Now, her face was frozen into a map of pain; whether it was pain she had felt at the moment of her death, or pain she was feeling currently, somehow, he had no way to know. He backed through the kitchen and into the living room. She followed him, vacant-eyed and moaning.
She's still alive. Her comms switch was set on 'open' when she fainted and I can hear her breathing into the helmet mic.
Four hours of air in a single charge, two tanks, she's been out here for six hours already. The rollabout manages about twenty kilometers an hour on flat, even ground, of which there is precious little on the moon. I'm zig-zagging back and forth, driving a search pattern, but she could be anywhere. I need her to wake up.
I'll find her; I have to find her. If I don't, she stops breathing, and I'll be alone.
"Bobby!" His mother knocked on his door, called through it, did both more quietly than usual. "Bobby, get up!"
It was Sunday morning. Well, all right: technically, it was Sunday afternoon. "No."
"Bobby, there's something happening. On the news." She had the beginnings of panic in her voice. "There's shooting downtown. People being attacked."
Three weeks ago she had refused to let him go to a party because someone 'might put drugs in your cup and then murder you'. He clarified, "Go away."
He didn't respond. After an hour, he finally went downstairs. By then, they were already surrounded.
"She's singing again."
"I know." He could hear it just as clearly as Maria did, through the paper-thin walls: the old lady across the hall, Mrs. Aguilar, singing her hymns. "Maybe she'll stop. She stopped after a few minutes yesterday."
He got out of bed, stepped over mounting trash on the carpet, walked to the front hall, pressed his ear against the door.
Mrs. Aguilar's singing continued. Underscoring was soon provided by the shuffling and scratching and moaning of the zombies drawn up the stairs by the noise.
He silently tiptoed back to the bedroom, heart pounding. "She's not stopping."
"About forty-five minutes left until sundown. Who's got the map?"
The group found tree stumps and rocks and patches of dry grass to sit on while Violet and Horace looked at the old county map.
"If we go West on 12 there's a school…"
"Too close to the middle of town. What about East?"
"Residential. Parks. Woods. The highway again."
Violet looked around: no one had laid down. "We keep going North."
"In the dark?" Horace shook his head. "That's how Maines and that little girl got bit. What was her name?"
"Becky," Violet said, evenly. "Her name was Becky."
There was a collar around its neck, and a chain from the collar to a post driven into the ground.
"Observe." Rinkmann picked up the pistol, thumbed the safety, aimed, fired three rounds into the zombie's torso; it stumbled back, hissed, spat, moaned, but did not fall. "A bullet to the body is wasted." He put one through the brainpan and the corpse dropped limp to the ground.
The kids nodded: they understood. They were the first generation that hadn't seen the movies, that didn't know the rules. Teaching them would have to be worth a few bullets every spring.
Amy drove the van while Colton slept against the passenger window; Morris and Jen commiserated in whispers in the middle seats. In the back…
The demon had reeked of sulfur and decay before being shot by Colton, and death had not improved its odor. It was sprawled across the convertible bed, leaking thick black blood onto a tarp they had stolen from atop a neighbor's patio grill.
He heard her, but didn't stir.
"Where am I going?"
"Just keep driving until you don't see buildings. Do the speed limit. Signal turns and lane changes. Do not get pulled over."
"If we get pulled over we can just—"
"If we get pulled over I have to shoot a policeman and then we've got two bodies to bury."
Amy said nothing for a minute. "That's the demon talking."
"The demon's dead, Amy, that's practicality talking. There is no explanation for what's back there. If we're caught with it, we'll be lucky if we ever see the light of day again. Do you want your baby to be born in a holding cell on some secret military base?"
She didn't seem shocked that he knew, she just sighed. "Our baby, Colton."
"Oh, it's 'ours' now, is it? You've known for how long? Since before him, isn't it?"
"I was waiting for the right time, Colton. And then… and then after," she didn't bother specifying after what, "it just seemed like if I told you, you'd do something stupid."
He finally looked at her. She looked strong, determined, recovered, in a way that he wasn't, in a way he suspected he never would be. Of course it was a front. She glanced over at him, and they both laughed nervously.
From the back, Morris piped up. "There. Make a left." It was an access road. There was a gate, but it was open. "This used to be a private school. It's abandoned now."
"Does someone check up on it?" Jen asked.
"Only once a week, only the building. We used to come here in high school to get high." Morris grinned. "Pull around the back. We'll drag him on the tarp into the woods and then bury him."
"It. We'll bury it." Jen said, decisively. "And then a doctor for Colton."
