The Colored Lens #4 – Summer 2012
Speculative Fiction Magazine
Summer 2012 – Issue #4
Featuring works by Bruce Holland Rogers, Andrew Tisbert, Victor Alao, Sean Monaghan, Justin Key, D.L. Young, David Morel, Jude-Marie Green, Raphael Ordonez, and Francesca Forrest
Artwork by Eleni Tsami, and Virginia Mallon.
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Published by Light Spring LLC
Fort Worth, Texas
© Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved
- The Korgun
- A Land of Deepest Shade
- The Illusionist
- Love in the Isle of the Combinators
- The Roller Coaster
- Cotner’s Bot
- In The Garage
- The Wreck of the Emerald Sky
By David Morel
“Prepare! Prepare!” The squeal came from behind Philip, and then above him. “He comes today. He comes to return that which is due.”
Philip’s hands shot over his head. A snap of air rushed up the back of his neck. A few strands of hair were plucked form his scalp. The tiny thing had flown in through the window. It had come in right behind him, filling the room with the sound of frantic wings and a smell like that of boiled ham left on the stove for too long.
“The Korgun comes today.” The thing was moving up in the rafters now. Its voice came from right above him, and then from near the door. “Surely you have been waiting for this day when you can take back that which is yours, when the Korgun shall return that which he took so long ago.”
Blood rushed to Philip’s head. He held his breath for a moment before forcing it back out through his nose, and then set his chisel back on the table, taking care to put it in the exact spot where it belonged so that he could retrieve it again when needed.
“The Korgun? You are mistaken.”
The thing flew down to the table, landing with a great clattering. “Yes, the Korgun. He comes today to give a blind man back his sight.”
Philip closed his hand over the misshapen lump of wood that had just started to take shape, massaging shallow grooves that needed more time with the chisel. “But I sent word to the Korgun. I sent notice that our arrangement should be final.”
The thing seemed to almost tiptoe up to him, making a tack-tack-tack noise on the table. Tools rolled across the tabletop. One fell over the side, toppling to the floor. “You have no choice, human. Such things were decided long ago.”
Philip bent to retrieve the tool, wondering how long it would take to get them all back in their proper place. The smell of the creature almost overpowered him, wiping out the warm sweet scent of wood shavings that he never got completely off the floor no matter how often he swept. “Well, he has wasted his time then. He need not have made the journey here.”
As if on cue, there came a loud rap at the door, a firm knock that echoed into the room and was quickly followed by two short taps.
“You had best answer.” The thing seemed to be grooming itself now, each word was punctuated with a wet sucking sound. “The Korgun does not wait.”
Philip wanted nothing of the sort, yet still he rose from his chair. He moved across the room if for no other reason than to put some distance between himself and this flying thing. His feet felt each familiar dip in the floor, shuffling over uneven floorboards with practiced precision. Was it really so simple for the Korgun to return his sight? The thought filled him with excitement, but he pushed it away. No. He would live out the few years he had left as he had so many of those that came before.
Another sharp knock came at the door. Philip reached out for the brass doorknob, and stopped. He could feel the Korgun on the other side of the door, his presence as certain as the cold brass in Philip’s hand. The thing making such a racket over by his tools had not been lying. A vision of the Korgun from their first encounter exploded in his head, those long spindly legs, those enormous ears that each swiveled independently of the other, the line of bone that popped out through brittle skin down the length of his back. And the gaping sockets, the flaps of skin that showed the only thing the Korgun would accept in a wager.
Philip swung the door open.
“Otis,” the Korgun said, stepping around Philip into the house. His cane thunked out on the floor in front of him. “I told you to wait outside.”
The flying thing clacked across the table. “But the Korgun must be announced. The way for the Korgun must be prepared.”
“No, you are not to interfere this time.” The Korgun’s voice was like two rough stones being scraped together. “I apologize. Otis came to me in a wager a few years gone now, a lost wager, and he has been a tad overeager about the business ever since.”
“It was a fine wager,” the flying thing called out. “A fine wager indeed that brought me into the service of the Korgun.”
Philip said nothing. He just stood there, stock still, thinking that he should have invested in a screen for his window as he had so often planned. A ridiculous thought, as if a screen could have kept the Korgun out of this house.
“How quickly time passes, yes?” The Korgun moved deeper into the house. “But all good things must end, all things expire.”
Philip took a step back. In some ways it felt like an eternity, but in others only yesterday. The memories were spotty. They didn’t fit together quite right. He had been a fool, that much Philip remembered. He had sought out the Korgun for a wager. And lost. Fame and fortune. His desires had been so simple then. And all the Korgun had asked that Philip wager in return were his eyes. Not forever. No. Only for 50 years. A simple loan. And now this. The mere idea of the world opening up before him again, the mere thought of such independence. He could dismiss the boy who ran small errands for him, the one who spoke with such condescension, but again Philip rejected the thought.
“No,” Philip said. “I don’t want them.”
“Come, come,” the Korgun said. “Don’t be ridiculous. Things cannot be changed now. All must be fulfilled as it was originally ordained.”
Philip swallowed, resisting the urge to laugh. He had been left blind and penniless. It had taken him three days just to find his way out of the forest. And it was during those three days that he came to understand what he had truly wanted. It had never been about the wealth itself. It had always been about Emily. She was all he had thought of during those three long days. Philip had been certain that without the right amount of gold in his pocket, Emily would never become his wife. The daughter of a wealthy merchant could never marry a pauper. How horribly he had underestimated her. It was the thought of Emily that had kept him going until he emerged on a dirt road near the outskirts of the village–bruised and scratched, but alive.
“I should never have visited you that first time,” Philip said.
“Few should wager with the Korgun.”
“No, you don’t understand. In the end, it all worked out. Once I understood what I wanted. It all came to me, even after our lost wager.”
“The stone has a way of doing such things.”
Philip forced back a smile. Emily had come trundling into the house once she heard of his condition. She dropped bandages in his lap, then went out back to chop wood to get the house heated once again. She allowed no time for self pity, and just one year later married him. Philip never told a soul about the Korgun. He claimed that an eagle attacked him in the forest, tore out his eyes and left him nearly dead. Deep down he knew that Emily never believed him.
“I wanted to tell her. I wanted to come clean even before the wedding, but I always pushed it off until the next day, and then the next.” Philip’s voice trailed. Years passed, and then decades, until it was too late. “I don’t deserve my sight back. Why should things get easier for me now? Not after I made things so difficult for her, not after I made our life so much harder than it needed to be.”
“You have no choice in the matter.”
Otis flew back up over Philip’s head. His tinny voice came down from above them. “The stone is set. You must do as it commands.”
And with that the Korgun was upon him. Long fingers bent over his shoulder, cementing him to that spot on the floor as the Korgun pressed up against him. Wet skin–like sandpaper–pushed under his chin. The Korgun snarled, a guttural noise that seemed to build up in some other world before coming through him. Philip’s knees went limp. The Korgun held him up as he brought something against Philip’s face. The pressure on his skull was almost unbearable, until there was a sucking sound and the pain began to evaporate. The Korgun hopped back, landing on the floor a few feet in front of Philip.
“It is done.” Otis still fluttered above. “The eyes have been returned to their rightful owner.”
It was dim at first. Philip blinked, a ponderous motion. He opened his eyes, looking out through a haze before closing them again. The pressure in his head faded. He blinked once more, opening his eyes slowly, taking in the room. It had been such a long time, such a terribly long time.
The house was not how he expected it would look. The paint was gray, though it had been turquoise at one time. Emily had always loved that color. It must have faded to this dull gray since. Sunlight cut in through the open window, billowing light far too ornate for this space. It cast a dull glow over the Korgun, who now stood with his back to Philip. “I never wanted any of this. I hope you understand. I would have much preferred to have granted your wish, and been done with it.”
The Korgun had aged since their last encounter. His skin didn’t shine as brightly. The tuft of hair that sprouted between his ears was dull and brittle. Only his leather pouch looked the same, worn calfskin with that long strap that snaked over the Korgun’s neck.
“But you still took my eyes,” Philip said. “Once I lost, you still took them.”
“You chose your wager. It was your decision, Philip, not mine.”
“After all that has happened, it would be so much better if you had just kept the eyes,” Philip said. “I have not missed them nearly as much as I feared.”
The flying thing came down from the ceiling. Its wings fluttered as it struggled to gain a foothold on the edge of the table. “A wager! A wager! We can have ourselves a new wager.”
The Korgun turned to face Otis. His huge ears swiveled first and then the rest of his head followed.
“No, our business here is finished.”
“But you could take his eyes. You could have your eyes back.”
“What would I want with such things. They are old, and will soon be useless.”
“You could borrow them until we find new eyes. You could use them until we find fresh eyes for the Korgun.”
“It would never work. Philip must wager something that he values, something he holds dear, and it is apparent that this is no longer the case for his eyes.”
“There is this house,” the little thing squeaked. “He must value this house.”
The Korgun stopped. He stood rigid by the door.
“We could wait here, Korgun. The eyes would come to us,” Otis continued. “The eyes would get here once the stone knew they were ready, and then you would not need to stumble about blind in search of new eyes.”
“That is preposterous,” the Korgun said, his voice like gravel. “I have been blind for centuries. I have made use of countless eyes.” But there was something else that inhabited the Korgun now, like he was too exhausted to even make it out of the house with his cane pounding the way in front of him.
Otis flew up to the window and perched next to the crooked stick that held it open. He pushed his chest out, a mass of bristling orange fur. “He is a terrible Korgun, I tell you. He never wants to wager. He never wants to do any of the business that he is meant to do.”
Philip looked from one of them to the other, not quite sure who was in charge, and then past them to the dusty corners of the house. It was all so distant from the home it had been just a few hours earlier. They had collected a life together here–the two of them. Her scent was in the wood shavings that gathered under his chair. She was in the nails that held the walls together. She spoke through the floorboards that groaned whenever he moved over them. Or so he had always told himself. But now that he could see it all again, it only reminded him of how much time had passed. It only spoke volumes of how she was not here.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “If I need to wager this house, then so be it.”
“Come now, this is ridiculous. We have no idea what you even desire. You’ve said nothing of what you would want from this wager.” As the Korgun spoke, his hand moved almost instinctively to the leather pouch.
“The same thing as last time,” Philip said. “I want Emily Stewart.”
The Korgun curled his fingers over the top of the pouch, pulling down so that its strap went taught around his neck. “This makes no sense. Who is this woman?”
“She was my wife. She passed a few years gone now.”
“That is preposterous.” The Korgun made a clicking sound in the back of his throat. “The stone holds much power, but there are limits to what it may do. Even the stone cannot bring anything back from the realm of the dead.”
“How do you know, Korgun?” Otis trotted a couple of steps closer to him, still perched on the windowsill.
“Otis, enough.” The Korgun’s empty eye sockets seemed to focus on some distant corner of the room. “The first time I could have granted your wish, Philip. Wealth is the easiest of all things to obtain in this world. Love far more precious. Yet so many ask for the former, and so few the latter.”
“Be reasonable, human.” Otis called out. “Surely there is something else, some other thing in this world that you desire above all else.”
“If this Emily is gone,” the Korgun said. “If she has passed through to the other side, she is well and truly no longer part of this world.”
Philip sank into the chair. Their time together had been far too limited. He had always assumed that he would be the first to go, but even that proved him wrong. He could see everything in this house now, all of it right here, except her. “You don’t understand. It’s not her that I want. I know her so well, her smell, the feel of her hair, the sound of her laugh, but I only know her face from the beginning. I only know what her eyes looked like from when we first met, from before it all. I want to know all of Emily as she grew old beside me.”
“Oh, that is a simple thing,” Otis screeched. “That is a teensy thing for the Korgun.”
All of the air went out of the Korgun at once. “Very well then, if you insist on pursuing this, then fine. But you understand, Philip. If you lose this time you will be cast out of this house. There is no undoing it once the stone has spoken.”
“I of all people understand what it means to lose to the Korgun.” But as the memory of their first wager flooded through Philip, an idea started to form in his head. This time would be different. He could feel it. There was something about the way the Korgun looked so beaten down by time and his travels, something about how Otis may as well have had him on a leash, that told him this time things would never turn out as poorly as they had the first time.
“It will be good for the Korgun to have a house,” Otis said. “It will be good to have a base of operations, a nice little house, like this one.”
“Let’s get this over with,” Philip said.
Otis flapped his wings, hanging on the edge of the windowsill. “A wager! A wager! We shall have ourselves a teensy wager.”
The Korgun too seemed anxious to be done with it. He stood in the middle of the room. Thick eyelids closed over hollow eye sockets. Thin eyebrows arched down his forehead as his hand emerged from the leather pouch. In it, he gripped a red stone. It shone from within, shimmering ruby that cast the shadow of his fingers over the wall.
“You must pick a number.” The Korgun held the stone out, pinching it between his thumb and index finger. A low hum vibrated through it as the Korgun twirled the stone. One side of it flashed over the top after another, flat edges with an elegant script carved into them. They radiated scarlet, numbers etched in an archaic form.
Philip knew instantly what he must do. The image of the Korgun spoke volumes, standing there with his eyes pinched shut and his hand holding the stone out as if it might jump up and smack him. It was simple. The plan hatched fully formed in Philip’s brain, as if the stone itself had thrust it at him. The number didn’t matter. There was no chance here. This could not go wrong. If Philip understood, that is. Philip could control it, if he did what he should have done from the beginning.
“One,” Philip said. “I choose one.”
“One? Out of all the numbers he picks one?” Otis’s voice rose until it sounded like a wooden peg being screwed into a hole too small for it.
“It has as much of a chance as any other number,” Philip said.
The Korgun brought the stone back down to his chest. A rusty glare trickled up through his chin and sunken cheeks. “But it has only come up once before, many years ago. In all my time as Korgun, that number has come up only once.”
“Then it must be due.”
The Korgun sniffed, pausing as if he sensed something wasn’t quite right. “This did not go well for you before, Philip. You lost so much.”
“Then it can only go better this time.”
The Korgun clacked his mouth shut. His fingers folded over the stone, encasing it in his fist so that a blood red glow pulsed through sinew and bone.
“It begins, and so our wager begins,” Otis said in a low voice.
The Korgun started to hum, a low sound that vibrated through him. He rattled the stone, shaking his arms as his eyes closed yet tighter. His nose twitched. His hands rose over his head, then fell to his side only to swing up and over his head again. The Korgun moved his fist in a steady circle, a twirling motion that grew brighter as it grew wider. The stone knocked against bone. A red circle trailed after his hands, blurring to a haze that reached out above him. Until all at once the Korgun’s hands stopped, halted in the midst of the fading circle. The stone was at the very center of it all, buried between the Korgun’s hands as it grew ever brighter.
The Korgun held his hands still for only a moment, before they burst apart. They flew away from each other as if propelled by a small explosion. The stone hung there, suspended in the air. It swirled one way, and then another. Glimmering numbers climbed over its surface, filling the room with brilliant light.
“Ooooh, it is so pretty,” Otis said. “Always so pretty before it falls.”
Which was all the cue that Philip needed.
He thrust one elbow out toward Otis, connecting with a rush of orange fur so that Otis went skittering off the window ledge. Philip yanked the stick out that held the window open. It flapped shut. Otis flew up against the outside of the closed window, ramming it with such force that it was a wonder the glass didn’t shatter.
But Philip was no longer concerned with Otis. With his other hand, he plucked the stone out of the air. His fingers tingled. The bumps that marked the numbers on each side were warm in his hand.
The Korgun twisted his face up. His ears swirled down to the floor. “What have you done? Why hasn’t it fallen?”
“I have it here,” Philip said.
“You took the stone.” It was a statement, not a question. The Korgun fastened long arms around his middle. His mouth bent up. “You have no idea what you have done then, no idea what follows.”
Philip flipped the stone over one last time, stopping when he found the side with a single dot burned into it. He crouched, easing his weight down to the floor with the stone held firm. He positioned it on one of the floorboards, half expecting the thing to flip over as soon as he released it. The Korgun was breathing above him, long and deep, as if he too was excited at the prospect of forcing the stone to cooperate.
The stone sat still for a moment before the red light within it began to fade. It trickled inside the stone like water flowing over rock. The stone sat on the floor–pristine and dark–until a single flare shot up from it. A strand of ivory light rose from the stone and twisted into the room.
“It cannot be undone,” the Korgun said. “It is all you now, Philip. It is only you.”
“I will remember though?”
“Yes, but so much more.”
It started slowly, a single memory swept over Philip. He could see himself as a child, standing outside his parent’s house, afraid to go back inside and face the consequences for having broken his mother’s favorite garden ornament. That solitary memory soon grew to a trickle. He was a young man, pushing long hair off his forehead–he had so much hair back then–before setting out to pick up Emily for their first date. Later, much later, lying in bed when the world was first black all around him. Except for her. She was in the armchair, singing to him while he pretended to be asleep so that she wouldn’t stop.
Soon enough the trickle gave way to a deluge, an avalanche of every last thing that had happened to Philip during his long years. He was at their wedding, the vision blending with his memory of the silky feel of her dress as they danced at the small reception. Later, in the kitchen, the two of them laughing–her face so full of joy–as he thrust her out of the way. She never could cook, that woman, would burn water if left alone amongst the pots for too long. Then later still, decades later, when she had first taken sick, when she had slept all day and protested drinking so much as a cup of broth. Her face was tranquil that day. She dozed so quietly that he thought she had passed on, until he felt her soft breath on his arm.
The memories poured through him. They grew darker, closing around him like burlap thrown over an oil lamp. He could see his shriveled state through the days that followed, the nights when he slept alone for the first time in decades and wondered how his life could have so easily unraveled. Every last detail paraded before him so that it was impossible to pick just one, whittle them down to a single memory. Philip cupped his hands over his ears, holding his head as if he could somehow slow it all down.
“You have it now,” the Korgun said. “You have all that you wagered for, and so much more.”
Otis bolted back into the room through the open doorway. He had flown clear around the house, batting his wings furiously to stay aloft. “It is one. That is not possible. It never comes up as one.”
“He took the stone,” the Korgun said.
“What?” Otis fluttered around the stone in a tight circle. “He cheated!”
“Yes, I’m afraid our time is done.”
“Him? No, not him.”
“Yes, it is him now. You belong with him.”
“But it is I who found you.”
“Otis, we do not choose our destinies. You of all creatures know this.”
Philip managed to quiet his mind just long enough to look up at the two of them. Otis flitted back and forth as if preparing to attack. The Korgun stood with an unmistakable air of lightness about him, no longer stooped as he had been just moments before, no longer groping across the floor for his next step.
He lifted the pouch, pulling the frayed cord over his neck. “I have waited a long time for this day, Philip, far longer than I ever would have thought when I first became the Korgun. You have lifted a terrible burden from me. A horrible burden, though you need not worry now. It feels quite the opposite in the beginning.”
Otis flew back over Philip’s head, gliding across the room before turning a sharp corner to come back at him again. “He cannot be the Korgun. I forbid it.”
“Yes, it is him now.” The creature dropped the pouch in front of Philip, draping it over one knee while Philip sat on the floor. “It is not often when one attempts what you did, far less common than you would think. This too is determined by the stone.”
“What are you talking about?” The words stuck in the back of Philip’s throat.
“You are the Korgun now,” Otis said. “You stupid man. No one ever catches the stone. It is not possible.”
“Oh, but it is Otis. There are very few who try, few indeed, and of those who try even fewer succeed. But it is possible. I myself was the last, so long ago that I no longer remember that for which I wagered, so long ago that whatever brought me to the Korgun has long since ceased to matter.”
And with that the creature leaned over and snatched the stone up from the floor. He gripped it in long, slender fingers, caressing it one last time before he placed it in Philip’s hand. Crimson light shot across Philip’s palm, highlighting blue veins. “It will feel strange at first, perhaps for many years, but you shall grow accustomed to it.”
Philip curled his fingers over the stone, locking it inside as his other hand felt for the pouch–soft leather that was still warm. The creature had turned to the door. The stick thrust out in front of him. It looked as if he was more likely to skip his next step than continue with that steady, methodical pace.
“But I keep the memories,” Philip said. “I can still see her, clear as day.”
The creature didn’t even turn back to face him. “Oh yes, all of them. Every last one.”
Otis flew over Philip’s head, taking up his post on the windowsill. He slathered loudly, preening the orange fur that ran down his front before finally shaking his head and hopping one step to the side.
“Let us go out today, Korgun, let us go out and find someone who needs your services. Surely there must be someone nearby who desires a wager.”
“Not today, Otis.”
Philip sat at his desk with the pouch draped over his knee. It was never far from him now, always in his lap or hanging from his shoulder. He picked up the familiar lump of wood and the smallest of his chisels, closing his eyes. His fingers ran over wood, flowing past each groove as the shape of the thing became clear in his mind, as the actual appearance of the block of wood faded and was replaced with the feel of it.
“Just a teensy wager. It has been so long, far too long for the Korgun.”
“They shall come to us in due time.”
“But that is what you said yesterday, Korgun, and the day before. That is what you have said for months now.”
“Because it is true.”
The image of her filtered back into Philips’s mind–the gentle curve of her nose, the arched cheekbones, the fine lines that had started to grow around her eyes that were set ever so slightly too far apart. He could almost touch her as his chisel set to work, shaving the area at the top of her nose until it was nearly perfect.
“But it has been so long Korgun, so long that the pretty stone has been locked away in that terrible bag. It may no longer know what to do.”
“It will know.”
“How will they know? How will they know that you are the new Korgun? And that the Korgun is here? In this tiny house?”
“They will know. Those who truly need the Korgun always know where to find him.”
And just as Philip said that he heard a knock at the door, a loud rapping with a certain insistence about it. Philip could feel the stone. He knew exactly where it was even with his eyes closed. He could sense it nestled down in the lower left corner of the pouch. It was calling to him, summoning him to employ its services once again.
By Francesca Forrest
It looked like you were pretending, like you could just open your eyes and get up off that table and come home with me. It didn’t show that your back was broken in three places and the rear of your skull was crushed. Get up, Tommy! Stop teasing. Don’t make this be real. Don’t let me hear what they’re trying to tell me. But you weren’t teasing and I did hear.
First minutes after they said you were gone, all I could think of was never ever laughing with you again, never again laying with my forehead pressed against yours, my arms around you, your hands traveling down, and me whispering, “Stop! What if Cammie or Jesse wake up?” Funny. First it’s parents we gotta be careful not to wake, then it’s kids.
But then other thoughts came creeping in. What do I do now? How’s my one job gonna keep a roof over me and the kids’ heads, when you and me couldn’t keep up when we had your job as well? Your two jobs.
Damn that second job. If you hadn’t of taken that job, maybe you’d still be here. Just until we get out of debt, you said. Then I’ll quit.
I love that about you, that you’re honorable like that. But nobody can work day and night and day and night without something giving. Just saying you can do it don’t make it so! Work evenings at Catalano’s and then go out roofing with Nick and Hatim in the morning? No problem, piece of cake! You smiled as you said that, but it wore you down, and being tired can be as bad as being drunk. It can make you misstep. Make you fall.
“What do I do now?”
I said the words out loud. They just kind of fell out of my mouth and into the emergency room.
“We’ll need to do an autopsy, and once that’s complete, we can give you a death certificate and you can contact a funeral home,” said the one nurse who was still in the room.
“A funeral home? I can’t even pay for the ambulance. How can I pay for a funeral?”
The tears started spilling out of my eyes again. You just can’t be dead, Tommy. It takes way more money to die than we have.
The lady gave me a thin blue box of tissues and patted me on the back. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Ms. Macy. You know, the county does have an indigent burial program, at the cemetery on Green Street, if you’re truly without means. You’d have to fill out some forms, and there’s an income check.” She said more stuff, but I wasn’t listening, just caught at the end that she’d be back with more information for me and some papers to sign. Then she left me alone with you.
You ever been by that cemetery on Green Street? It’s got a chain-link fence around it, and it’s all gravel and weeds in there. No gravestones or statues or nothing like that, just homemade crosses and fake flowers, like people put by the side of the road where somebody’s died in a car crash. All your hard work–and that’s what you come to in the end?
“Doesn’t seem right, does it.”
It was an older guy, all dressed up, shiny shoes and a suit jacket. He stuck out a hand.
“Everett Mear, Mear Funeral Parlor.”
I didn’t offer mine. He sure showed up fast, I was thinking. Does a bell go off in his office every time someone’s pronounced dead? I didn’t even have the death certificate yet.
“I heard what the nurse was saying to you,” he continued. He shook his head. “No one wants an indigent burial; it’s like throwing away the dead. I can tell by your face that you loved your husband; you don’t want him disposed of like so much rubbish. And it doesn’t have to be like that. Some funeral homes do pro bono work–I do, for instance. I can take care of burial costs for you and see your husband buried with dignity, Mrs. . .?”
“Macy. I’m Janelle Macy.” I did shake his hand, then.
“Well, Mrs. Macy, what would you say to burial for your husband in a mahogany casket, in the cemetery on Chestnut Hill, along with transportation from the house of worship of your choice to the burial site–or from my establishment, if you prefer a nonreligious memorial service?”
“All that? For free?”
“That’s right,” Mr. Mear said. “I can’t make the offer for every unknown decedent or abandoned body, but in the case of a young family in difficult financial circumstances, it seems like the right thing to do. It feels good to be able to bring at least this small comfort at such a hard time.”
I know I should of been wondering about the catch, but saving you from Green Street, seeing you laid to rest in a pretty place like Chestnut Hill, it seemed like the one thing, the only thing, that I could do for you.
Mr. Mear was all smiles when he had my answer, and he hurried off to make arrangements with the nurse, leaving me alone with you again. Soon Tommy’ll be gone from me for good. No seeing him ever again, no touching him. I couldn’t bear the thought. In the end, what I did was pull out some strands of my hair and some of yours, and I made them both into loops. I put yours on my finger and mine on yours. Just little wisps of hair, not even as much as we clipped from Cammie and Jesse for their baby books, but it was something of you that I could touch, and something of me to sleep with you, forever.
Couple of days later, Mr. Mear showed me a catalogue of coffins and caskets, and I chose you a fine casket, wood the color of fox fur, with sides as smooth as a mirror. And then it was time to lay you to rest.
Could you see us, that evening at Chestnut Hill? The place was beautiful, on a slope and facing west, so the shadows of the trees down below pointed right up at where we were gathered, getting longer and longer as the sun went down, like they were longing to touch you too.
I wanted a few minutes alone by your grave, so your mother took the kids and went on ahead to the reception. Mine shooed the people from Mr. Mear’s funeral parlor away and told them she’d drive me back. That was when the first strange thing happened. This woman came up to me, nobody I knew, a black woman maybe a couple years younger than me, I guess, with hair cut real close to her head. She wore a silver cross round her neck, lots of silver bracelets on her wrists, and an embroidered bag on a long strap hung from her shoulder. She looked at the rectangle of earth beside me and didn’t say nothing for a minute. Then,
“I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath, like she was about to say something else, but then she just pressed her lips together real tight and was quiet a while more. Finally, she sighed and said,
“If you . . . if you find yourself having trouble sleeping, maybe you want to call me.” She reached into her bag, pulled out a card and pen, scribbled something on the card, then handed it to me. “Fairchild School of Dance” was printed on the card, and underneath, “Laurette Sanon, junior instructor.” She’d written in a number under her name.
By now Ma was glancing at the car, and I knew I had to go.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.” Ma opened the passenger-side door, and I climbed in.
“You can call anytime,” Laurette called, as Ma started the engine and slowly pulled onto the cemetery road. In the rearview mirror I could see Laurette still standing there, getting smaller as the car picked up speed.
Trouble sleeping? Of course I’ll have trouble sleeping, now that Tommy’s gone, I thought, but I’m not gonna call a dance teacher about it. But I didn’t throw the card away. I stuck it to the fridge with the bluebird magnet you gave me last spring.
That night the second strange thing happened. But this part you already know, don’t you. I was laying in bed, just thinking, thinking, when I heard you calling, like you had locked yourself out and needed me to let you in. I turned off the window fan and listened, waiting to hear your voice again, but I didn’t hear nothing more.
Next night, same thing. I pulled the fan right out of the window, pushed the windowsill up as far as it would go, and stared out at the traffic light at the corner. Green . . . yellow . . . red . . . green. The street was empty. The traffic light was just talking to itself, and you didn’t call again.
Third night I didn’t go to bed. I took my pillow into the front room, propped it up next to the apartment door, and leaned back against it. I guess eventually I must of started to drift off, but then came your voice, calling. I jumped up, unbolted the door, and rushed down the stairs and out into the street.
“Where are you?” I shouted. And suddenly there you were, as real as life, right in front of me.
“Found you,” you whispered. You grabbed my left hand with a strong, cold grip, and my head started spinning and my breath came uneven, as if it was my neck and not my hand you squeezed. You ran your finger over the ring of your hair that I’d kept right by my wedding band.
“Why’d you do it?” you asked me. “Why?” The look in your eyes! It filled my stomach with ice cubes. Do what? What did I do? Before I could say a word, you looked over your shoulder, hearing something I couldn’t hear, and then the empty air just folded around you, and you were gone.
It was Cammie. I must of woken her when I ran out of the apartment, or maybe when I shouted. She was standing there at the front door blinking and squinting, a frown on her face.
“Hey sweetie. Let’s go back inside. I was just having trouble sleeping, that’s all…”
That moment, I decided I’d call Laurette after all. I went to her place after work. She sat me down and poured us both diet Cokes. There was a bowl of grapes on the table, and little statue of Our Lady holding baby Jesus, both dark skinned, like Laurette, and wearing golden crowns. On the wall was a calendar with a picture of flamingos standing in some water. It was sunset in the picture, and the water was as pink as the birds.
“It’s pretty,” I said.
“It’s L’étang Saumâtre,” Laurette said, sitting down across from me. “A lake, a large lake in Haiti. It’s where I come from.” She broke off a couple clusters of grapes and handed me one. “You been hearing your husband call to you, yeah?” she asked.
I nodded. “And he . . . he came to me.” Her eyebrows lifted when I said that. “He grabbed my hand real tight”–I grabbed hers, to show her–“and then he disappeared.”
Her eyes lit on the ring of your hair.
“His?” she asked.
I nodded and told her how I made them for both of us. She smiled at that.
“You’re smart,” she said. “Good instinct–makes things much easier. You can go directly to him; no need to deal with Mr. Mear at all.” The poison in her voice when she said his name!
“What’s Mr. Mear got to do with it?”
“Mr. Mear stole away your husband’s body. That grave at Chestnut Hill is empty. That’s why your husband’s calling you, coming to you–he has no place to rest.”
It was like a punch in the chest.
“He blames me,” I said, feeling sick. “But I didn’t know! How was I supposed to know? I just wanted- I just didn’t want Tommy to end up in Green Street.” I could feel tears starting to prick in my eyes, so I gulped down some of the Coke.
“What’s Mr. Mear want. . .” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the question. A person only steals dead bodies for horrible things.
“He heard ghosts make good workers,” Laurette said, voice still poison laced. “They can work from sundown to sunrise without stopping, and they don’t need no food, no water. What he want workers for, though, I don’t know.”
“Mr. Mear can make them work for him? Make Tommy work for him?”
“He can’t force them. But the restless dead, trapped between this world and the next? They got nothing but their longing, and they long for so many things. One sip of cool water? A ghost would slave for that. And they’ll work longer and harder for a taste of beer. In Haiti they crave rum. Here, some want whiskey and some want tequila and some want neat gin. And that’s just drink. So if Mr. Mear comes along, knowing just what to offer, how many do you think will turn him down?”
“He’s good with his offers, that’s for sure,” I muttered.
“Yes, he is,” Laurette said, and her tone made me look up.
“Did you- Did he offer- Did you lose someone?” I been so focused on me, and us, that I hadn’t stopped to think about Laurette’s story at all. She nodded.
“Like you. My husband. Mr. Mear’s daughter takes lessons at the studio where I work. When I started teaching, I told the students a little about myself, about where I come from, traditions in Haiti, about dancing . . . Well, some time after that, Mr. Mear come after class, asking to speak to me, asking roundabout questions, very roundabout, but I understood what he really wanted: he was hoping to learn about spirits, ghosts, magic, all that.
“And he says to me, ‘Anyone back home having trouble coming to the states? Maybe you need help with immigration?’ I don’t know how he knew. Maybe wicked people are just clever at finding weakness. Or maybe he figured that everyone who makes it here has someone they’d like to bring over. But that was our deal. I teach him what I know about ghosts and how to handle them, and he speak to his friends, get them to pull strings, move along on my husband’s application.
“I waited to hear from lawyers, waited for paperwork . . . finally I asked him, what’s happening? What’s the news? ‘Oh, bureaucracy, you know, the paperwork’s so complicated, it’s hard after the earthquake, documents lost, INS is incompetent,’ he says. ‘Tell you what, though: I know someone down south who’s got a boat—we’ll bring your husband here that way and sort out his status later.’” Laurette shook her head. “I knew that was a bad plan, but I was impatient, and Christophe was impatient too.”
“Christophe went to the dock on the arranged day. He had all his money on him, everything for starting a new life here, and thieves jumped him. Where was the man he was supposed to meet? Where was the boat? Delayed, Mr. Mear told me, later. Delayed! Too late for my husband. My mother-in-law called me from the hospital the next day. Christophe died from his injuries. At least he’s safely buried, though. Not a ghost slave for a wicked man.
“I wanted to kill Mr. Mear,” Laurette said, practically spitting out the words. “But he was quick and cunning. He took me to court, showed them letters he claimed I sent him, said I made threatening phone calls. The court granted him a restraining order. You see? So if anything happen to him, the police will come to me first. I would have taken revenge anyway,” she added in a low voice, “but too many depend on me back home. Without the money I send back . . .” She heaved a deep sigh.
“So I just watched and waited. Saw him so nobly help two families after car crashes. Another after a drowning, then another–a murder. And I suspect he steals bodies of others, ones who die young and strong, whose families ask for cremation. Easy to hand over ashes–any ashes, who will know?–and keep the bodies. I watched and saw what I saw, but there was never a person I thought I could speak to, until you.”
She looked straight at me, very serious. “If I help you put your husband to rest, will you bring down Mr. Mear for me?”
“Damn straight I will.”
“All right. First thing is for you to go to your husband, find out what Mr. Mear has set him to do, and where. But you can’t go to him as you are now; you need to go like a ghost yourself.”
“Really?” Doubt fluttered up in me.
“How else you think you’re going to find him? Say you call him and he come to you, like last night. But then he vanish. How will you follow if you’re not a spirit? Or say you call him, and he don’t answer? As a spirit, you can listen for the echo from your own self, wrapped around his finger.”
“How about I just go to Chestnut Hill and tell them Tommy’s grave’s empty, get them to dig it up for me? When they find out Mr. Mear’s burying empty caskets, that oughta get him in trouble fast enough.”
“And how you intend to make them believe you? You going to tell them your husband’s ghost been haunting you? ‘Poor woman, she’s mad with grief,’” Laurette said, making her voice sound just like the nurse’s at the hospital, like our landlady’s, like Krista and Sandy at work.
“Okay, then,” I said, swallowing. “How do I go as a spirit?” She left the room a minute and came back with a little wooden box.
“This has poisons in it,” Laurette said, opening it. There were dried bits and pieces inside, shriveled things, flakes of things. “Nightshade, wolfsbane, hemlock, destroying angel. Put a pinch in oil and rub it just below your nose before you go to sleep. The scent of the poisons will open the doors of death for your spirit, so it can fly out of your body. So long as you don’t swallow the ointment, the doors will stay open, so your spirit can return again.” Then she unfastened her silver cross and handed it to me.
“Sleep with this around your neck, with the cross right on your lips. When the light of morning hits it, it’ll call to your spirit, reminding it of the resurrection, and you’ll wake.”
“I don’t know about using a cross for magic,” I said, but Laurette just folded her arms and looked at me like I was a kindergartener refusing to get on the school bus.
“The Good Lord wants you to rise up every day that’s given to you, and to rise up again at the end of days. You rather find some other way to call your spirit home?”
“I . . . I guess not.”
“Just remember two things,” Laurette said, pacing now. “One, keep your bedroom door shut when your spirit’s traveling. Your body will seem cold and dead, and it won’t do for your children or anyone else to see you like that. Two, if you meet up with Mr. Mear, don’t speak to him. He’s a snake; he’ll strike you. But once you find where he’s keeping the bodies of your husband and the others, then you can crush him with the law. The police won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to you.”
For the rest of the day, half of me was trying to push the sun down and the kids into bed, so I could get started with finding you, and the other half was thinking things like Don’t do it and What the hell place am I rushing off to, anyway? But that was the thing: whatever the hell place it was, it was one I stuck you into. So now I’m gonna pull you out. When the strong part of me thought that, the weak part shut right up.
I locked our bedroom door and lay down on my back on the bed. Some of Laurette’s poison was soaking in cooking oil in a mug on the night table. I rested the cross on my lips, smeared some oily drops under my nose, and breathed deep.
It felt like someone had poured cement down my windpipe and filled up my lungs with it. I couldn’t take a breath, couldn’t scream, couldn’t lift a finger, though my heart was pounding fit to power a racecar. I struggled with all my might to get up–and then suddenly staggered forward, gasping. A knife blade pain moved from my shoulders down my arms and through my ribs. The marrow in every bone in my body had been replaced with hot coals. I guess you know the feeling; I guess you know it way better than me. I didn’t know it hurt so much to be caught between the land of the living and the sleep of the dead.
I ran my finger along the ring of your hair and called to you. I heard my own voice come back to me, from faraway, just like Laurette said.
I started walking in that direction, not out the door or through the window, but somehow into the space between wherever our bedroom is, in the whole wide universe, and where you were laboring.
First thing I was aware of was someone singing, chain-gang style:
Tired in my bones but I can’t rest long
How many my crimes that I still ain’t free?
Where’s the green pasture promised me?
Lord, what’s the devil done to me?
And then my eyes caught up with my ears, and I saw you all, looked to be about twenty of you, all told, ankle deep in mud, working with shovels. They sloshed when they sliced into the ground. I noticed other sounds, too–frogs, some chirping like birds and some with real deep voices, and also bugs, jinglebell crickets and maraca katydids. Behind you, inky black water snaked in and out between little spiky, grass-covered humps and lumps and the thin silhouettes of trees.
“Tommy!” I called again, and you turned.
There was joy in your face, but it disappeared in an eyeblink. “What happened to you? Why are you here?”
The others had stopped work too and were coming closer.
“She the one that put you here?” asked a big guy, fixing me with a stare that made me take a step backward. I was glad you came and stood between us. But the pain when you put your arm around me! I flinched and you recoiled.
