House of Cats

by Joseph A. Fitzpatrick

 

After nine months and nine battles, there are only four of us left in the house. I had thought that after nine deaths, perhaps the whole thing would be over. There is the old adage that cats only have nine lives and I had hoped that that old wives’ wisdom would have ended this whole ordeal, but it’s October, I’ve slain nine cats thus far, and there are still three more running around the house. One for each of the remaining months of the year.

I should qualify my survival here. They’re cats until the last day of the month. Then one of them, and I never know which until the transformation begins, changes into a huge hulking death creature that attacks me and destroys the house. We fight, I try my damnedest to win, and in the morning the dead beast-cat is gone and somehow the house reconstructs itself leaving no signs of our melee.

I honestly don’t remember how I came to inhabit this house of cats. I was on trial for animal cruelty charges. There’s my dirty past. Dogfights. I got in with the wrong crowd and the money was too tempting. It’s an all-too-common formula that turns guys like me into statistics. You can’t like me now that you know my secret; especially if you’re an animal sympathizer. You’d probably root for the cats at the end of each month. Hell, at the end of nine months even I’ve begun rooting for them, but as long as there’s a blade in my hand and they continue to strike first, then I can’t help but defend myself.

The first few months were easy, me being about as far away from what you’d call a cat lover as a person can get. I used to toss strays off the roof of the woodshed to see if they’d all land on their feet. They all did, if you’re wondering. Oh, please, stow your judgement. I know what you’re thinking, but believe me, you’ll never be as hard on me as I’ve already been on myself. I said that the first few months were easy, but that was before I started naming them.

Spend a few months locked in a house with a tribe of cats and you’ll come to appreciate them. Their grace and natural athleticism; the playful curiosity that turns the simplest objects into toys; their enjoyment of a long nap and a sunbeam. Let a few curl up in your lap and you’ll fall in love. They’re the most sensual animals I’ve ever seen, and I’m including Jayne Gilson in this list. A girl I knew in high school and when I say knew I mean knew, in the Biblical sense, but I’m not going into details here because nine months of being forced to kill my friends has changed me.

Mr. Clean sits in the window licking the back of his front paw. Next, his head jerks up and down as he curls his tongue trying to clean his chest. He’s the most meticulous cleaner of them all. I catch him giving baths to the rest of the family all the time.

Snow Boots, named for his white paws, walks around wide-eyed and curious. He embodies that characteristic for me. Always looking slightly confused, he camps out in boxes and shopping bags and just about any nook or cranny in the house. I’ve learned more about the attic and closets in this place from looking for him than I ever would have just living here in the old style. But without a TV, or a radio, or even a single book, these critters have become my entertainment. I’ve begun to miss the others, even the ones that I didn’t know very well and the three I never named.

Silly Girl is the youngest. Only a kitten when I first arrived, she’s grown into a little lady. She gets tossed around by the two boys, but she can hold her own. She was one of the first to visit me. Originally, I tried to separate myself from the vermin. That’s what I used to call them—vermin. If the combatants of January, February, and March had names at all they were: Vermin, Stinking Vermin, and Why do you Vermin keep attacking me? All uttered while avoiding the newly elongated claws and fangs at the end of each month.

So, being the subject of unprovoked attacks once a month, I was naturally wary of the felines. I locked myself in one bedroom and kicked any cat that came within shoe distance when I needed to journey to the bathroom or kitchen. I told you I wasn’t a nice guy. It’s important to remember this detail.

But cats will win anybody over given enough time, and Silly Girl was the ambassador employing the diplomacy of big eyes, little squeaks, and the uncoordinated cuteness that just worms right through any defense. I don’t know how she did it, my own carelessness or something else, but Silly Girl found her way into my room one night and without a care in the world curled up right next to my head on the pillow and went to sleep. I had to admire her courage because my reputation with the rest of the pride at that time must have been pretty rotten. Scared the shit out of me when I woke up, though. I leapt out of bed screaming bloody murder. Had all intentions of murder too; tossing the little three-pounder splat against the wall, but I didn’t do it. She hardly even seemed to notice my flight from bed. Just opened an eye, yawned, rolled over on her back, and stretched out two tiny paws to me. I stuck out my finger and she took that finger between her paws, sort of nibbled on the end for a second, and then fell back to sleep.

It wasn’t an overnight reconciliation for me, but after Silly Girl’s first visit I held back my outlashings and began to observe these creatures. In turn, they observed me, and then they explored me, sniffing and rubbing, a light paw flex on my leg, even left gifts on my pillow: moths, mice, a small pool of vomit. They’re forgiving creatures; I’ll give them that. Their love isn’t unconditional, but their conditions aren’t unreasonable either.

It’s the end of October now. I’m sitting in my favorite recliner, the one with the fluff hanging out the back from where Fluff Boy scratched away the fabric. He attacked in August and left a long scar down the left side of my face. I have scars on my body from all of the beasts and mementos in the house from all of the cats. January, February, and March respectively took a bite out of my thigh, left three gashes on my back, and broke a toe. January used to tear up the carpet. February used to chew cardboard. March always slept in the sink.

In April, Yowler, nipped off the top of my right ear. The scratches on the bottom of the bathroom door are his. Simpson tore open my cheek in May. He drank water straight out of the faucet. Toby attacked in June swallowing two fingers from my left hand. He had been the largest, always knocking plates and glasses off the counters. Tabasco, a truly feisty minx, broke three of my rips at the end of July. She was the sun queen; chasing away all contenders from a warm spot. In September, Lady Jane surprised me with a wicked head wound. Left me in bed for a week, staring at the spot on the headboard where she used to lay and bat at the curtains.

Paints a pretty picture of me, doesn’t it? But you can’t feel sorry for me. Remember that. I was on trial for animal cruelty. I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street today without enduring a sea of pitied looks of disgust. I broke all the mirrors in the house so that I wouldn’t have to look at myself anymore. Silly Girl doesn’t care what I look like, however, and I leave a space for her on my pillow every night.

The window is open. A breeze flows into the house and I think I need a heavier sweater. The cord for the blinds taps against the wall, a steady and annoying click, but I’m lacking the motivation to cross the room and tie it off. Besides, my companions are fascinated by it, sitting on the arms of the sofa watching it sway back and forth. We’d all like to jump through the window and run around the grass and trees that we can see out there. We’ve all tried, but the screens won’t budge and you can’t cut them either. None of the doors to the outside will open. We’re all trapped inside the house until whatever put us here decides to let us out.

I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps there will never be an escape, however. Around the sixth month, after the monthly transformation and attack had been solidified as a recurring pattern, I began to hope that twelve original cats meant twelve months of captivity. If I can simply survive twelve consecutive attacks then I’ll be free. This thinking is the only thing that’s allowed me to get through the last three combats. The longer I’m here, the harder it gets.

The clicking of the cord continues. Silly Girl and Mr. Clean have lost interest, disappearing from the room, but Snow Boots continues to follow the wind-blown pendulum with his eyes as if studying it, counting the strikes, waiting for some deviation in the rhythm.

I wonder which of my friends will be next. I go through a moment where I think perhaps this time it won’t happen. Maybe this month none of them will transform and we won’t have to fight anymore. I experience this same moment every month now. Always on the last day, but I don’t know how I got here, why I’m here, or how to end this imprisonment. All I know is that I’ll stay up as long as I can tonight trying to delay the inevitable and come January it’s going to get very lonely in this house.

Eventually I tire when my legs cramp from sitting in the same position too long. I get up, eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese, and go to bed. I still want to remain awake, the transformation only comes after I fall asleep, but I know I’ll need my strength if I expect to see November.

I don’t dream anymore, so there’s nothing to interrupt when I’m awoken by the growl outside my bedroom door. All of my scars throb at this moment. I turn my head to both sides looking for Silly Girl, but I don’t see her or even an indentation in the pillow. Rolling off the mattress, I glance under the bed, but don’t find her in her back-up location either. I tell myself that she’s hiding. The cats who don’t transform always hide the night of the battle.

I slide into a T-shirt and a pair of jeans while the growling gets louder outside the door. The walls shake and the floor vibrates. The beast grows impatient, as always, but it never enters the bedroom. It always waits for me in the living room. I grab the sword and shield that has appeared during the night on the chest at the foot of the bed. The weight is familiar by now. After nine months, I almost feel like a pro. Ready as I can ever be, I kick open the door and charge out preparing to say good-bye to what was once Snow Boots or Mr. Clean.

The cat inside the beast is never recognizable until it lies dead at my feet. That is one detail for which I have been grateful these past several months. October is different, however. For the first time in one of these encounters I look up at the twelve-foot beast with the gaping maw and razor-sharp talons and recognize the cat from which it has spawned. To my utter horror, I stare into the eyes of Silly Girl. She shakes her immense face and snorts. I lose her inside the beast with the flattened black nose, the ears that have curled down closer to the head, the stubbed tail. Her body has shifted, becoming broader at the shoulders, shortening the neck, rippling now with muscles, turning this sweet little animal into what looks like a giant mutated pitbull terrier. The same type of dogs I used to raise. The same type I’d shoot in the head when they lost a fight. Putting them out of their misery, I used to say.

The beast steps closer and sniffs me. I lower my sword, hoping for some sense of recognition, some piece of my friend inside the beast that will end this nightmare right now. But the beast growls and rears back, brandishing a claw. A deep red light glows from behind its eyes and catches me, draws me in to a flash of memories and a flood of emotion that I can’t explain. In an instant the past nine months rip through me, a reenactment of every single combat, but this time I feel the pain of my own thrusts and stabs into the different beasts. Then I’m back in front of the judge. I’m in handcuffs in a police car, asking for a lawyer. I’m at the last dogfight, cheering for my fighter, already counting the money in my head. I watch him tear the throat out of another dog and I shake hands with my partner. I feel it more than hear it, but I understand the question completely: Why would you do this to us? It feels like a squeak. It feels like Silly Girl.

I drop my sword and shield and fall to my knees feeling the beast press in on me. When it strikes, I know I will not defend myself. To the judge I only wish to say, I’m guilty, I’m sorry, and I’m the first man to get what he deserves.

 

Vacancy

by J.M. Anderson

 

The fog was crawling in when they heard the scream. It wavered for a few seconds then become echoes, then became silence. Krista checked her watch. 9:45. She turned to David. “Did you get that?”

David was wearing big headphones and a light windbreaker, pretending not to be cold or a little shaken. Krista wore a sweater and jeans and was cold and scared and hid both well. David rewound the tape in the recorder strapped around his shoulder; the whirring noise was the only noise around them. He finally hit play and heard the ghost (or whatever it was) scream and he didn’t like it any better the second time.

Krista motioned for the headphones and as always she got what she wanted. She listened to some woman’s scream, the sound of someone dying, that came from God knew where, out of the fog somewhere.

“What’s she saying?” asked Krista.

“I don’t know,” said David. “Let’s figure it out in the car. Down the road somewhere.”

* * * * *

Soon they were in their rented Ford and the cemetery was still in the mirror when Krista said, “‘These guys.’ I think she’s saying “‘These something guys.’” She pecked the rewind button again. “Or maybe ‘Please something guys.’” They were farther from the cemetery now. The countryside flew past them. “David, slow down.” David’s eyes were locked on the lights up ahead. Civilization. She put her hand on his and he slowed.

“Sweet Jesus Christ,” he said.

“What?”

“She’s saying ‘Sweet Jesus Christ’.”

Krista listened to the tape again and in a rare move agreed with David. Then she told him to head for the motel.

* * * * *

Their car crunched into the parking lot of the Pepperidge Motor Court at 10:00 p.m. and even at that hour the motel was noisy with tourists who were looking for a quiet time in the country. The lot was nearly full and kids ran from motel room to car to room again. TVs blared from open windows.

“There’s a spot over there,” Krista said.

David squeezed the car between two SUVs and they got out, creaking on the wooden planks leading to the manager’s office. Krista grabbed David. “This is it,” she said.

Their creaking stopped outside of room 17. David seemed to back away. Krista saw this and smiled. But she hesitated herself before she cupped her hands over her eyes and pressed her face against the window. The curtains weren’t drawn because there was nothing to hide. It was a boring, uninspired motel room with ten-year-old furniture. “Hmm,” she said dismissively.

* * * * *

The office smelled like peanuts and the man’s breath smelled like hot peanuts. “Lucked out,” said Pepperidge, the middle-aged, friendly owner and manager. “Nearly all booked up.” The skinny man turned and reached behind to his nearly empty rack of keys and palmed one. The key to room 18.

“We were looking to rent room 17,” Krista said.

“Oh, I don’t let that room out,” Pepperidge said.

Krista said: “Look, we know the room has a ‘history’. That’s why we’re here. With money.” She reached into her purse and graced the counter with a fifty. “We’ll take our chances. So if room 17 and 18 are adjoining—” started Krista.

“They are,” said Pepperidge.

“Then we’ll take them both,” said Krista.

Pepperidge pulled out a key from a side drawer and took the fifty.

* * * * *

Krista and Pepperidge were outside of room 17. “I take it you folks are some kind of investigators,” Pepperidge offered as he put the key into the lock.

“Something like that,” Krista said. “Working on a book.”

“What do you know?” Pepperidge asked.

“A little,” she said. “We got the gist of it.”

The manager snorted. “You probably got five or six different stories. Well, I was here when it happened.”

David came up the walk with the first batch of Krista’s luggage as Pepperidge opened the door to room 17. The three went in a little cautiously, as if sneaking up on something. Pepperidge turned on the lights. They flickered a little, but finally stayed on. He crossed the room and opened the window, letting the crisp night air seep in.

“Like I said, I don’t let this room out…” He looked out into the fog. “This is the thickest I’ve seen it in years.”

“So what happened that night?” Krista asked.

“Forty-two years ago,” the old manager muttered. He looked out, lost in the fog. “Nate McKee… You never would have thought… I mean, not him…” Then Pepperidge remembered he was telling a story. “My parents ran the motel back then. Anyway, I was seventeen the year Nathan McKee killed his wife and two children. He was an attendant at the station on the corner, back when they had full service. Nice guy to know, but one night he drove a stake through the heart of his wife and two kids. Girl and a boy. Girl was nine, the boy was six.”

“Did he say why?” asked Krista.

“Well it came out he’d been on shaky ground for a while. Mentally. Hearing voices and such. Turns out he knocked Jeanie, his wife, around a couple of times, but she never said anything to anybody or the cops swept it under the rug for free gas or whatever. The thing of it was one night he snapped and said the virgin mother came to him and told him the truth. Said the woman he married ten years ago and the kids she bore weren’t really his family, but demons in disguise. The only way to get rid of them was to tie them down and… Well I guess I told you that part. So he did what he thought he had to do, lot of grief in his heart they said, and he left them dead in the two-story home he built three years before.

“He killed one more person after that,” he continued. “A ‘Jane Doe’. Left her buried with a stake in her heart out by the old split tree.”

