DP FICTION #72A: “Energy Power Gets What She Wants” by Matt Dovey

I keep my head low as I sprint towards the floating Kakardemon, dodging left-and-right across the dusty ground of Io. A ball of lightning crackles overhead, a near-miss, and the Kakardemon’s single green eye twists in fury, its red leather skin sparking in the twilight as it builds another attack. But I’m Energy Power, Queen of New Hell, I’m too damn fast and I get what I want: I leap forward with the Knife of Taertus held high and stab it into the Kakardemon’s brow. I’m nearly thrown off as the floating ball of hate starts bucking beneath me, but I grab one of its curved horns and hold on tight.

The Kakardemon sinks to the rocky canyon floor with a hiss. I step away, leaving the knife buried up to its carved-ivory hilt and grabbing the pump-action shotgun from my back. I cock it, and the sound echoes from sulfurous walls stretching half a mile high.

No other threats on my wristscreen minimap, players or monsters. Clear for now.

The demon’s huge eye, half as big as the round body it’s set in, focuses on me. Its fanged mouth opens, acid drooling out and fizzing where it lands. A deep rumble echoes up from unknowable dimensions and coalesces into a voice reverberating with the screams of a thousand swallowed victims. It speaks unto me:

“Knife of Taertus has restored Kakardemon’s soul. Kakardemon can now talk, and will ally with⁠—”

“Yeah, yeah, shut up, you’re not my first. Look: there’s this boy.”

“Give Kakardemon a player name to access performance statistics and—”

“I already wipe the floor with him every which way from Sunday, I don’t need help there. That’s kind of the problem, to be honest.” Tick tock, time to move, before someone zeroes in on my location. I sprint out of the canyon and towards the Security Tower. The tower is a needle in the heart of New Hell, a white plasteel obelisk stretching from the plains of Io towards Jupiter above; that great planet looms like a baleful orange eye in the ink-black night, its great storm a malignant red pupil. Demonic sigils blaze crimson round the tower’s crown, and my skull thrums with the subsonic resonance of their magic.

The Kakardemon bobs along behind me like a puppy. Sort of. An eight-foot-floating-demonic-ball-of-hate-and-blood-with-one-eye-and-spiky-horns puppy.

“If Energy Power can be specific with her problem, Kakardemon can offer many techniques refined in combat pits on the shores of hell.”

“My boyfriend won’t talk to me anymore.”

Demonboy Ballsack stops at this. Not the usual request, I’ll grant him. “Kakardemon has no context for romantic guidance.”

“Don’t worry, Johnny One-Eye, I don’t need your dating advice.” I kick the door of the Security Tower open: a six-foot demon’s standing just inside, and its face splits vertically in a drool-laden screech. I cut it off with a shotgun blast in the mouth, jumping over the corpse as it hits the floor with a gratuitous surge of blood. “We—Edge94 and me—we’ve been going out for a few months now. Just online, y’know—in-game chat and emails and kicking eight shades of ass in co-op tournaments—but we were going to meet in meatspace next month. He was all set to drive down for a day, but I went past him on the leaderboard last week and he’s been in a sulk since.”

“Kakardemon remains uncertain how to offer support for Energy Power’s love life.”

“What is it they promise in the adverts? ‘AI powered by an advanced neural network for analysis of player thought patterns’, something like that right? So I need you to tell me how to lose to him without it looking obvious. Show me how other people end up losing to him so I can copy that convincingly. If he’s above me in the rankings again maybe he’ll stop being such an asshole about this.”

We’re coming up on the temple room, a huge open square of sandstone pillars and lava pits, so I switch to the chaingun. The Kakardemon falls into a brooding silence as I mow down the advancing hordes of demons that pour from portals to flood this cursed moon. I’m bouncing between raised carbon-steel platforms, not even looking where I’m landing, flying by instinct with my chaingun spitting fury. The walls reverberate with screams and gunfire, and my whole world is concentrated down to the spinning geometry of circle-strafing.

“Kakardemon’s analysis of Energy Power’s player profile suggests this is not a stable long-term solution to your problem.”

“You what?” I switch to the rocket launcher and fire at my feet as I jump, surfing the shockwave to fly across the room and escape a group of demons, their claws clattering as they reach for my legs and grasp only air. I twist in mid-air and fire again, simultaneously accelerating myself towards the far platform and exploding the tightly-clustered demons into a glorious shower of chunky kibbles.

“Energy Power does not hold back,” says the Kakardemon. “Energy Power is most satisfied when giving her all. Attempts to gain happiness by self-limiting achievements are doomed to failure in Kakardemon’s opinion.”

“How’s any of this helping me, la Papa Diabla?” I punch a secret panel in the wall and grab the armour upgrade from the hidden alcove, juicing my power armour beyond its normal limits. It glows a deep shade of blood red I’ve always been fond of.

“Purpose of Kakardemon’s intelligence is to maximise player’s happiness. Kakardemon anticipates Energy Power will grow steadily resentful of the necessity to perform sub-optimally in order to soothe Edge94’s ego, leading to the inevitable breakdown of the relationship and greater hurt to both parties. Kakardemon does not want this. Kakardemon wants Energy Power to be happy.”

“But I want Edge94 to be happy. He’s the first… look, my parents are never really about, and VR nerds aren’t exactly the most popular ticket in town. Edge94 is the only real friend I’ve got, as well as everything else. I miss talking to him, and I miss him being happy, and I wish I knew why he cared so much about the fucking leaderboard.”

“Analysis of Edge94’s playtime pattern and ranking history suggests his skill at the game forms a large part of his self-identity. Kakardemon also notes that high levels of in-game communication between Energy Power and Edge94 began after Edge94 had achieved the top ranking. Kakardemon therefore deduces Edge94 believes Energy Power only likes him for his skill, and that Energy Power’s higher rank will inevitably lead to a decline in her desire for him.”

It takes a moment to work through all that in my head. I’ve never heard a Kakardemon talk so in-depth. But shit, this is all because his ego means more to him than I do? “That stupid S.O.B.! Why won’t he just talk to me about it?”

“Kakardemon has noted male players often interpret the need to communicate as a weakness, and that in order to solve their problems they should instead ‘git gud’. Kakardemon has also noted the ineffectiveness of this tactic, and has frequently exploited it.”

“Ugh! You’re giving me problems without solutions, Kakarmama. Just tell me what I gotta do.”

“Kakardemon suggests signalling your desire to talk.”

“Tried that. He starts shooting before I can get a word in.” The last of the invading demons drops dead, smoke rising from a dozen holes in its torso. The temple altar in the central lava pit cracks open, and a column rises through it from underground: there’s a Kyberdevil perched on top, an ugly-ass nine-foot goat-legged little bitch with most of its torso carved away to attach a rocket launcher. I say hello with a cluster of precisely timed frag grenades.

“Kakardemon concludes Energy Power needs a delay. Tactical resource banks suggest that surprise is the best way to force this.”

The Kyberdevil’s already on its knees, stunned by the frags. I hop over and finish it with a boot to the head, crunching through its skull to the squishy grey stuff beneath. “A surprise like what?”

“Kakardemon sometimes rolls around on floor singing classic pop song ‘Independent Woman’ while other demons flank the player.”

That brings me up short. “Huh. No shit. Didn’t know you could get down like that. Don’t reckon it’ll work for me, though, I’m not round enough to roll. I need something else.”

“Kakardemon suggests Energy Power think quick. Edge94 is closing on this position.”

Shiiiit. I check the minimap and spot him below me. He must’ve already blazed through the armoury on sub-level one. He’ll be kitted out now, definitely a plasma rifle, maybe a BMF gun if he got lucky. He could oneshot me. I’ll have no time to line up a shoulder shot to disarm him, no time to throw down my guns, no time to get a “Hey” out on local chat. He’ll kill me and—and shit, if I’m honest, Old Red Testicle here is right. I won’t be happy losing. Edge’ll kill me and I’ll get pissed at him and come back hard, and then he’ll come back harder at me and—well, then I’ll kill him again cos I’m better, and he’ll get in an even bigger sulk and we’ll never get anywhere. I need to get him to talk to me.

So I need a surprise. Something he’s not expecting. Something where he can’t hit me before I’m done.

I look at the Kakardemon. At the knife still sticking out its head, the ivory hilt contrasted against the red leather skin.

“Well, buddy,” I say. “It’s been good chatting. Good luck out there.” I yank the knife from its head and stamp down on the central platform switch. I drop out of sight beneath the closing altar just as the Kakardemon snarls, its electronic facsimile of a soul vanished and gone.

I’m running before the column’s finished its drop into the catacombs. It’s thick with darkness down here, but I know Edge94 is close and I can’t be caught standing still. I could beat him to the quick-draw easy, circle-strafe round him in my sleep, but this? This shit’s gonna be hard.

My wristscreen vibrates with a silent proximity alarm. I back up against a stone wall, facing a staircase lit with flickering candles. Edge’ll expect me to run up there, get to the mezzanine floor above, where I could drop grenades on his head. He’ll be facing it already, waiting to shoot me in the back.

But he won’t expect me to spin like this, whirl the other way and crouch-jump through the window here, come at him from the other side with the Knife of Taertus in my hand, zig-zagging through the dark and headed straight for him. I’m Energy Power, the too-damn-fast Queen of New Hell, and I—get—what—I—want. A huge ball of green plasma flies past me to one side and then I’m on him, bearing him down to the ground, and the knife’s in his chest and he’s staring in shock.

“What the hell?” he says, pinned beneath me as I straddle his torso.

“Gotcha.” I flick the knife hilt with one finger.

“You know the knife only works on AI, right, not humans? It can’t make me talk.”

I raise an eyebrow.

“Well, I mean, I know I’m talking now, but… well. Shit. Alright.”

“Alright yourself. We need to talk.”

He looks at the knife in his chest, and he looks up at me, and he sighs in defeat.

I’m Energy Power, and I get what I want.


© 2021 by Matt Dovey

Author’s Note: I grew up on my PC. Well, first I grew up on my Amiga 500, but by the time I was hitting adolescence I was knee deep in Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, Monkey Island, Red Alert, Grand Theft Auto (in 2D!) and so on. This story is, therefore, the purest expression of my id I have yet written. It is full of stupid little references for no other reason than it amuses me, probably more than I even realise–and the entire thing is a reference to the British magazine Edge, who in 1994 famously concluded their review of the original Doom with “If only you could talk to these creatures…”That it grew from a stupid videogames in-joke into a commentary on toxic masculinity and the self-defeating futility of female-presenting people limiting themselves to be acceptable to society and the weak men in their life was, perhaps, inevitable.

Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm he claims is from fighting Kyberdemons, though in truth he just walked into a tree with a VR helmet on. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor at PodCastle, a member of Codex and Villa Diodati, and has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including all four Escape Artists podcasts, Analog and Daily SF. You can keep up with it all at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.


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DP FICTION #66A: “Finding the Center” by Andrew K Hoe

Content note(click for details) Content note: racism, including racial slurs

I brought Annie to my math-racist’s because I’d stolen a laptop from the Syndicate. I’d stirred the vipers’ nest. Their reach was long, and I didn’t have anywhere to take her. Last year, they’d killed Annie’s mother—a trained policewoman—using crooked cops from our own precinct. So Annie went where I went—even to Sanger’s beat-down porch.

I asked her to wait by the streetlamp, but she fingered her backpack. “Dad, why do you work with people who hate you?”

I winced internally: my nine-year-old knew about my racists. Like her mother, I used to be an upstanding officer. I’d repressed my ugly power. But now, I used racists freely. Last thing Annie’s mother would’ve wanted was for me to bring her to one.

Annie hadn’t asked why we ran when the black SUV approached our home this morning, why I’d smashed my phone, grabbed the laptop. But what she had asked was worse.

Why did my power work with people like Sanger?“Practice your Tai Chi over there, Annie.” She knew about my racists, but she didn’t have to know how I used them.

“But—”

“Please, pumpkin.”

She sighed and plodded to the streetlamp, started forms, the most graceful nine-year-old finding her center. Tai Chi helped me manage my power, so I’d taught it to her.

I tapped the doorbell, squeezing the briefcase containing the pilfered Syndicate laptop.

Sanger cracked open his door, peering out at me. My ability involved sensing prejudice, and Sanger’s pulled at my insides like a noose. Goosebumps riddled my skin, bones quivering underneath—and he hadn’t said anything yet. That’s how potent he was.

“Hiya,” I grunted.

When he opened fully, I gasped: his resentment practically squeezed my intestines. He grinned, relishing my discomfort. “Back for more, are we?”

I’d encountered him in town weeks back, ranting about “Chinks” overtaking American jobs. Sensing his math-potential, I’d followed him here, clutching my gut the whole time.

Now, I stood before him, letting him seethe at my Asian features, providing him with as much ammunition as possible. “Sanger,” I said, “are Asians accounting whizzes, or what?”

He snatched the bait like we were still in the same dialogue from last visit. “Chinks are so damned good at math! What else them slanted eyes for ‘sides counting beans?” He paused, eyes alight. Waiting.

I hated this part.

My eyes compressed into tight lines… but my mind quickened with mathematical know-how, accountancy laws. Sanger continued in a rapid-fire scree, my body shifting to obey. How nearsighted “Orientals” were!—my vision blurred; how short!—my height shrunk. He mentioned abacuses—one settled in my pocket.

I had what I needed.

Then Sanger paused. He enunciated his next words carefully, something he’d probably been rehearsing for weeks. “You need good bookkeeping… to track paddies like the bow-backed rice-picker you are!”

Goddammit.

My spine crooked, shoulders crunching. I was suddenly ankle-deep in water. Rice plantings shifted below me on a phantom breeze.

Sanger cackled at the paddy now consuming his lawn. He was a math-racist with job-racist tendencies, never varying from those themes. But sometimes racists changed, like hurricanes shifting direction. I’d been too distracted; I hadn’t sensed his food-racism.

Sanger saw Annie doing a Tai Chi toe-kick. “What the—?”

“Goodbye, Sanger.” He’d had his show. He could say whatever he wanted about me, but my daughter was off-limits.

He moved towards Annie, but I snarled. “I said goodbye.” Sanger swallowed, retreated behind his door. I paused to let my contortions settle, but a wet-sounding laugh fell around me.

“What are you—Racism-Man?”

I stumbled in my Sanger-given body.

Annie called over from the streetlamp. “Dad?”

“Stay there, pumpkin!” I sloshed round Sanger’s house, out of sight. I panted, too-thin eyes searching Sanger’s bushes, his cigarette-littered walkway. “Show yourself!”

White mist coiled toward the paddy’s edge, to what I realized were a trench coat and fedora, inflating them like some obscene balloon. As he solidified, a pulling sensation formed in my gut. Wispy hands produced sunglasses for a featureless face.

Rinehart. The Syndicate’s super-powered fixer.

I clutched my stomach. “You… like my power?”

“It’s definitely entertaining,” Rinehart said in his weird, wet voice, like he wasn’t using vocal cords. He indicated the paddy. “Similar to mine. More powerful, even, if you transform your surroundings.”

“First time that’s happened,” I admitted.

“Ah. You don’t understand your abilities yet.”

“There’s no manual. How’d you learn yours?” I wasn’t just stalling. Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities. Experienced fliers could more or less teach newer fliers. Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

Rinehart shrugged. “Like you, following others’ dictates. Bowing to perceptions. But I wrested back control. It requires… a certain surrender…” He extended smoky fingers that roiled against the sunlight, digits wavering like flames, narrowing into talons, then becoming human fingers again.

I shivered. Rinehart definitely had more control over his body than I did mine. I needed people like Sanger, but Rinehart appeared able to mold his physicality any which way he wanted. Seemed he’d found his center. In Kung Fu, the center referred to one’s gravitational balance, and, by extension, one’s self-realization. If I kept using racists like Sanger, would I end like Rinehart?

“Surrender the laptop, and I’ll finish you quick. Your daughter doesn’t have to see you die.”

“You’re confident.”

“You’re a Chinky old farmer. You asked to be a Chinky old farmer.”

He’d tracked me, waiting until I was vulnerable before revealing himself. Yet judging from this stomachache he was giving me… “Ever see The Karate Kid? Remember Mr. Miyagi?”

Rinehart tilted his head, as if narrowing eyes behind his sunglasses—even though he didn’t have any.

“He was old, too. But he was formidable.”

My ability responded better to spoken or written slurs, but oftentimes my body shifted to racialized mental images. Sudden confidence streamed into me. I smirked, taking a Karate stance. He had seen that movie. He was a fight-racist.

Rinehart laughed. “That how your power works, Racism-Man?” His hands became smoke-tentacles, shooting for me.

I parried them. “Wax-on, wax-off!”

So many people insisted they didn’t have any racist bones in their bodies. Truth? That was like saying they’d never had any impure thoughts. Everybody contained a little racism. Granted, there were people like my past wife who didn’t give my power much to work with.

But Rinehart was potent. Boneless, maybe, but typical of what I encountered daily. I just had to keep feeding him cues. “Asians are brilliant martial artists—right, Rinehart?”

Whenever I struck, he became intangible—I hit mist, empty fabric—but he always solidified to attack. He quit laughing, intensifying his strikes.

“Remember Miyagi’s crane kick—KIYAH!”

My kick connected. Rinehart flew into the paddy, fedora and coat suddenly empty, floating on the water. A mist column plumed upwards, dissipating. Probably running to his SUV-driving minions.

I wheezed, straining under the weight of Asian-martial-mystique and mathematical stereotypes.

I grabbed the briefcase, shuffled to the lamppost, beckoned Annie over. The paddy reverted to browned grass, but my contortions remained.

“You okay, Dad?”

Before her mother’s passing, I never entered the house until whatever prejudices I’d gotten during the workday faded. Nothing big, maybe thinned eyes or a Manchurian queue. I’d practice Tai Chi until I normalized. As parents, officers, protectors of the community, we dreaded explaining racism to our daughter—something we couldn’t protect her from. How would the talk go? Pumpkin, people might treat you differently because of your appearance. Your race. But since the funeral, my contortions didn’t fade so quickly. In fact, they’d intensified, persisting despite hours of Tai Chi. In the past few months, I’d limped through our doorway countless times, cumbrous with slurs…

…and Annie never noticed. I should’ve been relieved. What parent wanted the world’s ugliness reflected in themselves before their children?

Today, like always, her eyes skipped over my stoop, my painfully slitted eyes.

Her mother wouldn’t see my contortions immediately; she’d have to really stare—but she saw eventually. Maybe, one day Annie would look at me, do a double-take. Maybe she’d cry at what she saw.

“Dad?”

“I’m fine, pumpkin.”

*

At a crosswalk, Annie side-eyed me. “This is about Mom, isn’t it?”

“No, pumpkin. It’s about…”

About unraveling why my transformations were worsening. It’d started when the Syndicate killed Annie’s mother. Maybe, if I put the Syndicate away, my body would right itself. But payback was a powerful side motivation.

“Yes. It’s about your mother’s murder.”

Annie nodded. She grabbed my crinkled hand and led me downtown. If Rinehart followed, he did so invisibly.

We made it to a café, where I activated the laptop. Time to deploy Sanger’s slurs. Last night, I’d read a technology-racist’s blog about Japanese programmers hacking (pun intended) America into “dericious” pieces. Like Sanger, the author was potent: I gained expertise to break the laptop’s encryption. But I also got buck-teeth making it hard to breathe. I fell asleep waiting for my body to re-center—awakening to the black SUV’s screech.

Annie stared out the window as I traced Syndicate sums through labyrinthine accounts. “Where’d you get the abacus?”

My fingers paused over the beads. “Where’d you learn that word?”

“Abacus? Maybe Mom said it once?”

I blinked, remembering the day she was referring to. Memories of the three of us together still hurt. I taught Annie Tai Chi so she’d find her center, but her mother was my self-realization. With her, I always knew who I was. On days when my body was being stubborn, she’d remind me Asians could speak English clearly, that our eyes were beautiful. Her words didn’t affect me, but they helped. Turning in my badge wasn’t just about hunting the Syndicate. It was also because I couldn’t identify as a cop anymore—as that honorable man my wife saw.

Nowadays, my keyring of racists dictated my identity.

“You’re my hero, Annie. You know that?”

This wasn’t a redirection. She was my hero. This invincible, shining light who kept me going, just by virtue of being herself.

“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry… about mentioning Mom just now. I know how you get whenever she comes up—”

“Annie. You never have to feel sorry about mentioning her. I’ve been so focused on… um, work. We should talk like we used to.”

