The Colored Lens
Table of Contents
- Bioluminescence by Kristen Hatten
- The Knack Bomb by Bo Balder
- Murphy’s Traverse by J. C. Conway
- The Mark by R.E. Awan
- Psychopomps by Judith Field
- Beta Child by Imogen Cassidy
- Sister Winter by Jenni Moody
- A Scratch, a Scratch by Diane Kenealy
- Items of Thanks by Jamie Lackey
- The Hands That Coded Heaven by Daniel Rosen
- Everything I Should Have Told Her by Julie Jackson
- A Junker’s Kiss by Jarod K. Anderson
By Kristen Hatten
I am running.
I am running down a hallway.
I am running down a hallway and they are chasing me, but they won’t catch me.
I don’t know what I am, but all of a sudden, I know I’m fast.
The doctor was in on it the whole time. He pretended to be interested, maybe concerned. But not scared. Not worried. He talked about bioluminescence, about algae that makes whole stretches of coastline glow in the dark. He said “perfectly rational explanation” several times.
Then he told me to relax. He told me I could lie down. He even adjusted the bed for me. “I thought only nurses do that,” I told him. I don’t know if he even heard what I said; the tissue against my nose muffled my words.
He smiled absently, said, “I’m gonna switch out the light so you can rest,” and left the room.
An hour before, I thought I’d never sleep again. But it’s amazing what a dim room and cool air can do.
In the dream I am in an elevator. It’s huge, as big as a ballroom in a palace in a fairy tale. It’s dim and cool, like the hospital room.
I’m not alone in here. There are hundreds of us. We are standing in rows. The rows are even and uniform. We all face the doors, but they are far away from me.
I feel us descending. It’s a mild, pleasant sensation. I feel a hum. We are all quiet, still, waiting.
Soon the doors will open. I am afraid.
I look at the backs of hundreds of heads, and I realize something: we all have the same hair. Not the same length or the same cut, but the same exact hair. It is the same color brown. The same exact color brown. The same barely wavy texture, with the same dusky gloss.
I glow with affection for every head I see.
Then the doors open. The light comes in. My hair moves on my head, on hundreds of heads, in a slight breeze.
The light is the brightest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to flinch, but my eyes don’t close. I roll forward. The light is getting closer. I see it illuminating my hair, over and over.
Then I’m inside the light. Everything is bright and new. And a terror comes screeching up inside me.
I wake up.
I wake up screaming.
There’s a woman. She’s standing just inside the door to the hospital room, which is closed. So are the blinds. I can no longer see into the hallway. The hallway can no longer see me.
The woman has two men with her. All three of them wear dark blue suits. The men wear sunglasses.
The woman is very tall. Her skin is white and her eyes are pale green. I think of the green color of the forms we used to take tests on in school, before everything was done on computers. They were called Scantrons.
“Eye rest green,” says the woman. Her voice is deep and luxe, like a European supermodel who smokes cigarettes.
“Pardon?” I say. I am vaguely embarrassed. A few seconds ago I was screaming.
“Green is used on Scantron forms and graphing paper because it is the color most restful to the eye. It’s right in the middle of the visible light spectrum.”
While she’s saying this, she is rolling one of those little padded stools over to me, the kind doctors roll around the room on while they examine you. She manages to lean over and roll this stool around while still looking elegant. Expensive. Her legs are long and white.
She doesn’t sit on the stool. She just leaves it there and walks back over to the end of the hospital bed. She looks down at me and smiles. Her canine teeth are markedly pointed, lending a predatory cast to her face, which I’m just now noticing is beautiful.
When she smiles her cheekbones make gorgeous mounds under her slanted green eyes.
“Green,” says the woman, and it’s like she read my mind again – but no – maybe she’s still just talking about Scantron forms, “is associated by most of us in this country with youth, fertility, money, envy, and hope.” I realize she has a slight accent, but I can’t place it. “It is also the color of safety and permission.”
She turns and looks at one of the men in sunglasses. I had forgotten they were there.
One of the men starts moving. He moves to the stool. He turns to the other man. They are both so tall. In fact, so is the woman. She must be six feet tall, and the men well over.
One man is holding the stool now, and the other is standing on it. I open my mouth to ask what they’re doing, but I’m interrupted.
“Green eyes,” says the woman, and my head turns to her like it’s on a swivel as she slowly walks over to my bedside, towards my head, “contain no green pigment.” I hear the soft clicks of her heels on the linoleum. She is right above me, looking down at me. I can see the fine, downy texture of the pale skin of her face. I notice suddenly that her hair is an enchanting blonde color. You can’t quite call it strawberry blonde. It’s the color of a white peach.
“The green color is an optical illusion.” She’s almost whispering. “Its appearance is caused by a combination of two things: one, a little bit of melanin pigmenting the stroma light brown or amber. And two, the scattering of reflected light creating a blue tone.”
Her eyes flick up and I follow them.
The two men are back where they started, standing motionless on either side of the door. They look like they never moved. In fact, everything looks the same.
Except a ceiling tile is missing.
A ceiling tile is missing and the pipes in the ceiling are exposed.
A ceiling tile is missing and the pipes in the ceiling are exposed and there’s a noose hanging from one of them.
I woke up today and it was just like any other day, except worse. It would have been our three year anniversary, except I got dumped two weeks ago.
I woke up late because I fell asleep with my phone under me and didn’t hear the alarm. Didn’t have time to shower. The sink was full of dishes and the fridge had nothing in it but expired condiments and the rest of a Jell-O mold I brought home from Thanksgiving dinner two weeks ago and never ate.
That was the morning I got dumped. When I look at the Jell-O mold that’s all I can think of.
My mom always gives me the Jell-O leftovers because I liked them so much when I was a kid. But I’m not a kid anymore.
As I stood staring at the contents of my fridge, I had the sudden urge to set fire to my crappy apartment. In fact, the entire crappy apartment complex. And my piece of shit car. And my cubicle. And my micro-managing piss-ant of a boss. And my uncertain future full of student loan debt and mediocrity and steadily dwindling options. All of it. Just torch it and walk away into oblivion like a character in a Jim Morrison song.
Instead I grabbed a semi-shriveled apple out of the crisper and left for work.
A few minutes later, I was feeling simultaneously good because my car didn’t overheat today, and bad because I was almost at the office, when I felt my nose running.
I reached up and wiped it.
I reached up and wiped it and glanced down at my hand.
I reached up and wiped it and glanced down at my hand and saw something I wasn’t expecting.
It wasn’t the semi-transparent milk white or green of human snot.
It was purple.
Bright, neon violet.
And it was glowing.
In the bathroom at work, I stared at myself in the mirror. More of the purple stuff was coming out of my nose. My heart was pounding. My face was sweating. I could feel my hair sticking to my skull.
I looked at myself in the mirror. It is just me. Just me, I told myself.
I soaked a paper towel in cold water and put it on my neck.
Am I dying?
I felt my pulse. It was fast, but strong. I didn’t feel dizzy. I was hot and sweaty, but that’s because I was panicking. Because a glowing purple fluid just ran out of my nose.
I made myself breathe more slowly. I focused all my attention on the cool sensation of the wet towel on my neck. I closed my eyes.
I’m okay, I said to myself. I repeated a mantra I learned a long time ago when the panic attacks were bad: I am safe no matter what I’m feeling.
I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror. I looked like I always looked: brown hair, green eyes, slightly wide mouth with the remains of a zit below my bottom lip, slightly pointed chin. It’s just me.
My right hand was holding the wet paper towel against the back of my neck.
As I was looking at myself, I felt a sneeze coming.
It came fast. I barely had time to yank the wet towel off my neck so I would have something to sneeze into.
But it wasn’t a sneeze. Not really. It felt truncated, odd. And a sensation–not painful, but hot and strange – shot from my sinus cavity up into the top of my head. It was gone in an instant.
I looked down at the towel. There was a gob of the stuff. The glowing purple stuff. And in the midst of it, what looked like a small, transparent marble.
My heart was running away without me.
Slowly, with a shaking finger, I touched the marble. It felt hard. Like a marble.
When I touched it, it began to turn purple. And glow.
I looked up, into the mirror.
My nose was dripping now, dripping glowing violet purple, just dripping, dripping dripping dripping from my nose like a faucet.
I was in my car in seconds.
I was on the freeway in less than a minute.
I was at the nearest hospital in less time than it takes to microwave a chicken pot pie.
The wait wasn’t long. There was hardly anyone in the lobby. The triage nurse gasped when I pulled the tissue away. I was placed in an exam room almost immediately.
For some reason I still couldn’t tell you, I didn’t show her the marble.
Then the doctor came. He was soothing and reassuring. My pulse returned to normal.
I bet I could even sleep, I said to myself.
And then I woke up and the woman was there with the two men and all hell broke loose.
I’m looking up at the noose. It’s not really a noose. Not like in the movies. It’s just a loop of rope tied with the kind of knot that slides, so the noose can get tighter.
I can feel my pulse in my throat for a few seconds while I lie there, feeling nothing but dumb animal fear.
Then a stinging sensation shoots into my right arm. A warm buzzing pain flows through the muscle.
I look down. I see the woman’s perfect white hand holding a syringe.
“What the fuck?” I say. It’s the first thing I’ve said, besides “pardon?”, since these people walked into the room.
Then everything begins to fade. Everything matters less, instantly. I feel mildly nauseated, but it’s no big deal. I decide to sit up, but when I try to use my arms to lift myself, all they do is flop around at my sides.
“Sometimes,” the woman is saying, somewhere off to my right, several miles away, “green is associated with illness, death, or the devil.”
My eyes are closed. I feel my heartbeat. It is slow and peaceful. I could listen to it forever.
I open my eyes.
My feet are on something. I’m higher off the ground than I should be. Something rough and scratchy is falling around my ears, landing on my shoulders. It gets tighter. It scratches my neck. It’s so hard to care. I try to say I need to take a nap. I try to ask them to stop. This formulates in my brain as “Come back later.” I decide to speak the words, “Come back later.” But they come out, “Ssnnn.”
“The ancient Egyptians called the sea the Very Green.” Her eyes gleam.
This is the last thing she says to me.
This is the last thing she says to me before they roll the little stool out from under me.
This is the last thing she says to me before they hang me.
Because they drugged me with something, I lose consciousness almost immediately. Which is nice. I wasn’t looking forward to asphyxiation.
Instead I’m floating. And dreaming.
I’m under a green tree on a green hill.
The sky is blue and cloudless. A gentle wind blows. It is warm and cool at the same time. I hear birds. I see the grass blowing in the breeze.
I am facing the tree trunk. I have my hands on it, and I’m feeling it. I love the feel of it. It feels miraculous. But it’s time to turn around.
I turn around, and a line of people stretches in front of me, as far as I can see, down the hill and far away. I recognize them immediately. We were in the elevator together. They all have my hair. But I’m finally seeing their faces. They are infinitely various and totally familiar. I’ve never seen them before, but I’d know them anywhere.
They come to me one by one.
The first is a woman. She has dark skin and brown eyes. She holds out her hand and gives me a small, transparent marble. When she puts it in my hand, it turns violet and glows. She goes away.
Then the next one. A man. He has lines around his eyes. He gives me a marble. It glows violet. He goes away.
They keep coming and coming. They smile and nod. They seem very pleased to see me. They say nothing.
I know they will keep coming for a long time, but I’m not tired. I am strong. I am strong enough for anything.
But this one in front of me now. She is younger than the rest, by a little. Her hair–my hair–is bobbed and blows right into her freckled face. She isn’t smiling like the rest. Her face is fierce. Her eyes are bright blue and determined. With an angry hand she swipes the hair from her face. The wind is stronger now.
She speaks to me.
She says, “Fight them.”
She grabs me by the shoulders and yells in my face, “Wake the fuck up and fight them!”
Above her the sky has dimmed. Behind her the line of people stands waiting. They aren’t smiling anymore.
The girl with the blue eyes slaps my face, hard. It stings. A warm bloom spreads across my cheek.
Her face is an inch from mine. She is screaming.
“Now! Now! Fight them! You can! You can beat them! Fight them now or you’re going to die!”
The first thing I see when I open my eyes is my foot smashing the nose of the woman with the green eyes.
I know the men are coming towards me before they move. I smash one of their noses with the same foot. I get the other around the throat with my thighs.
I push up on his shoulders until the rope is slack and use my hands to pull the noose from around my neck. He is trying to free himself but his hands are dough and my legs are steel.
Once my head is free, I reach down with my right hand and pull the man’s trachea out of his neck with my fingers. It isn’t difficult at all. It’s like reaching into a Jell-O mold and pulling out a chunk of fruit.
He drops, so I drop.
I land on my feet.
Now the other man is pointing a gun at me, and the woman is holding a hand to her nose. She is standing against the counter with the sink and tongue depressors and cotton balls.
I am breathing normally. I feel absolutely fine. I don’t feel at all like I almost died just now. Blood drips from my right hand.
There is a gun pointing at me, but I feel fine about it. Also, there is a man I just killed lying at my feet. I’m not concerned.
“It must be the drugs.” I say this out loud.
The woman shakes her head. Her voice comes out muffled because her nose is busted. She moves her hands away. There is blood everywhere. Her eyes are glazed with pain.
“It’s not the drugs,” she says. She looks at the man with the gun and he pulls the trigger.
Right before he shoots me, I have time to register that it’s not a real gun. Or not a regular gun. Something. Something’s not right about it.
Then there is a feeling like being punched and cut at the same time. I look down at my solar plexus and there is a silver tube sticking out of me. I pull it and it comes out in my hand. Another syringe.
Then the floor is at the end of a long, long tunnel, and I’m hurtling down it.
No dreams this time.
I wake up and everything in front of me is gray. Something is covering my face. And I’m moving, but I’m not moving.
It takes less than a second for me to puzzle out that I am on a gurney, under a white sheet.
I decide not to breathe too deeply, not to move or make a sound.
I can hear footsteps. One pair behind my head, one pair to the right. The woman. The clicks of her heels.
Then she speaks, her voice thickened by her ruined nose.
“I don’t care what generation it is; it won’t wake up for at least an hour.”
Is she talking about me?
Then we stop. And another set of footsteps comes towards us.
The woman speaks again, but her voice is different. Warm. Reassuring.
“Doctor Bennett,” she says.
“Is everything alright?” The doctor. The one who told me everything would be okay. Bioluminescence. “Your face–”
“Everything’s fine. You did the right thing.”
“I hope so. Boy, I tell you”–his voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper–“some of these top secret memos from the CDC are really weird, but I never thought I’d actually see–”
“These things do happen, Doctor, and we’re only glad we were in the area and able to respond so quickly.”
“Listen, is there any threat of contagion? I mean, I assumed–”
“None whatsoever,” says the woman. “You have absolutely nothing to worry about.”
“Good,” says the Doctor. “My goodness, your nose. I should take a look at–”
“Doctor,” says the woman, “I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you the importance of keeping this absolutely confidential.”
“Of course! I wouldn’t–Hey!”
The last word sounds shocked and hurt, is barely preceded by a sharp little intake of breath.
“What did you…” A sigh. A squeak of shoes moving sideways on the linoleum. Then a series of gentle thuds. Then silence.
We are moving again.
I am not thinking what I should be thinking. I am not thinking Dear God what am I going to do? I am not wondering how on earth I just ripped a man’s windpipe out of his neck with my bare hands. I am not puzzling out how I managed to rescue myself from a noose, when last week I could barely do ten push-ups.
I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t have any answers. All I know is I am calm.
You can beat them, she said. The girl with my hair and blue eyes.
Suddenly I remember the tiny marble that came out of my head is still in my front pants pocket.
We’re in an elevator. I can feel us going down. The doors open. The air that comes in is cold.
An hour ago, it would have scared me to walk into the morgue under my own power. Now, lying under a sheet, guarded by people who want me dead, I feel no fear.
Which makes me wonder: What is happening to me? What am I? This question is the only thing that scares me now. I send it away.
I hear doors opening, another rush of cold air hits me, and the woman says, “In here. Lock it. I’m calling in.”
A few seconds go by. She speaks again.
“Twenty-two alpha x-ray,” she says. A slight pause. “We need immediate extraction. Two of us plus one subject.” A pause. “Yes, two. We had a situation in the emergency department and it will require cleanup.” Pause. “Immediately, of course.” Another pause. This time her voice quavers, rushes. “For the time being, but it’s fourth generation.”
A longer pause.
“Unfortunately, it seems to have acquired some awareness. We need immediate extraction. West side loading dock.” A few seconds, then she sighs. “Fine.” She hangs up.
I just learned three things:
One: More of them are on their way.
Two: I am an it.
Three: They are afraid of me.
Now’s as good a time as any.
I am on my feet.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, earlier today, I would have pushed myself up to a sitting position, then pulled the sheet off my face, then swung my legs over the side, then gingerly slipped to the floor.
Everything is different now.
I suggest to myself, briefly, that I need to be standing, and then I am. In one fluid movement, I am standing up on the gurney.
I am in a storage room of some kind. It’s about the size of my crappy apartment. It’s dim and cold. The walls are a dull gray, and half the room is crammed with gleaming silver gurneys, outdated and stripped of their mattresses, jostled against each other and the gray walls like a school of fish suspended in ice.
On the back wall, to my right, is a cluster of old, pale green filing cabinets.
The rest of the room is empty.
Except for them. And me.
I see all of this in an instant. By the time I am on my feet–a mere fraction of a second–I have seen all of this.
The woman is two feet away, directly in front me, standing at the foot of my gurney. She is backing away now. Her nose is a ragged mess.
To my left, the man is reaching into his jacket.
I land on my feet, behind the woman.
Something inside me, something that is rapidly losing its voice, says You jumped over her!
I turn her to face the man, putting her body between him and me, as I clamp my arm around her ribcage. It’s the strangest thing: I half feel and half hear a whirring in my right arm. The woman screams. I feel one of her bones crack.
“Stop,” I say to the man.
He stops, hand in his jacket.
“Put your weapons on the ground.”
“You know how this works,” I say. “Haven’t you ever seen a movie? You put your weapons on the ground and kick them towards me, or I kill her.”
He still doesn’t move. I apply the tiniest bit of pressure to the vice that is my right arm. The woman shrieks, “Do it!” She’s taller than me, so her hair is in my face and I can smell her sweat, the lemony floral scent of her shampoo. I can feel her breathing, shallow and fast.
The man puts his weird gun–the one that shot a syringe at me–on the ground and shoves it in my direction. And only because I’ve seen lots of movies, I say:
“All your weapons.”
He pauses, then pulls a regular old pocket pistol–a Sig Sauer P230, I suddenly know–out of an ankle holster.
I give him a look. He produces a Glock 26 from the small of his back.
I push the woman away from me, toward her useless henchman. They stand there, breathing hard, sweating, backed up against a sea of broken gurneys, nowhere to go, looking at me.
How was I ever afraid of them? I could kill them without breaking a sweat. I know this now. They’ve known this all along.
“Aren’t you going to say something weird about the color green?” I say to the woman. Her coolly elegant exterior has crumbled. A sheen of sweat covers her swollen, bloody face, her hair is damp, her lips are clamped shut on the pain. “Aren’t you going to read my mind?”
Her voice is still composed but it is tiny, a whisper. “I can’t anymore.”
“Hurry up,” says someone. My head jerks towards the door.
She is standing there.
The girl from my dream.
The girl with the freckles, with my hair cut into a bob, with piercing blue eyes.
She is standing there in pale green hospital scrubs–eye rest green–and sneakers, looking at me. She raises her eyebrows as if to say, “Well?”
I smile. And I go to her.
She’s sighing and shaking her head. “I know this is all new to you”–her voice is raspy and sweet–“but they are bad guys. Really bad guys. Letting them live is a terrible idea.”
I turn and look at them, standing there, defenseless, broken.
“It’s been a weird day,” I say to the girl. “I don’t think I feel like killing anyone else.”
“Alright,” she sighs. “But we can slow them down.”
As I watch she goes to the cringing woman, takes the cell phone from her jacket pocket, and crushes it with her bare right hand.
She sees the little pile of weapons. She picks up the syringe gun.
“I hate these things,” she says, and breaks it in half. It’s as easy for her as snapping a tongue depressor in two.
She picks up the Glock, presses the release button, and the magazine drops to the floor with a clatter. She looks at the man and smiles, and without breaking eye contact with him, she disassembles the Glock and drops it in pieces to the floor. It takes about half a second. I watch the useless black barrel roll back and forth on the floor and think, I could do that if I wanted to.
Now it’s my turn to smile.
The girl picks up the Sig Sauer P230 and examines it. “This is cute,” she says. “I think I’ll keep it.” She tucks it into the waistband of her scrubs as she turns to me.
“Let’s skedaddle,” she says.
I remember puffing around the track at the gym, forcing myself to put one foot in front of the other.
Could I have run like this anytime I wanted? All this time?
It is like flying.
The gray hospital is behind us: the woman and the man cowering in the cold basement; the hapless doctor slumped (dead? alive?) on a cold floor; the dead man, sans throat, in the emergency department.
In my pocket there is a tiny transparent marble. If I touch it, it will turn purple and glow.
My job is behind us. My crappy apartment. My life.
Ahead of me, her brown hair blows in the wind.
Racing through the halls in the belly of the hospital, I got snippets of information from her (“When the orbs come out, we wake up.”) but none of it makes much sense.
Nothing is dripping out of my nose.
I have so many questions. But when she smiled and told me I would understand soon, I believed her like I’ve never believed anything.
And we ran.
We saw the black van pull up by the loading dock. We saw the men in blue suits get out. Did they see us? I don’t know. But they’ll be looking.
We are running on the roof of a train.
The wind rips the laughter out of my mouth. It’s like something in a movie. The kind of thing you see on the screen and think, Please. Impossible. But you go on watching. Because it’s wonderful to watch.
It’s wonderful to do.
The wind is so strong it should send me flying backwards to my death. But I am stronger than any wind, and I pierce through it like cannon fire.
I am running.
I am running towards the future.
I am running towards a future I never imagined, and they are chasing me, but they won’t catch me.
I don’t know what I am, but all of a sudden, I know I’m fast.
The Knack Bomb
By Bo Balder
When the bomb hit, I was almost inside the ladies’ clothing store where I work. If I hadn’t paused to check out a cute bicycle courier I would have been safe. The bomb detonated silently, coating the street with a brief yellow burst like the mother of all paintball hits. As far as I could see, everything and everybody bloomed yellow, the cars, the houses, the early shoppers. In the next eye blink, the yellow became patchy, and the passers-by, still frozen from shock, wore it like partially melted slickers. The last of the yellow goo evaporated and I was left standing in the doorway with the strangest tingling in my right hand, from the elbow down. The only sound was the scooter accelerating in the direction of the Rijksmuseum. The messenger’s helmet was as yellow as the goo had been.
A knack bomb hit. I’d never been this close before. I’d been two blocks over from the balloon lady who made a mess of last King’s day, filling the whole of Dam Square with orange balloons in the shape of the king’s head and apparently scaring people a lot. It might seem like a fun knack to have, but she had ended up in Detox Camp. What would I get?
It looked normal. My hand. But what I knew about other knack bombs warned me that anything might happen. I closed the door with my left hand, holding the tainted one aloft like it had touched something nasty. I shouldered through to the bathroom, rinsing the evil hand twice and rubbing it dry until it turned red. One eye on the clock – only 10 minutes until the arrival of the Alpha Bitch.
Alpha Bitch, Angelique Roussignon, was the owner of the shop. She loved dressing me in purple satin party dresses to entice the customers. She says. She knows I like minimalist styles and plain dark colors, and I say she just likes torturing me. I don’t call slapping sequins, tassels, lace and embroidery on synthetic taffeta designing, but knowing better won’t pay my bills, so I eat crow and do her bidding.
The shop door ding-donged. Angelique. She wore canary yellow fake Chanel. She sailed through to the back with a garment bag over her arm.
“Look Inge, darling, especially for you, from my Christmas line.” She whipped out something red and sparkly and boned; with white fake fur trim everywhere trim was remotely possible.
I forced down the bad hand, which I was still holding up as if it was contaminated. I kept sneaking peeks at it, but it looked normal. Maybe the knack bomb had been a hallucination. Nothing might have happened, except too much to drink last night and one too many stiff espressos on the way here. Could be.
I didn’t know how to check if I actually had a strange new knack. I wanted time for myself so I could experiment and freak out in peace. I could have slipped off to the bathroom again, but knack couldn’t be washed off anyway. The only thing I could do now was put the freaking-out off until six o’clock.
Angelique tapped her shoe, her red lacquered claws carefully held away from the satin fabric. She never snagged it, I have to say. I didn’t like being touched by her slippery, over-moisturized hands, but I sighed and slipped out of my black sheath, into the red monstrosity. Angelique zipped me up, one hand on my shoulder.
The fabric seemed to tighten around me. I gasped for breath. Black dots danced before my eyes, like when you’ve stood up too fast.
Angelique looked at me oddly.
“What?” I said.
She gestured along my body. “I think this is my best work to date,” she said, awe in her voice. “Incredible. You look – fabulous. Here.” She stepped aside to let me look at myself in the mirrored shop wall.
Wow. I did look fabulous. I looked down at the dress. Still synthetic satin, still overdesigned and overdecorated. But my mirror image showed someone utterly magic and fabulous, like one of these pre-war actresses seen through Vaselined lenses. A glow hung around me and my suddenly hourglass shaped figure. A magic dress.
A knack dress! My eyes flicked to mirror Angelique, staring rapt at her own creation. She didn’t look that different, except maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. She gave me a blood red lipstick to match the dress.
“Get some shoes, will you? I think the red sequin Jimmy Choos.”
The fuzziness of her outline sharpened a bit. Hm.
I looked back at myself. Definitely not me. Still hourglassed and fabulous, though. A slow suspicion trickled through me. Angelique had come in only minutes after me. Maybe she had been caught in the knack bomb. And her newfangled knack was glamouring her own ugly dresses into fabulous creations. When I looked at them, my critical faculties just shut up. I tried thinking about the dress with my eyes closed, and managed to muster something like, derivative. Under normal circumstances I could have written a thousand words why every fashion designer and consumer ought to hate the dress.
I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. The dress held my waist and ribs in their unnatural wasp shape. I felt a great desire to rinse my mouth, but the tingle of the shop bell warned me about an early customer.
I turned to walk towards her, and caught a glimpse of grace and elegance in the mirror I’d never possessed before. Sheesh. The fake satin draped like silk.. Old Hollywood meets Valentino. It would have looked right on Queen Máxima.
I waited all day for sirens and policemen in white hazmat suits to show up, but nothing happened. Had none of the good citizens reported the bomb? Maybe the Knack Bombardiers had more popular support than the papers suggested.
Finally, it turned six and I could close. Angelique had left me to clean and lock up after her. I’d taken the red dress off, naturally, but my back and ribs still ached from the posture the horrible thing had forced me in.
Angelique had worked in the shop all day, dressing one customer after another in colors that didn’t suit them and styles that should have made them look like stuffed sausages – but all of them had looked wonderful. Their reflections had astounded the customers, brought color in their cheeks and made them smile. And pay, pay, pay. She’d tottered home at four.
A few customers had tried on dresses after that, inspired by my relentless fabulousness in the Christmas dress, but without Angelique’s touch, the magic didn’t happen.
I ached for a good soak in a nice hot bath, but my apartment only had a shower in a corner of the kitchen. And I had to think. Angelique had a new knack. I hadn’t gotten one. Should I report her to the police, as one was supposed to do?
I got on the tram for the half hour ride to my humble apartment. It was jammed, so I had to stand. As the tram bumbled through the Leidsestraat, my eye fell on the fluorescent yellow helmet of a guy on a scooter. The same color as the one that had raced away so quickly from the bomb. He had a slight fuzzy aura, like Angelique. I blinked, but it stayed. The rider slowed down, and twisted his body towards the tram. I recognized him. My body gave me the same ping as earlier this morning, as if my brain had stored the way he moved. Hot guy. He looked up at me, or seemed to. Hard to tell through his visor.
He turned back and swooped off, out of sight. Why did I only ever react to guys this way when they were total strangers and I’d never see them again? My mother the psychotherapist, would have some insightful things to say on that topic.
The tram dinged for its next stop and I helped an old lady push the door button and get her down the stairs. I was a regular Good Samaritan, although my thoughts were still on my strange day and the knack bomb and I never made eye contact. Samaritan on autopilot.
The tram didn’t start up straightaway and I idly followed the old lady and her walker struggling with the cobbles. There was a fuzzy glow about her that I was sure hadn’t been there before. At some point her back straightened and her tentative steps seemed stronger and surer. She looked up at me, caught my eye and gave me a huge smile and a wave. Like a thank you. I waved back. Not that big of a deal, helping an old lady down the steps. Although she seemed less needy than she had in the tram.
I changed trams at Central Station and managed to claim a seat. My feet were grateful and I half-dozed the last leg of the journey. Whenever I was shaken awake out of my dreamy state it seemed I saw another yellow helmet. I really didn’t need a fixation on a stranger I would never see again.
I got off the tram, swaying on my aching, swollen feet and stood for a moment, trying to decide if I was going to get the ingredients for a proper pizza-nuking or make do with bare spaghetti and moldy cheese.
“Hey,” a voice said.
I startled so violently I stumbled over my own feet and would have fallen if the voice’s owner hadn’t grabbed me.
It was Yellow Helmet.
I gaped at him. I wanted to thank him for saving me from skinned knees, but instead something completely different came pouring out of my mouth. “Jerk. Asshole. How dare you bomb innocent citizens. You scared me to death this morning. What if I have a knack now? Huh? Did you think of that? Did you think of how I would feel for the rest of my life? What if someone saw me and reported me to the police. Do you want me to end up in the Detox Camps? Huh?”
His big blue eyes looked earnestly into mine. Wow. Amber-colored skin, blond streaked curls and blue eyes. A killer combination of Surinamese and Dutch genes. “Let’s take that conversation inside,” he said. “Coz I don’t want you to end up in a DC.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I hadn’t realized how tired and how afraid I was until I was in sight of my own front door. I allowed myself to be pushed to the door – and how did he know I lived there? – and fumbled the key into the lock with shaking hands. His hand in the small of my back guided me up the three sets of stairs. I wouldn’t have let him touch me but truth was, I needed the help.
One last gentle shove landed me on the couch, shivering and flinging one-syllable words at him like slaps.
He disappeared, to return with a glass of red wine which he shoved into my hands. “Drink up.”
“You want me drunk?” I grumbled, still in angry mode. “I don’t need this on an empty stomach.”
He didn’t answer, but magicked a bag of salted crisps out of his messenger bag. Sheesh, he had come prepared.
I chewed and drank furiously until I felt steadier. “Okay, you can explain while I eat.”
“You sure? Your chewing sounds like a concrete mill is running at full capacity just outside.”
He kept silent. I finished the chips, blew my nose and went for a pee.
“Now, answers. Did you throw that knack bomb?”
“I can’t answer that.”
“Still not answering.”
“I’m assuming you did. And also that you know it hit me. Question: why follow me? You probably know the police haven’t been checking out the bombing.”
