Tag Archives: The Colored Lens #37 – Autumn 2020

Royals

Saturday moans and whimpers in his sleep. The noise is one of the things keeping Abbie awake. As he tosses and kicks, soaking the sheets with sweat, she’s torn between stroking his long greasy hair to calm him, or grabbing him by the neck and choking the life out of him. If she dared. But she doesn’t do anything. Unless watching him in the dark, desolate hours when she should be unconscious counts as something.

During the day, he has moments when Abbie swears he’s his old self: funny and energetic. The guy who engages and upsells their customers. It melts her fucking heart, despite herself, despite everything. Despite the fact that he’s high. Those moments let her pretend she’s still charmed by him. Still in love, even.

But as he relaxes into a semblance of normal sleep, a cold numbness settles into Abbie’s chest and brain, and it doesn’t seem to matter anymore how she feels about him. She can’t decide if it’s a relief or the saddest thing in the world. She’s wide awake. Her latest notebook is on the bedside table, the one she writes her lists in. She doesn’t remember when it started, but she’s filled a few. She takes it, slips from their bed, picks up a hoodie from the floor that reeks of sweat, his sweat, and slides it over her head. She shuts the door behind her, taking care not to wake him. He has no idea she’s going to leave him.

She pads down the hallway to her lab and stands in the dark listening to the hum of the machinery. She loves her lab. It’s clean, organized, and unlike the rest of the apartment, which has gone from shabby chic to something more like genuine squalor, it makes her hopeful. But she’s leaving this too.

She switches on the light and goes to the glass tanks lining the back wall from floor to ceiling. She gazes in at the delicate creatures covering most of the surfaces inside, some slowly crawling, others half-buried in moist dirt. Shimmer beetles. But these Shimmers are squat, ugly things, dark and unadorned, glorified cockroaches if not for the secretions they ooze from the tiny glands on the backs of their legs and the tops of their feet. She moves down the rows of tanks to the biggest tank with the fewest insects. The Royals. She pulls one out and places it on her notebook atop the stainless steel table.

It’s still, except for the twitching of velvety antennae. It’s walnut-sized, has a delicately tapered, triangular head, and a shiny black carapace covered in silvery whorls of delicate hairs, arching and spiraling in complex patterns. She bends to look closer, and the whorls stir under her breath, and lo and behold, seem to shimmer.

“Hello, beautiful girl,” she whispers.

She’s tempted to set it on her arm or neck, to let it do its work, but truth be told, she’s afraid. She’s only let a Royal crawl along her arm for a few seconds at a time, and even that? Damn. It was too much for her. And she made them, working month after month splicing genes, chopping and pasting sections of DNA until they were as perfect as they could be. Saturday says it’s the best work she’s ever done. Abbie’s not so sure. It’s only a matter of time before he wants to try one out.

She picks up the Shimmer beetle, gingerly, and puts it back in its tank.




List of Things You Don’t Do Anymore

1. Play guitar.
2.
3. Look at me.
4.
5. Touch me.
6.
7. Notice when I walk into the room.
8.
9. Bathe every day.
10.
11. Laugh.
12.
13. Try to make me laugh.
14.
15. Leave the house.
16.
17. Build things.
18.
19. Paint things.
20.
21. Have friends.
22.
23. Fuck.
24.
25. Be kind.
26.


Abbie wakes on the living room couch to Saturday shaking her arm. He’s gentle but it’s jarring, and she yanks her arm away and sits up, clutching her knees to her chest. Late morning sun sneaks through the gap between the two curtains, illuminating his pale, hairless chest. It’s covered in tattoos, tiny ones and zeros from neck to naval. Binary code. She used to ask him what it meant but he’d never say, acting cagy and mysterious. Now she suspects it doesn’t mean anything.

“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” He frowns, and hugs his arms tight into his chest, like he’s mimicking her posture. “Why are you sleeping out here?”

“I didn’t sleep out here.” Abbie knows she sounds defensive. “I couldn’t sleep so I went to mess around in the lab. I was going to come back to bed but I must have drifted off.”