I had more to say, but my blurry vision sharpened. Odd. I should’ve had hours yet in this form. Suddenly, I was sitting straighter, my eyes returning to their original shape.

“What if you quit the Mom-thing? What if you stopped dealing with bad people?”

“You… want me to quit?” My insides trembled. I returned to the laptop; I needed to find the accounting aberration before Sanger’s words fell off completely.

“Dad?”

“Now now, Annie—”

She pointed to the black SUV pulling up. With a tingle, my Sanger-given body and Miyagi-prowess vanished. But I’d gotten what I needed.

My wife had led the anti-Syndicate taskforce, and they’d killed her for that, but I saw to it—through my “dericious” technology-racists—that her file listing her family was redacted. Just in case, I’d switched Annie’s picture with a computer-generated image. I refused the official funeral, blocked our names from the press. I removed the house pictures, all visual evidence of Annie’s connection to us. I’m going after your mother’s killers, I’d explained. She’d nodded somberly.

Me, though? I’d been plumbing the Syndicate’s dens and safehouses.

I focused on the different pulls in the café: job-racism, politics-racism, movie-racism…

People thought racism was a white-vs-non-white thing. An upbringing thing. A class thing. Something happening in some-city in something-state.

Truth? Prejudice was as old as day, plentiful like dust. Outright racists like Sanger were most potent, but friendly racists also worked. People who’d never say Chink. People who thought themselves immune to prejudicial thinking (not a racist bone in my body!) because they voted for this proposal, kept diverse friends, married someone of this race. People who thought you couldn’t be racist against your own race—you totally could.

Annie packed the laptop while I spoke to a woman who thought all Asians looked alike. She meant it as a compliment. You Asians are youthful-looking!

I shuddered. Friendly racism didn’t yank as painfully as outright racism, but it prickled. Under the friendly intentions poked barbed micro-aggressions: Asians are youthful-looking—Inhuman; Asians are scientifically inclined—They’re only scientifically inclined; Asian females are so endearingly submissive—slavish.

As the woman talked, my skin shifted. Since my wife’s death, my ability had gone haywire, but my contortions eventually dropped. What about Asians who’d been told over and over how exotic they were, how obedient—for decades? How long did that kind of conditioning take to drop?

“If your hair were parted,” the woman continued, “you’d be my Vietnamese neighbor. He’s very handsome.”

“Like this?”

She squinted. “He has a beauty mark.”

“A mole? Around here?” I checked my reflection on the window. As expected, my face scrunched into this amalgam of Asian features, what she imagined as her neighbor’s face.

“What if your neighbor dyed his hair? Grew a beard?”

She couldn’t help but picture my suggestions; my body couldn’t help but react.

I left her gaping, collected Annie, and together we walked past the suited men exiting the SUV. One of them did a double-take at Annie. “Hey!”

Dammit—they’d uncovered my protective measures.

“Behind me, pumpkin. Take the briefcase.” Could I pull another Miyagi-contortion?

But Annie stepped forward. She was… glowing. I remembered telling her she was my hero. I remembered what I’d thought.

This invincible, shining light…

The Syndicate men flinched, backing away, like they weren’t hardened killers. I gaped as they retreated into their SUV, squealed off.

“I’ve… been meaning to tell you, Dad.”

She’d transformed to how I imagined her. She had power. No, not just that. I reacted to racial slurs and thoughts, but she’d reacted to my non-racial imagining. What did that mean?

“It’s… okay, pumpkin. We’re going to the police now.”

She squeezed my hand, and I faced her. But whatever words I’d started to find inside the café had disappeared.

“C’mon, pumpkin.”

*

I led Annie through streets thick with the pulls of job-racists who’d swear Asians were excellent cooks, camouflage-racists who thought Chinese and Koreans interchangeable, fight-racists who’d make me Bruce Lee if needed. We were the model minority, soft-spoken, subservient. We drove rice-rockets, and I’d led some crazy car chases. I told a teleport-racist I was Filipino; he demanded I return to my own country—I was transported to the Philippines, where I infiltrated the Syndicate’s Manila operations. An M. Butterfly fan, a gender-racist, talked me into becoming a lotus-flower woman. A sex-racist told me how beautiful Asians were. I’d gasped, grabbing my tightening crotch—she imagined Asians as well-endowed.

Other super-powered people levitated, walked through walls. They flew, shot fireballs. Me? I rode stereotypes.

Talking to Annie about racism—that she might suffer it, that she needed to resist doing it to others—would’ve been hard enough. Academics had written books trying to demystify the bewildering, tragic subject. But if Annie could access prejudice as a tool? What if, like me, she got overwhelmed by its brutal weight? Had she, all alone, experienced the gut-wrenching confusion of shaping to another’s will?

Before the police station’s entrance, I turned to her. “How long have you had your ability?”

She looked at me like I was the only thing in the universe. I wasn’t completely surprised by her power. Some abilities were passed genetically. That was why I’d insisted she practice Tai Chi.

She bit her lip. “Not long.”

I realized what I’d missed earlier. If Annie saw the abacus, then… my new mole… my beard…. “You see what I become,” I said dully. “You’ve seen all along.”

What if you stopped dealing with bad people?

What had it been like for her, hearing people call me things like “slant-eyed gook”? Then to see me actually become that?

She looked down. “You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”

I hated that anyone would call her “slant-eyed gook”. I especially hated that with her powers, her body would contort. But I had something to offer: my experiences with my ability, learning to think quickly, to twist prejudice into something useful. Questions I could answer for her, while I had to be my own clumsy teacher.

“I’m disappointed because I didn’t want you to see me at my worst. But I’m never disappointed in you, Annie. Nothing’s changed. You’re my hero. You’re always my hero.”

She smiled at that, a natural smile I hadn’t seen in a while. We entered the station—one different from my former precinct. I’d vetted everybody here for corruption, but nobody knew me. I shoved a coded note into the drop-box at the windowed reception grill. The attending officer shot me a look before hurrying off.

“Annie, do you know why finding your center’s so important? Your mother was mine. She reminded me who I was.”

“Dad, I—” she started, but a sergeant interrupted from behind the window.

You’re the undercover asset? The one dropping us Syndicate intel?”

I nudged Annie back, lifted the laptop. “I’ve got the evidence.”

“I thought you’d be taller.”

I grunted as my spine started stretching. I’d tell Annie first that prejudice hit you without warning. You couldn’t feel every racial pull. Only tall people—of this skin color, this gender, this biological composition—did things that mattered. I gritted my teeth as I elongated to obey that premise.

In that unhinged moment, Rinehart struck.

Vapor streamed from a ceiling vent, sluiced through the grill, a human-shaped smog pulling a gun from the drop-box—the sergeant yelled, grabbing his empty holster—

I threw myself around Annie. She breathed into my ear. The gun barked, like the “Chink!” shot from Sanger’s lips, demanding my body obey, that I form holes and blood.

I looked up. Rinehart appeared confused.

Officers clamored against the reception window’s other side. Rinehart had jiggered the door. Why wasn’t I dead?

Then I registered what Annie had said into my ear, what my body couldn’t help but mirror: “You’re my hero, Dad.”

What exactly did my daughter imagine a hero could do? How potent was her belief in me?

The bullet, mashed against my back, pinged onto the floor as I straightened. Rinehart fired his entire clip, bullets thunking off me.

He tossed the gun. “The key to controlling my ability, Miyagi-sensei—” my bones started warping— “was to embrace people’s dictates. To surrender to smoke.”

He slammed me into the window, stunning me. “It’s wonderfully freeing.”

I grabbed his solid shoulders. But Rinehart reformed, shoulders becoming tentacles that hurled me into the ceiling. “Surrender, Fu Manchu!” He’d learned from our last encounter, was trying to overload my body. I dropped to the floor, sprouting a Fu-mustache. “Surrender, dragon-lady!” Torn between stereotypes, my limbs creaked… my fingertips flaked… bleaching of color… whitening… like smoke…

“Surrender, Racism-Man! Ssssssurrender!”

“No!” Annie shouted. She was glowing again. Rinehart flinched from her light.

“Stop listening to bad people, Dad! Just stop! You’remyhero.”

Her mother couldn’t talk me out of transformations. Even the image in her mind couldn’t erase what strangers said about me. Yet Annie thought I was bulletproof. She’d made me bulletproof. Why had her words worked?

Sometimes, super-powered people could learn from those with similar abilities.

Some super-powered people even teamed up, their abilities complementing each other in unexpected ways.

When my body had mysteriously normalized in the café, I’d been opening up to Annie. That was it. I had to listen to her. “Keep talking, pumpkin! It’s helping!”

“Oh, just die already!” Rinehart stretched smoky limbs towards Annie’s light, but snatched them back, as if scalded.

“I want you to hang our pictures again!” she said.

That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. But hearing my daughter’s words felt good. My warped limbs started loosening. “I’m listening!”

“I want to talk about Mom without worrying it’ll make you sad!” A dam had broken loose. She was crying, but my flaking hands solidified, normal color returning.

And I was crying too. I’d thought I was protecting her, but I’d been blocking her out.

“Sad? I’ll show you sad!” Rinehart rose like a storm cloud.

“I want to remember things like Mom showing you how to build a campfire!”

Campfire?

I stood, and breathed fire—yes, fire—at Rinehart. I was a quick thinker, after all. He spilled to the floor as a blackened, human-shaped fog.

“I know who I am, Rinehart. I’m a hero. I’m her hero.”

He growled. “Whatever, Hero-Man.” He vaporized, wafting slowly through the ceiling vent, as if wounded. Rinehart couldn’t be solved in one decisive battle. We’d face each other again.

Officers burst into the reception area. The laptop lay where I’d dropped it. Hopefully, it still worked, but destroying the Syndicate on my own terms seemed much more appealing to me.

Annie took my hand. “I… have more to say.”

In Kung Fu, you knew you’d found your center when you found a place with no pull, where you just were. Maybe the key to finding balance wasn’t destroying a criminal organization or getting revenge, or hiding racism from my daughter, but with something as simple as hearing her out.

I looked into Annie’s eyes. “I’m listening.”


