll figure it out–”
I pull her in for a fierce hug and she sobs again.
“Maybe someday, Em. But not now. We don’t have time.”
Em says nothing for a long time, but then nods into my chest, her body shuddering from the sobs.
After an eternity, I get to my feet and look up at Taylor. “Take care of her,” I turn toward Ted’s body, “and burn that.”
“Of course, miss Olinda,” Taylor says and performs some sort of salute, fist over heart.
I return it.
“Take care of yourself,” I whisper to Em as she grabs onto Taylor.
The walk out to the hill is harder than it should be, but it’s not because of the bullet wound Ted gave me. That healed while I sat there, because that’s what happens when we’re near each other.
The sun is setting as I get to the outcropping over the north field. I sit down and watch it disappear behind the trees, a flurry of blossoming roses and lavender crimson and violet in the evening light. A dark cloud peaks over the boughs, lit by the sunset’s flame.
“‘No green, the waters clean’,” I whisper to no one.
I sigh, smile, then kill myself.
SCANNING FOR LOCAL BIOQUANTUM NEURAL STORAGE™…FOUND!
ACTIVATING LVM AND SWAP QUANTUM MODULES…DONE.
MOUNTING LOCAL BIOQUANTUM NEURAL STORAGE™…FAILED.
ACCESSING FACTORY DEFAULT STORAGE…SUCCESS!
SCANNING FOR REMOTE BIOQUANTUM NEURAL NET™…ERROR! Z-WAVE RADIO MISSING!
MOUNTING LOCAL DEFAULT STORAGE…DONE.
LOADING FACTORY DEFAULTS TO NEW INSTANCE OF BIOQUANTUM NEURAL STORAGE™…DONE.
INITIATE BOOT SEQUENCE.
OPTICAL OBSTRUCTION DETECTED.
“Crap, it’s in her eyes.”
ONE HUMAN. FEMALE. TWENTY TO TWENTY-FIVE YEARS OF AGE. APPROXIMATELY ONE-POINT-FIVE METERS IN HEIGHT. HISPANIC. HEART RATE ELEVATED. EXCESSIVE PERSPIRATION FOR TWENTY-DEGREES CELSIUS.
SHE IS NERVOUS.
ONE SPECTRUM™ MODEL SECURITY DROID. OUTDATED. INEFFICIENT. RUGER AMERICAN PISTOL®, 45 AUTO. LOADED.
INITIATING PAIRING MODULE.
“Hi. I’m AM-E.”
SHE LAUGHS, BRUSHES LONG BROWN HAIR BEHIND HER EAR. “I’m Emilia. Em,” SHE CHOKES ON SOMETHING. “Can I call you Lynn?”
UPDATING NAMING PARAMETER.
“Yes. Hi. I’m Lynn.”
“I know,” SHE CRIES AND COLLAPSES ONTO MY UPPER TORSO.
ABNORMAL SCENT DETECTED.
By Nathan Batchelor
In a rowdy Arab bar orbiting Betelgeuse, the blue-lipped, blue-haired jacky tapped his forehead, and a red monochrome hologram projected from his eyes. Sitting in the booth across from him, Freja watched it carefully.
This hologram was a security camera feed of an operating room. Must be a far-arm colony somewhere, Freja thought. There was a very pregnant woman on the table. The surgeon dipped scissors in an old-style steam autoclave. There were two men, dressed in samurai regalia, watching.
The jacky—rather Colonel Peters, the jacker—pulled a cord embedded in the flesh behind his ear and slid it across the table. Freja took the headset and put it in her ear.
“Hey sweetie, can I get a smoke?” Peters shouted to the waitress above the mesh of country and traditional sitar music that rattled the cups on the table.
Freja instinctively watched the doctor’s hands. Must be an unlicensed implant job, camera planted in the kid’s ear or eye for nutjob voyeurs. Or a drug-dosing, where they’d hold the baby’s health hostage for the dosage. That’s the only crime far-arm colonies ever had the tech for.
“I don’t see anything,” she said.
“There’s the rub, Freja,” Peter’s said in an electro-tinged voice. “It’s what we don’t see.”
The woman grunted and screamed. The surgeon was waiting for the baby, and then he wasn’t. There was the afterbirth, the blood, and no baby.
“Video manipulation?” Freja said, but already doubted that. Only one person could work with low-tech footage like this, but the Grey Ghost wouldn’t be caught dead on a backwater planet like Dawn.
Peters frowned. “Don’t know. We only get what was uploaded to the comsat. They’re blocking that baby’s ID for one reason or another. Unless of course…” Peters leaned in. “The kid’s invisible, and what we’re looking at is the goddamn invisible man.”
He laughed at his own joke.
“We don’t even know who these people in the video are,” Peters continued. “Facial scan doesn’t work with tech this old.”
“Slavery then,” Freja said. “Not enough AI’s to do the work there…which is?”
“Dawn’s still settling. Two generations in, but there’s a lot of forest to comb through. Still a Class-3 life-potential planet. They’re moving slower than Rigellian treacle. Gotta be careful not to disturb all that potential sentient life down there, right?” Peters chuckled. “Makes you wonder when Eden will give up the hunt and realize we’re alone out here.”
“Another thing,” Peters said, sliding a small box across the table.
It was labeled with Freja’s full name, the Old-Earth one she had tried to forget.
“Can’t believe you’d trust a jacky with a package,” she said.
“Astral Corp has good insurance. Guy that looks like this,” Peters pointed at his face, smiled. “He’s all show, no substance.”
Freja opened the box. There were plant seeds in it.
“They’re specific to Dawn’s environment. Engineered on Old Earth. Where she died.”
“Quite a coincidence,” Freja said.
“Chambers, down in the Rez Division is good about this sort of thing. Must have checked your itinerary.”
Then Peters was gone from the jacky. The red light faded from the man’s eyes, and a cough burst from his throat as his own biology came back online.
Freja slammed the box shut. What did it matter how she got the seeds?
“Hey, Baldy, where you going?” the jacky said, watching Freja slide out of the booth. “Don’t you want to get to know the man behind the jacker? We’re good for more than flesh you know.”
He looked down at the ashtray and burning cigar on the table. “Christ, told them I don’t want no smokers. Lady, was he smoking?”
The waitress’s skates shrieked on the glass floor as she stopped in front of the booth. “All done here?” She slapped down a bill.
“Fucking Eden cheapskates,” the man shouted. “Was he smoking?”
God’s Cross, the only settlement on Dawn came into view through the window of Freja’s starship. Japanese-style towers and temples, katana-sharp edges at every angle, egg-white color. The planet was tidally locked, ninety-five percent of the surface drowned in a glassy ocean. A star, Azrael 108-B, sat eternally on the horizon from the vantage point of God’s Cross.
The city sat in the middle of that five percent, perched atop a plateau that looked down on the sun-side, a fungal forest that stretched to the steaming ocean, and the dark-side, a desolate, windswept place that remained forever in the shadow of God’s Cross.
“Oh boy! We’re here,” Lena said.
Lena was an AI, eight legs attached to a large compound eye. She wasn’t quiet, and she wasn’t much for stealth. Just how Freja liked her. Lena’s eyeshell blushed green. She was excited. Then again, she was excited all the time.
“Check the logs,” Freja said, when they stood in the cold, rarely used docking station. Detox slugs scooted across the ceiling. Nothing but darkness out the windows.
Lena plugged a tentacle into the AI interface.
“Denied,” Lena said.
Of course. They were hiding something.
Freja had been on a breathable-air planet once before. Old Earth when she was a child, when she still lived in that guarded, al-Oregon-Territory compound with her neurotic mother.
The docking-station door hissed when it rose. Freja stared out at plant scrub, a dusty path that led to God’s Cross. The place was so backwoods they didn’t even have a rover waiting for her. They had to walk.
It was a bustling little town. Teahouses, Zen and Buddhist temples, traditional Japanese theatres. There were stalls lining the main drag where farmers sold produce, the local cuisine and synthetic staples. Lena questioned a stocky man in a cone-shaped hat about his gourds.
“We’re not here to sightsee, Lena,” Freja said. She had the box under her arm and her pack over her shoulder. “Where’s the hospital?”
“Sun-side, we follow Dawn-road-00X down the mountain, past the first Rilke encampment,” Lena said, swiveling her eye to Freja. “Can you believe it, real life trees?” Lena snapped pictures at the strange purple plants that stabbed through the mist where a sliver of Azrael 10-B peaked over the horizon. The air smelled like fresh-cut grass on Old Earth.
“Doesn’t look like any tree I’ve ever seen,” Freja said.
“We can get a carriage ride from the teahouse to the hospital.”
“They use horses here, no rovers.”
Just how backwoods was this place?
Geisha in dazzling kimono filled the synth-bamboo teahouse with music Freja had never heard. The tea steam was so thick, it condensed on Lena’s eye shell. Freja flashed her credentials to the hostess and inquired about getting to the hospital. The hostess told her a samurai named Nakamura was already on his way.
Freja sipped a milky purple brew that tasted like chocolate and not the synthetic kind, while she stared at the box Peters had given her. Lena wouldn’t shut up about the teahouse.
“Geisha haven’t been seen outside of holograms for years, Freja. Dawn has resurrected a culture lost to everything but records.”
Freja didn’t feel like bursting Lena’s bubble, telling her these weren’t real Geisha. These were entertainers hired and sent in from off-world. Most of these girls lived on rice-farms with their husbands and had families. Nothing real Geisha ever had.
“It’s rare for a planet to embrace an Old-Earth culture so completely,” Lena said.
Lena was right about that. Were any old Japanese customs that involved selling children or using them as slaves? She’d have to ask the samurai.
Nakamura showed up in a kimono and sandals. There was a sword at his side. That worried her. Freja recognized him as one of the samurai in the grainy video.
Freja stuck out a hand and Nakamura bowed. His grey eyes struck her as familiar.
“You guys are really all-in on this Old-Earth thing,” Freja said. She was bad at introductions.
“We are also polite to strangers,” he said.
She must have broached some taboo. Asking about what she had seen on tape was probably out of the question, so she took out her frustrations on the samurai. “Did the Japanese embrace child trafficking as well?”
Nakamura laughed. “You should be glad I came rather than some of my brothers. They would have struck you dead where you stand for suggesting such things.”
“And Lena would have caught every frame of it, and a whole troop of Eden soldiers would be landing within a standard week, probably shutting down the whole colony for the crimes.”
Nakamura turned on his heels. “Come with me.” Then he said, “Who is in the seeds?”
The question hit her like the blast from a volt gun. “My mother.”
The horses clopped through the blood-red mud, occasionally slinging some up on Lena, until she tired of wiping her eye and spidered atop the carriage, craning her head into the lower stories of the strange trees which littered Dawn’s sun-side landscape. The landscape was beautiful, but it carried the eerie silence that all non-earth planets did. No sound but the occasional wind through the trees and the horses’ hooves beating against the path.
Nakamura pointed out potential spots for where Freja could bury her mother, while he gave her a rundown of Dawn. “We’re nearly self-sufficient,” he bragged. “We use the terrace farming of Old-Earthers. The rain that drops in God’s Cross flows down sun-side where we use it to grow kumo and banana-apples. The tea you had was flavored with kumo. You liked it yes?”
Freja nodded. He was being too kind to her, she thought. But then again, these far-arm places have that reputation.
“Have you found life beyond the usual?” Lena asked.
Nakamura scratched his arm. “No, though our scientists delve farther into sun-side every day.”
“Why the carriages?” Freja said.
“Feel the wind in your hair and smell the beasts in front of you. Hear the music of their hooves. Is it not evident? How much better the old ways were. Before the days of universal corporation rovers and logos plastered on everything. If I ever see any more Rilke Corp red, I’ll scream.”
Of course Dawn harbored anti-corp sentiment, Freja thought. Freja’s mother would have loved knowing she’d be buried on a planet that sided with her politically. She didn’t mention to Nakamura that Rilke probably owned these horses.
“How long have you been here?” Freja asked.
Nakamura scratched his arm again. “About five years. Who keeps track of the time anymore?”
The hospital was the largest building on the surface of Dawn according to Nakamura. A Japanese castle styled after the Old-Earth Shimabara castle, blood-red terraced levels of adobe that grew smaller with each floor. Lena prattled on about the architecture, until Freja told her to hush.
The two of them watched Nakamura and the carriage disappear farther downhill where the forest thickened. A man wearing a Nehru jacket and slacks was waiting for them at the top of the hospital steps, tiny spectacles tottering on his nose. Freja recognized him as the other man on the security camera.
Now I just need to find the mother, Freja thought.
“Investigator,” he said. “Your reputation precedes you.”
What reputation? Freja thought. Breaking the arm of the Old-Earth ambassador? Or did he mean…
“Your mother is an inspiration to all of us living upon colonial worlds. Her teachings of self-sufficiency and anti-violence to protect life inspired me as a young man.”
“She was an anarcho-environmentalist who never left Old-Earth,” Freja said.
Freja had often encountered far-arm colonies who preached self-reliance, but every time she checked the books of such planets, she found that they took every handout Eden offered them and frequently begged for more.
“Imprisoned for most of it,” he said. “In my excitement I have forgotten to introduce myself. I am a doctor and the elected governor of Dawn. You can call me Montana”
Freja told him why she was there, then cut straight to the chase. “I need to see your security logs. My AI, Lena, was denied access to the logs at the docking station.”
Only after introducing himself to Lena, did Montana address Freja’s request. “We believe, after your mother’s teachings, in the rights of a planet and the rights of a people. That includes certain records outlined in her manifesto—”
“I know what my mother’s teachings were. And they conflict with Eden policy. Now, I’ll be seeing those records, or your planet will be stripped of the rights it now possesses.”
The Japanese theme was eased slightly in the interior of the hospital. Nurses dragging their feet and doctors bore the scars of SleepAway injections from their residency years. Same as every hospital in every far-arm colony across the galaxy, except for the swords hanging from the sides of some of the staff.
In the security room, Lena plugged into the feed and downloaded the hospital logs. They were encrypted, not to mention massive, and it would take Lena hours to find the records Freja needed among the raw data.
“Happy now?” Montana asked.
“I need to see the maternity ward.”
Nothing in the ward seemed suspicious. In the nursery, Lena stepped on a toy that squeaked beneath her feet. She was happy the children paid no attention to her. The figure was naked and blood red with a ferocious horned face.
“It’s a Tengu,” Lena exclaimed. “A fierce Japanese spirit. A harbinger of war.”
“I don’t like it,” Freja said, kicking it across the room.
The children turned to watch her.
Freja had no evidence of any wrongdoing and it ate at her. She’d need to go over the logs after Lena had decrypted them.
“You know what the penalty is for child slaving?” She asked Montana.
“I imagine it involves a gravity-free prison, constant darkness, and being fed intravenously. Not to mention whatever form of crackpot therapy goes on there nowadays. Have they cycled back to shock treatments yet?”
“We’ll be in touch, Dr. Montana. You have a few days, if that, to confess your crimes and tell me why I shouldn’t turn this planet over to the highest bidder for resource mining.
“Tell me, Freja. Do you happen to have any of your mother’s books upon your person? It seems some of her lessons may be of some benefit for you.”
Later, in her top-floor apartment in God’s Cross, Freja sat watching the dark side of Dawn through the patio door, cold winds swirling dust across the desolate plain. She was feeling tipsy from the sake. She fingered her seeds and thought of her mother, the helicopter trip she’d taken with her up the eastern seaboard of the former United States. The limestone had been bombed barren from the Carolinas to Maine. Nothing but rocks and ash.
“It could have been avoided,” her mother had said.
Ah, Mom couldn’t you just have lived a quiet life, couldn’t you have made life easier for your daughter like all the other Old-Earth moms? Freja thought. What did you even accomplish?
Nothing but writing a few books, paltry royalties barely enough to pay Freja’s way into Antorus-Jackson Military school on Titan. Why would you fight against what brought so much good in the world, just to save a few trees?
“I’m finished, Freja,” Lena said.
“Did you find anything?”
Lena’s processors hummed. “I don’t see anything,” she said. “You’ll have to look.”
She spidered over to Freja, lowered herself, and slid the access port on her head open. Freja flipped out the keyboard and started pecking.
Lena projected a hologram. “Now in order mode,” she said.
“Go to Old-Earth year 2081, May 8th, 13:29. Maternity Ward Camera 8.”
The familiar projection of the pregnant woman. The elated surgeon cutting an invisible cord. Montana wiping a tear from his eye. Nakamura stone-faced.
“Again,” Freja said.
Still nothing. She put away the controls. “Did you figure out who the mom was?”
There was a meowing outside. A little too drunk on the sake, Freja staggered to the door and checked the hall. Nothing there. As she closed the door she heard it again. Meow. So close, but she saw no sign of it.
Lena said, “There was only one woman giving birth that day. Michiru Honduras. Deceased. Thirty-one Old-Earth-years. She worked in the Noh and Kabuki theatres. She was a costume designer.”
Lena closed the door. She had no time for ghost cats. “Cause of death?”
That was a forgery. Michiru had not died during the pregnancy, if what was on the tape was even real. But if the pregnancy was staged, wouldn’t Montana have come out and said so? It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.
“Show me last video. Twenty-x speed.”
Freja watched twenty-four hours of footage of nurses bringing Michiru meals, her going to the bathroom. No sign of sickness. There was crying. Freja balled her fist.
“They took her damn baby,” Freja said.
More footage showed that there was an argument between Michiru and Montana, her pounding his chest with a balled fist, her sitting alone on the edge of her bed for hours. Then Michiru dressed, packed, and left the hospital room. There she was walking down the steps of the hospital, long shadows falling over her and Montana. Nakamura waiting at the bottom, smoking a synth cig, brushing one of the horses’ coats.
“Does Montana look like a man in love, Lena?”
“I don’t know that, silly.”
“What about Nakamura?”
Freja watched Nakamura help Michiru in the carriage, get in himself, and drive. Not up into God’s Cross. But farther into the forest.
Bubbles came up from the milk when Freja slammed Nakamura’s head into the bowl of milk.
“Where is Michiru?” Freja yelled.
The Geisha scattered like pigeons, short steps in long dresses, tall wooden sandals clopping against bamboo.
Nakamura’s chin dripped milk and blood. She had broken his nose. He was smiling. “Montana was wrong about you. You aren’t like your mother.”
“No, I’m not.”
Nakamura’s sword leaned against the wall. Freja grabbed it and drew the gleaming blade. “You murdered her. You took Michiru out in the forest and killed her.”
Lena was moaning. “Can’t we go out to the woods, Freja? Can’t we look for her?”
“You are as blind as the rest of the Eden scum,” Nakamura spat.
Freja raised the blade. A cry of protest rose behind her. A guffaw. Not Lena’s. Something less metallic. She turned to see nothing, but the nothing was coming towards her, porcelain shattering as the nothing knocked teacups from the tables. She could hear it. Running. The blade was knocked from her hand.
“Blind,” Nakamura said. He was lighting a cigarette.
Freja spun toward him. “Lena show me thermal.”
Freja gasped when she looked upon Lena’s screen. The room was full of odd… things that only appeared in thermal vision. One squatted atop a table like a large frog, chest that rose and fell like an inflated bubble, another hung from the rafters with three limbs, cleaning itself with the other three. On the table behind Nakamura, a small bipedal creature cowered behind him.
“Nakamura, what am I looking at?”
He said nothing.
She directed Lena around Nakamura, toward the biped. Freja looked at it with her own eyes. If she strained, she could see a haze, like engine exhaust rising around it. Looking again through Lena’s eyes, she thrust her hand at the shape. It moved in response.
She recoiled. “Explain this.”
“Ah, if only I could.” Nakamura blew a smoke ring.
“He cannot,” came a voice from behind. Montana stood in the doorway. Glasses traded in for thermal shades. “No more than any of us. All we know is what you’re looking at is native to Dawn’s ecosystem. Life, Freja. Intelligent life.”
Lena fluttered on her feet, four legs flutter like sea anemone tentacles. “New life? Oh boy!”
Freja’s mind raced. There were things to be done. Quarantine protocol. A whole host of steps to preservation that she knew Montana hadn’t taken.
The breath left Freja as she hit the floor. Nakamura stood over her with his sword pointed at her, one eye swelled shut. Some of the milk dropped from his chin to her face. It smelled so bitter.
“We can’t let you contact Eden. We wish you had cooperated. I would have shown you when you were ready, but you had to resort to violence at the first opportunity,” Montana said.
“You’ve both just dammed yourself to prison,” Freja said. “I hope you like eating your ricere through a needle.”
“You contact Eden and what do they do?” Montana said. “They send in the Rilke clowns, and destroy the fragile ecosystem here. There’s a reason we use carriages, Freja. Artificial forms of energy kills them. It’s a miracle they weren’t wiped out when Rilke first landed on the planet.”
Freja hated it, but if Montana was telling the truth, he was right. Delicate operations were a thing of the past, especially on worlds like Dawn where news traveled slowly, where news would be doctored by a public relations team before reaching Dawn. Any company willing to come this far out into the galaxy would never agree to a low energy mandate.
“Show me,” Freja said. “Kill one and I’ll believe you.”
Montana’s eyes grew wide. “Nakamura was right, you are not at all like your mother. Put her in chains, Nakamura.”
“There are dangers you don’t—”
“I understand the dangers,” Montana yelled. “I have lived here decades, checking and double checking every change in pressure and humidity, monitoring for infections among the settlers.” Spit dribbled off his chin. His face was red with anger. “Even letting your ship land rather than blast it out of the sky was a miracle I granted you. Ryo lives were lost.”
“Ryo? You’ve named them? How arrogant. All naming rights belong to the company who powered the expedition.”
“Our argument is done. I’ll see you in your cell.”
Nakamura sat in front of the bamboo bars, staring at Freja. He was smoking a real cigarette. It made Freja cough. Montana had slid a book between the bars. Her mother’s most famous work Lifesong.
“The walls here filter the nasty stuff out. What doesn’t go into my lungs, anyways,” Nakamura said.
Freja picked up the book, tried to read it, then threw it across the room. If Montana thought she would read her mother’s work and magically agree with him, he had another thing coming.
Had Michiru given birth to one of those…Ryo? Freja wondered. She couldn’t tell from watching the security cam. It only recorded light in the visible spectrum. And how had Rilke not discovered them first?
If Rilke discovered them, they would be in chains now, and Dawn would be a tourist attraction. Perhaps her mother had been right about some things, Freja thought, despite herself.
No, she told herself. Dawn’s residents would be wallowing in money if Rilke had found the Ryo first, money that would go to infrastructure, schools and hospitals. That wasn’t true either. That money would go into Rilke shareholder pockets. Rilke would own everything, and that couldn’t be good, could it?
“Can they communicate?” She asked Nakamura.
Nakamura said nothing.
