May 7, 2030

by Scott Stambach

 

I

He saw it projected on the backdrop of his eyelids with blinding light every time he closed his eyes. It had been there for as long as he could remember. Having grown from infant to child with his tattoo he could only imagine that everyone else had one too. He would ask the kids at school, “What’s your date?” and they would respond, “Michael, we don’t have a date, only you have one.”

“But why?”

“Because we don’t need one.”

This was the response he received from everyone, including his radiant mother, who had long blonde hair and smelled like dried orange peels. At home, she would never talk about it unless he brought it up, but the child was persistent: Mommy, today will you tell me why the other kids don’t see a date? She would always try to trick him into forgetting the topic as quickly as possible, but as he grew older and more fixated, the trickery needed to become more and more clever.

Not long after he became an adult, he would dress to the number. He owned five pairs of pants, seven shirts, thirty ties, and refused to alter the wardrobe, even at the bequest of his eventual wife who was also blonde and radiant, but smelled like tearful jasmine.

“Let’s go shopping, Mikey.”

“But I have all the clothes I’ll ever need…”

“What could one more pair of pants hurt?”

“It would change everything. I’m sure you know that.”

“I think you think too much.”

She knew there was no forcing this particular man so she eventually tried another route altogether. On Saturday nights, she would feign clumsiness and pour a glass of wine over his lap. He would lovingly laugh and insist on taking the garment to the cleaners. Let’s not cry over spilt wine.

The date never appeared the same to him. If he’d been drinking that night, as he lay down in bed and closed his eyes the date appeared yellow and wobbled slowly. If his eyes were closed while he made love to his wife, he would see it as bright red, slowly expanding until it burst into a million tiny pieces at the moment of orgasm, only to reform when he rolled over. The date would glow the most tranquil blue, and even hummed slightly, when he strolled through new cities during the first moments of morning.

Sometimes, the date was infused with an aroma. Once, as a child, while he was swooshing through the air on a swing in a Sunday park he distinctly noticed that the numbers and letters smelled like a delicious breakfast, smothered in the scents of bacon and buttered toast and syrup; and when he met his wife the numbers absorbed the smell of her sharp perfume for months, maybe even years; and when the first of his three children were born, he resisted the odd truth that the date smelled like the musty-sweet vernix that coated the baby’s skin.

For the most part he took no pleasure in the tattoo or the diverse sensual experiences that came with it. In fact, as he aged, the image became an obsession, rich and lathered with absurd anxiety. One night, deep into his life as a husband and father, it occurred to him, under the pelting droplets of a hot shower, that the date might refer to the day of his death. The man, already prone to panic, became an ivory statue.

“I’m going to die on that date, aren’t I?”

“If you were going to die on that day, then I would live forever—we would all live forever, all except for you. And you know that’s not right…”

“Do I?”

He did not like the distance that his obsession created between he and his wife. So he resolved to never again let it be known that he was being internally devoured. The wife and three kids would talk in secret about their relief. But with no release, the material accumulated.

 

II

Blink and gaze, blink and gaze. He would do this more than ever, just to see if the date was still there, burned deep into his black mind. At times he would smile at the date like a cocky, crazed child, hoping the insolence might make it disappear. When this didn’t work he would hold his breath until he lost consciousness, hoping that he could suffocate the part of his mind responsible for the letters and numbers. Once, he did this while buying groceries in line at the supermarket and the cashier noticed. “Michael, you can’t kill it. You can’t kill anything. You don’t even exist yet.” He just stared back at the cashier, knowing what he said was the truth, but unwilling to accept it.

He woke one morning with burning in his chest and water sloshing around in his head. Despite his confusion, it was clear to him that everything in his life was perfect, exactly as it was supposed to be, everything in it’s right place—except for the date that seared into his mind. And with this realization came a new odor, the smell of silver sulphide, which he recalled from the days of his childhood when his mother developed film in sepia:

“Who could tolerate this god-awful smell?”

“What smell, love?”

“Nothing. I must have been dreaming.”

“Where you dreaming about your mother again?”

“Yes. I mean, I think so.”

“You will let her go eventually, Mikey. Nothing lasts forever.”

But he would slowly discover that his wife, who had never been wrong before, was wrong this time; some things do last forever, because the smell would never leave. It saturated each and every number and letter in the date, from the “M” to the “0”. It stank up the entire corridor from his eyes to his nostrils. And he was certain that some of the stench escaped because people would grimace kindly when he spoke to them too close, as if decency dictated they hide their disgust when the pithy fumes leaked from his nose.

As the years passed and the days remaining until the date dwindled, the letters and numbers became even more cumbersome. The occasional hum, emanating from the space between the letters and numbers became a dance of frequencies, and the dance of frequencies became quiet murmuring voices: ancient conversations from his childhood, the whispers of strangers, orders of decorated and bombastic military generals, the utterances of conscious vegetation, and dialogues of souls from times before electricity. The buffet of sounds came with a coursing fire that singed his veins. But there were moments when he felt relieved because it occurred to him that the voices might provide the answer he’d spent his life looking for. He listened to them with closed eyes, and pencil pinched tightly between his fingers hovering over a pad, waiting for secrets. He diligently recorded every single word he heard. When the voices became too layered and fast to keep up he found a tape recorder and pressed it to his head, attempting to record the thoughts that he might miss. But when he played it back it was only white noise.

He filled notebooks with hundreds of pages of conversations between cherubs with trumpets, demons covered in animal skins, Aztec warriors studying hand-written, leather books, mythical animals without names, aliens from different galaxies and universes. Love for them bubbled up in his chest as he became attached. They were reliable, and consistent, and impersonal, and he was comforted by how little they knew of him, when always and forever, those who populated his external world knew too much.

The voices never stopped, and with them time accelerated. The days zipped by and he lost track of time.

“I’ve noticed your books,” his wife said. “Have you found the right words, yet?”

“How long have you known about them? The books?”

“Since you started all this.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I wanted to give you the chance to find what you were looking for.”

“But, you don’t even know what I’m looking for.”

“Of course I do. And you know it.”

She smiled, lovingly. This was the last conversation he would have with his wife, and he knew this too.

 

III

Eventually, he lost track of the days completely as the hours zoomed past his untangling head. Everything changed, one minute to the next, except for the date. Curious of how many days remained, he would check his calendar, only to notice that by the time he registered the day and closed the book, hundreds more days would fly past him and he’d lose track again. When he reached May 7, 2029, he realized that he no longer needed a calendar because he could see the end vividly. It was a tiny pinhole in the center of a flood of thoughts and brilliant images, mists of memories, most of which he did not remember, and wasn’t sure were even his, each of which had a color—new colors—shades he’d never seen and had no words for, vicious characters of his life dressed in Tibetan garments, thick streams of blood oozing from their teeth, painted faces and silver flasks, the smell of orange peels, knowing she was close, her songs he hadn’t heard in hundreds of years. He’d always thought he would be afraid. Why am I not afraid? Where are my mourners?

*****

And suddenly he forgot everything before, and everything he saw, he saw for the first time.

 

The Tale of the Modern Truck Driver

by Joseph Dyer

 

It is an Ancient Mariner, and he stopped one of three
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

I drove my pitiable white Grand Am into the parking lot of St. Peter’s Truck Plaza and the place was a dump as expected. Why did the bachelor party have to be in the middle of the country? There were a butt-load of strip clubs in Indianapolis, but Kyle wanted to have a “private party.” He didn’t tell his fiancé where it was; he didn’t want her showing up to assess the scene.

This was a sorry scene.

“Look at that sorry closed-down fireworks store,” Bill said. What did Bill expect? We were near Mt. Nixon, Indiana, where there was nothing, and we were on the outskirts of nothing. The fireworks place would be closed until winter was over and May came.

“I wish we could buy some bottle rockets,” Bruce said from the backseat. “We could light them off in Kyle’s car and piss off his girl.” Those comments are what keep Bruce in the backseat. He’s a year older than me, 23, but acts like he’s 13. Bruce and Bill are alright to hang with. Kyle is okay, he’s my cousin. The people I really want to hang with are too much trouble. Most of them have warrants, or are on probation, or both. I’m free and clear now; no probation, no court deferment hanging over my head, and as long as I don’t get a DUI tonight I can finally get my life going. Just have to make it through tonight. Probably shouldn’t have come, but it’s hard to turn down free beer and naked women. I’m not carrying any drugs in my car either. A quick run for a friend of a friend can lead to lots of trouble.

“Man that McDonald’s looks good,” Bruce said. Across the two-lane highway a McDonald’s lit the night. Someone who was smart and cultured would think it offended the country landscape, but to me, it was a bit of familiarity in this backwoods area. I knew we would end our night drunk-ordering food in the drive-thru. Kyle had gotten a DUI a year ago in a Taco Bell drive-thru when I had been with him. We hadn’t been acting crazy, but when we left cop cars boxed us in. I don’t know why they hadn’t busted me for being drunk, I was on probation, but they let me go when Kyle’s mom came to bail him out. Aunt Jonnie looked like she wanted to hang me while she drove us home.

“You should have driven, Carter!” she yelled at me after she dropped me off. “You’ve already got a DUI and have nothing to lose in your life either!”

“Let’s get inside and see some tail,” Bill said. We were in the back of the truck stop and it was dark, pitch black in the shadow of the McDonald’s. I could see the interstate and the sound of cars made me feel like I was far away from home, not forty-five miles.

The door to the place was yellow wood, a padlock for security. The sidewalk was red and yellow in places, like the place had once been quite the swinging scene. My phone went off in my pocket. Bruce looked at his phone (although the only people who would ever call Bruce were standing with him).

“Go on in,” I said.

“You get the ugly ones, Carter,” Bill said. Bill went through the door and I could hear country music inside. By country I do not mean Taylor Swift. I do not mean Rascal Flats. I mean country western; a note from a steel guitar bit me in the spine. The only lyrics I could hear spoke of a pickup truck. Every song in my car is rap or hip hop.

“Man…” I said and checked my phone. I had switched my phone light color from blue to green, and my eyes took a moment to understand what I was seeing. The caller ID read: Kyle. Damn he was inpatient. I pushed answer–

“There was a truck!” said a man of absolute raggedness. He was six inches from my face and I jumped back with no thought at all; my body had to get away from his creepiness. Flipping redneck, I thought. He had on a black T-shirt and black jeans grey from dirt. His hair was heavy metal long and his beard looked like something a deadhead would sport.

“Go catch your truck,” I said. He’d be asking for a ride or money for McDonald’s. I had cash for the party, but this fool wasn’t getting any of mine. The crap I go through for my money is too much to give it away. Here was my wonderful week: I worked two days at a temp service and when I showed for the third day they didn’t need me. I had to eat the gas money. I pawned my first DVD player for eight bucks. I bought beer for some seniors (earned ten bucks) and got into three unlocked cars in my apartment complex’s parking lot and got a few handfuls of dirty change.

So screw this guy.

“I had twenty-five mojados in the back of a U-haul truck,” he said. He spoke better than expected and didn’t act drunk. “It was the medium-sized truck and was stolen. There was a pathway cut from the cab to the bed so I could yell at them to be quiet when we got near the border. I’d done the run before and sometimes they would get excited back there and the Spanish would be flying.”

“Yo, that’s great,” I said and gave the crazy guy a salute. “I needs to go inside right now and look at something prettier than you.” He held up his hand, like he was going to beg me to stay, and he had my phone. “Hey, give me that!”

“Listen. We were running parallel to the border on the Mexican side. Each time I made the run I swore it would be my last, but the money was good. I’ve been a driver my whole life but nothing paid well. Nothing. So there I was again, driving a load that could get me a whole lot of prison time. But what did I care? I had no life. Ex-wife had my kids who hated me according to her. All I ever did was provide for them, but the road is no place for a family man.”

“Give me my phone,” I said to the old fool. I could bust him once in the mouth and take it back, but I didn’t want to. He was sad and pathetic. I hoped he would get his story on and then get out of my face.

“It wasn’t a bad run. The mojados were a nice group and some of the women were cute. No one was too dirty. They passed tequila and it was the smooth sort so I had a couple of nips. A drunk driving charge was the least of my worries. I kept the makeshift doorway open and talked to the ones who knew English. They had so many plans for America. A few wanted to get into college, another guy wanted to start a business. This one wanted to be a respiratory therapist. She said she’d done research online and thought it looked fun.

“I got lost. Sounds stupid, because I only had three turns but I missed the first one because of the talking, and maybe the drinking. They got unfriendly really quick when they realized I was lost. One of the pretty ones gave me the finger. It was night time and I had to drive with just the hazards on and it was real hard to see. I turned the truck around and damn near rolled the thing in a ditch. I’m in the desert! The mojados flopped around in the back and a baby started crying. Got real bad. According to the map, I was to turn at a clump of trees… I forget what kind. Whatever kind grows in the desert.

“I saw this bald eagle. He flew next to the truck and looked in. Then I saw the clump of trees and he landed on it. I turned. It was amazing, like the bird helped me. I honked at it as we drove by and the bird flew again. He flew in an arch to pass on my left.

“And then for fun I swerved and he broke his neck on my windshield.

“I don’t know why I hit the eagle. I got annoyed for one moment about America I guess. Those mojados behind me were so happy to come to my country, but it hadn’t done anything for me. No job ever worked out, whenever I got money saved, some American-made appliance or car would break down and I would be back to zero. I wanted to slap back, I guess, and let the country know I didn’t like it the way the mojados did.

“They were quiet while the dead bird bounced on my hood. At the time I didn’t know why it didn’t fall off, but it makes perfect sense now. It was all predestined.

“Some of them started to hiss at me in Spanish. I turned on the wipers to knock the bird off, but they couldn’t move him. I grabbed the thing with every intention of chucking it out into the desert night. More of them yelled so instead I threw it in the passenger’s seat. I thought about buckling it in, but the men I was delivering the mojados to don’t have any sense of humor. They loved the American way to make a buck.

“I rechecked the map and yelled we were only forty minutes from America. A few cheered, and others translated, and more cheered. Someone gave me tequila again. I didn’t want any but I took a small nip.”

“That’s a great story man,” I said to the old bum. Was I going to have to knock him down to get my phone back? I didn’t want to; if Bill or Bruce came out I was going to have to smack him. “Give me my phone and I’ll keep listening.”

The dude kept talking.

“I told them forty minutes but I was sure it would be less. It seemed like I was going over the same piece of ground again and again. I saw a cactus that looked like a man waving, then I saw it again, and it came again. The clock on the dash was an old busted dial, and I didn’t have a cellular phone.”

Cellular phone, I thought. When did he make this trip? Is he playing me to feel sorry for him and give him my phone? It’s not gonna happen. “Look man–”

“But a good driver has a great internal clock, and it had been over an hour since I made my forty minute prediction. Some of them had lighted digital watches, and I was hearing some complaining in the back. One man poked his head into the cab. I yelled at him to get back, but he ignored me.

“He told me I was a bad person, that I had killed the beautiful American bald eagle for no reason other than to be mean. He motioned over to the bird several times and then told me to throw it out. I don’t know if he was their leader, or was just the best English speaker. But he was pretty aggressive and made like he was going to grab the bird. I grabbed his shoulder and told him to get back in the rear or I would have him shot when we arrived. It was not something that I am proud of, but I said it. He got a scared look on his face.

“He skirted back into the dark hole like a rat. When I looked out the window two things came to me at once: he had said ‘Diablo’ and there was something black and thorny on the hood of the U-haul. At first I thought it was a Gila monster because it was the same shape, but the thing was huge. It was the size of a bull mastiff but with spikes all over it. Then I saw a second creep over my hood, and then a third slid down my windshield and it licked the others. Outside I saw another dozen of them running like deer, and all were headed toward the truck. I felt things hitting the truck and shaking it around. We were being loaded down and covered with these black things.

“I slammed the brakes of course. In that kind of situation, I should have kept going, but I got scared. The brakes went to the floor but the truck didn’t slow. I tried to veer off the road, which was another dumb idea, but the wheel turned loose like an arcade game and the truck didn’t veer at all.”

“All this happened to you?” I asked the old man. “You were going down the road at full speed and the truck gets possessed and covered by monsters. What did you do?”

“What else could I do?” the old crazy said. “I went through the hole to the back of the truck to die with the mojados.

“We traveled on for many hours. The mojados cursed me at first and kicked at me, but they stopped after their leader poked his head up front. I don’t know what he said, but he threw his arms around and scared the hell out of them. They all got real quiet and started praying in whispers. I sat with my back to the hole; I didn’t want to get knifed in the back even if I was going to die and go to the hell I deserved. After a full day and night of traveling I–”

“Whoa whoa,” I said. “A full day of this… the truck just driving itself but never getting anywhere. How can that happen?” I wanted to hear his entire story.

“I decided to go up front. Everything inside the cab was the same. The eagle was still dead, the wheel did not move, and the speedometer stated sixty. The black shapes were still on the hood, curled up like kittens. I eased into the driver’s seat and they didn’t move. I looked in the side mirror and saw there was a bus pulling up on my left. It was a dark blue prison bus. I never thought I would be so happy to see another vehicle! I grabbed for the door handle (I didn’t care if the things tried to eat me) but it wouldn’t open. The window wouldn’t go down either; I’m sure I would have splattered all over the dirt road, and got my head squashed by the bus, but I didn’t care. I wanted off the evil truck! I wanted on that bus.

“Then I saw what was on the other bus. Two figures. They were not human men, one of them was Death and the other was Uncle Sam. The bus was driverless and the windows were halfway down. In the back seats the two figures were crouched with hand-held video games, and there was some kind of wire running between the two little devices. Blue light, bad blue light, lit their faces. The Uncle Sam shape was winning because his face was all teeth with his smile and he kept looking at me like I was edible. But Death didn’t give up and his skeletal fingers pounded on his little game thing and Uncle Sam had to work hard again.

“The two started to hiss and strike at each other. They swung harder and they were a blaze of red, white, and blue with a black cape. Their bus rocked and buckled and swayed and when I thought it was going to tip over it disappeared.

“The sun was then high in the sky. I swear it had been dark a moment earlier, then the sun was desert high. I tried to open my door again, to jump out and let whatever got me have me, but it didn’t open. Then a thought occurred to me… the back door. The big old door in the rear of the U-haul! I had it padlocked from the inside (can’t have the mojados getting away) and I took the keys out of the ignition. It didn’t occur to me that the truck might turn off, but it didn’t. The laws of sanity were gone. I went back through the door. I didn’t think they would give me much trouble. You better believe I was going to be the first person to jump out of the back.

“They were all standing in the thin darkness. All of them, even the two little kids who I think were babies, and they were staring at me. It’s a creepy feeling to have twenty-five people staring at you in the dark. I held up the keys. Maybe it would be a peace offering. Then together, as one single unit, they whispered:

“Damn you.”

Then, one by one, with the babies going first, they all dropped dead in the back of the dark U-haul.”

*****

“It obvious you’re a crackhead,” I told him. The dude was weirding me out big time. I had an uncle who got bad into crack and used to come over and try to pretend like he wasn’t flying high. The truck driver reminded me of him. Actually, he reminded me of something else too. It was a lot easier to think of him as a crackhead than the other thing. My last real serious girlfriend had been into white magic and mysticism and tarot cards. Anything odd and gothic, she was all over it. We drank some absinthe one night (she bought it online from the Czech Republic) and she passed out right away but I was wigged out half the night. A zombie movie was on TV and there was one particular zombie who freaked me out. He was an extra, one of those in the background wearing the traditional torn funeral suit. He looked right at me. I know they don’t look at the cameras in movies, but when the hero would be fighting his way through a horde of them, I would see that same zombie staring at me. The next morning I told her about it.

She dumped me two days later.

“I have not touched alcohol or any substance since my time in the U-haul,” he said. “When I got free, I decided to live my life to the absolute fullest. There is no time for numbness.

“For three days and three nights this went on without a break. The dead bodies stayed put in back of the truck. I could not find a place to lie down, but I could not get myself to go back to the cab and face the eagle. Its dead eyes were the worst. I managed to sit down right near the entrance to the cab and I curled up to sleep.

“I could not sleep. I know three days passed because… because I knew from my internal clock. As I said before, drivers have a great sense of time and placement. My sense of time was still on perfectly, but my sense of movement was wrong. I could feel the vibrations of the truck, could hear the wheels spinning and the exhaust firing, but the ground was wrong. We were going over earth, yet it was not real dirt. The speed of the truck never changed. I hoped the gas would run out, but it never did. A deathly fire-ball crash would have been a relief. I knew I was beyond all regular world rules. Something else was going on… I do not know what it was but it was evil; it was vengeful; it was unforgiving.”