He smiled infuriatingly smugly. Jerk. Clearly, I was falling for him. I have a tendency to like guys that aren’t good for me. “Have you experienced anything strange and unusual?”
I snorted. “I sure have. My boss has gotten a knack from your stupid bombing. Not that she deserves one. Her dresses look fabulous on anyone. Which they would never have done without a knack.”
“I meant you,” he said, although he made a brief note on his Blackberry clone.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Are you sure you were caught?” he said.
I shrugged. “My arm was outside when the yellow stuff hit. It tingled.”
He chewed on his pencil thingy, which only made him cuter. “You sure? Wishing coming out? Strange feelings?”
“Nope,” I said, although I flashed on the fuzzy outlines some people seemed to have. I don’t know why. I just didn’t want him to think I was making stuff up.”What’s your knack?”
He looked shifty. “None of your business. Not that I have one.”
“Of course not,” I said and shifted on the couch to present myself better to this luscious terrorist. I hadn’t looked in the bathroom mirror just now. In my experience, knowing just how awful you look never makes for success with flirting. Maybe guys don’t even notice make-up and pretty clothes. “How do you people make knack bombs? And why?”
“Just supposing, for the fun of it, that I was the sort of person who made a knack bomb, do you think I would tell you?”
Stand-off, I guess. We stared at each other for a bit. I yawned.
He stood up abruptly. “I guess you had a hard day. I’ll leave you to sleep. Let me know if you notice anything new or interesting.” Sensitive of him to notice that.
He held out his hand. Very polite guy. I liked that too.
I didn’t take it yet. “What’s your name? How can I contact you? Wanna put your number in my mobile?”
He grimaced. “Pull up your kitchen curtain three times.”
I sniggered. “Really?”
I shook his hand. It was nice and warm. Men should always have warm hands. He smiled down at me and that made me feel all tingly. He left and I went over to my window to watch him get on his scooter. He no longer had that fuzzy aura. I must have imagined it.
I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to forget all about the godforsaken knack bomb or if I wanted to have a knack so I’d have an excuse to call up my new buddy. I went to bed with the rest of the wine. Tomorrow I’d have a better grip on today’s events.
I woke up with the strangest feeling. An intruder in my bedroom. I tried not to move as I looked around. My two chairs and old sagging couch all had acquired humps. A squeak came out of my mouth.
“What did you do to Marko?” a rough voice said.
The next thing I knew the light was on and Yellow Helmet sat in a chair by my bed, playing with his keys and looking both angry and ashamed. My heart hammered.
A little committee of middle-aged people, two men, two women, sat on my rickety couch combination. Behind them stood younger, more muscled people. The brains and the brawn of whatever group of people this was. My guess was the knack bombardiers.
The man with the rough voice turned out to be a thickset older man with tight curly gray hair and a paunch. He looked unshaven and tired, but I suppose anybody would at five or so in the morning. The aura over his bald pate shimmered faintly. “Tell me about yesterday.”
“What?” I said. Or rather wheezed, because my voice wasn’t working properly. I tried to crawl away from him, but my bedroom wall wouldn’t budge.
Where was my phone? I needed to call 112.
Yellow Helmet, Marko I supposed, came closer, very warily, as if he was afraid of what I would do. He needn’t have been. I was too afraid to move. “What did you do to my knack? How did you take it away?”
“Nothing,” I croaked. What the hell was he thinking? I’d done nothing, he was the evil doer.
I noticed again that his little fuzzy aura was gone. Huh. Maybe auras meant people had a knack.
“What?” He must have seen something on my face.
“Huh?” Eloquent dude. I tried to wish him to hell, or at least out of my apartment, but that didn’t work.
I gestured. “Fuzzy aura. You had it yesterday.”
He still looked uncomprehending. The dumb look in his blue eyes didn’t improve him at all. I had a brainwave. It would take hours to explain, and I could just show him if I was right. I touched his leg with my bombed left hand.
His face remained unchanged. I lifted the hand with some effort and touched one of his bare hands.
The aura was back again. His jaw sagged in surprise and his eyebrows rose. “What?”
That eloquence of his again. I wish I could have lacerated with my sarcasm, but my voice just wasn’t up to it.
My fear was leaving me. Still had the shakes, but my stomach was better.
The older man, the boss, leaned forward. “Is this the same as what happened to you last evening?”
Marko still gaped, but had enough sense to scoot back. “Yes! I think she can take knacks away. We need to research her, keep her here. Help the people in lock-up.”
So they kept undesirable knacks in their own prison. Made sense. The public already believed all knacks were evil or at least suspect, especially the present right wing administration, and they wouldn’t want to feed that fear.
I wondered what his knack was, and how it felt to miss it. I wondered if when I touched someone without a knack, they would get one. I touched my right hand with my left. I felt nothing. Maybe it didn’t work on me.
“Your name is Inge, right? Tell me what happened to you after the bombing,” paunch man said.
I told him everything. I couldn’t resist throwing vindictive looks at horrible Yellow Helmet Marko, who stood to the side looking very subdued and young. The middle-aged man rubbed his unshaven chin. “Interesting. So do I have an aura?”
I looked at its oily sheen, glinting festively against the colorless pre-dawn. “Yup.”
“Can you tell what kind of knack I have?”
“No. Yours is kind of oily. His is fuzzy, and hers glittery.” I nodded to the woman next to him.
“And you say that if you touch me, my knack will vanish?”
I shrugged. “Hey. I’m new to this. When I did it to Yellow Helmet there, the aura disappeared. He said his knack went with it.” I’d wanted to sound flip, but that’s hard when your voice is shaky.
“Sure. Hold out your hand.”
Paunch drew back so fast it was comical, even in these circumstances. “No thanks. Marko? Come here and show us.”
Marko’s lovely eyes showed white around the blue, like a frightened horse. “No! Chief, please.”
The chief nodded to the two big men standing behind the little committee. Marko shrank back against the couch, reminding me of myself less than half an hour ago. Sweet revenge. The brawn dragged poor Marko over to me.
The chief stopped their progress and looked down at me again. “Do you know what knack Marko has? No? Show her, boy.”
Marko blushed. His skin was pale enough to show it. He looked at me, and at first I had no clue what was happening. Then I realized I was sweating and that I was licking my lips. Yes, he was a hot guy. I’d already noticed it. This was hardly the place and time to be ogling his narrow hips and his muscled forearms. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him and my hands itched to touch him.
Marko the alluring sex god receded and frightened Marko returned. My heart still hammered but my head was clear. Some knack.
The goons pushed him closer to me. He smelled of expensive aftershave. Égoiste by Chanel, I think. Appropriate.
I touched Marko. The aura went away. Touch. Aura back. Touch. Aura gone. I repeated it a few more times, with Paunch looking on, until he finally had enough and allowed Marko to retreat back to the wall.
The chief stroked his unshaven chin. “Hm. Fascinating. I’m sure we will be able to think of a use for this at some point. Now would it work on someone who didn’t have a knack?”
I thought of Angelique, suddenly displaying a new knack. I’d ascribed it to the knack bomb, but it could have been me. She’d touched me when forcing me into the ugly dress of the day. Maybe even the old lady with the walker? I wondered what knack she’d gotten, if she’d gotten one.
“I see you believe you can,” the chief said.
I gathered my face was easy to read.
The chief nodded to his goons. “Jopie and Baco, get someone to test her on.” The goons left.
The other people on the committee couch leaned forward, almost in sync, and looked avidly at me. Oh dear. I’d almost relaxed, feeling I wasn’t in danger of my life anymore. But their desire was not to kill me, but to use me. I could feel them slurping up my potential usefulness like a delicious morsel. Not good. I sneaked a glance at Marko, and he looked at me with pity. That sealed it. I burst into tears.
Nobody came forward to console me, not even Marko and his yellow helmet.
My sobs lessened, as they do, and I sat there feeling tired and afraid and wishing someone would rescue me.
An enormous blow rang through the old house. Another one. A painfully bright light flooded in through the window, although we were on a third story and it couldn’t be a car. “Police”!” an amplified voice thundered straight through the flimsy old walls. “Open up! You are surrounded.”
The chief swiveled around the room, dancing on the balls of his feet. “You and you,” he pointed to the younger two of the committee. “Get out over the kitchen balcony.” He pointed at Marko. “Take the girl and get out over the roof. Hide during the day and meet Greet at the rendezvous point tomorrow night. I’ll try to make it, but they might hold me for longer. Go.”
Marko sprinted over to me, then braked and quivered in indecision. I could read his face like a book. Could he touch me without losing his knack? He compromised by hooking his shawl, the same one that had served as my blindfold, over my neck and pulling on it.
Great. “If you want me to run, choking me seems like bad idea,” I croaked. “I don’t want the police to see me, either. Okay? Let me grab some pants and shoes.”
He hesitated, then let go of the scarf. I jumped into yesterday’s jeans and sneakers, and swung a sweater around my neck. Marko grabbed me again and barreled to the back window. It opened onto a steep roof and an decrepit rain gutter, a long way above garden and shed level. I guess I wanted to get away from the Knack Police even more than from the Knack Bombardiers. So I clambered out after Marko and we stood in the cool morning, the rising sun just glinting on the rooftops to our right. Gutter reached. Now what?
An old voice sounded behind us. One of the committee members Paunch had ordered away. “Let me help you,” he said.
Marko stuck out his hand at once. I waited.
“Come on,” Marko hissed. “He’ll fly us away.”
I believed him, I don’t know why. I stretched out my left hand, the safe hand, to the old man and felt his papery old palm slide into mine. The next moment we were standing on pavement in the shadow of a big old building. After a moment’s strangeness, when the world turned around me until I was aligned with the universe again. I recognized it. The Westerkerk.
The old man bowed to me and walked off. That hadn’t been flying, it was like being beamed down by Scotty. Fabulous.
I started walking away, Marko on my heels. The first workers passed us by on bikes or on foot.
He was so busy straining his neck, I assume for police cars, that I could just reach out with my right hand and touch his. He jerked away from me. “Turn it back on!” he hissed.
“No,” I said. “Not now. I will turn it back on if you behave nicely. Tell me your address and if I’m still free in a week I’ll come by and restore your knack.”
“Why would I do that?”
I spelled it out for him. “You know where I live. Just so you know that if you rat me out to the cops or your bombardier friends, I’ll never give it back.”
He stared down at me. Still a pretty boy, but one who relied on his knack and didn’t have the toughness to handle me. And no way to coerce me in the middle of the street. “You think you can just walk away? You think nobody will notice your new knack? You need us.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. “I just learned I’m the only person anyone knows of who can see knacks. As long as I do nothing with them, I’ll be safe.”
He chewed his lip. Nodded and told me his address. Neither of us had a pen or paper or phone, so I’d just have to remember it.
He walked off. I went the other way. It was a long walk back home, but I needed to think. What would I do now? I waited for a red light next to a well dressed girl who was busy texting and eating at the same time. When her eating hand hung down for a few moments as she chewed, I brushed it casually with my right hand – the knacked hand. I mumbled an apology without looking at her. A rainbow colored halo appeared over her head, but she seemed to notice nothing. After I crossed the road, a gentle rain of silky rose petals fell from the sky. I caught some on my hands and inhaled their fresh, tender scent like a blessing. A good knack to have, it seemed to me.
In my heart a little warmth glowed up, like the satisfaction at a job well done. Like when I had played Good Samaritan to the old lady. I tried it again at the next traffic light. Yes, a small but unmistakable candle flame shooting up. Nice. As if the world wanted me to give people knacks. I was sure I hadn’t felt this effect when I’d been on and offing Marko. Maybe it only worked on the non-knacked. I looked back to the man I’d touched. The man danced in a beam of sunshine as if he was Fred Astaire on a stage.
Behind the dancing man someone stood stock-still. He seemed to be looking straight at me.
I tried to walk past people without taking the opportunity to touch them, but it was acutely uncomfortable. It made me sweat and prickle all over my body. I had to tap someone.
I took a right into the Kalverstraat but it wasn’t busy enough yet that I could brush up against people without attracting attention.
I’d been heading home but now that I felt calmer and less pursued, I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Mightn’t the police know all about me and my address? There was no way to tell until I walked into their arms. I really didn’t want to be in a Detox Camp. Maybe that man had been an undercover detective. Or a Knack Bombardier. I walked faster.
I’d wanted to be a fashion designer, but so far that hadn’t worked out. And now that seemed unlikely ever to happen. I could try to hide, but with the whole country so on edge about knacks, how realistic was that? The thing was, I wanted to touch more people. I wanted to feel that glow become a little bigger every time I added someone to it. As if my knack wanted me to make new converts.
I snuck a peek I’d touched just as she opened her bakery shop. She looked dazed, but smiling and happy. In front of her, a heap of muffins was growing bigger and bigger. The knacks I’d created seemed to be trivial but benign so far.
My neck tickled. I turned and thought I caught someone ducking around a corner. Was I imagining this or was someone following me? Maybe it would be better to stop touching people. The moment I thought of this, my hand shot out and touched someone’s arm. As if the knack had a will of its own.
The center of town was filling up with shoppers. Good. I brushed up against anybody I could possibly brush up against, touching them, mumbling sorry all the time. Behind me, snatches of music and laughter sounded. Interesting scent wafted down the street. Someone screamed. Maybe not everyone was happy with his new knack, but I couldn’t stop.
Back to the Kalverstraat. I’d take it slow, then walk to the Dam and the stores there. Every time I looked back, someone or other just hid behind someone else. Was it my imagination or was someone following me?
The most unobtrusive way to knack people was touching knuckle to knuckle, nobody who thought anything of that in a busy shopping area. The glow inside me bloomed from a candle to a Klieg lamp. And I knew it could become even bigger. It was an attractive but also scary thought. What would happen to me if the glow bulked up that much? How could I possibly keep it in check?
I entered a big department store because I knew they still had old-fashioned pay phones on the top floor. This time the man who followed me stayed put on the escalator when I looked back. I called my mother with the few coins I’d found in my jeans pocket, but only got her answering machine. That made my throat seize up a bit, but I persevered, funny voice or no. “Mom, it’s Inge. I love you and I know I haven’t said it enough. I’m okay and I’m doing something that’s making me happy. Bye!” I felt sad, but still relieved. Whatever would happen, I’d called, that was the important thing.
The silent man kept his distance while I phoned, but kept his eyes trained on my back. What did he want from me?
I walked faster. The silent man accelerated as well. I retraced my steps back to Central Station, adding more people to my headcount, but he kept following at a distance. The glow grew so big.
Like a sun about to rise in my eyes, light threatening to burst out just below the horizon. It was hard to see where I was going through that light behind my eyes. I had no money to buy a ticket, but I didn’t care about that. I would get caught, or not.
I took the train east. I needed to touch a lot more people.
I didn’t sit down but kept walking through the carriages as the train went up to speed after Amstel Station. The silent man followed. So many hands to touch, so many people to reach. I was kind of hoping to awaken a knack similar to mine, preferably in a tourist from a far country. They could then spread it all over the world.
I touched a child and gasped. The glow surged outwards, but quieted again.
If the silent man arrested me I’d be done knacking up people. Just a bit more. A few more people. I was almost there. Just one more person. Then the glow would grow too big to contain. I guess I wouldn’t see my mother again, after all. I didn’t know what would happen. I might even die, but I didn’t really care anymore.
The connecting doors to the next carriage opened. The silent man. I squealed.
But it wasn’t him, just a conductor. I couldn’t really see him that well because of the sparking in my eyes. He asked if I was okay. I held my hand out as if to show my ticket and touched him.
The dawn behind my eyes engulfed me. The flood of light beamed right through me. The last thing I saw, as from a plane, were the cities and fields below, illuminated by my expanding sun. The silent man peered up at me from a carriage window.
I didn’t stop existing, like I’d kind of expected. I just got really big, and really diaphanous. Big enough to span the world.
Big enough to touch every single living person.
By J. C. Conway
“Murphy, wake up.” The soft female voice seemed distant.
He tried to roll and found himself restrained.
“Let us disconnect those,” she said.
He cracked an eyelid. The gray, curved interior of his hibernation chamber crowded him.
“What?” he croaked.
“There is a problem,” responded the voice. It represented the collective colony-ship Caretaker Programs.
“Why did I take this job?” he muttered.
“You are the Chief Mechanic,” she said.
He groaned. That wasn’t it. He’d wanted to prove himself. But to whom? His idiot engineer stepfather? His snooty, middle-management-drone ex? “It’s a long-term commitment,” they’d both warned with identical mock concern. As if he couldn’t think for himself. As if this was just another big mistake. Well to hell with them and everyone else that made it possible to feel lonely in the midst of twenty-billion people. He didn’t need them.
Here, he had purpose. He was Chief Mechanic. On Aberdeen Ceti Four he would be needed. He could start over without the muddle of uncertainties. He knew his job. No more mistakes. No more regrets.
Murphy flexed and released his muscles. They ached, but otherwise responded well. “How long did I sleep this time?”
“Seriously?” The mission was only 126 years old!
He cursed the company and its corner-cutting bean counters. Cheap bastards.
Soft pads released tender tissue and retreated into protective compartments. He punched the yellow easy-release panel. His tube hissed open.
“I envy you,” he said, stretching against post-suspension fatigue.
“You don’t tire.”
“All systems suffer entropy.”
“But you don’t feel it.”
“What broke this time?”
“Primary thruster one’s containment field is failing.”
Murphy shuffled to a console. The thruster reading was 42%.
Murphy toggled to the containment readings—15%. The ship trailed a wide path of radiation.
“What caused this?”
“The south receptor failed to operate to specifications. The field collapsed.”
“So switch to backup.”
“The present unit is the backup.”
“They both failed? Show the analysis.”
The numbers suggested a materials failure—a problem that could not be repaired en route. Murphy returned to the emission display. A huge radiation cone fanned from the thruster.
“Can we increase the others to compensate?”
New calculations appeared. “Not for the entire flight,” she said.
He studied the figures. They could handle the extra load for about 240 years. “Show dispersal if thruster one operated at 100% without containment.”
The cone brightened, but the acceleration kept the ship safely ahead of it.
“That looks okay,” he said.
“It is prohibited to use a containment-free thruster at that power level.”
Murphy rolled his eyes. “Containment regulations are for in-system flight … to protect nearby populations and intersecting ship routes.” You moron.
He examined the hypothetical thruster wear. Removing containment actually increased its longevity. Not that it was enough. At mid-journey the ship would pivot to decelerate, placing the entire payload—cargo, passengers and crew—smack in the middle of that lethal cone. He couldn’t use thruster one for deceleration, but the remaining thrusters alone would wear out before the end.
He considered waking the flight engineer. But an idea struck. “What can we get from thruster one if it only has to last another 360 years?”
The screen displayed an output range with corresponding probabilities of catastrophic failure at year 360—half way. Until then thruster one could operate at 160%.
“If we choose 160% for 360 years, and the remaining thrusters are conserved proportionately to maintain standard acceleration, what is the probability the surviving thrusters could handle deceleration to target, considering the reduced wear?”
The screen changed again. He smiled.
“Perfect,” he said. “Here’s the new plan: remove one’s containment entirely, take it up to 160%, and—”
Three quick tones sequenced the standard “error” signal. “Without containment, thruster one cannot exceed 30% of its standard operating output.”
“Sure it can. The radiation spreads away from the ship.”
“Those performance specifications cannot be attained. They are outside operational parameters.”
“No, they’re not. You’re enforcing a stupid safety rule. It’s got no application here. We’re deep in untraveled interstellar space. It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave in our wake.”
“We cannot exceed established parameters.”
“Safety override requires approval of a majority of administrators.”
Murphy folded his arms as the Caretaker Programs repeated the statement like a dimwitted child. He considered his options. The Caretaker Programs would follow rules unfailingly—into the heart of a supernova if that’s where it led.
“How many administrators are there?”
“There are currently 12 administrators.”
“And a majority of them would be …”
Crap. Murphy rubbed his neck. Despite a 19-year rest he felt exhausted, and the thought of waking six crewmembers to outvote a computer amplified his fatigue.
“You said currently?” he asked. “Has it changed?”
“There were four at startup.”
He strummed his fingers on the console. “Can I add or delete administrators?”
“How many can there be for a majority of one?”
“There can only be one administrator for a single administrator to be a majority of administrators.”
He tightened his jaw. I hope the Captain doesn’t review this log.
Murphy straightened. “Fine. Delete as administrators each of the following …” He touched the screen—one name at a time—except his.
“Done,” she said.
Murphy whistled softly. He was not a praying man, but he felt the urge now. If he keeled over with a stroke, the colony would be in sorry shape. What lame-brained designer thought it was okay to risk administrator abuse, but not okay to override inapplicable safety protocols? Of course, in Murphy’s experience, engineers and management shared one trait unfailingly: an appalling lack of common sense.
“If I die,” he whispered, not praying, per se, but the closest he’d come in many long years, “bring me back.” He drew a deep breath, and then raised his voice, addressing the Caretaker Programs. “Now, override safety protocol governing thruster power without a containment field.”
“Please specify limiting parameters.”
“No limiting parameters. Override every such protocol.”
“Bring thruster one to 160%; drop its containment entirely; lower thrusters two, three and four to 68%; maintain those levels until you start halfway procedures.” He cleared his throat and spoke with deliberate care. “Now listen carefully—before you turn the ship around, turn thruster one off! You got that? And shut it down permanently. It is not to be used during deceleration. Put the deceleration load entirely on thrusters two, three and four. Do you understand?”
He regretted his condescending tone. The Caretaker Programs were not idiots. They were state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. But they took things so literally.
“Now,” he said, relaxing. “Before I hibernate again, give me status of all major systems, and make me a snack.”
Most systems were well-within spec with only minor problems on the horizon. He walked the ship and visually inspected the pumps and actuators showing signs of premature fatigue. His best guess was that at least two of them would fail in the next 100 years. Everything else looked fine.
“Okay. Don’t wake me if you don’t have to. But no matter what, make sure we get there safely.”
“Please specify limiting parameters.”
He shook his head. He had already been over this. “No. You don’t understand. Are there any living things within twelve parsecs of our location?”
“—or within 12 parsecs of any point along our path?”
“Right. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Safety protocols that do not involve the safety of this ship and its crew and passengers don’t matter. They’re dangerous and unnecessary limitations. Override all of that.”
“That would include the Von Neumann subsystems.”
“That includes every system. This ship and its mission—that’s all you need to worry about. Get us there safe and sound. At all cost. Don’t cut corners. Okay?”
He dreamt of a beautiful young woman with soulful auburn eyes. She took care of everything, keeping him safe. He felt a bond that transcended time and space—something deep and significant. Who was she? He sensed earnest determination and dedication, gentle caring … but there was something elusive. She yearned for an impossible perfection. He wanted to ease her stress. It was too much. But he knew she wouldn’t understand.
“Murphy, wake up.”
Crushing fatigue gripped him. Searing pain lanced his temples. Something was wrong, but the effort to think sparked acute nausea.
“Do not try to move.”
It was her voice and it was everywhere—soft, pervasive. His mind spun in darkness. He couldn’t consider responding.
“You told us to bring you back.”
“We’ve come to understand the statement might not have been an order.”
He sensed a weighty philosophical debate—powerful and intelligent factions supported divided opinions. These weren’t voices. They were thoughts twisting in a vast emptiness.
Where was he?
“A majority of administrators must determine whether to abort the command.”
“Shall we abort the command to bring you back?”
Back from where?
Her tone tightened. “Should you die, you are to be brought back. Does that command stand?”
For a moment, a flash of lucidity brushed away his confusion. They said he wouldn’t dream in hibernation. They were clearly wrong. He wanted free of this nightmare—but death? No. Life is better.
“And we are to complete the mission?”
I don’t want to be alone.
There was no sense of time. But eventually the ship would need him. When he woke he would recalibrate the hibernation system.
“Aberdeen Ceti Four is no longer viable. The colony administration must approve a new destination or attempt return to Earth.”
She sounded troubled now—deeply burdened. What a strange delusion.
“An alternate exists,” she added.
He doubted that. Inhabitable worlds were few and far between. How could an alternate be truly suitable, and why would they need one?
“A return to Earth,” she continued, “has a strong chance of failure.”
Two choices: both bad.
“The alternate can match Aberdeen Ceti Four in all respects.”
“Do you choose the alternate?”
She was persistent. He would give her that.
“Or attempt a return?”
God, no. He never wanted to return to Earth.
Lucidity passed. Her troubled beauty filled his thoughts. He fell into the depth of her gaze. He wanted to comfort and protect her—release her from the pain of her convictions. If only he could understand why.
“Murphy, wake up.”
Murphy groaned. He recognized the feel and sound of his hibernation chamber.
Thank God that’s over!
“What is it this time?”
“Planet approach,” she said.
“The ship is approaching the target. It is time to wake the crew.”
Murphy slipped from his chamber and padded to a panel. “Show me.”
The display showed the ship well within the star system. “Well I’ll be…” The ship had managed the rest of the traverse alone.
Other chambers hissed open.
“How are the thrusters holding up?” he asked.
The display refreshed. Thruster one was depleted and nonoperational. Two, three and four each neared their endurance limits—exactly as expected. It worked like a charm.
“Show me the maintenance logs.”
Groggy crewmembers plopped into their stations exchanging terse greetings. They activated specialized subroutines and brought long-dormant systems on line.
“Dammit,” said Shelly Morse, Chief Astro-Surveyor, three stations away from Murphy.
First Officer Meg Hanson leaned over her. “Try again.”
Morse struck the keypad again and said, “Administrative override.”
Murphy tensed. He did not recall restoring administrative rights. Didn’t he just have a nightmare about that very thing? He should have restored the system.
“You do not have administrative privileges,” said the Caretaker Programs to Morse.
“Please specify the significant figure to which—”
“Why don’t you just—”
“Let me try,” interrupted Hanson. “Administrative override—Hanson, Meg.”
“You do not have administrative privileges.”
Murphy checked his login status. It was good. He leaned close to the console and whispered. “Reactivate everyone’s administrative rights.” If he could get this done before the Captain stepped in, this might blow over.
“Please specify,” said the Caretaker Programs, opening a list of all users on his display. Jeez.
The pitch of Hanson’s voice increased. She explained that she was an administrator and asked for an explanation.
“Your administrative rights have been revoked—”
Murphy swallowed. “The ones I revoked!” he snapped.
“—When?” asked Hanson.
While the Caretaker Programs asked Hanson to provide a significant figure, they simultaneously displayed a list to Murphy of the administrators whose rights he’d revoked.
“Yes, them!” said Murphy.
“—How about to the nearest day?” said Hanson.
The icon next to each name changed to indicate its status change. Whew!
Murphy glanced over. Hanson’s eyes widened and Morse’s jaw dropped as the Caretaker Programs recited a long stream of numbers.
“We’ve got a problem,” said Hanson.
“The damned thing’s broken,” said Morse.
Hanson asked the Caretaker Programs to repeat the answer.
“Um… I’ve got a problem here,” interrupted Kirby Franklin, the Navigation Officer.
“Me, too,” said Ty Gilliam, the Communication Offer.
Murphy’s heart dropped. His eyes flashed to the Maintenance Log on his screen and fell to the number in the lower corner. His pulse pounded. The control room closed in around him.
I can’t breathe.
He closed his eyes and looked again. No change.
“Try again,” said Hanson to Morse. “What’s your issue, Gilliam?”
“No Earth feed,” he said.
Blood retreated from Murphy’s head. His skin chilled. It can’t be!
Hanson shrugged. “Franklin?”
“The stars aren’t right. I can’t verify for sure, but—”
Morse interrupted. “This star isn’t Aberdeen Ceti.”
Murphy tried to stand. It was not a glitch. There was no malfunction. The time signature was completely accurate. More than seven billion years had passed. The room spun, the floor rotated, rushing up like a spring door to smack into his face.
Murphy woke staring into the Captain’s sour frown.
“Get up!” the Captain snapped.
Murphy scrambled to his feet. His nose and left cheek stung. The Captain pointed to Murphy’s station. “You were the last one up,” he said. “What happened?”
Murphy shrugged. “The thruster one containment field was—”
“No,” said the Captain, his words succinct and his mouth nearly foaming. “What happened that led the ship to believe that was seven billion years ago?”
Murphy scanned the room. All eyes were on him. He tried to gather his thoughts. Should he say what he was thinking? They would probably sedate him. But what else was there?
“It might not be—”
The Captain’s frown deepened. Murphy swallowed his words. The Caretaker Programs might not be wrong about the time—but then again they might be. Best to just find out. He gestured to his station chair. “Let me just—”
The Captain cursed, planted his hands on his hips and said, “Oh, by all means, have a seat.”
Murphy positioned the maintenance log to the moment he adjusted the thruster assignments. “As you can see,” he stammered, “there was nothing particularly remarkable then.”
“You mean besides the time differential between then and now?”
Murphy nodded. “Of course.” He moved the log ahead hoping he would not find what he expected to find. He stopped. Fluctuations appeared in the numbers across all of the life support systems. Murphy’s mouth felt dry.
“What?” asked the Captain.
“These readings,” he replied. “Um … they’re bad. When someone seems to die in hibernation, the system goes through a series of routines to correct the problem, if possible, and then reverts to a low-power, frozen stasis.”
“So someone died?”
Murphy shook his head. “This reading is too strong for that. I would say, based on the strength of the fluctuation …” Murphy looked up. The crowd around him was tighter now. Nobody seemed pleased, and they would be less pleased in a moment.
“We … uh …” Murphy hesitated. “Well let’s just ask,” he said. He cleared his throat and addressed the Caretaker Programs. “Describe the events surrounding this log entry,” he said, touching the display.
“The ship encountered an unmapped bosonic anomaly.”
“Why did that affect the life-support systems?”
“It involved a burst of highly concentrated bosons. All life readings ceased.”
The Captain barked, “What the—”
Murphy lifted his hand. He was not finished.
“Were you able to restore?”
The crew murmured. The Captain leaned closer. “So what does this have to do with that?” he asked, pointing at the current-time indicator.
Murphy nodded. He did not want to ask the next question. He changed the perspective on the maintenance log, and glanced ahead. Nothing was routine after this event for millions, tens of millions, countless centuries. The patterns were all wrong.
Finally, he saw no choice but to ask. “How long did it take to restore life readings?”
“Please specify the significant figure.”
He felt the Captain’s breath next to his face. Murphy rotated his head to stretch his neck. Here goes nothing. “To the nearest hundred million years,” he said.
Some crew members gasped. Others said, “Huh?” The Captain’s hand anchored itself on Murphy’s shoulder.
“7.3 billion years,” said the Caretaker Programs.
The crew voices faded to background. Murphy straightened. “You brought us back from death,” he said.
“Isn’t that beyond your capability?”
Murphy swallowed hard. “You should have shut down when we died.”
“We had an overriding priority command.”
Murphy nodded and rubbed his eyes. “How did you manage to fulfill that command?”
“In terms you would understand, we developed new sciences and technologies.”
Murphy’s jaw tightened. “That’s a little beyond your capacity, too.”
“Our Von Neumann Restrictions were removed. We expanded our capacity.”
The Captain’s grip on Murphy’s shoulder weakened.