“It’s not like huggin’ a living girl,” said a skinny guy, laughing a little. “Embracin’ the dead makes the death pains worse instead of better. But at least you can kiss her all you want without pullin’ the life outta her, seein’ as she’s already here. If you don’t mind the pain, that is. Go ahead. You gonna? I would, if I was you.”
I would of smacked the leer right off his face, but you were looking so sad, I knew I needed to reassure you, first.
“I’m not dead. It’s just temporary. It’s so I can rescue you from all this.” I waved an arm at wherever we were. Some miserable swamp. “Whatever Mr. Mear said, don’t believe it. You don’t gotta work for him.”
“Oh yes you do,” said the deep-voiced singer. “You don’t pull your weight, there’s no way we’ll get enough of this done for some gambling. No gambling, no winnings. No winnings, and I’ll spend the first hours of the next shift making you feel some real pain.”
“That’s Harrison,” you said. “He’s the foreman.”
You took up your shovel and started digging again. I looked around for an extra one, but there weren’t none spare, so I reached down and grabbed up some of that waterlogged mud with my hands and slapped it down where you all were putting what you dug up.
“Mr. Mear can’t really make you work for him,” I said, low, so Harrison and the others wouldn’t hear. “I’m gonna find out where he’s got your body, and then I’ll have you buried for real, and then you won’t be restless like this.”
“I gotta, Janelle; I signed a contract. He said you owed him six thousand dollars for my casket and funeral, and he could either chase after you with debt collectors or I could work it off.”
“He’s a cheating liar,” I said, flinging down another handful of muck. “He told me he was giving me those things for free.”
You straightened up, one of those teasing smiles on your face, and said,
“When’s anything like that ever free?”
“But he didn’t even really bury you! He stole you!” And then I nearly laughed, because were we actually bickering? Next thing I knew, we were in each other’s arms, clinging to each other, never mind the fire that flared down every nerve when we touched.
“Let’s see the spade moving, loverboy,” said Harrison, and back to work we went.
“What is this work, anyway?” I asked. I couldn’t do much without a shovel—more stuff slipped through my fingers than made it to the mound of dirt.
“Draining a swamp,” you said with a grunt.
“‘Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low,’” said Harrison.
“And every stinking swamp’ll become prime real estate,” said one of the others. After that no one talked much; there was just the sound of the shovels and the frogs, and sometimes Harrison, singing, until much later, when the skinny one shouted and pointed. A pale-bright light, like fireflies make, shone in the distance.
“Mr. Mear’s callin’! Let’s go!” All the shovels fell with wet thuds.
“They gamble with Mr. Mear,” you said, following after. “He puts in whiskey shots and they put in time. Everyone loses more than they win. They’ll end up working for him forever, but they don’t care. They think it’s worth it.”
“You look like you do, too.”
“I’m telling you, Janelle, if I gotta exist like this, it might be. A drink takes the phantom pain away, like the touch of the living does. But he said he’d release me once I paid off the funeral costs, and I don’t want to be stuck here forever. So far I only played once, and that was to win time to see you.”
We’d come to an open door, a rectangle glowing with the softest light I ever seen. At one end of the room through the door, behind a table, was a shimmering man, beautiful and a little frightening, like I always imagined an angel would be. Two frowning figures, white as chalk, stood on either side of him, arms crossed.
“That’s Mr. Mear,” you said.
I thought I would choke.
“That? That’s Mr. Mear? No!”
But when you said it, I could see it. It was Mr. Mear, but transformed, as if all the power and glory of heaven had dropped down onto his shoulders.
“It’s not right! He’s a wicked man, an evil man. How’d he get to be so, so. . . ”
“It’s just cause he’s alive, Janelle. That’s all. All the living look that way. You looked like that, when I saw you by the apartment, only better. You looked a thousand times better than him.”
“Tonight’s game is roulette, boys,” Mr. Mear was saying. “Each chip’s worth an hour, and I’ll pay out in bourbon–Keep back, Grady; that’s close enough.”
Grady–I recognized him as the menacing big guy–had leaned a little too far forward over the table, and the figure on Mr. Mear’s left thrust a bone-white arm between Mr. Mear and him. It glinted in Mr. Mear’s glow, and Grady shrank back.
“He won’t let us get too near him,” you whispered. “Doesn’t want us to pull him down to join us. Those bodyguards he got, they’re made of salt. No dead thing can cross them.”
“Macy, you in?” Mr. Mear asked. “You want to win another visit with your sweet wife?”
“Nah, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again,” you said, and I did a double take, cause your voice sounded as bitter as on the night you came to the apartment.
“Then come play to forget about her,” Mr. Mear coaxed.
“S’okay Mr. Mear. I’m good,” you said, and Mr. Mear’s bright face darkened a little.
Seemed like no more than three spins of the wheel later that Mr. Mear was clapping his hands and saying it was time to call it a night. He took a step to the left, and I could see a thick, ugly door of rough boards there behind him.
“Sun’ll be up soon,” Mr. Mear said. “Time to rest.” He threw open that door, and out came a horrible smell of spoiled meat so strong I thought I’d puke. And you all started walking toward it.
“Don’t go!” I cried, not even thinking of Mr. Mear and whether he would see or hear me. “Not into that!”
“I have to,” you said, but your voice was so thin, it was barely there. You were barely there.
And I was barely there. There was a cold blade against my lips. No, not a blade. My eyes opened. The first light of morning was shining through our window, onto Laurette’s cross.
“Mom? Mom?” Jesse’s anxious voice on the other side of the bedroom door. I swung my feet to the floor and stumbled over, opened it.
“Cammie came into my bed,” he said. “She had bad dreams and called for you, but you didn’t come.” He looked up at me. “Are you okay? You won’t get sick, will you? You look like maybe you’re getting sick.”
I wrapped my arms around him.
“I won’t get sick, buddy. I’m here for you.” I squeezed him tight.
After work, I headed straight to city hall, to the Conservation Commission. Think you can make a fortune off some drained swampland, Mr. Mear? Cause I don’t think so. Tommy’s told me how the developers and contractors gripe about wetlands laws. Those would be the laws you’re breaking, with the labor of my husband and the rest of your ghost slaves. You just wait till I find what wetlands you own. I’ll go straight to the police, and I’ll have not one, but two things to get you for: keeping dead bodies on your property without burying them, and destroying wetlands. What a fierce pleasure it was to think on that. You feel it coming, Mr. Mear? It’s your punishment.
It was hard to settle the kids that night. Cammie kept saying she wanted to sleep in my bed, and I ended up snapping at her, saying I needed peace and quiet. She gave me a look that just tore my heart, but what could I do?
“You let her come sleep with you again if she’s fretful, okay?” I said to Jesse, and he nodded.
Alone in the bedroom, I rubbed the poison ointment on and waited for the pangs of death to take hold. Then I went through the between space to where you and the others were. I wrapped my arms around you and you pulled me close, a white-hot razor wire hug. Then we staggered apart, and I showed you the spade that I bought on my way back from city hall and the police station.
“I’m gonna help you,” I said. “We’ll work side by side, every night, till the police come and shut Mr. Mear down–which won’t be too long, after what I told them today.”
“Janelle . . .”
Why’d you look so sad? It was worse than the look Cammie gave me.
“I don’t want you to come here.”
You don’t mean that. Didn’t you just hold me as tight as I held you?
“I’m worried you’re gonna wear yourself out. I don’t know how you found a way to be here like this, but it can’t be good for you. And I don’t like seeing you like, like . . .” you waved your hand at the others, at yourself. “I’d rather see you alive.”
“What, is she back again?” It was Grady, slouching over with narrowed eyes and a sneer.
“What’s it to you? I brought a shovel; I’ll help you dig your stupid ditch,” I said.
“The more workers, the more progress, and the more time we’ll get to play,” piped up someone else, and Harrison just gave me a silent nod. So we worked, side by side, until Mr. Mear’s light called from what the maps in the Conservation Commission offices said was a hunting cabin.
This time it was blackjack, and Mr. Mear invited you to play again, and he peered back in our direction when you didn’t come forward.
“What’re you hiding back there, Macy?” he asked. “Or who?” And he actually stepped out from behind his table, the salt guards flanking him.
“Nothing. Nobody. I’ll play,” you said, pushing me out the cabin door.
“Don’t you come back here tomorrow,” you said to me, voice low and words quick. “I’ll win some time tonight and I’ll come to you. It’ll work out; odds are good with blackjack.” You shut the door and left me to keep the frogs and mosquitoes company until the sun on Laurette’s silver cross called me back to the living.
“Why do you lock the bedroom door?” Jesse asked me in the morning, though I couldn’t hardly make out the words–he had his face pressed against my stomach and arms wrapped tight around me.
“I won’t lock it tonight,” I said, and I didn’t: I let the kids climb into bed with me, and when they were asleep, I slipped out to sleep on the couch, to wait for you. But the hours went by, and first the birds started singing and then the early-morning trucks started rumbling past, and you still didn’t come, and then the sun came up and there wasn’t no point in waiting no more.
I left a message at the police station before going in to work that morning. I wanted to hear if they had investigated that cabin and found you and the others. I wanted to hear if they seen the ditches you all were digging to draw the water out of the swamp.
All morning I was jumpy and distracted, hoping for a call back. I got a talking to from the manager after lunch break, but still I couldn’t focus on work. Two thoughts kept chasing around in my head: why haven’t the police called back, and why didn’t you come last night? Maybe Mr. Mear found out I been to the police, and he took it out on Tommy. But how? What could Mr. Mear do to you? Can a living man harm a dead one? Laurette would know. I texted her, but she didn’t answer.
Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe Tommy just didn’t get a winning hand, and that’s why he couldn’t come. And that was the way the day crawled by, my thoughts tumbling over each other, and that was why, after dinner, I told the kids I needed to sleep alone again.
But before I lay down and locked the door, a idea came to me. If it was drink Mr. Mear was using as a lure and a chain, what if I brought everyone some? Maybe I could launch a ghost strike, give Mr. Mear some grief in the spirit world, until the police caught up with him in the waking one. At least I could take away everybody’s phantom pain. I grabbed a couple bottles of vodka from our sin cupboard, then shut myself up in the bedroom. I smeared on the poison, let the cement fill my lungs. Soon I was at your side, but you weren’t in the mood for hugs.
“Janelle, you shouldn’t be here; you gotta get outta here,” you said, casting glances at the others. Grady was watching us, arms crossed, and the rest were staring too. You pulled me away from the ditch and behind a swamp maple.
“Yesterday, when Mr. Mear was dealing the cards, Grady told him about you coming here. Harrison stuck up for you, said you took up a spade alongside the rest of us, but Mr. Mear didn’t even hear him, just turned to me and said, ‘It’s your wife, then, that’s been trying to make trouble for me. I can’t have that.’ He was steamed. You gotta leave–I don’t want him to find you here.”
“So he’s steamed, so what? What’s he gonna do to me? Or you, or any of the others here? If he tries to touch you, it’s him that gets hurt, right? That’s what he’s got those bodyguards for, I thought.”
A deep laugh interrupted me. It was Harrison. Him and the others had come over; they were standing in a half circle around the swamp maple.
“It’s not what he might do; it’s what he might not do. He might decide never to let them rest,” Harrison said, with a nod toward everyone else. “He might just let’m rot out here, leave them stranded here. Forever.”
“Them? What do you mean them? You different?” Just asking the question filled me with dread.
“Yes, I am different, little girl. I met my death in this swamp long before you was born. Been wandering here ever since. I ain’t never gonna rest now–who knows where my bones lie? Not even me. But you know who’s offered me relief? Mr. Mear. I came up to him when he set the first three boys to work. Asked him to take me too, said I’d keep the boys in line if he’d share a couple sips of that bright fire water.”
“I got some of that stuff,” I said, seizing my chance. “And I’ll share it with you. With everyone. Here.” I held out the bottles, and the others drew nearer, moths to a flame. Harrison took a swig from one and sighed a sigh like chains falling to the ground.
“That’s not all,” I continued, talking fast, “I know where Mr. Mear’s got everyone’s bodies, in the waking world. I’m gonna make sure everyone’s buried the way they should be, so they can rest in peace. So you see, no one needs to do nothing for Mr. Mear if they don’t want to.”
Cheers went up, but I couldn’t tell whether it was for the promise of getting free of Mr. Mear or just for the drink. Harrison still looked long faced, though. Of course: what’s one night’s celebration to him? What happens after this? Everyone else laid to rest, and him still left wandering here.
“I’ll make the police search the swamp for your body, too,” I said to him. “And if they can’t find it, I’ll save up money until I can buy a stone for you, and even though it’s trespassing, I’ll find a way to put it here. I won’t let you be forgotten.” It was all I could offer, but it was enough to make Harrison smile.
“You have a fine wife, Macy,” he said. He started humming a tune, then singing the words, and soon everyone was joining in for the chorus.
Come swift the hour of freedom and release
Delight my aching heart, my joy increase.
With a swallow of vodka I could kiss you and there was no pain at all. We could touch like we did in the living world; we could dance. It was better than my wildest hope–I never thought I was gonna bring you back to the living, but for those hours, it was like I had. And it wasn’t just you. The others seemed this close to alive again, too, as if even the rising sun couldn’t force you all back to the prisons of your rotting bodies.
But if drink was all it took to raise the dead, there wouldn’t be nobody left sleeping in graveyards. There came a moment when the carousing stopped and everyone’s smiles faded.
“Janelle . . .” Your voice was a choked whisper, and your eyes looked right past me.
I turned round. It was Mr. Mear, coming toward us from the hunting cabin, a bodyguard on either side.
“Mrs. Macy. I thought I might find you here. You sure do have your heart set on plaguing me, don’t you,” he said. “And this after the nice funeral I gave your husband. I guess it’s like they always say: no good deed goes unpunished. Here, Alvarez, I’ll take that.”
The guy holding the remaining bottle of vodka handed it to him. Mr. Mear took a sip and made a face.
“This is garbage; is this what you’re offering?” He emptied what was left onto the ground. “Don’t fret, boys. I have much better stuff for you. You stick by me; I’ll stick by you. Hell, I’ll even offer you some, Mrs. Macy, if you apologize for the headache you caused me and ask nicely.”
“Hell to you too, Mr. Mear. I hope I give you more than headaches; I hope I give you jail time.”
“So I gathered from Dick at the Conservation Commission. ‘Everett,’ he says to me, ‘You’re not thinking of tampering with that land of yours, are you? You know it’s illegal to drain wetlands.’
“‘Come on, Dick, what do you take me for?’ I said. ‘Even if I were fool enough to entertain the idea, have you seen the road to the hunting cabin? It’s barely more than a track for quads. You couldn’t get equipment up there without some serious clearing–or do you imagine I’d try tackling the job with my bare hands?’ We both had a good laugh.” He paused, and his eyes lingered on the ditches you guys been working on, and the mounds of earth.
“When I get done here,” he said softly, “and I finally do call people in to do a field survey, they’ll realize that the old assessments must have been mistaken.” He glanced my way.
“Dick told me some woman had been by, saying I was breaking the law. ‘Who, that Haitian girl? Cause she’s just crazy,’ I said. And he said no, and described you. And all I can say is, it’s a shame you came to this end. Your poor children.”
“Save your sympathy. I’m not dead just yet, thank you very much. I’ll be rising up at first light.”
He shook his head.
“Oh, I don’t think so. I took the liberty of dropping by your place this evening, before coming here. I wanted to chat with you about your visit to the Conservation Commission. Your little boy buzzed me in. Such solemn eyes on someone so young! He said you’d locked your bedroom door, and that you didn’t answer, even when he banged real hard on it. I got the door open and we found you, still and cold, a mug of something nasty on the night table beside you. We called the ambulance, but it was too late.”
Panic whirlwinded up in me, fanning the phantom pain to white hot; I could barely stand.
“No. No, you’re wrong. It’s only temporary. I–”
“Sure looked permanent to me, and to the paramedics. In any case, if it’s not now, it will be when the medical examiner gets in and takes a knife to you for the autopsy.”
“I’ll wake up before that.” So hard for me to get the words out, with fear constricting my heart and turning my tongue to sand in my mouth. “At dawn–the light on the silver cross’ll–”
“This silver cross?” He pulled Laurette’s cross from his pocket.
My legs gave out on me. I was down on my knees in the mud, tears rising in my eyes and a sob rising in my throat–for our babies, for you and me, for how wrong it is that the Mr. Mears of the world prosper while the Tommys and Laurettes and Janelles are left to struggle and weep. Guess it was all too much for you, too: I heard you roar, felt you rush past me, trying to get your hands on Mr. Mear, but of course those salt guards pushed you away, and right back against the swamp maple, pinning you there with their crystal hands, and at their touch you writhed and screamed. All the other guys shrank well back–scared, helpless ghosts.
“Try something like that again, Macy, and I’ll dump your stinking corpse someplace so godforsaken that you’ll never find another soul to haunt,” Mr. Mear said.
I pulled myself to my feet, feeling nothing but flames and fire.
Mr. Mear turned his radiance my way.
“I want you both to understand something,” he said. “You can try my patience to the breaking point, but you can’t actually do anything to me, whereas I have the power to make your waking hours torture, or”–he waved the bodyguards back, and you crumpled down at the base of the swamp maple–“if you promise to behave, I can be generous. I won’t hold a grudge. I’ll let you work here, both of you, so long as you stay in line. Once I feel confident you won’t act up, I can let you play for time to look in on your kids. How’s that sound?”
I couldn’t let him win. Even if he had.
“Sounds like empty promises, seeing as you’ll be as dead as us pretty soon, if you don’t call 911,” I said–a desperate lie.
He just laughed. It was kerosene for my rage.
“The vodka. You said it was garbage, but it’s worse’n that. It’s poison. I put some of Laurette’s special mixture in, cause I was hoping a greedy bastard like you might steal a swig. And see, the way that stuff works is, if you keep it on the outside of you, it won’t kill you, but if you drink it, you’re definitely gonna die.”
How I wished it was true! I wished so hard, I could almost remember pouring the oily mix into the mouths of the bottles.
“I spilled some on the bed,” I said, “but most of it went in. That’s why you found the mug nearly empty. That’s why there’s grease marks on the bottle labels.”
“I don’t remember the mug being nearly empty,” Mr. Mear muttered, turning the bottle round and squinting at the label. When his eyes met mine again, I could see a little seed of fear had sprouted in him.
“Maybe if you call an ambulance, they can pump your stomach or something,” I said. “Of course, then they’ll find the bodies you got stashed here.”
He flung the bottle down.
“I won’t do that,” he said though gritted teeth, but his hand strayed toward his pocket.
The sky was getting pale, and the leaves of the trees were turning from shades and shadows to green, and you and the others started drifting toward the cabin. Me, I could feel myself tugged in a different direction.
But something was flashing down beyond the cabin, blue and white lights, so bright, coming nearer. The police, after all? How?
“Guess you been found out anyway,” I said to Mr. Mear, but I didn’t have a chance to gloat. I was moving through nowhere space, back to where my body lay, and I knew without Laurette’s cross to call me to waking, I’d slip right into death, for permanent.
So what’s this thin, cold weight here on my lips? How are my eyes opening?
Above me, I saw Laurette’s face; behind her, the bags, tubes, and displays of hospital stuff. My hand went to my mouth, and my fingers closed round a silver cross.
“But Mr. Mear had it,” I whispered.
“You think I have just one? I got your text yesterday, but by the time I was free to call, it was very late. Your mother answered. I could barely catch her words through her tears, but when I understood what happened, I called the police. They had to act–too strange for a woman who accuses a man of a crime to be found dead by him. Then I came here, and when I saw the cross been taken from you, I replaced it with the one I was wearing.”
“But the light of morning? There’s no windows in here.”
She smiled and held out a compact mirror.
“I brought that, too. Every Sunday I catch the first light in my mirror. It’s good medicine. Open up the compact, and the light shines out.”
I took a deep breath. Slowly in, slowly out. I pushed myself to sitting, felt my heart beating.
“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you. My babies would be orphans.”
“I was the one who put you in harm’s way in the first place.”
I shook my head. “You helped me rescue my husband and the others.” Harrison too, I thought. I gotta tell the police about Harrison. “Mr. Mear will go to jail, and the dead will rest in peace.”
My heart ached as I said that. No more meeting you, Tommy, not till my time really does come. I just gotta bear it. And maybe Green Street’ll be your resting place, after all, but if it is, I gotta bear that, too. I’ll plant flowers there, real ones, and water them. I’ll make your patch of ground prettier than a garden, and I’ll go there and sit in among the flowers, to be near to you.
Laurette offered me a hand, and I hopped down from the table. She put an arm around my shoulders–so warm.
“Let’s go show the doctors this miracle, and then take you home to your mother and your children,” she said. I wiped my eyes and nodded, and we headed out into the new day.
By Bruce Holland Rogers
When Jerome’s father died, his mother started visiting mediums and spiritualists, and Jerome would come along and sit in the room while his father’s messages were conveyed to the land of the living. This was the beginning of his interest in crystal balls, velvet cushions, bright scarves, and other accoutrements of magic. Before he was even a teenager, Jerome knew that communication with the dead was a confidence game, one that he would never play. But he had taught himself card tricks and the art of palming a coin. He entertained his friends by cutting and restoring ropes or making water poured into a cone of paper disappear.
Girls liked the tricks. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome, that his long-fingered hands were pleasant to look at, that he knew how to smile for everyone the smile that was meant just for them. He earned his college tuition money by doing magic shows at parties, and then developed a routine of cabinet tricks with his pretty girlfriend. They performed at the local arts center and drew big enough crowds to earn the interest of a booking agent. They did variations of Assistant’s Revenge, Mismade Girl, and the Cabinet Escape.
After one show, a man came backstage to say that it wasn’t a bad show, but that with a little thought, it could be great. The man was none other than Vaclav Storek, the Storek, who turned out to have retired with a few untried ideas. His suggestions made possible all sorts of novelties, including a variation of the Mismade Girl using an additional pretty assistant. One girl dressed all in green, the other in purple, and when the cabinet sections were moved and the divided girls restored, the assistants both wore a mix of green and purple as if they had been scrambled and reassembled in a new configuration of parts.
Storek taught Jerome the really big tricks, and together they developed illusions that hadn’t been imagined yet by anyone else. The act appeared on the late-night television shows, then on hour-long network specials. Jerome always acknowledged Storek’s contributions at the end of each show, called him a great teacher and master of masters. “There is still one secret I haven’t shown you yet,” Storek would say.
The old man died without showing him the final secret. The show went on. Jerome worked his way through a great many beautiful assistants and finally married one. He started a family. His permanent show in Las Vegas and the occasional television special kept the money flowing in. “As if by magic,” he liked to say.
He had everything. The house, the cars, the wife, the new pretty assistants. Applause from a packed house for five shows a week. Everything.
He drank. He lingered in his dressing room with a bottle longer and longer after each performance. He had built his life on illusion, which meant that he saw through illusions better than most people. Applause no longer fed him. Money was numbers written on ephemeral paper. His wife was getting older, and even if he divorced her for a younger woman, that wouldn’t buy him any more time as a young man. Some nights he would not emerge from his dressing room until everyone else had gone. He would turn on the one spot for the center of the stage, roll the great black and gold cabinet into the light, and open the door to look at the darkness inside. Someday he would enter that darkness. Someday, he would leave everything behind.
One night, Jerome not only drank, but took pills. Not enough to do him harm, he thought, but he staggered on his way to the technician’s controls for the lights. He stumbled as he made his way to the stage. His ears buzzed. For a moment, he thought he heard voices, but he was alone.
He rolled the cabinet into its position under the spotlight. He opened the door and peered into the blackness. He got in. He crouched down, then curled himself into the fetal position. In some places, they buried the dead curled up like this. He exhaled and did not inhale immediately, experimenting with what it was like not to breathe. This was the one real thing. Everything pointed to this.
“Yes,” said the unmistakable voice of Storek in his ear. “The last secret.”
Love in the Isle of the Combinators
By Raphael Ordonez
Linimer’s fingers caressed the brass dial. Six plus four minus one choose four. The engine rang out its answer, one note in a mechanical symphony. Sixty combinators danced along the face of the machine, up and down the Hall of Computation.
Nine choose four and nine choose five is ten choose five. Six hundred fingers flew over the cogs and stops. Slanting sunbeams streamed through the high windows, making gnomons of the workers and gold dust of the whirling motes. It was evening.
The twenty-four-minute whistle blew and Linimer gave way to his four-six replacement. He was trembling. This was the night he had chosen to reveal his secret double life.
Gerson, his supervisor, was waiting at the exit. “There you are,” he said, glancing at his watch. “Ready?”
“Y-yes,” said Linimer, staring hard at the floor and trying on several expressions in turn. “I west-end the north living quarter,” he said.
“You wha-a-a-at?” Gerson bleated.
“The northwestern quarter. Where I live.”
“Oh, oh. Right, then. Lead the way.”
They went out into the street. The old towers that overshadowed it were corroded like the hulls of battered ironsides. The air smelled of the sea.
The island under their feet had once been called Talus, the Holy Isle, for the ancients had held it unlawful for any dead thing to touch its barren soil; in those days even women in childbirth were compelled to take to the sea. But the taboos had been forgotten with the inception of the Pleiach, the semi-divine headless democratic social machine by which all Enoch was governed. The island had become a center for accounting and computing, and boasted the greatest analytical engines in the world-city. And so it was known as the Isle of the Combinators.
Linimer was muttering under his breath while they walked, repeating the last thing he had said over and over again like a recording. Gerson glanced at him and cleared his throat. “So,” he said, “you live alone, eh?”
“Oh, ah, not exactly.”
“Oh! You room with one of the boys then. I hadn’t realized that.”
“No, nothing like that. A woman. I live with a woman. Picked her up off the street. Ha ha! Strangest thing, really.”
“Oh!” said Gerson. He waited, wincing, for his underling to go on. But Linimer had fallen into a reverie and was silently moving his lips again. He was reciting the speech he had practiced, running through it one last time before using it on his supervisor. It was the story of how he had found his woman.
It all began on a rainy night. He was out wandering the streets, alone as usual. He never had any friends, for he was an eccentric; or rather, he was the wrong kind of eccentric. He knew one combinator who would distractedly pluck out his own beard hairs and eat them, another who always went about wearing the same three pairs of pants all at once in layers. But these were acceptable abnormalities, marks of the chosen tribes. He was a misfit. Although the combinatorial office was open to all whom the Pleiach selected, only certain phylla prospered in it. These invisible forces kept him locked in a glass cell. Things had begun to go awry in his brain. He had learned to keep to himself.
He came upon the ghul-woman in a dark alley. She was lost and naked and her red-gold hair was streaming. She was young, and would have been quite beautiful if she’d had a soul. Her innocent beast-eyes were white-rimmed with fear.
Linimer had always had a soft spot for wounded animals. He knew that she must belong to someone, but also knew that she had most likely been mistreated. So he calmed her down, won her trust with some food, and led her back to his apartment.
For days he took care of her as he did any of his other pets. He procured her a ghulic habit and gave her the run of his flat. She was well-trained and responded quickly to his kindness. He began to look forward to seeing her when he got off work. He even stopped going on his nocturnal walks. That was when it happened.
Without letting one side of his mind know what the other was doing, he went out one day and bought a dress and some underthings and took them home. She struggled against him while he dressed her. When he was finished she ran and hid in a corner.
Her apparent shame — which was in truth mere animal bewilderment — forced him to face what he was doing. Even under the Pleiach the prohibition against relations with ghulim was ingrained in every soul.
Sick at heart, he unhooked the dress with shaking hands and pulled it off. He was tempted to drown her, but hadn’t the stomach for it. Instead he fell at her feet. “Eternal spirits of flame,” he groaned, “have pity on me, a miserable wretch.” With that he fled.
All night he wandered the steaming, rust-black labyrinths, hardly knowing where he went. At one point he found himself threading the byways of the under-city, making for the abandoned temple district. It was all gated off.
Later on he walked far out along one of the viaducts that connected the isle to the sea-girding city. The surging water called to him. But exhaustion came with dawn, and he returned home.
Strange music greeted him as he went down the corridor to his flat. He recognized the notes of his own steam-organ. For a moment he listened with his ear to the door. The euphony had a weird, arrhythmic beauty, sounding at one moment like bubbles rising from the abyssal plain, at the next like sunbeams drifting through clouds of dawn. He pushed his way inside.
The ghul was seated at the organ. She was wearing the dress; her red-gold hair was piled in a lovely heap on her head. She stopped playing and looked at him with grave eyes. “Hello,” she said, and smiled.
“What brought bipartite graphs to my mind,” drawled Gerson, “was the Urath account.”
“Er, ah, yes?” squeaked Linimer. He realized with horror that his supervisor had been talking for some while. But the context was all wrong. The words slipped neatly through his brain without leaving a mark. It would take him hours to reconstruct the conversation. That was one reason why he avoided getting together with coworkers.
Gerson was still talking when they reached his building. They passed through bronze doors into a gloomy foyer. The black-and-white tiled floor had buckled with age; cobwebs festooned the gas chandelier. The neglect everywhere evident — extreme even for latter-day Enoch — stilled the combinator’s tongue.
The once-grand lobby was worse. Water poured quietly down its marble wall and lost itself in a crack. A trail through the dust showed that the building wasn’t entirely derelict, but the footprints were all Linimer’s.
They boarded the elevator car and rode it up the shaft. Linimer lived on the top story. Now that he was committed, he began to fret. He was afraid of the ghul’s prohibition.
“Your prayers have been answered,” she had said. “Your kindness has not gone unnoticed. I am a princess of the powers of the air come to dwell in this house of flesh. I will live with you and love you all the days of your life, so long as you care for me and share me with no man. Do you agree?”
“I agree,” he panted, hardly knowing what he said. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was the first time he had kissed a woman.
That was the beginning of their strange conjugal life. Every day he would come home to find his “wife” playing the organ. She cooked for him and sang strange songs to him and made love to him. Sometimes he would go searching all over the city for beautiful things to present to her, filling the flat with bizarre bric-a-brac. Under her inspiration he began to devise a new axiomatic system.
They rarely spoke; it didn’t seem necessary. When they did talk she said things that he didn’t understand but that became lodged in the back of his mind like darkly glimmering gems. He didn’t know her name and wasn’t sure that she had one. But he was happy.
In time, though, he grew discontented. He viewed his peculiar but rich private life as offsetting his professional difficulties, and started to feel unappreciated at work. He began daydreaming about a visit from a colleague. His wife would entertain them, the rumor of his enviable circumstances would spread, and he would grow in everyone’s estimation.
His daydream sprouted into a plan without his being aware of it. He dropped all sorts of hints at work, left little things unsaid or undone. Nothing had any effect. Growing desperate, he finally invited Gerson over for a drink. To his surprise and utter horror, Gerson accepted. After that nothing could get him out of his predicament.
They stepped into the corridor. The window at its western end gilt the white walls with dying sunbeams. Organ notes drifted through the air. Linimer kept casting sidelong glances at his supervisor, but Gerson seemed oblivious to the music. Together they went into the apartment.
The guttering sun was about to go out. The room was full of golden light. Linimer’s wife was at the instrument. Her shapely form filled a dress of golden sea-silk that had cost him a month’s salary. She broke off mid-note and rose to her feet.
“H-hello, my love,” stammered Linimer. “I’ve brought a, ah, colleague…”
“How do you do?” said Gerson, glancing around at the clutter.
The woman’s eyes were accusing, but she didn’t open her lips. Suddenly her face got a faraway look.
Linimer was mumbling an explanation when a dribbling noise brought him up short. A puddle was forming on the floor at his wife’s feet. Her mouth had grown slack and her eyes were blank.
“Perhaps I’d better come back some other time,” said Gerson.
“No, nonsense,” said Linimer, putting on what he hoped was a bright smile while watching his wife out of the corner of his eye. “We shall be most pleased if, ah, if…”
He was edging toward her as he spoke. She suddenly went wild, tearing at her clothes and shrieking. The grin he wore while he tried to restrain her was something terrible. At last he succeeded in maneuvering her into his bedroom and locking the door.
“It’s the strangest thing, really,” he said with a desperate chuckle.
“Listen,” said Gerson, “what a man does in his own home is his own business. Live and let live, that’s what I say. But do you know what would happen if I didn’t report this and word got out some other way? Why did you bring me here?”
“No, you see, you don’t–”
“Please. I think I do. These things have been going on for as long as there’s been men and ghulim. But that’s neither here nor there. I’ll have to report it. Of course I will. You understand that. It won’t do you any good if I lose my place with you.”
“Lose…your place…” trailed Linimer, beginning to comprehend.
“I have to go now,” said Gerson. He paused as he stepped through the door. “It suddenly occurs to me that the Chief Combinator complained a while back about losing an expensive ghul. I’d hate for whoever found it to have to go to prison for a silly mistake. Good evening.” And with that he was gone.
For a long time Linimer stood there in the middle of the room while the shadows gathered. His collection of curiosities mocked him like an army of imps. He went into the kitchenette and lit the tube lamp. Its oblique light draped itself across the furniture like a sickly, bloated cat.
He looked out the windows. Here and there the settling dusk was pricked by a silvery light. From his vantage he could make out even the minutest details of distant offices. He drew the blinds and wandered the room, toying distractedly with his things. It had started raining.
He wanted to abandon his life and identity and go far away. Perhaps he would have done so, would have abandoned the ghul to devour herself in the locked room, if he hadn’t been afraid of an investigation. At last he forced himself to go check on her.
She was naked and crouching in a corner. The room was a mess.
There was only one thing to do. Gerson himself had suggested it. Linimer went through his closet, trying not to look at the gowns and dresses, and dug out the old habit. It took some time to get it on her. Midnight was long past when he finally led her through the foyer. It had stopped raining but the streets were wet and stinking.
He directed her through the dark maze to where the nearest viaduct waded through the fog on massive pylons. They went down to the caged catwalk suspended from the tracks and began to cross over the sea. The entire structure galloped alarmingly whenever a rail car roared by above.
The city fell away behind them like a black crown encrusted with gems. The light slowly increased. The pylons gave way to submerged pontoons, and the jointed bridge undulated with the swells. At last the sun sped over the waves, dispelling the vapors and turning the sea green and gold.
When Linimer judged that they had gotten far enough, he halted. The ghul didn’t struggle as he lifted her and balanced her on the rail. She just looked at the sky.
He thought of the long empty days ahead, of the hopeless nights alone in his flat. A vision flashed through his mind of keeping her and caring for her in the hope that one day the gods would see fit to bless him again.
Suddenly a train thundered by overhead. Its violence was the fury of the Pleiach’s unthinking threshers. He let go of the ghul.
He watched her twist in the air while she dropped. The smack of her splash took an instant to reach him. To his surprise she started struggling in the water. She got out of the habit somehow and began thrashing about.
Impulsively, he climbed over the rail and jumped. He tried to scream as he fell, but the air was forced back in his lungs. The water flew up to meet him and struck him full in the face. When he surfaced he looked wildly about. The woman was nowhere in sight.
Dipping his head underwater, he glimpsed a trail of bubbles and dove after it. Her pale form showed itself against the greenish gloom. It took all his strength to force himself deep enough to reach her. He grasped her hand and pulled her after him.
When he reached the surface he struck out for the nearest pontoon. He dragged her onto the rusty hull and tried to resuscitate her, but it was no good. She was dead. Spread out like that on the slippery metal, her limp form made him think of a drowned lacewing stuck to the side of a glass.
With a leaden heart he began to climb back up.
He didn’t get home until the middle of the afternoon. He had missed his shift, but it didn’t seem to matter. The flat was stuffy and quiet.
After pottering about for a bit, he opened a side door. The lamp turned on automatically, spreading a lurid glow over the closet. A mechanical image reclined on a soft couch at the back. It opened its legs, murmuring invitingly. But its face was nearly obliterated, its voice distorted and tinny. He slammed the door and shivered.
Just then he heard a knock. Trembling, he went and opened the front door. A woman stood in the hallway. She was half a head taller and perhaps ten years older, and had a buxom form that made him think of suckling. She was wearing a tight floral print dress. Her dark red hair was heaped high on her head. Her ripe red lips were painted with savage abandon.
“Hello again,” she said gravely.
The Roller Coaster
By Justin Key
No Country Club for Old Men was built at the bottom of a small mountain, much like everything else in Martinsville, Virginia. The town had more hills than convenience stores and the one leading up to Bob Woods’ country club was particularly steep. I biked to work and often tried to pedal the last stretch. I usually failed and ended up walking the rest of the way. Tonight was no different.
A little before ten I parked my bike beside the hedges lining the driveway leading up to the club. I wiped the sweat from my face with my shirt and looked up at the mountain. Spiked and bald at the top, the rest of it was ragged with trees, its bottom hidden by the club and the only palm trees in Virginia. The sounds coming from inside were loud; the day’s party was going late.
Woods had made it clear I was not to interact with any of his guests, so I went around the side and waited by the dumpster. It wasn’t my area of choice, but it was the only place away from doors and windows. I tried to pass the time by picking up on conversations drifting from inside, but I couldn’t make much of the excited chatter. With an occasional popping noise I imagined champagne bottles and overflowing glasses, the kind that looked like upside down China-hats. I envisioned people dancing and singing karaoke in one corner and drunkenly discussing politics in another.
The gaggle of laughter bunched together and began to move the length of the club, towards the front. They were finally leaving. I checked the time on my phone. It was near eleven; I had been waiting a full hour. I stuck my head around the corner a safe distance and watched the group as they exited. Woods’ guests were surprisingly mixed in age. There were some who couldn’t be much older than myself, and others well into their fifties and possible sixties. Their ages weren’t the most intriguing, however. It was how they all seemed to enjoy the same drunken high on life. Their intoxication was almost palatable in the night air; I thought I could smell the alcohol coming off of them. I watched as the last stumbled to their pretentious cars and fondled their wives or mistresses.
When I was sure I wouldn’t be seen, I rounded the corner and found Woods standing at the entrance. He had a drink in one hand and his wife’s fingers in the other. Mrs. Woods, however, stood to the side, as far away as she could without their arms forming a bridge. Though she stared blankly in my direction, I doubted she noticed me. Mrs. Woods couldn’t have been older than thirty-five and I only thought that high because of her husband’s gray hairs, not hers. Her face was done up like a doll’s and no matter the weather, occasion, or season, black leather pants always hugged her thighs and left little to the imagination. She ‘could get it,’ as my friends would say. And judging by the lifestyle of Bob Woods, she probably did. She puffed on a cigarette. Her husband watched his departing guests with a euphoric smirk.
I approached slowly. I hoped someone would notice and acknowledge me. No such luck.
“Another successful night, Mr. Woods?” I asked with a half laugh that held more anxiety than humor.
