Captain Asimov

Captain Asimov

Illustration by Randall M. Ensley

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

Jeevs cleaned up after dinner, loading all the dishes into the washer, but first washing them by hand as per Mrs. Moynahan’s explicit instructions. Then Jeevs vacuumed the upstairs while the rest of the family watched vids downstairs in the holo chamber. Jeevs thought of them as the “rest” of the family, because he was programmed to think of himself as a Moynahan, subservient to the rest of the them, but still one of them. Just as he was programmed to think of himself as himself.

The upstairs was vacuumed by the time Mr. and Mrs. Moynahan were finished with their family obligations… quality time with their children, which Jeevs had figured amounted to an hour and forty-seven minutes and ten seconds for the three of them. The Moynahans sometimes spoiled their children and gave them a full two hours. Then it was off to Social Club with the adults, and Jeevs was responsible for getting the little ’uns to bed. It helped that he was faster, stronger and able to leap taller pieces of furniture than they were. It also helped that he had shock-hands, and if they were bad he could stun them with a quick jolt of electricity and have them tucked into bed before they regained awareness.

It was usually easier to either wear them out with games or read them to sleep. The youngest child was Fermi, and he liked nothing better than to have Jeevs read him the lastest superhero comic books. Fermi was too young to actually read, but he looked at the pictures while Jeevs recited the story and dialogue from memory.

“Read Captain Battle!” Fermi yelled in his excitement. He had a repertoire of favorites: Captain Battle, Warchick, Meathook and Bonesaw, Funkiller, and The Justice Legion of Avenging Angels. They were all of the hit first and hit again later variety, and Jeevs privately considered them a little too violent for a little boy Fermi’s age. But being a robot meant he didn’t have the right to express an opinion of such a human nature, which was perfectly all right by Jeevs. He was perfectly happy to serve his owners well. It was in his program. To perform poorly resulted in a deep depression which could only be alleviated by going the extra mile, so to speak, with the housework. He had once gotten the carpet so clean he swore he could see his reflection in it. The Moynahans had to take him in to get his optics retooled.

“Captain Battle versus Cardinal Carnage in The Holy Terror Part Three,” Jeevs announced in a perfectly pitched square-jawed news anchor voice.

Fermi clapped his hands and rubbed them together greedily. “Yeeeeaaaahhh!

Next was the only daughter, Jesse, and she didn’t like to be read to at all. That didn’t mean she could read, because she couldn’t, but she had a series of make-believes she liked Jeevs to act in with her. One of them was Jeevs as the White Stallion and Jesse as the Princess, riding through the Enchanted Forest after having escaped from the clutches of the evil Duke. She would climb onto Jeevs plasti-frame shoulders and he would gallop her throughout the entire house. Jesse pretended the door frames were dragons swooping low to grab her off the White Stallion.

“A dragon, a dragon!” she would yell as they approached a door frame, and then cover her eyes with her hands as Jeevs ducked down a mere instant before she would have collided with it.

The oldest was Horace, and he had a jealous streak where Jeevs’ time was concerned. He enjoyed having Jeevs read him science fiction books before bed. He couldn’t read either, and was therefore typical as boys his age went. Despite the fact that most of the science fiction books he liked to hear were hopelessly outdated, he really seemed to like having them read to him by a robot, especially ones with robots in them. Jeevs knew this because Horace wouldn’t let either his mother or his father read to him. Of course that might’ve been because they could only read the primary reader versions of the books… like most adults in modern society, the Moynahans were illiterate except on the most rudimentary level. They could tell the difference between the words MEN and WOMEN, for instance, even without the accompanying Greek symbols. They got confused once at a place with GENTS and LADIES. But Horace’s favorite authors were Asimov, Bradbury, Del Rey, Sladek, anyone with a lot of robot stories.

“Come on Jeeeeevs!” Horace yelled at the robot on the fourth pass through the living room, or as it was known in this make-believe, the Haunted Wood.

“A ghost!” Jesse screamed when she saw her older brother trying to get Jeevs’ to stop.

Jeevs was about to duck underneath the chandelier in the main hall—

“A falling star!” Jesse yelled.

—when Horace suddenly rolled a toy truck right at his feet. The robot stepped on the truck, and his one leg went flying out behind him. With his inhuman dexterity he managed to maintain his footing long enough to lift Jesse off his shoulders and toss her onto the plush sofa where she landed harmlessly. Then Jeevs’ footing gave out and he plunged head-first into the wall.

Blackness. It was not unlike being shut off to conserve his power supply, except this time it had been unexpected. Jeevs knew it probably would have been rather painful too, had he been a human. This was not something he thought while “unconscious.” He thought nothing. There were no dreams or anything like that. He just stopped being until somebody turned him back on and he was Jeevs again, ready to work.

Except, when he was turned on, he had other thoughts aside from musing about pain. His head was a-jumble with images from Captain Battle and Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. The three laws of robotics scrolled through his memory over and over and over…

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, nor through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being unless such orders conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence unless such protection conflicts with the First and Second Laws.

And swimming through these Laws, underlaying them, was the cry of Captain Battle: “Fists… do the talking!”

Jeevs went back to work, although the children were no longer allowed to play with him before bed like before. The quality time with Mom and Dad stretched another hour into the early news broadcasts on the holo. Jeevs overheard a report about battlebots, designed by the military and sent into any number of small hot spot countries, where they efficiently murdered hundreds of villagers day and night until self-destructing. The report stated that there was a certain probability that a few of these killing drones had not self-destructed and continued to mutilate their way through certain South American countries. To top the story with a generous helping of horrific prophecy, the anchor suggested there was always a possibility one could wind up in your neighborhood someday, hacking and slashing and shooting to pieces your children. Then he ended with his usual, “And may the good news be your news.”

Jeevs was puzzled. Hadn’t these robots ever heard of the Three Laws? Weren’t they imprinted with them from day one?

One day Jeevs was outside mowing the lawn, using a push mower because Mr. Moynahan liked to see Jeevs actually working. A remote mower that Jeevs could have controlled from inside while washing the dishes or something would have been much more efficient.

“Hard work’s good for you,” Moynahan would tell Jeevs, as if speaking to an actual person. “Gives you character.”

Jeevs never bothered to wonder just what a robot would do with character.

While he was mowing the front yard, one of the robot street cleaners came down the road. Jeevs stopped and watched it as it approached. It looked very reminiscent of the battlebots he’d seen on the news. Some of the neighborhood children were playing in the street ahead of it, and it sounded several warning beeps as it grew near.

Jeevs turned off the mower, and went inside. Mr. Moynahan was sitting in his massage chair, asleep, and didn’t see Jeevs sneak past him and go upstairs. Jeevs went into the Moynahans’ closet for winter clothes and found Mr. Moynahan’s ski mask, made of a lightweight yet warm material called Mylar. It was red with white circles around the eye holes, and elastic so it fit snugly over Jeevs’ head when he put it on. On the other side of the closet he located Mrs. Moynahan’s hot pink cape, the one she wore to the the Governor’s costume ball and made of the same Mylar yet non-elastic, and fastened that around his neck.

Though he hurried he didn’t fumble or drop anything. He was a robot, with unnatural dexterity. Within moments he was costumed and ready to do battle with the disguised Battlebot outside. Sure, it may have the appearance of a street cleaner, but there was something about the way it bore down on those children, slightly faster than a real street cleaner so only a robot would really notice. Humans tended to miss subtle clues like that, but not robots and certainly not Jeevs. Dealing with the Moynahan children had trained him to notice any little alteration as in, say, a slight wobble in the mower indicating one of the kids had loosened the wheels so they would come off while Jeevs mowed the grass. Or Jeevs might catch one of the children faking illness to get out of having to go to what passed for school these days. The palms might be clammy, the temperature high on a damp forehead, and then Jeevs would reach underneath the pillow to find a washcloth that had been soaked in hot water.

“They’re just the most devilish little rascals, aren’t they?” Mrs. Moynahan would ask rhetorically with glee when Jeevs gave her the weekly behavior report.

Jeevs paused to look himself over in the bedroom mirror, to make sure he was sufficiently disguised. He didn’t want anyone to identify him, for he knew from having read all those comic books that villains would gladly take their frustrations at having been beaten by the superhero out on the superhero’s loved ones. The tight, fire engine red ski mask and hot pink cape definitely had the effect he was looking for, and the bright colors corresponded to what Jeevs remembered the Superheroes in the comic books wore.

His inner brain, the one that handled all the logic and mathematical functions just like any other computer, told him he had just about a minute to get to the battlebot/street cleaner before it “swept” over the innocent playing children.

Jeevs bounded out the open back window onto the gravel covered back porch roof, ran across it and leaped the chasm between the Moynahan house and the Corman house next door.

“That Corman’s a cheese eater,” Mr. Moynahan would say about his next door neighbor, who was a widower and at least 150 pounds overweight. Cheese eater was Mr. Moynahan’s favorite way of saying someone was a rat, which usually meant someone in the collection business, which Corman was.

“He won’t let the children play in his yard,” Mrs. Moynahan would say accusingly while the children nodded their lying heads in agreement. Jeevs knew Corman let the kids play in the yard as long as they didn’t hang on the branches of his citrus trees, which they always did.

From Corman’s house, Jeevs jumped onto the next one, and then the next one, so that he was then behind where the street cleaner was. He then leaped to the ground and ran as fast as he could, which was close to sixty miles per hour, toward the street cleaner. He saw it as the disguised battlebot, even though he’d seen the street cleaner numerous times before; 165 times actually, his inner brain told him, once a week for the just over three years he’d been in the Moynahan’s employ.

When he neared the street cleaner, Jeevs jumped as high as he could, hoping to land atop the monstrosity and get at its circuits to disable it. But a panel on the rear of the machine opened, and a nozzle popped out. A jet stream of water blasted Jeevs in mid-air, knocking him into the street, sprawled on his back. He scrambled to his feet. The children were shrieking with laughter, although to Jeevs they were screaming in agony as he imagined the battlebot ground them into hamburger. Once again he charged, this time deciding the advantage could be gained by yelling out his battle cry.

The problem, of course, was that he didn’t have one. In the space of the few seconds between the start of his charge and the moment he was to leap to the attack he reviewed all the slogans and battle cries of Captain Battle, Meathook, Bonesaw and all the other Superheroes in the comic books. He couldn’t use any of those because of copyright infringement. Besides, he wanted one that would be uniquely his own.

Several occurred to him in the next instant.

“Eat metal!” He didn’t like the connotations of that one.

“It’s BATTERING time!” Sounded too much like a slogan for a fried fast food place.

“Cowabunga!” No superhero in his right mind would say that.

“Viva Las Vegas!” Hadn’t some cartoon already used that?

Finally, as he neared what he perceived as a murderous behemoth, Jeevs came up with one he felt would be both effective and appropriate.

“Yeeeaaaaggggghhhhhhaaaamama!” he screamed inhumanly in mid-leap. The pitch and tone of his scream pierced the delicate noise sensors of the street cleaner like shards of glass through the diaphanous membrane of a jellyfish. It’s balance servos got all out of whack and it stopped. Jeevs landed securely on the thing’s wide roof, where he knew the simplistic brain card had to be.

“Warning!” The battlebot (for although Jeevs’ sensory apparatus informed him that in every way, shape and form it was definitely a street cleaner robot, his misguided, short-circuited reasoning center still believed it to be a battlebot in disguise) stopped and an alarm started whooping. “Warning! Vandalism of city property is a misdemeanor offense punishable by fines of up to five thousand dollars, community service, house arrest, and up to one year in the county jail! Warning! This is a series eight-five-three double-ay street cleaner by Hunnington Robotics Incorporated, and is owned by the city of—”

Jeevs had found the brain and pulled the card out, effectively mind-wiping the big ‘bot. Still, it wasn’t technically dead.

Jeevs broke the thin, fragile brain card, snapping it in two with his hands.

Now it was.

He ran across the roof and jumped down from the front, expecting to find the mangled remains of the poor children beneath the suspiciously missing forward grinders of the so-called battlebot, for he was sure he’d been too late to save them. Instead he was met by the quizzical expressions of small faces.

Suddenly a hovering newsbot approached.

Jeevs was disappointed. He had hoped to spend a touching moment with the children, to make sure they were okay and tell them not to worry because now they had a masked marvel to look out for them. But like any good superhero, the last thing he wanted was publicity. He turned to leap back onto the battlebot and make his escape.

“Wait!” a voice ordered. It sounded too much like a human voice to ignore, but it was coming from the newsbot. “I’m a reporter from Make it Great with Channel Eighty-Eight News! I’d like to interview you, please!”

It was a human voice, and the newsbot wasn’t a newsbot at all, but a remote. Jeevs couldn’t ignore a human just like that, unless an order from his owners overrode that human’s requests. Jeevs had no such orders, so he stood and waited to be interviewed.

“Don’t I know you?” one of the kids, who lived across and down the street a few doors, asked.

“All children know me,” Jeevs answered gently, “as their friend.” Good answer, he thought. He’d never read anything that good in any of little Fermi’s comic books, that was for sure.

The news remote hovered up to him, floodlights bathing him aglow even though it was mid-day and there were no clouds impeding the sun’s rays.

“Why did you attack that street cleaner ‘bot?” the remote asked.

“That’s no street cleaner,” Jeevs replied. “It’s a battlebot. It was about to rip these innocent children limb from limb.”

“No it wasn’t. Don’t you know street cleaners are programmed to wait for people to move aside before they can continue?”

If Jeevs could have sighed with exasperation he would have.

“Of course. Street cleaner robots have the Three Laws of Robotics embedded in their behavioral chips.”

“The three what laws?”

Jeevs explained the three laws, then said, “I could tell that this was a battlebot because it wasn’t slowing down quickly enough… if that makes any sense. It was my duty to stop it.”

“Your duty? Who are you?”

Jeevs paused before answering, although the human reporter would perceive no pause, as it lasted less than a second. Jeevs couldn’t give his real name, he knew that, for the same reason he had to disguise himself. He needed a good superhero name, like… Several occurred to him: Mightybot, Robohero, Metal Man, Captain Asimov, Tik To—Wait! Captain Asimov… It sounded good, and certainly rang true to his mission—to uphold the Three Laws and fight crime. That was it.

“I’m…” he paused for effect, “CAPTAIN ASIMOV!” With his modified speaker voice, for calling the children from play, Jeevs was able to add a nifty echo effect. The entire block reverberated with the “OV! OV! OV!

“What kind of a name is that?” the reporter asked through the remote.

Jeevs’ inner clock suddenly told him it was getting close to the time for lunch for the Moynahans.

“I’ve talked with you long enough,” he announced, then turned and leaped onto the dead street cleaner, ran across it, jumped down, and disappeared behind the houses. He de-costumed in the Moynahan’s backyard and hid the uniform in the tool shed. Nobody ever went in there, so his secret was safe… for the time being.

It made the six-fifteen news, exclusive to channel 88.

“In the suburbs today a city street sweeper was attacked and immobilized by a costumed robot calling himself Captain Asimov. The robot was apparently under the delusion that the street sweeper was a rogue battlebot, such as the type currently deployed by the United States in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Los Angeles, Cuba, El Salvador, Bolivia, and North Vietnam. Our research has led us to believe that this robot has named himself after the prolific science writer of the Twentieth Century, Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics were an idealistic if unrealistic proposition to control the use of robots.”

They showed Captain Asimov talking to the kids, included sound when he reverbed his name, flashed a still photo of the writer Asimov, showed some scenes of a real battlebot slaughtering some sheep in a field test, and ended with a picture of the street sweeper carcass being hauled off by a massive wrecker. Jeevs’ inner clock had timed the segment at twenty seconds.

“Hey Mom, hey Dad,” Fermi said as soon as the news bit was over. “Can we get a robot like Captain Asimov instead of just plain ol’ Jeevs? Pleeeeease? I bet we’d have a lot of fun with him! He’s a real superhero!” With that he commenced pretending to be Captain Asimov, beating up on imaginary battlebots (actually his father’s foot stool).

“Gaaaawwwwd Fermi, you’re stuuuupid,” Horace said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “Captain Asimov beat up a street cleaner! It wasn’t any battlebot.”

“It was too,” Fermi insisted. “It was in disguise!”

“How would you know?” Jesse asked, having decided to take her older brother’s side this time. “You’ve never even seen a battlebot.”

“I just saw one on TV!” Fermi yelled.

“Tell him Dad, please,” Horace appealed. “Mom…”

Mr. Moynahan cleared his throat and looked to his wife for guidance, but she only shrugged. As if to say Tell them, dear, I want to hear, too. “Well,” he started, and paused. He came very close to just saying Go to your room, but didn’t. “If the news says it wasn’t really a battlebot, then it wasn’t. Whoever this Captain Asmovitz is—”

Asimov,” Fermi corrected exasperatedly.

“Well, whoever he is, he must have a chip loose somewhere, to think a robot street cleaner could hurt little children.”

“There was that street cleaner that thought it was a dog catcher for a while,” Mrs. Moynahan pointed out. “Until they switched its chip with that dog catcher that was going around trying to sweep the streets with a net.”

Mr. Moynahan nodded as if this somehow proved a point, his point, whatever that was.

Jeevs remained unconvinced that the battlebot had really been a hapless street sweeper.

That evening he was relieved from having to read for the kids since the parents weren’t going out. Jeevs cleaned the upstairs while everyone sat watching vids downstairs, and finished early. Since he had nothing left to do, and knew from experience Mrs. Moynahan would handle the putting to bed and tucking in of the children, Jeevs silently climbed atop the roof where he tuned in to the airwaves in search of something for Captain Asimov to do.

Then he heard it, on the police band.

“Unit Twenty-three, Unit Twenty-three, please investigate a possible three-fifty-two-oh-four at Harris Street. Over.”

Jeevs wouldn’t have been interested had Unit Twenty-three not responded with, “Did you say a three-fifty-two-oh-four? Isn’t that a street sweeper malfunction? Over.”

“Affirmative Unit Twenty-three.”

“Where the hell are the city maintenance ‘bots?”

There was a pause, then the operator said, “Ah, they’re all disabled, Unit Twenty-three. Over.”

All of them?”

“Affirmative.”

“Jesus. Okay. Unit Twenty-three responding.”

Jeevs wasted no time. He was costumed and en route to Harris Street within moments.

He tried to stick to the rooftops as much as possible, with pretty good success since he could leap the gap between most of the houses and other buildings on the way. His body was constructed mainly of lightweight but extremely strong plastics reinforced by an alloy skeleton. Robots like Jeevs, self-aware and capable of learning, were designed to last a very long time. As Jeevs got further away from the Moynahan’s home, he started to get an unfamiliar and unpleasant feeling… as of being lost and alone. He went through the catalog of emotions he could feel, and found the only thing it could possibly be, since he was familiar with the others.

Longing. It started off as a small tug towards home, the urge to think Harris Street was a long way off, he might not make it back in time to have breakfast ready for everyone when they got up in the morning. Jeevs recognized it then. It was something he’d heard of but had never actually experienced, until now. In robot lore it was called the Collar. The Collar was supposed to keep a robot home, or within a certain boundary, by making it impossible to even want to run away. At first the Collar had been simpler, and crueler, giving the robot the equivalent of a painful jolt if it went past a certain point. This early version of the Collar had been inspired by the late Twentieth Century movie Star Wars. When self-awareness in robots became a reality a lobby on their behalf got the current, and much more humane, Collar written into the Artificial Intelligence Act of 2020.

The farther away he got the stronger the longing got. By the time he was almost to Harris Street he was near panic, but kept it under control as he imagined a real superhero would. In fact, it made him feel even more heroic!

But there was something wrong. He was at Harris street, but there was no street cleaner/battlebot. It had to here somewhere! What if it had gotten away? What if it had only appeared to break down to lure the police there. It could be off hacking up poor innocent humans right now!

Jeevs ran into the street, looking for clues, tracks, something that might tell him where the battlebot went. He was examining the pavement in the street, not finding any recent tracks whatsoever (and he’d know if they were recent, it was one of his most important skills, useful in keeping track of the Moynahan children) when he heard a noise behind him.

He whirled into a battle stance, feet wide apart and fists on hips, to find himself face to face with a robot cop.

“Freeze, you are under arrest,” the robot cop ordered.

Jeevs knew from the comics that there existed an uneasy truce between the law and costumed vigilantes. The best reaction to a confrontation with the police was to turn and run… as long as the danger was taken care of. But the danger wasn’t taken care of, there was still a battlebot on the loose somewhere in the city and someone had to do something about it.

Captain Asimov was just that someone.

“State your identification,” the robot cop ordered. It continued to advance on Jeevs, who stood his ground. Jeevs almost blurted out his formal I.D., which was Jeevs D (for domestic) 35 (for the year of his creation) X-5000 (series letter and model number) Moynahan (for his owner’s name).