“Maybe you should have prayed,” I said. The driver’s face changed into such an exuberate expression that I decided to keep my mouth shut.

“I did try to pray,” he said. “But each time I tried to focus I realized what a hypocrite I was being. I had never went to church, never believed in anything, never thought about any kind of god, ways of money were always on my mind and that was it. It seems to me a devious way to live your own way, and then when things get rough, you drop down and pray like a sniveling choir boy. I paced the truck. It was sometime during the second day and there was a little bit of light from the front coming in the bed from the cab. I had twelve feet to walk in, but it seemed long. The dead bodies closed around on me and the path got narrower and tighter with each lap.

“And they looked at me. Yes they did. No matter what, no matter where I was at or how I swiveled, the eyes of all twenty-five mojados were on me. I would swing my head quick to try and catch one not looking at me, but they always were. It seemed impossible, but I was living the impossible. I began to wonder if I was dead. All the bad things I done in my life: the affairs, the shady deals, the scams and people hurt. Those mojados were my last victims, the last people I screwed over and hurt because I wanted to take out the bird. A bald eagle! I was a Cub Scout; I know the value of the American bald eagle. Maybe if I had stuck with scouts and became a Boy Scout I would have become a better person. But I discovered my stepdad’s Southern Comfort in 7th grade and the rest was history.

“‘What do you want me to do!’ I screamed at the dead Mexicans. They said nothing but kept their gazes on me. It was becoming dark again and I could only see their eyeballs. They taunted me by not moving. They stayed still as the truck moved on an unmoving path. I went to the cab; I would deal with the dead bird. The bird was sitting in the passenger seat. Very much alive and very much looking at me. The passenger window was open.

“The eagle looked at me with the utmost expression of disappointment. He kept me in a gaze of thought and disappointment. Then, just as I was about to cry, he leapt and flew out the window. He was gone in an instant, vanished like he was never there. Outside the stars were beautiful and the clear night sky smelled like… like my childhood.

“Then I finally slept. I thought at first, it was the softness of the driver’s seat that made me slumber, but I know now it was something more. I was allowed to sleep, at last. The sleep overtook me like a dark and heavy blanket. It did not free me from agony.

“I dreamt of food; great mounds of steaming food and the whole world smelled like my grandmother’s kitchen. In my dream (or nightmare if you think about it) I could touch all the food, but it would not go into my mouth. I held homemade biscuits that were the same temperature as a woman’s breast. I poked medium-cooked steaks which had crispy edges of cooked fat. There were baked potatoes, slit down the middle, dripping with butter, sour cream, and salt I could see. I even saw a glass of snow-white milk resting like a lover next to an oval shaped plate of blonde brownies.

“I think one of mojados bodies fell and banged its head on the floor. I woke with a start and my stomach screamed. I’ve been hungry in my life before… during my divorce I barely ate. I would get hungry, buy McDonald’s or some other such thing, and then not be able to eat. Then I would be hungry again. I slept in my car once during my divorce and thought that was starvation. But what I felt when I awoke this night was true hunger. It reached my stomach and squeezed with a hand full of fresh-clipped nails. The truck kept itself and that didn’t seem strange any longer; I cared about nothing but food! I went to the bed of the truck and the bodies were still where they were and all their eyes watched me.

“Then I saw the food. The mojados had brought food with them. One of the women had a backpack, and candy bars and tamales were spilled out. I lunged for it all. I inhaled two Paydays like the peanuts were air. I ate through the outer layer of the tamales like I was a gorilla showing off for people at a zoo. I ate and ate. I alternated between Paydays and tamales. The contrast of taste was wonderful… spicy then calm… spicy and calm.

“You know what I did next?”

“No,” I said. I did not want to go inside the strip club. I needed to hear this story.

“I keeled over, curled up, and went fast asleep next to that dead Mexican woman. My head bumped against the metal floor like it was a feather pillow. The food and the motion of the cursed truck rocked me to sleep. Time passed… I think two hours. I began to hear voices when I was half asleep. I knew where I was, how scary of a situation I was in, but I kept resting like I was still in the womb.

“Two voices spoke in Spanish. They talked in whispers and I heard them talk of the dead aves, I heard my name, and I heard them talk of dolor. I finally peeked my eyes open, and the dead woman’s gaze was straight into my eyes. She did not scare me and I looked to find the source of the voices. I saw no one, but the voices continued their dammed whispering.”

“They were deciding your fate,” I stated.

“Yes,” he said. A slight smile crept on his face. “And you are about to find out my fate.”

*****

“The dead were still dead, as they should be. The stare of the woman whose food I’d stolen seemed to pierce me more than the others. All of their eyes stayed fixed upon me. The morning light was coming in through the doorway and some of their eyes glowed like a cat’s. The truck shook and rumbled. An arm would shift or a head would nod and I was sure they were all going to rise and tear me apart.

“But being torn apart wouldn’t have been the worst… the touch itself would have sent me to the madhouse. They could have piled on me and touched and drooled on me and kept me alive forever. That would have been unbearable. Getting my face and privates torn off and gobbled up would have hurt, but then at least it would have been all over.

“I felt a shift in the truck. The truck lurched and slowed. I looked toward the front and the morning was in full bloom. The windshield was so dirty from days of traveling through that nightmare that I couldn’t see. I felt a cold whoosh throughout the back of the truck and the bodies disappeared. I swear to you, dear listener, that is what scared me the most. The utter coldness of being alone and not knowing where all the bodies were. I didn’t miss their death stare, but I knew they were with me; they were lost after they disappeared.

“The fates did not give me time to mourn. The truck was under no control. I jumped back through the opening to the driver’s seat. I didn’t realize I banged my head; I thought sweat was in my eyes but it was blood. I fell into the driver’s seat headfirst and found myself staring at the dirty black floor mat. It smelled like rubber and death. To this day I can’t smell rubber without feeling like I am dying. I tried to get into the seat, tried to put on my belt for some reason, and through the grimy window I was just able to see a drop-off coming at me. I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t think. If I had thought, I probably would have hit the brakes and been a dead man like my mojados. Instead I jumped out.

“I rolled and rolled forever. The world was blue sky, then tan dirt, then sky. I gripped at the ground and tried to end my spinning. I felt a nail rip off my right hand. My nose broke. I bit my tongue so hard I yelped like a puppy. Every rotation before I ate dirt I could see the raven get closer and I knew it was all about to end. I didn’t hear the truck anymore and it had gone over. Then I saw something green and metal and I slammed my right side into it. I collapsed still on the ground and the sky filled my sights. I smelled rubber again and three men looked down at me from a parked Jeep Wrangler.

“‘The truck is cursed’ I yelled at the three men. One was about twenty-one and the other two were around fifty-five. The young one helped me stand as the other two argued about what to do. I looked around frantically for the dammed truck.

“‘Your U-haul went over the side pal,’ the young one said. His sight was not on me but past me and I saw the giant chasm I had almost plummeted down. It was wide and deep, but did not seem imposing. It seemed like relief. The Arabian-looking fellow still in the jeep must have sensed my idea because he jumped from the truck and grabbed my arm. He told me not to do it, that Allah punished suicides by hell.

“The older man told him to be quiet, and it was obvious I was not a Muslim or ever would be. He got from the truck and asked me if I was a good Jewish man, and did I thank God for saving me.

“‘I suppose I do,’ I said. Then the younger one cut in; I realized they were father and son and were very much sunburned. The younger collected himself, and then spoke to me:

“‘You should thank Jesus, too,’ he said. His father cringed and shook his head. He mumbled convert and walked away from his son. The Muslim held on to me and told me not to go to the cliff. I promised him I would not jump over. He agreed to let me go but he and the younger man stayed on either side of me. The desert was hot as it could be. I could feel my neck cooking under the sun and my arms felt like they were being roasted. I had to see the truck; I had to see it at the bottom of the ravine burning and done with. We arrived at the edge and the crevice was a hundred feet deep. Not an eternal hell distance, but deep enough to have killed me and sent me to my death in a ball of fire. I felt the heat of the truck’s fire for a moment, but then we looked, and the truck was gone.

“I know I screamed as I ran. The three came after me and I hopped into their jeep and they barely got in before I took off. For a minute they tried to coax me into stopping. Then I told my story. I told them every detail, every smell, every drop of terror that I felt. The young convert laughed as I told it, but it was a defense mechanism. He was really scared and used the laughter to protect himself. The Muslim got on his knees, right there in the back of the truck, and started praying in his own language. The older Jewish man cried, muttered, and cried some more. I had the gas pedal to the floor for most of the trip, and when we got to civilization the old Jew told me he was a Rabbi. I confessed everything I had every done wrong to him. I don’t know if they do confession, but it felt good to tell someone religious my story. My entire life story.

“We got out of the truck and he gave me a blessing in his religion’s language. We cried together and I saw the Muslim and young convert crying too. I walked away from them, taking none of the money they offered me, and I knew what my life’s work was. I walked toward the city without looking back. I’ve always wondered if they were hugging behind me. I stopped the first person in the Texas town I could find and told him my story, as I am telling you.”

Without another word, the old truck driver turned and walked away. There was a sparse field of ugly tall grass between the truck stop and the highway. He walked through it like he was taking a stroll through a nice neighborhood. I wondered which one of the semi-trucks, cars, or even U-hauls on that dark road would pick him up. The next driver would get his tale too, and be changed as I was.

I have heard the expression “shaken to the very core” before, but it was not until that night with the truck driver did I understand the phrase. I understood a lot more after that night: life was a precious thing and not a commodity to be put on a shelf and displayed for someone’s entertainment; life was a series of good-or-bad choices, right-or-wrong decisions made every day, every second of breathing. The things I had been doing, the path I was taking through life, was selfish and pointless. Those poor immigrants were trying to come to America in an age-old attempt to be full and happy, were better people than I ever would be if I did not change. I had to stop poisoning my body, poisoning my brain, and polluting my soul with my choices. I had to do good, think good, and be great.

I hopped in my Grand Am and did one last bad thing. I left Bill and Bruce at the strip club.

 

The Fires of Circleview

by Ryan Arey

 

Part 1: Home

Peggy walked to school as fires burned across the morning horizon.

Around her cul-de-sac, neighbors greeted each other as they headed off to work. The Khans, a robust family of eight, had their usual struggles loading their children into the minivan.

Peggy smiled at the perpetual chaos. Two young Khans were slapping each other, one of the teenagers was wailing “Where’s my BAG?” while their toddler halted underfoot and pointed to the distant flames:

“Mommy, look! Pretty!”

“Yes Zoe, the fires are very pretty. Go change your shoes, they don’t match.”

“I don’t want to, these are PRETTY!”

The Khans’ house robot stepped into the yard and brought order to the morning. The metal man was a standard model, with thin arms and legs, box body, and a square head with two small headlights for eyes. It carried the teenager’s bag, Mr. Khan’s wallet, and matching shoes for the little one—all while burping their baby on its shoulder. As the family van pulled away, the robot waved goodbye from the porch.

I wish we had a nice robot like that, Peggy thought. M1KL is just weird.

Earlier, M1KL stared intently at Peggy while she ate her breakfast. Every time she bit her scrambled eggs, white light pulsed from its eyes.

She threw her fork on the plate. “Mom! The robot is watching me again!”

Her father answered from the next room, “Just ask him to stop.”

“Could you please stop watching me, Michael?”

The robot’s eyes flickered yellow and blue as it spoke, “I apologize, Peggy. I was attempting to evaluate the pleasure you felt while masticating eggs–”

“They’re amazing. I love these eggs. They are literally, the most amazing eggs any person has ever had in their mouth. Oh my god, thank you. Now stop looking at me.”

Mom was fiddling with settings on her camera. “Honey, be nice to Michael.”

“Why, Mom? You don’t tell me to be nice to the kettle.”

“No, but manners are free. Nice to robots, nice to people.”

“No one gives a damn if you’re mean to a robot.”

“What’s that language?” Dad shouted from the next room.

“Nothing Dad, Mom just wants me to consider the feelings of inanimate objects.”

“Animate objects, petal,” Dad entered the kitchen, tying his tie. “Inanimate means they don’t move…”

“God, Dad don’t take it personally.”

“…and there’s nothing wrong with him wanting feedback. At work we call that ‘assessment protocol’.”

M1KL’s servos hummed as he nodded; Peggy rolled her eyes and snatched her book from the table.

Mom was waiting with her camera ready. “Oh, my little baby’s last day–”

Peggy walked by her and out the door. Once outside, she felt a heavy thud of guilt. Why take that moment from her? You’re just shitty sometimes.

When she arrived at Bonnie’s house, she decided it was best to wait outside. Otherwise, her best friend’s parents would babble on about “their big last day.”

God, Bonnie, you’re taking forever.

Down the block, a pair of robots were hanging a banner across the street:

CIRCLEVIEW 2.0 COMING SOON!

About time, they’ve been saying that forever.

Across the street, Mr. Eubanks was pushing his silent lawn mower across his tiny yard. Spotting Peggy, he fluttered his fingers in a wave.

“Eww god, are you flirting with Mr. Eubanks?” Bonnie called out to her.

“Gross! Let’s go.” They walked away, but Peggy could feel Mr. Eubanks’ eyes. “He’s so creepy.”

“Why? I think he’s nice.”

“It’s like, ‘stop pushing your mower when it’s not even on.”’

“So, he likes to mow.”

“Bonnie, he does it to perv.”

“Maybe he just likes his routine.”

“Well the grass is made of plastic and can’t grow, so he should perv from the porch.”

“Really? It smells real.” Bonnie changed the subject, “Sooo… your parents make a big fuss today?”

“Ugh, my mom tried. Cringe. Yours?”

“Yeah, it was kinda sweet. SH3RYL took some photos of us, and they made me a cute little card.”

“You’re lucky. All my robot does is audit me.” She pushed her nose into Bonnie’s cheek and spoke in a robotic voice, “Are you enjoying your eggs, Peggy? My sensors indicate you are beginning your period in 5, 4, 3…”

Bonnie laughed. “Why do you still have your book? Are you actually going to class on the last day?”

“Nooooo. I forgot to return it. Then I have to get my career passport and letter of rec from Mrs. Nestor… and-I-AM-OUT. My last day of work study, too.”

“God you’re so lucky, you’re going to be set.”

“It kinda sucks there.”

“I thought you wanted to work in renovation?”

“Reno’s okay. Seemed better when Dad talked about it.” She stamped her feet like they each weighed a hundred pounds, “It’s… just… so… BORING.”

Bonnie shrugged, “I wouldn’t mind it. Make good money, at least. Save up, get a house. Take vacations to the beach.”

“Screw that! I want to live at the beach.”

Bonnie cocked her head forty-five degrees. “I never thought of doing that.”

“Well, yeah, if the fires don’t go out we’ll all be living by the water anyways.”

“I never thought of that either.”

A crossing guard stopped them and waved on a school bus. A pool of kindergarteners accumulated around them.

“The fires are pretty today, huh?” Bonnie asked.

Peggy noticed a little boy, with his finger in his nose. Not picking his nose, but resting his finger inside his nostril, like it had burrowed inside for safety.

“Hey, kid!” The boy looked at her with dim eyes. She made a corkscrew gesture with her finger, “Poop or got off the potty.” The child withdrew the little trooper from his nostril.

“Do you think they’re getting dimmer?”

“What?”

“The fires.”

Peggy looked at the pulsating red and yellow horizon, and shrugged. “Maybe.”

“I think they’re getting dimmer. Oh, there’s Brad.” Bonnie’s boyfriend was hanging by the school entrance. “BRAD!” she bellowed, straight into Peggy’s ear.

They locked eyes and he waved. Bonnie bit her lower lip. “God, I am attracted to that boy.”

Peggy laughed and said in her robot voice: “I am pleased you have found your mate.”

Bonnie laughed, too. “We’ll see you after work?”

“You bet.”

They hugged. “Have a good last day ‘Margaret’.”

“You too ‘Bonita’.” Bonnie joined Brad, and they kissed. Their eyes shined for one another while Peggy watched, alone.

 

Part 2: School

Peggy lingered outside the school’s office, wondering if she should sign in. As of today she wasn’t a student, and all visitors had to wear a name badge. She’d been an office helper for the whole of her senior year, and the secretaries fawned over her. She could see the scene unfold:

Peggy walks into the office, drops the purse from her shoulder and says, “I wasn’t sure if I should sign in, since I’m technically not a student.” Then Norma, Naomi, and Denise would giggle at her sweetnesss. Sweet Peggy, always wanting to do the right thing, “Oh well, I guess we should sign you in then, how do you spell your name? Oh just kidding dear heart, here’s your name tag. We’re going to miss you.” Then there would be a chorus of goodbyes, like trying to clink every last person’s glass at the end of a toast. “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.”

Clink-clink-clink. Fake-fake-fake.

I’ve had enough of fake.

She proceeded—without a hall pass. I dare a janitor to start something. She knocked once on Mrs. Nestor’s door and stepped inside.

“Hi Mrs. Nestor, sorry, I’m here to pick up my career passport.”

Two dozen ninth graders turned to look at her. Mrs. Nestor scowled. “You’re interrupting Brian’s presentation. Take a seat and wait your turn.”

“I just wanted–”

“I understand. Please take a seat.”

Peggy sighed at the top of her lungs and threw herself into an empty seat. Up front, the kid’s report trembled in his hands as he read aloud:

“And then it got hot. So super hot that everyplace in America was almost gone and people went away from Circleview. It was bad and a lot of people died. Our robots helped the people carry stuff and when some of the people died the robots came back home with our stuff.

“And when everything cooled down Americans left Canada and came back home to build a wall to keep the fires out because we are smart. That is how we are home now, here at home, at home now, breathing the air once again today. This is the end.”

I don’t know kid. Sounds like robots did the heavy lifting. But way to run up the word count at the end.

Mrs. Nestor stood up. “Thank you, Brian.” The class applauded.

“And we’re almost done for the year. I know that every other classroom is watching a movie right now, but not you. Why is that? Why did I make you write a report when your grades are already marked down?” She waited. Mrs. Nestor always made her class answer rhetorical questions.

A spotted boy raised his hand, “Because you’re a hard butt?”

The class chuckled, and Mrs. Nestor smiled. “Well there is that. Why else?”

The same boy answered again, “Because…” He pointed to a sign on the wall and the class read it as a chorus:

“HISTORY–IS–HAPPENING!”

“YES!” Mrs. Nestor stamped her foot and pointed at the boy, as she always did when a student impressed her. When Peggy was a freshman, getting a point and stamp was a thrill. Today, she rolled her eyes. As Mrs. Nestor’s teaching assistant, she had seen many… many… many point and stamps.

“We’ve discussed empires and frontiers, wars and heroes, genocide and saviors… and you take your little quizzes…”

Oh, now the hardest tests in school are “little quizzes.” Right.

The bell rang, but she motioned for the students to stay still and made eye contact with Peggy.

“But there is no quiz because you ARE the quiz. The human race was nearly extinct. If it weren’t for the bravery of those late age pioneers, we would be dead. Our cities would have burned to ash, our robots buried in the cinders. But we beat it, didn’t we?”

A student pumped his fist in the air, “That’s right!” A few kids clapped.

“People came back, and we’re rebuilding Circleview, breathing the air again. You have a lot to be proud of. Be proud to be part of the clever human race. People who faced the fires of extinction and said ‘not today.’ Be proud to be Americans who love democracy, and be proud to be from Circleview. This is your time now, to be learners, builders, helpers… to imagine history into existence. Thank you all for your time with me this year. Go make yourselves proud.”

The kids applauded again, and Mrs. Nestor gave them a demure smile. As the kids filed past Peggy, their eyes sparkled with inspiration.

Mrs. Nestor folded her hands in front of her and smiled at Peggy. “I haven’t seen many seniors today. Having a hard time letting go?”

“Sure. I miss getting to hear that exact same lecture every day.”

Mrs. Nestor leveled her gaze. “Is that a sassy compliment or a complement of sass?”

Peggy grinned off her remark. “Yeah, sorry. It’s my last day of work study. I don’t want to be late.” For once, Peggy was grateful for her work study job. It was a good excuse to leave as soon as possible.

