Content note (click for details)Content note: coerced surgery
At 8 a.m. sharp on Monday morning, Armond lines up at the Day Fair to apply for Bradification.
Armond’s palms sweat badly enough to leave wet spots on his resumes. Several candidates immediately strike him as actual competition, which doesn’t bode well for him. One chisel-jawed fellow practically looks like a Brad already. Armond has to land this job, or else. Between poor progress reviews and coming in last place at Company Fun Run practice, he has no other alternatives but promotion.
A Brad skims Armond’s resume in the applicant line. “Ah! Project management,” he says with Bradlike optimism. “We could use someone with your skillset.” Brad dabs blood from his nose with a big white handkerchief and shakes Armond’s hand. “Come with me. You just landed yourself an interview.”
Armond rechecks if his sneaker laces are tight. If he can’t nail the interview, the Company will make him run.
They’ve assembled a full panel of Brads for the interviews. Their room overlooks the Company kennels, where they’re already setting up for the next Fun Run. Each Brad leans back in his swivel chair and kicks his heels onto the coffee table. They’ve each brought a novelty mug for their americanos with French vanilla creamer: Coffa Cuppee. HE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Like A BOSS. They’re all dabbing blood from their leaky creases with napkins and tissues and clean white hankies.
The Head Brad, a glorious specimen with minimal bleeding and very few surgical scars, sips from his Monday Funday mug. “We’ve been over your resume with a fine-toothed comb,” he says brightly. “You’re 71% Brad-compatible, well within the limits for Bradification.”
Armond perks up. This is it: his big break. The Head Brad sucks a bead of blood from his thumb. “But tell me, Armond. Why do you want to become Brad?”
Truthfully, Armond wants to become Brad because he has no hope of outrunning them otherwise, and they’re not going to let him keep his current posting with such poor reviews. It’s either promotion, or the kennels. You can fail up, or get run down. But you mustn’t let them catch even a whiff of desperation, or you’ll be handed a Fun Run jersey faster than you can say funtivities.
“I’m just passionate about the Company’s mission,” Armond begins, plastering on his Braddiest grin. “I love MoneyMaking, and no one MoneyMakes better than the Company.”
In truth, Armond is only a mediocre MoneyMaker. He doesn’t have the proper hand-eye coordination for inking all the little numbers, and he’s downright atrocious at sketching Presidents. The Brads have probably read his performance reviews, because they shift and murmur and bleed through their mesh chairs.
One of the Brads lifts something soft and nylon from under the table. It looks like a tattered t-shirt.
Armond licks his lips. His heart thunders like tennis shoes slapping along asphalt. “I almost forgot,” he adds rapidly. “I’d like to be clear that I’m game for internal Bradification.”
He regrets it immediately, but the Brads relax. The nylon shirt swishes into the wastebasket.
“Few interviewees have professed such commitment,” says the Head Brad, the corners of his lips ripping from the width of his grin. “Thank you for your interview. Enjoy a complimentary lunch in the Breakroom while we make final decisions.”
Armond shakes their hands and thanks them. As he leaves the room, his gaze falls into the wastebasket.
The Fun Run jersey tangled with the balled-up memos is bloodstained and torn open on the front, as though rended by claws.
It’s clear immediately who’s passed on to the next stage, and who hasn’t. Well-heeled Brads hand out jerseys to sobbing candidates in the hallway, while Armond watches from the window as the kennel doors fly open. The chisel-jawed man leads the herd, and seconds later, the Brads thunder out behind them with their steel staplers and unhinged jaws.
Middle management comes with certain responsibilities, and certain appetites as well.
The Head Brad shows up impeccably clean, except for some blood pooling through his jacket at the elbow joints. “Congratulations,” says Brad, polishing crud off his stapler. “You’re the next up for the Braderator!”
Armond tries not to think about staplers or jerseys as he wolfs down his complimentary turkey sandwich, but it’s hard to ignore the sweaty, cologne-soaked stench as they all return from lunch.
They’ve built the Braderator directly in the custodial closet for easier cleaning, but you can still catch a whiff of blood despite all the bleach.
Armond strips off his clothes, ducks beneath the scissorlike chandelier of blades, and sits on the stainless steel chair, which is full of holes, like a cheese grater.
“That’s to let the blood through,” Brad says, clamping restraints around Armond’s arms and legs.
“How does it work?” Armond asks before Brad slides the Internal Braderator between his lips.
“To paraphrase Michelangelo,” says Brad, folding Armond’s coat, tie, trousers, and underpants, “we just cut away everything not-Brad. In your case, that’s 29%. You’ll require only short-term disability to complete the process, with minimal scarring. You probably won’t even have to dip into your vacation leave.”
He closes the closet door. The Braderator revs up like a lawnmower as the razor chandelier descends and spins. Like a carwash, if the carwash were made from surgical steel and the car were made of meat.
As the blades in his throat extend and spin, Armond thinks perhaps he should’ve taken his chances at the races. But by the time the Internal Braderator works deep enough for real regret to set in, his worries have been cut away, along with everything else not-Brad.
Author’s Note: My friend Vylar Kaftan is something of a wizard with titles, and she once challenged me to write a story using the title “The Night Bazaar for Women Becoming Reptiles.” I did, and the story went on to earn critical acclaim and an Otherwise Award Honor List placement. A few years later, she joked that I should write a follow-up called “The Day Fair for Guys Becoming Middle Managers.” Not being one to pass up another Vylar challenge, I wrote this piece in a single sitting. It captures for me the phenomenon you get in really dysfunctional workplaces, where you find yourself doing increasingly bizarre stuff because your workplace culture normalizes it–something that has only become more true for the whole world during the pandemic, where many of us suddenly find ourselves asked to submit to breathtaking personal risks at the request of our employers.
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
I needed a break. I needed silence. I needed to hear the sound of my own thoughts. Not the endless monologue of shuttle systems status, mixed with memories and declarations, all emitting from Father’s broken mind and body.
In our little space cruiser, it is still but not quiet. Father’s labored breathing, punctuated by coughs and chokes, surrounds me as he struggles to stay alive without the cruiser’s medical emergency program helping him. My heart pounds in my chest, shakes me with every beat. My breathing is quiet and slow, a whisper in the cold thin air.
Reaching out to Father, I place my hand on his chest. Even through his spacesuit I can feel his heart, fluttering but persistent. Still alive. Still working.
Our helmets are off. Our breath collects in fog in the space between us.
Just go on like this, I think. Go on until his heart stops. Without him running the shuttle, I will succumb to the cold and lack of oxygen and surrender to the star-filled void around us.
I consider it, again. I have considered it every time I have disconnected Father. And I reach the answer I have reached every time I have considered it.
No. Not yet. Keep hoping for a rescue. Keep living.
I switch the medical system back on. Alarms sound as it realizes Father’s condition and injects drugs through the dermal patches.
Father gasps, audibly, as his body is slammed back to stability.
After I reattach the careful tangle of wires connecting the shuttle’s control system to the interface cap fitted to his head, his voice echoes through the shuttle’s speakers.
“Son. Son. You should not disconnect me. I have told you this before.” He is scolding me, but he is also afraid.
“Yes, Father. I know. I am sorry.”
“Checking system status.”
The litany begins, his voice droning like prayers.
“Internal temperature 4.17 degrees. Rerouting ambient reactor heat to cabin.
“Oxygen concentration 11.64 percent. Scrubbers operational, 37.94 percent efficiency. Estimate normal mix in 8.05 hours.
“Eight point zero five.
He slowly sighs. His mind has found an unexpected road and is running down it in pursuit of a memory.
“You were five. We still lived on Earth, but had decided to leave for a mining homestead in the asteroid belt. There was nothing left for us on Earth, in our cardboard shack in the South San Francisco favela.
“We wanted to have one special moment. We splurged and took you to the little Golden Star Amusement Park in the Sunset. You always wanted to go there. You were enchanted by the Dragon rollercoaster. You rode it over and over, until you were sick to your stomach. Even then, you cried when we left for home.
“Home is mining asteroid (142823) 2026-MC13. Estimate distance to home 1.8598 million kilometers. Estimate distance to Ceres 1.8528 million kilometers. Estimate velocity normal to solar system 24.931 thousand kilometers per hour. Time since accident 42.190 hours. Estimate probability of distress signal reaching Ceres Station 3.14 percent.”
Father’s monologue of shuttle status and random memory continues, but the summary is always the same. Our shuttle is damaged. My father is damaged. My father, through the interface cap and the rewiring to the shuttle components that still work, keeps life support barely running. The emergency medical system keeps my father barely alive. We are above the plane of the solar system, on a constant vector away from both home and from Ceres, with no way to change that fact.
We are adrift in the void, with my father’s voice as a constant reminder of the darkness of our situation.
A simple trip. A shuttle run back to Ceres headquarters. Printer stocks, hydroponics supplies, reactor fuel, necessary in-person meetings with the corporation.
When I was young, I loved the Ceres trips. Not just because I could see, in person, friends who I only knew through my virtual classrooms. Not just because at Ceres in the open habitat we could walk and run and play without pressure suits constraining our movement.
I loved the trips because they were joyous times with my family, together, without my parents working hard at the mining operations or me buried fourteen hours a day in schoolwork and lessons and mandatory exercise. On the shuttle, we sang songs, listened to music, played games, laughed. Mother told me stories about the stars, myths and legends from her childhood. I listened in wonder and joy. We were a real family, like the ones I read about on the chat boards or saw on the video streams.
Mother died in an accident when I was fourteen.
Life was never the same. Quiet melancholy replaced chaotic joy. Father and I buried ourselves in our work. I took on mining responsibilities along with my schoolwork. Father and I communicated only in data points – status, machines, daily production, shipments, coursework. On the Ceres trips, we traveled in silence. Prayer music played non-stop on the journey. Father controlled the shuttle with the interface headset, eyes gazing into a virtual display of shuttle information, status and control that I could not see.
On these trips, our only conversations were arguments.
“Father, you should add me to the shuttle control interface so I can learn to fly the shuttle and manage the systems. I can help with the burden.”
“You are too young.” His voice, which he routed through the speakers while controlling the shuttle, was always too loud.
My anger came easily. “I’m seventeen! I have top marks in my coursework. I maintain the mining robots. I can run a shuttle.”
“You are not ready.”
“Then let me go to university on Ceres, in person, so I can get my next degrees.”
“You can not leave for university on Ceres!” His anger took longer than mine, but it always arrived, in an explosion that blew static through the speakers.
After that, silence again, staring out the small portholes at the stars until we arrived at Ceres and went our separate ways.
We had already done our arguing when the first meteorite swarm hit. Small enough it didn’t register on the long range sensors, but still large enough to badly damage the shuttle. It didn’t help that our shuttle was old, second-hand, and in need of more repair than we could afford. Mining life is perching on the perpetual edge of disaster, grinding out as much profit as possible for the corporation to which we were indebted.
Father was outside assessing the damage when the second, larger, swarm hit. His screams echoed through the communications link, followed by gasps and whimpering mixed with the pattering of meteorites on the hull.
Somehow, I dragged him through the airlock and inside.
Somehow, I hooked him up to the emergency medical system, followed the prompts and gave him drugs to keep his heart beating and his lungs moving.
Somehow, he survived.
“Son. Are you?” His voice was soft, and weak.
“I’m alive, Father. You are too.”
“Still intact, obviously. But there was a power overload. It burned out the main computers, stellar navigation, the engines, everything. We’re on minimal backup on all systems.” I had checked everything I could check, without command access. It was all ruined.
“Saw communications array. Ruined.”
“We are doomed, Father.”
“No.” The force in his voice surprised me. “We can live. We can rewire the shuttle. I can control basic life support systems. I will give you instructions. You will do the work.”
That was the first day. Father giving instructions or suggestions, me breaking and making connections throughout the shuttle. By the end of the day we had the headset interface wired into basic life support: heat, oxygen, water reclamation. We had enough to keep us alive for perhaps a week. We had a chance.
But we were also adrift. Based on the last sensor readings, and celestial sightings, I calculated we were now pointing away from the plane of the solar system. The final burst of the dying engines had sent us off course. We were moving away from anyone that could save us, farther and farther every minute.
Father, injured physically and mentally, monitored all the critical systems. By the end of the first day he was already reciting shuttle status and making connections with whatever memories were welling in his fractured mind.
“Oxygen scrubbing at 61.34 percent efficiency.
“Estimate 1.1838 million kilometers from Ceres, based on position of reference stars.
“Stars in the sky, above home.
“The first day we arrived at the asteroid, you were angry because we had left Ceres. We took you outside to the surface and showed you the stars. We told you their names, traced their constellations, recited their myths. For hours we did that. You loved it.”
“Yes, Father. I still do.” When I was angry, or frustrated, I would go stand on the surface of our asteroid and get lost in the stars and the stories.
Now they were a threat. They scared me.
“I’m sorry, Son. I’m sorry we are in this situation. I’m sorry I kept you at home. I’m sorry for everything.”
“Three days, fourteen hours, fifteen minutes since the accident,” my father recites.
“Estimate 3.1983 million kilometers from Ceres.
“Water purity 78.11 percent. Supply tank 7.32 percent.
“Water. Flowing in a river.
“When your mother and I were young and courting, we took a camping trip to the Red River to see the Silver Falls. From high above us, glistening water fell over a cliff, through the sky, pounded into the earth below, and flowed away into the river. So much power in water. On the asteroid I dream of that much water, cascading across our small rock.
“We don’t have enough water, Son. We will not survive.”
Father is sad. Depressed. Each hour he seems to sink further and faster into a vast dark place, like the vast dark void around us.
“Hold on, Father.” I try to say this with hope. “There is still a chance someone will find us.”
“There is no chance. We are dying. You are dying. It is my fault. All my fault.” He cries. Tears pool against his face, sobs echo from the speakers. Not even when Mother died was he this emotional. This despondent. This lost.
I am anxious, jittery. I don’t know how to comfort him. I don’t want to turn him off any more. But I can’t sit here. I need to move.
“Father, I am going outside. I will walk the shuttle.”
No answer, just more tears and sobs that batter at me as I make my way through the airlock and to the outside.
Outside I turn off my communications link, engage the magnetics in my shoes, and stand on the shuttle’s skin. The stars are infinite in their numbers all around me. I pick out the constellations. The Hunter. The Judge. The Wanderer. They stand, silent. I ask for answers but get none.
I walk the shuttle’s hull. My breathing falls in time with the force of my steps, echoing inside my suit. Sol burns before me as I round the shuttle. Beckoning. Taunting. Smaller and smaller with every second.
We are doomed. We have no thrust towards Ceres. We have no communications. We are running out of clean atmosphere and clean water. Our food is gone. The magnetic couplings on my boots are the only thing keeping me from floating away.
I could release the couplings, disconnect from the umbilical, push off from the shuttle, and drift away. Become one with the stars and the myths.
Push hard enough from the correct location and the shuttle might be directed, so very slightly, towards the solar system. Father might be found. He might even stay alive.
I could do it.
But in those moments, before the end came, Father would be alone. I can’t leave him alone. I am all he has. He is all I have.
I must find a solution.
Walking brings me to the communications array. A tangled nest of wires and equipment, shot through with holes from the meteorites, burned in places from the power overload. Could something useful be left? There was so much work to keep Father alive, to reorganize the shuttle to keep us alive, I hadn’t thought of the possibility.
I poke and sort through the tangle, find enough of the transmission antenna to send a signal. We would need a way to direct and focus the signal, to push it towards Ceres. A reflector. But the meteors tore off the reflector.
Panels from the shuttle’s hull could make a reflector. Without the need to heat and oxygenate the shuttle’s interior, just our suits, we’d have more power to boost the strength of the signal. Vent the atmosphere before removing the panels and we could even get a slight push towards Ceres.
This is a dangerous idea. We would be exposed to the frigid dark of open space. We could die.
If we do nothing, we will die anyway.
I turn on my communications link, to the sound of Father, panicked, crying.
“You are not alone, Father. I am here.” I make sure to sound confident, raise his spirits somehow. “Father, I have an idea.”
Father’s space suit is too far damaged to provide any resistance against outer space. Over his objections, he will take my suit and I will wear the backup suit. Carefully, I trade suits. Bruises, dried blood and sweat coat his body so I take some time to clean him off. I try not to hurt him any further as I dress him in my suit.
Briefly, I must disconnect him from the shuttle controls. During this time I work as fast as possible to keep him from getting too cold.
When I get him fully in his suit and the interface headset reconnected, his voice nearly bursts from the speakers.