© 2020 by Andrew K Hoe

Author’s Note: I remember my parents trying to explain to me, a Chinese American child in the 1980s, what racism was. I remember that talk being so difficult, and tried picturing how I might explain racism to a child of my own in the 21st century. Racism is extremely nuanced and difficult to verbalize. It’s far more complex than a collection of verbal slurs, and being anti-racist takes much more than vowing never to say certain ugly words. In my daily experiences, I’ve encountered people who passionately decry racism, but don’t realize they enact, through their everyday speech and actions, the very racist behaviors they denounce. When confronted with evidence of their racism, they’re the first to claim “I’m not racist” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” The tragic circumstances of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests have forced many to acknowledge that “systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “microaggression,” and “implicit bias” are actual dangers that continue to threaten BIPOC, trans-, and other marginalized peoples. Yet there are stories of victimized groups having turned the tables by using their oppressors’ racism against them. For example, David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly deals with the real life Chinese male spy who successfully used stereotypes of Asian women to fool a French diplomat into thinking he was a woman. The two had sexual relations with the diplomat being none the wiser. Rinehart is a character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who forsakes his racial identity to adapt to white society. In writing this story, I wondered—what if a hero could weaponize the racism used against him? What would happen if he could use racism as a superpower?

Andrew K Hoe practices Kung Fu and writes fiction in Southern California. He has been an assistant language teacher in Japan, is currently an assistant professor of English, is also an assistant editor for the Cast of Wonders podcast, and basically just loves assisting. He is thrilled to have a story featured in Diabolical Plots, one of his favorite speculative fiction venues. 


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #3: Bad Blood by Taylor Swift

written by David Steffen

This is the third in a new series of articles wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. 

This time we are taking a look at Bad Blood by Taylor Swift, featuring Kendrick Lamar, a 2015 blockbuster action film with an all-star cast.

The film begins with an opening shot of a city skyline at night and transitions inside to an office space that appears to be empty until a man wearing a business side and a headband-style mask slams onto the top of the frontmost desk and a security alarm blares and we see a woman (Taylor Swift) attacking another suit by locking her legs around his head and throwing him before calmly applying fresh lipstick while her character name “Catastrophe” displays next to her.

She is not alone in this infiltration as Arsyn (Selena Gomez) enters the scene, disabling yet another suit. Together they make quick work of a whole squad of… enemy agents? My first thought on this scene was they were infiltrating to steal something, but it seems unlikely that security guards in an office building would wear masks as a matter of course, even if they are security guards working for a villain.

Catastrophe lays her hands on a silver briefcase that appears to be of some importance–though it’s not clear where it comes from, flying through the air in the middle of the scene, accidentally thrown by a disabled suit? If it is so important, why does the guy run toward her while carrying it, rather than running away? When Catastrophe lets her guard down Arsyn blows powder in her face from a makeup kit and kicks Catastrophe through a nearby window where she falls a great distance and smashes into a car and Arsyn leaves her for dead. (I wouldn’t want to pay the insurance on that building if they have a high-rise with floor to ceiling windows and don’t have shatter-proof glass).

Catastrophe is badly injured but not dead, and she is mended by the futuristic machines of tech expert Welvin Da Great (Kendrick Lamar) with the assistance of a trio of women (androids?) called The Trinity (Hailee Steinfeld). This high-tech, presumably high budget suite suggests that Catastrophe works for a high-budget spy organization, or mercenary I suppose since they are probably way too noticeable to be proper spies.

About three-fourths of the film from this point is an extended training montage as Catastrophe sharpens her skills in various areas with different specialists within the organization. The cast is too large to list here, but they include Mother Chucker (Carla Delevingne) a nunchuck specialist, Cutthroat (Zendaya) throwing knife specialist, Domino (Jessica Alba) motorcycle specialist, and Destructa X (Ellie Goulding) who carries a missile launcher everywhere she goes, even indoors. Each appearance is little more than a brief cameo as Catastrophe hones her skills with each of them. Lucky Fiori (Lena Dunham) seems to be the leader of the organization–at least, it’s hard to imagine she plays any other role since she is not seen doing anything but smoking a cigar.

The organization is certainly formiddable and presumably has some deep pockets considering the weaponry and facilities, and given that Catastrophe and others appear to routinely damage the architecture and no one seems to care. The fact that Destructa X carries her missile launcher around indoors does raise some questions about the organizations friendly fire record–since they appear to be some kind of mercenary or special forces group, I imagine that everyone there is accustomed to risking their lives, but still one would think they would want to avoid one of their own accidentally wiping out a dozen or more of their own agents with a slip of the finger–I would be much more worried about that than about applying so many resources to stopping Arsyn.

Another significant feature of the organization is that it appears to be women-led and almost entirely woman-staffed–Welvin Da Great appearing to be the sole exception. Some of the wardrobe choices are a little bit perplexing for a merc or special forces group–particularly platform shoes and that sort of thing that can’t be conducive to running though they certainly look nice.

In the final scene, Catastrophe and an entourage of six other agents face off against Arsyn and a matching entourage ringed by a truly apocolayptic ring of explosions that no one seems at all worried about. Arsyn’s entourage all wear full leather face-masks–is this the uniform of a rival organization, or are these moles who are still trying to conceal their identity? Despite the heavy weaponry including missile launchers and bullet-bandoliers, the two groups don’t attack from a distance or attack undercover, but instead walk up to within arm’s reach of each other before Catastrophe and Arsyn and simultaneously attack each other with their bare hands.

This action film has an all-star cast, and certainly plenty of action. Who doesn’t love a good training montage between well-matched and imposing opponents, or a big action star face-off at the end. If you’re looking for just action, there is plenty of that. Considering the short length of the film, the size of the cast leaves little room for character development as the film breathlessly runs from one character to the next. I would be interested in watching spinoff films for any number of these characters (Cutthroat and Domino in particular, because I’ve liked Zendaya’s and Alba’s previous acting work).

The one character that has significant screen-time is our protagonist Catastrophe, and I’m not sure that I ever fully understood her either. She is excellent at what she does and was only defeated in the film by a betrayal by a trusted ally at a distracted moment. It’s understandable that she would want revenge for that betrayal, and to make sure that Arsyn can never do it again. But I would have liked to know more about why the organization thought it a worthwhile use of so many resources–why is it so important for Arsyn to be killed and to risk so many agents to do it. Is it driven primarily by Catastrophe’s vendetta or does the organization have its own purpose apart from that? What was in the briefcase? Who were they stealing the briefcase from, and why weren’t they smart enough to send the briefcase away from the attackers instead of toward them? The film does not answer any of these questions, though Lucky Fiori seems generally unconcerned with anything besides smoking her cigar, so I got the impression that Catastrophe has the free reign to direct this operation at her own directive.

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be Run Boy Run by Woodkid)

GAME REVIEW: Elevator Action

written by David Steffen

Elevator Action is a 1983 spy action game by Taito published in arcade format. As each level begins the player character grapples to the top of a 30-story building and must make their way down to the ground floor through the building filled with gun-toting guards while collecting secret documents along the way.

The most novel part of the game, as the name suggests, is the elevators used to move from floor to floor which you and the guards can use to shift up or down floors. You do have an advantage over an individual guard: you also have a gun, and both you and the guards will die from a single bullet, and the guards don’t seem inclined to dodge by jumping and ducking as you can, and you can also kill the guards by jump-kicking.

As far as arcade games of the era go, this one is much easier to get pretty good at than most, so was probably an easy “gateway game” for arcade players. despite the relatively simple controls, you have quite a few options between shooting and dodging and jump-kicking and riding elevators to evade or attack the guards.

I played this for the first time at the Game Changers exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Visuals
Typical for the era.

Audio
Typical for the era.

Challenge
Lower than most arcade games, much easier entry point.

Story
Not much story (typical of the era and format).

Session Time
Depends how good you are!

Playability
Simple, apart from it not being immediately obvious that you have to collect documents behind the red doors, and if you don’t open those doors reaching the ground floor just sends you back up.

Replayability
Not in the usual way I mean, but if you like this kind of game there’s certainly plenty of fun to be had.

Originality
It was a new twist at the time.

Playtime
I don’t know how long it would take to play all the way through.

Overall
This is a fun game and less frustrating than other games of its time. And there have been various recent-ish ports that you might be able to find.

GAME REVIEW: Robotron 2084

written by David Steffen

Robotron 2084 was developed by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar of Vid Kidz  and released in 1982. A multi-directional shooter survival game, where the object is to survive in a fight against endless waves of killer robots while rescuing human survivors along the way.

The game uses a dual-joystick movement and shooting scheme that made it easy to share controls with a friend, and featured some major hardware innovations for the time that allowed large numbers of enemies to be animated on the screen at the same time making for exciting fast-paced action. At any given time you are being swarmed by robots for multiple directions and you have to move in any direction to avoid them while firing in any direction as well–the direction of firing is independent of direction of movement, so you can fire in the direction you’re moving, or fire backward, or fire to the side. (This scheme was used for later games like Super Smash TV if it seems familiar).

This game’s dual-joystick independent control also makes it suitable for two players cooperative play–one player per joystick. I played it with kid, for which most 80’s arcade games are way too hard, and together we were better than I was by myself, with me controlling the movement (and really just concentrating on dodging) and them controlling the shooting from the moving.

I played this game for the first time at the Game Changers exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Visuals
Not the most detailed, but where this one really shines (for its era) is the number of animated things on the screen at a time!

Audio
Typical for the era.

Challenge
High.

Story
Simple (not unusual for that era).

Session Time
Depends how good you are!

Playability
Simple controlers, with basic direction joystick and directional shooting, but hard to master, it’s hard to do both at once and the challenge ramps up quickly.

Replayability
Not in the usual way I mean, but if you like this kind of game there’s certainly plenty of fun to be had.

Originality
It was a major innovation at the time that has inspired other games since then.

Playtime
I don’t know how long it would take to play all the way through.

Overall
A lot of fun, especially if you get a chance to play it on the arcade console, especially with a friend. I haven’t found a really convenient source to play this game, but it’s had some console ports to SNES among others you might be able to find.

GAME REVIEW: McPixel

written by David Steffen

McPixel is a point and click puzzle humor game released by Sos in 2012.  The game is made up of dozen 20-second mini-levels where the main character McPixel has 20 seconds to save the day, usually by defusing a bomb.  Clear inspiration for the game is the 1980s show MacGyver (which was recently rebooted), known for putting its eponymous hero in tight spots where he had to improvise a solution to a deadly problem in minutes.  And to some extent maybe even MacGruber, the Saturday Night Live spoof of MacGyver in recent years–MacGruber came to mind more readily since MacGruber regularly fails to stop the explosions.