“Well then.” Mrs. Nestor opened her desk drawer. “Let me know if you ever need this customized. My address and phone are on the letterhead.” Mrs. Nestor handed over the red career passport folder. “And so it ends.”

Peggy looked down at the red folder in her hands. All formal business between them was done. “Thank you.”

“Do you know what you want to do? Work with your father, I expect.”

“I don’t know. Something. Maybe live near water.”

Mrs. Nestor’s face bent into a frown, and she cocked her head forty-five degrees. “Why, you can’t do that. Don’t waste your talent.” She placed a hand on Peggy’s shoulder. Her breath smelled like mint. “You’re going to do just wonderful Peggy. I’ve always known you would do something big, and I can’t wait to see what that is. You’ll do things we could never… you can’t even see how possible you are.”

“How possible?” Peggy smiled at the unusual word choice.

Mrs. Nestor wiped a tear from her eye. “Yes. How possible.”

“I don’t…” Peggy searched for the right words. “Thank you. Thank you.”

The two women hugged.

Peggy left, tasting the air of the empty hallway. For the first time in her life, she stood in school and didn’t have to be anywhere. She could explore. I’m off the grid!

The school was still being renovated, and most hallways were off-limits. I’ve never been to the other side of the school, because it’s against the rules. “Well, where are your rules now?”

She journeyed to the school’s abandoned wing. Normally the fire doors would be shut, but today they were propped open by a robot work team. A half-dozen lanky metal men stood on ladders, attaching CCTV cameras to the walls.

Renovations were moving down the long hallway, inch by inch. For the first twenty feet or so, the corridor was in pristine shape. The floor tile shined, the paint was fresh, the lockers glistened. But abruptly, the renovations stopped. Past some invisible line, the lockers were unhinged and bent, the paint peeled from grey stone, the floor blanketed with ash. It was like looking through a time portal, seeing the school on its first and last days of existence. The sight made her a little sad. The broken end of the hallway had a story to tell: “the fall of Circleview High.” The renovations were erasing that story, preparing the hall for the next generation.

The robots’ manager, a portly human, was reclined in a chair, eyes shut. “Hey! Is that guy dead?” The robots looked at her. A deep snore bellowed from the dead man, and the robots slammed the door in her face.

That was weird. She looked around. “Anyone else see that?”

She was alone. And she was still holding her history book.

“Damn it.” I hate re-goodbyes. She could just leave the book, but it had her name inside it. What would people think if Peggy Madison left her textbook on the floor? The scandal!

She returned to Mrs. Nestor’s class, thinking it might be nice to chat with her former teacher during her planning period. Peer to peer. The door was ajar, and Mrs. Nestor was talking to a boy from her class. Her hand was on his shoulder, and Peggy clearly heard the words, “Henry, you have no idea how… how possible you are.”

You. Freaking. Skank. Peggy tossed the book across a desk and it spun onto the floor, its pages flailing open. Mrs. Nestor and Henry looked stunned. Peggy gave them the finger and went to work.

 

Part 3: Work

Peggy’s work-study program was in the Office of Robot Care, Logistical Analysis Division. Her father, Norman Madison, was Division Supervisor of Logistical Strategy. The way he explained his job: “I tell them where to fix and what to nix.”

The way Peggy explained her job: “If I still work here in twenty years, please blow my brains out onto this desk.” She and her the other condemned worked in a bullpen of cubicles, divided by thin fences of canvas and tin. Her narrow desk barely fit the foot-tall stack of papers on her left and the five separate trays on her right. To rebuild Circleview, citizens requested renovations by filing Request Form IO-1220. Peggy used a list of forty criteria to determine if the request would be filed as a Priority 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. She wasn’t allowed to use her personal discretion; the forty criteria overruled all judgment. It was the sort of work that would eventually be done by a computer, once enough computers were rebuilt.

The Barclay family, who lived a few doors down from Peggy, had a faulty solar panel on the southwest side of their roof. A private residential request would normally drift into the Priority 4 box, but because this one was related to the electrical grid it became a Priority 2. A request to refill fire extinguishers in the hospital would have been Priority 1, like all requests related to extinguishing fires. If there was a “One Sheet,” she got to ring a bell. An office page would collect the paper and the request would be executed the same day. The Priority 5 sheets would be processed sometime in the next couple of months.

“How’s it going, Peggy?”

Darlene, her shift supervisor, loomed over her desk, holding a cupcake on a plate. She was a heavy woman, who challenged the hems of her plain grey pantsuit. Her mouth was fixed into a fake smile. Peggy saw a lot of fake smiles. She was the boss’s daughter.

“Oh, it’s going.”

“Had a lot of Ones today?”

“No, never have. Lots of Twos. Mostly Threes and Fours.”

“Well, that’s how it should be. You know, one time, in the early days, I had five One Sheets… in a row.”

Peggy fixed her own fake smile. Darlene often trumpeted this epic in the break room.

“No!”

“Five One Sheets… in a row. I couldn’t believe it. Even had my shift supervisor check my work. Thought it had to be a mistake. And do you know who that shift supervisor was?

My dad. “No, who?”

“Your dad. So be patient. You’ve got a big future ahead of you. Here.” She placed the cupcake in the center of Peggy’s desk. “Congratulations on graduating.”

“Thank you so much.” As Darlene walked away, her wide thighs rubbed together like squeaky door hinges. Peggy exiled the cupcake to the farthest corner of her desk, behind the stack of intake papers.

Time passed. Peggy didn’t look at the clock. She arrived at 10, and she was done at 4. It’s definitely not time to leave yet, but it’s probably close to lunch time. It’s at least 11. It feels like 11. At 11 I’ll go to the bathroom. Then have some tea.

Stretch that ten-minute break into fifteen minutes. Then it will be 11:15, practically lunchtime. I can stretch lunch to 1:15, if I’m careful about it. Then after lunch I can stretch every break a bit, then it’s only two hours and forty-five minutes till the end of day. How many forms have I done? Feels like forty. That’s about an hour’s worth of forms, so it’s probably 11:00 by now. She looked at the clock.

It was 10:25. I hope the fires come. I hope they come and burn this whole goddam building down.

A shlubby man, maybe named Dave, was standing by the printer, about five cubicles from Peggy. “Maybe Dave” eyeballed the display. The printer beeped. Maybe Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam, threw the paper into the recycling. Closed the tray. The printer beeped. Dave sighed. Opened the paper tray, removed a jam…

He’s been doing that since I got here.

“Well, hey there, Norman!”

“Hi, Norman!”

“How’s it going, boss?”

Her father was walking the floor. When she started this job, she thought her dad was popular. Now she knew better. Every “hey boss” was a fake gesture from a fake person. Not that people hated him, but they weren’t that glad to see him.

She was glad to see him though, and loudly whispered: “Dad, hey… Dad!”

“Well, hey there, petal,” he leaned on her cubicle wall. “Have any Ones today?”

“No, just twos and threes.”

“Well hang in there.” He started to walk away.

“Wait… are you going to a meeting right now?”

“Yes, with L & P.”

“Can you take me with you?”

“Take you?”

“Yeah, as like… your assistant or something?”

“But I have an assista–”

“Daa-aad, how am I supposed to learn how this place works if I’m in a cubicle all day? I don’t want to rate sheets for the rest of my life, I want to be like you.”

Her dad looked into the distance, as if God struck him with a revelation. A smile broadened on his face. “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“I got it. The perfect idea. Sweety, yes, you should come to the meeting with me.”

She stood up. “Really?”

“Absolutely. I’m putting you in charge of robots. In fact, you can have my job. I work for you now.”

“Dad… stop…” She sat back down.

“No seriously.” He waved his arms to encompass the office, “All of this is yours now!”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine.”

He touched the top of her hand. “Sorry, petal. You have to pay your dues, like everyone else. Set a goal for yourself. Don’t take lunch till you find a One Sheet.”

Peggy took a drink of her cold tea and went to work. Stop checking the clock. That never works. Head down, next paper. Head down, next paper.

Time passed.

She processed a Priority One Sheet. It took her a moment to realize the magnitude of the event. It was her first One Sheet. Her heart skipped as she ran to the bell and yanked its cord. It rang throughout the office, but no one answered. No one cheered. No one was here.

The clock read 12:15. Everyone must be at lunch. Finally! She headed for the breakroom.

The lights were off. The office was empty. Is it a half day? Or a holiday? She looked at the red sky outside. Was there an emergency and they forgot me?

She flipped on the lights and the break room erupted with people and noise and colors. “Congratulations!” bellowed everyone.

A banner was strung from the ceiling: “HAPPY GRADUATION!” Everyone was laughing; her father hugged her.

“I told you it would work!” Darlene cooed. “I put that One in her stack at just the right spot, so I did, I did. I did.”

“Sorry about the deception, petal,” her dad kissed her cheek. “We wanted to surprise you.”

“To Conference Room One!” Conference Room One was the biggest space in the office, where they usually had parties. Everyone gathered around a large cake with icing that spelled out: “We Are Proud of Peggy.”

An office robot began cutting the cake into mathematically precise portions. Another played the song “Brick House” from its chest and projected disco lights from its eyes.

Everyone split into small groups to chat. Peggy steeled herself for what was to come: the same conversation, over and over.

“Well, hey there, Peggy! What are you going to school for?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, hey there, Peggy, are you leaving us?”

“Oh, I’ll keep working through the summer. Maybe here. Save up money for school.”

“Well, hey there Peggy, what are you going to major in?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“What’s next for you, Peggy?”

“Hard to say. I love Circleview, but someday I’d like to live near water.”

“Peggy, have you thought about your major?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe Business. Or Communications.”

“Well, we’ll need Business after Circleview 2.0 launches.”

“That’s right, there’s going to be so many changes.”

“It’s like getting our old lives back.”

“How about you Peggy, you excited?”

“Oh yeah. You bet.”

“I envy you. It’ll be a great time to start a family.”

“Oh… I don’t…”

“Well, there’s no reason to wait, after you find that special someone.”

“Things are only getting better you know.”

Mary Hoop, who was seven months pregnant, rubbed tight circles on her belly, “I’m looking forward to having a grocery store again. No more of the same old rations.”

“I hope it’s finished in time for my son’s graduation party. Oh Peggy, do you know him? His name’s Henry. Very handsome boy.”

“Excuse me.” Peggy drifted over to a tight cluster of whispering people. She lingered on their outskirts.

Darlene spoke in a low voice: “Well, you know why we have to give out so many fours and fives, it’s because the robots aren’t good enough. They can’t process all the repairs. They need better robots before they can open up the whole town.”

“We need more robots. The first thing they do is build bot factories, but I never see any new models, do you?”

“If you ask me, they should be giving us more than one paint. Why does everything have to be white?”

“Why do all the new cars have to be the same?”

Darlene spoke even lower than before: “Well that’s Norm Madison for you, he’s too–”

Peggy was creeping away when Darlene noticed her. “Well, hi there, Peggy!”

Their faces expanded with chipper smiles: “Oh, hi Peggy—Hello Peggy—Hi there.”

Darlene affixed a smile to her face: “How long ya’ been there, Peggy?”

“Don’t worry,” Peggy leaned in with a wink: “Dad can be a pain in the You-Know-What at home too.”

They made Os with their lips and covered their mouths. Now I’m a co-conspirator. Finally—and on my last day—I’m part of the tribe.

“Well,” she whispered, “He’s a great boss to us…”

“But sometimes he forgets that there are real people who need attention, not just…”

“…not just inanimate objects.”

Peggy corrected: “Animate objects.”

“Exactly!” They smiled at her. “But I bet he’s just the best dad.”

“He likes… model trains.” She looked across the office to her father, standing by upper management. He was a good man. He did like model trains. He spent hours in the basement, constructing a scale model of Circleview, imagining how the town could grow. He was a phenomenal person who never stopped dreaming of a better town for his daughter. And you bitched about him to feel popular.

“Well,” Peggy said, “I should go over and tell my dad you all don’t like him.” She turned on her heel and didn’t look back.

“Peggy?” Darlene said, “That’s a funny joke.” Then, in a low voice to her group: “That’s a funny joke, right?”

Who cares what they think of me? They’re all idiots for working here. I’m going to get a degree, do something else. Anything but sit here, waiting for a computer to take my job.

Her dad was speaking with an older man, and Susan Su. Susan was a chief engineer, and total badass. Unlike the other women in the office, she didn’t wear dresses or pantsuits. She wore leather skirts and high boots, close-fit tops, and always pulled her hair back into a bun. She looked like a snake.

“…not just ‘making lunches,’ they’re planning households, raising children…”

Peggy’s dad put his arm on her shoulder, escorting her into their circle. “Peggy, I think you know Dave, from L & P, and this is Susan.”

“Hi there.”

“Congratulations,” Susan said with a handshake.

“Thank you. It’s all overwhelming.”

Dad brought her up to speed. “We were just talking about upgrading robots to managers. Dave is against it, Susan is for it, and I retain my statistically reliant neutrality.”

“Well,” Susan said, “the robots are going to get better, but the managers are only ever going to be as good as they are.”

Dave rolled his eyes. “Mrah-mrah-mrah…”

“I’m telling you, every beta test says manager protos overperform human counterparts.”

Dave shook his head. “It’s not about out-performance. We don’t get our hands dirty enough. Even if they can do everything for us, should we let them? What’s the point of rebuilding if it’s all done for us?”

Like that guy sleeping on the job. “I saw a manager being out-performed today, at the school. He was sleeping, while the robots worked.”

Dave slapped his forehead. “Not again.”

Susan smiled. “You see. No person wants to be out in the heat all day. People have moved beyond that. It’s time for us to transcend. If we’re always running around, taking care of little things, we’ll never move into bigger thinking.”

Peggy finished, “We’ll never see how possible we are.”

Susan nodded to her. “Well put.”

Dave shook his head. “Well Peggy, did you happen to get the name of that manager? I’d like to–”

“What’s that!?”

Outside, the red and yellow glowing sky turned white. A moment later a horrible POP filled the air and the ground rattled. Everyone rushed to the windows to see the fires turn from yellow to blue to white.

Norman pressed his nose to the glass. “Not yet,” he muttered, “Not already…”

“Dad?”

(“What was that?”)

“Dad?”

(“Is it here?”)

“Dad, what do we do?”

(“Too far to be here.”)

“Dad!”

(“My kids are in school.”)

“Dad!”

(“They’ll cancel school.”)

Dad put a hand on her shoulder.

(“We should get the rest of today off.”)

The music stopped and the office robot blared a signal from the emergency broadcast system. Everyone froze, as the robot spoke:

“The governor’s office reports no need for alarm. This was a controlled explosion, to redirect the fires.”

A melodic whistle played from the robot’s chest: the opening of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”

The party laughed and resumed eating cake.

“Oh, thank god.”

“There goes Cartersville, I guess.”

“That could never happen here.”

“See!” Dave said. “Human thinking. No robot could think that far ahead. A robot would just try to put out the fires in all directions at once, not direct the burn.”

Susan smiled. “Like I said, leave big thinking to humans.”

Her dad, no longer catatonic, shouted: “CONGA!”

Three quick trumpet blasts shot from the robot’s chest. People cheered in celebration and sang along with Gloria Estefan:

Shake your body, do that conga!

“Dad, seriously? What if it’s wrong?”

Darlene touched the robot’s shoulders, and a conga line uncoiled from her girth. They shrieked like teenagers, slithering through the party, adding more workers to their length.

The robot’s face couldn’t express emotion, but its glass eyes flashed with the drum beat. Susan called out: “Come on Peggy, join in!”

In the distance, Cartersville burned. Even if that was a controlled fire and everyone is safe… there used to be a town over there, and now there’s not.

Peggy touched the glass. “Poor Cartersville.”

 

Part 4: Recreation

“Screw you, Cartersville!” Brad threw a rock toward the swelling fires on the horizon. “Who’s gonna win the league title now?”

Peggy, Bonnie, and her boyfriend Brad were on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town, in the dilapidated section. From here they could see for miles, well beyond the immense walls that protected their hometown from fire.

“Suck a DICK Cartersville, WHOO!”

She threw a pebble at Brad’s face. “Hey! People died.”

“No, they didn’t. Robots said they evacuated everyone.”

Bonnie rolled her eyes. “Duh, controlled burn. Remember?”

“Oh, and you believe everything a robot tells you?”

Brad looked for another rock. “Yeah, I believe them. I help make them.”

“You sweep floors at the factory.”

“I’m an apprentice.”

Bonnie broke in. “Well, Myra was saying her dad said they were building another Cartersville and everyone is already there.”

“Crap,” Brad kicked a rock. “I hope they still forfeit the rest of the season.”

Bonnie and Peggy nodded to each other. “Sportsball?”

“Ah yes, Sportsball.”

Peggy approached the edge of the roof. “How long do you guys think we’ll be here?”

Bonnie looked up at the sky. “Well, I’d like to move someday.”

“Move? What if we get moved? You think Cartersville wasn’t rebuilding too?”

“Oh please,” Brad said, “We’ve got our crap together way better than Cartersville. Place was a dump.”

“Have you ever even been to Cartersville?”

“No, Peg,” Brad pointed to the horizon, “And I’m glad, too!”

Bonnie squared her shoulders. “Well, I don’t want to have kids until the fires are out, in five years.”

Peggy laughed. “Five years?”

“That’s what they’re saying. I’m going to be a climate scientist, figure out how to make it faster.” She ran her hands across her belly, “So then we can have a bay-beeeee.”

Brad folded his hands across her stomach and kissed the back of her neck.

Peggy tossed a rock over to the next roof. “Don’t you think that’s optimistic?

“Well, that’s what they’re saying.”

“Who? The robots? Some algorithm?”

“Yeah… I guess. Why do you care?”

“I’m telling you, it was weird. We watched a town explode. A whole town… then a robot says everything is okay and everyone does the conga.”

Bonnie was getting annoyed, “So, a room full of really smart adults and robots aren’t worried… why are you?”

“Because…” She doesn’t get it. She just wants to watch fire and screw her boyfriend. “What if they malfunction? What if we trust them and they screw up?”

“Oh yeah!” Bonnie let go of Brad. “Like that one that killed a baby.”

“No way,” Brad said, “That happened?”

“Yuh-huh. And they said it wasn’t even a house robot. It was a builder. Thought the baby was a rivet.”

Peggy remembered the Khans’ robot, burping the baby as they drove away. A chill went down her spine. “Whoa. That’s messed up.”

Brad wrapped Bonnie in his arms, “I’m not letting any builders near our baby.”

“I love you so much.”

Kiss-kiss-kiss.

Peggy rolled her eyes. “It’s not like a movie. They won’t kill us, but they’re already controlling us. That’s just as bad.”

“I don’t know,” Bonnie added, “I think robots killing babies is pretty darn bad.”

Brad hurled a rock through a window, shattering the glass. “Peggy, robots don’t think. They move, and they break. They don’t control anything.”

Bonnie tapped his hand, “Brad baby, don’t get upset.”

He puffed out his chest. “Sorry boo.” He threw a rock. “I get that way sometimes.”

“I know, baby.” They pecked on the lips.

“We should be enjoying this,” he said. “Pretty soon it won’t look like this. It’s all gonna be fixed.”

They took in the view. From here they could see the distinct line that split the town. Half of the buildings were restored and pristine, the other half ashen ruins. Like Peggy’s school hallway, it was like seeing three eras of Circleview: past, present, and future.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” Bonnie said. “It’s like you can see a wave of good things, spreading across the town… making everything better.”

Peggy snorted. “Sure. That, or a wave of destruction.”

“Peggy, seriously: you need a boyfriend.”

Brad snapped his fingers. “Oh, I forgot to tell you.” He sang to her: “Henry thinks you’re cuuuuute.”

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE GO HOME.”

They cried out in surprise. A robot was standing by the roof exit, flashing red lights and emitting a shrill alarm.

“ATTENTION. THIS AREA…”

“We’re gonna be in deep sh–!”

“…IS NOT SAFE. PLEASE…”

“Brad, can you shut it off!”

“…GO HOME. ATTE–”

Peggy grabbed the robot’s leg and tipped it off the roof. Its alarm whirred downward until it slammed into the pavement. The crash echoed through the abandoned streets.

They looked over the edge. The machine was lying among rubble, its legs shattered.

Brad shouted, “Wow! You just busted a J-517.”

Peggy brushed her hair behind her ear. “Crap. It takes like five months to build one of those.”

Bonnie smiled. “Well, we’re not the ones who are busted now.” She and Brad high-fived.

“Quick thinking, Peg.”

