The Forest Gate

For Alex, the wagon ride was almost unbearable. He’d spent every day of his thirteen years in the city, where the horizon in every direction was formed by a physical object one could touch after no more than a few minutes’ walk. Now here were tiny villages, beyond them isolated farms, beyond them vast, empty plains. Above it all was the greater emptiness of the sky, with no crowding rooftops to divide it into pieces small enough for the mind to accept.

In the twilight of the first day, the horizon ahead was an unblemished line. By the next morning, it had cracked and broken, and ran like a jagged scar along the junction of earth and sky. There, Alex knew, were the mountains. Each day they grew closer. By the time darkness closed off the seventh day, the wagon was winding stubbornly up their foothills.

When Alex woke, in the gray light of the eighth day’s dawn, the wagon had stopped, the stillness sickening after seven days of almost constant motion. They’d arrived at the edge of a camp, whose tents and stalls covered the floor of a narrow valley, and lapped up along the lower reaches of the surrounding hills. The mountains towered just beyond. Far across the field, the dark green of the forest showed through the seams of the camp.

He was startled badly enough to chafe his wrist on the manacles that bound him to the wagon’s bed when a voice bellowed, “Up! Wake up, you pigs!”

The man opposite Alex spat back, “Get down to the pit yourself, devil.”

A moment later the man flinched forward, and Alex saw the glint of a spearhead receding through the bars of the cage at shoulder height. The guard behind it said, “Next time it goes in.”

A few feet from the back of the wagon stood a fat man in flowing red robes, his long gray hair stirring in the cold breeze, his attention divided between inspecting the prisoners and haggling with the leader of the city guards who’d brought them.

Were Alex free, and back in the city, now would be the time to sidle inoffensively near, to find with furtive glances the fat man’s purse, to probe the place with practiced fingers, to move casually away, triumphantly unnoticed, five or ten or twenty gold pieces richer.

Only after the fantasy had passed did he begin to listen, with a burst of heat in his cheeks.

“It’s less than promised because you’ve delivered less than promised,” said the fat man.

“Sixteen by my count.”

“Fifteen and a half is not sixteen. How much do you think that babe you’ve brought me can carry?”

“I heard carrying’s not the main point, but running.”

“You go in there and try running. I’ll give you ten percent on anything you bring out. That’s twice what I give my best eggers.”

“I wouldn’t run.”

“Fight then? Fighters don’t last. Fighters get eaten up in our world, shat out in the one beyond the gate.”

The fat man dismissed the guard with a single step toward the wagon. To the men inside, he growled, “My name is Dern, and you belong to me. Do your job, and you’ll gain your freedom, and more money than you’d make in a year of mugging. I always tell my men, eggs are heavy, but so is gold. When you—”

“One of them things give you that?” Alex looked to his right to see the thick, bald man three spots down the line grinning raggedly. “One of them gate-dogs?”

The scar began just below Dern’s left ear, and ran jaggedly down the side of his jawline before dropping off his chin and out of sight. Dern gave the man a tight-lipped smile. He must’ve known how it made the scar twist and crawl like a living thing, or a dead thing unnaturally revived. “No gate-dog, as you city people call them, did this. One gets close enough for that, it does more. Much more. So you needn’t fear for your lovely face, oh my fair one.”

Tired laughter filled the cage. The man who’d spoken twisted his head back and forth to scowl at his fellow prisoners, reserving none of his feeble wrath for Dern, whom he’d apparently identified, too late, as an unassailable foe.

“That inquisitive nature will serve you well as a scout, my fair,” Dern said. He turned to one of the guards. “Take this one to Farrier. And… Scout,” he said, pointing to another man. “Scout,” he repeated, pointing to another. When he came to Alex, he raised his arm in a dismissive wave. “And.”

Cincinnati Steam Shovel Blues

Machinery daunted him, levers, gears, and all those moving parts, but Nester needed the work. After three days on the job, the longest stretch he had worked in one place for the past year, he finally settled in on a contraption the folks in salvage called a steam shovel. It was something they’d pieced together from a hodgepodge of spare parts, and as they were apt to do, salvage boasted of their success in bringing the thing to life.