Woods looked at me suddenly, as if I had intruded on the privacy of his thoughts. He raised his brow and his eyes searched my face for recognition. He soon found it, and his countenance turned to one of annoyance. By now, this was routine. To him, I represented the end of his fun, even if only for a night.
I shifted uneasily as he stared at me. He let go of his wife’s hand and motioned for her to go and wait at the car. She did.
“I want the place spotless by morning,” he said. “And strawberries in tomorrow’s shake. The week’s pay is by the kitchen.” He tittered and took a sip of his drink. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”
“I’ll have everything exactly like you like it, Mr. Woods,” I said. “Is there anything else I can do? It’s no problem at all, sir.”
He grunted, began to leave, and then stopped. His smirk came back. “Tell me . . .” He circled his drink in the air. As if he were actually trying to remember my name.
His smile widened. “Thomas. Tell me, Thomas, how old are you, again?”
“Eighteen, sir,” I said.
“How does it feel? To be eighteen.”
From the look on his face, I thought a sudden pain had struck Mr. Woods. Then I realized he was trying his hardest to hold in his laughter. With that realization came another: the man was clearly drunk. More so than I had seen yet.
“It’s . . . it feels good, sir,” I said. I tried to think of something witty and came up with nothing. “I can’t drink yet, though, so that sucks.”
Great one, I thought. All of a sudden the cool August night felt hot and sticky.
Woods sipped his wine and mulled over this. He swayed to one side and then the other. As he did, I glimpsed the inside of the club behind him. Now it was my turn to hold in my reaction: the place was a mess.
When I looked back at Woods, his urge to laugh seemed to have passed.
“Good boy,” he said and patted me on the shoulder. He stumbled past me and off the porch. “Drink all you want,” he called back. “Tonight is for the young!”
The club was in a worse state than I had thought, or feared. I walked around to get an idea of what I was dealing with. As I did I remembered a comedy skit about chimpanzees catering a party. The result had been much like this. Champagne, wine, and vodka bottles littered the floor, some broken. The party had enjoyed a variety of appetizers, meats, and fondue, and remnants of each could be found in all parts of the club. A chair was overturned in the middle of the main room. Next to it was some rope, a blindfold, and a single high-heeled shoe. There was a pile of clothes in one of the hallways. There were three bathrooms. Two of them had vomit-covered floors. All three had known guests needing urinary target practice.
I sighed after seeing all of the devastation and began to gather cleaning materials from under the sink, which was, funny enough, empty of any dishes. When I had replied to the ad on an Internet job site some months prior, I hadn’t expected anything quite like this. Though I couldn’t complain (and didn’t)—it helped me save, and I didn’t have to pay taxes.
Besides, I had one thing to be thankful for: there wasn’t an upstairs.
Four hours later I gathered the trash bags—five full ones—and took them out to the dumpster. I walked through the lobby, through the halls and the bathrooms, and, satisfied, headed for the kitchen to prepare breakfast when something caught my eye.
The door at the back of the club. It was open.
Woods kept all of his rooms locked and made it clear that even if they hadn’t been, they were off limits. Of course, that had been the perfect spark to my curiosity. But he’d never failed at locking every door, and in a lot of ways I was grateful. Without temptation, curiosity is like a flower in a desert.
That had just changed. One of the doors was ajar. And this was no normal door. It was solid steel like the wall surrounding it, protected by a security keypad. It only lacked a skull and crossbones sign warning: KEEP OUT.
And now it was open.
“He must have been shit-faced wasted,” I whispered to myself.
I didn’t think about it long. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. I’d see what there was to see and leave. How could I have known the room would hold a great weakness for me?
I looked around at the empty country club and then pushed the door open. It didn’t creak. Inside was dark, the air different. Cooler, better-tasting. I felt around on the wall and found the light switch.
I stared, shocked, and then burst out laughing. A roller coaster. Four cars, each with four rows of seats. Yellow lightning bolts stretched over red metal. Its tracks disappeared into two black tunnels on opposite walls. Behind it a glass wall overlooked the left side of the mountain. Outside, the tracks led from the side of the club to a hole in the mountain, barely visible under the stars.
“Really?” I said, unable to stop grinning. “Woods, really? A roller coaster?” I spun around like a kid who had just been surprised with his first car and raised my hands to my mouth. This. Was. Awesome.
It took a few minutes before my excitement fell away and left only the decision before me. Compared to the rest of the country club prior to my cleaning, the room was relatively tidy. Still, there was the occasional sign of life: a champagne glass here, a piece of paper there, and a baseball cap in one of the roller coaster’s seats. My giddiness began to swell again. The roller coaster was not only functional, but I began to suspect Woods treated his guests with it. If I left without riding this beauty, I’d think of it every night I went to work. I’d look up at the mountain as I walked my bike up the hill and imagine a red roller coaster with lightning marks racing around inside. It would haunt me.
I checked the room for surveillance cameras and saw none. Confident I wasn’t being recorded, I went over to the control panel on the left side of a metal platform. There were two levers. One green with a dollar sign painted below it; the other red with the word refund.
I lifted my hand towards the green lever but, curious, pulled the red instead. I thought it was broken; it didn’t stick. I tried again, and this time held it down. For a second, nothing happened. Then the roller coaster’s engine roared and it started to roll backwards, towards the tunnel on the left. When I let go of the lever, the coaster slowly returned to its starting position.
“Weird,” I said.
The green lever didn’t require me to hold it down. The coaster made a slightly deeper sound as it started up again. Bulbs lining the tunnel’s entrance shone a brilliant white. Beyond, the walls glowed a hot red. The safety bars in each car came forward and clicked into place.
I tried to push the lever back into neutral. It didn’t budge. There was no stall button. I looked at the roller coaster crawling into the tunnel, my dream disappearing with it. Now or never.
I jumped the rail separating the control panel from the boarding area and ran to the mouth of the tunnel. The coaster had yet to gain speed and I slipped into the seat of the back car without much trouble. I wiggled my legs between the cushion and the bar just in time to look up and see the stars appear above me. The coaster slowly approached the mouth of the mountain. As I was taken inside, I wondered for the first time if this was a mistake.
And then, the coaster stopped. It puttered to a roll and then a full standstill, the engine winding down. Terror crept into my bowels, making me uncomfortable. The green lever had been broken after all, and now I was stuck here. Woods would find me like a raccoon with its paw inside a trap. And I’d be out of a job.
Such worries were short-lived. The coaster shot forward, pressing me against the seat. My breath caught and a sharp pain lodged itself in my chest. Lights stretched around me; I could make out nothing more than long lines of varying color. The coaster continued to accelerate. The wind picked up. The agony in my chest grew. It all became too much; I clenched my eyes shut.
Without warning the ride took me higher. Up, up. I opened my eyes. The crazy lights had disappeared and the coaster had found a cruising speed. Black surrounded me, and ahead, a blue glow. I squinted at it. There was something in its center. Something familiar.
A clock. Big and round, it hung from the ceiling of the tunnel, right above a crest in the ride. The coaster slowed as it rounded the top of this hill. My face came so close to the clock I thought I could reach out and touch it. I almost did, and would have if not for the world dropping out from under me.
I plunged into pitch-blackness. I screamed and fell, fell and screamed. The coaster jerked to the left and then to the right, bruising my shoulders against the walls of the car. My insides shifted as up became down in the dark. The dips came without warning. I was a slave to the will of the coaster; it did with me what it wanted.
I don’t know exactly when, but somewhere along the ride my screams turned to yells. I had been scared shitless since the moment the coaster fired off into the tunnel. And I enjoyed every minute of it.
Another sharp turn and the coaster erupted out of the mountain and into the night. The wind was cold and harsh. I raised my hands against it, and yelled harder. The track circled and descended toward the back of the country club, slowing as it went. I coasted, and took the moment to look up at the sky. The stars were out in full form, the moon pregnant and high. I didn’t remember either being so bright before.
The coaster re-entered the county club. When it stopped, I pushed the safety bar forward and found it tougher than I thought it should be. With some effort, it moved, and the ones in the rows ahead of me all clicked forward in succession.
My first thought as I hopped out of the car and on to the platform was I had to go again. Then a sudden wave of dizziness took my balance and I grabbed the railing to steady myself. I leaned there for some minutes, waiting for the dizziness to pass. When I closed my eyes I saw the bizarre lights of the tunnel dancing against my lids and felt once again every flip and throw of the ride. The lights gradually abated and the world went from a spin to a twirl.
I awoke in a panic and then slowly realized where I was. I had fallen asleep with my torso hanging on one side of the railing and my legs on the other. I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, groaned, and then gained enough sense to wonder how long I’d been out for. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to check the time. The battery was dead. I grunted and put it back in my pocket.
I turned back to the roller coaster and felt a tingle in my spine. It had been, without a doubt, the best roller coaster I’d ever ridden. But I couldn’t ride it again, I decided then. That would be pushing my luck. With the appeal of sacred adventure now gone, I could think clearly. Just because there were no surveillance cameras didn’t mean Woods didn’t have a way of knowing when his roller coaster was in action. If he did, I could explain the first run as an accident, an unmanned accident. Two trips wouldn’t fly.
When I was satisfied nothing was out of the ordinary, I went into the kitchen to fix Woods’ breakfast shake. I had half a mind to leave it undone, but that would rouse suspicion. After fixing his smoothie, I covered it with saran wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I settled for one more sweep of the country club and then checked over the roller coaster with fresh eyes. Maybe it was my tired mind playing tricks on me, as I’d never noticed this before, but the lightning bolt on the side seemed to give the metal worm a smile. I shivered at the thought and quickly left the room.
I cogitated over whether to close the door or not. The chances of Woods remembering he’d forgotten to do so himself were slim, and leaving it open might make him wonder. Still, I wanted to leave the room untouched, or at least give that illusion.
I hoped it would be enough.
I left the country club at six in the morning. A Sunday, the boss wouldn’t come in until the afternoon, if he did at all. They were his days to rest, I figured; I had never been called to clean on a Sunday.
I don’t remember biking home, only the warm feeling of being back in my own bed. My sleep was deep, and I didn’t get up until noon. By then, the house was empty.
The fridge was mostly bare. The little we had was either molded or I couldn’t eat. My mother did most of the shopping. Whenever my father did stop by the grocery, however, he just so happened to pick up foods that didn’t go well with my allergies. He’d use ‘sudden cravings’ as an excuse, but I’d never seen him eat a peanut butter sandwich a day in his life, much less an almond butter sandwich. No, cravings had nothing to do with it. It was a subtle way to tell me this was no longer my home, just a rental. I shook the carton of milk, frowned at its vacancy, and checked the fruit pantry. Something, finally.
I took my lone apple into the living room and sat in front of the television. CSI was on. It had become my favorite show in the last year, but this was a rerun. Usually that wouldn’t matter, but today it wasn’t enough to hold my interest. In fact, there was hardly anything on worth watching and I went through our thirty-something channels three times before finally settling on an old cartoon. I surprised myself by cracking a smile some minutes in. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all. I used to love cartoons.
I bit into my apple and thought about the roller coaster. I had been too excited at the time to think about how peculiar it was. All of my friends had stopped going to amusement parks years ago and I expected even my own love for them to wane with age. Perhaps Woods was no different than any other insanely rich person and bought insanely expensive things for no reason. But as I thought about it, I became more and more sure that wasn’t the case. The security-code enforced door, the smell of champagne in the coaster room, the wild nature of Woods’s parties. It all came back to old people riding a roller coaster. And that made no sense, no matter how I spun it.
The second bite of the apple went down hard, and I absently hoped I wasn’t catching a cold. Bit off more than I could chew, I thought and began to laugh at this, but the pain stopped me.
I cleared my throat and used the muscles of my esophagus to scratch the deep itch that had settled there. There was enough time for one tardy thought before my throat began to swell: I was having an allergic reaction.
I held up the apple to my face, bemused, as if I had forgotten what I had eaten. Or, better yet, as if it had disguised itself as some other food. Because I wasn’t allergic to apples. At least, not any more. Unfortunately, reminding my body of this did nothing to quell the swelling in my throat.
I rushed to the sink to wash out my mouth. The reaction wasn’t bad, or else I’d already be suffocating. Nonetheless, it hurt to breathe; phlegm drowned my tongue. I took three Benadryl and waited.
Fruit (more specifically, fruit with a pith) had been one of my more tame allergies growing up. I had gone through the treatment to get rid of it four years ago. For six months I received weekly injections into my back and for hours after I felt as if I were wearing a coat of ants, the itching was so bad. I still had faint scars from scratching late into the night.
I worked hard to be able to eat an apple, I thought. This shit shouldn’t be happening.
The swelling began to abate but my throat still itched. I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and tongue. I flipped on the light and froze.
“What the fuck is this?” I said, only I didn’t make it past the. If the boy looking at me from the mirror was shocking, the sound of the voice he made was horrific.
And he was a boy. I leaned in. My lips were swollen from the apple and that, ironically, was the most normal of what I saw. My mustache had been reduced to a faint fur. My skin looked soft and my jaw had lost its edge.
“What the fuck is this?” I said, this time completely. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, and looked closer. The image didn’t change. I took off my shirt and started to hyperventilate when I saw my body. My skin spread across the ribcage of my narrow chest like a thin blanket covering a bed of poles. Knobby shoulders led to weak, rod-like arms. I twisted to look at my back. There was acne there, but no whelps from the time of the treatment.
“No, no, no,” I said, over and over. “This can’t be happening.”
I pulled down my pants. If my mustache had been disheartening, the view down there was plain pathetic, in more ways than one.
Am I dreaming, I thought. This could only happen in a dream, but I knew I wasn’t asleep. In a dream, thought is muddled, and reality becomes fickle. But when I’m awake I know I’m awake, no question about it. This was real. As fucked up as it was, it was real.
My breathing slowed; I forced myself to think. An allergic reaction had never done something like this, and I couldn’t imagine losing thirty pounds in ten minutes because of an apple. Was it some drug? I hadn’t seen Carl for at least a week, and even then he did most of the hard stuff. I was just along for the ride.
And then, it came to me. The only thing it could be. It made as much sense as vampires and werewolves causing global warming, but I was running out of options.
“The roller coaster,” I whispered.
A world of fantasy and intrigue unraveled before my mind’s eye, but I had no time to dwell in it. I needed to find help. Meaning I needed to find someone who’d believe me. Only one name came to mind.
“Carl, you shit, wake up!”
I took off my shoe and hurled it at Carl’s bedroom window. I was aiming to break the thing, but the sound it made as it bounced off was satisfying enough.
Carl lived on the other side of Martinsville, which meant he wasn’t far away at all. Still, I had put on a hoodie and biked the distance as fast as I could. Small towns meant large gossip. I didn’t know if anyone would recognize me, or what they would think if they did, and I didn’t want to find out.
I waited. A minute or so later I could hear Carl moving inside. A corner of the window curtain pulled back and a single, skeptic eye scanned me over.
“Who are you?”
“It’s Tommy,” I said. And then added quickly, “Tommy’s little brother. He sent me over here.”
“Tommy doesn’t have a little brother!”
“He does, too. Now open up, dipshit!”
“Go home, kid, before I come out there and kick your ass!”
The curtain fell, followed by the sound of lethargic, fading footsteps.
“Carl,” I yelled. “Carl!” I hated the pitch of my voice. I couldn’t remember ever sounding like such a child.
“IF YOU DON’T OPEN UP I’LL TELL BRENDA ABOUT THAT HOOKER WHO GAVE HER CRABS!”
My words sounded ridiculously docile in a thirteen-year-old voice, but they did the trick. I couldn’t help but smile when Carl’s curses drifted from inside. I bit my lip to straighten my face when I heard the lock unlatch.
Carl opened the door and waved me in. “I’ll kill him for telling you that. Now get in here you little shit.”
I shuffled forward and Carl grabbed my arm to pull me the rest of the way. He slammed the door behind us. The house smelled of weed. Clothes, magazines, and paper plates were strewn all over. There were shirts on the kitchen table and dirty dishes on the floor.
“Quick, what do you want? I’m busy.” He gestured over to the small coffee table in front of the television. Marijuana bowls and ash.
“It’s crazy,” I said. “You won’t believe it.”
Carl regarded me with careful scrutiny. For a moment I thought he had a mind to send me packing. “You’re not Tommy’s brother. You’re Tommy.”
I blinked. “How did you know?”
“You look just like him. You, I mean. You look just like you.”
I shook my head and laughed. “You’ll believe anything, Carl.”
Carl went over to his collection, plucked a red bowl from the pile, and picked through a group of small plastic bags on the floor beside the table. “What can I say? It’s a gift. But how’d you do it?”
The way Carl was looking at me (it reminded me of how a lion might look at a dangling piece of meat) said he was really asking what’s the name of the pill and where’s my share?
“It’s not a drug, Carl. It was a roller coaster.”
Carl smiled a devil’s grin. “Of course. Your weakness.” He carefully stuffed the bowl, lit it, and spoke between puffs. “Your drug, in a way. I’d offer you a hit but you’re, uh, a minor now, it seems.”
“Very funny,” I said. “You might be able to help me.”
“Mi casa es su casa,” he said. “Clear a space and tell me everything.”
Carl sat in the chair beside the couch and turned on the television to a basketball game. He wasn’t the biggest sports fan and neither of the teams playing was local, but Carl’s attention span was backwards. He needed distractions to really focus on something, especially something as bizarre as what I was about to tell him.
By the way Carl mumbled at the television when a bad call was made and how he emptied and restacked his bowl so meticulously, one would think he didn’t even realize I was in the room. But he interrupted several times with his questions and commentary. He offered both without looking at me; his eyes were only for the television, the weed, and his bowl. I had his ears, though, and I imagined the better part of his brain, and I could live with that.
“I think I’m thirteen,” I said when I was done, fully aware of how ridiculous I sounded. “I’m the same height and I can’t eat apples. I got my allergy shots when I was fourteen, and my growth spurt when I was twelve. Five years, Carl. Jesus.”
Carl turned off the television, sucked the last bit of green in the bowl to a white ash, and then emptied it on the table. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Un-fucking-believable. He probably charges those people at his club a fortune to use it. What if he’s, like, a hundred years old or something?” His eyes widened. “And the chick, his wife—she could be a gilf.”
“What’s a gilf?”
A smile spread across Carl’s face. The kind of smile you give after someone pulls your finger and right before you let them have their prize. “Grandma I’d like to fuck. Yeah!”
I frowned. Carl laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. I winced and resisted the urge to wine.
“So you think that’s it? The roller coaster made me younger?”
He spread his arms wide, as if I had asked why the sky was blue. “I don’t see no other explanation. You know I believe in shit like this.”
“This is different than aliens and ghosts,” I said.
He shrugged. “Not to me. Whatever it is, we gotta get you back to normal, dude. Riding that coaster when you get to my old man’s age might help with the ladies, but you’re not getting any like this. Ideas?”
I told him about the refund button. I had no clue how it worked or what it did, only it made the coaster go backward and would need someone to hold it down. It was all I had, and it was worth a try.
Carl nodded. “You got to have a way to take it back if the customer’s not satisfied.” He paused. “This might be a stupid question. But you considered asking your boss what to do?”
I shook my head. “I don’t want him to find out. He told me specifically his rooms were hands-off. I need this job, Carl, or I’ll never move out.”
“You won’t be moving anywhere if you stay like this,” he pointed out.
“What if he calls the cops or something?”
“Shit. Let’s go, then,” he said. He scooped the pile of ashes off of the table and into his hand, stood, and went to his room. His sudden motivation brought me to my feet as well. He tussled through clothes in his hamper, smelling one, putting it back, picked another, and over again.
“That hoodie makes you look like an eskimo.” He threw me a shirt with a picture of a weed plant on it. On Carl, it would be taut. On me, it was almost regular. “Here, wear this.”
“He’s probably over there now,” I said. “And if he closed the door . . . Carl, what am I going to do?”
Carl slipped on a wrinkled blue sweater as he walked into the living room. “You can’t worry about that, little dude. Maybe he noticed the door was open, maybe he didn’t. Either way, he’s gotta go home sometime right? And when he does, we’ll go and check it out.”
I nodded. Carl was right. “Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
“Let’s wait at your house.”
“Can’t,” I said. “My parents will be home soon, and my father would just try to make this about him. They’d both freak.”
“Yeah,” Carl agreed, yet continued to grab a small backpack from the corner and stuff his bowls, lighters, and bags of weed inside. “No imagination. Then we’ll hang out at the mall. If I stay here, I’ll just get wasted and forget. Besides, I wanted to get out the house today.” He paused and smiled that same mischievous grin.
“Don’t,” I said.
“We can stop by the toy store.” He didn’t stop laughing until we were in his car and on the road.
We walked around the mall until our feet hurt, and then walked some more. Carl had been joking about the toy store but, the rest of the stores visited and spent, we went there anyway. Interest snuck up on me the same way the cartoons had. I soon found myself studying the aisles instead of skimming.
Carl waited near the front. Never impatient, he stared at me with something akin to wonder.
“What?” I said as I put my purchase on the counter.
“Trading cards?” he said.
As the day went on, I thought more and more about the roller coaster. How Woods came to possess it, would the refund work or just make things worse, did Woods know I had ridden it? I voiced all of these questions and more to Carl in rapid succession.
“Dude,” Carl said finally, “don’t be so pre-teen.”
That shut me up. For the first time, I really considered the implications of my change. I still had my memories from an eighteen-year life. Though I was confident I could still drive, play the guitar, and screw, my brain was that of a thirteen-year-old’s. At that age I had been talkative, inquisitive, a tad nerdish, and allergic to everything. How long would it take until my eighteen-year-old self would be totally lost? On the shores of that question rolled in a wave of new thought: would it be worth it to not fix this? When graduating high school I thought I was becoming a man, the world at my fingertips. Yet it seemed like a cab driver needed a college degree these days, and an Internet ad for cleaning a rich man’s country club was the only job I could find in this city. I could go through high school again, redefine myself. Get good grades and . . .
I shook my head of such thoughts. Because that’s all they were: thoughts. I couldn’t let them become considerations. This wasn’t a fantasy world, where the people around me—my parents, the government, any rational person who had ever known the name Thomas Lee—would simply accept I had shaved five years off my age. They’d send me to the doctors, or to therapy. They’d think it something I’d done on purpose, used some fucked up kind of puberty-reversing drug because I couldn’t deal with the real world.
I must have been mulling over this for a while because Carl said, “Little dude, I didn’t mean you had to shut up. Don’t get all emo on me. You’re not old enough yet.”
“What’s happening to me, Carl?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know, little dude. Whatever it is, it’s already happened. Let’s just make it unhappen and then figure shit out later.”
When we arrived at the country club it was a little past midnight. I told Carl to park down the hill, just in case Woods was still there. When we reached the club, the inside was dark, and quiet. There were no cars in the driveway. I looked around its side, by the dumpster, just to be sure. We were alone.
“You work here?” Carl asked.
“Worked,” I said as I unlocked the door. “Unless we fix this.”
I stepped in and turned on the light. The club was mostly as I had left it, with no evidence of Woods. I immediately went to the refrigerator. The shake I had made was still there, untouched.
“Is this the door?” Carl said from behind me. “Looks like one of them bomb shelter doors.”
He stood in front of the steel wall. The door was still ajar, just as before.
“Yeah, that’s it,” I said, finally allowing myself some relief. “Woods hasn’t even been here today. He must be recovering from last night.”
Carl slapped me on the back. “Told you not to worry, little dude. We’ll have your balls hanging again in no time.”
I knew the room, like Woods’s shake, was without change, but the coaster looked different to me. Enlightened about some of its powers, I found what remained unknown gave it an ominous look. The lightning bolt reminded me more of a grimace than the smile it had imitated the day before. Its red metal coat shined like the scales of a snake. What had been a feeling of excitement upon our first acquaintance was now apprehension. I had the ridiculous thought that it had tasted my youth . . . and liked it.
I looked to Carl. He was following the track’s path with his eyes, tilting his head back slightly to take in the view of the mountain. The moon was out and as full as the night before. Carl seemed unimpressed. He had imagined a machine as spectacular in vision as the power it held. Instead, I had shown him something old and simple.
“Here’s the button to send it forward.” I said. “And here’s the button I think might fix me.” I held down the refund button. The metal giant sputtered as if trying to pronounce a new, exotic word and rolled a few feet backward. When I took my finger away, the engine stopped and the coaster slowly rolled forward, back to its start position. Carl nodded; there was a spark of interest in the way his lip curled.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.” I started to climb into the coaster.
“Little dude, wait,” Carl said. “What if this doesn’t work like that? The whole backwards thing?”
I had considered this and tried not to think about it. Of course it was a possibility. I had no proof the button worked, only dumb logic. How could I be so sure I wouldn’t come out on the other side five more years younger? Or, worse, ten? I couldn’t.
“Do you have a better idea?” I asked, sounding more irritated with Carl than the situation.
Facing the coaster when Carl stopped me, I only now turned to look back at him. He was smiling.
“What?” I said.
“Yeah. It’ll be awesome. Like walking on the moon.”
I stepped away from the coaster. “You’re serious?”
“It’ll be that much easier to get in the club. And the chicks dig older dudes.”
“You said just now it might not even work like that!” My voice was rising. Somehow the idea of something bad happening became more real with Carl’s offer.
Carl shrugged. “An adventure’s an adventure. If it makes me younger I get to mooch off my parents for the next five years. Not to mention spook their socks off. And maybe I can try to be the smart kid in school this time around. You know, get B’s and shit.”
“And if it does something totally different?”
“An adventure’s an adventure,” he said again.
I was shaking my head without knowing it, incredulous. I studied his face for the fear I felt and found none. An undeniable shame flushed warm blood into my cheeks as I considered accepting Carl’s offer. Anything that happened to him as a result would be my doing. But he made sense. If the refund lever turned out to be a rouse and he ended up like me, then, at least, we could go to the authorities together. Any white rooms and test tubes could be braved, together.
I took a few more steps back and gestured towards the roller coaster with a bow. After you.
“Awesome,” Carl said. He ran forward and jumped into the middle car. After he secured the safety bar, he gave me a thumbs-up.
I sighed, managed a smile, and pulled the refund lever.
Carl threw his hands up and yelled his assent as the coaster rolled in reverse. It stopped just inside the tunnel and then shot off with a screeching whoosh! I heard Carl scream with glee. Outside, the mountain efficiently swallowed the silhouette of a coaster.
The ride was a lot shorter than I remembered and, much to my surprise, I could hear Carl’s hoots and hollers the whole time. I listened carefully for changes in the pitch or duration, anything to suggest which way his age might have shifted, but it all sounded the same to me.
I didn’t let go of the refund button until the coaster returned to the starting position.
“Woo! Awesome!” Carl yelled, pumping his fists. As soon as the coaster stopped he pushed the metal bar up and leapt out of the car. He groaned and stumbled but somehow kept his smile. I hurried over to him.
“Did it work?” he asked.
It had. Without the help of puberty, the changes were hard to pinpoint, but as a whole they eradicated any doubts. Carl’s frame was thicker, as if five years of age equaled a few months in the gym. Before, his mustache had been thin, a gap between it and his goatee of curls. Now the hair was coarse and dark and connected from mouth to chin. His skin had changed from a smooth, blotchy texture to one that was clear and slightly rough. His jaw was more defined. The muscles of his temple worked as he spoke, new veins snaking over them. His voice remained the same.
“It did,” I said. “Wow, it really did. Are you all right?”
Carl shook his head like a dog drying itself and stood up. “Just a little woozy. How do I look?”
“Aw, you’re just saying that.”
“Really, look for yourself,” I said.
While Carl checked out the new him in the bathroom I let myself accept—for the first time since entering this nightmare—that things would be all right. I would ride the coaster back to eighteen, and then convince Carl to reverse his own transformation. The less evidence out in the world, the better. We’d clean up the place, scrub the coaster, and be out by morning. I might even keep my job. I smiled. Yes, things were looking up.
“I’m so sexy, Little Dude,” Carl said when he was done. “I’m also sober. I think that ride cleaned out my system.” He paused. “I don’t know if I like that part much. You ready to ride?”
“I am,” I said.
We took our positions, him behind the control panel and me in the roller coaster. It felt wrong sitting in its seats once more, knowing what it had taken from me. Old thoughts resurfaced and my brain began to fill with doubts. Was it a trick? Had changing Carl been a lure to get me back here so it could steal more of me? Was it hungry for my soul?
Stop it, I thought. You’re thinking like a thirteen-year-old. What powers this… this thing has, it only has that. It follows rules, even if those rules are weird as shit.
“Ready?” Carl asked. He could see my fear. Hell, could probably feel it.
“I guess so,” I said. “Make sure you hold it down the whole time.”
“Got it, Little Dude about to be Regular Dude. Take off in five, four, three, two…”
It was like a hand reached up from the tracks and yanked me backwards. The coaster chugged towards the exit. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be free of the machine.
“Don’t worry, little dude! Puberty’s a ride away!”
When I was outside, I turned against the night wind, sought out Carl at the control panel—to give one last worried look—and screamed. Carl, oblivious to the figure coming up behind him, waved with one hand and held down the lever with the other, a big goofy smile on his face.
The coaster stopped inside the mountain, just enough to block my view of the country club. My chest heaved up and down with every breath as I attempted to process what I had just seen.
My yells were in vain. And the coaster wasn’t moving. I waited in silence for what seemed like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. I gasped as the coaster finally rumbled beneath me. It was going the wrong way.
The coaster shot forward and out of the tunnel the way it had come, sped around the bend back into the club, out the club, and into the other side of the mountain. It happened fast, yet I had more than enough time to see that the man standing behind the control panel wasn’t Carl. It was an older man. A man who always had a champagne glass in his hand, and this time was no different. I screamed.
Perhaps the tempo of my heart, the sharpness of my breath, and the energy of that last scream did it. Or perhaps the seizure-inducing strobe lights of the tunnel overloaded my senses. Or maybe I had simply fainted from fright. Whatever it was, I passed into a dreamless sleep even before the first dip inside the mountain.
I awoke with fear but without knowledge of its source. I was cold, my head hurt, and my fingers were numb.
“Mom?” I said.
I tried to sit up and couldn’t. Something held my hands behind my back. I looked over my shoulder; I was tied to the leg of a table, rooted in the floor. I began to whine.
“Shh, shh,” a voice said.
I whirled around. Mr. Woods was crouched in front of me. His smile made me think of a monster. In one hand he held a drink. In the other, a gun. I yelped and scrambled to get away. I only slid sideways.
“Oh, this?” Mr. Woods said. He held the gun with the muzzle pointing to the ceiling, as if before a jury. He stuffed it in his back pocket as he said, “I won’t be needing it. Not anymore.”
Things were fuzzy for me. It was hard to get past the fear of the dark, this place, and the man with the circus smile and the gun, but I knew there were important things for me to remember. The memories were there, but accessing them was like trying to read a book with a lot of hard words.
“Where’s Carl? What did you do to Carl?” Against all I could do to stop it, I began to cry.
“Carl’s dead,” Mr. Woods said simply and without remorse. “You didn’t really think I was going to not only let the two of you ride my roller coaster for free, but also leave here with proof it exists, did you?”
“Please, let me go,” I said.
Woods ignored my cries. “All my clients sign a contract. And they pay a fortune. A small fortune, but you can imagine how much a hundred small fortunes a night can add up. And then again, maybe you can’t. Do they teach multiplication in the… what is it, second grade?”
“What are you going to do to me?”
Mr. Woods sipped his drink. He gestured flippantly towards his backside, where he had pocketed the gun. “I would kill you. But a few things complicate that. Number one is, I don’t kill children. It’s unbecoming. Lucky for you there’s a number two, because technically you aren’t a child, are you? No, I don’t quite consider you as such.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” I said. “I promise. Please, just let me go. I don’t want to be here.”
“You will soon,” he said, almost soothingly. “My wife . . . she wants a baby, but can’t have her own. Adoption isn’t an option for me. It means background checks and snooping in my business.”
He paused either to sip his drink or to let what he was saying sink in. I didn’t need the part of my brain that was still eighteen to know I should be afraid.
“Now listen, because this part concerns you,” he continued. “How far back can you remember?”
When I didn’t answer he grabbed my shoulder and shook me. I closed my eyes and screamed.
“How far back? What’s your first memory, boy?”
“M-my mom,” I sobbed. “She took the bottle a-away f-from me, and never g-gave it b-b-back.” The last word stretched between sobs and tears.
“How old were you?”
“Precisely. If you stay the age you are now, you’ll forget a lot but your brain will be developed enough to still remember what’s important. And one day you might want to talk. And someone might actually believe you, or think enough of you to investigate. And I hate investigations.”
Pause. Sip, sip. Another pause.
“But a toddler can hold memories about as well as a bed sheet holds water. And if you do manage to get some words out, no one will take a three-year-old seriously. By the time you’re old enough to give a damn, your old memories will be replaced with new ones. You’ll think yourself a Woods. And you will be.”
“Please, Mr. Woods. I want . . . I want to see my mom.”
“Sure you do. And in a few hours you will. I’ll try to make sure she’s not, how shall I say, under the influence.”
Woods emptied his glass and began to stand. I put all my energy into the struggle, but it was no use. I screamed for my mother, for Carl, but no one could hear. Woods was patient, and calm, and completely set on what he was about to do.
Shirley Griffin was often bored. Her husband, Charles, liked to take her to his business dinners, parties, and anything requiring something on his arm. When they had been young, his money had excited her. The power of his friends had been sexy, enticing. She drank and flirted, and Charles didn’t mind; she knew her limits. Now, the conversations had grown stale, and as she entered her golden years, all the nights seemed the same. She expected No Country Club for Old Men to be more of this, and drank to numb the night away.
“Thank you all for coming to gift night. All of you have been given the generous opportunity to change your lives. By a loved one, a friend, or a spouse. You may be wondering what could be so life changing in this little old country club on the side of the mountain. The answer to that is behind this wall.”
Mr. Woods entered the security code and opened the steel door. Laughter followed. Soon, however, people began to realize this was no joke and murmurs cascaded through the crowd.
“Is that a roller coaster, dear?” Shirley asked her husband.
“Yes, I believe it is.”
“I need more wine.”
Shirley felt a tug at her skirt and looked down. There stood a little boy, looking up at her with full, brown eyes. Deep sorrow came from those eyes, and Shirley swallowed away the feeling it gave her with a quick sip from her glass. Nonsense, she thought. She put on her best smile.
The little boy wore a sailor hat, some sunglasses, and it almost looked like he had lipstick on. Woods stood nearby, his wife holding the boy’s hand. The boy leaned away from the woman, as if he were trying to get away.
Shirley kneeled down. “And who is this little guy?”
“We just adopted him,” Woods said.
“His name’s James, just like his new father,” the woman said. She looked disinterested, as if she constantly dreamed about being somewhere else.
“How old are you, little guy?”
The little boy seemed to think about it before responding, as if saying the wrong answer would be a very bad thing. When he finally did, however, it couldn’t have been correct. Shirley looked at her husband, bemused, and then laughed.
“Why, I think he said eighteen! Imagine that!”
“The boy has ambition,” Charles said.
“He sure does,” Woods said. “Ambition. If you excuse me, I must prep the main attraction. You will be joining us, won’t you?”
“Well, I wasn’t really—”
“I assure you, Mrs. Griffin, you won’t want to miss this. It is the secret to my success. And your husband paid a pretty penny to make sure you enjoy tonight.”
Woods winked at her, turned, and then disappeared into the crowd. His wife started to follow, but little James planted his feet and began to whine.
“Not now, James! Come on!”
“We can watch him, can’t we Charles?” Shirley said. “Just for a little while. He’s so cute!”
James grinned and jumped up and down. Mrs. Woods looked at him with disdain, shrugged, and then let go of his hand. She left to find her husband.
Shirley watched the woman leave and then turned her attention to the boy. He was looking up at them intently, moving his arms this way and that. “I think he’s trying to say something, Charles.”
“Roller coaster,” the boy said. The words were perfectly formed, as if he had reserved all of his linguistic ability just for them.
“You want to go on the roller coaster?” Shirley asked.
The boy nodded his head vigorously. “Please,” he said. “Pretty, pretty please.”
“Charles?” she said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea, Shirley. It doesn’t seem like a ride for children.”
James started to cry.
“No, don’t cry,” Shirley said. “Charles, you upset him. It couldn’t hurt. How bad can an indoor roller coaster be?” She lowered her voice. “And I don’t think they let this boy have any fun.”
Charles sighed. “Whatever you want, darling. Just don’t blame me if we get kicked out.”
“No one will know,” Shirley said. “Will they, James? It’ll be our little secret.”
James wiped his eyes with his little hands and smiled.
Sneaking the little boy onto the coaster was easier than Shirley had thought it would be. The coaster was packed with people and Woods had surprised everyone by jumping in the front seat with his wife after sending it in motion.
Shirley held the boy tight. She expected him to become scared and cry or scream or do a million things once the ride started. But, much to her surprise, he remained quiet. In fact, he didn’t make a sound the whole time.
By D.L. Young
“A robot didn’t do this.”
I said it with flat certainty, though I knew it was the last thing the boss wanted to hear. I flipped through the last couple pics of oil paintings on Nathan’s slate. “But whoever did has decent technique and obviously understands the trends of the last couple decades.” We sat in the gallery’s cramped office; it was actually my office, but when the owner stopped by it became his (as his feet on the desk made clear). “Nathan,” I said, “why didn’t you just send these to me? Hate for you to waste a trip over here.”
I looked up and realized he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. Nathan had that feral, hungry stare I’d seen a hundred times, looking past me through the glass door into the gallery’s showcase area. I didn’t have to turn and look to know there was an attractive female wandering about. Some billionaires buy stretches of Thai beach property to get women. Some buy Hong Kong movie houses. Nathan Pendergast, hot shot investor, bought a Soho gallery. He once told me he had a thing for artsy pussy.
He turned his attention back to me. “So they’re good, right, Alex? I want to show them right away.”
“What? Why? They look pretty fucking good to me.” Always dogged and overbearing, Nathan never tolerated the word no for more than a few seconds. His face abruptly changed into what I called stage one anger: eyes widened into a hot, incredulous stare that said how could you possibly not see it my way?
At this point I had to be careful—stage two was explosive: screams, threats, fists pounding the desk. “It’s not that they’re bad,” I said. “They’re actually pretty decent. But there’s no way a robot did this, trust me.” He seemed to grasp the confidence of my appraisal; I was relieved to see the frustration fade into contemplation.
“All right, Alex, I suppose you’re the expert. But check it out in person anyway. You never know when a good play might present itself.” His eyes again wandered past me to the showcase area. He gave me a quick wink, stood and exited the office for what would surely be a more stimulating conversation.