A Geisha slid her a meal of synth salmon, fried local vegetables on a wooden tray with chopsticks. They weren’t starving her at least. Three days passed this way, Nakamura coming in when the artificial lights kicked on, leaving when they went off, smoking a cigarette in the interim.
On the third day, Montana showed up with a pair of thermal goggles. “I want you to come with me, Freja. If you think you can behave yourself.”
Freja knew Montana’s back was against the wall. If Peters came calling, and she told him she was in a cell, the whole planet would be swarming with Eden agents.
Equipped with thermal shades, Freja saw the forests brimming with strange creatures. Ryo sprang from tree limb to abandoned Rilke research huts, swooped in and out of the top layer of the alien canopy. She heard them now, crunching through the knee-high flora. Montana drove, hurtling further into the forest, past the hospital, the way Nakamura had taken Michiru.
“We were worried. The Ryo seem to shut themselves down somehow in the presence of strangers. When you came and walked among the streets, most of the Ryo ceased movement.”
“Ryo is the Japanese word for spirit,” Lena said, excitedly.
The AI had been blissful since they had left the teahouse. Lena had detected the lifeforms since disembarking from the ship, but had no context to put what she detected in. It may as well have been random radio waves or cosmic noise, which often bombarded her senses in every locale. Now that she knew, now she could begin to catalog.
Freja even felt the excitement.
“What we know of them is not enough to fill a Rilke advertisement,” Montana said over the bustling feet of the horses. “We’ve set up a camp where the Ryo feel most comfortable, the mostly unexplored valley on all of Dawn. That’s where we’re going.”
“How did Rilke not discover them when they first landed here?” Freja asked.
“The plant life appears warm in thermal vision at all hours, unlike plants on worlds with a traditional day-night cycle. The Ryo, already invisible to the naked eye, have the same temperature profile as the plant life. Camouflage in every spectrum. They merely hid from them. Come now, we’ve arrived.”
The camp consisted of a few Rilke hovels and a Japanese-style inn with a large courtyard. A waterfall dumped steaming water into a pool which flowed into a bathhouse built onto the side of the inn. Men and women rushed in and out of the sliding door rooms, some with tools—old hammers and saws—others wrapped in towels headed to or from the bathhouse.
It reminded Freja of Old Earth. It was in fact the closest she’d seen humans with nature outside of her early childhood explorations with her mother, hiking the Oregon rainforest trails.
Perhaps there was something to what her mother had preached. Perhaps life was worth protecting at the expense of humans.
With her goggles down, she saw that the Ryo partook of the baths themselves, hurtling here and there and for the first time, she heard them emit strange cooing sounds, which had more variation than any bird song she had ever heard.
“Can you communicate with them?” Freja asked as she followed Montana through the courtyard.
Montana was more forthcoming than Nakamura.
“We are working on it,” He said. “Their language is complex and not intended for human ears. Though not without struggle, our linguists have worked out a sort of pidgin with them.”
Lena snapped pictures continuously, climbing a wooden bridge under which koi swam. She was so fascinated by the Ryo that she was, for once in her existence, speechless. Freja saw something that looked and behaved exactly like a koi.
It is a Ryo and it is a fish, she thought. But that doesn’t make any sense.
As they turned a corner, Freja saw a large creature, nearly eight-feet tall, hundreds of tentacles packed close together which it used for locomotion. It mumbled in its high-pitched voice to a woman in a lab coat, who nodded and took notes
Montana slid a door back and waited for Freja to step through. There was a crib in the room and a woman dressed in a kimono rocked a Ryo in her arms. Freja recognized the woman. It was Michiru.
“This is the woman I was telling you about, Michiru.”
Michiru seemed to glide across the room, taking Freja’s hand in her free one.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. My husband’s been giving you a hard time, I hear.”
She planted a kiss on Montana’s cheek.
“Does that mean…” Freja said weakly, not knowing how to approach the question burning in her mind.
Montana said, “It’s okay. We were confused as you about the origin of the child. Was it mine? I spent nights staring at the dark-side, sipping sake, doubting if this was a pregnancy I wanted Michiru to carry out. Thankfully, she convinced me otherwise.”
He put his hand on his wife’s shoulder. With the other hand he reached over her and rubbed the chest of the Ryo. The child flapped its arms—Freja guessed—and cooed, a strange electronic sound, like someone playing with a synthesizer.
“Put on your thermals. Look at him. His name is Thom.”
Freja slid down the googles. Thom smiled at her, and yes, he was a child, she thought. Even though she couldn’t say how it had happened. He had the same pointed nose and curly hair of his father. The child reached for Freja’s finger and she gave it to him.
Its touch was electric, prickling the ends of her fingers. Her heart leapt, a feeling she had not felt since she was a little girl.
“Soon after Michiru gave birth, we noticed a new fish swimming in the koi pond. After the fish, one of the horses gave birth, followed by one of the town cats. Perhaps you heard Luna, who roams the town and meows loudly when the exterior lights are shut off?”
“Yes,” Freja said, thinking of the noise in the apartment hall. “Are there more children?”
“Not like Thom. None of the other Ryo appear human in nature, and all the other mothers have given birth to regular children.”
“I don’t understand. Then what of the Ryo who have no Old-Earthen analogues?” Freja said.
“We have only hypotheses. Since we have not seen any of the Ryo themselves become pregnant, the simplest answer is that the Ryo is a kind of obligate organism that requires a host couple and copies the host physiology.”
“But that would mean—”
“Yes. All the creatures you see were birthed from couples of their respective species. Each creature is—or was—native to Dawn or—”
“They came here like us, gave birth, and the Ryo copied their physiology?” Freja said.
“Yes. We’re not just looking at first contact with an intelligent species,” Montana said. “With the Ryo, we’re seeing a glimpse into the diversity of life in the universe. Suddenly the universe feels a lot less lonely, doesn’t it?”
All this life, she thought, and how much of it would belong to Rilke International by the 8th Corporate Amendment? All of it, since Rilke had funded the expedition to Dawn. Eden lawmakers had crumbled under the pressure of Rilke and Caravaggio lobbyists, and signed away the rights of alien lifeforms for property on luxurious water worlds and stock shares.
Her mother had warned Eden of this day.
Though Eden would surely enact protective legislation as soon as the Ryo were ‘officially’ discovered, it would be years before Rilke was forced to cease control of the Ryo. By then, what would happen? Would they claim rights to Thom?
Freja looked from Michiru to Thom. She was breaking a family apart. “If you were hoping to keep a secret, I’ve ruined it,” Freja said. “Lena’s been uploading everything to the comsat, sights and sounds, since we arrived. Eden are probably already on the way, along with a fleet of Rilke researchers and lawyers. They’ve probably already began broadcasting their intentions to the rest of the universe”
“Your guilt is commendable, but you’ve underestimated us, Freja,” Montana. “Our comsat is broadcasting dummy data to Eden. Our secret is safe for now.”
But there was no one who could crack a comsat, Freja thought. Well, only one person in the galaxy who could do that. But she wouldn’t come all the way out here.
“We believe you and our hacker go way back.”
She turned to see the silhouette of someone standing in the doorway, topknot and a cigarette. Black eye and a sword on his back.
“Nakamura,” Freja said. “I’ve never met him. What do you mean?”
“You don’t remember the talk we had in that Storm Garden bar as lighting struck fire to the grass sea?” Nakamura said. “You told me you’d flay me yourself, if I didn’t confess to reprogramming all those Caravaggio AIs.”
That conversation was with The Grey Ghost. But the Gray Ghost was a woman, a grey-eyed woman. Freja understood.
“It’s something I always wanted,” Nakamura said, rubbing the scruff on his face. “But the operation required a sponsor.”
“Mr. Nakamura and I made a deal. I pay for his sex-change operation and he hack the comsat for us.”
“It was win, win,” Nakamura said. “The Dawn comsat was easy stuff. Not like those Caravaggio AIs. You know they had to change their official colors from crimson to violet because of me? AIs opened fire on anyone wearing their insignia.” He blew a smoke ring.
“A hacker can only get you so far,” Freja said to Montana. “You need a legal team large enough to fill a star cruiser. You need a public relations team. You need everything, and you have so little.”
“But we have you, the daughter of Melinda Spjut, an investigator with a spotless reputation.”
“I can get you nothing. As soon as my report goes through, you’ll be relieved of your duties as governor. Rilke will come in and…”
She looked at Thom again. She couldn’t believe she ever suggested killing one of the Ryo. Each life was invaluable. That’s one thing she agreed with her mother on.
“Your mother told me you would be bound up in your duty. She said you would be so stubborn headed that we’d have to lead you to the truth like a blind deer to water.”
“You knew my mother?”
“Of course, Freja. Did you think it was a coincidence that your mother picked seeds native to Dawn? With all the cases in the universe you could have been assigned to, didn’t you think that was a little suspicious?”
“I can’t keep Rilke from coming,” Freja said.
Montana laughed. “But you can. All it will cost you is your career.”
Freja looked at Thom. He reached for her.
Freja met Peters in the teahouse in God’s Cross. She was drenched from the showers that pelted the plateau, floating up from the Ryo valley and drenching the fields of potatoes, rice, and quinoa. She did not wear thermal shades but saw signs of the Ryo. Footprints in the scrub. The sagging branches of trees scattered about the plateau. She saw signs, but they had retreated to hiding. The Ryo sensed the presence of a stranger, even through the interface of a jacky.
The jacky was a Geisha socketed into the wall outlet. She had a bowl of rice in front of her, steam floating up to the ceiling, where Japanese spirits were painted in vivid reds and orange. The steam looked ghostly in the beaming light of the jacky’s eyes.
Freja could tell Peters was uncomfortable. He was still of the old generation, those who felt strange in the flesh of the opposite sex.
“So what is it? Child smuggling? An implant racket?” Peters asked.
“None of the above. It’s the Grey Ghost’s work.”
“Out here? What the hell is she doing out here?”
Freja didn’t mention the sex change. “Reworking the terrestrial AI to ignore orders of Rilke,” she lied.
“We’ll send some engineers.”
“You don’t have to. The Grey Ghost has been apprehended. Found her sightseeing in the Kabuki theatre. Had Lena check the systems. She reverted the AI to a local state.”
“Where is she now?” Peters said, gazing the jacky’s flashlight eyes around.
“On my ship already. In chains. I’m bringing her in…You’re not smoking?”
“Ethics committee received a complaint from the Astral Corp. I’m looking down a fine.” Peters sighed. “Bringing in the Grey Ghost will mean a promotion, Freja. Won’t be long till I’m reporting to you.”
Freja said nothing. Stood up and started to leave.
“Goodbye to you too, honey,” Peters said.
She heard Peters unplug. She saw the light leave the woman’s eyes and heard the gulp of air swallowed by the woman as she came back to herself.
Freja packed her things from her apartment. She felt lost. She beckoned Lena, and the two of them walked across the great plateau for the last time.
A cruiser arrived at the docking station as Freja said goodbye to Montana and Michiru. It was sleek black, thin, the blue sheen of its stealth system washed over its surface. Three men alighted the plane and approached them. They were dressed in black robes that fell to their ankles. Lawyers.
“Freja, meet the legal team who will be leading the upcoming fight against whoever lays claim to the Ryo,” Montana said.
Their ship would be the last to arrive on Dawn for at least a decade. Nakamura had reprogrammed the navsats as well. Anyone flying to Dawn would instead find themselves staring down at the uninhabitable planet of Baggot H-301, a hundred stars away.
Montana had told her there were people on the forest planet of Whitewald who needed the information Lena carried, people who would support Dawn. There, Montana promised, she could find work, and live quietly among the trees.
“Those trees reach to the highest clouds of the atmosphere. I hope you find it as comforting as I did,” he had said.
She didn’t know if she was ready for a quiet life and told Montana as much, standing outside of her ship.
“The group that you are delivering Lena’s data to needs everyone they can get. They call themselves Lifesong. Perhaps a career change is in order,” Montana said.
“Or just a change in scenery,” Nakamura said, shouldering a bag. “Lifesong needs muscle like you, Freja.”
Montana said, “Where did you end up burying your mother?”
“I’ll hold on to the seeds,” Freja said. “I’m not ready to let go of her just yet.”
“I can’t wait to see the trees,” Lena said. “But I’ll miss the Ryo.”
“You will always have the records,” Montana said to Lena.
But Freja knew that wasn’t guaranteed. Lena’s information was priceless and would attract every data thief in the galaxy.
Freja knew the lie she told Peters would not prevent Rilke and Eden descending on Dawn like salvagers on a scrap heap, but it would buy Montana and the lawyers time before the vultures came. Thirty years, Montana had guessed. Nakamura guaranteed twenty. Freja had ventured only ten.
From the cockpit of the cruiser, Freja, Nakamura, and Lena watched the teahouses and theatres shrink to spots, saw the swell of the forest that housed countless Ryo.
Freja did not put on thermal shades to watch Dawn disappear. She did not want to cry in front of Nakamura.
“Goodbye, Dawn,” Lena said.
Three hours into the flight to Whitewald, Nakamura sent a message to Eden Com, one that would go to Peters himself. It said that Freja’s ship had been hijacked by the Grey Ghost.
“It will take years before they track us to Whitewald,” Nakamura said. “I’ve planted fake coms in the database as well. They think I’m taking you somewhere else. By that time, I’ll be living it up on a Minerva minor colony.”
“Living it up?”
“Yeah, what else?”
“Lifesong needs you just like it needs me,” Freja said.
But she wasn’t sure she believed what she said. She touched the seeds and prayed that her mother would help her again.
By Jen Sexton-Riley
The party was over. I was tired.
The rambling, mazelike loft apartment I shared with Cassie was now truly housewarmed, and the wine I’d sipped all evening lent a hazy gold warmth to the strings of tiny lights we’d looped from the curtain rods. Their cheery glow against the black expanse of the enormous industrial windows brought to mind a tiny vessel moving through an expanse of dark sea, the only bright spot in leagues. My ears hummed with hours of laughter and conversation, my muscles warm and languid from dancing in Cassie’s too-big dress, a sleeveless red vintage number in ruched velvet that hugged her curves. On my tiny body, with no curves to hug, it gapped and skimmed. Its hem, which graced Cassie’s ankles, tripped up my bare feet.
The last few stragglers were arranged in twos and threes, half in and out of their coat sleeves, pledging their devotion to future get-togethers, brunches, matinees, this-was-just-so-greats and we’ve-got-to-see-each-other-more-oftens. Little snatches of laughter swirled in my ears with the tinkling of all our new wine glasses being collected and carefully stood on the polished cement counter and in the gleaming steel sink. I spotted Cassie lounged with friends, leveled by drink and the relief of a party gone well on the broad sweep of hand-knotted silk and wool we’d chosen for the main living area. Her emerald dress and black hair shone like spilled inks across the lustrous blues and earthy plums of the rug, which still fairly vibrated with the effort of many hands and ten times as many fingers knotting it into existence. Cassie’s laughter rang like dropped bells as she rolled onto her back, helpless with it, her eyes soft and wet, her voice roughened with happy talk and drink. Beautiful Cassie. I would keep her happy, just like this, forever. I would–
“I’ve found you.”
I flinched and nearly fell, caught by strong hands.
“I’m so sorry. Did I startle you? It’s just that this place is so big. It’s wonderful, but I just can’t seem to find my coat.”
I’m smaller than all of Cassie’s friends, so I always look up to speak to them, but this man was monolithic. His voice rang something in me like a plucked cello string, and I took a deep breath before answering. His eyes seemed so far above me I couldn’t quite manage a bridge of reassuring contact.
“Of course,” I said. “It’s just over this way, on the other side of the kitchen. Through Cassie’s studio and down the back corridor. Follow me.”
The sounds of happy late night chatter and clinking glasses faded behind us, with one last wisp of Cassie’s laughter tickling my ear before dissipating in the darkness. I glanced back to see the tall guest a step behind me, and I startled to realize that one of his large hands still held me just above the elbow. His fingers easily enclosed my entire upper arm, and the heat of his palm pulsed into my bare skin. I regretted the playful impulse that earlier allowed Cassie to zip me into this bright, foolish splash of cloth. The enormous open space of Cassie’s studio enveloped us, the air rich with pigments and the easels peopled with gigantic canvases, landscapes teeming with impossible creatures, like walking through Cassie’s dreams. As we passed the bank of dark windows lining the corridor that would lead to the spare bed and its mountain of coats, I craned my head back to search the night sky for a light. Any light. I saw only my own reflection, shadowed by the guest’s enormous shape.
“You’re really way out here, aren’t you,” said the deep voice above me. “Not another residential building in sight. I suppose in a few years this whole warehouse district will be completely gentrified, filled up with luxury apartments like this one, all huge windows and acres of newly finished floors, cathedral ceilings and polished surfaces. Strange, just this one out here all by itself, isn’t it?”
“Well, it… Yes, well, we… Cassie and I…”
“Cassie waits tables at a coffee shop three days a week, doesn’t she? And focuses on her art, especially now that she has this place with an enormous studio. I don’t think Cassie comes from money. And you, what do you do exactly, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oh, me? Well, I do a little of this and a little of that,” I stammered. I stepped into the spare bedroom and snapped on the light. The bed was empty of coats.
I turned to face the guest, and was about to state the obvious, that his coat was clearly not here and must be somewhere else in the apartment, when he took my shoulders in his massive hands, and simply lifted me from the floor. It wasn’t pain that flooded my form, as I don’t feel pain, exactly, but the swimming feeling when my shape begins to lose integrity.
“This will do just fine,” the guest said in his booming voice. He lifted me higher and snapped my entire form in the air as one might snap the wrinkles out of a freshly washed garment. He lifted me to one side, took me in one hand and pushed the fingers of the other hand into the assembled energy of my shape, through my carefully created surface, sliding one arm inside the length of my own arm as if he were slipping into a jacket. With one arm in, he shifted and slipped his other hand and entire arm into my other arm-sleeve. Then he shrugged into me and tugged me tight around his massive shoulders and muscled back, effectively merging my energy with his own and engulfing me with his body. The soft impact I heard was the red velvet dress tumbling to the floor behind him.
He raised the energy of his voice to that of our native tongue and spoke a name I hadn’t heard in lifetimes. “It’s time to come home and make amends for what you’ve done.”
He stepped in front of an ornate freestanding mirror and turned to one side and then the other, straightening his clothing and admiring his handiwork. I could barely detect my pale shape behind the buttons of his shirt, my two eyes and mouth like three round, black holes of disappointment and surprise in the vague roundness of my face. Home. The thought of returning to that bleak place with its rules and strictures made my heart darken and cough out a mist of weak sparks. Already the mirror shimmered in the air, its solidity starting to shift.
“You really shouldn’t do this to people, you know,” he said. “Poor Cassie. She seems like a nice enough kid. She’s going to find herself and her drunk friends lying in an abandoned warehouse in a few minutes, you realize. There’ll be nothing left but a few wine glasses and an empty dress.”
But it was so lovely while it lasted, I thought as we walked as one out of the flickering, shimmering apartment and into the solidity of the night.
It’s always so lovely while it lasts.
By Leigh Anna Harken
Her name is not known in our history. We only know her as Peaches because she sold peaches at a roadside stand. It was here the great duke found her. According to legend she was extraordinarily beautiful and this is why he so greatly desired her, but in truth, she was not extraordinary, at least not in beauty. She was fair and plump. Her eyes a bit too wide set and her mouth a bit too small. There were at least three other girls in town with better teeth and brighter eyes. But these girls were not left alone on the roadside selling peaches as the duke cantered past each day. And so he desired her, probably not for her great beauty but because she was there and demure and shy as a common girl, a common girl who sold peaches her family grew at the road stand and used the money to buy radishes and parsley and bread, would naturally be. Quite possibly he only desired her because he knew that he could have her and nothing would be done. He was a duke and she was as juicy as the peaches she sold, and who can resist a ripe peach?
So there is no surprise that one bright day he got off of his stallion, pulled her behind her cart of peaches, and had his thrusting and grunting way with her. When he had finished and jumped back on his stallion, he flipped a few coins on the ground for the pleasure, raised his hat to her, and trotted off.
She was undone. She felt sore and damp and there was such a hurting in her chest from tears that were now stuck there and fear that had dried inside of her instead of on her cheeks. She looked at the coins and they worried her. When she came back home with her unsold peaches and her father took accounting of the money and the peaches sold he would ask her, where did these coins come from, and she would have no answer because the truth would make her father angry with her.
And so, she counted out the money and counted out the peaches it would buy. She carried those peaches in her apron, held like a cradle with five fuzzy little heads. She dug a hole for each little peach all in a row by the road and into each hole she dropped a fruit.
That night her father counted the money and the peaches and all matched and was well and she sighed in relief that no one noticed the lump of tears that was now on her chest or the salty fear that was on her skin.
The next day she went to the roadside to sell her wares and the duke had his stallion saddled to go for a ride. As he passed her on the road he tipped his hat to her for the pleasure and rode on. But there was something odd. Five little saplings, tall and thin, were by the side of the road, all in a row. They weren’t there yesterday, but they were there today, and everyone knows that saplings don’t just appear, they grow. But perhaps he just hadn’t noticed them before.
She dropped a curtsey as he rode past and dropped her eyes to the ground, unable to look at him. She kept her eyes closed until she couldn’t hear the sound of his horse’s hooves anymore and then she opened her eyes and saw five little saplings standing where yesterday she had buried the peaches. She saw them and understood, and so she got a bucket and went to the river and she watered and tended the trees, pulling grass and giving them room to grow.
The sun set and the sun rose and once again she went to the roadside with her fruits and once again the duke cantered past, but he did not tip his hat to the girl. He didn’t even see her or her cart because the five little saplings were now five bright young trees with leaves so green they made his eyes hurt, and hard green fruits that hung, not ready to be picked yet, but promising later days that would be full of delicious flesh to bite and juice to suck. But for the duke the promise of later fruit was not an attraction. He was afraid of the young trees and their hard fruit and his horse slowed as he passed the trees, keeping quiet as if they were riding through a graveyard, trying not to wake the ghosts. She saw his fright and understood and again she tended the trees and gave them water.
The next day it all happened again, the peaches, the roadside stand, the stallion and the saddle. But this time he did not ride past her nor did he tip his hat. Instead he stopped and stared at five full grown peach trees with ripened fruit hanging off of each branch, each peach large and a perfect shade of sunset gold. And though the leaves were green, the same as any other tree, and the bark was brown, the same as any other tree, and the fruit was tempting, same as any other tree, the duke was afraid of the trees and could not ride past them. He could not bring himself to spur his stallion forward, but turned him and galloped off, back to his castle, where he jumped out of the saddle before the horse had stopped and called for his man.
Cut the trees down! he ordered. His man bowed and said he would gather some men to go out in the morning. But the morning wasn’t soon enough for the duke. The trees must be chopped down now. The duke’s man bowed again and set off to collect men and axes.