The controls of the game are very simple–a 20-second timer is counting down, but you have plenty of time to try something, anything, which you do by clicking on objects in the scene.  In many cases the bomb is not even visible so you don’t always even have a clear objective, but your path is the same–try clicking on everything.

When he’s in a tight spot (and he always is), McPixel’s first resort are kicking, peeing on things, or eating something.  Many of the actions he does don’t really make sense for saving the day… but often these things are the ones that actually do save the day, so I guess McPixel just has an uncanny instinct for such things?  The game tries for humor by this subversion of expectations, though the punchlines start to feel repetitive pretty fast–repetitive lowbrow humor here (though I still received it better than most Adam Sandler movies).

Visuals
King’s Quest I era graphics.  I like SNES-level pixelart, and occasionally have enjoyed very blocky low-res recent releases like Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, but this is going a bit far for my taste.  I suppose it does get away with some of the more lewd actions, since it’s kindof hard to be sure exactly what McPixel is doing in some cases.

Audio
Thankfully, the audio is not from the same era as the graphics (the music on King’s Quest I era games are ear-splittingly shrill).  But you’re not really missing anything by playing it muted.

Challenge
The only “challenge” in the game comes from thoroughness–try everything you can think of in every combination to find the solution, and again to find all the gags to unlock extra levels.  Some of the extra “challenging” levels might block you for a while, but only because the “active” items on the screen are hidden–which just ended up being a tedious challenge rather than a fun one.

Story
No real story.

Session Time
Very quick, which makes it easy to pick up and put down.  Which, honestly, is most of the reason why I played it, because it’s hard to find games that are so easy to play for less than 5 minutes at a time.

Playability
Just click on everything methodically.

Replayability
A little bit, to find all the gags and unlock extra levels.

Originality
On the one hand, it’s the first game I’ve played based on an endless string of MacGyver/MacGruber mini-levels to defuse bombs.  On the other hand, it… got very repetitive very fast, so the originality wore out real fast.  There’s only so many people you can kick and only so many fires you can piss on before it starts to feel a little worn out.

Playtime
I didn’t quite finish all of the levels, because I got tired of clicking randomly one of the “harder” levels, where the active items on the screen are hidden so it’s a lot of randomly clicking and then seeing the same actions again and again and again.

Overall
If you have a very juvenile sense of humor that does not wear out from repetition, if you like games that requires methodic playing rather than action or puzzle or whatever, if you like games with very outdated graphics with a funny premise.

If you dig Metroid style platformer-shooters you should enjoy this game (and if you don’t know what a Metroid style platformer-shooter, it’s not a bad choice to be the first of its type you’ve played). Although I played through most of the levels, it was mostly because it’s a quick game to play for just a few minutes, and because it was easy enough that it still drew my completionist side.  But it’s a hard game to recommend. $5 on Steam.

 

GAME REVIEW: Teslagrad

written by David Steffen

teslagradA man walks through the night, carrying a staff and a baby.  He knocks on a door, gives the baby to a woman there, and then keeps walking.  The baby becomes a man, and henchmen come pounding on the door.  The boy flees the men through the night, eventually finding refuge in the mysterious and deadly Tesla Tower.

Teslagrad is a Metroid-style platformer action/adventure puzzle game published by Rain Games in 2013.  As you might expect from the name, the obstacles and tools in Tesla Tower are based around electricity and magnetism–opening/closing electrical gates, changing the polarity of objects or of yourself to repel or attract in strategic ways to achieve your objectives.

20161227070934_1
Throughout the game you get tools to help you do these things (and these are shown in the trailer for the game, so it’s nothing you won’t see just checking out the ad material for the game).  The first of this is polarity gloves–which you can punch certain objects to switch their polarity.  My favorite item is the blink boots, which turn you into a zip of electricity that jumps to the side a short distance–good for bypassing deadly obstacles or for extending your jumping distance.

There are no words in the game apart from the menus.  The back story is laid out for you with puppet plays you can discover in theater rooms.  New items are not given a wordy tutorial, but rather you are presented with puzzles to figure them out for yourself, or perhaps you will have a drawing on the wall to give you some hints.

20161228154641_1If you die you just restart in the room where you died, so there isn’t a big penalty for meeting your death–which is good because some of the puzzles are very challenging and it would be very frustrating if dying did have more of a penalty.

Visuals
Nice artwork in the game, some particularly striking areas of the game, and the little puppet plays are a fun way to get the backstory.

Audio
Nice instrumental work (admittedly I often played with no sound)

Challenge
A good level of challenge with puzzles of gradually increasing complexity even as more tools to solve those puzzles becomes available.  There are some puzzles that took me quite a few tries to get through, and some of the boss fights are quite challenging (though I did get through them all).

Story
The story of the player character is a bit slight–you know that he is fleeing from violent men in the night, but I’m not exactly sure why they came for him specifically, though I could guess.  What’s more fleshed out is the back story of the tower, which you get to watch through a series of puppet shows you can find in different theater rooms in the tower, telling of a prince whose wizard granted him the power of lightning.

Session Time
The game starts and stops quickly, and it saves your progress when you move from one area to another.  If you happen to be in the middle of a longer or more complicated room, or happen to be in the middle of a boss fight, then shutting it off may lose some progress, but usually that’s not more than a few minute’s effort.

Playability
The controls are pretty straightforward, with WASD keys for movement and the four arrow keys for tool usage as well as a jump button.  Which is good because some of the puzzles require you to use several tools in quick succession while moving through deadly obstacles, so if the control scheme were too complicated it would be hard to keep track.  My only complaint is that there is one tool that you get late in the game which acts as a weapon–but nothing in the game tells you that the weapon can be directed upwards.  The lack of this information makes the next boss fight not entirely impossible but probably ten times harder.

Replayability
There is some replayability in collectible batteries that require extra little puzzles to be solved to find them.  To reach the final boss you have to collect a certain number of those (which I did).  There are indications that if you collect them all you will unlock something else (which I didn’t).

Originality
The puzzles felt pretty new to me, I don’t think I’ve seen another game based mostly around polarity puzzles.  The “Tesla” in the title served well to catch my eye and draw me into that aspect.

Playtime
It took me about 7 hours to play through the main course of the game, and collecting enough batteries to reach the final area and face the final boss (but without going back through to collect all of the batteries).

Overall
Excellent Metroid-style adventure/puzzle game, cool visuals, challenging puzzles and even more challenging boss fights all based around electricity/magnetism based puzzles.  Well worth the play time!  $10 on Steam

DP Fiction #30B: “Typical Heroes” by Theo Kogod

Tony started training the new girl the day before the world ended.

It was the third apocalypse that year.

The others had occurred when the dead all rose to fight the frost giants, and then again when the President’s new cyber-security tracking program became sentient and started sending combat drones against registered voters of the opposing party.

Tony was registered with the opposition, and had actually gotten to see the drones up close and personal as they descended on him, but then one of the supers had flown in and saved him, so he’d ended up still having to go to work.

He’d worked at NuremBurger for a little over a year, ever since New York had raised the minimum wage and the shoe store had let him go to cut costs.

The restaurant paid him all right, but he needed more hours. He hadn’t been able to get a real date in ages, since everything he owned now smelled like fry oil, sauerkraut, and chemically-treated pseudo-meats. His boss, Mr. Schulze, was one of those “I’m not racist but—” racists who was forever making people uncomfortable by trying to show how enlightened he was.

Yesterday, his boss had introduced Tony to his newest hire—a cute freckly twenty-something whose figure Tony guessed was half the reason Schulze gave her the job. “Antonio, I want you to meet someone,” Schulze had said in that merry I’m-excited-but-in-control voice that was a staple of white people’s professionalism. Tony had long ago stopped trying to get Schulze to stop calling him “Antonio,” which the balding middle-aged man seemed to think was a display of cultural sensitivity. Tony needed more hours, so he put up with it, and instead of saying “Please, just call me Tony,” he said, “Yes?” at which point he was introduced to “Patricia Strauss, though she prefers we call her ‘Trish,’ don’t you, ‘Trish?’”

He had shaken Trish’s hand. “Tony,” he said, holding her gaze long enough that she wouldn’t catch how he eyed her up and down. Trish had a slim fit figure, which her low cut shirt and skinny jeans accentuated enough for Schulze to honor her preferred nickname. In fact, she had the hard-lined athletic build of a gym rat, and he guessed she was probably into weightlifting or rugby or one of those other tough-people sports rather than the usual pop-music Pilates and celebrity-of-the-month yoga. Her freckly face was halfway between cute and “don’t call me cute,” with her blonde hair pulled back into a short-cropped bun.

“Antonio here is one of my best cooks,” said Schulze. “Antonio, I’m gonna have her watch you cook a bit, okay, and let you two get to know each other some. Meanwhile, I’ve gotta go deal with all the drama out there,” he gestured toward the dining area, where a tangle of stressed-even-for-New-York-rush-hour customers dressed in Stars-‘n’-Stripes T-shirts were shouting.

Tony shook his head at them once his boss’s back was turned. He’d never understood how people could be patriotic. His own father had been a proud US citizen after emigrating from Chile, and had carried a small tourist-sized American flag folded in his wallet until the day he died. But Tony never got it, any more than he got how people worshipped all those American celebrity heroes, All-Star and the Twelve Stripes, flying about to rescue babies and fight aliens on TV. They weren’t any different than any of the other televangelist Congressmen or born again reality-TV-stars he’d seen, except they had powers, which supposedly symbolized the American dream. Hearing a bunch of crazy tourists make a scene while wearing shirts with All-Star and his super-groupies annoyed Tony almost as much as the American Heartland-types who came all wide-eyed to stare up at the Statue of Liberty and Times Square as if the crass monuments still had meaning.

The real America was the same here as anywhere else: flipping burgers, selling Chinese-made clothes, mowing lawns, and doing real work while just barely paying the bills. The only difference was that here you could occasionally catch a glimpse of the supers flying over Wall Street to keep the suits there safe from the shitstorm that rained down on everyone else.

He tried to drown out the noise of a particularly vocal banshee-tourist and focus on training the new girl.

“So, is this your first cook job? What all do you know?” Tony asked, flipping two of the patties sizzling on the griddle.