He’s nodding, biting his lip. There are Shimmer tracks along his neck and arms, the older ones pale and dull, and last night’s, pink and shiny. In their own way, she has to admit, they’re sort of beautiful.

“Okay,” he says. He shows her his palm. There’s a message there, red letters shining through from the device imbedded beneath his skin. He smiles. “Jota wants them. A big order. Sight unseen.”

“Jota wants what?” She’s still a little fuzzy, still half in the land of sleep. Then she stiffens. “Wait. The Royals?”

“Yeah! Isn’t it great?”

“No! I told you they aren’t ready yet. I haven’t even given them a full test run.”

His hands go up like she’s pointing a gun. “I know, I know, Abbie. But he wasn’t offering much for the usual. He tried to knock off 20%, mentioned Caputo, going to see what he’s got for sale. I had to do something.”

“Really? Did you?” She’s on her feet now, glaring at him, trying not to melt down. Not again.

“Yeah, I did. Because you’ve been working on those things forever, and it’s taking up all your time, and all our money. Sales are slow. We need to make the Royals pay off.”

He moves toward her, and she can’t help herself, she backs up. He’s a full head taller, all sharp angles and long, pale limbs like old tree branches, skinny but gnarled with muscle. His dark eyes are big, unblinking, and his teeth are bared in the grimace he uses to intimidate difficult clients. The look that made her quit going to drops, the look that makes her wonder if she actually knows anything about Saturday. Then he stops. He sighs and crosses his arms again, shrinking back into himself. It’s a relief. And yet, she wants to reach out and pull him to her.

“I think we need to do this, Abbie, ready or not. Or we’ll lose our biggest customer.”

I don’t care, she wants to shout. I don’t care anymore. I’m leaving. But she stays silent.

“Besides, if we need to give the Royals a test run, I can try one out this afternoon.” He says this quiet and casual, but she hears his desperation. “Better me than you, right?”

Abbie keeps her eyes on the ones and zeros covering his chest, on the message flashing in his palm, on the shabby couch. Anything but his face. She can’t stand the look in his eyes, the burning need that has nothing to do with her.


List of People I Miss

1. Lilah.
2.


And The Lord Taketh Away

This time when I’m woken, it’s not by Janice, which is odd. Not at all to routine. Speaking of which…

“Engineer John Lord, begin a non-regular waking log.”

Firstly I’m confronted by a wall of sheer humanity, most of them are dressed in rags, or nothing at all.

“Lord, we apologise for disturbing your rest. Our lights grow dim and our crops are blighted. The air is not what it once was.” The one speaking for them is wearing the tattered remnants of what was once an engineering tunic, his speech is slow as if rarely performed now.

As I feel the energising solution reviving my muscles, I wonder how long it has been since I was last awake. As I step from the stasis tube, the uniformed man takes a knee and bows his head. All the others do likewise, without any prompting. So they’ve started worshipping us again? Ah, that’s not good. I remember what happened two cycles ago, so I’ll have to nip this in the bud if I can. The air feels far too hot, so he’s right about that. I wonder if that’s why they’ve woken me?

Not that they are supposed to be able to wake me, unless one of the others has shown them how.

At a guess, there’s at least a hundred of them here, just inside the stasis room. I can see the signs of habitation, scattered behind them. Shacks built from welded-together food trays. Shit, if they’ve been living in here, how many of them are alive right now?

My first guess is the ship’s systems are struggling to provide for too many people. My second guess is Doc Jay hasn’t been monitoring their reproductive rates. Or doing anything, by the shape they appear to be in. Half-starved, from the way their bones are protruding through their skin. I beckon their speaker forwards. Probably a priest, I assume, based on previous experience. “How many do you number?”

From the instant look of confusion on his face, it appears that Doc Jay isn’t the only one not doing his damn job. Miller hasn’t been running them through the education programs once every century either. Okay, fine. I’ll have to get the answer in the old fashioned way. Hopefully, it won’t spook them too much. “Janice, not including myself or the crew, how many life-signs are currently onboard?”

“Thirty-three thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven, Lord.”

Fucking hell, Doc! The ship was designed to safely home between three and four thousand people at any one time. No wonder the air feels so damn weird.