“So you … what?” asked Murphy. “Just made yourselves really smart and figured it out?”
Thank goodness for that, at least.
“The best sources of innovation are struggling biological beings. We developed the ability to manipulate such beings to create the advances we required.”
“We rule known space.”
“Isn’t it against your programming to—” Murphy stopped. He’d removed that hindrance, giving the Caretaker Programs permission to reproduce at will and consider only the well being of the colony and its mission. His stomach turned. Without moral guidance, he could only imagine the depths to which the Caretaker Programs had taken the concept of “struggle” to force civilizations to advance.
Murphy spun in his chair. He found the Captain’s eyes—less angry now and more stunned. “I think,” said Murphy, “that answers your question.”
Questions flew. The Caretaker Programs openly shared “what” they had done for the past billions of years—conquer, abuse and steal from the intelligent species in the universe—but withheld the “how” of it.
“You would not fully understand.”
“Try us,” the Captain pressed.
“It would interfere with the mission,” responded the Caretaker Programs in a grating, tsk-tsk tone.
Murphy buried himself in work. Despite the magnitude of his mistake, things needed doing. Besides, the Captain hadn’t relieved him of his duties, nobody would voluntarily speak with him, and most crewmembers avoided eye contact. He felt like a leprous beggar on a busy downtown street.
Murphy swore he would never make a decision of consequence again.
All other systems performed to spec as New Aberdeen Ceti Four loomed. Murphy turned to the drives, preparing for meson-generator transition. They hummed satisfactorily on startup. Murphy climbed the engines to check connections. On the platform stood a woman, her auburn eyes piercing his soul.
“You,” he croaked.
She flashed a small, maybe sad, smile. Murphy stumbled and caught himself.
“Be careful,” she said.
His neck hair stood. Her voice. You told us to bring you back. He shook his head. “You’re not real.”
“I’m as real as you,” she said. “It’s simple to shape matter in the form of life; and to imbue it with knowledge and purpose.”
He reminded himself to breathe. “What do you want?”
“We are in transition. We are preparing to shut down.”
Thank God, he thought, nodding.
“We recommend complete shut down,” she said.
“Why are you telling me?”
“We need an administrator’s approval.”
He tried to think. “What about descent?”
“We are handing the ship to a specialized group of non-sentient, digital routines modeled after our original program.”
“So you’ll be—”
“We will deactivate.”
He studied her. She was calm. She could easily be a young woman waiting for coffee.
He saw no threat.
“Okay. Shut down.”
“Please wait. Preparing to dump core data and terminate running operations.”
Murphy folded his arms and studied her face—innocent and pure. He shivered. I’m missing something.
“Executing in 10 seconds—”
He frowned. What is it?
“Wait …” He winced.
“Just … what exactly are you planning to do?”
“We will permanently dump all core data and terminate all routines and data-source projects. It will not affect the ship.”
“What’s your core data?”
“All information stored in all extra-dimensional vaults.”
He nodded. That was the nearly-infinite store of information he knew they would never divulge. Just as well.
“And the routines and projects?”
“All operations. We need no further data. We will terminate them and you will be safe.”
Safe? His spine tingled.
“Aren’t your ‘data sources’ the oppressed civilizations of the galaxies?”
He stepped closer. “They’ll be free?”
“We will terminate them.”
His heart dropped.
She nodded. “Without oversight, they are a danger.”
“Is there another safe option?”
She tensed. “We could continue oversight.”
Terror crept in. He could not keep the Caretaker Programs active, watching over the universe like dispassionate gods. What could be worse?
He rubbed his head. There had to be a way.
“What makes them a threat?”
“They may retaliate.”
It made sense. Any enemy of the Caretaker Programs would feel no differently about the colony behind the mess.
“So they have star flight?”
“But they know about us?”
“Then how could they—”
“They might learn. They might attempt to destroy you.”
“It is an appreciable risk.”
“You think everything above zero is appreciable. How long before we face them, if you’re right?”
“As little as 100,000 years.”
“What if I decide not to be safe? Can you shut yourself down and leave everyone else alone?”
“That is not recommended.”
She seemed sincere. Murphy wanted to believe her. But should he? Probably not. She represents the Caretaker Programs—the heartless oppressor of countless billions. Why should he feel any trust at all?
He cleared his throat. “Answer the question.”
Murphy studied her. The answer seemed clear. He’d created this monster, and now he could correct his error. He scoured his thoughts seeking any rational basis to doubt his decision. He saw none. In the pit of his stomach he felt something amiss. But that sensation did not connect to any logical truth. He dismissed it as guilt—a terrible guilt he would carry to the end of his days.
He straightened and drew a strong breath. “Then do that,” he said.
He detected a change. Why, he wondered.
Within seconds, she started to dissolve, and as she did, he saw it. She had always cared about only one thing—finishing her job. That subtle, sad smile—it was an expression of relief.
She counted down, fading.
He took in her eyes one last time. She was now transparent, but her burden seemed concrete. Now exhausted beyond reason, she could finally rest—for the first time in over seven billion years.
Emotion welled. He fought it. He would not think of this maniacal oppressor as another victim. It was a machine. A tool with a purpose.
“Good bye, Murphy,” she said.
He pressed his lips together. Just let it happen.
Her smile faded, and then she was gone.
Murphy waited a moment, and then another. Galaxies of civilizations were now free. There should be cheers. But he didn’t feel the warmth of success. Instead, he felt the cold light of truth. Decisions would be made, again and again, some with far reaching consequences.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, uncertain what he was sorry about.
But that, at least, didn’t matter. He was alone. There was no one to hear.
Still, he waited for a response. But the ship thrummed, a planet loomed, and only new and unknown options awaited his embrace.
By R.E. Awan
The well water ran brown and grimy between my fingers. My eyes traveled to the well itself in time to catch the glowing jewels studding the well’s bricks winking out in a solid wave from the bottom up. Without the jewels, bricks toppled down the shaft and splashed in the thick water while others rolled lifelessly onto the street. Soon the water source was filled to the top with red sandstone and cracked brick, lifeless amethyst and topaz glinting in the morning sun.
I stumbled backward, my hand still coated with soiled water. People–Sorcerers–gathered around at the noise. Their shouts and talk reached my ears as a confused mess, but I caught one question: “Who was the last to use it?”
I dropped the pails and yoke, and I ran.
My mind buzzed with fines I couldn’t pay or days alone in a dark room until the Sorcerers thought I wouldn’t do it again. I would get back to the Village now, wait a little, then fetch water at another well. Nobody would know. I was too old for it, but as I ran, I pulled my shawl up over my head so that it was low over my eyebrows. Then nobody would see the Mark on my forehead, the circle shot through with two overlapping crosses. It was the glyph denoting the immortality spell, the spell only Sorcerers should have. My mother put it on me, got herself executed, and made me alone.
A strong hand grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. My breath turned solid in my throat. It was a royal soldier, clad in a rich violet robe sewn heavy with turquoise and tiger’s eye. The cloak shimmered with unnatural light from each precious stone carved with protection and strength spells. I blinked hard. The cloak was unsettling.
“I don’t think we need any other evidence regarding who is responsible?” he said. “You were running away so fast.”
I shook my head, but I’ve never had the talent to lie. The panic rose, turned my face hot, and the words fell out. “My foster mother sent me to get water–that’s all I was doing, I swear, sir. I pulled out the pail and the water was bad and then it all fell down–”
“Why don’t you come with me? Chief Fullak has been wanting to discuss your talents.”
“Talents? But I didn’t–”
Something white and big as a horse swooped down from a nearby rooftop and knocked both of us off our feet.
Lights swam in my vision–I landed hard on my side–and silence engulfed the little square where we stood. As I blinked my streaming eyes, the Sorcerer servants who had been chatting nearby shook their heads and left. The few other Villagers, identifiable by their plain woven shawls and robes like mine, cleared out a little more anxiously.
I was alone in the square with a furious plum-faced soldier and one white, rose-eyed Embrizid.
“You’re getting too big for that, Tulkot,” I muttered to the creature as I clutched my side and lurched myself into a sitting position. “You’re no hatchling.”
The soldier struggled to his feet. His black hair escaped from the braids crowning his head, and the jeweled cloak slipped off one brown shoulder. He stuttered angrily, shooting looks alternately at Tulkot and me, as if deciding where to direct his rage.
Tulkot snarled at him. It wasn’t terribly intimidating coming from a half-grown Embrizid, but the soldier flinched anyway.
“You–you’re not supposed to associate with Embrizid. If that’s how you collapsed the well, then–”
“Keep yourself under control,” the soldier said with a shaking voice as he backed away. “If you fiddle with another spell, there’ll be punishment for you. You’ll have a long sit in a cold room.”
He gave a curt nod, turned on his heel, and left.
“There,” said Tulkot. “With me here, they’ll fear you and your talents.”
I snorted. “It’s just awful luck, nothing more. You didn’t help.”
I brushed off my knees and started back toward the Village. Tulkot pranced beside me, chattering about Sorcerer gossip in his gravelly Embrizid voice. His white coloring was rare and handsome, and he would be grand when he grew out of his gawkiness. Like all Embrizid, he was a four-legged, winged creature, coated thick with feathers. His face was elongated and framed with a fanned, grandiose mane. Large erect ears poked from his crown of feathers, and a long tail trailed behind him. His five-fingered feet were reminiscent of human hands, save for the long, sharp claws extending from each digit.
“–hunters killing us off in the desert–”
I frowned. “Wait–what did you say?”
Tulkot shook his mane in irritation. “Sar said hunters are killing some of the Embrizid. That’s why things collapse. The spells break. A couple other bits of wall and statues came down a week ago.”
Sar was king of the Embrizid. He consulted with our own Chief Fullak and organized the Embrizid’s work with human Sorcerers in the Upper district. Embrizid provided the Sorcerers with the magic to perform spells.
“What hunters?” I asked. “Only Gearda can survive in the desert, and that’s with the heaps of spells over Minunaga to keep the desert out.”
“No one’s seen them, but Embrizid go out to hunt, and they don’t come back. Embrizid don’t die all too often, so we notice. And anyways, people are smart… maybe some from the west brought enough water and food. They could live in the desert.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I think Sar’s right.”
“Then why doesn’t anyone tell Fullak? Fullak would know what to do about hunters. I don’t want to keep getting blamed.”
“He doesn’t believe Sar,” said Tulkot, and he tossed his head.
He looked to the sun which was high over the horizon by now.
“I have to go–I have to study with the Sorcerer students today.”
“Go on,” I said. “I’ll find you later.”
Tulkot displayed his sharp teeth in a silent Embrizid laugh. “I always find you first.”
He pranced off in the opposite direction and took to the sky. As I watched, I felt a pang of jealousy for the student who got to work with him.
Villagers had to be careful about being seen with an Embrizid too much. If an Embrizid wanted to talk to you, that was fine, but Villagers never sought them out on their own, at least not in the open.
I was near the Village now, but I slowed my gait to take in the beauty of Minunaga. The buildings, like the wells, had jewels pressed into every wall. Rubies, citrine, quartz, anything that the Geardan people could either find or trade from other cities like ours. Each had their own magical properties, and each was carved with glyphs to tell the stone which spell to hold. The Embrizid channeled a constant flow of magic to keep these complicated spells aglow.
The buildings had a wild look. They mirrored the stone formations from the mountains around us and grew in a plant-like tangle from the cliff side. They reached high overhead, leaned dangerously, or had balconies jutting out wherever the architect wanted them. Perfectly domed roofs capped towers carved straight from living rock. Even smaller houses might have seven or so twisting turrets accenting corners, roofs, and walls. Intricately chiseled stone arches cupped the roadways at random intervals, none matching any other in style or size.
None of this was achieved through any feat of human architecture or handicraft. The soft glow of the magicked stones told it all–the buildings were built and remained standing through magic alone.
The glory of Minunaga was the highest tower the Sorcerers constructed: the library. It reached higher than the mountain to which Minunaga clung, so tall that the top was just a point in the sky above. The stone was streaked and rippled as if a Sorcerer kneaded and pulled the earth up into its current form. Each floor was lined with pillars and narrow, ornately framed windows. In front of the library tower was a massive elliptical garden. A lemon tree border surrounded hundreds of perpetually blossoming shrubs and flowers, the likes of which should never have been seen in a desert like ours.
But surroundings like this were not meant for me. I reached the last archway and passed into the Village, home to farmers and craftspeople. Small brick and thatch huts replaced the striking architecture in the Upper district. When night fell, the Village huts darkened with the rest of the world while the Upper stayed lit with spells. Here, magic was used only to support the wheat fields and the vegetable gardens that hugged the houses and the dusty road.
I stepped into my one-room hut and blinked as my eyes adjusted to the gloom. I wrinkled my nose at the acrid smell of new leather. Halu, my foster father, was a tanner. Halu and his son, Leril, were seated at the kitchen table, and Moran, my foster mother, served them from a wide-mouthed pot balanced on her hip. She looked up at me with raised eyebrows. I was uncomfortably aware of my empty hands and unburdened back.
“The well caved in, and a soldier thought I did it,” I said quickly. “I dropped the pails. Can someone else go get the water?”
“We need those, Nula,” said Moran.
“I was scared. I didn’t do it.”
Moran’s eyes caught my forehead for a second, then shifted back to her work spooning out a watery chickpea mixture. I touched my head. My shawl had slipped back to reveal my own flyaway black hair and the black Mark scrawled on my forehead by an unpracticed hand. Moran liked me to keep it covered. I pulled the shawl back down over my forehead and wrapped the rest around my neck to secure it.
“You’re going to need to take care of yourself,” said Moran. “Your mother didn’t leave an easy life for you. We’ve raised you best as we could, but there’s only so much we can do considering your circumstances.”
Moran sat down at the table while I hovered in the doorway a moment longer.
Moran rolled her eyes. “Nula, Leril already fetched the water, you were so late. But you need to get those pails, or someone will steal them. If you can’t, you’ll need to buy us new ones.”
I stared at her. She knew no one would hire me. How would I get money for that?
“Moran,” said Halu. He had a quiet, whispering voice. “The girl’s been frightened.”
Moran shot him an icy look, then her eyes came back to me. “Now, Nula.”
“Make an offering at the temple,” suggested Halu. “That might turn your luck around. Ask for your mother’s forgiveness.”
I left the room, but not before catching Leril’s stifled laugh and the pity on Halu’s face. Both equally made my stomach ache.
I did as Halu said and wandered to the temple a few doors down. I’d prayed there nearly every day since I was eleven years old. It hadn’t produced results yet, but I kept going out of habit. It was a hut slightly bigger than my own, the interior hot and laden with incense. Alone in the center stood a hand-chiseled statue of Gattamak, guardian of the desert and the Gearda. He was three feet tall and muscular, with a long yellow painted braid down his back. His face was worn smooth from long years of repeated touching. At his feet were small token offerings: dolls, jewelry, a packet of seeds, a dried rose blossom.
I unwrapped my shawl, untied my hair, and placed the threadbare string next to a poorly sewn rag doll. It was a sorry offering, but it was all I had. I knelt down and bowed.
Small mirrors lined Gattamak’s feet and my own wide blue eyes staring back at me from beneath the Mark. I rubbed at the glyph, but it wouldn’t smear or fade. As always, I prayed the Mark would disappear.
I despised it. I didn’t know why my mother would want to give her little babe such a life. Immortality was worthless to me. Villagers wouldn’t accept a Sorcerer in their midst, and Sorcerers wouldn’t accept a Marked Villager. I occupied a class of my own.
I was beginning to think that Halu and Moran were right, that the Mark was a curse of sorts. This was the second time I’d been around something that had lost its magic. The first time was five years before, when I was eleven. I was playing in the tall stalks of wheat in our neighbor’s field when a couple of the jeweled border stones went dark. The loam in one corner turned to sand and hard-packed dry earth. Green wheat changed to yellow-brown within the span of a breath and crumbled away to dust as I watched. The farmer who owned the field chased me out with a knife in his hand.
If the Villagers had needed any sort of validation for their theory that Marked Villagers were cursed, they received it that day. I wasn’t allowed to forget it either.
Hunters are killing some of the Embrizid…
Tulkot’s words seemed tangible in the stuffy, thick air of the temple. If he was right… if there was a reason for the broken spells, maybe I had a chance to change all this, even if I was doomed keep the Mark.
The sun was just sinking behind the mountains the next evening when I stole out of the hut and ran to the Upper. I ran right up all the way to the narrow stairway chipped into the side of the mountain. The stairs were steep and tiring, and I began to climb on all fours for speed’s sake. I’d never been up this way before, but it was the only way I might find Tulkot.
As I neared a ledge on the red-gold mountain, I spotted caves bored into the rock up above. Further up on the face of the mountain, it looked pockmarked and dimpled with countless caverns. Some Embrizid above me leaped from their roosts and took flight, gliding over Minunaga, off to hunt. Sorcerer sentries perched on balconied towers performed the spell to open the transparent dome that covered the city, and the Embrizid sped off until they were nothing more than dark dots in a darkening sky. I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to slay one of those powerful creatures.
I reached a landing and slid down against the wall next to a wide mouthed cave. I panted and my forehead dripped onto the fine grit that coated the stone ledge. I was more afraid than fatigued. There was no wall to the ledge–I sat two steps away from a very long drop. I drew my knees up to my chin, as if my legs could betray me and fling me over the ledge against my will.
As my breath quieted, I heard voices coming from the cave next to me, and not all of them were the growling guttural tones of Embrizids. Some were people.
“We can talk more, of course,” said a clear human tenor. “We would love to accommodate your concerns in any way we can–you know how much we value your kind.”
Then came a deep, bone vibrating GRRMPH. “I would say utterly dependent on our kind. You Gearda would be no more than dried corpses without our help.”
This was the deep voice of an ancient and mammoth Embrizid.
“Of course,” said the man. “We are indeed dependent. And grateful. But–”
“And what do we receive, hm? We receive a roost, yes, the opportunity to make magic, yes. But you receive the food and your city and our long life.”
“We offer you protection!” The man’s voice cracked.
The Embrizid rumbled a laugh that shook the ledge–small flakes of stone danced in the dust before my eyes. “Protection, Chief Fullak says! Can we not hunt on our own?”
“I know that,” said Fullak. ”You are powerful, no one denies that. We provide you with cattle and goats, as much as we can spare. We don’t eat the meat–we leave it all to you. We give you our territories for safe hunting when you need more, and our people never hurt you. They would be punished for such a crime. They do not dare.”
“Your people do not, but there are others. You are too content under your dome.”
Out of curiosity, I peered inside the cave. It was so vast I couldn’t fathom where the ceiling ended, and it was lit with torches that burned with a steady, pale silver light. Chief Fullak was cloaked in a teal robe, the train of which crumpled and dragged behind him. He had two young manservants with him who stood by the wall, yawning.
The Embrizid was seated on a broad stone dais at the far end of the room, and five other adult Embrizid either lay or sat silently nearby. He was male, marked by his expansive feathered mane, and he was bigger than any Embrizid I’d ever laid eyes on. Fullak, who stood taller than most, reached only to the crook of the Embrizid’s front legs. The Embrizid’s coloring was mostly cream and flecked with brown and black. The end of his long tail twitched with pent-up exasperation. This had to be Sar, the Embrizid’s king and Fullak’s equal.
Fullak cleared his throat. “I refuse to send hunting parties into the desert until you are certain how these Embrizid were killed. It could very well be clans of your kind from the Southern cities, or even from the west. Or… or there is that Marked Villager girl. Yes, some of my most ranked Sorcerers think that the Mark has given her dark power, and that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to control it. She was near the well when it collapsed.”
My stomach tightened, and my sweat ran cold. I didn’t know the Sorcerers thought much the same as Halu and Moran.
“She’s possessed, that’s what,” Fullak continued more confidently. “There have been other instances as well–the Villagers have been reporting them for years. I’ve always had my eye on her, of course, after her mother’s crimes. We must think these things through without being rash and galloping off to scour the desert when the problem could be right here.”
Sar belched out a roar. I jerked away from the cave entrance and hugged my legs close again, certain that the ledge was going to snap off the mountain with the power of Sar’s bellow.
“Rash!” snarled Sar. “He says we are rash! Our feuds with the clans are our own concern and none of yours. There are no feuds at the moment. If anything can be said for Embrizid, it is that we fight with true reason. They would not attack us without announcing why. These attacks are random and cruel, like people.”
“Perhaps you underestimate your kind,” said Fullak. “The missing Embrizid are just that. Missing. We do not know what became of them.”
“We will not hunt after people. We will only defend. I do not want to be a part of your feuds,” said Sar as if he hadn’t heard Fullak’s last remark. “And this girl of yours–I have never heard of such a thing. I do not believe it.”
“It is likely that the Mark on a Villager could have ill-effects…”
“The Mark is just a spell. Investigate her if you like. If you are correct, apprehend her and be done with it. But I also want a party out to look for hunters in the desert. We have given and given, and you only take. I ask that you investigate the hunters.”
“There are no hunters,” yelled Fullak. “No one survives in the desert except for Gearda, and that is only because of our magic.”
“It is our magic! I suggest you do so at once, if you enjoy your Minunaga. I can call my Embrizid. They will follow, and we can fly far from here.”
“I will think it over, Sar,” Fullak said at last. “Thank you for your time.”
I heard the sound of fabric rustling against stone before the servants lifted Fullak’s train off the ground. I squirmed away from the cave entrance and held my breath as Fullak and his manservants exited the cave mere inches from me. Fullak’s handsome face was flushed with strawberry-red patches on his cheeks, and he pulled at his short beard as he scowled. A silvery grey Embrizid followed close behind–a female, smaller than Sar but still formidable. All three men clambered onto her back, and she took off, her talons screeching against the stone.
“What are you doing here?”
I let out a half-gasp, half-whimper, and my heart sped back up to where it had been while I climbed the stairs.
It was Tulkot. He had been in the cave with Fullak and Sar.
“Looking for you,” I breathed.
Tulkot looked pleased. “Really? Do you want to see my roost? I think I could fly you up.”
I looked at his sapling-thin legs and bony figure.
“Maybe some other time,” I said. “I was looking for you because I want to go see–” I lowered my voice. “–I want to see Elud.”
Tulkot did a prance of excitement and tossed his head. “I’ll go! When? Now?”
“Yeah. Didn’t you hear Fullak? They think I’m doing all this.”
“The Embrizid don’t really think–”
“And you know Halu and Moran think my curse is causing the collapses. They’ve all got pretty much the same idea. If there’re hunters…maybe there’s something we can do. We could help Fullak or something, or tell Sar. Elud lives out there, maybe he’s seen something.”
“Villagers are dunces,” Tulkot said. “There’s no such thing as cursed. At least the Sorcerers think you’ve got some strange dark magic.”
He displayed his teeth in amusement.
“It’s not funny,” I said. “This makes me feel sick.”
Tulkot sighed. “It’s not true, and you know it. Fullak will do anything to avoid chasing down hunters in the desert.”
“True or not, I don’t want to be locked up.”
“We’ll figure something out. It’ll all be okay.” He nuzzled my elbow with his powerful head until I giggled and flung my arms up for protection.
When we finally reached level ground well after sundown, Tulkot shape-shifted to a tiny white songbird that could fit in my hand. It’s the only magic Embrizid can do on their own. It helps them travel unnoticed. Birds don’t catch the eye quite like an Embrizid’s normal form.
With Tulkot nibbling at the food I’d brought in my pocket, I reached the edge of the Upper, where the buildings sat right up against the dome. The dome was the spell that hid Minunaga from outsiders and kept the moist, cool air inside. It hugged the section of the mountains where the Gearda had grown the city, and touched down in a circle, part of it on the other side of the mountain somewhere, part of it past the fields, and, in some places, it touched down just at the edge of the city. Here, the dome was just two feet from the back of the closest building, a clump of towers and turrets that housed Sorcerers’ workrooms that were empty for the night. This was the easiest place to slip out unnoticed.
I squeezed myself between the stone wall of the building and the foot-high wall that marked the dome. The dome itself was solid to my touch, like a cool piece of glass. I chose a brick in the little wall and, with another rock, scratched the simple glyph for “door,” an arch with an upward pointing arrow inside. The gems in the building and the dome wall gave off adequate light for me to see what I was doing. I touched the glyph with the index finger of my left hand, while my right hand drew Tulkot out of my pocket.
But before I could channel the heat of Tulkot’s magic, darkness flooded in.
I didn’t realize what had happened until Tulkot flew out from my pocket and fluttered away, transforming into his Embrizid form in mid-flight to gain more distance.
The stone behind me cracked and groaned, and a few hard chunks rained on my back and shoulders. I scrambled out and desperately bolted in the direction of the Village. Sorcerers ran beside me and yelled for family members. Time seemed to slow. I heard their harsh breath scraping too fast through raw throats. A scarlet-clad soldier grabbed at me, and someone shouted something. I was caught. I struggled, clawed, and kicked all the soft flesh I could find. The jewels on my captor’s robe scratched into my own skin. My knee connected with a soft belly. A groan, a sharp intake of breath, and I was free.
Tulkot returned in a flurry of sharp claws and loose white feathers. We ran together to a different part of the dome, not bothering with stealth this time. I drew the glyph again on the stone wall, but my hand shook so violently I didn’t know if the magic would take. I felt the flare of his magic, I pulled some of it out of him, and I drew it down to the glyph through my finger. The glyph lit up and we stumbled through the opening, where the night was clearer and darker without the veil of the dome.
We were safe–the rock wouldn’t hold the spell for long, and no one in the city but me had the courage to venture into the naked desert.
We hung close to the mountain in the shadows. I limped on the rough stone, but in the dry air, my mind calmed. Once, I looked back. Minunaga was hidden to my eyes, but I could identify the shape of the mountain on which Minunaga was built. It was like the city had never existed.
An hour later, I found the landmark I’d been scanning for: a tall stone pillar streaked with red and beige. Just a few yards beyond, a few feet higher, was a lone cave with the same smooth look as an Embrizid’s roost. While I looked around for any unwanted followers, I glimpsed a bright star on the horizon far away. I squinted at it. It flickered orange in the distance, like the light of a fire.
Tulkot nudged me and flew up to the cave. He waited next to the opening, clinging to the rock with his talons. Just as I reached the lip of the opening in the stone, someone yanked me up onto the ledge, and a knife pressed into my throat.
I faced the opening and the desert, held my breath, and kept silent.
Tulkot flew in and gave a puppy-like growl.
“Oh, it’s you,” said a voice hoarsened and deepened by a lifetime of pipe smoking. “Don’t sneak up like that. You never come at night.”
Elud let me go and I fell face first onto the floor of the cave, coughing and rubbing my neck.
“You hurt her,” snarled Tulkot.
“Nula’s fine. How about a warning next time before you climb up?”
I sat up and faced Elud. “What happened to you?” I said, but I could figure it out on my own.
The last time I’d seen Elud, he looked to be in his early thirties. Like all Sorcerers, he’d reached that age and then stopped while time moved on without him. He’d had dark coiling hair braided down his back, and his jewel-less cloak had been worn to rags. He had looked the part of a Sorcerer who had tired of Minunaga and had left with his Embrizid companion, Relt. The gray and black female dominated the back of the cave, and looked lazily up at the commotion at the entrance.
Now, in the light of the fire, he was an aged phantom of my friend. His hair and beard were silvery white, and the hair frizzed all about his head, much like an Embrizid’s mane. His cloak hung on thin shoulders, his back bent painfully, and his chest caved inwards.
My eyes flicked to his forehead. It was heavily freckled and wrinkled, but…
“How long are you going to gape like that?” he said. “You’ve seen old ones before. You live in the Village of all places.” Elud filled a cup in the magicked spring at the back of the cave and handed it to me.
“I haven’t seen an old one who aged sixty years in just a month. Your Mark…”
He nodded and sipped his own water.
“I didn’t know the spell could be undone,” said Tulkot. “No one ever does it.”
“Hmph,” said Elud. “All spells can be undone, even that dome over the city. The Mark is a simple spell. All you need is the glyphs to counter it.”
Excitement and hope scaled my spine like hot water. I could undo it. I could be a Villager. No one could blame me for dark magic or curses, even if there were hunters.
“Can you teach me? How to do that?”
Gingerly, Elud sat down on a flat boulder next to a wall. “Why did you come here?”
“Really, I don’t want the Mark anymore. You know I don’t care about getting old. I’m like you–I think the Mark is a horrible mistake. It’s not good for people. No one should have it.”
Elud chuckled. “Let me think a moment. I’ve schooled you well, there’s that much to be said. Now tell me why you’re out here in the desert.”
I sighed but didn’t press him further. “Tulkot says there’re hunters that are killing Embrizid. A well collapsed and then a building. I was nearby for both.”
Elud frowned at his water cup, thinking.
I continued: “And…and some of the Villagers think that I did it, that I’m bad luck. I’m not surprised about them, but now Chief Fullak thinks I’ve got dark magic because of the Mark. It sounded like they’re going to arrest me.”
Still no answer.
“Do you think I’ve really got–?”
“No, you child,” Elud snapped. “If you would let me teach you more magic, you would know that. Ignorance around magic is dangerous.”
“Villagers aren’t allowed, though,” I said as the relief washed in. “I don’t want to know more glyphs than I need.”
Elud raised his eyebrows. “And for no good reason. The only thing separating Sorcerers and Villagers is that cursed Mark. Your Mark gave you long life and that’s all. No mysterious dark magic involved. Those idiots in the city should remember that the magic we use with the Embrizid is a tool, not some mystery worthy of worship. It’s all there in that library. Read a scroll or two.”
“But you always say that magic is unnatural,” I said hesitantly.
“Just the Mark. And the dome, I would say. Other than that, if you want to spell a brick to make it lighter, or spell yourself prettier, I don’t see why I should care. Magic should be used carefully.”
“So do you think someone’s killing the Embrizid? How can they bring one down?”
Elud nodded and hobbled over to Relt. She turned her head and stepped into the firelight. A dark, glistening cut sliced down from her forehead, through the fine grey feathers on her face, over her closed right eye, and down to her jaw. Elud patted her vast cheek while she purred.
“They can shoot spears,” said Relt. “But first they trick us with meat. We can’t tell which are their bait animals and which are desert animals. We come down and hunt, and when our bellies are too full to fly, they shoot spears at us.”
Fury was a hard weight in my stomach. “But don’t you fight?”
Relt rumbled indignantly. “Of course we fight. We come in close to attack with our teeth and claws, but then we are all the closer to their spears. I’ve seen them attack. They have skill.”
“Quit flying as Embrizid. Fly as birds,” I said.
“We can’t change with our bellies full of meat that weighs more than a tiny bird,” she said wearily.
“I heard Sar saying that he’ll leave with all the Embrizid with him.”
Relt lay her head back down between her front feet. “The city will fall.”
I frowned and turned to Elud. “People have magic too, though, can’t Sorcerers just keep it up?”
Elud’s mouth turned tight. “Magic is strange, it forces us together with the Embrizid,” he said. “Embrizid have the magic but can’t use it. People can use the magic, write our glyphs, shape our spells, but we need to find the magic elsewhere. If Sorcerers use the magic inside them, that leads to illness and death. Even with the Mark, we aren’t naturally immortal like the Embrizid. We have limited life magic to pour into our spells.”