“What’s that?” asked Krista. “The ‘old split tree’?”

“Down the road from here, quarter-mile. Tree that got hit by lightning long time ago, split in half, kept growing.”

“So what happened to McKee?” asked David. “How many years is he serving? Or did they execute him?”

“Well, we don’t have the death penalty here in Maine,” said Pepperidge. “But it doesn’t matter, because they never found him. Threw himself into the river most likely. But the body never washed up.

“So how does all this tie into the room?” asked Krista.

Pepperidge finally turned away from the fog. “While he was on the run, he stayed in this very room.

“The motel was empty, going through six months of renovations. Anyway, years later, people have heard noises and have seen Nate McKee in room 17. His ghost, I guess. Not that I’ve seen anything. I make a point of cleaning this room on bright, sunny days. Nights like this, with the fog coming in, I’d just as soon have the wife bring the dog in and then crawl into bed with her. The wife, I mean, not the dog.” He looked down at the key in his hand. “Are you sure you want to—”

Krista smiled. “You just talked us into it.”

The old man let himself out. Krista shut and locked the door behind him. She turned to David. “Tomorrow we need to find out where the old McKee house is…”

“Krista…”

“Dave, don’t start. Not now.”

“For the past three weeks, we’ve been trampling over graveyards, hanging around morgues—”

“And coming up with nothing. Now we finally have something to grab onto and you want to back out? Dave, I’m afraid you’re afraid.”

“Well, maybe being afraid comes with having some kind of respect for the dead. I can’t do this anymore.”

“And what are you going to do? Who’s been supporting you for the past year? Who paid the bills when you spent nine months locked in the bedroom making bad techno music that never made a dime? Who smiled while you ran all over the state playing wanna-be-30-year-old DJ?”

Someone in room 16 pounded on the paper-thin walls. “We can do this in the morning,” said David.

“And now when I need your help,” she continued, “now when I have a chance to do something, when I need you to stand by some graves and hold a microphone, all I get is regret.” She mimicked him, adjusting imaginary glasses on her nose, “Krista, you’re pushing too hard; Krista, we should slow down…”

David moved toward the adjoining room. “I think I’ll sleep in here tonight,” he said. He wasn’t going to feed her anger; she did such a good job of it herself.

“You don’t get off that easy—” But Dave entered room 18 and closed the door. Krista snorted then took a deep breath. She crossed the room and slammed the window shut and threw open her suitcase, fishing for something to sleep in, ready to spend a sleepless night fuming.

Then she saw it. The box. She opened it.

Inside was something she recognized, saw it a week ago in that little shop in Salem. Little stupid pendant. A cartoon ghost. Saying “boo”. It was so corny, it was so him. It forced her to smile and some of her anger fell away. She looked at the adjoining door to room 18 and felt ashamed.

“Dave…”

No answer. Krista knocked gently.

“Baby, don’t sulk. I like your music. It’s just all this running around, late nights at hospitals and accident scenes and finding nothing… It just makes me crazy. I want this so bad… And I want it for both of us. Dave, talk to me… I said I was sorry. I know I keep saying that—”

Krista heard a noise and turned away from the door. It was coming from the bathroom. Her bathroom. Kling. Like metal hitting porcelain. Then the water was running.

“Hello?” It caught in her throat.

The water stopped running. The room, everything, was too silent. Then the lights flickered a little and a little more and then they went out. “Hello?” she said again, lower this time. Krista tried the light switch but nothing happened. Now everything was too quiet and too dark.

“Who’s in there?” She headed toward the bathroom.

But the door opened before she got there.

Silhouetted behind the glazed bathroom window was a man. The man looked out into the bedroom and the bed, the nightstand, the woman… The man didn’t understand. What was left of his mind was racing.

Krista backed up toward the door to the adjoining room, toward room 18, toward David. The man came out of the bathroom, slowly, unsure of every step. In the moonlight she saw he was in his early thirties, but only after she saw the blood on his shirt. She also saw the name patch stitched into his workshirt.

“Nathan,” she said. “Nathan McKee?”

The sound of his own name didn’t soothe him. He clenched his teeth. He dropped the rag he was drying his hands with.

“How do you know my name?” more exasperated than inquisitive. He advanced on her, still unsteady and she put her back up against the door to room 18.

“Nathan, you can’t hurt me,” she said, forcing herself to be calm. “You’re dead, Nathan.”

“What?”

“You threw yourself in the river. Forty-four years ago. After you killed your family.”

He threw his hands over his ears as if that could make it all go away.

“You’re a ghost and you don’t know it.”

Nathan McKee looked confused, considering all of this. “No…” he exhaled, weary.

“Yes,” Krista said.

“This… this is all wrong. Where am I?”

“You’re dead, Nathan. I guess… I guess I’m here to help you move on.”

He advanced, closer to her now and she smelled the sweat and musk and oil on this “dead man”, this ghost. Nathan shook his head at her.

“You’re one of them,” he said. “Sent by Satan. I’m not dead.”

And he grabbed her and she knew he was right, he wasn’t dead, she could admit for once in her life that she was wrong because a hand had her wrist and the other dug into her throat. She brought a knee up hard into his groin. The “specter” groaned and Krista stabbed out and grabbed an unlit lamp and slammed it over his head as hard as she could and didn’t kill him only because the plug snagged a little behind the table.

Nathan fell back bleeding and she told herself ghosts don’t bleed. Before he hit the floor, she was whacking the door to room 18, calling for Dave. Then she threw her 135 pounds against the door, grateful that she put on (just a little) weight eating crap food on the road and she slammed into the door again.

Desperate now. Again.

Finally the flimsy motel lock gave. And Krista staggered into room 18.

There was a lump in the pit of her stomach; her soul seized.

She was looking into the room and she was faced with nothing. The absence of suitcases, of the bed, of the furniture.

Of David.

The room was barren except for a scattering of loose plywood and paint cans in a corner. Uncurtained windows stared out at the infinite fog.

“Dave?”

She ran through the doorless front door and out into the parking lot. “Please, somebody—”

Then the lump in her stomach fell and kept falling.

Desolation. Silence. Not a single car, not an SUV in sight. Just covered plywood stacked along the wall. She looked around for help. It came in the form of sign on a pole barely visible in the mist:

Pepperidge Inn — Closed for Renovations — Re-Opening May 1961.

The sign in the mist was the last thing she saw before Nathan McKee fractured the back of her skull with a rusted shovel.

* * * * *

Krista awoke in pain but the first thing she wondered was what was that noise. It was a familiar sound, not a pleasant sound. Even through the pain in her head she thought it was not a sound you’d hope to hear or want to hear or—

Then she placed it. It was the sound of digging. The sound of a shovel moving wet dirt.

The next thing she realized was that she was on her back. In the dirt. Her hands were tied behind her back.

She looked up at the mist that hovered above the ground and was looking at a tree, an ugly tree. Black, or blackened. The sound of digging stopped and she realized that was worse than the sound of digging starting.

To her left Nathan McKee pulled himself out of a shallow grave. She struggled but he had tied her hands tight behind her.

“Please…” It was low, so maybe he didn’t hear her. “Please.” Louder this time. “Don’t do this.”

Nathan was out of the hole now. He looked over and saw the dawning panic in her eyes and she saw the deadness in his.

“Help!”

“Scream your head off. No one can hear you, demon.”

“Oh, God, oh. God.” Gasping. She looked up and he was standing over her.

“How dare you call on God?” He lowered himself, straddling her, kneeling over her.

As she continued gasping the Lord’s name, his dirty hand parted the tall wet grass near the tree and when she saw his hand again it held a ten-inch wooden stake.

Her eyes shut and she struggled underneath him but Nathan steadied her by putting his knee on her shoulder and all his weight on the knee.

“This isn’t happening,” she thought aloud.

Then his hand wandered nearby and he had a heavy hammer in his fist.

“I don’t belong here…”

He shoved the stake underneath her left breast. Flesh was broken.

She screamed and said “Oh, God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

The hammer rose into the air over her.

“I’m sorry—”

And it came down like—

“Sweet Jesus Christ!”

* * * * *

David was brushing his teeth and stopped in mid-stroke when he heard the scream again. The same one from the graveyard. Louder this time. Closer. Then the scream became echoes, then became silence.

“Krista?”

Forty seconds later he opened the adjoining door to room 17, wiping his mouth with a towel. No sign of Krista, just a broken lamp, which was weird, he thought, because he never heard it break.

A few minutes later he was outside in the thinning fog among the half-clad or robe-clutching motel guests who also thought they heard a scream or something. He asked questions, but they knew as much as he did.

Then David strayed from the Pepperidge Motor Inn, deeper into the now-clearing fog and called for Krista and kept calling. No one ever answered.

For an instant he thought he saw a man underneath a tree patting down dirt with the flat side of a shovel.

But the fog lifted and the man was gone.

* * * * *

David never learned what happened to Krista and he never forgave her for walking out on him in the middle of the night, but song #3 on his last demo was dedicated to her.

 

Merrin

by John Hertel

 

My earliest memories are of darkness, damp caves, and of a Monster who sometimes fed me.

Sylvorum Elf-stalker was a flying black cloud of teeth and talons. His mastery of the silent glide made him the terror of the Sentinel Spires Mountain range. That dragon’s reputation was so fell that no intelligent beings would deliberately enter his territory.

This was my father.

I was a disappointment to my father. His habit of tormenting his prey before eating it nauseated me. His treasures—a bed of cold hard stones and bits of metal—were of no interest to me. Causing forest fires for their own sake seemed pointless to me. This, and other things, caused a deepening rift between us as time crawled by.

I was half grown by the time my father summoned me from my favorite waterfall to guard a new treasure he had acquired. It was called a Barbarian Princess, something he intended to trade for its weight in gold. How wonderful.

I soon confronted a strange sight, a little pink biped with a mop of fur atop her head and clutching at scraps of other furs that were obviously not her own. Annarinda was small and dark of hair and eye, but her spirit was strong enough to confront me directly. I was not nearly as terrible as Sylvorum, yet it must have required considerable courage to face me and ask “Are you going to eat me?”

The very idea of eating something that could converse with me was so repulsive and ridiculous that for a moment I was non-plussed. What in all creation would make her ask such a question, I wondered. Being somewhat innocent, I thought about this, and eventually came up with a perfectly reasonable answer; this little talking beast must be close to starving! Why else would she be wondering what I would like to eat?

I foraged about the forest and soon returned with a collection of things that I thought might be edible. I really had no idea what humans were at this point, let alone what they might eat. The collection I placed before her was somewhat… varied. She took a few things, ate a little bit and placed the rest on a rock shelf behind her. Then, she thanked me and complained about nothing, introducing me to the concept of politeness. When she was done, I cleared the mess away (some of the things I had brought were noisesome, even to me) and shooed away something that I had thought was a truffle, but was now leaving the cavern under it’s own power. I then settled down to guard duty, although it was unclear to me what I was supposed to be guarding her from. She told me her name was Annarinda, and engaged me in conversation.

Her people had lived on the northern plateau for many generations. Drought and a series of other natural disasters had driven them south. In the lowlands they had not found the terrible armies that their grandfathers had warned them about, but soft, fat simpletons who fell like wheat before their axes… when they were not running away. The barbarian warriors were so overjoyed at their success that they sent word back for their families to join them. So Annarinda had come south to join her chieftain father, and rejoiced in his prosperity. The bounty of the south would see her people through the winter. For a change, none would starve or freeze to death. I had no objection to any of this; it was nature’s way that the strong would survive, and her people seemed happy enough.

And then Sylvorum had happened along…

The barbarians had not been interested in gold or gemstones, these things being inedible. Now, driven by my father’s ransom demands, they would have to attack strongholds they had earlier bypassed, and take terrible risks for this “treasure”.

I was intrigued by this.

For her part, Annarinda absorbed the details of my rather staid and boring life with rapt fascination. She even commented on my command of her native language, she said she could practically see the meaning of my words in her mind. I was too amazed to speak for a moment. Command of mannish tongues was the first step in learning spell magic, something that my father had continuously postponed. I corrected her, it was her facility with Draconian that allowed us to converse. Annarinda thought about this for a moment, and then smiled in a sly and secretive way.

“Can you hear me?” she asked. I had, of course, but then I realized something, a crucial fact that stopped my heart for a moment.

Her lips had not moved.

A witch! I nearly fled from her; I almost barged out of the cavern and brought Sylvorum down on us both. Before I could move more than a few feet, she explained it all to me in a strobe of mental images and ideas, and made the truth known to me in an instant. I sum it up in one word: Psychic. All creatures are supposed to have this power, although nearly all are latent as stones. Nearly all beings are deaf to the wonders that their own minds are capable of. One in a million can call this power forth in useful forms, and bend it to their will. Annarinda was one such being.

The next few days were a learning experience that was more like an unfolding, a revelation. It is impossible for me to tell you what it is like, this process of discovery. (Spend the first half of your life at the bottom of a well, and then climb out and tell me what the sun, the stars and the world around you looks and feels like. Do that, and you will have taken the first step in understanding me.) Annarinda’s mental energy was far less than my own, yet her power flowed like a mill stream, with every available erg of it available for useful employment. At first, mine was like a rushing flood, crashing about with no purpose. She trained me to bring it forth, and I shall never forget the day that I stacked three rocks on top of each other without touching them.

My father occasionally observed us, but all he noticed was that our conversations had ended, and that we seemed to be just sitting there, staring at each other. He was glad of this, the old fool; he took this to mean that I had finally become bored with her. I knew this because I had taken to reading his mind… what there was of it. Thus, I was instantly aware of the night he drank himself half-mad on an intoxicating mixture of fermented griffon’s milk and pixie blood, and he resolved to send Annarinda back to her people the same way they were delivering her ransom; one little piece at a time.

Annarinda was still half asleep when she found herself perched on my back, my mental directions clamping her hands tight on my scales as we flew off into the night. Our nocturnal escape was exhilarating at first, then confusing, then dreary and ultimately utterly frustrating. Barbarians move, you see, and it was not until dawn that we finally found them. The sight they presented was yet another life-changing experience for me.

My father’s outrageous demands had driven the barbarians to extreme measures. When we arrived, they had just stormed the walled city of Visograd, and sacked it. I say without hesitation that this was a fortress that no dragon ever born could have taken down, and these tiny yet vehement creatures had razed it in a matter of days! It had cost them dearly, but they had learned something about themselves in the process.

Annarinda’s mental shout saved us from a shower of arrows as I swept in and landed in the midst of them, staring about me with the same shock and curiosity that has being directed at mine own self. I had never understood just how many human beings there were in this world. Annarinda dismounted and ran to her father, and soon our story was known to them, as was my name. Soon I was experiencing what no non-psychic can ever understand. I basked in the admiration of the little souls all around me. In that moment, I think I came close to understanding something important… and then the moment was gone.