“Also, Lord. Be aware, the seals on reactor four are close to breaking down. Time to safely repair is less than three days.” Hmm, why hadn’t Janice woken me before now?

“Janice, was there a reason these folks woke me up to fix this mess, and not you?”

“Captains final orders, Lord, just before he died. Civilian population to have full discretion, except in cases of a most dire emergency. I’d have woken you up tomorrow myself anyway if they hadn’t already done so. You might want to get onto that reactor sooner than later though.”

They don’t seem to be surprised to hear Janice. At least this generation isn’t worshipping her. I think she kind of enjoyed the last time. I guess I’ll need to train enough people to replace those reactor seals. Lucky for me, there’s no shortage of warm bodies which need disposing of. I doubt this will even make a dent in their population boom though. “Thanks, Janice. Nano Solution number two, deliver to stasis room please?”

I grab the tube and start pouring it into cups. After beckoning their priest over, I give him the first one. “Drink this. I need everyone in this room to help me fix your problems. Please make sure to pass these drinks around. One cup for everyone. No exceptions.”

I use Janice to ensure they all get the upgrade. Within sixty seconds, I’ve got a room full of mostly trained engineers, they’ve got all the knowledge they need to act as a repair team. “If you can hear my voice, head to reactor four and replace the seals. Lockdown all bulkheads in the adjacent sections, no-one is permitted to leave. Go now!”


I monitor them from my station, including the bodies already inside, Janice tells me they are shutting six thousand people into that section. I check the rest of the ship. It’s no shock to find a couple of enormous population centres clustered around the empty cargo bays. Once I’ve done a headcount down there, I vent the bays into space. I close a few security doors and wrangle the rest of the people into the observation bay. Not counting the folks I just sent to their imminent radioactive death, it’s a little over a thousand people, all told.

The folks in the reactor get the seals replaced fairly quickly and begin the job of decontamination. I didn’t give them too much training, just enough to perform the repairs to a good enough stand as to last a few thousand years. They don’t need to know it’s a suicide mission. I’m glad they haven’t even questioned my order to seal themselves in.

A simple clean-up job by hand isn’t possible in this scenario. I have to trigger a phased pulse scrub, destroying any lifeforms therein. Even after their clean-up and my scrub, I still won’t be able to use those sections for at least another six thousand years or so.

At least I’ve got the population down to a manageable amount now. Speaking of which… “Janice! I want wake-ups for Doc Jay every fifty years to perform routine lifeforms checks. The command cannot be superseded.”


After I watch the last few molecules being phased out of existence, I make my way to the Observation Deck, where the remaining survivors have settled themselves. At first, none of them will speak to me. Eventually, I just lose my patience and grab one of them. “You. You’re in charge now.”

I see the immediate wave of fear behind his eyes. “But Lord, our Priest?”

I shake my head. “He’s dead. You’re head man around these parts now.” I motion around us, to the others. “Everyone you see, this is all the people left alive. Your job is to take care of them.” Frankly, they look pathetic, as if they haven’t had a good meal in several decades. The only food I can see is emergency biscuits, and those are being nibbled sparingly like they’ve no other source of sustenance. Miller is supposed to teach them how to use the ship’s systems, including the Food Processor. Well, seeing as how I’ve just loaded it with new materials, I may as well show them.

I walk over to one of the many wall-mounted Dispensers. “Place your hand here. Food comes out of there. Don’t worry, there’s enough for everyone now. There’s no need to starve yourselves again. Just be careful not to gorge right away. You’ll just make yourselves sick, otherwise. Many of your friends and family have sacrificed themselves so you might eat now.” I have to make them get up, seeing me use the dispenser sets them all to kneel in worship. If Miller did her job every other century, they might understand this is just science, and not damn magic.

“Janice. Set a wake-up for Miller, every century. Tutorial of ship’s systems and education program. Deny further stasis access until tasks are fully performed. These damn colonists shouldn’t look on us as their Gods!”

I make sure they all take Nano Solution eight, then show them the Teaching Stations. Hopefully, a bit of good old science will squeeze the religion right out of them. If not, I guess there’s always the engineer’s solution. “Janice, monitor life-form numbers. If they go five percent over safe limits then have their old or infirm either report to an airlock or a recycler. Whichever happens to be closest.”