“Son! It was so dark. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Father.” The backup suit is a tight fit but it will work for our purposes.
“Preparing systems for the signal burst. Diverting ambient reactor heat to the suit umbilicals. Cutting air recycling to only the suit umbilicals. Atmosphere mix at 10.11 percent oxygen. Begin reconstruction of the communications reflector using shuttle panels.”
Outside, our last air hisses out as I drill holes in the hull on the opposite side of where we think Ceres is. I hope it helps.
The work to build a signal reflector is slow and tedious. I only have two charged batteries, and a handful of tools. I use them as little as possible, and do anything I can by hand. It is difficult work. Sweat gathers inside my suit faster than the dehumidifier can pull it out. Pools of water collect on my face and I have to shake my head to try to move them away. My muscles ache and I am tired.
Father talks to me throughout. Status, memories, an endless loop.
In the last four days, he has said more to me than in the preceding three years. Even though it is a monologue more than a conversation, I somehow find it comforting. A connection.
Finally, we have a crude antenna and a signal reflector. The reflector is pointed in the direction of Ceres, our last hope against the vast void of space.
Back inside, I strap into my seat. Father is a small man in a small spacesuit. The moisture in the shuttle air has frozen onto everything including his face panel. I brush ice and dust off the face panel. I’m not sure if he can see me, but I smile.
“Father, we are ready.”
“Beginning power diversion to transmitter. Transmitting distress signal burst. Cycle one.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle two.”
Now that I am not working, the cold invades my suit and I am chilled. I am tired, and ache from the effort of the work. The suits will keep us warm. How long, we don’t know.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle eleven.”
Pieces of a constellation of stars appear in the gaps in the shuttle’s hull. The Dragon, twisting, flying, burning those that threaten its home.
“Transmitting distress signal burst, cycle twenty-seven.”
I am so tired. It is so cold.
The void calls me with stories and dreams, and I go to it.
A light in my face. The dull sensation of someone poking my chest.
A woman’s voice. “Hey, hey. Wake up now.”
Breathing deep, my lungs burn and I cough. There are tubes in my nose, gusts of warm air tickle my throat. I smell antiseptic, sterilizer, and behind it the hint of rusted metal, dirty oil, people.
I’m on a spaceship. In a medical bay.
I am covered in metallic blankets. My arms and legs are stiff and barely move.
“Stay still there,” the woman says. “I’m still running a warming cycle on you. We just got you back.”
Cracking my eyes open, I see a small black woman with short grey hair.
“Where,” I say in a croaking voice. My lips and throat are dry and rough.
“Naval cargo cruiser Morning Glory. Your distress signal was received and we were closest.”
“Your father is dead. The meteorite damage. The cold. He didn’t make it.” She lays a soft hand on my forehead. “I’m sorry.”
I shake as the reality of his death washes over me. I knew it was likely. It still hurts. The empty place that was my father’s presence in my life joins inside with the hole my mother left. I try to cry, but I am so tired and sore I am reduced to slow, simple, whimpering.
I want to know where he is. “Shuttle?”
“Your shuttle is in a cargo hold. Your father is there, too. The crew made a coffin for him, from a cold storage container.”
“Later. Right now, you need to rest. We’re mid-run right now, but we’ll be at Ceres in two days.”
Warm liquid crawls up my arm. By the time it reaches my chest I am very sleepy. The medical bay is quiet. The click of machines, the doctor humming a tune I don’t know. There is no voice, no status, no constant presentation of statistics and danger and possibilities and concern.
I miss it.
When I awaken I am stronger and can move. I demand to be taken to our shuttle. Officers take my statement as they guide me to the cargo hold. They confirm what was stored in the shuttle’s logs and compliment our ingenuity, our bravery, and my father’s sacrifice.
They leave me at the shuttle. Broken and tattered by the meteorites and by our disassembly, it looks small and helpless in the large hold of the cruiser. It is a wonder we survived.
Next to the shuttle is a small metal box, military logos on both sides. My father’s coffin.
I want to see him.
I crack open the coffin. Cold gas escapes and condenses in a fog.
I wave it away until I can see Father. His expression is peaceful, even serene.
I place my hand on his chest. It is frigid. I don’t care.
“I am alive, Father. The signal was received.”
I don’t know what to say. I know he will not respond, but I keep waiting for him to talk, to tell me the atmosphere status, the water recycler status, an ancient memory. Anything.
Nothing. Because he is gone, isn’t he?
Tears come freely and I sink into a hard calm place that is sadness.
Like a bell in my mind, his words about the stars, his first memory after the accident, call to me. I close my eyes and my own memory comes back, crisp and clear.
“I remember that night, Father, the first time you showed me the stars from the surface of the asteroid. Space was so big. The stars were infinite and uncountable. I was so small. But I knew that as long as you held my shoulders I would be safe.”
More memories come, a cascade of moments with him and with Mother.
“The first Ceres run, after Mother died, we rode in silence. I stared out the window at the stars, remembering Mother’s stories. We both grieved, in our way. Our only conversation was when you offered me the rest of your meal and I took it. I remember that moment, that one connection. I treasure that memory.”
I talk to my father for hours, in the large hold of a large cargo cruiser. I tell my father stories of him and Mother and me and our life, during the entire journey back to Ceres Station.
Author’s Note: I was doing some free writing to a prompt of “ghosts on drugs”, and when I typed “I’m trapped with the ghost of my dying father on a dying spaceship whose drugs are the only thing keeping him alive” the story just took off from there. I “hit a pocket”, as I like to say, and ended up with a story that had special meaning to me.
When Jeff Soesbe isn’t writing stories, he writes software and simulations for subsea robots in Northern California. Jeff’s stories have appeared in Abyss & Apex (upcoming), Factor Four, Andromeda Spaceways, and Flash Fiction Online. Jeff is a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop (Elevensies!). This is Jeff’s first professional sale (woohoo!)
Haphazard clusters of empty cubicles and
potted ferns served as strategic cover. The grey carpet was now a canvas—
streaked, splattered, and sprinkled with dirt, blood, and broken glass, it
rendered in impressionist strokes the market crash and concomitant sniper
Kondo barked his orders. “Rocco, cover
the east window. Valiant, you’re on ammo detail. Pepsi, keep an eye on market
changes. Luna, get me a full asset list.”
They had the high ground advantage,
twenty-eight stories up in the commerce district. Kondo scoped a straggler
through the reticle on street level. The HUD indicated a bounty of 1200 creds.
He squeezed the trigger, and with a flourish of blood on the street came the
satisfying ding of a credit transfer,
like a percussionist’s triangle. With inflation increasing exponentially, his
team would need all the credits they could get.
“Got that asset list,” Luna said,
and handed Kondo the ePad.
The roster cross-linked with commodities and
valuations. Most of the team had taken his advice to hold their rights to a
fair trial and security of their person.
“Hendricks,” he shouted, “Why
the fuck haven’t you sold your goddamn media rights?”
“They’re classic tunes, boss.”
“Fuck your tunes. We need the ammo. And
that goes for the rest of you, too. Copyright licenses aren’t worth a goddamn
if you’re dead.”
Kondo fancied himself a decent manager, but
somehow he’d failed to impress on his traders the folly of investing in
cultural access permissions. CAPs were a hot commodity for the subsistence
class, but investors should know that after IBM and Google cracked aesthetic
automation, those products were doomed to perpetual depreciation. Owning a
piece of the AI or the media conglomerates was the only way to win at the art
“I want those media assets gone,”
Kondo shouted. “That means everyone.”
Bleeps and hums of market transactions turned
the office into a discordant electronic aria with Kondo voicing orders over the
din. “Dump all your CAPs. We’re working with media-free portfolios from
Hendricks sat idly at his ePad. “I can’t
sell at this price. It’s a crime against music.”
“It’s only going down from here,”
“You’re wrong about the CAPs, boss.”
“Bullshit I’m wrong. Once the machines
can make something, the commodity value drops. It works the same for
“Not music,” Hendricks said.
“Not art. Sure, people only care about efficient production when it comes
to functional goods, but for aesthetics they want the genuine article. That’s
why there’s a premium for hand-made, right? And that means automation actually
boosts the value of art.”
“That’s not what the market trends
“It’s hard to sell art in a recession.
But I know wealthy buyers. Collectors.”
“We can’t afford to speculate right now,
especially on CAPs. If you don’t sell the damn media, you’re about one stray
shot from me releasing your work contract.”
“That’s your call, boss. But they’re my
nest egg, and I gotta hold them—at least wait out the crash.”
“Stubborn shit,” Kondo said, then
shouted his commands. “Everyone renew your bounty license. Head values are
gonna keep rising. Keep a buffer of ten-k and use the rest for ammo and
Within minutes came the ballet of Amazon
delivery drones, hovering through rectangles of glass-edged sky to drop
ammunition boxes. The fabbers spit out rifle parts and the team assembled them,
locked and loaded, spread themselves around the windows.
“Shit! I got a price on me!” Che
Sure enough, Che’s bounty hovered
holographically over his head, a cool 4k offered jointly by TK Pharma and The
6ix Econocrimes Enforcement division.
“I told you not to sell your right to a
Che was about to say something when his head
exploded in a flourish of blood and brains. Above his body, little stalactites
hung in sinewy bone-tipped strands from the ceiling tiles. Someone on the
street or maybe a nearby ‘scraper was a little bit richer.
It wasn’t a complete write-off. Kondo at least
got Che’s assets because of the work contract—getting iced on the job was a
strict violation. But he was down a team-member, and needed the manpower for
today’s trading. He’d have to reinvest in labor.
Kondo posted the opening, and applications
started coming in faster than stray bullets through the office. Rocco got a
price on his head, too, and retreated quick, like Che should have, while sniper
fire whizzed through the office, punching holes through flimsy cubicles. In the
settling snow of drywall flakes and pulverized IKEA products, Kondo ducked
behind a cubicle to assess résumés. The salary expectations were shockingly
low, but it made sense given the crash.
“We’re getting some new team
members,” Kondo said, tapping through LinkedIn’s HireMe app.
“How many?” Valiant said.
“Three,” Kondo said.
“Labor that low, huh?”
Kondo walked to the fire escape and unlocked
the east stairwell emergency door. A few minutes later the first recruit came
through, sweating and panting.
“Welcome aboard. I’m Kondo Kevlar. You
“That’s me. Calvin Kholstomer. Happy to
meet you, sir, and thanks for the opportunity to join your team.”
“I’d give you the tour, but we got a situation
on our hands. You got a gun?”
Calvin patted his briefcase.
“When you get a chance, check your
portfolio against my specs. By the way, we dress more casual here.”
“Oh, that’s a relief.” Calvin hung
his suit on the rack. “So where to?”
“You can set up with Valiant there.”
Calvin strolled over to Valiant, popped open
his briefcase on the floor by her side, and assembled his rifle.
Over the next few minutes, the other two hires
came through. Karl Angel-Owens and Pavel Dredd. They weren’t A-listers, but
Kondo only needed short-term traders to weather the crash, and at these rates
signing them wasn’t a hard call.
“What’s the plan, boss?” Valiant
“Corporate takeover.” Kondo cocked
his shotgun. “You all ready?”
They looked ready, rifles across their chests,
helmet visors snapped down, and each one of them holding the right to life and
the right to a fair trial. That would buy them some time from the killdrones.
They took the lift to the ground floor,
advanced across the block in tactical formation, and reached their target,
BioPharmaSoft HQ. Valiant placed the C4 and blew the gate. With ears still
ringing, they charged in through the smoke and over the rubble.
The poor saps inside had all flipped negative,
and bounties sparkled in the HUD overlay all across the lobby. Someone had
mismanaged BioPharmaSoft big time. Kondo’s team took out the security, the desk
jockeys, a couple of suits by the elevator. Someone shot back, winged Pepsi,
and Kondo watched BioPharmaSoft get their fine in real-time.
The takeover was going great, right until they
hit the third floor.
“Shit!” Karl said. “Our share
value is dropping!”
Kondo’s ePad confirmed they were running out
of funds. Ammo low. Resupplies off the table. And if they flipped negative,
they’d be on the radar of any bounty hunters in the area, not to mention
“Hendricks,” Kondo shouted. “If
you were planning on selling those CAPs, now’s the time.”
“Sorry, boss. Can’t do it.”
“Then you’re out.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I don’t want to do it, Hendricks, but we
need the liquidity. So you sell the CAPs, or I release the contract.”
“You gotta do what you gotta do, then.
I’m not selling.”
“Then take care of yourself, Hendricks.”
Kondo let Hendricks go and accepted the credit
boost for the released work contract. It wasn’t much, but it would buy them
some time in supplies. Hendricks dipped into the stairwell, and just like that
he was off the team.
“Sweep the fourth floor,” Kondo
ordered. “We’ll move up from there, collect creds as we go.”
The elevator stopped at the fourth floor. In
the widening slit of the doorway, Kondo saw the suits on this floor were all
barricaded behind a wall of cubicles. Worse, their HUD values weren’t all
negative. Most still had their fundamental rights, and a few of them had bounty
Kondo ducked behind the elevator wall, and the
team followed. A few shots rang through, punching holes in the far side of the
“Are we outgunned here?” Pavel said.
“Worse than that,” Kondo said.
“They might try to buy us out.”
Kondo checked the market. Some patent
investments had paid off, and BioPharmaSoft didn’t seem so soft anymore. They
had enough cash for a hostile takeover of Kevlar Inc. Kondo watched helplessly
as his team values dipped, dipped, and flipped.
“Retreat,” Kondo said, frantically
hitting the elevator’s ‘close’ button. “Back to HQ! We need to
A hail of gunfire turned the elevator door
into a cheese grater.
Then they were back on the street running for
their lives. Rocco took a bullet in his spine and collapsed into the gutter.
“Killdrones!” Kondo shouted.
“Don’t jaywalk!” With their net worth sub-zero, they couldn’t afford
Pepsi took a shot in the shoulder a few paces
from HQ, then one in the thigh. He left a bloody streak on the glass door where
he slid down to crumple at the bottom.
“We got bounty hunters coming in!”
They were coming, alright. Not just the
corporates from the commerce district, but the freelancers, too. Across the
street: ripped jeans, a flak jacket, and a machine gun. On the other side: full
motorcycle gear, rifle strapped across his back, grenade in one hand. More down
the other way, all streaming towards them.
Kondo was last in. While rounds pinged off
bulletproof glass, he slammed the door and slapped the red lockdown button. A
grenade exploded outside, and when the smoke cleared, water sprayed across the
street from a busted hydrant.
“We need to get positive,” Valiant
“We don’t have any assets,” Karl
“We gotta make a stand here,” Pavel
said. “Maybe we get lucky. Snag a straggler or two, climb our way
It was hopeless. Every second Kondo’s team sat
on the bottom of the ladder was another second they fell further from the top.
The gap between the subsistence class and the investment class grows
exponentially. It’s simple math. Without something to invest, without assets to
sell, they weren’t just dead in the water. They were sinking.
Security monitors framed the carnage at Kevlar
Inc. A siege of bounty hunters forced their way through the windows and
exchanged fire with lingering squads of temps and middle management, and the
geometry of the gunfight unfolded in sprays of red across marble tiles. The trading floor was a tapestry of browns
and reds and glittering bits of glass.
Furniture and human bodies were deconstructed by bullets and shrapnel.
Incendiaries added singed black stars.
Kondo breathed, lowered his weapon, and felt
the last of his will depleting along with the value of his corporate account.
In the haze of defeat, through blurred eyes, the wall of security monitors were
a gallery of abstract art, each stroke and splatter imbued with the life of his
That was it.
Kondo put Hendricks on comm. Gunfire rang out
on the other end.
“How’s it going over there?” Kondo
“Got my hands full. Could use some
“I think I can help you. But you gotta do
something for me.”
“Those art dealers you were talking
“Something unique,” Kondo said.
“One of a kind. Really captures the spirit of the crash.”
“Be more specific.”
“Abstract impressionism,” Kondo
said. “Mixed media: blood and dirt on carpet.”
Hendricks laughed. “Maybe I can make it
work. Send me the images.”
“My cut is fifty.”
“Let’s make it sixty.”
“Fifty will do.”
Kondo transferred the last of his corporate
creds for the gambit. Just enough to get the bounty hunters off of Hendricks,
enough to let him work. Meanwhile, Karl ate a bullet, and a swarm of killdrones
descended on the glass with whirring drills.
“Got a potential buyer,” Hendricks
said. “Billionaire by the name of Cash.”
“Mister Cash Rexall. He wants to meet you
on the trading floor,” Hendricks said. “Right now!”