I sensed him before they saw him. I heard the cries, the wails of despair before I could even turn to face him. Sylvorum scythed his way through the crowd with the sun at his back, his wings making hardly a sound. He was focused on me, and his eyes promised nothing but bloody murder for me and mine. I snatched Annarinda up in my weaker claw and vaulted straight up into the sky.

My father, now determined to be my killer, heaved his wings and his breath started blowing through his nostrils like an ox. He would have caught us eventually, but escape was not my plan. I cast my new-found power over the old monster’s skull, and his thoughts were mine! Then, with one claw burdened and useless, with half his mass and none of his experience, I turned to battle Sylvorum Elf-stalker to the death.

Much has been written of this battle, songs were sung of it. My own recollections are hazy, and cannot do the bard’s tales justice. I was wounded seven times, blows struck by reflex that I could not possibly dodge. Other moves, such as a brilliant snap-roll that should have put him on top of me, were turned against him. Soon he found himself with shredded wings, flying so low that a stall would surely ground him. He attempted to marshal his fiery breath against me. At the moment when a dragon must release his breath, I wrapped my tail around his throat and kicked him in the stomach as hard as I could. I can testify that he felt a taste of the horror he had visited on so many others, as I intended he should.

His throat and chest erupted, and I was swatted out of the air. Sylvorum landed in the forest, where his corpse burned and smoldered for two days. I crash-landed near the place I had taken off from. I was weak and bleeding from half a dozen places, but before I could surrender consciousness, I had to check on my precious passenger.

Historians and apologists have had much to say to excuse me at this point. It is all garbage and nonsense, of course. I looked at the pulped and bloody mess in my claw, and I knew the truth at once, I knew that I had killed her.

Was it quick, too sudden for her to cry out to me? Did she hold herself quiet in some transcendental triumph of willpower over pain, not wanting to distract me from a battle that would determine the fate of her people?

Dragon’s tears are said to have interesting qualities, some of them becoming gemstones. Do not make the mistake of showing me any jewels; I give such baubles away for a reason.

 

Note: These words come from a never completed, never published autobiography of Emperor Merrin himself, apparently as part of his campaign to create a cult of personality around his throne. After his disappearance 1100 years ago, a memorial stone was erected on the shore of Lake Iztra. His epitaph is a suitable list of his accomplishments;

Merrin the Gray
The Great Gray Dragon of Lista
The Killer of Kali and that Bane of the Streegoi
Founder of the Ulistarii Throne
Litch-Breaker

He is worth remembering, not only because of his impact on history, but because rumors of his return now seem to be more than just rumors…

 

Trader’s Lot

by Tom Olbert

 

Callyn smiled and pursed his lips mockingly as the gruff-looking Martian slave trader snarled and drew his knife. “You damned, body-shifting freak! I’ll kill you!!” The man screamed as he lunged for Callyn. Callyn twirled to avoid the thrust, the knife missing his heart by a centimeter.

Callyn moved fluidly, like water engulfing his attacker. He rammed his knee where it hurt the savage most, wrenched the knife from him and laid him out with a broken nose before he could blink. These planet-dwelling genspecs (gender specifics) were pathetically slow and clumsy. Bound as they were to their high-gravity worlds, they moved with all the grace of living slabs of rock on legs. The local cops arrived right on cue, Callyn having deliberately tripped the security alarm in this pleasure suite of the Hotel Olympus Mons. “What have we got here?” the ranking militiaman asked, pointing his automatic pistol at Callyn. “I see a difference of opinion between two men, but I don’t see a female. You better start explaining, pal.”

Callyn smiled as he concentrated, activating his hormonal metamorphosis. The militiamen sneered and guffawed in disgust as Callyn’s breasts grew to their full, lovely ripeness, “his” male genitalia receding as her female persona emerged. “Slight failure of communication,” Callyn said with a mischievous toss of her long, dark hair, her voice suddenly growing softer. “Mind you, he wasn’t complaining one bit while I was in this mode.”

“A damned, two-faced rock-rat,” one of the cops said.

“I want that thing killed,” the slave trader said, sniffling and wiping blood out of his mouth. “She… he… it… deceived me. I thought it was a woman!”

“I was,” Callyn explained with a smile, stepping toward the head cop. “And, for the moment, I still am. I’m sure you wouldn’t disagree, Commander,” she flirted, passing a slender, perfumed hand softly across his rugged face.

The man smiled. The smile abruptly slipped off his face and he roughly shoved her against the bed. “You freaks know the law on Mars,” he barked angrily. “The penalty for gender impersonation is death by a means of the victim’s choice.” He glanced back at the slave trader and grinned slightly.

“Hey, I was just amusing myself,” Callyn said as he straightened up and focused, resuming his male persona. “I’m not in my fertile cycle, so it’s not like I stole any of this clown’s DNA. You think I’d want any of that stupid ape’s characteristics in my replacement?” The slave trader snarled angrily, sitting up on the floor and pressing a blood-reddened medical patch against his nose. “Anyway, before you kill me, I suggest you look at this.”

He reached into his purse and handed the commander his security clearance pass. The holographic card was signed and stamped with the DNA print of Karl Victor Hardshield, the ranking commercial agent for the RedScar Clan, the most powerful family in this province of Mars. The cop snatched the card away and passed a DNA scanner over it, verifying its authenticity. He scowled in disappointment as he handed the card back to Callyn. “Diplomatic immunity,” he said with a sigh. “We can’t touch the freak.”

“What?!” the slave trader cried, struggling to his feet with a cop’s help, still holding the med-patch over his broken nose. “You can’t be serious! That thing soiled me! I demand satisfaction!! Do you know who I am, Commander?!!”

“Yes, I know, Baron Hammerboot,” the policeman muttered with a shrug. “But, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do. Get the baron to a doctor,” he ordered one of his men, holstering his pistol. “As for you, little Miss back-and-forth,” he sneered at Callyn. “You’ve caused enough trouble. Pack up your crud and get your gender-shifting butt off Mars, and back to the asteroid belt where your kind belong. Or, you just might find yourself the victim of a gang incident. I expect to find you gone when I come back here in two hours,” he warned as he started towards the door.

Callyn smiled and blew him a kiss.

* * * * *

“Your methods are a little unorthodox, Callyn,” Karl Victor Hardshield said through the holoscreen, a smile crossing his dark, handsome face. “But, you got the job done.”

Callyn smiled at the holo image from the pilot’s seat of his spaceship, now deep in the asteroid belt. “As I recall, Karl, you said something similar right after our first sexual encounter.” A hearty laugh rang out from the Martian bureaucrat as Callyn willed his face back to its soft, feminine visage.

“Same old Callyn,” Hardshield sighed. “As usual, your strategy worked. The locals covered up that little trick you played on Klaus Hammerboot, just as you predicted, so there’s no record of your visit. Or, of my involvement. I trust you had no trouble avoiding the customs patrols after they kicked you offworld?”

Callyn glanced back at the sealed lead containers in the cargo hold. “None. Tell your people I’ll rendezvous with your cargo ship in the Jovian sector in three standard days.”

“Until next time, my sweet,” Karl said with that smile that had always made Callyn quiver, just as his image faded.

* * * * *

“Why the Void aren’t you on your way back here to the inner belt?” Kresh snapped through the holo screen, her attractive features currently set in a very bitchy expression of female identity. “Why are you still in Jovian space?”

Callyn groaned as he maneuvered his ship for docking with the Jupiter space station. He had to play it cool. “Looking for prospects, what else? With the two Jovian empires on the brink of war,” he had to look away quickly to hide the hint of a tear, “they’ll need someone to supply their military fleets.”

“You’re not fooling anyone, Callyn,” the other nomad barked, his features taking on a hard male edge. “I know all about your dalliances on Ganymede and Callisto. You’ve allowed yourself to get far too close to these genspecs. It’ll be the death of you in the end.” Callyn let his mind pleasantly wander, in order to drown out Kresh’s incessant whining. Memories of his last space dock rotation at the Ceres dome still brought a smile to his face. “You actually like it here?” so many of his fellow nomads had asked with disbelieving grimaces on their faces. They were all anxious to finish their dock tours and get back to their trade routes. Freedom. The deep black empty. Planetside ports. Fun. Callyn was the only one who’d bothered to inspect the auto-womb chambers deep inside the asteroid, where the next generation was growing. He’d looked through the glass panels into the amniotic sacs where the little ones slept. He was looking forward to holding some of them. Someday, maybe teaching a few.

It had taken him back to his own childhood on Ceres. And that one shift when a group of genspec refugees had passed through. They’d paid the nomads for transport to Saturn after the Marsies had seized their colony, one of the space habitats in Venus orbit. None of the other nomad kids liked them. Besides being sad all the time, they were weird. Like androids, or something; they never changed. He’d gotten to know one of them, sort of. Kayla, she’d called herself. Female, like all the others from Venus Station. He’d found her slumped against a wall near a waste reclamation facility, crying, and had tried talking to her. He still remembered her face, a little. Large, green eyes, red and puffy with tears. Small mouth, quivering. He’d touched her long, curling brown hair and wiped a tear away from her face. “Don’t cry,” he’d said. “Want to try one of the cyber stations with me? They’re not hard, and they’re really fun. I scored over 200 on Hyper Run last time!” He’d been a little scared when she’d put her arms around him; no adult nomad had ever done that. For a second, he’d thought it was an attack. When he’d pulled away and asked what was wrong, she’d touched his face, half-laughed, half-cried and said how much he’d resembled her little sister. Dead now, along with so many others. Including her infant daughter.

He’d stayed with Kayla through the remainder of her time on Ceres, even though the others had teased him for it. Spending time with her wasn’t as stimulating as playing the cyber stations, or as amusing as interacting with the caretaker robots. But, he liked her, and his company seemed to make her less sad. It was nice, somehow, having an adult all to himself. He’d felt a little sad when she’d said ‘goodbye’ and walked through the air-lock into the transport ship. He’d wondered if he’d ever get to meet his own replacement, someday. “Callyn, are you listening?!”

Kresh’s voice startled him back to the present, but he quickly regained his composure. “Your concern touches me, love, but I know what my boundaries are, thank you. I’m only staying long enough to do a little business… and, maybe, have a little fun… and I’ll see you on Ceres in three standard days.”

“I hope so. I’d hate to see your name find its way onto the blacklist.”

He had to struggle to keep the fear out of his eyes. “When did the Guild start equating friendship with collusion?”

“Callyn…” Kresh wet his lips. “Your impudence is endearing only up to a point. I won’t tolerate insubordination, and the Guild certainly will not tolerate traders with a careless attitude toward belt security.”

Callyn fumed. He was beginning to chafe sorely at their stupid rules. Who were they to judge his every copulation? His every sacred moment? He glared at Kresh. “No one tells me how to run my contracts.”

Kresh raised his dark eyebrows. “Until the next fleet rotation, I’m overseer of all transactions in the Jovian sector. Nothing moves there without my approval, and don’t you ever forget it! Did you at least deliver your cargo on time?”

Callyn shrugged and sighed. “Yes. Twenty containers of nuclear fuel delivered as promised. The RedScar Clan will be able to get their illegal mining operation on Io up and running soon enough. And, we’ll get our cut. I trust Karl.”

“Glad to hear it. See you in three standard days.”

* * * * *

Blowing the credits he’d conned out of Klaus Hammerboot, Callyn stopped off at one of the station’s clothing boutiques and bought one of the frilly, unisex ensembles currently the rage on the Jovian moons. He wanted to look his best for Leyna and Marcus. His heart trembled a bit as he entered the station’s restaurant.

The Club Jove hadn’t lost any of the sparkle Callyn remembered from his last few visits here. The soft ballroom music, the crystal chandeliers and huge, gilded mirrors were just as he’d remembered. Dominating all was the bright red-and-orange curve of Jupiter viewed through the station’s revolving centrifuge visible through the transparent space wall. The men of Ganymede and the women of Callisto still socialized freely here. Leyna and Marcus sat together at their reserved table, waiting for Callyn.

Each of Callyn’s two former lovers greeted him with a smile and a warm embrace. In deference to each of them, he gender-shifted, assuming male guise for Marcus and female for Leyna, kissing each of them lovingly on both cheeks. “It’s been far too long,” he said, a kaleidoscope of memories both painful and sweet playing through his mind. He studied Marcus’s tall, sturdy frame and broad shoulders. The years hadn’t softened him. Callyn gently passed a hand across Marcus’s handsome face, admiring its strong chin, hawkish nose and warm blue eyes. His sandy-brown hair had greyed a touch at the temples and crow’s feet had set in around his eyes. A weathering that only accentuated his beauty. His smile was as bright as the day they’d met. And Leyna. Lovely as ever. Her striking green eyes and elfin triangular face were framed by tresses of artfully styled, dark auburn hair falling across her strong, graceful shoulders. That alluring face had grown a bit lined, but as with Marcus, time had aged her like a fine wine.

With each of them in turn, there had been love, jealousy, bitterness, then understanding, then healing, then love of a different kind. Each had moved on to find monogamous partners, as genspecs generally did. And, somehow, his love for both of them had formed the basis for the friendship the three of them had shared all these years since.

The conversation was light and pleasant over cocktails. But, neither the gin and tonics, nor the witty banter Callyn had used to win both their hearts long ago could smother the fear rising in his stomach. He detected a hint of worry in the cast of Leyna’s eyes. Marcus, though grinning amiably was nervously rubbing his thumb against the black onyx ring his father had given him, as he always did when he could sense something was wrong, but was afraid to broach the subject. Damn, had Callyn become that readable? “So… I hope this friendly get-together won’t earn either of you any cold, lonely nights,” he asked with a mocking wink, lifting his glass and taking a sip.

“Brigitte’s not the jealous type,” Leyna quipped with a smile. “And, her job at offworld com-sat keeps her mind occupied… these days.” She cast her eyes down and cleared her throat. “More late nights for her than I’d like, I don’t mind telling you,” she said with a smile, trying desperately to keep it light. “So, who is she to complain, if I spend one night with two old friends?”

“Yeah, I sympathize, Ley,” Marcus said quietly, eyes down, the ice clinking as he absently swished his drink. “Peter’s been busy, too, out on recon. Little Mike and Ron, they keep asking me when he’ll be home. I never know…” He trailed off and took a swallow of gin.

“Are your governments actually going through with this madness?” Callyn asked.

“It looks that way,” Marcus said grimly, setting down his drink and casting his eyes about the room, glancing at the couples dancing to some Old Earth composition that was being piped in. “A lot of good people have died, Callyn.” He clasped his hands together in a familiar indication of stifled anger. He no longer looked in Leyna’s direction. “We’ll probably never know which side fired first, but it really doesn’t matter anymore. The fire’s started, and there’s no putting it out.”