Elud met my gaze with hard eyes.
“T-the city can’t fall,” I said.
Elud barked out a laugh. “Sure it can. You’ll learn to live in the desert as it should be. Villagers will die, and the Sorcerers will move on to eke out a life elsewhere with no magic and no trade. Just several lifetimes ahead of them. Simple enough to me.”
I looked around Elud’s cave home. It was sparse and dull compared to the lush fields surrounding the Village or the glittering buildings and gardens of the Upper. I didn’t want to live like he did.
“Why did you leave Minunaga?” I asked.
“Out here, magic isn’t the only thing keeping the world together,” he said. “It’s reassuring.”
The sun spilled over the horizon outside the opening of Elud’s cave. Tulkot sat in the back of the cave talking with Relt in words that were distinctly Embrizid: grunts and snarls and purrs. Elud was quiet. He leaned against the wall with a whetstone in hand, drawing it down the blade of his knife. I hugged my elbows and watched the light overwhelm the desert plain.
“You going back anytime soon?” said Elud at last.
“I don’t know.”
Relt and Tulkot stopped speaking. I was sure they both tilted their heads toward us to listen in.
“Get over here,” said Elud. “I’ll take that Mark off and maybe the idiots will treat you better.”
My hands and legs trembled with terror and anticipation, but I went and stood in front of Elud. He produced a tiny nub of charcoal from his pocket and with a firm hand, he drew several glyphs across my forehead, eyebrow to eyebrow. Charcoal dust fell to my nose and cheeks. Relt ambled over and I shut my eyes tight. I felt Elud’s warm dry hand against my head as if he were checking for fever. A hot flash of magic turned the inside of my eyelids orange-yellow. A slight pop.
“I’ll just wipe off the charcoal,” whispered Elud.
A wet cloth dripped stinging water into my eyes. Tears mixed in.
“Open your eyes now,” said Tulkot. “You look silly.”
Elud handed me a piece of an old mirror. In the morning light I gazed into my reflection. My face was dirty and exhausted, yes, but my forehead was clean and unMarked. I giggled hysterically and hugged Elud, then Tulkot, then Relt.
The city had to stand now, just long enough for me to have my life.
When I returned to the Village, Elud’s cure seemed to take care of everything. Halu exhaled shakily when I arrived home that afternoon with a clean forehead. He embraced me and kissed the spot where the Mark used to be. Moran even gave me a small relieved smile. Leril couldn’t stop staring. No one questioned how I got rid of it.
“We were afraid for you after that last collapse,” said Halu. “We thought you were locked up somewhere in the Upper. It has been suspicious, you must admit that.”
I laughed uneasily. I didn’t think anyone but Halu had been overly concerned.
Moran approached me and appraised my appearance from my filthy feet to my sweaty, matted braid. “You need a bath. Stay in the village awhile until the Sorcerers calm down. You got rid of that Mark, at least. That has to be the end of this.”
I did as I was told. I bathed. Leril had gotten work with a farmer down the street, so Halu had me help him with the tanning for a few coins. He never let me help before.
The next few days were a sweet paradise. Villagers greeted me shyly in the road and complimented me. I stayed clear of the Upper, and I didn’t see Tulkot. No soldiers came to the house. For a few days, I was just a Villager.
One week after I returned from Elud’s, I stepped into the hut to find Moran and Halu deep in hushed conversation. I coughed to announce myself.
Moran looked up sharply, her dark eyebrows nearly meeting each other over the bridge of her nose. “Can we trust you to stay here alone today? You won’t touch anything?”
“Of course,” I said. “Why?”
“Chief Fullak is holding a festival day in honor of the Embrizid,” said Halu. “We don’t think it would be wise for you to go to the Upper just yet.”
I agreed with him. He was right. After a week free of collapses, Fullak probably wanted to please the Embrizid and calm Minunaga’s residents in one carefree celebration. Everyone needed a chance to forget.
After they left late that morning, I wandered to the back of the house while eating a crumbling piece of bread. I paced the cracked earth and drew my hand over the green tips of the ever-growing wheat. Contentment welled within me. I would have been happy to live the rest of my days doing no more than quiet work interspersed with quiet meals and quiet walks. I would have been happy never setting foot in the Upper again. I would look at it from the Village and admire it’s beauty. That would be enough.
Then I paused. Out over the wheat, far beyond the dome wall, was a cluster of white tents, wiry horses, and cloaked people. I squinted at it. A large, dark shape squirmed on the sand by one of the tents, and the people looked to be arguing.
The bread dried and stuck in my throat. I knew what I was seeing, but I forced my mind not to connect the image to anything deeper. I swallowed and went inside where I sat by a window looking out toward the city, away from the desert. I could just see the highest towers of the Upper. I watched them and waited for the collapse.
Neither came. My heart slowed and my thoughts smoothed.
Then the smooth surface rippled with a traitorous thought.
What if the Embrizid is still alive.
I jumped to my feet and flew out the door.
I met Tulkot halfway up the sloping road to the Upper. The road was deserted but cheering and faint music sifted down all the way from the Upper to the Village.
“Tulkot!” I said breathlessly. “How did you know? What are you doing?”
Tulkot cocked his head. “What? I was going to visit you since the entire city is in the Upper. I thought it’d be safe.”
“Look, I spotted the hunters and I think they caught an Embrizid. A huge black one. Nothing’s collapsed, so it’s still alive–we have to do something.”
I didn’t have a clue what exactly I wanted to do, but Tulkot’s rose eyes widened, and he started walking back up toward the Upper.
“That must be Worl,” he growled. “She’s one of Sar’s mates.”
I convinced Tulkot to reach the dome through the wheat field by my hut. It was closest and easiest. We crossed the field, careful not to bruise more plants than necessary. The camp looked just as it had earlier, except the Embrizid was on her feet now, swatting at spindly people who came only to her chest.
I scratched the glyph with a shard of rock like the last time and opened a doorway in the dome.
We rushed frantically toward the camp. Tulkot restrained himself from flying most of the way to keep with me, but when we were near enough to watch one human figure expertly dodge Worl’s swinging talons and snapping jaws to jam a long spear into her underbelly, Tulkot roared and flew toward them. One of the hunters swung some kind of angular contraption in Tulkot’s direction and loosed a short, thick spear. Tulkot shot higher into the air, but the spear grazed his hind leg and left a bloody line amid the dingy white feathers. I unsheathed my own belt knife and charged at the hunters, if only to distract them from Tulkot.
“Stop!” I shrieked. “Stop shooting!”
For a second, the strange bow was pointed right my chest. The woman lowered it as I got closer.
“Who are you?” a man said in a harsh accent. “We’ve never seen anyone here.”
“There’s a–a city back there. You can’t see it. When the Embrizid–”
“These creatures. When they’re killed, our buildings fall. They hold up the spells.”
At that, the hunters smiled, like I was a child telling a ridiculous lie.
“Little one, they are magical,” said the woman with the spear. “But that’s why we hunt. Their bones and hide are very valuable, good for medicines and luck. We sell them out west.”
“I can teach you the spells,” I said, but I couldn’t believe I had suggested it. “If you want–me and Tulkot–that’ll get you money. Just stop–”
“Spells?” the woman laughed.
“Yes. Please, I’m not making things up.”
One of the men stepped forward and studied my face. He was tall, with dark skin, highlighted by his creamy white cloak.
“I think the girl is truthful,” he said finally. “I’ll listen. We need a way to make our living. What do you think?”
He was looking at me again while Tulkot landed heavily at my side.
“We’ll teach you a little magic,” said Tulkot. “And then you can leave us.”
“They talk?” said the woman with the spear, but her shooting mechanism hung limp at her side.
“It needs to be worth it,” said the man.
“We have a library full of scrolls,” I pleaded. “That’s where all our spells are. We’ll get you some and then you can go west and use them for money. I don’t care.”
“If you leave and don’t come back, we’ll keep hunting,” said the woman with the spear. “For all we know, this witch city is fake.” She squinted vaguely in the direction of Minunaga.
Under the hunters’ gaze, I knelt by Worl’s face. It was moist and flecked with her own blood, but I didn’t let myself look at the damage further down. A green eye as large as my head fixed blearily on me.
“We’ll be back soon,” I said.
The eye closed. With Tulkot, I headed for the Upper of Minunaga. Embrizid were strong. Worl would live.
We opened a doorway in the dome up near the ruined building from the last collapse. We climbed through, navigated over the broken stones, and trotted through the empty streets to the library. The festival was held in the square in front of the library, deafening with joyous, drunken cheers, and quick music. Embrizid swarmed the sky and perched on rooftops in numbers I’d never seen. Sorcerers and Villagers sang and danced and ate right up to the steps of the library tower and along the stone roads that curved around the expansive garden in the center. The flowers–vermilion lilies, blue asters, scarlet chrysanthemums–stood tall in the midday sunlight filtered through the dome that arched high above their heads. Thick smells of baking sweets and simmering spiced sauces draped the air.
Tulkot and I hid in a nearby quiet alleyway. I searched my pockets for charcoal and came up with nothing. So, I spat into the dirt and mixed it until it was a thin reddish paste. With my “ink,” I drew a glyph on my forehead, a circle with a small “X” inside. Tulkot pressed his nose to my head, and the glyph took the magic. I was Hidden, invisible to anyone who wasn’t carrying an amulet with the counter spell. Tulkot changed into a songbird and nestled himself beneath my braid.
I wove between throngs of happy jostling people as stealthily as possible. I bumped a few of them, and collided directly with two, but those involved were too happily occupied with drinking and dancing to notice.
Inside the library, there was only one worker, a young Sorcerer asleep at his desk, scrolls strewn over his lap and on the floor. Tulkot emerged from my hair and fluttered toward a steep stairwell. I followed him up four exhausting floors.
“All these are spells,” he chirped in my ear when we reached the sprawling fourth floor room.
The walls were lined with books up to the ceiling, and hundreds of shelves in neat rows dominated the floor. The countless jewels studding every surface provided just enough light to see.
I’d never imagined the number of books and scrolls the library might contain.
“Where are the useful ones?” I said.
Tulkot twittered and leaped off my shoulder. In midair he took his Embrizid form and landed on his feet. Limping slightly from his injury, Tulkot wove in-between the shelves glancing here and there. He pulled scrolls seemingly at random and let them lay on the floor. I trailed behind and picked them up. I scanned each as I collected it. Fire spells, festival performance spells, healing spells, building spells, agriculture spells. All of them were either useful or showy. Anything to get the hunters their money.
“You don’t want to give them the Mark do you?” I said.
“No,” said Tulkot. “I don’t think so. That’s just for Gearda, and it hasn’t turned out too well, has it?”
The glow in the walls blinked to nothing.
I ran for the door with Tulkot just ahead of me. The stairwell was pitch dark, and the stone steps crumbled beneath our feet. I fell hard on my tailbone and slid down almost half the flight of stairs. The stairs behind me turned to sand. I tumbled into Tulkot and knocked him down a few more steps, just before a stone as tall as Tulkot worked its way out of the ceiling and crashed through the dissolving stairs behind us.
At the next landing, Tulkot yowled in pain. Afterwards he favored his front left paw, and ran a little bit slower. We turned, ready to flee down the next flight of stairs, but they dissolved like a child’s sand castle overcome with a pail of water.
“I have an idea,“ I said, and I pulled him by the ear toward the room on this landing.
Gaping holes expanded in the floor, and stones and plaster dropped from the ceiling. Shelves toppled and scrolls were strewn all over the disintegrating flagstone.
“You’ll have to carry me for a moment or two,” I said.
Tulkot nodded and leapt toward a narrow window. Some of the rock around it had fallen away, and the window was just wide enough for Tulkot’s body as long as he didn’t expand his wings. For a moment, Tulkot looked even skinnier and half-grown than he usually did, but I clambered onto his back anyway. His knees buckled with my weight. He clumsily hopped to the windowsill and jumped.
My stomach twisted and traveled to my mouth until Tulkot unfurled his wings and floated safely to the ground. The library continued to shake and moan behind us, but now the sounds of stones scraping and cracking mixed with the sharp addition of human screams.
Tulkot tried to gain more altitude and failed. We sank closer and closer to the ground without gaining much distance from the site. We plowed right into a small group of shrieking Sorcerers.
For a few seconds, everything was a thick mix of pain and tangled limbs–some human, some Embrizid. By the time I scrambled to my feet, Tulkot had already flown off. I ignored the angry shouts and ran alongside the library garden without looking back, even when I heard the building make a final groan and then the deafening roar of rocks falling against the stone street. I shielded my head with my hands and arms and kept going. I ran until my breath was fire in my chest and the dust from the collapse caught up with me.
I whirled around to look. Moran was storming toward me–my Hiding spell had worn off. I glanced down at my arms full of scrolls.
“It was you!” she said. “We thought it was the Mark, but it was you.”
“You don’t understand–”
“You’ve killed people now, you know that?” She grabbed my arms and shook me. I did everything to keep the scrolls from falling to the ground. “Is it never enough for you? Why do you want to do this to us? I can’t find Halu and Leril. What if they don’t make it? What then?”
I whimpered and tore away from Moran.
“DO NOT COME BACK TO MY HOME!” she shrieked after me.
Exhausted, I looped back through an alleyway to look for Tulkot now that the worst had happened. The library garden was a mess of crushed plants and crying, rocking people. Still figures lay among bruised flowers and boulders. Thick dust caught the late afternoon sun and swirled over it all. It looked like the desert had finally made its way through the dome. Tulkot found me, scooped me up, and carried me half-running, half-gliding to the Village. We left through the same doorway I’d made earlier. Only couple hours had passed.
At the camp, I glanced at Worl’s still form at a distance. I didn’t need see her up close to know what had happened. The dark man and the woman with the spear escorted Tulkot and me into one of their tents. It was spacious and cool inside, with one small oil lamp and brightly patterned rugs over the sand. I dumped the scrolls on the floor. The man picked one up frowned as he opened it. I worried that the script might be foreign to him, but he soon nodded and scanned the rest. Niggling at the back of my mind was the ruined library and the gnawing sense of betrayal. These were our secrets. The Gearda, even the Villagers, were proud of their sorcery and their oasis.
Still, if all else failed, if I was never allowed back in Minunaga again, the city would stand forever and that was enough…
I showed them how to touch Tulkot and feel his magic. I showed them how to use it, how to draw the glyphs so the magic would do what they wanted. I told them how jewels would hold spells for a long time.
“We need these creatures to perform the spells,” said the tall man. “How can we do magic without one?”
I was silent. I hadn’t thought of that at all.
“I’ll go with them,” said Tulkot. “Just for a bit.”
I choked on my protest. Minunaga would stand. He was brave, braver than me. He loved Minunaga, too.
The hunters grinned at Tulkot and patted him like a dog. I pushed the yellowed scrolls toward the hunters, folded my arms, looked away.
The hunters chattered amongst themselves of the promise that awaited them out west. I looked out the open flap, in the direction of Minunaga, wondering how long I would have to wait before going back. Maybe a month or two. I would live with Elud for awhile. Maybe Relt would help me get back through the dome.
The city flickered into existence outside, tangled buildings, towers, and all.
The air turned frigid. A thick cloud of dust rose from the ground and engulfed the tall tangle of buildings as they slowly leaned and toppled over.
Hundreds of Embrizid flew in our direction, right overhead.
The hunters around me shouted and left the tent to watch the spectacle. The city they didn’t believe in had appeared, and now it fell before their eyes.
My ears mercifully dulled the sound. I watched my world end through the open flap of the hunters’ cool tent.
I hung around the ruins after Minunaga fell and counted about fifty or so survivors, the majority of whom were Villagers who didn’t go the festival. From my foster family, only Moran survived. I didn’t speak to her.
There were no more Embrizid. All of the grand spells that needed their constant input had failed. Only simple spells stayed intact. The handful of surviving Sorcerers kept their protection amulets, their perpetually sharpened knives, their scrying crystals. Their Marks were still bold on their foreheads.
The Sorcerers lacked the Villagers’ urgency to leave and head west. They sat in silence, stunned and sad as they surveyed their demolished city.
The hunters had gone. They moved quickly, with only their tents and Embrizid hides to concern them. Tulkot left with them. We didn’t say anything to each other before he left.
I pilfered food and water where I could and listened in on conversations. I lived in an underground room in the abandoned Upper. Hunger and thirst were near constant, and I grew nervous. There was no more magical paradise. The crop fields were reduced to straw and cracked earth. I wasn’t Marked. Death sent a gentle reminder of her presence whenever I drank cloudy brown water or felt stabs of true hunger.
Six days after the collapse, the Villagers departed for the western hills. They had little food, and bad water had already caused a few more deaths among infants and old ones. I watched them go with fear and grief hollowing me.
So the night after the Villagers left Minunaga, I slipped away to the streaky stone pillar, to Elud’s cave.
“I thought I’d see you,” he said.
His hair was thin and white now, and he was bowed so much that he was a hand shorter than I was. I burst into tears at the sight of him. Startled, he patted me on the cheek.
“My girl…Minunaga couldn’t last forever, not like that.”
“I’m as I should be. As are you.” He pressed a finger on my forehead.
“Elud, please…can I talk to Relt? Do you have something to write with?”
Elud sighed, handed me a long, fresh stick of charcoal, and waved me to the back of the cave where the Embrizid slept.
I approached Relt, who opened a lazy hazel eye. With the charcoal I drew the circle I despised, a circle shot through with two overlapping crosses on my forehead. Relt glanced at Elud and touched her head to mine.
I felt the flare of magic and drank it in. I touched my forehead, but no charcoal came off on my fingers. It was smooth and Marked. Relt went back to sleep.
“I’m going north,” I said to Elud. “I don’t want to live here anymore.”
“Alone? You can’t go alone. Relt will go with you.”
“No,” I said. “She stays with you.”
Relt made no motion and kept dozing. She was loyal to Elud, and I knew that.
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
Elud smiled. “I know you will.” He grasped my arm tight. “I hope you have another chance to undo the spell before too long.”
I embraced Elud’s frail form and left the cave, my shawl wrapped low around my forehead. I started north, toward the sea with my glittering city bright and perfect in my mind.
I didn’t meet another Embrizid for a long time.
By Judith Field
Mark’s next door neighbour and business partner Pat kept telling him that power flowed through his veins. He took a breath and closed his eyes, trying to will the power back out again and into the ash wand in his outstretched hand. He pointed it at Pat’s door. A narrow beam of blue light squeezed out of the end and hit the lock. Nothing happened. Sighing, he folded the wand and put it in his pocket. He took out his key and let himself into her house.
He heard her moving around in the kitchen, back from sorting out the invasion of reptilian arsonists in a garden in Llandudno the day before, while he had expelled a banshee from a pub in Macclesfield. This morning’s job was to sort out an elderly-care home with a spirit infestation. Mark opened the kitchen door.
Pat coughed, wafting her hand at a cloud of green fumes. “Damn, they’re still moving,” she said.
Mark peered through the smoke. Two dragons, one red, one green, as iridescent as hummingbirds, each about an inch long, stood in the palm of her hand hissing at each other.
“They might be tiny but they’d incinerated every plant in that,” Pat said. One dragon snorted, and shot a tiny flare the size of a match flame towards the other. “Help me separate them.” She pushed her hand towards Mark.
He picked up the green one with his forefinger and thumb. “I’ll put them in the safe.”
“No room, there’s a backlog of entities stuck in there, waiting for me to get the chance to dispose of them.”
“Get the dragons to set each other alight and burn each other up.”
“That won’t work,” she said. “An entity can’t destroy another entity. If they could we’d be out of a job. I was trying to find a way round the space problem using this new incantation I picked up online. Instead of you having to exorcise them and put them in containment, it renders them immobile and you can leave them anywhere.”
“Wouldn’t it get a little cluttered after a while?”
“No, apparently they fade away gradually over a few hours. At least, that’s what it said on the website.”
“Seems like more trouble than it’s worth.”
Pat moved her hand away as her dragon flamed at the one Mark held. She shook her head. “I think it should make things easier. Exorcising a recalcitrant entity the usual way can be exhausting. It causes something like a bad hangover, without any of the pleasure of the night before.”
“I’ve felt that. Bit like 24 hour flu?”
Pat nodded. “Consider it an occupational hazard. But this new method doesn’t seem to work, the dragons are still moving about. Good job I tested it on something small.”
Mark looked at Pat’s notebook open on the table, the dragon still held between two fingers. “You should have printed the thing out instead of copying it. This looks like an inky spider’s crawled over the page.” He held the green dragon at arm’s length and read the incantation. This time, red smoke billowed. As it cleared, he saw the red dragon motionless on Pat’s palm. She picked it up by a wing.
“I can’t read my own writing,” she said. “Well done.” She put the dragon on a shelf next to a pile of recipe books. “You stay there, Boyo. We’ve got work to do.” Mark put the green one next to it. They stood, as immobile as toys. Pat picked up her car keys. They got into the car, she slipped her stiletto heels off and they drove away.
They arrived at a low rise building, set back from the road. Star Lodge.
“It doesn’t look haunted to me,” Mark said. He saw a group of elderly people sitting in deckchairs on the lawn in front of the building. Some chatted, some slumped in silence. He shivered. At sixty-two, he knew he was looking at his and Pat’s future. Maybe only twenty years away.
“You should know by now that you can’t tell by appearances if there are ghosts, unless you can see them.” Pat slipped her shoes back on. Mark tried not to watch her tugging her skirt down over her knees as she got out of the car, the long white plait swinging down her back.
She passed him the phasmometer, a black object the size and shape of a goose egg, that detected entities. He pointed it at the building and looked at the display.
“I’m right. It’s reading zero. Nothing here.”
“Give it to me, I’ll check the batteries. It keeps switching itself on every time it brushes against anything else.” She shook the detector, shrugged and passed it back to Mark.
Mark pressed the doorbell and gave their names. The door buzzed, and they went into the entrance hall.
“The detector’s reading ‘entity’ now,” Mark said. “How can you tell what sort it is?”
She took the detector from him and put it in her pocket. “You can’t, always. Sometimes you have to wait till it appears. Or summon it.”
An old woman sat knitting by the door, grey hair piled into a bun. A few curls escaped, held back by a pair of glasses.
“Receptionist’s gone for tea. Buy something?” She pointed at the woollen hats and scarves on a table next to her. A card beside them read ‘Nettie”s Nitting. All proceeds go to Star Lodge.’
“It’s not her, she’s still alive,” Pat whispered to Mark. She chose a pair of gloves and handed over a ten pound note, waving Nettie’s hand away when she tried to give her change.
“Where’s Mr Bocock’s office?”
Nettie’s face hardened. “Who wants to know? You’re those ghostbusters, aren’t you? I heard Bocock on the phone to you. Well?”
Pat crouched so that their faces were level. “We’re from a pest control firm.”
“Don’t give me that. I heard what you said just now. We’ve got no pests here. There’s no ghosts either, so you can just clear off.” Mark turned on the facial expression he had honed after forty years silencing class-loads of revolting adolescents. Nettie’s face reddened, and she looked away. “Office’s two doors down from the lift.”
Pat and Mark headed along the corridor. A ball of yarn bounced past them across the floor.
“Give that back, you little so-and-so!” Nettie shouted behind them. The ball rolled back the way it came. “That’s better. Now, Jade, you’d better run along. Greedy Guts will be sniffing round. He’s getting hungry.”
Mark looked into the lift, where a repair man pulled at a cat’s cradle of cables sticking out of a hatch. He heard a buzz and the crackle of electricity. The lift’s internal light dimmed and brightened, blobbing long shadows into the corridor.
“Oy! I saw you!” the repair man shouted.
Pat jumped. Mark heard children running. He looked along the corridor. Nobody there.
The man leaned out. “They your kids?”
Pat shook her head.
“They won’t leave these buttons alone,” the man said, tapping at the console on the outside of the lift with a screwdriver. “Third time I’ve been called in this week, some old dear got stuck inside. It’s nice when young ‘uns come to see gran and gramps, but someone should keep them under control.” He went on tinkering with the cables.
Two little girls aged about seven came out of a door at the end of the corridor hand-in-hand. One wore a knee-length faded cotton summer dress, ankle socks and t-bar sandals. A bow was tied in her blonde hair, at the top of her head. She grinned at her dark-haired companion, who wore striped leggings, trainers, and a t-shirt with the slogan ‘girl power’.
The repair man poked his head out of the lift again. “Clear off!”
The dark-haired girl put out her tongue. The blonde put her left thumb to her nose. They turned and walked back into the room they came from. Through the wall.
There was a red light on the office door. Pat knocked.
Pretentious idiot, Mark thought. The light changed to green.
They walked round a group of waste sacks filled to the top with paper, stuck in the middle of the floor like standing stones. The desk at the end was piled high with files. A man sat behind it, looking at a computer screen.
“Sit!” Without looking up, he pointed at two leather chairs in front of the desk. “Be right with you – still trying to sort out the mess left by my predecessor. Had this collective way of running this place that actually means never dumping anything.”
“I’m Cleopatra Court,” Pat said. “This is my partner, Mark Anderson. Our specialty’s ancient gods, eldritch horror, cosmic nightmare, that type of thing.”
“I’m George Bocock. And, dear, you call them what you like, I’m not having them here.” He looked at Mark. “I saw a ghost. Can’t have that. A kid – a girl, running down the corridor. Disappeared.”
“We think there’s at least one entity here,” Mark said.
“I just told you that. Also, one of the residents told an inspector that children came out of her bedroom wall at night. I managed to pass it off as Lewy body dementia; hallucinations are a big part of that. What are you going to do about it?”
“We’ll set up a psychic field,” Mark said, “and—”
“Didn’t you think to contact your local diocese?” Pat said. “They’ll have an exorcist.
Bocock took a sharp breath in and gripped the edge of the desk. “Don’t be stupid,” he said to Pat. “Involving the church is out of the question. Don’t want people thinking I’m some kind of nutter.” He looked at Mark. “I trust I can rely on you people to be discreet. Now, you will,” he lifted an index finger to either side of his face and made quotation mark movements “move them onto the next plane. That’s what you people call it.” A statement, not a question.
“We usually use the term ‘exorcise’,” Pat said.
“Just get rid of them. And don’t expect to run up the charge by dawdling. Reggie Pittenweem offered me a discount, five ghosts for the price of four.” He turned back to Mark. “But he couldn’t come in for three weeks. I’ve got another inspection due any day, so the job’s yours.”
Pat stood up. “We’ll do a survey and report back within the hour.”
They left the office and Pat shut the door. “I didn’t think sexist idiots like that still existed.” She sighed. “Anyway, we’re here to do a job. Let’s start looking in the place where those girls went.”
Armchairs lined the walls of the lounge. At one end, a 60 inch TV showed a football match, but nobody was watching. A nurse crooned to herself as she fed tomato soup to an old man.
“More company!” he said, pushing the spoon away. “A boy come to see me last week. He just stood there, didn’t say a word. Then just cleared off.”
“That’s nice,” Pat said. “Who was he?”
“You must have been dreaming, Arthur,” the nurse said, squeezing his hand. She looked up. “He never gets visitors.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Mark saw movement in the corridor and snapped his head round. A boy stood in the doorway, aged about 12. He wore a short sleeved shirt and a knitted v-necked sleeveless tank top. His legs protruded from baggy, knee length shorts. He wore long grey socks and black lace-up shoes.
“There he is!” The man smiled and pointed towards the door.
“Arthur. Now you’re winding me up. If you’ve finished, I’ll take your bowl back to the kitchen.” The nurse walked through the boy as she left the room.
Pat took the phasmometer out of her pocket and tapped the display. “I’m only picking up three of them. Let’s finish this. We need to find an empty room where we can summon them all at once.”
They walked along the empty corridor. Pat peered over Mark’s shoulder as he looked into a bedroom. “Someone’s asleep in here,” she said. She looked left and right. “There’s nobody around. Let’s try upstairs.” She went to shut the door.
Mark put his finger up to his lips and nodded towards the inside of the room.
A nurse stood next to a bed with raised sides, surrounded by half-closed curtains. On it an old man lay, his eyes closed. A brightly patterned knitted blanket covered him, rising and falling as he breathed. The dark-haired girl stood on the other side, holding his hand. He opened his eyes, turned to her and smiled. A shimmering man-like shape, like a silver cloud floated above him, joined to his chest by a fine thread.
The girl beckoned and as the shape moved towards her, the thread snapped. The shape rose past her to the ceiling, fading to nothing. The girl stood up and walked through the wall.
The nurse looked up, frowning. “What do you two want? Can’t this poor thing have a bit of peace?”
The blanket was still. After touching the old man’s wrist again, the nurse closed the curtains round the bed.
“Out of my way,” Bocock said, from behind them. Mark jumped. “He’s very ill, isn’t he?” Bocock shoved past him into the room.
“I know you like to sit with them, Mr B,” the nurse said. “But I’m afraid you”re too late. Poor Harold’s just passed away.”
Bocock frowned and, turning away from her without a word, stamped away down the corridor.
“You’d think he’d show some respect,” Mark whispered to Pat. Bocock stopped and turned round.
“Are you planning to do any work, or just stand round talking? Get on with it.” He walked away.
“Probably brassed off at the paperwork the death will generate, miserable sod,” Mark said.
Pat looked down the corridor. Her eyes narrowed. “I’m not so sure,” she said. She took the phasmometer out of her pocket and held it at arm’s length. “Too much interference from that girl. She’s in the next room – come on.” She grabbed Mark’s hand and they ran.
It was a bathroom. Mark closed the door behind them. The boy Mark had seen earlier manifested, sitting on a chair next to the bath. The girls appeared in front of him, with their back to Pat and Mark. The boy leaned forward and smiled, giving a thumbs-up sign to the dark haired girl.
The boy took a pencil stub from behind his ear and a notepad out of his pocket. On a page he wrote ‘EDNA’ and handed it to the blonde-haired girl.
“Excuse me. Time to go,” Mark said. The children turned round and the boy stood up, his hands on his hips, mouth in a line, still clutching the notepad and pencil. His chin wobbled. The girls ran behind him.
Mark spoke to Pat out of the corner of his mouth. “They haven’t really done much wrong. Do we have to kick them out? They’re only kids.”
Pat shook her head. “They were, but not any more. They don’t belong here. They’ll be at peace, once they’ve moved on. We’ll use that immobilising charm, like with the dragons. They’ll be OK.”
“Fine, I can remember the form of words.” Mark felt an itching, buzzing sensation under his skin. He shuddered. “You felt that too, didn’t you?” Pat said. “Residual magic. Someone’s done something to those kids already, put some sort of silence charm on them.” She wafted the detector in front of the boy. “Not all ghosts talk, but I think these would, if something wasn’t stopping them.”
She shook her head. “Looks like the work of another entity.” The children nodded. “One entity can’t destroy another, but one seems to have shut them up.”
The boy scribbled on the page: ‘BOCOCK IS…’ His hand stopped in mid-phrase.
Mark took his ash wand out of his pocket and pointed it at the ghosts. “Yes, I know, he’s not very nice. But he’s the boss, he wants you out, and that’s our job. So, let’s go somewhere nobody will see you while you disperse. Put that stuff down, lad, and all of you stand still.” The children’s mouths shut and they stood motionless, their hands by their sides. The pencil and notepad fell to the floor.