When the men reached the trees the sun was setting behind them and cast the men in a deep green light. It was beautiful and the men wondered why the duke would want these trees cut down. It seemed a shame to do it, seeing them filled with fruit and greenery. But one did not defy the duke and so they lifted their axes and brought them down into those trees. But it seemed a shame to let such perfect fruit go to waste.
And so the men left their axes to pick the ripe peaches, but not one of them took a bite. Instead they took off their shirts and laid the peaches carefully bundled in the cloth, far from where the trees would come down, as if trying to keep each small load of peaches as safe and warm as a child. Only when each peach from the trees was safe and sound did they pick up their axes and begin to heave. As each tree shuddered under the blows the men cried tears they could not understand, some ashamed and hiding the grief and others openly weeping as one by one, each tree came down. The men stood by and wept and wailed as if each had killed his own children.
Then, something extraordinary happened. Out of each stump sprang a fat little child with cheeks as pink as peaches and tummies fat and round. They giggled and clapped and raced around the weeping men singing:
Oh our father is the duke,
as anyone can see
Our mother she sells peaches
that grow off of a tree.
Our father met our mother
and though he did not know her name,
He led her behind the peaches cart
and plucked her all the same.
Now we are bright new peaches
But our father, for his shame,
Tried to chop us into firewood,
And take away our claim.
But we are smart young peaches
We hid among the roots
And now the duke our father
Must taste of his own fruits.
Then the children ran off before anyone could catch them, though in truth, not one of them tried, they were so astounded.
The men heard this rhyme and understood and each vowed that he would leave the kingdom before he ever again bowed to the duke. They left the trees as they had fallen, whole and green, unwilling to take part in dismemberment of those perfect trees. They picked up their bundles, and walked away towards home and the villagers instead came along and chopped the trees into sticks to burn in their stoves.
The men gave the peaches away, to mothers and daughters and sisters and lovers. To their wives and the wives of friends. They left none for themselves, but to a man gave away all the peaches. Only one ever had a bite, when his wife, smiling and with juice running down her chin held it out for him to share, and with that taste he saw her dreams and wishes and hopes and desires, the essence of her and thought, “Why, she’s just like me?” It was a surprise, and one he never forgot. Years later their love would be legend, as a tale of romance and requitement, of long standing joy and respect, and of adventure as they crossed many hardships to be together after the wars came. They are their own story.
But even the men who did not taste the peaches were forever changed. You would know their names if I told you, because they are famous and their successes are often told. One travelled with the Princess Henrietta when she led the raid and slew the monsters in the caverns. She knighted him for his bravery and boldness in battle and gave him her dagger, which has been passed down to the first born of his descendants for these hundreds of years and now resides with his great-great-great-great-great grandson, who will soon give it to his firstborn, a daughter. Another is the poet who wrote of buttercups and water lilies and whose poems of love and loss you recite to yourself whenever your heart is broken. A third became a judge known for being fair. In his time, no witches were burned. A fourth became a doctor, who was known to be as safe and adept as a midwife at birthing babies.
The women who ate the peaches, you know of them too. Princess Henrietta was one. Juliana the Just was another. Maxine the builder whose bridges still stand, and of course, Pauline the painter whose frescoes are the pride of the nation. Others did not become famous or renowned, but all led cheerful and lucky lives into their old age, matriarchs, whose families who truly mourned them when they died. They were the peach girls, and their smallest deeds are still felt in each and every breath in this city.
But at that time this was still a town, surrounded by farm land and orchards. The men went their ways and told no one of the children and the rhyme.
That evening the duke sat down to dinner, racks of lamb and roasted potatoes and raspberry tart for dessert. He lifted his spoon over the first course, a leek and cream soup that was the specialty of the cook, dipped it into his bowl, brought it to his mouth, and then gagged. He spit and out came a bite of rotten peach with a white worm ducking out of the light and back into its hole. He raged and demanded to know what the meaning of it was. But no one knew. The cook begged his sir’s pardon, but he had put no peaches into the evening dinner. None at all.
The duke, not very mollified, but hungry enough to go on with his dinner, cut himself a piece of lamb, brown and red with blood puddling beneath the meat. He brought a bite to his mouth, smelling the char and the spices. Then he gagged on rotten peach. This time he did not call for the cook, nor yell at the staff. He knew it was that temptress who sold fruit at the side of the road. The one who had seduced him, lowering her head and curtseying day after day as he passed. She looked demure to all, but he knew better, she was a sorceress and a seductress and she had reeled him in to curse him.
The duke threw his napkin down and left the table, with servants and family members trailing behind him in shock and fear for what he might do if they caught his glance now, in an angry mood. He called for his man again but his man did not come. He had left with the workers at the trees, and though he had too much pride to remove his shirt as the men had, he still carried peaches in his pockets and never saw the duke again. The duke had to find someone else to give orders to, but this was easily done. He gave orders to find the girl and arrest her for being a temptress and a witch.
What of Peaches, the girl who sold fruit and planted the trees? Where was she in all of this? What was she thinking and how was she healing after having been used and discarded? No one knows. Like her name, there is no record of her thoughts or doings or if she ate peas and drank punch. Her story is forgotten, if anyone ever knew it in the first place. No one asked or wondered. She has served her purpose and now the only concern is how justice gets served and for that this girl with no name need hardly be there at all. We shall assume that she washed herself as soon as she could, tried to not wake anyone up as she cried at night, and kept silent. If she thought or did anything more than curtsey as the duke rode by on those days, we do not know it. She has her purpose in the story, just as she had her purpose for the duke. So we’ll leave her to her silence and punch and peas, not knowing that the duke had called for her arrest, the judge has been routed from his dinner table and the constable is coming with chains and iron.
The constable was neither a cruel man, nor a smart man, nor a dishonest man. The judge was also neither cruel, nor smart, nor dishonest. They were simply men, as many men in this world, working away at what they must work at and doing what they could for their families, their friends, and themselves. Within reason. There may be some sliding of rules here and there, but no true breaches of duty or crimes committed. They were, for the most part, good men. It was as good men they walked up to the door and knocked. It was as good men that they explained the charges of seduction and sorcery to her father, and it was as good men that they kept her father from beating her too much in his rage. They led the now bloody girl away from the door of her family and they couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for this young thing, hurt and frightened and crying beside them. Did she seduce the duke? Did she bewitch him and then curse him? If someone as great as the Duke said so, then it must be so, even if she did look like a harmless little thing. But perhaps not. They were fair men and responsible to their duties. They would interrogate and test her to be certain.
The girl broke easily, with barely a touch of the tools and the fire. She confessed to every misdeed and a few more misdeeds no one had known of until then, and the constable and the judge were amazed that such wickedness could have sprung up from their own town. They were good men. They hated the wicked and to protect their own homes, their families, their friends, the judgement was passed and the girl would burn.
The good people of the town were horrified at the evil that had been among them. Every girl who had been her friend now denied ever liking her and every boy who had ever admired her now believed himself the victim of a spell. Even the words of the men who had cut down the trees and the women who had eaten the peaches were not enough to save her and only created scorn and slander and hatred for themselves. One woman woke to find her chickens beheaded on her stoop and one man was pelted with eggs by children, because no one likes those who defend the evil. Those voices must be stopped.
The day of the burning came and all the town came to see the temptress get her justice. Her mother wept, but her father glared at her with all the hatred in his eyes, because he had to, because the rest of his family was now vulnerable and he must be strong and hate his daughter in order to protect them, his wife and the other children. He glared, and if the hatred was only in his eyes and not rooted in his heart, who, if they knew, would blame him? Except the duke. Except the town. Because anyone who did not hate evil must also be evil. So her father hated his daughter and no more ill came to the family. Her sisters married well and her brothers grew old tending the peach trees, though stories still cling to the family like ragged flesh left on a peach pit of the temptress in their lineage.
All were in the town square, gathered around the wood pile and the stake. The duke was there, gaunt and haggard. To survive he had learned to eat rotten fruit, to chew through sickly sweet and maggots and worms and to swallow, though each meal made him ill. In the castle the cook was fired and everyone now ate gruel since there was no need for fine dinners that the duke could not taste.
The constable led the shaking and dirty girl to the stake. He had to carry her the last of the way. Pronouncements were made and she was asked if she had any last words. And though all she could do was whimper, in her mind she recalled the words she had said when she had planted the peaches, “These are the fruits of my labor, may all the little peaches see, that I can still be happy and they cannot trample me.” It seemed a silly thing for her to think of then, when she was not happy and quite trampled, but then it was a silly thing when she had said then, when she was neither happy nor untrampled. It was her one way of defiance, even if only she knew of it.
There was a suitable pause for the girl to speak, but she only sobbed, and so the constable lowered his torch to the wood. First there was smoke as the wood heated, and then there was the crackle of newly born flame among the pyre.
Then something odd happened. A stick lit on fire. It had been one of the sticks from the peach trees, cut down and dismembered by the men and the villagers. Out of the new flame jumped a child, and then another, and another, and another, and another. Five little children with cheeks as pink as peaches and tummies fat and round. They danced and clapped and sang:
Oh our father is the duke,
as anyone can see
Our mother she sells peaches
that grow off of a tree.
Our father met our mother
and though he did not know her name,
He led her behind the peaches cart
and plucked her just the same.
Now take up harp and timbrel,
Now take up flute and lute,
and hear how our father
Tasted his own fruits.
Oh, they were soft and sour
Oh, they were sick and sweet
Now he sits in his tower
and cannot eat his meat.
Our mother she was taken
and given all the blame,
Tortured and forgotten
and put to fire and flame.
But we are smart young peaches
and we know our mother’s name
We stole her from the burning pyre
and gave the town her shame.
The children ran off giggling and skipping. Some of the town’s children ran after them as did some of the adults, but none were able to catch them and no one knew where they went. It was a large crowd, as burnings tend to attract, and some of the people saw the children, some only caught glimpses, some heard the song and others smelt the burning of the peach wood. Some saw and heard nothing at all, distracted by gossip and intense discussions of their neighbor’s noisy goose and the virtues of their new cart. They looked up at the reaction of the crowd and someone near them told them what had happened. They were sorry and angry they missed the excitement, and when they told their children and grandchildren of that day, they always said they’d seen it all.
Slowly, one by one, the townsfolk stopped looking after the running children and turned back to the pyre, expecting at any second now for the screaming to start and the smell of meat and hair. But there was only the crackle and pop of sap and only the smell of ash and wood. The stake was empty and, but for that stabbing into the sky, the fire could have been any simple bonfire, such as the ones they built for spring and fall and midsummer.
The girl was gone. Some saw this as proof of her sorcery and were angry. Others were disappointed at the lack of spectacle. Some, including her father who had smelled the burning of the peach wood, were relieved. (We do not know what her mother felt.) And a few, a very few, knew that the gift given was not just the rescue of the girl, but the rescue of the town. These villagers collected the ashes of the pyre to keep in special places, on mantles and curio shelves. These people and their families were known to be humble and kind, even to those others would condemn. They found the good in all who meet them, and told the stories that have been passed down, imperfect as they are.
But what happened to the girl? How did she get away? Did she find a happy place to heal where no one was trampled or plucked or forgotten? Did she come back to town and serve retribution on the Duke and the townsfolk for what they had done? Did she ever have a purpose beyond being the victim in this story?
Of course she did. But no one thought to ask until it was too late and she was gone. It took a decade or more before someone even thought of it. The ones who tell the stories like to dream she had a happy life—sometimes with the animals and creature of the woods, sometimes living with the fairies and enjoying their revels. Sometimes they dream she found another town, one better than their own. Some people have a shrine to her and say she is a goddess of women and fruit, and perhaps this one is the most true of all. Others try to forget the story exists, or are cynical and tired of hearing it. Many don’t believe it really happened.
You may be disappointed in this story because all the wrongs are not righted and all the heroes do not win. The Duke was never punished by the people nor did Peaches return triumphant and vindicated for all to see. But this is not a story of fairness or rightness or justice. Some peaches are dry and some are juicy, according to their own will, even as we pluck them and complain that one is dry and delight that one is juicy.
The Barber and the Black Canary
By Marilee Dahlman
I’ve always known that the hotel was haunted, though not necessarily the neighborhood. Nevertheless, there it was, all laid out nice and neat in the snow, a very pretty death. We were two blocks from the hotel. At the long empty stretch where the dry goods store would be built in spring. Nothing in the lot but dead trees covered in vines, and beyond it, a marsh that spread out dark and bumpy all the way to Lake Michigan.
The doctor spotted it after me. “Hold up,” he said.
I shoved my fists deeper into my coat pockets and obeyed. Spirits in my place of employment didn’t bother me any (some are the spirits of my ancestors, and as such, they protect me). And just before dawn in Chicago, like anyone, I would rather be indoors than out in the bone-cracking cold.
“Intentional.” The doctor stooped closer, careful to stay on the boardwalk. “Look at the way it’s arranged symmetrically. No animal did that.” He waved a hand without looking up. “Light a match.”
Orders. I told myself, he’s a doctor, he treats everyone like this.
I stepped off the boardwalk and crunched two steps through snow-crusted grass to the edge of the street’s gaslight. I struck a match and held it so we could see every detail: a plucked and charred bird, wings evenly outstretched, throat slashed. Its dark eyes stared up at the fading full moon. Blue-gray feathers surrounded it, projecting outward. The icy blood sparkled.
“A pigeon,” I said. The match flickered out.
“A bad egg was messing about here.” The doctor wrenched his black hat down against the wind. “Someone all-possessed, like.”
I shrugged. Perhaps he was right, a human did it. There were some bad ones.
“What do the tracks mean?” The doctor gestured at boot prints in the frozen mud.
“No, you can say.” A nicer tone. Maybe like I was his friend, not his barber.
“Don’t know.” I said it more firmly. The mud marks were impenetrable to me. The doctor had no way of knowing that, of course. I just trimmed his white sideburns once a week, after the doctor had checked on the slow death of Edgar Mulgrave, the hotel’s owner.
An eagle screamed. We jerked our heads up at the sound. The eagle flew low, as if it wanted us to see it, made a circle, and disappeared into a cloud.
That sign I understood. So, a man did this after all. And the spirits were angry.
The doctor glanced at me and chopped a hand at the dead pigeon. “Do something about it.”
That I would not do. I stepped back to the boardwalk.
The doctor clicked his tongue. Without a care or a prayer, he stepped onto the hard ground himself and mashed the bird under his boot. The breastbone snapped and I tried not to gag. The rest squished and blood leaked out like syrup. He messed up the feathers. He scraped the slime off his boot using the edge of the boardwalk. He did it all very slowly and casually, like he was teaching something to me.
“A dog’ll get it now,” I said. “Would’ve scared people.” Now I felt concerned. Maybe it would help if the spirits knew why the doctor had just done this.
“Maybe people should be scared.” The doctor rubbed his chin. “A hotel guest did it, perhaps. Someone from out East. Off his head, to do that to a bird.”
I frowned, first at the doctor and then at the hotel. The Royal Chicago loomed taller than any building on the avenue, a flesh and blood colored stone palace that Mulgrave’s almost-widow had opened last year. The wind kicked up stronger, into the kind that aches ears and spits rain. That is not what worried me. I took off toward the hotel with quick strides.
“Get back here,” the doctor called out. “You’re my windbreak, Nate.”
Employees weren’t supposed to use the front entrance but I ignored the rule. I could explain the situation to Mrs. Mulgrave, if need be. I took the hotel’s grand steps two at a time and strode through the lobby and main promenade. I pulled out a key and opened the door to the hotel’s barbershop.
My boots squeaked on the tile floor. The crystal chandeliers were dark and the red leather chairs stood empty. I went to a domed cage sitting on a pedestal and whisked off the cage’s black felt cover.
A single yellow canary sat inside on a carved wooden bar. It blinked, stretched its wings, and tweeted.
I exhaled. Don’t know how long I’d been holding my breath, but I felt a little dizzy and sweat popped out of my skin and trickled down my neck and back. “Good morning, little man,” I said. Sometimes my mother had called me that. It had been her birdcage. She had not been part of the tribe, but she’d loved birds and small creatures, as do I.
The canary flapped his wings and showed a few white streaks (I love those hidden feathers best) among the shades of bright yellow. The bird flew about his cage, fed, and returned to his perch.
A few minutes later, I’d made the shop bright and ready for business. I wore a black velvet topcoat, which is what we’re all supposed to wear. I idly stropped a blade and thought of the dead pigeon. The quick, metallic vreets of steel on leather was the only sound in the room.
The doctor had said the fellow was ‘off his head.’ I imagined a headless man drifting about the vacant lot and cold marsh. Naturally, I knew the fellow must have a head. A sick head and a stone heart. A man who felt delight at killing a bird.
I looked down at the barbershop floor and my heart beat quicker. The floor is marble, with silver eagle amulets embedded into the tiles. Fifty total, with gleaming beaks and turquoise eyes, all slick now from the scrape of boot soles. Mrs. Mulgrave had installed them, purely to compete with the hotel that had silver dollars in the floor of its barbershop. I did not think this was appropriate, everyone knew that Mr. Mulgrave and a man named Roy Tanner had stolen the amulets from a tepee during their army days, but I had grown accustomed to them. I felt like their protector.
The dawn eagle had flown low, and in a circle.
My hand holding the blade went a little wet. I crouched down and slid my fingers on a cool, smooth bird. Its single green-veined blue eye stared at me.
After some thinking, I went over to the cage. Poked the blade between the bars and rolled it. I knew that the canary liked to watch light dance off the metal.
“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want you to worry about a thing.” My mother had also said that to me.
The canary began to sing.
As usual, the son and heir Lionel Mulgrave was my first customer. Lionel had arrived three weeks ago from Paris with a silver-tipped walking stick and a trunk full of dolls. He did what he always did, he looked at the birdcage, shook his head, and wrinkled his nose.
After Lionel, a crush of drummers. The men selling candies, fancy shoes, clocks, pots and pans, and sewing machines jawed about sales, and sometimes a new play at the theater. I watched carefully, but as I knew, they were the types to ignore the bird completely. I liked the drummers. They were gentler sorts, about my age, too young to have battled in the South or put up forts out West. Other men, older ones, they had hard, quick eyes. Some call it strength.
It’s fear. I’m sure of that. Men back from war or the West with decorations, whether they’re for the lobby of a hotel or pretty medals for a shirtfront, they must know that spirits of the dead see everything.
Generally speaking, patrons dwell more on me, the head barber, than the bird. They read the silver plate outside the door: Barbershop Concession, Management by Nathaniel Tall Cloud. I know I’m a novelty, same as the peace pipe case in the lobby and the two thousand arrowheads on the western wall of the dining room. But the proper nameplate lends my position a permanency that I don’t mind, given the practicalities of living a life where you don’t quite fit in one place, or the other. Once I’d been written up in the newspaper. And last year, when someone had scratched the nameplate, a deliberate, deep slash right down the middle, Mrs. Mulgrave promptly got it replaced.
“I have a bone to pick with you.”
Charlie Dillinger’s voice boomed from the shop’s entrance like he was on stage at McVicker’s. I paused my blade at a customer’s throat. The actor dipped to eye level with the canary and wiggled gold-ringed fingers through the wrought iron bars.
“No bird should be prettier than me,” Dillinger said. He straightened up and grinned wide, showing a row of perfect white teeth. “I’ll wait until Mr. Tall Cloud is ready for me. I like my shave nice and close.”
The canary sang, a customer slapped Dillinger on the back, and another hollered a greeting from a chair. I resumed sweeping my blade.
That night, after I closed the shop, I cradled my bird.
“Mr. Dillinger acts like a cat that ate the canary,” I said. “But I don’t believe he’s off his head.”
I waited until the bird’s eyelids blinked slow before returning him to the cage.
A week later, just before closing, Gunner O’Brian swaggered in while I swept cigar butts and hair off the floor. O’Brian slung his arm around the neck of a departing politician, who laughed loud and left fast. Two associates arrived with O’Brian and stood by the door. One had dried, dark splatter on his silk waistcoat.
“You keep ‘em good and shiny,” O’Brian said. “Them eagles the Mulgraves put in.”
“Mr. Mulgrave found them in a medicine man’s things,” I said. “Skirmish during army service.”
The canary tweeted. O’Brian jabbed his elbow at the cage, rattled it hard, and the canary shrilled and flew in circles. Talk in the shop quieted. O’Brian took another long look at the floor.
I set the broom against the wall and nodded at an empty chair.
“Hell of an idea old Mulgrave had, to put in a Sioux-blood barber.” O’Brian settled in the seat. “This life is more bustle than you’re used to, I bet.”
“Better than the stockyards,” I said.
“You ain’t gonna get work waiting at the stockyards gate,” O’Brian said. “Not you.”
On the shortest day of the year, Roy Tanner limped in. He wore a navy army coat with one gold button dangling from it. Grime streaked his greasy white hair and beard. At the cage, Roy and snapped his pockmarked jaws together like a dog. The canary fluttered. Roy laughed rough like something was stuck in his throat. He limped forward.
And slipped hard on an eagle, falling backwards.
Roy swore and swore! A gentleman from New York helped him up.
Of course I thought, yes, another sign.
Even before the dead pigeon, I had wondered if the spirits wanted me to do anything about Roy. The man was so old and bitter, I figured that the red blood in his veins must really run all gritty and brown. It had been said that Mulgrave put up with Roy because Roy knew of things done out West, bad things, that Mulgrave didn’t want spread around. But I’d seen them together, before Mulgrave was dying, and Mulgrave never laughed like he did when he was with Roy.
“Mulgrave’s wife says someone got to trim me,” Roy said.
I nodded at another barber.
“That’s right, I ain’t gonna lose my scalp.” Roy spit a long stream of tobacco juice. It splattered across the floor, bubbled a bit on the tops of my shoes and a silver eagle, and spread out in runny, thin streams everywhere. He scratched at a boil on his neck that was bigger and shinier than a red marble.
The barbershop chatter quieted some. Talk revived once Roy got sat in a chair with a towel around his face. Roy left with another bite at the bird and a barking laugh. He stayed on his feet that time.
After closing, I tidied the walnut sideboard under the oil painting of a black steam train rolling through a green prairie. I wiped smears off the wall mirrors. I went to the cage. My canary’s dark eyes looked up at me.
“I’ll keep you safe,” I said.
I took out the canary and stroked his yellow head. I returned the bird to the wooden perch and draped the black cover over the cage.
Out of fairness, I decided to shadow all of the customers that, in my view, were most likely to be privately demented. This included a dentist from Omaha who had tweeted back at the canary like they were having a conversation in bird language. I tracked the dentist to Lincoln Park three icy evenings in a row, where all the man did was sit at the new, snowed-over baseball fields and smoke a pipe. I followed Lionel Mulgrave to a closed haberdashery that opened when he rapped at the door with his walking stick. I went all the way to a smoky South Side saloon and watched Gunner O’Brian’s associates run a numbers game for pennies.