"No." As much as he wanted one, needed one. "Then get rid of the van. I'm not sure how to do that. A cadaver dog would go apeshit if it got anywhere near this thing. Clean it, take it to a professional place and have it cleaned again, and then junk it."
Jen stopped the van on the far side of the dumpsters, where it could be seen from the road and where it might not be seen from the building, if they were lucky. "You bought shovels on your credit card. Now you're going to junk your van. Maybe you're making yourself look more suspicious by trying not to look suspicious."
"Can't be helped." It probably wouldn't matter, anyway. He was hurt worse than they thought. It wasn't just the wound itself: after twelve hours, it was clearly infected with something hellish and deadly. Just another thing to hide.
The others got out quickly, thankful to be out of the enclosed space. Colton eased himself out slowly, wincing, shaking.
Morris offered, "We'll dig. You rest."
"Thanks." He fixed Morris' eyes with his own. "It's gotta be deep, Morris."
He watched them dig. It took a couple hours just to get the hole deep enough. It was therapy, burying the demon's corpse. If they could have chopped it up, or burned it, they probably would have. By the time they were read to drag the tarp over and upend the body into the hole, he felt even worse, but still he had to get out, help them. It made it over. Almost over, anyway.
They stood around the lip of the hole, staring down at the corpse. Jen cried.
Colton found himself waking up with dirt in his mouth, staring up at the sky. "What happened?"
"You passed out. Colton you're bleeding again."
It had been bleeding the whole time, under the bandage: the wound in his side where the demon had clawed him after breaking out of the pentagram. Only now, the blood was dark, almost black. Amy pulled his shirt up, pulled the dressing aside. "Oh, God."
"Yeah. Help me up."
They put their shoulders under his arms and lifted him from the ground. Amy was white as a sheet. "Doctor, now."
"No. Sorry." He fished the revolver out of his pocket; they stepped back instinctively. He almost fell, but he had just enough strength to keep his feet.
"I can't go to a doctor. They'll ask what happened. They'll run tests. I don't know what they'll find, but it won't be good. You'll all be arrested for murder when I die."
"Colton you're not going to—"
"It's my own fault. He… it said not to move, and I took a step back. I was going for the door." He laughed, winced in pain. "It doesn't matter: I moved, it clawed me. That's that. Just make sure to pack the dirt down tight." He moved back to the edge of the hole.
"Colton, the baby. Our—"
"I'll be dead within a day either way."
"You don't know that."
He shook his head. Amy had to know she was kidding herself: she'd had the demon in her head just as long as him. "Amy, what if it's not a toxin? What if it's how it reproduces? You know what it wanted, you saw, we all did. An army of children, just like it. And all of us slaves or food or worse."
Morris was tight-lipped, silent. Jen put her arms around Amy, who had begun sobbing uncontrollably.
"Cover us up, do what I told you to do with the van, and never come back here again. Ever." He put the pistol to his head.
The warpgate was old, but well-maintained. Gas and dust had been pouring through it steadily for a thousand years, giving way for decades at a time to streams of solid rock: planets having been disassembled, sifted for useful materials, and their detritus sent here to fall into the hot, radioactive atmosphere of the brown dwarf below.
"Any minute now."
"You must be very proud."
"To be the Administrator when the project reaches completion."
"Nonsense. I'm just the last in a very long line of—"
The reactive glass darkened to protect their eyes; still the flash was dazzling.
The trees were taller. As a youth they had seemed enormous, and even though he was fully-grown they still did not disappoint. The driveway still had ruts, the mailbox still leaned to the right, the front gate still squealed in protest as he pushed it open and then closed again.
Twice a year, from the time he was a babe-in-arms until he was ten and the Big Move; twice a year, for a week in the summer and a weekend over Christmas. He didn't knock on the front door: no one was home.
You get a letter, and you open it, and someone has died, and you're momentarily sad, even though you didn't really know the person all that well anymore if you ever had. Family. There's an executor and then a lawyer and then a plane ticket and then you're returning to a place you never thought you'd see again, all because you were fondly remembered by someone you had nearly forgotten.
Inside, the furniture was covered with white sheets. Where had they come from? Did the lawyer do it? Do they call in a service?
Up the creaky stairs with the smooth, curved bannister that was all one piece. He had always wondered how they did it. Do trees grow in that shape? Wouldn't it break if they took a straight piece and tried to bend it in that easy arc? He still didn't know.
He opened the bedroom door. It wasn't locked, which was odd, but of course the lawyer or his people, they wouldn't have had any idea. Of course it was still empty, bare hardwood floor and bare cream walls and plain white curtains over the windows.