“No. I’ve had a number of them,” she said, and began listing restaurants ranging from a high-end steak joint to a few chain stores that made McDonalds look like fine dining. Altogether, she named eight different restaurants before trailing off.

“Jesus, that’s a lot! How many jobs do you work at once?” Tony asked her. She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, and yet she’d worked at more places than he had.

“I spend a lot of time supporting my family. It’s made me change jobs a lot. And, I mean, you know how it is in this economy,” she said, fidgeting and looking away.

He agreed, and they got talking as he taught her how to defrost the burger patties, fry the “Frank Fries”TM, and coached her on the subtleties of the menu’s German dishes.

Eventually the tourists got too loud, and Tony couldn’t help but mumble “fucking cape-chasers” a little too audibly.

“What?” said Trish, giving him a look. “They’re not so bad. And besides, it’s not like the supers don’t serve and protect us.”

“No, they serve and protect you! People like you. The rest of us get lucky sometimes, but pale skin and good looks go a long way toward getting saved. I grew up being stopped and frisked and profiled by cops and capes alike every day on my way to school, and not much has changed since I became an adult. So no, I’m not a fan, and don’t buy into the whole line about them keeping us safe,” Tony said.

“Oh, come on! First, there are plenty of supers of color! Time Cube and Conqueroot and Black Turner, for starts, and oh, Olmech is Mexican! And second, don’t you watch the news? Tomorrow everything could be gone! Our reality is about to be invaded, and it’s the supers who are keeping us safe! Without them, we might not even be here!” Trish fumed, furious and passionate.

It was a more serious reaction than Tony had been expecting.

He took a breath before responding, collecting himself. “Look, I don’t like talking politics at work, okay. But since you care so much, let me put a few things out there. I don’t care about supers, whatever their color. It’s just not my thing, any more than I care about the Kardashians or Brangelinas or any other celebrities. They don’t affect me, and for all the tragedies they miss, the world keeps turning. They don’t change the things I go through, y’know. I’ve got rent and child support to pay and I’d like to get through a day without being told some dumb shit about how Olmech being Mexican should be important to me. I’m Mapuche, not Mexican.” He sighed. “Now, can we just get back to work?”

The rest of the day at the restaurant progressed with only minor incidents. Trish overcooked a plate of spätzle and a tourist ripped off their server with a 2% tip. When Tony left, he agreed to help train Trish some more the next day.

On the train home he squeezed into a seat between a Hasidic couple speaking Yiddish and a trio of over-pierced teenagers excitedly discussing the news that tomorrow the Twelve Stripes would join forces with the other supers to help repel an incursion from the fifth dimension (or was it the fifth sphere of hell? He couldn’t tell from how they babbled on in nonstop manic slang). He remembered being that age, and actually being excited by the supers and the big events of the world, as though anything ever changed. That was before his uncle had been brutalized for an unpaid traffic ticket, before his cousin had been shot while cosplaying, before Marianne had taken their son.

Until Marianne, he could deal with it. He got that the world just wasn’t fair. He had no heroes—not capes, not politicians, not entertainers—yet he still took care of things. But when she left him for her new job doing IT for All-Star and the Twelve Stripes, she’d taken Dante.

She’d taken their son.

Tomorrow—Friday—the world would end.

And so what? His world ended every Friday, when he got his paycheck and there was that little bit missing for child support—when all he wanted was to actually be there to support his child in person. On Thursdays, he should’ve gotten to see Dante after work. It was his visitation day, and he should have gotten that day—all of it. But Schulze always changed the schedule at the last minute so he had to work until the mid-afternoon. The last time he’d argued with Schulze about this, the man had threatened to fire him, and cut his hours so he only worked Thursdays for the next two weeks.

Normally, he’d be picking Dante up from daycare on a day like this, but Marianne wouldn’t let him “endanger himself spending an evening with his damn burger flipper of an absent father when there are things going on in the world.” He’d called, texted, Facebooked, and Skyped her, and she’d still denied him, which meant there was pretty much nothing he could do about it since she got off before him. Dante was already with his mom, and Tony didn’t have the codes into her apartment building. Maybe it was better for Dante, being stable and all. What did he need with a father who could see him only once a week?

There was that old saying about how the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Well, the more they stayed the same, the worse they got, but at least Dante’s mom might be able to shield him from some of that.

Tony got off at his stop, walked the three blocks from the station to his apartment, and settled down with a beer and leftover Chinese takeout as he watched old episodes of Sabado Gigante on his tablet. Normally, he’d spend Thursdays cooking a special dinner to share with Dante, asking about his week, and then (if the boy had done his homework) they’d watch cartoons together on the tablet, but tonight, he just didn’t want to think.

As a kid, that’s what TV was for. There weren’t so many end-of-the-world scenarios back then. The US was a safe country, “the safest America” his father used to say, as they exported all their misery to the other Americas, and because their heroes really did keep the world safe. And while he didn’t quite agree, he at least saw his father’s point.

That was back before the Twelve Stripes had changed their lineup. Back when the old All-Star—the first All-Star—championed the team with twelve other New York heroes in their brightly colored costumes, patrolling the neighborhoods and stopping the real crimes they saw every day. But then there’d been that one apocalypse where the first All-Star had been ripped in half above the city, raining blood and guts and cosmic starshine down on everyone. After that, everything had changed. Tony had decided life was too short to waste, and enrolled to take classes at CUNY, studying graphic design. But then work got in the way, and he and Marianne were always fighting, and there was Dante to think about. It wasn’t long before dreams of a career with computers had been traded for contentment selling shoes, and not much longer ‘til he was—as Marianne put it—that “damn burger flipper of an absent father.”

Tony’s Sabado Gigante marathon was interrupted when the screen momentarily froze to allow a small pop-up window—the sort of pop-up that appeared for storm warnings and bomb threats and invading armies of North Korean lobotomechs.

He closed the pop-up, continued watching his show, and fell asleep on the couch with his beer still unfinished.

When he awoke the next morning, the beer bottle was empty and the tablet had drunk itself to an early death.

He cursed, bemoaning another loss he couldn’t afford. He got ready for work, needing to hurry to make the lunch shift and help train the new girl. Outside his window, he heard screaming, the honking of New York traffic with the volume turned up, and an eerie humming sound he couldn’t place. He ignored them, buttoning on his pants and grabbing a pack of Oreos to eat on the way to work.

Outside the streets were filled bumper-to-bumper with drivers honking and shouting. Some people had gotten out of their vehicles to look and see how bad the traffic was. Others had just gotten out and fled on foot. The skies above were black—not overcast, but altered into a rippling obsidian lake that bent slightly inward like some cosmic meniscus.

But the trains worked just fine, despite delays. As he rode to work, he tried not to think that this might actually be the end of everything (or at least the end of him). He should be spending the day with Dante, not going to work. All he wanted to do was sit with his son on his lap watching cartoons and hear Dante’s laugh. But if tomorrow came, he’d need his paycheck.

Even if it didn’t, the collection agencies would still hound whatever was left of his corpse, terrorizing Marianne and Dante to collect on his debts.

The train emerged from a tunnel, and he saw that a black rain had started, inky drops splattering against the train car. Above, the dark orb had swollen, engorging into the eye of some malevolent god watching them at the hour of Judgment.

He got off at his stop, trying not to look up, and when he arrived at NuremBurger, he found Schulze, Trish, and a pair of servers already there. He greeted them, ignored Schulze’s comments asking where he’d been (like the answer wasn’t obvious), and began the day’s work, showing Trish how to use the fryer and prep the stove and the two dozen other basic tasks to start the day. She worked diligently and learned quickly, and at one point he made the mistake of praising her with a “good work, but you can take it easy. We aren’t saving the world, just working the kitchen.” She spent the next hour nattering on about how hard supers worked to save the world, and how the Fifth Dimensionalists had undermined everything with their chronaliminal engineering by bringing on an apocalypse that chronocops like Time Cube and Panthea said wasn’t due for three centuries. The girl was a cape-chaser alight, and rambled about superteams like the Twelve Stripes, U-Knighted, and the Repairmen. Then she embarked on a tangent about the hero Numen, how his suffering was underappreciated and no one understood him like she did. He remembered being in high school, watching girls obsess over capes and boybands, and figured it was just her age. Thankfully, only four customers came before noon, so it was a slow day.

Then as he finished sizzling a WurstBurger, there was a strange keening and the burger began to shake and–

The kitchen exploded!

And time slowed.

Tony was knocked from his feet as the floor split. The ceiling imploded and he rose to meet it. Gas pipes splintered in fiery gouts. Pain raked his arm—flying debris—and as flaming cutlery and shattered cinderblocks enveloped him, he realized this was the end.

He thought of Dante.

And then a force enfolded him, pressing close to him with a warm forcefulness and a moment later, it was over.

A super had him.

He looked up, seeing the restaurant in ruins. Two supers—one he recognized and one he didn’t—were embattled with a horde of what appeared to be car-sized insects, like spiked arachnids. A woman dressed like a Celtic warrior in blue-glowing warpaint bashed her fists through carapaces, riding through the wreckage aback a shining horse-sized battle-pig. Tony vaguely recalled this woman was Coventina, some British goddess reincarnate and involved in a number of controversial transatlantic security arrangements established in the Thatcher years. The other super wore too-tight black spandex and was gratuitously backflipping over the gargantuan death beetles and shooting bone spikes from his fingertips. The spikes pierced their hides, shattering shells amidst spurts of viscous gore.

Above, the sky had opened into a gaping mouth that consumed half the space between horizons, fangs and tentacles and more bugs drooling from it toward the earth.

Sirens blared. People screamed. Another super flew overhead, riding a nimbus of what Tony guessed must be nanomachines, black nanite clouds extending from his palms to catch falling debris. Groups of heroes soared high above, wrestling with tentacles the size of skyscrapers, bright blasts of light and flame flashing from their fists. A blurred streak whizzed through the streets, clearing the roads of debris as an unidentified speedster shot past, and moments later, the sirens grew louder, emergency vehicles traversing the now-clear streets.

Vaguely, Tony realized he didn’t know who had saved him. He looked around, saw Schulze standing with a perplexed look, one server beside him and both splattered with gore.

But there was no sign of his rescuer.

Somewhere in the debris of what used to be the NuremBurger kitchen (and was now a flaming outdoor garbage pile being used for gladiatorial combat), somewhere under the broken brickwork and metal shards and scattered contents of the walk-in freezer, was Trish.