“Are you even sure who attacked your ships?” Callyn asked. “I mean, it could have been offworld pirates. That kind of thing happens in Mars space all the time.”“Fragments of Ganymedan or Callistan space missiles were discovered among the wreckage at each attack,” Leyna explained with a sigh, brushing aside a lock of hair. “Definitely military. It might have started with hard-line rogue factions on both sides, but Marcus is right. Both our governments are committed now.” Her voice was tight with pain, little more than a whisper, her eyes down. “My trade delegation has already been called home, and all our cargo ships have been diverted to the blockade.”

“Same here,” Marcus muttered, before draining the last of his drink.

“You genspecs,” Callyn said in anger. “Ready to kill each other over land.”

Marcus slammed his glass down and stared at Callyn. “At least, we care about something,” Marcus said, raising his voice, his eyes flashing with anger.

Callyn glanced around and noticed people were beginning to stare. Nicely done, Callyn, he chided himself, sipping his drink nervously and wondering for the first time if there might be Ganymedan and Callistan intelligence agents hovering about, pumping the club’s patrons for information. “Marc, I’m sorry,” he said, sweat beginning to bead on his forehead, his armpits stinging under his fancy new clothes. “Leyna… I meant no insult.” They were both looking at each other now, and at him. He could see his own fear reflected in their eyes. The moment had arrived. Taking one last nervous glance around, Callyn forced down his fear and made his move. “Look…” he said, leaning in close over the table and whispering. “I can smuggle you both, and your families to the Saturn colonies. There’s no extradition from there. You’ll be safe.”

They both stared coldly at him for a moment. Then, a cascade of familiar emotions crossed both their faces. Anger. Gratitude. Sorrow. Love. “Callie…” Leyna whispered, sobbing as she reached across the table and took his hand. “Thank you, love. Thank you.” The tears came, and she wiped them away. “But, Brigitte would never agree. I can’t leave her behind. And, I can’t raise my daughters as deserters on an alien world.”

Marcus rubbed his tearing eyes and looked guilty as he laid a large, strong hand on Leyna’s and Callyn’s. “Cal…” He had to clear his throat to keep from crying. “I can’t.” He put a hand over his mouth, his eyes red. “Peter would never… the boys, maybe… I might be able to talk him into that, but…” He winced in agony. Callyn gripped his hand as did Leyna. They all three looked at each other.

Callyn lowered his head, tears running down his cheeks as they both put their arms around him. “You were right, Kresh,” he said silently through his anguish. “A piece of me dies here.”

* * * * *

Europa’s shining, icy pink horizon set against Jupiter’s bright red-and-orange cloud bands filled the viewport of Callyn’s spaceship. A Callistan space freighter sailed past his bow on its way to Europa, its ion jets burning bright amber. A moment later, Callyn’s scanning array intercepted an inter-ship radio message in a familiar code. A code that would have passed for normal space radiation to anyone else. Yet, there were no other ships visible on his radar. His flight computer translated the message as intercept coordinates aimed at the Callistan freighter. His fingers grew cold against the controls. It was time. He plotted a new course, the computer extrapolating the location of these unseen ships. A few minutes later, he made visual contact.

Three military space cruisers. The ships were shielded by stealth radar technology, but visual scans were enough to confirm Callyn’s suspicions. While their rocket launchers and missiles were definitely of Ganymedan manufacture, the ships themselves were unmistakably Martian. Callyn smiled, his heart racing. He transmitted a coded radio message that only one person in the universe should be able to understand, and opened a com channel to the Martian ships. Seconds later, Karl Victor Hardshield’s handsome visage appeared on Callyn’s holo screen. “Callyn.” He looked concerned. “I’d normally be delighted to see you, but I’m rather busy at the moment. I’ll treat you to drinks at the Club Jove once I’m finished here. Right now, I’d advise you to get your ship well away from Europa.”

“I’m afraid there’s a slight discrepancy in our last shipping contract which I need to resolve first, Karl. That so-called mining installation on Io which I helped you supply wouldn’t per chance be a military base, now would it?”

He looked shocked. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“No? Ganymede and Callisto have lost a lot of ships lately and are blaming each other. And now, here you are with ships armed with Ganymedan weaponry closing in on a Callistan vessel. It’s not hard to figure out, lover. The Ganies and the Callies wipe each other out, and the whole Jovian sector is wide open for Martian invasion. How ’bout it?”

His expression became deathly cold. “Clever, as always. As perceptive as you are cunning. But, you were not wise bringing your ship into the open, my dear. I’m truly sorry, but I can’t let you publish what you know.” Karl glanced aside and nodded to someone. The three Martian destroyers changed course and realigned their weapons arrays, bringing their missiles to bear on Callyn’s ship.

“I don’t have to,” Callyn said calmly. “You already have.” Two large fleets of spaceships appeared on Callyn’s radar scope, emerging from behind the limb of Europa. Two fleets of space destroyers, one Callistan, the other Ganymedan. They quickly assumed attack formation, bracketing the three Martian ships. “Surprise.”

Hardshield’s eyes flared in shock, then turned toward Callyn and glared angrily. “You set me up.”

“Dead on. Both fleets were tuned in to my com frequency, and they heard every word. Don’t even think about trying to shoot your way out, Karl. You’re surrounded and outgunned twelve to one. It’s over.”

He sighed and shook his head softly. “I’m disappointed, Callyn. Here I thought you and I had something special.”

Callyn leaned back in his flight seat, the nervous tension draining out of his muscles. “It pains me to admit we did.”

* * * * *

Callyn reclined on the silken divan in Kresh’s quarters on the Ceres dome. Kresh looked beautiful as he stood in the dim light pouring himself a drink. They’d run the full gamut these past few hours. Man on man. Woman on woman. Man on woman. “You were marvelous,” Kresh said.

“Likewise.”

“You know, Callyn… you and I are so good together. That’s why I intend to use all my influence with the Guild to expunge this Jovian fiasco from your record.”

“Really?” He chuckled. “You’re a hypocritical snake, Kresh. We both know you’re in a lot more trouble than I am, and you want me to cover for you.”

“I’m not the one who broke client confidentiality.”

“What you did was worse. I checked the computer manifests on recent trade missions in the Jovian sector. It was other nomad traders who supplied the Martian attack base on Io with Callistan and Ganymedan weapons systems. And, as you said yourself, nothing moves in the Jovian sector unless you approve it. You and Hardshield were in on this together.”

Kresh sipped his drink. “It was a business contract, like any other,” he said matter-of-factly, without facing him.

Callyn sighed. “Hardly. If it gave Hardshield’s faction a foothold in the outer system.”

Kresh looked at him with those cold, dark eyes. “And, why should it concern us whether one group of genspecs or another runs the Solar System?”

Callyn winced in disgust. “Don’t play innocent, Kresh. Once the Marsies run both sides of the belt, and they no longer need us as go-betweens, what do you imagine they’ll do? They’ll swarm through these asteroids like a plague of locusts and hunt us into extinction. You know as well as I do, they have no tolerance for anyone different from themselves. They promised you safe passage to the Saturn colonies in return for your help, didn’t they?”

A moment or two of silence while Kresh sipped his drink. “They’re going to win eventually, Callyn,” he said quietly. “I chose to be on their good side.”

“So, you sold out the rest of us to save your own hide.”

“I’m a survivor,” he said calmly. “We were all bred to be.”

“Speak for yourself.” Callyn reached into his purse on the floor and extracted an automatic pistol which he pointed at Kresh.

Kresh dropped his drink, the glass shattering at his feet. “Don’t be a fool. The Guild would never let you get away with it. You know the rules. Nomads don’t kill their own.”

“Not directly, no. But, don’t worry. This gun I’m holding happens to be the property of one Karl Victor Hardshield. I think, once the Guild finds Martian ammo in your pretty skull, they’ll think twice before selling weapons to Mars again.”

“Callyn…” Kresh held out his hands, pleading as he… she resumed female guise. “We’ve known love.”

“Of course,” Callyn said, resuming female guise in kind. “Your DNA is in me now. It will be carried on to the next generation. Nothing wasted. Goodbye, Kresh.” Callyn mused with satisfaction that her child would contain the genetic traits of such good people as Leyna and Marcus. As for the rest, well… a child needed survival instincts, too.

Callyn pulled the trigger.

 

Thirty Years Later

by Chisto

 

Alan awakens to a cold wind. The sweat beads that cover him bring him chills. Fading images left over from his night terrors dance behind his eyes. He squeezes his eyes shut tight in an attempt to blink them away. His head is killing him. It’s becoming a regular thing now. Every day a hammer slams repeatedly on his temple. He thinks it’s going to drive him crazy.

Sitting up, he spots David sitting in front of a crudely constructed fire. Alan watches the man. He doesn’t seem to even know that any eyes are on him. His back is to Alan. He rubs his hands together over the fire he threw together. Alan shakes his head, watching him. He can’t figure out how David has survived this long.

Shaking off a chill, Alan stands up. Stepping over the stones, rubble, and remnants of what once was, Alan makes his way to David and the warmth of the fire. “You’re awake,” David says, glancing up at him.

Alan just nods. “I’m going out again tonight,” he says taking a seat in the dirt, across from the other man.

“Where this time?” David asks. His tone used to be just uninterested. Now it bares inflections of annoyance.

“There’s a cave west of here, past the dump site. I have to see where it leads.”

David buries his face in his hands. He massages the growing tension from his eyes. He doesn’t need another headache. He’s been getting them every day lately. “Unless you think there might be food in this cave, I don’t see the point.”

Alan puts his fist to his mouth. He stares off at the landscape. It wouldn’t be as bad, he thinks, if there was nothing left, but that’s not the case. He is never allowed to forget. Everywhere he looks, in every direction, there are scattered pieces of civilization. The carnage is a daily reminder of all that he’s lost. How can he just start over, and worry about surviving? How can he worry about what he’s going to eat, surrounded by this devastation? He can’t. He doesn’t know how David does it. If he didn’t think that he’d go crazy with no one to talk to, he would have left on one of his explorations and never come back to this campsite they’ve set up. The conversations are becoming less fulfilling with each new day. He’s beginning to not care about the luxury of having company any more. All he cares about, is getting far enough to see what else is out there, to see if anyone else has survived. It’s been so long since he’s seen anyone other than David. His flame of hope has almost been extinguished.

“I know it’s been a long time, too long, since we’ve had anything real to eat,” Alan says, making eye contact with David. “Maybe there will be food there. I am hungry too. Don’t think I’m not. I just… I know there’s others out there somewhere. If we can find more people in this… this… twisted landscape of memories, maybe we really can start over.”

David stands up quickly, too quickly. The blood rushes to his head. He wobbles a bit, light headed. When he regains composure, he gestures around him with both arms. “Are you still asleep? This is it. It’s all gone Alan. Everything, and everyone we knew is gone. It’s been thirty years since the death of our world. Now unless you plan to lie down and die, we need to make the best out of this new world. We need to find where we can go to get food, and shelter when it rains. We can’t spend our days searching for people that aren’t there. If we do, we will join them in the afterlife Alan. I personally, am not willing to do that.”

Alan jumps to his feet. He storms past David, and marches over to his stuff. He keeps a blanket and some things he’s gathered in his searches. “What’s the point?” he says back to the other man. “Giving up hope, to live like this is pointless. This is not living. I’m going to that cave. If you want to come, then follow me. If you don’t, then… well… don’t.”

Alan digs out the map that he has worked hard on for years. He adds to it every day when he gets back, jotting down what he has found. He has a record of miles in every direction. He stands up and points to a spot on the map. “Here,” he says. “The cave is here.”

With a sigh, David approaches him. He’s not going to argue. He doesn’t want to fight with the only other person alive. “Let’s go,” he says.

With a nod, Alan grabs a rusted section of pipe he uses as a walking stick and sets off. The whole area is littered with pieces of buildings and cars, homes, and those that didn’t make it. It’s a giant obstacle course. David is younger than Alan. He was only a kid when the world was destroyed. He is in much better shape, and doesn’t need a walking stick to cross the rough terrain.

Alan stops in his tracks after what feels like hours. He’s not sure. He hasn’t seen a clock in decades. “What is it?” David asks from behind him.

“It’s just always hard when we get to this point.” Alan frowns. He chokes down a sob, but he can’t keep the tears from escaping his eyes. He won’t turn around. He doesn’t want David to see his tears. He sighs, and begins to make his way forward, one step at a time. They are at the dump site. When They came, and destroyed the world Alan loved, They picked certain areas to dispose of the dead. This place is the largest unorthodox cemetery that Alan has seen. The bodies are piled high in every direction. There are so many. So much death. They are not much more than skeletons now, but if he strains hard he can see them all as he saw them when the devastation first occurred. With a deep breath, he picks up his speed. Now he’s gotten over his moment of grief, and the creepiness of the area has set in. He just wants to get through it and out, and fast.

“You alright?” David asks him.

“Fine. I’m fine.”

That is the end of the conversation. There is not another word said. The sun comes up, and both men are still crossing the cursed valley of death. At least the sun takes away the sting of the night breeze. Alan’s body aches, and begs him to stop, but he won’t, not this time.

“Is that it?” David breaks the silence, and reaches his arm past Alan pointing forward.

“Yes. That’s it.”

What used to be an ancient and beautiful forest of trees, is now as much a cemetery as the land they just crossed through. The vegetation didn’t fare any better than the humans. Neither did the animals. Both men have feared starvation for some time now, but Alan doesn’t like to discuss it as often as David would like to.

Just past the threshold of the one-time forest, lies an opening in the ground. The first time Alan found it, when he was by himself, he initially thought it was caused by an explosion, but further inspection told him that it was dug by men. During the death of the world, there must have been someone that thought they could tunnel underground to stay safe. Being as all Alan found inside was a shattered skull he can imagine whoever dug the hole did not fair as well as they had hoped.

“We walked all night for this. Let’s go in,” David says.

Alan doubles over, resting his hands on his thighs. He pants heavily. “Not yet,” he says. “I need to rest.”

“There could be food in there,” David tells him. “I’m going in.”

“So go,” Alan says. “I’ll catch up to you.” He doesn’t tell the other man that he knows exactly what is down there already. He has a plan. He’s going to succeed in finding others and restarting civilization, with David’s help.

With a nod, David drops down into the hole. Alan waits a couple of minutes. Then he follows behind him. Just as he was at the fire last night, David pays no attention to what’s behind him. Alan approaches as quietly as he can, and raises his pipe. He brings it down swiftly on the back of David’s head. The man doesn’t even cry out. He just crumples to the floor, like his batteries ran out. Alan slams the pipe down a few more times to make sure the job is done. “Now I’ve got food and shelter from the rain,” he says to David.

He feels bad that he had to take a life, but there was no other option. He is willing to deal with the guilt. His cause is noble. David was hopeless anyway. If Alan didn’t do it, they would have both died soon enough. Alan has his map as proof that there is no food for miles in any direction. Starvation was inevitable. The thought of eating a human being disgusts him, but he’ll have to find a way to deal with it.