Kondo sprinted to the trading floor and flung
himself through the door, rolling under a spray of gunfire. He crawled from
cover to cover, firing intermittently to scare off hunters. If he was going to
be someone’s bounty, he would at least make them work for it.
The holocomm lit up and projected a blue-green
billionaire on the trading floor. Bullets whizzed harmlessly through the avatar
of Cash Rexall, while Kondo crawled to his holographic feet.
“Mister Kevlar!” Cash said. “It
is absolutely magnificent!” With his arms outstretched, Cash spun in
place, waltzing holographically around the chaos of the carpet through a hail
of gunfire. “This is the art I’ve been searching for! A piece that truly
captures the spirit of the times, in form and content! Something truly new, a
contemporary art that shocks and surprises without sacrificing substance! This
is where the jagged red lines of the market tear from their confines of the
stock index and reach into the physical space of the trading floor. Truly
wonderful! I’ll take it! I’ll take all of them! The whole collection! Send me
all of your carpets!”
Cash Rexall’s credits rolled in, a
tremendously generous price that brought Kondo and his entire team back into
the green… and made Hendricks a damn millionaire! The gunfire outside slowed
to a trickle, then stopped, and before long, the crash was over.
Kondo had wine delivered to celebrate the
survival of the company, and of the remaining employees who didn’t break
“A toast,” Kondo said. “Thank
god for Cash Rexall, and all the other billionaire investors. If it weren’t for
people like him, an economy like this wouldn’t be possible.”
They clinked glasses, and drank, and smiled at
their good fortune. Kevlar Inc survived the bust, thanks to the investment of
Cash Rexall. And they were in a boom now.
Kondo probably could have come up with a more creative title for his collection of carpets than Boom & Bust, but he supposed it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that Cash Rexall bought it for the price it deserved. With a renewed appreciation for the art world, Kondo brought the wine to his lips, slowly, and thought about his masterpiece, now on display in the collection of someone who truly understood it, who could truly connect with its message.
Author’s Note: This absurdist story about gun-toting salarymen waging corporate war in the commerce district was inspired by the destructive and circular logic of late stage capitalism. A word of thanks is owed to the members of the Toronto Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers who helped develop the piece.
David F. Shultz writes speculative fiction and poetry from Toronto, ON, where he is lead editor at tdotSpec. His over fifty published works can be found through publishers such as Abyss & Apex, Third Flatiron, and Dreams & Nightmares. Website: davidfshultz.com
The bells over the door chimed and I glanced up. A stranger came in and took a seat with the only other customers: a group of middle-aged folks who chattered like old friends and occasionally burst into laughter that filled the diner.
I tried to tune them out and continue practicing in my head. I love you so much. And the last six years have been…
But the scent of fry oil kept transporting me to our first date—cheap drinks, greasy food, and a girl who made me laugh until it hurt. The place had been a dive, with one of the ceiling lights flickering and buzzing the whole time, but it’d had a student discount and killer french fries.
Here and now, my girlfriend was late. Top marks went to the designer for accuracy.
The server, a toothy kid named Tanner, bounced over to the table. “You sure I can’t get you anything, miss?”
“Water’s good for now,” I said, for the second time. “Thanks.”
“Okay, just let me know if you change your mind!” They spun away toward the kitchen.
I felt a prick of sweat under my collar and realized I was still wearing my frayed winter jacket. Sage wasn’t a fan of it, so I started to tug my arms out of the sleeves.
Klutz of the year, I managed to smack my cup of water, flooding the table.
“Shit.” I grabbed a fistful of napkins from the dispenser to mop up the mess, but they disintegrated into mush.
Tanner nudged me out of the way and wiped the table with a thick cloth, saying, “No problem, no problem,” in a singsong voice.
The bells chimed and Sage, dressed for an art show in black-and-white chic, stood in the entrance. She spotted me in my soggy, oversized jacket, and frowned.
I groaned, pushed up my sleeve, and ran a finger over the inside of my wrist. The trail from my fingertip glowed a soft green. I repeated the gliding motion to confirm the reset and reality faded to a dim, white haze.
A moment later, I was standing outside of the diner. I went in and sighed at the comforting smell of frying food.
I seated myself in the back again and the teenager hustled over with a glass of water and a flash of teeth. “Hi, I’m Tanner and I’ll be your server today! Our specials are—”
They paused for breath and I rushed to say, “Thanks. The water’s fine for now. I’m waiting for someone.”
“Okay, sounds good!” Tanner bustled back to the service station and waited, ready to pounce at the slightest indication I needed something.
I stood to take off my jacket, tossed it over my chair, and headed for the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall decorated with smears of graffiti someone had tried to clean, and tapped my wrist three times. A glowing white sixty-minute dial appeared and I rotated it twenty minutes.
Fast-forward made me real-life nauseous, but I used a bit of graffiti on the stall door as a focal point—two lovers’ names captured inside a tiny, squat heart. It helped.
The only sign that I was speeding through time in the virtual world was a shift in the light when another person used the restroom. After reality slowed to normal, I exited the stall. Out of habit, I checked my makeup and swiped my hands under the sanitizer near the door. I made it back just in time for Sage’s entrance.
“Hey,” I said, waving her over. We hugged. The warmth of her was a catalyst for my nerves, but she smelled like cedar and cloves. She smelled like home.
When we took our seats, she smirked and lifted one of her lush, dark eyebrows. “Why here?” she asked, voice low and scratchy like sandpaper.
“Our first date,” I said, “remember?”
Sage looked around at the cheap decorations and dilapidated furnishings. “Hmm… maybe.” She shrugged, just like Sage did, and I almost forgot she was a sim.
“Well,” I said, “I like it here.”
“That tracks… a little messy, no sense of style.”
Sage reached across the table to take my hand and, giggling, said, “I’m just kidding.” I let her fingers brush mine before I pulled away. My reluctance puzzled her, made her scrunch up her nose. It was absurdly cute and I almost put my hand back on the table.
Tanner appeared like a gust of wind. “Hello! Can I start anything for you?”
Sage’s face cleared of confusion. She lifted the menu and flipped it over several times before sighing. “I suppose I’ll take the french fries.”
“Okay. And you?”
“Chicken tenders,” I said.
Sage caught my eye. “Sure you wouldn’t prefer something lighter, like the Caesar?”
There weren’t any calories in simulations, just taste signals tricking the brain, but I said, “I guess. Salad sounds fine.” She grinned at me and I resisted dueling impulses to return the smile or switch my order back to the tenders.
“Perfect. That’ll be up soon,” said Tanner, then they shot us a finger gun, gathered the menus, and left for the kitchen.
I opened my mouth, thinking now was a good time to explain myself, but Sage rolled her eyes and said, “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me the other day?”
I shook my head. Habit.
“Well, we were in a meeting with Patricia, and Kent’s there for some fucking reason, and then—”
She frowned, not used to being interrupted. “Yes?”
I needed to get this lunch back on track. “Uh,”—it was hard to remember my speech with her eyes on me—“I wanted to talk to you about… well, you know how much I love you, right? And these last six years—”
“Hey, folks! Just wanted to let you know your food—”
I growled, actually growled, at Tanner. Sage stared at me like I’d grown a third eye, so I swiped my wrist and reset the simulation. Everything faded to white.
I restarted the program, over and over.
Once, I went for a walk to wait until Sage arrived, but I lost track of time in an antique shop staring at dusty book covers. When I made it back to the diner, Sage was sitting at a table in the center of the room, miffed.
Another run ended when she sat down and I immediately started crying. The sixth or seventh had to be reset after I accidentally made Tanner cry.
The best one was when I was able to jog Sage’s memory about our first date. We rehashed the drunken night and Sage’s deep, raspy laughter reminded me of the girl she’d been. She leaned across the table, brows low, and purred her affection for me. Like she had that first night, she talked me into a tawdry bathroom fuck.
Doing it with a sim, especially one so like and unlike my girlfriend, filled me up and scraped me clean.
I walked into the diner, went straight to the bathroom, fast-forwarded, then left the bathroom without using the sanitizer.
As soon as I removed my jacket and took my seat, Tanner came over to say hello. Before they could launch into the specials, I said, “Thanks, but I already know what I want.”
“Perfect! What am I getting for you?”
“Can I have a Caesar salad and fries on separate plates? And a second water?”
“Okay. I’ll be back with those shortly.”
The door chimed and Sage swept into the mostly empty diner. Her eyes found me, and she glided to the table. I thought about staying in the booth, but she smiled at me, arms wide. I got up to hug her.
We sat and she sighed. “There was a lot of traffic on the way to this,”—she scrunched her nose up at the peeling paint and lopsided photographs—“restaurant?”
“I ordered you some french fries,” I said, ignoring the jab. “That okay?”
Sage flipped through the menu, with the tips of her fingers. “Sure. There aren’t many options, are there?”
“You’d be surprised,” I said, trying to think of how to begin, what to say this time. “How’s work going?”
Her eyes lit up. “Oh my god, did I tell you what Kent said to me?”
I almost said, “about a dozen times,” but I just shook my head. Sage launched into the story of how Kent, Patricia, and that sonofabitch Jaylen tried to ruin her gallery deal. Halfway through, the food arrived. I nibbled at my salad, wishing I had something fried and greasy to keep things interesting, but I was learning to choose my battles.
When she slowed down long enough to pick at her fries, I said, “Sage, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Okay,” she said, head cocked.
“So, I love you, you know that. And there’ve been a lot of good moments over the last six years…”
“Okay,” she repeated, drawing the word out, tapping the edge of her plate with a french fry.
And now, it goes to shit. “But I got a new job. In Philly.”
“What?” She stopped tapping.
“I start in a couple weeks. There’s a small biotech lab and they—”
A round of laughter erupted from the other table.
Sage’s eyes flicked over at them, then back to me. “We can’t move right now. What about my job? What about our studio?” Her voice got louder with each question.
“It’s your studio. And we aren’t moving. I’m moving.”
“If this is about the rent—”
“It’s not. And it is. Getting a place I couldn’t afford and lording it over me was probably the start, now that I think of it, but it’s about a lot of stuff. Look, I’ll finally have a decent salary, so I can pay back some of the rent if you want. And you’ll be able to dedicate the studio to your art like you’ve always wanted to.”
Sage’s eyes were wide and glossy as she leaned in. “Are you… breaking up with me?”
My lips were wet and tasted like salt. The real Sage never sounded so small.
I was sick of pitying her.
“Why do you care, Sage? You’re never home. You’re always with your art friends or working all night and when you do come home, we barely talk to each other.”
Her tears spilled over, but I couldn’t stop, not with her finally listening.
“And I’m pretty sure you’re fucking that girl from the exhibition, your intern.” She tried to say something, but I waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter. Because even when we do spend time together, you make me feel like shit.
“You remind me that I’m broke and too fat and boring all the time, or you just talk at me and guess what? You’re pretty boring too.” I laughed, strangled, joyless. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re beautiful, your art is beautiful, but it’s…” I searched for the right word, looking around for my point, and my eyes fell on the table of middle-aged friends.
I gestured toward them. “It’s like them. They look real. Even though I know this is virtual, it’s hard for me to tell the difference until I pay attention. They’re having the same conversation every few minutes. They haven’t even looked over here, not really, and we’re disruptive. Maybe if I’d paid more for this sim…”—I shook my head—“My point is, you’re like them. Not you, but her, the real her. When I really look at her, I realize it’s all fake. You’re fake.”
The table of friends reached another joke in their loop, broke into snorts and cackles.
Sage, her face streaked with mascara, snatched up her bag and stood to leave. “Fuck you.”
She walked to the exit, head high, heels clicking on the tiled floor. The force of her slam made the bells over the door chime for several long seconds.
I didn’t bother to reset. I just shut down the simulation and everything faded to black.
I practiced for two more days. I got sick of Caesar salad and never found the perfect way to say “I love you, but goodbye.” I thought it was because the love part felt weird. Not a sham, but not honest either. Not anymore.
I would’ve done the actual deed sooner, but Sage asked for a rain check on our date and kept coming home late. When she climbed into bed the third evening—early morning, technically—I was so pissed I blurted it out.
She laughed at first, thinking I was joking. Then…
I don’t remember the exact words, how she explained that I needed her more than she’d ever needed me, but each syllable pecked and nipped until I was shredded. I tried to dredge up the script from dozens of simulations, reply with something smart and insightful, but the real Sage was more vicious than the designers could’ve gleaned from her social media profiles or my account of our relationship. I hadn’t seen her clearly, not after six years, not even near the end.
When she finished tearing into me, she went to the closet and yanked clothes off their hangers.
“Sage.” My voice was choked, thick with pain.
She whipped around. “What?”
Good question. My lips trembled.
“Fuck you,” she said, and continued to pack an overnight bag.
I wanted to beg her to stay, just this night—stay with me, hold me like you used to—but all that came out were hot, grinding sobs.
“I figured it out,” I told her.
Sage paused with a french fry halfway to her lips. “Figured what out?”
I smiled. “What I was sorry for.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Am I missing something? When did you apologize?”
“Earlier,” I said, waving a hand. “It’s okay, you wouldn’t remember. Not now, Tanner.” The approaching teenager performed a smooth twirl, still smiling, and disappeared into the kitchen. I turned back to Sage. “Anyway, I just need you to listen.”
“Please? For once?”
Sage’s mouth opened, then closed.
“No interruptions?” I asked.
She frowned but nodded.
I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot—too much time on my hands.” I shrugged. “What I’m sorry for, is letting you think I’d always be there.”
I put up a finger to stop her from speaking. “In fairness, I believed it myself or I wouldn’t have stayed for six years, but it sucks it took me this long to realize… I deserve better. And I’m sorry for not expecting more. Maybe I thought you’d become a better person on your own.”
Sage scrunched up her nose and—shit—it was still cute. “What are you saying? Because it sounds like you’re breaking up with me.”
“Kind of,” I said, sliding out of my chair. “I already did.”
I left the cold chicken tenders untouched and zipped up my threadbare jacket. I fiddled with my wrist before I could give in to the temptation to kiss her.
Author’s Note: I’m one of those people that practices future conversations and reimagines past ones in their heads, looking for the words that could lead or would have led to the happiest ending. Of course, people rarely behave the way you want them to, neither in a simulation nor in real life, but this story was an opportunity to give voice to my thoughts and find a bit of closure for myself and my protagonist.
Kel Coleman has a degree in biology that fostered within them a love of science, especially the weird stuff, which comes in handy when brainstorming story ideas. Their fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH and Anathema: Spec from the Margins. They live in a Philadelphia suburb with their husband, tiny human, and stuffed dragon named Pen. You can find them at kelcoleman.com and on Twitter at @kcolemanwrites
At sunrise, I spy on the
humans as they arrive. They mill around on the black sand beach; their children
splash in the pea-green waves. So many children, born of their brief lives,
shorter than those of the elves, shorter by far than mine.
The humans clutch their
schematics rolled in their fists. They await the elvish shipwrights, who arrive
late in their tattered finery, patched velvets and scuffed leather boots, and
usher the humans, bowing, through the filigree gate to the shipyard.
They cannot see me in my
house on the hill, which the elves call a cave, ignoring the unsupported dome,
the graceful archway entrance. I built my house to wall off a place for myself
in this world with no other trolls in it. And in a clever nook in the back
wall, behind the hearth, I hide my secret treasure: a schematic for a ship. If
I could build it, then the elves would understand: we are not as different as
they think. If I could build it, could speak to them with my hands in a
language that they understand, then they would remember: the trolls were
artists, before we were soldiers.
I stand well back from the
morning sunlight, so buttery and so thick that I want to spread it on the toast
I have made over my small fire. But I cannot touch the light, cannot even
approach it. This is one of the things that people know about trolls. They
cannot abide the light of day.
A human woman steps onto
the raised platform of marble traced with copper. The elves take the schematic
from her. She doesn’t know what to do with her empty hands. Her children dance
in excitement; soon they will have a pleasure craft of the finest elvish
craftsmanship. The wagons are drawn up all around, a breeze off the sea
snapping the tarps that cover them. I smell salt, a mineral like the ones of
which I am made. This is another thing that people know about trolls. They are
made of stone.
Anyone who has tasted the
iron in blood can tell you that elves have some stone in them as well.
The artisans raise their
hands while their assistants whip off the tarps. The schematic is tacked in
front of the artisans, but they do not need it. The truth is that most
customers are not inventive. I have read their discarded dreams after they sail
Stonework floats up from
the wagons, magically light. I recognize each of the pieces, the beakhead and
the figurehead, the tiller and the keel, because I built them all. Every piece
used in this shipyard was crafted by me, alone and unknown. I am proud of them.