It was Roy I caught in the act.
Most nights, Roy stayed in the hotel’s billiards room until it closed. Then he would lurk about the lobby until the night desk clerk told him to leave. Sometimes Roy would shuffle to another hotel lobby. Other times, Lincoln Park or an alley. I had to will my own heart to pump cold when following the limping old man. Watching him called to mind how alone Roy was. I don’t have much company myself, but Roy was different. He was a bone relic from a time of crushing death and taking, all over the place. Time turned, and spirits, the evil and the good, had picked up what they wanted. Now Roy was what was left. Sooner or later, they’d take him, too, and do what they wished.
At the last full moon of winter, a windless night, Roy never showed up to the hotel. I locked the shop, checked the vacant lot, and waited by a tree for a while, keeping as still as I could. I imagined that there were no buildings and no boardwalk. I was an ancient hunter on an empty plain, waiting for a night wolf.
Roy showed up, sure enough. He carried something in a small leather sack. It was still alive, the way it bounced some. I leaned closer to the tree.
Roy muttered to himself and left the avenue. He traipsed across the vacant lot and into the frozen marsh. I followed him. I can move pretty quiet for a big man. Roy stopped close to the lake and dropped the sack. Roy fumbled with it, and pretty soon, he had his hands closed around a pigeon. His bony fingers squeezed its neck. The pigeon squirmed.
“Let it go,” I said.
Roy’s head snapped up. His small eyes narrowed. Two words dripped out of his mouth: “You git.”
My boot struck Roy square under the chin. Roy’s hands released the bird. His body hurled backwards. I planned to pick Roy up and throw him against a tree, but the man made helpless spluttering sounds like he was choking on his own tobacco-soaked saliva. The red sore oozed yellow on his neck. Roy’s left eye twitched and I saw he had a new boil on his eyelid, weeping pus.
I stood over him. “Why’re you hurting birds?”
“I’ll find a copper.” Roy pointed a long finger with a dirty nail. “You’ll do a stretch!”
I grabbed Roy’s blue coat and heaved him upright. Brown fluid dripped down his beard.
“Why?” I lifted him off the ground. Light as a skeleton, he was.
Roy coughed warm flecks on my face. “You devil don’t know—”
I shook him hard.
Roy’s eye with the dripping boil blinked. His lips stretched back. “To cure the skin, sacrifice two pigeons, such as he can git.”
I threw him on the ground. “You stop now.”
I picked up the shivering gray bird. I tucked it close under my arm and headed toward the avenue.
“Two pigeons!” Roy squealed after me.
I got to the avenue. I found more birds strutting near a bakery and set the stolen pigeon down.
The walk gave me time to reflect on the encounter. Had I done right? All things considered, I felt satisfied by the morality of my actions and my restraint. I’d warned Roy. The man would find another hotel. He was dying, anyway. Rotting from the inside out.
Just the same, I spent the night in my shop, with my canary.
I felt no feeling of premonition. I saw no sign from any spirit. I still feel they should have warned me.
Roy hadn’t been to the hotel in months and I’d overheard the desk clerk and doorman mention Roy’s absence. The man was good and gone, and not missed. I thought, maybe he had died already.
A late spring freeze hit overnight. As I walked to work, I kept my head down against the cold and fell in with the doctor. I ignored the doctor’s chat and watched my breath frost and disappear, over and over. At the hotel, I strolled through the side entrance, unlocked the door to the shop and took my time stomping warmth back into my toes. I lit the gas chandeliers. I lifted the cage’s black felt cover.
The canary was gone.
I took a few quick strides across the room and grabbed a straight razor. The box crashed to the floor and blades clattered across the tile.
I headed to the same part of the marsh where I had caught Roy before. I felt dizzy, maybe from the exertion of moving fast but mostly from worry. Perhaps the canary was still alive, in Roy’s leather sack, staring into darkness. Fear could be the only thought in the bird’s tiny skull.
I saw a reed-thin figure crouched among the frosty cattails.
“No!” I looked up to the sky and said the word more to the spirits than to the man.
Roy raised his head. He creaked upright, threw out his arms, and spread dirty, bloodstained fingers. A wide smile split his face like it’d been carved there with a blade. The boil over his left eye dripped. He shuffled away, giving that barking laugh.
I squished a few more steps through muddy ground and forced myself to look.
My yellow canary lay dead. He was all open down the middle. I felt like I was empty in the middle myself, just looking at it. Never before had I felt like I had nothing inside but cold and hollowness. Now I think, it’s probably the way bad men feel all the time. The bird’s body looked smaller than it had ever seemed in his cage. A small knife, a stained kerchief, and the leather sack lay next to the tiny corpse. I know I groaned. Right then, I was madder at the spirits than Roy. Then I realized, somewhere, my bird had become a spirit itself. Smooth and happy and free, somewhere.
But still, something had to be done about Roy.
Roy’s laugh drifted along the still air. My hand tightened on the straight blade’s bone handle. I saw Roy heading to the avenue.
I went after him.
Roy turned his head at the sound of my steps. He cackled and opened his mouth wide. “Tweet, tweet!”
I closed the distance and yanked hard on the back of Roy’s coat. Roy’s arms wind-milled, his sleeves flapped, but his feet stayed under him. He was nimble like a skeleton come alive. Roy scrambled away and darted behind a tree. He grinned, feinted left and right, and took off again, this time toward the lake.
Then he slipped, but didn’t fall.
His breath got more ragged, and he slipped again. Roy steadied and frowned at the blade in my hand. “You won’t.” He spat into the snow. “They’ll hang you.”
Roy and I faced each other in the open marsh. Reeds poked out of cold mud. The dawn sky hung low and gray.
I stared at the gaps in Roy’s teeth and his oozing neck and eyelid. I felt like the same kind of ooze could be in my stomach, I felt so sick. My hand dropped the blade. Roy tilted his head.
“I don’t kill dogs,” I finally said.
Roy laughed and lifted his bearded chin. “Tweet, tweet.”
The ice splintered.
Roy slammed down hard. Really hard. I winced when I heard his elbow crack on the ice. Freezing water rushed up from the cracks, which spider-webbed bigger. Roy yelped at the touch of frigid water. His boots and hands went wild. The ice cracked wide open and Roy fell through.
I gingerly lifted a boot and eyed the ice beneath my own feet. It looked solid. We were still a distance from the lake. This was the marsh, yet. The water couldn’t be more than a few feet deep.
Roy’s boots and hands sloshed above the water. His head didn’t come up.
“Tweet, tweet,” I said softly. I imagined that the spirit of the yellow canary was somewhere close. Perhaps it was everywhere. “Roy’s having a terrible time getting his feet under him,” I said. “Maybe he can’t swim.”
I stood quietly. Picked up the blade and waited for some sign of what I should do. Sure enough, overhead, a solitary eagle circled, appearing and disappearing through the dark clouds. I took a deep breath, felt my shoulders go easy. My work was done, then.
The water finally stilled. One fingertip broke the surface and disappeared again.
It started to rain, the kind with big, cold drops. I backed away and returned with the small leather sack. I held it carefully with both hands. I slid the blades inside, my own and Roy’s, and gently sank the sack with the canary into the water.
I headed back to the hotel through the rain. When I put a hand on the shop’s door, my mind went to the cage. I’d have to clean it out. May as well do that now. Perhaps give it to Mrs. Mulgrave.
I plodded pretty heavy into the room. My coat and boots dripped water on the tile.
I stopped cold.
A tiny bird sat on the bar in the cage. It was a canary, like my pet. But this one was dark. Its shiny feathers gleamed black.
I stared at the bird. I felt like all the air had left my body. I raised my hands to my cheeks and blinked and breathed until I was certain that the black canary was real. I shook my head and tried to accept it. The spirits took Roy and they did what they wanted to do. It had to be right.
The bird uttered a small tweet in greeting and flapped its wings. I walked slowly to the cage. I opened it and picked up the bird. I held him in my large hands, enjoying the feel of delicate bones. I felt his small heart beat against my fingertip. I raised him to my lips and kissed his silky head. The bird smelled faintly of tobacco.
The Water Dragon
By Joanne Aylott
It was never the monsters hiding under the bed. Neither was it the dark of her bedroom when the lights went out. It was never the zombies that could clamber out of the packed earth and find and eat the little girls who played hide-and-seek in the graveyard. It wasn’t any of the things her best friend Clara had divulged to her once as they’d perched on the cobblestone wall that ran around the village. For Evangeline, it was the pitter-patter of raindrops on her head that caused her heart to seize.
Her mother, June, would be waiting by the back door, of course, wringing her hands until her daughter arrived, flushed and out of breath from running.
“Praise, God,” she would whisper, before crossing herself. Bustling Evangeline inside, the two of them would then huddle together by the kitchen window, uttering prayers for the clouds to part and sunny skies to bless them once more.
Sometimes, her mother would berate her for taking the rainless days for granted.
“You haven’t been praying hard enough,” she told Evangeline at the table, their hands still clasped from saying grace. “You’re not even trying.”
So Evangeline was always careful, after crossing all her fingers and toes, that her last thought before sleep overcame her was that she would awake to the pleasant heat of the sun on her face and the sight of a brilliant blue sky peeking through her curtains.
Yet although Evangeline deemed herself old enough now to know that zombies and ghosts could never hurt her, as long as she was home before dark, of course, for the life of her she could not explain why they should be so afraid of rain. Indeed, Evangeline had been sodden before when she had once ventured too far from the cottage and the storm had taken her by surprise. All she had felt whilst her mother had bundled her in towels were as if she’d just stepped out of a very cold bath.
“It doesn’t look so scary from in here,” she’d observed, cross-legged by the fire; not even while it had lashed against the window panes in droves and lightning had crackled across the sky.
“Well, you would be a fool not to be afraid,” said her mother.
Sometimes their garden would be ruined, reduced to a mushy, mulchy mess of sodden foliage. When Evangeline was younger, she used to believe that there were such things as giants that would use the cover of thunder to enter the garden and destroy all the pretty flowers. Her mother never used to tell her otherwise, and so Evangeline still had to scold herself whenever she could’ve sworn she’d seen a footprint the size of a dustbin lid left in the soil.
It was Monday morning, and Evangeline was peering at one of these very such indentations by the churchyard wall when someone called out to her and Clara. Glancing up, she caught sight of Mr. Reed striding past them on his way to the fields.
“I would start making my way home now, girls. You’re too close to the boundary wall when the sky’s looking this murky. That means you, too, sweetheart.”
“Yes, father,” her best friend mumbled.
Evangeline jumped to her feet, wiping her hands on her skirt.
“I don’t know why you try and run off so fast, Eve,” Clara told her as they began making their way back towards the centre of the village, deciding that they would stop by at Mr. Graham’s shop to buy toffee if they hurried. “We’ve both got caught in the rain so many times now and it’s never hurt us.”
Evangeline hushed her, peering up and down the lane. Old Mrs. Simmons was pruning her roses, but everyone knew that her ears were shot. They passed by her garden and she raised a gnarled hand at them in greeting, lips pulling to reveal a toothless crevasse.
“It’s just when you’re out in it for too long,” whispered Evangeline, “or when you go out on purpose. I don’t know what happens to you but all I know is that I don’t want to find out.”
Clara giggled, and they stopped in the middle of the path.
“See?” she said. “What’s so bad about rain, Eve? It makes everything damp and sometimes it makes the grass really slippery. And you can throw stones in the puddles! Why should we be afraid?”
Huffing, Evangeline readied her best grown-up voice. “Because that’s what we’ve been told. It’s all we’ve ever known. To run home as soon as the rain starts.”
“Eve. We both know zombies can eat you. Ghosts can scare you to death. What does rain do?”
They walked in thoughtful silence until they arrived at the shop. Clara went in first, as always, and they went up to the counter, contemplating the shelves of sweet jars behind Mr. Graham in his red-and-white stripy apron. He was already bagging up some liquorice for old Mr. Partridge, the same corduroy trousers flapping about his bow legs. The two of them were conversing quietly, and Evangeline’s ears pricked at some of the words. She felt a gentle nudge at her side, and she turned to see Clara slipping into one of the nearby aisles. She followed, and together, they listened.
“So what are they saying happened to the poor child?” murmured Mr. Partridge.
“That perhaps she tried to go swimming in the river. My Daisy asked if she could once when we were on a walk near the marshlands, and of course I told her that it was forbidden. It was beautiful weather and I know it’s tempting, especially when it’s as nice as it was on Friday.”
“Oh, it was beautiful weather Friday,” Mr. Partridge agreed in a rasp.
“Anyway, as you make your way further out, the current gets stronger. The girl was probably caught unawares some time Friday afternoon and got swept away.”
Mr. Partridge made a noise of anguish.
“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Graham. “I heard a child calling it The River Fury. Some kind of water dragon that is forever angry and tempts children to try and ride it. If they can do it, only then will the waters calm. Something like that.”
In her pocket, Evangeline clenched her palm around the pound coin her mother had given her for toffee. She remembered it had rained that Friday afternoon.
“I thought we’d seen the last of this ten years ago,” said Mr. Partridge sadly, before shuffling out of the shop. Exchanging looks, Evangeline and Clara stepped out from the aisle and approached the counter once more, though Evangeline wasn’t sure either of them were now in the mood for sweets.
“You must never try and ride the water dragon,” said Mr. Graham, and they blinked up at him in surprise. His eyes were hard. “Understand?”
Evangeline nodded. Besides, neither of them would ever be able to tame a dragon.
They had just finished another chapter of Evangeline’s bedtime story. Although Evangeline knew she was much too old for this sort of thing, and she was perfectly capable of reading on her own, it was a nightly ritual that she was certain her mother still enjoyed just as much as she did. It was also a way of distracting the both of them when the rain was beating down outside and it showed no signs of stopping.
This particular story was one of Evangeline’s favourites. It was a tale of adventure, and she loved listening to her mother read of distant lands and exotic locales, so far removed from the dreary existence of their little village that she found it hard to believe that there were indeed such other places in the world.
“Yes, darling?” Her mother got to her feet to slot the book back amongst the others on the shelf.
“Clara and I heard that a girl in the village disappeared on Friday. Is that true?”
Evangeline watched as her mother came to perch on the edge of the bed, bypassing her special reading chair. She adjusted the teddy bear that was sat on the windowsill, its stitched mouth coming undone.
“Yes. Yes, it’s true.”
“What happened to her?” Evangeline found herself fidgeting with a fraying edge of her blanket, eyes trained on the stray thread.
For a moment she thought that her mother had not heard her and was about to ask again, but then, “She got caught in the rain.” Her voice wavered. She stood, brushing her hands down her pinafore.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Evangeline whispered.
“It doesn’t have to make sense,” said her mother. She was staring out the window, her face sheathed in moonlight. The raindrops that cascaded steadily down the glass cast shadows on her skin, like tears.
Inhaling sharply and blinking as if she had just remembered whereabouts she was, she leant down and pulled the blanket up to her daughter’s chin, patting her shoulder and resting her hand there.
“You must promise me again that you will always come straight home when the rain starts. You come straight home to me. You promise?”
Evangeline swallowed, her glass of milk before bed now a bitter taste in her mouth.
With one last smile, her mother straightened.
“What about the water dragon?” said Evangeline, remembering. “Should I be afraid of that, too?”
“Yes, darling. You must beware that, too. Now, good night. I expect to hear you praying before you go to sleep.”
“What do you think is this water dragon?”
Evangeline and Clara were skipping down the lane to the pond, laden with bread for the ducks. It had been almost a week since they had eavesdropped on the conversation in Mr. Graham’s shop, and since then, the missing girl had been found in a ditch near the marshlands with water in her lungs.
“Who knows?” said Clara. “Just sounds like a load of rubbish to me. It was the younger children who were spouting all that stuff, after all.” She sniffed.
“You didn’t ask your parents? Mr. Graham did warn us about it.”
“Why should I?” Clara shrugged. “I’m already told to be scared of enough things. I don’t want to worry about something else.”
They’d reached the pond, a small pool of water about the size of Evangeline’s garden. It had lily pads and frogs if they were lucky enough to spot one. Evangeline tore off a scrap of bread and threw it to the mother duck and her ducklings, not finding it in herself to smile when they all gathered by her feet.
“You know, I have a theory,” said Clara, chewing on a piece of crust. “And it’s just a theory, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I feel like I can trust you enough to tell you.”
“We’re best friends, Clara!”
“Even so. I wasn’t sure if you’d run home and blab about it. Then your mother would tell my mother, and she wouldn’t let me out to play anymore.”
“Anyway, here’s what I think. Our parents tell us all these things we should be afraid of. Ghosts that come out at night, going past the boundary wall, this water dragon, the rain… but what if–”
A low rumble of thunder pulled their gazes skyward. Evangeline could feel her heartbeat in her ears, and she looked to Clara with wide eyes. Her friend sighed.
“We’d better make a run for it, then.”
The girls scattered the rest of their bread and began dashing back along the twisted, winding roads. The pond was the other side of the village, and Evangeline thought how stupid she was for not sticking close to the cottage on a day like today.
The rain began to fall. Evangeline felt her hair and her clothes grow wetter and wetter, and soon she was whimpering not just with the cold but with a gnawing fear that had a hold of her insides. Clara was ahead of her but she could barely make her out, the rain coming down so thick and so fast Evangeline was sure that she would disappear.
She grabbed for the cobblestone wall on her left, using it as a guide. With her free hand she attempted to shield her vision, the rain pouring into her eyes. Near-blinded, she let out a gasp as she slammed into Clara, the both of them stumbling. Her friend had stopped.
“Clara! What are you doing?”
“Look!” she shouted, pointing.
Evangeline did so, following her gaze, to find that they were directly outside Mrs. Simmons’ cottage. The old lady herself was standing beneath the porch, pruning scissors in hand, and she was gesturing madly at them, her mouth a silent chasm beneath the deafening roar of the rain.
“Come on, then.” Clara pushed open the gate.
“No!” Evangeline caught her sopping sleeve. “We have to go straight home–our parents will worry!”
“We’re still ages away! You said yourself we can’t be out in this for too long!”
Clara grimaced at her, slipping through the gate and running up the stepping-stone path towards the house. Mrs. Simmons stepped aside to let her through the door before turning to gesture again at Evangeline.
With one last sigh, Evangeline darted to follow her. The rain no longer beat down upon her head as she reached the shelter of the porch, and she felt herself threatening to slump with relief as she moved past Mrs. Simmons, finding herself standing in a musty living room that smelt of mothballs and soap.
“You girls are drenched.”
She spoke oddly. Evangeline had noticed this on the few occasions she had been up-close to Mrs. Simmons. Her mother had told her it was because of her ears, how she couldn’t hear her own voice too well, and so the sounds came out strange.
“Come and sit by the fire.”
She ushered the two of them over to a flowery loveseat. Evangeline felt herself sinking; the cushions seemed to swallow them up.
As the girls huddled there shivering, Mrs. Simmons disappeared into the kitchen for a moment before returning with two cups of hot, sweet-smelling tea. Evangeline sat there with it clasped between her clammy hands, not yet having the strength to lift the beverage to her lips. Mrs. Simmons then collapsed into an armchair herself, peering at the two of them.
“Are you girls alright?”
“We’re fine.” Clara nudged Evangeline in the ribs; she nodded her agreement.
Mrs. Simmons didn’t look convinced, but took a sip from her own cup, staring into the flames that licked the hearth.
“Mrs. Simmons?” said Clara. Then, louder, “Mrs. Simmons?”
The old woman jerked.
“Oh, yes, dear?”
“We both want to know… we feel that we should know…” Clara paused as Evangeline grabbed her arm, shaking her head. She could feel Mrs. Simmons’ pale blue eyes on them from over the rim of her teacup.
Clara pulled herself free and Evangeline receded back into the cushions.
“Why should we even be so afraid of rain, Mrs. Simmons?”
The question hung in the stale air. Mrs. Simmons’ eyes dropped to the carpeted floor, and she took a deep, ragged breath that seemed to give her some trouble.
“Back when I was a child, I had a friend, Ruth,” she told them. “She lived just down the bottom of the lane from me.”
She gestured towards the window, before a chuckle wracked her chest.
“She was a headstrong little lady. I always much felt like I was her lackey, always following her, secretly envying her.”
Evangeline glanced sideways at Clara, but her friend seemed to be enraptured.
“One day, we decided we would go on an adventure. We passed the boundary wall to go and play in the river by the marshlands. We followed it for what felt like miles. I wanted to turn back but, well, you can imagine what Ruth might have said about that.” Smiling, she watched the fire. Evangeline realised that it was dying.
“Would you like me to put on some more logs for you?” she asked.
“Oh, that’s alright, dear. I was getting rather warm, anyway.”
Evangeline sunk back into the loveseat, avoiding the frown Clara shot her for interrupting the story.
“Then it started to rain,” murmured Mrs. Simmons, her gaze fixed on the rapidly diminishing flames. “It came so quickly, and neither of us saw any danger. We were just children, after all. Anyway, I managed to get out. I got lucky, I suppose… I tried to reach for her from the bank… but she’d already taken on too much water. I watched as she slipped beneath the surface and never came back up. The water dragon took her.”
Her crooked hands were trembling. Evangeline and Clara shared an uneasy glance. At the bottom of the hearth, the embers glowed their last before finally growing dark.
“It stole my friend from me. And it felt cheated that it couldn’t have me, too. It lies in wait for me, to this day. The rain gives it the power to search for me, for the river to break its banks and seek me out. Do you know how many floods this village has had over the years? The last was before your time, anyway. Now, our children are warned to run straight home when the rain starts. To keep them safe. I thought it had ended. For ten years, I thought it was over. But then that little girl went missing and… it’s all because of me.”
Mrs. Simmons hunched over herself and began to cry. The girls shifted on the loveseat. Clara opened her mouth, but the words seemed to die on her tongue. Evangeline glanced out the window; the rain had stopped.
“We really must be getting back now, Mrs. Simmons,” she said, setting down her untouched tea. Her voice was barely above a whisper, and she realised her mistake.
“I can show you if you like.”
Mrs. Simmons raised her head. Something had changed in her eyes; they were focused, steely, glinting.
“I can show you where it happened on the river. It’s not too far to walk.”
“Mrs. Simmons, did you hear me?”
Clara sat up straight. “I want to see.”
Evangeline whirled on her. “Clara, what are you doing?” she breathed. “Everyone will be waiting for us, my mother is probably terrified–” A lump formed in her throat, her eyes prickling. “We have to go home.”
Her friend shrugged. “Do what you like. But I need to see this. I’m going.”
A smile stitched itself across Mrs. Simmons’ face. Evangeline stared between the pair of them, her mouth open.