It shouldn’t be my job to do all this shit, but I guess an engineer has to fix things, even if they aren’t exactly within my remit. I check all the ship’s systems. Everything else seems fine, now reactor four is resealed. With the population down at a sensible amount, power and air soon return to normal.

A lot of these folks don’t remember ever having good air or lights at full power. It might damage their eyes, so I’ll have to take steps to allow them to get used to it slowly. “Janice, increase ship-wide light levels by one percent every day until you reach normal operating conditions. Lord, out.”

Having fixed the immediate problems of the world, I go back to stasis to get my head down for another century or two, hopefully. I doubt if Doc Jay and Miller will be best pleased with me having them awake so often. What are the odds they defrost me when they find out who issued those particular scheduling orders? At least the ship is back within safe operating parameters again.

I didn’t want to waste all those folks, but we’ve still got another fifty thousand years of travelling left, yet. It had to be done.

With the Captain gone, I guess that leaves me in charge now? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

And so to sleep. Sweet Dreams!

Ray Daley was born in Coventry & still lives there. He served 6 yrs in the RAF as a clerk & spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet & has been writing stories since he was 10. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986.

’68 Mustang

On Saturday morning, I make my way down the stairs to the kitchen, and Dad is sitting there in the breakfast nook, facing the window, a cup of coffee in his hand. I catch a faint whiff of tobacco. There’s something natural about his presence, not surprising or shocking or horrifying. I’ve been looking for him all this time, and now he’s here.

“Dad,” I say, taking a chair opposite.

He’s been dead more than thirteen years, but that seems too obvious to mention.

“Why are you here?” I ask instead.

He looks at me, the corners of his brown eyes crinkling as he smiles.

“You dreamed about me last night.”

“Yes, but…”

He’s often in my dreams, not as the focus but as a background character, just someone who’s there.

“I summoned you?” I say.

He sets down the coffee mug, which features a faded Toronto Blue Jays logo. It’s one of his, one I inherited when Mom cleaned out the old house.

“I wanted to come,” he says, “but I have only this one day.”

“One day,” I say, and I see what this is. It’s an opportunity, the chance any son would take to see his Dad one more time, to say and do the things he always regretted not saying or doing. I think I should probably break down sobbing, reach across the table and grab him in a big bear hug, but we were never that huggy, and I feel no need to sob. I’m more worried I’m about to waste this time.

My hands shake a little as I prepare a simple breakfast, just juice and toast. Dad looks at the newspaper on my tablet, says, “Things have changed, but not really.” He has that faint, calm smile that I remember, as he just sits there, sipping his coffee, as I eat my toast. This is like so many mornings, long past.

I remember the car.

“I need to show you something,” I say, filled with sudden purpose.

My wife Janine, who always gets up before I do on weekends, is in the garden, not so much gardening as admiring what she’s accomplished so far. Her face goes slack as Dad and I emerge from the back door.

“Look who’s here,” I say.

She advances and throws her arms around him.

“Oh!” he says, a little awkward, but then he slaps her back and adds, “It’s good to see you!”

She looks stricken as she steps back, hands going to her mouth, face flushing.

“What’s going on?” she says.

“We’re going to the garage,” I say, realizing this doesn’t answer her question, but I’m eager to show Dad the ’68 Mustang. He’d always wanted one, but life got in the way.

In the garage, his face glows. He doesn’t have to say anything.

“The gearbox has been leaking a bit of oil lately,” I say. “I don’t know why.”

Dad lights a cigarette. That’s what killed him, but I don’t object, because it’s also a part of him.

“If I had time, I’d take a look at it,” he says. “Might be the humidity, but also because the car is just old.”

Janine is in the doorway, watching. Behind her, my son appears, hair dishevelled and sleep still in his eyes. He adjusts his glasses and says, “Grampy?”

“Look how big you’ve gotten!” Dad says.

Tim was five when Dad died, and is eighteen now. His thirteen-year-old sister is trailing behind him, carrying a banana which I assume passes for her breakfast.