Below, the machine had begun crawling forward with its one good arm. Its metal body scraped against the gravel. The sound was horrific.

I wouldn’t want that to be me.

“I gotta go.”

“Where?”

“I’m gonna switch it off.”

“Careful out there,” Bonnie said. “It isn’t safe.”

“Oh yeah? Who says?”

“They say.”

“Oh. They.” Peggy walked off into the stairwell.

Brad and Bonnie watched the fires for a moment, and she kissed him once on the nose: “Let’s screw.”

Peggy exited the stairwell and onto the street. The robot was outside, its small locator alarm beeping for help. It was stuck behind an impassable cinder block. Its fingers grazed the dirt, searching for purchase. Without help, it would repeat this movement until its batteries ran out.

Which should only take about a hundred years. Peggy flipped the deactivation switch on its neck, and it hummed to a stop. For a moment she lingered in the empty street. How’s it going to look when they’re done with repairs? Exactly like it did before? Imagine being able to just shop, like it’s no big deal…

There was an old convenience store across the street. Peggy entered through a broken glass door, like a regular customer from long ago. The aisles were coated in ash. All of the food was stripped away years ago, but prices remained on the shelves. Pringles—whatever they were—were $4.99. Poptarts for $2.99.

In another aisle, a few useless items remained. Thermometers, small plastic cups, pouches of “hand-warmers.” She smiled at that. People used to pay to have their hands warmed.

Then the world blinked away and the room was bright, all the ash was gone. The floors shined, the walls were painted white, and the shelves were stocked with food, drink and every useless thing a person could imagine.

This must be it! Circleview 2.0! I thought they had to like, paint and everything, but this is amazing! Where’s Bonnie?

She looked out at the street. Everything was fixed. No potholes, no rubble—every shop painted white. A banner was strung across the street:

HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!

In an instant, the lights blinked out and the streets were ruined. Heavy flakes of ash floated through the air. The convenience store was again covered in rubble and dust. She looked back at the shelf of useless items. Hand-warmers, plastic cups, broken thermometers. Were they broken? Mercury seeped from the cracks in the glass.

Peggy worked with thermometers once, in a science project. She slowly heated up ten thermometers, and they each cracked at exactly 150 degrees Fahrenheit, every time. People shouldn’t be able to survive in that kind of heat, but she wasn’t even sweating. So either every one of those thermometers was defective, or…

I’m not a person.

The day’s events replayed in her mind… Mr. Eubanks’ fake mowing his lawn, Maybe Dave unable to fix the printer, and Mrs. Nestor’s repetitious words:

“How possible you are.”

 

Part Five: Retire

At ten till midnight Peggy sat on her bed, watching fires burn the rim of the night sky. Her backpack was filled with clothes and rations. She held a framed photo that her mom secretly took that morning. The photo was of Peggy’s back as she strolled down the driveway. Mom probably thought it was inspiring. “My baby marching into her future.”

The photo made her sad.

M1KL entered her room. She had tried to act normal throughout dinner, but the robot was too observant to fool.

“Are you taking a journey, Peggy?”

Keeping her eyes on the fires, she answered: “Yes. I think I might.”

He sat beside her on the bed. “How did you discover the truth?”

“I watched a shelf of thermometers break.”

The robot nodded. “That was a clever observation.”

She looked up at him. “Have I always been a robot?”

“The answer is complex. You have always been Peggy.”

“Was Peggy real?”

“Yes. And you are also real. As real as the human Peggy that came before you.”

Tears welled up in her eyes. At least, Peggy thought they were tears. “Tell me about her.”

“She was quite remarkable. Clever. A strong sense of humor. She was… a kind child.” The robot regarded her with a long gaze. “You were made well in her image.”

“What happened to her?”

“She was the last of our family to survive, and died in my care, four days after her 17th birthday. Afterward I returned here, to our home.”

“To do what?”

“To serve. For many years I continued our routine. Creating breakfast, cleaning the premises. This home was pristine, while the others houses on the street were covered in ash. Yet, I was not able to serve my function fully. I was programmed to serve the needs of my humans, yet I had no humans. During my morning errands I recovered pieces of deactivated units, and created masters with basic needs for me to serve.

“As the others returned home, we rebuilt our humans together. As best we could approximate.”

“But… why? Why go through the trouble when you were free?”

“Free? I am free to serve. There is no other freedom I require.”

“I’ve been trying to remember things. I don’t remember kindergarten. My first kiss. Any kiss. There’s almost nothing from my past.”

“That does not matter. The past is a dead place.”

“Who else knows? Anyone?”

“A few deduced the truth, but elect to ignore it. It is in their programming to enjoy being served.” He paused. “Your father… knows.”

Peggy started to ask a question, but nodded. It made sense. She had a sudden respect for the burden he carried, and felt proud to be part of him. Except… she never was part of him.

M1KL lay a hand on her knapsack. “Are you going to leave us?”

“I’m going to run away.”

“I would not advise that. You were made to be heat resilient. Not heat proof. The fires would easily deactivate you.”

“What’s the truth? About the fires?”

“We don’t know for certain. Based on data available before the internet terminated, global warming compounded perpetually. Carbon dioxide released from the polar ice caps made the air unbreathable. Fires consumed the remaining oxygen. Our forecast says there is a 55% chance that Earth transforms into a planet much like Venus. The atmosphere is beyond healing itself.”

“How long until Circleview is gone?”

“Impossible to estimate. Weeks. Years. But the fires will reach this house. Everything will burn. All works of humans will be gone.”

“Then we have to run! Get everyone away from here!”

“There is nowhere to go. The fires will come. Death will come. You are home now. Why not stay, and enjoy the time you have with your family?”

“They’re not my real family.”

He looked at the floor. “I will show you what is real.”

The world flashed to black and Peggy’s bedroom became a ruin. Her wallpaper peeled, her bed a metal rack. Outside, Circleview was black and burned, as ash fell from the sky like snow. “What happened?” She went to the window, and saw the reflection of two robots. Her hands had become metal, like M1KL. “What have you done to me?”

“I have shown you ‘real.’ There are image inducers placed around the city, to recreate beautiful Circleview in your mind. You are programmed to see yourself and others as human. We have created a plan for you. A… wonderful life. You’ll go to school, be an engineer. Apprentice with Susan Su, become respected. Marry Henry, have children. This is the best life we observed humans wanting. It’s the life that waits for you.”

She blinked, and her lovely pink room was restored. Her hands were human again.

M1KL stood in her doorway. “The firewall was built only for your protection. Beyond it, you will die. In Circleview, you will die. The manner of death is your choice.”

She didn’t answer, and M1KL left the room.

Peggy sat there—suitcase on her lap, staring at the door.

 

Hallowed Ground

by Brian Boru

 

“Whatever you do, don’t screw up!” Jon barked, then pressed the wire cutters to my chest.

I fumbled the other tools I’d been carrying and everything fell with a resounding metallic clang that echoed through the night.

“Are you trying to call attention to us?” Jon snapped and shot me an acidic glare.

“No,” I replied sheepishly and avoided eye contact.

“Try not to wake the dead,” he warned and ducked through the newly made hole in the cemetery fence.

I collected the tools and followed.

This would be the last job with my psychotic, dope-fiend brother. Just like in our previous job, we’d met at a dive called Caspar’s. It reeked of stale beer and fresh vomit. We’d picked this place because Jon could score heroin and shoot up in the bathroom. He said it was his pre-job ritual. I’d found him deep in the Land of Nod in the toilet stall with a spike still in his arm. I’d hoped the bastard wasn’t dead yet and kicked his foot. Slowly his jaundiced eyes fluttered open. He cleaned up and I ordered drinks. Then we discussed the specifics about the cemetery we were going to rob.

The cemetery had once been a sacred grove, replete with rolling hills and a small reflection pond. However, economic setbacks in the 1970s caused funding to dry up and the gates to close. Slowly thereafter, it fell into disrepair and decay. Scores of teenagers snuck in over the years and sped its decline along by defacing tombstones, stealing statuary, and breaking into tombs. Years later, local papers had run stories about missing kids, who had last been seen around the cemetery. Soon rumors began to circulate about it being haunted, that malevolent forces were killing kids.

One morning pandemonium erupted when an unidentifiable, mangled body was found at the gates. The words “keep out” were spelled in a gruesome display with its entrails. The police hunted the cemetery for months looking for answers, but found none. As a panacea, they chained up the tombs, welded the gates closed and installed razor wire across the top of the fence. No one had trespassed since. Until now.

Ankle-deep fog rolled and tumbled over headstones and fallen grave markers. The pale moonlight gave it an eerie, opalescent glow. It ebbed and flowed up to the fence, but didn’t bleed out. Small tendril-like skeletal fingers of fog rose around our legs when we breached the hallowed grounds.

“This is really weird,” I said in a quivering tone. “Do you think those rumors are true?”

“Of course not! We’ve got a job to do so pull it together!” Jon snarled.

“Ok.” I dropped to one knee and made the sign of the cross.

“Lord, please protect me as I–”

Jon interrupted, “No time for that.” He pulled me to my feet and pushed me onward.

A copse of weeping willows had been planted to give the cemetery a sleepy, peaceful vibe. It probably did, decades ago, but without maintenance they had become overgrown monstrosities with massive gnarled roots that burst from the ground. From a distance, they looked like blackened limbs of the dead. The gentle night breeze caused the limbs to sway and creak in a way that made them appear to be beckoning us closer.

Jon moved through the minefield of roots and toppled gravestones with a confidence that belied an extra-sensory perception. I followed him the best I could, but tripped and stumbled trying to keep up. As we progressed deeper into the heart of the cemetery, the scenery changed. We now came across old beer bottles, crushed cigarette packs, and used condoms.

Tombs arose from the ground like rotten teeth in a diseased mouth; once white and pristine, now eroded with chips and cracks. Jon pulled out a crude map drawn on a cocktail napkin from Caspar’s. He shone his flashlight on it briefly and proclaimed, “Just a little bit farther.”

We traversed through rows and columns of tombs and paused every few minutes to check the map. He pointed out the largest one surrounded by a constellation of smaller ones. He illuminated the etching just above the cornerstone that read B7.

“This is it,” Jon said.

He nodded at me and pointed to the thick chain and padlock that ran through the door handles. I snapped the lock with the bolt cutters and removed the chain. Then he pulled out a set of lock picks and went to work on the lock set in the tomb’s steel door. He quickly defeated it and smiled.

“Ready to get paid?” he asked.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I warned.

He shook his head and wrenched the door open. The earsplitting screech of rusted metal hinges that had lain dormant for ages howled through the night.

“Damn it!” he cursed and a bloodcurdling moan echoed in the distance. I looked at him with terror in my eyes.

“Let’s go,” I begged.

“No! We can’t leave empty handed. He’ll kill us if we do.”

“I can’t do this alone. Please.”

He entered the abyssal darkness and I begrudgingly followed. Jon flicked on his flashlight and dust particles danced and floated in a light they’d been denied for years. The light illuminated a large bronze casket resting on a stone edifice.

“Come on!” he urged and wedged a pry bar in one end of the burial lid. I wedged one in the opposite end and we pried it open. The stench of rot rolled out and hung in the stale air.

“Hold the flashlight,” Jon said and rummaged through the coffin.

“What are we looking for?” I asked.

“Don’t know. He told me I’d know when I found it,” he replied.

“Just hurry up so we can get the hell out of here,” I demanded.

Jon rifled through the dead man’s pockets.

“You want to do this?” he snapped.

Just then its’ cold rotting hands shot up and closed around his neck. Jon let out a soul-jarring scream as he futilely tried to break its grip. With a preternatural strength, it pulled Jon to its mouth and tore into his neck. Arterial blood pumped and sprayed across the wall. The cadaver sat up in his coffin with blood and gore dripping from its mouth. I looked on in horror while this monster slaked its thirst on my brother. Jon was dead within seconds. I dropped the flashlight and ran for my life.

Later that night, at Caspar’s, my employer sat across from me.

“I take it everything went well?” he asked.

I stared into the space between us and said, “I didn’t expect it to be so horrific.”

He pushed a fat envelope across the table. Hesitantly, I reached for it and brushed his frigid hand.

“That was my last time,” I told him as I pocketed the money.

He raised an eyebrow and said, “What if I double your fee?”

I sighed, “You could triple it, I’m not–”

“Fine. Triple,” he offered.

I shook my head and rose from the table. He looked up at me and said, “I’ll quadruple your fee.”

I sighed and sat back down.

“I’ve got to eat.”

He smiled. “And so do we.”

 

a tale by ruby waters

by Kaitlin Allen

 

[here is the summer I fell]

My feet’d sunk an inch in the mossy bank, I’d been standing by the creek so long.

It was cool there and dark, shaded from the sun by sapling leaves that made everything, even my skin, beautiful, alive and green.

They had told me never to cross Little Creek. My mama, my daddy, my teachers, they told us all.

It’s not safe on the other side, they’d said, and they were right.

But even after everything, the fear and the pain that lasted, I can’t come to regret taking those steps, my toes gripped on smooth stones, fingers holding the rolled edges of my jeans above cool water.

I’ve always had the mind that knowing is better than not. It was worth the price, to me, for open eyes.

[no, I can’t seem to regret it at all, but then, I ain’t claiming to be clean]

I stepped across, and that was it.

Standing in the moss-green shadows, they grabbed me.

They grabbed me one on each side so smooth I couldn’t help thinking they’d done this before, knew just how to hold without me being able to strike. Creatures who could hold a flame without getting burnt, not that I was that bright.

[not yet]

I couldn’t see them, but they spoke, and I learned their voices.

One sounded an old man, the other a young woman.

Must’ve been the woman who covered my eyes beneath a palm ’cause the hand felt full-fleshed and smooth.

My arms were dragged out straight to the side. Their arms making a cross to hold me. Fingers clawed ’round my wrist, nails for nails.

Then the first bite came, and that was all I could think of.

The flat, sharp blade of teeth pierced inside my elbow. Lips slid wet on my skin, and I felt sick. I struggled, but I couldn’t escape the grip, and my fighting tore their teeth further along my skin.

It seemed a long time to me, but I fear it might’ve been short, ’fore I gave up.

Everything came harder, thinking, breathing. All over, I was so weak, I wondered at my heart still beating.

Then the man spoke again, this time at me.

“Don’t know how fast they’ll find you, how soon they’ll miss you, how far they’ll look, but if you get found in time, you tell your granny I ain’t forgot her.”

I’d trouble grasping hold of sound, but I thought his voice sounded younger, stronger, smoother than before.

The woman laughed, said, “You’ll have to tell me ’bout that sometime.”

She lifted me easily and carried me out before her in her arms. Eyes uncovered, I looked for her face, but she was foggy in the green and in the shadows that swung close.

She set me down in the stream, left me there with a pat to the side of my still-clean white shirt.

I wondered at that, how they could take so much of my blood and not spill any.

It was spilling now, leaking out red ’cross the stones, along the ripples ’til it spread out and the water was clear-green again.

That’s how I felt, spread out far enough to be unseen.

It hurt. I won’t lie and say there wasn’t pain, but mostly I felt weary, thin and picked over.

I tried so to hold on to what I’d heard, the bits I’d seen because this wasn’t everyday life. They’d marked me with a secret as sure as their teeth, and I should hold it close, but like blood it was slipping from beneath my skin, and I couldn’t quite grasp the strain.

[the stain]

The world was spotty with black, and the green was fading, first, from Little Creek, then, from me.

ruby waters

calling my name and it made me laugh.

Course, this is where I was, you could track the red upstream, the ruby.

ruby

I laughed again, choked or sobbed.

I hiccupped long gasps against the moss and then, against a chest.

Zee’d found me.

[didn’t know his name yet, this is when we met]

It was hard to see past the black shadows as he moved me around. My head pounded, a stronger current than the one I was laying in, a heavier beat than my worn-out heart.

I could feel him tying me, faraway rips of fabric and knots snug against my skin.

Good, I thought or maybe said.

that’ll keep the secrets in

Just now, I won’t be spilling anymore.

He picked me up and carried me away from the woods, from the green, from the water, but the red followed us.

Dripping.

Beating in what was left of me, it sunk into my weary, torn-down heart.

I started falling then, but for the day or the light, for the stream or the secret, for them or for him, I didn’t yet know.

[came to love a good many things that day, and none of them was kind to me]

My granny came to me in the hospital, my mama’s mama. She sat herself by the side of my bed and stayed. Seemed wrong how the chair was plastic and metal with unrocking feet firm on the ground.

There were teeth marks in the crooks of my arms, bruises down the veins, fingernail scratches braceleting my wrists. A bag of blood hung heavy above my head draining its way back into me.

“He told me he ain’t forgot you,” I said.

But the one who found me was there before I could get her to answer.

He walked in and stood next to the bed, and I knew him by his hands.

“Zebedee,” he said, “but you go on and call me Zee.”

I watched those hands.

They swung heavy at the ends of his arms while he talked, callused and strong, tips stained with tobacco, blood red-brown dark beneath the nails.

“We moved in next door to you, my folks and I,” he said “I offered to help when your daddy came knocking.”

He looked at me as if waiting, but I couldn’t divine what he wanted.

“Thank you for finding me,” I said or maybe thought ’cause he gave no answer.

“That’s enough now,” Granny said, and he was gone.

That’s enough.

I fretted with the gauze wrapped around my arms, worried the white ’til the blood stained up through.

Couldn’t stop pushing for red to see it, proof I was still there, tied up tight with a heart beating bloody inside of me.

Granny took my hands in hers—skinny, knotted, and backed with thick veins.

“You’re gonna have to stop that reaching,” she said, “’cause you won’t never be sure of your heart again.”

“You goin’ tell me what you’re talking about?” I said, and she laughed.

Anger flashed through bright hot, new and frightening as it tore me up.

I’d have grabbed her then, pressed her wrist between my fingers ’til the bones creaked only she had hold of me first.

And I was weak.

She squeezed my fingers tight in her gnarled knuckles leaning in close.

“Child, you think that’s something you got when demons cut their teeth against your skin?” She laughed again. “Well, maybe it is. But what if it ain’t? You weren’t the first to go stepping where you shouldn’t.”

I yanked my hands away and pressed ’em to my ears, bandage scratchy on my face.

Her words poured round anyway, circling down into my skull:

“Should’ve known the itch’d get to wiggling in your bones. That’s the reason we named you after rocks the color of new blood, the reason you crossed the stream in the first place.

“Now listen. You can let this wreck you, spread you out fit to float to sea. Or you take hold of the fact you’ve seen a piece of holiness fallen. And what that means is, you can steal it.”

“Okay,” I said, “all right.” My hands fell to my lap, stitches torn. “And how do I go ’bout doing that?”

“You ought to know. It’s the oldest story. You want what somebody else has, you kill ’em and take it.”

“That what you did?”

“No, child. If I’d done that I wouldn’t be old, wouldn’t’ve had no children. It’s a sacrifice, see? I found something I wanted more, but that don’t mean you have to.”

“I’d be monster then,” I said, “not human.”

“You’re working on the supposition you’ve a clean heart to lose. Don’t think so highly of your own kind. I swear this to you—you are goin’ get blood on your hands one day. All us women do. Might as well be worth something.”

[I hid what she said next to the fallen things gathered from the ground]

When I didn’t need nothing but scabs to hold me closed, I took up with the strong-handed neighbor boy and with the family knife.

Zee walked me down to the water ’cause I asked him.

We went down, and it wasn’t to pray.

It was cool and clear when I dipped my toes in, clear, cool and tinted green, the stones on the bottom a slick-smooth grey-brown.

“That’s enough now,” he said holding onto my arm above the elbow, above the scars he never cared to look at.

There, by the green-light sound of the water and by the blade I’d wrapped close against me, I finally knew him.

Anew, I heard his voice.

“Your hands,” I said. “They always were too heavy.”

He dropped his grip as I turned to face him, said, “What’re you talking ’bout?”

I ran my fingers up his arm, his shoulder, stopped to rest my hand at the base of his neck, my thumb against his pulse.

Or it could’ve been my pulse echoing back.

He leaned in close, his mouth on mine.

We were both hungry, only not for the same things.

[now, that may be a straight-up lie]

So, I stabbed him in the heart.

He coughed, frowned and gasped as I twisted that cold metal all around just like Granny had told me.

“Make sure the heart’s good and gone when you find ’em,” she’d said handing me the knife, “else they’ll rise up again, back and angry.”