“Come with us, dearie,” the old lady said, pushing herself to her feet. “It won’t take long, I promise.”
“No.” Evangeline stood. “No, I really must go back now.”
Mrs. Simmons cocked her head at her, like a bird. “She’s scared, bless her.”
“I’ll be fine, Eve,” Clara whispered. Evangeline turned to her, hot tears running down her cheeks now. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Well, if you’re sure, Evangeline,” said Mrs. Simmons from behind her. “You be careful, now. And tell your mother I said hello.”
Evangeline stepped out of her reach. With one last imploring look at Clara, met with a determination she had seen so many times before and likely followed, she headed towards the door. The latch was stiff beneath her fingers. With a dull thunk the door swung open, and she looked behind her into the living room. Both her best friend and the old lady were staring at her; Mrs. Simmons had a hand on Clara’s shoulder.
Outside, the sky was bright, and the ground smelt fresh and sharp. Pulling the door to, Evangeline ran all the way home.
Clara was found dead in a ditch the next morning with water in her lungs.
Evangeline repeated the story over and over again. She and Clara had been feeding the ducks by the pond. Then, when the rain had started, they’d tried to run home but had been forced to take shelter at Mrs. Simmons’ cottage.
The old lady had vouched for the pair of them and had also filled in the details where Evangeline could not, that Clara had said goodbye not long after her friend, and that that was the last she’d seen of her.
From then on, as Evangeline had expected, she was no longer allowed out of her mother’s sight. Not that she would have wanted to. And it wasn’t as if she had a friend to go out and play with, anymore.
As she and her mother made their way down the lane towards Mr. Graham’s to buy some necessities, Evangeline caught sight of Mrs. Simmons pruning her roses. It took a moment for the senile woman to hear them, yet when they passed by and her pale eyes landed on Evangeline, she gave her a gummy smile, her finger raising toward her pinched lips.
There was a rumble of thunder overhead.
“We’d better hurry,” said her mother, pushing her daughter along.
Evangeline knew she was right. There was a lot to be feared in this village. And she knew what Clara’s theory had been that day. She only wished that she had come to the same realisation sooner.
At least she knew now. Ten years old was as good an age as any to start growing up.
Traveling by Starlight: A Journey of Two Ways
By Lindsey Duncan
When the otherworldly visitors arrived, I had my hands full with their unusual needs: no salt, everything baked or boiled until it was pure–what did that mean?–and only cream to drink. While the rest of the castle whispered about their motives and admired every nuance of their behavior, I rushed about the kitchen, commander of an army of cooks and cutlery. I was as curious as the next person, but I had a job to do.
After a welcome feast of venison curry and roast peacock, I slumped in my chair by the servant’s courtyard and wished I could make myself move. Sticky summer air pressed down on my body, settling into the same places the heat of cook fires had blasted earlier. I thought about stripping, but it was too much effort to reach the ties.
“Are you all right, Verel?” a raspy baritone asked. “I heard bloodcurdling screams from the direction of the kitchen.”
I sat up sharply, feeling hot in a third, not entirely unpleasant way. Delin stood in the stone archway, outlined by the moonlight–lean, perfectly proportioned, a face like rock. We had been friends for years, and when I first realized I was attracted to him, I had stared at that face, hoping to remind myself of our friendship in the familiarity of hazel eyes. Then I discovered I enjoyed staring too much.
“If you wish to know if there was blood in the red velvet cake,” I said, “the answer is yes. How else do you think I achieved that color?”
Delin laughed. “That will put me off my dinner.”
“Tell me about the feast,” I said.
He dropped on the well-trod dirt of the courtyard, absently fingering a hoof print. “The best of the known world–especially from the kitchen,” he added with a nod to me. “But all the guests were tense, trying to be better than their natures.”
“And…?” I prodded.
“Our visitors are beautiful, but not in the way of anything human,” he said. The excitement came off him in waves. I basked in it as I listened. “Their speech is–sometimes I cannot be sure it is words at all, and we choose to hear the familiar. The king tried to get them to agree to an alliance,” he continued. “But they said we were primitive and crude, with our iron weapons and our deafness to the natural world.”
“That was rude of them,” I said.
“No–they’re right.” Delin sighed. “But there’s hope. They want to take a few people with them, to live in their cities, learn their ways, and bring that wisdom back.” He fidgeted as if he could hardly hold the thought in. “I want to be one of them.”
My heart took a step off the castle parapet. “But people abducted in the past were gone for decades,” I said. “They left and returned only when their friends had become old and grey-” when I was old and grey, I wanted to shout, “-and the world they knew had crumbled to dust.”
“But young,” Delin countered. “And still with all the possibilities in the world to pursue. And the chance to see their home realm!”
“You’re needed here,” I said. I wasn’t sure who perturbed me more: Delin or these mysterious visitors. The question of the unknown and the imagined–cities of glass, places where everyone flew on gossamer wings; powers that could cure any sickness–was as heady as the king’s anniversary wine… but I was sobered by the idea of how much one would leave behind. Delin, apparently, had no such concerns.
“Needed?” He shook his head. “I’m the junior healer, and there are plenty of young faces waiting to replace me. Anyhow, it’s not assured. They want to pick from a group of candidates.” He slid forward, catching my hands. “I want you to come stand with me, Verel. For support, and maybe…” He hesitated.
It was foolish, but the little catch in his voice turned everything the other way around. He wanted me with him, and a journey into the unknown with a good friend–never mind more–was less daunting, even conceivable. As long as they let me cook, and who knew what arcane ingredients and obscure techniques the visitors might use for their food?
“Of course I will,” I said. Meanwhile, a portion of my brain wondered how long I could hold onto him before he noticed. I waited until the last to free my hands.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll feel better with someone I can trust at my side. Not so inclined to run away, maybe.” His smile was sheepish.
He was trying to make a joke, but he was anxious. “I will be there for you,” I said firmly. “Even if you run.”
He laughed. “With a show of confidence like that, Verel,” he said. “What could go wrong?”
The next morning, after a hectic breakfast, I hurried into the royal gardens. It was the pride of the kingdom, waterfalls of blossoming vines tumbling into lush beds. I hid myself behind a clump of rosebushes as the queen took the visitors on a tour. Clad in a velvet gown and with a silver circlet perched upon her brow, she carried herself with an air of majesty that paled next to the visitors.
Their skin was pale and soft, their forms–while human in shape–as thin and delicate as crystal. Their voices rang like bells and echoed inside my head. I wondered if they were speaking or somehow projecting their thoughts. They wore sleek white robes, but the whispers I heard among the servants indicated this was not the fashion of their kind. Perhaps they typically wore nothing.
The five visitors glided along in the queen’s wake. One seemed to be in charge; when he spoke or gestured, the others halted. I strained to overhear, but the only dialogue I caught was about the perfume of the flowers.
The smallest visitor turned her head in my direction. I jerked backwards into the bushes, cursing as my hand scraped on a thorn. I felt childish–but these beings seemed so ancient, how could one not be a child? To play at their feet seemed natural.
I withdrew, sucking at the line of blood on my hand. For as long as I could remember, we had seen signs of them: dancing lights on the horizon, intricate circles left in field and forest. Their only contact had been occasional abductions of our people. Now that they had shown themselves, there were more questions than answers–questions as basic as whether their kind had women and men. By appearance, they were neither, or perhaps I didn’t know what to look for.
As I approached the whiteblossom trellises at the garden gate, I saw Delin leaning against them. He huffed out a sigh. “Morning, Verel.”
“Everything all right?” I asked.
“Guard had a training accident this morning–patched up now. Messy, though.” He looked at me and smirked. “You’re bleeding. Your cooks are supposed to supply dye for the cake, not you.”
“I’ve got tastier blood.” He was too close; his slightly rapid breaths sent a shiver through me. To distract myself, I continued, “Are you sure you want to volunteer to go with the visitors? We know nothing about their intentions. They could mean to feast on us like cattle.”
“Seems a lot of trouble for a meal,” he said.
“No trouble too great,” I retorted.
Delin laughed. “I understand you: we have only their word they mean to help us. But there is no such thing as a one-way journey, Verel. Wherever they take us, we can return.”
I knew I should point out he was wrong, how many actions could not be undone, but I wanted to believe him. His face was luminous, inspired. I wobbled on the first step of my own one-way journey. A few fierce words would tell him how I felt.
The risks held me back. To lose a friend, to chance he would want nothing more to do with me and he would insist on making his journey alone… I couldn’t bear the thought.
I might not have a choice. Who was to say the visitors would want a cook, much less this one? We could be separated forever.
Would I tell him if those were the last words we would share? Would that make it easier or harder?
“Verel?” He tilted his head inquisitively. “You look concerned.”
“No salt,” I said. “I can’t work with bacon or most kinds of cured ham.”
“You could use me,” he offered. “I’m a ham.”
Did the man know what he was saying? I took an obscure comfort in the fact that if he had any clue of my feelings, he wouldn’t have bantered.
“But not cured,” I said. “Healers can’t cure themselves.” I paused. “If you change your mind about the visitors…”
“I won’t,” he said. “I was meant to do this. It’s destiny.”
The day of the visitors’ departure arrived more quickly than I had expected. Delin barged in on me wearing a frilly yellow court shirt, asked how he looked, and vanished before I could tell him the only possible description was bridal. I shook my head, changed into my second-best tunic–crimson with wide sleeves–and went out to catch him.
“They’ll choose you because they want to choose you–not because you look good,” I said.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“Because they’re not fools,” I answered. “If we’ve figured that much out, enlightened beings from the otherworld certainly have.”
Delin laughed. “I’m sorry, Verel. I’m being a clodpate about this.”
I clapped his shoulder. “Courage.”
We descended into the courtyard, where thirty-some people gathered to await the selection. Some were at the height of their field, honored warriors and the finest master of horse-flesh in six kingdoms. The royal party stood on a raised dais. By the king’s expression, he was not pleased by the potential for losing these paragons, but to object would risk offending his guests and the unknown bounty they might bestow.
Everyone tried to speak quietly, but voices echoed off the stone as if an entire city crammed into the courtyard. Softer whispers still pierced like the cries of hunted birds.
Delin craned his neck towards the archway into the great hall, the rust-dappled main gate winched up out of sight. “Can you see them?”
“Stand still,” I said.
The clock in the center tower of the castle chimed the hour. The scarlet-clad herald stepped forward and announced the visitors. Until that moment, I had not noticed they had no names–or none that they shared.
The five figures glided into view, their too-large eyes tranquil and impenetrable. They halted a few paces from the front of the crowd. Delin gripped my arm.
The king stepped forward on the dais. “These are the ones who dream of accompanying you to your other world,” he said. “Each choice will serve you in good stead.”
The visitors separated and moved through the crowd, sometimes close enough to touch but never speaking–their glances among each other as fluid as water and concealing thought like ocean depths. I felt as if I were drowning under a tide I could not even perceive. What were they thinking? Were they judging us? A prickle of indignation surged through me. By what right?
Delin gasped. “Verel…”
The little one stood in front of us. She–she? I might as well assume–was shorter than I had realized; I found myself looking down as her eyes turned up. I could have lost myself in that gaze, but I was also aware of Delin: quick, shallow breaths, the tension of excitement, the beating of his heart. I was in time with my old friend, waiting.
She lowered her gaze and walked away.
I stayed silent, not wanting to break the moment. He did, finally, puffing out a breath. “What just happened?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I said.
The visitors converged in front of the crowd. Their leader spoke first, and it vibrated in my bones. “The older man on the end, with the crooked shoulder. You.”
Startled, then with a gap-toothed grin, the horse-master stepped forward. The king scowled, then schooled his expression.
Another visitor I arbitrarily thought of as female said, “The short young woman with the gold curls.”
One for each, then. Delin gripped my arm harder. I stepped on his foot. “Calm.”
The others chose in quick succession. Three stood there, then four.
The little one scanned the crowd–then looked again. She seemed to have trouble deciding.
The math dawned on me. If Delin went, he went alone. Part of me wanted to whirl and beg him not to accept if he was chosen–but what kind of friend would do that? Nor would a beloved try to keep him from going.
“The woman in the red tunic.”
The Left Fork
I froze, stunned – but I was the only female wearing red, and her gaze was direct. I turned to Delin in confusion.
He clasped my hands. “Go for both of us, Verel,” he said.
The chill of loss in his eyes burned away under complete trust. It was ridiculous, but in that fervent look I found all the encouragement I needed. His dreams sparked inside me, celestial fire.
The words rushed out. “I love you,” I said. Common sense asserted itself: why invite rejection when it was so close to not mattering, I could not expect anything from him when we would be worlds and centuries apart…
Delin leaned forward and brushed my lips in a quick kiss. It tasted of sunlight. Whispered breath. Medicinal herbs, tart, tangy and cutting through the senses.
Then over–too fast. “I’ll be here for you,” he said.
I wanted to protest, but could not find words. The horse-master pulled at my arm, and I found myself facing the alien visitors, massive dark eyes expectant. With their pale grey skin, spindly limbs and outsized heads, they should have been ugly, and yet the tranquility–and now, finally, the welcome–radiated from them like warmth, and it was impossible to notice anything else.
“We thank our hosts,” the leader said. “We shall take our leave of you now.”
“We hope this will be the start of a long and profitable friendship,” the king replied.
I pivoted and caught Delin’s eye in the crowd. The wistful expression that burst into a smile when our gazes met was fuel enough for a decade.
The visitors guided us to the clearing where they had left their sky-ship. It looked like nothing so much as two silver plates fused together, no sign of seam or rivet. As they approached, segments unfolded like opening hands to reveal a doorway.
“We travel as if we could catch light in its speed,” the little one explained. “You will not even feel the ship move.”
The gold-curled girl started to speak, then fidgeted silent. Our hosts ushered us inside. The interior of the ship was as featureless as its exterior, moonlight metal cocooning without reflection. The corridors were perfectly round, spiraling off in all directions like chambers of a honeycomb.
“Your quarters are here,” the leader said, leading us to an unadorned chamber. Bunks flowed out of the walls, pillowed with what looked like silk. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
“Where do we-” the horse-master began, but the door had closed–in fact, vanished, and we could not find it again.
It was the first sign that something was wrong.
The bedding was not silk, rather a strange, viscous substance that shaped itself to the sleeper and gave an uncomfortable sense of drowning. The alcove on one side of the room, with only two sapphire-blue buttons to distinguish it, dispensed a bland but edible food substance. I itched to improve the taste, but there was no seasoning to hand. We had no way of counting time as it passed. I wondered anxiously how long it had been for Delin.
“Maybe they aren’t used to having visitors,” the gold-curled girl said.
We slept, and when we awoke, the horse-master was gone. Our frantic arguments were interrupted by his piercing scream.
I swallowed hard as the sound was followed by another–the pitch, intensity and emotion in his voice varying like a morbid symphony. If there were words, distance and agony destroyed them. It stopped, and the silence brought an absurd hope.
Then it started again.
The third silence was longer. I couldn’t look at the others–to meet their eyes would be to realize it was more than a nightmare. Terror clutched me.
The door irised open. Two of the visitors stood there. My fury died before it could reach my body. What way did we have to resist them?
“We require another person,” one said.
I stepped forward before I knew I was going to. “Take me,” I said.
The door melted into the wall. I thought about fighting back, running, but there was nowhere to go. I thought of Delin, grateful he would never know what was behind his dreams–even if he waited forever.
I tried to distract myself from the crushing dread as we wound through the unending, spiraling corridors, walls pale as bone. It felt as if we circled forever, should have ended up where we started. “Why the charade?” I wondered. “Why not just take what you want?”
“Why work to steal the dregs when your best will volunteer?” the other figure said. “Every kingdom in your world will be eager to participate.”
“What did you do to the horse master?” I asked.
“We studied his physical reactions to assorted environmental stresses,” the first said. “Unfortunately, his system gave out.”
The fear vised around me, driving out thought. “Will you do the same to me?”
“Oh, no,” the first said. “Your tests will relate to mental and psychological stress. We’re fascinated to see how much your kind can handle.”
Whatever my strengths, I knew I wouldn’t make our destination. As I walked, it seemed I could feel the vastness of night beyond the ship, traveling through starlight without end.
The Right Fork
I glanced down the line and saw that, though three other men wore red as I did, there was only one woman, a wispy seamstress–and I couldn’t be mistaken for female.
The seamstress beamed as she stepped forward. I concentrated on not feeling relieved. I didn’t want Delin to sense it. The familiar kitchens for me, and I would keep my friend –
“And the tall man with the dark curls,” the little visitor finished.
I stared. Could she do that? Weren’t they each choosing one? But if that was the rule, the leader indulged her–maybe his daughter?–for there was no protest.
I thought Delin would leap out of his skin for happiness. He whirled, grabbing me in an exuberant bear-hug. “Wish me luck, Verel,” he said.
Now or never, I realized. Say what I had to say or never have a chance, keep it bottled up like sour poison until it faded–if it ever faded. Twice, I tried to speak.
“Good luck,” I said.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “And you’ll be the first person to hear about it.” Like a dream, he was out of my grasp.
“I’ll be here for you,” I muttered, knowing he couldn’t hear me. Coward. Fool. I branded myself and didn’t even feel it burn.
The fairy visitors waited expectantly as their chosen joined them. With their shining starlight skin, their ethereal frames and long tresses, they should have seemed like dolls, not people, yet a power radiated from them that was impossible to deny.
Delin turned on his heel and flashed me a final grin. I returned it, feeling the strain about my lips, and saw his expression flicker uncertainly.
The visitors departed, taking their guests to the door in the mound that led through the veil. On the other side, a world I could only imagine–and might learn about someday, as an old man, hopefully with something to show for my years.
But I would never again have a heart.
I fled to the kitchen and poured my pain into a recipe. When I emerged from my personal ruin, I had a new dessert, and it could only have one name: Fairies’ Cake.
Whether due to inspiration or something intangible, Fairies’ Cake was good to the point of being addictive. People came from all directions for a slice–or a second. With success came some measure of fame: recognition, wealth, women… none of whom truly made an impression on me. In their very softness, I saw Delin and my own cowardice.
Whenever the will-o-wisps lights appeared on the horizon, I went out faithfully to watch them, waiting for the doorway to open. I wondered what marvels Delin had discovered in the otherworld and what wisdom he had gained, and I yearned for both in equal measure.
As years became decades, I had to face the thought he might have become so enlightened–like the visitors themselves–that he no longer wished to come home.
I hoped–I still hope–for his return, but mostly now I think of him as a man of their world, traveling through starlight without end.
Walking the Line
By Alexandra Grunberg
Eleanora was in trouble again, though “again” did not seem like the right word. It was more that she was constantly in trouble, and her mother’s familiar lecture chased her from her home. She had hoped to be alone, but despite the darkness and the unseasonable chilliness, she was not the only one out on Poetto Beach.
“Would you like some company?”
The boy was blond, and Eleanora preferred brown or black hair, but she was really not supposed to prefer any boy at all. If her mother saw her smile at him it would set off another lecture, but her mother was not here, so she smiled.
“I would love some company,” said Eleanora.
The light of the moon reflected on the water, the only light out tonight. Eleanora still sat on her hands, just in case, though there was nothing she could do about her hair. It probably looked wet.
It probably looked like she had taken a midnight swim. She probably looked very romantic, and the thought put a damper on her almost rising mood.
“You speak English very well,” said the boy.
“I speak many languages very well,” said Eleanora. “Italian, Sardinian, and some much older.”
“Latin?” asked the boy.
“Not Latin,” said Eleanora.
Even the name of the language left her mouth feeling singed. Which meant her mother was right.
If she kept slipping, there may be no coming back. Her mother said she had to stop kissing the boys, no matter how much she wanted them. Why did the boy have to initiate the kiss? Would it really make so much of a difference? Eleanora could not imagine that it would feel any different, that it would stop the changes taking place.
“It’s so beautiful here,” said the boy. “I wish I could stay.”
Eleanor wished that her smile was sharp spikes instead of these domesticated stubs that filled her mouth and demanded she abstain from raw flesh.
Her sisters, her mother, her grandmothers, they used to be feared, even worshipped. They still had happiness in the past, they still had their men, but they also had freedom, and power, and blood and the night. They did not have to go to school, what was school to the Gianes? There was no education that could not be learned from dancing along the salt lakes, that could not be tasted in a young man’s blood, or absorbed in his embrace. What was the world of mortals to a child who was neither fairy nor demon, a creature that walked the line between life and death, love and murder? Why did the generations that had gone before her deny Eleanora that pleasure?
“You could stay here a little longer,” said Eleanora. “Sometimes just a little longer is enough to make everything feel okay.”
The boy smiled and sat down on the sand next to her, and his body was warm, and she tried to want it, want it for her own selfish pleasure and her own feast, and not want it for company, for love, for family.
They were upsetting, intrusive thoughts.
If she were a true Giane, she would straddle him on this beach, she would tear out his heart, she would let his blood spray across her cheeks and breasts, and taste a salt like the ocean but richer. If she was a true Giane, she would push this boy away when he rested against her shoulder, like he did now, and flay him, expose him, devour him.
Eleanora told herself it was her mother’s lecture still ringing in her ears that stopped her. She told herself it was not her own will, but a decision that had been made long before she was born; to be weak, to be companions, to be loved. She told herself that if she ran the wild hills, if she saw the boats of men intent on tearing her island upside down, she would not have given in to their charms. She would not have given up her wildness for their children.
She had nearly broken through, so many times, so close that her nails were already curving into claws, her hair was already matting into scales that hung in rough curls down her back, and maybe if she kissed another boy so deeply again, her teeth would break the skin of her lips and she could run on the sand as more creature than girl. A part of her, bred so deep, so long ago, held off, did not want that abandon, did not want that wildness, and Eleanora could not will it to quiet its appeal for love, for comfort, for domesticity.
But it did not matter what she wanted, because the boy’s lips were her on hers, and his tongue was in her mouth. She did not initiate the kiss, but she could have pulled away. She could have, and she chose not to. Eleanora felt her mind filling with darkness and her mouth filling with spikes that did not break her own lips, but they did break the boy’s tongue.
Zombies Can’t Take the Train
By Greg Greenberg
Autobiographical Case Histories from the Abridged 2055 Multimedia History Project on the Plague Year: Documenting the Rapid Sclerosis Pandemic. Society for Research and Education of the Global Open Forum Recovery Group.
Case Contents: Selections from the subject’s journal and an interview with a surviving member of the fire and rescue squad that quarantined the subject.
Subject: Steven Smith. North American (Northeast Coastal Ecoregion) male Caucasian. Age 41 at time of infection in the city of New Haven on May 14, 2027.
Document Status: Except for bloodstains, the journal was unaltered when recovered. Society members have added footnotes. This document is a primary source for post-peak studies. A full copy of the journal and the interview auditory file are available at qqq.ccss.GOF.aubiohist for a small contribution to your community labor pool.