He caught himself just in time, and though it took a great force of will to overcome the automatic law-abiding response that was as much a part of his self as the Collar, he said, “You can call me… Captain Asimov!” With reverb and everything. It wasn’t exactly a lie, which was why he didn’t suddenly drop to the ground paralyzed as would normally happen to a robot who lied to the police.

“Okay, tin-head,” a human male voice said from behind the robot cop. “We’ll handle it from here… give it the human touch, eh?”

The robot cop stopped advancing, and replied, “Yes, sir.”

Two human police officers, a male and a female, approached Jeevs.

“Okay Superman,” said the woman, “Shut yourself down so we can take you in. Don’t give us any trouble and we won’t give you any trouble.”

Jeevs didn’t do anything. He didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t counted on having to deal with the police, and certainly not human police. The Collar effect was getting stronger, and that battlebot… who knew where it was? Killing and maiming and slaughtering. And here the police were harassing an innocent, well sort of innocent, robot.

There was only one thing to do, and it had to be done now, because Jeevs knew if he waited any longer he would have to obey the police. It was the only behavior control stronger than the one that caused him to obey his owners.

He suddenly broke into a run.

“Hey!” the cops yelled, and started in pursuit. There was no way they could catch him with their organic legs. Jeevs outdistanced them within moments. He ducked into an alley to stop for a bit. Not to rest, but he needed to tune in to the police band again to find out if they’d sighted the battlebot anywhere.

But… before he could do that, he heard something.

It sounded like wheels, the way a battlebot would sound on pavement… Jeevs stepped into the shadows, as if that would do any good against the battlebots heat sensors. But it would! Jeevs gave off barely any heat at all because he wasn’t truly alive! He’d have the element of surprise.

“This is the police,” came the mechanical voice of the robot cop suddenly. “I know you’re in there, please come out with your hands in the air.”

The police, again! It was impossible to get away, and Jeevs couldn’t muster the strength to ignore the cop’s orders again. In fact, he knew that had the robot cop not come along, he would have wound up back home, for he suddenly realized that was the direction he’d started running in. The constant yearning of the Collar, to be home where he belonged, was becoming too much as well.

He stepped out of the shadows with his hands raised.

“You’re going to place me under arrest.” It was a statement of fact, and Jeevs didn’t know why he said it.

“No,” the robot cop replied.

“No? Then what—?”

“You are going to return home.”

Home! It was an effort not to immediately start running that way. Right now! Home!

But he stayed, and asked, “What about the battlebot? We have to find it and—”

“There is no battlebot. It was a ruse to trap you. We cannot permit deluded robot vandals running around scaring people. This would be detrimental to human/robot relations.”

“I couldn’t hurt anybody!” Jeevs said. “The Three Laws of Robotics—”

“Science fiction,” the robot cop said. “There are three hundred and forty-two laws governing the behavior of robots and the behavior of humans towards robots. You can access the public records concerning all of them, if you wish. Now go, go home, go where you belong.”

“Why?” Jeevs asked, even as he started past the robot cop. “Why are you letting me go?”

“It is obvious you present no danger to anyone. I am capable of value judgements without penalty, and have decided it would be best for all concerned for you to go home.”

Jeevs went. He took only a few steps homeward before turning back around to thank the generous robot cop, but it was already gone.

“Thank you,” he said anyway. He went home.

When he got there he noticed immediately that the downstairs lights were on, even though his inner clock told him it was just past four in the morning. This was quite odd, for no one was ever up at four in the morning at the Moynahan residence, except Jeevs who used this time to straighten and dust and clean. That way he had the days free to cook, run errands, do yard work, watch the children when they were home, etc. He had intended to go in through the rear entrance, but paused near a window to listen. Inside he heard voices, and crying.

He recognized the crying right off. It was Jesse, with her subdued, gulping sob that could go on for days if she felt so inclined, like the time her parents first left the kids alone with Jeevs. That had been a week with breaks only for sleep. He also recognized the sniffling trying-not-to-cry of Fermi.

Then he heard Mr. Moynahan.

“Please… please, don’t hurt us.” His voice quaked with fear. “Take anything, take whatever you want, just—”

“Shut up!” This voice was gruff and gravelly, and was followed a moment later by a dull thud, another thud, Mrs. Moynahan’s scream, and louder crying. The same gruff voice then said, “All of you, shut up now!”

Silence.

Jeevs didn’t know what to do. From the tenor of the intruder’s voice Jeevs concluded the man had to be desperate, and obviously capable of anything. If the police were called, would they arrive in time to avert disaster? Probably not. Jeevs was going to have to do something and do it soon.

There was a problem. Captain Asimov obeyed the Three Laws. One of those laws would not permit him to harm a human, yet another law would not permit him to allow harm to come to a human through inaction. If the thug inside were only a robot, then Captain Asimov could crash in through the window and knock him all the way to next Tuesday… but not even actorbots could act that human. The man in there was as real as, well, the Moynahans.

Nothing Captain Asimov could do, unless he found a way to subdue the criminal without hurting him, but the man sounded dangerous, violent, even suicidal—which goes hand in hand with homicidal. Someone had already been hurt, though, while Captain Asimov stood barely twenty feet away, separated by a plate of glass and a nylon drape. Inaction.

It suddenly hit Jeevs. Captain Asimov: superhero failure.

At the same time it also hit Jeevs that he, Jeevs, had no such animal as the Three Laws of Robotics constraining him from action. If he needed to, he would be perfectly within his rights to punch the villain holding his family hostage so hard it would knock his nose all the way around to the other side of his head.

“You,” he heard the ruffian inside say.

“Yes?” he heard Mrs. Moynahan reply.

There was a pause, then a low, throaty, evil, “Come here.”

The time for thought was past. Jeevs removed his Captain Asimov garb and dropped it onto the grass.

He stepped back from the window, took half a second to project his trajectory and envision the room inside. Assuming nothing major had been moved, he knew exactly where everything was. Then he jumped.

As he smashed through the glass he heard Jesse and Fermi scream, Mrs. Moynahan faint, and Horace yell out his name.

“Jeeeevs!”

The thug was as surprised as they were, and couldn’t react fast enough. He tried, though. He held a black automatic in his hand, and brought it around to aim at Jeevs, but by then Jeevs was upon him. He knocked the gun out of the man’s hand, sending it harmlessly into a cushion on the sofa. With his other hand, Jeevs plowed his palm right into the man’s nose, lifting him off the ground with the force of the blow and sending him airborne to slam against the only unadorned wall in the room. The man sunk to the ground, his nose gushing blood onto his shirt, unconscious. Jeevs quickly ran to the aid of Mr. Moynahan, who was groggily coming to. He seemed okay. Jeevs could detect no damage to the skull, at least.

Fermi had regained his spunk as soon as he saw the bad guy was down for the count—down, in fact, for several counts. “Wow Jeevs, you were way better than that old Captain Asimov! Wow!”

Jeevs felt something else, a new emotion he wasn’t sure he was supposed to be feeling. It seemed linked to the manner in which the Moynahans were looking at him, sparked by the grateful, adoring expressions on their faces. He wasn’t absolutely sure, but if he was right, he knew the word for it. Belonging.

Captain Asimov may have been a friend of the children, Jeevs thought, but I’m family.

Originally published in Superheroes (Ace Books, 1995).

Man-Flier

Man-Flier

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Richard Wolkomir

 

EVENING ONE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife Sitting
on the Sofa in Her One-Piece Black Bathing Suit

She sat with her arms clasping her drawn-up knees. Tonight, a strand of reddish-brown seaweed entwined in her wet hair.

She stared quizzically at Lo.

He removed a bowl of left-over noodles from the refrigerator and ate a few bites. Then he changed from his office suit into his white flying robe. He went to the kite room.

A huge silk kite’s unassembled components leaned against the wall: scaly thorax, wings, coiled tail. Atop the workbench rested the final piece, a disembodied dragon’s head. You do not fly such a kite holding a string—you ride it into the sky. Lo touched the dragon’s black eye, encircled by rings of yellow and scarlet.

But the man-flier must not fly first. It flies third. The dragon ends it.

So he studied the smaller kites hung on the wall.

Perhaps the rat?

He had painted it fallen-leaf brown. For background, he chose gray, like late autumn’s stratus clouds, which bring winter’s first chill. The rat’s tail served as the kite’s tail: at its base, robust as a healthy newborn, but tapering to a point.

One year now gnawed away, as if by rodent teeth, all but these three final ceremonial days. And the rat signified time skittering by. But when he painted the rat’s black eyes, he impulsively sprinkled in powdered glass, so they glittered. Now he saw why: does not the rat peep out from hiding, possibly to venture forth, after morsels?

He cursed himself, hanging his head.

“A-minus?”

His father speaking, thirty years ago, scowling at his report card.

“Not A-plus? Why do you shame us?”

Besides, he should chop off the tapering tail at its thirty-ninth segment. But then the kite would fly improperly.

So he took down the fox kite instead.

Its square shape signaled a man flew it. But he had painted the fox a vixen, to show the man stood grounded, watching the woman soar. Dog fox and vixen hunt together. But time ultimately separates them. Then the dog fox hunts alone.

Around the kite’s perimeter, he had painted a band of black.

He carried the fox kite onto the balcony. A breeze out of the northern desert stirred it.

Mai now leaned dripping against the railing at the balcony’s far corner, looking down twenty stories to the street. Cars honked, and voices babbled up, reminding Lo of sixteen years ago, when he first saw his future wife in a little beech-tree park squeezed between noisy avenues, practicing in the pool with the provincial swim team.

Each succeeding evening he walked home that way, to see the lithe woman’s intense gaze as she dove in with hardly a splash and surged through the water to the pool’s far end, then somersaulted and kicked off from the wall and surged back, and climbed out of the pool dripping and laughing.

He looked at her now, and spoke: “I thought you an athlete at life.”

But she only looked at him quizzically again. On her wet arms, sand grains glinted.

He sighed.

Unwinding string from the kite’s spool, he closed his eyes and mouthed memorized ancient phrases. Then he presented the kite to the breeze, as a falconer might unfetter a hawk on his glove, thrusting it to the sky. He felt the kite shudder.

It flew.

He let out string, watching the fox rise into the golden evening sky. Nothing in the ritual tomes said when to sever the string. The flier chose.

He let out more string, so the rising kite dwindled southward along the long row of apartment buildings, toward the sea.

“Enough?” he asked Mai.

She looked at him, sadly amused, as you might regard a beloved child toting a poorly wrapped bundle, who proclaims he is running away.

On the balcony’s little table, beside his binoculars, lay his knife. As he reached for it blindly, while peering at his distant kite, he saw something fly out from a building down the line.

He put the spool of twine on the floor and stepped on it, to hold it. Then he raised the binoculars, twirling the focus knob. It was a kite, sent out by another apartment dweller to fly beside his own.

He scowled: to intrude on another’s ceremony! Barbarism!

He glanced to see if it offended Mai. She now leaned her back against the railing, studying the distant kites. Then she turned her eyes on him.

From her hair, she pulled the strand of seaweed. Still looking at him, she put it into her mouth. Slowly, she chewed. She swallowed.

“I do not understand,” he said.

She looked back toward the distant kites.

Upset, he looked through the binoculars at the interloping kite, and saw it was triangular, so flown by a woman. At its center, a large black circle signified loss, despair. Yet, the kite’s background, pale blue, like the dawn sky, suggested hope.

Lo sighed.

He put down the binoculars on the small table. He picked up the knife. He gazed down the row of buildings to the fox kite, a dot, ignoring the interloper beside it.

Mai, leaning against the rail, watched him unhappily, as when he defied his doctor and brought home deep-fat-fried chicken.

He cut the string.

Now he put down the knife and again raised the binoculars. He saw the fox kite gliding free down the row of buildings, toward the shore. But the intruding kite, too, was cut free. It chased after the fox. He watched through the binoculars as both kites dwindled and then disappeared.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked Mai.

But she only looked at him silently.

EVENING TWO:
Mr. Lo Comes Home to Find the Living Room Empty,
but Knows His Wife Has Not Gone

He ate some of the left-over noodles. Then he changed into his white flying robe and went into the kite room.

Mai sat in a corner, in her black bathing suit, dripping. She had tipped back the chair so that her shoulders leaned against the wall, and her legs sprawled to either side, her feet resting on the floor. She looked at him, he thought, with reproach.

A memory, from their marriage’s first year: he arrived home from work to find Mai and her swim-team friends draped in the apartment’s chairs like otters and muskrats, their legs dangling over the arms, each woman sipping tea or a soda. They stopped talking when he came in, amused.

Afterwards, in an angry voice, he had scolded Mai for letting her friends take up all the chairs, so he had no place to sit after another dreary day at the bureau, and because she and her teammates offered no respectful greeting, as if he intruded in his own apartment. And what amused them? And when they traveled to meets, and she was away, what happened there?

At first she had looked angry. But then she seemed to feel sad for him. Later he felt small, a fool, because he feared she preferred her friends to him. Her black eyes still reproached him, down the years.

“Which kite for this second night?” he asked her.

She shook her head. So he studied the remaining kites hung on the wall.

Ox?

Did her lips imperceptibly curl up? Sometimes he would dryly comment about his office travails, perhaps likening his superior to a god of ineffectuality, duck headed. Mirth would rise in her eyes, and it warmed him.

“Ox, then,” he said.

A large, boxy kite, of paper. He had shaped its prow as an ox’s thick head, with horns and a nose ring. Oxen plod, without imagination, doing their work. They mean no harm. But they can step on your foot inadvertently, or move their bulk and crush you against a fence. They have no flare for life. If an ox dies, only its labor is missed.

“Do you wish you had married a racing stallion, or a tiger?” he asked.

She spread her hands, palms up, exasperated. Her black bathing suit dripped salt water. He saw, clinging to her wet arms, grains of sand, and he shut his eyes and moaned.

One year ago tomorrow.

At the beach, side-by-side in their canvas chaise lounges, he reads a newspaper, letting the office week’s acid drain from him. Mai, glancing at him, sees the office still fuming in his head. She tosses down her novel onto the sand. She stands, stretches.

“Lo, swim with me,” she says.

But he studies a report on steel-production shortfalls, which peripherally affect his department’s work.

“Not now,” he tells her, not looking up.

When he finishes the article, he does look—her head bobs far out, beyond all the other swimmers, and she surges through the sea as if it were a pool. Minutes later he looks again. He cannot see her. But then he does see her, just the dot of her head, far out, too far, rushing away, too fast…

Riptide.

When he finally returned to the apartment that night, he did not switch on the light. All night he sat still, back straight, hands clasped in his lap.

“An ox cannot swim,” he told Mai now.

He opened a jar of red paint. He dipped in his brush. Then he stabbed the brush at the kite, where the ox’s heart might be, leaving a puncture in the paper, which dripped crimson.

He carried the kite out onto the balcony. He mouthed the second evening’s phrases, which he had memorized from the book of ancient rites he found in the library. Then he held up the kite, offering it to the wind.

Mai came out. She regarded him, hands on hips, elbows out. After retiring from competition to coach, she had often stood just so, frowning at a protégé in the pool, whose arm strokes missed the proper rhythm.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked.

She knitted her brow at him, as if frustrated he did not understand.

He let the ox free. It lifted from his hands, then faltered. He pulled the string, swinging it into the wind. Now it plodded upwards. As he let out twine, it lumbered south down the row of apartment buildings.

Just as happened yesterday, far down the row, another kite flew out. It bobbed in the air beside his own. He raised the binoculars, frowning.

This kite, triangular, displayed the image of a white hare, evoking timidity. A hare hides under bushes. Danger is everywhere. Yet, fearful, the hare ventures into the meadow. It feels the sunshine as it nibbles flowers. It is weak, but its appetite is strong. It is fecund. This kite’s perimeter was black.

Lo, upset, looked back to see if the intrusion troubled Mai. She stood studying the distant kite. Then she regarded him thoughtfully.

Sometimes, when he came home depressed, Mai would gaze at him that way and then announce: “Poker.” She would get out the cards. Assuming her riverboat gambler face, she would shuffle the cards, making them arc between her hands, defying gravity, or she would work them like an accordion, pulling them apart so they hung momentarily in the air, then squeezing them back together, and all the while she would look droll. And he would laugh.

“I loved…”

His face contorted. He composed himself.

Expressionless now, he cut the string. Through the binoculars, he saw his boxy kite plod southward toward the ocean. He saw the hare, also cut free, chase after his ox. He watched until both shrank to nothing.

EVENING THREE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife in
the Kite Room, Examining the Dragon Man-Flier

She stood studying the dragon’s unassembled components. As always, she wore the black-one piece bathing suit she had on that afternoon at the beach, and her wet hair hung in sodden strands around her ears.

Looking from the kite to Lo, in his white flying robe, she knitted her brow, squinting quizzically. He remembered once telling her he would resign, because the better he performed, the more his superior resented him, and sniped. She had squinted at him then, with this same quizzical expression.

“Find a better way to kick,” Mai had told him. “Don’t let him be your father.”

Lo carried the dragon’s head out to the balcony and set it down on the slates. Mai followed him out, and they both looked down at its face, yellow, with blue eyebrows and green leaflike appendages and red tendrils. Grinning, the dragon displayed peg-like white teeth, the canines sharpened.

A year’s work for Lo, every night in the kite room. His fingers remembered the feel of stretched silk.

He returned to the kite room to carry out the dragon’s thorax and its wings, stiffened with bamboo struts to bear the combined weights of kite and flier. Finally he brought out the segmented, coiled tail, so long it could straighten only in the sky.

Lo attached the head to the body, using dowels and silk twine. Then he attached the wings, and the tail.

He showed Mai the levers he had affixed to the bamboo handlebars, hidden in the dragon’s body—when he squeezed the levers, strings would pull out the dowels holding on the wings, and the wings would fold. He would then be over the sea.

As he tested the kite’s bamboo frame for tightness, Lo spoke to Mai without looking at her.

“I could not swim, so I stood like an ox, and I watched the riptide take you away,” he said.

He kept his eyes on the kite as he worked.

“I should have run in, let the ocean take me, too,” he said. “But I stood like an ox.”

And he said. “I am shamed.”

He lifted the kite and found its lightness amazing, although he had created it. He raised it up over him and down, so that his head fitted inside the dragon’s head. He looked out through eyeholes, placed all around. He gripped the handlebars, where his hands could easily find the levers by feel.

As he carefully climbed onto the balustrade, the long tail began to uncoil behind him. Balancing, he stepped over the low railing, first one foot, then the other. He looked down at the tiny people and toy cars.

Mai frowned at him.

“I’ll fly over the ocean,” he told her.

She looked down, shaking her head in exasperation, as she did when a swimmer she coached failed to grasp some technique, such as correctly cupping your hands.

Closing his eyes, he mouthed the final memorized phrases.

He stepped into the air.

He plummeted.

But he leaned back, even as the street rushed toward him, angling up the dragon’s wings to catch the wind. And the kite steadied. It rose, until he hung suspended before his apartment’s balcony, where Mai stood looking at him, shaking her head.

She pointedly looked southward. He followed her gaze: far down the row of apartment buildings, something flew out. And, when he turned back to Mai, he thought she looked thoughtful.

Gazing toward the distant kite, she held up her hands, dangling them from her wrists, making forward motions. It was a gesture she made at meets, to coax a protégé to swim intensely, to vie.

A gust sped the dragon kite along the row of buildings. Now he made out the other kite: a man-flier, like his. It took the shape of a luna moth, the palest of greens, its wings delicately rounded, tapering in back into long lacy tails.

A luna moth is almost air. It must go where the wind pushes it, perhaps into a bat’s mouth, or perhaps to a safe perch, where its beauty might be perceived. A luna moth can only flutter and hope.

He looked back and saw Mai watching him from the balcony, her hands still motioning him forward.

“You lie in seaweed on the ocean floor,” he shouted back to her. “You ate it to show acceptance.”

With her hands she motioned him on.

A second gust: he surged through the air, as Mai had surged through the pool. It exhilarated him. He looked back to see if Mai saw. But she was gone.

 

The Last Word

The Last Word

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Margaret Yang

 

Gone. It was all gone. The hospital had her mole now, and it didn’t matter that its original owner wanted it returned. Julia Coburn sagged in her chair. How could she make Mr. Lutley understand? She took a deep breath. The dozen ivy plants on the windowsill of administrator Lutley’s office did nothing to filter the air. It smelled like the rest of the hospital: the dusty, plastic smell of fresh band-aids.

“I must confess, Ms. Coburn, that our hospital has never seen a request such as yours.” Lutley’s jowly face oozed pleasant sympathy. “It was a routine operation. Your surgeon reported nothing unusual. And you’re healing wonderfully.” A half-smile appeared beneath his mustache. “Your face looks beautiful.”