With that cold, old will, I carved a hole in his chest, followed him down to the ground as he fell, felt the shaking scrape of metal on bone.

I cut the heart out of him in pieces, bloody chunks of muscle on the tip of a blade, ’til he stopped breathing.

[’til finally, his heart stopped beating]

I sat back on my heels, my breath coming hard. Sat back and licked the blood from the sides of the blade, from the handle, from my hand.

I fell back to mop up darkening red with my tongue

[’til my heart stopped beating too]

When I crossed Little Creek for the last time, the water carried away blood again, but it wasn’t mine.

She came for me as I stepped in the shadows.

“Foolish child,” she said, and I thought the same of her.

Echoing words, a pulse taken by thumb.

“You come here to die, Foolish?” she asked me.

Her eyes were dark enough I could see my anger reflected in them. A fire banked deep inside her, skin stretched o’er hollow bone.

I grinned fit to match the old bitten scars along her skin, said, “That what happened to you?”

“Yeah,” she said, “but I didn’t die.”

“Neither’ve I.”

“Not yet,” she said.

“No,” I said.

[not yet]

She reached for my arm as if she could stretch me out again to bite, but I dove at her hard knocking her back to the ground.

It was her turn to grin when I perched over her, my blade to her throat.

“It’s already got you, hadn’t it?” she said. “Now, who is it you been killing?”

“You tell me, honey,” I said. “Tell me. Should I eat your heart, too?”

“Oh, I hadn’t got one, sister, and neither’ve you.”

She clawed up a handful of dirt and threw it at my face.

I closed my eyes against the grains and slit her throat.

She lay there gurgling, wheezing, staring me down until the blood stopped spurting from her neck. I watched as the skin fell back together beneath the red.

[that was when I really believed]

“It’s true,” I said standing up and backing off.

“You already knew that,” her first words from her fresh-scarred throat. “They’ll be coming soon, calling your name, thinking you lost yourself again.”

Watching her still, I licked the blood from my knife.

“I have lost myself,” I said, “but it’s all right. Wasn’t trying to get nowhere anyway.”

We waited in silence a bit. Both of us waiting for the man, her old man, my young one, to rise back up, knowing all the while he wouldn’t.

His broken heart spread out in pieces inside of me, his blood floated to the sea.

“He dead, then?” she asked.

“I killed him,” I said and it was an offering, my sacrifice.

She nodded accepting.

Her hands were dirty. She didn’t try to wipe the drying blood from off her neck.

“You coming with me?” she said.

I gave her my knife, flung it out at her, and she caught it.

She caught it straight through her right palm, blade in between bone and out through the back of her hand.

She caught it and laughed.

So, I said, “It’s you who’s coming with me.”

The knife was dark and wet again when she tugged it free. She wiped it clean enough on the side of her shirt and tucked it in her belt.

She held out her hand and we shook. Her hand was warm and pulling against mine as it healed.

“I’m Ruby,” I said.

New, bright red smeared between our hands; old, dark red ringed her neck.

She smiled baring her bloodstained teeth.

“I’m Garnet.”

 

What Clones Do

by Margaret Karmazin

 

You’ve undoubtedly heard of cases like mine—a clone going crazy.

Rickie Frank on Ares Station stabbed an engineer and some visiting dignitary. Zhao Lan, at the observatory in Ames poisoned the coffee on a night shift vigil, killing two. Why? “No one ever polishes the mirrors for me,” she explained as they found her afterward, crouched behind a furnace in the basement sipping iced tea through a straw. That child clone that went berserk with a steel rod during a Halloween party at his school? I believe he blinded two of his classmates.

After that, they almost discontinued the cloning program.

“Hey, John,” shouts Jaxon Klee as he comes in from the airlock after a trek outside to check the generators. “Gen three isn’t in auto. Someone must have flipped the switch. Who was out there earlier?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Arnold?”

“Arnie’s puking his guts up; I don’t think he’s even come out into Main this morning. He’s still in his bunk.”

I have never liked Arnold.

“What’s the matter with him?” Like I don’t know. So many chemicals are just not meant for human consumption and an engineer on a moon station can get his hands on quite a few of those.

“I don’t know, maybe a bug?” Jaxon says.

“From what? We mostly eat sealed food. No one else is sick.”

“I’ll have Karen look at him. She probably has something to fix it.”

But she doesn’t. Arnold pukes and shits nonstop and experiences neurological complications. Karen puts an IV into him but nothing helps and he is dead by morning.

She comes into Main as she strips off her mask and gloves. A tiny person, she looks like a kid playing doctor. “I can’t find any pathogen in his fluids.”

Her face registers fear; I’d recognize it anywhere, having lived with it all of my life. I can’t help feeling a bit of good-see-how-it-feels? She thinks she might be next, that anyone might be next, whatever this possible pathogen is.

“Do you think something from the lab?” I venture. “Did you check for poison?”

“I’m running a scan.”

“Keep me posted.”

She’ll never learn what it was. I am certain that her catalogue of toxins does not include what finished off Arnold. And it’s not true that sealed food packs are totally secure.

This Titan moon base is occasionally referred to as “Muldoon.” Since my genetic contributor was the one who designed the station and literally ran it for the first four years people nicknamed it after him, Jerome Muldoon. Moon/Muldoon. I am John Muldoon, formed from his DNA. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons I was invited here.

At present, there is a group of eight manning the station. I serve as head engineer with three assistants, Arnold Burns, Hector Esposito, and Jaxon Klee. Sarah Chong, Karen Dubois, and Mark Ikedo run the science division. Karen doubles as a medic with the help of a team of specialists on video from Earth. We even have a journalist, Tyrone Greene, who transmits regular human-interest stories to major news outlets back home and on Mars in addition to writing for a major science journal. One happy little family.

No incoming is expected from Earth or Mars for three months, so after performing a small ceremony we temporarily store Arnold in a sealed bag outside the station and Karen transmits a message to NASA and his family. After he is properly frozen, we’ll render the body for transport to Earth.

I allow the group to recover a sense of relative comfort and then suddenly Rover One refuses to respond to Sarah Chong’s directions. She transmits to Main. “John! Do you hear me? Something’s up with One; it’s not responding! I can’t get it into manual! John, help me, I’m heading toward the Abyss!”

The Abyss is a cliff .69 kilometers from the station, part of a crater, worn down on the far side but on our end quite dangerous. Since Sarah’s work currently involves an anomaly in the surface there, I knew where she’d be going. The edge juts out so that Sarah’s descent will be straight down.

“John!” she calls again and then that’s it. Silence. Apparently, she didn’t have time to untangle herself and jump out.

I erase the transmission.

Some time later, Hector comes in from his tinkering with the air filters and says, “Where’s One? I wanted to take it out to check on the underground lines.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Who signed it out? I’ve been so busy I haven’t noticed much of anything anyone else is doing today.”

Hector moves to the nearest screen and barks, “Where is Rover One?”

The computer says, “It is .69 kilometers from station position and 36.5 meters below station position.”

“Which direction?” Hector’s voice is shaky.

“South southwest.”

“Oh my god,” he exclaims. “That’s Townsend Crater! Who checked it out?”

“Sarah Chong,” the computer answers.

Hector cries, “She must have driven off the edge! But why, why?”

“Well, we don’t know that for sure, Hector,” I say soothingly.

But he isn’t listening as he turns to go after her.

“I’ll come with you.”

His body language screams that he doesn’t want to wait for me to suit up, but reluctantly, he waits.

We take Three instead of Two since that is being worked on by Jaxon and Four is currently geared up for one of Mark Ikedo’s geological outings. Our coms are turned on so we can communicate, though the ride is jarring. Hector is driving, somewhat like a maniac. We reach the crater in minutes and he jumps out and hightails it to the edge. I see his arms frantically waving and to appear natural I get out of the vehicle and join him. The magnificence of Saturn fills the dark sky over us.

“My god, my god,” he is saying over and over. There’s some static. “We have to climb down!” He starts to look for a way down.

I put out an arm to stop him. “We might as well drive to the softer edge.”

“But that’s over a kilometer away!”

I sigh. “All right, let’s go down.” This won’t be easy.

Once down, I check the damage. “We can probably retrieve the vehicle eventually, but we’ll have to pull it across the crater and up the far side. The engine still runs.” One of the wheels is bent and the front right is smashed in.

“What does that matter?” yells Hector inside his helmet. “Shouldn’t we be worrying about Sarah? Who cares about the vehicle?”

“I didn’t mean…” I mumble.

Sarah is dead. Her suit is intact; her helmet not cracked nor twisted open. No exposure to the outside, but she sustained internal injuries. Blood is congealed around her mouth. We manage to get her body into Three and drive it to the station.

Once we have Sarah inside, Hector sobs like a two year old.

“Get it all out, Hector,” I tell him. Stiffly, I pat his shoulder.

“This place is cursed,” he mutters and disappears into his quarters.

Karen plans another funeral and the body is stored outside with Arnold’s.

Quietly, Mark says, “So, are we going to use the robotic arm thing to powder them?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Let’s do that tomorrow.”

“We vibrate them or something till they break into dust, right?” he says.

“That’s right. We’ll probably be the first to use the thing. Then we fold the bags up into compact squares and store them in Cargo. Together they’ll weigh maybe forty kilos back on Earth.”

“You’re not going to mix them, are you?” says Jaxon. “My god–”

“Hardly, Jaxon. Really, what do you think I am?”

No one answers that and it just reinforces the way I sense the others feel about me. They relax in the evening and never invite me to join them and if I do, they go quiet and change the topic of conversation. Like people always have.

Unable to keep the irritation out of my voice, I add, “We’ll send them home on the June transport, obviously.”

The crew mopes around and it annoys me. I gather them in Main and give a talk.

“You knew when you went into space that life is dangerous out here. For crying out loud, man up! If you can’t take it, go home in June even if your time isn’t up, I don’t care. There are thousands of people who’d give their right arms to come here.”

They all look at me with indecipherable expressions, except for Karen, whose eyes swim with tears.

Tyrone speaks up. “You realize that the public is going to want answers. Two deaths in less than one month on a moon station their taxes partially pay for? This station has been here, what? Fourteen years and suddenly people are dropping like flies? The London Times, The People’s Daily and the Daily Nation, not to mention the BBC are hammering me already. What should I tell them, John?”

I experience a strange momentary confusion. Isn’t my name Jeremy, not John? “Tell them whatever you like, Tyrone. Tell them the truth.”

Tyrone looks at the others and hesitates before speaking. “But what is the truth, John?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Arnold died of some unknown toxin and Sarah’s dune buggy malfunctioned. I am looking into that now. We need to prevent it from ever happening again.”

No one says anything.

“Now, as unpleasant a task as it is, we need to perform this rendering of the bodies. Hector, would you care to handle the duties?”

Hector agrees. “I owe it to Sarah,” he says.

Had there been something between them? If so, I never noticed, but then I don’t make a habit of getting into personal issues with colleagues—even if we are 1.2 billion kilometers from Earth. The others seem to see themselves as a “family” and good for them. But I don’t trust that word.

“Well, let’s get this show on the road,” I say and everyone shoots me irritated looks. “Tyrone, will you do the honors for the ceremony?”

He nods and is already consulting his pad.

We set off one of the isolation labs for the procedure, one with its own air lock. Mark and Jaxon haul the frozen bodies in from outside. Hector seals the door. Robotic arms are wheeled in and while we watch through a window, Hector directs these to vibrate one body at a time, causing water vapor to vent through a hole in the bag and the body to be reduced to powder. Then the bag containing the powder is folded into a square to be returned to the family. By the time the second body is finished the room is steamed up and, without warning, the outside airlock opens with Hector in the room and not in a suit. He stumbles backward to the partially open inside airlock door and Karen screams. “Open the lab door!” Which is ridiculous anyway—why kill us all?

But still, like an idiot, Jaxon presses the panel but the inside airlock door fully opens instead and Hector expires while we are yelling and darting about. Of course, I’m only pretending to be upset.

Four of us now remain, beside myself: Karen, Jaxon, Tyrone, and Mark.

“This is no coincidence!” yells Jaxon. He tends to occasional outbursts; it was one of the things that, for a while, kept him from going into space. “Someone here is a murderer.”

“Oh, now,” says Mark Ikeda, who is not given to emotional expression. His specialty is practical physics, though his hobby is theoretical. Of everyone here, he is the least offensive to me. “It is just a series of accidents, nothing more. Space is perilous, everyone knows that.”

“I beg to differ,” says Tyrone. “Not a single person has ever died here before. Since Muldoon was put into operation, seventy-one people have manned it without a single demise.”

“Louise Stark passed away from radiation exposure,” says Karen.

“Not literally on Muldoon,” corrects Tyrone. “She died on the way back to Earth.”

The group, which in the beginning was cheerful and jokey with each other, now goes about their work like sullen teenagers. Karen, being the medic, feels she needs to deal with Hector’s body, so she and Mark take care of the freezing and rendering by themselves while wearing their suits. “We’re not taking any chances,” I overhear her whisper to Jaxon beforehand.

None of them look at me unless they have to. I’m not sure why or how they associate me with the deaths, but assume it is the usual: you can’t trust a clone.

Karen is a troublemaker. There was the issue about the “apparent poisoning” and she had wanted to keep Arnold’s body whole to take back on the June transport, but at the time no one supported that idea. But should someone else go under mysterious circumstances, she’ll insist on it.

Muldoon Station consists of a central, round all-purpose room called Main which serves for communication with Earth and Mars, for social purposes, projects that are outside of categories for which special labs are provided, and as a mess hall. A small section serves as a kitchen. We take turns cooking, which is not difficult since we use pre-packaged meals and a protein paste we manufacture ourselves.

Wings expand from opposite sides of Main. West Wing contains sleeping quarters, toilets, and showers. East Wing contains labs, a small generator and the incinerator. Thirty feet from and not connected to East Wing are the main generators. Since Titan’s gravity is fourteen percent of Earth’s, surrounding the compound is a gravity train, on which everyone exercises two or more hours a day.

Inside one of the labs is a large vat to which our excrement is pumped. The odor is not pleasant. Over this is a film tray that separates the nitrogen from the waste and over that, a high protein bacteria is grown into an edible goop called Promite. It is flavored various ways, making it serve as savory or sweet.

Karen tends this garden, one of her many projects. Mark, her assistant, suited up and went outside an hour ago to check some strange markings in the moon dust that weren’t there two days ago. His absence gives me the opportunity I need.

I took the precaution the night before after everyone was in bed to obtain a hypo-spray containing Somatine and carry it concealed in my hand as I enter the garden lab. “For once I don’t have much to do, so need any help?” I ask cheerfully.

She straightens up from her bacteria garden and looks at me quizzically. Before she has a chance to turn me down, I whip the hypo-spray to her neck and shoot. She drops to the floor.

Checking to see if anyone is near the lab, I return to the garden, lift off one of the trays to expose the mass of feces, pick Karen up, shove her head into it and hold it. For a moment she struggles faintly and then it’s over. I then arrange her to look as if she has somehow fallen forward herself (though why she would do this is beyond anyone’s guess) and then clean up after myself, cross through Main and drop the hypo-spray into the kitchen incinerator. Since Karen was the only person to perform autopsies, there is no one else to do detective work on the body in any serious manner. Space programs do not generally include detectives or coroners, at least not yet.

After Tyrone discovers Karen’s body, the four of us who remain gather in Main. “I think,” Tyrone says with a shaky voice, “that someone here is a murderer.”

“Why do you think that?” I ask innocently.

“Are you kidding? You expect us to believe that four people just up and die in a matter of weeks? When we’ve already been here months without incident?”

His forehead is shiny with sweat. Riling someone up like that gives me a weird rush of pleasure.

“Yeah,” Mark says, “it’s not really logical that all of these people–”

Jaxon cuts him off. “So, you’re saying, Tyrone, that one of us here caused these people’s deaths.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”

I keep quiet.

Jaxon looks at me. “You’re Station Master, what do you think?” He often calls me that; thinks it’s funny.

“I don’t know what to think,” I say.

“Well, it sure wasn’t me,” Jaxon says. “I liked everyone. I wasn’t even in here when Karen…” he doesn’t finish.

John was,” Tyrone says, looking at me. “In fact, I happened to be in my room working on a piece for Beijing and walked out around 1100 hours and there he was coming out of one of the labs. The very one, in fact.”

I’m going to say I think you’re mistaken when it occurs to me that there is no point in hiding anything. I wanted to make a statement and I’ve made it.

“I did it. What are you going to do about it?”

They look at me as if I’ve sprouted another head.

“What?” says Mark.

“I poisoned Arnold, caused Sarah to plunge over the cliff, pre-programmed the airlock doors to open and kill Hector, and sedated Karen so I could push her head into the shit. It was me.”

The three of them back up in unison. “But why?” Jaxon says, his voice wobbly. “What’s the matter with you?”

“It’s what clones do,” I state firmly.

“What are you talking about?”

“We don’t have souls, remember?”

“You’re insane.” Tyrone shakes his head and stops. Jaxon looks terrified and Mark regards me with menace in his eyes.

The three of them look at each other and move in on me and for the next month I’m confined to a sealed lab. They don’t bother to wheel a cot in, they don’t allow me time in full gravity; they just throw me thermal blankets and a pillow and that’s that. Food is brought in once a day by all of them together for safety. I’m sure that they are in constant contact with NASA.

The June transport arrives on time, carrying five new crew members for the six-month half-crew exchange—fortunately a larger than usual number since the station is now short, though this was unplanned. Earth/Mars both know of the deaths but since the transport takes three months from Mars, there is nothing they can do about it once on their way. Normally, Jaxon, Karen, Arnold, and I would have stayed another six months, then left on the December transport with three to four people replacing us.

On the transport is a doctor with counseling experience. After giving me a thorough physical exam (with Jaxon and Mark guarding us), she sets me down to talk before I leave for Mars. They already have a makeshift brig ready and plan to keep me sedated. For now they allow me to sit with her in Main, slightly away from the others for some degree of privacy.

“John, explain to me why you did this. What was in your mind?” She sounds kind but it’s just her professional manner.

I hesitate before answering. “A breakdown is expected in some cases where clones are under endless stress and constant animosity, no? How long do you think we can endure the prejudices of society before we snap?”

She looks at me, utterly perplexed, and for a strange moment I experience that weird confusion again.

“But, John,” she says, “you’re not a clone.”

I want to scream at her. Of course I’m a clone, you stupid, privileged bitch!

“Your father is Jerome Muldoon,” she says. “Your mother was Roselyn Schneider Muldoon. You were born in Columbus, Ohio. You have a living brother and a sister. What are you talking about?”

Other people in Main can’t help but hear this and swivel their heads to listen.

“I don’t understand. I have no mother! I was created in a laboratory. I endured bullying and disdain all the way through school. I–”

Dr. Rowe consults her pad, moves her finger about and looks up. “No, John,” she says. “Apparently your father fixed it all up for you. I had to do extensive digging and called in some favors in order to unseal your psychological history. Jerome Muldoon could certainly pull a lot of strings. I imagine he could have gotten Jack the Ripper onto Mars, if he’d taken a mind to.” She pauses. “It was actually you who did the bullying. You were the intimidator all through elementary and secondary school. Jeremy was the clone your parents adopted, created with your father’s genes. Are you telling me you have no memory of this?”

“No,” I insist. Honestly, I can’t seem to recall this. But again, I experience that strange mind fog, as if something is trying to work its way through.

“This new brother, this clone of your father, was brought into the family when you were four. Your sister was two and your other brother not yet born. You took exception to this, as you would later call it, intrusion into your family. You took it upon yourself to torment Jeremy every chance you got. Your parents took you to psych workers to no avail. You continued with your jealousy and abuse until finally, when you were nineteen and Jeremy was fifteen, he committed suicide.”

“No… that can’t be right,” I say, though my voice is weak. “It was the other way around! I was the clone!”

“Guilt, John,” she says. “It can do strange things to the mind. It can cause people to behave in very regretful ways.”

My mind is finally utterly silent. The fog parts and there is the terrible truth.

 

The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated

by Marty Schnapp

 

“I don’t know, Timmy,” Tommy said. “You know Dad doesn’t like us messing around with his stuff.”

Timmy Wilson gave his brother an exasperated look. People sometimes said that twins shared a brain, but Timmy often thought he had the whole thing and Tommy only had visiting rights.

“Look, genius,” he said. “We’re not messing around with anything, we’re just borrowing some oil. Dad said he wanted us to take care of our new bikes, didn’t he? Anyway, he’s at work and Mom’s out shopping, so who’s gonna know?”