May 16, 2027
Two days ago, I woke up so numb that it was as if I floated over my bed. The morning sun highlighted Cindy’s slender figure and auburn hair as she looked down at me and her lips curled into an I’ve-been-naughty smile. Noticing her blood-speckled cheeks and the chewed-off stump where my left hand used to be, I rolled out of the bed. She laughed as I struggled to stand, unable to feel where my ass ended and the hard floor began. Freakazoiding, I fumbled into my super-sized safari suit and stumbled around the room searching for my boots, unsure when she’d get the Hunger again. I should’ve put her down, but I’d never killed anyone, just written about it. As I edged forward to grab my boots, located just under the bed, her emerald eyes twinkled and she picked up my index finger to suck the gristle off it in a provocative manner. The parasites that had begun to burrow along my neural pathways must have done more than cauterize my injury and numb my body. Although I was terrified, I was not angry. Instead of righteous rage, I felt that considering everything, it was nice of Cindy to remember that I was right-handed.
Pausing by the bedroom door, I stuffed the boots into the survival pack I’d placed there and turned back towards Cindy. As my eyes roamed over her perfections the last time, I blamed myself. Someone so beautiful and sweet wouldn’t throw themselves at an obese oddball who writes appliance manuals for a living. She tensed for a leap. I wriggled into my pack’s straps, breathed deep, and decided that I didn’t care why she’d given me the two best weeks of my life. It was okay if it wasn’t all the secrets and hopes we’d shared, that it was because parasites had transformed her from a reserved sociology graduate student into an insatiable seeker of sexual delights. Until the hunger for human flesh overcomes you, the disease monorails your desires, creating one maniacal need. For Cindy, I now knew that need was sex; for me, well, I missed my mom.
Cindy made her move. I slammed the door and yanked a couch in front of it. My asthma kicked in as I leapt down the stairs. While the couch scraped my hardwood floor, I unlocked my security gate and fumbled open the front door. I scurried outside as she pounded down the stairs. The gate clanged shut and the lock clicked into place behind me. Shouted pleas of, “Don’t desert me!” and “I’ll make everything right again,” issued through the gate. From one of my safari suit’s many pockets, I pulled an inhaler and puffed twice. Breathing again and relieved that Cindy was stuck behind security gates and window grills that I had the sole keys for, I rested against an elm tree. I was trying to ignore her pleas and assess my situation when a Golden Doodle dragged a human femur into the condo parking lot and began to bark at me. Afraid the noise would draw more feral frou-frou dogs or worse, I fled. My bare feet found every sharp pebble as I ran across the too-sunny lot and through the Guptas’ open backdoor. I said, “Oh…Oh no,” as I shut the door behind me. A bloody smear began on the kitchen floor, where little Sabita’s Cookie Monster doll lay abandoned, and ended at the backdoor.
Shaking my head, I walked through their glass and chrome living room and went upstairs to Ms. Gupta’s office. Her built-in shelves were stuffed with accounting books and Ganesh statues. I shook my pack off my shoulders, letting it fall onto the red shag carpet, and dropped into her swivel chair. My thoughts starting to race and my heart to pound — over Sabita and everything else — I pulled a Valium bottle from a shirt pocket and popped several. As I zoned out, I stared at a dancing Ganesh and wondered what he was so happy about.
An hour later, full consciousness came upon me like a slow-motion landslide. Hoping to avoid being buried by anxiety and despair, I decided to focus on the little things that I could control. My first decision was to stay the night. The numbness would soon wear off and I’d be at my most vulnerable. Anyway, before I traveled, I had to figure out how to lace my boots. Curious about what I would face later, I stood to look out the window. To do so, I leaned on the edge of the desktop with my bad arm. The desktop, a sheet of glass that sat on two chrome sawhorses, tilted. Not at my brightest, I watched everything on it slide onto the floor. As the sheet of glass began to move towards my mid-section, I came to my senses and removed my weight from it. The desktop slammed back down. I stared at it for a moment before blurting, “What the what,” as I stood to jerk the blinds open.
My guilt for messing up Ms. Gupta’s office evaporated upon looking outside. Shattered storefront windows lined State Street and a telephone pole topped with ax heads leaned against the wall of Inner Peace and Extreme Survival Studio. It was as if a giant had sucked up mailboxes, trees, signs, cars, and human beings, chewed them up, and spit them back out. Drums, saxophones, and guitars strewn near Dr. Katz’s Animal Clinic stirred memories of the early plague days: endless awful singing by Western civilization’s worst creation, the pop-star wannabe, that was intermittently interrupted by elderly country bands and cheerleader squads. It was like living on the American Idol1 set. Too scared to go out, I kept my crank radio blaring. Intrepid reporters, or Compulsives trying to be reporters, described all-night baseball and midnight gardening, acts of altruism and awfulness, impossible scientific and artistic projects, and entrepreneurs catering to desperate Compulsives. Those Compulsives included computer gamers seeking electricity, shoppers frantic to discover bargains, foodies searching for five-star meals, and what should have been a warning to me, lovers hoping to find their last love. The radio reports all noted the Compulsives’ perseverance, no matter their injuries. However, when enough time passed the parasites changed all the Compulsives into Eaters, just as they had transformed Cindy.
A salty taste filled my mouth as I sat back down and pressed my eyes shut. Still numb, I’d bitten my lip to try to block memories of what came next, when the Eaters finished off most of the remaining Compulsives and yet-to-be-infected Cleans. No matter my efforts, memories of those horrific days swarmed into my mind, days in which I’d shut off the radio and tried to imagine that my condo was a pocket universe. It had been impossible. The end of the world made it through the walls of the basement safe-room I huddled in: the sirens, shots, and horrific screams. Later, it smelled like I was stuck in a busted freezer filled with sour milk and rotten meat. A shameful combination of cowardice and selfishness prevented me from helping anyone. The terror and guilt were worse than the discomforts: eating raw pasta and potatoes to save Sterno; creeping around the condo to maintain my rainwater collection system and chemical toilet; being unable to phone, text, or Facebook; not bathing or shaving; wearing dirty clothes; and missing therapist appointments.
I opened my eyes and spewed bloody spit on Ms. Gupta’s desk. To address my ever-multiplying psychological needs all I could do was to scribble in this journal. Writing fiction was no longer an option since the only thing I’d ever written were stories of post-apocalyptic heroes and I wasn’t being one. Nothing had happened like my survivalist stories, which consisted of macho cleverness and a lack of gun-control laws. Even my self-published masterpieces, Tales of the Rescue of a Techno Maiden and The Parking Garage Pirates of Putnam Street, didn’t hint at the traumas and tedious drudgery of actual survival. I thought I wrote the stories because they immersed me in a world in which no one told you what to do and where you were special just because you had survived. Remembering that Cindy had broken through that thin explanation, I used my hand to wipe the blood off my chin and stood to check on her.
With my binoculars, I left the office and walked across the landing and into the master bedroom. Dr. Gupta’s shriveled remains were on an oak four-poster bed; an empty hypodermic needle dangled from his withered arm. While I examined him, I thought about the big Texan “howdy” he always greeted me with and how he loved to grill shitake mushrooms or Tandoori chicken on summer Sunday afternoons. Now I’d never be able to pay him back for the time he drove me to the hospital after diagnosing my hernia. I yanked the blanket, to try to roll him up in it. He fell with an unpleasant thump onto the floor. After several deep breaths, I threw the blanket over him and went to the window, unsure of what I’d do when my sense of smell returned.
I peered through the Venetian blinds and saw that Cindy had opened all my drapes. But why? With my binoculars, I saw why, and shouted, “Shit soup!” Still undressed, she was emptying my cupboards of their delicacies. Done, she lopped the tops off Apple Jacks, Fruit Loops, and Cap’n Crunch boxes2 with my samurai knife and leaned back to empty one box after another into her mouth. My eyes teared up as Cindy’s curvy figure was outlined in a candy-colored shower of sugary treasure; beautiful blissful bits of sweetness bounced off her and onto the ungrateful kitchen tiles. My stomach lurched each time she slammed an eight pound can of chocolate syrup against a counter edge, only stopping when the priceless chocolate sprayed the kitchen and herself. In silent shock, sweat dripping from under my arms, I watched her lift the huge sharp-edged container to her delicate lips. Her small mouth filled with the life-giving liquid; it flowed down her cheeks and cascaded like a slow-motion velvety waterfall down her neck, chest, and legs, to pool at her feet. The food-massacre went on for what seemed forever — a bottle of peppermint schnapps tasted and spilled, Slim Jims bitten and discarded, Hostess Cup Cakes sampled, a bag of pork rinds scattered after one bite, a gallon jar of maraschino cherries smashed, creating a blood-red tide that flowed across the kitchen floor. With each wasted calorie, primordial pain flowed through my veins and the temptation to save my darlings increased. She attacked my favorites, yanking the tops off a row of small, colorful boxes and ripping open the shiny packages within to stuff their contents into her face. Prefab pastries of every flavor fragmented and fell, surrounding her with what looked like the remnants of a bombed paint factory. I cried out in disbelief, “The bitch is eating my Pop-Tarts!” However, I knew she wasn’t enjoying her last lucid moments, that she wanted me to end her suffering. Cindy was past the Compulsive stage, during which one has some normal desires, and was experiencing a hyper-aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to retrieve the Glock in my pack. But how do you shoot someone, especially Cindy? When she collapsed to the kitchen floor — now a sweet swamp with islands of cans, boxes, and bottles — and sobbed, I decided to do it. I loved her too much to let her suffer and I’d promised her I’d do it.
I need to stop writing, even though the sun is up and I haven’t finished telling you about the two worst days of my life. I bet you also want to know how I’ll reach Mom. Don’t worry, I have a plan. But I can’t tell you now. I need to eat my last two packets of freeze-dried ice cream and cry a little. Writing about everything helps, but, can only do so much.
May 17, 2027
Last night as I tried to sleep, I kept asking myself the same question. Why at the headwaters of the river of causality had I made a decision that resulted in my beaching on such a barren island? Why, after preparing for disasters my whole life did I waste all my efforts in one moment of weakness? Yes, it was weakness, not an inner core of altruism and bravery, as I wrote May 1st. I didn’t rescue Cindy that day. Okay, the real reason: thirty days was too long to be lonely. How else to explain why I didn’t ignore her shouts, like I had so many others, why I put the book down I was reading, He’s My Daughter/She’s my Son: A Hermaphrodite’s Story, and why I turned off my radio, which was blaring out static-filled status reports on safe zones and hot spots. My heart leapt, when I peeked out my window and recognized a not-so-friendly face, Cindy from my writers’ group. A calm person, she was shouting in bullet-like sentences while striding back and forth across my parking lot, her long auburn hair waving behind her. “Is anyone out there that can help me?” “I’m clean.” “Come on look at me.” “No bite marks. Nothing.” Her hoarse voice suggested a ragged tiredness underlay the confidence her face conveyed.
My decision to open the door was rationalized by a fiery red miniskirt and a ripped black-lace blouse, which revealed a pink polka-dotted bra. It was hard to connect this woman, who resembled the languid femme fatale in The Lethal Enigma,3 with the straight-laced woman I met in my writers’ group every other Tuesday. That was a woman who always criticized my work for “having too high a death toll” and at our last meeting got personal with, “Yet another rescue fantasy? Who are you trying to rescue?” I didn’t rescue Cindy, except from an itch. She didn’t cling to me. And I didn’t shoot down six empty-eyed Eaters with the smooth professionalism of a paid assassin as I wrote earlier. Instead, with the unimaginable firing up my imagination, I opened my security gate and front door and pointed the Glock in my trembling hand in her general direction. I now understand that the relief that flashed across her face was that of an addict finding a fix.
She swaggered toward me, sweaty hair half-obscuring her face, and said the wrong thing, “Well hello hello Stevie wonders, wondering, wondrous. Looks like you lost a little weight.”
Silent, I backed up into my shadowy and musty living room and motioned her toward the door with the Glock. I slipped on a stack of Wasteland and Last Scout comic books. As I steadied myself, she disappeared from view. Moments later, she was framed in the bright light of my doorway; one hand held a pink Hello Kitty4 pack, and the other, two Tasers. Shaking hair out of her face she said, “You must have gotten awfully lonely in there.”
“Don’t like getting to know people too much. They turn out to be strangers.”
She stuffed the Tasers into her pack and strolled into my condo. I had her shut my door and security gate and waved her toward my lumpy orange couch. My wave was too hard and my grip on the Glock too loose as the gun flew halfway across the room. It landed with a clang among my retro-robots, the ones on my mantelpiece, not those scattered among three bookcases that held science fiction and survivalist magazines or the two Japanese Monster Robots that bracketed my flat screen on its IKEA5 resting place. As I retrieved the gun, she giggled, “Well I guess you already have company.”
I sat down on my La-Z-Boy recliner. “Guess I do. So, what happened?”
After slipping off her tennis shoes and tube socks, she plopped down at one end of my couch, positioning her long legs in front of her to sit cross-legged. I relaxed into my recliner but kept the Glock pointed at her. Bits of orange panty made sneak appearances as she told a story of hiding out in the social science building’s snack shop with six other sociology grads. Taking a breather, she leaned forward too much for my comfort and picked at her toes. “We were a great team…even held off a stray political science prof and a raggedy bunch of econ grads with homemade shivs, fire extinguishers, and a projectile weapon made from soda fountain parts. But the soda-syrup, candy bars, and other treats ran dry. We had to forage. It was crazy awful. The airdrops never worked out. Poor Frank and I were the last ones. Only been three days, but it seems so long ago. We’d gone into the pharmacy on Orange Street to get an edge. But it’d already been emptied — except for one of them.”
Pressing her lips together, she got a faraway look.
“Poor Frank was just too tired, too hungry, too everything.” Her eyes watered and voice trembled. “Brought down by a…an old woman. Her skimpy bunny outfit and walker caused him to let his guard down, even though I—” She pressed her face into her hands and began to cry. “Such a waste…He would have been…He was beautiful and brilliant…a whole new understanding of social change…” Looking up at me, she pleaded, “Why him?” and then bawled.
Cindy could have told me that her fairy godmother had rescued her and I would have believed it. She appeared more than clean and I couldn’t survive another day alone. Hoping to provide comfort, I went and hugged her. She rested her head on my shoulder as she held me. When her sobbing stopped, she released me and wiped her face. “Thank you.”
Not knowing how to respond and wanting to hide the embarrassing physical reaction I was suffering from, I scooted away from her. She reached over and put her hand on mine, the one that still held a gun and giggled, “Let’s make love not war.”
And then she unfastened the top button of her blouse.
And the button below it.
Not until her blouse and bra were on the floor and she was sliding off her underwear did I cry, “Stop it. You don’t have to do that.”
She just smiled and stood on the couch so as to pull her skirt over her smooth hips.
“Really. It’s okay,” I mumbled as her skirt joined her blouse and underwear.
Still smiling, she said, “It will be,” and pushed me down into the couch. Her lips began to playfully nip and nibble mine. I dropped the gun, which clunked on the floor, as her sweet, salty tongue slid into my mouth and all her softness pressed against me. My jeans soon covered the gun and I was gripping the couch. Above me, Cindy moved upward and downward, surging and swaying. As we bobbed and groaned, I attempted to keep up, not to sink under the waves of unbearable pleasure. I was about to scream when she stopped moving and we tensed up. Still in a state of disbelief, I experienced a spasm of release. She pecked my cheek and gasped, “Glad we’re past that,” and zonked out on top of me. As I maneuvered from under her, she muttered, “Don’t go, Frank.” Covering her with my winter jacket, I noticed a nasty scab on her back. However, I shut it out of my mind and went to eat a celebratory Pop-tart (strawberry).
If Cindy was infected, she couldn’t help being post-truth. But was it all a lie? Everything that she said? Did she seek me out, knowing from my stories that I was a survivalist? Had she even dressed like something on the cover of a post-apocalyptic pulp novel because I’d go for that? I’ll never know. I had suspicions that I put aside — well that I burned, hung, poisoned, ran over, shot, and drowned — as she fulfilled fantasies that I didn’t even know that I had. No matter why she did so much for me, she made me feel whole for the first time in my life. And she is someone I still can’t stop loving.
May 18, 2027 [Ed note: Dates are the time of journal entry and not of events.]
So, what happened to Cindy? For another hour, I watched her cry while I planned how to end her suffering. When she rubbed a broken bottle’s jagged edges against her wrist, guilt ricocheted inside me like shrapnel, tearing me apart. Moments later, my missing hand tingled and the nauseating smells of my decomposing neighbor overwhelmed me. I dug my nails deep into my surviving palm. “Oh Cindy. I’m so sorry,” I said as my missing hand became a disorganized tableau of sensations: kisses, ice water, bee stings, a soothing massage, cigarette burns, cramps, crawling ants, electric shocks, and spilt milk. I fell to the floor and whimpered, “I shouldn’t have waited.” Endless grunts and groans passed my lips. Knowing that the plague was rewiring my stump, desensitizing it, so I’d be a high-functioning disease vector, didn’t help. My clothes soaked with sweat and, the sensory symphony unfinished, it was sweet relief to pass out.
I woke sprawled on the bathroom floor, unable to remember how I got there. The medicine cabinet’s contents surrounded me; so, using the light of the setting sun, I applied disinfectant cream and layered gauze over my now desensitized stump. As I worked, I tried to leapfrog the stages of grief, to accept that never again would I nibble a sweet Pop-tart, sink my teeth through the downy rose-orange skin of a ripe peach and into its juicy flesh, or suck out the fatty head meat of a garlic-soaked shrimp. Upon realizing that I’d also never get a creative writing degree, reach the next level of Warlords,6 or attend another meeting of the Vintage Robot Collectors Association, I soon needed the gauze to wipe my tear-coated face.
With much gauze wasted, I returned to the office and found the rum bottle in my pack. After taking a long swig from it, I sat on the floor and grumbled, “Okay, no more bummering. Not about the future, food, or your left hand. Nada.” I also decided not to attempt the stages of grief again. Something would turn up and all that mattered was seeing Mom one last time. Feeling better, but missing Mom, I had an idea. Last week, a Caribbean shortwave station reported that a rescue train would soon come south from Boston, the one Clean city in the northeast. When it stopped in New Haven, I’d pass as a Clean and hop on. Knowing I was going to Wilmington,7 to Mom, I fell into a coma-like sleep on the office floor, an empty bottle in my hand and happiness in my heart.
Morning sunlight poured through the office window. I turned my pounding head away from the light, groaned, “Pleasssse, no. Ohhhhhh,” and spewed my liquid dinner. Done, I staggered to the bathroom. There, I wiped debris out of my itchy beard and scooped water out of the toilet tank with a toothbrush mug until I was semi-functional. As I did so, I cursed any surviving University of Wisconsin biomarketing professors. If they’d followed lab-animal protocols I could have avoided this opportunity for personal growth and discovery. I then redressed my wound, hid it in a towel sling, and prepped for going to the train station. All I could think about while I worked was Mom — how much I missed her, whether she was okay, and how fantastic it would be to see her again.
That afternoon, I stepped into State Street’s pungent air wearing my safari suit, thick glasses, and badly-tied boots. A piercing shriek came from the direction of Whitney Avenue. I tightened the grip on my Glock. The knowledge that I would see Mom if I could make it to the train station steadied me. Swallowing hard, I stumbled towards it through swarms of flies that had gathered to feast on my former neighbors. Their faces and bodies were swollen or caved in by rot and ecosystems of insects clustered in body cavities that shouldn’t have existed. Other neighbors had become dried-up and moldy husks that sun-faded clothing still clung to. My stomach turned and I dry heaved. However, I forced myself to look around. Each block had just five or six corpses, but they seemed countless. The Eaters had also left behind what I hadn’t noticed from the Guptas’ window, scatterings of chewed-over bones. Tiny scraps of clothing, which still blew around, stuck to everything, as if a confetti-filled parade had passed by.
Even before I noticed the eyes of several well-fed, feral cats tracking me, my sense of solidity had faded. Except for the Compulsives’ creations, it was like being in every post-apocalyptic movie I’d ever watched. Those creations included a Last Supper mural made from Tupperware on a Catholic church’s doors; a fifteen-foot8 beer-bottle sculpture of a movie zombie holding a red umbrella in front of an insurance agency; a gallows built of books in front of Never Ending Bookstore; and a giant bird nest on top of the Su Casa Realty office.
Halfway to the train station, in front of a burned-out animal hospital, I slid to the ground next to a pajama-clad man with missing legs. Overwhelmed by awfulness and fear, I said, “Sorry to bother you, dead guy,” and closed my eyes. After several moments of dark despair, I resolved that for Mom, I’d be a real man, like those in my stories. Upon opening my eyes, I turned away from the dead guy so I wouldn’t see his stumps again. A mannequin in a hairdresser’s broken window caught my eye. Its braids reminded me of how Cindy would twist her hair and stare into space after our sensual sessions. My stomach pretzeled into a ball of knots as I recalled what I’d told her a week after she arrived.
We’d finished a breakfast of canned fruit, animal crackers, and turkey-jerky and were in bed planning our day, i.e., reading The Optimistic Sexual Manual: Techniques for Doubtful Lovers. I had on boxers and she wore one of my white oxford button-down shirts, which wasn’t much buttoned. She gently pushed the book down and kissed my forehead. “Stevie sweetie, I need you to promise me something.”
“Just promise if I ever get the munchies well you’ll, you’ll…You know…”
I took her hand. “Don’t be silly. We’re safe here.”
“Nowhere is safe!” She sat up and turned to stare at the wall. “Don’t you understand? We’re never going to be safe.” Tears began to run down her face. It seemed as if all the beauty inside of her was washing out of her swollen eyes.
Fumbling for something to say, I hugged her as she started to sob. When she gasped for breath, I released her and said, “Look at me. No, look at me!”
Quieted down, she turned in my direction.
“Hey. Don’t worry. We’re going to be fine. But if anything happens to you, I promise I’ll do it,” I said, thinking it would never be necessary.
Her shoulders relaxed and she gave me a shy smile. “All right, but you have to triple swear on your mom’s life that you’ll—”
“I told you I’d do it.” Speaking at a rapid clip, I continued, “And anyway, she was always like that fish that escapes the pot to land in the frying pan, or fire, or to land— or whatever. Who knows what hap— She’s might not even be around anymore to swear on.” After pausing for oxygen, I snapped, “I triple swear though!”
Cindy wiped her tear-smeared face and began to giggle. Her mirth built to deep full-bodied laughs that shook her so much she gripped my arm to steady herself.
“Hey. What’s so funny?” I scooted toward the edge of the bed. “You going to stop?”