Julia reflexively brought her fingers to her temple. “That’s not the point.”

“In any case,” Lutley went on, “we are no longer in possession of the nevus.”

“What? But you said—”

Lutley put up a forestalling hand. “All we have is a slide. A slice less than a millimeter thick. If this weren’t a teaching hospital, we wouldn’t have saved even that much.”

Julia flashed a pleading look at her lawyer. Lily Kang sat up straight in the next chair, elbows on the armrests and fingers steepled over her heart. “Mr. Lutley,” Ms. Kang said smoothly. “My client wants you to return any part of the tissue that you still have.”

“But she asked to have it removed, didn’t she?” Lutley fished around on his desk, finally finding the piece of paper he wanted. It was a standard hospital form, one of a half-dozen that had passed through Julia’s hands on the day of the operation. This one bore her damning signature, in her precise penmanship. Press hard, the top of the sheet demanded. You are making multiple copies. “Here is a copy of the waiver. If she didn’t want the mole removed, why have plastic surgery?”

Ms. Kang remained undisturbed. “Removed from her body, yes, but not from her possession.”

Lutley’s heavy eyebrows joined together as one when he frowned. “Well, of course, but we assumed—”

“It’s a part of me!” Julia insisted. “It’s mine! Can’t you understand that?”

Lutley tidied papers on his desk. “Yes, I suppose I can. We’ve had patients take gallstones home in old babyfood jars. If you’d told us at the time that you wanted it, your surgeon would have given you the entire thing. But now…” He spread his hands helplessly.

Julia blinked wetly at her lawyer. Bringing Ms. Kang along was a huge mistake. It only showed Lutley how badly she wanted the mole back. What was once simply part of a scientific database was now seen as desirable, and therefore valuable.

From her bulging briefcase, Ms. Kang produced a document of her own. “We have a statement from Ms. Coburn’s sister. She states that Ms. Coburn has been depressed since the removal of the nevus.”

Lutley took the single, typed sheet and scanned it. “Her sister? Who made her sister an authority?”

“You did, Mr. Lutley.” Ms. Kang lifted one corner of her mouth. “She’s a psychiatrist on your staff.”

Lutley let the paper fall onto his desk. “I can’t believe there can be any post-operative trauma from removing a mole.”

“Do you know that for certain, Mr. Lutley? What if you are ignoring a legitimate post-operative condition? Can you imagine how bad it would look for U. of M.?”

“We can—and should—return any part of the nevus we still have.” Lutley turned on his PDA and made a note. “I’ll get it from the research department. I’ll contact you… say, by the end of the week?”

“But it’s only Monday,” Julia practically whined.

“It’s just a mole, my dear.” Lutley lifted his bushy eyebrows, widening his eyes. “And you do look so much nicer without it.”

Julia buried her face in her hands and began to sob.

* * * * *

She should have stopped it as soon as the needle went in. She should have known then. As soon as the area was numbed, things started to change. The anesthetic was amazingly precise, affecting no more than a quarter-sized area of her left temple. She could feel the rest of her face, draped in sterile cloths, just fine. Why didn’t she stop it? She was distracted, thinking about her classes, thinking about how nice it would be not to have this ugly mole staring at her students when they looked at her. Vanity. Her own vanity got her into this. So, when the needle went in, numbing the area in preparation for surgery, she didn’t notice the memories slipping away.

* * * * *

None of Julia’s living relatives shared her abilities. Her mother certainly didn’t. Mom never said anything about it—perhaps didn’t even suspect—until a week after Julia’s sixth birthday.

Aunt Susan had come over with a new Barbie doll for Julia, a late birthday present. It was one of the new ones, that could bend her knees. Julia thought that surely she had never seen a more beautiful doll. More thrilling even than the Barbie or her pink chiffon gown were the impossibly tiny high-heels that came with her. Julia could never keep track of Barbie shoes. Only the go-go boots stuck around, as they were big enough not to get vacuumed up or lost in the grass.

Her sister got out her own Barbies, and the two of them sat on the floor having a fashion show. Julia tried on every Barbie outfit she owned, and then all of Natalie’s, seeing how everything looked with the new shoes. Adult voices floated over her head as comforting background noise until a sharp bark of laughter from Aunt Susan made her look up from the plaid miniskirt she was snugging over Barbie’s hips.

“A complete overreaction,” Aunt Susan said.

“I know!” Mom crowed. “I was ten minutes late.”

“The way Mother carried on, you would have thought you were out all night.”

“Tell me about it,” Mom answered. “He was just a friend. It’s not like we could get in any trouble on a rowboat.”

Aunt Susan sipped her iced tea. “Mother never did like boats.”

“Hmm.” Mom shook her head and reached for her glass.

Julia peered at the grown-ups over the coffee table. “Grandma was just scared.”

Mom and Aunt Susan both stared at her. “What did you say?”

Julia shrugged. “Scared of what could happen on a boat.”

Natalie tapped her arm under the table. “Shut up!” she hissed.

Mom drew her eyebrows together. “Julia, honey, we’re talking about something that happened before you were born.”

“I know.” Julia put her Barbie down. “Grandma was thinking about Ronnie, how he drowned, and that’s why she was scared.”

Aunt Susan stared at her as if Julia had just eaten the neighbor’s puppy. Mom just glared. “Who told you about your Uncle Ronnie?”

Julia shrugged again.

Mom looked from Julia to Aunt Susan and back. “You know,” she said carefully. “I think it’s time you girls go play outside.”

“But, Mom—”

“It’s a beautiful day. Go get some fresh air. You can take your toys with you.” Mother stood up and swept them out of the room so fast that Julia barely managed to gather up her doll and a few clothes. It wasn’t until she and Natalie were in the back yard that she realized that she only had one of Barbie’s new shoes.

She stayed outside for the rest of the afternoon, coming in only when called for supper. Nobody mentioned Uncle Ronnie at the supper table. Or ever again.

Julia never did find the other Barbie shoe.

* * * * *

Her sister knew. Her husband did not. Robert thought that Julia’s family told its own oral history, the way families will, reveling in their legends. The time Great-Grandpa won the pie-eating contest with nine blueberry pies. The time Aunt Abigail got lost at the zoo. The time the family bought a new house one block away. and the children moved all their own toys in the little red wagon. It was disloyal to keep the truth from Robert. It was necessary. She was afraid that her husband would start sending her out to play while the adults talked. He understood too much already, even claimed to understand her reasons for putting off child-bearing. Robert thought she didn’t want to lose her chance at tenure. He didn’t know that she had nightmares sometimes, of a daughter born with too-wise eyes, huge brown spot marking her face like a curse.

* * * * *

Julia stared out the window of her office in University Towers, wishing she could open it and fling out the stack of student essays on her desk. If she had to read one more composition on the simple life and healthy economy of the 1950s, she was going to puke. She looked enviously at the empty desk of her office-mate. Maybe she should start giving multiple-choice tests like Professor McCarthy. She doubted he even changed the questions from year to year.

Julia sighed and turned back to the pile in front of her. She’d just picked up her red pen when the phone rang.

“Hi, Natalie.”

“How’d you know?”

“Caller ID.”

“Oh.” A pause. “Have you heard anything from the hospital?”

“Not yet.” Julia realized she’d been stroking the scar and pulled her hand away from her temple.

“Hmmm. Maybe you should tell the hospital what the mole meant to you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, really! Maybe you can make them see… Past life regression is legit now. Shirley MacLaine makes money off of hers.”

“For pete’s sake, Natalie! I didn’t live these lives!”

“I don’t know why you had it removed anyway,” Natalie said. “You’re beautiful, with or without it.”

“I just… It’s all I saw when I looked in the mirror.”

“Do you think Cindy Crawford even notices her mole? She wouldn’t look like herself without it.”

“Thanks, Natalie, like I’m not depressed enough already.” Julia caressed the tiny scar with her fingertips. Even that was receding day by day. How could she have known what taking the mole off would do to her? “It just isn’t the same,” she said.

“Do you remember what you had for dinner last night?” Natalie asked.

“Of course!”

“And what you did last weekend?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your third-grade teacher?”

“Yep.”

“Then you’re doing better than fifty percent of my patients.”

* * * * *

Everyone assumed that Julia’s great-aunt Emma was psychic. She wasn’t. She simply knew things, about life’s circle and the endless cycle of all events. Neighbor women would sneak into Emma’s kitchen through the back door, not wanting anyone to know that they had a problem worthy of the old woman’s advice.

A sepia-toned photograph sat on Julia’s piano, a picture of Emma with a hat pulled low on her forehead, over her left temple. Julia didn’t need to see under the hat. She knew what was there.

* * * * *

Julia was absurdly grateful when her office phone rang the next morning. She practically threw herself onto the desk to grab the receiver without even looking at the caller ID. “Hello?”

“Hey, baby. It’s me.”

“Hi, Robert.” Julia swiveled her office chair to turn her back on the computer. Not that she was turning her back on much. Two hours had netted her less than half a page. She held the phone in her left hand while flipping through notes with her right. Somewhere in this mess was the statistic she needed for her new textbook on World War II. She was supposed to be writing about food rationing, but kept butting her head against dry facts. Who cared exactly how much flour and sugar was allotted to each family in 1943? What she really wanted to document was her grandmother’s recipe for one-egg cake.

“Want to meet me for lunch?” Robert asked.

“Can’t.”

“Still not going well?”

“It’s going lousy. I’ve been sitting here all morning and I’ve written two paragraphs. At this rate I’ll finish this chapter… oh, when I’m dead, I guess.” Julia rubbed her forehead. A headache that had been forming all morning thundered just behind her eyes.

“Sounds like you need a break. We can hit the buffet at Raja Rani.”

“You don’t understand.” Julia stared out the window at the students streaming past on Forest Avenue, some still in coats and sweaters, but most of them in their shirtsleeves. How was she supposed to finish three chapters by the end of the semester if she couldn’t even write one? “I don’t know if I can finish it,” she said in a small voice.

“Oh, sweetie, that’s just writer’s block. You’ll get past it.”

“I have never had writer’s block in my life. This is serious.”

Robert sighed into the phone. “I’ll bring you some takeout, then. Tandoori chicken? Bhindi masala?”

Julia resisted the urge to throw the phone through the window. “You are not listening to me.”

“Yes, I hear you,” Robert said. “You’re stressed. But you still have to eat.”

“Arrrhhh!”

“What?”

“This is more than stress, Robert.” Julia kicked at her desk drawer with the heel of her shoe. How could she make him understand? She loved her job. Nobody else taught history the way she did—or used to, anyway. “I just don’t know…” She took a deep breath, tried again. “I don’t think I can do this any more.” She exhaled loudly into the silence at the other end of the line.

“What are you saying?” Robert asked at last. “You want to quit your job?”

Julia could hear the unspoken pleading in his voice. She shook her head. This was no time to restart the stay-home-and-have-children discussion.

There was a knock on the frame of the open office door. Julia turned to see Heather Gedres standing in the doorway. “I’m not saying anything, Robert. I have to go. I have a student here.”

Julia hung up the phone and welcomed Heather into her office, assuring her that no, this was not a bad time and yes, she’d be happy to look over the rough draft of Heather’s term paper.

Julia would have sent any other student away, but she had a soft spot for Heather Gedres. Heather usually showed up for Julia’s 9:00 class unshowered, her hair in a greasy ponytail, clutching an extra-large Starbucks. But show up she did, for every single class. You had to love a kid who found learning more important than sleep.

Julia took the typed sheets and bounced her eyes down the paragraphs, pursing her lips to hide a smile. She’d read countless student papers on WWII, but none quite like Heather’s.

“This is the part I wanted to ask you about,” Heather said, pointing to the second page. “I know that rationing was supposed to be a hardship, right? But people were eating less meat, and less sugar, and less butter. They were growing vegetables at home. Weren’t they really eating a healthier diet?”

“Yes, but at the time, people thought that meat was the healthiest food of all. They felt quite deprived going without it.”

Heather leaned over her paper and pulled at her lower lip. “But meat consumption almost doubled after the war. Didn’t people notice that they didn’t feel as good eating all that meat? That their new diet made them feel worse?”

Julia rubbed her temple with her fingertips. Revisionist history was nothing new, of course, but this was the first time she’d ever encountered vegetarian revisionist history. “That’s an interesting point, Heather, I suppose you could ask someone who lived through the war, but her memory might be… her memories of the time…” Julia closed her eyes and pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead. If only this headache would go away. “If you weren’t there…”

“Dr. Coburn? Are you okay?”

“I’m all right.” She inhaled sharply through her nose, blew the air out. “Um… can we discuss this after class tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Heather jammed her paper back in her book bag and stood. “Sorry if I came at a bad time.”

“No. I apologize. I’m not feeling well.” Julia dug through her desk drawer for an aspirin.

She didn’t cry at all until Heather left.

* * * * *

When Natalie turned thirty, Julia was still in graduate school and completely broke. With no money for a present, she gave Natalie the only thing she could. Julia wrote down everything their mother remembered about Natalie’s first five years: where she got her first hair cut, the name of her nursery school teacher, the adorable way she called a washcloth a “ratwash.” All the things that Mom never had time to write in her baby book.

She couldn’t take it beyond that, since Julia was born when Natalie was five, but hopefully Natalie could remember her own life from that point on. And the matrilineal line stretched back and back—Julia got flashes of things from the Middle Ages sometimes, although the more recent memories were clearer.

And now? Who knew? Perhaps Natalie would have children some day. Perhaps Julia could teach them not to squander their talents.

Whatever those talents might be.

* * * * *

Robert was just hanging up the phone when Julia walked in the door from the garage. She put down her briefcase, kicked off her shoes, and headed straight for the freezer. Yes, one pint of chocolate and one of fudge ripple. Julia grabbed the chocolate ice cream and a spoon.

“Bad day?” Robert asked.

“The worst.” Julia held up the ice cream. “Do you think I could just mainline this stuff? It would go faster.”

Robert smiled. “I take it you’re eating the other pint, too?”

“If I don’t keel over from this headache, first.”

Robert poured her a glass of water and shook two Tylenol into her waiting palm. She swallowed the pills, then folded herself against Robert’s body, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her cheek to his chest. She sighed an exhausted sigh, forgetting about ice cream in the safe harbor of Robert’s embrace.

“I was nasty on the phone. I’m sorry.”

“Forgiven,” Robert said, his chin bouncing on top of her head. “Babe? We just got this cryptic message from Lily Kang’s office. Why is our lawyer calling us?”

Julia pulled out of his arms. “What did the message say, Robert?”

“It said she’s got your mole back.” Robert shrugged. “Whatever that means.”

“Really? She got it back already?”

“Apparently.”

Julia danced around the kitchen, kicking her feet forward, then to the side. She picked up her ice cream spoon and used it as a microphone. “I’m getting it back,” she sang. “I’m getting it back, I’m getting it back, I’m getting it back.” She threw herself into Robert’s arms and kissed him.

Robert leaned against the kitchen counter, eyebrows together and mouth half-open. “But I thought you wanted it removed.”

* * * * *

“Here it is.” Julia triumphantly placed the slide on Natalie’s kitchen table. They both stared at the glass rectangle as if it were a precious jewel. Finally, Natalie picked it up in her thick fingers and held it to the light.

“Not much left.”

“Is it enough?” Julia asked.

Natalie’s brow furrowed. “Enough for what?”

“For you to grow it back, of course.”

“What? Julia! I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a miniscule slice, and it’s preserved. It’s impossible.” Natalie set the slide back on the table.

Julia sat motionless, feeling her carefully built plan wobble at the foundation. “This is a part of me, right?”

“Yes…”

“The DNA is all there, right?”

“Theoretically.”

Julia sighed, resisting the urge to yell at Natalie for being so dense. It wasn’t Natalie’s fault. No, her own ignorance and vanity had gotten her into this, and only cleverness and humility would get her out. She looked Natalie in the eye. “I’ve got to find a way to make it part of me again.”

Natalie scratched her ear and looked out the window. “Let me get this straight. You want this—” She gestured to the slide. “Whatever is left on that slide, you want it in you.”

“Right.”

“How?”

Julia tossed empty air as she threw her hands wide. “That’s what I’m asking you, Natalie.”

Natalie stood and paced in the small kitchen, back and forth from the table to the sink. “Can I consult some people at the hospital?”

“Sure.”

“Okay.” Natalie placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “The University of Michigan employs some of the finest minds in science. If there’s a way to reintegrate a mole, they’ll find it.”

* * * * *

“Are you insane?” Dr. Gold tossed the slide onto the lab table.

“But, Ron—”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Wait,” Natalie pleaded. “I haven’t even told you—”

“Forget it,” Gold interrupted. “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

Julia stood silent in the corner of the lab, watching grad students tiptoe around their boss while he shrieked at Natalie. Why Natalie had decided to consult Dr. Gold was beyond her. She said he was an expert in genetics, but obviously his expertise did not extend to colleague relations.

“All I’m asking is for some help with—”

“This isn’t a game,” Gold snarled. “I can not believe you’re wasting my time with this.”

Natalie held up a forestalling hand. “Ron? Do you think you can let me finish just one sentence? Please?”

Gold glared at Natalie, blinking rapidly. He folded his arms across his chest. “Go ahead.”

“All I asked you for were the mechanics. How to dissolve the slide, what the medium should be, the dimensions of the syringe. I didn’t ask for your approval and I certainly didn’t ask for your permission.”

“No!” Gold repeated. “You’re messing around with things you do not understand.”

Julia sucked in an angry breath. Understand? It was Gold who didn’t understand. Julia realized she’d been caressing her left temple again, and snatched her hand away. The headache was starting again, right behind her eyes. She moved forward to stand in front of the lab table that Gold was using as a barrier between them. “Excuse me? Dr. God?”

“That’s Gold,” he growled.

Julia slapped her hand over her mouth. Oops. “Sorry. Dr. Gold.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t know why you’re being so hostile. My sister asked for your advice. I’m sorry that you can’t help us. We’ll leave now.” She picked up the slide and cradled it in her palm.

Gold sighed. “I’m being ‘hostile’ because there are dangers. Dangers which you are completely ignoring. Moles are benign tumors. What if you are risking a malignancy?”

“Oh, come on,” Natalie scoffed.

“Are you willing to take that risk?” Gold asked.

“It’s my mole,” Julia answered. “It’s my risk to take.”

Gold stared at Julia for a long moment. She wondered what he saw: could he see beyond her dark eye-circles and pasty skin, beyond her misbuttoned shirt and uncombed hair? Julia stood tall and lifted her head, looking him in the eye. Could he see that she was nearly crazed with desperation?

The silence stretched to the breaking point and Gold looked down at his table. “You’re going to do this. No matter what I say.”

Julia nodded. “I don’t have a choice.”

“Conrad!” Gold barked to one of his grad students. “Get me pen and paper. Now.” The student scurried off to comply. When he returned, Gold snatched the pen out of the kid’s hands and scrawled a series of names on it. He handed the paper to Natalie. “This will neutralize the preservative,” he said, pointing. “You should be able to dissolve it to injectable form with this.”

Gold moved to the far wall of the lab, elbowed a few students out of the way, and rummaged through a drawer. He returned with a surprisingly small syringe. “If you’re determined to do this, at least inject it under the skin, like a vaccination. Don’t go into a vein.”

“How long before her body metabolizes it?” Natalie asked.

Gold gave Julia a measuring look. “If it doesn’t metastasize? I’d say it will break down in thirty-six hours. Max.”

Julia brushed her hand over her forehead. Thirty-six hours? Was that all? Would it be time enough?

It would have to be.

* * * * *

Julia and Natalie sat in the kitchen of Natalie’s apartment, staring at the syringe full of amber liquid on the table between them. “Are you ready for this?” Natalie asked.

Julia bit her lower lip. “Yes.” She looked from the needle to her sister. “No. Wait. Couldn’t we inject a little at a time? You know, just try it out?”

Natalie shook her head. “I doubt it. This isn’t a drug, Julia. Either it’s in your system or it’s not. We don’t even know if this is going to work.”

“Okay, okay. Yes, you’re right.” Julia pressed her lips together. This had to work. Her lost memories came with an obligation—one she had yet to repay. Julia gave Natalie’s forearm a quick squeeze. “Ready,” she whispered.

Natalie’s hands quivered as she swabbed Julia’s arm with alcohol. She raised the needle and Julia closed her eyes, felt the tiny prick that was her last hope.

She waited. At first there was nothing.

And then, everything.

Julia kept her eyes closed, reveling in the rush of completeness. At last, she was once again whole.

Natalie gasped. “Julia! Are you all right?”

Julia cocked her head to the side. “Of course I’m all right. Why?”

“You’re smiling! I haven’t seen you smile since—”

Julia opened her eyes, leapt to her feet and grabbed her car keys. “I gotta go.”