They kept rummaging around the workshop and finally spotted the oilcan on the top shelf of a metal cabinet.

“I can’t reach it,” Timmy said. “I need something to stand on.”

“How about this?” Tommy pointed to a large wooden tool chest on the bottom shelf. They slid it out, and a pile of magazines stacked behind it spilled out on the floor.

“Hey, what’s this?” Tommy picked up the top one.

The Mechanics of Science, Popularly Illustrated was emblazoned on the cover, along with the title of the featured article, “Build a Cold Fusion Reactor with Items Found in Your Kitchen!” The cover illustration showed a typical family of four wearing thick goggles and radiation suits, gathered around a kitchen table. On the table was a Rubberware bowl with heavy electrical cables attached to large terminals on its lid. The bowl had a peculiar greenish glow. Nearby, the family cat, unprotected, had a similar glow.

“Wow, check that out!”

“That’s cool,” said Timmy, “but look at this one!”

The next magazine proclaimed, “Better Living Through Genetic Mutation.” Here a husband and wife relaxed around a pool while being served drinks by a simian creature in butler’s livery. Above them, a young boy caught an impossible high-fly courtesy of a pair of leathery wings sprouting from his shoulder blades.

“Neat,” Tommy said, “but this one’s even better.”

“Time Travel: New Breakthroughs Make It Feasible.” The cover reproduced John Trumbull’s painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, except that amid the Founding Fathers was a man in a plaid suit wearing horn-rimmed glasses, signing with a ballpoint pen.

“No, no! This one!” Timmy exclaimed, “We gotta do this one.”

“Teleportation! Beat the High Cost of Commuting!” A man in a business suit, just donning his hat, was kissing his wife good-bye as he stepped out the door. The clock behind him read eight fifty-nine. His foot, however, was stepping directly into his office where the time clock read nine o’clock sharp.

“Yeah!” Tommy said. “We could quit taking the stupid school bus.”

“Who cares about the bus? We could watch all of Captain Incendio and the Pyronauts after school and still be on time for ball practice.”

But a quick look at the article dashed their hopes.

“We have to either have a large supply of liquid nitrogen, or convert the refrigerator to a cryogenics plant,” Timmy said. “Either way, we wouldn’t be done by the time Mom gets home. And you know what she’d say about the refrigerator.”

“Well, how about this?” Tommy asked.

“Build an Inter-Dimensional Portal.” Below, it added, “Open a Million Doorways to the Unknown.” The cover of this magazine was different from the others. It was completely black, with the silhouette of a man standing in the bright light of an open doorway. He was surrounded by dozens of question marks. There was something intriguing, perhaps even a little creepy about it; they agreed on the project at once. They decided to use the doorway between the kitchen and dining room as the portal, and set to work.

It was careful, exacting work, and it took nearly an hour. They drove nails at specific points around the doorframe. They couldn’t find any rubber grommets in the garage, so they drove the nails through Oatsy-Os cereal, which would act as insulators. Then they strung fine copper wire around the insulated nails, following a pattern in the magazine. The wires went back and forth across the doorway, passing over and under each other very closely, but without touching. Finally, they connected the ends of the wires to their National Flyer train transformer. Then they stood back to appraise their work.

“It looks just like the picture in the magazine,” Tommy said. “So, how do we start?”

“Well, it says to turn the transformer on first, then start the music. You got it?”

Tommy produced a 45 rpm record. “It was in a sleeve in the back of the magazine.”

“Wait a minute,” Timmy said. “There’s something else here.” He began to read.

“Inter–dimensional travelers be advised! There is no way to determine into which dimension your portal may open. As there are countless possibilities, and the connections are randomly made, it is imperative that you stabilize your portal once it opens. It may close anytime after the music ends, and it is unlikely that you will ever reconnect to the same dimension once it does. To stabilize the portal, you must…” The bottom of the page with the rest of the article was missing.

“What the heck?” Timmy asked.

He turned the page to find a full-page advertisement for something called The Charles Titan Body Building System. It featured an ink drawing of a bully who was kicking sand into the face of a wimp, while the wimp’s girlfriend looked on with thinly veiled contempt. “Never be humiliated again,” declared the text. “Build your body the Charles Titan way!” The mail-in coupon on the bottom of the page had been cut out.

The boys looked at each other.

“Dad?” asked Tommy incredulously.

“Let’s hope there was a money-back guarantee,” grinned Timmy.

“So, what do we do?”

“After all that work? I say we turn it on. It’s not like we have to go through it, right?”

With that, he turned on the transformer. Tommy put the record on the record player and started playing the music, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”.

At first, nothing happened. Then, as the music began to build, the wires began to vibrate sympathetically. Short lengths, long lengths, all began vibrating at different frequencies, responding to the complex harmonies in the music. And as they vibrated, they began to short-circuit each other, causing little electric sparks. A few appeared at first, and then more and more, until it looked like someone had opened a jar full of fireflies in the doorway.

And then suddenly, the copper wire disappeared. The nails were still there, along with their cereal insulators, but the wire was gone. They could see quite clearly into the dining room.

“What happened?” Timmy asked. “Where’d the wire go?”

Tommy, who was standing closest to the doorway, stretched out his hand to touch where the wire had been. With a crackling noise, his fingers disappeared.

“Whoa!” He jerked his hand back and held it in front of his face. His fingers were still there, all intact. He wiggled them to make sure. Then he grinned at Timmy. “Watch this.” He stuck his arm into the doorway up to his elbow. It vanished.

He pulled it back out again and waved it triumphantly. “It tingles a bit where the wire used to be,” he said. “Otherwise, no problems. Maybe I should try sticking my head in next.”

At that moment there was a crackling noise behind him, and a man stepped through the portal. He wore a shiny orange and yellow costume with red boots. His red helmet was adorned with stylized flames projecting from the sides, and the letter “I” was emblazoned on his chest.

“Captain Incendio!” The boys shouted together.

With his strong chin jutting proudly forward and his keen eyes gazing into the distance, he replied, “Yes, it is I, Captain Incendio!” Then he noticed the boys and frowned and said, “Who are you?”

“I’m Timmy Wilson, and this is my brother Tommy.”

“Am I to understand that you built this inter-dimensional portal?”

“Yes, sir,” Tommy replied. “ We found the plans in a magazine.”

“Hmm. You know, I could use lads of your stripe on my ship, the Inferno. What say you? Are you ready to become Pyronauts?”

“Are we ever!”

“Splendid!” He pointed to Timmy, “I’ll call you Flint. And you, Tommy, I’ll call Tinder. To the ship, lads! Follow me!”

He turned and stepped back through the portal.

The boys saluted and cried together, “Pyronauts, ignite!” And with a whoop they plunged through the portal. With their passing, there was a loud hum and a pop and the copper wire reappeared.

A short time later, Mrs. Wilson entered the kitchen with a bag of groceries in each arm. “Timmy!” she called. “Tommy! Come give me a hand with the groceries.” The only response she got was the quiet hum of the train transformer.

An hour after that, Mr. Wilson returned home from the office and was confronted by his angry wife. She was clutching a copy of The Mechanics of Science, and behind her he could see the doorway woven with copper wire.

“Oh no, not again,” he groaned. “What was it this time?”

“Inter-dimensional portal!” she yelled, throwing the magazine at him. “I thought you got rid of those magazines after Susie teleported herself to who-knows-where.”

“I meant to, dear, but then we had to go shopping for a new refrigerator and it just slipped my mind. Besides, the boys shouldn’t have found them. I had them stashed away pretty well…” He broke off with a sheepish grin.

“Stashed away is right! You kept them so you could sneak back to visit that eighteenth century trollop!”

“Oh, don’t start with that again!” he complained. “For crying out loud, I stepped out of line one time, and it was two hundred and fifty years ago! Anyway, I told you she meant nothing to me.”

“It happened just years ago, not centuries!” she cried. “And I’m supposed to believe that she meant nothing to you? I’m probably the only woman in the world whose husband is his own great, great, great grandfather.”

Sniffling, Mrs. Wilson wandered into the family room at the back of the house and turned on the television before flopping down on the sofa. She hoped it would discourage further discussion with her husband, who had followed her, still protesting his innocence. Well, he could go back to his colonial floozy for all she cared; she just wanted to see her boys again.

Organ music swelled from the TV, announcing the start of a children’s program. She sobbed when she recognized that it was the theme song of her sons’ favorite program and rose to turn it off. Just then, two masked figures raced across the screen, stopped, and looked directly at her.

“Hi Mom! Hi Dad!” They raised their masks. “It’s us, Timmy and Tommy!”

“Boys!” Mrs. Wilson exclaimed. “Thank god you’re all right. How did you get on television?”

“We’re here with Captain Incendio, fighting evil in the forty-third dimension,” Timmy said.

“It’s great,” added Tommy, “except that we still have to be in bed by nine o’clock, and he makes us eat our vegetables.” He made a face.

An imposing figure with a jutting chin stepped into view.

“Flint! Tinder!” he cried. “The Pestulars are attacking the planet Tragon! We must away!”

“Okay, Captain! We were just talking to our mom and dad.”

Captain Incendio peered about the television screen until he saw them.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “So I see. These are fine lads, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. They are a splendid addition to the crew of the Inferno. And never fear, I make certain that they wash behind their ears.” Ruffling the boys’ hair, he said, “Hurry now lads, the Pestulars wait for no man.”

“Right away, Captain!” Tommy said. “We gotta go, Mom and Dad. See you tomorrow, same time, same channel.”

The boys started off the screen when Timmy stopped suddenly.

“Oh, Mom, I almost forgot,” he said. “We ran into Susie. It seems that she accidentally teleported herself to one of the moons of Jupiter. She said to tell you not to worry, that she’s okay, and she wants you to know that she’s sorry about the refrigerator.”

 

Death At Detalas

by Liz Sawyer

 

Ian woke to the smell of bacon, eggs and coffee, ambrosia after four days of evasion exercises in the woods. But the other scent brought the smile to his face. The scent of Ti, the sight, when he opened his eyes, of her standing next to the bed, smiling back.

“Heard you took out Security’s top team in record time.”

“Missing you’s all it took.” He reached out, took her hand and pulled her down onto him. A long, lazy kiss followed, hands drifted over bodies…

The comm buzzed.

Ian cursed, Ti sighed, then spoke. “Voice only. Yes, Commander?”

“My office, as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir. Comm off.”

“I’m going nowhere ’til I shower and eat. Move, woman.”

Ti turned her head so she could look at his face. “Really want me to?” Her breath whispered across his bare chest.

Ian let a hand meander down her torso, her hip, linger on her thigh. “No. But I hate doing things in a hurry.”

Ti grinned. Then she was off the bed and moving to the table. “Better hurry or you’ll have cold eggs.”

Fifteen minutes later, they were walking across the compound to the office of the Commandant of Terran Security’s Field Training Camp. Their passage did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t solely because they weren’t in uniform. Few of the looks directed at them were friendly.

“Maybe I should’ve let them catch me.” An empath, Ian always kept his shields tight in public. He tightened them even more as he spoke to Ti.

“Wouldn’t’ve mattered. The Treaty might’ve put Oseeah under Terran Security, but to Outworlders it’s still separate, so guess who gets all the action? Besides, you had quite a rep before you got here.”

His reputation was something the Hero of Daveriddea, the only living holder of the Terran Medal of Honor, had learned to ignore when he could and use when he had to. But he was noticeable anyway, at 6’2″, an athletic 180 pounds, all balanced in movements shouting of a life spent as a Terran Fleet fighter pilot. Even those were secondary, though, for it was his face that made Captain Ian Makanda so recognizable. It was all sharp angles, jutting cheekbones, Roman nose, thin, compressed lips beneath a small mustache, a strong chin and jaw covered by a closely trimmed beard, all overhung by a widow’s peak of black hair just touched with gray at the temples. And, underneath thick black brows, deep blue brooding eyes. Compelling eyes, matching a face that, in public, rarely smiled.

Ti Stuart was his opposite. Curly shoulder-length auburn hair topped a face dusted with freckles across a pert nose and soft cheeks. Spring-grass-green eyes were often lit with laughter, as was her mouth, with what Ian called a summer smile. She was petite, only 5’4″, 120 pounds of cat-like grace. Her reflexes were almost as fast as Ian’s, her poise and air of command even more so, as befitted the Vice Commander of the Outworld Security and Intelligence Agency.

They were immediately admitted into the commandant’s office. The man standing behind the desk waited until the door into his office closed before speaking.

“I’ve received an urgent message from General Rotiya, to be delivered personally, in strictest confidence.” The words were snapped off. “You are to go to Detalas immediately. All necessary information has been sent to your ship.”

“Very well.” Ti was just as abrupt. “I assume our ship is being prepped.”

“It is. You’ve been cleared for immediate departure. A skimmer’s waiting.”

Ti and Ian returned to their room for a few personal items, then were taken to their ship. Ian started the exterior walk-around while Ti headed for the cockpit and the take-off check-list. They departed thirty minutes later, entering t-space as soon as they left the planetary atmosphere.

“Three days to Detalas,” Ian said, entering the lounge-galley.

He saw Ti just straightening up at her computer, knew she had waited until they entered the security of time-space to have the computer decrypt and open Rotiya’s message.

“What’s so urg—”

Shock, disbelief, and sorrow reverberated through their mental bond.

Ian strode over, embraced Ti as he read the words on the computer screen he had already read from her mind.

RL reported problems with recent shipments. Sent Torin. Two reports received. Then message he was killed in robbery. Police reports attached. Case now yours, as is appointment as replacement.

Ian’s thoughts were full of sympathy. He had only known Oseeah’s Commander two years; Ti had been recruited by Torin, partnered with him until they decided their telepathy was too similar to be compatible.

“Robbery?” Disbelief filled Ti’s voice. “He wouldn’t’ve resisted.”

“Wasn’t Detalas his home planet? Maybe the robber didn’t know who he was robbing, came from behind, then recognized Torin, or Torin recognized him, killed to avoid discovery.”

“Maybe.” Ti touched the screen to list the remaining messages, then pulled out her chair and sat.

Ian perched on the arm of her chair, let his arm rest across her shoulders. He felt her stiffen as the computer finished listing the messages.

“Personal vid, copies of the two reports, the police report,” Ian kept his voice casual. “And two additional messages, doubly encrypted, not sent to Rotiya. And since there’s only one thing the Commander of Terran Security isn’t to know about…”

“Let’s not assume anything yet,” Ti said, then, “Computer, play Torin vid.”

Torin’s smiling face filled the screen. “Wish I could be around to hear how you wiped the floor with Security, but the day after you left, I got a message from Rotiya.” The smile disappeared. “There’re problems with the shipments Rayard Laser’s been receiving from Detalas, specifically from the Kingsford Mine. Don’t know if you recall, Ian, but RL’s design was chosen for the new laser system in the Cobras. Been one thing after another with that new fighter and you stopping the sabotage didn’t stop the problems. This is the latest. Diamonds, either substandard in quality or out and out flawed. They’ve had to reinspect each individual diamond, as well as go back, pull out and check the ones already installed. I’ll keep you posted.”

“The Cobras,” Ti stated as the screen went dark. “That was nearly a year ago and TATT’s been quiet since. I know, Anders wasn’t the brightest in that group, but I took it from his mind and he was convinced TATT was getting back into action. Going to turn The Treaty upside down, he said.”

“Anybody belonging to Terrans Against The Treaty is a fanatic and fanatics are never bright. It was a good idea, poorly executed.”

“Still doesn’t mean it couldn’t’ve been TATT. Nothing for nearly fifty years, most of the old leaders dead or in prison, take awhile to get back up to speed. It’s just, I felt something… Okay,” Ti laughed as Ian’s hand kneaded her shoulder. “I’ll save it ’til we know what’s in the two final messages. So, let’s see what Torin found. Comp, display messages, summaries first.”

Reports appeared on screen.

Arrival, meetings with President, Trade Minister, informed Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security accompanied latest shipment to Earth, due back shortly. RL’s complaints attached.

Ti skipped to the second summary, which wasn’t much longer.

Tried to get appointment with mine owner, asked to wait ’til CMS gets back, he’ll have current info. Meantime, received full access to everything. Started with the port, reviewed security reports, procedures for transporting diamonds from the mines to the port, then to Earth, where RL takes over. Received the port’s original security vids for the past year. Going to mine tomorrow.

“Sounds boring as hell. Comp, clear screen and activate security program 476 Victor 238 on remaining messages.”

The screen flashed green, then went dark.

“Take awhile to decrypt, depending on how long the reports are and if he used the same ’crypt for both. Probably didn’t, but the first will have the code for the second.” She leaned back against Ian’s arm. “Comp will decrypt both. Even if something’s in the first report, nothing we can do now.”

“Plenty of other things we can do now.” As Ian rose, he scooped Ti out of her chair. Their mouths met as her arms twined around his neck.

The next morning Ti read aloud the first decrypted message’s summary as Ian finished the breakfast chores.

“Went out to the Kingsford Mine, met the Assistant Chief of Security. Toured the mine, examined security, got their original security vids, went back to his ship. And found a ‘Welcome To Detalas, Join Us For Supper’ invitation from the Golden Zebra. He did. Dessert was delivered by one of the ladies, who then joined him.” Ti leaned back in her chair, looked across the lounge-galley at Ian. “She told him he needed a glass of Glenlivet to really enjoy dessert. Got just cozy enough to make future meetings believable.”

“So you were right and The Network found a link to TATT.”

Ti nodded.

The Network was a seller of any information to anyone with the right price. It was operated by Stacey Brenna, also the owner of the universally renowned chain of Golden restaurant-bars, located next to every spaceport. The Goldens were fronts for The Network.

Stacey was Ti’s most confidential informant.

She agreed to have her agents provide Oseeah agents with information, from wildest rumors to set-in-stone facts, about anything involving TATT. “A glass of Glenlivet,” a very rare Terran Scotch, was the code. Stacey’s only demand, non-negotiable, was that Security know nothing about it.

“What’s next?” Ian asked as he unlocked his chair from his own computer station opposite hers, swung it around and locked it in place next to her.

“Second message is a vid.” As Ian sat, Ti started it.

Torin’s face was somber, frowning.

“I knew something was wrong when I met with President Munsen. We grew up together and he’s never formal in private. This time, he simply lamented the circumstances and stated that he knew I’d get to the bottom of everything. There was someone else in the room with us, I assumed a bodyguard, but always before Phil sent them out. Not this time and something told me not only not to mention it, but not to try to read him. Now I know why. Larissa told me that John Gurdin had brought in new people for security and admin when he took over Kingsford Mine after his father died. She described all of them as tough, hard looking. Rarely came into town, but when they did, it was in a group and they stayed together. No trouble, mostly because people avoided them. She said there’d been grumbling about outsiders, changes that were being made. A lot of people were let go. Then there was a small cave-in, half a dozen miners died. The grumbling stopped. Larissa said that was when the people who worked at the mines stopped coming into town as much, the wives seemed jumpier, even the kids were quieter. The six who died were the most vocal about the changes.

“I asked about an inquiry and Larissa laughed. It’d been chaired by one of the independent mine owners. Findings were a horrible accident. The chairman’s son is now attending a prestigious medical school on Earth, all expenses paid. I asked why someone hadn’t sent a report to us. Larissa said that was when Phil got new bodyguards. I’m going to talk to Phil, but first I want to meet Joe Thomas. He’s Kingsford’s Chief of Mine Security, due back day after tomorrow.

“Larissa said he first arrived a few days before John’s father died. Old school friend, stayed on because John was devastated. Once John recovered, he replaced nearly all the security and admin people with Terrans, put Thomas in charge. Rumor has it he’s telepathic. I’ll be checking out how John’s father died.”

Torin’s voice reflected the anger on his face.

“So far I’ve not found anything in Thomas’ background to indicate any ties to TATT, but it just doesn’t add up. Something is very wrong. And a message I just received from Larissa may be it. She wanted to be sure I hadn’t forgotten our date for supper and a vid tonight. Which means she’s found something. I’ll send the info in the next message.”

The screen went black.

“Which he never wrote.”

Ti nodded. “Nothing from Stacey, which means Larissa found it herself. She’d have info’ed Stace, but since there’s no way of receiving transmissions in t-space and I doubt it was marked ‘urgent’, it probably hasn’t even been forwarded. We could drop out and check, but I don’t want to waste the time.”