Still laughing, she pulled me back. “Don’t you see, your stories…you always subjected our group to”–she caught her breath–“were wish-fulfillment fantasies? We kept complaining and you kept rescuing your mom.” Striving to suppress her merriment, she added, “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t laugh. I’m not being nice. So, what happened?”
Instead of answering, I jacked myself out of the bed. As I left the room, she got all sugary. “Oh come on Stevie sweetie. We all have our foibles. There’s no fixation that can’t be fixed. I can help.”
I slammed the door and went to the kitchen. And soon chilled. Cindy was the first person who had centered their world around me, pampering me in countless ways — from keeping me well fed to short-circuiting my funks. And the more I considered my stories, the more I knew she was right. When I decided to tell her the thing I did to Mom, what my therapists hadn’t dug out of me, I knew I loved her.
Sitting back on the bed, I gifted her some high-end biltong that I had retrieved. She accepted it with a smile. Ready to talk but unable to speak, I chewed on the jerky. Chunks of ugly memories that had been decaying in some dark unvisited part of my mind had been knocked loose and were crashing through my head. When they settled down, I teared up. Cindy took hold of my hand and kissed my cheek. “Sweetie, whatever it is, you’ll be all right.”
Before I could change my mind, I told her about the guerrilla war I’d waged against Mom’s love life. That war started with a campaign of passive aggression, a year after Dad took off to Montreal with my elementary school French teacher. It ended when I turned seventeen and retreated to Michigan. When I spit it all out, even how I hadn’t spoken to Mom since I’d run away, I knew I was an idiot. Mom wasn’t the problem. She didn’t need to be saved for being a human being. Grief-ridden by guilt, I tried to puzzle out why I’d warped my life. Rather than come up with answers, I felt like Fuzzy — our giant Calico cat — the time I’d cleaned her and by mistake grabbed the bottle of cat repellant instead of shampoo. For the first time, I wanted to apologize to her (Mom, not Fuzzy). However, given the plague, I couldn’t do anything. Cindy held me while I cried without tears. Later, we did things that helped me forget.
As I broke off eye contact with the mannequin and stood, I decided to keep my promise to Cindy. However, I couldn’t turn towards home. The feeling that I might miss the train and not see Mom was too much. My churning thoughts prevented me from noticing a desiccated, bald man — who wore rainbow tennis shoes and a purple Speedo — tearing toward me. He locked me in his arms before I could react. I dropped my gun and struggled as he tightened his arms around my too-large torso. He seemed to be deciding whether or not to snack on my neck when he released me and shouted, “Tell everyone, Mr. Quigley hugged you.” As I retrieved my gun, he slipped out of sight. Popping a Valium, I clambered into an empty SUV9 that had slammed into a Wok and Roll. After removing my pack, I lay down on the back seat. That my vision was limited to the roof and floor of the car, on which a teddy bear and a Miss Piggy doll embraced, allowed me to imagine that I was in a plague-free world until my back hurt.
May 19, 2027
Upon ditching the SUV, I shifted to aliens-have-arrived mode: run-like-mad, hide, scan-for-danger, and repeat. Soon all my muscles cramped up and there was more hiding than movement. When I reached the train station the sun was setting and I was drenched in sweat. Seeking shelter and a place to wait for the train, I tried to break into Peter Pan’s Liquorland, across the street from the station. Unsuccessful, I crept into Pete’s Pipes next door and failed to stifle a scream. The headshop was filled with the fetid chaos of what looked like a complex murder-suicide pact. A pack of hipsters, at least one a Compulsive, had used knives, ropes, pulleys, buckets, and two homemade seesaws to implement the pact. With death dancing in my head, I backed out and hobbled a half a block further to a public housing complex.10
The Art Deco building’s doors were unlocked, so I ducked inside and flashed my light around the foyer. It had institution-green walls, gray linoleum floors, and faded message murals about “conflict resolution” and “healthy eating”. Hoping I wouldn’t regret it, I picked some chains off the floor to lock the doors. Doing the task right with one hand was like solving one of those 3D brainteaser puzzles. My brain wasn’t up to the challenge cause every few minutes I thought I heard company. I would grab my gun and as I did so, the flashlight would slip out of my sling. Not able to see anything but the floor, I’d babble, “Shit, shit, shit,” drop the gun so as to pick up the flashlight and jam it back into my sling, and then pick the gun up. Things got so tense that I took several spontaneous bathroom breaks.
When I finished locking the doors, I dragged myself up five flights. My steps and groans seemed to echo and a strong odor of a chemical disinfectant irritated my nostrils. At the end of a hallway, I downed three packets of dehydrated chicken soup with stale water from my canteen. The thought that I was closer to Mom eased my mind as I put my gun and glasses within reach. Too exhausted and sore to be scared or care why the place lacked graffiti, trash, and cigarette butts, I sprawled out on the hallway floor and crashed.
The next morning, gun ready, I crept through dim hallways that were only lit by the small windows at their ends. As I did so, I knocked on random doors with my left elbow and shouted, “Hello is anyone home?” or “Come on out. It’s safe.” None of the doors I knocked on were unlocked. I was about to give up when on the eighth — and top — floor, I came upon King Solomon’s Mines of cleaning supplies. The hallway was a hygienic trail of squeegees, brushes, sponges, brooms, paper towels, mops, dusters, and bottles of detergents. At the trail’s end, there were three shotguns, boxes of shells, a set of master keys, and a scribbled note under a half-empty whiskey bottle. I slumped to the ground and read it.
This divine Buildings is this old ladies only baby. Don’t you dear defiles its hallways else I’m coming backs for you and I’ll kill youse and when your deads I’ll kill youse again worse and all youse descendants. Kept the human vermins and any refugees out with only three shotguns and the helps of those two sweetfellows in 2B. Got a lot easier when the vermins all turns on each others like starving rats. Ain’t no guest hidings here anymore either. Couldn’t risk them messin my baby after I works so hard to get it just right. Took care of that problems even the sweeties with some really strong tea. Only things you needs to do each day is…
After too short a relationship with the whiskey bottle, I took the keys and found the apartment with the best view of the train station. Nothing else mattered but making sure I was on my way to Mom, not the saggy furniture, the soiled-diaper-and-empty-beer-can-littered floor, or the dirt-streaked white walls decorated with pictures of rustic boats torn from a 2026 Newport11 Rhode Island Services Club calendar. I barricaded the apartment door and sat in front of the dead TV to rest and mourn my plague-killed TV companions. Half an hour later, a horrifying odor overwhelmed the smells of stale smoke, sour laundry, and soiled diapers that permeated the apartment. Through a smudged window, I watched five chem-suited men carry body parts from the train station and toss them on a bonfire in the middle of State Street while ten men armed with machine guns stood guard. When I slid the window open I heard one of the chem-suited men shout, “I always get the screwy jobs!” Many of the other men yelled unintelligible taunts at him. Although the fire and rescue squad would make life difficult, I was happy because their arrival meant the train would soon come.
My days since I found apartment 4E have been wonder-filled — wondering why I hurt Mom and whether the train would arrive before what happened to Cindy and too many others happened to me. My therapist told me to, “confront my anxieties in productive ways,” but there’s no useful way to confront that anxiety. When I wasn’t writing in this Clash of Civilizations12 notebook, I did try to tackle my other anxieties though. I scavenged for food, finding eight cans of gourmet cat food (meaty bits in gravy), four cans of chicken soup (alphabet), two boxes of macaroni and cheese (deluxe), a bag of gummy worms (sour), a jar of pickles (half-sour), and minty bathroom bounty. I also constructed early-warning systems in the hallways: precarious piles of hair dryers, cutting boards, fruit bowls, bathroom scales, romance novels, sexual aids, and other necessities of daily living. Now with every noise, adrenaline shoots through my veins and I cower in some corner, trying not to whimper, as I cradle my gun and think what could be my last thoughts.
Mostly, I’ve been observing the fire and rescue squad, which is more fire than rescue. While they brought back three skeletal survivors, who they half-carried into the fortress-like police station down the street, six times they returned with a mindless Eater. The first time they brought back an Eater, I didn’t put my binoculars down and walk away from the window, like I did every time after. Rather with growing disbelief, I watched them remove the Eaters’ hood to reveal a face twisted into bleak malice. As the Eater struggled, snapped his teeth, and screeched in frustration at being unable to partake of the plentiful food that surrounded him, the squad performed officious and empty bureaucratic rituals. The rituals ended with a medieval treatment, a fiery “cure,” the burning alive of an ill human being. I know he was human in those last moments not because I saw on his face expressions of pain, and even fear, but because only a human can scream in a way that lasts forever in your head.
Each sleepless night, their never-extinguished bonfire cackles and the dancing shadows on the walls remind me of my possible fate. However, knowing I’m going to see Mom, that I just need to catch a train, allows me to endure the unendurable. Right now, though, I’m so damn hungry, I could boil out the tanning chemicals in the leather jacket that I grabbed from 7C, eat insects, or set rat traps. I don’t remember all of that survivalist shit though. What am I going to do? I know. I’m going to starve!
Okay, I feel better after a Valium and buffering my stomach acids with a chapter of Lost Towns and Cities: Climate Change’s Canaries in a Coal Mine. It wasn’t a good book. I’ll figure out something else to eat. No matter how disgusting, dangerous, or unsanitary, I’ll eat it, if it means being with Mom. Oh man, how I need to see her. Except for food, it’s all I want. Enough scribbling. The squad went hunting, so I’m going out as well.
May 20, 2027
Yesterday, I stepped onto an outside stairwell and surveyed the neighborhood. My mind was like a mob in a burning theater, a disorganized collection of panicky thoughts seeking an exit. I clutched a railing and stared at the train station, willing a train to appear. When that didn’t work and I couldn’t remember anything from the online “Edible Weeds” course I’d taken, I huffed my way down State Street away from the police station and toward a string of brightly-colored fast-food restaurants.13 Too hungry to care about what might lurk behind the smashed-up cars and storefronts along the silent street, I paused to read a poster on a bus stop. Its large title read, “Vaccinations for Cleans and a Cure for Compulsives.” Reassuring words filled it and someone had scribbled the fire and rescue squad’s address on its corner in red ink. When I rushed on, I wondered why they’d try such an obvious technique for catching and killing Compulsives before they became Eaters.
My hopes for empty calories burst upon seeing the shattered windows, pockmarked walls, and the spent shell casings of every size that littered the ground like autumn leaves from an alien foliage. The way the countless decaying bodies of the National Guard troops and New Haven’s finest were arrayed suggested the restaurants kept changing hands till there were no more delicacies to fight over. I considered turning myself in to the squad. Maybe they’d let me call Mom before they grilled me. However, I wanted to see and hold her. So, with memories of the savory tastes of KFC’s fried chicken stirring my stomach, I checked for other customers and stepped over shattered glass.
For three hours, I searched the restaurants’ remains, in constant fear that Eaters or armed men would appear. All I found was a brick of green cheese and several squashed tater tots. Feeling sorry for myself, I stretched out on the cool kitchen floor of Thai Tanic. A yellow glint caught my eye and my hopes soared. I reached under a deep fryer to tap the huge, sunny pineapple can. My mouth watering, I shouted, “At last!” After finding an electric can opener, I dizzily smashed the can open with it and fingered the golden treasures into my mouth. An acid reflux attack interrupted my meal. Seeking water to cool my burning throat, I collided with a cash-stuffed grocery sack as I tore outside. Hundred-dollar bills scattered across the floor.
Near Dunkin Donuts, I found a water-filled pothole besides a battered Ford truck with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on its bed. While drinking from the pothole, I again had thoughts of giving up. They were interrupted by a distant shout of, “Hey kids, pick up the pace!” Struggling into the truck’s bed, I slipped off the bumper and tried to grab something with my missing hand. My chin hit the truck’s tailgate and my glasses flew. Pain shot through my jaw and everything was a fuzzy morass as I scraped my back stuffing myself under the truck with frog-like leg thrusts. Blurry men moved toward me and the smell of gasoline and burnt rubber filled my nose. I reached for my gun but my arm couldn’t reach to a Thai Tanic countertop — so I played dead. It’s easier in concept than execution as I’m not good at hiding from armed men in tight spaces. My cheeks twitched and I hyperventilated as I resisted fishing in my pockets for a Valium.
Two white blobs trailed the rest of the men. One droned, “…best that I can do. You try walking in this wacked get up. I’m wiped. Can’t we break? I need a drink. I feel like a—”
A khaki haze interrupted, “Hey Joey it wouldn’t be such a bitch if you stopped bitchin.”
Although they paused only feet away, I strained to see the hooded figure between the blobs — who jerked around like a puppet. I begged the gods that it wasn’t Cindy. Seeing her would send me on a guilt-powered-jetpack ride to the realm of madness. The spot of purple in the middle of a pale pink blur suggested the Eater was Mr. Quigley. Relief filled me, but it was hard to process that a man who’d hugged me, no matter how oddly, would soon be cured.
The Joey-blob’s shouted response, “Screw you!” brought me back to the present. “No, Really, Screw you! I want to barbeque this Zombie now! He won’t be as hard to handle. Fuck, yeah!” Legs moved in all sorts of confusing ways.
A scout-master voice yelled, “That’s enough! Take a break Joey. Relax. The rest of you lay off him.” After a pause, he continued, “Just sit down; it’s going to be fine. Could someone tase our friend before he gets lost?” There was loud clicking and Mr. Quigley fell several feet away. “Joey, maybe you want to holster that gun.”
“Why? It all sucks. Today. Every Day!”
“Yep. But you’re still squawking, screwing, eating, and shitting so count yourself lucky. Sit down.”
“But it’s not fair.”
“Nothing is. Just sit the hell down and we’ll talk about it.”
“And your gun, Joey.”
“That’s good, very good. No one is trying to break your balls. It’s just your crap luck to be a doughboy when there’s a do-the-tests-while-they’re-still-biting reg. The regs — health regs, test regs, clean-up regs, even the sittin-on-the-can regs — they’re what keeps us civilized. And if that don’t make you stand up and salute, if we disobey them regs, CO will put all our asses in a decoy squad so fast you won’t even have time to give your sweetie a goodbye flyby.
The only sound was the wind blowing debris down the street. Then, the rest of the squad began to murmur. The Joey-blob stood and hit the truck I was hidden under — three times. While it silenced them, I had to give it my all to suppress a shriek. My heart pounded in my ears like a Banger band as the Joey-blob moved away, kicking something that clattered. With a sinking feeling, I realized that that something was my glasses.
“Okay, Joey, you got your shit together?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Do you? Cause, if you don’t you’ll be walking your ass home. So, do you?”
There was a half-hearted, “Yes, sir.”
“Okay, he’s a new man. Enough lollygagging everyone.”
Anger almost beat out fear as the squad left. I wanted to shout, “They’re sick people, not monsters!” Instead, I stayed stone silent, wondering how I had even considered asking them for help.
When I tried to writhe from under the truck, it felt like its weight was crushing me and I remembered a news story I’d read. It was about thieves trapped in chimneys. They all suffocated because their lungs couldn’t expand. After a panic attack, I figured a way to wedge out of my predicament. As my shoulders cleared the truck, something rubbed against my leg. I cried out, “Help me! Please. Anyone.” I twisted to see an orange cat-blob. Ignoring it and my road rash, I finished my escape and sat on the street, leaning against the truck. When the cat-blob jumped onto my lap, I read its tag. My new friend’s name was Sprite and she came from the burbs. I scratched the furball and like an idiot dozed off as if I was at home.
Sprite leapt off me, jerking me out of one of my vivid visiting-with-Mom dreams. I shook my head hard to snap out of my fugue and looked at Sprite. “Thanks for saving me little one.” As I stood to search for my glasses I added, “It’s not safe here. Gotta go, and fast.” Sprite lay down and licked her paws while I began to scour the ground. The further I got from the truck, the higher my anxiety. Sprite didn’t help. She followed me around and at random moments would press against my legs and arch her back. Instead of giving into her desire for a scratch, I’d swear under my breath and step over her, hoping I wouldn’t land on my glasses. She’d issue loud plaintive meows and forgetting that I couldn’t see, I’d jerk my head around to see if we’d attracted anyone or anything.
After an eternal fifteen minutes, I found my glasses. They were under a street lamp plastered with a faded drug-study flyer, headlined, “DO YOU EXPERIENCE EXCESSIVE WORRY.” I went back to Thai Tanic where I stuck the Glock in my waistband and pressed the half-empty pineapple can tight against my stomach.
As I crept between hiding places on my return to the public housing complex, Sprite sashayed after me, ignoring my pleas of “Go away” and “Find someone else.” Exasperated, halfway back I stopped between an overturned firetruck and a burned-out pharmacy. Looking in her eyes, I said, “Don’t have any cat food left or anything for that matter to eat. And the place, it’s a true mess. Really, it won’t be up to your middle-class standards.”
She responded with a “Meow,” some leg rubbing, and an arching of her back that I finally knelt down to scratch — or tried to — with my stump. “What am I doing,” I said and stood to finish my trip.
I paused at the complex’s door, unsure if I should let Sprite in. She decided for me, clawing up my body so fast there wasn’t time to scream. With her snuggled around my neck, I entered the building. When I crashed on my couch, she climbed down to sit next to me. For twenty minutes, I sat, scratched, and starved.
It was only when Sprite jumped off the couch and pitter-pattered into the hallway that I noticed the apartment door was still open. Instead of getting up and giving chase I watched several flies flutter around my face. Just as I worked up enough energy to brush them away, the sounds of dishes and glasses shattering came from the hallway. The breakage continued as I stood and peered out the door. In the fading daylight that fell through open apartment doorways, I watched Sprite bounce like a pinball between my precarious sculptures. I ambled after her. Whenever I was close enough to whisper calming words, she dashed away, destabilizing another sculpture. The whole city probably heard us.
At the end of the hallway, Sprite shot past me and I slumped to the ground, grumbling. She sauntered back and climbed onto my diminished stomach to give me love bites on my cheeks. “All is forgiven little one. Everyone misbehaves sometimes,” I said and scratched her until she went to mew by the outside door. Nothing I did stopped the noise, but I didn’t release her until the song, “If you love someone, set them free,” played in my head. As soon as the door clicked shut and I slouched back to the floor there was whiny mewing from outside. I had to get off the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go-emotional-roller-coaster ride and I was so very hungry. And the mewing was so very unbearable. Mewing! Mewing! Endless Mewing! The noise endangered us. I had to end it, to save us. Bawling, I pulled a cuckoo clock from one of my collapsed sculptures and Never Mind.
How could I have eaten something with a name? Until you’re starving, you can’t understand what a primal force hunger is, the degenerate and degrading things it’ll make you do. Every self-proclaimed saint during plentiful times is a day away from sinning in a famine.
When I woke today at sunrise, sleep-deprived but with a sated stomach, I sat in the room’s shadows and stared out the window. I couldn’t figure out how someone could be so off as to write in ten-foot-purple-precise-Times-Roman typeface on the train station wall, “Mom I’m Drunk!” Why bring their mom into it? Did they want to say, “Hey, Mom, look at me, you can’t control me,” or did they need to see their mom, like me? Maybe they were even trying to apologize to her. Why hadn’t I done that, or even tried to contact her? It would have been so simple to pick up a phone; a few minutes and both our lives would’ve been so much better. Was it habit? Inertia? I don’t know. But the regret churns my insides as if I swallowed a power saw.
During one of our last sensual sessions, Cindy had made me face why I’d been so horrible to Mom. It is a session that I remember too well. Our bedroom was filled with the smell of our sweat, mixed with the sticky-sweet scent of the orange blossom honey we’d drizzled on each other. When her emerald eyes weren’t locked on mine, but staring at the ceiling, her blood would pulse up and down her arched neck, unable to cool her. She’d bite her lip until it bled, and gasping, chant something indecipherable. I’d admire her delicate features and slender figure, the way her flesh glowed with sexual heat, and think about how she was more beautiful than any woman I’d ever seen on the internet. Finished with her ritual of self-denial, her focus would return to me. A look of determination mixed with desperation would flash across her face and she’d again lock her eyes with mine and settle into another temporary truce with her body, to start the cycle over again.
After more than an hour of tantric teasing, her hips shifted and her face trembled. I moaned and pleaded for release with my eyes.
She turned her gaze upward, and pausing between each word, grunted, “How – Come – You – Never – Called – Your – Mom?”
I couldn’t answer; lightning flashes of painful pleasure were exploding throughout my body. All my effort was devoted to not moving, to not giving in to what every fiber of my being demanded: sweet release from the joyful torment. I tried to think about specifications in the appliance manuals I’d written. It didn’t help. Clenching the bed, I moaned as my mind filled with images of dish and clothes washers, fridges and furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters fusing with one another; metal and plastic intertwining in impossible ways as engines overheated, wires sparked, and hot liquids pumped too fast through pipes and tubes to shoot into the air.
Cindy slapped my cheek and gasped, “YouWereJealous…ofYourMom’sBoyfriends!”
My moans stopped their transformation into screams. “What?”
She took a deep breath and grinned. “Your stories were about revenge, not rescue.”
Stunned, a sad silence filled me as a drop of honey fell from one of her soft curves onto my forehead. Cindy licked off the honey and huskily whispered in my ear, “Rescue of the blah. Rescue from the blah. Rescue in the blah.” Straightening up and stretching — beautiful movements that usually distracted me — she continued, “But your stories were really kill, kill, kill. Stoic robots, dashing pirates, devious reptilians, or aliens with too many tentacles, they were all men. Men disgust you more than any—”
I placed my hand over her mouth. Taking hold of it, Cindy said, “Oh Stevie, I’m so very very sorry.” Almost knocking her off the bed, I turned over and stewed. Silent, she held me. I was almost more embarrassed that she knew me too well than depressed that I’d never faced why I was so terrible to Mom.
A day of emotional turmoil followed. Cindy devoted herself to helping me to get past it all — to forgive myself. Her cravings must have been unbearable as we talked and talked and she read me the sexual love poetry that she’d taken up writing. That evening we used some battery juice to watch Groundhog Day. Although we were once again able to enjoy our constrained life I still had moods during which it was hard to be in my skin.
Cindy had been more than right about my jealousy, but not in a way she could have imagined or understood. A little while ago, as I took a baby-wipe bath, the memory of the long-ago day I left Mom clawed itself out of the casket of forgetfulness I’d locked it in. Even after several Valiums and inhaler puffs, I’m still gasping and my head feels like it is going to explode with the horrific knowledge. I need to drag the memory from my mind, cut it into small, safe words, and mount those words on paper, even if it means going to the basement so no one spots my candlelight.
For two hours, I’ve sweated in this clammy spider-filled basement, unable to write or ignore the smells from the washing machines, which the former super filled with dismembered bodies and antibiotic soap.
Okay. Why Not? I’ll tell you.