Its boiler tank had been yanked off a driller in the salvage pit, apparently the only part on that rig not twisted up or fused together by a powder blast. The winch and steam engine they’d plucked off a rail tractor, and the axles and rims came from an ancient gasoline-powered truck excavated from the quarry bottoms. But her guts, they told him, the boom, crane and bucket, and all her pulleys, came from a Cincinnati steam shovel, probably the same kind their ancestors used to dig out the Great Quarry. It was equipment so well forged, they claimed, that, not only was it still salvageable after three hundred years in a rust heap, but the recognizable symbol of the Cincinnati Man stamped on every piece kept the company legend alive centuries after its demise. Every time Nester jerked back the boom handle and dropped the bucket for a scoop of soil, seeing that faded logo of a man in red boots standing on the edge of the earth with a hammer in one hand and spade in the other, made him feel as though he had traveled back in time.

“Fourteen in this batch, Nester. Nothing but proles and infantry.” Millie, who was dressed in her usual gray overalls, inspected a clipboard.

“One hole?” Nester scooped another load of coal into the firebox and stoked the flame.

“You’ll get used to it. If it bothers you, spade’s leaning by the shed.” Millie shrugged. “But I’ve never seen a one-legged man work a spade into this hard earth before.”

Nester nodded and eased back the lever, lowering the boom, bucket open. He carved a ditch as deep as a full-grown man and as wide as three men abreast as he backed the steam shovel toward a stone marker. Then Nester signaled his eleven-year-old son, Lemuel, who helped out at the burial yard because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the school anymore.

Lemuel grinned and gave one of the corpses a kick in the head. Following a dust-up of lime, the body swung halfway over the edge of the ditch.

“Have some respect, boy,” Millie shouted. “Gently!”

Lemuel glared first at Nester, as though he expected his dad to keep quiet, then at Millie, who was a young woman about the age Lemuel’s mother would have been. And Nester did stay quiet. Nester’s own father would’ve wrestled him down and tanned his hide. But Lemuel wasn’t right in his head, and Nester already had to sleep with one eye open.

Millie marched over to the boy wagging her finger. “Look here. Nobody would know if we just threw these poor saps over into the garbage heap. But when I scratch the names on that stone,” she said, pointing to an irregular headstone in front of the steam shovel, “well, that’s all the mom’s of these kids have. And that’s who matters because that’s who’s still alive–moms.” Then Millie went on and on under her breath about the injustice of her being pulled off of book salvage duty to tend the dead yard. It made Nester nervous to watch Lemuel’s face during her rant, as though he enjoyed his time here among the dead.

“Now, give them stiffs a good sprinkle of lime. Or else they’ll get ripe on us.” Millie pointed to a mound of white powder with a spade sticking up out of it.

Nester hop-skipped over to the shed and studied the lime pile. At the same moment he heard a whoosh of steam behind him. His chest felt as though someone had clinched his heart up into a fist, the same feeling he got every time Lemuel got up to something awful.

Nester’s mouth gaped as though a bubble grew on his tongue big enough to hinge his jaw wide. The boom on the steam shovel lowered over the hole, gears grinding. In the window of the operator’s cab, Nester saw the face of his son, an innocent face, just like the one he wore the day he was born, his eyes wide, not wanting to sleep or cry or eat, just stare at things, at people, at Nester, as though he might climb right up in through Nester’s eyeball and rummage through his brain. Lemuel had just sat and stared for the better part of three years before he ever tried to make a word. That happy vacancy had dug into Nester, into Lemuel’s mother, the way the teeth on that steam shovel bucket ate chunks of the earth. On the far edge of the ditch, Millie, working the water pump, had her back to Lemuel as the bucket positioned over her head getting ready to drop.

Nester almost screamed, but Lemuel turned his head at that moment staring right at him, swallowing anything Nester planned to yell before it left his mouth. The bucket on the steam shovel lowered, jerking back up and down again. With the eleven-year-old at the lever, the crane arm swiveled back and forth before the bucket crashed into the ditch, missing Millie’s head by a hawk’s beak.

Millie hopped aside, landing flat on her back. “Mama Jones! That was close. You trying to kill somebody, Nester?”

Nester couldn’t move. He could only watch his son frustrated by the controls on the steam shovel, slamming the lever forward and then back again. “Lemuel.” Nester said, realizing he had said it so softly there was no chance anyone had heard him. “Lemuel,” he called louder, though still much too quietly.

Millie sat up. “Nester! What’s that boy doing in that shovel?” Her expression soured when she saw just how close the shovel had come from her head.