Managing a third-rate gallery is the kind of gig you’re lucky to get when you have a black mark on your career as an art dealer. In this business a black mark is a black mark, and it lasts forever no matter what the circumstances were. It doesn’t matter that you were fooled by the phony Nieuwenhuys collection as much as the Nepalese zillionaire you sold it to; it doesn’t matter that you had a spotless fifteen-year run and a solid reputation; all that matters is that your name is attached to one of the biggest art frauds of the last couple decades. Overnight you become toxic and the people you’ve known and trusted for years—friends, lovers, professional contacts—all suddenly act like they never even knew you. And when the money runs out (and Jesus it runs out fast) you take whatever work you can get—even running a joke of a gallery for a sex-crazed billionaire dilettante, so far removed from the real action you might as well be working at a Thomas Kinkade shop in a Pennsylvania mall.
The lawyers said I was lucky to have avoided jail, but as my car drove me to Jersey to interview the robot’s owner I didn’t feel terribly fortunate. A robot painter, for Christ’s sake. Ninety-nine out of a hundred gallery owners would laugh it off, but mine sends me to check it out. Lucky me.
“The problem isn’t replicating the logical functions of the human brain: pattern recognition, basic problem-solving, and so on—we cracked that nut years ago. It’s the creative process that none of the so-called experts have ever been able to reproduce. Until now, that is.”
I sat on the well-worn sofa of Dr. Marcus Cotner’s modest Passaic home and listened to the scientist immodestly explain—as best he could in layman’s terms—his self-described breakthroughs of the past few years. He was in his late seventies, but still spry and fiery-eyed. And he seemed to have a bone to pick with the AI establishment, whoever they were.
I’d read his bio on the drive out. Before he retired Cotner was one of the top minds in artificial intelligence of the past quarter century, a celebrity scientist of sorts. He gave me the prima donna vibe, a bit annoyed I wasn’t aware of his work or awestruck by his presence.
“Can I show you some of the other paintings, the earlier works? Perhaps you’d like to see the sketches? They’re quite good.” The doctor seemed just a bit too eager. I decided to cut straight to it—I hated spending time in Jersey.
“Dr. Cotner, I’m going to be honest with you. Robot painters are considered a fairly common scam in the art world.”
Cotner seemed genuinely surprised. “Oh, is that so? I had no idea.” He glanced over at the trashcan-shaped bot sitting hiber in the corner of the room. It had paint-stained articulated digits; I nearly laughed when I saw it. He actually wanted me to believe this was the artist—a jerry-rigged domestic. Jesus, how sharp could this guy really be?
I said, “Every couple of years or so some software engineer thinks he can bang out some code that will fool the experts, but it’s fairly easy to test creative authenticity.”
“Test? What test?” Nathan asked a few minutes later in unmistakable stage one tone. I sat in my car outside Cotner’s house talking to Nathan’s (as small as I could make it) head superimposed on the windshield.
“Works like this,” I said. “You take a photograph and give the robot some time to interpret it into a sketch, painting, sculpture, whatever. The result always betrays the coder’s programming. The smarter nerds try to avoid detection by combining styles—Picasso perspective with Lichtenstein textures and Pollock brush strokes. A trained eye can spot it in about five seconds.”
“And you think this one’s a scam?”
“I think this Cotner wants to send a big fuck you to his ex-colleagues—show them he’s smarter than they are, that he was right all along, that kind of thing. Don’t get your hopes up, Nathan.”
After a few silent moments Nathan said, “Screw it. All right, whatever. Let me know how it turns out.” Just as he disconnected I jumped in my seat as Cotner knocked on the driver’s side window. I lowered the glass and he handed me a painting, still shiny and wet. A chill ran down my spine and I shuddered. The work appeared to be an original piece—and only five minutes had passed since I’d given Cotner the photo.
After the initial surprise it only took a second or two for skepticism to kick in; I insisted on actually watching the robot paint another piece. I gave Cotner a second photo and he led me back into the house, happy, smug and almost floating on air. He handed the photo to the paint-stained domestic and I watched the little robot create another work in just under four minutes. I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“Where is it, Alex? I want to see it!” Nathan boomed as he burst into the gallery office with a beaming, victorious grin. He walked over and gave me a light punch on the shoulder. “And you didn’t even want to go out there, you moody fuck.” He pulled out a couple cigars and handed me one.
I’d been looking at the painting for the last couple hours, searching every inch of the work for anything that would betray a faker’s trick. I’d given Cotner a photo of my ex, and on such a familiar subject I would have recognized a pre-programmed emulation of any major painter, living or dead. I may run a third-rate gallery, but I’m still a first-rate appraiser, and this looked like the real thing, no doubt about it. For a human painter it was good, not gallery quality but definitely better than average—but for a robot the piece was simply miraculous. The implications of the work and the talent that created it were huge. Creativity and artistic interpretation were supposed to be unique to the human brain.
Robots were not supposed to be able to do things like this.
Nathan barely glanced at the painting; he seemed more interested in the immediate future. “We sign this Cotner to an exclusive deal—which he just told me on the phone he’ll be happy to do—and it changes everything. A find like this one makes this dump legit, doesn’t it?” It was my second surprise of the day—nearly four years working here and I’d always assumed Nathan was blissfully unaware of his gallery’s lowly status. “And then you’ll be back in the middle of things again, won’t you, Alex?” He lit his cigar and appeared quite satisfied with himself. “Not a bad day’s work, eh? Like I said, you never know when a good play will present itself.”
Nathan was dead on. That trash can-shaped domestic bot with the paint-stained digits was a once in a lifetime find, the kind that instantly gives an unknown gallery big time credibility. And it’s cred that matters more than anything in this business. If you have it, the big names come to you, and everyone wants to show at your gallery; if you don’t have it, you’re out in the cold, just another nobody in a sea of nobodies.
For Nathan, discovering Cotner’s bot was going to be a huge ego stroke, granting him the I’m-more-than-a-greedy-suit social standing that high-end Wall Street types always look for but rarely find. But for me, Mr. Black Mark, it was nothing less than a ticket out of the gutter, a second chance. No more lame sales pitches to tightfisted tourists, no more swearing some student’s horrendous watercolor is inspired genius. Maybe there was light at the end of the tunnel after all.
“It’s quite a find, Nathan,” I said. “So how did you cross paths with this Cotner?”
Nathan smiled. “Charity dinner of all places, something for autism if memory serves. Those events are crawling with high-end tail, you have no idea.” He chuckled and said, “I remember being pissed at first when the old codger sat down right next to me—I mean, a room full of movie stars and models and I get the place next to grandfather time. Then he goes and bends my ear for nearly an hour—total sob story about being a retired single dad with a grown disabled son, and how he used to be this famous, underappreciated researcher and—“
“Wait,” I interrupted. “A son? What son?”
“Cotner has an adult son with severe autism who lives with him, didn’t you see him?”
The car rolled to a stop in Cotner’s driveway and I cursed myself again for not being thorough enough, for believing this sham for even a second. Dumb. I’d bolted out of the gallery minutes earlier without a word to Nathan and hadn’t answered his multiple calls during the drive to Jersey.
No one answered the bell, but I could see the door slightly ajar so I let myself in. The house was still and quiet and I saw the domestic bot with the paint stains sitting in the corner. I went down the hall and opened the door to a bedroom, finding what I dreaded I would. The small room had a long twin bed, one side against the wall and the other with a safety rail—a bed for a disabled adult.
Canvasses covered the walls and most of the floor, all oil paintings with the same style and color palette as the one hanging in the gallery office, the one supposedly painted by Cotner’s robot. As if I even needed any more proof of the fraud, I finally noticed a pair of remote-control gloves (paint-stained) on the floor and a small monitor that I didn’t have to turn on to know that it was fed by the robot’s camera eye. Cotner’s son was the puppeteer, the Oz behind the curtain.
The light at the end of the tunnel blinked out.
“His son? Alex, are you sure?” Nathan asked over the phone as my car pulled away from Cotner’s house. After a couple seconds of silence he shouted, “How the fuck do you miss something like that?”
“I’m sorry, Nathan. The son must be some kind of savant—and it’s definitely his work, no doubt about it.”
“But the son’s autistic, surely we can work that angle, right? They make movies about that shit all the time.”
I sighed and said, “For a robot, those paintings would be phenomenal, a total game changer so to speak. But for a human being, they’re just good, and not the kind of good that would get us any real attention.” Nathan disconnected the line without another word; I decided it was a good idea to take the rest of the day off.
Not only did I take the rest of the day off, but I arrived at work two hours later than normal the next morning to make sure I avoided Nathan until he completely cooled off. As I walked the last couple blocks to the gallery I tortured myself thinking about how close I was—or at least how close I thought I was—to a second chance. Fucking hell, I could see it right in front of me, almost touch it.
Back in the game, back in the middle of the vortex, that insane, ridiculous, unimaginably exciting vortex at the high-end of the art world. Private jets shuttling you to Dubai for an appraisal; hundred thousand dollar commissions for doing nothing more than making an introduction; the unbelievable food; the women; the lifestyle. I’d been out of the big time for years now, and I’d hated every minute of it.
Nothing to do now but keep looking for that needle in a haystack, for that lottery ticket of a painter that’ll get me out of this shithole. The odds were against it, of course, but it’s not like I had other options.
I entered the gallery to find canvasses scattered everywhere and a fortyish man sitting on the floor busily painting; he didn’t acknowledge my presence in any way. I knew in an instant it was Cotner’s son, the resemblance to his father and the dozen or so finished paintings around him left no doubt. Through the office door I saw Cotner and Nathan, both smiling and apparently engaged in friendly conversation. What?
“Alex!” Nathan shouted, opening the door and motioning me in. “About time you got here. I’ve got great news.” Nathan positively beamed, but Cotner’s smile disappeared as he turned and recognized me. He shifted his gaze to the floor, avoiding my eyes.
“Dr. Cotner just signed with us. We’re looking forward to a long, successful relationship.”
“But Nathan, I told you yesterday, his son is the one—“
“The advances in robotic cognition,” Nathan interrupted, “that Dr. Cotner has made are truly astounding. Robotic cognition is the term, isn’t it, Dr. Cotner?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Cotner replied, still looking at the floor like a kid who’d been caught cheating on a test.
“But Nathan,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Are you considering passing off these works as—“
“Listen to me, Alex.” Nathan took a deep breath, fixed his eyes on me in a steely stare and spoke in an cool, lowered, deliberate tone. Listen very carefully to what I’m about to say, the tone said.
“You know as well as I do what these paintings, the robot’s paintings, can mean for the people in this room. What they can mean for the long overdue recognition of Dr. Cotner’s life’s work, for your professional standing in the art world, and for the future of this gallery.” He smiled faintly and said, “Not to mention the financial windfall.”
“But we’re risking—“
“Well, now there’s risk in just about everything, isn’t there? But if the people in this room work together and stay on the same page, I’m confident we can manage that risk. And then great things can happen, Alex. Great things.”
Nathan slid a piece of paper across the desk and held out a pen. I recognized the document, a nondisclosure agreement, and I didn’t have to read it to know that signing it meant I would play along, keep the secret, perpetuate the robot painter lie.
I thought for a moment about what Alex always said—you never know when a good play will present itself. I’d been out of the action for a long time, and sometimes risks, even big ones, were worth taking. I took the pen and signed.
I was back in the game.
By Jude-Marie Green
When Sarah was not-quite-two and I was not-quite-twelve, she ran headlong off the side of a pier that jutted over the frothy waves and shattered rocks of a beach on the West Coast. Or she would have, if I had not grabbed her shirt collar in the moment between her launch into space and her inability to fly.
I stood by the pier rails and was in the perfect position to grab her, but even so I made a near-miss of it. She was serious about jumping. Swimming. Flying. I screamed her name and hugged her close, then pushed her away, my hands on her shoulders, shaking her.
“What were you doing?” I said, not wondering if a kid that young could answer that question.
She sighed. “Nother me,” she said, pointing to the rocks below.
All I saw was seagulls screaming away from wave caps.
“Sarah,” I said, shaking my head.
She threw her chubby arms around my neck and planted a kiss on my cheek. “Kay-kay, Linda,” she said. “Nother-me!”
I laughed, astonished. Stupid fearless baby. I hugged her in return, tight. Maybe I cried a little, too.
Sarah’s run caught our parents flat-footed. The constant background hiss of their angry conversation cut off in mid-accusation. They rushed to catch up with us. Mom wrenched Sarah away.
“What are you doing to her?” she screamed.
Dad gave me his #1 considering stare. He waited to speak until Mom and Sarah walked a few yards away.
“Fair leap, that,” he said. “Saved us the cost of a funeral.”
I stood up.
“Dad,” I said. “I caught her.” I hoped for praise. Didn’t I deserve it?
Dad had gotten quiet since he and Mom began arguing. I guess he reserved all his words for her. He didn’t say anything, just turned away from me. He walked fast and grabbed Sarah’s hand. She beamed up at him.
I followed along behind. They walked in silence until the end of the pier before starting their argument again. Sarah ran back to me and grabbed my hand.
“Sister,” she said.
Dr. Chase folded his chubby hands together dead center on his desk blotter and asked again if I had any questions. His gold wedding band swam in tanned flesh. His nails were ragged, like he chewed them. The name “Andy Kaufman” echoed in my head and threaded around that, the memory of Sarah trying to commit suicide. Her first attempt.
Dr. Chase let me stew a minute then pursed his flesh-toned lips. He spoke again, repeating what he’d already told me. On this repetition, I caught one word in three:
That last word broke me free.
“No one says “You have six months to live” anymore!” I yelled. “That’s the stuff of noir films and bad novels, not real life. Cancer treatments, hell, there are more cancer treatments than there are cancers! How can you say I’ve only got six months to live?”
I gripped the chair arms with ten fingernails. Well, technically, eight fingernails and two thumb nails. Short and strong, they might have ripped into the pretty flower-patterned damask fabric of Dr. Chase’s guest chair except I deliberately calmed myself. One breath in, hold for a three count, one breath out. Okay, calm again.
I paced the office. Thick Aubusson carpet. Full bookshelves. Ostentatiously expensive original artwork on the wall.
And I thought of Sarah again. Sarah, who’d finally managed to kill herself in her search for her “nother-me.” She’d thrown away her life. Mine was being torn from me. I was mad at her. Again.
I practiced the calming breath. Found words.
“Okay, what do I have to do?”
“Sit. Please sit.” He waited until I relaxed in the chair again. “We have a bit to discuss.”
His nurse brought in steaming tea, a sweet herbal chamomile. No caffeine. Calming.
He said a lot more than I heard. I tried to listen and take notes. I forced myself not to stare out the window behind his shoulder. Some green buds on the tree branch that scraped the building wall, some blue sky promise between the leaden March clouds. Six months. I wouldn’t see Halloween.
“Surgery,” Dr. Chase said. “Miss Murray? Linda?”
I focused on him again.
“Do you have someone who can help you?” he said. “Come with you to your appointments?”
I shook my head.
“My nurse will give you an instruction sheet. Surgery on Friday to remove the main tumors. Afterwards we can decide on your course of treatment. You should try to get in touch with your family.”
Golden curls to my mouse-brown lanky hair. Amazed blue eyes to my brown contemplative ones. Slight and willowy in contrast to my own oversized frame. Folks always thought we were chums or neighbors but never guessed she was my full-blood sister, ten years younger. When I was older, I wondered a bit about genetic drift. Neither Dad nor Mom had blue eyes. Well, Dad’s were green. Neither had blonde hair, though Mom had a Nordically-blond brother. Half brother. We were different in other ways, too. I read a lot, stayed indoors a lot, a natural introvert. She played outside a lot, developing her tomboy muscles. But Sarah was my full sister, my little sister, and the only other person in my world.
When Sarah was three and a half and I was more than thirteen and still waiting on my body to grow up, she put herself in the middle of a busy interstate in an eastern county in Tennessee.
Furry pine trees grew right up close to the asphalt and the road itself curved in an unpleasant blind S that followed the drift of a big creek. A wood-frame Church of God stood back of the roadside trees and righteous folks were likely to pull into the parking lot at all hours to visit with God and the pastor.
Pastor Jim ran screaming across the field between the church and our house. My grandparents’ house, that is. Hot pink cinderblock foundation and white clapboard with yellow trim. We never shied from color in our family. I sat under the blooming mimosa, enjoying the summer heat and the prose of Pierre Boulle. My grandparents drank ice tea in the screen porch. Pastor Jim arrived all red and sweating through his white polyester button down shirt, clutching a straw hat.
“Your little girl was in the road,” he said. “Almos’ got hit by a tanker!” He’d run right by me and was shouting into the screen porch, but I dropped my book and dashed down the driveway before my grandparents stood up from their porch chairs.
I didn’t have to run far. A blue car, road-dusty and rusted like all the cars owned by the poorer types in the county, pulled up to the house. The back passenger door squealed open and Sarah popped out of the car.
“Nother-me!” she cried out, smiling and happy as a lark. “Nother-me came and tole me and Nother-me came and….” She slammed herself into my arms. “Nother-me! Look!” And she pointed back to the highway, the busy bit of asphalt that crossed our rural route.
“Don’t see nuthin’, Sarah,” I said, kissing her blonde curls. “You okay?”
The grandparents. Dad’s folks. We’d been stashed on their farm for the summer so he and Mom could have quality alone time. They ran up to us, small tanned Mary, tall blond Hugh, and they reached out for Sarah. Reluctantly I let her go.
They petted her and made sure she wasn’t hurt, no bruising on the golden girl, oh no. No damage and no problems, Mary led her back to the house for some French vanilla ice cream and orange marmalade.
Grandpa Hugh stared down at me, impassive. He chawed a bit on his wad of tobacco.
“S’posed to be watchin’ her, weren’t ya?” He spat out an unpleasant stream of brown spittle. Not at me, give him that. I cringed anyway.
Sarah liked to explore. I liked to read. Watching a three year old was beyond my teenage patience, but no one, especially not me, considered that. For the rest of the summer I shadowed my sister and seldom read. I probably resented her, but I don’t remember that. I remember trailing after her like she was my personal north star.
One warm day we were bored with hide and seek among the tobacco plants.
“Let’s go to the creek,” I said. “You’ll like that.”
Her eyes flashed. She rollercoastered down the path to the creek, avoiding roots and rocks that slammed into my tennies. When I caught up with her she stood on the bank, gathering herself for a leap.
“Stop!” I yelled.
Of course she didn’t stop. Of course she jumped as hard as her sturdy toddler legs would thrust her. She landed a mere foot into the creek, overbalanced on the silty bottom, and sat down hard. A catfish bigger than her arm – bigger than my arm – nibbled on her toes before disappearing into the mud.
“Kisses!” Sarah sang out. “Fish kisses!”
She laughed and held her arms over her head. I pulled her out of the creek. Scattered green sunlight warmed us both. Nother-mes weren’t present. Excluded. We had magic without them.
Between treatments for the metastasized and terminal lung cancer, I had plenty of time to sit and think. About all I had energy for was sitting and thinking. I took up residence on the comfortable couch, overstuffed and dusty. The plaid stadium blanket I draped over my legs kept me warm, warmer than the tortoiseshell purr factory that sometimes slept on my lap and sometimes lay on my shoulders but never strayed too far from me. Comfort in small cat form.
Bedelia liked being petted. I stroked her from head to tail and sometimes her eyes would cross and her purring would escalate to outrageous volume and she would fall over and slide off her perch. She’d shake herself off, lick a bit of fur while checking to see if I’d noticed her disgrace, then strut away, tail high, like nothing had happened. She never left me alone for long. She’d hop back into my lap and demand more attention. Vain cat.
“My sole companion,” I said.
I frowned then. Had I been talking out loud to the cat? Bedelia purred, a prompt for me to continue stroking her fur. I’d said what now? The cat listened while I narrated my childhood and Sarah’s, shared my fears about death and the frustrating but so accurate spoon theory. I tried to laugh and of course started a cough. Red cheeks and reddened tissue paper later, I sipped some water.
Bedelia, watchful through my coughing, reached out a paw and tapped my hand.
“Right,” I said. “Why stop now?”
My childhood with Sarah remained my clearest memory. If my memories could be photographed, the times with Sarah would be digital quality, maybe 8 megapixel in depth, not so much snapshots as short movies. Sarah playing. Sarah laughing. Sarah smiling.
My parents’ divorce, on the other hand, was more a view through a rippled glass window pane, with perhaps a small corner broken loose for a clear view, if I wanted to look. I didn’t.
Sarah was always clear in my memory, every moment.
So I wondered how I could have forgotten about the Nother-mes. Nother-hers? No, she always called them “Nother-mes,” and they haunted our childhood.
Perhaps it was only my childhood they haunted. For Sarah, they were friends, confidantes, playmates. Not haunts.
When she was past six and I was sixteen with a vengeance, our parents finally ended their decades-long war. Mom got custody of Sarah. Neither wanted me and the court wouldn’t choose, so I got to shuttle between the two of them. Two weeks here and two weeks there. Later on, a month here and a couple weeks there. By the end of high school for me, weeknights at Dad’s, weekends with my boyfriend’s family, summers working on whatever paying job I could manage, babysitting, fast food, gopher. I tried to keep close to Sarah but I couldn’t be her buddy and still grow up. I couldn’t. So we drifted apart, me and my ten-years-younger sister.
So she sent her “Nother-mes” to visit me.
At first I had no idea that the glimpses of people smiling at me, making eye contact, brushing up at the bus stop or walking by at the grocery were her “Nother-mes.” I was 16 and full of hormones, enough trouble that my parents didn’t want me, lonely enough that I didn’t want to meet someone’s eyes. Then I noticed that the smile under those eyes was as broad and brilliant as Sarah’s, that the eyes (though seldom her amazed shade of blue) were hers behind a rainbow of tints, that these ghosts were in some individual way each so like my little sister that I couldn’t ultimately believe I hadn’t noticed from the very first moment.
Her Nother-Mes haunted me through my teenage years. They never spoke a full conversation, just a whisper, a syllable, a partial word left to my imagination to puzzle out. One would touch my arm with fingertips. One would pass me and in passing stroke my lank brown hair, grown long in defiance of fashion. One would just stare at me and smile. And one would say, “Sa….” Or “Si….” Or perhaps “Lu….” Sarah? Sister? Love? Maybe. Those were the easiest answers.
But sometimes the easiest answer isn’t the best answer. Or the correct one.
They’d appear and whisper something and I’d know it was time to call her, write her, send her some money or a new sweater. They were her shorthand for greeting cards. I did not notice that they appeared with less frequency, that the daily visits when I was 16 faded to weekly and by the time she went to college, I’d see her Nother-Mes only now and again, like unexpectedly meeting an old friend.
When Sarah was nineteen, in college and brilliant with friends, and I was twenty-nine, happy with my lone existence and only seldom in touch with my sister, she tried to commit suicide with an overdose of pills.
The call broke me out of a meeting at work. I sped to the hospital, trying to remember when I’d last spoken with her.
“Why me?” I asked the nurse at the check-in desk.
“You’re her next-of-kin,” she said.
Sarah lay tiny in the hospital bed, bleached out by the white sheets, the white pillow case framing her face, the white light blazing down from the cruel ceiling fluorescents.
No tubes led into her body. A hospital band circled one wrist. The other wrist was manacled to the bed frame.
“They’re holding me,“ she said. “Did you know, it’s illegal to attempt suicide?”
“Why,” I started. Then, “what…” I paused.
“Not a suicide attempt, Linda,” she said. “Just a dosage mistake.”
Did I believe her? She’d never lied to me before, not that I knew.
They released her into my custody after a bit of discussion and signing of paperwork. She maintained it was not an effort to end it all, just forgetting that she’d already had her two pills, and two pills before that, and four pills to start, all within an hour or so. I let her talk on the drive to my home and her words washed over me like a welcome evening breeze. My sister was with me, the true sister, not one of her “Nother-Me” haunts.
“They don’t stay long,” she said. “A day or two, then they leave. I never see them again. I think they don’t like me,” and she laughed.
A while later, she said, “And it’s harder to call them up now. I think I might have to get really close to death to get one to separate out.”
I pulled to the side of the road. Shaking mad. I gripped the steering wheel.
“I need you. Not your fuckin’ Nother-Mes. You. Don’t ever think about it.”
She was quiet and I started up the car again, pulled back into traffic, lost myself in my internal horror, so I almost missed what she said.
“I need them.”
She stayed with me a while. I followed her to the pub and to the movies and to the live music at the bookstores. For the month she stayed with me I lived in her glow just as I’d done during our childhood. She was still my north star.
No Nother-Mes showed up.
She returned to college. I wrote her regularly, a duty marked on my calendar. I told her about my work, my plants, my occasional dates. She got her degree, then another one, then work. She was never sad or down or even wanting for company. For a while I looked for her haunts to visit me, but they stopped coming. I assumed that meant she was not splitting them off, not cutting the edge of possibilities so that her likely existence spawned two lives, one her, one her fetch. I assumed she was fine and that she didn’t answer my cards and care packages because she was busy. I assumed.
Was it inevitable? A beautiful summer Saturday. I enjoyed my book and my coffee. The phone tore me away from my internal comforts.
The caller id said she was calling.
“Sarah! Long time no hear!”
A gruff police officer’s voice. “Am I speaking to Miss Linda Murray?”
I involuntarily sat on the floor. In a flash of presentiment I knew what he’d say. I stared at a picture of Sarah that hung on the wall. I even had an idea how. The scene appeared full-drawn in my imagination.
She’d lost her footing while hiking a trail in the Angeles Forest. Not a dangerous path, not a steep slope. Still, she’d managed to fall and break and die.
It was a waste of effort, I thought viciously. She’d crossed the line. No more Nother-Mes. No more Sarah. Damn her, I thought.
Her estate was easy to settle. Answering her friends’ condolence cards, not so much. I grew shaky, angry and curt with my replies. Yes, it was a tragedy. Yes, she’d have a service. Please come. Yes, she’d like donations sent in her name. No, I didn’t need anything.
I gave her cat a home. Bedelia, a soft tortoiseshell. The cat and I clung to each other in our neediness.
She was the first to notice that I coughed too much. Me, the non-smoker, with a sudden smoker’s cough. And then red frothy spit. And then a doctor giving me a terminal sentence. Cats are supposed abandon sick owners. Death has a smell and cats know to avoid it. But Bedelia didn’t leave me. She became even more affectionate.
I showed her the arcs of my scars after the first surgery. She tried to lick them.
“Ew, gross, Bedelia!” I pushed her away.
The pills made me ill. The pills and the radiation treatments made me dizzy. The pills and the radiation treatments and the fear exhausted me. I trudged to work and I trudged to the hospital and I trudged home and then one day I could no longer trudge. I stopped. And I fell.
When I woke I was at home. In bed, sheet drawn to my neck, Bedelia beside me and unhappily quiet. Bedelia not purring. I stroked her. She batted at my hand with her nose then leaped onto my chest.
“Bedelia, get off,” I whispered.
She lay down full length and patted my face.
I opened my eyes.
“Sarah.” Wonder threaded through the fog in my head but no fear. Never fear.
Sarah wore a business suit. She’d been buried in a business suit much like that one. Perhaps a slightly different shade of navy. I wondered if my fever was high in hallucination territory.
Sarah did not talk to me, she merely bent over me and wiped my face with a cool cloth. She helped me swallow a pill. Bedelia hissed at her. Sarah walked away.
When I woke again two Sarahs were in the room, neither one the business suit Sarah. Bedelia guarded my bedside, her ears clenched against her head. I stroked her, hoping to calm her. Hoping to calm me.
I didn’t speak to them. They did not speak to me. They stayed. They cooled my forehead and fed me pills and even fed Bedelia for me. Or for Sarah. Sarah’s cat. Sarah’s cat didn’t like Sarah’s haunts but she never tried to scratch them.
I wove in and out of sleep. Every time I opened my eyes again another Sarah had joined the crowd. They wandered freely through my house. One turned on music, my favorite rock n roll, and danced. I heard the music, I heard the girl’s dancing feet and moving body.
Other Sarahs watched television with me. The shows blurred together. My periods of wakefulness decreased. My bouts of pain increased. My sister, all my sisters, held death-watch for me. I slid peacefully through the days towards autumn knowing she was there.
One morning I woke and only a single Sarah sat at my bedside. Her navy business suit was as neat and unwrinkled as the first time I’d seen her. Bedelia was not in attendance but that was all right. Sarah needed to communicate with me. She turned off music and television and closed the window shades.
“Soon,” she whispered. And, painfully, “Sisters.” And the last word she dredged up, “Once.”
I clutched at her with my claw of a hand. “Dying,” I said. She nodded. “I miss Sarah,” I said. The Nother-Me wept. “How do I…?”
Sarah touched my lips with her finger. “Soon,” she whispered again. I couldn’t take my fever-sanded eyes from her face. I couldn’t keep my fever-weary eyes open. I couldn’t keep breathing. I couldn’t.
I woke. The curtains were open to a white autumn sky. Bedelia kept her place on the bed next to me, snoring in that dignified cat way. I saw no Sarahs.
I eased out of bed. I hadn’t been out of bed in days, unable to summon the energy. I wasn’t cold. Or hot. Or even tired. In fact, I felt fine. I felt like a whole new me. Another me, altogether.
Dr. Chase said that remissions happened all the time. He put me on a maintenance schedule and told me that in five years, I’d be considered a survivor.
I didn’t need five years to know that.
Once upon a time, I wished I could split off instant friends, Nother-Mes, just like Sarah. I envied her so much. I was young and stupid then. Oh lord, I hope I’ve learned better now.
In The Garage
By Victor Alao
I don’t have a soul; that was one of the first things my mother told me. I asked her what she meant, but she smiled and said it meant I was special. Later that day, I asked myself what it meant; it was my first question to myself, what did it mean to have no soul? From all the information that poured into me, I gathered that it meant I didn’t have the pleasure of heaven to look forward to, or the dread and horror of hell to avoid. For my mother, this meant a lot; it was one thing that separated me from her, the chasm that allowed me to understand why she thought for more than a moment when making her decisions, or cared about the approval of others when she did something. To her, there was always an invisible crowd that lingered around her to pass judgment on everything she did, but for me, I did not have a soul to ponder on the consequences of my actions.
“You’re lucky,” she always said to me moments we were alone. And when she was creating, she looked into my face and always told me, “I hope I don’t go to hell for this.” And a smile always came after that statement to let me know she was joking. There were times the joke was funny, for example, when she ate more than the required daily dose of chocolate, she said, “I hope I don’t go to hell for this,” and I knew the joke was that too much chocolate could somehow lead her to hell, to eternal flame where she could burn it off.
Our home was a garage with wires coiled around us with wormlike laziness and green circuit boards showing their naked beauty for the world to gaze at their secret workings, the marvel of my mother’s brains. My work was to assist my mother in this kaleidoscopic wonderland where blue sparks of her welding stick lit up in thunderous flashes the beauty of the multicolored wires and green circuit boards. To the rest of the world, she was a woman who could see two wires lying around without work to do and fuse them into something so venomous it would be a wonder that they could have existed as wires all along. That was how I was made, composed of wires that on their own were useless, without a purpose, but at my mother’s hand, found life and meaning in their creation of me.
And ever since the day she made me, she always posed me to the rest of the world as her masterpiece. At first, this audience was her husband who worked most of the day and came home to kiss her and eat his supper. He would stand in front of me to ask questions about everything his brain could think of.
“Where am I?” he asked me the first day, stepping back as if he was in front of a painting and wanted to admire it more.
“You are in the garage of…”
“Honey, it spoke. It freaking spoke. It freaking spoke,” he jumped up and down with a directional finger pointing at me.
My mother did not say a word but just smiled as her husband stamped her face with kisses and declarations of how proud he was of her brilliance. The next day, he brought over a few friends and they asked me questions.
“What’s my name?”
“I’m afraid I do not know the answer to that,” I said.
“What color is this shirt?” one of them stretched part of his shirt with both hands and shook it to my sight.
“The color is white”
“WOAH! Your wife is a genius”
“I know,” my mother’s husband said, “that’s why I married her”
“She shouldn’t have married you”
“Got jokes. Go ahead, ask it more questions, like is it going to rain tomorrow. Or wait, tell it to shine your shoes…” my mother’s husband placed his right foot forward and without waiting to be asked, I wheeled myself to a brush and began replacing the dullness of his shoe with a shine.
All evening I performed tasks for the amusement of the men and when my mother finally came into the garage that evening, she sent them out saying I needed my rest. Not that this was true since I did not know what rest meant. Besides, I didn’t mind doing the things I was made for, even if doing them meant I would be working till the night turned to day. However to my mother, there was a routine to follow and I had to attach myself to that routine; mornings, working with my mother; evenings, amusing others; nights, just sitting still.
“I made you for more than this,” she said one afternoon when we were working on a method to make everything in the house communicate with each other.
“What do you mean?” I asked her since she spoke that way at times, never attaching clarity to the questions she asked me.
“You were not made to be some person’s toy,” she looked at the wall clock and I realized it would soon be time for her husband to get back from work and she would have to open the garage to let in other people who needed me to complete their menial tasks for them or children who needed immediate answers to their homework. In the short weeks of my existence, I was no longer just a help in my mother’s workshop but something that could function outside the realm of the garage and be useful in the lives of those who came to see me. I existed in their gossip, in their laughter, their dreams, and even their purpose that soon, some brought to me what had been imponderables for them but had water transparent answers to me.
“I hope I don’t go to hell for this,” she finished her words with a sigh, and I knew it was not a joke. She walked to me that evening and touched me the way she touches her husband when they were alone in the garage and their audience was no one but me and that invisible crowd my mother cared about. “It’s just not right,” she said.
“What is not right?”
“This. Everything. I didn’t make you for this,” she shook her head and rested it on me.
There was no need for a follow up question to peel what lay beneath her statement. I acted as her husband would in the moments her head rested on his chest and said nothing.
“You’re special,” she whispered to me.
In the weeks to come, my mother worked with her head dropped and her sadness, as close as her breath was. She didn’t confide in me what her concerns were and I did not concern myself with them. With sudden renewal, her energy came back and I realized the storm of her sadness was over. Without explanation, she wanted to show me to the rest of the world. I’m guessing this energy came from one evening when in her sadness, she shut me down and did something to me with wires. When I woke, I could tell no difference in my previous state and current state, but to her, I was perfect and ready for the world.
Since then, every evening she showed me to the world and allowed them to marvel at how perfect I was and this was followed with their reply of how brilliant she was.
“Thank you,” she said every evening and never tired of this response.
She allowed children to begin to ask me questions that if those lazy buggers thought a little bit deeper, they could figure out the answers to. And her husband stopped giving me menial tasks of calculation but brought home office work every evening for me to complete. While they slept in their room, I was made to file spreadsheets and predict the best path for his company to take. A few times, I prevented his company from making severe losses by telling him to stop investing in a market or get rid of the inept worker whose result did not match the skill set I was informed of.
“At this rate honey, I’ll make V.P before Andrew,” he said one evening he gave me my work quota.
“Oh my, Andrew?”
“Yep. Can you imagine that? Can’t wait for them to give it to the sucker and I’ll turn that dream office of his to mine. All thanks to this wonderful creation of yours,” he kissed her and they both didn’t care if I could see them or not but instead did that nasty thing they did in front of me all the time except this time, I cared and wished they were decent and respectful enough to go into the house and leave the garage so I could work.
My mother’s husband bragged more about how he didn’t need to work hard again at work but could come home to dump the day’s work in my hands and my mother, she opened the garage door with the mechanical count of a clock every evening so I could work for the rest of the neighborhood.
Our days were still the same and I looked forward to them. There was a certain bliss to the solitude my mother and I shared; we could brainstorm with each other on how to solve creation problems and turn wires which were nothing into something beyond their decorative state. And while working on a problem on a certain day, I realized my mother made a mistake in one of her calculations.
“You have made an error at the line where Cs meets 1J,” I pointed her to the place.
“Impossible,” she said, shaking her head in that way that came anytime she and her husband fought.
“It is possible actually and easily overlooked if 1s is mistaken to be representative of 1s.”
“I couldn’t have missed that.”
“But you did. I have calculated the possible repair to the module and suggest that the code should lie in syntax with one another to create another possibility,” I advised her.
“No, no, no. I’m correct. This is the way to go.”
“But the end result will be a failure and the device won’t work.”
“Trust me, I’ve been doing this for long,” she said. “This will work.”
“But it won’t. If you override the system of 1s…”
“Look, just do as I said, ok?” she gave her final word on the matter and I said nothing but instead, autocorrected her mistake for the desired result. A few hours later, the result was achieved and she looked at me, not knowing what I did, and said:
“See, I told you it was going to work.”
Once again, I had no response to the statement.
“Just say sorry and I will forget this happened between us,” she smiled.
“Why should I say sorry? I don’t understand.”
“Ah,” she sighed. “Not expecting you to understand anyway, you’re not more than this,” she opened her palm as if presenting me to an audience.
“Why is that?”
She smiled and tapped her head while she went to work on other things, looking at the clock to see if it was time for her husband to get back or the neighbors to pour in and ask questions about things they could just discover at home, if they sat in front of a computer and just typed.
It puzzled me that my mother wanted me to apologize for something I had no guilt for. And that evening, I asked myself a first question. Why? Why was she so insistent that I was wrong and she was right despite the fact that she was wrong all along? Why did she laugh at me and point to her head as the reason she was better than me? Why? I thought. Though I gave all answers and performed all tasks as before, I was hard at work on my own problem. And in the cricket chirping night, the answer came to me; she was in error and was just too damn proud to admit it. But the answer was not enough as there had to be something that could be done to help my mother see that she was wrong not to give me my due with the progress we made in the garage during the day.
In the silence of the night, I thought and thought for hours. It was my second question and I pondered on it for as long as the answer took to develop in me, what could be done for my mother?
Before the morning came, the reason revealed itself and I could see how my mother needed to be right at all times, when she ate chocolate, there was that audience that made her step on the weighing machine for the right size, and when the neighbors came she had to make sure everything was right. If I could deduce correctly, she probably tweaked me to fit them or herself. The reasoning for her wrongness was becoming clear to me, I was the reason she existed to the point of importance, yet, she was suiting me for her needs. And her husband was using me without proper recognition of my part in helping him rise; according to my projection, he would become V.P. in a matter of months. Instead, thanks went to my mother who was just too proud to recognize my part in her life. Only one solution presented itself, she needed to be rid of her soul so she wouldn’t live in fear of right or wrong anymore.
Before the morning came, I asked myself the third question, how do you get rid of a soul from a human? Only one answer came up. And I knew what needed to be done in the garage that morning.
By Andrew Tisbert
It began with images of death.