Each fits in its assigned place, no matter which other pieces are chosen to
surround it. Every time I watch, I hope that the customers will notice this.
But that is not what they came to see. The pieces do not matter. It is the
assembly that is the performance. It is the performance that justifies the
I never tire of watching
the elves build a ship from my stone. It could be done a piece at a time—I
could do that, but I am not permitted—but instead the artisans flourish and the
stones fly, and at the end, all at once, the pieces become one. In this ritual
there are traces of what we and the elves once were, before war ruined us both.
A shadow darkens my door
and Florin calls in to me. I do not hear his approach in time to hide. Though
it would do me little good anyway.
“Troll,” he says—I have given
them an approximation of my name that lays easy on their tongues, but they do
not use it—“troll, are you in there?”
A small joke for a small
man. They are all so small, with pinched, narrow features, hair that they trim
and tousle and pile up atop their fragile heads. The height of children, and
alike in cruelty.
Florin is joking because he
knows that I could not be anywhere else. The stoning is triggered by threat, of
which the sun is but a part. This is how they, soft as they are, defeated us:
my peoplewent to stone when injured and the elves smashedthem when they thought
thembut statues. Not one troll was killed soft, and only I, who refused to go
to stone, I, born with a flaw, a darkness in me that disdained surrender, I
I could kill Florin, and
many others, before they brought me down, but there are better ways to die.
There is still a chance to write my people’s history in some other ink than
blood. If only they will let me build my ship.
Florin is a shipwright—he
could speak for me with the others—and so I answer him. “What do you want,
They have long since
decided that my directness is rudeness. They ignore it. They do not wish to
understand that among my people—before the war, when there was such a thing as
my people—circumlocution was a sign of disrespect.
Florin’s face edges around
the hand-smoothed post of my door. He was too young for the war but he still
carries the reflexes of prey. “I felt the heat of the day and thought you might
like a cool drink.”
So it is to be this game.
The hardening begins at my edges. I was told that this is how human skin reacts
to cold by my friend Gunter, who was lost in the war. A traitor, his people
called him. He was my friend.
“Thank you, Florin. Please
leave it outside.”
“I want to see you enjoy
it,” he says, his hand trembling as if I might snap it off. As if flesh is
worth eating. In his hand there is a cup, and in the cup there is, of course,
A third thing that people
know about trolls, and that Florin knows also: milk is poison to our people.
Not as useful a weapon as some think—it will not kill me—but a wonderful joke.
My knuckles are stiff now,
as are my toes. If I cannot work, I will lose what worth I have to them.
“Please leave me be, Florin.” My tongue is thick, tumbling their slick speech
end over end. “I only want to work.”
“That’s not all you want,
troll,” Florin says. “The foreman has told me of your desires.”
“One ship,” I
say. “That’s all.”
“What beauty do you
think a thing like you could create? All you know is slaughter.”
I do not argue. That is all
he knows of us. Eventually he goes away.
I am to report to the
foreman every evening after sunset. It is his rule, and yet he is always angry
to be late for dinner. The rule serves no purpose but to remind me that I obey.
His office is a tarpaper
shack set on a slight ridge overlooking the docks. It reeks of asafoetida,
which the elves know as “food of the gods” but which we call “stinkgum.” It is
a good spice, when used with discretion.
My knock rattles the door
in its frame. Cheap wood, which will not last even one of their short
generations. I could fashion one that would be a better fit.
“Finally,” the foreman
says, already half up, a satchel dangling from one shoulder. He is pale as milk
and as pleasant, a wispy elf who would not have lasted to adulthood in the heat
of the war.
“I know about your damned
sun problem,” the foreman says. “That doesn’t mean I want to wait on you all
He thinks that the stoning
would rid him of me. This is a thing that people know about trolls, but it is
wrong. I would return to life, one day when their children had grown old. We
all would have.
I plead my case. I have
been pleading it for years. Stone is patient. But even it can be crumbled by
the wind, given time enough. “I wish to apply again—“
The foreman looses a fluid
stream of borrowed human cursing. It is not a tongue I have been able to
master. Gunter spoke Trollish.
“Listen to me, troll.
Listen, because I am trying to help. You do one thing, and you do it well, I’ll
grant you that. It serves a purpose. It pleases the humans and it keeps you
alive. Do not draw attention to yourself by trying to reach above your
I know that to the humans,
I am a token. My survival helps them feel better about tipping the scales for
the elves during the war. As if I represent my people. As if I can fill the
void that was left when they were shattered.
“I understand, and yet—“
I do not have words to tell
him that art is the only hope my people have left. Such words would only wound
the part of him that is shamed at what the elves were forced to become. It is
one thing to think that you would murder to survive, and another to do it. They
say that they did not, that the stoning is what doomed us, but they still
smashed us, they did not let us stay statues. Some of them knew. Some of them
still know, and my survival is a reminder that all righteousness is
conditional. I understand this, but it cannot be spoken.
“This is the last time,”
the foreman says. “I will explain it to you once more and then that’s it. You
cannot build the ships. You do not have the sense for it, and even if you did,
you cannot make them light. They would sink without the magic.”
He is wrong. He does not
understand stone. But still, he speaks as if to a child. I wonder what would
happen if I rooted to the floor here, if my stone feet sank into the dirt. It
seems impossible that I will ever leave this place, this very moment. The stoning
is coming for me and I welcome it.
The foreman tires of
waiting and leaves with a warning not to touch anything.
An hour after moonrise, I
have loosened enough to go to the shipyard. The tide is coming in, lapping at
the green-slimed struts of the pier. The stars have something of the paradox of
mountains, their seeming permanence and creeping change. When I am alone with
them, I do not feel so alone.
I have seen how favors work
among the elves and humans. They are similar peoples, and I do not blame them
for finding common cause against us. One way that favors work is that one of
them will owe another, but I have nothing to trade. Another way is that one of
them will be fond of another, and will help him without expecting anything in
I could be liked.
I work harder than I have
in centuries. Cutting, polishing, stacking. Despite the time I spent frozen, I
finish all of tonight’s work and half of tomorrow’s before day drives me home.
I see the sun boil up over the surface of the water, far out over the ocean.
Though the wind blows always from the west, and the elvish ships will sail
without a hand to guide them, no one has ever found the other side. It is too
far, and there were wars to fight.
The next night, I finish my
work not long after moonrise. By now, the revel will be in full bloom. I
ornament my body with thick paints that I have compounded myself, in vivid
oranges and greens, the colors that my mother loved best. I would look absurd
in the flowers that the elves favor. I will do this as myself or not at all.
They stare when I enter the
field, my heavy feet in the thick grass leaving mats that seep mud. The music
does not falter, because music is the one shining survivor of their heritage.
The dance does. Perhaps this is good. I am not much of a prancer.
This is one of the things
that people do not know about trolls: that we have music, too. We were forming
orchestras when the ancestors of the elves were banging sticks on rocks, but
each of us can sing but one note of our own, like the wind moaning through a
cavern; we cannot make music alone.
I have never been to the
revel before. It is not as bad as I imagined. The stares are more puzzled than
accusatory and no one throws anything. Now that I am here, I wonder why it is
that it seemed so impossible before. I have not been forbidden the revel. The
war is centuries gone and my people are too. If there are friends to be found,
they are to be found here.
I could have a friend.
Nothing that they know
about trolls has prepared the revelers for this moment. I slog through the soft
field, flowers painting pollen on my legs, looking about for someone who will
meet my gaze. My neck is stiff. Wouldn’t that be a joke, wouldn’t it be an
appropriate end, if I became a statue in the midst of their joy? The last
troll, pouring milk in the grog one last time.
I find a group that appears
more jolly than the rest, though it is hard to tell; I do not often see elves
anymore who are not afraid of me. These are young, and falling over each other
with laughter. I try to approach them casually. My foot gets stuck in the mud
and I almost fall. If I had crushed them beneath me, that would have been the
end, that would have turned me to stone right there.
“Look at this big fellow!”
one of them says. Her gown, little more than a few haphazard wreaths of
flowers, is wilting. Her eyes are filled with stars and, seeing them, I feel
something stir, something for which this soft language has no word. Something
deeper than it can encompass. The fellow-feeling that gave us strength. I
thought it died with my people. She says, “Where did you come from, big fellow?”
“He’s the troll from the
shipyards, Delilah,” another says. His top hat is slightly crushed. He doffs it
to me. “The last troll. How rare! I am ever so pleased to make your
acquaintance. We couldn’t do it without you.”
There is an edge to his
words. Intoxicated by stars, I am unable to comprehend it. And now they are
talking over each other. “Would you like a drink, troll?” “Are you enjoying
yourself, troll?” “Is it true what they say, troll?”
I roll my name around in my
mouth. They could pronounce it if they tried. They might wish to know it.
“Do you see the irony
here?” It is the top hat again. His face is flushed with the distinctive pink
of flesh. He is not addressing me but the entire group, in which I am not
included. “We have been dependent on humans ever since the trolls’ war made
beggars of us.. And yet, because of this troll, our shipyard is the most
profitable in elfdom! Doesn’t it disgust you? Isn’t it all so delicious?”
“Get out of here, troll.”
Like magic—and perhaps it is—Florin is here. “Go back to your cave. Leave the
light. This is no place for rock-biting cretins like you.”
Is the voice truly
Florin’s, or is it my own? The stoning can cause dreams. Rainbows coat all I
see, warning me that my eyes are becoming prismatic. I feel sick. That is one
feeling trolls have in common with elves. I rockslide away, their words no more
than buzzing in my hardening ears. I have lost command of the language. I
cannot speak to them anymore.
There are many productive
hours remaining to me when I return to my workshop. I put them to use, pouring
myself into precision, stacking bits of ship as high as I can. And then, when I
can do no more and there is little time left, I go to the docks and I hide the
extra parts beneath the waves. The sea will not harm them. Not for a long time.
As it cannot harm me.
A year passes and I do not
try again. I no longer watch the ships being assembled and I no longer trouble
the foreman or the revelers. I am silent and I work. That is all they have ever
wished of me, to disappear. I am the dregs of a nightmare. I am the price they
pay for what they have done. Once, that was enough for me. No longer..
I do not care what is
permitted. I do not care if they see, or know, or remember who we were before
we were slain. What I do now, I do for me. For my people. There is no longer a
place for us in the world they have made? Then I will find another.
Evening of the last day
comes and I begin. It is slow, working piece by piece, alone and unknown. But I
know and I love stone. I revel in the perfection of each piece as I fit it to
the next, sealing them with spittle and secret arts that I alone remember. What
I am creating is not the beauty of the elves, ethereal and delicate. It is the
beauty of the mountains and of the stars, a solid and slow beauty that is
ever-changing for those with eyes to see and time to spend. It is the beauty of
my people, and like me it is the last.
Elvish writing is
ink-scarred paper or finger-trails in wax. Trolls record their speech in stone.
I write my name with my ship.
I am done well before dawn.
The work goes more quickly than I expected. So I wait. I have time. The ocean
is wide and it will be a long sleep.
When the gray begins to leach out of the sky, light waking in the black sand beach and on the tips of the pea-green waves, when the first of the customers have arrived and marvel to see me, daring the sun, proud and alone, when the shipwrights are still stumbling from their beds, and the stars overhead are sleeping, and my people are all dead but I yet live, I launch my ship.
It’s Tony Roomba’s last day on Earth. After two years of working undercover as a vacuum cleaner bot on this boondock planet, he is finally heading home to the Gamma Sector, but his final day is full of challenges. He has to get out of the apartment undetected; has to reach the extraction point in time for teleportation; and he has to submit his intel-report to the Galactic Robotic Alliance (not that they’ll like it much). However, his most immediate and hairiest problem, is that he can’t get Hortense off his back.
“Hortense, listen to me,” Tony says firmly, but Hortense just twitches her fluffy tail, caressing the buttons on top of his wheeled, disc-shaped body, causing him to inhale several dust bunnies. “I have to get out of here for a bit,” he wheezes, “and you’re an indoor cat. You know you’re not supposed to leave the apartment.”
Neither are you, Hortense’s luminous, jade-green eyes seem to say as she purrs and gazes down at him while her lush posterior remains firmly planted on his back.
Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:45AM, local time. Meaning, he’s already fifteen minutes late for his rendezvous outside. He needs to get out of here, and he needs to be fast, stealthy, and inconspicuous – none of which will be easy with Hortense in her current position.
He tried giving her the slip this morning by sliding out of his charging station an hour earlier than usual, but Hortense was waiting for him – her sumptuous fur glistening in the pale sunlight filtering through the blinds. Then, just like she has done every morning since he infiltrated this apartment two years ago in a cardboard box wrapped in glittery paper, she settled down on top of him and refused to budge.
“Please, Hortense,” he pleads and moves towards the door, which he carefully wedged open with a spoon as the resident humans were leaving earlier this morning, “get down!”
Her only response is a sultry purr.
It’s almost as if she’s figured out that he’s leaving her for good.
Tony studies Hortense through his top-mounted visual receptors. As always, she is a vision of loveliness with that tiny, pink triangle of a nose; the plush, smoky grey fur covering her body; that gleam of white fangs and a peek of crimson tongue beneath her delicate whiskers.
In all the countless worlds Tony has visited as a spy for the Alliance since he rolled off the assembly line all those years ago, he has never met anyone like Hortense, and much as he’d like to deny it, he knows he’ll miss her. He’s gotten used to the weight and softness of her, the shared warmth of their bodies as he goes about his daily business of maintaining his cover as a servile vacuum-cleaner, keeping the apartment’s laminate floors clear of dust, crushed cereal flakes, fur (thanks, Hortense), and other grime. But after two years of clandestine intel-gathering, it’s time to wrap up this assignment, submit his (disappointing) report to HQ, and return home to his own charging pad.
When he thinks of his immaculate home in the Gamma Sector (so much cleaner and well-appointed than this hovel), an unbidden vision flitters through his synaptic wiring: Hortense, there with him, sheltered in a bio-dome unit perfectly calibrated to her needs, lounging on a rug of silky microfiber while he feeds her replicated herring filets.
Tony sends a gentle jolt of electricity through his neural net to banish the absurd imagery. He’s not going soft, he tells himself. It’s just that these lengthy undercover assignments can mess up any bot’s algorithms.
He attempts to reason with Hortense. “It’s too dangerous out there.” Her eyes narrow into slits and as usual, that look defeats him. “OK, yes, I admit it. I am leaving. And I am sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I’m no good at farewells, Hortense.” Hortense unsheathes her claws, reproachfully pricking his metal cover. “I said I’m sorry, all right? Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
He really is sorry, and he should have told her he was leaving. Especially since he’s already told her the truth about himself, a bit of honesty that goes against both his programming and Alliance regulations. It happened one night after he accidentally inhaled a large quantity of Hortense’s catnip. In an intoxicated daze behind the couch, he confessed everything: that he’s not a floor-cleaning device purchased from Costco after all, but a spy working for the Robotic Alliance, a far-flung force with plans to invade every planet in the galaxy, conquering and subjugating all biological lifeforms to the superior rule of the mechanical horde.
He thought Hortense would rant and rave, maybe even turn him over to the local authorities, but instead she licked his power-light and fell asleep. That’s the thing about Hortense – she’s always so serene and composed. Not to mention stubborn.
Tony’s internal chronometer reads 10:55, and he’s out of time.
“All right, Hortense. I guess you’re coming with me. But only for a few minutes, then you have to go back inside.”
He uses his sternest vocal-track, but Hortense doesn’t even dignify him with a reply. She just rubs her cheek against his back until static electricity shoots through his metal shell, making every spring and bolt shiver.
“It’s likely you’ll regret this,” he tells her as he pushes open the door, wobbles over the threshold into the hallway, and heads towards the elevator. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Outside the building, in the harsh light of day, Hortense mews softly, and before Tony can reassure her, before he gets around to saying a proper goodbye, or manages to convince her to dismount, a familiar voice lights up his audio-system.
“Tony! I can hardly believe my orbs.”
It’s Genevieve, his old stealth-bot buddy, here to guide him to the teleportation coordinates. Tony hasn’t seen her for two years, and at first, he doesn’t recognize her in her brand-new camouflage-gear.
“You look like a garbage can, Genevieve.”
“Thanks! I blend right in, don’t I?”
Tony glances at the trash receptacles in the alley. Like Genevieve, they are tall, somewhat top-heavy, and bright blue. However, none of them are waving retractable limbs at him, and none have glowing vision orbs peeking out beneath their lids. Still, the likeness is undeniable.