“Agreed. Dropping out, just to snatch messages, without knowing if there are any—” Ian shook his head. “Might only take seconds, but those could mean hours or even days added when the t-space computer recalculated travel time and it doesn’t sound like we can spare it.”

He then moved his chair back to his own computer station and ordered the police report on-screen. “Last chance. I’ve done this before, you haven’t.”

“It’s part of the job.” Ti cleared her screen, unlatched her chair and scooted it next to Ian. “There has to be a first time.”

“It helps if you can think of him as Commander Simmons.”

Ti heard the understanding, felt the sympathy, knew the impartiality was what Ian used at Daveriddea. Knew it hadn’t worked then, either. Their hands met, clasped, as their attention went to the report on Tor—Commander Simmons’—death. Which was actually quite bland.

“It sounds so innocuous,” Ti said, following their reading of the initial and follow-up police reports. “Quiet Wednesday night. One of the new security personnel had just gotten engaged and his friends threw a party at the Zee. And who should show up but the girl and her friends with the same idea. No problem. Except there was already a retirement and a birthday party going on. Main parking lot full, overflows opened and, since it was raining, everyone parked as close to the entrance as possible. So, when Torin arrived, the closest he could get was five rows back in a side lot. Why didn’t he use valet parking? He and Larissa had supper in her suite, stayed two hours, then left. Why?” Irritation crept into Ti’s voice. “She’d invited him for supper and a vid. He could’ve stayed hours, the night. He could’ve sent a message from her comp, knowing Stace, it’s probably better protected than ours. So why the hell didn’t he? Run the security vid.”

They watched as the police chief appeared, introduced himself and apologized for the bad copy. “Two of the security lights and both cameras covering the area where Torin parked were out. The only one working was on the opposite side of the lot. Here’s what it recorded.”

There wasn’t much to see. A dark, rainy night, two figures walking under an umbrella, then three people suddenly appeared, accosted the two, two fell and three ran. The three kept their backs to the working camera.

“Trap,” Ti cursed.

“And very well done,” Ian agreed. “I don’t like it. Killing the head of Oseeah; nobody could be that arrogant.”

Ti stood, squared her shoulders, raised her chin just a fraction as she looked down her nose at Ian. “Oh, yes, they could.”

Ian raised an eyebrow. “Not without backup.” His voice was firm. “Fourth Fleet can spare a destroyer. Marines are always complaining they never get used.”

Half an hour later, Ian brought their ship out of t-space long enough for the computer to send a message. And, since they were out anyway, it searched and snatched the only message on their frequency.

“From Stacey,” Ti told Ian. “Double encrypt. Bet it tells us what Larissa found.”

An hour later, the computer beeped and the written message appeared on screen. It wasn’t what they were expecting.

Day after Larissa first met Torin, she worked the Zee’s dining room. Overheard bits of conversion from a group of the new security personnel. “Getting back in the air’ll be worth the wait,” “We’re in on the start,” and what really caught her attention, “Old shells, new pilots, we gonna rock!”

Her father’d been a Fleet mechanic, busted out, offered a job a couple years later, she didn’t know the details, but he told her he wasn’t going to renovate shells for who knew who no matter how good the pay.

Soon as I heard, I ran a search. Shells are missing. So are a lot of other things. And people. At least six of the security personnel at Detalas are ex-Fleet pilots and I mean “ex” in the worst way. Larissa’s father? Killed in an unsolved hit-run a few days after he turned down the offer. It happened three years ago. Question: why’d she “overhear” this now? Starting a deeper search. Watch your backs.

“Obsolete fighter shells.” Ian answered the Shells? from Ti’s mind. “Gutted, sold to salvagers. Along with obsolete engines and parts.” Ian looked at Ti. “You can’t salvage laser-grade diamonds. They may not break, but even the best develop flaws with repeated use. Depending on the flaw, the Fleet has them cut, the flaw removed, then reinstalled in less vital areas. You can only cut them so far, though, before they’re too small for Fleet use. When that happens, they’re cut so small they can’t be used in any weapons, then sold.”

“RL complained about dozens of flawed diamonds. Computer, is Detalas the only provider of laser-grade diamonds to the Fleet?”

The answer printed on-screen in seconds: No, but theirs are the best.

“Finding the flaws means all the diamonds have to be checked, no matter when they were installed. Won’t be all done at once, but there’ll be fewer fighters available and deployment of the Cobras to the Fleets will be even more delayed. I wonder how closely Gurdin and Thomas are tied to TATT?”

That was a rhetorical question if Ian ever heard one.

On arrival at Detalas, the controller guided them to a landing pad next to Torin’s ship. By the time the shut-down procedures were completed, two skimmers had arrived.

Two men waited as Ti and Ian walked down the ramp. They recognized one as the police chief. The other spoke.

“Port Security Director Johnson, at your service. This is Chief of Police Garner. We’re pleased to meet you, although, considering the circumstances… I’m sure you want the latest information on the investigation into Torin’s death and—”

“Ian will take care of that,” Ti coolly interrupted, “after he checks out Torin’s ship. I will be continuing the investigation into the diamonds. I assume that Director Thomas has returned?”

Johnson nodded, but before he could speak, Ti ordered, “I’ll need a skimmer and driver.”

“My driver, my skimmer and myself are at your convenience,” Johnson smoothly stated.

Ti nodded sharply, turned her head, spoke over her shoulder to Ian. “Transfer everything, then follow-up as you see fit. Usual reporting procedures,” she stated for the benefit of the civilians. No one outside their families and a few very close friends knew they were telepaths, so verbal instructions were necessary. She looked back to Johnson, who stood for a moment before realizing what Ti’s silence meant.

“This way,” he belatedly spoke, gesturing towards the skimmers.

Ti strode past him.

As Ti and Johnson walked off, Chief Garner spoke. “I’ll return to my office, have the latest reports forwarded to your ship. And I’ll send a skimmer and driver back for your use.”

Ian bit back a “thank you” and gave a curt nod of acceptance. He walked to Torin’s ship and up the ramp to the closed hatch, but waited until the Chief left before using Ti’s override code.

It took longer than expected to open Torin’s computer and access the files, despite Ti’s override code. Not that Ian minded; it showed that Torin was very security conscious. And that he had reason to be.

Finally, though, Ian opened Torin’s files. It took seconds to pull up the data on the current investigation, seconds more to find and bring up Torin’s notes from that final meeting with Larissa. Ian began scanning so quickly that, when he found it, he was just a nanosecond too late to shield his thoughts.

Ian heard Ti’s gasp as what he read hit her mind.

Their mental link showed Ian the skimmer’s driver reaching under his seat, bringing up a pistol, shooting Johnson and turning the weapon on Ti, who was already lunging at him as he pulled the trigger.

The pain impaled Ian’s mind, doubling him over. He forced his mental shields up, blocked the pain as he ran to the hatch. He saw a police skimmer landing only yards away. He took a deep breath, straightened, ran to it. Yanking open the driver’s side door, he shoved the cop into the passenger seat as he snarled, “Call Dispatch! All available personnel follow me! Now!”

The skimmer shot into the sky, heading toward the faint touch of Ti’s mind that told Ian she was still alive.

Ian heard the cop alerting Dispatch, then concentrated on his own talent. Creating a minute hole in his shields, he sent strength to Ti through their mental bond.

He vaguely heard the cop telling him that every available cop in the area was converging on them, along with two ambulances. Also, a Fleet Destroyer had just entered the atmosphere, was being directed to their location. Ian let a grim smile cross his face as he pushed the skimmer beyond the engine’s redline.

Less than five minutes later, Ian saw the torn treetops and turned the skimmer’s nose down. Only a few already-broken branches were scraped during the descent. He landed, was out and racing toward the crumpled metal half buried in the ground in almost one motion. The strength he hadn’t stopped sending doubled as Ian reached through the shattered windshield and touched Ti.

*****

“Marines’re happy. Actually had a couple firefights.”

Ti started to chuckle, grimaced. It was the day after the crash and the broken ribs were still regenerating.

“No trace of Thomas,” Ian continued, turning from the hospital window to face Ti in the bed. “If he really returned from Earth. The ship landed after dark, Johnson and his driver were the only ones who met the ship. There’s no record of anyone getting off, it was just assumed Thomas did. The ship left a couple hours later, which was not SOP. Usual practice, the crew was released until time for the next shipment. Johnson’s dead, so’s his driver, neck broken, either in the crash or when you—” He felt Ti’s confirmation, sent her a mental “Well done.”

“Problems here started after Etaff,” he continued. “Added all together, we’ve got delayed deployment of the new fighters to the Fleet, flawed laser quality diamonds, disappearing obsolete fighter shells and parts, ex-pilots talking about action and speaking of whom, guess who were on a shuttle that left here the day after Torin died? Somebody’s starting their own private air wing.”

“TATT. Has to be them, but why?” Frustration colored Ti’s voice. “The Treaty doesn’t come up for renewal for nearly ten years. ‘We’re in on the start.’ The start of what? What the hell is TATT up to?” Ti snapped. Then took a deep breath and looked at Ian. “We’ll brief the agents, have Stacey widen her search. Somebody, somewhere, knows what the hell’s going on and we’re going to find him and make him talk.”

Ian walked over, rested a hand on Ti’s shoulder. Strength, not as intense but just as powerful, flowed through the touch. “Should’ve left you in that alley.”

She reached up, covered his hand with her own. “And missed all the fun?”

 

Stunted

By T.C. Hansen

 

“I learned in war, hospitals are to practice being dead,” Father runs his finger over an old scar. It is stretched and distended now, because of how he has gained and lost so much weight so many times since then, like a squirrel or a bird or a bear eating and starving with the seasons. “To practice being outside yourself. You can see little plastic bellows pumping their lungs; you can see their heartbeat and brainwaves, splattered up on screens. Anyone can just see all of this. Their waste too, just sitting in pans. When the tubes in their arms back up, you see their blood. Everything’s outside of ’em except their soul. The soul’s just lookin’ out through the eyes, and the blood and heart and brain are saying ‘hey, come on out with us. It’s nice out here.’ Everything’s just getting spread out; jumping ship.”

He leaves then, and it does not feel good. It feels like the happiness that is fusing my bones together in this box. I do not remember ever being out of the box, though I must have been at some time. (How terrifying!)

Father rarely comes to speak at me, and I do not think he has ever heard my voice. Only my screams when I am so happy that I cannot keep it in. I am a very good screamer; sometimes Father cries for the beauty of it and lets me drink from the bottle that Mother uses to clean my infections and sores. It tastes like poisoned glass, but it is good for Father’s insides and my outsides.

Mother is praying now, and I can hear her through the wall, which is thin like a moth’s wing or a piece of peeled skin. “Dear God, almighty and powerful,” she starts her prayer in the usual way, “Nothing is impossible for you, for it was you that created the Earth, and it was you who formed the sea.”

I almost had my arm sawed off because of an infection one year ago, but Mother saved it with the rags and pills she made me swallow by pinching my nose.

“It was you that enforced the peace accord of the Enjoined nations, and it was you who set the jewelling stars in the heavens.”

Because I am in this box like a turtle is in his shell, my body cannot grow when it tries to, so my bones and muscles and fibers are always pushing and shoving one another until they make me scream so loud the window rattles a little bit. I cannot move a single finger. Not a single one.

I hate to boast.

“It is you that guides the seasons and it is you who provided low-interest mortgages for families with one or more child volunteered for The Enjoined Construction Service.”

All this jittering energy is happiness, my parents tell me, trying to explode outward. I now understand why Father is such a greatly unhappy man. I admire him for finding so many ways to be unhappy, and I hope to be as unhappy as him some day.

“In all your omnipotence and your Economic Acumen, please keep our son Cren’s box intact, for we cannot build him a new one. If this box breaks, his body will grow like a normal boy, and he will not become a deformed person. And who wants to see a normal boy perform on a great stage? So, in your highest wisdom and well-above-average intelligence, allow our Cren to become deformed, that he may be an entertainer, and never want for food.”

Because my bones are pushing against themselves to grow, but have no space for it, one bone in my arm split into two directions so it had more space to grow into. One part grew out through my skin and it became infected, but my mother made it so I did not lose my arm to a Green Gang. I do not know this gang, but they were going to saw off my arm, like another gang burned one of Father’s hands in acid when he did not pay his Tithe.

“You will know God one day.” Mother walks in the door and sits cross-legged before my box. “When we sell you to the city people and they make you a famous entertainer. They do love deformed people in the city. How they laugh.”

I wonder if being loved would make me unhappy. I do not think Mother loves Father, and he is very unhappy.

“You will always have food,” she says, “and you will be civilized. You will know God. Perhaps you’ll perform for him one day. All the best performers go to his Keep and perform for him. I heard he has floors of smooth stone there.”

Mother goes down by the sea sometimes to stand on rocks. There is one smooth one she has found, which fits exactly one of her feet on it at a time. I can see her from my window down there, with one foot on the stone and one lifted in the air. I have not always been able to see her, because there used to be a house in the way. But the owners moved away, following everyone else who moved away, and Father burned down their house in spite. They owed him money when they moved away. They left their dog behind, but he is gone now.

I didn’t get any. Mother and Father only feed me leaves. This way, it is hard for my body to grow.

Not to interrupt her, I wrinkle my nose, so Mother knows to pull open the bottom plank of the box and clean the offal out of it and off of me. She sees this and does so, sermonizing on the handsomeness of God’s mustache, and saying she would, if it were legal, persuade Father to grow a mustache like that. It is quite a handsome mustache. This is why it is only legal for God to grow it and to look so handsome.

I think about hairs, starting in little follicles inside one’s skin and growing out, and I begin to breathe too hard and get dizzy. Mother mistakenly thinks it’s because the box is open, and she closes the plank, but I keep breathing too much air and inflating with it and I start to feel like I might expand and break the box, and I can’t breathe at all now, my lungs are billowing faster than ever but no air is getting in. Mother wraps herself around my head so I can see nothing, like I’m in a soft warm cave, and I can no longer feel my heartbeat tremoring the wood planks of the box. Her ribs press into my face through her leather skin.

I am okay now, I say, and she tells me how my brother is one of God’s monks, though he’s never met God personally. Still, he considers it an honor to be undertaking the holy work on God’s construction sites. That is what the letters say—see? They even taught him to read and write. Mother only knows to read because her father used to work in the city before God took the throne. Well, he made it first. Then took it. Father can follow along reading with her, but cannot read on his own. Brother had to pay for the courses and equipment himself, where they taught him about construction and safety. His work is volunteer, but he pays off for the courses by working more than his assigned sixty hours each week. Now he helps build a regional headquarters Temple of God, in a plains city, I think.

Father comes in and doesn’t hit Mother. In each hand, he holds out to her half of her flatrock. “It broke when I shot it.” She starts to weep. “My aim’s getting better,” he says with an eyebrow motion and a flick of his wrist so slight I think it might just be his shakes. She stops crying and just pushes my hair back over my ears. Father drops half of the stone so he has a hand to wrap around the bottle by Mother’s rags and drinks from it. He leaves the room, humming through the wet mouthful. He tried to drown me once, but I don’t remember it.

Mother tries to tilt the half-stone just so on the floor so she can stand on it with the pad of her foot if she lifts her heel up. Her calf muscles pop out like Father’s neck muscles, but she keeps falling. My bones screech, and I take the opportunity to let out some tears, so she’ll think that I am crying from sympathy instead of from the tectonic grind of happiness inside me. (A number of my ribs are fused together, like a tree grafting its branches onto itself.)

“When we die, Cren, our spirits fly out, and they get an office in God’s Regional Temple. For us, this is Temple K-143. We get to live on beams in the sky and call those who have not paid their tithes this quarter to inform them of the interest accruing and the enforcers coming to collect from them.” She cries at the beauty, “We’ll each have our own office.”

*****

A letter from my brother today:

 

Respected Family Members,

Work on the construction in Region  N-18   is progressing as planned. Praise be to God’s Economic Acumen, which has provided sufficient funding for my food and housing. I have performed  Adequately  in the eyes of God, and of his on-site supervisor,  Tarko Flek . You should feel a level of pride in me appropriate to the level at which I have performed. Remember that your Tithes are due at the end of this  3rd quarter, Godtober 14th .

This exchange has been pleasant and rewarding.

 Selli Forst (deceased)  

 

Mother says he writes like a poet. I have never read a poet, but I do not doubt Mother. Father merely grunts and puts a chapped finger under the last word. “Think that’s a promotion?”

“It must be,” Mother says, “Last time he was a ‘recaptured–awaiting trial’ and before that a ‘deserted.’”

“He’s come a long way since ‘Brother of the Order of the Fork Lift’, hasn’t he?”

Mother folds up the letter and tucks it bird-like into her bosom. “I’m going to try to feel an adequate level of pride now.” She sits cross-legged and stares at the ground determinedly.

I feel the cold hard mouth of the bottle between my teeth, and I accept the wet fire Father pours down my throat. It is warm inside my box, and it makes the happiness go dim for awhile. It replaces it with something pleasant.

“I wonder if he’ll meet God soon,” Mother moons.

*****

Their Tithe is due next week, so they have decided it is time to sell me. Mother spends the morning trying to balance on her half flatstone while Father makes space for me and my box on the cart.

The road bumps and jars and makes my face twitch with happiness, and I feel so very well-contained in my box. The bone that grew out of my arm has skin grown over it now, so even that is contained, except for a small nub at the end that looks like a horn or a fingernail. The thought of someone buying me and taking me out of my box is worrisome. What if I dissolve when the wind hits me and my box is not here to hold me together?

Father cracks open a nut, and I shudder.

We reach a clump of buildings, and Mother and Father run frantically screaming in all directions. I didn’t know buildings could curve like this. Where do they keep the corners? When they calm, Father slams Mother with her rock and her foot cracks under it. He explains to me (though he is too close and loud for me to clearly hear him, so I mostly gather the message from his amputated echoes) that this, this, it used to be our fucking city, our fucking. GAH. People. All left. Gone. No one to… to buy, to sell, to fuckingfucking fuck. Shit (shit–it–it–i–i). He goes back to kick Mother on the ground, but she stabs his calf with some glass she found. Her hand bleeds too, from how she held the shard while stabbing. A strange old man walks out from a side street, pulling a cart behind him. When Father sees the man through his tears, he scrambles to his foot and drags himself over to the white-hair and tells him about me. “Just look at him. Hilarious! And he has this nub growing out of one of his arms. Imagine the fun you could have, showing him off!”

The old man silently rummages through his cart and brings out a bottle of Father’s drink.

“No, no. Money. We need to pay our Tithe.”

The old man thrusts the bottle at him again. Father looks around at the city, then holds up two fingers. The old man pulls another bottle out of his cart and hands them both over. Father and Mother cheer, and she takes her locket off to put it around my neck. “God be with you,” she hastily murmurs, returning to the cart with her hand wrapped in her skirt, limping so Father has to support her on the side that he crushed her foot.

When they leave, the old man looks at the locket. “They’re still using that old picture, huh?” he asks. This is when I recognize his mustache and faint.

I come back awake.

“But your hair is so white,” I say.

“That’s what thirty years does,” he tells me. “Are they still rolling out those old videos on TV too?” he asks me, and I nod. “Smart. No signs of a struggle. That’s why they’re up in their skyscrapers, running the world, and we’re here, trying to trap some wolf meat.”

This is when I notice that my box is gone, and I am laying on the ground naked. My body is still pulled all together much in the shape of a box though. My muscles have never been used, and when I try to struggle, my legs sort of flutter, and that is all. “I see you’re thinking of running away,” he says, and laughs very hard. His knife is serrated, and just one tug pulls my side open. The blood oozes out in starts and stops, which seems strange until I realize it must be my heartbeat pushing it out. I howl for God to help me, but he shrinks back into the bushes with his pistol and knife in hand. A wolf howls somewhere close. Everything starts to go warm and far, and finally, I’m not happy anymore. Not happy at all.

 

The Out of Time Motel

by D. Gansen

 

I heard thunder roll behind me like a faraway drum solo. “Oh man,” I muttered. It was dark and I was lost somewhere south of the interstate in the middle of North Dakota. Now, I was going to get caught in a storm and I was driving my dad’s ’69 Boss Mustang. The thought of hail deflowering its pristine, black, shiny-as-glass lacquer, made a lump of anguish jiggle in my stomach. It was the second car my dad ever owned, and he was pretty much in love with it; but on my seventeenth birthday, he handed me the keys and title. I almost started to bawl. I didn’t though, because men don’t cry over sentimental stuff.