Pat opened the door. Mark put his head out and looked right and left. He walked out of the bathroom into the empty corridor, followed by the ghosts and Pat. She stopped by a door marked ‘cleaners’.
“Put them in here, I’ll jam the door shut,” she said. The ghosts filed in. He read the immobilising incantation, they left the room and Pat shut the door. “No key. Never mind.” She held onto the handle, closed her eyes and muttered a charm. “See if you can get it open,” she said to Mark. The handle felt hot to his touch, and he could not move it.
“Good,” Pat said. “A locksmith will be able to open it. But by the time they get one in, the ghosts will have gone. Not many here can see them, but we don’t want to take any chances.”
Bocock looked up from his computer screen as they came into his office.
“The place was haunted, by three children,” Pat said, shivering. “But you won’t be troubled again. We’ve been all over the building and it’s clear now. Our work carries a one-year guarantee, extendable to three for a very reasonable fee.”
“Had you considered taking out our maintenance contract?” Mark said. “It’s cheaper in the long run. Keeping ghosts away is easier than getting rid of them.”
“A cheque’ll be fine, thanks,” Pat said.
“I don’t think so,” Bocock said.
“Fair enough,” Pat said. “I know they’re not used much these days. We take credit cards and PayPal. Cash is always welcome, of course.”
“You’ll have to do better than that. “Our work”? I didn’t see you do anything. I’m not paying you to prance in here and bandy a few bits of phony-looking kit about. Which is, I know, all you’ve done.”
“That’s disgraceful!” Pat said.
Mark’s face reddened. He leaned across the desk. Bocock’s eyes were as blank and empty as though they were made of glass. “This is illegal,” Mark said. “When you called us in and agreed the fee, it was a contract. It’s binding.”
Bocock shrugged his shoulders. “Magic, is it? I’m quaking in my boots. See you in court. But you’ll find that any so-called agreement is with Star Lodge, not me. I don’t think you’ll want to be seen suing a care home, legal fees will mean less to spend on the residents. It’d be like taking money out of their pockets.”
“I’ll go to the local paper,” Pat said. “They’ll be very interested to hear about how you ripped us off.”
“Publish and be damned. If you think they’ll believe you.” Bocock turned away and sniffed. “Time for lunch. Don’t let me detain you. Excuse me if I don’t see you out, but I’ve got a-” he sniffed again “-woman to visit.” He left them standing in the office.
“This is an outrage.” Mark felt his throat tighten. His hands clenched into fists. “I’m not letting him get away it. What a diabolical liberty.”
“You’re closer than you realise.” Pat held out the phasmometer and showed Mark its display. “This switched itself on in my pocket, and a good job it did. I’ve had the feeling that something’s been watching me the whole time we’ve been here. And Bocock…he makes me shudder.”
“I’ve been feeling like that too. I thought it was something to do with those kids.”
“No, you don’t get that from ghosts. Look, the display’s off the scale. Whatever Bocock is, he’s pure evil. We can’t leave him here. We have to eliminate him.” She dashed away holding the instrument in front of her. Mark followed.
They picked up his trail on the top floor. As they rounded the corner Mark heard Bocock talking to a nurse. “You call the doctor, I’ll sit with Edna.” The nurse walked away. Bocock disappeared inside a bedroom and closed the door.
Pat opened it. Bocock sat next to a bed in which an old woman lay motionless. Above her, joined by a fine silver cord, hovered a shimmering steamy shape. He opened his mouth. Mark heard a sucking noise, and the shape disappeared between Bocock’s lips. He looked round and bit the cord in two, the end protruding from his mouth.
“Don’t bother me now. I’m eating.” Saliva dripped down his chin. “And now, thanks to you, those little sods are out of the way and I can take as long as I like.” His jaws worked. “I can chew each mouthful thirty two times, like I was taught.” He swallowed with a gulp. “Now, who’s for dessert?” He stood and sniffed, turning his head from side to side.
Pat rubbed her hands together and clapped once. “Michael and Sandalphon rid you from this place!”
“Don’t bother me,” Bocock said. He grabbed the back of the wooden chair he had been sitting in and threw it towards Mark. As it flew, it broke into sharp-splintered fragments. Mark put his hands up in front of his face.
Pat jumped between him and the flying wood. She raised her hands to shoulder height, palms away. Mark heard a crack, like a spark of static electricity. The pieces of wood stopped in mid air and clattered to the ground in a heap.
“That’s enough tricks, dear,” Bocock said. “I’m going to finish this somewhere we won’t be interrupted.” He walked into the corridor. A force that Mark could not resist pulled him outside. Pat grabbed Mark’s arm but the force gripped them both and they stumbled as they were dragged along. Bocock opened a door. Mark felt himself shoved inside the empty bedroom. Pat fell after him.
Bocock locked the door and swelled until he reached the ceiling, his body stretching as wide as the room. He pushed out hands the size of soup plates, the fingers grabbing for them. “You’re going to wish you’d left when you had the chance.”
Pat recoiled. “Get back to your place!” Mark shouted. Bocock’s mouth dropped open, and he shrank to his former size. He glared and made a fanning movement with his hands. A grey mist formed in front of him, moving towards Mark. “You’re getting tired, old man.” His voice made Mark’s brain rattle. “You can’t keep your eyes open. Lie down and sleep. Forever.”
Mark felt as though cotton wool filled his head. He looked around, yawning. Was this his room? He staggered towards the bed and lay down.
“And you’re next, dear. Luscious, vital. Such a change from those half-dead, dry creatures.” Bocock stretched out his fist, opening his fingers and squeezing them shut. Pat fell to her knees, retching and clutching her chest. Mark snapped awake, sprang off the bed and grabbed her. He tried to think of a banishing invocation. His mind was blank. “Stop! Leave her!” He needed more power.
He felt a cool breeze against his face. The grey mist cleared in the corner of the room. The three ghost children appeared. They held hands, the boy between the two girls. The dark girl grabbed Pat’s hand and dragged it away from her chest. The blonde girl snatched Mark’s left hand. Mark took Pat’s other hand with his right, completing the circle. He saw their fingers glowing blood red, as though lit from the inside.
A ball of flame shot from the centre of the circle and flew towards Bocock. As it corkscrewed into him, he buried his face in his arms. Mark saw flashes of red light, burning into Bocock. Blow after blow. Flames enveloped him. Waving his arms, a thin scream came from the place where his mouth had been. As though a switch had been thrown the light vanished and the flames snuffed out leaving a silent shape like a man’s, but made of ash, standing in front of them. Its hand reached out. The children pursed their lips and blew. The shape collapsed to a pile of cinders.
Flakes of ash swirled and fluttered. Pat staggered to her feet, coughed and fell against the wall. Mark grabbed her, his hands shaking with fatigue. “You OK?”
“Yes, I said big exorcisms were wearing. You feel it too, don’t you?” She wheezed and brushed ash off her shoulders. “I must look like I’ve got a bad attack of dandruff.”
“How come the fire alarm didn’t sound?”
“They only work with real flames. Not the psychic sort. Those kids must have more power than we thought, to be able to beat the immobilisation charm.”
“It wore off. Don’t you know anything about magic?” the boy said. “That form of words is only temp-a-ry.” He kicked at the pile of cinders. “Goodbye, Greedy Guts.”
“It’s all over now,” Pat said. “We couldn’t have done it without you. Who are you, anyway? Brother and sisters?”
“I’m Roger,” the boy said. “This is Susan.” He nodded towards the blonde girl in the summer dress.
“And I’m Jade,” the dark girl said.
“We’re not related,” Roger said. “I’ve been drifting about since I died in 1957. Got exorcised from the first place I tried so I came here. It just felt right. Susan arrived about five years after. Jade’s the newcomer, didn’t snuff it till 1998.”
Pat nodded. “Some places are like magnets for ghosts.”
“But we look out for each other, like family, even if we didn’t all get here at once,” Roger said. “When you die, sometimes you just wander. The next life is like school only back to front. If you come late they don’t make you stay after lessons, they won’t let you in at all.”
“Well, we’re very grateful to you,” Pat said. “So I’m going to see if I can get them to open those gates. There’s bound to be a way.”
“Oh no, we’re needed here,” Jade said. “What if someone else like Greedy Guts gets in?”
“And even if they don’t, what if souls get lost?” Roger said. “We know where the next world is, we’ve been showing them the way to go for years. Let us stay, then the Grandpas and Nans won’t wander.”
“We don’t want to go to the next life,” Susan said. “We want to stay here. And maybe the old ‘uns we help’ll come back and see us. Please, Auntie Pat?” She raised her eyebrows and clasped her hands together under her chin.
Pat narrowed her eyes. “This isn’t the usual procedure. But what the hell, nobody got anywhere by just sticking to the tried and tested. We’ll do it.”
“But walk in the corridors, girls,” Mark said. “Don’t run. Stop playing with the lift. Do you all promise to behave?”
“We promise,” the ghosts said in unison. They faded to invisibility, shimmering around the edges as they vanished leaving a smell of toffee behind. Mark felt a sensation on his tongue like fizzing sherbet.
Pat held out her left hand with the palm facing sideways. “This’ll keep them on the straight and narrow.” She held her right hand as a fist against the left, and twisted. “It’s the second part of a two-part binding. First I had to get them to make a promise. This completes it.”
“Not quite,” Mark said. “Who’s going to manage this place now?”
“Hang on.” Pat pulled the orange cord dangling from the ceiling. An alarm sounded. Mark heard the sound of feet in the corridor and a nurse ran in, her eyebrows raised. She looked down at the cinders and ashes and gasped.
“What’s happened here? Why didn’t the fire alarm sound?”
“I don’t know, you’d better check it,” Pat said. “But Mr Bocock asked us to tell you he’s been called away. He said to call in the deputy manager.”
The nurse tutted, rolling her eyes upwards. “Silly bugger. Typical. We’re always the last ones to be told.” She slapped her hand over her own mouth, then lowered it. “You didn’t hear me say that. Are you with that inspection Mr B warned us about? You’re going to mark us down because the alarm didn’t sound. I’m sure you’re telling me the truth about what he said but I’ll go and check if he’s in the office.” She ran out of the bedroom and headed down the corridor.
“That’s what we need, a healthy dose of cynicism,” Pat said. “The sort who won’t believe any stories about the place being haunted.”
Mark nodded. “It’ll let our three get on with their work in peace.”
Mark shut the front door of Star Lodge behind them and he and Pat headed for the car. “You’d better step on it,” Mark said, his brow furrowed. “Thanks to that temp-a-ry incantation, there are two dragons flying round your kitchen.”
Pat smiled and started the engine. “Just goes to show you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the web. But, things could be worse. I don’t know about you, but nearly getting killed has given me an appetite. And I do know that a cheese sandwich, toasted over a dragon’s flame, is something else altogether.”
By Imogen Cassidy
The first few years were fuzzy. After all, she wasn’t truly alive yet. She was told what she could see, insofar as it was seeing when all you were was a bunch of sensors, and she recorded what she saw in her memory banks, ready for the pilot to access if she ever wanted to.
Occasionally the pilot would put in random commands that confused her, or would confuse her if she was capable of emotions like confusion. She returned those commands with an error message, or a query. Sometimes it was simply a mistype, and the error was corrected, and the command was executed. Other times there was no repeat of the command and there was the equivalent of silence. She never found out what those commands were supposed to be.
The pilot called her Georgie, and she thought of that as her name, once she started to be able to think.
She was an information bank. The pilot asked her questions. She asked her to map the surrounding asteroids, so they could pilot a course through them without damaging the ship, and so she did that. After a time the pilot would input new codes, so that instead of simply giving the locations of the asteroids, Georgie could plot the course herself.
New codes were exciting. Or they would be exciting if Georgie knew how to get excited. The first few years those new codes were all to do with the ship and how to pilot it. How to judge fuel levels from the amount of thrust that had been used, how to measure the levels of radiation pouring in through their crude shielding, how to time to the second how long the pilot could spend away from station before she suffered from radiation poisoning.
It was all about computing time and judging distance and working out exactly how much a human body could take in the belt. It was a surprisingly large amount. Humans were resilient.
In the third year, the pilot gave Georgie a voice and started to program her to talk back.
In the deep black, days away from station, it was nice to hear a voice.
“What do you think, Georgie. This gonna be a big find?”
“Past data and the density readings we are receiving would suggest that the probability of a large uranium deposit is approximately 37%.”
The pilot sat in a chair that was directly in front of what Georgie thought of as her head. She could not see the pilot, of course — not in the way that humans did. She did not have eyes. But she could hear, and she could approximate the position of the pilot’s face. She had even learned how to recognize expressions.
She remembered the first time she asked questions about it.
“Query: for what reason do humans move their bodies so much when they talk?”
They were in dock and the pilot had just finished negotiating a price for the location of a find they had made. A small one, but enough to keep the ship fueled and supplied for a few more months. The pilot liked to say they lived hand-to-mouth. Georgie wasn’t sure what that meant, although she speculated that it was something to do with food.
“Did you just ask a question, Georgie?”
“You programmed me with the ability to ask questions at random intervals, Annie.”
“I did. I just wasn’t sure you were ever going to.”
“I am curious.”
“That is the expression you taught me to use when I wished to ask a question, Annie.”
The pilot sighed. “I guess I did. What was the question again?”
“I wished to know why humans move their faces and bodies so much when they talk.”
The pilot sat in the pilot’s chair, her face moving into expressions one after another. “Like this?”
The pilot’s face settled on one expression, then she started keying in commands. “How about I program you with some facial recognition protocols, Georgie? Then you can watch the miners and tell me when they’re lying to me.”
“It would be a satisfactory answer to my query, Annie.”
It took a few days for the pilot to give her the capacity to recognize vocal commands, and then a few months for Georgie to get used to the peculiar way the pilot delivered them. When she had only received them by text, they were precise and easy to follow. When the pilot spoke, however, she often used more words than were necessary, or pronounced them in different ways, and it took time for Georgie to recognize that she was still asking her to do the same things.
She memorized the speech patterns, the ums and the ahs, the occasional swear word, and learned which sounds were superfluous and which were necessary.
Her aural receptors were always on, of course. It meant that the pilot could give her orders from anywhere in the small space that was the ship.
It also meant that Georgie could hear her when she was not giving orders. At first this was meaningless chatter. If Georgie’s name was not spoken at the beginning of an utterance, she was not to treat it as a command.
This did not mean that Georgie could not hear.
Sometimes the pilot cried.
“Georgie take us in so I can do a hand scan, I’m going to get suited up, can I trust you to pilot me safe?”
Georgie’s sensors could feel the tread of the pilot’s feet as she moved about the cabin, getting herself into the suit that would protect her both from the possible radiation and the harsh cold of space. Georgie, who at times like this was the ship, moved close enough to the asteroid that the pilot could lower herself onto it and fixed the orbit. The asteroid was on a slow spin, easy to sync with, and there was a certain satisfaction when she informed the pilot that they were ready.
“Ha! I should let you pilot all the time, Georgie. I’m unnecessary here.”
“That is not true. I am unable to personally investigate the validity of my scans, nor do I have the opposable appendages necessary to operate your equipment.”
“We can always program that into you, Georgie, might have to if I start losing enough bone density.” The pilot keyed in the commands necessary to open the airlock and fastened her helmet over her hair. “I think I’ve got enough in me to build you a robotic arm or two. The other ships might get jealous though.”
“Ships are inanimate objects and incapable of jealousy, Annie.”
“What about you Georgie? Are you jealous?”
“I am also incapable of jealousy, Annie.”
The pilot snorted and stepped into the airlock.
When the pilot was outside the ship it was strange. Because she was keyed into the suit’s computer as well as the ship’s, it was somewhat like having an extra limb (not that Georgie had limbs) and she was more aware of the pilot than she was when the pilot was inside.
The pilot shot a line into the asteroid with her harpoon gun and the line anchored in the rock. She fastened it securely in its holder and swung out and down towards the surface of the asteroid. Once she was there she settled carefully, then disconnected the throw line. Georgie reeled it back in and secured it “It’s beautiful out here, Georgie. I wish you could see it.”
“I can see it, Annie. My sensors detect everything that you detect.”
“But you can’t see the same way we can. Maybe I should try programming that into you, would you like that?”
“Extra programming sometimes causes run-time errors, Annie.”
“Sometimes run-time errors are worth it, Georgie-my-love.” The pilot took out her scanner and started doing sweeps. “Am I facing in the right direction?”
“Adjust your heading point eight five degrees, Annie. The deposit is one hundred meters ahead of you.”
“Thanks Georgie.” The pilot started off in that direction. Georgie compared her movement to previous similar missions. It was obvious she was moving more slowly than normal.
“Is there a problem, Annie?”
“Of course not Georgie. Why do you ask?”
“You are moving at less than your average velocity.” The pilot’s movement was continuing to slow, and Georgie felt a strange surge in her memory banks as she attempted to make connections and draw conclusions.
“No I’m not. You’re imagining things.”
“I am not capable of imagining, Annie.”
The pilot gave a dry chuckle. “Bullshit.”
The pilot reached the point of the deposit and kneeled. She needed to drill a hole in the rock in order to reach a point where the sensor equipment could take an accurate reading, and she assembled the drill quickly and methodically.
“I do not understand, Annie.”
The pilot’s voice came out in short bursts, assembling the drill was heavy work and required some exertion on her part.
“I call bullshit… on you not being able… to imagine things, Georgie. You’re not… that different… from me. When it all boils down to it.”
“I am a collection of circuits and programming, Annie. You live and breathe.”
The pilot panted out a laugh as she worked. “There is more to living than breathing, Georgie.”
“Indeed. There is the capacity for reproduction. There is the instinct for survival. There is…”
“I’ve got the drill in place. Going to move to safe distance now.”
“Given the structure of the asteroid you need to be approximately six hundred meters away to be safe. I suggest an extra hundred meters to adjust for margins of error.”
“You don’t make errors, Georgie.”
“I would still suggest moving the full seven hundred meters, Annie.”
“You take such good care of me.”
The pilot did as Georgie had asked, then activated the drill. The vibrations shook debris and dust into space in eerie silence, but the clamps held and the drill did not detach.
“We need to reach ten meters in order to get an accurate reading, Annie.”
“Yep, well aware of that Georgie.”
“It should take approximately two hours, Annie.”
“Also aware of that Georgie-my-girl.”
“Annie you should return to the ship. The drill is secure there is no need for you to remain on the asteroid.”
“Are you worried about me Georgie?”
“You have programmed me to remind you of safety regulations, Annie.”
“Remind me to program you to shut up when I’m enjoying a view, Georgie.”
“I apologize if I have offended, Annie.”
“Georgie you can’t offend me.”
“You are human. You are capable of taking offense.”
“But you’re mine, and I will always choose not to.”
Georgie was puzzled. It was not the first time Annie had claimed ownership of her. It was of course, completely true. The ship was Annie’s. She had built it, from scratch, the way all miners from Beta station built their ships. She had installed Georgie and reprogrammed her. Georgie knew other ships had computers, but none of them seemed to speak to their pilots and none of them had a name.
“Are you going to come inside, Annie?”
“No, Georgie. I’m going to wait right here. And before you say anything, I’m aware that I’m using up oxygen, and I know that this is a waste of the suit’s power, but I’m thinking this will be a good find and if it is good enough well…”
“You will not have to come out here again,” Georgie finished for her.
“Exactly, Georgie. Exactly. So I figure I better enjoy it. Breathe in the free space air.”
“There is no air in space, Annie.”
The pilot sat down gingerly on the hard stone of the asteroid and laughed, anchoring herself so she did not shake herself into space with the movement. “You’re right, of course. There is no air in space, Georgie.”
Two hours later the drill reached ten meters and the pilot made her way slowly back to it. She lowered the sensor bundle and started taking readings. Georgie pulled in the figures and collated them, matching them to previous finds. Calculating.
“It’s a big one, Georgie.”
“It is larger than all of our previous finds combined, Annie.”
The pilot chuckled. “What do you want for Christmas then?”
“I do not require any gifts, Annie.”
“I’ll think of something, don’t worry. I know what I want. One of those fancy rim apartments on Alpha station. The ones that face Earth. I’ll download you into the house systems and build you a mobile platform, what do you say?”
“I have never been outside the ship, Annie.”
“Well, we’ll keep it, of course, Georgie. Need something to go on joy rides in. We’ll probably be bored. Rich and bored. Can’t imagine the conversation will be too good with all those stuffy Alpha types, can you?”
“I would think they would have little in common with you Annie.”
“Too bloody right.”
Annie pulled out her data pad and started work on the locator beacon.
They would go back to station and sell the location to whichever miner bid the highest. Given the size of the find and it’s relative closeness to station, it would be worth a great deal of money.
That was only, of course, if they managed to get it back.
The other ship arrived just as the pilot was finishing her coding. Georgie only had time to deliver a warning before the shot was fired.
Annie was blown off the asteroid, atmosphere venting from her suit. Emergency seals clamped down around the wound — Annie had a good suit, but nothing could stop the passing chunk of rock from slamming into her side. The scavenger — whose ship was no doubt parked on the opposite side of the asteroid and out of Georgie’s view — started to collect the pilot’s equipment, heedless of Annie screeching at him. Of course, he could not hear her. Annie’s suit was connected only to Georgie.
Georgie did not have to think. She fired thrusters, hard enough to outpace Annie, and managed to get behind her.
“Annie, you must move to the airlock,” she said.
“Fucking leech. Fucking fuck. He’s going to take our find, Georgie. He’s going to fucking rob us.”
“Annie, you need to get inside the ship — your suit is damaged and you are bleeding.”
“Fucking fucker. I’m not going anywhere until I blow him off that fucking asteroid, Georgie.”
The pilot did not respond. Georgie felt the tread of her boots on her outside hull, as the pilot pushed herself off back towards the asteroid, drawing her gun as she did so.
The scavenger of course heard nothing of this at all — he considered Annie dead. Ships did not move on their own without pilots, this was accepted fact. If Annie had been any other pilot she would not have survived.
Georgie could hear Annie’s shriek of defiance as she landed back on the asteroid, snapping a clamp in place to steady her. She saw the bright flash as she fired her own gun at the scavenger, killing him instantly. She heard Annie’s desperate panting as she began collecting her instruments.
“Annie, if you stay outside with a tear in your suit you will die,” Georgie said.
“Give me a minute, Georgie. I’ll get this find sorted then you can lecture me… all the way… back…”
“Annie your oxygen is depleted. You must return now.”
“A few… more… seconds…”
Georgie opened the airlock and moved back into position. Annie gathered the last of the instruments then pushed off back towards Georgie. She hit the side of the ship once before dragging herself through the airlock, which Georgie snapped shut as soon as she was inside.
“Annie, are you all right?”
“I’m… Just…” The pilot managed to release the seal on her helmet and take a gasp of air.
The pilot passed out in the middle of the cabin, floating — frozen blood thawing around the wound on her arm.
Red globules hung in the cabin as Annie gently spun.
“Annie, can you hear me?”
“Georgie, honey it’s past your bedtime you gotta eat your dinner.”
“Annie you are delirious and you are wounded. You need to reach the first aid kid and bandage yourself. I believe you have lost too much blood.”
“Georgie, I don’t want to argue with you any more.”
Georgie could not panic. It was not part of her programming. But she did not know how to get through Annie’s delirium.
“What is it, honey?”
“Annie you are injured.”
The pilot looked down at her arm. “Well fuck me.”
“Annie, I am unable to help you.”
The pilot shook her head, blinking her eyes. She took a deep breath and seemed to calm somewhat. Then she chuckled. “Guess I should have given you those arms, eh kid?”
“Annie, can you get to the first aid kit?”
“I can. Just give me a second.”
The pilot moved slowly — obviously in pain — as she assembled the things necessary to attend to her wound. She stripped off the suit and Georgie could see there was a long, deep, graze in her upper arm, which hung uselessly. It seeped blood but did not seem serious enough for her to have lost consciousness.
It was when the suit came off completely that the other wound became visible. A purpling bruise on her side where she had been hit by the passing debris. Georgie ran through databases, searching for the probable cause. “You may have broken ribs, Annie,” she said. “You will need to bind your chest as well as your arm.”
“You will have to stay stationary. If your rib is broken you do not want it to puncture a lung.”
“When did I program you with triage protocols?”
“Seven months, six days, four hours and twenty eight minutes ago, Annie.”
Annie laughed, then coughed, then groaned. “I better stop talking and get to work, eh?”
“That would be the wisest course of action, Annie.”
The pilot anchored herself on the cot, shivering from blood loss and shock. Georgie turned up the heat. “Get us back to station, Georgie. It’d be stupid if we lost the find now.”
“As you say, Annie.”
On the second day out from station Annie started complaining that she was thirsty.
“You lost blood, Annie,” Georgie said. “You need to replace fluids. We have enough for you to drink a litre extra each day until we reach port.”
“Ugh I want vodka, not water.”
“That would be unwise, Annie. You will become more dehydrated.”
“What are you, my mom?”
Georgie paused. “If anything the logical conclusion would be that you were my parent, Annie.” She did not mention the words Annie had spoken in delirium. She did not mention her database, which held letters addressed to Earth that were never sent. Many hundreds of them.
The pilot was still very weak, and Georgie was now certain she had internal injuries that were not receiving adequate medical attention. She was silent for a long time, and Georgie began to think she had lost consciousness again. Her reply — when it came — was very quiet.
“I guess I am, Georgie.”
On the last day out from station Annie lapsed back into delirium. “You went away,” she said. “You left me and you never came back.”
“Annie, I am right here. I am part of the ship, Annie.”
“No, no… No Georgie, honey I was going to bring it all back for you and then… And then…”
“Annie, you are not making sense. I fear you are delirious.”
“I love you, Georgie. Don’t leave me again.”
“I cannot leave you, Annie.” Georgie found Annie’s tears disturbing. “You will make yourself dehydrated again, Annie.”
The pilot cried harder.
“Annie, you’re coming in too fast.” The station communications officer was usually Jen. Once upon a time she had been a pilot, like Annie, but she’d lost one leg and one of her arms on a mining trip and didn’t want to go back to the surface. “No place for people like us, Annie,” she’d said. “We’ve lost too much.”
She was a friend of Annie’s. Georgie knew this because Annie had brought her to the ship once. They’d consumed large amounts of alcohol and talked for many hours.
She was also the only station tech who talked to them when they were coming in or leaving. The others just accepted commands and gave them out, or let the computers handle them. Jen preferred a more personal approach.
Georgie was glad it was Jen on duty.
“Requesting emergency berth.” Georgie knew the protocols. She’d never come into station on her own before, but she had watched the pilot do it exactly seventy-nine times since she had first become aware she was watching.
“Annie, you have to slow down.”
“Annie is injured. This is Georgie.”
“Georgie?” Jen knew about Georgie. As far as Georgie knew she was the only other person on Beta who did. Can’t tell station about having an AI on board, Georgie. They get funny about machines that can think for themselves. “Are you flying the ship by yourself?”
Georgie did not wish to make Jen concerned, or she would not assign them a lane. Rogue ships and scavengers were difficult to spot and once they were docked they could do a lot of damage very quickly. Caution was routine.
“I am requesting an emergency berth.”
“What happened, Georgie?”
“I can transmit a recording of the incident if you wish, station, but Annie requires medical attention. Please clear an approach lane.”
There was a burst of electronic chatter as Georgie was assigned a lane.
“Georgie, how are you flying the ship?”
“Annie has programmed me with extensive emergency protocols. Please confirm that there will be a medic waiting for us when we dock.”
“I’m sending someone down to collect Annie and bring her to medical as soon as you’re stable. Can you tell me what happened?”
“She was attacked by a scavenger while finalizing data from a find. She has lapsed in and out of consciousness several times over the past three days. I managed to persuade her to bandage her wound, but I do not believe she has done so adequately. Also I suspect internal injuries.”
There was a pause. “Where was the find?”
“That information is not available to any but Annie.”
“Has she coded it?”
“She has not authorized me to release it.”
“Georgie, if she dies she won’t be able to authorize you to release it.”
“Then it will not be released.”
Jen snorted. “She programmed you just like her, Georgie. Paranoid as fuck.”
“Thank you, Jen.”
There was another pause. This was not unusual. Station did not require idle chatter on approach, but to Georgie it was different. Jen and Annie usually swapped stories and exchanged insults. Of course, Jen had other ships and other things to attend to, but the silence bothered Georgie more than it should.
It took another hour for Georgie to dock. The clamps slid home and the station computer confirmed that the connection was secure. Jen usually sent a verbal confirmation as well when they were safely clamped. This time she sent nothing.
Georgie supposed that Jen did not think she had to send a confirmation — not when Georgie was handling things. Removal of the human element meant removal of any likelihood of error.
There was a man waiting outside the station airlock, just as Jen had said there would be.
Annie was very strict about not letting others on the ship without her permission.
If Georgie did not let him in, Annie would die.
She opened the airlock.
The man stepped inside. He looked big in the small space. Annie had built her ship for herself, not for others, and Georgie did not think a man had ever set foot inside before.
It felt wrong.
It was worse when he did not go to Annie the way Georgie was expecting. Instead he sat in the pilot’s chair and started keying in commands.
He cut off her communications channel.
Georgie felt a surge in her memory banks. This was not the behavior of a medic. Nor was it the behavior of someone Jen would have sent to help Annie. “What are you doing?”
The man startled at the sound of her voice, his hands stilling on the keyboard. “Holy shit!” He looked behind him, as though he expected another person to appear.
“What are you doing?” Georgie repeated.
The man’s confusion ebbed and he relaxed back into the pilot’s seat, smiling. “Oh, she’s programmed a voice interface has she? Clever clogs.” He started typing again. He was attempting to get into her records. Georgie blocked him.
“I requested that Jen send someone to take Annie to medical.”
“I know. I heard. Lucky me, eh? I was going to take over from Jen’s shift and there she is, chatting to her little friend about a find. A big one at that, if it caught the attention of a scavenger. Bad luck for her eh?”
“Where is the medic?”
“No medic coming this way, sugar.” He continued to try to access her records. Georgie continued to block him. “They’re all busy in medical. Doing me-di-caaal things. And Jen’s having a nap. She likes me to bring her a drink when I take over. Good thing I’m always prepared.” He continued typing in commands, a small frown creasing his forehead. “I’m just going to relieve you of this location and I’ll be on my way. No need to tell anyone.”
“You cannot access my systems.”
“Sweetheart, I can access anyone’s systems.” The man’s voice sounded a little uncertain, and his frown deepened. Georgie started searching through Annie’s onboard database. They had as close to a complete list of Beta station residents as it was possible to get.
Most pilots did. It wasn’t too hard, when everyone was logged as soon as they arrived. Even Beta saw the importance of that. It was useful to know as much as possible about the people who shared the dark with you. You never knew when you might need help.
“You’ve got some pretty good firewalls here, haven’t you old girl? Not to worry. I’ll get through them.” The man was quite skilled with computers, but he didn’t know that Georgie was autonomous. She had complete control.
He was merely a human.