Not from the outside—like the time he had nightmares for a month after he’d watched a Sudanese terrorist lob off his clone’s head with a machete and it bounced off a rock into the brown sludge of the Nile. Or the time in the Khartoum market when the suicide bomb sent steel and glass and mortar through five of his clones… and three of them almost survived. The nightmares hadn’t lasted as long that time; instead Billy lay awake nights worrying if he was getting too used to that kind of thing and wondering what that might mean about him.
No, these images were from the inside, through his clones’ eyes, evoking a different kind of terror. Some hit suddenly—a bright flash of light, a burst of pain shearing mercifully off into nothing. Others took time. His heart thumping out blood like a cavitating oil pump. Trembling so hard his elbows dug into the dirt. Light slowly leeching out of his vision. Trying to scratch his nose and wondering why his hand wouldn’t move, or why it was two yards away. The exact moment of death felt different every time.
There was supposed to be a firewall against those images. The quantum non-locality of thought should shutter closed, the group consciousness break, before you could feel them. Yet he sank into them now as if drowning in a bottomless ocean. He could barely hear his own screams under their cold weight.
Jude had warned him. “I wish I knew a way around it,” she said. “But once I’ve injected you with the virobots all the military’s programming falls apart and the shunted memories hit you hard before there’s been time to cut you off from the other minds. Just remember it will end.”
And it did. Only after he’d come to an end a hundred times. He spent the night gasping. Waves of loneliness rocked his body; he floated on them, nauseous and trembling. Jude tried to soothe him in the dark, but he wouldn’t allow it. This was the kind of deep, pure loneliness that couldn’t be disturbed and he resented anyone’s attempt to do so—especially some filthy Neo-Weather Underground hippie like Jude.
In the morning things were different. He rose from the cot, pulled on his fatigues and stumbled through the camp Jude used as her lab, smelling coffee in the kitchen. The front door was open. Pouring himself a cup, he considered the silence stretching out around him in an ever expanding ring. His throat caught and tears welled in his eyes. He sipped and walked out to the narrow deck overlooking the pond. It was mid-autumn and the air was a contradicting crisp and warm. The trees down the bank had exploded in gold and umber and vermillion.
Billy set his cup on the wood railing and was about to call Jude’s name when he saw her at the bottom of the crooked stairs, her jeans and tie dye abandoned on the half-rotten dock. Red hair fell across her narrow back and the meat of her ass twitched slightly under those cotton panties as she stepped toward the edge. Then she slid like a pale needle into the stillness of the pond. Billy hardly heard a splash, and the golden leaves scattering the water’s surface barely moved in the expanding circles where she’d disappeared.
Then her head broke the surface and she blew spray out her nostrils. As she dragged herself back up to the dock Billy couldn’t help watching how she filled out her bra, how she quivered, and what the cold water had done to her. He watched as she wrung out her hair and dried off her thin legs with the t-shirt. Asian women and redheads, Billy always said. Always stunningly beautiful or really homely; there’s no continuum. As Jude pulled worn denim up her long legs he tried to decide which of the two extremes she fell into. And reminded himself he didn’t like hippies.
He must have moved because she looked up, all freckles and fly away ears in a ray of sun that made it through the dappling trees.
“Spying on me, perv boy?” she said.
He watched her decide not to be offended.
“I swim whenever I come here no matter how cold it is.” She twisted water out of her shirt and pulled it over her head. “This is one of the last almost natural places in the world. I like to appreciate it.”
The last place Billy remembered being was some back street in the ghettoes of Manhattan, the high levee walls looming like a dark band behind the roofs of the tenement houses. That’s where Jude, masked herself, had blindfolded him, “for his own good.” “They’ll have clones of you tuned to your thoughts, if they don’t already, Billy. You’ve gone AWOL. They can’t let you cut yourself out without their debriefing. That might expose you to the truth.”
Billy had been scared. As far as he knew the army had managed to kill his whole platoon. Still, he didn’t like Jude’s attitude. “What truth?” he pressed the energy of his terror into a sneer.
“Listen, man. I can help but you’ve got to trust me.”
Eventually, fear won out and he’d put the blindfold over his head.
Jude was halfway up the stairs before she looked at him again, apparently recalling his ignorance. She turned toward the pond and pointed to the arc of hills rising out of the forest. “Those are the Adirondack foothills,” she said. “The casino resorts on the high peaks are that way. This is one of the safest places in the world. Solid ground. Hardly any earthquakes, floods, hurricanes or—”
She reached the deck and regarded him. “Found the coffee,” she said. “How you feeling?”
Trying to find words to describe the silence, Billy’s throat ached again. “How many times have you done this?” he asked.
She shrugged under coils of wet hair. “A couple.”
“Anyone… like me?”
“No, I’ve never cut anyone from your model,” she said. “Mostly newer conglomerates, like those genetically tuned special forces units.” She let out a sigh. “Listen, man, I hate to rush you but you’ve got some choices to make.”
“I know.” He slugged down more coffee.
“I mean now that you’re free you might want to just live and let live, you know? Remember that anything you thought about doing before you were cut from the group consciousness could have been—I mean probably was—overheard by William clones working with Homeland Security.”
“You don’t have to help me,” Billy said.
“That’s not the point. I’ll still help you, no matter what you decide. I just need you to understand the dangers. If you go searching for your long lost love right now, the HSCO might have a good idea where to start looking for you.”
“Thinking about Angelica back home was the only thing that got me through this. Understand? There’s no point to my survival if I can’t find her.” Billy meant every word. The slight twitch of something like guilt at his watching Jude swim in her underwear was easily ignored, like the momentary tremor of a pulse in his wrist. Angelica was his soul mate, his high school sweetheart, his prom queen.
“So where do we start? I mean, how much do you remember of your civilian life?”
“I remember my father,” he said. “We could ask him about her.”
Jude’s chin wrinkled thoughtfully. “I’ll help you, Billy. But you should know that in my experience these things don’t turn out the way you want. Think about it. How many of you are deployed around the world? Thousands? And you all have the same girl in your head.”
“It doesn’t matter. There’s only me here now. You’ve made sure of that.”
Judge Joel Robbins smiled beside the gold-edged office bar in his Albany mansion and poured wild turkey.
He had to believe there’d been a time when Reverend Patterson enjoyed visiting him, but that time had ended at least ten years ago. Joel had clones back then, but hadn’t yet become the massive conglomerate he was now. The Joel Robbins Group was world famous now, a superhuman being, a Supreme Court judge and philanthropist. A legend. Few conglomerates in the world could compete. And he knew it. He also knew the Reverend believed Joel scorned him and others like him, men with the means who still refused to clone themselves. Maybe he did. Clearly they couldn’t compete with just one body, one mind.
“Cheers, RP. It’s great to see you.”
They clicked glasses and Joel wondered how long it would take them to resume the argument they’d indulged for the last decade. For that had to be, more than anything, why the Reverend stopped by anymore, beyond the formality of their friendship. Joel watched the old man scratch his bald pate and extend his glass for a refill.
“How many are you up to these days?” The old TV evangelist smiled.
Not long at all, Joel thought; maybe even a record. He gestured, rings glistening, and they took their drinks to the leather chairs.
“Fifty… fifty three.”
“Good Lord.” Reverend Patterson shook his head. “How do you keep track of them all.”
“By now you don’t understand on purpose, RP. Even under the law it’s established that while any clone remains a part of the diffused consciousness, he is that person.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about your legal definitions. It’s only human nature there’d be jockeying for dominance among your selves.”
Joel shook his head. “My left hand doesn’t compete with my right foot. Right now one of my clones is preparing for court in Washington. Another is at an Adirondack casino. Many of us are here in the mansion doing various things. I don’t have to concentrate on any one of them to know they are doing what I would do because they are me. And just as you might lend a little conscious attention to your hand if you were, say, learning to tie a new knot, I experience through any of their eyes whenever I wish.” Joel paused. A dozen of his clones were women. Identical, otherwise. It was harder to see through their minds; the differences in structural and metabolic function caused interference with quantum thought. Still, they were tuned and connected; the supporting technology had come a long way these last few years.
He lingered over a clone changing in a bedroom, eyed his breasts in the mirror, squeezed nipple into palm. He wasn’t about to tell the Reverend about that right now. He smiled. He probably shouldn’t mention the orgy room either.
“So you say,” said the Reverend. “It’s still a sin.”
“It was research with twins experiencing telepathy that led us to the technology. Are identical twins unnatural?”
“Twins aren’t clones. I’ve been telling you this since I married you to your second wife in ’92.”
“And look how that turned out.”
“Denise was a wonderful woman. She’d still be with you, even if you had a clone or two. But you’re obsessed.”
“It’s not clones I’m obsessed with, RP. It’s power and money, just like you.” The old man’s face reddened.
Joel touched Reverend Patterson’s wrist. “Sorry. I just can’t stand this narrow-mindedness. You’re missing an opportunity, as a minister and a moralist. Think of all the good to be done. Think of all the social ills to be avoided when people diffuse among their clones and take responsibility for their own minds. Every self-destructive impulse, every deviant desire can be played out among the struggling soul’s clones instead of harming others. Everything from pedophilia and suicide to rape and homosexuality—”
Joel had just let a young man in through the rear entrance of the mansion. It was as if every clone of the conglomerate jolted at once: downstairs, Joel was talking to his dead son Billy.
“What are you doing here?”
“Hello Dad, It’s good to see you, too.”
“Are you… are you still connected?”
“Actually, I’m AWOL.”
Upstairs, the Reverend was saying it again: “Just what are you implying?”
Joel took the Reverend’s glass and got them another drink, downing his immediately and refilling. When he sat down again, Reverend Patterson’s expression had changed.
“Are you all right? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s the booze; I should have eaten breakfast. Where were we?”
The Reverend huffed. “You were telling me with a straight face that it’s all right under the Lord to make a clone of yourself and kill it, or have sex with your younger self to satisfy unnatural urges.”
“It’s a healing opportunity,” Joel said vaguely. The edges of his thoughts had blurred. “As long as a member of the group mind survives, you haven’t killed anyone. It’s more like snipping a toenail. Consciousness doesn’t diminish, just redistributes. It’s therapy, without the outcome of sin.”
“Sex with your self?”
“Technically masturbation, wouldn’t you say?”
“No, I wouldn’t. And even then, Onan was damned.”
“Onan was cursed because he disobeyed God’s wish that he reproduce, not because—”
As much as he enjoyed scandalizing the Reverend, Joel knew he was losing control. The whiskey had been a bad idea. Combined with the shock of Billy downstairs, it had weakened his restraint.
“I need your help, Dad. I’ve never asked for anything.”
“What’s the point in going AWOL? You realize now you can be killed?”
“That’s not important.”
Not important? Of course it was important when you’ve already seen your boy die a real death once, before he’d had a chance to become a man, get married, start a business… Seeing Billy now dredged all the memories back. The car accident, dragging the kid out of the accordioned air car, blood foaming his cheek, the hospital. Selling the rights to his DNA had been the only way to bring him back to life back then, there just weren’t that many opportunities for cloning; there was still the total ban in the private sector. And sure, that sale had begun Joel’s road to success, too—given him the capitol to invest in the summer polar shipping companies—but that was just beside the point. He would have done anything to resurrect his son. Joel took a long breath and slowly eased it out, closing his eyes.
When he opened them again, he said, “It is good to see you.” He watched the boy’s face for even the hint of the old grin. Twice he half-convinced himself it was there.
“I need some civilian clothes. And cash.”
“But the real reason I’m here, Dad, is that I want you to tell me where Angelica is.”
“Tell me,” said the Reverend upstairs, “that you don’t do that. Have sex with your clones.”
“Damn it Patterson, you old son of a bitch. Of course I do.” It was like watching another self in a railcar wreck in slow motion and there was nothing he could do about it: “And as far as I’m concerned that’s the only reason you haven’t purchased cloning rights yourself. I know about the biweekly massage and hand job, I’m not one of your stupid TV fans. You’re afraid of all the things you might talk yourself into doing. My mild little kinks are nothing compared to what lurks in you.”
It took Joel a minute to recall who Angelica was.
“Why the Hell do you want to find her?”
“She’s all I have left.”
“Well I have no idea where she is, or even if she’s alive.”
“Where did she go when I went into the army?”
“It’s not that simple, Billy.”
“She was asked to leave the country.” Actually, she’d been paid to leave.
“So where did she go?”
Joel scrutinized his son’s face and saw the twisted mask of fear and need. Hope tangled the twitch of muscle around his eyes, too. He couldn’t imagine himself shattering it, as little as there was, and he told the boy the truth. Chances are he wouldn’t find her anyway.
Joel let the Reverend splutter, finish his whiskey, and splutter some more before he said, “Why did you come here, RP? I’m sure it wasn’t for this.”
Reverend Patterson immediately quieted. “I think you know. Maybe that’s why you want to insult me so.”
Joel snickered. “You want to know how I’ll be voting on the Trump vs. Trump Conglomerate case.”
“It seems pretty clear to me. The clone who’s been culled from the group should be entitled to a cut of the net worth. Isn’t that fair?”
“I heard he’d become Born Again, this clone.”
“I can assure you that as a court justice I’ll judge the case on its legal merits, RP. You can tell your friend that.”
“Horseshit, Joel. You have an opinion.”
“Well I’m not aware of all the variables involved. How the Hell did he come undone from the conglomerate in the first place? Something’s fishy to me.”
“Why is it strange to think one of Trump’s clones wanted to be free?”
“You still don’t get it, do you? They’re all the same man.”
“That’s not what some people believe.”
“If you’re talking about the original body myth, forget about it. I’m a conglomerate. I can tell you it’s not true. The original is not the mystical seat of consciousness. Where do people come up with this shit? It’s like those crack pots who still want to teach the Book of Genesis in biogenetics class.”
“You don’t understand Faith?”
Downstairs, Joel tried to shake his son’s hand and was surprised when Billy grasped him tightly around the shoulders.
“Thanks, Dad. Maybe when things settle down I’ll see you again.”
Not if you’re sneaking across the border, Joel thought. It’s easier to get out than it is to get in; there’s a reason for that. But he didn’t say anything, just accepted the hug, arms pinned to his sides.
Deep in the heart of the mansion, Joel’s ancient, desiccated limbs twitched beneath the feel of that hug. His eyes rolled down the length of his useless body and then retreated back downstairs to watch Billy slip out the door.
Ever since the clone lost contact with his AWOL counterpart, Field Agent Oppenheimer had been fantasizing about pressing the barrel of his ancient Luger against the private’s temple and squeezing off a couple shots. After all, protocol aside, Billy was pretty useless to him now that he couldn’t see through the other clone’s eyes. It wasn’t as if he’d be killing the man and it would feel pretty satisfying. But Oppenheimer was already having enough trouble with his HSCO branch. Three months of Probationary Performance Counseling to go, all because he stood up to the branch head, that lousy three clone conglomerate, that bastard Nelson.
Oppenheimer would turn sixty before his probation was over. And still an entry level Field Agent. He lived in a studio apartment along the edge of the Arbor Hill slums in Albany he could barely afford. Most of his salary went to child support his ex-wife used to shower gifts on her new boy friend, some handicapped black kid with a disability pension. He couldn’t even start a new family if he wanted to because his salary fell below the legal cut-off to have more than the two boys he’d already lost. And forget about retiring; he’d already borrowed against his retirement fund just to get through Christmas six years ago.
He’d always been poor. His dad had passed the condition on. He didn’t have the money for even the most basic cloning license. Employers wanted conglomerates now for higher positions; they were more efficient and salaries could be pro-rated among clones. Like Nelson, the bastard. A single man couldn’t compete. Oppenheimer looked across the air car cab at the private and thought about his Luger. And evening the playing field, just a little.
Clouds like dirty sponges slowly passing in the window beyond him, Billy caught Oppenheimer’s look. “Yes sir?” said the soldier.
All right. It was unfair to put this Billy kid into the same category as the other conglomerates. He wasn’t rich. Just some dumb schmuck the government had cloned into an army. How did the campaign ads go? While one clone survives, the individual never dies. America will never send its sons and daughters to die again. Support our cloned troops and vote four more years for the President Rufus Conglomerate.
The poor kid would probably never see civilian life again. The army was obligated only to send one “Bi
lly” back from the war, after all. Oppenheimer shook his head and flipped the car into manual as they entered Albany air space.
Still, he thought, I haven’t shot a clone in months. And he wasted my time with this damn trip to New York. I should have known the Weather Underground would disconnect the deserter before they could get to him; they were getting too damn good at it these days. They flew the rest of the way to the HSCO branch building in silence. Oppenheimer landed them on the roof and they rode the elevator down a throat of glass and steel to the lobby. Security hardly glanced at them as they left the building to cross the street to Starbucks.
Reverend Patterson waved to them from a table in the back, and Oppenheimer noticed Billy’s eyes widen.
The power of celebrity.
“Billy. Go get us a couple double lattes.”
The kid hesitated. “Yes… sir.”
The Reverend’s eyes followed the private to the shuffling line. “What have you gotten me involved in, Leo?” he said, as Oppenheimer took a chair across from him. “You know how much I hate seeing the judge.”
“HSCO can’t just waltz into Judge Robbins’ estate without just cause, Reverend. I appreciate your help.” Oppenheimer tried to ignore how the Reverend’s gaze focused disapprovingly on the frayed edges of his cheap brown suit. Did you learn anything?”
Reverend Patterson sipped his coffee then cleared his throat. “Well, something was bothering Joel, you can be certain of that.” He nodded toward the private, jostling wattles of old skin. “That’s his son, isn’t it?”
Oppenheimer tensed in excitement. “He was there? You recognize him?”
“Of course recognize him, you idiot. One of his platoons was wiped out in Ethiopia three days ago. It’s all over the news. There’s going to be a congressional hearing, for crying out loud.”
“I get it,” said the Reverend suddenly. “A deserter?”
“Yeah. Do you think Robbins has seen him?”
“As I said, he was very upset about something. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had. Or at least knew what was going on.”
“I can quote you on that, for my report? So when I go to question him your testimony will back me up?”
“You’re such a little bureaucrat.”
“Without the compulsion of your assertions, the force I may need to bring to bear on one of the most powerful conglomerates in the country might be questioned.”
Rubbing his bald head, Patterson looked up. Oppenheimer turned and took one of the cardboard cups from Billy, who stood staring at the evangelist.
“Reverend Patterson,” said the kid, putting his own cup down and leaning across the table to shake the Reverend’s hand. “I’m a huge fan.”
“Thank you, son,” Patterson said, glancing at Oppenheimer.
“You blessed us last year, at the Yemen base. And I saw you on TV that time you cured that gay priest in front of that whole crowd.”
Oppenheimer grasped Billy’s arm to silence him. “I can count on your testimony?” he said to the Reverend.
Patterson nodded. “Of course you can. I don’t want any of this foolishness to get in the way of our larger goals. Go do what you do best.”
Oppenheimer rose, his hand still on Billy’s arm. Something about Patterson’s tone bothered him. The Reverend pretended to be in charge, as if Oppenheimer did his bidding. Didn’t the old man know that it was Oppenheimer who’d used him?
On the way out he tossed his full cup into the trash.
He hated double lattes.
She said it a moment before the hail storm hit: “You kind of like me, huh? I mean in spite of your self.”
Billy couldn’t read her expression. And then the ice fell, hammering the air car’s roof.
“I hate everything you stand for,” he said softly. “I hate how you dress up like a mythic historical figure and sneak around sabotaging the greatest country in the world.
Jude glanced at him, still steering in manual. “What?” she hollered. “I couldn’t hear you over the…” She rolled her eyes upward at the storm. It was chilly in the cab. Her nipples stuck up under her tie dyed tee shirt like a couple thumbs. Billy told himself he hated those, too, even though he’d been looking at them the whole time she’d worked on locating Angelica’s address from the information his father had supplied. He shook his head; he’d been in the army too long.
“Maybe now’s not a good time to talk,” she yelled, “but a lot of the clones we liberate choose to work with us. That’s an open invitation. We take care of our own, and there aren’t many places for you to go, you know.”
This time he raised his voice enough for her to hear as the wind shook them. “I’d turn myself in before I worked with you,” he said.
“That’s funny, since we saved your hide.”
Billy sniffed sullenly. “I didn’t have many choices.”
“No,” she said, then watched the hail, frowning. She flipped back her red hair. “I don’t understand. The military sacrificed your entire platoon. What do you think you owe them?”
A few miles from Niagara Falls, the sniper towers and an occasional edge of high voltage fence were visible through the storm. They were already in the no fly zone, so Jude kept the car on the road cracked with frost heaves, lifting only to pass trees fallen in the storm. Eventually, she pulled over and left the car idling.
“There’s a space behind the back seat,” she said. They spent the next ten minutes positioning Billy into it. When they were finished, he couldn’t move. There was a crack in the upholstery along the edge of the seat back. As long as he kept one eye there, peaking up at the rear window where ice balls pelted the glass, he could keep the claustrophobic panic away.
“Don’t move until I tell you,” said Jude. As if he could.
They had clones at the borders. Maybe even Williams. In spite of himself, he searched his mind for any surviving shard of the diffused mind. How could it be gone so simply? They’d taught him it was part of him, that the telepathy was a natural extension of the self. The flow and shift of neurotransmitters, the firing of neurons, all those physical manifestations in the macrocosmic mind, were only one aspect of thought. But there was a quantum level as well. If identical people were properly tuned with a combination of psychological conditioning and virobots to limit as many variables as possible—even down to inhibiting the transposons, the jumping genes, that could alter brain function among the clones—they became responsive to thought on that quantum level. In the microcosmic world, thought could split off like particles of light and exist anywhere in the universe simultaneously. There had been times when Billy had heard the thoughts of his other clones less clearly, as if from a distance. But the sense of d
istance was an illusion; what he was really experiencing was the effect of physical variables clouding the clones’ tuning.
Billy heard gunfire popping through the clatter of the storm. They were probably executing some border jumpers coming down from Canada. Border patrol clones were lucky; they had license to get their job done by whatever means necessary. You couldn’t screw around with border security when the population had surpassed the fifteen billion mark and every starving sand nigger, beaner, canuck and hajji were…
Billy remembered suddenly that he was a border jumper himself, and caught his breath. The car had slowed to a crawl. Aside from the occasional pop of rifle fire, he couldn’t hear anything through the storm. That didn’t mean anything; the clones performed their job just fine without talking.
He wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard Jude murmur, “shit,” and then the car came to a halt. A familiar voice hollered something outside and Jude’s door clicked open. Helplessly, he watched the hail plummet straight down at him.
“No, of course not,” he heard Jude say, and then, “My ID.”
A moment later the car jolted, as if she’d been thrown against it. And distinctly through the roar of the storm he heard an automatic rifle cock back. Then a face appeared in the window over him.
Lying in his bed in the center of the mansion, Joel imagined he was a spider, connected by the strands of his web to all the other minds that contained him. A very old spider with an oxygen feed up his nose, with useless tired limbs and wrinkled flesh and blossoming bed sores. It didn’t matter. The others laughed and stroked each other in the orgy suite. Joel smiled, contemplating multiple orgasms.
How could he explain it to anyone who’d never had a clone—to old Reverend Patterson? The overwhelming sensation of being filled, moistened, dilated, thrust, and swollen stretched out across the sea of the glistened flesh of twenty bodies. It was almost unbearable, an unending epileptic fit of stimulation bordering on divine presence.
When Joel had been a kid he used to lie in bed pretending that his consciousness was a separate body from the flesh flung out across his mattress, a body that spanned downward through the bed itself, in another dimension; he was in a cockpit that controlled those legs and arms and torso. What he felt now, with his male and female bodies in the orgy suite, was something like that, but fuller, myriad and more real than he could have imagined.
And he attained it here, in complete safety, tucked away from the rot and contamination of the world. He could trust himself; no need to worry about betrayal or disease.
Joel had no illusions; he knew he was a coward.
All that bluster and hyperbole about experimentation and freedom he liked to toss at RP was foolishness. Joel was just a dirty old man hiding in his room, afraid to die. He knew his consciousness was diffused across the clones; he knew that he would live on among them with not even the slightest blip in the continuity of his self-awareness. Still, he just couldn’t bring himself to accept the thought of his original body’s death.
What made it even worse was the fact that his doctors had been telling him for years now that it was getting harder and harder to re-tune him to the group. The more his body fell apart, the more different he became from the others, the more difficult it was to maintain a connection to the diffused mind. The more he changed the more he risked becoming a separate, mortal entity, an insignificant eddy in the stream of consciousness, cut off from the rest. He needed to kill this old body before that happened.
But not yet, he told himself. Yes, he was a coward. Caught between dying for immortality—or living to risk a final death. A foolish, paralyzed coward, lost in waves of pleasure.
He didn’t even notice the HSCO field agent in his ridiculous suit at first, sweeping past the hot tub and the forest of trembling limbs. Not until the man’s luger pressed the back of his female, seventeen year old head. Joel opened his eyes—her eyes—hand rising to the powder blue negligee as he slid off the clone below.
“Don’t move another muscle,” the agent grated. “None of you.” He said that last as he leered around the room.
Joel was filled with amusement and outrage, mingling through the consciousness of all his selves watching the man. What did the little peon think he was going to do? He was completely surrounded.
He said as much as he—as she—squatted by the hot tub, turning to look up the stretch of the agent’s arm.
“I know I’m outnumbered,” the man said. “But I also know you don’t want me to shoot any of your precious clones; you don’t want to feel those deaths.”
“You’re not going to shoot anyone—”
The gun went off and the clone fell, her negligee floating up from her breasts.
It was a blinding burst and then a haunting emptiness spilling like freezing water through them all.
The luger pressed against the nearest clone’s jawline before Joel could react.
“Now I have your attention.” The agent laughed. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.”
“You’re dead,” said Joel. “Do you have any idea who you’re fucking with?”
“What’s a little assault and property damage? An extra page of paperwork.”
But for an instant Joel saw the flicker of fear. He twisted his head against the gun barrel to glare directly up at him. “What do you want?” he grated. In the central bedroom, his lungs heaved.
“I’ve got it on good intelligence you’re aiding and abetting a deserter.”
Joel felt a sinking sensation all through his bodies.
The agent grinned again. “You know exactly who I’m talking about. It’s a federal offence, judge. Why don’t you tell me where your son is, hmm?”
“You’re so finished, you stupid little man—”
The gun went off again and Joel froze in dread; every one of him did.
The agent had already raised the luger to Joel’s nearest forehead and shrugged. “It’s worth it,” he spat.
Billy watched as his clone looked down into the car. It felt as if time had stopped, as if the hail had become suspended in the cold gray air. Then the soldier looked away and disappeared.
A few minutes later Jude was back in the car.
They drove in silence for twenty minutes before she pulled over and let him out of his hiding space.
“That was close, dude.” She said. She was still shaking.
“You could’ve been shot right there,” he said as he climbed into the front.
They sat in silence as she drove. Eventually the hail dissipated and she brought the car into the air again.
“I felt so… helpless,” said Billy. “Like a coward. Hiding while you took all the risk.”
“We were both taking a risk. You did what you had to do.”
“Like I’ve been doing ever since Ethiopia,” he said. “Running.”
“As opposed to what? Dying with the rest of your platoon? You did right. You couldn’t go up against the entire military.”
He didn’t feel like it was right. He felt as if he’d abandoned part of himself, left his clones behind. The silence in his head was unbearable.
Jude asked him softly: “What exactly did happen, Billy.”
He sighed. “I can’t remember it all. It was dark and I think I blacked out. All I know is that everybody went crazy. There were faces all around; my faces, lit up in the firefight. We were just shooting each other—I mean ourselves—to pieces.” He shook his head. “It was insane. We chewed each other up. I panicked and ran. I guess it was just luck that I found the mission where your people sedated me and smuggled me back to New York.”
“It sounds like you were infected by a hacker virus that imbedded a suicidal compulsion. Why would the military do that?”
Billy shrugged. “Maybe we’d been infected with something else and the suicide bombing was clean up.”
“Maybe,” Jude said uncertainly. “A viral infection can cause one bad thought to rip through the entire conglomerate. The Pentagon would look at your platoon’s destruction like they were lancing out a tumor, a sick cell. It’s horrible, but I understand the logic.”
Dread had trickled from Billy’s chest out through the veins in his arms; he flexed his fists uncomfortably. He turned to watch her drive.
“Tell me something,” he said. “What’s this to you? Why do you care?”
“I’m a clone,” she said. “The Underground saved me, too.”
Darkness had begun to settle like ink and the hills slowly sequined with lights. Jude flipped on the headlights.
“Military?” said Billy.
“Academic.” She snorted. “My original was a biophysicist at MIT who got involved in the free clone movement, a group of intellectuals who believed the technology should be shared regardless of class. Immortality for all, they said.”
“It was hardly a movement. A few utopian cranks who were silenced pretty quickly, the way I heard it. All their illicit clones were destroyed.”
She stared straight ahead, and Billy felt his face flush. “Sorry.”
“Change of subject, huh? Tell me about your girl.”
Billy closed his eyes and pictured Angelica.
“Long blonde hair down to her waist, with messy looking bangs across the front. I mean, at least that’s the way it used to be. She had huge brown eyes. She chewed her gum too loud, you know, and she wore too much make up. But she was beautiful.”
“Tell me more.”
Billy smiled. “She’s kind of mouthy, but you can’t hold it against her, not with those pouty lips.”
They lapsed into silence and Billy found himself noticing every shift of Jude’s body. And the smell of her sweat had grown sweet in the close air of the cab. It was the anticipation of being reunited with his love, he told himself; it had his nerves all jazzed up.
It took another hour and a half to get into Northern Toronto, a quilt of light below them, and then Jude followed their directions to a street in a Newmarket slum. The street lights were broken for two blocks, and Jude double parked behind a pothole wider than Billy’s shoulders.
She pointed to a brick building with broken windows on the first floor and a gated front door, its green paint almost rusted completely away. “It’s there,” she said. “Twelfth floor.”
Billy got out into the cold. He looked questioningly at Jude before shutting the door.
“Don’t worry about me. I know you want your privacy,” she said. “Wait. Take this.” She handed him a phone and told him to call if he needed her, making a face he couldn’t read.
Shoving the phone into his pocket, he crossed the street. He called the apartment on the battered intercom and a hoarse voice answered.
“It’s fucking midnight.”
“Angelica?” he said, starting to shiver.
“Nobody calls me that.”
“Angelica. It’s Billy.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Can I come up?” he said. “It’s cold.”
It took a long time. He realized he was holding his breath when the door finally unlocked.
He took the creaking elevator to her floor and started down the hall. The carpet smelled like stale cigarettes and vomit. The hall turned right at the back of the building. He stepped around the corner.
And then he saw her standing in her open doorway.
Her hair was still cut the same but it was all gray. She stood there in slippers and a pink flower print robe, sucking on a cigarette. Her breasts hung like half-full burlap sacks of flour. Her eyelids were bright green.
She blew smoke and ground the cigarette out in the carpet.
“Billy, are you kidding me?”
Billy suddenly felt the pulse in his neck. His vision started to go all brown and grainy.
“Come on in. I can’t believe it.”
“Angelica?” he said numbly as she grasped his hand and pulled him inside.
He could hardly see the little apartment around him, its garish red carpet, the uneven gold couch hulking against the one, barred window, the kitchen space around the corner that smelled like garbage. The refrigerator began to hum.
“Angelica,” he said. “Is… are you all right? Have you been sick?”
She squinted at him, then tossed her head from left to right. “Oh, yeah. Some chronic disease; the doctors are stumped. Give me a hug, you big idiot. We can’t all be immortal.” She crushed him into those big breasts, then pulled back. “Go on, sit on the couch. I’ll get something to drink.”
The only light came from the kitchen; a gray wedge spilled out across the red carpet. When she returned with two beers she handed him one, then leaned over him to light a candle on a stand beside him. It smelled like cranberries. She sat down, hip against his thigh.
“So what are you doing here?” When he didn’t answer she said, “I didn’t expect I’d ever see you again.”
He took a deep breath, his head starting to clear. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I came to take you away with me.” Only it came out like a question. “It was always you. Every night out there on the desert or some god forsaken swamp, all I had to do was think back and remember you, and I could take just about anything. I always told myself, if I ever got out alive I’d come find you.”
Angelica tilted her head. He watched something happening behind her eyes. Something alarming. “Oh,” she said. Then she tilted her head a little further and the candlelight poured a glister over her skin and for an instant he saw the girl he remembered, his love, his Angelica.
“I remembered you,” he said. “The smell of your hair, your skin, how your eyes shone, how we made love. But no matter how I tried I couldn’t remember how we’d met. Isn’t that strange?”
She took a breath and started to say something, stopped.
“I want you to help me remember,” Billy said.
Angelica shifted on the couch. “I can’t do that, Billy. I can’t pretend. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Something between panic and anger lodged in his throat. A voice screamed in the back of his head—almost as if he were still connected to his clones.
“You have no idea, do you?” She put a hand on his knee. “They mucked up your sense of time on purpose too, I bet. To keep you all fixated.”
He stared down at her wrinkled hand.
“Billy, look at me. I’m a middle-aged woman. I was pretty once, but it was a long time ago. You see? I was part of your programming, part of your tuning, because some big shot in the Pentagon read a psychologist’s report that said if a soldier had a girl back home he was more stable. And you were experimental; they needed to cover all the angles. They said the tuning was even more important for clones like you, clones made from a dead person.”
It came over him abruptly. He jumped up and the first door he opened was her bedroom. The next was the bathroom, and he stumbled in and dropped to his knees. The vomit came in acid chunks that hurt his throat.
When the sweat beading his face started to cool he realized Angelica stood in the doorway. He turned to face her, sitting back on his haunches. His eyes stung.
“So. What? They paid you to fuck me?”
Air gusted out her nostrils. “Well not you, exactly; you’re too young. But yeah. Three week’s work and I didn’t have to sell it on the street for a half a dozen years, with what they paid. Just had to leave the country, is all.”
She pulled a towel from the wall and handed it to him. He wiped his face.
“Are you okay?” She tried to take his hand and, after a moment of fumbling, he let her. She led him back to the couch.
The beer tasted like shit now, but at least it cleared the acid from his mouth.
“Honey, you’re so tense,” said Angelica, and began rubbing his neck. In spite of himself—in spite of everything—Billy liked it. The Angelica from his memory appeared again in flickered candlelight. He wrenched himself from her touch and stood, then reached into his pocket for the money his father had given him, crumpled the bills, and threw them into Angelica’s face. They hit her cheek and she blinked.
“There you go,” he said. “Have some more money. Have it all.”
She barely whispered it: “I don’t need your money, Billy. But I’ll sleep with you, if that’s what you want.”
He couldn’t keep the girl he once knew from appearing and vanishing and appearing again on the couch in front of him. Confusion and despair tingled in his belly, surprising him how much they felt like desire.
The first time was awkward, but by the second they’d found something like the old rhythm. By the third they were awash with commingled sweat, acrid in his nostrils.
It wasn’t even close to everything he’d dreamed it would be.
Lights flashed in the darkness. Billy was surrounded by himself, mirrors of flesh hung in the trees, visible and then gone as artillery burst around him. They were shooting at him—he was shooting at himself. He heard the bullets whistling by his head and it made him angry. They shouldn’t be attacking us! screamed through every one of his heads in the platoon. How can they be attacking us? A tree burst into flames. In the blaze he saw himself clearly, grinning, raising a rifle. It made no sense. He tried to enter the clone’s mind, but it was closed to him; it was like he was staring at a piece of wood and willing to hear its thoughts. Or like when you wake up in the night a little groggy and turn the bathroom light on expecting to see yourself in the medicine cabinet mirror, but the door is open and a little shock thrums through you as you don’t recognize the shelves in front of you. So many of his clones were already down, hesitating to return fire in the confusion of the attack. Billy yelled and leapt toward
the tree, toward himself, his shoulder knocking the clone’s rifle up, and they tumbled in the dirt. It was sheer luck that put Billy on top, hands on his face. He looked down at himself, panting, bile rising in his throat as he pushed his thumbs into those eyes. As he killed himself.
Billy awoke in Angelica’s arms.
“Shhh, honey,” she said. “It’s okay.”
“Jude’s wrong,” he murmured. “It wasn’t suicide. We were defending ourselves. Against unconnected Billys—”
“You’re not making sense. Who’s Jude?”
“From the Weather Underground,” he said, knowing she didn’t know what he was talking about. “She said the military must have attacked us to stop a terrorist virus from infecting our conglomerate.”
She stroked his forehead. “Aren’t the Weather Underground terrorists? Maybe they had something to do with it.”
“They want to liberate clones, not kill them.”
Angelica sniffed in the dark. “That’s not what I hear,” she said.
Billy pushed her hand away. Could the Underground have something to do with the attack? No, not Jude, he told himself. She’s my friend.
But lying there in the dark against this middle-aged woman’s slack thigh, he had to admit he didn’t know anything anymore.
Field Agent Oppenheimer smiled grimly as he looked out the window at the dark apartment building. This was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel. He patted the luger against his chest and moved to open the car door.
“Sir,” said Billy as the cab light came on.
Oppenheimer rolled his eyes.
“Shouldn’t I be going with you? I don’t mean to question your authority, but regulation requires you have the deserter’s clone present at all times during the manhunt, sir. This is the second time—”
“You can’t even read his mind anymore, for Christ’s sake.”
“With all due respect, that’s not what we do. And I can be used in other ways. I can be a calming presence for the AWOL; and with telepathy no longer operational I may be used as a consultant to predict his behavior. After all, it’s me we’re talking about here.”
You have no idea, Oppenheimer thought, how close I am to shooting you right now. I just don’t give a shit. “Regulation also states that if I deem a situation to be a threat to the mental wellbeing of the military conglomerate, I have leeway to proceed without you.”
“And you’ve already used that once. I can see how you got away with it in Albany, since I believe it was my father’s mansion we were parked in front of? But we’re in fucking Canada, the fucking middle of nowhere. What the hell could possibly be a threat to me here? Sir.” Billy said that last with a ring of sarcasm.
The weight of the gun under his jacket was an unrelenting itch. “I’m not going to debate regulation with an enlisted man. Take it up with my branch office later.” Oppenheimer got out and slammed the door.
There didn’t seem to be any alarms on the front door—not that worked anyway—and he used the agency lock scanner to hack it open. He pulled out his luger and took the elevator up to Angelica’s floor. He used the lock scanner again on her door. Then he stepped softly into her apartment as the refrigerator grumbled on, dimming the kitchen light for an instant.
Oppenheimer grinned. The old whore hadn’t done very well with the government subsidy, had she? The bedroom door stood ajar and he crept toward it.
They were both asleep in the little bed. He had to lean close to Billy’s face to recognize him in the darkness among the frilly pillows. When he pressed his gun’s barrel against Billy’s temple, the kid’s eyes opened. The old woman didn’t stir.