With horror, he looked back up at the chunky red stains smeared across Schulze, and wondered how much of that could be her. Schulze opened his mouth and closed it again wordlessly. The server cried, shaking.

Coventina leapt from her mount and delivered a roundhouse kick to the last of the bugs, catapulting its broken body into the horizon. Then she remounted and rode away toward some other threat, her companion already gone.

A shadow fell across Tony, and he looked up.

Floating above him was another hero he recognized—All-Star’s teen sidekick, Americana. She just hovered there for a second, her muscular slim frame exaggerated by the red-white-and-blue uniform that seemed cut to emphasize more assets than just her patriotism. She flashed him a familiar freckle-faced smile, and he smiled back, waving to show his gratitude.

Then she was off, darting into the air without any regard for Newton’s Laws. Somewhere above the rooftops, he saw her join with a group of a dozen other patriotically dressed supers helmed by what even Tony could not mistake for anyone other than All-Star. As one, the group shot straight up toward the open jaws above.

Typical heroes.

Still, looking about him, he could not deny the immensity of what was happening. The world was a blur of screams and debris and mangled bodies. The heavens had been swallowed by hell.

He realized what he needed to do. What a real hero would do—not some steroids-and-cosmic-power super— but the kind of hero the world actually needed in times like this.

“Mr. Schulze!” he shouted. The old man stared at him, blinking in half-recognition. The man was probably in shock. Hell, Tony probably was too, but it’s not like it’d be the first time. “Mr. Schulze!” he repeated, louder.

“What is it, Tony?” Schulze asked, and Tony realized it was the first time the man hadn’t called him “Antonio.”

“I’m going,” Tony said.

“What?”

“I’m getting out of here.”

“You can’t,” Schulze said, his focus apparently clearing. “The police. They’ll need to interview you, to take a statement about the damages.”

“The police have better things to do right now,” he said, gesturing toward the events unfolding all around them. “Besides, there’s somewhere I need to be right now.”

“You need to be here. This is your job!” Schulze shouted, sounding hysterical, as though if Tony left now, then he truly would have lost everything.

“My job is to be a dad. My boy needs to know there’s a real hero there to look after him when the world is falling apart.”

With that, Tony turned his back on the older man, walking through the chaos to find Dante.


© 2017 by Theo Kogod

 

Author’s note: Do you remember that scene at the end of the first Avengers film where the heroes all get schawarma?  It’s a great scene, but what was going on in the personal lives of the restaurant workers that they stayed at work amidst an alien invasion blowing up the city?  And what do people grow accustomed to in a world with such horrors and wonders as superhero comics present?  This story explores some possible answers to those questions while showcasing the struggles (both absurd and very familiar) of life in the shadow of superheroes.

 

Theo Kogod is a teacher, scholar, wanderer, and the Resident Writer for 3 Feet Left.  He has spent time living in Greece, Japan, and the United States.   He currently resides in North Carolina with his two cats, an amazing spouse, and a small mountain of books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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TV REVIEW: Wayward Pines Season 2

written by David Steffen

Wayward Pines was a weird speculative mystery/thriller show that aired as ten episodes in the summer of 2015–see my review of that season here.  At the time that it aired it was unclear whether it was going to be a standalone miniseries or whether there would be a second season–the ending wrapped up a lot of things but left a route to continue the story if it were desired.  And, (obviously, given the title of the article) it did return for a second season in the summer of 2016.

Season 1 of the show was based fairly closely on the Wayward Pines trilogy by Blake Crouch (spoilers for the books and for season 1 here).  In that segment of the story, Secret Service agent Ethan Burke travels to Wayward Pines, Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two other agents.  But the town seems to have no escape–everyone there is living under obscure rules under penalty of death and the road leading into town doesn’t lead back out again, and there are monsters at the gate.  Throughout the course of the season (or the three books) he discovers that he did not just travel to Idaho–he was abducted and put into cryogenic sleep for almost two thousand years.  David Pilcher, scientist and genius, had discovered that the human genome was becoming corrupted by pollutants and human beings were mutating into something entirely different–he had started a secret project to put a thousand people into cryogenic storage to wait through the consequences and come out on the other side.  But in the future the creatures that had been humanity were still out there in the form of mutated violent monsters he named aberrations (aka abbies).  He rebuilt Wayward Pines from the ground up as a stronghold against the abbies, waking people up from their cryogenic sleep to populate the town under the pretense that it is still the 20th century.  Eventually Ethan learns of all of this and reveals the truth to the town–Pilcher lets the abbies into town as punishment for this betrayal and the first season ends shortly after Ethan sacrifices his life to save the town from the abbies.  But history repeats itself and the First Generation raised in the town seizes control of the town and starts a new regime.

Though Season 1 was mostly based pretty closely on the books, the ending of season 1 leaves no room to stick to the same story and so, unsurprisingly, it diverges wildly.  The protagonist of this season is a new character who has just been woken from cryo for the first time–a surgeon named Theo Yedlin who was abducted without his knowledge as most of the residents of the town has been.  Shortly after he reunites with his wife, who is behaving oddly for reasons he doesn’t understand.  The Wayward Pines that he wakes to is one controlled by the First Generation who have forced a much firmer and overt control than had been visible in season 1, even with uniforms reminiscient of Nazi Germany military uniforms.  Jason Higgins is leader of this group, a young man raised in Wayward Pines, trying to enforce control in the town as best he can.

Ethan Burke’s son Ben is alive and the leader of a pocket of resistance against the First Generation leadership.  He is offered some protection form the fact that he too is considered part of the First Generation and they are all forbidden to harm one another by the rules of the town.

Adam Hassler returns from the wilderness where he has been on a years’ long mission to explore deep into abby territory.

The abbies are shower greater signs of organization, assaulting the electric fence that protects the town systematically and strategically.  Most townspeople don’t believe the evidence, but others are very nervous about where this is going.

The ground inside the town limits has gone sour, and won’t take crops anymore.  They have started growing some crops outside the town limits, and must protect them from abby attacks.

And they find an abby in town, a female who seems to be some kind of leader.  What should they do with her?

As you might be able to tell from this quite scattered synopsis, a big issue I had with this season of the show is that it is kind of all over the place.  Season two has only 10 episodes, and there are so many big ideas being explored simultaneously that it just feels unfocused and scattered.

Season 1 was pretty solid, and was based largely around the mystery of the town, and we started that season as ignorant of the current events of the fictional world so much of the show was trying to figure it out along with them.  In season 2, we start with a new character awoken from cryo who has no idea what’s going on.  But.. why?  We follow a character in season 1 ignorant of the situation so that we can discover it along with him, understand the strangeness and the danger piece by piece.  But… here we already know what Wayward Pines is.  And, while it makes sense for the character to have go through this gaining of knowledge, that part of the story felt like it was just going through the motions telling us the same story over again as if we hadn’t been paying attention the first time.  Not only that, but Theo in a lot of ways has an easier setup for understanding and affecting change in the town than Ethan had, because of Theo’s important role as surgeon.  His skills are rare and valuable in a town where medical experts are both irreplacable and in short supply, so he kind of ends up doing a lot of things that no one else in town can get away with–he tries to use it to make some good change, but still, it felt like he started with similar problems as Ethan had in season 1 but with a lot more immediate advantages.  I didn’t understand why they’d make that narrative choice when it would be more natural to escalate the challenges rather than escalate the protagonist’s advantages.

There were a few recurring characters, and some new ones.  There is some excuse for new characters to show up, despite the relatively closed system of Wayward Pines, because we know there are a whole bunch of people still in cryo who haven’t been woken up yet–so if they want to add a new character they just need to have a new person wake from cryo.  But, they also introduced a new character, CJ, who had been responsible for waking up periodically throughout the centuries that everyone was under and checking on the progress of the world to decide when to wake everyone up.  He was, at every stage, the first person to wake up and to start waking other people up, and because he had such an important role, in season 2 he is important enough to have major input into decision-making.  So… where had he been in season 1?  The real answer is that no one had made up his character yet, but his character as established should have been visible in season 1.  That kind of thing felt lazy and cheap–they could have found characters who all fit with the story as told in season 1, but sometimes they didn’t bother.  It reminded me of season 2 of Under the Dome, which likewise operated with a very closed system and yet they kept adding new characters who couldn’t possibly have gone unnoticed in the first season, because of lazy writing.

Besides that familiar throughline of the plot about discovering what the town is about, there are quite a few plotlines that are very potentially interesting, but there are just so many and they’re so poorly threaded together that major plot focus for an episode or two suddenly trails off without ever really resolving anything, and as the end of the short 10-episode run approaches there are only more plots all tangled together.  When the end of the season comes, it’s like… wait, was that actually the end of the season?  Nothing wrapped up, there is no satisfaction at completion of story arcs.  Did the writers know when the season was ending or did the makers of the show tell them to write and then abruptly ended the season 4 episodes early?  Or did the writers just have no idea how to make a satisfying season arc?

Some of the ideas here were interesting, but it feels more like a rushed publication of a truncated rough draft than like a finished final work.

 

DP FICTION #9: “Giraffe Cyborg Cleans House!” by Matthew Sanborn Smith

A plate, a plate, another plate burst upon the kitchen tile. This one broke into three large pieces and assorted ceramic crumbs. Giraffe closed her long-lashed eyes and prayed to her many makers. Why in the world would the people make one hard thing that was so likely to smash into a second hard thing?

“Another one?” Ms. Mtombe yelled. “Get out of my kitchen immediately!” She seemed to have been lurking near the kitchen entrance in anticipation. Giraffe didn’t bother to look. That unshining face made guest appearances in her night terrors. It was Tuesday, so it would be the zebra print dress, the long strand of Moroccan beads, and those slapping gold sandals.

Giraffe turned off the water, wiped her hands on the dish towel, and let out a long sighber. Giraffe’s designers—possibly a focus group of three- to five-year-olds—had blessed her with a ridiculous set of stubby arms which protruded from just above her forelegs. She had to almost climb into the sink to wash the dishes. And with the proximity of the wall behind the sink and Ms. Mtombe’s impossibly low ceilings—which Ms. Mtombe insisted were high ceilings—Giraffe’s head was pressed snugly into the upper northwest corner of the room. She had to rely on her silicone-skinned hands to feel their way through.