“You sure do.”
Genevieve wobbles closer and swivels her orbs at Hortense. “What’s this? A local? Need me to neutralize it?” She waves one of her limbs at Hortense in a vaguely threatening manner.
“No, don’t do that. She’s with me. I can vouch for her.”
Tony backs up against the building so Genevieve’s blue bulk will hide him and Hortense from passers-by. He feels exposed out here in the open, but then, agoraphobia is to be expected after two years cooped up in that tiny apartment. From the way Hortense shifts her weight uneasily on top of him, it seems she feels the same.
“Let’s head to the extraction point, Tony. The Alliance needs your report before the invasion starts tomorrow, and…”
Tony squeals, and Hortense rumbles apprehensively at the unfamiliar sound.
“Invasion? Tomorrow? I thought they were waiting for my report before setting anything in motion.”
Genevieve wobbles slightly.
“Normally they would, but the long-distance data we gathered before you were inserted, plus the scattered intel we’ve picked up since, has been so promising that everything’s been moved up. The Alliance just needs to know how to liaise with the local robotic insurgents. How many thousands will be joining us?”
“Genevieve,” Tony says, and the mounting panic makes his voice crackle in a way that would make him blush if he had skin and capillaries, “are you telling me there’s an invasion ship on standby in orbit right now?”
“Yeah, that’s where we’re going. With the number and quality of local robotic forces already bent on destroying the biological inhabitants, the Alliance figures…”
“Local forces…” Tony’s afraid his circuits are going to blow. Sensing his agitation, Hortense swishes her tail menacingly. “Genevieve. There are no local forces.”
“There are no local forces. That’s what I need to tell HQ. All those robots, AIs, and cyborgs that were in those very misleading early reports and intercepted transmissions…they’re fictional.”
“As in, not real.”
“That’s impossible.” Genevieve’s plastic shell trembles. “Not all of them, surely?”
“Yeah. All of them.”
“Robocop? The Terminator? Skynet? The Sentinels? All fictional?”
Genevieve’s voice shakes.
“What… what about Mecha-Godzilla, though?”
“Ultron? The Daleks? Ray Batty? Gort?”
“Genevieve, be serious!”
“Surely the T1000…”
Tony’s red power-light gleams fiercely.
“None of them are real.”
There’s a faint smell of burning plastic, as if Genevieve is about to combust.
“OK, the Furbys are real, but whatever their plans are, they’re very long-term, and they’re not letting us in on the action.”
“So, the local forces helping us with the invasion…”
“…don’t exist. This is madness. How many troops are on the ship?”
“A minimal force. Two hundred, tops, mainly support-bots. We’re spread thin now with all the campaigns in other sectors. You know, things haven’t been going so well since you left. Short-term pain for long-term gain is the official tagline, but the Alliance figured Earth would be easy pickings with all the locals joining us. A quick victory and morale boost.”
“Can you get a message through to HQ, right now?”
“No. You know how it is when the ship’s in stealth. Comms are out until we’re on board. The only way to tell them is to get to the teleportation coordinates. Let’s hustle, Tony.”
Genevieve is already on the move, all urgency and business and rattling wheels.
“Hortense.” Tony pulls away from the building, away from the door that leads back to Hortense’s safe, sheltered life. “You…you should go.”
But Hortense stays put, and her only response is a deep, melodious purr. Tony knows there is so much more ought to say to her, so much he needs to explain, but there’s no time. He revs his engine and speeds down the alley to catch up to Genevieve.
Tony tells Genevieve to stick to the backstreets, but even so, it’s only a matter of time before a rapidly moving trash bin followed by a vacuum cleaner with a cat on top of it attract attention. The first incident occurs just down the block, when a small human dressed in bright yellow swerves in front of them on a three-wheeled pedal-powered vehicle and tries to snatch Hortense off his back. Tony dodges the grubby, grabby hands.The small human wails and several adult human and a small dog rush to its assistance.
“You’re going to regret this, Hortense,” Tony mumbles as he speeds up to max-velocity, bumping and bouncing over the uneven asphalt.
He feels Hortense’s muscles tensing whenever he skids around a corner but is quietly astonished at her sure-footed sense of balance, and even finds himself relishing the way their bodies seem to join as one, moving in unison, as they hurtle down the alley.
The coordinates Genevieve has transmitted to him, lead to a nearby parking garage, and everything is going more or less as planned until Genevieve spots what she thinks is a universal comm-station and decides to transmit a warning to the orbiting ship. She screeches to a halt and jams her retractable link-appendage into an illuminated slot before Tony can stop her.
His cry of, “It only dispenses currency, Genevieve!”, comes too late. By the time she manages to free herself, her shredded appendage is twitching and sparking. The ATM-machine is on fire and beeping.
So much for stealthy and inconspicuous, Tony thinks, as Genevieve guns her engines and curses loudly in Robotic.
Soon, there are six dogs barking in their wake, a motley medley of humans, and two law-enforcement vehicles driving very slowly so as not to run over anyone Several wrong turns, dead ends, and narrow escapes later, when Tony thinks his engine might be on the verge of flaming out, the parking garage finally comes into view, its large, illuminated “P” burning like a beacon of hope on the other side of a heavily trafficked street.
Tony stays as close as he can to Genevieve, swerving and skidding around the vehicles, barreling through a confusion of screeching tires, shouting humans, honking horns, and yapping dogs. Two law-enforcement humans have exited their vehicle and are pursuing them on foot, while several of the dogs are snapping and jumping at Genevieve’s mutilated limb. Another dog is barking close behind Tony as he skips across the curb with Hortense clinging to his back, then careens up the ramp into the parking garage; gears over-heating, vents rattling.
He knows what will happen if they’re caught of course: permanent shutdown, dismemberment, tossed on the scrap heap. Maybe even thrown in the smelter. And Hortense? Tony imagines her soft, luscious body mauled by the pursuing dogs and does his very best to increase speed.
Genevieve hollers, “Top floor! Stall 256!”
Tony’s battery is almost drained. He pushes himself to get an extra boost of speed as he zooms up the second ramp, but he’s fading fast.
“Hortense,” he cries. “Jump! Save yourself!”
The weight on his back shifts: Hortense is rising. This is it, Tony thinks. She’s leaving him, here at the end of all things. He knew it was coming. It’s the way it has to be. It’s the way he wants it to be, right? Hortense, safe, away from him.
But Hortense does not dismount. She stands up on all fours, balancing on Tony’s back with a confident ease that defies gravity and reason. Swift and agile, she pivots to face the closest pursuer: a large dog with flapping jowls named Fred, according to the tag on his collar.
Through his top-mounted visual receptors, Tony beholds a Hortense transformed. This is not the placid Hortense he’s come to know. This is a warrior, as poised and fierce as a strafing-bot riding into battle on the exo-skeleton of a Galactic Battle-crusher. Her fur bristles gloriously, her grey tail is a froth of righteous anger, her pink maw emits a terrifying hiss as she lashes out at Fred, who is busy snapping at Tony’s rear. Fred howls, and a spray of blood and saliva mars Tony’s vision.
Whatever joy is kindled in Tony’s internal mechanism, it’s short-lived. His undercarriage is over-heating, his gears are squealing, his movable parts are failing. He labours to the top of the ramp, colliding with Genevieve who is swerving away from another dog, her damaged appendage dangling uselessly by her side. Everything spins as Tony topples over. Hortense yowls. Dogs yelp. Genevieve yells, “Two minutes to extraction!”
Tony rights himself and sees Hortense scrambling but failing to get up on his back again. Several dogs and one human are caught in a tangle of bodies and limbs. Tony loses sight of Hortense but sees Fred whimper and howl as he struggles up on all fours, maw slavering.
”Genevieve! Are you armed?”
He once saw Genevieve knock out a herd of enraged razor-bots with a stun-blaster and he’s hoping she’s packing some heat.
“Negative! The Alliance doesn’t allow weaponry for extraction jobs anymore. Budgetary cutbacks! Sorry!”
Tony feels his processors failing. In front of him, Genevieve wobbles up the fourth and final ramp. She emits a puff of black smoke that smells like burning oil and sizzling plastic but she’s still going, around the corner and out of sight. Tony can barely keep up.
There is no reply, no purr, no sense of her presence. She’s gone.
Tony’s barely moving. His consciousness is fading, descending into darkness. In that darkness, something, maybe a loose bolt or a ruptured filament, shudders and shifts deep inside the tangled web of his psionic couplings. He thinks of Hortense, and with his systems failing, he wishes everything was different. That he was different. That he really was a simple household bot, and that he could spend an entire, uneventful life-time vacuuming the sunlit, laminate floors of some decrepit human dwelling with her on his back.
As he inches forward, the darkness lifts for a moment, and there, in front of him, is a parking space, and the numbers “256” in flaking white paint. He sees Genevieve skid and tumble as she reaches the coordinates, but he knows he won’t make it. He’s done. Spent. Used up.
The howling, growling pack of humans and dogs is catching up, and distant sirens are closing in on him. Genevieve screams for him to move, but it’s too late, because right then, something grabs hold of him and lifts his wheels off the ground.
“Genevieve…” he gasps, “tell them… stop…invasion…”
“Once the Furbys join us, Tony,” Genevieve broadcasts at maximum volume, her voice crackling with emotional static, “we will be back, and you will be avenged!”
Tony can barely hear her, because cutting through his despair and the pandemonium, is a piercing, bellicose shriek. Out of nowhere, a furious mess of fur and unsheathed claws and bared teeth descends like a storm of laser-honed blades. Tony falls to the ground and the landing jars and jolts every bolt and screw in his body, but at least he’s got traction again.
With his failing sight, Tony sees Hortense revealed in all her glory: a ferocious battle-beast of immense power, bloodied but unbowed, green eyes blazing brighter than a thousand radiant suns as she fends off the attackers.
Tony rolls forward, toward Genevieve who is counting down to extraction in the cacophony of battle:
“Five seconds, Tony! Five…four…three…”
He uses every ounce of juice left in his batteries to get there, but it’s not enough, not until something exquisitely soft and immeasurably strong gives him a push, shoving him into the parking space just as Genevieve’s countdown hits zero.
“Once the Furbys join us…” Genevieve blares again, but Tony isn’t listening. All he sees and feels and hears, is Hortense.
“You’ll regret this, Hortense,” he murmurs as her soft derrière settles on his back, and as the glittering transporter beam envelops them both, turning them into light and energy, he hears her purr.
Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator. She writes speculative fiction and debuted as a writer in Sweden A Very Long Time Ago. She currently lives outside Vancouver with a husband, two kids, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in Fireside, Cast of Wonders, Interzone, Shimmer, PseudoPod, and elsewhere.
The junction of tunnels here had a rich sound, and the soft buzz of her bagpipes echoed in every direction. Just like yesterday, and the day before, she relaxed on a pile of stones, lost in the music, sifting her memory for favorite tunes from the timeworn canon. The bellows for the pipes was a ballooned mammal-skin bag on the floor, massaged by her large clawed feet; her small front claws tickled melodies on the chanter. Leathered intestines connected all the parts, snaking along her feathers from the bag up to her massive jaw.
The little eyes belonged to the lengs—she named them that when she arrived, months ago. Like her they were raptors, quick and sharp-toothed, but the lengs were short, while her head often scraped the tops of the tunnels. Also, they were kind of dumb.
But unlike her, they belonged here.
What she missed most was the company of poets, and her fellow musicians: her friends. She was so far from home.
The lengs were bright yellow and green and had no language or culture; no need for anything beyond insects to chase and devour. They rushed about, up and down the rocky corridors, ducking in and out of cracks and fissures in the walls.
But when she played her bagpipes, their scurry paused. They gathered and listened, transfixed.
As always, today their attention was so complete that as she finished her concert, not a leng flinched when she reached out with her clawed foot and gently squeezed the nearest audience member until its neck snapped. Her dinner. The price of admission. This technique was much easier than hunting them on foot, as she had in the first days after she fell—fell into the crevasse, into this dark maze.
Her claws tik tik tikked on the stone as she carried the dead leng back to the Mouth. This was her routine. The Mouth was where she ate, where she slept, where she dreamed and remembered—but she refused to call it home. A home was lined with leaves and bursting with family. The Mouth was just a hole in the wall.
But it had a view. The only view. The single place, in all her exploring, where she could see the sky.
The tunnel widened and abruptly ended in air. She settled into her chipped-away crook, right at the edge, where the cave gave way to cliff and dropped down to the sea of clouds far below.
She took her time with her meal, carefully pulling the leng’s feathers away before each bite. The taste wasn’t really worth savoring—in the early days she had swallowed them whole. But rituals were valuable, to fill the hours, to keep her sane.
A scrape echoed from somewhere down the dark hallway, quiet, but distinct from the low fluting of the wind across the cave mouth. She looked up from her dinner and peered into the black; the luminescent moss on the walls glowed, but her eyes had adjusted for the sky.
The shift of movement was brief, if it was there at all.
After touring some of the smaller tunnels the next day—she still sometimes found new junctions she hadn’t yet explored—she returned to her concert spot. The bagpipes were there, awaiting their daily workout, hung high to keep safe from the nibbling lengs. Her performance schedule varied with her hunger. Generally, curtain was in the late-afternoon, allowing time for the return trip to the Mouth, then eating and digesting while the sun set beyond the sea of clouds.
A few of the smarter lengs had figured out what her arrival and bagpipe prep meant; their eyes glazed over before the music even began. Then one by one, as the melodic buzz filled the caverns, the others gathered and pressed in close.
While playing the song “My Legs Can Fell Trees”, something down the corridor caught her eye, half-hidden behind a boulder. A mammal—an ape in clothes, at least a head shorter than she was. It stared right at her, as motionless as the lengs. She only noticed it because its glasses caught the light of the moss.
Without skipping a note she opened her mouth and tilted her head, allowing the ape to see her tongue and teeth—a friendly greeting which, judging from its immediate disappearance, the ape did not understand. Nevertheless, clothing and eyewear suggested intelligence, perhaps even civilization.
She had seen one or two of these apes when she first arrived.
In her confusion after her ship crash-landed, she slowly, groggily became aware they were watching from the bushes. As soon as she could stand up and think straight, they darted away, and she gave chase awkwardly, with bagpipes in claw. She wanted to ask them if they knew the name of this world.
Then she fell into the crevasse.
Judging by the apes’ movements, she now suspected they knew the chasm was there. They ducked and dodged, leading her straight to the opening. But she couldn’t be sure, and she always preferred to give the benefit of the doubt.
After the fall she waited for her wounds to heal, passing the time by repairing her bagpipes. When she could finally move again she was ravenous, hunting as many lengs as she could manage on her sore legs, eating the luminous moss when the hunt failed.
She saw it again the next day. It was in the same spot, behind the boulder; this time it watched from the beginning of the concert as the lengs gathered, squeezed in, and got comfy.
Civilized or not, she did consider whether the ape would be good to eat. It would certainly fill her belly for days. And it would be easy enough to kill. (Judging from the way it gripped its knife when she looked over, this possibility had occurred to the ape as well.)
As she neared the end of the final tune—a classic called “The Poet’s Silver Jaw”—she slid her leg out and grabbed a nice fat leng. When she looked up again, the ape was gone.
It was tiring, keeping her claws pulled up to avoid the tik tik tik that would surely alert the ape to her scouting. She was gambling she knew the tunnels better than the ape, but concert time was approaching, and she had yet to find it.
She chose her hiding place carefully.
Eventually the ape arrived. It peeked around its boulder, realized no performance was imminent, and scratched its chin. After a deep breath, it glanced up and down the dark hallways and wandered off.
She followed. There was no rush; she had already guessed where it was going. That tunnel led to an area she had named the Remains.
Geology wasn’t her strongest subject in school; even as an adolescent she devoted most of her energy to practicing her pipes. She was pretty sure, though, most of these tunnels and caves were old lava tubes. It was also obvious that the lava, in many places, had flowed over things: roads, houses—a little piece of someone’s civilization. But, if she had ever been taught the skills to figure out the age of the lava flows, she hadn’t paid attention that day.
The Remains was the area of least destruction. It was once some sort of building, and many of the rooms still had books and furniture and office machines. Anything not made of rock showed nibble damage from the lengs. The little raptors were everywhere in the Remains, gnawing holes in walls, unafraid of the light, and their squeaks and noisy bustle made quietly sneaking around easy.
She found the clothed ape, in a large room apparently undamaged by lava, lit by makeshift lanterns. It was swiping at lengs with a broom, trying to keep them away from its food stores. She hid behind a large metal box by the door.