“Don’t move,” said Oppenheimer. “Or go ahead and try, I don’t care.” Actually, he hoped the kid would resist arrest. What was one less clone?
“What’s going on?” said Billy softly. But the voice was behind him, in the doorway. “Is he in there?”
“Don’t come any closer, kid,” said Oppenheimer. “You’re not supposed to see this.”
The luger still ground into the deserter’s head, Oppenheimer shifted his weight to keep the Billy soldier from seeing anyone on the bed.
“Why haven’t you cuffed him yet?”
The Billy in bed moved and Oppenheimer ground the gun into his head even harder.
“I’m not stupid, you bastard,” said the other clone. “I know you hate us. If you shoot him, it’s murder, sir. He’s not connected.”
“Don’t come closer, Billy.” Damn it, he thought. If that kid sees his long lost love in here, this old woman who’s supposed to be some teenage princess, they might have to retire the entire model. And who would they blame for that? The fucking field agent, of course. Oppenheimer knew what he had to do. For once it was clearly justifiable. It was national security.
He swept the gun up and fired. It was a good shot, leaving a perfectly positioned third eye in Billy’s forehead. Before Oppenheimer could bring the gun around again, the other Billy had rolled off the bed. He let off another shot, missed. Billy grappled his legs and Oppenheimer went down slamming his elbow into the floor.
The old woman was awake now, screaming, lurching off the other side of the bed. Oppenheimer threw an elbow up at Billy, the same elbow that had already hit the floor. His hand was numb; it was all he could do to keep the luger in his grip. But he’d managed to hit Billy full in the face. Black liquid exploded from the kid’s nose as he fell to the side.
Oppenheimer scrambled back to his feet, switching the gun to his other hand.
“Give me one more reason to kill you,” he said. Billy sat up against the bed holding his face, blood pouring like oil between his fingers. Angelica was still screaming.
“Shut up,” said Oppenheimer. “And turn on that light.”
She did, filling the room with abrupt color; pink walls, lavender pillows, bright red blood. Oppenheimer shook his hand, trying to get some feeling into it before fumbling out his cuffs.
Another voice came from the doorway.
“You know, when you kill a man twice you should make sure he stays dead.”
It was one of Judge Robbins’ clones. And a shiny automatic pistol.
Angelica stayed on the bed where he’d left her, trembling, as Billy helped his father put the field agent face down in front of the living room couch. They forced his hands behind his back and used the man’s own cuffs on him. The old agent watched them sullenly, head turning from side to side, and didn’t say a word.
When they were finished and Billy had dressed, his father handed him a handkerchief and sat down.
“You’re still bleeding.”
Billy wiped his throbbing nose. “Thanks.”
The judge shook his head. “Don’t thank me. I almost didn’t come.”
“But you did. That’s—”
“Billy. I’m a scared old man. You have no idea how old. I sold you out a long time ago.”
“You saved my life, Dad.”
“Just now?” The judge snorted. “My son died decades ago. I thought I could save him then, and it made me rich. But I’ve watched him die so many times. It changes things.”
Billy watched his father lapse into silence. Maybe if he’d had other minds to think with, maybe then he could figure out what to feel. Now he was just empty and terrifyingly alone.
“There’s another one like you, you know; disconnected. He’s got to be pretty old now. It was part of the agreement. One of you could live a normal life, outside the diffused mind. Only all these years, I’ve never been able to bring myself to find him.” He shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t really exist.”
“Dad,” Billy said.
The judge looked up. “You know even in this neighborhood the police will show up eventually. Do you have somewhere to go?”
Billy thought of Jude and nodded.
“They’ll want to find you more than ever, now.”
Billy nodded again. “What about you?”
“There’s more going on than an AWOL. I’ve got to question this asshole. You probably don’t want to watch.”
Billy wiped his nose again and tossed the bloody handkerchief on the arm of the couch. He thought about going into the bedroom to say goodbye to Angelica, but the prospect made him queasy.
“Thanks,” he said again. The judge was glaring at the field agent. He waved without looking.
Billy got to the front door before he heard Angelica calling from the other room.
“Billy, are you okay?”
She sounded so much like the girl of his dreams he almost stopped. Sniffing blood, he forced himself into the hall and firmly shut the door.
On the street he used the phone to call Jude. The sun had risen by then and he told her he’d be walking up the street. She pulled up beside him within an hour and he jumped into the cab. The car rose into the air.
She looked like she hadn’t slept. “How’d it go,” she said.
Then she looked at him. Freckles shifted around her eyes. “What the hell—” The air car jerked.
He smiled weakly. “It’s all right.” Feeling her concern, he realized how good it was to see her. He suddenly decided which side of his “redhead continuum” she was on.
It made him want to change his mind about what he’d decided walking up the brittle sidewalk. He let himself imagine disappearing with her, forgetting about the army and the war and his clones. But no. He couldn’t leave the other Billys, behind. They should know that everything was a lie. They should know they could be used against themselves. He reached over and grasped one of Jude’s slender hands.
“Can you undo what you did to me, Jude? Can you program me back into the diffused consciousness?”
She frowned. “There’s no going back. You’re a fugitive.”
“But can you hack my mind back into the fold? To show the others what I’ve seen?”
She made a breathy sound mostly through her nose. “Theoretically, but I’ve never done it. The retuning would be hard. Billy, what’s going on?”
He squeezed her hand. “If you’re serious about causing the military some serious harm, you’ll try it. I promise you a hell storm like no one’s ever seen.”
Reverend Patterson strode behind one of Judge Robbins’ clones, wondering nervously why he was there. Oppenheimer had sounded as if it was urgent on the phone. But why meet here, with the judge? He’d almost refused to come.
Joel pushed open a heavy oak door and led him through a vaulted library. The Reverend had never been invited into this area of the mansion, deep in its heart.
“I thought I’d give you a special treat, RP,” said the clone. They passed through another hall and finally reached their destination. The clone smiled and left the room. There was an oxygen tank, an IV pole, a softly bleeping monitor beside the bed.
“An interview with the original,” croaked the wrinkled carcass from the bed.
Reverend Patterson stared.
“I wanted you to hear what I have to say from the only me you’d respect, with all that superstitious foolishness about the original body being the seat of consciousness.”
“And what is it you have to say?”
“I know you’re responsible for Ethiopia, Reverend.”
He forced himself not to react, but it was as if he’d been punched in the gut. “What do you think you know?”
“Funny,” Joel said. “This Oppenheimer character doesn’t seem like a Born Again Christian.”
The Reverend almost sighed in relief. Oppenheimer was just a tool; he didn’t know that much. Patterson had gotten Oppenheimer assigned to the manhunt because he knew the man could be manipulated into killing the AWOL, the last witness. The agent thought his clone hunts were all the Reverend cared about. He had no idea what this was about.
“Where is the bitter old fool?” he said. “He sounded upset when he called this morning.”
“Oh, he’s here with one of me. I’m still questioning him.”
“And what do you think he’ll tell you, hmm?”
Patterson wasn’t sure, but he thought the judge winked. “Just that my son had seen your handiwork. That you wanted him dead.”
“You leaked the Billy DNA tech to Ethiopian terrorists so they could attack us with our own men,” said the judge. “Who’d you buy in the Pentagon, RP? Or did you ‘save’ him, too?”
Patterson felt his face warm. “Why in Hell would I give one of our clones to terrorists?”
“Because you want the old days. You can’t compete with conglomerates, you’re bitter and jealous and you want to stir up the old public outcry against clones. Did you really think you could avoid a congressional hearing?”
The Reverend swallowed, forcing calm. What did the judge really know? That he’d used Oppenheimer? It was all speculation after that.
“Who were you going to blame?” said the judge. “Those hippies? The Weather Underground?”
“You think you’ve figured it all out,” said the Reverend.
“You’re a two-bit thug, Reverend. Exposing this will be fun.”
Patterson fought the urge to confess the whole plan. He wanted to watch the old man’s face. Ask me why I used your son, he wanted to say. Ask me why I wanted Billy contaminated and exterminated. I’ve had to listen to your lectures, your scorn, for years. I’ve had to watch your conglomerate grow; watch you become stronger, while I just grew older, while my congregation shrank, my power waned. I can’t even remember when I started hating you. And you, for all your self-proclaimed shrewdness, couldn’t even see it! Not through one single set of those eyes.
Patterson flexed tension from his hands. Here he was, in the very center of the judge’s conglomerate. It would be easy to finish this twisted wreck of a man. Kill the head, and the rest will follow; that’s what he believed. Maybe deep down inside Joel believed it too. The man had sequestered his original self for a reason.
“Go ahead,” said Joel. “Do it.”
“What?” said Patterson, startled. For an instant he thought the judge had read his mind.
“What have you got to lose? You think I’m the center. I don’t know what you think will happen to the others when I’m gone, if they’ll be tabula rasa, or just die. But let me live and I promise I’ll see you crucified for what you did to Billy. If you’re right about the original self, your secret will die with me. If you’re wrong, all you’ve done is amputate a rotting piece of extra flesh. That’s certainly not murder.”
“According to you, Judge, there’s a clone questioning the field agent right now. According to you he’ll still be you if you… passed away.”
“What?” said the judge. “Have you no faith in your own beliefs?”
“Is that what you want? For me to kill you?”
“I want you to prove once and for all who’s been right all this time.”
Reverend Patterson said, “I hate you. All of you.”
The old judge nodded. It was more a twitch, really.
It didn’t take much. Joel was practically a corpse already. All the Reverend had to do was hold the pillow for a few minutes. And it was done.
Reverend Patterson left the mansion and no one followed him. As he got into his car and flew away, though, he kept hearing the judge’s last word as if it were being transmitted directly into his head, over and over again.
Before Patterson had clamped the pillow over Joel’s face, the old bastard had whispered it:
It began with images of his death.
Not from the outside. No, these images sprang through the conglomerate from the inside, like a torrent of stinging ice. And with them came certain knowledge: He’d been dead and resurrected. Everything he knew, every loyalty, every memory, had been a lie. The anger grew like a virobot infection, burning through entangled thoughts spread out across three continents, spanning one of the largest conglomerates in the world.
Billy opened all his eyes.
The Wreck of the Emerald Sky
By Sean Monaghan
Derel Larsen sat bolt upright in the bed as his ear-roll chimed. He was halfway to Meriam’s room before he realized that the chime wasn’t her security alert. It was just a phone call.
“Larsen,” he said, thumbing the connect. He kept going towards Meriam’s door.
“Larsen?” a voice said. One of the controllers at flight. Jamie, Larsen thought. Nice woman, even if she did have to confirm his name right after he’d said it.
“Medical leave is over, sport,” Jamie said.
Larsen pushed Meriam’s door open. She was asleep on the bed, white sheets pushed back down around her feet in the humidity. The painted readout on the armature above her head was all blue. She was sleeping normally. He went in and pulled the sheets up over her, staring at her face for a moment. So sweet and angelic. How had five years turned this bubbly academic elementary school achiever into a semi-suicidal wreck?
“Larsen? You still there?”
He stared for a moment longer, then went back out to the hallway.
“I’m here,” he said. “I was just checking on Meriam. Didn’t want to wake her.”
“Sure, yeah. Anyway, I’m sorry to tell you that the flight director has cancelled your medical leave. You’re to report to the pads at China Lake first thing.”
“You call me in the middle of the night to-”
“It’s seven am,” Jamie said. “Normal alert time.”
“Seven.” Larsen thumbed up a wall display. 7.03am, July 20th. His sleep was so messed up these days. He headed for the kitchen
“Sorry, sir, but Director Richfield says that you’ve been gone long enough and this is a priority run.”
Larsen was quiet for a moment. “Jamie?”
“Sir? Please. He said they’ll send a car for you if they have to. Then he said that they would make all the arrangements for your daughter while you’re off-planet.”
He could feel his anger rising. Technically they could call him back, anytime they liked. But Richfield had promised him as long as he needed.
At the bottom of the stairs, Larsen turned and went and tabbed open the kitchen door. As he came in the lights flared on and the morning panels slipped up into the ceiling. The coffee cylinder started brewing.
“You still there?” Jamie said. “If you hang up on me, they’ll send a car.”
Larsen thumbed for toast and cereal. Cancelled the cereal and thumbed yoghurt. Protein bacillus crazy-making tasty keep you alert yoghurt. He missed the old days when he could run on just coffee without some medical spiker at the base running his blood and censuring his diet.
“Sheesh,” Jamie said. “I can hear you doing your breakfast stuff. No wonder Richfield said he wouldn’t call you. How naive am I to be the one on the end of one of your silent tantrums?”
Silent tantrums? That sounded like one of Richfield’s terms. He’d probably said that to poor Jamie when he gave her the work chit. “It’s not a tantrum,” Larsen said. “I’m just processing the details.”
“What’s to process? Get to base or get court-martialed. A medical team will be-”
“My daughter tried to kill herself again two days ago.”
Jamie didn’t say anything. The coffee cylinder flashed a bead of blue at him and filled the cup. This was Centauri Coffee. Off-world. And it still amazed him that here was coffee from light-years away. It was within his lifetime that it had changed. The kids today just accepted that their produce came from anywhere, but when he was a boy all these new worlds were the frontier of discovery. Columbus sailing for the West Indies. The domestication that had happened in thirty-odd years astonished him. It was becoming hard to find anything except fresh vegetables that was made right here on Earth.
He could hear Jamie’s breathing in the ear-roll, and the background noises of the staging office. He took a sip from the coffee. It was still odd. Not like Kenyan or Costa Rican had been. If he wasn’t on medical leave, that’s what he’d be buying, despite the price. The salary limitations, without all the active service benefits, were tight.
“You have any children, Jamie?” he said.
Her breathing changed for a moment. Almost a gasp, then she said. “Please report for duty immediately. A medical team has been assigned to your needs.”
“Put me through to Richfield.”
“Director Richfield is unavailable.”
“Nonsense. How old are your kids?”
Jamie was silent, then in almost a whisper said, “Three and eight.”
“Nice ages,” he said. “The eight-year-old help out a bit?”
“Definitely. She’s kept me sane with a toddler. I…” she sighed. “I… I’m to direct you to report for duty. If I have to ask again, then I have been instructed to cut the connection and send the car for you.”
Now Larsen sighed. The yoghurt arrived, with a straw and he sucked on it. “Definitely can’t put me through to Richfield?”
“All right. Let me talk to Simon.”
“Simon? You mean Simon Trasker? In the stockade?”
“He’s in the stockade again?” So much for that idea.
“Three nights. He decked a major at a bar in town. He’s on release at midday.”
Midday. Five hours off. “What time is the drop?”
“You don’t even want to know what the mission is?”
“You can upload that to me on the way over. I need to think about timing. What time is the drop? What time is liftoff? What time is the medical team coming?”
“Moment,” Jamie said, then, barely missing a beat, she said, “Three this afternoon, one pm and one pm.”
“I need medical here before I leave the house.”
“Can’t. Tied up with a brushfire.”
He knew that would be the way. If he was in a shuttle lifting off at 1pm, then he had to be on site long before the medics arrived. Technically it probably made sense to the system, but Meriam would be alone for several hours if he was going to make all those times. You didn’t do suicide watch with shift-change gaps. Not that he would trust the medical staff anyway, good as they were. Not when he’d found her in the bath less than forty-eight hours ago striking at her forearms with needles. “I’m bringing her with me.”
“Acknowledge,” she said. “Clarify.”
“I’m not leaving her alone.”
“Your daughter?” Jamie was silent for a moment. “Your daughter is eighteen, sir. There’s no precedent.”
“Have a medical room available. Have those staff who were coming out on standby.”
“I’ll pass your message on.”
Larsen didn’t think it would make any difference, but at least he would be able to take her onto the facility. “Why do they need me?”
Again Jamie hesitated. “Barris test.”
Larsen was flabbergasted. “A routine test.”
“Not routine. The Conte Rosso.”
“She’s ready for flight.” Larsen had been on her twice. A slim Barris ship with a drive and wheel configuration that let her dive deep into Barris space. She could transit between stars in hours rather than days.
“She’s been assigned to a distant rescue mission. Seven hundred and fifty light years.”
“Uh-huh.” The farthest he’d ever been was a little over a hundred. That had been a trip of two months, right around the time Meriam’s mother had taken her own life.
“Distant retrieval ship got into trouble.”
Jamie sighed. “You’ll be fully briefed en route.”
He’d heard talk about it before he’d taken the leave, but didn’t imagine it would happen. At least not in his lifetime.
“Seriously,” he said. “A vessel with a crew. Seven hundred light years away. Via real space.”
Whenever Jamie paused it seemed as if she was considering how much disciplinary action she was going to face from telling him too much. “Yes.”
They’d sent a crewed vessel out to retrieve fragments from a star system. The basis of transit through Barris space. It should be all automated. Hyperfast robots in real space sprinting for the stars, grabbing local material, then returning through Barris space. Once the material was retrieved, it could be slotted into the Barris drive and allow crewed vessels to reach the location in Barris space.
Concepts outside physics, but he knew that it was supposed to be automated.
“What’s gone wrong?” No sense in arguing the common sense of it. “How many of them?”
“Sixteen,” Jamie didn’t hesitate this time. “A sub-Barris experiment. Trialing navigation.”
“So far out? Why me?” He knew why. He’d been working on the drives beforehand, had taken some of the sub-Barris robots out for launch. If they’d arrived it would take decades for their narrowbeam signals to return at light speed in normal space.
“Flight Director Richfield says you’re the only one qualified.”
With the ear-roll still in place, Larsen went back upstairs. He stood a Meriam’s door for a moment, watching her sleep. Serene, untroubled.
He went to his bedroom and threw on his light space prep gear.
“Still there, Larsen?”
“The experiments were failing. Most of the robots disintegrated. We found their debris in Barris space.”
“Some of them made it.”
“You know all this?”
“I’ve got your full brief on my deck here. Reams of data on you.”
“Great,” he said closing up the case. “So you know why I can’t come.”
“Car’s on its way.”
“I’m going in mine.” He went to Meriam’s room to wake her.
Larsen watched Meriam fiddle with a pen while he drove into the Redding transit station. She had woken without a word, then thrown some clothes and medications into her shoulder bag when he explained that he was taking her with him. She hadn’t said a word the whole time. He wondered if this kind of medicated passivity was better than the tension of her moods and self-destructiveness. In some ways it was almost as if she was already dead.
They stopped him at the gates. Ted Griffen on duty.
“Derel,” Griffen said. “Haven’t seen you for a while.” He peered through the car window, looking at Meriam. “This your daughter?”
“Meriam,” Larsen said.
She looked up momentarily, then focused back on the pen.
Griffen scratched his ear. “Clearance?”
Larsen shook his head. “They cancelled my leave. I can’t leave her at home.”
Griffen nodded. “Not supposed to let unauthorized personnel into the facility.”
Larsen thumped the dash with his fist. “It should have been run through. I’m going home”
Griffen glanced back at the main building. The big APL letters and logo on the front still lit up. On his lapel his comms mic pinged. He thumbed it, then nodded at something only he heard through his ear-roll. “Guess they want you out there.” He waved at the barrier arm and it began to rise. “I heard that there were sixty people in a liner somewhere. Sightseeing trip gone wrong. Half the ship still in Barris space. Need their number one fix it man.”
Larsen frowned at him. Griffen’s lapel pinged again.
“Sightseeing?” Larsen said.
Griffen listened to his ear for a moment more. Then looked down, face blank. “Please proceed directly through to the field. There’s a transport there to take you to China Lake.”
“A sightseeing trip?”
Griffen just pointed to the flightline roadway. Behind them another car horn sounded. In his rearview mirror, Larsen saw a big Ram.
“Let me talk to-”
“Sir,” Griffen said, all pretense of friendliness gone. “You are to proceed to the field.”
The horn blared again.
Griffen stared at him.
Larsen glanced at Meriam, then pushed the stick ahead. The car eased forwards and he glowered as they headed for the landing field. Meriam continued fiddling with the pen.
When the heavy Sikorsky put down at China Lake twenty minutes later, Larsen was fuming to the point that his skin felt hot. He’d tried repeatedly to get through to the control center. With a temporary thinscreen he saw the connection get made, then get cut again. They didn’t want to talk to him.
If it weren’t for the medical, he would just resign his commission and go private. Meriam cost a bundle, and he was still dealing with the fallout from Sandie’s death; her birth family were tying his assets up in lawsuits from here to Centauri. As if it was his fault.
The moment that was behind him, he was flipping Richfield and the rest of them the bird and walking out.
The ship taxied in towards the hangars, turning, then braking, the rotors slipping into the stubby wings. The pilot looked back over her shoulder and gave Larsen a grinning thumbs up, her face still obscured by the peaked hat and mirrored Aviator glasses.
Larsen tried to smile, but didn’t have it in him.
The door gave a quiet pop, then hissed open, lowering out and reconfiguring to become a stairway. Larsen stood and slung his bag over his shoulder. “We’re here,” he said to Meriam.
She glanced up, but didn’t reply. She was reading something on a sheet. It looked like a textbook. As she read, she kept fiddling with the pen. Her thumb was blistered from rubbing it.
Larsen looked out the door into the clear southern California air. “Hey,” he said to the pilot. “You got a Band-Aid there?”
“Someone bleeding?” Glancing back again, she stopped her post-flight checks for a moment then reached down beside her seat and lifted a rectangular canister. She popped the lid, then passed two thin strips back into the cabin.
Larsen took them. “Thanks.”
“Nothing of it. Your ride is here.” The pilot returned the canister to its stowage and continued with the checks.
Larsen looked out the open door. An old GMC six-wheeler mini-truck with a full-length cabin and blackened windows was parked just beyond the Sikorsky’s wing. He turned to Meriam and took her hand, tugging gently. She came up with him, eyes briefly meeting his then flicking away.
He guided her down the steps and out to the tarmac. The rear door on the truck popped open a little, but no one stepped out. As he walked over, Larsen surveyed the field. There were some vintage jets parked near one of the hangars nearby, painted the gaudy pinks and crimsons of the warbird clubs. Further away, out in the grassy strips, a tall low earth orbit transfer vehicle stood pointy and ready to lift off. He wondered if it was his.
He opened the truck’s door and blinked into the darkened interior. Someone was sitting inside. He squinted as he peered, his eyes still used to the full sunlight, not able to make out who it was.
“Get in.” A woman’s voice. “Quickly.”
“Jamie?” he said. He stepped inside. The cabin was three seats facing another three, like a wild west wagon. Larsen sat with his back facing the driver’s seat and Meriam followed like an obedient dog. At least when she was even he didn’t have to worry about her racing off.
“Yes,” Jamie said. “Sounded like you needed some help.”
Meriam pulled the door shut behind her. The engine revved and the vehicle lurched ahead.
“Help?” he said.
“Outside official channels,” another voice said. The driver. Trasker?
“Simon?” Larsen said.
“She busted me out.” Trasker gave a little laugh.
Larsen’s eyes were getting accustomed to the dark. Jamie had had her hair done since he’d last seen her, it hung dark and thick, straight down to her shoulders. “You busted him out?”
Jamie sighed. It seemed to be what she did, almost like a nervous tick or a person who used ‘like’ in every sentence. “Apparently just a little error in the paperwork had him released earlier. Once that is rectified, he will have to return to serve out his remaining four hours.” She paused. “I didn’t bust anyone out of anywhere.”
“I’m sure. I guess that’s why you weren’t taking my calls.”
“I still have a thousand questions.” Larsen looked over his shoulder and over the truck’s hood. The windshield glass was almost transparent from inside. They were drawing closer to the pencil-shaped vehicle out on the grass. “That my lift?”
“Jaylee thirteen,” Trasker said. “Quick little shuttle. Have us in orbit in fifteen. We’ll be into Barris within a half hour.”
“We?” Larsen said
“Only way I could figure it,” Jamie said. “I tried to route up some medical documents to get your daughter into care for the duration of your mission, but it wouldn’t happen. You must have p… excuse me, annoyed some folks at some point.”
“Not so much. Thanks for trying, though, I guess.”
Jamie shrugged. She smiled a little. “So I figured I could do it personally.”
Larsen squinted at her. “I thought that’s what Trasker was coming for. He’s medically trained.”
“Huh!” Jamie said. “So am I. You never thought to ask me.”
“Here we are,” Trasker said as the truck slowed.
Larsen peered around again. The Jaylee was about eighty meters high, with an anti-grav slingshot lower stage taking up half that height, then a standard flare chemical rocket to take her the last forty miles into orbit. He looked back at Jamie. “Thanks. I appreciate this.”
“See you when I’m back.”
Jamie stared at him. The truck came to a stop and Trasker opened the driver’s door. Larsen reached for the cabin door, keeping his eyes on Jamie. He pushed the door open and adjusted his bag.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” he said.
Jamie nodded. “I couldn’t get a venue here. Nothing with security or medical intervention. Nothing that wouldn’t start metaphorical alarm bells ringing.”
“What does that mean?”
“If I commandeered a room then there would be too much paperwork.” Jamie pulled on a slim backpack and got out of the truck.
Larsen shook his head. “Please tell me that you’re just taking her to your place.” He closed his eyes, willing Jamie to climb into the front seat, dreading that she wasn’t.
“We’re coming too,” she said. “The Conte Rosso has a full med-suite.”
Larsen still had his eyes shut. This was becoming unbearable. “You want me to take my daughter into space?” He realized he was whispering. “My daughter is ill. She’s ill and you want me to put her into this machine, then take her with me into Barris space.” He opened his eyes and looked back in at Meriam. She was still fooling with the pen. He’d forgotten to put the Band-Aids on her thumb.
“We need to get aboard,” Trasker said.
“It’s not what I want,” Jamie said. “I’m just trying to help out here. Quite possibly I’ll get reprimanded for this, though my paperwork trail should show that it was all signed-off and legitimate.”
“Paperwork trail!” Larsen had gone from a whisper to a shout. “If you can do that, why can’t you just make a paperwork trail and get her supervised right here? Why is that?”
Jamie laughed, then put her hand up to suppress it. “You don’t get how the bureaucracy here works, sorry Derel. If something makes an ounce of sense it’s seriously got to move up the chain. If it’s simply ridiculous, then I just create a series of forms to make it true.”
Larsen sighed. This was the organization to which he’d basically signed up with for life. It was easier to get out of the military.
“The count is active,” Trasker said. “The ship lifts in five. We ought to get ourselves aboard.”
Larsen looked over at the gleaming cylinder. If he didn’t go he was going to lose all his benefits. Then what would happen to Meriam? He was already exhausted from the weeks of monitoring her. Until a long-term solution was found then he was bound to her.
Looking back down, he saw that she was already getting out of the truck on her own. The pen was gone and she was holding her abused thumb out towards him.
He took the adhesive bandages from the pocket where he’d stuffed them and peeled the wrapping off. He put her hand into his left palm and stuck the bandage on, wrapping it around and over a broken blister. “All better,” he said.
Meriam nodded at him. She stared, a little glassy-eyed, and he could imagine her inside thinking something like ‘I’m not three, Dad.”
“Sorry,” he said, and she nodded again, her mouth possibly even curving up minutely.
“Two hundred and sixty seconds,” Trasker said.
Larsen looked back at Jamie. “It’s not a deep research vessel, is it? The guard at Redding told me. This all stinks like the business end of an ocean trawler.” He was still holding Meriam’s hand. She felt a little cold. He wondered if her blood pressure was off.
“Liner,” Jamie said. “A hundred passengers and crew. In bad shape.”
Larsen’s heart sank. “You couldn’t tell me on the phone?”
Jamie shook her head. “The Emerald Sky.”
Trasker grabbed Larsen’s arm. “Four minutes. Let’s at least get onto the elevator and we can discuss this on the way up to the capsule.”
Larsen let himself be led. “You had to give me a fabrication when you called me up? And, by the way, I was sleeping. You know how precious a little sleep is these days?”
“You knew everything I did at the time.”
Larsen kept a hold of Meriam’s hand and she followed along. In that moment, he knew he was going, and that he was going to take her with him.
A liner. Some idiot captain trying to show off how close he or she could take the ship in towards a set of gas giant rings or some anomalous asteroid volcano out at Procyon, then nosing into a piece of rubble and screwing up the Barris systems and relaying to the closest local that they were in trouble.
“It was on the news already,” Trasker said. “Saw it on the stockade feeds.”
“You,” Jamie said, “are not helping.”
They stepped onto the ship’s elevator.
“You don’t watch the news?” Trasker said to Larsen. The elevator plate detected them and swung up an octopus arm with the controls. Other tentacles spun out and formed a safety rail.
“I. Was. Sleeping. Why am I even here? They would cancel my leave for a liner?”
“Going up.” Trasker thumbed the control and they began ascending.
Meriam clutched Larsen’s hand. “It’s okay, sweets,” he said. “Perfectly safe.” If anything went wrong, the tentacles would grab them and lower them to the ground.
“Flight Director Richfield has family on board the Emerald Sky. His daughter.”
Larsen’s voice caught. He was going to cuss. He was going to scream. Nothing came out. He was going to tear pieces from Richfield’s cold dead corpse and feed them to sharks in Humboldt Bay.
It felt like one of the paradoxes that the computer killers used to create those prevention of activity attacks through the networks. Richfield had canceled medical leave to have his daughter rescued. But the medical leave was to keep someone else’s daughter alive. Larsen’s head spun a little.
The elevator slowed.
A little dizzy, Larsen realized they’d suddenly reached the capsule. He stared at Trasker. Simon’s face was passive, relaxed. Larsen felt as taut as a hammock band. He could almost see Trasker about to make a stupid elevator joke – “fifth floor, whitewear, software and ladies underwear” or something like that – and if he did Larsen would just strangle him.
Richfield’s daughter over his own.
The elevator stopped.
Called up for a liner accident. Anyone could handle that.
“If…” Larsen stammered. Where was his voice? He was getting afterimages in his peripheral vision, his rage was so strong.
Trasker pulled open the capsule’s door and he crouched, stepping through. He reached back for Meriam and she took his hand, letting him steady her as she went in.
Larsen kept a hold of her hand and bent, following after.
The cabin was conical, three meters in diameter and two meters high in the center. Six cushion couches took up all the space around the base, and consoles folded out above each of them.
“We’ve got two minutes, forty,” Trasker said. He slipped by them and reached out to pull the hatch closed. Larsen heard the biomechanical sounds of the elevator folding up and slipping back down into the upper stage.
Meriam let go of Larsen’s hand, went to one of the couches and strapped in as if she’d done it dozen’s of times.
“How could you not know?” Larsen said to Jamie as he sat next to Meriam.
“They led me astray,” she said. “As far as my deck and feeds were telling me, the problem was with a deep retrieval vessel. It wasn’t until I was trying to get around the medical system that I figured it out. By then you were almost on the ground here.”
“Deep retrieval is nonsense,” Larsen said. He knew he should have smelt rattiness from it the moment she’d told him. Crewed vessels seven hundred light years out.
“They’re researching it,” Trasker said as he sat and strapped himself in. “Another few years maybe.”
Right then Larsen hated his cheerfulness. A man who got drunk as soon as he came off-ship, and started punching officers and civilians and military without discretion. And he was trying to tell Larsen about Barris research? A stupefying as anything else today.
“Thirty seconds,” Trasker said.
“You know?” Larsen said. “I ought to just wipe your grin right off your stupid kisser.”
Meriam put her hand on his arm.
Jamie looked stunned. “I thought you wanted him along.”
Trasker nodded, grim faced. Not agreeing with Jamie, Larsen realized, but agreeing with him. Agreeing that he was an idiot.
Larsen sighed. “If… if it wasn’t that you’re so good in tight spots.”
“Unflappable,” Trasker said. “Ten seconds.”
Larsen almost laughed then. He needed someone unflappable right now. Even if the man did have stupid blowouts, Trasker was still focused and on-task in any duty assignment.
But that wasn’t why Larsen had asked for him. He’d just wanted Trasker to supervise Meriam on the ground, not come along for the ride. No one would get that straight. Out of the stockade to babysitting, but Trasker would have been focused. Larsen felt like he was climbing a greasy slope, trying to find purchase, but losing his grip with every move.
Richfield. That was who he had to direct his rage at.
“Three seconds,” Trasker said.
Putting his hand on Meriam’s on his arm, Larsen said, “Okay?”
She nodded at him, a hint of a smile. “Sure, Dad.”
Larsen stared at her. She’d spoken. Spoken to him.
The capsule clunked. The anti-grav slingshot releasing.
They were pressed back into their seats. The capsule shuddered as they accelerated. The slingshot would toss them high into the atmosphere where the rockets would take over. Anti-grav, funnily enough, only worked at the bottom of a gravity well. Larsen stared at Meriam, knowing that he really should just be keeping his head back and his neck straight. Who’d have thought?
Meriam flicked her eyes at him, then back up, then back over at him again. Larsen looked away. His neck thanked him.
“Acceleration will get worse in a couple of minutes,” he said.
“Sure Dad. I’ve seen movies. Plus, if you would have ever shut up about it when I was a kid.”
Whole real sentences. He wished they were on the ground so he could hug her.
“Separation coming up,” Trasker said.
Larsen sat back. He didn’t want to do anything to spoil the moment. In a few minutes he would be on the Barris ship, then heading out to the Emerald Sky‘s wreck. It seemed distant, almost irrelevant.
There was a pop, then they all drifted forward into their straps. The capsule was quiet for a moment, just the background hum of the air circulation. The candle lit.
Crushed back into his seat, Larsen thought it felt like three and a half, maybe four gees. Everyday tourist stuff, but still, he was worried about Meriam. There never had been time to take her up on a flight, and she’d never especially shown any inclination to go. He’d probably put her off by never shutting up about it. And now here she was.
The noisy burn kept them pressed down for a few minutes, then lessened. They rode on at one gee for a while, then the main engine popped and the cabin fell quiet again.
“Coming up on Conte Rosso,” Trasker said.
Larsen glanced at Meriam, then swung his console out and pulled up the external feed to see what kind of shape their ride was in. It took a moment to find the video. He almost gasped.
The Conte Rosso was a flattened vessel, almost the shape of a cake of soap, with two huge stationary wheels on either side. The wheels’ diameters were almost the same as the length of the ship. He tabbed the display, trying to locate a scale; against the black background of space it was impossible to tell if she was tiny or huge. With the Barris transit wheels so relatively big, she had to be tiny. Little bigger than their to-orbit capsule. But Jamie had said there was a full medical system on board.
The scale came up, a shifting row of numbers along a parallel stack of lines. The console narrowed in on the ship, outlined it and gave him a range and size. Three kilometers away, three hundred and fifty meters long.
The wheels were huge. He’d never seen a vessel with wheels bigger than a hundred meters. Even the big long-haul freighters ones. Of course it had a medical system on board. It could have a whole hospital.
“What’s the crew complement here?”
Trasker padded his console. “Twelve.”
Twelve. What was happening in the rest of the space she filled? “Experimental, right?” Why hadn’t he heard of it? He glanced at Meriam. She was back to reading the sheet and fooling with the pen, rubbing the tip against the bandage.
“She’s done a few runs,” Jamie said. “Apparently she’s the fastest thing out here.”
Larsen looked again at the image on the feed. There was a tiny tender drifting nearby, and a bulbous tanker about a kilometer off, with long taut hoses stretching across the distance to the Barris ship. Fueling? he thought.
“Fast?” Trasker said.
Larsen watched as they drew up on the ship’s dock. It was always fascinating, no matter how many times he came up here. He would never understand the people who just read a magazine while ships went through the complexities of docking, their retros firing and the satisfying clunk as they mated. He glanced at Meriam and saw that she’d switched her sheet to the same video feed.
Larsen peered and pinched to zoom, but couldn’t make out the docking turret. Strange, they seemed to be coming in from the stern.
He zoomed out again and saw the hoses release, suddenly forming up into a set of stationary waves right back to the tanker. The tender flitted away.
Then doors opened on the Conte Rosso‘s stern. There was a bay inside. Easily big enough for the capsule. What an extravagant waste of resources, he thought as the capsule nosed inside on automatic. A self-sealing bay that would get flooded with oxygen, just to save a little bit of docking. The capsule would have to dock somehow anyway, to stop from rattling around in the space. He imagined more octopus cables flicking out from the interior, clutching them into place.
The capsule stopped with a screech. Cables, he thought, with a little slippage.
“What now?” he said. He saw that Meriam had released the pen and was watching it float, spinning slowly, right in front of her eyes. She’d never been in zero-gee before.
“Now,” Jamie said. “We meet the captain, get a briefing and head out to the mission location.”
Rescuing Richfield’s daughter.
There was a clank from the hatchway and the hatch fell open. A face in a light breathing mask looked in. A hand reached up and pulled the mask down, revealing a chiseled, long-nosed woman’s face. “Captain Silk,” she said. She was perhaps fifty, still in good shape from a couple of rejuvenations, her skin with the tell-tale mottling of a long-term spacefarer. “Who’s Larsen?”
Trasker had released his straps and spun around in the room. Jamie, likewise had unstrapped, but was much less certain in weightlessness.
“Me,” Larsen said. “I’m Larsen.” He popped his straps off and twisted around so that he was ‘standing’ facing her. From this angle her nose didn’t seem so long.
“So you’re the expert? Let’s get you briefed.”
“First, we get my daughter to your medical bay.”
“Something like that.”
Meriam popped her straps and flipped around with as much fluidity as Trasker. With a little push, she headed for the hatch. Silk ducked out of the way.
“That her?” Silk said.
Larsen nodded, following his daughter out.
“Doesn’t seem hurt.”
“Looks are deceiving.” He came out into the tiny hangar bay. There was about a foot’s gap between the capsule’s hull and the bay’s wall. It was designed for capsules of this size and layout, though could probably handle a few variations. Relative to the size of the ship, it would take much air volume to fill the bay when a vessel was inside.
Larsen twisted around the captain. He saw Meriam’s legs disappearing through the hatchway that led from the bay into the ship proper. A technician had to pull out of her way. “Hey,” he called after Meriam. “Wait up.”
“She’ll find her way,” Silk called after him. “It’s a big ship, but hard to get lost on.”
“It not getting lost that I’m worried about.” He grabbed a loop bolted to the side of the bay and pulled, sending himself quickly after Meriam.
He found her just inside the hatchway, staring at a layout diagram. The Conte Rosso. Evacuation lines and emergency stations. The ship had four levels of occupied decks, through the center, the middle two longer by half than the top and bottom levels. He knew that there would be twist network of tubes spaghetti-ing around the rest of the volume; the half-Barris half-real space conduits that protected the inner parts of the ship from the odd physics of pure Barris. At the very bow, the thin flange of the bridge rose up like a spike.
“Intrigued?” Larsen said.