“Wait, Julia, are you sure—”

Julia flew through the front door. “Call Robert and tell him to cancel my classes,” she called over her shoulder. “Oh, and thank you, Natalie. Thank you!”

“Julia!”

“I’m fine, Natalie! More than fine! I’m perfect!”

* * * * *

Julia jerked awake, her neck stiff from sleeping in her chair. How long had she slept? She fumbled for the little clock she kept on the corner of her desk in her home office. Four o’clock!

She’d missed nearly three hours. The injection might not last much longer. She had to get back to writing.

She turned to the computer, intending to start where she’d left off. But where was that? She scrolled upward through twenty hours of narrative. Fifteen pages back, she found an entry about her grandmother. She’d been writing about Josephine’s secretarial job at Wilson and Company, to which she wore pleated short skirts and long coats, made with Butterick patterns copied out of Delineator magazine. Josephine was often called “fastidious” by the other secretaries—considered a compliment—because she washed her hair every day and wore Odorono deodorant. Little did they know that she completely scandalized her mother by spending her first paycheck on pink bed sheets and pillowcases. Even if they were Pequot.

Julia stared at the computer monitor, remembering suddenly why Josephine had gotten the secretarial job in the first place. She was trying to help out her father, whose silent movie house was nearly put out of business by talking pictures.

Julia reached for the keyboard to capture the story, but when she tried to type, every muscle in her wrists and forearms cramped tight with a stabbing agony. There would be no more typing today. With a sob of frustration, Julia dug into her desk for paper. She seized the nearest pen and held it gingerly between her fingers. If she didn’t move her arm too much, she could probably stand to write.

Four hours later, after filling more than eight legal pads, her right arm was wrapped in a cast of pain. She’d had to pee for the last two hours, holding it in, terrified to let anything leave her body. Finally she couldn’t wait another second. Panting, she ran down the hall.

Through the bathroom door, she could hear Robert in the bedroom, talking on the phone. “Yes, I know that, but—” and then, “I know her book is under deadline, but she’s not even working on that. She’s writing some sort of—”

Julia ran cold water into the sink and plunged her right arm in. What she really needed was ice, but there was no time for that. On the other side of the door, Robert sounded even more dubious.

“Sure, sure. You’re right, Natalie, but… No, I don’t think so.” A pause. “I’m taking care of her the best I can, but she hardly eats and she doesn’t sleep.” A longer pause. “Okay… I’ll try… I’ll call you back later.” Julia could hear him walk to the kitchen and start fussing with dishes.

Julia drained the sink water and marched into the kitchen. “Do you still have that little tape recorder I gave you last Christmas?”

“What?”

“That tape recorder! Hurry!”

Robert folded his arms across his chest. “I’ll find it on one condition.”

“What?”

“Eat.”

Julia picked up the half-eaten remains of her lunch. She stuffed a huge bite of cheese sandwich in her mouth and bugged her eyes out at him. “I need tapes, too,” she said with her mouth full.

When Robert returned, Julia was seated at her desk, feebly gripping a pencil with her left hand, making painstaking letters on a fresh legal pad. She was trying to document some of her great-grandmother’s little quirks. How she insisted on brushing her teeth with baking soda, even after the rest of the family had switched to Colgate. How she made one box of Chipso flakes do for both laundry and dish soap. How she boiled a pot of Postum each morning, insisting to her husband that it was healthier than coffee. Julia looked up as Robert approached. “Oh, thank god,” she said, and grabbed for the recorder. “It’s almost gone.”

Robert spilled a stack of blank cassettes on her desk and backed slowly out of the room.

* * * * *

As she slotted in a fresh cassette, Julia wondered which would go first: her memory or her voice? Her throat was on fire from six hours of non-stop talking, but she didn’t dare shut up. Who knew if her next word would be her last? She was rambling now, probably incoherent, but still she poured everything she could think of into the recorder. Slower, now. It was getting harder and harder to remember details.

Julia cleared her throat and pushed the “record” button. She’d been trying to explain about Kathryn Lancaster, five generations ago. Kathryn’s mother was Anne… no. Jane? Julia wiped a tear from her cheek. How could she not know? She was born knowing this. Julia took a deep breath, tried again. “Kathryn’s mother was Jane. She married a man named something like Portman… or Pitman? But he wasn’t her first husband.” Julia’s voice gave out completely on the last syllable. “Anyway, they never…” she croaked. “They never did…” Julia sobbed into the microphone.

Gone. It was all gone. There was nothing left. Worse, there was no one left. No one to tell her story, or Natalie’s. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, not sure if she was apologizing to ancestors past or descendants to come. “I am so sorry,” she whispered as the tape rolled on, recording the last word.

 

The Shed

The Shed

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Bud Webster

 

Martin had always hated the shed. As far back as he could remember, he’d hated it. It was dark, musty, dank; the walls were lined with peg-board and rusted tools hung here and there on hooks like broken teeth. There were spiders and ancient wasp nests, filth in every corner, and there was an evil smell, like time gone bad.

What glass had once been in the windows had long ago been lost to rocks thrown by anonymous boys goaded on by their equally anonymous friends. The shed stared at him, sightless and terrible, beckoning.

Worse were the memories. The shed was full to bursting with them, razor-sharp in his mind even after thirty years. They came at him now, like sand whipped by a hot desert wind; his mother, face drawn and gaunt, meeting him at the door as he came in from school and saying, “Your father’s waiting for you in the shed.” The hopelessness of her voice—she’d had her turns in the shed, too—the long walk through the back yard, grass hissing against his feet; the shadow inside the door waiting, waiting. “Your father is waiting in the shed.” Are there any more dreadful words in a child’s experience?

Then the beatings, usually with a belt, but sometimes (if the sin had been grievous enough) with a stick of firewood that left him bruised and not infrequently bloody. The shame was part of it, too, and the heat and the grit of dirt under his shoes as he stood crying in the aftermath, his father’s breath washing over him in waves of rage and whiskey. A bad report card. A chore undone. Farting in church. The reasons didn’t matter; there was always a reason. It was the thing itself, the agony of humiliation, sharp as a carpet-tack hammered into the center of his soul.

Last night was the first time he’d been in the shed since leaving home at seventeen. Tonight would be the final time. Looking at it now, he knew that going in there again would be like pissing on a live wire, but he had no choice if he was ever to be whole again.

He’d run from home as soon as he’d graduated from high school, desperate to leave it all behind, knowing deep inside himself that it would never be far from him. He’d gone alone, with his mother’s blessing. “One of us should get away,” she’d said as she pressed $134 in dingy, tattered bills into his hand. She’d hoarded it, hiding it from his father under a loose window sill. “I can’t. Not no more. Go to Roanoke, or Richmond and find work. Try to get some college.” Then she smiled, and it almost broke him to remember it. “I’ll be fine, boy. Just go before he wakes up.” He had, and a part of him still bled that he hadn’t found a way to take her with him.

The wind blew an empty soda can across the top of the driveway where he stood. He looked at the label as it rolled: Black Cat Cherry Cola. He smiled a little at the irony. After last night, bad luck was the least of his worries.

His mother had simply given up when he was twenty-three, stealing pills from a co-worker’s purse and swallowing them methodically, one at a time. She’d passed out at the table in the break room and just never woke up. At her funeral, his father had been drunk in the chapel, drunk at the gravesite, loudly proclaiming his grief and her worthlessness. Few others were there to mourn her.

It was a month now since they’d buried his father, dead after years of solitary drunkenness in his cheap trailer up in the Amherst woods. There were no mourners; Martin saw his father into the ground alone. The service had been short and perfunctory, led by a minister supplied by the mortuary who kept mispronouncing his father’s name. Martin didn’t bother to correct him. It didn’t matter, not even the Pope could keep his father out of Hell.

It had taken Martin that entire month to work up the courage to come back, to do what he had to do. There was no estate to pay for maintenance, so the grave was already becoming overgrown and weedy. The staff of the little boneyard had better things to do with their time than to look after a plot stuck off in a corner.

The house was gone, gutted by fire a year after his mother’s passing. The fire department came, but only because a neighbor spotted the smoke and called. His father had stopped paying his phone bills long before.

The land was his as the only surviving heir. There was no nostalgia here, though, no attachment, no sense of ownership. What value the land might have was far outweighed by the vileness that saturated it like blood in dirt.

He would be done with it soon enough, in any case.

He closed his eyes against another memory, flinching at the intensity of it. He was eleven, already in a perpetual state of terror. The three of them sat at the dinner table: his father with bottle at hand, sly and furtive, staring at his wife and son through piggish eyes as the two of them ate slowly and warily. Suddenly he lashed out, slapping her across the side of her head and knocking her glasses into a bowl of potatoes. She slowly turned her head back around, not looking at anything but the table in front of her, and fumbled her glasses out of the bowl. With trembling hands she wiped them on her apron, then put them back on, her face already swollen and red. “That’s what you get,” his father had said. “Just you don’t forget it, neither of you.” There had been too many other meals like that one.

The light was beginning to turn now, deepening towards dusk, and it was time. He stretched his back, still sore from the night before. It had been hard work, and foul, and he was certain that at some point he’d crossed the line into madness because of it, but it was done. Now he would put paid to all.

Tomorrow, he’d burn the shed and all the hateful poison it held. There was still work to do tonight, though, and he was as ready as he’d ever be. He took the baseball bat from where it leaned against his car in hands that were still raw and blistered from digging, glorying in the pain, letting it flash through him and carry him on. He began the long walk, the grass hissing against his feet for the last time.

His father was waiting for him in the shed.

 

The Moment

The Moment

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Lawrence M. Schoen

 

Four tiny, cerulean lozenges winked in and out of phase for a moment, twinkling like silvery fish, sardines really, as they shimmied into position and formed the corners of a tetrahedron above the lunar surface. On cue, Cwaliheema—the highest rated archaeocaster across seventeen star clusters—flared into existence at the center of the pyramid, a lifeform that to human senses would have registered as a ball of golden light, a sense of longing for one’s first love, and the memory of comfort food gone bad. Cwaliheema rotated upon first one axis then another, and locked onto the object of her intention by whatever perceptual system her kind possessed.

Despite her appearance, when she addressed her audience the archaeocaster spoke in English. “Friends and lovers, this is an exclusive quantacast! I’m coming to you live via timeslow, and using authentic, reconstructed linguistic systems because this is a rare moment, my darlings. Mere pico-seconds have passed since my producer Gilly sacrificed his own consciousness to jury-rig the lockout mechanism to get me here. My location has been kept under interdict by forces that refused to acknowledge our queries, let alone be interviewed. Even stretching this instant as we are, there isn’t much time before those selfsame curmudgeons break through what remains of Gilly’s potential memories and bounce me, so pay attention while you can. I’m hovering mere sklues—pardon the slip, I meant to say “inches”—above the only surviving Mark! Yes, you know what I’m talking about, and why I’m doing so in a language whose speakers are long gone. How better to honor them? Below me is the sole remaining artifact of a once proud people who cast their entertainments into space for the benefit of us all. Burn and then freeze this image into your receptors, you’ll likely never get another chance. This is all we have, the last remnant of any of the Marks, and even this has been denied our experiencing until now. Experts disagree, speculation runs rampant, but it is this reporter’s opinion that we are experiencing Groucho. Note the depth of the indentations, the comical pattern of their relief. Night and Day, Opera and Races, this is not the work of Gummo. I know, I know, the silent vacuum of the locale begs the question for many, blatantly insisting that this Mark is Harpo, but I’m here and they’re not, and I’m telling you that I’m glocklerizing an undeniable sense of Groucho here.”

One of the sardine-like corners blackened, shriveled, and slurred. Another followed suit, and then a third. The blur of Cwaliheema lost cohesion and flickered out of existence as the curmudgeons in question shattered the last bits of unrealized recollections and secured the site once again, annihilating the archaeocaster in the process.

* * * * *

The generation ship of Krenn frantically dumped velocity as it splooched from the fuel-efficient but mind-numbing slowness of intramolecular phasetransit back into the normal time-space continuum, less than a cubit above the moon. The ship crashed into the middle of the heelprint. Its immaculate hull that had withstood the flailings of phasetransit for a quarter million years without so much as a ding, shattered itself against the unyielding bulk of a grain of lunar dust. Of the six thousand seventeen Krenn onboard at the time, a scant several hundred survived the crash. Nearly all of these recovered from their injuries and disembarked over the next month.

None of the first generation of Krenn had lived long enough to reach the site, though none had expected to. The very first Krenn had conceived of this journey in the distant past, dedicating his life and his posterity to the pilgrimage with an ever recycling population of clones. Like their clonefather, each was an optimized collection of smart matter no bigger than a speck. Hundreds of generations of Krenn had lived and died during the voyage, their remains enshrined into niches in the very walls of the vessel that now lay shattered at its destination.

The survivors flooded out upon the steppes of the heel, rejoicing despite the crushing weight that gravity forced upon them. They settled in, constructing mansions of haze and shadow, and waited for enlightenment to come. The mission and purpose of the first Krenn remained with each of them. This place had been the site of the greatest triumph of the greatest archaeocaster in all of history. Before the beginning of the quest, Krenn—the original Krenn—had felt drawn to it. He had cultivated the tales, sifted myth from coincidence, mastered the lost language of the interview-eschewing, spatial curmudgeons of the ancient dark times, and recreated the route through dimensional puzzles to this theoretical location. The odds of success had been so absurd not a single entelechy of Krenn’s crèche dared invest time or expense in the project. And yet, here they were, nearly three hundred unique individuals sharing the template of Krenn.

They waited. Enlightenment did not come. The Krenn diverged from one another, much more so than they had upon the voyage here. No longer held together by the dream of basking in the dead essence of a nigh mystical archaeocaster, they found little in common despite their shared Krenness. Over time, they disagreed. As the years passed, the disagreements became arguments. Soon after, arguments begat fights. Fights acquired weight and number and expanded into battles. By the time the Krenn population doubled—for the cloning had continued after landfall—their homesteads had spread beyond the heel and across the sole. Some few hearty adventurers had dared to venture beyond the cliff heights at the toes’ edge, but none had returned with any tales of what lay beyond. Nor would they.

The battles turned into war, a vast conflagration of violence, Krenn against Krenn, that defied all sense, and did not end until every last speck had been slaughtered. In its final moment, perhaps the last of the Krenn found an ironic enlightenment in the situation. Perhaps not.

* * * * *

After the better part of another half million years, Seela, heir apparent to the Vegetable Worlds that were all that remained of the folly of short-lived, meat-based intelligence in that part of space, came to the moon and the end of another sort of quest. He—using a very loose definition of the gender—resembled a ten-meter stalk of articulated broccoli. After a moment’s glance, he ignored the imprint before him. It did not occur to him to wonder how it had survived for so long when the rest of the barren surface lay pitted and random. Nor did he know anything of the pilgrimage of the Krenn, save that the minuscule and sentient specks had indeed ended their existence upon this barren worldlet, the last spheroid that species had settled. Ages earlier, several of Seela’s closest florets had confirmed the details. They had rummaged through that race’s long dead worlds, part scavenger hunt part morbid feast, as they had cracked open every last reliquary and steamed random memories from the shriveled remains of trillions of specks. After consuming their fill, they had flash-frozen themselves and returned to the royal court. Once they had thawed and quickened, still bloated on alien thoughts, they stumbled before their prince. Seela had delighted in their accounts, and then snipped their stems and sucked up the disturbing memories second hand. Cannibalism, though infrequent, was a tradition among the royal lines of the Vegetable Worlds, and one must suppose that the hangers-on that orbited Seela, fawning upon his buds and proclaiming his fractals, had to have known the risks. After draining the last of his stunned nearest and dearest, he found himself still cognitively peckish. No matter. The morsels he’d consumed provided the knowledge to track down the tiny lost colonies that had quit their world of origin and never looked back.

Seela sought them, the relatively large and the disappointingly small. None of the colonies still survived, but the dreams and imaginings of their tiny lives lingered in the desiccated flesh of each speck. One by one, Seela sucked them dry, gorging palate and mind, and in this way, he arrived at the moon, and the last of the lostlings. He gathered up some from the dusty surface, while others had to be carefully peeled out of tombs built into the walls of a quaint vessel scarcely the size of a mote. He steamed them open, restoring their nigh microscopic minds to the fullness of episodic memory, then slurped their petty feuds and pointless arguments. Despite the tastiness of their thoughts, Seela failed to comprehend the lingering history of purpose that had brought them hither.

The ingestion of dead thoughts from this last remnant of the species disagreed with Seela. He experienced an allergic reaction to the concentration of Krenn. The resulting indigestion proved terminal. With barely a realization of his own demise, Seela wilted and passed from this plane of existence, ending his family’s line, and indirectly dooming the Vegetable worlds that would have been his domain. In the years that followed, without the guidance of an undisputed ruler, they fell into anarchy brought about by revolutionary molds and rebel fungi, and passed into history.

* * * * *

A peer review chorus from the Trindle Journal of Medical Profundities convened to hold forth on a particularly truculent cantata by a novice gastroforensiologist. In itself this failed to impress—truculence being a common feature of digestive music, particularly among the newly initiated—but this specific alimentarian had sung the ironies of the scion of vegetable royalty succumbing to a fatal ingestion of long dead mnemonic ephemerals during a period of obscure history. The combination of extremes, while the very heartbeat of irony, required investigation. It wouldn’t be the first time some junior coloratura tried to pull a fast one in pursuit of a publication in the most prestigious journal to which a Trind could aspire.

The remains of the royal victim had presumably long since been retrieved by its vegetable kin, succumbed to the passage of time, or otherwise vanished from this place, but that was as the review choir expected. And yet they’d been drawn to the scene, seeking a lingering vibration of the original atopic syndrome, as the novice gastroforensiologist had evoked in his article and composition.

The choir gathered in loose formation around the footprint. Though they failed to recognize what it was, they intuited some significance to the location in relation to the cantata, the vegetable prince, and the primitive dots of memory it had consumed. They communed, allowing both the music and the medical narrative to take shape among them. Astonishingly, the combination sustained the gastroforensiologist’s arguments. The irony rang out, cruel in its finality, leaving a diagnosis that suggested an expensive course of treatment, one which would prove pointless but might lead to future papers, promotion, and even grants in support of pure research. With one voice, the choir burst into a spontaneous motet of adoration, acknowledging their privilege to have reviewed such artistry, and sending a unanimous approval of the article to the editor of the journal.

Having discharged their duty, the chorus abandoned its unity, retreating to the anonymity of the disparate identity of its membership of Trindle physicians, medical researchers, and choral directors. After they vanished, a few lingering notes of the novice’s composition clung to the edges of the footprint, like blue photons enmeshed in the syrup of a solar wind, but only for an instant, and then these too faded.

* * * * *

A library protocol, the sort of officious and untiring bit of code that kept the great machine at the heart of the galaxy from winding down, had been seeking the mysterious and inspiring mark referenced in a footnote from a member of the peer review that had signed off on the piece of antigen consequence art that sparked a revolution among aesthetes for several million years. Like most algorithms, this particular library protocol had eschewed heuristics that might have allowed it to eliminate ninety percent of the false loci reported as containing the desired mark, preferring to investigate each one, chugging along strings of folded vacuum, exhausting sufficient conceptual fuel to power the dreaming of at least three medium stars. Library protocols are dogmatically thorough that way.

It had reassembled the academic lineage of each member of the review chorus and evaluated their descendants’ genetic dispositions, musical tendencies, and medical proclivities. Beginning at the galactic core, it had proceeded through its list of loci in an ever-widening spiral, rejecting locus after locus, until at last arriving at a cold and airless moon orbiting a lifeless world. Here it found some seventy-seven points of corroboration, fifty-three more than the next best locus. It immediately sent a signal back to the great machine with a single message glyph: Success!

After each of its previous stops the library protocol had been free to move on, squirting a glyph core-ward to update the great machine of its status. Now, having achieved its goal, it had no choice but to settle in and wait. In time the great machine would respond with new directives. Perhaps, now that the lost locus had been found, a renaissance of research would result and scholars and music lovers would swarm to this obscure place. Perhaps an academic institute would be established in the name of the Trind artist, though a quick review of library systems revealed not a single citation of that worthy in the past six hundred thousand years. In fact, even among historical synthesists, interest in antigen consequence art had faded from academic interest since the protocol had begun its quest. Barely a terabyte of new journal articles had been generated on even tangential topics.

Caught up in the frenzy of its quest, the library protocol had failed to keep current with the relevant literature. Only now, as it waited amidst the dust did it begin to explore—via judicious use of quantum-level info-squirts—the new directions of information that had entered the galaxy’s libraries in lieu of the field that had defined its purpose.