Nester dropped the spade and made his way for his son. “Nobody said you could get up there. Did they? Get down from there.” Sometimes Nester just wished Lemuel would say something, anything at all that would tether him in the regular world.

“Don’t bring that kid back here. Consider yourself canned if you can’t find a place for him.” Millie pointed at Lemuel as though she spotted a rat scurrying off the mooring line of a ship.

“All right, Millie.” Nester had heard those words before. He guided his son up to the top of the hill that overlooked a valley filled with headstones, each covered with columns of names. Nester knew he was supposed to cherish his boy, teach him the ways of manhood, let him learn from his mistakes, but he didn’t think Lemuel knew right from wrong. And without his mother to guide him through, Nester figured Lemuel might just be a bread loaf so molded—by the time all the green spots were cut out there wouldn’t be any bread left to eat.

Scoring Seraphim

I left the health department at the end of another scoreless day. Worried, I didn’t at first notice the young demon on Church Street.

“Hey.” He was scruffy and slouched against a sculpture of two kids playing leapfrog. “Hold on. I know you.”

His horns barely poked out from his dreads. A low demon. The entire town was below my talents. I was only here at my overseer’s insistence that I transfer from Atlantic City. She said it would give me some breathing room to rethink my commitment to the divine host.

I continued walking. After a long day in heels, I wanted to get home to give my feet a break and let my wings stretch out.

“No wait!” the man called out, grabbing my edge of my blouse. “Remember me? I’m the son of your mom’s demon friend.” Not wanting to be rude, even to a dark one, I remained silent but picked up the pace in the hope he would drift away.

“Your mom invited mine to her book club, trying to branch out and be more inclusive and all,” he said, trotting alongside me. “Hey, so I know you’re all about helping people and stuff, and see, I’m kind of down on my luck. My boss is a real tightwad and I need the bus fare to get to Plattsburgh. Could you help me with, like, an Andrew Jackson?”

I turned and stared. He was dressed Burlington-style, with ratty cargo pants, a “Climb High” t-shirt under an unbuttoned flannel shirt. Lots of hemp jewelry draped around his neck.

“My mother is the Angel of Truth. There’s no way she’d have anything to do with a demon,” I told him. “Or a book club, for that matter.”

He laughed. “Okay, got me,” he said. “But I do need to get to Plattsburgh.”

Unlike seraphim, demons easily mix falsehoods with verity. While he was obviously lying about my mother, I wasn’t sure whether he spoke truthfully about wanting to travel to Plattsburgh. It was the kind of town where people still washed their dishes with phosphate-filled detergent, burned leaves when the danger of forest fires was high and knocked out their neighbors’ teeth on the weekends. With the population already so rotten, it was scorched territory for dark ones looking to get their talons into humans.

But it was also where my predecessor in Burlington, Urizel, was transferred. The feathers along my shoulder blades rippled with irritation.

“I miss the big guy,” he said.

“Urizel?” I asked. “I never thought demons were fond of seraphim.”

“Honestly, it’s more of a competitive issue.” He sighed quietly but stopped his breath suddenly, noticing I was watching him intently. “There’s nothing better than a day up against the dude. What you see here — ” he swept his hand down Church Street, indicating Girl Scouts planting flowers around a tree and a group of college students handing out brochures supporting healthcare reform “— didn’t exist before him. So I’m going to Plattsburgh. Gotta go where the power is.”

“So the demons are already writing me off?” I asked. Not that I blamed them. My accomplishments so far included convincing a graduate student not to plagiarize and dissuading an old woman from stealing her neighbor’s doorstep-delivered newspaper. In Atlantic City, my clients were murderers and drug dealers.

“Oh, don’t take it the wrong way,” the demon said with a sheepish smile. “You know us demons. Always up for a challenge.”

“I’m not against challenges myself,” I said. The demon smiled at me ingratiatingly, believing he was scoring one for the dark team by convincing me to hand over a piddling $20, but he was giving me a glimmer of an idea.

Seraphim focus on humans. At the end of each day, we log into SCALE to report our successes in getting people to make divinely inspired decisions. For each positive outcome, we receive one point.

How many points would one earn for influencing a demon to our side? I wasn’t sure, but it must be enough to wrangle a transfer to a city with even more problems than Atlantic City. Like Cleveland or Detroit.