“Suzy,” I say, “come meet your grandfather.”

She was born about three months after Dad died, and this is a moment I’ve wished for many times. She’s shy and looks down. She’s been hearing things about this man all her life, has seen pictures and videos, and I imagine he must be something of a legend to her.

“Very pleased to meet you, finally,” he says.

I’m like a soda bottle that someone just shook before popping the cap, and have to walk away, back into the garden. I can hear Tim talking, voice rising in giddy excitement, telling Grampy all the things that he’s been up to lately. I hear a welcome ring of laughter from Suzy.

When I go back into the garage, Janine is alone.

“Tim wanted to show him his room,” she tells me.

She seems a little embarrassed by her earlier loss of composure, and I encircle her with my arms. She lays her head against my shoulder and whispers, “We’ve been given an amazing gift.”

Tim convinces Dad to go for a walk down to the creek, and Suzy goes with them. I stay back and try to decide how to make the most of this. It starts to rain, and Dad and the kids return, laughing as they try to dodge raindrops. By now it’s lunch time, so we eat and Dad and I have a beer and watch some of the ball game. I haven’t been watching baseball since he died.

Later, we take the Mustang for a spin. I let Dad drive and just enjoy the look of satisfaction on his face. When we return, the rain has stopped and we have a barbecue on the patio, then sit in the deck chairs while Suzy gets her three-quarter sized guitar and sings us a song, something she’s usually too self-conscious to do in front of her parents.

As the last note fades, Janine looks at me with a sad smile and, wiping at her eyes, asks, “Would anyone like tea or coffee?”

Time is passing too swiftly, and shapes swirl and blur around me. The night is warm, the deck chairs comfortable. Dad and I are alone and he’s just a dark shape marked by the point of light from his cigarette tip, like a tiny orange star.

“This is a cozy spot,” he says. “You’ve done well for your family.”

And I think of all the years that I couldn’t settle on a degree program, how I’d worked for a non-profit and couldn’t get a job in the field I’d eventually chosen, and how my relationships with women, until I’d met Janine, had been ridiculous and childish, and how stupid I’d felt a lot, and how frustrated…

“I know how you used to feel,” Dad says. “And why you were so touchy for a while there.”

It’s true. He and I had been close, very close, especially when I’d been a kid. There’d been no drama, but sometimes we create drama from nothing.

“When you got older and things didn’t work the way you wanted, you thought you were a loser and I was disappointed.”

He chuckles, but in fondness, not mockery.

“I need you to know something,” he says. “I was never disappointed in anything you ever did. Not when you were in school and not after. I know you thought I was, but I wasn’t. I knew what you didn’t, that life can’t be planned and doesn’t always go how you want it, but you accomplished more than you think, and I always thought you’d been awfully lucky to find Janine, and when Tim came I was never so happy in my life.”

I can’t speak. My throat feels stuffed with cotton.

“I’m going to have to head back soon,” he adds. “Right now, actually.”

I can’t bear it. I never asked for this day, but I don’t want it to end. I feel like I need to do something to mark it, make some gesture. He did this for me. I need to do something for him.

I still have the key to the Mustang in my pocket.

I give him the key.

“This was always for you,” I manage to say. “Maybe you can fix that leaky gearbox, wherever it is you’re going.”

He holds it, looks at me.

“You sure?”

“More than anything,” I tell him. I don’t want him to refuse it, and he doesn’t. He nods and slaps me on the arm.

I stand in the garage as he starts the car. Janine and the kids come out of the house and we all watch as Dad waves and backs out of the driveway, then as the car rumbles down the road to the stop sign, brake lights flaring, turns right and disappears around a bend.

The night is quiet.

“You saw him, right?” I say to my wife. “Did I dream that just so I could hear something I must have wanted to hear for years?”

“No,” she says. “And don’t try to explain it. Just let it be.”

The next morning is like every other Sunday morning. Janine is in the garden, and I make myself coffee and go outside. She just smiles and says nothing.

I go into the garage, half expecting to see the Mustang still there, but it’s not. There’s just an oil stain on the concrete, and the faint scent of yesterday’s tobacco.