After his first meal in what feels like forever, his stomach twists and turns, angry with him. He grimaces as he struggles to keep the food from rising back up. He can’t afford to get sick. His food is limited. He will camp out here for now and venture further in every direction, updating his map with his discoveries. He is excited about exploring new areas. He is confident that the source of hope he’s dreamt about for thirty years is out there. He will find it. Unable to calm the anger of his stomach, he rests on the cave bottom. The ground is cold and uncomfortable, but he is in no place to complain. He survived the death of the world.

It doesn’t take long for Alan to fall into a deep sleep and drift back to his nightmare memories of the day They arrived. He sees in his mind’s eye the destruction of his world, like it happened yesterday. As he has everyday, for the past three decades, he wakes up shivering, laced with cold sweat, as the visions still dance a maudlin ballet in his head.

He does his best to shake them off, and gets to his feet. He contemplates trying to eat some more, but decides it best to save the little bit of food he now has for when he’s really hungry. He will live longer that way, even if his stomach never forgives him. He grabs his walking stick that served it’s purpose as a messenger of death, and tosses it up out of the man-made cave. The he finds secure handholds and hoists himself out. Retrieving the pipe, he heads out into unknown territory.

It all starts to look the same to him after awhile, nothing but broken memories everywhere. This depresses him. He can’t think like that. He just hasn’t gone far enough yet. He pushes onward, his muscles straining, and aching with the effort. Eventually, he comes to an area scattered with fallen buildings. One by one, he explores each, and every time, he comes up empty handed. The only thing he finds is more death and destruction.

He starts to feel beaten. He plops himself down on the ground. Maybe David was right all along. Maybe they were the only ones left, and if that’s true, than he is now alone. With no one to hide it from anymore, he lets the sobs come. He screams, and shakes, and cries his heart out. He releases years worth of pain that he had been bottling up inside. Then he sees it. He forces his tears to halt their passage, and wipes his nose with his left arm. He wipes his eyes dry with his right, to assure that he can see clearly. There it is again. Up ahead, in the distance, a light shines. Light means life.

In an instant, he is up on his feet and running. He leaves his pipe behind, and takes off, hurdling obstacles, like he is young again. He is rejuvenated by hope. He did it. He found others. After all these years, all these lonely years, he finally found them.

The source of the light seems an impossible distance away. His legs burn and threaten to give out but he refuses to let them. He pumps his arms, his breathing labored. His foot catches on the rib of one of those that didn’t make it and he tumbles forward to the ground. He hits hard sending a shock of pain through his own bones, but he is immediately up and running again.

There it is. He’s made it. He comes skidding to a halt in front of a huge glistening structure. It shines like metal, but looks like flesh, veins coursing through it. On the top of the living metal structure, there is a blinking beacon, the source of the light he saw. His legs finally give out on him. He falls to his knees, and struggles painfully to catch his breath. It seems an impossible task.

He looks up at the source of the light, and tears make their way back into his eyes. His eyes burn with their arrival. He knows this place, or at least others like it. He’s seen it before, a long time ago. That was when he saw it in person, but he has seen it every night in his tortured dreams. This can’t be. They all left after they killed his world. They swept through, destroying everything in their path, and were gone again, just like that. Yet, right here in front of him stands one of their vessels. No.

A door opens in the giant pulsing metal structure. Out of the passage come three men, if they are men. They stand as tall as the trees that once inhabited this world. Their flesh is as black as ink, and shines like chrome. Aside from the glowing amber of their eyes, they are void of color. They look to Alan like shadows with the features of men.

“The beacon lured another one,” one of them says. They learned the languages of this planet as quickly as children learn playground rhymes. They needed to express the hopelessness of the situation to the planet’s inhabitants so they would understand. They are merciless, wicked creatures, and Alan is spent. His body doesn’t have the strength to get up and run again. This is the end of the line for him. It was all for nothing. Thirty years. Thirty years he survived, and for what? He starts to wish he had died with the world.

“We still can not leave,” another of the shadow men says. “We can not move on until every last one of them has been disposed of. There are still others lurking about.”

Alan’s eyes grow wide. His mouth drops open. What did that thing just say? There are others. He was right all along. They weren’t the only ones. There are people alive out there somewhere. He starts to laugh. His laughter becomes hysterical. The shadow men glide to him, and he doesn’t even see them move. It doesn’t matter. He can’t stop laughing. Their long dark arms reach out for him, but he just laughs. Their hands clutch him, their fingers digging in deep, and he laughs, and laughs, and laughs, as they steal his life. With one last burst of hysterical laughter, Alan joins his world.

 

The Younger Model

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

The young model was immaculate. Black hair spiraled down a broad forehead. Her skin was pale as if she had been conceived in moonlight and had never strayed from under the cool beams.

In truth, this was the first time she had sat under the hot sun and the corners of her eyes began to crease behind the dark glasses.

“Stop that! Wrinkles can’t be unmade. Don’t squint, don’t smile, don’t laugh. Just sit still!”

“Yes, mother,” the model answered again. She sat with her hands gently crossed in her lap, often smoothing the red silk gown when her mother wasn’t watching. It felt beautiful under her fingers. She was nervous and excited as she thought of her mother’s promise.

“Everyone in the world will see this. It’s high art, beauty in transition, and you’re doing it in my place, for me.” She tried to imagine how many people filled the world. There were a lot here, the most she had seen yet.

“Come on, come on. Let’s prepare,” said the photographer. His voice sounded funny in her ears, her mother’s bestowed memory summoned the thought, “faux French”. He walked down the lawn and crouched before a long case at the end of the lane.

The model rose with the grace that only a modern god could endow. The grass seemed to rise to her feet, to carry her to her place. Her body glided before her mother, who moved equally beautifully, though tempered by age.

She took her place and removed her glasses, her blue eyes meeting the full light of the world for the first time. She blinked rapidly, fighting the urge to squint and looked down the lane. Rows of cameras formed its boundary before converging to swallow the grass path. She would not have to run that far.

Her eyes drifted up to the sky, a few clouds drifting past the setting sun. The photographer was watching as well.

“One shot. Only one shot, that’s all we have. Make this work,” he bellowed to the assistants manning the equipment.

He looked back up to the sky and watched it take on a slight rose tint. He held up his hand and waited until he found his moment. She took a breath and listened to her mother’s last instructions.

“Don’t mess this up. Just run. Keep your hands to your side. Don’t trip on your dress. And for god’s sake—”

“Now! Run,” the photographer shouted.

She was running. The unspent energy of her day-old life rushed into her sixteen-year-old body. The shutters snapped at her heels and drove her on. She ran frantic, determined, beautiful. This was her one moment; she was built for this one shot. The model was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen.

The small bullet pierced her body, slicing though her heart. Her blood misted out behind, staining her dress a darker shade. Her body leaned forward, but its natural grace carried on. It fell, no less beautiful. The model’s body lay on the grass, her life gone before it touched the earth.

All the cameras had captured her fall, one even trained to catch her blue eyes as the light faded from them. The blood soaked into the grass, and as the sun began to set, the cameras continued to catch the last reflection of the rosy light on her pale skin.

“That was very nice. Vogue will be pleased,” said the mother.

“Yes, she almost did it right,” the photographer responded as he placed his rifle back in its case. “Have the next one ready for the fifth. Have her at fourteen this time.”

The clone was left, sublet for decomposition on the Biology Channel. The mother, and DNA original, would be paid well by both parties. Of course, the channel would keep the identity hidden. After all, she was famous and was, or had been, the most beautiful model of her time. It would not do to soil her image on a cable show where anyone could see.

 

Eternal Poetry

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

I stare at Mom, can’t believe what she’s just said. Dad invited Gunther to the family party next Friday? Gunther the Gross? The lecher from the blood lagoon? That letter Gunther sent me five years ago—the description of my vulnerable white throat—bordered on vampire porn. No explicit sexual language, but I could read between the lines. Mom can’t possibly expect me to show up and meet him face to face, can she? Besides, I’ve got a date with Lenny, the non-Gunther… the sweetest man ever.

Oh, god. I may have to tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.

“Gunther’s rather crazy about you. You shouldn’t make yourself so scarce when he comes to California.” Mom minces an onion, her shoulder-length auburn hair swept back with silver combs. Her knife blade taps against the wooden chopping board. She blinks, eyes watering. “He’s just lonely. You ought to give him a second chance.”

Excuse me? Mom’s ignoring basic facts again. I’m twenty-five years old. Gunther’s three hundred. I eat raw vegetables. He prefers raw steak. I want a loving, nurturing relationship. He wants to lay me and drink my blood. Gunther’s more than “rather crazy” if he thinks he’ll attract me. He’s insane.

“We’ve nothing in common.” I wrap a lavender muffler around my neck and button my black leather coat.

“But he’s one of your dad’s best friends.” Mom’s voice has that quiver. Her big brown eyes widen, as though she could shapeshift into a cocker spaniel.

I’m about to get “The Lecture.” How Gunther smuggled Dad out of Paris during the French Revolution. How Dad smuggled Gunther into Paris during World War II. I don’t need to hear yet another rendition of this male bonding saga. Time to tune out, get out and bring Lenny dinner.

“Let me think it over,” I say and retrieve my handbag from a kitchen chair. “I’m meeting friends in San Francisco. Don’t wait up.”

The think-it-over period ends five seconds later. Sorry, Mom. I’ll head for S.F. this Friday night, too.

The screen door squeaks and closes behind me. The chilly December air feels good against my face. I climb into my white Honda and drive toward our local Italian deli. Dad’s so traditional. Preparing garlic bread at our house is politically incorrect. Lenny adores garlic. He’s my kind of vampire.

Mom and Dad… they’re so dear. They should back off, though. Sure, a dot com downsized me two years ago. Yes, I had to move back home. But I design websites and don’t ask my parents for money. I’m capable of running my own life. And I intend to run it with Lenny around.

Light shines inside of Delano’s Deli, although it’s past closing time. I knock on the door. My order’s packed and waiting. I place the warm bread and pasta on the floor of my car, near the heater vent. The Caesar salad goes into the trunk to stay cold. Soon I’m approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. The aromas of garlic and parmesan inside my car are amazing. Lenny is going to love this meal.

I Googled websites for supernaturals three months ago and met Lenny. He’s thirty-some. Works nights as a museum security guard. I’ll hang out with him until dawn. He occasionally does the blood experience thing—not with me—but never obsesses about it. I don’t drink blood at all, although the trait’s in my genes. I’m just not ready. Besides, I haven’t been through “The Change” yet. That might not happen for another ten or twenty years. There’s no predicting when. Lenny respects my feelings, doesn’t try to push me. And he writes free verse for Poetry Flash. Totally cool.

Traffic slows a little on the bridge. A stream of headlights blazes from across the divider. Holiday shoppers heading home to Marin County. The holidays… I’d really love to see Aunt Millie and Uncle Claude this Friday night. My second cousin Vinnie, too. But Gunther might arrive before I leave to meet Lenny. Okay, so what if he does? I’ll tell Gunther to stay out of my space. He’s got no right to ruin my family’s reunion.

Five minutes from the museum, I ring Lenny on my cell. I park in the usual spot. My headlights illuminate a tall, hairy form. That face… like Disney’s Beast on a bad hair day. The figure wears a guard’s uniform. Must be Lenny. I didn’t know he could shapeshift. Most vampires can’t. And what set him off? I roll down the window a few inches.

“Is it safe for me to open my door?”

“All clear.” Lenny breathes hard. “Couple of punks just tried to spray paint a statue in the courtyard. I scared the shit out of them.”

“Awesome.”

But, is it? Are there other major things about him I don’t know?

Lenny grins and shrugs, resembles a huge stuffed toy. God, he’s so cute, cuddly and kissable. I could curl up next to him in bed. We haven’t had sex together yet. Maybe he planned to surprise me this way the first time. That must be the reason he didn’t reveal his shapeshifting talent before.

If only I could introduce him to my parents, be more open about our future. But security guards don’t earn big money. And his mom lives in a trailer in rural North Carolina. He sends her a check whenever he can. Gunther owns a Manhattan penthouse. A private jet, too. Dad probably won’t approve of Lenny. But, wait, don’t I want to run my own life? I should ask Lenny to our family party now.

I climb out of my Honda, then picture Gunther meeting Lenny. I’ve never actually seen Gunther, not even his photo, although I once sent him mine. Bet he looks like the Terminator, only with Goth makeup and fangs.

I envision a confrontation. Gunther paws me. Lenny sprouts hair, snarls and leaps to my rescue. Fur flies. Mom screams. Neighbors dial 911 and Animal Control. I die from embarrassment. No, I can’t invite Lenny to this particular party.

“About Friday,” I say, as I remove the salad from the trunk. “My family is having a gathering. I might get to S.F. an hour late. Is that okay?”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about.” Lenny sounds excited. He picks up the foil bag of pasta and garlic bread. His fur recedes. He’s almost back to normal, now. “I’m reading my latest poem this Friday night. At this incredible new literary bar in Sausalito. You won’t have to drive anywhere. I’ll pick you up at nine-thirty.”

“My place?” If hearts could sink, mine would beat between my toes.

“That’s all right, isn’t it?” He scrunches his eyes. A lock of his curly black hair dangles between his bushy eyebrows. “I mean, if it’s a problem for you…”

My mind gropes for words, like a mountain climber struggling for footholds. Lenny’s sensitive about his iffy financial situation. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. And this isn’t the right time to mention Gunther.

“A storm’s predicted,” I say, “and your truck needs new brakes. Let me drive you.”

“A friend promised to work on my truck tomorrow.”

“Then… there’s no problem.” I flash a quick smile. “Hey, I’m really excited for you. This could take your writing career to the next level.”

And I am happy for Lenny. Except, what am I going to do on Friday night?

* * * * *

The minute hand on our mantel clock advances with a muted click. Eight o’clock. Guests should arrive soon. I straighten the holly garland festooning a nearby mirror, then curl a strand of my cocoa-brown hair around my first finger. The crimson sequins on my dress shimmer. Bare shoulders, calves and knees. Perhaps I should wear something less revealing.

Mom sets a platter of rare roast beef on the buffet table. Sprigs of parsley rim the border. Bloody juices ooze from the slices and pool beneath the garnish. Christmas colors of the macabre kind.

I place cocktail napkins near the crystal punch bowls. The smaller bowl contains eggnog. The larger one holds Dad’s infamous red punch. That color and texture don’t come from tomato juice. I’ll stick with eggnog tonight. I’m sure Cousin Vinnie will, too.

Gunther could be here any minute. Yet there’s still time to tell Mom about Lenny. She hums “Jingle Bells.” Looks so happy. Dad, dressed in a charcoal gray suit and green shirt, stuffs another oak log into the fireplace. Sparks scatter, like a flurry of red rain. A velvet ribbon decorates his thick salt-and-pepper ponytail. He glances toward Mom and smiles. This is their special party and they want to include Gunther. I would be selfish to darken their festive mood. Tonight, flying sparks are only permitted in the fireplace. And that’s exactly what I must say to Gunther—somehow—when we are alone.