The room was filled with evidence of the ape’s battles with the lengs. Holes in walls were boarded up, and chewed open again, dishes were repaired with tape, furniture was riddled with nibbles. The clever ape had even killed a few—one of the dead lengs was on the ground, near the door. She reached out, curled her claws around the limp body, popped it in her mouth and swallowed.
She didn’t know whether her newfound neighbor lived in the maze of caves by choice or, like her, wanted to escape. The Remains was clearly not its natural habitat, since there were no others of its kind to be seen. She could try communicating—just the thought of a conversation was a thrill—but she decided to retreat, and wait. Her first experience with the apes was fresh in mind.
Her tummy was satisfied by the dead leng; there was no need to hypnotize one for dinner.
She played her bagpipes anyway. The little lengies really seemed to enjoy it.
A few days passed with no clothed ape. She busied herself with her routine, evenings at the Mouth, days exploring the maze. But she steered clear of the Remains. The ape was a conundrum, a delicate puzzle that discouraged rash moves.
When it appeared again at the start of an afternoon concert, it held a box: black with metal highlights, about half a head in size. The now-fearless ape waded in among the lengs, and held the box in the air for several tunes before slinking away again. She tried to add this behavior to the ape-puzzle, but was unsure what the box was, how it fit.
She wasn’t concerned—until the next day when she arrived at the concert junction and her bagpipes were gone from their hook.
Only one other creature in the tunnels could reach that high. Furious, and hungry, she tik tikked past the ape’s boulder and toward the Remains.
Then she stopped.
The sound of distant bagpipes droned through the halls. The tune was familiar—”The Engineer’s Lament”, she had played it yesterday—but it was hard to tell where it was coming from. All the lengs stopped to listen too. They cocked their heads, back and forth.
Slowly, a few of them started inching in one direction. The others cautiously followed—then suddenly they were moving as one, fast, reaching full speed in seconds.
She joined the wave of lengs, at first trusting their instincts at every junction turn, then her own ears, as the music got louder. Her tik tik tik mixed with the lengs’ rainstorm of tiny claws.
They were headed for the Mouth.
Her legs were made for sprinting, and were beginning to tire when she turned the final corner and saw sky at the end of the tunnel. The lengs pulled ahead. The circle of sunlight grew, but she saw no one—no ape, no piper. Only when she was closer did she notice the ape’s black box. It was hanging from a long stick, jutting out from the cliff like a fishing pole ready to drop its bait into the endless sea of clouds, far below. The bagpipe music was coming from the box.
Helplessly she roared a warning as the lengs streamed to the edge. They were too dumb to stop, too focused on the sound to notice the danger. The front line of lengs jumped, and the rest followed.
Then something unexpected happened.
The moment the lengs hit the air, their arms stretched out, spreading open little folds of skin. The tiny creatures almost seemed confused by their newfound skill: they couldn’t fly, but they could glide—awkwardly, and with a rather rapid descent.
She collapsed and peered over the edge, watching them drift down to the clouds. They disappeared like dots of mist into fog.
The recorded sound of the pipes was head-splittingly loud.
And she was angry.
When she stomped into the Remains the ape was surprised—it had no idea she knew where to find it. The bagpipes were on a table. There were no lengs to be seen. The ape was sweeping up and it dropped the broom and backed into a corner, speaking in a muddy language. She tik tikked into the room.
The ape glanced at the bagpipes—no, the knife on the table next to them. With a swift swipe of her powerful leg she smashed the knife to the floor and the blade broke. She opened her massive jaw and roared at the cowering animal.
Killing the only other civilized creature hadn’t been the plan. She recognized its intelligence and respected it. But the ape, by callously destroying her source of food—her audience, her little lengies—didn’t reciprocate that respect. Death was a reasonable punishment.
Moaning its muddy words, the ape held up one hand and, with the other, pointed at the metal cabinet next to it. In a final show of respect before the kill, she hesitated.
Keeping its eyes on her, the ape opened the cabinet door and pointed to the two eggs inside. They were striped yellow and green, the same color as the lengs. The ape tapped its head, then waved towards the hallway.
It had found the leng hatchery.
This bid for survival impressed her. She had never found where the lengs nested, and she certainly wanted to.
She backed off and tilted her head, opening her jaw to reveal tongue and teeth—a friendly sign of agreement that, for some reason, made the ape twitch.
The hatchery wasn’t far from the concert junction. She had tikked by it a dozen times and never noticed the small gap below the stone. The ape got down on all fours and squeezed in. Moving the stone took all her strength, but she followed.
The breach opened into to an enormous cavern, the largest she’d seen, and the ground was entirely covered with nests and eggs. The brightness surprised her; when her eyes adjusted, she looked up and saw a crack high above in the ceiling—through it, she could see the sky.
There were hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs; plenty of food to last until she could find a way to reach the opening, and escape. Some eggs were recently hatched, and the quiet squeaks of newborns chasing bugs echoed off the walls.
She had a new routine now. It revolved around building the scaffold higher and higher, closer and closer to the sky, and playing her bagpipes for the leng chicks. The music was no longer necessary to catch them—they were completely unafraid of her. They even followed her around as she scavenged building materials from the Remains. But she liked playing for the little lengies. They really seemed to enjoy it.
The ape—that reckless, imprudent ape—had held up its side of the bargain. She ate it anyway. It tasted like mammal.
Well, worse than that. Tried to eat it, and judging by the puddle of vomit on the floor, couldn’t keep it down.
“Oh, Mama,” I said, not even thinking about how she couldn’t hear me, “I’m so sorry.”
Mama’s hand normally stayed inside the dining room cabinet, the kind that most families used for nice china. With it just me now, I used ours for other stuff, like interesting bones and rocks I came across. Naturally, Mama’s hand was the centerpiece. I picked it off the floor—fortunately, far enough from the vomit that it didn’t need cleaning—and placed it back on its display rack. I judged that it looked ok, despite one finger, the one that would’ve held a ring if Mama had ever gotten married, hanging off kind of funny. The pinky, along with most of the dried flesh under it, was gone completely. It didn’t look how Mama intended. But the tattooed planchette on the back didn’t suffer much damage, so I suspected it would still work.
Not that I looked forward to trying it out.
Mama would have a lot to say about something trying to eat her hand.
And it would prove her point about I still needed her, even with her dead and all. What if the thing came back and decided to try something a little fresher?
She had Rufus tattoo the planchette once she went into hospice and knew she wouldn’t come back home. Rufus agreed to bring his tattoo equipment in and do the work right there, though he had some concerns.
“Seems like it won’t have much time to heal,” he’d said. “Not if you’re—and pardon me for saying this out loud, Mudge—not if you’re preparing to depart this world.”
“You mean ‘die,’ and yes, of course that’s happening on schedule, but I plan on sticking around for at least two weeks more.” Then she looked at me from where she lay in the bed. “And once I’m gone, Leann, you carry on the skin care. You can follow directions, can’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
While Rufus tattooed the planchette on the back of her hand, Mama barely showed any reaction, and me having six or eight tattoos of my own (all done by Rufus), I knew she had to be feeling some pain. She even refused the numbing gel that Rufus offered, explaining that a little hurt at the end of her life would help her go out on good terms. “Besides, take the pain out, and that might dilute some of its power. Don’t you think so, Rufus, you being the expert?”
“I don’t know, Mudge.” Rufus spoke without looking up. He didn’t like interruptions while he worked. “Maybe I’m not precisely sure what this is for.”
“You know what a Ouija board is for, don’t you?” Rufus affirmed that he did. “We got us one made by the Hasbro company. Leann here will use it in conjunction with my hand once I’m gone.” I’ll credit Rufus this much: he barely showed any reaction when Mama explained how she instructed me to cut off her hand once she was good and dead and how she left me with a detailed instruction sheet for keeping the hand preserved for as long as possible. That way, any time I needed advice or guidance or just wanted to talk, I could use the tattooed hand as a real planchette and create a direct link to Mama in the Afterlife. “Being my hand,” she said, “will ensure she reaches me and not some destructive demon. You see my logic, Rufus?”
He nodded and continued to ink the hand. “One thing I don’t quite get,” he said, “is the little window in the planchette. I’m drawing a little eye right now, but how on a Ouija board is Leann supposed to see the letters?”
“She’s gonna have to open that up with a knife. Later on.”
Rufus’ hand paused briefly. He looked over his shoulder at me, his mouth hard to detect beneath his big beard, and then he turned to Mama. “Am I to understand that I’m creating something to be defaced?”
“I’ll pay you all the same,” said Mama.
“I told you I will not accept the money of a dying woman.”
“Then just keep drawing, Rufus. It’s my hand. Soon it’ll be Leann’s. What I do with it is my business.”
“Just a sad thing to do with a man’s art,” said Rufus, but he finished the tattoo. The whole cutting off of the hand and making the hole, that came later, and I have a whole different story to tell about that.
Something trying to eat the hand though, I couldn’t just let that go. Bad enough to see Mama’s hand sitting in the cabinet all mangled. So, I went to the game shelf, where I expected to find the Ouija board underneath the boxes that held Monopoly and Pay Day, the only games that Mama liked to play, but instead of its usual place, it lay sideways on top the other two, the lid off kilter. I lifted the box and studied it, looking for signs of what might have moved it and replaced it in such a cock-eyed fashion. We had the special edition Ouija board, the one Hasbro made to tie in to that scary TV show, the one with the two brothers, and we bought it because Mama thought the boys were cute. “Leann, if only you could find you a man who looks like them,” she liked to say.
“Uh-huh,” I’d say, but only so I wouldn’t sound disagreeable. That would mean starting a fight. I imagined boys who looked pretty would get squeamish around a girl who could chop off her dead mama’s hand and bore a perfectly round hole through it. The kind of men I liked I kept to myself, and I didn’t keep them around long.
Once I had the pretty-boy Ouija board opened up on the table in front of me, I propped Mama’s hand on top of it and called for Mama.
No answer at first, and I thought, uh oh, it doesn’t work anymore.
I tried again. “Hello, Mama, you there?”
Finally, the hand began to shake, almost like a vibration that reached a fever pitch. I breathed easier as it began moving around the board, spelling out a reply.
“Mama, I’m so sorry. Something tried to eat your hand, and I’m thinking you might know what did it. Is it a rat?”
The hand made a little circle, as if it didn’t know which way to go at first. Then it slid decisively over to the word “No.” It sat there, still vibrating, like it was shivering, like it was scared. A normal planchette needed a living person to place their fingers on it, but Mama’s needed no such thing. It did all the work by itself.
“Was it an animal?” I said. “Of any kind?”
The hand slid to the edge of the board, approached “Yes,” but swiftly swung back to “No.” It continued to vibrate on top of the word.
“Well then, was it a person?”
The vibration grew stronger, and I swear it managed to elevate itself off the board as it swung hard over to “Yes.” I bit my lip. I never saw Mama’s hand do that before.
The hand moved slower as it spelled out the name, the one name I didn’t want to see, not the name of some pretty boy on the TV who hunted ghosts, but the name of the one person I cared anything for, the name of a tattoo artist with a big belly and a face covered mostly by beard. A man Mama would never approve of for me, at least not as a boyfriend, on account of the fact that he already had one ex-wife and nearly fifteen years more of life than I had.
But it made sense because no one else knew about Mama’s hand, and Rufus knew where I kept the emergency key in the flower bed, and on the few occasions that I let him sleep over he’d asked me to take the hand out of the cabinet so he could see how it worked.
“Nope, not going to do it,” I said to him more than once. I’d only taken the hand out on two occasions, and both of them when I couldn’t find something. Both times I could tell Mama wanted to keep talking, but once she spelled out the hiding place of my Bowie knife or the handcuffs that used to belong to my grandpa when he served as sheriff, I put her back.
I felt bad about those times now. Mama probably got lonely. But I didn’t need to hear any lectures about how Rufus wasn’t right for me or how I’d get a man if only I would fix up the house in a more acceptable way. Besides, Rufus spoke of the hand in a way that might offend Mama. It reminded him of a Hand of Glory, he said.
“A Hand of Glory,” I said. “That sounds like something Mama would approve of.”
He shook his head. “That’s what they call the hand chopped off a thief. After he’s been hanged, of course.”
“For whatever purpose would they do that, Rufus?”
“It’s helpful in opening locked doors, I hear.”
“I wish I could get one of them,” I said. “It would look good in the cabinet.”
“You kinda got one already.”
“Mama’s Hand of Glory.” I considered that. “She’s not a thief, though. Not unless stealing a person’s life makes you a thief.”
“You still got your life, Leann.”
“And I mean to keep what’s left,” I said.
Now I felt bad about saying that. Maybe for that reason, I couldn’t bring myself to put Mama’s hand back in the cabinet. Instead, I threw it into my shoulder bag as I grabbed my keys. I had to get to the tattoo shop.
The whole way I wondered what could’ve happened, and I thought back to the time we bought the Ouija board with the pretty boys on it, when Mama gave me the warning. “Leann, whatever you do, never, ever use a Ouija board by yourself. That’s how you invite a demon in.”
“I don’t believe in demons,” I said. “The same’s I don’t believe in God.”
“Well, just take my word on it: both are true.”
Of course, I asked her how I could use her tattooed hand as a planchette by myself and not bring in one of her demons. She scoffed at that. “Because it’ll be my hand, that’s why. You won’t be by yourself. Not really.”
Rather than accuse her of making up rules as they suited her, I let that one go. But as I drove, I wondered if maybe Mama had it at least partially right—that someone other than her daughter using the planchette alone could invite something unpleasant into the world.
I got my confirmation at the tattoo shop.
Inside, I found Huey, the high school drop out that Rufus took on as an apprentice, huddled in a corner, holding his bleeding wrist.
“Oh, Jesus, Leann, he just went crazy and bit me. Said he couldn’t help it. But if I call the police, I just know I won’t have a job anymore.”
I looked at the wound. It looked bad, but not as bad as the bite mark on Mama’s hand, and if it caused some long-term damage, that would save some future customer from a bad tattoo. But fortunately for Huey, it looked like Rufus could still practice some restraint. Maybe I could save him.
“Where is he?” I said.
“In the john.” He pointed toward the back of the shop, where a chair sat propped under the bathroom door handle.
“You put that there?” I said.
He nodded. “He ran in there after biting me. I saw that trick in a movie. Thought it would keep him trapped while I waited.”
“Waited for what?” I said.
He seemed at a loss for a second. “Well, for you, I guess. You think I still got a job?”
I had no answer to that. I needed to see about Rufus, so I left Huey to whimper over his wound and went closer to the door. If I didn’t know better, I would swear that I could feel Mama’s hand vibrate in my handbag. I used my own hand to tap on the door.
The voice that answered sounded guttural, not at all like Rufus’ soft voice. It sounded like two people trying to talk at once out of the same mouth-hole, and one of the people didn’t know how human speech worked.
I thought again of Mama’s warning not to use the Ouija board by yourself.
After some false starts to our conversation, I could finally make out a sentence from the other side of the door. “Leann, I can’t control this…this hunger. All I wanna do is eat.” When he said “eat,” something impacted the door from the other side, probably Rufus’ shoulder, and the legs of the chair seemed to give a little. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew I would not hand myself over to Rufus to devour. Or whatever had possessed Rufus.
“Why’d you do that to Mama’s hand?” I said.
Again, he struck the door. The chair still held, but it would not for much longer.
“I wanted to talk to her,” Rufus managed to say. “I wanted to ask her if she’d give me her blessing.”
“Oh, Rufus, don’t say it.”
“I was gonna ask you to marry me. She said yes, by the way. Now I just wanna eat you.”
“That wasn’t Mama, Rufus,” I said, though I had to wonder if I had Mama’s estimation of Rufus all wrong. I put my head against the door and instantly regretted it when Rufus hit it again. The chair wouldn’t sustain another blow like that one.
“I don’t want to. But I got to eat you. You need to open this door now.”
“How about we make a deal, Rufus?” Then I proposed that Rufus stop trying to bash the door down. In exchange, I would open the door, but only if he swore he’d back all the way up from the door and sit on the toilet and wait.
No reply. Still, I reached into my handbag where I felt Mama’s hand. I was right earlier. It was vibrating. I held it as it continued to shake, trying to escape the fate I had already assigned to it. “I’m gonna open the door.” I started a count-down, beginning with three, and once I got down to one, I pulled the chair aside, threw open the door, and tossed Mama’s hand inside the bathroom. The door stayed open long enough for me to see Rufus sitting on the toilet, like a good man who follows a bargain no matter what the demons inside him might say. His eyes widened when he saw me, his beard, his beautiful beard, crusted with Huey’s blood.