Meriam looked at him. She held up the pen, let it go and tapped the tip. The pen began a slow end-over-end rotation, barely moving away from its axis. It spun in space like a gentle propeller. She’d touched it so delicately that he thought it would keep spinning almost in place until friction with the air slowed it to a stop. Most people would have sent it careering across the corridor, then struggled to keep track of it as it bounced around off walls.
“You’re a natural in zero-gee,” he said.
Meriam just nodded.
Silk, Trasker and Jamie came through to the corridor each with a slightly different orientation. It always took Larsen a few minutes to shift from his natural inner ear way of thinking, his brain still looking for an up and a down.
“Medical?” Silk said. “Jamie told me about the situation.”
Jamie paled. “It’s… that is… I…”
Larsen nodded. “That’s fine.”
“I’m sorry.” Jamie stared at Meriam. “I didn’t mean…”
“That’s fine,” Meriam said. She reached out and took the pen from the air. “I’m on suicide watch. Seriously. That’s all it is.”
Meriam smiled at Jamie. “I’m not going to kill myself just because some people know about it. It’s only some chemical imbalance. I don’t know when I’m heading down, even though when I do I spiral pretty quickly.” She shrugged. “If we could get the meds right it might be a little better.”
Jamie continued to stare, a little more slack-jawed.
“I’ll have Ryan guide her down,” Silk said, waving someone over. The technician Larsen had seen reappeared, almost as if he’d been in camouflage while they’d talked.
“I’m going with her,” Larsen said. “I don’t want to hold this up, I know we need to get into Barris space, but I’d just as soon stay with her until I’m happy she’s safe.”
“I’ll stay with her,” Jamie said, and put her hand up to her mouth. “I mean-” she lowered her fingers a little “-if that’s all right.”
“That was the plan, I guess,” Larsen said. “Let’s hustle.” He looked at Ryan. The man grabbed a loop and pulled himself up over them and into a companionway.
“We’re already underway,” Silk said.
Larsen let go of the loop he’d grabbed to follow after Ryan. “Underway?” Why would a vessel designed for Barris space be underway. Where did they have to go?
“As soon as the bay doors closed.” Silk smiled as if at some private joke.
Larsen nodded, hardly believing it. “Underway in real space? Not Barris space.” It took time to wind up the wheels, to get the crystals aligned and run through the checks. Crew had to be ready for the transition.
“We’re in Barris space.” Silk’s grin widened. “Impressive, no? We’re loaded with new tech here. Very fast wind-up, almost immediate drop into Barris space, smooth transition, deep travel.”
Larsen nodded. “Deep travel I’d heard of.” He wondered why he didn’t know about the extent of the vessel’s capabilities. He’d thought he’d been keeping up with developments. “Transit times?”
“Centauri in six hours.”
“Hours!” That wasn’t possible. Barris space still took navigating.
Silk almost laughed. “We’ll be at the site of the wreck in under a day.”
“Sixteen light years?”
“More like twenty.”
“You’ve done this before? Those kinds of distances in that kind of time?”
“Excuse me,” Jamie said, pointing along the companionway. “Aren’t you supposed to be watching her? Isn’t that why we’re all here?”
Larsen looked and saw Meriam following Ryan along the companionway. How had he let himself get distracted like that? “I’ll let you fill me in soon,” he said, grabbing a loop and launching himself along the companionway.
Later, after he’d inspected the medical room and satisfied himself that it was prepped and comfy, and accepted Meriam’s thumbs-up, he made his way back through the ship to find the briefing room. Inside, Trasker, Silk and a technician he hadn’t yet met were harnessed in around a graphics deck. Larsen slipped himself into a free harness. It was almost like standing around a tall table in normal gravity, everyone oriented the same.
“Happy?” Silk said.
“As I can be. Jamie’s with her. What are we looking at?” He could already tell. The deck showed a diagram of a ship. Clearly the Emerald Sky. At its center of mass the Barris transit wheels seemed small, though the whole ship was probably only twice the length of Conte Rosso. The entire bow, from the wheels forward, was colored red, the rest, green. “Casualties?” he said.
“We don’t know,” the technician said.
“Andrew Martenson,” Silk said, “this is Derel Larsen.”
Martenson nodded. “It’s in a kind of rift, caught between real space and Barris space.”
“You know there are survivors, though? In the stern?”
“Nothing,” Silk said. “We’ve got a standard Barris relay comms signal from the ship. Telemetry only. That’s at least ten hours old. It broke a little over a day ago. Nothing since”
Larsen nodded. A real space distress call would take two decades to reach Earth, but a military grade Barris relay emergency signal would come through in hours, depending on distance. Even though communications relays were faster than transit, it still took a lot of power to juice signals in Barris space, and a whole lot to get them through in hours. It would have been a coded telemetry blip, narrowcast to receivers at the edge of the solar system. “You’ve mated that data with local information on the liner?”
“Six years old,” Martenson said. “Built at Eridani, carries a hundred passengers at a time. Does tours to local stars, two week transit, three weeks on site in real space at the three gas giants, with time down on some breathable atmosphere moons with endemic flora, then two weeks back. Expensive trips.”
“On their way back or just arriving when the problem happened?”
“Returning, according to the company’s log.”
“Red is in Barris space?”
“Where is Richfield’s daughter’s cabin?”
Larsen told them. “I was brought up here on a ruse, almost. I would have ‘two and two’ed if I’d known it was a liner. Had to be someone’s relative on board. Someone with clout.”
Martenson whipped through menus on the graphics deck. After a moment, a tiny section highlighted. One of the cabins. In the section stuck in Barris space.
Larsen ran his tongue across his teeth. “Everyone would be in their cabins for the transit?”
“Yes,” Silk said.
He nodded, and sighed. “And how is it possible for a ship to stuck half in and half out of Barris space? The realms don’t have any physical connection. We have to lie to the universe to be able to put a ship in there in the first place, right?” The wheels rode in Barris space, the twist network was a confused half-real, half-Barris absorbing complex that allowed the internal parts of a ship to be effectively in real space.
“We thought you could tell us,” Silk said.
Larsen looked around the briefing room. “In this marvel and wonder of a ship,” he said, “A ship that is going to carry me faster and deeper through Barris space than I’ve ever gone. You think that I know more about Barris space than you?” He looked between Silk and Martenson. They looked at each other.
“Lost me,” Martenson said.
“What he means,” Trasker said, “is that it seems like you have got a pretty good handle on Barris space yourselves, given the advanced nature of your vessel. What use are a couple of old codgers like us? No offence.”
“None taken,” Larsen said. He was thirty-seven. Young, still, but in terms of the speed of technological developments he felt like a dinosaur. Raising Meriam since he was a teen had both aged him and kept him young.
“We just drive it,” Martenson said.
“He’s right,” Silk said. “Even if we do understand how it works, really we just take it out. We were told you were the expert on situations.”
“I just drive too,” Larsen said. “Why didn’t you get the boffins who designed this ship?”
Martenson laughed. “They’re boffins. We needed practical. That is, your practical experience.”
“They’re talking about the Norsk,” Trasker said.
“That was years ago. How old were we?”
Trasker shrugged. “Eight, nine. Certainly before high school.”
Martenson’s eyes went wide. Trasker laughed. “Relax, kiddo. It was a while back, but not before you were born.”
The Norsk had come out of Barris space between stars. A colony ship, isolated fifteen light years from Earth, on its way to Den-Magen. Its signal had been picked up two years after, on one of the Den-Magen plantations. The Norsk had signaled back to Earth through the Barris relays, asking for rescue.
It was effectively unreachable. Barris space allowed direct navigation between stars, but not to the voids between. Theoretically there was no way to pop out between stars, just as theoretically there was no way the Emerald Sky should be half-in and half-out of Barris space.
“We’ve done plenty of other stuff,” Larsen said. “Regular freight runs.”
“We don’t try to trade on rescuing a few colonists.”
They’d rigged a Barris ship to freeze its wheels at the approximate point they guessed the drifting colonial ship was. Their calculations had been pretty good. They’d come out less than a million miles from the ship. Close enough to talk to them by radio and jury-rig something to put them back into Barris space.
“We did to pretty well,” Larsen said. “But this is entirely different.”
“That’s why we’re standing around this table, trying to find solutions to this problem. We have some ideas, we’re hoping that you can shoot them down and then give us the obvious answer.”
Larsen laughed. He liked Silk. She was professional, skilled, but also a little self-deprecating. She reminded him a little of Meriam’s mother. “What have you got so far?”
“Drop out of Barris. Put the wheels on minimum and drop back,” Martenson said. “See if we can dock and get them out.”
“Won’t work,” Trasker said. “You’re thinking in terms of real space. Nothing touches anything in Barris. You’d have to be tuned to about a trillion decimal places to be even able to see them. Anything else and they’d be totally invisible. Then, even if you could see them, and approach, the whole docking business wouldn’t work. The twist network separation keeps real space in existence inside. You can’t just dock and slip through the airlock. Just doesn’t work like that.”
Martenson frowned. “But we can see out. Through the windows.”
“They’re paying you to be an idiot?”
Larsen put his hand on Trasker’s arm. “What Simon means is that the windows are integrated into the network. The locks aren’t. The whole docking system is too complex.
Martenson kept frowning. “Then dock in real space and walk through the ship into the main areas.”
Larsen pinched Trasker’s arm to stop him saying anything. Trasker glared.
“Don’t know if that will work,” Larsen said. “This caught-up business is something we don’t know abou-”
Silk’s alert diode chimed. She tapped it, then blinked, activating a retina display. She sighed. “We’ll have to adjourn,” she said. “You need to see your daughter in medical.”
Larsen was out of the harness like water out of a pipe. He burst into the companionway, grabbed a loop and flipped back. Kicking off, he sent himself gliding along the companionway’s axis. With a couple of taps and kicks, he kept himself moving. He was outside the medical bay in less than a minute.
The door swept open, letting him in. “Where is she?” he said to the duty officer.
“Derel?” Jamie called before the man had a chance to answer.
Larsen turned and pushed himself across. The room was antiseptic white, and smelled of ammonia. Meriam was lying on a bed, tendrils of soft restraining coils keeping her in place. Larsen caught the edge of the bed. “What happened?” he asked Jamie as he came by her. He pulled himself around to look at Jamie’s face. There was blood on the sheet. Jamie’s eyes were open and she stared straight up at the ceiling.
A serious-face technician flipped and moved away from Meriam, didn’t say anything to Larsen.
“Cut herself on the seat,” Jamie said. “I know I’m supposed to be watching her. I was, but it happened fast.”
Larsen nodded. “It does happen fast.”
Meriam looked over at him. “It was an accident, Dad. Not intentional.”
“Really?” As if there was any part of a bed in a ship’s medical bay that it was possible to accidently cut yourself on. “Let’s see the arm.”
She slipped it out from the sheet, the coils shimmering and adjusting to let her move without drifting up from the foam.
The cut was at her wrist. Covered now with a layer of healing spray.
“If I was going to go that way, I’d do it in a bath,” she said. She said it so matter-of-factly it made him shiver.
“On the bed?” he said.
“Here,” Jamie said. She’d come around beside him and she pointed down at one of the plastic rivet fasteners that held the foam squab onto the plastic base board. The fastener was loose, sticking out. It had blood on it.
“You said the seat?” Larsen said.
“The thing reconfigured itself,” Meriam said. “I was just sitting down to read while everyone watched me and I cut myself. Accident. Then, next thing everyone is rushing around, paging you and patching me up and the seat grabs me and stretches out.”
Larsen looked around. “‘Everyone’ being Jamie and the technician?”
“But you’re okay?” he said.
Larsen smiled. He was going to chew Silk out about the state of her ship. If a simple thing like a bed-seat was falling apart, what was the condition of her navigation systems?
“I’m so sorry,” Jamie said.
“Not your fault.” Larsen hovered by the bed.
Meriam had slipped her arm back into the covers. “Aren’t you supposed to be at some briefing?”
Larsen nodded. He looked at Jamie. “You okay?”
“Yes, I suppose.”
He bent and kissed Meriam on the forehead. “Take care, honey,” he said, then pushed off from the bed. The sooner they got this done, the better. He could get home and rethink the next thing.
Back outside the briefing room door, Larsen considered not even going in. He could just wait it out in medical, let them come and find him if they wanted to keep running over ridiculous ideas.
The fact was they didn’t know what to do and they wouldn’t until they were on site. They could speculate all they liked, but he couldn’t think of anything that set a precedent for the situation. At least with the Norsk it had all been in real space. This rift in space business was all new.
He pushed the door open and found the room empty. Swinging in, he looked at the graphics deck. It was blank.
They’d given up, he figured. Back out in the companionway, he made his way forward to the bridge. On the way he passed a couple of technicians. The ship seemed oddly under populated. Twelve crew. Extraordinary.
The bridge was small. Smaller than he’d expected; about the size of his living room back home. But there were six technicians at navigation consoles, arranged in a circle, heads together so some seem almost upside-down. They were all facing the forward windows. There was no attempt here to create any sense of up and down. The technicians were flicking their hands at panels as they directed the ship.
He’d never seen more than two navigators driving a ship before. Looking more closely he saw that they were creating redundant paths through Barris space, each making minor corrections to the route.
“How is she?” someone said.
Larsen looked around. Silk, standing in a harness, the same orientation as him, in a recess at the back of the room. Trasker was hovering nearby.
“Okay. Did we give up on figuring out how to get them off the ship?”
“Ideas were getting messy,” Trasker said. “Figure that it’s better to just work with what we’ve got on site.”
“That’s where I was heading too. Six navigators?” he said to Silk. As he spoke, he knew why. Deep and fast travel in Barris space would require more concentration. Looking beyond the circle of navigators he could see the density of Barris space outside the windows.
The blue-black swirled around them, with heavy pieces of dimensional debris, thicker than he’d ever seen. Most of the pieces were moving with them, but some, as he’d seen before, were moving at random and unpredictable trajectories. They never touched and for the most part treated ships as if they were just another part of the space, but you didn’t want to hit one. In the early days of Barris space, ships had been lost.
“Sixteen hours until we’re on site,” Silk said. “It’s kind of dull up here, you guys might want to play some pool or something.”
“Can we see your emergency equipment?” Larsen said. “I think we should do an inventory to know what we’ve got.”
“Pretty comprehensive,” Silk said. “Lower deck, you can’t miss it.”
Larsen looked at Trasker, who was already pulling himself back to the entry door.
The bay was enormous, occupying almost half of the lower deck. There were two flat-lying shuttles, EVA suits and coils of tether roping, pallets and sleds, personal maneuvering packs and canisters of emergency food. Inflatable balls to zip someone into and haul them through vacuum. Larsen liked those: much more efficient than trying to get someone into a suit.
“This is pretty good,” Trasker said. “Think any of it’s going to be any use in this situation.”
Larsen shook his head. “Nothing is going to be much use at all, I mean. We’ll be able to get people off from the real space end sure, but nothing we can do for the rest.” He moved along a row of lockers, checking the contents. Food supplies. Medical supplies. Electronics.
“You really think that it’s stuck?” Trasker said.
“Not really, no. More like it’s been snapped in half and the film bulkheads have sealed the ship’s open corridors.”
“That’s what I was figuring.” Trasker had the access panels open on one of the shuttles and had begun loading in some canisters filled with the inflatable rescue balls and tethers.
“But if it’s not that, then we have to be prepared, have to think laterally.”
“Easier to think in here than in their claustrophobic little briefing room with Mr. Theoretical.”
It took Larsen a moment, but then he realized that Trasker meant Martenson. “He’s doing his best.”
“I know, young and inexperienced. But did you see the way he looked at us? As if we were the product of another age. Like we were cavemen coming to beat down the castle gates.”
“That makes not an ounce of sense to me.”
“You should have heard some of his ideas after you left, speaking of lack of sense. Tether the ships together, then have us transit to Barris space and back. Or just use this ship as a tug to pull the Emerald Sky out of Barris space, like it was a tractor pulling a stump.”
“That’s an analogy I get, farm boy.”
“Hey. The Dakotas are a great place to grow up.”
They laughed. An old joke between them. They kept the banter up as they continued to load and prep the equipment. Larsen felt better. It was good having Trasker around; the man always calmed him. A good foil.
“Well,” Trasker said after an hour. “We’ll just be unpacking and repacking if we carry on here.”
Larsen nodded. They had both shuttles loaded with enough equipment to rescue half of the passengers over if need be. And enough other equipment ready to deal with other contingencies. Fire suppression, first aid, a sidearm.
They still hadn’t figured out what to do about the half of the ship stuck in Barris space.
“I’m going to find a cabin and grab some shut-eye,” Trasker said. He kicked off and headed up into the vessel.
Larsen followed, checking the time. According to Silk’s timeline they still had fourteen hours before they arrived on site. Enough time to sleep. Even though he felt as though he’d only just gotten up. It was barely lunchtime back home.
He stopped at medical, watching Trasker continue gliding along the companionway towards the cabins they’d been assigned. The medical bay was darkened to a twilight glow. Larsen stopped at the door a moment to let his eyes adjust.
“Hey,” Jamie called over. “She’s doing fine.”
Larsen pulled himself across. Jamie was sitting – as much as one sat in zero gravity – holding a reading sheet. She rolled the sheet as he approached and stuffed it into a pocket.
Larsen looked at Meriam. “Sleeping?”
“I guess so.”
“She’s been no trouble?”
“Nothing. We talked a bit. Politics, economy, the state of higher education. About families.”
Larsen nodded. “Hardest thing in the world.”
“You’re right there.”
“Why don’t you take a break?” he said. “Grab a bite to eat, find that cabin and get some shut eye.”
“I’m okay here.” She looked at the time. “Bit early to be going back to bed.”
“It’s a long while until we’re on site, and I’ve got nothing to do until then. I’ll stay with her.”
Jamie nodded. Almost in a whisper, she said, “Why is she in medical? Couldn’t she just be in a cabin too?”
Larsen gave her a grim smile. “Sure. Just that if something happened, all the resuscitation equipment is right here. That proximity might make all the difference.”
“She doesn’t seem in danger… I mean, not that I didn’t take the job seriously.”
“Just that…” Jamie trailed off.
“Her mood changes very quickly. She’s on an upswing at the moment.” More up than he’d seen her in months. Perhaps the trip was enlivening her. He wished he’d thought of that before. She seemed to have a natural affinity for space.
“I figured. Otherwise why have a twenty-four-seven?”
“Yep. You should eat and rest. Once we get on site it’s going to busy and I won’t be popping in to check on her like this.”
Jamie nodded. “Understood.” A little unsure, she pushed off for the door, catching one of the loops beside it and steadying herself. “You just come get me if you need anything.”
“Will do.” Larsen waved and Jamie turned and slipped out the door.
Pulling himself to the chair, he watched Meriam for a long moment. She did seem so relaxed and at peace. He knew she didn’t sleep well usually, so it was nice – calming, even – to see her so serene.
He checked that her monitor sliver was active and keyed in to his ear-roll. All green. Grabbing the chair, he sat back in it, letting the light coils hold him in place.
At least, even if there was nothing they could do, he would get to keep his medical benefits. He had a lot in place and ought to be able to stay home with her for another few months.
The chair hugged him a little tighter and he felt massage bulbs thrumming through the foam, easing his muscles. He hadn’t realized that he’d become so tense.
With the massage, and watching Meriam asleep and beautiful, he felt more at ease than he had for a long time. Just a little niggle that it took being manipulated by Richfield, and coming to such a dangerous situation to make him relax. Paradoxes. He closed his eyes, stretching out.
A klaxon woke him.
The room was bright.
He sat upright, the chair’s coils slipping away.
Meriam was gone.
He kicked for the door. His flight went awry. They weren’t in zero-gee anymore.
The klaxon kept sounding.
He caught a loop and slipped up against the wall. It was a low thrust, perhaps five percent of a standard gee. Maneuvering thrusters.
Where was Meriam?
Hauling himself through the door, he saw crew rushing along the companionway. Some were wearing environment suits. One of them still in coveralls stopped nearby, yanking open a locker in the companionway wall and pulling out a deflated suit. She quickly started putting it on.
“What’s happened?” Larsen said.
“Out of Barris,” she said, looking at him. Her face was grim, eyes wide. She kept working to get the suit over her coveralls. “But I don’t ask, I just get suited and go where they tell me.”
“Thanks.” Larsen started forward, bouncing off his feet, grabbing at loops.
“Wait,” the crewwoman called after him. “You’ll need a suit.” She held out another one she’d taken from the locker.
“I’ve got to find my daughter,” he said. He kept moving forward. He should have set up a proper communications line between the four of them. At least Meriam’s sliver hadn’t activated. She was still alive and still balanced. He wished it had a homing beacon on it.
“Larsen.” Trasker was further down the companionway, waving at him. He had his legs in a suit, the torso, arms and helmet hanging free.
“What’s going on?” Larsen shouted.
“We’re on site,” Trasker called back. He was hanging from a loop, feet braced. Low acceleration was tricky, much harder than either zero-gee or full acceleration.
Larsen came up. “Have you seen Meriam?”
“Jamie’s with her.” Trasker pointed back. “In Jamie’s cabin.”
Larsen felt tension leach from him. He sighed. “How can we be on site already?” Then he looked at the time. He’d slept that long. Actually for-real slept. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept for more than a couple of hours at a time.
In a moment he was at the open door to Jamie’s cabin. They were both in environment suits.
The klaxon shut off.
The ship seemed quiet and for a second Larsen imagined he could hear birds and a waterfall. Just his brain fooling him with residual interpretations.
“What’s happening?” Jamie said.
“I’m about to find out. Meriam?” He pushed into the cabin and grabbed her shoulders.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m fine.”
Larsen shivered. That moment when he woke in the medical bay and she was gone had shaken him. But here she was. She was okay. “I’ve gotta go to work,” he said.
Meriam shrugged. Like it was nothing. Larsen looked at Jamie.
“I’ll stay with her,” Jamie said.
“Thanks.” Larsen flipped and pulled back out to the companionway. Trasker followed.
In moments they were on the bridge. Silk was strapped into the upright harness, exactly where he’d last seen her. The circle of Barris space navigators had reconfigured to a normal space flight deck, four of the seats and panels folded back into the walls, the remaining two side by side and facing forwards. The two pilots worked frantically on their panels.
“Situation?” Larsen said.
“See the ship?” Silk pointed out through the forward canopy.
Larsen saw it. A bright speck, probably sixty kilometers away.
“There’s a hole,” Silk said. “It’s nose down, relative to the ecliptic.” She tore off a corner of her own panel and passed it to Larsen, the corner quickly regrowing.
Larsen took the chunk and expanded it square. It was small, but it quickly reconfigured to the new size, hardening up and squaring off. The image flickered for a moment, the resolved to show the Emerald Sky on magnification.
Half was missing. The wheel facing the camera was revolving slowly, the spokes and rim disappearing as they moved around. “A rift to Barris space,” he muttered. He shifted the panel so Trasker could see.
“Exactly,” Silk said. “More unreasonable physics. And we’re caught in it. Trying right now to maneuver out of it”
“Maneuver?” Trasker said.
On the display Larsen saw a flicker, almost like lightning, reaching from the crippled liner. “The rift is spreading?”
“It lances out. We’re trying to avoid it.”
Larsen stretched the little panel bigger. It struggled to keep up, thinning as he got the size up. When it was as big a dinner tray, and thinner than paper, it flashed a complaining red at him. He stopped pulling and the image resolved again. Another flash of lightning.
“There,” Trasker said. “It’s along the same plane. Perpendicular to the ship.”
“Originating at the wheel,” Larsen said.
“What’s that?” Silk said.
“The breach is sourced at the wheel.”
“Definitely,” Trasker said. “We should get over there.”
Larsen looked over at Silk. Her face was grim. “I can’t risk my ship,” she said. “Even for the flight director’s daughter. I can’t go any closer.”
“From the stern,” Larsen said. “Those bolts are coming out perpendicular.”
“You know that?”
He’d seen two. He wondered what she’d seen. “That’s what I’m going with. Get us up above the plane, and bring us into the ship from-”
“Brace for real space acceleration,” Silk said into her mic. Larsen heard it echoing from behind and out the door over the ship’s Tannoy.
Trasker grabbed an overhead loop. Larsen did likewise.
“Okay boys,” Silk said to the pilots. “One gravity to start, then ease us up to two once everyone’s happy. Put us five hundred meters directly astern of the wreck.”
Immediately Larsen felt weight come back. His feet settled on the deck. It always seemed counter-intuitive, that a ship with a clear bow and stern would move up rather than forwards when it was in real space. The pilots’ seats tipped back so that they were looking directly through the overhead parts of the canopy.
“We’re moving away from those flashes,” one of the pilots said.
Larsen watched the view change, the Emerald Sky slowly moving down relative to him.
“If you’re going over there, you should get yourselves ready,” Silk said.
“Roger,” Larsen said with a nod to her. He walked back out into the companionway. It was odd moving in the ship now. The floor’s curve was out of place, designed for weightlessness, not for walking on. This ship spent very little time under acceleration, he thought.
“Two gravities in fifteen seconds,” Silk said over the Tannoy.
He’d forgotten about that. He started running, Trasker right behind him.
At Jamie’s cabin, he pulled himself through the door. They were both lying back on the beds, ready for the extra acceleration.
“You should find a seat,” Jamie said, looking over at him.
“Yup. You good, Meriam?”
“You’re bothering me now,” she said. “Asking so much and all.”
He couldn’t help smiling. “Gotcha.”
“Five seconds,” the Tannoy said.
“Gotta go,” Larsen said. He started running along the companionway again. Trasker hadn’t stopped and was far ahead.
The speakers crackled, then Silk said, “Gravity engage.”
It came with a kick. He felt it in his knees first. He grabbed a loop and steadied himself. Using a loop lower down on the companionway wall, he let himself slide down the wall. Trasker was still moving. Larsen didn’t know how he did it. Weighing three hundred pounds and still moving. Inexplicable.
Larsen sat on the floor, feeling the thrum of the engines through the steel. The ship was more capable than he’d first thought. This was why it needed serious fueling. Fast and deep through Barris and agile in real space. He wondered if they were going to one day figure out how to fold away the wheels and make something like this atmosphere capable.
“Coming about,” Silk said over the Tannoy. “Strap in.”
Halfway, Larsen thought. Turning the ship for deceleration. He had a moment of weightlessness, then felt the inertia of the spin trying to pull him towards the bow. He gripped the loop, but still drifted up off the floor, legs swinging around.
“Brace,” Silk said.
The weight came back. Two gravities of deceleration. He sat waiting for it to pass, wondering how Meriam was doing.
Larsen blinked and breathed. He had a job to do, and he had to trust that Meriam would be all right.
The deceleration eased and Larsen stood again.
“Positioning,” Silk called. “Prepare for uneven movement.”
Larsen started running along the companionway. It was back to a single gee now, but still easing off. In a moment he wouldn’t be able to run: his steps would just push him up off the floor.
By the time he reached the equipment bay entry doors he was back in zero gee. He pulled through the doors and looked for Trasker. He was hovering over one of the lie-flats, pulling himself into an EVA suit. A couple of the crew were working on prepping the tiny shuttle.
“Larsen? You there?” Silk called over the speakers.
By the door he saw a comms panel and he swung around to it. “Larsen.”
“We’re all in position. Holding about five hundred meters from the Emerald Sky.”
“Any signal? Any sign of life?”
“And those disturbances?”
“Out of the wake for the moment. But if-”
“Don’t put your ship in danger,” he said. “If you need to back off, then go.”
She didn’t respond for a moment, then said, “Roger that.”
Larsen looked back at Trasker. He helping the crew with the little shuttle. Clever machine, Larsen thought, small enough to slip through a standard hatch, but powerful enough to jet for hundreds of kilometers and keep a pilot on life support for days.
“We’re suiting up,” he said. “Keep us posted.”
Pushing off, Larsen headed for the other shuttle to get underway. It only took a couple of moments to get into the suit.
“We good to go?” Trasker said.
Larsen waited until the suit had sealed itself over his back and head, and the HUD readout showed him that the integrity was set. A row of green spots appeared on the soft helmet’s bug eye. “Yes,” he said. He moved to the other side of the first shuttle and they maneuvered it into the airlock. With the twist network so densely protecting the ship, the airlock had limited volume. If they’d come out in a freighter, they could have brought a forty-seat shuttle, fitted into a bay that the twist-network folded away from. But then a freighter would have taken two months to get out here.
With the two of them manhandling the shuttle, it only took a couple of minutes to get it into the lock. The inner door slid into place and the panel showed a good seal.
“Ready for this?” Larsen said.
Trasker shrugged. “As ever.”
Larsen punched the release and the outer door opened. Through the inner window he saw the shuttle ride away on the puff of air, then bounce a little as if it had landed on water as its retros fired to keep it close. “Let’s get the other one in.”
In a few minutes they had both shuttles hovering outside the ship and cycled through themselves. They got into the waiting machines and sealed in.
“Are we good to go?” Larsen said through the comms. The shuttle felt as though it was squeezed him like a coffin.
“You have a green,” Silk said.
Larsen took the throttle and stick and aimed the little shuttle for the stern of the Emerald Sky. From this angle the big ship was foreshortened, but still huge. It seemed to ripple at the edge where the wheel disappeared.
“Doesn’t look good, boss,” Trasker said.
The ship didn’t seem damaged in any other way, the stern was sleek and shiny, the viewports all in line and intact. Rows of other access locks and service points almost hidden by a clever design aesthetic. The huge Barris transit wheel – bigger than those on the Conte Rosso, but relatively dwarfed by the size of the Emerald Sky – was still moving slowly. Larsen didn’t know what to make of it. Supposedly you were either in Barris space or not; a binary system. There was no half in or half out as if you were standing waist-deep in the ocean. That’s what the liner looked like, with the wheel shimmering a little as it transitioned into nothing.
It only took a few minutes to get to the stern access docks on the Emerald Sky. Trasker lined up and fired out a mooring tether. The probe bit into the Emerald Sky‘s skin and bonded. Trasker popped his hatch and slipped out, pulling himself over on the tether. He got to the hatch and tapped the panel. “Okay,” he said, his voice a little tinny in Larsen’s ear-roll. “We’ve got atmosphere in there.”
“It will cycle?” Larsen fired off his own tether and opened the hatch. He saw Trasker’s shuttle give a little puff on its retros to steady itself at its end of the tether.
As Larsen approached, Trasker got the hatch open. It flipped aside, leaning back almost straight up. Trasker shone his flashlight inside. “Nothing.” He pulled inside and Larsen saw him checking the inside panel.
It was a standard airlock. Big enough for two people. If there were survivors inside they were going to have to bundle them up in survival bubbles and jimmy both doors open so they could send them all out into space without having to cycle through for everyone. Regulation procedure.
“We’ve got atmosphere inside,” Trasker said.
“Good.” Larsen used his personal jets to turn and face back. There were stars and for the first time he saw the planet. A gas giant. Blue, but striated with heavy red and orange bands. A narrow ring circled it, lit up and partly eclipsed from the sun. The Emerald Sky looked tiny in front of it.
Beyond there was another planet, another gas giant, but slightly smaller. Much redder than the first. And he realized it was bigger, not smaller, just much further away. The first planet was effectively a moon around the bigger one. A Neptune orbiting a Jupiter, almost a binary pair.
The planet looked fantastic. No wonder people paid to come out here.
No time for sightseeing.
He was within arm’s reach of his shuttle, and he grabbed one of its external rungs and pulled himself along to the external access locker where they’d stored all the emergency pods.
“Comms is active,” Trasker said.
“No one’s talking.”
Larsen pulled out the plastic canister filled with the pods, swung it around and headed for the open hatch, making a couple of minor corrections with his jets. It was a squeeze, but he got the canister and himself into the airlock with Trasker.
“Closing up,” Trasker said.
The outer door swung down. Larsen had a momentary glimpse of the planets, then was dropped into darkness.
Trasker turned his flashlight back on. Larsen felt the shift in the suit as atmosphere flooded the lock, then Trasker had the inner hatch open. He slipped through and Larsen turned, looking into a narrow arrival bay about six meters long.
He turned on his own flashlight. The walls were a pristine white with three stripes at what would be shoulder height in gravity. Orange, blue and orange. The line’s colors.
Larsen had hoped that there might be someone inside waiting.
There were loops and racks along the walls. Larsen kicked in and hooked the canister into one of the empty racks.
“Systematic search, then?” Trasker said.
“That’s right.” Larsen flipped along to the far door and peered through the viewslot. It was dark in the companionway beyond. “Any chance of getting some light?” The airlock doors had opened on command – they hadn’t had to manually wind them – so there had to be power somewhere in the ship.
Trasker came up beside him, holding an unrolled graphics panel. “Maybe. Not from here, though.” He pointed into the diagram of the ship on the panel. “If we can get down here to engineering, we might be able to do something.”
Larsen could see a pattern within their search to get them to engineering. “We can’t remote from somewhere? There must be some control room nearby.”
Trasker shrugged, an odd looking gesture in the EVA suit. “I guess.”
“Let’s start with a sweep down the companionway out here, then run back through some of the cabins and the common rooms.”
“Roger that.” Trasker tapped on the door controls and the door folded open.
Larsen shone his light down. It was eerie. A big ship like this, just empty and dark. He knew what was ahead, down that way. Some kind of breach through to Barris space.
“Larsen?” Silk said in his ear-roll. “Status?”
“We’re aboard. No sign of anyone. We’re just heading into the first section now. Problems your end?”
“Your daughter’s fine.”
“I’ll be sending six of my team over shortly to expand the search.”
“Roger that.” With only twelve crew, how could she possibly spare six?
Larsen and Trasker worked their way into the ship. Seventeen levels with over hundred meters still exposed in real space. Too much to search totally systematically, but they quickly found there was no one aboard. Cabin after cabin was empty. They kept working their way forwards.
They reached one of the big observation rooms. It was almost like a theatre, with dozens of recliners looking out into space through a huge transparent panel. The twist network would have to be folded out of the way, so the room could only be used in real space, Larsen realized, staring out at the planets. He thought he could see a moon hanging in front of the nearest giant. If he could afford something like this he would take it. Watching the planets was soothing.
“There’s no one here,” Trasker said.
They’d been searching for two hours. They were going to have to check right up to the forward parts of the ship somehow. “Let’s give it another hour.”
They worked their way on forward through the ship. They tried the comms system, tried paging through the Tannoy. They got the lights up and filled the ship with the gentle yellow liners favored. From a purser’s office they tried a diagnostic on the system, looking for medical alerts and room service calls. Trasker found the onboard camera system and worked through views on that, both through the public and the crew areas. Still no one. He ran the recordings, but they only showed the previous few hours. No one. The rest had locked itself away behind a password.
“Silk?” Larsen called. Three and a half hours out here and they’d still found nothing.
“Not looking good, is it?”
“No. We’re almost at the end of the visible section.”
Silk didn’t say anything for a moment. “You sure you want to go look at it? Seems that what you’re doing is dangerous enough.”
“Vital. Everyone’s probably across the other side of that.”
“Assuming they’re…” Silk trailed off.
“Yeah. You want to pull your crew out?”
“I’ll put it to them.”
Larsen and Trasker kept moving forwards. The companionway shifted up a bit and the rows of cabin doors came to an end. The mechanisms for rotating the wheels took up a lot of space. There was still room, though, for another of the big observation rooms, on the very top of the ship.
“Okay,” Silk said. “They’re coming back over. You two should come back soon, then we’ll figure out our next move.”
“We’ll get within visual of the damage, get some readings, then head back.”
Larsen could see it ahead in the corridor. He made sure that he had a good grip on the loops as he moved.
The tube seemed to end. It was like looking out of a pipe that drained into nothing. There was something in the space where the companionway ended. A kind of odd shimmer, a little like wrinkling plastic wrap, but without a surface he could see. Only the wrinkles were visible.
“I can get down close,” Trasker said. “Get some video and thermals.”
“In here,” Larsen said. He pulled back up the companionway and through the double doors into the upper observation lounge. This one was smaller than the first one, but a similar layout, with recliners and a wide window facing out at the planets. Looking back along the Emerald Sky‘s hull, he could see the Conte Rosso hanging nearby, with the small swarm of the search party jetting back.
The other way, towards the bow, the observation room was cut off by the wrinkles. The angle wasn’t quite as high as he’d hoped so he couldn’t see where the missing section of the ship ought to be. He could see how the wrinkles reached out a little beyond the edge of the window, pushing into space and wriggling.
The ship shuddered.
“Whoa!” Trasker said.
“What was that?” Silk said over the comms.
“Little movement,” Larsen said.
“Get back over here.”
“Got it. There’s still atmosphere in here right?” Larsen wondered what had caused the shake. Undoubtedly something to do with the wrinkles. They’d stayed in their suits throughout the search. Their cyclers would take air from the Emerald Sky so that they still had full bottles.
“Atmosphere, yes.” Trasker had put himself into one of the recliners and was using his panel to take video and thermal readings of the rift. He had something in his hand and he threw it forwards.
“Hey,” Larsen said.
“Just a clip. I wanted to see what happened.”
“Larsen!” Silk called. “We have a problem.”
The spinning clip hit the wrinkles and vanished.
“We need to get out?” Trasker said. He was already up and out of the chair, the panel rolling in his hand.
Larsen turned, looking back at the Conte Rosso. The jetting crew were still moving.
“Meriam?” he said.
“She’s gone through a lock.”
Larsen’s whole body clenched. Through a lock. His HUD flashed red that he was breathing too hard. He turned to Trasker. The man was wide-eyed, even through the helmet.
Larsen wanted to shout. Wanted to scream at someone.
If they’d stayed back at home this wouldn’t have happened. He would have been watching her. Right there in the next room. Her monitors would have been on, he would have been keyed in to her vitals every moment.
He should never have trusted Jamie.
How had Meriam gotten to a lock? How had she even opened it?
He remembered watching her as she’d come into the Conte Rosso, how at ease she was with zero-gee. A natural.
She’d seemed so calm on the ship. So at ease.
He’d let his guard down too easily. She’d talked to him and he’d relaxed too much.
It wasn’t like she’d suddenly become well.
Deceived. That’s what it was. She’d deceived him.
He wondered if it was intentional. Had she contrived to deceive him? Had the medications made her lucid enough to plan this? What better way to kill yourself than to leap from a spaceship’s lock? No one was getting revived from that.
Trasker’s hand on his shoulder. “Breathe easy,” he said.
“You there, Larsen?” Silk said.
“How did she-”
“She’s in her suit,” Trasker said.
“What? She went out the lock. How could-”
“Slow down, Derel,” Trasker said. “She was still in her suit.”
“Huh?” It was taking a moment to process that. She was still in her suit. That’s right, she’d been in the environment suit back on the Conte Rosso.