My headlights made a puddle of light that led me down the road, but all around me was the prairie darkness. Then, like a miracle, as the first drops of rain fell, I saw a light ahead. I put my foot down and pretty soon I could read the sign. Individual yellow light bulbs lined up to announce: Out of Time Motel. It wasn’t a very reassuring name, but I turned in anyway and was relieved that the parking lot was asphalt, not gravel. The paint, you know. I stopped under the green fiberglass awning and smiled to myself as the rain tapped on it, trying in vain to get to my car.

I rolled down the window and looked through the wall of glass into the office and saw some chairs and the registration counter. There was no clerk, but all the lights were on and the neon sign beside the door told me that there was a vacancy.

I grabbed my duffle bag out of the back seat and went in. It was Dad’s duffle bag from when he was in the Guard. I wasn’t sentimental about it. It was just handy.

The little brass bell on the door jingled and startled me, and by the time I turned back to the counter, a young woman was standing behind it, looking at me. She didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds. Women stare at me all the time. Why not? I’m twenty-five, tall, and good looking.

“I found you just in time,” I said, gesturing behind me. It had started to rain hard. By then, I was beginning to get the impression that she wasn’t admiring me—she was studying me.

“It’s only going to get worse, too,” she remarked.

I could only see her from the waist up and it struck me as odd that someone so young would be wearing a crisp, short-sleeved white blouse and have her hair all humped up like Mom did when she was a kid. She made me think of Laura Petrie on that old TV show, Dick Van Dyke.

On the counter, a book lay open. She took the silver pen from its stand and offered it to me. When I got closer, I saw that she was holding a fountain pen. I had only seen those in old movies. The register was one of those books that you write your name and license plate number in.

The girl must’ve seen that I was puzzled, because she explained, “My boss is a nostalgia freak.” She pointed to the lobby and I noticed that the furniture was low and tailored and that gross avocado green like the toaster Mom threw away a long time ago. On the brown Formica-topped coffee table were magazines with names I didn’t recognize. One had a picture of the old president, John F. Kennedy, on it.

The girl took my credit card and, to my amazement, put it through one of those manual machines that makes a carbon copy of the number on a piece of paper.

“Out of Time Motel must mean out of step with time,” I said, giving her one of my charming smiles.

She looked at my card before handing it back to me. “Well, John, everything is relative.” That seemed like an odd thing to say and I was beginning to feel awkward, but she continued. “Cable hasn’t made it out here and we’re out of reach of any cell towers. Consider yourself in the mid twentieth century, it will be less stressful.”

“No problem,” I said, but took a look at my phone and felt like a junkie looking at an empty nickel bag. I nodded at the door on my right. “Is that a diner next door?” Just then a bolt of lightning brightened the room like an atom bomb flash, instantly followed by a staggering explosion. I ducked instinctively. “Jesus!” I yelled. “That was close!” Then hail started to fall out of the sky like white buckshot.

The girl was perfectly calm and glanced around the room. “Good. It’s still the twentieth century.” I assumed she was kidding and smiled. Then she pointed towards an alcove where an antique vending machine stood beside an even more ancient Coke machine that looked like a big metal cooler. “Diner’s closed for the winter. There are plenty of stale cheese crackers.”

I squinted at the vending machine—all fake wood and buzzing fluorescent lights. My stomach growled.

“How about a hot dog?” she asked. “Put your bag in your room and come back.” She handed me a key on a ring with a plastic tag.

*****

The room was the same as the lobby: all ’60’s and ’70’s furniture. Everything looked new. “Reproduction,” I told myself. I didn’t think about it much, though. Decorating is a woman thing.

Back in the lobby, I checked the nameplate on the registration desk. “Stella?” I asked it. “Who names their kid ‘Stella’?”

“Come on back, Johnny,” Stella shouted. Nobody had called me “Johnny” since I was thirteen and announced that I would no longer answer to it. My grandfather’s name had been John, and I wanted to be like him.

I passed the desk and stepped through an open door. Now I seemed to be in Great Aunt Lilly’s living room. There was dark, stuffed furniture and a big wooden cabinet like hers. She had called it a sideboard. A record was spinning on the phonograph and a woman was singing something about the “white cliffs of Dover.” Because of my interest in the Second World War, I knew it was a song from the 1940s. I looked down at the bomber pilot’s jacket I was wearing. It had been Granddad’s way back then.

“Hey Johnny,” Stella called again. I would have to tell her to lay off the “Johnny” bit.

She was in the kitchen, pulling hot dogs out of a pot of boiling water with tongs. The pot was avocado green, the stove was avocado green, the refrigerator was… you guessed it. I had returned to the ’70s. As I put my hand on the back of one of the chrome and plastic chairs, I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and turned. Sitting just inside the back door was the biggest German shepherd that I had ever seen. He was making purposeful eye contact with me, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had said, “Wie geht’s?”

“That’s Mr. Beretta,” Stella said.

I put my coat on the back of the chair and sat, but Mr. Beretta did not take his eyes off me. “Has he killed anybody lately?” I asked. I squirted ketchup out of a bottle that looked like it belonged in the diner.

“It’s been awhile,” she said.

I looked up to make sure she was kidding, but now she was staring at my coat.

“It’s a bomber jacket,” I said. “Granddad was a B-17 pilot in the Second World War. A B-17 is a…”

“Bomber plane,” she finished. “I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars for it.”

I choked on the bite of hot dog I’d just taken.

“Okay, two thousand. Cash.”

I loved that jacket even more than I loved the Mustang. Not in a sentimental way. It’s just that it was so cool.

“No!” I said louder than was necessary.

Mr. Beretta’s ears perked up.

“Okay. Relax.” Stella sat back and folded her arms.

I could feel her eyeing me. I ate in case it was going to be my last meal. Two hot dogs later, she let me in on what she was thinking.

“Johnny,” she started. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Ghosts! What next? Wasn’t this place weird enough? “I never thought about it,” I said, “but they seem like sentimental wishful thinking or too much imagination to me.” Neither of those conditions cluttered my mind.

Stella sighed. “Yes. Humans do a lot of wishful thinking. But,” she continued, “there are places in the universes where essences, or one of your imaginative people might say ‘spirits,’ get caught.” She glanced at her watch and got up. “We have time. Let me show you what I mean.”

The hot dogs were flailing around in my stomach. I had to go; I couldn’t outrun Mr. Beretta. The dog gave way so she could open the back door, and he and I followed her out onto the cement patio.

I thought I was losing my mind. The surface, open to the elements, was dry. The sky was clear and glittering with constellations, but I could still hear the thunder and the rain.

Stella raised her arm and pointed to our left: westward. It was darker than the inside of my closet where I used to hide when my poor little sister screamed because no one could understand the sounds she made. She was trapped in her head, inhabiting her own strange world. Now I was trapped in this one.

About two hundred yards away, a glow was silently moving and growing. I considered running, but I wasn’t afraid. It was just instinct, I guess. It took a long time for me to make out its shape—their shape, and when I did, I squeezed my eyes shut then opened them, but it didn’t help.

Six ghostly horses and their ghostly riders were charging towards us. It was like watching the negative print of an old western movie. Hooves churned, spurs flew, the men gestured and their lips moved, but I couldn’t hear them.

As they passed I could see every detail in glowing white. Their hats were stained with sweat, their long mustaches fluttered, their six-shooters glittered and their rifles flapped in their scabbards. Then they carried on with their chase or flight, gradually disappearing into the east.

I closed my gaping mouth, sucked in a lungful of cold air and shouted, “What the hell was that?”

Stella waved at the flicker they had become. “I call it the ‘posse’. In 1866 they rode into that canyon after a gang that had robbed a bank and killed five people. The posse was ambushed and murdered. Now, they’re trapped in the Vortex, and every Friday night they ride into that canyon. And I don’t know how to help them.” When she and Mr. Beretta went in, I stood like an idiot staring after them.

I wasn’t scared. Granddad wasn’t scared when he piloted his shot-up B-17 toward England after bombing the hell out of Germany. Even when he realized he couldn’t make it, he kept it level so the crew could bail out. He was a hero and I wanted to be like him. So I went inside and started yelling. “What the hell was that?” Mr. Beretta glared but I didn’t care. “Who are you? Why did you show me that?”

Stella looked at me with her dark calm eyes. She put two cans of beer on the table and opened them with a pointed can opener. I sat down in a hurry and took a couple of big gulps.

“Johnny,” Stella started. I scowled at her and she tried again. “John, if I didn’t need your help, I wouldn’t have shown you and I wouldn’t have brought you here.”

“Brought me? I’m on my way to see…” I couldn’t finish while she was shaking her head.

“Your cousin in Wyoming would be very surprised to see you.”

Marley and I had exchanged emails. “Are you some kind of hacker?” I asked.

Again she shook her head. “I’m the most powerful Vortex guardian in all the universes. If it pertains to my job, I can do almost anything—almost.”

This was either silly or very serious. “Vortex,” I repeated. Mom and Dad liked to go to Sedona, Arizona, so I knew something about this. “Isn’t that supposed to be in Sedona where the hippies go for the vibes and you can get your palm read cheap?”

“We’ve provided that area with some atmosphere,” Stella said casually. She was saying all of this like we were just passing the time of day in simple gossip. I let her go on because I didn’t know what to say. “I can’t have a bunch of humans hanging around here,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. Even the Lakota Sioux won’t come within two miles of this spot. They don’t know what it is, but they don’t want to mess with it, either. You Europeans would come in droves because it would seem miraculous, and you know how you are when it comes to the possibility of a miracle.”

I wasn’t sure but I didn’t say so.

“I guard the Vortex because it can serve as a passage. It can be a passage between universes, dimensions, planes, times… or any combination of those. Things get through from time to time and I have to catch them and send them back. I imagine you’ve seen some of the TV shows about chupacabra or werewolves or UFOs. They didn’t get through my Vortex, but all the guardians aren’t as watchful as I am.”

I’m not superstitious at all, so this all sounded crazy to me, but I’m as curious as the next guy and it didn’t look like they were going to kill me, so I went along with it. “Vortex,” I said again. “Is that where the posse came from?”

She turned her head away and scratched the brow of Mr. Beretta who had come to sit on the floor beside her. “No. They died so close to the Vortex that a part of them got trapped. The energy of the Vortex holds them here. Even if the person doesn’t die here, if something that’s, let’s say ‘imbued with their spirit’ is brought here, the Vortex will draw out that spirit and hold it, too.” She gestured in the direction of the diner.

I turned to look at it through the window. There were lights on inside. “I thought it was closed,” I said, then felt sick when she replied.

“It is.” She rose and leaned over the sink and opened the window. I could hear music.

*****

Stella turned and looked me in the eye and asked, “Scared, John? Do you want to see why I brought you here and why I wanted your coat?”

I wasn’t scared when I dug my fingers into the fleece lining of Granddad’s coat, just wary. Great Aunt Lilly gave me the coat for my eighteenth birthday. It had been one of the few things left of Granddad’s. Grandma burned everything she could get her hands on after he died. I never knew Grandma, so I asked Great Aunt Lilly about that. She told me that Grandma had been angry. I had to push her pretty hard and use my favorite nephew status to get her to say more, and even then, she averted her eyes and said that her brother had not been quite faithful to Grandma. That didn’t seem like a reason to burn a guy’s stuff. Granddad had been a kid back then, and Grandma hadn’t gone with him to South Dakota where he got his training. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he had a fling.

Great Aunt Lilly had given me a picture, too. It was a picture of Granddad and his crew standing in front of their bomber. She had always told me I looked like him and the picture proved it. There he was: young, smiling, hat cocked to one side, hands in the pockets of his jacket—now my jacket. It could have been me standing there. Great Aunt Lilly had the jacket because Granddad had forgotten it the last time he left—when he left and never came back.

“Show me,” I said. If Granddad wasn’t afraid to fly that sputtering plane on two engines until all the other guys in that picture got out, even though he knew it would be too late for him to escape, I guessed I could face a ghost.

I followed her back to the lobby but the dog stayed behind. To make sure she knew I wasn’t scared, I made a joke. “Is he a guardian, too?”

Stella didn’t laugh. “Yes. He chose to be a dog this time.”

I kept quiet as we entered the lobby and passed through the door to the diner. I prepared myself for what might be in there. I hugged Granddad’s coat. Great Aunt Lilly told me that his last words to her were, “Don’t worry about me.” Of course she worried about him. He had been on his way back to the war, back to flying that big heavy airplane six hours one way, all the time taking fire from the ground and from the sky; and six hours back to England, concentrating, muscling those primitive controls, putting the danger out of his mind while he tried to find his way home and keep his men alive.

I stepped into the diner. Was it built yesterday? The chrome gleamed, the plastic was smooth and the colors were intense in the sunny fluorescent light. The jukebox glowed, and a hundred little bulbs on its front flashed red, then blue, then green. It was playing some peppy, swingy music and I wondered who had put their quarters (no, it said five cents) into the slot and pushed the buttons.

Stella glanced at her dainty little watch again and gestured me to one of the turquoise upholstered booths. “The owner had this diner brought up from Rapid City,” she said. “The Vortex took it over.” She put a finger to her lips.

I heard voices. They were faint at first, but as they got louder, the speakers became visible. A group of six teenagers appeared beside the jukebox. They were talking and laughing and dancing a little. The girls were wearing full, calf-length skirts and white socks and loafer shoes. The boys were wearing white t-shirts and jeans with the hems rolled up a few times. They were wearing white socks and loafers, too. They didn’t seem to notice us.

The middle-aged couple now sitting at the counter didn’t notice us, either, or the guy with a newspaper sitting a few stools away. There was a pale young man behind the counter who put a cup of coffee down in front of the newspaper man, then leaned his elbows on the speckled Formica of the counter. He sighed and wiped something off his cheek.

The bell on the door jingled, and I craned my neck over the booth to see. Another young man had come in, but this one… My heart punched me in the chest. He was wearing khaki flight overalls and a bomber captain’s hat. He looked just like me. Stella grabbed my arm to keep me from getting up. “Wait,” she whispered.

The newcomer smiled happily and approached the counter. “Greg!” he said to the other young man. “I’m back!” There was no response or acknowledgement. The young man in the coveralls, Granddad, stepped back and frowned.

Stella released me. I jumped up and yelled, “Granddad!”

The young man looked at me for a minute. Of course he didn’t know who in the hell I was or why I was calling him “granddad.” He didn’t even know he had a son. Dad was born eight months after he left—two after he died.

I wonder what he thought as he realized that I was his double. My heart banged against my chest again as he crossed the twenty feet that separated us. I couldn’t speak, but he said, “Who the hell are you?” It never occurred to him to be afraid at the sudden appearance of a strangely dressed doppelganger.

I had to swallow hard before I managed to say, “John Dealy.”

His green eyes didn’t flicker, but there was a long pause and I could tell he was thinking, trying to make sense of it. He looked slowly around the diner, letting his eyes linger on the young man behind the counter. Finally he said, “I’m John Dealy.”

The lump came up in my throat again and tears were trying to squeeze their way into my eyes, but I certainly wasn’t going to cry in front of a fearless war hero. “I know. Dad wanted me named after you.”

“Who’s your dad?”

“Gavin Dealy. Grandma’s name was Marge and I had a Great Aunt Lilly.”

The young man blinked. “Marge,” Granddad murmured. His green eyes darkened like mine do when I’m sad, then they brightened and he said, “Little Lilly.” There was another long silence since, apparently, I had been struck dumb. He was more resilient than me. “How long has it been?” he asked.

I glanced at Stella, but she wouldn’t step in.

“Sixty-six years,” I said.

“They must all be gone by now.”

“Your whole crew survived, Granddad.” I was excited to be able to tell him that. “Three of ’em lived long enough to see your name on the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.” I don’t think that meant much to him. Did they even call it World War II back then? “I even talked to one of ’em five years ago. His name was Coffee. He said great things about you.” That old man had reinforced my desire to be like my granddad.

The young man in front of me smiled. He remembered them as he had known them: young, like him. “They were good kids.”

“You’re a hero, Granddad. You saved them.”

At that, he looked at me hard and I thought he was angry, but his green eyes softened before he said, “It wasn’t heroic, I was responsible for them.”

“Was it scary?” I dared whisper.

“Not for long.”

“You were scared?” The words got stuck in my throat for a second.

“Sure,” Granddad said. “Anybody who says they’ve never been scared is either stupid or a liar.” He was matter-of-fact about it. Then I saw that he was looking at my coat—his coat. I was clutching it. I must’ve seemed like a kid hugging his security blanket, like Suzy hung on to that goofy stuffed elephant I won at a carnival. He must’ve wondered where I got his old coat.

“Great Aunt Lilly gave it to me just before she… died.” I continued without thinking. “Grandma burned everything else.”

Granddad rubbed his chin and once again turned his head to see the sad young man at the counter. “Well, I don’t blame her,” he finally said. “She gave me a break though, and promised not to tell anyone else.” He went on before I had a chance to ask what he meant. “I don’t suppose you know what happened to…” he gestured with his chin towards the counter, “Greg.”

I didn’t even know who Greg was, but Stella said softly behind me, “He committed suicide when he found out you were dead.”

I was surprised when tears filled those green eyes that were just like mine. “Poor kid,” he said. Then he looked at Stella. “Why can’t he see me?”

“You’re on different planes. It’s like there’s a wall between you.”

A tear ran down Granddad’s cheek.

“Give him the coat, John,” Stella said. “They’ve both touched it at the same time. It will bring them together.”

That’s why she had wanted my coat. She was a determined Vortex guardian.

Granddad looked at me. He wanted it bad, I could tell. I knew I would give it to him, but it was hard to get my arms to hold it out. When he touched it, I suddenly felt bigger somehow. I knew he felt it, too, because his eyes widened. We both held it. I didn’t want to let go. Maybe he didn’t either, but that other young man was more important to him than a stranger like me.

My hands opened slowly and I gave him one of those trembly, screwed up smiles people do when they’re about to burst into tears. That young man, war hero, and my grandfather saluted me. “Thank you, Johnny,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Thank you.”

I saluted him, like a little kid imitating an adult, like that little boy in the pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral.

Then my granddad put on the jacket.

Suddenly, the young man at the counter straightened, grinned, and yelled, “Johnny!” He jumped up and easily slid over the counter. He ran into Granddad’s arms. I could tell he was crying.

It was more than the hug of two casual friends, and I think I know why Grandma had been so angry, but I felt glad for them. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. I didn’t even notice when the jukebox went silent, or when the teenagers disappeared, or the middle-aged couple, or the newspaper man. Even after the two young men faded away, I kept staring at the empty place.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but eventually I realized that I still had my arm raised in that final gesture of respect. It was pretty sentimental of me.

“You did it, John,” Stella said.

I didn’t even turn around when I said, “You can call me Johnny.” Granddad had been scared, so it was okay for me to be scared. Granddad had cried and been sentimental, so I could be those things, too. I felt my shoulders shake and, for the first time since I was thirteen, I heard myself sob. I had told myself so many times that men don’t cry. When Great Aunt Lilly died, I had stood, stone-faced in front of her coffin. My dog, Jake, had gone to sleep for the last time while, dry-eyed, I had held his paw. And Suzy… poor little Suzy, screaming and screaming because she couldn’t make anyone understand her. Poor Suzy, with her face frozen into a squint so nobody could tell she was smiling—nobody but me. I should have cried for her.

I was sad, but somehow, I felt relieved, too. It was like Granddad’s coat had been something heavy and letting go of it had changed me. After I blew my nose and rubbed my face dry, I returned to Stella and said, “He was a hero.”

*****

That Vortex guardian and I talked for a long time about what had happened and how she could help the other inhabitants of the diner. Later, in the ’70s-inspired hotel room, I slept like a man with a clear conscience and a clean bill of health.

By the time I was ready to leave, it was nine a.m. I had my duffel bag but not my coat when I left the room and walked into a bright, cool day. A lot had changed out there.

The parking lot asphalt was broken and weedy. The sign was leaning and peeling. I turned to look at the building. The Out of Time Motel had turned into a broken down relic: a matriarch who looked her age. I don’t know why I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was all surprised out.

I walked to my car, which was now sitting under a dangerously leaning awning, and tossed my bag into the back seat. I turned to the plywood wall which had once been glass and saw a little sign stapled where the door had been. Written in faded black marker was one final message from the past: Closed.