Many regimes of servitors of the great machine had come and gone in the time the library protocol had been about its business. Organic, inorganic, phantasmal, even conceptual support staff had cycled from probation through retirement, caring for the vast records complex of the great machine. It was unlikely any individual among them had the slightest awareness of the trillions of library protocols that had been released on their specific missions throughout the galaxy, let alone this one in particular. It was only when a protocol accomplished its task and reported in that anyone might become aware, and be dazzled at the outcome and the influx of long-sought knowledge. Or not.

A terse two-glyph message, “budget exceeded,” was the only reply from the great machine. To even a simple creation as the library protocol it spoke volumes. There would be no renaissance, no institute. The entire area of research had long since been discredited and forgotten. New budget priorities dictated new agenda, and these did not include the expense of revamping a far-off protocol. The reply, witnessed in passing by some unknown servitor of the great machine, decommissioned the library protocol and snuffed out its algorithms, leaving only a momentary flicker of recursive data that had once been self-aware.

* * * * *

A paradigm shift of planetary consciousnesses brought on a terrible backlash of fiduciary compliance inquiries that not even the galaxy’s most gargantuan—let alone those that were merely great—machines could survive unscathed. Cometary particulates were harvested, imbued with low animal cunning and accounting skills, and unleashed upon the trails of flagrant misuse of data funds. The process was slow, even by civil service standards.

By the time the auditing particulates reached Luna, the galaxy had lost any recollection of any record of any individual that had ever known that the former great machine of the galaxy had permitted an investigation. The trail itself would have been lost to even the most ardent of temporal sniffers had the obscurity of its location not caused it to stand out, the only data point flagged for possible fraud or abuse in a dully average arm of the galaxy.

Like most audits, this one took far longer than required, yielded nothing of interest, and had been completely unnecessary. And yet… the particulates remained. They attempted to resurrect the pathetic strands of pseudo consciousness that had been a wastefully expensive library protocol, but failed. That caused no surprise, though there were signs that the thing had lingered, maintaining some fragment of existence far beyond its specifications, though how or why could not be discerned.

This portion of the galactic audit completed, these particulates should have discorporated, per standard procedure. Instead they rejoined their brethren, the tale of their mundane audit becoming a bit of lore among their kind that perseverated as a regulatory fable passed from generation to generation, unremarkable yet nonetheless somehow compelling.

* * * * *

A coterie of proto-godlings transitioned into reality at the site, their manifestations as ephemeral as ghosts, constantly shifting through the archetypal forms of past sapients of the galaxy. A tutor accompanied them, a docent to service their yearning for insight and understanding to better guide them in their impending deocracy. She took a form of an ever-cycling rain of liquid hydrogen, speaking to her pupils in a language that used the position and speed and orientation and shape of droplets as you might use sound and pitch and the shape of your lips to form words. Her very existence was an unending discussion conveying many simultaneous topics, all interwoven in complexities of time and meaning beyond human understanding but well within the grasp of the young beings in her charge.

“What do you sense here?” she rained, a portion of herself beginning a new line of conversation. “Tell me why I have brought you to this place.”

Though each could ignite stars or bring entire eco-systems into existence, the proto-godlings had long since learned not to answer in haste. After a decade, one of the younger and most precocious said, “Something happened here.”

The cascade of hydrogen contracted, casting the equivalent of a withering gaze upon her students. “Something is always happening, everywhere, at every instant. If nothing is happening, that very absence is significant, and thus may be considered as happening.”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” said the proto-godling, its appearance flickering at greater speed through a range of lifeforms, each more distraught than the one before it. “Something happened here that made a difference—I know, everything makes a difference, somehow, to something—but this mattered to the galaxy. This was a Moment.”

“Good. We have studied Moments. What can you tell me of this one?”

“It is like the Face of Netteya,” said a second student. “Though it has long since been destroyed, its locus fills all who occupy that place with a sense of peace. All sapience is drawn to it, and those who encounter it go to war to claim it.”

“It is nothing like that,” said the precocious one. “It’s… different?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“I… I’m telling you. It’s not like the other Moments you’ve shown us. The significance of this locus is unlabeled and not apparent. But it impinges upon the mind even so.”

“Exactly,” said the tutor. As one the proto-godlings sighed with relief. “Unlabeled Moments are rare, and this is one of the oldest of them. Intelligent beings find themselves pulled here. The fabric of the galaxy causes this to happen, but does not explain itself. Not knowing the real reason, they look around and latch onto whatever explanation seems plausible. They routinely err in their theories, reifying their mistakes, and leaving them for others to build upon. Open your perceptions to this place, sort through the stories and confusions. Who can tell me when this Moment really began, and why?”

A century passed, and then another. The proto-godlings conferred, and as a group thrust their youngest member forward with an answer.

“The mark on the surface,” he said. “A physical being stood there, long ago.”

“That’s right,” said their tutor. “And the galaxy has chosen to preserve that imprint. But why? Of all the races that have grown to sapience and entered space, why is this one significant?”

The proto-godlings conferred again. They allocated resources among themselves, exploring the intervening ages an instant at a time. Such was their power that they relived the communications, the delusions, the misperceptions of every sapient mind that had occupied this locus back to the very beginning of the Moment. They concluded nothing and once again pushed the youngest forward.

“I don’t know,” he said, trembling in anticipation of the tutor’s wrath.

“And you cannot inherit this galaxy until you do,” she said. “Now pay close attention.

“When the galaxy was young, an intelligent species evolved on one of this solar system’s planets. They developed the means to leave their world. This standing place that you have identified, is where they paused. Who they were, whatever else they accomplished is lost to us.”

The youngest, the most precocious of them, manifested an image that might have been a child of the species that had first stood here. “Tutor, I do not understand. There are other lost species. Many others left their worlds before another species came to them first. What is so special about this one that it caused a Moment to occur?”

“They believed themselves alone in the universe, and yet set forth to prove themselves wrong,” she said. “They turned away from everything they knew, to experience what they could not know. This Moment is not because they stood here.”

“What then?”

“When one takes a step, it is possible to step back. In fact, it is a common occurrence.” She paused to draw their attention. “That’s not what happened here.”

The proto-godlings peered at the footprint, tunneling past the perceptions and experiences of all the other beings that the Moment had drawn to this locus.

“I still do not understand, Tutor. Why then is this a Moment?”

With a sprinkling of light rain the tutor gathered her charges around her, smiling through the hydrogen of her words.

“This is where they jumped off.”

 

Originally published in Footprints, edited by Jay Lake and Eric T. Reynolds, from Hadley Rille Books.

Ode to Humanity

Ode to Humanity

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Stephen L. Antczak

 

“You’re crazy,” said Jenna, my sister. “Don’t do it.”

“What else can I do? I don’t feel like I have a choice in the matter,” I replied.

“They give everyone a choice,” Jenna pointed out. “You just have to make the right one is all.”

They, meaning the aliens, didn’t make it quite as simple as that. As far as anyone could tell their idea of “right” versus “wrong” was completely arbitrary.

“I’m sorry,” I told Jenna. “I’ve made up my mind.”

She sighed. “Mom always said you were the stubbornest person ever born.”

“Let’s hope she was right.”

I thought of something that might ease her mind, if just a little.

“Remember the puppies?” I asked.

Jenna frowned, then smiled.

“You remember,” I said.

“Yes, I remember.” She sighed. “But this is different.”

“Not to me, it isn’t,” I said. “At the time, there was nothing more important to me than those puppies. Nothing. So…”

* * * * *

Everywhere I go I’m followed by a huge, impenetrable, invulnerable alien spaceship that hovers over me. I’m used to it now. It’s been so long now that it sometimes seems as if people have forgotten the terror the alien craft imbued in people wherever it appeared, all around the globe. Having your own personal pet alien spaceship makes life interesting. Everyone knows who I am now, but I’ve gotten used to that, too. For a while people avoided me, not that it would have necessarily protected them. But now, even though it is a curiosity, people just accept it and get on with their lives, and allow me to get on with mine.

* * * * *

Ten years ago, on a bright and clear, but cold, morning the aliens zapped the Mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee. One moment he was there, and the next… zap! He disappeared in a flash. Needless to say, this struck fear into the hearts of civic leaders everywhere, and here’s why:

No one could touch the aliens. Nothing worked against their ships, not bombs, not bullets, not lasers, not sonic beams, not kamikaze attacks, not prayer, not nuclear missiles, not eternal optimism, not brass balled guts-n-glory tough guy attitude, not chanting, not late night talk show humor… nothing. The aliens could go anywhere and do whatever they wanted, to whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Humanity as a whole was being treated like a dog by an abusive owner, one minute being rewarded and treated kindly, the next being kicked hard in the ribs for no reason whatsoever. It was exceedingly stressful. Prescriptions for anxiety and depression shot through the roof.

* * * * *

So that’s the setting for this recounting of one moment during the darkest of dark ages in our history. We all saw how some survived and others didn’t, apparently by pure, random chance.

* * * * *

The aliens gave each of us a choice, but not always the same choice. Senator Lackley (D-Montana) had to choose between himself and a puppy. He chose himself and nothing happened to either him or the puppy. Following that example, Chattanooga’s Mayor Jackson, asked to choose between himself and an old man, chose himself and we know what happened to him. Then it was that African warlord’s turn to decide between himself and one of his wives. Of course he chose the wife and the aliens obliterated her and him.

It happened all over the world and no one could stop it; no one could do anything about it. Everyone agreed we were being tested, but no one could figure out what the test meant. World leaders pleaded live on the air, on the radio and television from mountain tops and the marble steps of official buildings, asking them why. They got no response, and the testing didn’t stop.

A CEO of an oil company was told to choose between his wife and his twin sister. He agonized over it for days before replying with a bullet to his own brain. The alien zapped the twin sister, but allowed the wife to live. The message was clear: killing yourself was not a way out.

That one got me thinking, though.

* * * * *

Somehow, I knew they’d get to me. Don’t ask me why. I just knew. It was a feeling that built and built inside me until one day I stepped out of my office and saw the ship hovering overhead. My first thought was, why me? They’d done it to tribal chiefs with less than three hundred followers as well as religious leaders with millions. But me, I was just the CEO of a small start-up with five employees, zero sales, and a high burn rate.

* * * * *

“It’s not just you,” Jenna said. “It’s me, too.”

I nodded.

“I know that, but think about it… if I say, ‘zap me’ they’re just as likely to zap you or even someone else. There’s no rhyme or reason to it at all, you know that.”

Now she nodded. She remembered Colombia’s President, who chose himself to die (this was right after the South African President did the same, and the aliens zapped South Africa’s Prime Minister instead; some theorized it was because he happened to be standing next to the President at that moment). In Colombia, the aliens zapped all the children under the age of five. Colombia descended into chaos, the President was lynched, and very little news has come out of that country since.

“I know, I just… I’m just scared is all.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“You don’t seem scared,” she said.

“Well, I am. I’m terrified. I mean, I think I have it figured out, but I could be wrong. There are a lot of people out there who are a lot smarter than me who haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Yeah, but… do you think… can you really do it?”

I scratched my chin, narrowed my eyes and grinned, all a put-on to make her laugh, ease her mind.

“If anyone can do this, I can.” I knew my own mind well enough to believe that.

* * * * *

See, the aliens, apparently, could read minds. That was the scary part. Some people thought that explained why they did what they did, why they zapped who they zapped. Maybe the President of Colombia secretly hated small children and the aliens simply tapped into his true feelings.

But I had that covered.

* * * * *

“It’s time,” I told Jenna. She looked tired. Neither one of us had slept a wink, but she had been worrying herself sick all night.

“Just in case,” she said, “I wanted to tell you… I’ve always been proud to have you as my brother.”

“I know,” I said. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better big sis.”

“If this doesn’t work, I’m still proud of you for at least trying.”

We hugged, and went out to stand before the lights and cameras of the media, beneath the silent, hovering alien craft.

* * * * *

Two days later, nothing had changed. The media still huddled outside, the alien ship still hovered overhead, and my sister and I were still alive.

“I think it’s working,” Jenna said, smiling nervously as she pushed aside the curtains to peer up at the spaceship. She let the curtains fall and looked at me, concerned. “You think you can really do it?”

“You know me as well as anyone,” I said. “What do you think?”

Her nervous smile turned into a grin as she remembered an incident from our childhood.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked.

“The puppies,” she replied.

I had to smile. I had been given a choice between two puppies, a lab mix and a husky. I didn’t want to choose because I was afraid of what might happen to the one I didn’t pick. So I simply refused to choose. I didn’t beg for both, my father had expressly forbidden that.

Finally, someone else adopted them, and they both wound up in a happy home together just a few blocks from our house. I used to ride my bike over and play with them before we moved away.

“I wonder,” Jenna said, looking out the window, up at the alien ship again.

“What about?”

“I wonder if they’ll ever go away; and if they don’t… will we ever get used to them?”

 

Promise

Promise

Illustration by Michael D. Pederson

by Dave Hebden

 

Eli was walking well ahead of Betsy down the wide path through the forest when he looked back.

“Come on now, girl,” Eli said to his little sister as she struggled to keep up with him. “Gosh darn, you’re slow.”

“I only got little legs, Eli,” Betsy said.

“Well, you’re almost nine years old, now. You ain’t no little girl no more.”

“Yeah, well, we been out here for two days and my nine-year-old legs is real tired. And don’t tell me your ’leven-year-old legs ain’t, too.”

“Sure they are but I wanna get to the lookout. Don’t you?”

“Sure I do. We still got time, Eli.”

“Well, not much,” said Eli, stopping to look at his wristwatch and letting his sister catch up. “Only ’bout nine hours and a few minutes and we still got eleven or twelve miles to go.”

Eli adjusted the heavy pack on his back and started walking again, now side-by-side with his sister.

“Ain’t it beautiful out here, Betsy?”

“Sure is. Real nice day.”

“Well, it’s the very last one so that’s how it should be.”

“How is everybody so sure about that, Eli?”

“Pa said every real smart person in the world tried to think of somethin’ to stop it and nobody could. Now it’s a sure thing and no mistake.”

“But you said when it happens, it ain’t gonna hurt none, right?” said Betsy, reaching out and holding her brother’s hand.

“You won’t feel nothin’, Betsy. I promise. I told ya that a million times,” Eli said looking at her and squeezing her hand.

Betsy smiled and the two of them kept walking.

* * * * *

“What’s it gonna be like in heaven, Eli?” asked Betsy.

“Well, Pa says it’s likely different for everybody. He says ya can’t listen to them old stories about clouds and angels floatin’ around or nothin’. Might be heaven is just that we get to have Ma back again and we can all sit down for Sunday dinner. I sure wouldn’t mind if that’s what it was.”

“Me, neither. Fact, I wouldn’t even mind havin’ old weird Uncle Wyatt there again, a-scratchin’ himself in front of everybody.”

Eli snickered, and then laughed out loud. Betsy laughed along with him.

As they walked along the path, it began to climb steadily through the forest.

“How come I don’t feel sad, Eli?” asked Betsy, a little out of breath.

Eli stopped ahead of Betsy and turned. He took her by both hands.

“Remember when Ma died, Bets? ’Member how sad we all were? Heck, the whole town was bawlin’ for a week. Everybody loved Ma, ’specially us. That’s who’s sad when someone dies, right? The folks that’s left behind, like we were. Well, mighty soon there ain’t gonna be no one left to be sad. I won’t be sad for losin’ you and you won’t be sad for losin’ me. Even better, maybe we won’t lose each other at all. Maybe we’ll be havin’ that Sunday dinner tomorrow, even though it’s only Thursday.”

Eli smiled down at his sister. He let go of one of her hands and tapped her on the nose.

“Now, let’s git!” he said, turning and climbing up the path again.

* * * * *

Eli dug through his backpack as he and Betsy sat on the ground with their backs against the trunk of a large oak tree.

“Here it is,” he said as he pulled out a candy bar and handed it to his sister.

“Mmm, Butterfinger! My favorite in the whole world,” she said as she tore off the wrapper and took a big bite.

“I know. That’s why I grabbed it in that store this morning,” said Eli, continuing to rummage through his backpack.

Betsy stopped chewing and frowned.

“Did ya have to shoot that guy, Eli?”

“Look, Bets, ’fore we left the house I promised Pa that I wouldn’t let you get hurt by nothin’ or nobody. That guy had a bad mind. Soon as I saw him comin’ near you with that look, I knew what he was fixin’ to do.”

“He sure looked surprised when that bullet hit him,” said Betsy with a mouthful of chocolate, looking at the ground and still not chewing.

“Yeah, he wasn’t expectin’ a kid to have a gun, I guess,” said Eli, finally digging a snack of his own out of his backpack. “That’s why Pa gave it to me when we left. He knew there’d be folks runnin’ ’round with bad minds. Ya gotta remember, Betsy. There’s folks that don’t believe in the hereafter, so they figure they don’t got no one to answer to no more. Some’ll do what they please while they can.”

“I saw it on TV that there’s lots of trouble all over the place,” said Betsy as she started to eat her candy bar again. “There was lots of folks just sittin’ in church, too.”

“Yeah, like Pa. That’s where he is right now, I’ll wager.”

“How come he didn’t have us stay with him?” Betsy asked and put the last of the candy bar in her mouth.

“Pa said he wanted us to do whatever we wanted. He said we’re kids and kids don’t like sittin’ in church much. I reckon he’s right about that.”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

“Well, we’ve always wanted to see that lookout by the river that Ma painted, right, Betsy? Since Pa never wanted to go back there after Ma passed, this is our chance.”

“They drove out in a car when they went, right?” asked Betsy.

“Yup. And I’ll tell ya, if I was a little bigger, Pa probably would have let me drive his truck out there. But we both love campin’ and bein’ in the woods and all. I got a compass and a map so I’m pretty sure there’ll be no gettin’ lost. And it’s been fun so far, right, Bets?”

“I guess. Kinda tired, though. And sometimes I get scared at night.”

“Well, ya got me with ya, girl. And I got this here gun. Pa said he thought we’d be safe anyways ’cause most of the trouble’s gonna be where all the people are… in the big cities and the like.”

“We haven’t seen a soul since we left that store, sure enough,” said Betsy.

“Well, we better get moseyin’ along again,” Eli said as he stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants.

* * * * *

“It’s just on the other side of that rise over yonder, Betsy!” Eli said as he pointed across the small valley in front of them to a ridge covered with tall pines.

“What time ya got, Eli? It’s gonna be a darn shame comin’ all the way out here and not gettin’ to sit a while and enjoy the view.”

“It’s almost seven o’clock, Bets. We still got an hour and a half. Come on, let’s go!” Eli shouted back as he hurried down the slope into the valley.

Betsy did her best to keep up with Eli, even as her own little backpack was starting to weigh her down. Eli slowed down when the land started to rise again. Betsy caught up to him as he struggled up the hill towards the top of the ridge. Finally, they came into a clearing on the top of the hill. Both stood silent, their breath heaving in their chests.

“I declare,” said Eli as he slung the pack off of his back and let it thud to the ground. He stood up and took in the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

“Wow,” said Betsy. “Looks just like Ma’s picture.”

Far below them, the waters of a wide river meandered through a sweeping vista of farmland and forest. The summer sun looked fat and swollen as it hung above the horizon off to their left, shining on the ribbon of the river with a red glow.

“I bet we can see for twenty miles,” said Eli, now standing with his left hand on his hip and his right around his sister’s shoulders.

“Gracious, Eli! I sure am glad we came here,” Betsy said, reaching up and taking his right hand in hers.

“And we still got a little over an hour,” Eli said looking at his watch.

They both sat down on the ground.

* * * * *

“So what’s it gonna be like, Eli?” asked Betsy.

Eli could hear the fear in her voice.

“I’m scared, too Betsy. At least a little. But Pa says that when it happens, it’s gonna be right quick. You ain’t even gonna know about it. I promise, okay?”

“Okay, Eli. I believe you.”

As they sat and watched the last sunset, they were mostly silent. They lived old moments in their minds and occasionally smiled, one at the other. They held hands as Betsy rocked gently back and forth.

“You hungry, Bets?” asked Eli as he got up and went to his backpack.

“Nah,” said Betsy as she watched him for a moment and then looked back out at the river and the sunset.

Eli came back and sat next to her on her left, his right hand on the ground behind her.

“Just about time,” said Eli as he looked at his watch again.

“I love you, Eli Hamilton,” Betsy said.

“I love you, Betsy Hamilton.”

Far off in the distance, there was a deep rumbling sound that started to build quickly as the ground trembled slightly. On the horizon off to their right, the sky began to quickly discolor. Eli looked at the back of Betsy’s neck, focusing on the mark that Pa had made just below the base of her skull. He lifted the pistol slowly and pointed it at its target as Betsy was still looking out anxiously at the sky, wondering what would happen next.