My feathers, cloaked from his eyes, smoothed against my back. I would stymie this demon from traveling to Plattsburgh and work him over to our side. He would be my ticket out of this town.

“I’ve heard wonderful things about Urizel. Of course, I’ve got $20 for you,” I said, the sound of helpfulness ringing in my voice.

But then my tongue suddenly felt cold and my saliva congealed like refrigerated oil. I was about to lie, something I had never tried before. Even though I realized my falsehood would achieve a greater good by bringing this demon to the light, the words fell thick and muffled from my mouth.

“But I- I don’t have it on me,” I stammered. My skin turned to gooseflesh and the urge to tell the truth nearly overwhelmed me, but the impulse skittered away when I remembered my failing score.

The demon didn’t appear to notice my stumble and cocked his head at me hopefully.

“Meet me tomorrow at 9 a.m,” I told him, and scribbled an address on a piece of paper.

The demon took the slip with a sly look. His black eyes carried flecks of silver in them, something I had never seen before in a dark one.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Joshua.”

I started to laugh. Joshua, as in God is Salvation. “You’re kidding me.”

“Helps me fit in,” he said, smiling. “I already know your name — every demon in Vermont knows who you are.” A thrill traveled down my arms and through my wings. He gave me a wave as he sauntered toward the steeple rising above the end of Church Street.

An Archivist of Leaves

Abigail and Del stomped on old leaves for fun.

They marched through the Light Forest each autumn and laughed as each leaf crunched beneath their feet into fragments.

One day in October, the sky grew dark as they walked. The trilling birds hushed. Smoke and dust clung in the air.

But Abigail didn’t notice any of these things until she’d slipped through the veil into the Dark Forest. She didn’t notice until the dense trees had swallowed her whole.

She targeted a large brownish leaf and leapt toward it. As her feet landed, that familiar crunching noise she and Del loved so much didn’t resound.

She whipped around to find the forest had closed in about her. The tree bark was blue-black, the air thick and stagnant. Sunlight no longer flickered through the trees. And most importantly, Del was gone.

“Del?” she said.

She took a cautious step forward, then another. Whatever path she’d been on was no longer visible in the dense overgrowth. Roots entangled the entire forest floor. Had they taken a wrong turn? Did they venture farther than before? She wasn’t sure. All she knew for certain was that she was alone.

“Del?” she said again. She took another step and the sound of a twig breaking cut the otherwise silent air.

The breath rushed out of her lungs. Something snapped and cinched around her ankle. The world pivoted on its axis. Her hair rose from her scalp. She blinked at the upside-down trees, her body dangling in midair at least twenty feet off the ground.

And in front of her were a pair of white eyes nestled within a clump of leaves.

“How dare you disturb my forest!” a voice boomed.

She squinted at it and quickly realized the leaves themselves were talking. Rather, they had taken on the shape of a face within the tree and moved in unison to accommodate words.

Abigail froze. She didn’t know what to say, and the sensation of all her blood rushing to her head was making her dizzy. She looked at her feet and could see a vine snaked around her ankles.

“You’ve come into my forest uninvited. What is my name? Answer before I kill you.” The mouth in the leaves moved smoothly.

“I—I,” she stammered, her voice impossibly small. “I don’t know.”

“That is the wrong answer.”

“No please! I was just walking. Jumping on leaves. I got lost. I’ll go back home and leave you alone.”

“You don’t get it. Leaving me alone won’t fix anything. You don’t know my name.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, the phrase tasting sour, “But I was only playing a game with my friend. He’s back out in the Light Forest waiting for me. Just put me down and I’ll leave you alone.”

The face in the leaves of the tree made a little huffing sound. It blew hot mud breath into her face. “A game. It’s so like your kind to revel in the ruining of the dead. You tromp on the leaves and don’t know their names. You show no respect for the ancestors.”

The leafy face tilted upward and shook, letting out a thunderous bellow that sent vibrations through the earth and cast twigs down on top of her. Two branches cracked and creaked until they rested on either side of her. Smaller branches and twigs reached out like fingers and grasped onto her middle.

“How about I squeeze you until you make a crunching sound?” it asked her, the leaves forming a heinous smile. “How would you like if I flung you to the ground once I was done and stomped on your dead brittle bones?”