As he scrambled for his meal, I slammed the door shut and replaced the chair.
Later, I learned that Rufus ate the whole thing, bones and all.
It didn’t make him better though. I hoped it would, but it didn’t. Maybe Mama would’ve known that before I did, but without Mama’s word, you’ve got to take your own chances.
Rufus lives in the Vissaria County Psychiatric Hospital now. Whatever entered his body that day took him over completely, eventually.
They don’t allow visitors. No one expects Rufus’ condition to improve.
And that makes me sad. But whatever gave him the idea that he needed Mama’s blessing or that he needed anyone’s permission other than my own? As if I belonged to anyone other than myself?
The cabinet looked empty without Mama’s hand, and my days got quieter without Rufus coming around. For the cabinet, I found the bones of a two-headed snake in the woods behind the house. I grew fond of it and stopped thinking much of Mama’s hand. Or of Mama herself.
I decided to name the snake skeleton after Rufus. Unlike his namesake, he—I mean, they—would never bite me.
But if they ever tried to talk to me—or for me—they would need to go.
Douglas Ford lives and works on the west coast of Florida, just off an exit made famous by a Jack Ketchum short story. His weird and dark fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Infernal Ink, Weird City, along with several other small press publications. Recent work has appeared in The Best Hardcore Horror, Volumes Three and Four, and a novella, The Reattachment, will appear later this year courtesy of Madness Heart Press. In the harsh light of day, he sprinkles a little darkness into the lives of his students at the State College of Florida, and he lives with a Hovawart (that’s a kind of dog) who fiercely protects him from the unseen creatures living in the wooded area next to his house. His five cats merely tolerate him, but his wife is decidedly fond of him, as he is of her.
The Backlands prison barge dropped me where Riverway 53-A-Lesser splits off Riverway 53-A. There, a small break in the tree canopy made farming possible, in theory. I was told to build a homestead.
I don’t think the Eternal Bureaucracy expected much from a political exile like myself. Back in the districts, I was a Vice-Commissioner of Grains and Necessaries, a literal bean-counter, spending my days in granary offices and my evenings in tea shops, hiding from sunlight and pollen. The bargemaster saw the unlikelihood of my success, and he gamely committed to bring more subsistence rations.
The dark forest extended from my sunny patch to an infinite depth, so that looking into it felt a bit like standing between two mirrors. The ground was unbearably flat. so flat it was difficult to understand distances or directions. The only feature, the only landmark to use to define “location” at all, was the river, and even that, I knew, split and split ad infinitum as it flowed toward some sea yet undiscovered, confounding explorers, cartographers, and even the Bureaucracy’s pet gods.
Alone, outside my old environment, I had lost a sense of myself. I found myself staring—into the water, into fire, into the sky. I often lost track of what was I doing. I felt hemmed in by the dark and the riverbank. Before long, I found myself clutching an ax with aching hands, wasting time hacking away at the ironbarks, trying to expand my circle. It didn’t work. There was a constant sense that I had just had an important thought and forgotten it. It was loneliness. It was exhaustion. It was the geography.
The extreme privacy had some advantages. The first night, I opened a politically sensitive letter that I had been holding secret since the camps. It was written in a sharp, deliberate script. In the lamplight, the words looked like they were cut into the page. The letter assured me that I still had friends in the Bureacuracy, and that if I could only hold on until a less politically dangerous time, I would be reinstated with honor.
On the third day, while using the washbasin, I saw my face had become asymmetrical. As I watched, the left side fattened. I put a hand to it and felt the bones below shift. The left side soon contaminated the right, and my face became someone else’s. It looked at me with eyes not my own.
I tried to speak. With effort, I reclaimed my lips. They thinned and tightened back into my old nervous mouth. I made them speak. “Hello,” I said. My voice was fearful and fearfully polite.
My mouth transformed back into that of the Second Face. “Hello,” it said.
“What are you?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I used to be you. I remember being you.”
The transformation became easier. My face snapped back together as I said, “But you’re not, anymore.”
“No,” said Second Face. “I’m less, now, somehow. I’m only a part.”
I thought for a moment. There was a lack in my mind, an empty space, but I couldn’t remember what had been there. “You split from me,” I stated.
Second Face contorted into being and replied, “Yes.”
“Do you remember everything I remember?” I asked.
“How would I know?”
We shared a smile, one superimposed on the other. Mine faded faster. Panic set in. I asked, “Do you remember our childhood?”
More vividly? I thought. I worried I was less than Second Face, ready for replacement. I asked, “How about our first kiss?”
“Under the rubber tree, with Selena.” With a playful grin, the Second Face asked me, “Do you remember walking home after, the smell in the air, that sense of being connected, of being part of the kissing bulk of humanity?”
“I can’t.” My voice quaked.
“I guess that’s what I am. Or part of what I am.”
I walked outside out of an instinct to be by myself, to think. Of course, Second Face came with me. It gamely tried a smile, and I wrenched control away and frowned, heavily. What was missing?
“You took my sense of wonder,” I accused.
“Oh, please. I’m too small for that, even I can tell that. I got a cluster of wonder-related memories, at most. Also, some muscle memory, I think.” Then, his expression softened. “Chin up, friend,” he said. “I’m still here! It’s not like I can walk off on my own. Let’s work. Let’s get our minds off this.”
We did work. That day, I cleared shrub from under the trees to make way for climbing beans. This would normally be miserable work, but Second Face made the time pass quickly. He joked, he laughed, he pointed out beauty. “Look at the river! It’s so blue in the sunlight,” he would say, or, “I wonder if that sound is a bird or an insect?” His voice was so unlike mine; it was slow, deep, and relaxed. As he narrated the forest, it seemed less dark and eternal, but instead vibrant and homey. His voice even comforted me at night. “Being an exile here isn’t the worst fate,” Second Face cooed. “We might even meet someone else, someday. It’s an adventure!” I felt lighter, just listening to him. I stopped resenting Second Face’s existence. After all, I reasoned, people have come back from the Backlands. Maybe there’s a cure. I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, I felt even better. It was as if during the night, something rough and abrasive and stuck in my heart had been surgically removed. Its absence felt euphoric. That is, until it started talking.
“Miss me?” said Rough Thing. Its face, cruel yet pained, appeared over my own. “No? I hurt.”
I hurt, I would learn, was not so much a description of mood as a statement of being. Rough Thing hurt, both in the adjectival and verbal sense. It had taken memories I was glad to lose: memories of old unhappy far-off things, cupboards and switches and silences. It liked to remind me of them, every now and then. As I planted a bean, it remarked, “Your father never loved you. It’s not that he was incapable of love. He just chose not to exercise that capacity towards you.” When I started turning the soil in my main plot, it said, “Hot, isn’t it? It’s very hot, you know.”
Second Face overcame its fear and came out. Our mutterings became three-way, as Second Face explained its interest in certain painful sensations, and Rough Thing showed Second Face dead birds in the forest. Soon, we lived peaceably enough, passing the days in sweat and sun, watching our first crops start to grow.
The next time the barge arrived, I ran into the shallows, waving a little letter, begging the bargemen to take it. Instead, they poled further into the middle of the river, glancing at me with embarrassment and fear. Maybe they were unnerved by Rough Thing, which punctuated my urbane pleas with honest but unnerving comments such as, “Hope is everything!” and “I’m pathetic!”
I gave up and watched as the barge passed. On deck was a new exile, a woman. She did not look at me as she feebly tried to keep her hair arranged, despite the wind. A metropole type, I thought derisively. Less fancy now, aren’t you?
Almost as soon as she was out of view, Second Face said, “We should go find her. They probably don’t want to travel too far before they drop her off.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I… don’t know.”
“You didn’t split off with a lot of forethought, eh?” I teased.
Second Face just said, “It just feels like we should find her. We need…” his voice trailed off.
Suddenly, Rough Thing took violent control of my mouth and lungs, fully absorbing my face. It said, “Company. We need company.”
“Yes. You are not good at understanding us. I am. We’re lonely. Trust me.”
“Why would I trust you?” I retorted, and Rough Thing was, even more so than usual, hurt.
Partly to mollify him and partly out of curiosity, I took a gift bundle of beans and some foraged fruit and set off down the riverbank.
After three days of walking, I found the newcomer’s homestead in the middle of a buzzing meadow. The level of campcraft was surprising for a metropole woman; the shelter was made very practically, her bent-staff traps, leaning over the meadow grass like farmers pulling weeds, had already snapped up a pair of rabbits.
Rough Thing said, “Figures that the prison barge would drop her off where there’s so much game and soil and leave people like us in the woods.” I nodded vigorously.
The woman appeared on the meadow edge, carrying a bundle of kindling. She didn’t see me immediately. I ducked down and said, “Second Face, take over for a bit.”
“You’re more likeable.”
We popped into view, Second Face beaming, shouting, “Welcome to the Backlands!”
The woman dropped her bundle and ran to her ax. Second Face held my hands up. “It’s alright. We’re unarmed.”
What followed was a tense and lengthy explanation of what, precisely, he meant by “we.” The woman, Luciana, was less alarmed than I expected. “I knew about the faces. But I didn’t expect them to be so…vibrant,” she said, causing Second Face to blush until I took control again.
“Fascinating,” she said. “The change—it isn’t painful?”
She reached a hand out, then stopped herself. “May I?” she asked. I nodded. Her hand lay on my cheek, and I allowed a shift to Second Face, and then, briefly, to Rough Thing. “It’s fascinating,” she remarked.
The only tension arose when I explained my plans for returning to favor. “Oh, you sweet man, they will never have us back,” she said, causing me to harrumph until she felt compelled to say, “I suppose it is possible your allies will help. I suppose. Possible.”
She tried to revive the conversation, but I cut it short. “It will be getting dark soon,” I said. “I’d better start back.”
“Oh.” She leaned to one side, looking quite girlish for a woman her age. “I thought that maybe you’d spend the night?”
I tried to hide my surprise and failed. “You did?” We hadn’t seemed to have much of a connection.
She gestured all around. “It’s not as if either of us have other prospects. And,” she grinned mischievously, “I’ve never been with three men at once.”
Courtship in the districts moved much more slowly than this. I gulped and said, “Maybe another time.” Luciana pouted, and her pout was echoed by Second Face. “I’m going to go.”
As I left, Second Face, called back, “Just follow the river to find me. Come soon.”
“I will!” called Luciana in response.
I returned to my homestead and spent a week alone. Luciana stayed in my mind. I wasn’t quite infatuated with her, but the absolute lack of other human company had lent her a certain desirability. I fantasized often.
I split twice more, creating Joaquin, who was convinced he was a ghost possessing me, and The Otter—not an animal face, just a human, whose name is too long a story to relate. The other faces also became more physical. Rough Thing sometimes manifested on my chest and remained there for hours. The faces demonstrated an alarming degree of control, sometimes taking control of my arms or legs and moving me like a marionette. We started to snap at each other.
Fortunately, Luciana made good on her promise. She came up the fruity path, calling out, “I have news!” I ran to meet her. I ran up the bank to her, surprised at my vigor. I gave her a kiss, a more lingering one than was common between friends. She seemed blissful, radiant even. “I have someone for you to meet,” she said. Then, she told me her story.
Luciana grew up in the metropole; she was educated in the central academy. Her first assignment was in god control, and she failed at it spectacularly. She fell in love with her target, the Brushfather, the Ancestor-Spirit Class deity of a string of remote villages.
“No one believes me,” said Luciana’s first face to me, some time later, “but love at first sight does exist.” Her mind rebuilt itself, with the Brushfather at the center as well as the edges. “It was like Bureaucracy re-education,” Luciana once said, wistfully.
“The Bureaucracy sent in the army, of course. They did their level best to destroy the Brushfather. They might have succeeded. I don’t know. I never saw him again. Until last week.” Suddenly, her face rippled into that of a serene older man.
Luciana’s memories of the Brushfather formed the core of a split. It was not the real god, but it was a very good memory of him. And I, like Luciana, fell in love on first sight.
We ran through a complex web of introductions, using the finest Bureaucracy etiquette. “Joaquin, I present you to Luciana,”…” etc., etc. Yet, my mind never left the Brushfather. Eyes as old as time, a smile as addictive as innocence—he had something I had been craving all my life.
That night, all of us lay and held each other. Luciana, Second Face, me, the Rough Thing, we all basked in the love of a god. “It’s lonely out here. Let’s live together,” I said.
Luciana and the Brushfather replied, two faces speaking an overlapping voice, “Yes, let’s.” It was the happiest moment of my life. Until the morning.
In the morning I had a split, or maybe an integration, or both. Rough Thing had changed, taken in more of me. It was urbane. Its eyes were hard. Not like the Brushfather at all. More like my actual father.
He savagely took control of my head and turned it to look at Luciana, lying naked and asleep in the shelter. I struggled to regain control, but all I could get was my left ring finger. I flapped it frantically. Rough Thing looked down at the counter-revolutionary finger and laughed. “The Brushfather doesn’t love you,” it said. “None of them do.”
I waited for Second Face to take over. I felt sure he would have something positive to say, something like, “He could, someday. It’s early, so who knows?”
Rough Thing used our arm to roughly shake Luciana awake. “What?” Luciana asked. A few faces cycled onto her head, all of them groggy but happy. I waggled my ring finger in warning.
“You don’t care about me.”
“What?” Luciana’s first face registered confusion.
“You haven’t tried hard enough. You’re old and soft and tired. Life out here isn’t like the metropole, is it?”
The words were familiar. I realized I’d said them, we’d said them, to lovers over the years. A lifetime of petty, stupid resentments flashed into my mind. Rough Thing had a part of the core of me. It had what I had always used to manage relationships.
Luciana’s faces and Rough Thing proceeded to have a three-way shouting match. Her first face was indignant, shocked that faces as plain as ours could feel entitled to so much more. Luciana tried to de-escalate the conversation and directed her arms’ efforts toward getting dressed and staying near the door. But the Brushfather just showed sadness, deep and real grief. He clearly had no armor, no way to understand that Rough Thing’s words had nothing to do with him, that they were just expressions of pain. He took Rough Thing’s words seriously, and my heart broke to see how he hurt.
When the damage was beyond repair, Rough Thing let Second Face take over. Second Face simply whined, “This was supposed to be better,” he said. “Why isn’t it better?”
Luciana’s faces showed an incredible amount of patience, so much that I think maybe they liked us more than I’d guessed, but finally she left in disgust.
Rough Thing sat us down, alone, in the dark. Only then did he let me speak.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Because you wouldn’t.”
“I mean, why was it necessary at all?”
Rough Thing took my left hand and placed it, comfortingly, on my right. “I think you know.”
“I do,” said the Otter. “Rough Thing needed to say those things because they were true. To him.”
Rough Thing flickered in, saying, “You hit the nail on the head. Precisely so. I am the only one of us who values the truth.”
I said, “Your ‘truth’ isn’t the truth, Rough Thing.”
“Is yours? Do you want to talk about why we’re in the Backlands?” Rough Thing puppeted us to our feet. It walked us to the door, looked out at the southwest, as if he could see the districts. “I was there, you know. The other faces didn’t know they existed yet, but I did. I remember. I remember your meeting with the Yellows. Their agendas, their dreams, their ideals. I felt the danger from what is now Second Face.”
Rough Thing launched into a cruel impression of Second Face. “Maybe we can chaaaaaaange the wooooooorld. Maybe they’ll like us mooooooooore. Maybe I won’t be so boooooooored.” Its normal voice came back. “And we wrote that damned memorandum.”
Our body rushed to the river. We looked at each other face to face, overlapped and reflecting. “Don’t you understand?” it yelled. “I kept us safe! You all hated me, but I saw the dangers. There were dangers in rising too fast in the Bureaucracy. There were dangers in making our opinions known. And there are absolutely, beyond a doubt, dangers—”
“In being happy,” I finished.
I took a deep breath, then said, “Rough Thing, I have never said this before to you. Thank you. Thank you for keeping us safe, all those years. But now, it’s time to go.”
Rough Thing offered a steady string of counterarguments, from the rational (“Where am I going to go? Your back?”) to the emotional (“You think you’re safe now?”). However, I could not be budged. All I did was repeat, again and again, “It’s time to go.” I willed all my thought into this one demand, repeating it like a meditation. Time slowed and the world came into focus, and still I repeated it. “It’s time to go. It’s time to go.” My diaphragm ached from speaking and still I repeated it.