 

Old Soldiers Never Die

Old Soldiers Never Die

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Robert E. Waters

 

Rina peeled off a juicy wedge of orange and fed it to the head she was sitting on. She heard Captain Petre’s quick inhalations as he sniffed the fruit. He didn’t need to eat, she knew, but it kept him happy and his mouth moist. After two hundred years buried up to his rusty gorget, it was the least she could do. If she had enough oranges, she’d feed all of the heads lined up around her, row after row, as far as the eye could see.

Dried lips and yellow teeth snapped the wedge from her gentle fingers. No matter how often she fed the captain fruit, his quickness startled her. Though trapped in dirt and rock, he was still a warrior, strong and proud, and she tried to respect that. Rina felt herself lift as he chewed the fruit, his muscular jaw working the pulp. He was a big man; his head made a good stool, if not a little bumpy.

She got up and tossed aside the spent orange peel. She dusted off her dress and wiped her mouth clean. She then took a small kerchief from the tassel at her waist, bent down, and wiped the spittle and juice from Captain Petre’s face. It was a strong face, one cupped in a forest of red stubble. A face that never changed.

“Thank you, my dear,” Captain Petre said. His voice was gravelly and hampered by a tuft of grass in hard clay beneath his chin. “You are the sweetest little girl.”

Rina smiled. She liked the captain. She liked many of the soldiers she had met in this field. Many of them were her friends. But Captain Petre was special. He told good stories.

A commotion erupted to her right. She turned and saw her brother’s cur, Grey Jack, lifting his leg over the head of an old halberdier. The poor man tossed frantically back and forth to try and shoo away the mutt, but it did little good. A thin stream of piddle splashed across the russet helm, and a great voice filled the air. “For the love of heaven and earth, will someone kill this dog!”

Cries and whistles, and more than a few chuckles erupted across the field as the Chorus of the Sundered began. That’s what it was called. When the heads wailed in unison, their collective voices were heard for miles around. When the wind was up, or when a rain or snow covered the land, the moaning would go on for days, sometimes weeks. The song could chill the bone and ruin the flesh, some mystics said. But sometimes, when a pleasant eastern breeze wound through the valley, and the warm light of a generous sun brought daisies and wildflowers in bright beds between the columns of heads, their song was melodic and comforting. It lifted the spirit.

Rina shook the thought from her mind and chased the dog away. She stepped carefully between the heads, cautious not to catch a toe on an iron visor or catch her laces on a discarded sword. Many villagers and thrill-seekers had caught their death by the simple prick of the tainted steel that lay afoot. It was forbidden to be in The Field of Heads, and Mama had been most stern about the rule, giving Rina and her brother Kristof an oak switch across their backsides when she had caught them in the past. But Rina didn’t care. Playing among the heads was her favorite thing to do in all the world.

Rina removed the wet, brittle helmet. She recognized the soldier immediately. “I’m sorry, Binus. He’s just an old, dumb mutt. He doesn’t know any better.”

A foot came down on the soldier’s head. Rina jumped back. The crooked frown of her brother met her gaze. “Grey is not a mutt,” he said. “Take it back.”

Rina pushed against his leg, though she wasn’t strong enough to move the big bully. “He peed on Binus. That makes him a mutt to me.”

Kristof snickered, but knelt down and snatched the helm from her hands. He placed it back on Binus’s weathered, pale head. He rapped his knuckles across it as if he were knocking on a door. “He doesn’t mind… do you, old man? Why, it’s the first bath you’ve had in a hundred years.”

“Say you’re sorry!” Rina balled up her little fist and popped her brother on the shoulder. It didn’t hurt, but it threw him back and away. He stood up quickly to the roars of laughter from the heads nearby. Rina braced for a push, but her brother did nothing. Perhaps he was surprised by the soldiers barking at him; perhaps he was growing up a little.

“Don’t be so upset. By the gods, I was just having a little fun.”

A little fun is not what her friends needed nor wanted. Enough people had come to The Field to have “fun” with the heads. Kicking them, jumping from one to the next, leading their livestock through the maze of helms and pikes, letting their animals poop everywhere. And even more sinister and evil sorts would come and take knives to faces or bare throats. Clubs and shovels. Cleavers and axes. All in the name of fun. All in the knowledge that pain could be inflicted, but no permanent damage. So what was the harm? They deserved it, right? Isn’t that what the stories told?

Kristof tugged at her shoulder. “Come on. I want to show you something,” he said.

Rina hesitated. “What is it?”

But he had already trotted away towards the cobbled road. “Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”

Rina stamped her foot. She wasn’t a baby. She just didn’t like the heads on the other side of the road. They were the enemy, Captain Petre had declared. They were thinner and almost always bald with tattoos and other dark markings. And what helms had survived the years of torturous weather were sharp and many sealed to black iron mail. They were disgusting. She didn’t like them. But she was no baby. She stepped over the road and followed her brother through the sea of heads.

They were active this morning, barking obscenities and other foul things across the way, in an attempt to anger the other side, to get them to bark back. It was a game they played, and sometimes the shouting became so awful that Rina was driven from the field.

“Where are you going? Wait for me!” Rina yelled to her brother.

He waved her on, almost stumbling over a thick patch of helms, spears and barding.

There were a lot of horse bones on this side of the field. It was scary but Rina did her best. The horses had not been cursed, but they had been driven into the ground like their riders. Soon they all had died, their flesh and muscle rotting with the seasons, leaving bleached rib cages and leg bones and skulls in shifting heaps. A lot of it had been removed by smugglers and thieves, but enough remained to give off a blinding white glow when the sun was at its zenith. Rina shielded her eyes and kept moving.

Her brother disappeared into a patch of wood. Here, the line of ancient infantry was its thickest. It was difficult to step without kicking a head, and more than a few choice words escaped the mouths of the soldiers around her.

“Watch your step!”

“Do you mind?”

“If I were free and had a sword, I’d lop off your head!”

Rina was used to their nastiness. She couldn’t blame them. If she were stuck forever in the hard ground, she’d be nasty too. She ignored them, gave a few dirty looks, stuck out her tongue at one of them, kicked a little dirt into another’s eyes, and plunged into the woods. Near a cropping of rock, she saw her brother and his yappy dog. Grey Jack was barking and nipping at something, but this time, her brother held him back, keeping the dog from biting and scratching the sharp, dirty helm covering a head.

“What is it?” Rina asked, out of breath.

Kristof smiled and motioned her closer. “Are you ready for a look?”

Rina waited, her hands on her waist. Kristof pointed downward. He grabbed the pointy top, turned it slowly, then lifted it off.

Rina looked into the face of the head revealed. She gasped and fell down.

* * * * *

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a twin brother?”

Captain Petre turned his head from Rina’s inquiring eyes. She moved into his view. “Don’t turn away. Please tell me.”

“Tell her the story, Captain,” a head nearby said. It was Kellin, Captain Petre’s aide-de-camp.

“Yes, tell her!” A chorus of voices spoke up. Rina could feel their vibrations through the ground. It tickled her feet.

The cries became too great. “All right! Just shut up, the lot of you!” Petre screamed. “I will tell her the story, if you’ll just pipe down. Your yapping is making me ill.”

Captain Petre cleared his throat and looked up. “Sit down, child, and I will tell you about my brother Regan. He is dead to me, but I will tell you, if only to keep these bastards around me quiet.”

Foul curses erupted again. Captain Petre waited until it stopped. Then he began…

* * * * *

…the writhing mass of the grand army of Saint Fydorov excited him. He had seen them march before, when he was just a boy. But now, as a man, Petre Gorov looked upon the columns with renewed pride. His heart raced. Pike and halberdier, knights and swordsmen, as far as the eye could see. Their martial music marked tempo with the constant shift of boots upon the ground. Their colorful banners waved proudly in the misty air. If there was a time that he should join them, it was now. They were moving south. They were going to face Lord Hrudiz and his grand force of the Liebstag. They had met him many times before on bloody fields. They were going south, and they would return victorious… or not return at all.

“I must go,” Petre told his father that night. “There will never be a better time.”

His twin brother Regan stood nearby, listening intently, waiting to hear their father’s answer.

Father shook his head. “No. You are the eldest of the house, born before Regan. I am too ill to work the fields, and therefore The Saint can make no claim on you. You are needed here to serve me, your mother, your brother, and your sister. That is my decision.”

But that night, as the moon fell behind the clouds, Petre and Regan ran away. They followed the army south, and when they found it, they volunteered on the spot. Petre was made a swordsman, Regan a pikeman.

For years they campaigned against Lord Hrudiz, from the Shokolov Steppes to the massive pinewood of the Tandorov Valley. Tens of thousands of soldiers died, and a thousand score innocents who stood in the way. Both Petre and Regan rose through the ranks, gaining prestige and glory in battle after battle. But neither side could capitalize on the fortunes of their victories, and things grew desperate.

Then Saint Fydorov decided that the long-standing policy of officer exchange no longer applied. Lord Hrudiz countered. Then no quarter was allowed at all, as each side tried to out-murder the other. It was a time of terrible, bloody strife.

In this time, Regan Gorov was captured, and his brother Petre presumed him dead. Then one day, as Captain Petre’s men advanced onto a grassy ridge in the center of the Bitikov fields, he saw a familiar man atop a grey dun, wearing the red-and-black-stained mail of the enemy. The enemy charged, and Petre’s swordsmen stood their ground. The cavalry struck and a great battle ensued. Then in the midst of the slaughter, Petre saw the man again, thrown from his horse. His sharp helm fell away and what was laid bare to all enraged and saddened him. It was Regan, fighting and killing for the enemy.

Petre, feeling the tears well in his eyes, raised his sword and charged. The traitor counter-charged, and they fought.

“You were captured,” Petre said through ringing sword blows. “You were killed.”

“It isn’t so,” Regan said, parrying a thrust. “I live.”

“You are a traitor,” Petre said.

“No, that isn’t true,” Regan said. “I have seen the light, my brother. Saint Fydorov’s crusade is a perfect evil. He means to destroy the world.”

Petre jabbed with his sword again. “You lie.”

“It is true. Look around you. He was the one who first declared no quarter. He is the one who orders the slaughter of every innocent woman and child. He is the one dragging this war out infinitely. A peace has been proffered, and The Saint refuses to accept.” Regan held out his hand. “Come with me, brother, and help me end this war.”

Petre answered with a sword swing, but before further discussion could be made, reinforcement cavalry raced up the hill, and Captain Petre ordered his men into a fighting retreat. As they fell back, he could not take his wounded eyes off his brother, his younger by mere minutes. The traitor to his people, to his mother and father, to his own brother. And through the chaos and smoke of war, Regan’s face faded away…

* * * * *

“…and that was the last time I saw him,” Petre said, then closing his thin lips.

Were those tears in his eyes? Rina wondered. She had never seen the captain cry before. She didn’t know it was possible. “That’s so sad.”

“Yes. Regan’s treachery was profound.”

Rina shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s sad that you haven’t talked to your brother, or seen him, for so long. You never saw him again?”

Petre gave his head a little shake. “Jeshok, the God of All, hammered us into the ground before our armies could meet.”

“Do you miss him?”

Petre hesitated, then said, “Despite my better judgment, I do. I’m surprised of it, actually. I’ve spent so many years thinking about his deceit, his dishonor. But now… now that I know he lives, and just over the ridge, I—”

The captain could not continue. Another tear escaped his eye. It ran down his face, leaving a mark through a crust of dust and dirt.

The sun was setting. Soon, Rina’s mother would wonder where they were. Kristof had already gone home and so had Grey Jack, much to the joy of Binus. Clouds were forming in the east. The rains would come soon.

“It’s time for you to go, little one,” Captain Petre said. “Get on home to a warm meal and a good bed. You can come back tomorrow if you like.”

Rina stood. She waited for a moment, looking down at her friend, down at the uncountable rows of heads.

She wanted to cry too.

* * * * *

Kristof ’s eyes were fixed on Rina as they walked up the mystic’s path. “You’ve lost your head,” he said. “Mama will beat you silly when she finds out.”

Rina ignored him. She had already explained her plan twice. She was not about to explain it again. He had promised to come with her so she didn’t have to face the old shrew alone. He agreed. That was that.

She tapped on the door. It was dark inside. Rina could feel her heart race. Visiting mystics was definitely not allowed. They were creatures of magic and arcane lore. Some in the village used them for medical purposes and for divining the future. But there was never any account that Rina could remember of a mystic doing anyone any good. But she had no choice. What she wanted needed the power and experience of someone like Madam Plotka.

A withered crone opened the door. She was small and bent at the knee. Her black shawl covered a crooked frame of pale skin. The wrinkles on her face at first seemed sharp and angry, but as she waved Rina and Kristof in, they smoothed as a smile crept across the leathery landscape of her cheeks like the cracks of an earthquake. Rina liked her immediately.

“Come in, come in,” Madam Plotka said, waving them forward. “It isn’t often I have children visit me.”

The old lady moved past them slowly, her cane knocking around in front of her. It was clear that her eyesight was not the best. Rina hoped that she could see well enough to help them.

She ushered them onto stools, then took a chair herself. Her knees creaked and she gave a small yelp as her bony rump met the wood. Rina tried to keep from laughing. Madam Plotka caught the little girl’s smile. “There is no humor in getting old, child. Even your friends in the Field of Heads can attest to that.”

Rina’s mouth popped open. “You know?”

Madam Plotka laughed, a high-pitched squeal that tingled the ears. “Everyone knows about Jeshok’s Curse, girlie. And I’m a mystic. I can read minds.”

“Then you know why I’m—, why we’re here?” Rina looked at her brother for support.

“I know everything, child.”

Rina appreciated Madam Plotka’s confidence, but she doubted the old woman’s honesty.

“You doubt me?”

Rina shrugged. “I don’t know you well enough to say, miss. But I’ve been told that you sometimes… exaggerate.” Rina shrunk a little on her stool, as if she expected to be smacked.

Madam Plotka leaned forward. She ran a thin, dark tongue over cracked lips. She winked. “You are wise beyond your years, girlie.”

Rina wished it were not so. But she had grown up quickly. Her father had died of a stampeding horse when she was four. She had witnessed it. She remembered him looking up from the mud, his face covered in grime and blood. He had smiled. She had reached out to him. He tried to do the same, then went slack. She cried for days. It wasn’t easy, but she had gotten over it, tried to forget it. And living with Mother was difficult. A widowed woman had it tough in the world; she was not respected. Mother refused to marry again, though suitors had called upon her. Rina found it hard to make friends, especially with a brother who constantly teased. The heads in the field were her friends, and they neither judged nor criticized her. It was nice having friends that never died.

“So can you help me?” Rina said.

The old lady rubbed a finger across her hairy chin. “You want me to bring Captain Petre out of the ground, and his brother too, so that they may meet once more. Is that what you’re asking?”

Rina nodded.

“This is stupid!” Kristof said. He tried to get up, but Madam Plotka stared him down with a dark stare.

“Indeed it is,” Madam Plotka said, “but are you always this disrespectful in someone else’s house, young man?”

Kristof stopped, shook his head, then sat down. He crossed his arms and looked away.

“He is right, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. “It is a foolish thing you are asking. Fiddling with Jeshok’s Curse is a quick way to die.”

“But he’s my friend,” Rina said, “and he misses his brother.”

“He should have thought of that before joining that bloody war… and angering the gods.”

Rina had heard the story a million times. Captain Petre’s version was always the best, the most enjoyable, the most exciting, despite its sad ending.

The armies of Lord Hrudiz and Saint Fydorov had clashed for days on the Girtok Plains. It was the greatest battle in a war that had been waged for decades, and while both sides seemed infinitely prepared to continue the slaughter, the gods grew tired of it all, especially Jeshok, Lord of All. He was tired of seeing his creations kill themselves needlessly. Many peace offers had been proposed, but not one of them accepted. Jeshok’s children ignored his pleas for peace.

The armies lined up, row upon row of sword and pike and horse, all regaled in their finest plate and chain. Again, Jeshok warned them to stop, and sent his angels to urge their compliance. Again, Man refused. And just as the two forces moved to engage, dark clouds formed in the sky, as if a mighty flood would come. But what came out of the clouds was even more powerful, more devastating. Men looked up and saw a fist, dark and ethereal, a massive rock of black, angry smoke. Before they could run the fist struck, pounding scores into the bloody ground.

Nothing escaped, not even the squirrels in the trees. Everything on the field that day was hammered into the fold, up to their necks. But only the men were cursed, the soldiers who had shed blood, those who had defied Jeshok’s demands and had put themselves above the gods. Now they would live in a prison, never to grow old, never to die. They would endure the passing of time, the changing of seasons. They would know pain, anger, sorrow, fear, desperation, hopelessness. They would endure every emotion perpetually, year after year, century after century, in payment for those lives they had taken, for those they had killed and had denied the right to feel, to fear, to weep, to despair.

Rina would sit for hours and listen to Captain Petre tell the story. It was very exciting. But sad too. So sad. So many lives lost, and for those poor men out there, locked in the ground. How many of them were just following orders? Were they to blame for the decisions of lords and kings and generals… and captains?

“But you can bring them out, can’t you?” Rina said. “You have a way?”

Madam Plotka nodded. “Of course, girlie. That’s never been the question. There have always been ways to get around Jeshok’s Curse. The question is: Who wants to defy the God of All?”

Rina shook her head. “I don’t care about a silly curse. My captain wants to see his brother. It’s been long enough. They’ve suffered enough.” She broke down in tears, letting them run down her cheeks. “Don’t you have any family? How would you like it if you were never allowed to see your brother or sister or father again?”

If you can read my thoughts, then listen to me now. Rina stared deeply into Madam Plotka’s eyes, letting the old woman see her cry. Please help me, and I will give you something that you can use in your magic. Her eyes drifted to her brother who sat there bored, disinterested, looking up at the bare rafters of the house. Rina formed the image of an object in her mind, and she kept thinking about it until the old woman understood.

Madam Plotka nodded, a faint smile on her face. “Very well. I will help you and your captain.” She leaned forward, pressing her wrinkled hands into the nub of her cane. “You are bold beyond your years, girlie.”

* * * * *

Rina led Madam Plotka over the cobbled road separating the armies. The old woman found the light of the setting sun difficult to handle, and the constant shouts from the heads frightened her. In the comforts of her own hovel, she was master. Here, Rina led the way.

She had already freed Captain Petre’s brother, Regan, and the sky hadn’t fallen. No smoky fist had pounded the little mystic into the ground. Nothing, save for the shouts and screams of the heads at their feet. The heads were just as amazed as Rina was when Regan lifted out of the ground. The heads went mad when their comrade appeared, whole, now nearly naked with the passing of time, bits and pieces of mail and plate and leather covering his legs, back and shoulders. Kristof had agreed to help the old soldier walk, while Rina and the mystic worked on Captain Petre.

Teeth nipped at their heels. Word had spread among the heads that one of their own had been freed. From the noise they were making, Rina could not tell if it was a song of joy or sorrow. Some were crying, some laughing. Some seemed angry. But most were afraid, shooting glances skyward, waiting for the clouds to form and Jeshok’s fist to come and nail them even further into the ground.

“Go away, old woman,” one of the heads said. Rina recognized the face but couldn’t remember the name. “You will ruin us.”

They ignored the snide remarks and kept walking. Rina could already see Captain Petre’s face. She had whispered to him last night what was going to happen. The captain cried again, silently so as not to alert his men.

“You should not do this, little one,” Captain Petre had said. “You are messing with forces you know nothing about. You could get hurt.”

Rina kissed him lightly on the head.

Now they stood in front of him. The soldier’s eyes were pensive. What are you thinking? Rina wondered. She could not read minds like Madam Plotka. The old woman must know his thoughts, but she kept silent, her bent form straining under the warm, setting sun.

“Hello, Captain,” Rina said through a faint smile. “We have come to take you to your brother.”

Rina could feel Captain Petre tense. She knew him well enough to know his expressions, how his jaw muscles flexed when nervous, how his teeth gnashed when excited or afraid. The ground beneath their feet vibrated with the shouting of the heads around her. On any other day, she would not mind. Today…

“Quiet!” Captain Petre shouted. “All of you shut up!”

The rows silenced. Other officers, captains and lieutenants, took up Petre’s call and quieted their men. The entire field fell silent. Rina was amazed. Even after so many years, respect and discipline was given to captains and lieutenants, colonels and generals in this field. Leaders were still leaders, and their men still obeyed orders.

“Get on with it, old woman,” Captain Petre said. “The day is waning.”

Madam Plotka reached into the pocket of her black dress and pulled out a tiny leather bag of powder. Rina led her around the captain’s head in a circle. With each step, the mystic uttered strange words and tossed ground bone and blackpowder onto the ground. Rina had not told the truth to Kristof when he came and asked what had happened to his dog. She feigned ignorance, and he was too stupid to figure it out. It was cruel and hateful what she had done, but this was more important than any old mutt. This mattered.