“I wanted something graceful, like a gazelle, something that would look beautiful in my home, and look at what I got,” Ms. Mtombe said. “I would prefer a wildebeest to you.”

“My sincerest apologies, Ma’am,” Giraffe said. “If you will excuse me, I must step outside, Ma’am.”

“You are always stepping outside and inside again. What is so important outside? You’re letting in flies!”

“My neck hurts, Ma’am. From bending, Ma’am.” Her polished hooves clopped across the floor.

“They can make a giraffe that can walk and talk—”

“I could walk long before the enhancements, Ma’am.”

“—but they can’t make a giraffe who’s neck won’t hurt indoors!”

“I should like it if they made one of those as well, Ma’am. I encourage you to take that up with the agency, Ma’am.”

No wonder the dish washing machine had quit in a huff!

Giraffe squeezed past the sliding glass doors and unfolded herself into the blinding back yard. Her head bobbed to the top of her height as if it was one of the floats in Ms. Mtombe’s pool, escaping from beneath its wriggling child. She stretched and bent her neck back as far as it would go. Vertebrae popped like bubble wrap. Oh, that felt good!

Giraffe fantasized of roof-removing storms and arms that reached to the stars, scrubbing out stubborn sunspots with the lemon-scented dishwashing liquid of the gods. She shook one stunted tyrannosaur fist at the sky. Or perhaps at her neck. She swore revenge. On . . . something.

The Kawawas’ lion sunned itself in the next yard. Intellectually, she knew the lion should not harm her. Nevertheless, she kept a metaphorical eye on it when it they were outside together. If she didn’t fret so much over scratches, she could have kept a literal eye on it as well, given their removable nature. Giraffe looked back into the kitchen.

Mtombe watched her while shouting into her headset, presumably at Mr. Mtombe:”This is not a servant, this is some sort of insult! This clumsy beast is destroying our home! We can’t afford to buy a new set of dishware every week . . . I want a replacement. Now! . . . I don’t care if there are no others available, demand an exchange with someone. You have people below you . . . Well, someone must have one!”

Giraffe heard all of this through her cybernetic ear while wondering why anyone thought that a cybernetic ear would be important for a giraffe housekeeper. Most of her enhancements were questionable, to be honest. Disco ball eyes. Regenerating caramel tail. Cybergills. Giraffe was afraid she had come along at the end of a cyborg servant frenzy, when an exhausted industry had grasped in desperation for any animal that was left, and hastily hot-glued on whatever miscellaneous enhancements had been found in the dusty corner of the factory floor.

Ms. Mtombe didn’t understand that she and Giraffe were two of a kind. Two years into her husband’s promotion, she was at the very bottom of the nouveau upper-middle-class, too house-proud of a place in Kimara which they couldn’t quite afford. She’d been catapulted from a life which was the envy of all around her, to a world in which she was woefully behind. The trophy possessions she managed to gather were never quite right, inspiring derisive smiles from women who wouldn’t deign to call her a peer. Giraffe stewed as one of those second-rate status symbols.

While Ms. Mtombe was turned away for a moment, Giraffe saw a chance for a quick snack. She trotted toward the acacia tree.

“You will stand your ground, Giraffe,” the acacia tree cyborg warned, “or suffer the consequences!” It bent its limbs in a one-legged karate stance, ready to chop. Giraffe was unperturbed. The tree would never dream of damaging its mistress’ property, whereas, in Giraffe’s case, that train had sailed.

A little more snacking effort was required now, as Giraffe had already stripped the leaves off the limbs that always fought to push her away. The lazy acacia and its slow-growing leaves made it necessary for Giraffe to go deeper. But Giraffe always won. Trees simply didn’t have the killer instinct of the ferocious herbivore. Giraffe chewed greedily, undaunted by the acacia’s screams. They were screams of indignation rather than pain, anyway. Probably.

Giraffe tried to alleviate the tree’s outrage with her soothing words. “You taste infinitely better than Ms. Mtombe’s giraffe chow.” But the snobby tree didn’t seem able to take a compliment.

“Enough!” it cried. It stopped trying to push Giraffe away and instead embraced her. Giraffe had only wanted acceptance from the acacia. Its affection was totally unexpected, though perhaps, Giraffe thought, not unwanted. But, alas, Giraffe had been mistaken. The tree limbs’ cybernetically enhanced thorns pressed into Giraffe from either side. Like that, the acacia had become an enormous mouth and Giraffe had become a ham sandwich.

“What is going on here?” Ms. Mtombe appeared and began spritzing Giraffe’s dancing legs with that dreadful anti-ungulate spray. It smelled like Satan’s ravioli. “How many times have I told you to leave my tree alone?” Ms. Mtombe shouted.

“I would like nothing better at the moment, Ma’am. It seems that I am being eaten by your tree. I suspect this is an act of revenge rather than of sustenance and I strongly encourage you to take this up with the agency, Ma’am.”

The thorns tore into Giraffe’s flesh as her arms punched air that was almost near the acacia’s trunk. With the end in sight, Giraffe’s thoughts were butter-side up. As deaths went, this was certain to be no more humiliating than the rest of her life.

Fortunately, at that moment, the lion attacked.

Intellectually, Giraffe had known that it shouldn’t attack, given the restrictions imposed upon it by its pie slice of cybernetic brain. Intellectually, Giraffe had known that she would never be eaten by a tree. Upon reflection, Giraffe recalled the intellect under consideration was that of a giraffe, which perhaps had its shortcomings in modern day suburban Tanzania. In her defense, the lion didn’t seem to be attacking her, but Ms. Mtombe. Giraffe suspected it was her delicious looking dress.

Ms. Mtombe screamed. Her short, chubby legs tried something that resembled running, but the lion was nearly upon her. Giraffe kicked her sharp hoof out hard, squarely into the center of its head. Momentum carried the lion’s body—if not its head—into Ms. Mtombe, who frothed in terror, but the lion only twitched as it died.

To acacia trees, giraffes have always been far more terrifying than lions. After witnessing Giraffe’s nonchalant disposal of her foe, the tree lost its nerve and released her. Besides, not having been supplied with a cybernetic esophagus, it would never have been able to swallow even a bite-sized Giraffe.

While Ms. Mtombe dealt with the police, Giraffe waited inside, tending those wounds she could reach with a tub of Old Chizimu’s Giraffe Spackle (Original Flavor). Even after viewing the tree’s memory of the events, the police had trouble believing there was a giraffe in the house. One officer poked her head inside the kitchen.

“Hello,” Giraffe said. The officer withdrew her head.

When the police questioned the lion’s cybernetic enhancements, their manufacturer offered through them to settle with the Mtombes on the spot for thirty million shilingi. Ms. Mtombe demanded a replacement for her servant in addition to the money. Giraffe would have lowered her head in mortification had it not already been bowed due to being indoors. She hoped her replacement would be a lion. To be delivered next Tuesday.

“Yes, of course,” the lion’s left hind leg responded. “What type of servant would you prefer in exchange?”

All was quiet for a moment, save for the sound of the acacia tree rubbing its limbs together in anticipation.

Fortunately, at that moment, Ms. Kawawa attacked.

“You beasts! The lot of you!” Ms. Kawawa shouted as she marched across her yard in a sensibly solid dress. “My wild date palm told me everything!” Giraffe peered out of the back door. Shit, it seemed, was about to go down.

“The lion tried to kill me,” Ms. Mtombe said in a supplicating voice. She had always feared Ms. Kawawa.

“My baby would never do such a thing!” Ms. Kawawa said.

“We’re sorry to say that he did, indeed, do such a thing, Ms. Kawawa,” her baby’s leg said.

Ms Kawawa was undaunted: “You filthy trash have been a blight to this street ever since you moved here!”

Giraffe had always imagined that the look of horror now on Ms. Mtombe’s face would be delectable when it came. In fact, Giraffe’s cybernetic stomach felt as if it had dropped into a pit of cybernetic acid. Giraffe felt herself drawn out of the house. She had to put herself between the two ladies and comfort her mistress.

“You and that freak of an animal,” Ms. Kawawa said, pointing at the approaching Giraffe, “your fool of a husband and your nasty children!”

At those last words, Ms. Mtombe’s lips grew tight. Giraffe stumbled and then spun about, galloping for the safety of the kitchen.

In the end, Ms. Kawawa was grateful for the presence of the police. She too ran for the safety of her kitchen.

At some point, the police officers thought it was safe to release Ms. Mtombe’s tight arms. Giraffe cowered with her head on the kitchen floor. Ms. Mtombe looked at Giraffe, who sought some way to cower even further. Perhaps she could dig through the tile with her mirror-facet eyes.

“How about,” Ms. Mtombe said to the lion’s leg in deep, shaking breaths, “instead of a replacement, a longer set of arms for my current servant?”

Giraffe raised her burrowing head slightly. A couple of tiny eye-mirrors tinkled to the floor.

“Absolutely,” said the leg, with some relief. It already had to replace the rest of its lion.

“And also,” Ms. Mtombe said, “Extra support for its neck.”

After the police had left and the lion’s leg dragged its corpse out of the yard, Ms. Mtombe came back inside and looked at Giraffe while holding her fists to her hips. Giraffe said nothing. She had cleaned up the kitchen (except for the dishes), and now folded the laundry in perfect right angles.

“Well,” Ms. Mtombe said after a sigh, “you do do an excellent job cleaning my ceiling.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Giraffe nodded most effectively, thanks to her cybernetically enhanced nodder. “The popcorn texture feels delightful on my back, Ma’am.”


© 2015 by Matthew Sanborn Smith

 

Author’s Note: The brilliant comic book mini-series, WE3, written by Grant Morrison and beautifully illustrated by Frank Quitely, put the idea of animal cyborgs into my head. A giraffe seemed a sufficiently ridiculous creature to use in my own story. Stuffing the poor thing inside a human house and expecting it to clean up a bit struck me as both funny and rife with problems for the protagonist. Once the tree spoke, I knew I’d hit gold.

 

Matthew_Sanborn_SmithMatthew Sanborn Smith‘s fiction has appeared at Tor.com, Nature, and Chizine, among others. He is an infrequent contributor to StarShipSofa, SF Signal, and SFF Audio. He shares even stranger things than this story on his podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango, and has recently released his short story collection, The Dritty Doesen: Some of the Least Reasonable Stories of Matthew Sanborn Smith.

 

 

 


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