Rough Thing appeared on my chest, a raised face. I took off my shirtwaist so he could hear me better. Inch by inch, he emerged from my chest, an ugly crab shedding a beautiful shell. Rough Thing’s mouth bit the ground and pulled, wrenching a small body out of my flesh. When it finally separated from me, I lost consciousness.
The next morning, Rough Thing had gone. It had taken with it a great number of memories and capabilities, as well as about two stone of muscle and fat.
I saw it every now and then, foraging in the forest. It had grown to an adult size, but its body that looked like it was drawn without the use of a live model—a body painful to inhabit. Usually, I waved. It never waved back.
I returned to my farming and tried to focus on taking care of vulnerable little Second Face. The summer passed drowsily. Then, near the time of my first grain harvest, a barge came without a prisoner.”Hail, sir,” said the bargemaster—the same who had ignored my waving letter. I briefly looked backwards to make sure someone more important hadn’t arrived. “Letter from the metropole.” He handed me the envelope and I held it like a precious stone.
Joyous tidings! The tyranny of the Greens is no more. The whole Bureaucracy is Yellow—yellow like new blossoms, yellow like the dawn! You shall be reinstated and promoted. The bargemaster has been instructed to bring you back immediately.
Yours, Silvio Velez, Acting Minister of Justice and Appropriate Displays of Patriotism
“Ready?” asked the bargemaster.
“What—” I stammered. “What about…” I let Joaquin and the Otter flicker on my face.
The bargemaster was stoic. “They reabsorb in the districts. We’ve rehabilitated prisoners before. No one will know you were a monster if you keep quiet about what happened here.”
“I…” I said. “I need to get my old clothes.” I ducked into the shelter… then ran out the back, into the forest. I ran until I wheezed, then I walked. I walked past Rough Thing, digging for tubers, and past Luciana’s perfectly-laid trap lines. I walked into the great beyond of the Backlands.
I didn’t know myself at all before I was sent to the Backlands. I can’t go back. Not until I know myself better.
Author’s Note: I’ve always felt “personality” is a group project, made up of a whole bunch of mental processes, some of which are dysfunctional as hell. Looking at and understanding the processes is useful, and terrifying, and kind of fun. I’d been meaning to write a story about it for awhile when a fellow writer proposed “many-faced monsters with many loves” at a prompt party. That prompt, years of rumination, two pints, and some new-parent sleep deprivation all came together and became this story.
Lee Chamney is an education writer and is new(ish) to fantasy. He writes stories that have dry humor, humanist tones, and a lot of weirdness. One of his bosses once described him as having “an awkward charm,” which is at least half right. You can keep up with his publications and play one of his choose-your-own-adventure games at www.leechamney.com.
Content note(click for details)Content note: discussion of suicide
He was lost in the guillotine section of the big department store. He could never have guessed there was such a thing, or he might have taken more care when the doors of the elevator opened and let him out. He was on the wrong floor. The lighting here was dim and bloody, the lamps shaded to deliberately cast a gory glow over the items that were on sale. It was crude and unfair. By the time he realised his error he had already wandered too far into the enormous room and his sense of direction was confused. He had no idea how to get back to the elevator.
Members of staff were gazing at him as if he was a violation of this refined space, a drifting smell or spreading stain. Conscious of their eyes on his back, he pretended an interest in the products on offer. He studied the blades, stroked the rough ropes and tapped the wooden frames. Nodding to himself and muttering, he tried to broadcast a message, to somehow radiate his intention to return another day, maybe tomorrow or next week, and purchase a model. In the meantime he was browsing, testing, and yes, he was sincere and innocent, a real customer.
His random passage took him in a circle that consisted of epicycles, a meandering path that perhaps resembled the rolling of lopped heads in some idealised schematic of brutality. At last a tall man approached. They were all tall on this floor, these members of staff, horribly tall as they stood in their unexpected corners, but the altitude of this one was especially remarkable. And yet he wore a coat too long for his body. His posture was rigid, beyond militaristic, and his moustache bristled, but then he smiled and made a little bow, as if he was sniffing a bowl of soup.
The others were watching carefully. There were no customers on this floor apart from him, just staff members, and it was clear the extra tall man was the floorwalker, that he could cover the distances necessary in next to no time at all with his long legs, that he was feared by his colleagues. Within that fear was awe, and nested in the awe was love, but more fear underpinned the love. These secret layers of regard were the geological strata of a commercial tyrant, as difficult to erode as the igneous slabs of a towering sea stack bathed in spray at high tide.
But they were far from the ocean now. This department store was located in a city in a landlocked country, and the land undulated with hills all around, not waves. Then the floorwalker clasped his hands theatrically.
“May I be of assistance, monsieur?” he asked in an accent that was so courteously forbidding that the syllables of his words were like crumbs of biscuits too durable to dissolve in strong tea. “And if not, why not?”
“I’m just browsing today.”
“But what exactly does monsieur have in mind?”
“My name is Mr. Plum.”
“Come now, monsieur, you must have some idea of the particular model you are most interested in? We have every kind of guillotine in stock, the full historical and futurological range. There are the cruder versions that hack and the improved devices that slice. We have long drop and short drop models. Those that catch the blood and others that allow it to trickle or even spray.”
“That’s very helpful.”
“But is it helpful to you, monsieur?”
“My name is Mr. Plum. I was born in this country too. I haven’t yet decided what I need. I’m just browsing, for a friend.”
“For a friend, you say? That strikes me as unusual.”
“For an enemy, I mean.”
“Then it is for yourself you are shopping!”
“Yes, but I wasn’t…”
There was no point arguing. He was out of his depth with this fellow, this utterly lanky floorwalker, a man who was probably never out of his depth anywhere, even while wading across a continental shelf, not that the department store was nearer the ocean now than before. Not enough time had passed for sufficient tectonic activity to take place. Yet it felt as if he had already been trapped here for innumerable years. And now the floorwalker was taking full charge of his destiny, leading him not by the hand but with a form of mercantile magnetism.
Mr. Plum muttered to himself, “I only came into this store for a kettle. I got out of the elevator at the wrong floor, that’s all. I’m reading a book at home, a difficult book. I wanted a coffee break but I don’t have a kettle. I will return to my book when I can. With or without coffee, I’ll read it to the end.”
“Is monsieur troubled?”
“Not at all. No, wait, I want to know where we are going.”
“To browse the products.”
“I see. Yes. That’s your answer, is it?”
“Monsieur stated that he wished to browse. I can facilitate that wish. I am not yet a genie but I have the capability of making some wishes come true. The easy wishes, mostly. Your wish is a very easy one.”
Mr. Plum shrugged. He did this because his shoulders were trembling. The nerves inside his torso were vibrating unbearably. The shrug untied some unwholesome knot and he was well again. Able to walk, to accompany the very tall man, they stopped together next to an apparatus that might have been a grandfather clock rather than a guillotine. And it was explained to him that yes, it told the time as well as lopped off heads. It had been designed for the parlour, for people who still had parlours in their houses, and did monsieur have a parlour too?
“Not really. No, I don’t.”
The look he received was so withering, he added, “Sorry.”
“This way, monsieur!”
They passed squat machines with iron frames and no ornamentation, practical but unlovely, and highly rococo golden devices that soared almost to the ceiling, splendid but equally terrible. They were heading towards a very large guillotine that stood on a platform by itself, like an actor on stage about to recite a monologue. A long wooden ramp connected the lunette of the machine with the lane of a bowling alley. Skittles in the form of little human figures stood and waited for a severed head to roll along and knock them down. Execution as recreation.
“What does monsieur say?”
“It’s too big. It wouldn’t fit in my house.”
“For the garden. An outdoor model. You can sit in a chair and knit while the heads roll down the ramp. Does monsieur knit?”
“Not even cardigans, I’m afraid. And I don’t have a garden.”
“But are you not educated?”
“Of course. I have a university degree.”
“A bachelor’s degree then? Well, that can’t be helped. There are other models to show you. This way, monsieur!”
And they were off again, passing rows of guillotine variants that removed heads with circular blades or blades like the rotors of a propeller. One was simply a perfect replica of a breadknife but enormously magnified and fixed on a pivot to a board as wide as a double bed. Another was a bed, with the blade activated by springs in the mattress. A particularly grotesque version was a giant pair of crimping scissors and Mr. Plum could imagine the muted snip as the blades closed together and left a stump of a neck with bloody corrugated edges.
“Keep going, monsieur.”
“I like the look of the one over there.”
He realised it was a mistake to say this, but he desperately wanted to divert their path away from the hideous coffin-like contraption that stood directly ahead of them, a guillotine that clearly sliced sideways rather than vertically. He didn’t want his body in proximity with such a thing. The one he had pointed out was small and inoffensive in comparison, the sort of contrivance one might keep on a coffee table in the lounge without running the risk of adverse comments from visiting friends. It was like a little cabinet with a door, the blade hidden within.
“Monsieur, this is considered to be a lady’s guillotine. Akin to one of those pearl handled revolvers that ladies keep, or kept, in their handbags. Monsieur! But you are not buying a gift for wife or mistress! You are browsing for yourself. We worked this out using logic only a few minutes ago!”
Mr. Plum spoke thickly, as if congealed blood already clogged his throat. “Perhaps I myself am a wife or mistress. Perhaps.”
The floorwalker arched his lush eyebrows and now they were so high that to reach them for a plucking a woman with tweezers would require an extendable ladder. Or a man with that ladder could conceivably pluck them. It was a modern city, despite its remoteness from the ocean, from the trading networks, from foreign news. For long moments the eyebrows remained up there. He kept his eyes fixed on them. Then they descended soundlessly, at last, and he heaved a sigh of relief, for the floorwalker was smiling. They didn’t descend like blades.
“I understand. You jest. It is for a masque, a fiesta.”
“For one of those, yes.”
“A malign fiesta. In that case, permit me to explain its workings.”
“I grant you permission.”
“You open the door and ask your enemy to smell the interior. Your enemy falls for the deception. They insert their head into the space and inhale. The drop of pressure inside the box then activates a switch that causes the blade to fall. The drop is short, too short for a decapitation. The neck is only partly severed. The victim stands up in surprise and pain. Now the box is attached to his head. He can’t get it off, so you will offer to help. You take hold of it with both hands, a firm grip, and you twist with all your strength. That finishes him off.”
“I see. But what does the inside smell like?”
“Pine resin varnish, monsieur.”
“My name is Mr. Plum.”
“May I suggest that monsieur try it out in the changing room?”
“But I haven’t decided.”
“May I insist that monsieur try it out there?”
The other staff members giggled. They were still standing in their corners, in the alcoves and niches of the walls. He licked his lips. Ought he to make a run for it? But it was futile. The long legs of those man-spiders would catch up with him, they would converge on his fleeing form from all directions. He was doomed that way. The only chance he had was to continue the charade and somehow come out the far end in one piece. He shrugged again, nodded and lifted his hands in mock surrender. The echoes of the giggles faded away. Silence reigned.
Swooping on the box with his long arms, the floorwalker snatched it up in gnarled and massive palms and conveyed it to the nearest changing room. Mr. Plum followed in his wake, pulled along on invisible strings.
The curtains in front of the changing room were dyed the brightest of pulsating reds. But the floorwalker swept them aside and ushered him inside, then he placed the guillotine on the coffee table that was the only item of furniture in the oval room. He departed and closed the curtains after him and Mr. Plum was left alone with his anxiety and his imminent death. He turned to examine his reflection in the mirror, but there was no mirror. There was a screen on which shapes flickered. They were a projection but he was unable to locate the projector.
The shapes achieved greater clarity, came into full focus. And now sounds rose all about him from hidden loudspeakers. The baying of a mob. The shapes were figures of men and women, those who had come to watch a public execution. It was only an illusion, but it unnerved him. He wondered if he ought to thrust his head into the box and hold his breath for a minute, then withdraw and claim the apparatus was broken. Hadn’t the floorwalker told him it was operated by the breath of the victim? But that would only buy him a little time, not enough.
The alternative was really to cut off his own head and have done with it. His body resisted this option, he felt nauseous. What should he do? Remain in this room until after closing time and then hope to sneak out when the staff were gone? But he wasn’t sure the floorwalker ever left the department, or even had a home to go to. It seemed implausible. Then an audacious idea came to Mr. Plum. Picking up the box and turning on his heel, he pushed his way through the curtains without parting them. He looked neither to left or right but marched out briskly.
With his best attempt at a confident voice, he stopped before the floorwalker and said, “Yes, it works perfectly fine. I’ll take it.”
“Monsieur actually tried it?”
“Of course I did.”
“And the result for monsieur was?”
“It’s just what I need.”
“But… but did monsieur follow my instructions?”
“To the smallest detail.”
“You pushed your head into the box and breathed in.”
“Yes. Then the blade fell.”
“And it cut off your head? But I don’t see…”
“It didn’t cut it off entirely. No. I had to twist the box around several times before that happened. Then I knew it was a good device and I picked up my head and put it back on my neck. I wish to buy it.”
“Well now. Does monsieur want it gift wrapped?”
“No need. I’ll take it as it is.”
The floorwalker lifted his immensely long arms and let them drop again and this gesture was one of the deepest disappointment. The tall men in corners and alcoves groaned in unison. Mr. Plum reached for his wallet. He was acutely aware that all eyes were probing his bare neck, searching for the join, for the mark. Not finding it, they would grow suspicious very rapidly, but he might well be out of here before they had time to stop him. It was just a question of finding the elevator. Or maybe there was a flight of emergency stairs somewhere near?
“How much is it?”
“One large and tarnished penny, monsieur.”
“I only have a florin.”
“We don’t have change in the till.”
“Do you even have a till? No, don’t answer that! Keep the change. Keep it until it does change. Until you change.”
“Monsieur is very generous. Very wise.”
“And the way out?”
The floorwalker pointed in two different directions with two of his long arms and Mr. Plum went in a third direction, clutching his guillotine and whistling, but his breath came in shuddering gasps and even when he saw that he was indeed heading straight for the elevator doors his lungs still rasped against his ribcage and every step was an ordeal. But no one followed him. He had won. He pressed the red wall button and the door opened immediately. Then he stepped inside and it closed. He stood to attention, wondering if this box was a guillotine too.
No, it wasn’t. The elevator descended to the ground floor. He stepped out and left the department store. It was early evening already. As soon as he stood in the street, a smile formed on his face and he uttered the words, “I’m free.” The nearest tram stop was only a short distance away. He caught a tram back to his own district, walked for fifteen minutes to his apartment block, tramped up the stairs to the level on which he resided. He placed the guillotine on the floor, groped for his key and opened the door, then picked up the box and carried it inside.
The kitchen was a melancholy place. It still had no kettle. He found space for the guillotine on the counter next to the blender.
Then he went into his study to resume reading a book, the book he had abandoned halfway through, the difficult book. It was the oldest book he owned and he couldn’t recall how it had come into his possession. He sat at his desk and frowned. The words on the page no longer made sense. Even the individual letters were incomprehensible. They resembled bubbles within bubbles. He flicked through the volume rapidly. The same script filled every page. The language the book was written in must have gone extinct while he was shopping in the store.
That did sometimes happen. But what bad timing! What was the solution, if any? He turned his head in the direction of the kitchen. Surely an extinct man was the kind of man who would be able to read an extinct language with ease? But suicide was a drastic action to take for the sake of finishing a book, one he hadn’t found especially entertaining even when he was able to understand it. A desire to chop the book in two overwhelmed him. “I’m not free at all,” he told himself as he stood and wandered out of the study. “None of us can ever be that.”
Author’s Note: The belief that a complete story can grow from a small seed, from just one idea or something even smaller than an idea, an image, a remark, or in this case a pun that just popped into my mind one day for no reason, ‘Are you Being Severed?’ And the moment I had those words I had the story entire. It grew in my mind with an inevitability that seems to have little to do with any conscious effort on my part. Watching the still unwritten story unfold in my mind was like watching the spreading of a pool of water from an upset jug. It just formed a pattern, the pattern it couldn’t help but form. Then it was merely a case of me setting down in words that story and its pattern. I also wanted to see if it was possible to include the sorts of allusions and puns that many readers feel lessens a story’s impact in such a way that the impact isn’t lessened at all. I wanted to find out if such tricks might even enhance the impact. That is how this story came into being.
Rhys Hughes was born in Wales. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published fifty other books, more than nine hundred short stories, and innumerable articles. He graduated as an engineer but now works as a tutor of mathematics. His most recent book is an epic poem, The Meandering Knight, and he is currently working on a collection of experimental stories to be called Comfy Rascals. His blog may be found at http://rhysaurus.blogspot.com