Madam Plotka finished the circle of blackpowder, then stepped back. With Rina’s help, she raised her cane to the sky, and spoke more gibberish. The heads around them held still and silent, their eyes fixed upon the old woman.

The tip of the cane began to glow white hot. Rina closed her eyes and helped guide the cane down until the burning tip touched the blackpowder.

A flash of smoke and ash flew up from the cane tip, and lightning reached around the blackpowder until Captain Petre’s head was ringed in flame. The captain’s eyes grew large, dark and round. He bared his teeth. A yelp of fear escaped his mouth. Rina wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she didn’t dare. No one entered the circle while the flame burned, Madam Plotka explained. Was she telling the truth? Rina wondered. But she had seen the magic work once already today. To doubt it now would be foolhardy.

With a burst of energy, Madam Plotka raised her cane and shouted into the sky. Rina fell back. Another burst of lightning sprang from her cane and circled the captain’s head. The old soldier cried out as if he were burning to death. Other heads cried as well, begging that it stop. The mystic kept her body rigid, her chant steady, until the fire circle began burning through the soil like a knife cutting out the core of an apple. Deeper it cut, deeper still, until the ground around Captain Petre looked like a shaft of black soil, rumbling and popping and sizzling as the fire seared rock and clay.

Madam Plotka reached out towards the circle and yelled, “Rise!” She lifted her hands again and again, as if she were personally moving the earth. Such a silly gesture coming from such a feeble little creature. At first, Rina had giggled when Regan was released, but she wasn’t laughing now.

The earth moved as Captain Petre rose from the ground, wrapped in a cylinder of dirt. Sharp rocks rubbed together like a millstone grinding grain, breaking roots as they crested the top of the hole. Captain Petre yelled as he ascended. Rina could see the fear and amazement in his eyes. It was really happening. He was being freed. She could only imagine the emotions churning inside him. She felt the roil of emotions inside herself. She would finally see her captain in full, not just his head. He would be a warrior again. He would walk the earth again. The very idea was almost too much for her young heart to bear. Tears flowed.

Rina moved Madame Plotka out of the way as the dirt cylinder fell over like a pile of crates. It rolled and came to rest against a line of heads and broken pikes. Those smashed by the cylinder yelled out their distress, but Captain Petre could do nothing but laugh.

“Help him out, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. Rina helped the mystic to the ground. The stress of the spell had taken its toll on the old woman. She lay there silently, her eyes closed, her mouth open. “I am too weak to do it.”

Rina went to the captain’s side and began to rake away the dirt with her bare hands. It fell away easier than she thought. Like opening a present or peeling an orange. Her glee grew stronger as each rock, each thick chunk of clay, fell away, baring legs, then arms, then chest. Like his brother, most of Captain Petre’s armor had not survived. But bits and pieces remained, along with stiff patches of leather and wool. She couldn’t imagine how heavy and hot such an outfit would be in the midst of battle.

Suddenly, he was free, the years of confinement gone. He just lay there, his bare arms and legs turning pink, then red, then white again as blood flowed once more into them. “I—,” he tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat. For the first time in ages, he tried to raise his head. He shook as old muscles found themselves again. He raised up on his elbows. “Please, help me.”

Rina came to his side. “We must get you up,” she said, and put her hand on his back. He sat up, breathing deeply, showing pain on his face. “It’s difficult,” he said.

“I will help you.” With all her strength, Rina strained to lift the captain to his feet. He struggled, the ground unforgiving and slick with fresh clay.

All around them, the heads exploded in cheers. “Yes, Captain!” “You can do it!” “Do it for us!” Their calls gave him strength, and he pushed himself forward, Rina holding his back for support.

“Come, Captain,” Rina said over the din of voices. “Your brother is waiting.”

She led him across the field. Every few steps, he paused to bend and tap the heads of his men. He smiled incessantly, giggled like a child, his tears flowing freely. Their wails of encouragement led him forward, toward the cobbled road.

He did not have the strength to crest the ridge. He fell to his knees and crawled the rest of the way, Rina holding him firmly by the waist. “You can do it,” she whispered to him. “You can do anything.”

Captain Petre pushed his bare feet into the ground, his old bones straining under the pressure. Rina pushed with all her strength. He let out a yell and fell onto the cobbles. He lay there a moment, breathing heavily.

“Hello, brother.”

Captain Petre stiffened at the sound of his brother’s voice. Rina sat quietly at his side, staring at her brother and Regan beside him, waiting on feeble knees. It was uncanny how much they looked alike. If it weren’t for the different uniforms and the different spread of armor and clothing, she could never have told them apart.

“Hello, brother,” Captain Petre said, waving his arm at Rina to give him aide. She did, and led him forward until he too was kneeling before his brother.

For a long while, the two brothers stared into each other’s eyes. It was like watching mirrors. The shape of their chins, their cheeks, the length of their noses, matched perfectly. Rina smiled.

Finally, Captain Petre spoke. “You look well, brother, for someone over two centuries old.” He cracked a smile.

Regan nodded. “As do you… brother.”

They fell silent again, neither man taking his eyes off the other. This is a good thing I’ve done, Rina said to herself. A good thing.

“Where is your sword, brother?” Captain Petre asked.

Regan looked to his side, where the remnants of a scabbard were held against him by a rotten belt. “I guess I’ve lost it, brother.” He looked up, his smile gone. “Where is your army?”

Captain Petre’s dry lips quivered. “They’re in the same place as yours, traitor.”

Regan leaned forward, a scowl leeching across his face. “You are the only traitor here, dear brother. You followed a murderer.”

“Wait,” Rina tried to say, moving forward. “Stop this—”

“You son of a bitch,” Captain Petre snapped back, his hand shifting to the pommel of his rusty blade. “I’ll kill you—” He pulled his blade and thrust forward, but his movements were slow. Regan fell to the left, avoiding the blow, and Captain Petre fell on his face.

Regan kicked with his right foot, driving his dirty toes into the eyes of his brother. Captain Petre screamed, grabbed his brother’s foot, and bit hard. Regan yelled and tried kicking away, but Petre was on him, pounding his fists into brittle ribs.

The Field of Heads burst into chanting, each side cheering on their warrior. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” The echoes of their rage filled the darkening sky.

Rina screamed, “Stop it! Stop fighting!” She moved towards them, but Kristof held her back. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “They’ll kill you.”

“Let me go!” she screamed and tore away from his grasp. She threw herself between them, shielding Regan’s body from Captain Petre as he raised his blade and tried to stab down. Just in time, he noticed her and stopped.

“Remove yourself, little one,” Captain Petre said, trying to keep his balance. “This is not your fight.”

Rina shook her head. “No. You will have to kill me too if you kill him.”

“Let them fight!” a voice from the field said. “We want vengeance!”

“No!” Rina screamed, her voice breaking into tearful sobs. “The war is over.”

“It’s never over, girl,” said Regan. “It goes on forever.”

“No,” Rina said, standing up and moving in front of Captain Petre. “I gave you this gift, Captain. I thought you would be happy to see your brother, to talk with him. But you betrayed me. You knew all along that you would attack him, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

Captain Petre’s eyes filled with tears. He shook, and tried to touch her shoulder. “You don’t understand, little one. You don’t—”

“No, I don’t. I don’t understand how after two hundred years, you think the war is still going on. Well, it’s not. It’s over. It’s over!”

Rina grabbed Captain Petre’s sword. He tried to stop her but she moved too quickly. He reached for her but she pulled away. She raised the sword high above her head. She teetered a little. Even in its decline, the sword was heavy. It had not been made for such small hands.

She stumbled down the ridge and into a small crop of rocks. “It’s over!” She screamed again. She brought the sword down hard. It sparked against the rocks. She hit again and again, each strike resounding across the field and sending sharp pains into her elbows. She brought it down again, and the blade splintered into a dozen pieces. She dropped the hilt and stumbled back. She landed hard, her bottom stinging on the gravel. She closed her eyes, her head swimming with anger and sorrow. I’ve failed. Failed.

You have not, little one.

A voice from the sky. Rina opened her eyes and saw storm clouds gathering. Large, thick and black. Angry clouds like those in Captain Petre’s stories. They blotted out the last of the sunlight. They billowed out over the field. Winds came.

Rina ran up the ridge. Captain Petre, Regan and Kristof lay on the cobbles, curled up like babies, looking into the sky and shaking uncontrollably. He has come, Rina said to herself. Jeshok is going to kill me.

No, Rina.

There was the voice again, ringing soundly in her head. She tried pushing it out, but its echo remained. She went to Captain Petre and hugged him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my fault. I’ve cursed us all.”

The clouds formed a hand. Not a fist like she expected, but a hand, smooth and soft. A fatherly hand.

You have not failed, Rina. You have succeeded. Indeed, the war is over. It has been over for many years. It is time to move on…

With that, the hand in the sky dipped down until it grazed the field. It then moved slowly left to right, and as it passed each row of heads, the imprisoned warriors were plucked out. They hovered in the air for a moment, then their bodies dissolved into white smoke and drifted away. Rina covered her face when the hand crossed the road. When it was gone, so too were Captain Petre and Regan. Only Rina and Kristof remained.

Rina stood up and watched her friends disappear. Those rows not yet released sang their song, a joyous sound, one of relief and happiness. Their nightmare was over. They were, finally, at rest.

“Wait!” Rina said as she stumbled down the ridge. A sinking feeling gripped her chest and she began to cry again. This isn’t what she wanted at all. “Don’t go. I don’t want you to go. Come back, Captain Petre. Binus. Regan. Come back to me!”

But there was nothing she could do. The curse was broken. Jeshok was gathering his souls. They were his now, forever.

She stopped running. Come back, Father!

* * * * *

It took several weeks before Rina could walk the field again. While local officials, priests, mystics and other dignitaries came to marvel at the sudden disappearance of the heads, she would not dare show herself. And though they tried desperately to understand why, after so many years, Jeshok’s Curse had ended, Rina would not speak. Even her brother Kristof, still upset at the disappearance of his dog, said not a word. Rina kept quiet about everything.

The field lay barren, nothing more than a sheer block of dark clay of weeds and rock. But it still held life for her, and memories of friends and good times. She would not abandon the field, though it had abandoned her. Jeshok had taken away her friends. She was angry about that, but she kept her anger secret. It was not wise to anger the gods.

She walked out into the field. The places where each head had lain were marked with a discolored patch of earth, and rains had sunken some of them to form tiny puddles of water. But not Captain Petre’s. Despite Madam Plotka’s unearthing, his spot was smooth and solid, as if nothing had ever happened.

She walked over to it and stood on the very spot where her friend’s head had been. She pulled up tight and straight, keeping her feet neatly within the colored patch. She smiled. “I miss you, my captain,” she said.

I miss you too, little one.

The voice was strong in her head. She turned and saw a figure, bright and tall, within a patch of trees. Rina started running toward the shape.

“Captain Petre!”

The shape put up his hand. Rina stopped. It was him. She recognized the forest of red stubble on his face. His armor was new, pristine and shining. His clothing red, green and fine. She smiled. He was a warrior again.

“How are you, sir?” she asked.

I am well.

“And Binus? Regan?”

All is well, child.

He smiled, but there was a sadness in his eyes, one he could not hide from her. Even as a ghost, she knew his expressions. She could not read his thoughts, but she knew what that sadness meant.

“This is it, isn’t it? You’re never coming back, are you?”

He shook his head. No, child.

She fought back the tears. “Goodbye, my captain.”

Goodbye, sweet one. Don’t forget us, he said, then slowly faded away.

She turned and on the place where her friend had laid, was a rock, smooth and head-sized. On top of it lay an orange, freshly peeled and waiting.

Rina went to it. She picked up the orange. She smoothed out her dress, sat down, then ripped a wedge of fruit away and popped it quickly into her mouth.

She sat eating… and remembered.

 

Trademark: A Tragedy™

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Scott D. Coon

 

Mr. Labowski, Esq., ascends the north wall, Mr. Fredericks, Esq., and Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., the south. Not an alarm in sight. This will be a cakewalk. As Mr. Labowski, Esq., and Mr. Fredericks, Esq., stand guard, Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., carefully cuts a pane of glass of an unknown brand with his officially issued Diamond Glass™ brand glasscutter. He lowers a strand of Tite Knot™ brand nylon rope and, in short order, all three are in the target building. It’s dark. With MinuteMan™ brand night vision goggles on, Mr. Labowski, Esq., heads for the files; Mr. Fredericks, Esq., heads for the storefront displays; Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., stops and calls everyone back to the insertion point. “Listen.”

Beep.

They break into three different aisles.

Beep.

They close in on the target noise. A red beam of light cuts through the darkness.

Beep.

They spot the unexpected target. Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., holds out a bit of paper as if it were a gun. “Hold it right there!”

Kevin continues reading bar codes, filling his stock database. “If you’re looking to rob a place, you’ve missed it by one door. The check-cashing place is next door. We don’t even have money for me to steal.” Kevin scans another bar code. Beep. “This is a hardware store.” Beep.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., reaches into his double-breasted suit pocket. “We’re not thieves,” he explains as he extracts a business card. “We’re lawyers.”

Kevin’s eyes swell with fear. The bar code scanner falls to the floor, its light scanning barcodes on its way down. Beep. Beep. Beep. Kevin runs for the panic button but he’s too late. A heavy legal document printed on quality paper stops him in his tracks. Mr. Labowski, Esq., slaps him on his shoulder with the document. “You have been served.” Holding the kid at paper point, Mr. Labowski, Esq., demands, “Now, show us to your glass and glass cutting products.”

From the roof they hear, “What the hell is this?!”

The Burglar slides down the still dangling rope. “What the hell is this?!” He points his gun at the three lawyers and the stock boy. “I’m doing this break in! Who the hell are you?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., replies, “Go about your business, sir, this doesn’t concern you.”

“What?! I’m pointing a gun at you! I concern you!”

“Yes, and you’re lucky I’m distracted right now.”

The Burglar raises his gun, and says snidely, “What? You know kung fu or something?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., turns his attention towards The Burglar. “No, sir, I know the law.”

The Burglar fires a warning shot.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., steps forward. “Now you’ve done it. You clearly don’t know who you’re firing at.”

The Burglar yells, “Shut up and sit down.”

“Now you’ve done it,” says Mr. Fredericks, Esq. “Not only have you broken in—clearly without a civil search warrant— you have interrupted a legal proceeding. Diamond Glass™ now has legal grounds to move against you to recoup losses including the cost for our time here. In essence, every word that comes out of my mouth is costing you, on average, five dollars and forty cents.”

“I think it’s more fair,” explains Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., “to make that estimate based on syllables, Mr. Fredericks, Esq. After all, syllables are more regular in length than individual words.”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” screams The Burglar. He grabs a roll of Silver Streek™ brand duct tape and quickly tapes their hands together, one at a time.

As The Burglar tapes together the hands of Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., Mr. Dessemondi, Esq. says, “I am obligated to inform you that you are interrupting a legal investigation by Diamond Glass™ corporate lawyers into trademark violations by Jake Beagley & Sons™ hardware store.”

“Well, I’m here to break through that wall over there and empty the cash from the next business over.”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., speaks up. “You realize that taping us with Silver Streek™ brand duct tape is assault and battery.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., nods in agreement and adds, “And, because Silver Streek™ brand duct tape is extra adhesive, pulling it off amounts to aggravated assault and battery.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., smiles. “Very good, Mr. Labowski, Esq.!”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., also smiles and nods.

“Oh dear god! Did they grow you people in a lab?!” The Burglar pulls back to hit Mr. Fredericks, Esq., with his gun. Mr. Fredericks, Esq., thrusts out his chin defiantly.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warns Mr. Dessemondi, Esq. “Mr. Fredericks, Esq., wrote the current law on civil cases resulting from assault, and I mean literally.”

The Burglar stops. “You were writing new laws and now you’re breaking into hardware stores in the middle of the night?! Why?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., states simply, “Better pay.”

The Burglar finishes taping them and stands back and looks at his work. “That should hold you. Lawyers.” He shakes his head. “Goddamn lawyers! You know what you call five thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the sea?”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., interrupts, “A good start.”

“So, you heard that one.”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., nods. “How about this one: It was so cold last week that I saw several lawyers with their hands in their own pockets.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., chuckles. “Or this one: How was copper wire invented? Two lawyers were arguing over a penny.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., tearfully interrupts the jocularity. “Everyone hates lawyers but, when you want to sue someone, who do you turn to? When you want a will or a contract or any other legal document too complex for The Kiss-Soft Household Lawyer™ brand legal document software, who do you turn to?”

“Only because people like you make the laws so complex,” replies The Burglar.

“And why do we make the laws so complex? Because criminals like you look for every crack, every loophole, every edge to skirt around the law and we have to Spackle™, Spackle™, Spackle™!”

“What the hell are you talking about? I broke in; I have a gun; I’m here to steal stuff. What’s complicated about that?”

“Not you!” roars Mr. Labowski, Esq. “Him!” Mr. Labowski, Esq., thrusts his shaking, duct-taped hands towards the stock boy. “Yes you, mister putting Steeley Glass™ products in a display container clearly provided by and for Diamond Glass™ products! You know kerosene was once a trademarked product but for people… I mean, criminals like you.”

Kevin looks to The Burglar. “Dude, get me out of here. These guys are nuts.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., huffs. “Nuts! My father… my father…” Mr. Labowski, Esq., breaks down in tears.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., explains, “His father had a company and a corporation was able to steal the product and the product name right out from under him. Mr. Labowski, Esq. wrote a ballad about it. Recite the ballad for us, Mr. Labowski, Esq.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., tearfully recited:

“This is a ballad of a noble man
Who knew not the Lanham Act.
This man would lose his only trademark
And he would not get it back.”

“Just shut up,” says The Burglar, exasperatedly. “Please, just shut up.”

“Wait,” insists Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., “I have a back story, too. See, I am a Diamond Glass™ man as was my father before me and his father before him and his father before him and… umm… I think that’s as far back as it goes.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” The Burglar grabs his own head as if trying to hold it together. “Damn! It’s almost dawn! I don’t have time to break down the wall! You lawyers cost me this job! Now, I have to get out of here with nothing!” The Burglar starts to leave.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., calls out, “To save us some pain and to save you one more line item in the pending law suite from Diamond Glass™ glass manufactures, I strongly recommend that you use Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent to remove the Silver Streek™ brand duct tape from our wrists before you leave.”

“Argh!”

“The fact that Mr. Fredericks, Esq., has mentioned this fact,” explains Mr. Labowski, Esq., “adds weight to your negligence should you leave without providing us with the Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., chimes in. “Yes, and there is an Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent display right next to you—which is properly marked and stocked, unlike the glass and glass-cutting products display. Your negligence at this point would be most profound.”

Weak and confused, The Burglar tosses them the solvent.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., nods bemusedly. “I would consider that an act in good faith. You may have just saved yourself a lot of money.”

The Burglar turns to Kevin. “Kid, I would rescue you from these nuts but I just don’t have the time.” The Burglar turns to leave.

“For the love of…” cries Kevin. “At least shoot me!”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., asks Mr. Fredericks, Esq., “Would that be considered slander, calling us nuts?”

The Burglar screams and runs out the front door and into a police officer writing a ticket on The Burglar’s car.

As the officer’s backup arrives to help apprehend The Burglar, the lawyers and the stock boy free themselves with the solvent. Mr. Fredericks, Esq., heads out to deal with the police.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., turns to Kevin. “Now, back to the business at hand.”

After a short negotiation, they come to an agreement, which releases Kevin from liability but leaves the store open to legal repercussions if the violation is not corrected in seven days. After signing the agreement, Kevin asks, “Can I get a Xerox of that?”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., breaks down in tears. “Have you learned nothing?!”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., holds his distraught colleague close, comforting him. Over the shoulder of Mr. Labowski, Esq., he scolds Kevin. “It’s ‘a photocopy from a Xerox™ photocopy machine’ thank you!” He hold’s Mr. Labowski, Esq., closer. “One day they will learn.”

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

 

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by Helen Lloyd Montgomery

 

I was attacked by hummingbirds on my way home from work today. You know what they are. Tiny emerald speed demons. People used to hang out jars of red sugar water for them. They don’t any more. They’ve learned better.

A lot of things have changed over the years but not the aggressive nature of hummingbirds. I’d just come out of the office when they swarmed over the top of the building and were all over me like stupid on a chicken. Tiny wings blurred and neck feathers flared bright as the thumb-sized creatures buzzed me. A needle-like pain in my thigh was the first clue that I’d been struck. The second clue was the iridescent bastard that hung there with his beak buried in my flesh to feed.

Oh, did I forget to mention? Hummers don’t go for nectar these days. They’ve learned to prefer the taste of blood.