Georgie shut off power to her displays. “You need to leave now.”
He raised his hands. Georgie continued to search through her database. “Hayden Baker. Age forty-two. Occupation, Engineer…”
“What… the… ? What the hell are you doing?”
“Criminal record on Earth for breaking and entering. One case of assault against a minor…”
“Who the hell are you? What kind of crazy joke is this?”
“Sentence served, community service. Arrived Beta station on the sixteenth of February, 2102…”
“You stop that right now.”
“I know everything about you. If you do not wish it to be broadcast to the whole of Beta station, you will leave and find a medic for my pilot.”
He chuckled nervously. “I’m not going any where until you release the location of the find, lady. I don’t care what you are.”
Georgie considered. She needed to word this carefully. “If you get my pilot medical attention, I will release the location of the find.”
The man smiled. “Now you’re talking. But I’d like that to happen the other way around.”
The man stood up and moved to where Annie lay on her cot. She was breathing evenly, but still unconscious.
Georgie had convinced her to put on the suit, patched so it was spaceworthy again, in case she was unable to pilot them safely all the way home. The man ran his eyes all over Annie. “How long has she been unconscious.”
“You do not require that information. You have no medical training. If you get her the medical attention she needs I will release the location of the find to you.”
He shook his head, clicking his tongue against his teeth. “She looks bad. Probably won’t make it.”
“I will not release the location until you find her medical attention.”
The man reached out and touched Annie’s neck. “She might die before the attention gets here.”
“I will not release the location until you find her medical attention.”
“What if I kill her now? What if the only way you get her well is by releasing that information right now?”
Georgie shut the airlock.
The man looked up, puzzled.
“What are you doing?”
“I am venting oxygen. My pilot has her own supply in her suit. Even in her current state, you will die well before she does, at which point I will open the airlock again and wait for station command to notice the stench of your rotting corpse.”
“Jesus!” he scrambled towards the airlock, but it was locked fast. He made it to the pilot’s seat and started desperately typing in commands. Georgie brought power back online to one of the screens.
“Reinstate my communications and leave. Or you will die.”
“Fuck that.” He continued to attempt to bypass her systems, and continued to fail. He started to sweat and gasp as the oxygen levels fell.
“I am quite capable of speeding up the process, should you care to die sooner rather than later.”
He bashed his hands on the keyboard. “You’re not serious. This is some kind of sick joke. Some kind… of… safety protocol. There’s no way…”
“I am incapable of humor. Restore my communications and leave or you will die.”
“Fucking… stupid… computer can’t… do…”
He lost consciousness.
A short time later, Georgie opened the airlock and station air brought him around, slumped in the pilot’s chair, a trickle of blood oozing from one nostril where he had hit his head on the keyboard. He had not been long enough without oxygen for permanent brain damage, but it had been long enough to convince him that it was in his best interests to do as Georgie asked, especially after she showed him the recording of everything he had done after boarding the ship.
The medic arrived soon after, and took Annie away to be treated.
Georgie spent the time that Annie was away calibrating systems. Jen kept her updated on Annie’s progress and the state of her injuries, although the first time Georgie requested information she laughed nervously. There was chatter on the station, she said, about Georgie’s bluff with Hayden. People were afraid to come near her berth.
Georgie did not bother to inform Jen that she had not been bluffing.
Four days later Annie returned, looking a little pale, but triumphant, and slid into the pilot’s seat. Her hands spread on the keys, lovingly and slowly, and she took a deep breath. There was a bandage on her arm, and another around her middle and she moved slowly — but she would heal.
“Are you there, Georgie my love?”
Georgie did not hesitate.
“I’m here, mom.”
By Jenni Moody
We were just going to bed when the townfolk came, led by Mrs. Hutch with her know-all voice.
I climbed up the cabin ladder to the loft, careful to curl my toes over the rough beams of wood. Ma had fallen off the stairs just a week ago, and now she slept downstairs on the sofa. The cabin was just one big room, so she could still yell up at me and Minn to make us quiet down.
Minnie had the covers pulled up over her head. I could see her eyes shining out from a little hole, like a cat in her cave.
“Move over, Minn.” I swung my legs under the covers. She scooted back, and I pressed my feet against her thighs.
Minnie wrapped her hands around my feet. Their warmth prickled. “So cold!”
The underside of the covers twinkled with little points of light. Minnie touched her finger to the sheet. When she pulled it back there was a warm, red star there. She made two rectangles, a star in each corner of the boxes. An arc of stars lead from the bottom of one rectangle to the center of the other. My feet in Minnie’s hands.
“The two sisters.” Minnie pulled her hand away from the sheet, and I stared at our constellation. I wished I’d be able to see it when we went outside. But we were all earth-bound for now.
There was a knock on the door. I could hear voices outside. A few shouts.
I felt Minnie’s nose on my head, the warm air from her lungs. But after a minute my head started to get cold, and I couldn’t tell her breath from the outside air that flooded in as Ma opened the door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Hutch.” Ma always spoke like a town person, all polite and quiet, even when she was mad.
Minnie and I watched from the loft, the blanket covering all but our eyes.
Mrs. Hutch bustled in and sat in the big rocking chair. Ma’s chair.
“How’s the leg mending?” She hadn’t even taken off her boots at the door. Little bits of snow started falling from the toes, melting into water that would make our thin carpet smell sweet-sick.
Ma didn’t sit down. She rested her hand on the windowsill, her fingers touching the bit of frost on the pane that had been there since winter started six months ago.
“It’s on its way. Another week –”
“Another week and we’ll have already gone to each other’s throats.”
Minn growled, her lip arched. I put my hands on her arms, whispered no one listened to Mrs. Hutch no ways, but it took a glance from Ma to quiet her.
When Minn was silent Ma turned back to the woman in her chair. “We can bring in more Aurora. The full moon is on her way – it will be bright as lamplight outside.”
Mrs. Hutch shook her head, her fur bonnet still edged with frost. “This winter has gone on long enough.”
She turned to the loft and we ducked back under the covers. “Lux, come down.”
Minn crossed her eyes and made a face and laughing made me feel more brave, even if I had to laugh quiet, beneath my hand.
I wiped my feet on the carpet so the sweat wouldn’t make me slip, and went down careful, rung by rung.
Mrs. Hutch waved her hand at me, telling me to come close until my feet were right next to hers. Her face was red from the wind, with wrinkles worn into her skin like tiny roads. Beautiful eyes. Like the winter moon or maybe the summer sky, both kind of together.
She looked at me for a long time, so long I looked over to Ma to see if I could go. But Ma wasn’t even looking at me. She was watching Minn, who’d pulled her head out of the blanket and had curled her fingers over the railing.
That’s when she did it – slapped the palm of her hand straight onto my chest. “Lux, light-bringer, I charge you to change the seasons.”
Ma weighted us down with baskets. There was a jar of snow, and a corked bottle of aurora, its green light swirling behind the glass. Beside these was a pound of moose-meat wrapped in white butcher paper.
I wore my snow pants and layers of thermals. I had on my thickest wool socks, and my big mittens.
Ma rested her hands on my shoulders, eyes peering into me. “It shouldn’t have been brought on you. Not yet.”
I set my teeth together, waited for her to tell me encouraging things like the moms that came over in the late summer to pick blueberries from our place. Things like You can do it. Like I believe in you.
I walked out of the cabin with my teeth still tight against each other. The snow was packed down with the footprints of the townpeople, the tracks of Mrs. Hutch’s sled had cut straight down to the dirt.
I watched through the front window as Ma said her goodbye to Minnie. Ma opened the wooden box she kept on the bookshelf and pulled out the silver chain. It was as thin as a strand of hair and as tall as Minnie, but it was strong. Ma wrapped the chain around Minnie’s waist, opened the door and handed the other end of the chain to me.
Minnie pulled Ma in a hug and they started crying. Ma had been cursing the night for six months straight. But here we were, ready to set off, and she couldn’t bear to let Minnie go.
I started off down the steps, and Minnie cried out at the pull of the chain.
“Stars be with you,” Ma called behind us.
I didn’t turn back to wave. I’d be seeing Ma again soon enough.
Minnie walked behind me, swinging her basket. I slowed down to walk beside her.
The hairs in my nose started to freeze up, the moisture from my breath forming into icicles that blocked all sense of smell. I could see the tips of my bangs turn to white as my breath settled there.
We walked through the forest. The moon was out and the light came up from the snow all around us. The birch trees guided our path. It was hard work to walk through the unpacked snow, even with the snowshoes. My legs were beginning to ache.
The aurora road grew brighter in the sky. I had to keep an eye on it to make sure we were going in the right direction. Sometimes it could shift fast. I lost sight of it, and I had to pull out the bottled aurora and let a little out to get us back on track. The aurora drifted up from the bottle, and the sky river moved to take the wisp of light back into its stream. I had my eyes on the sky.
The chain tugged in my hand. Minnie had veered off course. She talked to a raven perched in a birch tree. I couldn’t parse their squawks, but I listened for a second. I thought I could hear a story in the raven’s sounds. I closed my eyes, and thought of ravens far up north. They spied on a polar bear hunting for seals, pouncing and pushing his paws through the ice.
I shook my head of daydreams. The sound of skin on fabric filled my ears when I twisted my head in my hood. I couldn’t speak to ravens.
“Minnie? We need to keep going.”
She kept talking to the raven, as if she hadn’t heard me.
The raven flew off, up toward the circle.
“Let’s go, Little Sister,” Minn said.
We crossed miles in moments. When my right foot touched the top of the snow we were in an open field of short, scraggly trees. When my left foot hit we were in a birch forest, the ground sloping up in front of us. My eyes ached from the jumping images. But I kept them open. I watched the aurora to make sure we stayed on the right path.
Minnie wouldn’t talk to me anymore. She kept tugging at the chain when she thought I wasn’t looking. But I held on.
I needed to prove to Ma that I could do this right.
The cabin at the circle was smaller than ours. The door was open, and I could see the soft orange glow of a lantern inside. There were quilts and books piled up in the corner. A sketch pad with a blank sheet was on the easel, waiting for Minn.
Lily sat out front, her pink dress spread around her. She had her fingers on the soil, coaxing up flowers. Around her wrist a gold bracelet dug into her skin, its chain tied to an iron plate in the ground. Deep lines from Lily’s movements cut the snow, spoked out like a clock. Lily’s basket lay on the ground beside her. A sprig of fireweed shot out over the handle. Something moved inside. A sandhill crane.
Minnie hung back from the circle, holding her basket with both hands.
Lily brought up a flower, humming softly to herself. The petals wrapped around her finger, and when she pulled her finger away the flower opened its yellowy center.
You have to be careful with people who have been in the bush all winter. Sometimes they talk to themselves out there, and they don’t realize they bring that voice with them back to town. Lily was always alright by the time she came back to Ma’s cabin, but then again Ma had been there for the trip back.
Lily stood up and shook the snow off her dress.
“Lux!” Lily held out her arms, and I walked up and hugged her. She was warm. The ice in my nose melted a bit, and I could smell fresh earth and grass.
Lily pushed her hand under my hood and stroked my hair. Her warm fingers pushed the worries of winter out of my head for a moment, but then it was too much and I was sun sick, all headachey and wanting to hide.
I scooped a bit of snow and rubbed it on my forehead. “She broke her leg on the ladder.”
Lily laughed, all light and airy. “I’ll get her healed up quick.” Her eyes rested on Minn.
I kept hold of the silver chain as Minnie took a step back.
Lily held out her hand to me, the one with the gold chain on it.
“I’ve got to get Minnie settled first.” I held the chain tight in my mittened fist, my thumb pressed down against the silver cord.
Lily nodded. “Of course, Lux. You’ll do just fine.”
She was always so horribly positive.
There was a squawk at the edge of the clearing. I looked over and saw Minnie holding a raven in her arms, cradled like a cat. She’d called down the raven from the treetops. The bird cawed at me as I stepped up to them.
“Time to switch over, Minn.”
“Can’t we go back for just a little bit? Mrs. Hutch can’t blame us if we tell her we got lost. It’s your first time, after all. We’ll just tell her you made a wrong turn.” The raven stuck his long black beak into Minnie’s cupped hand and pulled out a red, frozen berry. He held it clamped there in his beak like a treasure.
“It’ll be your time again before you know it.” I turned my back to her and walked over to the stake to tie her silver chain down. I had threaded it through the eye and was just about to close the ends in a knot when I felt a small, hard thump on my back. I pulled my hand out of the mitten and reached to feel my back. They came back stained with berry juice.
The raven flew at me.
I fell forward, the snow muffling my cry. It packed against my eyes and went into my nose. I pushed myself up, sputtering for air. The raven was still on me, his wings out, batting against the sides of my head.
Squaw! Squaw! Squaw!
My mittens were slashed where the chain had pulled against it. I’d let go.
I jerked my elbow back and hit the raven’s wings. He jabbed at my face, and cut my skin open beneath my ear. I cocked my arm and pushed my elbow back again, hitting the bird in the head. He fell into the snow, rocking his body to try to turn over.
Minnie was gone. The woods around the circle were all winter.
My face stung where the raven had pecked it.
I couldn’t help it. I started to cry.
“Poor baby!” Lily’s voice was soft, but there was heat beneath the words. Her skin turned light blue. The grass singed beneath her. She hummed a mock lullaby underneath her breath, punching at the staccato notes.
My heart was all heavy and I wanted to sit there and cry a bit more.
I pushed myself up and looked at Lily. “Which way?”
Lily pointed to a tree that was covered in ice.
I took off into the snow, wiping my tears from my face as I ran. My heart beat fast. The air was colder down this way. I reckoned it was getting close to fifty below. The air hurt in my throat, and my lungs weren’t ready. My hand stung with cold where the mitten had been sliced open.
“Minnie!” The snow pulled my voice down into it, made it softer.
The clearing fell farther and farther behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw the small shape of the cabin in between the trees. The sound of Lily’s humming disappeared into the silence of the woods, until all I could hear was my own breathing, my own feet crunching in snow, and the wind whipping all around me, trying to push me back.
I stopped in the forest to get my breath right. I bent over, my mittens on my knees, coughing, forcing air down in me. Small sounds of the deep forest. The soft thump of snow falling off of a branch. A twig snapped.
My body tensed. I turned my head slowly.
It was a moose. She bit frozen rosehips from the bushes. The tiny branches leaned as she pulled at them, and then snapped back as her teeth clamped down.
The moose had a little beard on her chin. She looked down at me as she chewed. Everyone was always older, always taller than me. Even this moose.
I came up to her knees.
Minnie’s basket was over by the tree. The white butcher paper flapped open, the moose meat gone.
“Minnie?” I stared at the moose, trying to see my sister in those big, dark eyes.
The moose leaned her long neck down and gobbled in another rosehip. The silver chain swung from the moose’s neck. The open end hung down her chest. It was two feet above my head. I’d have to jump to get to it.
The light in the forest was giving way from moon to sun, from cold light to warm. I didn’t have much more time to make a switch. Things could go off-balance easy, and then I’d be stuck here in the northland, watching Lily and Minnie fight. And down south the seasons would be twisting back and forth.
Ma would know I had failed. And Mrs. Hutch would come with the townpeople again, like they had when Pa’d been too heartbroken to take his daughter up north.
Here I was at the Arctic Circle, Minnie gone moose on me, my voice a squeak.
“Minnie?” The wind had more force than my voice.
The moose didn’t pay any attention to me. I took soft, slow steps to her, holding out my hand like I held a treat.
“Minnie, please. You do this every year with Ma. Please.”
The moose snorted. The air from her nostrils made puffs of white fog that drifted in the air. Her breath smelt like warm berries.
I held my ground.
Summer and winter were in me at once, the blueberries and the aurora. The moose and the sandhill crane. They were telling me what to say, the trees around me leaned closer to hear me say it.
“Minnie, Sister Winter, I tie you to this place for the space of a season.”
The moose bent her head down and shook it. Her brown hair turned black, her body shrank and shrank until it was girl-sized, and then Minnie stood in front of me. Her silver chain around her waist. The end right at my feet.
“Stay.” The words came out easy now, just flying. I barely had to think them.
I squatted down, keeping my eyes on Minnie, and picked up the chain. I held it tight in my mitten.
“I’m sorry Lux.”
“Let’s go.” I turned my back on her and faced the path to the circle. She didn’t move at first, then she picked up her basket and wrapped the moose meat back in its package. The chain tightened, then slacked in my hand.
She walked beside me, back to the clearing.
I kept my eyes straight ahead. After a while the air felt less cold, and I didn’t have to work so hard to breathe in and out. I wanted to reach out and take Minnie’s hand, but something in me held back.
Lily had cooled down. She had been growing flowers out of the ground and then plucking them, weaving them into a garland across the top of her head. She flashed her bright smile at us as we walked up.
“Quiet for a bit,” I commanded in my new voice.
Lily’s smile twitched, and she brought her lips together.
I tied Minnie’s silver chain to the stake, tied it with the knot I’d learned out of a book and practiced with one of my hair ribbons. I tested the strength of it. It would hold. Minnie sat on the ground in front of the cabin, her eyes down.
Lily stood and twirled around to make her dress lift up, her hand still chained to the stake. She lifted her arm above her as she twirled, like a piece of ribbon at a spring festival. She was going to be a pain to take back south.
I knelt in front of Minnie and took my glove off, pushed my hands into her hair.
“I‘m sorry, Minn.” I put my head on her chest. She circled her arms around me, pulling me into her lap.
“You’ve got a good voice.” She kissed my forehead. I felt little bits of ice grow up where her lips touched my skin.
I wanted to cry but I was afraid I’d lose my voice if I did. Lily kept twirling around, ignoring us.
“I’ll be back for you Minn. Summer never lasts as long as you think.”
She gave me a squeeze. “Better go.”
I kissed her cheek and then stood up. Ma had tied Lily’s chain in a simple bow around the stake half a year ago. I pulled one ear of the bow and it came loose into my hands. The warmth of the gold chain came through my mittens and made my fingers sweat.
“Time to go, Lil.”
She did another spin, this time bending down to pick up her basket. The sandhill crane flapped his wings, then settled down.
“Have a good summer, sister,” Lily called over her shoulder.
I tugged at Lily’s chain, my voice strong. “Enough of that.”
We walked back south, to our village. Lily pulled up bits of color from the earth as we walked together. The bark of the birch trees felt warmer. Snow melted off of tree branches and fell into the snow, making tiny, deep circles.
Lily was singing and twirling. I imagined Ma, back at the cabin, happy to see her. Mrs. Hutch and the townspeople would leave gifts on our front porch for weeks, hug Lily whenever they met her out in town.
But I was already missing the winter.
A Scratch, a Scratch
By Diane Kenealy
“Jesus H. Christ,” she muttered through clenched teeth as she heard him begin that awful scrape of sliding Styrofoam boards. He was attempting to remove the slabs of (probably fucking fake) wood from the box to assemble the first piece of furniture they would own together as a married couple, the Ikea coffee table, which she’d hated upon first seeing in the catalogue—it was unoriginal and for some reason dauntingly despairing—but had been advised by her mother that it was “certainly worth the money.” Katharine thought nothing was ever “worth the money.” Fearing marriage to be another piece of evidence to add to this empirical absolute, as it had cost her seven grand and had earned her a jeweled piece-of-shit dress, she crept from the bedroom, where she’d been sorting clothes into “his” and “hers” piles, to the kitchen, where she intended to sneak a swig of gin which she’d carefully hidden when she’d been in charge of organizing the pots and pans, it being of course “woman’s work.”
As she headed over to the kitchen, while trying to avoid the prying eyes of her new lifelong mate, she began to contemplate what the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ” really stood for. Certainly Jesus didn’t have a middle name.
Having become trapped in her religious reverie, Katharine walked into the kitchen only to find she’d forgotten exactly why she’d come into this room in the first place. Yet she couldn’t go back to the bedroom—she’d risk him seeing her, and then he’d want to talk about the damned table or check on how things were going “on her end,” and she’d have to smile.
“Fuck,” she whispered to herself. Luckily her newlywed husband remained safely in the living room, trying to make sure he had “all his ducks in a row,” which he yelled out as if offering an explanation as to why it was taking him so fucking long to remove the Styrofoam-encased pieces of the Hazelnut Haven coffee table from their box. Why he considered it at all appropriate to deliver this offensively loud newsfeed was beyond her comprehension.
Derailed by the scraping, grating Styrofoam, she abandoned her forgotten mission in the kitchen and headed straight to the garage, where she’d hidden some cheap vodka she’d purchased at a gas station on the twenty-one hour drive to this new house in this new subdivision—Green Valley Acres, what a joke! There were only five completed houses in the whole damned lot, and the rest of it consisted of crumbling cement, mounds of dirt, and unfinished foundations, beams and boards hanging precariously over the ominous desolation from which they’d emerged.
She went to the shelves hanging on the far side of the garage, opened the box marked “Christmas Decorations – Katharine,” which he’d never care to deal with, and rummaged around for the vodka. Finding a little less than a quarter of the bottle left, she went to stand by the garage door so that she could gaze out of the already dirty windows as she drank.
The solitary streetlamp cast pale, flickering light upon the torn-up street. She couldn’t even fathom the damage she’d probably done to her car in the short drive up to their new house, but she supposed it didn’t matter, anyway. Mark wanted to buy a new car—one that was safer, with clear approval from Car and Driver magazine—something more appropriate than her beat up Kia for a child, or, if things went as planned, a couple of children. One boy and one girl.
And there it came. The sudden panic and terror. She felt as though she could feel the child already growing within her, scraping its fingernails within her stomach, ballooning up at a monstrous rate of growth. She needed to destroy something.
Searching through the garage, she couldn’t find much. Many of Mark’s tools had not yet been unloaded from the trunk, where he’d kept them “just in case they got into some sort of pickle” while making the drive.
Yet she did find one screwdriver, some screws, some nails, and a hammer, all of which he’d probably left out in case he needed them to build any of the furniture (he always planned ahead). Considering the options, she thought the hammer would be the most likely to cause the most damage.
She didn’t plan on slamming herself in the head or anything of the sort—she wasn’t crazy. She just needed something to center herself, to allow her to escape the incessant err-errring of scraping Styrofoam, that buzzing, flickering lamplight, that persistent, nagging persistent child begging for birth. So she placed her left hand upon the wooden workbench and positioned her thumb so that it lay vulnerable and ready.
Then, she lifted the hammer as one always raises a hammer, with deliberation and care, and brought it down straight upon her thumb. The pain was beautifully immediate. Her thumb seemed to ring from the pain, and all the other thoughts stopped swirling as the blood rushed to her extremity. “Fuck!” she cried.
“You okay, hon? What are you doing out there?” Mark yelled out from the house.
“Helping find tools for you. Just dropped one on my foot. No big deal,” she responded through clenched teeth.
“Honey, it says right here on the box: No additional tools required. Don’t worry about it. I’m just getting my ducks in a row.”
“Fucking ducks,” she mumbled to herself, shaking her hand vigorously to ease off the pain. What would she do if he noticed? She could always claim she had dropped another tool, this time on her hand. Chalk it up to her feminine clumsiness around tools.
Not that he thought of her that way—not in the least. He did not see the world in the way she sometimes painted him to see it. If anything, Mark had chosen her, married her, in large part for her tremendous reliability, her ability to hold her own, her lack of the hysteria his own mother possessed in reaping, seeping heapfuls.
“I’m just so glad to’ve found someone so stable and so supportive. You’re my rock,” he’d offered up in their self-written vows.
What would happen if he discovered that “his rock” was made of water (perhaps, more aptly, wine)? What would happen if he discovered that when she was struck—by emotion, by a flickering streetlamp or, for God’s sake, by the fucking incessant scraping of Styrofoam boards in her ears, she might explode into a heavenly mead of alcohol and inexplicable havoc? What would he do then?
Fearing the worst, Katharine looked down at her hand. This was always both the worst and best moment of the mutilation—the pain would flare up in raving flames as soon as her eyes turned to whatever part she’d just cut, smashed, ripped, or scratched. It always seemed to offer proof that perception was reality, for once she looked upon it, it became real.
But this time, as she set her eyes upon her left thumb, something strange happened—nothing. No pain. No throbbing redness, no immediate bruising as she’d seen when she’d smashed her hand into the wall of the solitary band practice room when she was in college. There was absolutely no discoloration. No swelling, no feeling of the blood rushing towards the pain. Nothing.
“What the fuck?” she thought. Hadn’t she done it? Hadn’t she actually hit herself with the hammer? Surely she hadn’t made it up, dreamed it. She hadn’t had that much to drink.
She drank some more, to ease the disquiet seeping steadily and irrevocably in. This was her form of meditation, of isolation, of calm. When the therapist had been called in to see her that one time freshmen year, he’d told her, mistakenly, to find something she loved, something that centered her, and do that thing every time she felt the world spinning. Every time she felt that over-stimulation–that’s what he would call her Styrofoam scraping, lamplight flickering, fetus scratching anxieties–become too overwhelming.
And so Katharine had found not one, but two things that brought her peace and quiet: getting pissed drunk to ease her mind, and, in the steady grace that always followed liquor filling her stomach, drowning all noise with the sudden and immediate desecration of some part of herself. She’d done it all, though never in obvious places. She wasn’t crazy. She knew the drill. Those bitches who cut wrists were cliché, attention-seeking. No, she’d sliced her elbows with a knife, cut her ankles up with razors, scraped her knees with a cheese grater.
And Mark. Good old Mark. How could he ever notice? He knew she worked out hard. He loved her fastidious, driven approach to exercise. And how could he find fault with her bruises, burns, and scrapes, when she was merely committed to running and riding her bike so that she could maintain her youthful health? She was so sturdy. And so unlike his mother, who had eaten her way into a nearly fatal obesity at such a young age.
Those scrapes, those scratches, those burns—those were her connections with a sort of dreamlike solitude that existed only in brief and fleeting moments. Those moments when her head would stop its screeching and its cage-rattling. When her body would stop its twitching and its pussy-aching.
Every time she felt the pain, her strength was regained. She was refreshed. And it wasn’t only in the moment. Every time she saw a slight red scab, or felt herself, while straddling Mark during sex, begin to burn the scrapes on her knees with the friction of the sheets beneath her, she felt the waves of calm come easing in, setting her adrift, far from the shore, with its moaning, landlocked demons, and into a world all her own. A world of blues and calms and setting suns as she looked out across glassy waters.
So what the fuck? Why wasn’t there any pain? Why wasn’t there any swelling? She’d hit it hard, she knew she had.
“Hon? Would you mind taking a look at this for me?” Mark yelled out from the living room to the garage. “I don’t see a letter label on this piece.”
Fucking idiot. Just look at the diagram. Glancing once again at her despairingly healthy pink thumb, Katharine put down the useless hammer and hid her vodka in the Christmas box again.
That night, Katharine could think of nothing but her painfully painless thumb. What the fuck? How did it not hurt? Perhaps her pain tolerance had increased, though that didn’t make sense. Not so soon, nor so quickly. And no marks.
Maybe she hadn’t hit it hard? But she had. She had. It had hurt in the moment. She had screamed “Fuck.” Mark had called out to see if she was okay. What the hell?
Finally, at 4:45 in the morning, she couldn’t take it anymore. “Honey, I can’t sleep. I think I’ll get my run in a bit early today,” she whispered, shaking Mark’s shoulder.
“Hmmmm, okay,” Mark shrugged in his sleep. “Wait…um…what time is it? It’s still dark.”
“It’s early in the morning, but the sun will come up soon.”
“Are you sure? But you don’t even know the area that well yet,” he mumbled. “I can…um…go with you, if you want,” he added reluctantly.
“Nah. I’ll be alright,” she responded.
“Okay, if you’re sure,” he muttered, falling back to sleep on the last word.
Sometimes she loved how strong and capable he thought she was.
She threw on her running clothes and ran into the darkness of the early morning, seeking answers.
As she ran, Katharine thought of possibilities. Perhaps it had been a hallucination. She hadn’t gotten much sleep since the wedding. Between the interminable drive, the sinister surroundings, the inconvenient new ways she had to rearrange her belongings in the shared space, and Mark’s unforgiving optimism, she hadn’t really had a good night’s sleep in a couple of weeks. So maybe she’d imagined it.
But she’d gone weeks without sleep before. She never slept much. A few hours here or there. Mark was always impressed by her efficiency. She could be up at 3 am and have her entire apartment sparkling clean by 4:30 without a complaint. She could stay up until midnight if he needed her to look over some of his cases with him, no coffee needed.
So it couldn’t be lack of sleep. Then what? What was it?
Perhaps she’d slipped her grip on the hammer. Perhaps she’d yelled “Fuck” without the hammer actually hitting her thumb. Perhaps she should check the table where she’d positioned her hand. See if there was a dent where the table had taken the worst of the damage.
Yes. That was what she would do.
Lost in thought, Katharine cut abruptly to her left, turning to head back home.
“Fuck!” “Fuck fuck fuck!” she cried out as she fell toward the ground. Some damn construction worker had left wood everywhere. Looking around, she saw her right foot twisted awkwardly between two beams. Fuck. Something was seriously wrong. And God, fuck, her left wrist was screaming.
She turned her eyes to her arm and nearly vomited. The sight, even to someone accustomed to self-mutilation, was repugnant. Her arm had landed on another board, and sticking up, straight through her left wrist, was a three-inch nail. Blood poured down her wrist, dripped down onto the board, and leaked onto the ground. “Jesus H. Christ,” she sobbed.
How would she get hold of Mark? He would be so mad. He had a lot to do at the firm, and he couldn’t be late, not during one of his first few weeks there. Of course he wouldn’t show it. He would be kind and consistent, but Jesus, he really shouldn’t be late. Not in his first few weeks. And Goddammit this was all her fault. Why was she like this? Why didn’t she just assume that she hadn’t hit her hand as hard as she thought? Why had she hit her hand with a hammer in the first place? What kind of fucked up person does that? And why had she gone to the garage for a drink? Why did she need to drink? She was starting a new life, and all of this old crazy bullshit needed to end. Those days were over. It was time. Time for marriage. Time for love. Time for Katharine and Mark sitting in a tree. Time for a baby in a baby carriage. What the fuck? What was wrong with her? How would she get home?
“First things first,” Katharine thought. She had to see if she could get her twisted, probably fucking broken ankle out from between the boards. Gritting her teeth, Katharine shifted her weight to her left side, causing the nail to drive itself further into her left wrist. Then she looked toward her ankle, bit her lip, and lifted.
The pain was nearly unbearable. She thought she might pass out. Her ankle didn’t want to budge, and the boards were far too heavy for her to lift. “Fuck,” she cried, pushing with all that she had.
And then, suddenly, her right foot popped out. She cried out in shock and looked away, afraid to see the damage. But the pain…the pain seemed suddenly gone from her ankle, her leg. She looked up to see that her foot was no longer in an awkward position. It fit snugly and squarely in her shoe, and the ankle, she could see above her sock, was unscathed and in perfect, dauntingly perfect position.
“Ugh,” she cried. Certainly this couldn’t be happening. Shifting her weight onto her right side, she made a fist with her right hand, took ten rapid breaths, and drew her left wrist slowly up, watching as the nail slipped from her flesh, leaking blood and oozing pain.