The doorbell rings. I wait near the hearth. Mom gushes out a greeting. Dad calls my name. I straighten my posture. My three-inch heels clunk against the hardwood floor. This is it.

Dad’s hugging someone a little shorter than he is—a man, medium build and approximately Lenny’s size. Must be Gunther, although I expected a body builder. The guy has dark hair. I can’t see his face, though. But, wait… his hair appears so familiar… is as black and wavy as Lenny’s.

Then Dad steps aside. It is Lenny! But they don’t even know each other. What the hell is going on? And Lenny’s wearing an expensive tweed sports coat. He only owns uniforms and jeans.

“And you must be Angela,” Lenny says to me. He winks and extends his arm. “That high school photo you once mailed me hardly does you justice.”

But I’d sent that photo to… Gunther. Oh, no! I stammer the “F” word, run to my bedroom and slam the door.

Gunther stalked me. Used someone else’s name. Baited an electronic trap. Never wrote a poem in his life. Right now, he’s probably laughing with Mom and Dad. Telling them the whole ridiculous story, including the bit about his mom in North Carolina. I was so stupid and gullible. Totally out-of-touch. I sit on the edge of my bed and sob. If this were a reality T.V. show, I’d be voted off the island.

The doorbell rings. Relatives must be arriving. I refuse to endure Gunther’s smirks of satisfaction. I’ll stay where I am.

Then I remember. I wasn’t completely honest with him. Couldn’t even admit to Mom and Dad that I dated him. But Gunther’s—Lenny’s—betrayal of me is a far worse offense. Yet, when we were together, he was so much fun. Those words in the website ad. “One in search of another. Objective—eternal poetry.” How does he really feel about me?

Someone knocks on my bedroom door.

“Honey,” Mom says, “are you okay?”

I hadn’t wanted to spoil the party. I stand and face myself in the mirror. Vampires do cast reflections, despite the urban legend. And I’m twenty-five. Ought to be able to handle what’s just happened.

“I’ll be out in a minute.” I apply fresh mascara and lipstick. Raindrops dot my window, now.

The house buzzes with vibrant conversation as I walk toward the living and dining rooms. An array of platters smother the buffet table. Aunt Millie’s squash roll-ups… Cousin Vinnie’s artichoke frittata… raw carrot and celery strips… crisp snap peas. These are food gifts from my family. There for me.

Dad motions for me to hurry. He stands in front of the fireplace and claps his hands.

“My good friend, Gunther Morris,” he says, “has joined us for this special occasion. Few know, but his poetry has been published under a variety of names for two hundred years. I’ve asked him to read.”

So at least that part is true. Gunther doesn’t look at me. Just as well.

Then he reads. Words flow from his mouth, like a gentle stream tumbling over smooth rocks on a bright spring day. The volume intensifies, ebbs and flows like tides. He could be thirty or three-hundred. His verse is timeless—beautiful.

But who is he really? Dad’s friend and ally? The sensitive poet? Or the creep who wrote me that disgusting letter five years ago, that page I flushed down the toilet before anyone else could read it? Perhaps he’s a combination of all these people. Or, entirely different.

I can’t sort out his identity now. Only one decision matters. Do I, or don’t I, walk away from our relationship tonight?

He finishes reading. Aunt Millie daubs her lace handkerchief against the corner of her eye. Mom sniffles. Gunther proposes a toast. His gaze locks to mine.

“One in search of another.” He raises his cup. “May we share eternity with the true love we each find.”

Everyone raises a cup of Dad’s red punch, even Vinnie. I don’t have any cup. Mom gestures toward the eggnog. All wait for me. I’m old enough to serve myself. I approach the table.

The eggnog sits to my left—smooth and palatable. A symbol of my life until now? To my right is Dad’s red punch. My inevitable future. Which beverage should I choose?

Gunther’s letter… I sift through the memory of his written words. I once told him I read Anne Rice. Maybe he got the wrong impression. Lightning flashes beyond our picture window. Thunder rumbles. Gunther probably didn’t mean to offend me, just crafted a message for a real vampire.

One in search of another? He found me. Yet I continue to hide from myself.

I ladle red punch into a clear cup. Tiny clots dot an ice cube. Will this stuff make me gag? The mantel clock chimes, as though answering my question. Time to find out.

I raise my cup.

And whatever else happens before dawn, I’ll finally tell Mom and Dad about Lenny.

 

The Broker’s Deal

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

John Bishop crouched above the skylight as the sour rain dripped off his dark hair and streamed down the glass. He watched the bright lights and lasers blind the audience below. They jerked and bounced as if hardwired to the erratic rhythm pouring from the speakers. He found the singer, her shadows surrounding her feet like black petals. He watched her dive into the crowd, swimming until they threw her, like a breaking wave, back on stage. She sprawled, still screaming into the mic.

Bishop stood up and crossed the slick plastic roof, searching for the right window. The building washed bright with light and he dove to the floor, sliding under an old vent pipe. A small security scout drifted above him. It shot a picture of the roof and continued up to the adjoining high-rise on its routine pass. Bishop slid out from the shadow, spitting foul water out of his mouth. The taste of oil and acid lingered on his lips. Had he taken his toxin pills today? He couldn’t recall, and it headed the long list of errors that he chalked up later that night.

He wiped the rain from the next skylight and peered in. Costumes were strewn across the floor, vomited out of a large chest in the center of the room. He smiled. This job could be done by a gutterpunk.

“For what she makes, she sure doesn’t value security.”

He could see the hairbrush on the cluttered dresser, clothes left in the open. Makeup masks lay scattered about, one fallen and crushed under the foot of a chair. This was not a careful target, all evidence of her existence collected and destroyed to leave the room sterile and empty. He could do this the easy way, but he had brought the spider, and the spider made him eager. He liked the edge of the close retrieval and its personal touch. Besides blood was the sure thing. Residual samples don’t always cut it, he thought, rationalizing his riskier choice.

He looked closer at the pyramid skylight. The club wasn’t much better, sun panels added, but the window left ignored. Perhaps they add to the decor.

He pulled a small, steel-gray rod from his shoulder holster and adjusted the slide switch. He held it away from him and pressed the button. The rain, passing inches in front of the rod, seemed to evaporate.

“Good, we’re golden.” He’d meant to charge the batteries all week, maybe he had. He angled the rod to meet the windowpane and a darkened corner in the bright window caught his eye. He scrubbed the grime away from the scarred glass and his heart jumped. There was the alarm system. He might as well have punched through, for all the good cutting would have done. The thin panel could feel vibrations even on the molecular level. His finger dropped off the button and the tight sound waves sunk back into the rod. Damn, no easy ride after all. He circled the skylight, scanning the room for another entrance.

There was only one door into the room; a bouncer on that, guaranteed. The walls were force plastic, stronger than steel. The sonics would be useless.

The room seemed sealed tight until he spotted the air duct above the far wall. It was older than the glass windows and just as outdated. He looked over his shoulder at the old piping. If the skylight was rigged for security, the vent work should be, too. But that was the next step.

Bishop crept back through the blowing rain. There wasn’t an alarm panel on the outside. Probably twenty inside, all rigged with explosives.

He decided to take the chance and cut his way in. The sound waves slid out from the rod and tore at the molecules of old aluminum. The metal split apart and fell away at his feet.

Bishop pulled a mirror out of his vest and peered inside the three-foot hole. If he climbed into a motion detector, he could be knocked out by a sound wave, or liquefied if it was an old model. He wouldn’t put that past the club, though older detectors had been deemed “cruel and unnecessary force” by the U.N. East in 2110. They were no longer in production, but they could be found in the right markets. Most had just never been removed, like the skylights, and they were just sitting around waiting. Bishop couldn’t see much of anything in the dim light but climbed in anyway. Nothing moved, no high pitch winding up.

Maybe this won’t be so bad. The wind sucked the stale air out of the new hole. He quickly changed his mind as he inhaled the dank smell of sweat and dead rot. The system wasn’t in working order, but it was still in use, a vault for problems.

The rain had made him cold and wet but it also had made him slick, and he slid through the tunnels until he found the grate. The dressing room below was still vacant and he glanced at his watch. The band was still going; the beats were shaking the tools out of his pockets. Knocking the grate loose from the wall, he threw it into a cluttered corner were he guessed no one would notice it.

Bishop pulled a small tin box out of his breast pocket and opened it. Inside a brown spider, the size of an old one-hundred dollar coin, laid spread out. He rubbed its back like a favorite pet, and it came to life, climbing out of the box and into the open palm of his hand.

He extended his arm over the mess and waited. The spider turned in circles, scanning the area, and then froze.

“All right, you know what you’re looking for.” He tossed the spider toward the makeup table. It fell with its legs spread out to catch the air and slow its fall. Bishop winced, as he watched it hit the large mirror above the table and slid down, landing on its back.

“Sorry about that.” The spider flipped over onto its feet and scurried under the clutter. Bishop sat back to wait. He had uploaded the target’s information into the spider and when the singer entered the room, it would be ready for her.

Almost an hour passed before the music changed to the house techmachine mix. He sat up and peered out. He expected this to go easy, even if the Broker’s brief had neglected the window alarm.

“Stay there,” a raspy voice shouted, “I’ll be out when I’m friggin’ ready.” The door slammed shut and Bishop saw the singer kick her way through the clutter. She stripped off her wire and chains, tossing them into the mess around the chest. Pouncing into the chair before the makeup table, she tore through the mess of containers and clothes.

Bishop looked down at the naked woman. Her body was beaded in sweat from her performance. She was thin and bony, but muscular enough that she was still attractive. Her fingers curled tight around her prize and he saw her body relax as she placed it over her head.

The singer tightened the nodes around her temples, flipped a switch on the side, and immediately fell back in the chair, as her brain clouded over in an electronic orgasm.

Who would be attracted to someone so screwed up? Who ever it was, they would be rich. They had to be to afford the Broker.

The woman seemed almost dead, except for the twitching under the electronic stimuli. Her face went slack in a look of uncaring bliss, as her eyes rolled back into her skull.

Bishop watched for the spider. Before long, it crept out from under the mess and toward the singer’s naked skin. It crouched down at the end of the table, and sprung to the ragged leather chair. The spider crept slow onto the hand and climbed up the arm. Usually it would take blood at first chance, but the spider knew to draw from near the heart if it could. The singer registered near dead under the wire and the spider continued on, crawling across her shoulder. It made the throat, before the singer suddenly sat straight up.

The spider fell between her legs and Bishop pulled back into the shadows of the air duct. The girl searched the room as if each corner hid something in it. Bishop saw the fear on her face, but knew wire stimuli carried some strange shit along with its pleasure. He waited, wondering what the next step would be if she sat on the spider. It was strong, but he would have to retrieve it and do the job manually if she had pinned it underneath her.

The girl collapsed back into the chair, her head rolled back and vacant eyes stared into the air. The spider was already back to work, climbing its way up her thigh. It slowly crossed her slick stomach and stepped up her protruding ribs. It looked as excited as Bishop felt, scurrying between her breasts in a dash to the heart. Bishop saw the spider bear down and bite through the flesh of the girl. She snapped forward, and fell forward on the desk, all but the first of the scream stolen, as the sedative took effect. Bishop started to climb out of the vent, just as the men burst into the room. One looked sculpted from steel, even under his long black coat. The other was almost as gangly as the girl.

Damn, bodyguards. They weren’t in the brief, either. The men pulled the limp singer off the table and back into the chair. They didn’t miss the bite marks.

Bishop pulled the rod back out of its holster and set the side switch for a knockout. He hit the button and nothing happened.

Aftermarket Reds? Bishop adjusted the device back down to its cutting level. The huge guy slammed his fist down on top of the spider, hidden among the junk of the table. He howled in pain as the plastic shards of the broken skeleton impaled his hand. He cried out something that sounded like a cross between babbling water and electricity shorting out through a frying cat. Whatever was said, Bishop caught the word “Cloner” and knew he was made. The monster tore off his jacket, and Bishop also knew he was right on the Red. They were black market soldiers, gene charmed and red hot, while they lasted.

Bishop saw the second set of muscle-bound arms, each gripping an electromagnetic gun. If they found him, the steel would rip through him and the only sound would be his breath slipping through the holes in his lungs.

The smaller soldier was searching the room and Bishop jumped, just as he looked up. He locked his knees, coming down on the thing with a full 240 pounds right between the eyes. The smaller Red fell straight down, bones snapping under Bishop’s weight. He landed in a crouch, just as the larger bodyguard whipped around. Bishop leapt forward, covering the short distance between them, trying to get inside the heavy guns before they came to bear.

Just as the soldier grabbed him out of the air, Bishop rammed the modulator against the large head, sending the concentrated sound waves into the skull.

The giant Red fell backward, pulling Bishop with him, and knocking the unconscious girl out of the chair. Bishop pried himself out of the grip of the spasming muscles and stood up. A group of onlookers had gathered in the door, their holographic passes dangling from their necks.

“Brilliant,” one of them said, his eyes stoned and his mouth grinning. Bishop slammed the door and locked it. He turned back to the desk, looking for the remains of his spider. What was left of her was still pierced through the upper fist of the big guy. He pulled out the small container of blood. He checked it for cracks, that it was enough DNA for the Broker, and placed it into a zippered pocket. He stooped and pulled some hair from the back of her head, hoping the bleach hadn’t hurt it too much to use as a backup specimen.

“Done and done. Out of here,” he said. Bishop turned around just in time to recognize a four-fingered fist meeting his skull. He reeled back, falling over the singer and slumped against the wall. The rod was still in his hand and he pointed it at the slim soldier. It snapped and went quiet, forgot the batteries after all.

The Red knocked the rod out of his hand before he even had a chance to flinch. Smaller than Bishop by half, it still lifted him off the floor, tossing him to the other side of the room. He felt his right leg collapse under him as the femur snapped. Bishop kicked the large chest, what strength he had left draining from his body. The chest slid across the floor, catching the bodyguard off balance as he stepped over the singer. He tumbled back, cracking his head against the wall.

Bishop looked above him. Dim flashing lights streamed through the murky glass, heralding the city security teams. He looked at the Red, back on his feet, and decided the skylight was his best bet.

He pulled out his EMT cuff and slipped his hands through the ring to grab the controller rod. Bishop activated the emergency magtransporter, as the Red jumped. The EMT pushed off the steel undercarriage of the elevated city block and shot him up through the room, through the skylight. The cruisers were climbing from street level as he soared into the sky. Far below, he saw the bodyguard rising after him.

The Red gained speed, rocketing out of the room. He cleared the shattered skylight just as a security car skimmed over the opening in the roof. The car rocked up and flipped over as the Red hit it from beneath. He fell back, twisted and broken onto the rain-soaked roof.

Bishop laughed through the pain at his luck, but said a silent prayer to whatever god was favoring him. Luck was the only thing that had got the job done; he certainly hadn’t been on top of his game.