“Please, I’ll do whatever you want, I’m so sorry,” she said, tears threatening to spill back up her forehead. “Please, tell me your name and I’ll never forget it—”

“Hush,” the tree beast said, releasing its grip on her slightly. “Begging will do you no good.”

“Who are you?” Abigail asked. At any moment, the tree would crush her. For now, all she could do was hope to lure the beast into conversation.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised you don’t remember me. No one does,” the leaves said, the voice taking on a much more feminine tone. “But I suppose I could tell you my story before I kill you. At least then someone would know of all I’ve done in the name of the forest.”

“Would you mind tilting me right side up?” Abigail asked, as politely as she could.

“What? Oh, yes. I suppose so. But I won’t loosen this vine. I am wary of clever little girls,” it said before righting her and placing a branch with a tuft of leaves beneath her. Abigail took a deep breath and tried to steady her vision from being held upside down for so long.

The 13th Prophet

They say Defiance is dead. Yeah right. Some kid on the street threw a bottle at my head.

Men with long black beards sit on the sidewalk huddled around a TV, like a fireplace, warming their hands. A man shouts in a deep poet-preacher’s voice, “The Prophets have spoken! Cross-cut shawls for women, high beam neck ties for men! All straight from the Temple! The new Control ‘Blue’ hits the shelves today, and it is to die for! The Prophets scoff at the styles of last season!”

A young man punches the speaker in the gut. “The Prophets mourn! Defiance is dead!”

Defiance is dead. What a joke.

“Need a tune up?” says a young thing with more makeup than skin. “What’re you running? I got twenty bucks with your name on it if I can’t guess what you’re runnin’.”

“And if you can?” This will be fun.

“You come in and see what we’re selling?”

“Sure” I say, and she starts guessing.

“Tell me your name and what you do. I nail it every time.”

“Burke,” I say. “Mulligan Burke.”

“What do you do, Mulligan?” she asks, and I tell her it’s Burke to people who like me and Burke to people who don’t and she says, “You’re very funny. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were running a Solitude model . . . ” She eyes me, checking for a tell. It’s obvious she’s running a Control Model 10 with some Bliss highlights. I can almost see the source code for this one. “So, tell me what you do, Burke.”

“I’m a PI, lady,” I say.

“Like in those old movies?” she says.

“An old job for an old dog,” I say. I’m not too hot these days. A little rounder and softer than I used to be.

“Okay, I got it,” she says. “You’re running a Courage model. But you’ve augmented it by overlaying a ‘Blue’ rising touch.” I ask for my twenty bucks and she scowls. She offers me a discount, but I’ve had enough of her patter so I beat it.

An old Chinese woman sits at a little stall. She’s selling Bliss knockoffs. She winks at me as if that’s enough. Hey, these days it is.

“The Prophets have spoken!” coming from another street hawker – god I hate 77th street on days like this. “If you’re still wearing the Model 15 Desire Personality you need an update. The long-awaited Desire Model 16 hits the shelves tomorrow! Be first in line! Be first in line!”

By the time I reach the door to the Mercer Building, I’m sweating. It’s a cold sweat. And there’s this crowd packed in around the doors, shouting. The TVs out front are running the daily fashion lineup and Defiance is missing. There isn’t a body, but so what? The city is his chalk outline. The vibrations on the train, like Morse code, tick tick ticking out the words: Defiance is dead.

Desert Song

The Chevy truck looked like it had been painted by a team of monkeys on acid. Its front was bright green, the rear a muddy brown and the camper stuck on its back sported daubs of pink and yellow in no apparent pattern.

“Bought it from a hippie,” Ray yelled as he passed the kitchen window. We still said things like that in 1982.

I left the dishes in the sink and bolted out the back door in time to see the truck struggle around the corner into what passes for our backyard but looks more like a car cemetery. The thing looked even worse standing still. The passenger door was hanging on one hinge with a single strand of rope preventing it from peeling off entirely. The windshield was cracked from what looked like a bullet hole. It had no front fender and one headlight. When Ray shut off the motor, it kept running for about a minute. I thought it whimpered a couple of times too, but that might have been me. Ray said that he’d gotten it for “almost nothing” which seemed about right.