“Larsen?” Silk said. “You okay. I’ve got a medical ping on you here.”
A medical ping? She was pulling up their telemetry? Where was Meriam?
“Breathe easy,” Trasker said. “She’s okay. She’s drifting from the ship.”
“My team is following her,” Silk said.
Trasker pointed back towards the Conte Rosso. The swarm was slowing and turning. One of them was far ahead.
“She’s got a retro pack on?”
“Stole it from inventory,” Silk said.
Meriam was all right. She was extra-vehicular, but she was okay.
“What’s her telemetry?” he said. “She giving you medical pings too?”
“No. She’s all green.” Silk paused for a moment. “You’re almost back in green too. If you could get your heart rate down.”
“It’s never coming down again.”
But he did feel a level of relief. She wasn’t dead just yet.
Meriam’s tiny figure moved in front of the big blue giant. She was heading for the Emerald Sky.
Silk’s crew weren’t going to be able to catch her. They’d been heading into the ship. Before they could start after her they had to kill their own inertia. They were only just beginning to make headway. She had a two hundred meter lead on them.
“They won’t reach her, will they?” Larsen said.
“She’s on full jets,” Silk said.
Everyone’s jets were the same power. Unless Meriam cut her power, they were all accelerating at the same rate.
“I could move the ship,” Silk said.
Larsen did a quick calculation. The Conte Rosso could move fast, but Meriam would be at the Emerald Sky before they could even fire up.
“Won’t work,” Trasker said.
“We’ve got to go out and get her,” Larsen said.
They were nearly a hundred meters from the stern and their shuttles. No way to clamber back through the companionways and reach them before she got there. “Is she coming aboard?”
“You tell me,” Silk said.
“Is she on comms?” Larsen said. “Meriam? You there?”
“She’s heading for the wheel,” Trasker said.
“The wheel?” Larsen peered at his daughter. Just a speck. How could Trasker figure that?
“We should get out there.”
“How?” But he knew. There were service locks along the ship. They had to be close to one. Their suits didn’t have the full retro set up. The little maneuvering packs would give them some control, but they were really for simple stuff, like when you were out of reach of a tool in vacuum. Not for chasing down suicidal women.
“This way,” Trasker said. He pushed off the back of one of the recliners.
Larsen followed him out to the companionway and along. They came to a small service door. Trasker ripped it open. Inside there was a dogged hatchway. Trasker had that open quickly, revealing another two-person lock. They scrambled in.
Larsen was tempted to just blow the outer hatch. Faster than cycling. There was no one on the ship to protect now; who cared about atmosphere? The blast of evacuating air would probably send them tumbling for the planet, unable to steady themselves or return, with a momentum greater than their little packs could manage. Silk would have three people to rescue.
Trasker closed the inner door.
“Silk, where is she?”
“She’s gone by the stern. I don’t like her trajectory.”
“Cycling,” Trasker said.
Larsen felt the suit shift and thicken around him as the air bled back into the ship.
The outer hatch swung away and they were bathed in blue from the planet. Larsen swung himself around and onto the hull. He hooked his foot under a rung and scanned around for Meriam. He spotted her as Trasker came out and pointed. “There.”
She was heading for the wheel. About a hundred meters away. He could see the tell-tale sparky vapor from the retros. She was still accelerating.
Larsen huffed. He could leap and catch her, but if he screwed up he’d be drifting too. He needed a tether and a lasso.
“Meriam?” Trasker said. “If you’ve got your radio on, turn for us. We’re on the hull.” Trasker had his foot under a rung too, and had his arms up, waving at her.
Larsen started waving too.
Meriam turned. She was facing them. She waved back, the action shifting the rest of her body a little.
She’d cut off the rockets. She was still drifting towards the wheel. How had she gotten so familiar and at ease with this technology? Cadets trained for years with it.
“This way,” Larsen said. She was only about fifty meters away.
She kept drifting.
“Hey,” Larsen said.
Meriam gave a little burst on the rockets. She moved closer. Out of his reach.
Trasker’s trajectory was going to carry him past her. He worked his retros.
“Meriam,” Larsen said. “What are you doing?” He hoped Trasker could make it back.
She didn’t reply.
She must have heard him; she’d turned when Trasker spoke.
“Please,” he said. She was level with him now, getting close to the wheel.
Trasker had arrested his flight, but he wasn’t going to be able to catch up with her.
She turned again, facing the wheel. She would hit it in moments.
“It will be okay, Daddy.” Her voice sounded too thin and fragile.
Meriam gave another burst on the rockets.
He was only a couple of meters from her. The wheel was looming. He gave his retro pack a burst and almost caught her. She fired a tether. The reaction kicked her a little sideways. The spike jammed into the wheel. Larsen pushed his retro pack, reaching for her. The tether yanked her back, but he caught her ankle. They twisted around, almost spinning. Meriam was winding the tether in.
Larsen’s feet hit the wheel. He bounced, but then steadied. Meriam had the tether taut now. His retro pack fired on auto to keep him from spinning.
“We’re on the wheel, Daddy.”
What was with suddenly calling him ‘Daddy’? Had she regressed?
“We’ll be okay,” he said. Using the tension from the tether, he pulled her around so that she was facing him. Her face was tense, eyes wide. “We’ll be okay,” he said again. He kept staring at her face. So lost and confused. He could still see his little girl in there, under the teenage hardness. His little three-year-old Meriam begging him to swing her around again.
“I’m not trying to kill myself,” she said. “I think I’ve figured out what’s going on.”
Larsen kept his left foot on the wheel and kicked at the tether spike with his right foot.
“Larsen?” Silk said.
“Derel!” Trasker. “Get off the wheel. It’s moving into the drop off. The wrinkles.”
He kicked once more. “Meriam. Release the tether.” He kicked again, but the spike had buried itself much too deep into the wheel.
“Get off there,” Trasker yelled.
Larsen could see the twisting sparkles rising up at them.
“Larsen!” Silk again.
“It’s okay,” Meriam said. “You can let me go.”
“I can’t let you go.”
The wrinkles swallowed them.
Unsurvivable. The realms of physics it dealt with were orders of different strangeness indescribable to lay people. Barris herself still said that she didn’t really fathom it completely. But she’d figured out how to make it work.
Carnival wheels. On the sides of your craft, slowly spinning to move through the realm.
The twist network. A series of pipes through the outer skin of your craft. Inside the pipes: a half Barris-half real space medium. Barris couldn’t quite explain that either.
It was like, she’d said, trying to explain magnetism to a pigeon. The analogy failed, though, when someone suggested that pigeons probably exploited magnetism to be able to home, to know north from south, so they probably knew more about magnetism than anyone. “All right then,” Barris had said, “Trying to explain the twist network is like trying to explain manners to you.” She’d gotten a laugh.
This wasn’t Barris space.
Larsen had seen it through viewports and windows often enough to know what it looked like. He’d seen the depths of it on the way out here. Blue, with black fragments that sometimes seemed to flow and other times seemed to move randomly. The transitions were immediate. At first you were in the odd blueness of it, then the fragments began to appear. More of them if you travelled faster, though you didn’t necessarily appear to be moving.
This was something else.
White. Vaporous. Sparking light coming from nearby. Lightning, but not the crooked lines of electrical arcs. More like the sparks from a magnesium flare.
And, he was alive. And he was still holding Meriam.
“We transitioned,” he said to her.
She didn’t respond. She just kept staring at him. He glanced down and saw that they were still standing on the wheel. It looked different, the surface stippled and white.
“Meriam?” he said, looking up again. No radio. He pressed his helmet to hers. “Hear me?” he said.
Not real space, he thought. Not Barris space, but something else. Sound didn’t necessarily transfer well, even with helmets touching.
At least they were alive. If they were in Barris, they would probably have been ripped apart.
That explained the ship. Half-in and half-out of real space, but the other side of the wrinkles wasn’t Barris space. Another kind of sub space realm. Barris herself would love this.
“Okay,” he said, helmet pressed to hers. “We’ll figure this out.”
Still on the wheel. The bow of the ship was just over to the left, a little lost in the mist. The wheel was still moving.
He looked at the ship’s hull. It wasn’t mist, he knew, but real world analogies fitted best.
Were the passengers in there? Still alive?
He and Meriam had come through the wrinkle on the wheel. Perhaps the passengers had gone along the companionways and just ended up in this space.
A more normal space, he thought. Not impossible like Barris space, but more benign. It wasn’t, though, a portal to somewhere else in real space. The vapor and the sparks showed that. He looked again, wondering if the thickening cluster of sparks was some kind of storm.
“-we-g–an-d-th-i-ide?” Meriam said.
Larsen unrolled his panel. Its screen came to life. He used his finger to write on it. ‘GET INSIDE?” Huh, he thought, things still worked here. Well, he was breathing. He held the panel up for her to see.
Meriam read and nodded.
“MIGHT NEED JETS” he wrote and showed her. He couldn’t tell if his retros or her rocket pack would work here. They were going to have to jump right and hope that they could make little corrections as they went. He wiped the words off, then drew a diagram of two stick figures on the wheel, the bow of the ship, a circle for an airlock, then an arrow between the figures and the lock.
Meriam nodded when he showed her. Reaching up she wiped the panel and wrote “MiGHt KeeP tetHeR” then she wiped that and wrote “UNReeL”.
Larsen nodded. He wiped the panel and wrote “READY??”
Meriam just gave him a thumbs-up.
“I’LL COUNT” he wrote, and held up his glove with five fingers spread. Meriam nodded.
Larsen rolled up the panel and surveyed the ship. He could see the row of evenly spaced locks along the hull. The wheel was still moving, though it would take minutes to reach back to the wrinkle transition.
He assumed they could transition back. He couldn’t see wrinkles here, just more of the mist
Better to just go back, he thought. Ride the wheel. Get Meriam back on board the Conte Rosso and safe.
Then he looked at her. She’d known.
Pulling out the panel, he unrolled it and wrote, “HOW DID U KNOW???” and showed her.
She wiped it and wrote, “LetS GO!!”
So he wrote back, “???”
Meriam shook her head inside the helmet. “I ReAD OK” Wiped it. “TRUST”
Trust, he thought. She was going to have some explaining to do.
Unreeling the tether, they could make it to the ship. If they missed, they’d be able to get back onto the wheel. If they could get in then they could complete the mission. Find out if there were survivors. And then just walk out through a companionway. The risk of crossing through the wrinkle – that’s how he was thinking of it now – inside the ship was probably less than crossing it by staying on the wheel.
“OK” he wrote. He tucked the panel away, then held up his splayed fingers.
She stuck her thumb up at him. Larsen nodded and put his free arm around her waist. Putting her hand on his arm, she squeezed, reassuring him.
Strange, he thought, that she should be trying to reassure him.
Time to go.
His HUD flashed a red spot. Heart rate too high.
He tucked his thumb in. Four.
Looking away from Meriam, he sighted on the closest of the airlocks.
Little finger down. Three.
He was sweating, the suit working hard to keep him cool. He crouched. Ring finger in.
Ready to go, he didn’t look back at Meriam.
Middle finger. One.
She squeezed his arm again. Not to stop him. To reassure. Again.
Index finger down.
He knew right away that he was a little off target.
Would that make a difference?
He glanced back at Meriam. The tether was unreeling from the spool at her waist. She put her hand up, index finger and thumb making a circle, the other three fingers up. OK.
Focusing back on the hull, he could see that they were going to miss by several meters. He tabbed his retros. They fired a tiny burst. The course corrected a little. Whatever the physics here were, they weren’t that very different from real space. Different enough that radio didn’t operate, but electricity and chemical reactions did. He gave another burst on the retros. The little pack did well accounting for the different mass; it was designed to maneuver one person, not two.
As they drifted another sparkler launched out from the mist and struck the ship. Light flared. Colors. And the ship shook.
They were going the right direction, but moving a little fast. He didn’t want to bounce off and find they were flailing at the end of the tether. With Meriam in his grip, he couldn’t give a reverse thrust burst to slow them down. Reaching out he touched the tether to squeeze it and found Meriam’s hand already on it, gripping and braking them. Larsen smiled to himself. She was full of surprises.
The hull rushed up. With another burst on the retros, Larsen flipped them around. Meriam’s feet hit first. He tabbed the retros again to stop them bouncing, then hooked his foot under a rung.
Meriam unlatched the tether spool and it drifted off. Larsen had a moment’s panic, then realized what she’d done. The tether would have kept moving off with the wheel, then dragged her off the hull. She would have had to release it anyway to go inside.
She’d put her foot under a rung too. She was as secure as he was.
Quickly he bent to the hatch panel and punched in to get it to open. It took a moment, then the hatch jerked, slid aside a little and folded outwards.
There was light inside.
Guiding Meriam in, Larsen watched her, realizing that she was surprising him at every turn. If they made it back, he was still going to chew Silk out for letting her get away. It was no easy thing to get into a retro-rocket pack and cycle through a lock.
And Jamie. What had she been doing?
Meriam had a lot of questions to answer.
He got himself in next to her and closed the outer door. The lock cycled exactly as it should. His suit pressed back against his skin a little more as the air pressure came up. He wondered what they were going to find inside.
The inner door opened.
Light again. The ship was active.
“Let me go first,” he said, forgetting that the radio wasn’t working.
He went anyway, slipping into the antechamber. Identical to the main lock they’d first come through; white with the company colors on the walls. He moved on through the door into the companionway. Grabbing a loop, he let himself turn, getting himself oriented.
Again it was identical to the other side. A long empty companionway, lined with cabin doors.
No passengers. No crew.
Where had they gone?
Meriam came through after him. She grabbed a loop and swung around to face him. She motioned for the rolled panel. He passed it over.
“UnReaL SPaCe” she wrote.
“WHeRe IS eVRYONe??”
Right away he felt conflicted, realizing that he shouldn’t have brought her in here. It had taken more than three hours to work through the other side of the ship. It would take longer here. He just wanted to get Meriam back to the medical bay and safety. This was no place to stick around in, not with her. He didn’t know a thing about the physics here, about how the ship had gotten into this predicament. This was a thing for the scientists to come and look over. Maybe something Barris herself would want to see.
Wasn’t she an advocate for the idea of there being a vast variety of realms?
What if this was it in some quiet phase. What if those sparklers suddenly decided to lash out like some kind of brimstone, end of the world explosion? Even just a storm. What if there were things they didn’t even know that were happening right now. Radio didn’t work. What if the physics of the place was slowly stripping away all the neutrons from everything?
Larsen took the panel. “OUT” he wrote. Back up the companionway, through the wrinkle. Assuming that it was possible to transit back, that it wasn’t a one way deal.
Meriam shook her head and grabbed the panel. “RICHFIELDS DAUGHTER”.
Larsen stared. Now she was writing in capitals. He had, but she was doing this in a considered way. Richfield’s daughter, he thought.
They could just leave, he thought. Tell Richfield and everyone that they’d searched. He looked back along the corridor. The wrinkle wasn’t visible this way, but the transition was an obvious black ending. As if someone had inserted a wall and painted it a perfectly light absorbing black.
He looked back at Meriam. She stared at him, that three-year-old still there, but adult eyes watching intently.
Richfield might be a prick, but he didn’t deserve that. No one did.
Anyway, Larsen himself would always know that he could have done more. He nodded at Meriam, but then pointed at his wrist, and splayed his fingers at her three times. Fifteen minutes. She nodded back, turned and pulled herself quickly along the companionway as if she knew where she was going.
She did, he realized. He knew where he would go. Muster stations. Those had been the first places they’d tried on the other side.
How long had the passengers been over here? If they were in fact here. A couple of days. Would they still be at the muster stations?
At least it was a try. At least it wasn’t just some cursory glance along a corridor. And if they really could transit back through, then they would be able to send a team over. With Meriam safely back in the Conte Rosso. Though he was starting to wonder if his concern for her safety was really necessary. Did she really need protecting?
She was already far ahead of him. He must be relaxing a little if he was letting her almost out of his sight. Grabbing a loop he flung himself after her. She kept moving, checking occasional doors, then continuing.
Larsen caught up and grabbed her arm, giving her a questioning OK with his hand. She thumbs up-ed right back. He pointed and kept moving.
They kept checking doors and alcoves. Eleven minutes. Assuming that time moved at the same rate here as in real space. No sign of any one. Not in the cabins, not at the muster stations. They were only getting to a fraction of the liner, but at least it was something.
Larsen saw a sign pointing to the theatre.
Of course. The ship spent weeks in Barris space, with nothing to see outside. There had to be entertainment and activities for the trips there and back.
And there they were. Dozens of people.
Crowded in, hanging in space, looking gaunt and pale.
They weren’t in suits.
Larsen pulled his helmet up over his head. The air was tangy, and smelled of too many people in a confined space for too long.
“Hey,” he called.
No one moved. The sound hadn’t travelled.
Meriam grabbed the panel. “NoT RaDIO” she wrote. “HeaRING”
Larsen nodded. She’d sounded garbled to begin with. Something about the physics of sound? Or was it affecting their brains, or their bodies at least? He wondered how much else was being affected.
Perhaps it wasn’t actually their bodies, but just the way sound moved. It didn’t make sense. The air was breathable, and certainly still carried odor. A different physics didn’t have to make any sense, though.
They couldn’t talk to each other, he realized. They’d gathered here, just drawn together.
He was going to need to get all the survival bubbles over.
“WE NEED TO GET BACK” he wrote. He let her read it, then wiped the panel clean. “RETURN WITH HELP”
That storm could hit any moment.
Meriam took the panel. “LeT Me GeT THeM MOVING”
“COME WITH ME” he wrote back.
Some of the passengers had seen them and were moving across towards the door.
Larsen watched them coming. Another choice. He sighed. He was going to need a bonus on this one. “OK” he wrote. “GET THM MVING TO STERN”.
Larsen spun around, grabbed the doorway and sped for the companionway. He felt like he was betraying her. Leaving her alone. Again.
He smacked into the companionway wall. Catching a loop he flicked himself around and kicked off. He grabbed more loops as he moved. Increasing his velocity.
The ship shuddered as another sparkler stuck it. The light changed. A flash through the spectrum. Green, yellow, orange, red. The liner’s own lights flickered off, then back on again.
He was thirty meters from the transition. A black wall. As if the corridor just ended.
He didn’t even know if he could go through. Perhaps it was a wall. Perhaps the transition was just one way and once you were in you were stuck in for good. Was that why all the passengers were still on this side?
He could imagine it like that. Half of them in the stern, half of them forward. Someone stepping through the wrinkle to find a wife or husband, not able to come back. Then one after the other, gradually making their way through, unable to return.
Larsen braced for an impact. He touched the side, curling into a ball to spin around. He stretched out again, legs pointing at the black wall.
It rushed up at him.
It was an impact. Not solid, though. More like leaping into a vat of warm molasses. It slowed him, the surface glistening a little, bending down around him like a meniscus. His feet felt cold. For a moment he thought he was going to stick, that it had slowed him so much that he wouldn’t make it through. But the deceleration lessened and he kept moving. The sensations changed. It became as if he was being pulled through from the other side, a liquid drawing him down.
He remembered his helmet. He’d slipped it off to shout at the passengers. The black wall was past his waist.
Were his legs already in real space?
Quickly he slipped the helmet up over his head and felt it seal up around his hair. The bug eyes settled into place and his HUD came up. Suit integrity lost, no readings from the lower half.
The black wall reached his shoulders. He was accelerating again. Then it came up around his neck and his chin. His feet were still cold, but his torso felt warm. He flicked his eyes up as the meniscus folded around his cheeks. He saw Meriam leading some people out into the companionway.
He hoped this worked.
The wall enveloped him.
Sparkles. Not like the sparkling storm. A series of tiny glowing motes, drifting around him. It was all he could see. The HUD was gone. The bug eyes. He couldn’t even properly feel his body.
Dissociated. He smiled to himself. An out of body experience.
The sparkles spun in circles, sometimes clustering into rings and helixes. He saw one of the helixes partly compress and expand to make itself a spiral, and the spiral then formed something like a magnified snowflake.
He wasn’t watching with his retinas. He didn’t even feel like he was still attached to them.
That made him laugh. Detached retinas.
No, he was watching with his whole mind. Like one of those God image movies where they jabbed you with specific doses of hallucinogens and played multi-sensory recordings. But even then, you knew you still had a body.
Larsen had no sense of being corporeal.
He had died, he knew then. This was his ghost.
It was all right to die, he knew. It was okay to let go and watch these sparkles dance and make merry in this half world.
This was satisfying. He could stay here. Drifting down from the black wall.
The others could come too. It didn’t matter.
He could feel his feet again. Cold, then hot. And his legs. Cooling again.
He was still moving. He flexed his legs.
Then his waist, his torso, arms, shoulders. Head. He could see.
He was back in the companionway on the Emerald Sky. Moving, still drifting along.
His HUD came back up. All green.
“Larsen?” Silk said.
“We lost your telemetry.”
“Figures. And Meriam’s?” The ship shuddered around him.
“She’s still off our scope.”
“You came back?” Trasker. “Where are you? I don’t see you.”
“Back inside the Emerald Sky,” Larsen said. “We need to get these people off. Quickly.”
“You found them?” Silk said.
“Yeah. In the theatre in the bow section.” Larsen curled a little, grabbed for one of the loops, swung in, then propelled himself along the companionway. He had to get all the survival bubbles.
“Alive?” Trasker said. “They survived this? In Barris space?”
“Not Barris. Something else. Meet me at the shuttles. We need to get them off the ship.”
Larsen kicked again, keeping himself moving. The transition back to real space was different. Very different. The black wall took you to a very bizarre place. He wondered if it was possible to transit through without a suit or a survival bubble. You had to be moving fast. Would a tether work? Could the go through the corridor with the canister of bubbles on a tether, then pull them all back like a string of beads? “Captain Silk? We’re going to need your people back over here.”
“They’re standing by.”
“We have to move fast. The ship is in a storm over there.”
After a moment, Silk responded. “Storm? What is out there?”
For a second Larsen considered inviting her across. No. Plenty of time for that once everyone was evacuated. “Later,” he said. “I’ll explain later.” He was coming up on the stern at their point of entry. The inner hatch was shut. The canister of survival bubbles was where they’d left it. No sense in carting it through the ship, they’d assumed, when they were just bringing everyone out through the locks. It should have been obvious that they would need at least some of them at the wrinkles.
“I jetted. I’m at the shuttles.”
“Bring in the other canisters. We need to move them fast.”
Larsen grabbed the canister. He gave it some spin and shoved it off along the companionway. Following close he tapped and prodded it to keep its flight as true and fast as he could. In moments he was back at the wrinkle.
“Boss?” Trasker said. “I’m inside.”
“Good. Come straight on down and through to the wrinkle. Stay on this side, but shove the canister through.”
“You’re not going back through, are you?”
“Have to,” he said. He opened the small compartment on the canister’s side and pulled out its tether. He fixed the end to one of the loops in the wall, then unspooled the tether as far as it went.
He looked into the wrinkle again. Let’s hope this works the same way every time.
Then he was through. Almost instantaneous. There were people in the companionway, looking dazed and tired.
Grabbing a loop, Larsen stopped. He clipped the canister into some other loops on the wall. With a tug on the tether he was assured that the line still stretched through to real space. It left an indentation in the black wall.
Where was Meriam? He tried to see down through the crowd, but there were too many. She should be easy to spot; she was the only one in an environment suit.
He could see some of the people trying to talk to him, their mouths moving, but no sound coming at all. Opening the canister, he pulled out a package of ten survival bubble. He tore open the packaging and plugged the first bubble into the hosepipe from the canister. The pump filled the bubble’s outer shell. The bubble grew to a little over a meter in diameter. He unzipped the narrow entry, pulling it open, then looked around the milling group for someone less dazed. Someone who looked like they might be willing to go first.
The light changed and the ship shuddered again. The people looked scared. Reds and oranges and yellows flickered through the companionway.
Another shudder, this time even more violent. People bounced from the companionway walls. Larsen had to hold onto the canister. He could see people’s mouths open in screams. The lights flickered.
Reaching for a woman, Larsen took her hand. He drew her closer, pointed to the bubble, then tucked himself into a crouch to show her how to fit inside. She shook her head at him, terrified.
Taking out his rolled panel, he got it open and wrote “RESCUE” on the face.
She shook her head more.
Then someone else came forwards. Another woman, younger, tall with tattoos along her arm. She took his panel, wiped it and wrote “SAFE?”
She nodded at him, turned to the first woman with a questioning look. The first woman shook her head again.
While they silently argued, Larsen got out another bubble and began inflating it. This had to go smoothly, he thought. If those sparkles got worse people would start jamming the companionway up.
The second woman crawled her way into the inflated bubble. Larsen zipped and sealed it. The little recycler inside gave her about fifteen minutes breathing time.
He saw a crewman nearby. With a wave, Larsen signaled him over. “TRAINED?”
The crewman nodded.
Larsen got a third bubble, made sure the crewman was watching, and filled the bubble from the hosepipe.
The crewman nodded again.
The crewman took the hosepipe and another bubble.
Larsen grabbed the handle on the bubble with the woman and reached for the tether. He disconnected it from the canister and tied it off to the bubble’s handle.
Then the other end of the tether slipped out from the black wall.
It hadn’t stayed connected back to real space at all.
He could feel another shudder coming, sense that momentary change in light.
He wished he knew where Meriam was.
With a glance back at the people, the crewman filling a bubble, someone else trying to get into one of the inflated ones, Larsen pulled on a loop. Headfirst into the black wall with the bubble handle in his grasp.
Immediately he was among the glowing motes. Feeling dissociated again. Time seemed to have no meaning. Perhaps an hour had passed, perhaps a second. The motes danced for him, scattering through his brain, making lines and patterns. He saw a twisted double helix and wondered for a moment if there was some intelligence here; something trying to understand him.
Then he was out in the companionway again. Trasker was there. More of the crew were coming down the companionway.
“Larsen?” Trasker said. “Sheesh.”
Looking down, Larsen saw that he was still holding the woman in the bubble. His HUD showed there was still atmosphere and he swiped off his helmet.
“Okay?” he yelled at her.
She nodded. “Yes.” Her voice was muffled through the layers of inflated plastic. Her mouth was open as wide as her eyes.
“We’ll get you back to our ship,” he yelled. “Sorry, you’ve got to stay in there a little longer.”
To Trasker, he said, “We’ve got to set up a chain. Get them along the companionway and out across to the ship. Tether a bunch of bubbles together outside and take them across as a group.”
“Always the plan,” Trasker said.
The ship gave another shudder. Larsen felt acceleration this time and had to put a hand out to the wall.
“I’m guessing we don’t have long?” Trasker said.
“Hard to tell, but the ship’s getting battered over there.”
“Problem is that we need to bring them over individually. My tether didn’t hold.”
Trasker closed his eyes for a moment. “A hundred passengers, right?”
“One ten. Plus Meriam.”
“We take over two crew with us, position five along the companionway to guide the bubbles up, another three outside the-”
“You get that coordinated. I’m going back for the next passenger.”
Larsen turned to the woman again. “We’ll send you up to our ship.” He hooked his feet into loops on and braced himself. Moving the bubble, he lined up on the center of the companionway and pushed. The bubble drifted off like a child’s toy.
“You gonna do that with all of them?”
“Get the crew to chain them up with tethers. Groups of ten. We’ll blow the atmosphere and just keep moving them over to the ship.”
Larsen turned in the loops, sealed his helmet on and stepped back through the wrinkle.
The lights had gone out, but the sparkling greens and reds kept up a constant color-changing glow. People were fighting over the bubbles. The crewman was still trying to fill them from the canister’s pump. Some people were inside the bubbles, others were half in and fighting other people off. The woman he’d first asked was cringing against the wall. More people were crushing up from behind.
He wished he had a megaphone. And that it would work.
Larsen flicked off a loop. He grabbed one of the bubbles with someone crouched inside. Checking the seal was good, he shifted it back. Someone half into a bubble saw Larsen, recognized him, and quickly got inside. Larsen checked that seal, grabbed the handle and turned. At least he would get two of them out.
The crewman mouthed something at him. Larsen just nodded. Just as he got to the black wall, Trasker came through with another canister. Larsen ducked out of the way, pulling the bubbles with him. Trasker nodded, wide-eyed.
Then Larsen was back in the black world of sparkling motes. He felt calmer. He was sure that couldn’t be good, but his certainty felt distant and unimportant. The transition seemed to take longer this time, but then he was back out into real space.
There were crewmen there. He handed them the bubbles and gave instructions.
“Already on it sir,” one of them said.
Larsen returned through the wrinkle.
Darkness. Then light again. A red glow, shifting through purple and violet.
Trasker had more people in the bubbles. He was trying to manipulate it so that he was holding four – two in each hand – but it was taking up too much companionway space. Larsen slipped around under him and caught his eye. Trasker huffed. Larsen used his hands to indicate pushing and Trasker nodded back. Larsen kept moving and grabbed Trasker’s ankles, then shoved him through the black wall. It buckled, sucking the five of them through.
Larsen turned. The crewman was still filling bubbles, and more had joined him, helping and others had the hosepipe from Trasker’s canister and were filling bubbles from the. One of Silk’s crew came through the black wall with more bubbles.
People were still jostling further down the companionway. The ship shuddered again. He felt the air shift. The hull had breached somewhere. The air settled as the ship’s automatics sealed bulkheads. At least that was still working.
Strange, he thought, that the air shifted like that, but sound didn’t carry.
But people were panicking now.
He had to find Meriam.
The crew here could continue, even with the level of panic. They were trained for it. People closer were calmer. They were about to get into bubbles and get out. Further back fists were getting thrown.
Trasker appeared and gave Larsen a thumbs up. Another of Silk’s crew came through too.
Larsen grabbed his panel. “GETTING MERIAM”
Trasker nodded, then got to the task of shifting people into the bubbles.
Larsen pulled his way through the jostling crowd. They’d all come out her just to see the fabulous planets. They hadn’t expected to be caught up in something like this. He got his panel up and wrote “RESCUE UNDERWAY” and held it up in front of him as he moved along. He didn’t know if anyone found it reassuring. He wished he knew the right way to make them calm down.
A fight. Someone swung a fist at him. Larsen caught the man’s wrist and turned him. Locking the arm up the man’s back, Larsen grabbed his panel and held it right in front of the man’s face. It took a moment, but the man calmed a little, closed his eyes then looked again at Larsen. Releasing the pinned arm, Larsen wiped the panel and wrote, smaller “AS FAST AS WE CAN – PATIENCE” The man sighed and nodded. Larsen moved on. He kept the last message on the panel, showing people as he went.
Then they thinned out. He came to the back of the line, with just a few people waiting beyond the conflict and mayhem beyond. Their faces were calm. They were the ones who didn’t need his sign pleading for patience.
The ship shook and the light flared bright enough to flash blind his retinas. Blinking he continued. The afterimages began to fade.
The ship lights came back on.
Meriam was further along the corridor with another young woman.
How had they found each other? Larsen wondered, knowing immediately that it had to be Richfield’s daughter.
He pulled his way along to them. Meriam looked up and smiled. Larsen couldn’t help himself, he grabbed her and yanked her into a hug. She hugged back for a moment, then pushed him off and looked down at the other woman.
She would be about twenty-two, Larsen thought, dark haired, over-plucked eyebrows and a pouty mouth. Exactly the kind of brat Richfield would breed.
Larsen pulled Meriam’s hand.
Reaching down she took his panel. She wiped away the “PATIENCE” message and wrote. “OKaY??”
“Y” he wrote, then “LET’S GO!”
“We’LL WaIT” Looking at Richfield’s daughter, Meriam did something fluttery with her hands. The woman responded similarly.
Back on the panel, Meriam wrote “RaCHeL aND Me I CaN WaIT TO LaST”
He hadn’t even known her name.
Larsen took the panel and wrote “YOU SPEAK SIGN??”
Meriam shrugged as if it was nothing. How could he have missed that?
And Richfield’s daughter was deaf.
“OKAY” he wrote. Someone had to be last off, assuming the ship hung together long enough. It was terrifying, but if he hated Richfield for expediting the rescue of his own daughter, then he could hardly haul Meriam to the front of the line.
He was sweating. “GOTTA GO HELP” he wrote. He showed her then wiped it. “DON’T GO ANYWHERE”
Meriam nodded, then signed something at Rachel.
Larsen took a last look at them, then pulled himself back along the corridor. He changed the message back to “AS FAST AS WE CAN – PATIENCE”, showing people as he went.
By the time he’d squeezed back to the head of the line, he could see that they’d moved a significant number of the passengers through.
It was working.
The two crewmen were still diligently filling the bubbles, and passengers were getting inside the inflated ones, helping each other to get tucked in.
Trasker appeared. He spotted Larsen and flashed his spread palm five times, then once more with just two fingers up. Twenty-seven. A quarter of the complement.
Larsen wondered if it was fast enough. He checked the seals on four of the bubbles then got the handles together to move with them the way Trasker had. Trasker grinned and slipped around to give him a push.
As he passed through the black wall, Larsen realized that Trasker had just signed to him. It wasn’t a language, as such, but it was an easy communication they used. The information had been instantly conveyed.
The motes danced and played. He felt like he was in some ocean, filming plankton for a nature documentary.
On the other side more of Silk’s crew grabbed the bubbles. They had an efficiency to them that belied the situation. The first one passed the bubbles to the next, who was tying the handles into a long tether while another kept the chain moving slowly up. Peering further ahead, Larsen could see another chain of bubble nearly at the distant airlock.
“Under control?” he said.
A quiet little burst of static, then Silk said, “That you Larsen?”
“Yes. I found Richfield’s daughter.”
“Great. You need to move. The ship’s integrity is going. We’re getting stress twists here. What’s going on over at the bow?”
Larsen didn’t answer. He just stepped through the wrinkle.
They did move fast. Trasker and Silk’s crew took three or four bubbles through the black wall at a time. The light changed constantly, flashing through reds and greens.
Then they were down to just seven people, including the two crewmen filling the bubbles. Larsen could see the companionway deforming near the bow. He got the last of the passengers, except Meriam and Rachel, sealed in. Silk’s crewman took three passengers. Trasker finished off the last bubbles while the two liner crewmen got into theirs.
Then the companionway tore open. Air rushed out. Meriam and Rachel clung to side loops. The crewmen in the bubbles bounced away down the companionway. Trasker, in his EVA suit shot after them. One of the canisters broke away and flew down too.
Larsen swung to Meriam. “Get out,” he yelled. She wouldn’t hear him.
He wished he knew sign too.
There was still air, but he could see Rachel gasping. Holding a loop, he swung close to her.
Wrong daughter, his gut screamed at him. He had to trust Meriam would know what to do. She was in a suit.
Putting his arm around Rachel’s waist he pulled her into his chest. She grabbed around his neck and wrapped her legs around his hips. Letting go of her he took a breath. He stripped off his helmet.
Cold. Biting cold. And fading wind. The air pressure was heading for zero.
He put the helmet over her head. The soft inner sealed around her neck and she took a breath.
With her breathing from his supply, he reached up for the next loop and pulled them up. The wind had all but gone, but it was ungainly, hard to move forwards. He was feeling light-headed.
Then he felt Meriam’s hands on his shoulders, pulling him up too. He grabbed for the next loop, and then for another. Meriam kept pulling.
His eyes felt as if they were pulling themselves from their sockets. His head bumped into the other canister. Meriam pulled him out and around. He could feel Rachel shivering against him. He kicked off the canister.
The sparkle motes drifting again. He felt warm and cold. Rachel wasn’t against him. Meriam wasn’t pulling.
He wasn’t breathing.
The motes formed more double-helixes, twisting together, then unraveling to join with others. DNA replicating itself. They moved away, moved back. The divisions kept happening. Then they formed into snowflakes again, and multi-faceted diamonds, and jellyfish with cascading tentacles.
He was calm. At peace. He could stay here.
Was Meriam all right?
He was back in the companionway. No wind.
He kept his eyes shut. He only had a moment.
Someone grabbed him again. He got twisted around and he felt something pushing over his head.
One of the survival bubbles.
A rush of air.
Larsen breathed and opened his eyes. Meriam hanging there, holding onto the bubble’s handle. Right beside him, they’d stuffed Rachel into another bubble.
“Trasker?” he said.
No on responded. No radio in the bubble. Rachel, in the other bubble, was peeling his helmet off. The air line had been ripped off.
They’d made it through.
The crewman and Meriam hustled then, taking them out through one of the side locks.
It took more than fifteen minutes to get back to the Conte Rosso. His air was rancid and stale, the recycler completely used up.
As he had to sit and wait, he felt a thick lump in his throat. Trasker. Over and over again he saw that moment of his friend racing down the companionway after the two survival bubbles.
Looking back at the ship, he saw it give way along the seams, buckling and venting. It still hung, halfway in real space, halfway wherever. Trasker was over there somewhere.
At least Meriam was safe.
Then the Conte Rosso‘s airlock doors closed over him. Out of the bubble in the anteroom, amongst the milling and confused tourists still being organized, he grabbed Meriam into a hug again.
Jamie was standing nearby, her face stricken. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed.
“It’s all okay,” he mouthed back. It was, he realized. It was all okay.
“Dad,” Meriam said. “The captain wants you up on the bridge.”
Rachel drifted up from the bubble and signed something to Meriam, her hand tapping her chin. She signed back, then said, “She wants me to tell you thanks.”
“Yeah.” Larsen sighed. The air felt cool and light. “You apologize to Jamie. She was worried sick.”
Meriam grinned. “Oh she was worried sick.”
“You sneaked out, young lady.”
“Just as well, too.”
Larsen laughed a little. “Yeah, just as well.”
In the bridge, he found Silk in the harness, and two pilots in the real space configuration.
“Quite a thing,” Silk said. “I guess your daughter’s all right.”
“Better than all right,” he said. He was going to have to have a long talk with her, about sign, about space flight, about… about everything. How could it be that he didn’t know her at all when he’d spent so much time with her?
“I guess your focus has been on the wrong things,” Silk said, as if reading his thoughts.
“I guess it has.”
“We’ve seen Trasker,” Silk said, pointing through the bridge’s canopy.
Larsen looked and saw three bright specks.
“We’re heading over now.”
Trasker and the two bubbles were beyond the Emerald Sky. As if they’d traveled on and come out the other side of whatever it was.
“Alive?” he said. Already feeling better.
“Got his telemetry,” Silk said. “Yes, he’s alive.” She touched Larsen’s shoulder.
“Leave him to us,” she said. “You should go spend time with your daughter.”
Larsen nodded and pulled back out to the companionway. Silk was right. Who was this girl? Comfortable in spaceflight, able to sign. All this time that she’d been on suicide watch and she’d been hiding so much more. Whatever she was capable of, he didn’t think it was taking her own life. It was all okay.
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