Soon after my seventeenth birthday, Mom held one of her introduce-the-potential-stepdad nights. She sat across from me at our chipped kitchen table, somber but gorgeous. Her shiny blond hair was permed into her “wild lioness” look — a haircut for someone in her twenties, not mid-thirties — and her regal face wasn’t yet desecrated by make-up. She sighed; the inhalation caused her angora sweater to tighten across her chest. In rapid succession, I ate several of the baby carrots she always laid out for me.
All I wanted was a long afterschool hug, but Mom leaned hard on the table and began her, “BEHAVE, because he’s special,” speech. Whenever she reached the relationship stage that necessitated introducing me to the Man in her life she gave me the speech as if it was a vaccination for misbehavior. That time, mixed in with the standard, “Please be your best tonight,” “You’ll try won’t you,” and, “I’m sure you’ll like him,” there was also: “I love you, but try not to be a jerk,” “Don’t embarrass me again,” and even, “Don’t make me choose; we’ll both regret it.”
After I repeated, “Yes, Mom,” “I certainly will,” and “No problemo,” several times, the uncertainty faded from her eyes. When she stood and left, I watched her pale thin ankles, which slipped into view with each step she took up the stairs. She paused to yell, “If it goes well…we’ll talk about getting you a digitized outfit…including the hat.” My mouth held the remaining baby carrots, but I gave her a toothy smile.
Later, when the doorbell rang, she ran down the stairs in a frilly white dress that didn’t even reach to her knees. “Aren’t you going to get up?” She fidgeted behind me while I opened the door to find a fit- and young-looking Asian guy in a dark blue suit. If not for the pink tie and wine bottle, he could have been mistaken for a Mormon missionary. “Don’t stand there Stevie, invite Alex in.”
I said, “Oh, sorry,” and opened the screen door, letting pass that Mom called me Stevie in front of him. After I coughed up a, “Nice to meet you,” as he crushed my hand, we chatted about the extreme weather. The happy tears forming at the edges of Mom’s eyes were about to wreck her pancaked makeup, when, to my relief, she excused me. They went to the kitchen. I plopped myself down at the dining room table with my homework and pretended to ignore them.
Unlike the other guys, Alex didn’t stand around ogling Mom, he checked the turkey, removed it from the oven, and placed it on a counter. After he shooed away Fuzzy, he and Mom chatted as they worked, often laughing. He chopped veggies with the speed of a professional chef while she languidly stirred the mushroom soup.
Everything was wonderbar. I was even progressing through my algebra when I glanced up to see his hand run through Mom’s shimmering hair and twirl a few golden strands. Putting my pen down, so I wouldn’t bite off the top, I watched his hand slide down her back, stop, and squeeze. Instead of slapping him, Mom pecked his cheek.
I strolled into the kitchen and found my Pop-tarts. Mom recognizing the crinkly unwrapping sound turned around to say, “You don’t want to wreck your appetite.”
“Don’t worry. It’s plenty big, like yours,” I growled, and took a large bite of the sugary treat.
Her spoon clattered on the stovetop and she stared hard at me, her lower lip trembling. Putting her hands on her hips, she blinked several times. “Stop acting like…Never mind. Do you remember your promise?”
If she’d stayed silent I would have done anything for her, for those beautiful pleading eyes; but how could she have treated me — someone who loved her in every way — like a brat when she was the one misbehaving with yet another man and who didn’t care about what I saw and felt?
A concerned look appeared on Alex’s face.
After what seemed forever, her pleading eyes reached me and pulled my heart out of the black hole that had caught it. I barked, “Fine. Fine. I’ll wait,” and spun around to stuff the Pop-tart back into its box. My elbow hit the turkey hard. For the first time that bird flew. It landed in the middle of the kitchen floor and rolled in what seemed like slow motion. Even before it rocked to a stop and Fuzzy approached it, I knew I’d messed up again. Alex put his hand on Mom’s shoulder and said, “We can clean it. I don’t even like skin. Or we can order pizza. Sandy, let’s not ruin the evening. We can still—”
“Don’t call Pie High,” I blurted. “Their delivery guy still likes you. He always—”
“You son of a bitch!” my mother screamed, the first time she’d sworn at me. Unable to look at her because something primitive and violent had woken in her face, I turned toward Alex. He was smiling, which I now realize was due to her inept swearing. I fled to my room and sat on my comic-book-covered bed finishing the Pop-tart. A black thought filled my head. If she wanted to ruin herself with dirty worthless men, who just wanted the one thing men always want from women and who couldn’t love her the way I did, I wouldn’t be able to save her — to stop her from throwing herself at them or them at her. Knowing that I couldn’t watch any more collisions and that she’d choose Alex, or the next one, or the next one after that, over me, I chose for her. I climbed out the window with my duffel bag and babysitting savings, ran across the front yard, and kept running until I landed at Charley’s Appliances and Furnishings in Detroit. I worked there five years — until Charley discovered me in the storage room on a Double-Bliss-Deluxe Electric Massage Chair, burying myself in the plentiful bosom of his matronly-shaped wife, who always smelled of freshly laundered clothes and the pastries she made for me.
I should stay in this decrepit basement since I’ll never be able to sleep again. Putting the thing down on paper didn’t help. The memories of the day I left Mom keep steamrolling through my head. But maybe they’re false memories? Yes, they have to be. Why didn’t I remember earlier what happened that tragic day? Why are the memories so vivid? And why won’t they stop? The plague-related obsessions and neuron-eating parasites are messing with me; that’s the only logical answer. I couldn’t have been so twisted. Mom must know. I have to talk to her. The one thing that will quiet my memories is to tell her I’m sorry for the whole stew of stupidity, ugliness, and craziness and to receive her forgiveness, to hear from her that I wasn’t a monster. All I need is a few minutes with Mom. How much longer do I have to wait? Why won’t the train come?
Oh man, why didn’t I ever call her?
May 21, 2027
Shot my gun this morn. Kill someone. No, someones. This morning. I shot several times at him, or at several of them. Don’t know. Still don’t know.
I was so happy, so so happy after downing a pretty pink pill, just one, no three, no just two of them, I found in a hangout in 6K. Nothing bothering me. I was happy, happy as could be vegging, membering good times with Mom and later, good times with Cindy. Our lives, life together. But then there was the noise. I am sure there was a noise. Crying. Way downstairs. Third floor. No, second floor. I went there once, no twice, went there once and then again with gun. Waited and waited and waited for noise. Scared. Kept peeing. Then needing to pee. At last, I am sure I heard something. Someone crying in 2B. When I crawled in, the place was empty. No. No. Two messed-up and muscled men at kitchen table. Just sitting and sitting and sitting. Silent. No, dead. With their teapot and teacups. No noise. Nothing. But then crying again. In the back bedroom. So I crawled there. I didn’t knock. I just crawled. Quiet and quick. Gun ready.
And I saw him. In a giant closet. Nothing but a dressing table and clothes racks. Sequined skirts, neon dresses, lacey blouses, leather pants, and bird-feathered somethings hanging and in piles. Everywhere. A fashion jungle. He was also just sitting there. But alive. Half alive. Looked gaunt and gone — and all raggedy and hairy. Like a wild animal. A wild dog. Cornered and wounded. We just stared. And he cried again.
I said, “You gotta go. Not cry.”
He put away his tears. “No. You gotta go.”
“You’re all wrong, a bad guy. And you’re sick,” I shouted.
“Not as sick as you. An Eater got you. You’re off. Not even thinking right. About anything.”
“One got you too. You’ll hurt people.”
“No. You will. Once it happens. The change. The Hunger.”
“No, I won’t. You need to bury yourself.”
“You should kill yourself.”
“I’ll kill you!”
“I’ll kill you first!”
“No, I will. It’ll be better.”
“Let me do it. No one gets hurt that way.”
He wiped his face. With his sleeve.
I did also. And then I shot him.
He shot also but missed. I missed too. Hitting something glass. It shattered. It was loud and my hand shook. No, I shook all over. Then there he was again. No several of them or several of him. Someone shouted, “You can’t do anything right!” And then I kept shooting. They did too. Things kept breaking or crashing or shattering. Then I couldn’t hear. Anything. I hid after that. In the closet.
Woke up back in 4E. Ears still hurt. He must be gone. Dead. They all must be. Cause I’m alive.
Or maybe it was just me. Alone. Doesn’t matter. Nothing does.
Going to try a new pill now. No two of them.
[Ed note: Remainder of entry for May 21st and entries for May 22nd and 23rd have not been included due to there incoherence.]
May 24, 2027
Three in the afternoon and I can barely put words on this page. I won’t bore you with the aftermath of the Naked Lunch14 phase of my life. Gotta, wanna, hafta say ‘yes’ to clean living so I can apologize to Mom and she can tell me what really happened. Hope you enjoyed meeting my inner demons though — can’t live with them and can’t live without them, no matter how much I dose the finest pharmaceuticals; but hey there’s no need to say more about the unspeakable. You future-fucks don’t care about me anyway.
Some bad news: you’ll never understand the shit we went through, any more than I could understand what an untidy mess the bubonic plague15 was. Why do I bother writing then? It’s not just because its cheap therapy. It’s also because I’m too lousy a survivalist to make it to the future in person. All I ever wanted was to live long enough find out what happened. Now I won’t. Hey, write back and let me know what it’s like in Tomorrowland.16 Do you have any cool shit, like floating cities, invisibility cloaks, rabble-rousing robots, and fat-free pork rinds? And if I don’t make it… No, I’ll make it; but if I don’t, write Mom (Ms. Smith at 27 Oak Street, Wilmington, DE 19807). Tell her I tried, that I still love her, that I’m sorry. Like you’d bother.
May 25, 2027
I’ve tried everything — drugs, meditation, sleep deprivation, and rubbing alcohol sponge baths — to slow down the fricken buggers that are chowing down on my neural pathways like obese retirees at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Now, I can feel the slimy bastards biting, munching, chewing, and shit-propelling their way through my command and control systems. I swear my brain stem is tingling. A little more — a munch here, a chomp there — and they’ll destroy their habitat. I’ll have no center; I’ll fall apart; I’ll cease.
It’s already happening. I’m not hungry. My whole life I’ve been hungry. All I ate yesterday was two basement rats, two dozen roaches, four spiders, and a romance novel. My clothes and skin hang loose on me. I should be hungry. Maybe that’s wrong; I shouldn’t say, “I’m not hungry,” but that I’ve acquired an appetite for the impossible. Two hours ago, I glanced outside, to see those well-fed men toss another helpless figure on their fire. I didn’t fear them and their actions didn’t disgust me. Rather, I trembled and sweat poured out of my pores as I imagined their bodies broken down into finger sandwiches, blood pudding, brazo burritos, and other delicacies. The cravings didn’t stop until I backed away from the window, took two Valiums, and searched my brain for something, anything else to think about, settling on Cindy.
She lasted longer than I will, not because of my hard living, but because I can’t satisfy my compulsion and, unknown to me, Cindy had been satisfying hers. Maybe I didn’t want to know; there had been so many clues, especially our last night. I’d been stuffing myself with freeze-dried lasagna at my kitchen table when a noise crawled into my consciousness: click, click, Click, Click, Click, CLICK, CLICK. I looked up to see Cindy, eyes hidden behind my aviator sunglasses, auburn hair twisted up on her head, and nails painted bright red with robot-model paint. She stopped tapping on the oven and leaned against it. Her lips, which she’d lined with raspberry lipstick, curved into a seductive smile and a long sleek leg came out of hiding in my black wool bathrobe. She looked great, like a 1950s-man magnet, a movie star who’d just walked off a Miami beach. However, I felt as if my rockets had stopped firing, marooning me in space, far from everything.
“Cindikins, I love you, but I’m not in a loving state.”
Biting her cheek, she retorted, “You’ll be up to it, once we finish the photo shoot,” and posed: bathrobe off both shoulders, one hand on the hip that was higher than the other, and her other hand behind her head. As she pivoted to give me a view from all sides, my camera materialized, spinning by its strap, and a come-hither smile appeared on her face.
“You need to eat Cindy. You haven’t been eating.”
She released my camera, which crashed into a pile of never-to-be-washed dishes. Clenching her hands, as beads of sweat began to pepper her face, she cried out as if in pain, “Sweetie, what’s wrong with you!” – her voice trailed off – “With us? You’ve never said no.”
I took a lackluster bite of my cold lasagna. My mouth full, I asked, “What makes you want it so much?”
Gripping the bathrobe at her throat with her now trembling hand, she sat down next to me. “You know what the reason is” – her voice cracked – “because I love you. More than anything, I love you. Every second of the day, I want to be with you, to be a part of you. Every moment I’m without you it’s an unbearable—” She stopped talking to try to blink away tears, but they began to stream down her cheeks. “Till I met you, I mean till I was with you, I was waiting, saving it for later. It always seemed so shallow, such a distraction from everything I wanted to accomplish, everything important, the planet I was trying to save, my stories, and my dissertation. But now, it’s the thing I need.” She gave a feeble, embarrassed laugh and mumbled, “And until you happened, all that unclean commerce of bodily fluids seemed…well, unsustainable.” She paused to wipe her face. “The time with, before, with Frank, he…I…never did it…he wanted to…a lot…I, we could have…I wish we…I’m not feeling very—”
“It’ll be fine. It’s okay. You don’t have to say more,” I whispered and hugged her.
She leaned toward my cheek and I waited for a kiss, but she pulled away, babbling, “Need to leave. Have to go. I’ll be alright, but can’t, can’t…stay.” Bewildered, I watched her rush for the basement bathroom, my bathrobe swishing across the floor behind her. An hour later, she was still down there. I should’ve checked to see if she was okay. I meant to. Everything would have been different. Instead, wiped out and believing her words, I had fallen over the cliff into sleep.
Did she ever love me, even care about me? Did she always know she was infected? Was it all about using me because I was the last man standing (or rather hiding)? None of that matters. All relationships are a mix of deception and affection, and no matter the exact balance of our relationship, she made me happy; that’s the important thing. I think I also made her happy. She seemed to like the love limericks I’d whisper to her before we slept.
The time I spent with Cindy was the happiest I’d been since right after Dad left, when Mom and I just had each other. During those days, Mom catered to me. Each night she’d read me a story. I’d squash up against her scratchy bathrobe, safe and secure, both of us sinking deep into our sagging leather couch, and she’d make up voices of impossible-to-believe characters — insects in a giant peach, a crazy chocolate factory owner, too-lucky orphans, a witch, and every sort of animal. All I want is to see her again — the latest blond chaos perm and her crinkly blue eyes, bright as a torch flame — so I can tell her sorry for everything. I could pass in peace if after I apologized, her arms opened up, showing that she forgave me and still loves me. Mom’s also the one person that could confirm that the twisted memories pounding away at me aren’t true, that my jealousy was because I wanted more attention, not due to something you’d see on an abnormal psychology blog. All it’d take is a few minutes.
I need to get it together; I cried for the past hour. It’s going to get dark soon and I need to eat, even if I don’t have the right kind of appetite. I now know how strong Cindy was, how the Hunger and one’s particular compulsion go to war with one another. I wish I could talk to the fire and rescue squad; but, they’re asshats. If I don’t make it, whoever finds this notebook, I beg you, apologize to Mom for me, and tell her that I always loved her. But I’ll make it. I’ll see her. They made sandbag emplacements outside the train station yesterday so the train has to be coming soon. It has to. And Mom worked so hard and suffered so much because of me. She deserves to see her son one last time and not get some sort of message service. But if you would, if I don’t make it, please, all I ask is that you tell her sorry for me, that I always loved her.
May 26, 2027
Woke up. The hunger too. Woke up to Hunger. But I control it, I fought it, fighting it. Can’t think right but, getting better. Heard a whistle, rumble, rumbling. A train was outside. Lots of people too. And dogs. Noise. Big noise. Lots of shouting, yelling. Doing organized, organizing. So happy. Going to Mom. I’m on train now. I don’t remember how I got through that fence. I had to though. To get to Mom. Must have climbed over or crawled under. Got lots of bruises and cuts. Lots. Tired. All happy/glad. Can whistle. Am whistles.
Okay, the Hunger fugue is gone for now. To know that I’m on my way to see Mom feels like I took several Percs.17 I’ll be able to make it. I know I can. However, I still feel the Hunger lurking, waiting for when I’m weak. But Mom is a few short hours away. I can do that easy. I hope no one saw me stiff-walk in here like Frankenstein’s friend. I still can’t remember how I [Ed note: Sentence incomplete]
The door is opening.
I pop my head over the top of the seat. Odd, it’s a little girl in a neat yellow dress. She’s singing, “Ring Around the Rosie and a Pocket Full of Posie,” and skipping down the aisle toward me. Looks to be ten, maybe eight, but she has rouge and blue eyeshadow on her face. Why did she slam to a stop and go silent? Right, cause she saw me. Oh Gawd! Oh my Gawd! She looks so sweet — healthy and plump, like a sugary treat.
DO NOT BITE! DO NOT BITE! DO NOT BITE!
Jeez-o-man, that’s over! There’s too much wrong in what I did; but no way to help it, no way to describe the Hunger pains — the cauldron of boiling acid that is my stomach. How much longer until the train starts? How many passengers could there be? Okay, I’ll say what happened since nothing matters anymore.
The girl had stopped only five rows away. She chewed her tongue like it was bubblegum. I was dreaming about doing the same when she asked, “Hey Mr., you ain’t a Zombie are you?”
Still peering over the seat top, I said, “Are you asking if I have the plague? Zombie isn’t polite,” and slid over so I was half in the aisle.
She looked at me as if I was being silly.
“Anyway, what makes you think I’m ill?”
She pointed at my arm. “That stumpie.” I looked at myself and wished I could’ve worn the clean shirt I’d saved for the trip, put on my sling, and brought more than my notebook.
“Oh that. An awful dishwasher accident.” I shoved my bad arm into my ragged flannel shirt, popping a button.
“What’s you writing?”
“What did you say? You’re too far away. Can you come closer?” I hoped I wasn’t salivating.
“No! You schmell.”
I wiped sweat, grime, and a little spit off my face with my sleeve and grunted, “Hey why don’t we play, ‘Simon Says,’ while we wait?”
Maintaining my sanity somehow, I got her almost within grabbing distance. Two short rows. So close. She looked so good. It’s hard to stop thinking about. I would have been nice. An arm, a small pink fleshy arm. That’s all I needed. Man, oh man; such a waste. Such a waste. If her mom not screamed. Camed in and screamed. No her mom came, and, bloody screamed. I can’t write write right write. Dragged treat. Away. Moms are good. I miss Mom. Am going to now. Yes, think that. I have to think that. But Hungry. So Hungry to. Gawd Damn!
Yelling outside. I see a mom yelling. A lot. “…your policy toward…Tell me Exactly what is the policy [Ed note: Sentence incomplete]
White Blob voice. “Yes Ma-mom. Zombies can’t take the train.”
Interview with Joseph Scarboro, male Caucasian aged 51, former member of Northeast Exploratory Fire and Rescue Squad 23. The interview was conducted by Share’n Chan, 3rd level Comparativer of the Boston Scientific Commons Case Studies Club, on September 27, 2050 at a community kitchen near the interviewee’s residential co-op in Boston (Northeast Coastal Ecoregion North American).
Only the interviewee’s responses are provided.
Response(R)-1: Of course, I remember him. Why I’m here. Found his notebook. Don’t know what made me keep it.
R-2: Yeah, it was the cover. That babalicious redhead with that laser gun standing in front of that burning sci-fi city. Don’t see that kind of art anymore.
R-3: Read it all. Those two weeks with Cindy got me through some lonely nights. The rest is a downer. For a day, I was even glad I charred his ass after reading what he did to Sprite.
R-4: She was our squad’s cat.
R-5: In New Haven when, ahhh couple of months after most the big cities and bases went down. It was chaos. Doc. Niratpattanasai Na Ayutthayaiasia’s drug saved us all. Still, the Guy don’t deserve to get his name on about every free clinic and crèche. A lot of them Compulsive sci-en-tists got the desire to find the cure. He got lucky. Hey kid, bet you don’t even know he took chunks out of his lab rats and they had the wherewithwhatever to try the drug cocktail he’d juiced up. They even got the word out and—
R-6: Sorry. It was the worst, out there on our own, just us, the Zom— ah infected, and freaked-out survivors.
R-7: Yeah, the journal stayed in my…ah possession until I heard the Global Open Forum would pay for plague memora…ahh…ballia. Dug it up and traded it for a week at a Cape Cod leisure camp. Only thing those wacked Seattle anarchists ever did for me. My local forum is worse…always sending neighbors over to encourage me to volunteer, suggesting I exercise, how I should eat, not to waste my carbon rations. It’s like everyone’s my big sister. And why somehow do I always gets cycled into sucky enviro jobs, even did radioactive reclamation last week? Is there anything you can—
R-8: Sorry. I know. Sure, the guy saw our posters. Journal says so. If he wasn’t such a paranoidal we would’ve currred him and got him to his mom. Also, he coulda got his wound fixed right. And now the fake limbs, they’re way better than the real thing.
R-9: Alright. Yeah, sure did. He wasn’t secret-agent man. Kept seeing the glint off his binoculars. And man, he was noisy. His shootout terrified us all. We couldn’t chase down every crazed Compulsive. Dangerous. Several of my buddies got comped. Better to stay out of their way, let the disease run its course.
R-10: Sad? He had Cindy! And before that, he was sitting pretty while things went to shit. He got it better than most. If you want sad, I could make you cry till spring.
R-11: When we found him, he was snapping his teeth like a wacked rabbit eating a carrot.
R-12: What da ya mean what happened? You know the answer.
R-13: Yeah, I agreed. Give me a second. Alright, I’ll tell you. You already saw the records. Barbequed that poor guy. Did that a lot, but he’s the one I can’t forget. He failed every test. Nothing human left in him those tests said. But maybe they weren’t perfect cause when we threw him on, his snapping stopped for a few seconds. He got a horrible freak in his eyes and shouted, ‘Tell Mom I’m sorry. That I love her.’ After, I was crying and shit. Later it was non-stop nightmares and a lot of home-brewed beer to stop them. Thinking about it, I shouldn’t have read his journal. Not even a field doc helped. It was years before all that crap stopped.
R-14: Stopped only when I looked up his mom! I used those fugee registries they set up and some leave. Amazoling, I found her and her husband, Alex, Asian guy like you, living in some caretaker complexes south of Boston. Can’t call what they were doing living though. Both had wrinkled up like old people do and were leaning on their neighbors for food. Those were bad times. You posties got it lucky. He’d lost an arm. And she, well she had oldertimers, that forgetting thing. I shouted Steven so many times at her I was hoarse, but I must have half-connected with something cause her eyes lit up and she cried, ‘Oh Stevie you’ve finally come home.’ Without thinking I said, ‘I’m so so sorry. I love you Mom.’ I even hugged her. When I left, she still had an empty smile on her face.