Ray doesn’t get enough auto repairing to suit him at his job at the Ford dealer downtown, so it’s not unusual for him to show up with stray vehicles that he fixes up to sell. It brought in extra money that we needed to survive in San Francisco, even though we lived in a rundown flat in the fog belt a block from Ocean Beach, so close to the zoo you we heard the lions roaring at night. I didn’t mind him working on his vehicles on the weekends, but when I saw that truck, I thought he had gone too far. If you’d told me then I was going to set out across the western plains in that heap and be chased by a skeleton to boot, I would have called you crazy.

“The engine isn’t bad,” Ray said. “Transmission seems okay. All it needs is a muffler, brakes, maybe a new carburetor and a little body work.”

“More than a little. That’s the sorriest-looking vehicle I’ve ever seen.”

He gave me a hug, crushing me against his chest. “I know it looks bad, Franny, but the engine’s sound. And I can fix up the camper so it’ll be just like home. You’ll see.”

I didn’t say anything.

“So, are you mad?”

“No. But don’t get too busy on it today. We’re having dinner with Rita and Jake. Six sharp.”

“Aw, Franny. Why don’t you let me barbecue up something right here?”

“Because we promised we’d come.”

“Aw, Franny,” he said again, but a smile was threatening to break out on his solemn face as he went into the shed to look for the right tool to start working on the truck.

The Right Game

A motorized carriage trundled down the street, splashing dingy water and filth onto the crowd. Avery waited until it had passed before crossing the street, leaping over puddles and maneuvering around people. A man stuck his hand out and Avery denied the entry to his inner jacket pocket with a twitch of his wrist before slipping down the alleyway created by two leaning buildings. Water dribbled down the eaves and wet his face while two youths exchanging goods and money looked up quickly and scurried out the other mouth of the alley.

“Don’t ignore me!” Davis hissed as he caught up, hands stuffed into the pockets of his trim, red waistcoat. “You can’t just tell me they’re going to hang Caelie and then walk away! Are you really just going to just let them do it? You two practically grew up together.”

“I’m not going to let them do anything.” Avery plucked a hat from the head of a sleeping street dweller, settling it onto his head as he moved down the alley. “I imagine they won’t consult my opinion at all. Of course, if they did, I would be happy to speak on her behalf.”

“I’m sure the thought keeps her warm at night.”

“Why do you care so much? You know how it was between us.” Avery paused at the mouth of the alley, fishing in his coat pocket for his pair of binoculars. Spying across the way, he could see the broken glass of a window at the top of an apartment building; the wind and rain let in to shake the damp curtains; their destination. No shadows inside, no light, no occupants. The police had already given it up. He folded up his binoculars. “We rarely lasted more than two days without property damage and we hated each other at least half of the time that we were around one another. Tell me, would you risk your neck for that?”

“Damn it, yes! Half the time is about as good as a person as volatile as you is likely to get,” Davis said, forced to shout as they crossed the busy intersection and grunting as he pushed past the people and dodged the rare motorcar. “Show me the woman who can put up with you for more than half of the time and I will gift you a unicorn for your next birthday.”

“Oh, don’t tease me, Davis. You know how badly I want a unicorn.” Avery fished the parchment from his pocket, unfurling it as he looked up from the stairwell of the building. “Room two-two-one, should be a straight flight up. Best be quiet now, better that no one know why we’re here.” Avery pushed open the door, leaning in.

“Do you have to be so cavalier?” Davis dragged him back a pace onto the stoop, staring. “Sometimes I think she was the only thing in the world keeping you human. At least when she was around you were always busy.”

“Busy hunting her down, you mean. Busy being berated for losing track of her again.”

“Oh, spare me. The only thing you care about is your ego and the fact that she just might be smarter than you.”

“Well, she wasn’t smart enough this time, was she? Honestly, caught stealing from the king.”

“I shudder to think what you would do if it were me in that prison cell.”

“At this juncture, I’m not disagreeable to the notion of an entirely paper-based correspondence.” Avery pulled his hat lower and entered the building, not looking back. “Stay outside if you’re going to be difficult. We’re here to solve a murder. Try to keep your mind on the king’s business. Honestly.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” Davis grumbled and shut the door behind him.

The Wreck of the Emerald Sky – Part 2

Chapter 7

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.

Under acceleration.

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 Wreck of the Emerald Sky – Part 1

Chapter 1

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.

“Larsen?”

“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.

Diffusion – Part 2

Chapter 6

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.

“No kidding.”

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.”

“Right.”

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.