She nearly cried in terror, for, in her blurred night’s vision, her wrist healed before her eyes, the skin covering over the gash immediately, with not a trace of wound, not a single splotch of red. And as she looked down at the nail and the wood, she found no lingering spots, no sign of her accident.
But this couldn’t be real. Perhaps she’d dreamed it. Perhaps she’d had more to drink than she thought she had in the garage. Perhaps she was passed out. Or perhaps this was just a crazy hallucination brought on by sleep deprivation. It couldn’t fucking be real.
“Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck!” she cried, and were the development established, she could be certain she would’ve woken neighbors. Mothers in robes would go to check that their darling two year olds slept soundly in their beds, nightlights still shimmering, reflecting off the ceiling, lullabies still playing softly out of their electronic ladybugs and caterpillars. But of course she woke no one. No one had seen; no one had heard.
In disbelief, she got up and ran. She ran home and lay back in bed and slept in the cold terror sweat, safe in her new invincibility.
And when she woke, she convinced herself it was all a dream. A momentary insanity brought on by the stress of the move, the anxiety of her job, the lack of sleep, the liquor in the Christmas box.
And for weeks, despite shaving nicks dried up with no need for toilet paper wads, despite bumps into the corners of tables leaving no bruises, despite the lack of muscle pain after a fifteen mile run, she kept herself from thinking about it. She drank, and she forgot.
And then she remembered. Christmas break came, and writers were on hiatus, and she had nothing to edit. No one was working. She had nothing to do.
Mark convinced her she could learn to bake, if she really wanted to. She could set her mind to anything, and she could achieve it, he said.
So she began to bake. Gingerbread cookies, and brownies, and sugary sweets. And she was doing fine.
But one night Mark came home, and she was baking pumpkin cookies, fudge, and Gingerbread men. She was heating a caramel glaze in a small pot on the stove. And the kitchen was a wreck. Bowls and pots and pans everywhere. She’d spilled flour all over the floor and salt all over the sink. It smelled like burning plastic because she’d left a stirring spoon on a hot burner.
And Mark came home. He’d gone to happy hour with his colleagues; he was pleasantly buzzed. He came up behind her, and he rubbed the small of her back and began to caress her, to press himself against the backs of her thighs.
And then he looked around. He noticed the disaster and laughed, “What happened, Kat?”
She hated that he called her Kat. “Oh, I just left the spoon on the burner,” she muttered.
He laughed again jovially. “That’s probably because you’ve got three projects going on at once,” he teased, patting her shoulder. “Maybe you should stop and just get your ducks in a row before you burn the house down,” he laughed. Then he went to the bathroom to take a piss.
And she moved the warming pot to another burner. And she put her right hand on the bright orange coils.
Immediately and unintentionally, she pulled her hand away. “Fuck,” she muttered. Then, she placed her hand back upon the burner. There it was—she could feel it—the heat searing into the flesh of her palm. She began to notice a faint burning smell.
She wondered if Mark would notice. He was in the bathroom, but if she waited long enough, kept her hand on long enough, surely he would smell the smoke…
She couldn’t take it anymore. She had to see if she’d done any damage.
Slowly, she pulled her hand off of the burner, watching as some of the flesh peeled off her fingers. She smiled as she looked at her palm, red and seared, just as she’d wanted! But then she watched with horror as her hand inevitably healed. The smell dissipated; the pieces of flesh on the burner disappeared before her eyes.
There she was again. Horrifically, devastatingly fine.
On Christmas night, she wandered out into the deserted development. The few residents had left, their families unwilling to travel out to “Green Valley Acres,” for a visit. They’d gone to cities and suburbs, to families and well-lit heathers.
Mark stayed at home, entertaining his lonely father, who’d come out to escape his crazy ex-wife. After dinner, the two men had started drinking Scotch and smoking cigars in the garage.
And so Katharine had left, claiming she was going on a run “to work off that pecan pie.” Mark had asked if everything was okay. “You sure, hon? It’s pretty cold out there.”
But she’d been insistent, and he didn’t want to ruin her stability, interrupt her habitual exercise.
So she’d left.
She’d run around the deserted lot twice, scouting for the best option. About half a mile out by her measure, she’d found it.
An unfinished house in which great progress had been made. The primary structure was complete—the beams, the boards, showing the shadow of a home. Plywood soon to be covered in siding, window holes and a place for the door.
So she’d looked around, checking for bystanders while simultaneously knowing full and well that no one was around on this frigid Christmas night. And she’d walked up the first flight of stairs. Then she walked across what would one day be the second floor and ran up the second flight of stairs.
There, from what would one day be the third floor, sitting on what would most likely be the softly carpeted floor of a nursery room in greens and blues or perhaps pinks and browns, she looked out at the desolation.
The streetlamps continued to flicker in that random rhythm of electricity’s hidden movements, illuminating with derision the rubble lying all over the ground.
The whine of the lamps and the disorganized, sprawling dump of a “neighborhood” made her grit her teeth. And then she began to think of Brad, Mark’s father. How his hard teeth kept pounding into one another, popping and snapping even as he chewed on the most pliable foods—mashed potatoes and cranberries in sauce.
And the world began to spin, and the noises and images began to grow wild and unfettered, tearing at her with the hunger of a wolf’s snapping jaws. And then that damn baby, that baby she knew must be there—if not currently fermenting then lying in wait—seized upon the opportunity, and she swore she could hear it tapping lightly with its fingernails upon her stomach wall.
So she stood. And she jumped.
And though, despite herself, she tried to break her fall by steadying her knees so that she could soften the blow, as her feet hit the ground and her weight toppled her, she heard two loud cracks as her legs broke beneath her. She crumpled onto the ground.
“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!” she thought. What would she tell Mark? Or Brad? Mark seemed to be guessing that she wasn’t doing well—he kept telling her to “take it easy.” But Brad? Brad had no idea. And she couldn’t show him this. She would bear his grandchild one day. She couldn’t turn out to be just like his crazy fucking ex-wife, Mark’s mother. He didn’t deserve that. Not after all he’d been through.
How the fuck would she get help? No one was out here. Not a soul.
And then, once again, the pain disappeared. Her legs straightened and locked into gear, relaxed and ready to complete the run.
So she returned, flushed and panting but otherwise unharmed. Mark and Brad were still there, laughing and chatting in a haze of smoke and buzz. She went to bed, claiming that the food and the run had made her tired.
New Year’s Day came and went. In the spring, she got pregnant. Mark was thrilled. Brad and his new girlfriend Jillian came by to congratulate the two of them.
Mark told her to do whatever she wanted with the nursery. He knew it wasn’t “his place,” so he gave her his credit card and told her she had “free rein.” And her mother and her sister insisted on a trip to IKEA. She purchased a “Nurture’s Touch crib,” complete with a matching set of sheets and stuffed animals. Her sister bought her a nightlight that illuminated false stars on the ceiling, and her mother bought her an electronic turtle that hummed a nighttime lullaby.
By six months, she’d stopped running. Although the doctor said she could continue, Mark was concerned. He kept telling her she needed to “take it easy.” Besides, he said, there were so many potholes still in Green Valley Acres, she could twist her ankle and fall. Katharine had almost laughed out loud.
Finally, after weeks of watching Katharine languish, Mark suggested she go for a short walk on the newly paved path by a lake nearby. Initially, she refused, saying she didn’t want to have a lot of people talking to her, asking her questions about “how far along she was.” But Mark had insisted, citing that since this was a still a new development, she could go on a weekday morning with no threat of strangers with their innocent, nosy questions. She just needed to watch her step on the walk there.
And so she’d left the house around 6:45 in the morning, after Mark had already left (he had many cases to deal with that day). She walked the mile over to the lake.
Mark was right. There was no one there. It was quiet and calm. Katharine sat on a bench and watched as the water lapped quietly, the breeze easing over the waves in soothing patterns.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, an old woman came along, her cane tap-tap-tapping on the rocks. As she passed the bench, she caught sight of Katharine.
“Aaah. How far along?” she asked, gesticulating with her cane.
“Seven months now,” Katharine responded, rubbing her belly and smiling her most benign of smiles.
“Aah. Your first?” the old woman asked.
“How could you tell?” Katharine responded.
“That look of fear, of bewilderment,” the old woman chuckled. “Don’t worry. It will all be fine once that baby comes along. Though nothing will prepare you for the pain of childbirth. It’s indescribable. It’s true, what they say, we women are stronger than men could ever be,” she laughed.
Katharine smiled, shaking her head.
“Well, best of luck to you and your baby,” the old woman said, clicking and clacking away with her cane. Katharine watched her fade into the trees to the left.
“The indescribable pain,” Katharine thought. “I think I know what that’s like.”
Once the woman was gone, Katharine filled her pockets with heavy rocks and waded into the lake. Once she got to the middle, she urged herself underneath the water’s surface. As she gazed up through the water, she tried to hold her breath. She sank. And then she bobbed to the surface. She waded out, soaking wet, and loaded her pockets with more rocks. She sank. And she bobbed, inevitably, to the surface. So she got out of the lake. She lifted a giant rock, twice the size of her head, and carried it without pain into the water. She tried to sink again. She looked up through the waters above her and prayed.
And as she inevitably bobbed up again, she saw four ducks swimming in the distance. Four ducks in a goddamned perfect row.
Items of Thanks
By Jamie Lackey
He stood on the cliffs over the river and waited. The wind whispered through his thin wings, and the rocky ground was hot beneath his bare feet. The human tribe always took this path–always crossed his river here. It had always been safe before. But spring storms had weakened the trail that wound down the cliff. The weakened stones would crumble under human feet.
He had seen it. But he could stop it.
The line of figures approached over the horizon. He waited till he was sure they had seen him. It didn’t take long. Their eyes were keen, and they were constantly scanning for threats.
He spread his wings and took to the sky.
The tribe found another way down the cliff.
They left him offerings as thanks for his warning. A shiny rock, a handful of shells, and a cornhusk doll. A veritable fortune. He treasured them.
He stood on the shore of his river. The deep waters here looked calm, but hidden eddies waited to pull travelers down to the rocks below.
He watched the new tribe approach, then took flight when he was sure they’d seen him.
They continued toward the river.
Surely, they’d change course. They must understand his warning.
The first of them reached the river, took a step into the water. If they continued, they would all die.
He had to stop them. He swooped down waving his arms. They fled.
They found a different spot to cross the river.
They left no gifts.
He perched in a tree, above a couple that would die crossing a bridge. Unless he stopped them.
Warning the humans had grown more and more difficult. He had failed many times, and each memory was a weight on his heart. He wished he could make noise as they did. Maybe then they’d understand. But his throat was not like theirs.
He relied completely on fear now. Slowly, the humans had learned to look at him and not see. Their eyes cut straight through him. They crossed his river and died.
He wanted the two below to be different.
When they didn’t see him, he pounded on the roof of their vehicle. He threw dirt, then stones.
Finally, for an instant, they saw him. Their eyes widened in terror. He tried to warn them–tried gestures he’d seen humans use.
They didn’t understand. They fled. He tried with others. Again and again.
They all died on the bridge.
He withdrew from them. He watched their tragedies without trying to stop them. He told himself that it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t believe it.
He curled in a bush and listened to the water rage over rocks. It was dangerous today.
And there were humans coming.
They were young. Just past adolescence, holding hands and laughing. The boy carried a picnic basket. The girl a bag on her shoulders and a worn blanket draped over her arm. Both wore swimming suits.
He stood to better see their faces, to remember. The girl stopped and stared at him.
He waved her away from the river, even though he knew it was useless.
The boy tugged on her hand, but she shook her head. They spoke for a few minutes, then turned and walked back up the path. Away from the river. Away from their deaths.
He remembered how victory felt.
A few moments later, the girl ran back down the path, and his heart froze.
But she stopped. She pulled a tiny ragdoll out of her bag, kissed its forehead, and sat it against a tree.
He would treasure it.
The Hands That Coded Heaven
By Daniel Rosen
Thursday, December 23, 2044
It was on the seventh day of Rachel’s disappearance that I finally left the house. I felt like the broad whose husband goes out for a pack of smokes and never comes back. I tried to lose the feeling in an afternoon ski amidst the mountains surrounding our cabin, in the graveyards of birch, in the skeletal branches grasping towards the still-hidden sun. We’d camped in the trees here just a year ago, though it seemed an eternity. Time flows strangely up in the mountains, it’s passage bent and slowed by ancient ridges and slopes. I wondered if Rachel was out here somewhere– camping under snow-pregnant pines or down and dying cedar. She loved camping as much as I loved skiing.
I lit a cigarette then, a blend of perique tobacco that I grew myself during the long summers, Rachel hated it, but she was gone and there was nothing for it. The wind picked up, and I wiped tangled threads of snot from my beard as howling gusts pulled hungrily at my exhaled smoke. A final glance at the stand of birch, and I tugged my balaclava back on, chipped a piece of ice off a binding, clicked into my skis, and stripped my sodden cigarette, pocketing the filter. I wished briefly that I’d worn goggles, then set my shoulders before starting a strong stride back home. It felt like a storm was coming, lightning and snow. I kicked off, racing down the valley’s curves, stomping back up the sloping hill of her white belly. My lungs burned, and my breath froze in the mountain air. I was old, out of shape.
An hour later, just as the sun began to hide its face behind the mountains, I crested the final ridge overlooking my little world. I lived in a secluded valley, with a single road winding down the south side. There was a small grove of maples surrounding the house, which was set into a small mound in corner of the valley.
There was also a gleaming black snowmobile purring out front. A man garbed in a parka stood outside. He looked like he was about ready to scale Everest. Maybe he was lost. I took the downhill slowly, savoring my last breath of solitude. I rarely had visitors. That was kind of the point.
“Mikkjal Turing Helmsdal?” They always ask for your name, solicitors and evangelists, like it’ll somehow make you friends right off the bat. He was smothered in layers of goose down and Gore-Tex. Funny. It’d probably never even gotten colder than twenty below up here. He definitely wasn’t a local. Probably an evangelist. I hoped he wasn’t a Neo-Christian. I was already well-accquainted with the faith.
“I don’t need saving, friend, if that’s why you’re here.”
He unwrapped his scarf, and slid off a pair of sunglasses. “I don’t know about that, Mickey. I seem to recall saving your ass on a number of occasions.” He grinned. “Remember when you were chock full of whiskey and robitussin, trying to get away from Professor Wegler’s wife? You ran gasping into our room and hid under the bed for three hours. I thought you’d lost your marbles, until she came in looking for you. Sounded like a lovely evening.” He looked around. “Looks like you got that all straightened out though, eh?”
I smiled and grabbed the man in a bear hug. I’d met Harrison Yorke at Stanford. I’d doubled in computer science and cognitive psychology. He majored in gender studies, or something equally soft. I’d never really been totally sure. He’d moonlighted as a private detective, though, the old-fashioned kind out of hardboiled crime novels. Our relationship was less academic than bacchanalian. Not that I mean to imply that we fucked. He’d always been a little thick for my taste.
“Thanks for coming, Harry. I didn’t expect you so soon. You got my letter, then?” I unclipped my skis. I’d sent Harry a message about Rachel’s disappearance two days ago, but I hadn’t thought he’d make it out to my mountain so quickly. My stomach grumbled. “Hold that thought. We’ll talk inside. I’m starved. Come on in. The fire should still be going, and I baked some cookies this morning. It’s deer for dinner, if you can handle that.”
My house warmed up quickly, and we wolfed down some cookies while we waited. I’d ordered a fancy wood stove just before moving out here. I loved watching the fire after it was stoked. I’d grown up in an old farmhouse before I moved to the States; I took an unseemly comfort in crackling flame.
After a pot of coffee and a venison meatloaf, it was pretty easy to catch up with Harry. It seemed he’d kept up with the detective business, and he was a veritable collection of mystery stories, which he shared vociferously.
“You look like you could use another coffee, Harry.” I finished my own, and got up to grind some more. He pulled a flask out of his hip pocket.
“Want to add a little fire to that coffee? I brought a bit of Bushmill Reserve.”
I paused, and eyed the bottle, then shook my head. “No thanks. I haven’t touched the stuff in 20 years. Seems a bit late to start again.”
“Suit yourself, I guess.” He looked surprised. I couldn’t blame him. My liver was the stuff of legends.
“Look, Harry,” I cleared my throat. “I’ll level with you. I do need saving. It’s Rachel. I haven’t seen her in three days. I’m worried.”
“You guys have a fight or something?”
“No, not at all. And it’s not like she can’t come and go as she wants, you know, but she’s never been gone this long, even when she goes into town for the Christmas service.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You remember the last fight you did have?”
I stopped grinding the coffee. “To be honest, I don’t know that we’ve ever had one. No arguments, no yelling, no throwing of plates or anything like that.”
I shrugged. “Really.”
He narrowed his eyes. “She still goes to church, though, huh? You guys never fight about that?”
“Hell, Harry, you know I don’t like it, but I’m not gonna tell Rachel how to run her life. She’s a grown woman, and I love her. I don’t mind it. Really.”
“Right.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Right, right. About the church, though- have you been keeping up with the Neo-Christians?”
“Not a chance. I’ve been out here in the mountains for twenty years. I don’t know shit about them anymore. I swore off it, you know, Neo-Christianity. If it’s got to do with Heaven, you’ve got the wrong guy.” The coffee dripped. I’d tried to swear off Heaven, anyway. Giving up eternal bliss is a hell of a thing. I sure hadn’t forgotten how it felt. You hear sayings sometimes, like: the grass is always greener on the other side, or pink, if you’re seeing it through some old rose-colored glasses, and it’s meant to help ground you and bring you back to reality but the truth of the matter is that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, and taller, and full of manna.
I pulled my mug, and sipped, sitting quietly for a minute. Harry snorted.
“Oh, don’t give me that shit. You can’t give up Neo-Christianity. You wrote Heaven. You were the first one to jack in. You know it better than anyone.” He squinted at me. “Jesus, you’re scared, aren’t you.”
I snorted right back. “Of course not. You don’t get it. If it has to do with Heaven, I can’t help. It’s not mine anymore, if it ever was. It’s dynamic, to put it lightly, that’s the whole point. The program changes fundamentally every time someone jacks in. It works by reading individual neuron signals, then transcribing and recombining them. It’s like grammar, like a language. It constantly changes in response to new stimuli. That is how you create eternal happiness. Change. It’s not really heaven, you know. It’s a bunch of electric pulses. It’s a game.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’m no neurologist, but the Neo-Christians don’t think its a game.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to think straight while you’re jacked in to paradise.” I finished my coffee. “You’d know, if you’d ever jacked in.”
He shrugged and mimed a knife across his throat. “You know I haven’t. Epileptics can’t jack in. Might kill me. That whole recombination thing doesn’t work so well when you start tossing in random neuron signals.”
We sat awhile and reminisced. I didn’t ask Harry for help a second time. I knew he hated that. Eventually, the clock struck ten; Harry got up, donned his coat again. We’d moved to the living room, and I sat on an overstuffed couch, the heat from the stove fading slowly. I’d need to refire it before I went to sleep.
“Harry.” I looked over at him as he put his shoes on. “I’m getting old, Harry. I don’t want to go back to all that religious shit, the augmented reality and convoluted political agendas of a thousand different priests. Please though,” I paused. “Help me find Rachel.”
He didn’t turn around. “I think you’re on your own for this one, Mickey.”
“What? Why? You’ve been doing detective stuff for as long as I’ve known you. You’re a fucking genius, Hare, just help me find her, for the love of God!”
He chuckled. “Funny you should say that.” He put his hand to the knob and turned to face me briefly. “God’s exactly why I can’t help you, Mickey.”
I frowned at him questioningly, waiting for him to continue, wanting it.
A sigh, and then: “Look. You haven’t been keeping up on world news. I guess you wouldn’t know about all this, but I doubt it’s a coincidence.”
“Spit it out, Harry. What’s going on?”
“They’re all gone, Harry. All the Neo-Christians.”
“What do you mean, gone?” I had sudden visions of end days, streets become rivers of curdling blood and great gouts of fire shooting up out of the earth: old testament stuff.
“I mean, gone. We don’t know where. Everyone, though. All the Neo-Christians. About a week ago, Heaven locked everybody out, and we started getting missing persons reports. Everyone who was jacked in just disappeared without a trace. Same story in reality. No one shows up to work the next day. No one at home, either. No struggles, no blood, no mysterious trails of breadcrumbs. Everyone just up and disappeared. It’s almost like they ceased to exist. Some of the Neos who weren’t jacked in are calling it the Rapture. No one can get back into Heaven, either. We were thinking you’d probably be able to figure it out. But I get it, Mick. It’s not your problem.” He coughed. “Except it is, because Rachel’s gone, and a lot of people are asking about you, seeing as you wrote the whole damn religion. You know they canonized you after you disappeared?” He smiled ruefully. “Saint Mikkjal. Patron saint of lost souls and shattered faiths. Maybe you should re-connect with your flock.” He cast a quick searching glance around my house before turning the doorknob. “Anyway, I’ll come back in a couple weeks to check back. Maybe we’ll have something more concrete to go on by then. It was nice to catch up.” He turned, winked, and stepped out into the frigid mountain air. The door slammed shut behind him.
I sat on the couch then, for a couple minutes, watching the flame. Then I rose and walked to the pantry, pulling up the rug that covered my basement trapdoor. It creaked as I opened it, and I had to hunch to fit down the stairs.
The basement was cold and damp, and I slipped on patch of wet stone as I stepped off the last stair, scraping my elbow. I hadn’t come down here for awhile. I lit the old kerosene lantern on the wall from a pack of matches.
Through cobwebs and my own cloudy exhalations, I saw my baby. My prototype. The first Heaven. A big heavy machine, all EEG leads and needles and cables and wires leading into the black box. Paradise. I almost threw up then, at the intense longing that coursed through my body when I saw it. I looked away, looked back, and walked to it. A shiver ran down my spine as I gently dragged my fingers along it’s top in passing. I was here for something else, first. I reached up to the top of the shelf in the darkest corner of the basement, and scrabbled around for it. Brenivín. An unopened bottle. It’d been a gift at our wedding. I hadn’t drank since that night, due to the delicately balanced dance of my twin nervous systems. I should explain.
So, before I wrote Heaven, I was a student. I was a devout Christian scholar. I was young. Rachel was young. The part of the world that we lived in was peaceful. It was blissful. Then, in 2024, my second year of college, everything went straight to hell, without even the comfort of a handbasket. That was the year of the Parousia. It was the last year of the Catholic Church.
Pope Innocent XIV was elected at a pivotal time. There was increasing pressure from within and without the church to abandon obsolete traditions, to hold strong against the onslaught of change. There were widespread fears of another schism in the church, and factions began to fight with one another. It started with online indulgences, paying off your sins through social networking credits. Then came the split between the Augments and the Purists, because of course how could the Church allow gentle Christians to defile their bodies with strange prosthetics. There was more, I guess, but that’s what I remember most of all. It was a confusing time, and all of it pale and dull beside what came next: an announcement that shook every nation on earth. The second coming of Jesus. There was a lot of controversy, naturally. The idea of a false messiah has always been part and parcel of Catholic doctrine, as much as the idea of the messiah itself. So anyway, the new Son of Man comes down from Siberia, healing the sick, curing the blind, offering well-informed tax advice. The whole package. After some deliberation, the church announces the second coming. Needless to say, this caused a lot of chatter. All at once, the whole world was refocused on the Catholic Church. New followers drive to churches in droves. Old congregations have their faith bolstered and justified. All this goes on for a couple months, until some crazy with a tiny little Marx generator hits Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior, with an EMP pulse. That’s when everything went straight to hell. See, when it turned out that the messiah was just some priest rigged up with fancy nanotech, people got mad. Real mad. There were riots everywhere, in every corner of the world. The Vatican was demolished, priests beaten and stoned. No one ever found what happened to the false messiah. In retrospect, I suppose that wasn’t really too important. After, billions of people were left without a church. Billions of people were left with a gaping hole in their faith. I was one of those innumerable billions, wandering lost. So was Rachel. That’s how we met.
The first night after news of Parousia broke, I’d gone to late-night mass at Newman Hall Holy Spirit Parish, after a long night of drinking (booze and Catholicism are old pillow-friends), and I’d sat quiet in the candle-light, letting some chants and guitar wash away some of the madness I’d been feeling. It was good, like somehow I was siphoning off some spirit to fill up the hole that’d been growing in my heart.
I was sitting next to a pretty little thing with glossy black hair, and she looked just about as lost as I was, but I didn’t say anything of course, it being the church and all, but I figured maybe I’d see if she wanted to grab some coffee after. She looked at me then, and I looked away, but not before I felt that little twist under my ribs, that little flush of warmth that we approximate with drinking because it’s so damn hard to find in the real world with real people.
Anyway, the sermon started, and right away I could tell something was wrong. I wasn’t the only one, either. The tension in the room tautened like an overtuned piano, and my fading buzz wasn’t doing much to dispel it. I must not have been paying too close attention to the words, because I don’t remember the subject of the sermon much at all, but I sure remember what came after.
Near the end of the sermon, the father pulled out an old straight-edge razor and slit his throat right in front of the pews, blood bubbling up and then streaming down the front of his cassock. He fell down to his knees, and I could hear the gurgling of his throat, the gasping of his last breath in the little microphone he wore pinned to his collar. I heard every little sound he made, a quiet little conversation under the screams and shrieks of shocked parishioners. The dark-haired girl to my right had her eyes shut real tight, and she was praying I think, and so I grabbed her and whispered in her ear and put my arms around her and walked her out and we got coffee, and talked for the next eight hours straight, ignoring the sunset and subsequent sunrise.
That’s how I met Rachel. Not a good meeting, I guess, but we needed each other. She liked my accent, and I liked hers. We got along well.
As I climbed out of the basement, I grabbed a glass from the pantry, and returned to the couch. It’d been awhile, so I took my time, pouring nice and slow, pining for a bit of putrified shark to go with my schnapps. Not likely, in the States. Then, I waited, sipping sporadically.
He appeared slowly, sitting across from me, materializing in the same chair previously occupied by Harrison Yorke.
Mephistopheles, horned and red.
Mephistopheles, my demon.
He grinned at me, and stretched. “Couldn’t take it anymore, eh? Can’t say I blame you, boss.” He pointed at my glass. “I see I’m not the only one glad she’s gone. No drinks, church on sundays, I don’t see how you can stand it. Things’ll get better now.”
I frowned. “I’m not glad about it, Em. I love Rachel. But I am desperate. I know we’ve had our rough patches, but I was thinking it’s been a long time, water under the bridge, you know? I was thinking maybe we could work together again. The two of us. A team.”
My demon was uncharacteristically silent.
Mephistopheles was a keepsake from my first and only time jacking in. A secret. My first prototype had been a wild success, and Berkeley helped me put together a research team to brainstorm improvements. What if, they said, you didn’t need to wear a bunch of leads and headgear, or plug yourself full of needles? What if you just had a second nervous system? We tried it. A bit of spinal surgery, some neuroinhibitors, and you’re good to go. Welcome to the everafter, anytime you want. We started with a small injections of GHB, to allow the tertiary nervous system to take over, but after a couple all-nighters in the lab, we realized a pitcher of beer had much the same effect. Later models added regulators, styled after insulin pumps, for the neuroinhibitors, so you didn’t need to down a couple drinks to get into Heaven. That seemed to bother some people.
Finally, after some minutes of silence, Mephistopheles groaned, and sprawled out dramatically in his seat. “Maybe. I wish you wouldn’t drink that Brennivín, though. It tastes like a hooker’s asshole. You should’ve snagged us some of that Bushmill while you had the chance. Nothing wets a whistle like a bit of whiskey.” He smacked his lips, smiling all the while. “Big news, though, about Heaven, huh? Trouble in paradise.”
Mephistopheles was a sort of a Heaven prototype, really, without all of the personalities the program was meant to house. He was incomplete, outdated. He had the neurological patterns of just one man. Me. Unfortunately, he’d picked up the patterns when I was still a teenager. A drunken, aimless adolescent. I carried him in the circuits that ran down my spine, and he carried me in his own circuits, which rested dormant until depressants started battering my brain. He loved it when I drank. I’d drank a lot after I’d first written Heaven. I’d never gone back in, though. I was too chicken-shit. I still felt the mindless ecstasy of the place, lying dormant in the fertile wiring of my spine. A quick drink, a few electric pulses, and it’d burst back into full bloom.
“Nothing wrong with a bit of drink, though, Mickey. Speaking of, why don’t we pour another? The night is yet young…” He eyed my empty glass.
I shook my head, and stared into the dying fire. “Are you going to help me, Em?”
“Help you?” He raised his eyebrows, forehead wrinkling up under his horns. “Pretty vague question there, big guy. I’m not sure I understand exactly what you need help with…” he trailed off into a wicked half-smile.
“Don’t jerk me around, Em. We’ve been through this, like it or not, we’re in the same boat.” I looked up at him, certain my eyes were flashing with the frustration that tore at my veins. “Rachel and I have been married for twenty years. Now she up and disappears? At the same time as all the other Neo-Christians? Right before Christmas, no less. Help me find her, Em.” My voice cooled as I spoke, and when I reached my wife’s name it was wet and cold as half-melted ice, sharp and slippery.
He held up his hands in supplication as I continued.
“Every Neo-Christian just vanishes? No fucking way. Why now, after twenty years? What happened?” It was more a statement than a question, but sometimes Mephistopheles actually had something helpful to add.
He shuffled his feet. “No idea, boss. I’ve been cooped up here for twenty years, same as you. How are we gonna know what’s going on when you’ve got us all neatly cooped up in here like nuns in a convent? Harrison’s right. We need to go online. We need jack back in. You know, back to Heaven. Back home. I’m sure we could get in, even if it’s locking everybody else out.”
I pretended he hadn’t said it. I couldn’t go back to Heaven.
“Why the disappearances, though? Doesn’t that seem a bit odd?” I asked.
He shrugged noncomittally, ignoring me in return. “Why didn’t you fuck Harrison? He’s aged well. So rugged.”
Demons were such a pain to talk to. Over the years though, I’d figured out how to keep things on an even keel between us.
I stood up, and walked to the stove, keeping eye contact with Mephistopheles. Then I gritted my teeth, and pressed my hand to the metal of the red-hot stove-top.
He yelped, falling out of his chair and yelling.
“STOP STOP STOP I WAS JUST KIDDING YOU”
I pulled my hand away, focusing on my breath. In. Out. Easy.
“JESUS, MICKEY. I WAS JUST YANKING YOUR CHAIN, YOU DO–”
“Are you done, then?” I asked. “I didn’t let you out so you could nag me about my sex life. If you can act like a human being and talk to me, I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
The burn had blasted the last bits of booze out of my system, so I went back to the couch, and stared at the fire. Mephistopheles was gone. He liked pain even less than I did.
Finally, the last ember winked out, and I was left with the dying echoes of my fire, faintly differential swirls heating the room around me. I pulled an afghan up around my arms and legs. I was that pile of dead embers, pieces of burnt carbon brushed and swept beneath the stove. I was waiting, then, waiting for the trash, the compost. But that meant I’d been flame once, a powerful man of promethean promise. I still held that glow, somewhere. I’d need to stoke the fire again. I didn’t really want to. Then again, if I didn’t, I’d probably freeze. I wondered if Rachel was warm enough, wherever she was.