No one followed, so he slipped through the air toward a brightly lit bus stop on the next elevated block. It was empty as he landed, and far down below he could see the flashing lights of the security teams.

“How long for the bus?” he asked the empty platform. The pain was making his head swim. He knew he had no strength to avoid the cops if they searched here; if they found him, they had him. He probed his pockets and found a syringe.

He pulled his shirt down from the neck and drove the needle it into his chest. The fluid automatically injected into his heart and he felt a wave of ease encompass his body. The pain sliced out at him, but it was far below, like lightening viewed from space. As he looked up, the open door of a bus lay before him and he pulled himself in, collapsing unconscious in the first seat.

* * * * *

When Bishop’s head finally cleared, he was lying sprawled in front of his own apartment. He tried to remember how he arrived, but after the bus stop, his memory slurred. He was still wet from the rain, and his vision was blurry. He brushed dried blood from his face and felt the deep cuts in his head, recalling the crash through the old glass skylight.

Bishop started to stand and his right leg gave out. In a rush of pain he fell back to the ground. Now he knew he had at least laid there long enough for the shot to wear off. He braced himself for the pain and pulled himself back up to the lock. His fingers tapped out the code on the blank door and a blue square of light appeared. Bishop set his eye before the glowing window. The laser shot out and bounced around his cornea as the computer matched his signature. The door clicked open and he fell inside.

“Good morning, John,” a soft voice said. As the light level slowly rose, Bishop saw a young dark-haired woman dressed in 1940s attire, complete with black seamed stockings and a rolled crown of hair. She stood facing Bishop with her patented look of concern and question.

“Hi darlin’,” he replied, and started to drag himself across the front rooms toward the back of the apartment.

“You look hurt,” she said. “Shall I start the medic system?”

“Yes, wind it up.” She turned and walked ahead of him into one of the two back rooms. He pulled himself up on an end table and followed, discarding clothing as he went. Bishop entered the bedroom and sat swaying on the bed. He cut through the leg of his pants, stopping more than once as the pain tore deep into his crotch, crawling up into his gut. He pulled off his shirt and opened its zippered pocket, tossing the plastic vial into an opening in the wall.

“Store that for me would you?” The woman smiled and nodded. The vial disappeared into the storage system.

“Is there anything else, John,” she said?

“No, just put on Holiday and wake me up well done.”

“Sure, doll.” She walked out, and he watched her fade gently out of existence as she left the room and the image returned to the computer’s memory.

Bishop lay back, naked on the bed as Billie’s voice wafted over him. He hummed against the pain as the bed’s surface pulled him down to swallow his body, conforming to its shape. He tensed as he heard the bone snap back into place, but the medical system had already numbed his nerves, and he felt nothing. His face alone stayed above the surface as the bed worked at his wounds. The lights slowly dimmed as Holiday softly sang him to sleep.

* * * * *

Bishop awoke slowly to the motion of his bed opening, raising him to the surface.“Helen?” he called, his mind still folded in sleep.

“Coming, sir,” she replied from the other room. The dark-haired woman entered the room and the lights rose to a dim level.

“Get my robe and turn off the music,” Bishop asked.

“Sure,” Helen said, her lips pursed and her eyebrow setting a dark furrow across her brow. He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wipe off the pull of sleep. The music faded out. A drawer opened from the wall close to him, revealing a dark blue robe. Bishop wrapped it around himself.

“How long did I sleep?” he asked.

“Four hours,” she replied, “I woke you early because the Broker is here to see you. He asked…”

“…How you are doing,” a voice interrupted from the doorway. Bishop jumped slightly, surprised to see anyone in the apartment, past his own security systems. The Broker stepped into the room. His tall thin frame was dressed in the same business suit. Bishop stood, testing his leg. It was still weak, but the pain was gone.

“What are you doing in here?” Bishop asked.

“I heard there was some trouble at the club last night. I thought I would check in on you and see if you were all right.”

“You’re here for the vial.”

“Two birds, they say. I thought it might save you some time,” said the Broker. The memory of the job, how bad it had gone, came back to Bishop and his temper stepped forward.

“Let’s talk in my study,” Bishop said. He turned, walked to the next room and sat behind his desk.

“Very nice,” the Broker said, looking about at the antique decorations. “1960s?”

“40s and 50s,” Bishop replied. His voice was steady, but his eyes stared hard as if to pin the man to the wall. The Broker rapped his knuckles on the desk.

“Real wood,” he said. “You’ve done well for yourself.”

“What exactly are you here for?” Bishop asked. “I always bring you the samples. That’s the deal.”

“Yes, but the buyer wanted the clone in a hurry, so the company thought I should come and collect.”

“Why would any buyer want this girl?” Bishop asked, “She is not what you call ‘idol’ quality.”

“Who knows?” Grant replied, sitting down in a leather chair. “Some desire their companionship, some lust after them, some like to collect. They all have a reason, but that’s never a requirement. Anyway, the buyer paid in full and wants the clone. So, how about it?”

“I’ve got the sample in storage, but there were a few undisclosed hazards not in your brief,” Bishop said. The Broker shifted in his chair.

“You know your price is always set before the job has begun. There’s no changing it now, besides—”

“Wrong, boyo,” Bishop interrupted. “Your information concerning the building, the target, the security? All of it shit. I almost had to scrap the mission.” He sat forward in his chair, staring hard across the desk. “I want double for my time and hassle, or your client gets nothing. The sample is still my property until handed over.”

“We feel differently about that,” the Broker said. “We feel you should have adapted better. You used to handle surprises fairly well. You wouldn’t even have requested a brief for so simple a job ten years back.” Bishop sat back in his chair, collected his thoughts and tried again.

“I want an extra five percent on my future jobs. I am your best, after all, and I’ve earned it.” The Broker stood up from his chair.

“I sympathize with you, and I believe you are in the right. We should have been paying you more,” he said, looking around at Bishop’s expensive wood furnishings. “However, some think you are past prime. This job may have hardwired their opinion. You seem to be having a hard time of late, not to mention the easy target you missed during the Vid Awards season.”

Bishop’s temper hit the top and simmered at rage, pulling him to his feet. He had contracted with the company for twenty years and always managed to finish the jobs the other collectors couldn’t.

“That job was totally different. You know—”

“Sit down,” said the Broker. Bishop stood there, his anger tightening his gut. “Please?”

Now he saw the sonics rod in the Broker’s palm. His leg suddenly felt weak again, and he sat back on the edge of the chair.

“Thank you,” the Broker said. “Now, one of the security officers was kind enough to turn this in to us, instead of impounding it. Had someone less enterprising found it, we could have lost the sample. I’m afraid the company has decided it would be best to cancel our contracts with you, Bishop. Your Value/Risk ratio has run pretty poor.”

Bad collectors died during a job, the good ones stepped down. Bishop thought he had been far better than good. He looked at the angle of the rod and wondered, though, at the validity of comfortable retirements. Tensing his muscles slow, he prepared to vault from the chair if the Broker’s hand even twitched.

The Broker fired. The sound waves shot invisible out of the newly charged weapon, turning Bishop’s chest into putty. He fell out of the air in the middle of his lunge, and lay bleeding on the wooden desk as his organs collapsed.

The door to the living room opened and in stepped another man. Bishop let his head loll to the side to see him. He wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating from the pain, or from the loss of blood, but it was himself. It was a younger version, John Bishop—Version 2.0.

“You are right,” said the Broker, leaning down to speak into his ear. “You are the best, though your talent has been spent, or worn down with age. It was a hell of an expense, building your clone with a full life range. He’s one of our greatest, certainly in the top three that we’ve created. You should be honored that they chose you for your own replacement,” the Broker whispered, the words chasing Bishop down into death.

* * * * *

John Bishop stood above the desk. It’s a little awkward watching yourself die. I wonder if I should say something. The Broker turned to face him.

“Did you find the sample?” Bishop handed him the flask he had retrieved from the wall storage. The Broker dropped it in his breast pocket and headed for the front door. “All the data on your last twenty years has been placed in your long term memory. It should be coming back to you in the next couple of days. It won’t come back as firsthand experience, though the subconscious tends to dream up pictures to make them mesh comfortably. Don’t rely on the generated images, just the facts. Anything else, you can find out by asking your secretary.” The Broker headed out the door.

“What about him?” Bishop asked. Grant looked back through the door at the body on the desk.

“You will probably want to get rid of it,” he said and walked out of the apartment, leaving the door hanging open. Bishop closed it behind him. He walked back into the study and looked at himself lying on the desk. The blood had run off the surface and had now soaked into the antique Persian rug.

“Uh… miss,” he said, trying to dig up her name. Helen entered from the bedroom and surveyed the room.

“I suppose you want me to clean this up,” she said, raising one eyebrow to fulfill her exasperated expression.

“If you would. Anything that is stained, go ahead and get rid of it.” He entered the bedroom, lay down, and stared at the ceiling until sleep took hold and the past twenty years began to surface like cartoons traced on thin paper.

 

Dean’s Caretaker

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

The shovel stung Dean’s hands with each hit. The metal-on-metal impact jarred his arms, but the caretaker was still squirming and Dean’s fury was just peaking. It thrashed about, trying to get to its feet, until the chest plate cracked and the exposed servos bit down on the shovel’s edge. The handle ripped from his grasp and his rage lessened. It was not a moment too soon. The gears locked and the current popped and cracked as it welded the shovel to the caretaker’s frame.

Dean remembered little of the fight between his rally cry, “to the death, you stupid robot,” and when the shovel left his hands. The curse sounded stupid now, better in books than spoken out loud, but Dean had never been a fighter, never picked a fight. His last battle had been in third grade and he had been knocked down, sat on, and had his face rubbed in the snow until his nose had bled. That finished his fighting days, and Dean had shied away from trouble since.

His heart was calming, but slow. It jumped again, trying to kick back into anger as he surveyed the remains of his garden. There was little left, the bonsai lay crushed in the compactor, red maple leaves looking like chunks of bloody meat mixed in with the junipers and willows. His water garden, months of work and salary spent, no longer filled the backyard. Desert rock and sand flowed in its place. One twitching goldfish battered in dust was the only evidence that it had ever existed. The outside walls, displaying his Japanese landscape, had returned to the dry desert range that was the default display model for his condo. It had been nice enough when he bought the place, but now it made him ill.

The caretaker robot, “designed to keep your world in pristine perfection,” had been one of the selling points on the condo, but it had caused Dean nothing but trouble. After walking in on its destruction the first time, its metal clamps feeding the water plants into the compactor, he had cancelled his subscription for it at the office. They had talked him back into the payment, promising that it would be reprogrammed. Dean had conceded, not one to cause waves. Twice since, he had found it back to its work, drying out the gardens, shoveling rock over the grass, and always a desert landscape spread out from the unseen wall into the faux distance. He had managed to cut off the subscription, e-mailing rather than face the managers again and fold under their insistence that the problem could be fixed. Regardless the robot had come back, sometimes just sitting, staring at the fish like a cat, or flipping through the hundred landscapes, trying to find the desert that Dean had long since deleted from the condo’s memory.

“Do you think it loves the desert, or just hates all things Japanese?” Trinidad had asked, when Dean explained his trouble.

“What do you mean? It’s a robot, emotion doesn’t come into the equation,” Dean said, annoyed that he was making light of the situation.

“I’m joking, Dean. Look, something’s definitely wrong with it and you have to confront them about it. Get them to pull it from the complex if it won’t stay out of your place.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Not if you would quit wimping out,” Trinidad said, his mouth full of food to disguise his disgust. Dean had heard him, but did not want to start an argument.

He had put off talking to the management, dreading the return to the office. Trinidad had been right, that would have been the best way to handle the situation, but when Dean saw the robot standing by the compactor he lost his head. It was plucking the leaves from the real oriental orchids that had been bought only after a summer of saving. The caretaker turned to stare at him with those blank monitors, plucking away until all the leaves were gone before tossing them in the trash. The shovel was in Dean’s hand before he realized it and he was swinging away.

Once Dean had again deleted the desert scene, how the robot had returned it to memory he couldn’t guess, his anger finally disappeared. It left him exhausted, his muscles ached, but despite the loss of so much money and effort, he felt good. He had won, even if it was over a midget service robot, and he felt strong, powerful, like a man. He left the robot and went straight to the condo’s office. His confidence would only hold as long as his anger, and this glorious feeling of victory, stayed. He knew himself well enough to know that he must face them now or not at all.

* * * * *

“I think someone’s in love,” Trinidad said, as the little robot chased after Dean, knocking against his shoes like a persistent terrier after some special time with his leg. It charged his foot again, almost tripping him up and sending his lunch tray careening out of his hands. Dean turned, waited for its next charge and kicked. The little maintenance robot crashed against the wall, bounced flipping across the floor and stalled, wheels up. They spun forward and backward, but it was stuck until rescued.

“I like the new Dean, Destroyer of Robots, Conqueror of Androids, Master of All Thing’s Machine.”

“Here’s a dollar, Trinidad. Now get back in line and get a cup of shut the hell up,” Dean said, laughing only once the surprised look on his friend’s face spread into an embarrassed grin.

“Right then. Point taken.”

Trinidad rambled on through lunch regardless. Dean nodded where appropriate, but his mind was still on the little robot. His toe throbbed and he reminded himself not to kick a solid metal object again. He would have dismissed the event as a common malfunction, if it had been the first.

Yesterday morning, a broom had smacked against the glass elevator as he rose through the office lobby. A woman beside him had spilled her coffee and everyone laughed, that half-chuckle when some frightening shock has passed. They laughed it off, but Dean had seen the robot standing on the granite floor, watching their ascent. It was three floors below and a chill had run through him as he wondered what would have happened had the glass not been there. He had shrugged it off and refused to think more about it, tucking the event away in that vault where all conflicts had been placed to keep his mind peaceful.

Dean spent more time inside, ordering delivery, shopping for his garden replacements on the wall screens. He left the house only for work, calling ahead for a taxi and rationalizing the extra cost against getting to work a little early. It all served to keep him out of sight from the machines, the blank stares from the litterbots on other side of the subway platforms, the metal dishwashers stopped in mid-action and watching from the kitchens of the coffee shops. He buried his face in the morning paper as he sat in the back of the taxi. He avoided them as he did all trouble; he did not think of it.

Trinidad caught him on a good day, Dean’s early arrivals noted by the boss and complimented; otherwise he would have stuck to the self-banishment of his cubicle and not accepted lunch out of the office. The crowd was thick on the street. Dean was just one more body packed in the stream of noon migration. He enjoyed the lunch, tired of his own leftovers, and was in the first fine mood in the week since his garden had been destroyed. That was why, at Trinidad’s comment, he had turned to look over his shoulder without thinking.

“You have any parking tickets unpaid?” Trinidad asked.

“No, haven’t driven in a couple of years.”

“Maybe you have another crush on your hands.”