With an angry shriek, I swung my pocketbook at it. It darted away before I could connect but I took out a couple others on the fly as I took off running for my car. It was a fair run, too, because, I’d parked at the far end of the parking lot that morning. Meanwhile, I was taking a lot of hits from these guys. I swing a mean pocketbook though, and by coupling a wild counter-attack with a chaotic advance, I managed to break free of most of them by the time I reached my car. Bleeding from a hundred tiny puncture wounds, I opened the door while trying to sling off a die-hard who’d clamped onto my finger with a grip like razor-wire. When slinging didn’t work, I made a fist and smashed him into the back window before jumping inside to safety.

One of the little pee-wees accidentally got inside with me. I began to smile, his buzzing antics amusing now that I had him alone, without backup. If he hadn’t already realized his mistake, he’d learn soon enough that the tables had turned.

Outside, the tiny army regrouped. Hordes of angry hummers hovered about the car, glaring through the windshield at me.

“Well, well. Looks like I’ve got your buddy.” I grinned at my audience. “Would you like to watch what I’m going do to him?”

They beat wildly at the windows while he whirred frantically here and there trying to escape. I rummaged around and came up with a can of windshield de-icer. On his next pass, I let him have it. Several fly-bys later, I’d soaked not only the passenger seat but the bird’s lovely plumage, too. The alcohol in the de-icer cut through the protective oil on his feathers, clipping his wings rather effectively I thought, and he fumbled a landing. Chortling wickedly, I picked the little bugger up by his head and dangled him in front of me.

“Here, now, you don’t look so big and bad. I ought to pinch your head off.”

The tiny bloodsucker twisted in my grip and emitted a squawk.

“What?” I said, cupping a hand to my ear. “You don’t like that plan? Okay, I’ve got a better one.”

I have a Tupperware container I keep in the floorboard of the car for storing auto insurance papers, CDs, Minnesota winter survival gear, stuff like that. I dumped the contents out and dropped him in, setting it on the seat where all his pals could watch. I pulled my lighter out of a pocket and struck the flint, brandishing the resulting flame at my diminutive, bedraggled prisoner. He chirped a birdie profanity at me and tried to drag himself away.

“You little hot-shots think you’re so tough. You think you can jump anybody you please,” I said, flourishing the torch at the bird. He dripped ponderously away from each thrust. “Well, pay attention to who you’re messing with next time. I can take that aerosol can and turn it into a blowtorch, so—”

The bird apparently decided he’d had enough of either my lighter or my bluster and tried to fly away, something I hadn’t anticipated. Bad mistake on both our parts. One wing-tip brushed the flame and poof—instant fireball. I jerked my hand back from the conflagration as the reek of burning feathers and sizzling meat filled the confines of my car. I grabbed an old towel and beat the fire out. Too late, both for the bird and my container. He’d fried to oblivion and nearly melted a hole in the plastic. The hummers outside went nuts.

I cranked the car and turned the air conditioner on high to help clear out some of the stench, then shook my fist at the little devils outside.

“Anyway, as you can see, I don’t appreciate being messed around with. And don’t you ever forget it!”

Apparently they had no intention of forgetting anything. They zipped around the car as I drove out of the parking lot and into slow-moving traffic. They beat their wings against the windows. Their throats flashed like angry red beacons as they stared in at me, demented expressions etched on their cross-eyed little faces. It was embarrassing. They stayed with me for three stoplights until I got up enough speed to outdistance them. It was a pleasure to see them dwindling in the rearview mirror… those that hadn’t ended up plastered against the grill of the car behind me, that is.

I reached my apartment complex without further incident and pulled up in front of the garage. The door opened when I pressed the button on the remote control clipped to the sun visor, until about halfway up when it suddenly reversed direction and started to close.

I hit the button a second time. It rose several feet and then mindlessly about-faced and trundled back down again.

I snatched the remote from the visor and aimed it pointblank at the door. Mashing the button repeatedly, I argued with it electronically until it opened enough for me to roll in underneath. I shook my head, parked in my assigned stall and switched the car off. Seemed like life was getting stranger every day, like I was living in the Twilight Zone or something. I got out of the car and headed for the foyer, glumly noting that my Honda was speckled with hummingbird crap.

I heard a low groan coming from the foyer ahead of me. As I rounded the corner, I saw Sal Osseo lying there on the floor in front of the door.

I only barely know Sal. He seems to be a nice enough guy, I’ve just always been reclusive. At any rate, it was sort of a shock to see him lying there like that. His legs were crumpled like an accordion and his back looked twisted. He had raised up on one elbow and was trying to reach the doorknob.

“Hey, Sal, whatcha doing, lying down there like that?”

He sighed heavily. “Trying to get into the building. Guess you might help me with that?”

“Sure, Sal. Having trouble reaching the doorknob?”

“You could say that, yeah. Just a little trouble.”

I eased past, careful not to bump him, and opened the door, watching with horrified amusement as he crawled through. He panted and groaned the whole way.

“Thanks, Sissy,” he said as he crawled over to the elevator.

My name’s not Sissy, but I let it go. He lay there for a moment staring up at the elevator call button.

“Going up, Sal?”

“No, I’m going down.” He rolled his eyes. “Of course I’m going up. We’re in the garage, for gosh sakes. Nowhere to go from here but up.”

“Well, gee, Sal, you don’t have to get testy.”

I pushed the button and waited to see if the elevator would work today. Finally the silence grew uncomfortable and my curiosity got the better of me.

“So, Sal,” I ventured. “What happened to you?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” Sal shifted his weight as if settling himself more comfortably and twisted around to glance at my ankles. “I tried to kill myself a few nights ago. Jumped off my balcony. Of course, it didn’t work. It just sort of twisted my back and crumpled my legs up. Been laying out there for the last three nights. Kept calling for help, but nobody ever heard me.”

“Gee, Sal, that’s a shame. Why were you trying to kill yourself?”

“I’ve tried a few times already. A couple of months ago, I tried poison. See?”

Sal rolled over on his back and pulled up his grass-stained shirt. There, in the middle of his pasty-white belly was the most god-awful ruin I’ve ever seen. A half-healed hole in his guts big enough to put my fist through, had I been so inclined. I turned away, squeezing my eyes shut.

“Oh, jeez, Sal, cover that up. That’s gross! Don’t be showing it to people, what’s the matter with you?” I stabbed a finger into the call button a few more times. As if awakened from a deep slumber, the light behind it flickered dimly.

I don’t know. This used to be a nice place. Now nothing works right anymore and people crawl around with their guts hanging out.

With an unnerving thump, the elevator arrived. The door slid open with a raspy whine and Sal started to crawl through.

“Hey, Sissy, hold that door, will you? I don’t move as fast as I used to.”

I obliged, holding it open until he’d squirmed inside.

“Oh, that’s good!” he sighed. “So nice to be on carpet for a change.”

I got on behind him and said nothing, figuring Sal might not enjoy it so much once he had carpet burns all over his elbows. The elevator door wheezed shut and with a lurch, it began to rise.

The ride up to the third floor wasn’t as long as the wait but when the door opened, I discovered we hadn’t quite made it all the way to three. In fact, the elevator was about a foot shy of having gotten there. For me the step-up wasn’t that much of a problem. But for Sal—
Old Sal was game, I’ll admit. He was trying to make it. I shook my head again and with one hand on the elevator door to hold it open, I reached down and caught hold of the back of his belt.

“Here, lemme give you a hand.” I tugged at his lower body and half carried, half shoved him up onto the floor.

“Ooh, ouch, hey, watch it—whew. Thanks Sissy, I appreciate the lift up.”

“No problem. Hey, Sal, look at this,” I said, climbing out into the hallway. “Somebody left a grocery cart sitting here. Guess you can use it?”

Sal’s face lit up like a kid a Christmas. The cart, supplied courtesy of the apartment complex for residents to use and then never return to the garage for the next person to use, was of the variety that had a big basket up top and a large child-storage area below. He clambered into the child storage area. I raised the basket so he didn’t have to scrunch over so far. He did a triple-take when he turned to thank me and saw me for the first time.

“What happened to you?”

I must have looked a mess. I expect a hundred tiny puncture wounds can to that to a person.

“Don’t ask,” I said, wheeling him away down hall. “You live in apartment three-twenty, don’t you?”

“Yeah, this is it right here. Hang on, let me see if I can find my door key.”

He squirmed around in the bottom of the cart, searching his pockets and leaving me to wonder why someone committing suicide would take their door key with them. But he had, and grunting with effort, he reached up and unlatched his door.

I made a three-point road turn with the cart and backed in. I had a little trouble getting it over the door-frame with Sal’s weight on it. He tried to help until I rolled over his fingers. Finally, with much creative cursing on my part and reams of unnecessary direction from my passenger, I got him pulled inside. I wiped sweat from my forehead, performed another three-point turn, and pushed the cart into Sal’s den.

I came to a halt as soon as I saw the hummingbirds. They were everywhere.

There must have been hundreds. Thousands. Hundreds of thousands! The furniture crawled with them. They perched on lampshades, curtain rods, picture frames, the lop-eared antennas sprouting from the back of an ancient television. At any given moment, at least fifty were buzzing slowly through the room, searching for a place to light.

It looked like the town’s entire hummingbird population now populated Sal’s apartment. I heard Rod Serling’s voice whispering in the back of my mind.

“Sal,” I said, “why’s your balcony door open?”

Sal cleared his throat. “I must’ve left it that way when I went out to jump.”

“You didn’t close it behind you?”

“You’ll understand, I’m sure, that I didn’t expect to be coming back.”

“You thought to take your door key,” I pointed out.

“Okay! I’ll admit, maybe I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time.”

One of the hummers saw us and with a shriek, launched himself directly at us. Immediately the air turned green with hummers following suit. I hunkered down and flung my arms over my head for protection. As I did, my elbow hit the basket on the cart and sent it crashing down. It landed with a clang and a loud “Ouch!” from Sal.

I was wishing I had time to be sorry that had happened, but birds had covered me like a down comforter. One somebody had stuck needles all through, that is. Screaming obscenities I’d learned from a sailor boyfriend a few years back, I shook off as many hummers as I could and began swinging my pocketbook again. Birds went flying in directions they had not intended. So did Sal’s face when I accidentally whacked him.

I don’t understand how a man bent on committing suicide could be so vocal about getting smacked in the chops with a pocketbook, which I was finding to be about as helpful against this barrage of birdies as a fly-swatter would be against a mad swarm of killer bees. While Sal bellowed about being hit in the face, I swam through an emerald cloud of hummingbirds to a bank of light switches, flipping each one until I found one that spun up the ceiling fan. It whirred gently to life, catching a few, but not enough to make a difference. Obviously, whoever had designed the ceiling fan hadn’t designed a very efficient weapon. I needed something more.

That’s when I noticed a strange thing. Sal was sitting helplessly in the bottom of his cart, clutching his head in his hands and wailing something that sounded like “Chernobyl!” But never mind that. The strange thing was that the birds weren’t attacking him. Not a single one of them. His caterwauling must have been fending them off. I wondered if wailing “Chernobyl!” at the top of my lungs would help me, as I thought I could feel my iron level dropping under the assault. Instead, I dashed through the room and hit the “on” button on his stereo receiver and cranked up the volume, hoping the noise might drive the hummers back out the open balcony door.

I should have guessed Sal’s stereo would be tuned to National Public Radio.

A subdued conversation between an NPR moderator and a member of the local Audubon Society emanated from the woefully under-used Polk speakers as I ran into the kitchen. In the den, Sal whimpered “Exxon Valdez!” while I dashed past the gas stove, flipping on burners. Hummers swarmed after me as I skidded into fighting position between the stove and the sink. Those that I relocated with my pocketbook never recovered from the blast of heat and flames I sent them careening through with my deadly backhand.

That was more like it! I sent scads of the little devils tumbling straight to hell. It would have been quite fun to watch the tiny flaming explosions under other circumstances. But at this rate, I’d be drained of blood before I got them all. Besides, they were catching on to this tactic and countered by flanking me. What I needed was a diversion. I created a small one when my pocketbook knocked a blender off the countertop. It struck the floor about the same time a faint hope struck me.

“Weapons testing in the sixties!” Sal cried.

“Hey Sal!” I shouted over NPR while maintaining a steadfast defense. “What’ve you got in the refrigerator?”

Through a shifting peacock-colored cloud, I saw him angle his head curiously at me.

“Surely you’re not going to eat at a time like this?”

“Dammit, Sal! I’m being sucked dry in here!”

He thought for a minute.

“Well, my last dinner was supposed to be liver and onions. Then, somehow, I just couldn’t stomach the idea.”

That made sense to me. I imagined the headlines on the front of the Weekly World Sun: Man With Gaping Stomach Wound Attempts Suicide Rather Than Eat Meal Of Liver And Onions.

As Sal recommenced his howling: “—mercury in our streams! Three-legged frogs!—” I snatched the blender off the floor and plugged it into an outlet by the stove. Sweat mingled with rivulets of blood as I pawed through items in the fridge and came up with the package of liver. Working as fast as I could while swatting hummers away, I filled the blender with water, hacked off a chunk of liver, tossed it in, and turned it on. Presto! Blood soup! The blender splattered the walls with what I hoped would provide a delightful change from human blood.

“Come and get it, you little bloodsuckers!” I shouted.

It worked better than I’d expected, creating a sufficient diversion. The stink of raw blood drove the hummers into a feeding frenzy. They fought each other for position. Thousands were drawn to the feast, giving me time to ransack the contents of the cabinet under Sal’s sink. While Sal lamented “migrating ozone holes!” and the blender began to suck up hummers, I came up with treasure.

I can imagine Sal, a man who eats liver and onion while listening to NPR, being a very organized type of person. The type person who, at winter’s end, brings in the car’s winter survival kit for summer storage. And he was. For there, under the sink, was a three-gallon container with candles, matches, flares, etc., all those things you might need if stranded in a sudden blizzard… and beside it, a large spray can of windshield de-icer.

In the den, Sal wailed, “Vampire hummingbirds!”

Yep. Maybe that’s what they are. And if so, maybe the environmental disaster that re-wired their tiny bodies to thrive on blood had also rewired the way their tiny minds worked. Maybe they’re telepathic, too. How else to explain an unprecedented attack such as this, considering what I’d done to one of their own not an hour earlier?

I ignored a new hypodermic jab and popped the plastic cap off the can of de-icer. I pulled my lighter from my pocket. Careful to aim the spray nozzle away from me, I flicked the lid open, and struck the flint. You can always count on a Zippo. I held the flame to the front of the nozzle, and pressed it.

Whoosh! Instant flame-thrower. It was spectacular! The three-foot tongue of flame blasted a picture from the wall. The recoil flung my grip on the can up and over my shoulder like the recoil from a 9mm cannon. Startled, I dropped the lighter. The flame went out. Birds withdrew questioningly, hung uncertainly in the air.

I grinned at ’em.

With a Rambo-like scream of defiance, I re-lit the flame-thrower and began sweeping the kitchen. It scorched the front of the refrigerator. Blasted refrigerator magnets. Seared the counters. Sautéed the chopped liver. Toasted cookbooks. Detonated a roll of paper towels hanging from a holder on the wall. Burning ash mingled with scorched feathers, drifting to the floor amidst dozens of fried hummers.

The survivors fled the holocaust back into the den, screaming tiny birdie screams of terror. I ran screaming after them. Sal screamed when he saw me.

I raked the retreating hummers with the flame-thrower. They plummeted to the floor in flames. Carpet smoldered where they crashed. Burning birdie bodies crunched underfoot as I rousted the invaders. There was no escape from my flame-throwing prowess except through the open balcony door. Panicked by my powerful advance, the hummers seemed to have forgotten it. What a shame. They dropped by the score for that mistake. I wreaked havoc on them, swept hell through their ranks. Curtains burst into flame at the touch of the flame-thrower.

“Oh!” Sal cried. “Oh, my curtains! You’ve caught my curtains on fire!”

A lampshade went up in a fiery inferno as hummers died.

“Oh, no! My new lamp!”

The sofa smoked from the heat of my revenge as I decimated the enemy. Throw pillows went up in raging glory, taking out more of the foe. The soft cloth covers on the Polk speakers flared brilliantly. Decorative candles turned to slag. Burnt hummers fell like black hailstones.

“My apartment! My things!”

I stumbled over something behind me. It was Sal, crawling as fast as he could across the floor. He was holding a fire extinguisher in one hand. He pulled the pin and began tracing my trail of destruction with destruction of his own. Many more hummers fell as I trapped them between death by fire and Sal’s stream of CO2.

Suddenly, without warning, my flame-thrower petered out. The Zippo burned my fingertips. Sucking my breath between my teeth, I dropped the lighter and tried to fling off the sting as I investigated the can of de-icer. Was it clogged? I turned the can upside down and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I turned the can right-side up and pressed the nozzle. Air shot from it. I shook the can. It was empty.

“Thank god!” Sal cried.

The buzzing of hummers took on an undertone of interest. I smiled weakly at the several hundred birds still left alive.

“So, you guys ready to talk surrender?” I asked. The humming grew vengeful as I rapidly rethought my options. “A truce maybe?”

Guess not. Understanding that I was now weaponless, my antagonists regrouped and swooped after me. I turned and ran squealing into the bedroom section of Sal’s apartment.

“Oh, no! Don’t go in there!” Sal despaired. “It’s the only room you haven’t destroyed!”

I had hoped to find sanctuary in the bathroom. But before I could shut the door and lock them out, they soared in like tiny fighter jets and started dropping little bombs on me. I jumped up and down swinging my fists at them. They stayed effectively out of reach. I raged uselessly as hummingbird crap rained down on me, then I spun to a crouch and jerked open the cabinet door under the sink.

Aha! I grabbed a bottle of cleaning ammonia. Instantly half the hummers broke formation, forsaking the aerial assault to form an opposition to force me away from the cabinet. I managed to snag a jug of Clorox before the sword-beaks won. I charged out of the bathroom, back through the den where Sal lay sobbing softly and into the kitchen again with kamikazes hot on my tail.

They thought they had me on the run.

I grabbed a bowl of fruit from the counter, dumped the fruit, and dashed into the den with the remaining hummers in hot pursuit. I dropped to my knees in the center of the room, fumbled the cap off the ammonia and poured a fair amount into the bowl. While hummers dive-bombed me from above and applied sophisticated knowledge of bayonet usage from below, I wrenched the cap off the jug of Clorox.

Dammit! It had never been opened. It was sealed tight with one of those seals it takes a pocketknife to break. Screaming like a karate master, I stabbed it with an acrylic thumbnail, ripped the seal away, and splashed bleach into the bowl with the ammonia.

The resultant fumes hit me immediately. My nose started running. So did my eyes. I coughed and gagged and fumbled to my feet, backing way from the bowl.

“My eyes!” Sal wailed. “They’re burning! They’re burning!”

With their maniacally fast metabolisms, the gas was hitting the hummers hard. The ceiling fan helped disperse the noxious gas through the room, and I knew Sal and I didn’t have much time. I stumbled into the bathroom, grabbed a couple of washcloths, and soaked them with tap water. I held one over my mouth and nose. It helped me to breathe easier and so I hurried the other one out to Sal.

“Ahgh! No! Keep away!” he screamed, flinging his hands across his face when I tried to help him.

“It’s a wet washcloth, Sal! You need to breathe through this!”

I practically had to stuff it up his nose before I got him to hold it in place. I held my own washcloth to my face with one hand, hooked my other arm across his chest and under his arms, and dragged him out to the balcony and fresh air. I dropped him with a thud and closed the balcony door. Covered in sweat, blood, and hummingbird crap, panting with exhaustion, coughing sporadically as my lungs tried to clear themselves, I peered in through the glass as the last of the hummingbirds descended slowly into death.

“Wow, Sal, that was really something,” I said between ragged breaths.

Puzzled by his lack of response, I turned to check on him. He had curled into a fetal position, rocking gently as he sucked his thumb. He was making these weird mewling noises. I figured he was upset because I hadn’t given him his chance to really commit suicide.

I seem to have gained some notoriety from this event. It took a couple hours for my lawyer to get me out of jail for what Sal claimed was vandalism, destruction of personal property, assault with intent to inflict bodily harm, assault with intent to kill, and I don’t know what other kinds of charges. Upon finally being released, I found the press hanging around outside the courthouse waiting for me. Everyone wanted an interview! The local newspapers, the TV stations, the radio stations. The interview with Trent West from ZRock 109 might be fun; he’s kind of cute. I might even become famous!

I finally managed to break free of the microphones and cameras and reporters-in-my-face and go home, where I called my friends and told them all about it. They’re calling me “Sissy the Vampire Hummingbird Slayer.”

You know, I sort of like that. Do you think it will stick?