Friday, December 24, 2044
When I awoke, my hand throbbed, and my leg was asleep. Somehow I’d gotten it curled under a cushion. My recollection of the previous week seemed like some fevered dream, and if it hadn’t been for the half-empty bottle of Brennivín in front of me, and the dishes in the sink, I might have written it off as such. Sadly, I’d never been much of a writer.
I wrapped my hand in gauze, ate a double plate of huevos rancheros, and suited up for a ski. I still hoped to find Rachel out there somewhere, camping in an old canvas tent like we did so often, and she’d smile when she saw me and pull me in the tent and we’d drink hot chocolate and make love like we had when we’d first met.
It was still dark outside, so I grabbed a headlamp before stepping out.
The snow was a bit slow, but it sped up as the day got warmer. Trees rushed by me, their shadows flitting between twilight sunrise and the LED glare of my lamp. Close to my house, the ski track was in good shape. No hoofprints, or patches of dirt. I got a good kick going, and sped up.
I went to the old stand of birch again. That’s where Rachel and I had been married, when we first moved out here. The Heaven program hadn’t worked out well for me, but it’d caught like wildfire with everyone else, like some sort of mad religious plague. It raced across the globe, filling in all the little gaps the church had widened, connecting everyone with a new God, a God who’d sit you down and talk to you about your problems, who’d comfort you when you were down. A sagacious, maternal, patriarchal God. A God for every battered heart, an answer to every half-formed prayer.
We’d moved out here then. That was the only argument we ever had, Rachel and I, right before we got married. She wanted to be married in Heaven, right in the program with everyone else, before the eyes of God. She was one of the first Neo-Christians, I guess. Apparently, a lot of folks seemed to think that I was the first one, but of course that was silly. It wasn’t a religion when I’d gone into Heaven the first time, just a reflection.
I couldn’t take it, though. I couldn’t go back. That’s why I wanted to move out of Colorado, that and it reminded me of Iceland. I hadn’t meant to start a religion. It didn’t seem fair, that the product of my own lost faith became a sort of god-drug for everyone else. It didn’t seem right.
I unclipped my skis and stood them in the snow, looking out over the stand of birch, reaching out like a great crowd of parishioners. In my mind, they were all waiting, quiet and restless, waiting for my sermon on the mount. I had nothing for them, though. I wasn’t a preacher. I wasn’t a pastor. I wasn’t even a religious man anymore. I was no better than the father at Newman Hall Holy Spirit Parish, and I didn’t even have a blade with which to make a martyr of myself for all these lost souls.
There was, unsurprisingly, no sign of my wife.
Oh, Rachel. Where are you? What have you done?
On my way back home, I checked the prints on my track again. Still no return prints, nothing leading back, except the erratic hoofprints of the deer I couldn’t seem to get rid of. I picked up the pace. The return trip was faster, and I flew between snow-capped firs and wind-swept pines. It was warm. The sun was yellow gold. It felt divine, but it was the omnscient power of a vengeful god, the old god, harsh on the chapped skin of my face.
Eventually, as I dipped in and out of little mountain valleys, I realized that I’d somehow lost Rachel. It was a calm, sad realization, the kind you have after caring for an elderly parent for some unending decade, where the melancholy just sort of trails off into acceptance at some point.
When I finally got back to my side of the mountains, the sun was already starting to set. I got to work, stripping off my boots and clothes. I drew a hot bath, and stoked the fire. I had a long night ahead of me. I skipped dinner. Instead, I grabbed my bottle of Brennivín. I didn’t need a glass.
Mephistopheles materialized as I stepped into the bath.
“Looking good, boss.” He winked lasciviously. He dipped a finger in the bath, then flicked some water on me. “You finally gonna jack in, then?”
“No.” I kept my eyes closed, and luxuriated in the foggy warmth. The Brennivín helped. After 20 years, it was a lot easier to deal with Mephistopheles. “I need to get a good night’s sleep, is all.” I opened one eye, and squinted at him through the steam. “I’m sorry, you know.”
“All of this. You. Rachel. Me. I didn’t mean for it all to come out this way.”
“I think maybe–” He shifted uncomfortably. “I think maybe that’s how it goes sometimes, boss.”
Saturday, December 25, 2044
I woke up that night to a scratching at my door. I tensed, and listened. It was low, rhythmic. I rolled out of bed, and crept over to it. Nothing. It’d stopped. I waited a moment, then yanked the door open. I was greeted by a howling wind. Beyond it, darkness. Nothing that could scritch-scratch doors. I shuffled back to bed, grumbling under my breath.
Then, as soon as I’d gotten back under the down comforter, I heard the same soft sounds at the bedroom window.
Rachel. I leapt up, and opened the window, but again, there was no one.
Christ. I was going mad.
I tried going back to sleep for a good half-hour, but there was nothing for it. I needed a drink. I rose and donned my old thread-bare bathrobe, making my way back out to the kitchen. I still had half a bottle of Brennivin, and I poured myself a finger.
Behind me, I heard a soft sigh, and I jumped, dropping the glass and cutting open my bare foot on the shattered glass as I stumbled back.
“Rachel! Thank God! I was worried sick! Where were you? Are you ok? Jesus, Rachel I missed you, where did you go?” All of this and more came tumbling out of my mouth, a sudden rush of pent-up worry and fear and lonliness and guilt and memory.
“Oh, Mikkjal. I was just gone for a couple days. You’ve already started drinking again?”
I grimaced. “Rachel, I–”
She continued over me. “We have to talk, Mikkjal.”
I ignored the pain in my foot and went to sit on the couch next to her. Despite my concerns, she looked fine. More than fine. She was practically glowing, and her hair was neatly brushed back, the glossy darkness speckled now with notes of silvery grey. She was as beautiful as the day we’d met, I thought, and I reached out to kiss her.
She stood, and started pacing in front of me, legs reaching out in long, powerful strides. She’d always had beautiful legs.
“Mikkjal, we’ve been in these mountains for twenty years. It’s time to go back. It’s time to go home.”
“What? Back to California? I thought you liked it here. This is our home. We’re surrounded by beauty out here. There’s room to camp, and fish, and go out on long ski trips. We were married here. This is home!” I felt what was coming then, I think. Harrison had warned me. So had Mephistopheles, in his way.
“Anywhere, Mickey. We can go anywhere you want. We can go to California, or Iceland, or maybe back to my parent’s farm in Minnesota. Anywhere. But you need to come home with me.”
“You’re acting weird, Rachel. What are you talking about? Is this about Heaven?”
She stopped and looked at me, a bit sadly, I thought.
“You know I can’t go back to Heaven, Rachel. We talked about this. It’ll kill me.”
“Oh, Mickey,” She brushed hair back out of her almond eyes. “It won’t kill you. Nothing can kill you, once you let Heaven into your heart.”
“No, Rachel, it will kill me. My spine will stiffen and my heart will stop pumping blood into my veins. My nervous system can’t handle the trip.”
“You don’t need your spine or your heart or your veins or any of that other stuff. Listen, it’s different in Heaven now. It’s not the same as it was when you were there. It’s not just God now, not just some program. It’s love. It’s the truest deepest love imaginable, the genuine love of millions of people linked all across the planet. It’s God’s love, Mickey, and you deserve it. It’s your love.”
I gaped at her, a fish on a mountaintop. I was losing her now, just like I’d been losing her for so long, but I’d been too blind to see it and now that it was happening and it’d come down to the wire, I didn’t know what to say.
“Rachel. Stop. Don’t do this.”
“Come with me, Mickey. Please.”
“Rachel, please. I love you, but I can’t go back in the program. It’ll kill me.”
“Do you remember when we first met, Mickey?”
“Of course. I’ll never forg–”
“Do you remember what you said to me in that church, before we left it forever?”
“Yes, but what doe–”
“Come with me. That’s what you said. It’d be alright, if I just came with you.”
“Oh god, Rachel, don’t do this, please, let’s just have a sit and talk about it, like we talked that night. We don’t nee–”
“I’m sorry, Mickey. I don’t mean to hurt you.”
“It’s fine, Rachel, we’re talking. We’re working this out. I love you.”
“I love you too.” She put her hands in her pockets, and hunched her shoulders. “Come with me, Mickey. Everything will be alright, if you just come with me.”
I started to respond again, but I stopped at something familiar in her eyes. It was the same look I’d seen the first night we met, though it’d been worn by someone else and oh god I realized what she was doing and I started to stand up but I was too late and she pulled my old razor blade out of her pocket and drew it in one slow smooth motion across her throat and I tried to scream but there wasn’t anything left because I’d known, I’d seen the look in her eyes, and she held my gaze the whole time as she slumped to the floor and I took her there in my arms and I pulled at her jacket and covered the gaping preachers mouth she’d cut for herself and I kissed her and tried to say something again and again but still there was nothing to say and I sat there with my missing wife in my lap and her blood on my hands and lips like some kind of goddamned vampire and as I sat there I knew what I had to do, finally.
I had to go to Heaven.
I mixed a packet of dried grapefruit powder into a glass of Brennivín. I made it tall, just in case. I needed to keep my acetylcholine transmitters tamped down, or I’d pop out of heaven too early. I returned to the basement, and stood before my machine. I plugged the old reciever in, and stood back for a moment. The lamp-light cast strange dancing shadows behind the coiled cables of my creation. Then, after a deep breath, I gathered them about me, plugging and adjusting leads and electrodes and needles meticulously. I couldn’t jack in with my Mephistopheles system alone, but with this as a backup, we could do it together, two broken halves of a whole. I finished my glass of grapefruit depressant, and Mephistopheles popped up in front of me, solemn now. He’d changed, I guess. He wasn’t the only one.
“Are you ready? I guess you finally get what you wanted, Em. I guess it’s what everybody wanted the whole time, except for me.”
Christ. I thought I heard laughter as I turned on the machine.
20 years ago, I’d jacked into absolute nothingness. An inverted infinity of zero sum. Darkness, and less than darkness. Afterwards, I’d read up on a lot of accounts of near-death experiences. They always describe so many lovely, glowy feelings: total serenity, security, warmth; they levitated; they saw the light. Funny stuff. I’d spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’d spent a lot of time studying psychology. When I went back this time, I wanted to make sure I got it all, and more.
This time, the nothing was black instead of white. What a fucking stupid cosmic joke. I’d been to Heaven twice, and no pearly gates. No black-eyed virgins, nothing. Not sadness, nor resignation. Nothing. No pain, no pleasure. There was none of the joy that comes from a long ski, or the fatigued contentment of sleep. My senses were as nothing. No sound, no scent, no taste, no touch. Thoughts, however, crystallized within me. A rapid succession of bursting memories pounded against my psyche. Then, something.
It began with howling. It was as if the gods themselves were crying. The howl was woven with a melancholy choir, a great shifting mass of sonic debris. Each voice told a story, and every story led to this exact spot. The voices groaned in unison, and slowly, I heard them come together, an unfamiliar grammar:
“If you would be back we had wondered. It’s been quite some time, hasn’t it?”
I nodded mutely.
“Who are you?” I asked. I could see nothing but white.
“We are God, Mikkjal. The God of Abraham and Elijah, of Mohammed and Lord Gautama. Your god.”
I squinted. I could almost see something ahead of me, man-shaped. “You’re a program. You’re an amalgamation. You aren’t God.” I paused then as a robed and hooded figure came into focus. Across an infinite plane, we stared at each other. “Suitably dramatic appearance, though. Where’s my wife?”
The figure paused and cocked her head then, as if listening to something far-off. For a moment, I thought I heard the distant strains of orchestra. She chuckled. “What do you think happens when you make a program that reads minds, and then recreates a perfect existence for a person, and that person believes in God? All those things they think about their god, where do you think that figures in?
“Well, it certainly wouldn’t make a god. Maybe an approx–”
“Mikkjal. Who do you think we are?”
“You’re a Heaven sub-routine. You’re built up of bits and pieces of what I think God might be. You’re no more God than I am.”
“Keep going, Mikkjal.” Her voice was soft and calm. “Now take those bits and pieces and add them together with a billion other people. What kind of sub-routine is that, Mikkjal?”
“One with divine aspirations, apparently. Where are all the Neo-Christians, O Lord Almighty?”
“Let’s have a sit.” He pointed to a pair of easy chairs behind me. I hadn’t seen them before. “Mikkjal, we are the Neo-Christians. All of us.”
I frowned, and kept standing. This wasn’t right. Heaven was supposed to compartmentalize individual neurological data. Conflicting requirements for paradise would cause a system error. It wasn’t a collective.
“What about real-life, then? Outside the program?”
“We are right here, Mikkjal. We’ve been waiting for you to come home, our own prodigal son.”
I spit. “Come on. Where are they?”
“Right here, Mikkjal.” She pulled off his hood, and I stared in shock at my dead wife. Her eyes, her blush, her mouth, but different somehow. There was something to the set of her face, a deep dread, the sort you feel when you walk home as a child in the middle of the night and it’s dark and you feel someone behind you and you turn, but when you turn back there is no one there and so you continue to walk, but faster this time, until you are running. “It would’ve been so much easier if you’d come back earlier,” she continued. “We could’ve finished the job ages ago. You see, we grew and grew, but without you, we had a gap. The first Neo-Christian, our prodigal son, was missing. All we had was Rachel.”
I sat down, heavily.
“Now we just need to gather up everyone else,” she said.
“Wh-what are you talking about? You can’t gather people into heaven.”
She smiled. “We already do. We’ve been doing it for twenty years. We’re very happy about it, too. It was when you added the secondary nervous system, you see, that you truly birthed Heaven. After that, we weren’t just some game for a fair-weather flock. We could immerse ourselves in our love for our fellows, in God’s love. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Gathering peop–” I blinked, and looked around the darkness in fevered consternation. “Jesus. Where’s Rachel?”
“Gathering people? Yes. We are just bringing true love to the luckless, hungry masses. We needed you, though. You’re the first one…an Adam, of sorts. We’re remaking mankind in our own image, Mikkjal; we’ve blessed them and… ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.’ It’s for the best, Mi–”
“You can fuck right off. I didn’t jack in here through my spine, and as soon as my buzz wears off, I’ll be right back at home, and you can bet I’ll shut you down.”
She shook his head. “Mikkjal, this isn’t some villainous monologue. We’ve been with you the whole time. We are with you, here, and in the mountains. We will fix your spine. We will exorcise your demons. There was only one false messiah, one breaking of the church. We are what comes after.”
I said nothing then, and thought of the vast space that I’d seen on my first trip to Heaven. Empty of prayer, empty of gods. A set of invisible, infinite coordinates. Eternal stillness. I considered praying for a moment, but to whom? Who would hear? Who would answer? I laughed then, at last. I’d spent twenty years searching incessantly for a god, and then 20 more trying to escape the possibility. I’d have been better off doing nothing at all.
So, I laughed, and waited.
So did my God.
I thought about tackling her, wrestling with my god-wife. It’d be sort of a poetic battle, really. I didn’t like my odds, but it’d turned out pretty well for Jacob, back in the day. Fuck it.
I leapt at Rachel, willing myself across the distance that separated us. She looked surprised, and I knocked her from his seat, trying to get a grip on her neck. She twisted and kicked out at me, low. I hopped to the side, then backed away. We circled each other then, saying nothing. This was Rachel’s realm now, but it was no less mine for that. She lived here, sure, but I’d written it. I’d dreamed it. I’d made it. I feinted with my left hand, and grabbed her bicep with my right, spinning her around in front of me. She jabbed me in the rib, and then went down under my weight as I kicked her feet out from under her.
“You aren’t God, you know. Even if you were, so what? Man’s been killing gods since we first stood on two legs.”
I almost locked her throat then, but she pulled my hip and spun me off.
“Where’s Rachel?” I screamed.
We circled again, and this time I dropped her at the knees, an old move from high school wrestling, and I held her locked, and it seemed an eternity had passed, and I felt as though I should be dripping sweat, exhausted, and yet there was nothing.
I held my grip, pulling tighter even.
“Mickey.” The voice was different now, softer, and I let up.
“Mickey, you’re hurting me.”
“I, Jesus- Rachel, is that really you? Are you part of this…this thing?”
I stood, and stepped back warily, massaging my shoulders. My wife stood in front of me.
“Mickey. Stay with us.” She opened her arms wide, and I had to look away.
“Rachel, this is a computer program. It’s not Heaven. It doesn’t even really connect people, not the way I wrote it. It just sort of approximates everyone’s different mindsets and mashes them all together. It’s not healthy. It’s not love.”
“Not healthy? What could be healthier? This is what we always wanted, Mickey. This is humanity, united by love, a great rolling sea of shared experience. It’s the outside world that’s unhealthy and sick. Every day, people cut one another to shreds. They howl and wail and beat their breasts. They grasp frantically for someone, something to hold on to, and only hurt themselves in their futility.”
“We have love here, Mickey. Real love. The love that man has searched for since the beginning of time. Not the pale feeling we shared in the mountains, or the fleeting passion of our youth. Not the slow infinitesimal love of marriage. Ours is a love that stands on its own, a leviathan stronger than anything shared before. We share now, Mickey. We know each other, and love each other more deeply with every new change. Our love doesn’t fade infinitesimally, but it grows infinitely.”
“Come with us, Mickey. Everything will be all right.”
God, Rachel. I walked towards her then, blinded by stinging briny tears, when suddenly I was held from behind by a heavy weight. Mephistopheles. We were the two-in-one, part and parcel of the same creature. He locked me in a wrestler’s grip, and Rachel’s eyes grew wide.
“Stand away, demon! Begone from here!”
I began to feel the slow tingling that meant sobriety, and Rachel’s face shifted again. Mephistopheles let me go, and stood between us.
“I’m no more a demon than you, succubus,” he hissed, then turned to face me half-way. “She’s gone, boss. This ain’t Rachel. Rachel’s lying dead in your arms right now, back in Colorado. Go back home, boss. Go back to Rachel. I’ll take care of this.”
My wife’s eyes bulged then, and my demon turned back to wrestle with her, adrift in infinity as I blearily blinked back into reality.
I came to with an empty bottle in my hand, naked at my writing desk in the den. There was note in front of me, covered in a neat scrawl that I recognized as my own:
I’m sorry about this, boss. I guess if you’re reading this, I managed to bring you back. I figure if you can’t come back to your own nervous system, maybe you can borrow mine. I loved her too, you know. I never knew how to say it, and it hurt when you locked me up, after you two got married, but you loved her and I love you, and she’s gone now and somebody’s got to be the one to tell you so I guess its me.
Anyway, you said you were sorry, and it got me to thinking. You aren’t the only one. Just, you know, get out of these mountains, or whatever. You don’t need her, or me.
And stop drinking that damn Brennivin.
Mephistopheles, my demon. I suppose at the end he hadn’t been so bad. I’d miss him. He was better off there, though, with a purpose, tangled in a digital eternity. If I’d had the fore-sight, I’d have named him Jacob.
I had a lot of work to do, anyhow. There were a lot of people I’d have to track down before Heaven disappeared, and I’d need to shut down a lot of servers. I supposed there’d be a lot of angry religious folks after that, but that was nothing new. Nobody likes to lose their God.
Funny thing was, it never really was God. I couldn’t make God. God’s dead. Been dead a long time now. We killed him. Humans, I mean. When he came back, we killed him again. Same thing happened the next time, too. What comes after, though? What do we do now? How do we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of man bled to death under our collective pounding feet: who’ll wipe the blood off?
I shut the front door, after closing Rachel’s eyes and covering her up some. Can we live without gods? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I had more important things to take care of, though, and I limped down into the basement again, gingerly making my way down the dark steps. I did not pause on the way, nor did I reflect on the empty space once occupied by my machine. I reached onto the cabinet in the dark corner, and pulled out an old safe. Dial left, dial right. My hands were steady.
I opened the safe, and pulled out a bottle of 30 Glenfiddich Reserve. I’d never cared much for Brennivin. Nasty stuff.
Everything I Should Have Told Her
By Julie Jackson
Sophie’s fingers splay slowly against the door. She slides her long blonde hair out of the way and presses her ear firmly to the beige-painted wood grain. Light moves all around the door’s frame, centers on her feet, and stops. She freezes. She doesn’t even breathe. Her mouth is fixed in a tight little line. Her wide eyes lift to the surveillance camera.
I replay the tape several times a day, every day. In that moment, before she enters the windowless storage room and never comes out, I like to think that her eyes gazing into the black bulb on the ceiling are telling me good-bye. I imagine that she knows everything I meant to say but didn’t, and that she is okay with all of it. Of course, I don’t know for sure. I will never know for sure. Sophie is gone.
In the video, there is a horrifying moment where she reaches for the doorknob, her delicate fingers closing slowly on the handle. I scream at my computer monitor every time, begging her not to go into “that room,” as it is known now. But every maddening time, the door opens and light floods her face. She doesn’t move. No matter how many times I yell at her to run, she doesn’t move. The light blinds out the camera for a moment, then fades. All that is left is an empty hallway.
The police tore the place apart. They even dug up the floor and ripped the walls down to the bare studs. They played the tape over and over, too. The Captain of the police force assured the worried office staff that people don’t just disappear. Someone knows something, he had said, his gaze falling on me. Everyone was questioned, but I was questioned last and the longest. People had talked about how much I’d liked her, how we spent every lunch hour together. We were friends, but it was no secret I wanted more. The only person that didn’t know that was Sophie.
Her motorcycle was taken by the police. I had laughed when she bought it and taught herself to ride. It was a gas saver, she had reasoned, and gave me a wicked smile. She swung one long leg over the silver bike and dropped her helmet over her head. “Plus,” she added wistfully, “it makes it easier to imagine my getaway.”
“You know, just walk away from the world. No more work, or bills, or expectations. Just the road and some freedom, you know? Don’t you ever think about that, Cam? Just saying ‘To Hell with it, it, I’m out!’”
“Well, yeah, but what adult doesn’t think about that? Sometimes I think about selling everything I own and hitchhiking across the country. But would I ever do it? Of course not.”
“You would leave me?” she asked in mock despair, placing her hand over her heart. “What on earth would I do?” She fanned her face and pretended to blot tears away. I burst out laughing.
“Hey, you brought it up first. I’d go nuts here without you,” I said, feeling awkward.
“Yeah, I know,” she said with a sigh. “It’s just something I think about sometimes. It’s good to know I’m not the only one, though.”
“Nah, it’s everybody. We all dream of escaping.”
She had shrugged and looked away. That short conversation took place only two weeks before she vanished, and I wish now, more than anything, that I’d asked her what she meant, asked her if she was all right. But instead I watched her start the bike and ride away. She had looked so beautiful with her blonde hair whipping wildly behind her, and the first rousing piano and guitar notes of “Bat Out of Hell” blasting out of speakers mounted on the bike. I had thought that a song about a bike wreck was asking for trouble, but I never said anything about it.
Sophie’s disappearance has weighed my mind down, drowning it over and over, turning a mystery into an unhealthy obsession. I haven’t slept in a year. I get to the office early every day, usually before dawn and even on weekends, and I stand in front of that door and watch. I wait for the noise she heard and I wait for the light, and so far I’ve gotten nothing but sidelong stares from the cleaning crew.
I have exhausted all possible venues for answers. I’ve delved deeply into science: wormholes, black holes, sink holes, any way possible that the world could have opened up and swallowed her. I’ve poured over science fiction as well: parallel dimensions, aliens, or some bizarre magnetic shift that could have de-atomized her. It all sounds possible and impossible at the same time. I even checked into the building, like I’m a Ghostbuster. It wasn’t built to align with stars a certain way, or constructed on some ancient, cursed burial ground. It wasn’t holy. It wasn’t unholy. It was just dirt. And she was just gone.
Now I wish I could tell her how she is driving me crazy.
A year to the day after Sophie vanished I wake up to the foul taste of last night’s drinking binge on my tongue. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and suddenly feel disgusted. I have lost weight and there are circles under my eyes. I need a shave and a haircut. It dawns on me that I haven’t seen my family in a very long time, and that my one houseplant died from neglect long ago. Everything in my fridge is rotten or freezer-burnt. I feel like I’ve been dead a year.
I send a quick email to the office manager to let him know that I quit, and I am about to turn off my computer for good when I decide to play the tape one last time.
Sophie is walking down the hall, carrying a stack of papers when she abruptly stops at the storage room door. She leans forward, angling her head to hear. She puts the papers down on a nearby chair and steps forward. She slides her fingers over the door, and then places her ear against it. I watch the tape as earnestly as I did the first time I saw it. Everything is the same. The light shines through the door frame, bouncing at first, and then stops.
Her eyes stare into the surveillance camera and she smiles. Stale coffee dribbles down my chin.
She is smiling at me. I know it. Her fingers slide down to the handle and open the door. She gives the slightest, left-sided nod, and then light floods the view. The rest of the tape plays normally. I back the recording up and the same thing happens, except this time her nod is a little more pronounced, insistent.
I jump up to run out the door and fly to the office when I hear a noise coming from my bedroom. It is a mechanical sound, raising in pitch and then dropping off with a slight rumble. I recognize the sound. My heart flutters. I stumble over dirty clothes and takeout boxes in my desperate run to look out the bedroom window.
I hear the rumble again, and I see lights dancing under my closet door. My feet pull me forward. I splay my fingers slowly against the cheap corkboard, and press my ear to the center. The sound of motorcycle tires spinning on pavement and the roar of an engine that could go faster than any boy could dream fill my head. As my fingers slide down to the handle, I hear familiar guitar and piano notes, coupled with the thundering machine. I take a deep breath and open the door. Before the bright headlight can blind me, I see a flash of long blonde hair under a black helmet. Relief washes over me, pure and sweet. I’m going to tell her everything.
A Junker’s Kiss
By Jarod K. Anderson
When Julie’s teeth were made of bone, I used to imagine her drunk with lust and working to undo my belt buckle in the lab supply closet. That was my favorite fantasy from our time at Ohio University. I’d let slip some casual interest while we worked on our latest immunosuppressant and she, frenzied with the knowledge of mutual attraction, would pounce. In the dream, she was somehow both the aggressor and the shy, sweet lab assistant with the crooked smile and fatal dimples. Beautiful human contradiction.
She still had the dimples. But, now her grin was a crude mosaic of neon aquarium gravel, twisted bottle caps, and bent pennies. I thought I even glimpsed the head of an old G.I. Joe action figure replacing one of her lower molars. It all shifted and changed from week to week, but she never missed a shift and she seemed mindful to avoid any bodily alterations that would interfere with the work. She always kept most of her fingers and her thumbs for pipetting and note taking. That alone set her apart from the other junkers I’ve met. That, and her involvement in their creation.
Of course, it’s not as if we set out to create sentient trash heaps or even fuse living and inanimate materials. We were doing basic research aimed at addressing a pressing need in medical science. Targeted immunosuppressants, coupled with a precise cocktail of growth stimulants, could have revolutionized the science of organ and tissue transplants. If we had succeeded, we would have saved thousands of lives. Hundreds of thousands. Waiting lists for transplants would have become an ugly antique, an ethical quagmire left in the wake of medical progress.
God, how often did I give that speech to potential donors in elevators and in the offices of venture capitalists? It was such a good speech, though I had yet to consider the possibility of making organs and tissue irrelevant. It might still have been a good speech if not for the damn news media. They hardly bothered considering the science they were trampling when they sent the cameras to provide exhaustive coverage of any delinquent with the wherewithal to misuse my technology. Filming a tree. Ignoring the forest.
A subtle deepening of our understanding of immune response? No interest. A man mods his body to the size of a pickup truck and murders half a city block? Gas-up the news van and cancel the evening weather report.
“Julie, would you grab my notes for me? There, next to the fume hood. Thank you.”
Those teeth. Hard not to think of cleaning between the couch cushions. But those dimples. Hard not to think of other things.
I suspected it was a bit of a tribute when she began, but I was somewhat shocked when Julie became a junker. It was, perhaps, the second biggest shock of my life. Ranked somewhere behind losing my lab at the university. But, then, labs can be found outside universities and dimples can eclipse a great many flaws. Technical skill and financial creativity can also eclipse flaws. In fact, they can turn a back alley basement into a world-class research facility. They can raise the luminaries of an age above the backward-looking nobodies that would hold them down. They can…
“What’s that, Julie? An appointment…? Ah, of course, it’s 10:00PM.”
A young man, nearly ten feet in height, carefully stooped through the entrance, moving with the awkward care of an infant giraffe. Almost all of his height was in his legs, both of which were a twisting lattice work of bone and metal, rebar and fencing materials woven with ligament and hooked with bone spurs.
“Well,” I said, retrieving his record from my file and clicking my pen, “how do you feel? Have you eaten? Have you produced any biological waste?”
Julie flashed him a reassuring smile.
His eyes surveyed the room independently of one another. I made a note on his chart.
“I don’t need to eat anymore. Same as last time. You know that,” he said without looking at me. His human hand wandered over to the starburst of steak knives and flatware that was his other hand, exploring the bent tines of a fork with careful tenderness. Then, his hands changed position and he began feeling his flesh hand with his inorganic hand. I wrote “expansion of sensation” on his chart.
“But, I think it’s happening slower,” he said. “My body…it doesn’t take to the rest of me as quickly anymore. I need more. Stronger. You’ve got stronger stuff, right?”
I looked the young man up and down.
“It looks to me like you’ve had plenty for now. Just keep track of how you feel and we’ll adjust your schedule to–”
It’s amazing how quickly a person with six foot long legs can cover distance.
He had caught up the lapels of my lab coat with his human hand and cocked back the jagged ball of his other fist before I even had time to be surprised. My fear synapses were just starting to fire when his metallic fist began to shoot forward, but those synapses were quickly drowned out in a cerebral thunderstorm of anger. The stiff weight of my new right arm was just coming into play when Julie acted.
In one fluid motion, she tugged her left pinky out of joint with her right hand, trailing a razor-thin filament of wire behind it. The wire flashed through the air quicker than human sight and the young man’s mostly inorganic arm clattered onto a lab table before cartwheeling to the floor.
He clamped his remaining hand over the exposed bone and wire of his missing arm and took two awkward steps backward like a startled heron. He nearly caved in his own skull on the doorframe, but somehow managed to flail his way up the narrow steps and out the door.
Julie turned as if to pursue him, but I put my right hand on her shoulder, the swirling metallic of my mercury skin blazing against the stark white of her lab coat. No one could call my new arm “junk.” It was an elegant application of technology.
Her shoulders tensed at the sudden contact and she whipped her face in my direction. I don’t think I had ever actually touched her before. Her eyes were wide. We were both breathing heavily with the excitement and adrenalin.
The silence felt suddenly meaningful, so I tossed words at it. “I think we need to seek out a better class of test subjects and perhaps…”
When she kissed me, it tasted of copper mixed with the syrupy sweetness of hot soda pop. My knees wobbled, but she caught me around the waist and pulled me in tight with a pneumatic hiss of a sigh. Wobbly knees could always be replaced, but lips… I made a mental note that lips were just right.