Dean turned and saw the traffic android stepping onto the curb behind them. The opaque monitors flashed. Perhaps it was light off some passing windshield, but to Dean it seemed the mark of recognition when someone finally places how they know you. There was just enough time for the fear of that flash to turn his smile into a tight grimace. Then the cop swung out with his long arm, hand still clutching the ticket book, and slapped Dean across the face.

The arm swung slow, but it was a mass of heavy metal and it sent Dean sprawling across the sidewalk. He rolled and stopped, a thin alleyway of blue between the buildings catching his blurry eyes. The sky is so far away, he thought, for no certain reason. He felt the step of the heavy machine through the sidewalk, it was much larger than the simple maintenance robots, and then the blue sky was hidden behind the mass of metal law enforcement.

Dean was lifted into the air, plucked up by the front of his jacket like an errant toddler. The front of the cop’s chest, a screen of fines and infractions, flickered a rosy red. Dean saw dark sand and the dim outlines of a mesa at sunset, and then he was in freefall.

The tide of the lunch crowd had turned, but not diminished in size, and he went down in a crater of arms, legs and curses. The crowd cushioned his fall, but only set the pain of impact aside for a moment. The cop came forward with limbs flailing. I may be the first to know what it is to be beaten up by a major appliance, he thought, some odd defensive mechanism turning the sickening crunch of a broken arm into dark humor.

He scrambled as best as he could, trying to flee with all the other screaming people. They ran, leaving him in an open circle where they watched the fight like a group surrounding some spontaneous schoolyard brawl. Another hit broke his ribs. Dean tasted the grime of the concrete as his face smacked against the sidewalk and then the skyscrapers closed in, smothering him in darkness.

* * * * *

The pinging sound of some machine pulled him from the thick blackness. He shied away from the sound but it drew him toward consciousness, one beat marking each fathom he rose. As light began to swim in his eyes, other sounds intruded. Muffled voices, slurred as if drunk, mixed with the quiet noises of people moving somewhere outside the room. The wall screen babbled on and the words drifted across his mind, only patches penetrating his thoughts. He concentrated, stringing the words together and trying to wake fully.

In local news, IntelGrid stock… contract with the city last month. Their BroadNet server now connects 90 percent of the area’s robots… shared memory and task recognition… increased efficiency by 100-fold, says IntelGrid. The company… 24 major cities… federal contract is under consideration.

The words turned something in Dean’s mind, some dread was forming, but he couldn’t put it all together. He was in a limbo of mist and smoke and his thoughts raced around just out of reach.

“Does that mean I can rely on my housekeeper for car repairs, Julie?”

“Well, that remains to be seen Charles, but I do know that the coffee-maker here at work has finally figured out how to make my mocha-cino.”

“Wonderful. In Bridgeport today…”

As he came closer to waking, pain followed the light and sound, but just as blurred. It lay deep in his body, constant, but disconnected. Dean’s eyes flickered open. A blue gel-cast surrounded his elevated leg. Through the bright syrup he could see the scars across his thigh and the pins rising from the skin like miniature towers reaching for the fake blue sky.

He reached to poke at the cast, tried twice, expecting to see his finger prodding the gel, before he realized his arm wouldn’t move. He decided against looking at it. It would be the same; more towers of metal, as if some small race had inhabited his skin while he was gone. My garden wasn’t enough. They’re terraforming my body, too, his mind thought, twisted by the thick layer of painkillers padding his brain from his body.

“Dean, are you awake, buddy?” Trinidad whispered. Dean grunted, his tongue too dry and swollen to talk. It came out with a whistle, like when he had lost his front tooth as a boy. He wondered how many were gone this time.

“You’re going to be ok. The doctor said that in a few days you will be back on your feet. You want me to get him?” Dean grunted, but wasn’t sure if he meant yes or no. He could barely understand Trinidad and he was so tired.

“My lawyer, Lonnie, says you have a pretty good case against the city, especially against the condo managers. He checked a few places and it seems that your gardening robot had been marked for teardown. Full of viruses, he said. Anyway, the condo people must have picked it up illegally. Lonnie’ll be by later for your statement. He’s trying to figure out how you got attacked. He thinks the virus must have spread somehow, using your identity as a trigger. What exactly happened with that gardener anyway?”

To the death, you stupid robot. The words rose from the fog surrounding his mind. What a stupid thing to say. But it should have been over. He had killed it. The fight was done, but it hadn’t finished.

Dean’s mind began to turn, remembering all the blank stares from the other robots. He had ignored them, but they had recognized him and their fight was unfinished. Dean began to cry. How could he step out of this room, a fight waiting with every robot in the city? It would never end.

“Easy, man. It’s going to be all right. You’ll be back on your feet in no time, the doctor said so. Let me go get him, and he’ll tell you himself,” Trinidad said. Dean heard the door click shut somewhere out of sight. Faces of robots swam across his vision. The small trash robots, little dog-like creatures didn’t bother him. What kept returning were the traffic cops, the enforcement robots, construction androids with their huge limbs, steel treads to run him over. They raced toward him. He pulled at his eyelids, dragging them wide open so the light of the room flooded in and washed the images away.

The door clicked open and shut again.

“Nurse, the patient is in recovery status.”

That must be the doctor. Maybe he can give me something to sleep again. I don’t want to see these things.

“Monitor the progress of his fractures and internal injuries. Coordinate the Nanopacks by the Priority Set. Administer IV 722 every four hours, as well as the other meds on your list. Come forward and recognized patient 27668, Dean Herman.”

Dean caught the reflection of chrome out of the corner of his eye, and the nurse rolled forward. The doctor began to introduce himself and update him on his condition, but Dean only heard the faux voice.

“Patient 2768, Dean Herman. Recognized.”

The doctor continued talking, but Dean was watching the flash in the nurse’s dull eyes and the list of instructions fade as its screen turned a dusty rose sunset. Dean’s grunting whistle grew to a frantic pitch.

“It’s all right Mr. Herman. Your injuries are already healing well. Calm down, Mr. Herman. No need to get upset,” the doctor said, and stepped aside to let the nurse get to work.

 

That’s A Lovely Ring

by Ed Helenski

 

“That’s a lovely ring. May I see it?” Johnson asked, extending his hand across the table. Mike hesitated only a moment before holding his own hand out for inspection.

Mike was used to doing some fairly unusual things in the course of a day, which was how he got into the million-dollar club, and how he stayed there. Eight percent commission was what he lived for, and if it meant schmoozing with this old fart, so be it. The guy acted a little poofy, and as his fingers gently took Mike’s hand the thought crossed his mind that the guy might be coming on to him. But Mike was prepared to do a good many things for his eight percent, and if that meant playing along with the guy’s queer little fantasies so be it. But Mike wasn’t prepared for what happened next. While holding Mike’s hand with his right, Johnson grasped his steak knife with his left, and plunged it through Mike’s hand and into the wood of the table.

Mike screamed and tried to pull his hand free, but the pain was unbearable. Mike passed out.

He had agreed to meet Johnson at the restaurant at 1:00 PM. It was not unusual for Mike to meet clients in a variety of locales, from their homes to one notable occasion at a strip club on Venice. No matter where the meeting; the eight percent commission had always been foremost in his mind. And Mike made sales. Properties worth hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars were brokered on a regular basis, which kept Mike’s bank account full, and his ego sated. He had come to meet Johnson because the man had called expressing interest in the property on West 38th Street, the hulking stone mansion that had once been the Mariner’s Club and had later been cut into apartments. Now that the neighborhood had become trendy again, the house was ripe for renovation into a real showplace, and Mike had thought he could get at least two point five million for it. You didn’t need to be a math genius to know that eight percent of that was some serious change.

Mike had never heard of Bowler’s, the restaurant where Johnson had arranged to meet him, but the address was a good one, and he had never hesitated to go. When he had arrived at the address he had discovered a small, but well maintained brownstone with no commercial markings at all. There was simply a doorbell which he had rung. An expressionless man wearing what amounted to a butler’s uniform had immediately opened the door. “Mr. Johnson is expecting you,” the man had said, and led him into a dim hallway, paneled in some dark wood. There were several small dining rooms off the hall, each with only three or four tables, sparsely occupied by men in fine suits and women with the look of great money. He had been immediately impressed with the place, which was obviously something close to a private club. If the food were good he would inquire as to reservations. There were a number of women who would be very impressed with such opulent surroundings. And impressed women showed their gratitude in the most delightful ways. That was one of the things Mike had learned since joining the million-dollar club.

Mike had been led to a table in the farthest room, one occupied by an older man with a small, precise moustache, wearing a grey suit that no doubt cost more than a thousand dollars. The man had introduced himself as Mr. Johnson, and apologized for having started lunch without him. “I simply cannot tolerate low blood sugar,” he had said, taking a bite of the very rare piece of filet in front of him. Mike understood completely. Twice a day he had to use insulin to control his diabetes. Low blood sugar was a problem he was familiar with. Then he had asked to see Mike’s ring.

Mike emerged from his lapse when the dour faced butler had thrown a glass of ice water in his face. Sputtering he reentered the world of agony, and nearly passed out again as his attempt to move his hand shot more bolts of pain through his arm. “My apologies for the water, Mr. Nichols, but I find it most difficult to negotiate a deal when one’s associates are unconscious.” He picked up his fork and then looked momentarily bewildered until he recalled what had become of his knife. The butler returned immediately with a new one, and Mr. Johnson cut another small precise bite of filet. He ate it with delight. “Excellent meat. You should really try some. But perhaps steak is a bit beyond your ability just now. Am I right?”

Mike screamed. He yelled for help. He shouted obscenities at Johnson until he grew hoarse. Johnson simply watched him and ate his lunch, finishing the filet, the rice pilaf, and a small dish of snap peas. When he was done he dabbed at his lips daintily, and leaned back in his chair. “Have you quite finished, Mr. Nichols?” The butler appeared by his side, bringing a cup of coffee and removing the dishes. Mike saw that he left the second steak knife sitting on the table.

“Please. For god’s sake. Call the police. Help me.” The butler didn’t even make eye contact with him, but simply walked out into the hall and vanished.

“I don’t think the police are needed, Mr. Nichols. Nor would it be prudent for you to call them. I think you will see what I mean soon enough. In case you have not yet surmised, my name is not really Johnson. My name is Garambald, Jacob Garambald. You do know the name Garambald, don’t you?”

Mike shook his head. The pain was beyond belief, and he was beginning to think that the only way out of this nightmare would be to play dumb, though the name meant nothing to him in any event.

“Are you quite sure, Mr. Nichols?” The man raised one eyebrow in a gesture both prissy and somehow terrifying under the circumstances.

“I’m sorry.” Mike choked out, tears freely running down his face now. “You must have me confused with someone. Someone else.”

“I’m very sorry you chose to play games, Mr. Nichols. I assume you are playing games, because if you truly don’t recall the name that simply makes your plight worse.”

The butler had materialized behind Mike, and suddenly he grasped Mike’s free hand and held it to the table in a viselike grip.

Mike shouted “NO!” and then Garambald had taken the second knife and driven it even more deeply into the polished wood of the table, going through Mike’s left hand in the process.

More ice water and several slaps had been required to revive him this time. His hands ached as if they had been plunged into liquid nitrogen, and blood was seeping out onto the dark wood around them. “Please.” he said thickly, struggling to stay awake, “I don’t know what you want. Tell me. Please. Tell me” He was whimpering and crying as he spoke.

“I hope that refreshes your memory. Surely you remember Bettina? Bettina Garambald? Dark hair, beautiful brown eyes? You met her at Nancy’s? At the bar?”

The name Bettina rang a dim bell for Mike, but he couldn’t place it. He shook his head again.

Garambald made a tsking sound. “I would really dislike having to send for another knife. And the next appendage I pierce will certainly not be a hand. You seem to be fresh out of hands. Please try and concentrate, Mr. Nichols.”

Through the pain and shock Mike tried to focus on the name. Finally a face came to him, a young girl, one he had met several months ago. She had been sitting at the bar when he arrived at Nancy’s on a day after a particularly sweet deal had gone down. He remembered her now. She had been quite a vixen. He had taken her home that night, and after he had put out numerous lines of cocaine they had engaged in some very vigorous and very rough sex. The girl had been insatiable, and he had taken her again and again in every way imaginable until he was unable to continue. She had been most indulgent to his rather outre tastes. She had left several messages for him since, but Mike made it a practice to never call a woman once he had had her. What was the point after all?

“I can see you remember. You were most unchivalrous, Mr. Nichols. A woman gives herself to you in a most passionate fashion, and then you dismiss her like a common whore. Is that the way you treat women, Mr. Nichols?”

“I, I remember her now, yes. She was a lovely girl. But…” Mike struggled to think of some spin to put on this, some way to pass it off. “But you are a man of means, like me, you must know that women are a dime a dozen if you have money.”

“I am most disappointed in that reply. The girl you speak of is not a dime a dozen. In point of fact, she is my granddaughter, and I take a dim view of nouveau riche like you behaving in such a manner. Although I suppose given your ancestry you simply don’t know any better. You are really just a very common sort, aren’t you Mr. Nichols?”

Agreement was the only course open to Mike at this point. He hoped that the man might let him go if he was repentant. “Yes, yes, I was wrong. I’m really just a stupid man. I’m so so sorry. Please. Please don’t hurt me any more.”

“I wish I could believe your sorrow, Mr. Nichols, really I do.” His face was a mask of sympathy. “But even if I did, there is the matter of honor. You wouldn’t know anything of honor, though, would you?” He paused to reach over and lift Mike’s face, now sagging as the pain got the better of him. The butler came to the table with a small bottle on a tray.

“Do you recognize this, Mr. Nichols? You have had a glucose tolerance test before, have you not? Does this bottle ring a bell?”

Mike saw the bottle through rapidly clouding vision. It was the same thing they had used in the hospital; a thick cola beverage made up mostly of sugar. It was used to test the body’s ability to digest and absorb carbohydrates. He began to moan.

“If you would, please,” Garambald said to the butler, who grasped Mike’s head and held it back, pinching his nostrils shut at the same time. The man was strong in any event, but at this point Mike couldn’t even offer token resistance. Garambald took the bottle and upended it into Mike’s mouth. Mike swallowed to avoid choking, and soon the bottle was empty. He began to feel very sick, and knew that without insulin he would shortly go into shock.

“Please. In my case. My insulin.”

The butler picked up the case and carried it off. Mike felt himself slipping away. His head lolling, he saw someone else come to the table and stand behind Garambald. A vaguely familiar voice spoke. “Are you ready to go, Grandfather?”

“Indeed I am, my dear. I think our business is concluded.” The man stood stiffly, and the girl took him by the arm.

“Don’t you think not returning phone calls is simply the rudest behavior?” she asked the old man as they walked.

“Oh, I quite agree. There is nothing worse than a rude person. Still, it is never too late to teach someone manners.” Grandfather and granddaughter walked out of the room, arm in arm.