It was early yet; he sat on the floor facing the North-East corner, and remembered.
Picking fallen crabapples before they went mushy, and chucking them into the lake to see if you could get them to skip; running so fast that it was falling; the teenage girl up the lane and on the other side that sometimes laid out in a bikini until her mother caught him peeping through the hedge and yelled; the rusted-out truck randomly laying on its axles deep into the stand of trees out back. Summer. He relived it, sitting cross-legged in business slacks and loafers.
It got to be late enough. He turned around, and there it was, a shimmering in the South-West corner, just like always. It took shape, it firmed up, it reached out but couldn't grasp.
There was a tingling where the shimmering touched his exposed skin. "Remember me?"
The shimmering spread up the walls, crawled across the ceiling, fell across him like a blanket, he held his breath until it rolled away back to its corner.
"You're less now than you were then." He observed. "How long until you're gone entirely?
They were tearing the house down in two weeks. Should he mention it? Would he be understood if he did? Would the shimmering care?
"Did you miss me?"
He stared at her picture in the waiting area, in the skybridge, during takeoff. He kept having to re-touch the screen of his phone: it kept going to black to save battery. Eventually he went into the settings and changed it to 'always-on'.
"Girl troubles?" The woman next to him: mid-thirties, professional. She was vaguely familiar, but maybe she just had one of those faces. She coughed, covering her mouth with her fist, then leaned over to steal a closer look. "She's pretty. If you like that type. Which I guess you do. What happened?"
He didn't want to talk about it. "She cheated on me."
"Terrible. But everybody does it, take it from me."
"I never did."
"Well, maybe you'll cheat on the next one, or the one after that."
"That's an awful way to look at it…"
"I'm just being realistic. Listen," she gently took the phone, turned it off, slipped it into his shirt pocket. "My husband cheated on me. After ten years together, faithful the whole time. And then he gets home, and he's suddenly a rock star, and the fans are everywhere he goes and they're young and pretty and willing, and he's apparently having them two at a time. He still loves me, and I'm sure he'll get over this, but right now…"
He didn't know what to say. "Your husband's a sudden rock star? What's that about?"
"Figuratively speaking. He's an astronaut. He just got back from the Mars mission."
That's why she looked familiar. "Oh, I remember you. You were the pretty one. At the White House. The other three looked sort of frumpy. The wives."
"They are sort of frumpy. And thank you." She coughed again, just once, then smiled. "Anne."
"Ricky. I mean, Rick."
"But she called you Ricky."
"Want some of my booze? You missed the cart."
It was a four-hour flight, and they were only an hour into it. The plane climbed as it passed over the coast and out over the ocean; the cart came around again, and once again, and they got pleasantly drunk, her treat.
"So here's my question," she said, conspiratorially. "Have you thought about getting even with… what was her name?"
"Oh, no, no; Missy?" She laughed dismissively. "Rick, you definitely need to get even. And you know what? This is your chance." She was close, leaning closer. She was attractive, though older than him, which would be a first. She smelled very good. But…
"I don't need to get even. I'm over it."
"Which is why you stared at her picture for more than an hour? No, Rick, you… listen, sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind. Sometimes you just have to let go of all the stupid rules that you told yourself were important. You know what I mean?"
He stared at her. She stared back, she raised her eyebrows and grinned. She got up, slid past him into the center aisle, and headed towards the front, clearly expecting him to follow after a respectable pause. He watched her all the way, he saw her whisper something to the stewardess and press something — money, perhaps — into her hand, he saw her slip quietly into the lavatory.
He would never have done this before Missy, never. He couldn't believe he was doing it now. He got up, avoiding eye contact with the people around him and spectacularly avoiding eye contact with the stewardess. He stepped into the lavatory with… Anne. She reached past him to flip the lock to 'occupied'.
"Have you ever done this before?" It was a nervous whisper.
"In an airplane? No. Cheating? Well…" she was undoing his belt as she spoke, "I told my husband that if he gets to play around, so do I. He doesn't care. He's getting his."
Missy had cheated just the once. Maybe she wouldn't do it again. She'd said she wouldn't, she'd said she was sorry. Maybe they could work it out. And then he was in Anne's hand and he couldn't think any more.
It wasn't the most comfortable sex he'd ever had — they were cramped, and he was awkward and hesitant — but he couldn't remember ever being that turned on in his life. Everywhere she touched his skin tingled like lips during a first kiss. He struggled not to make noise; she was absolutely silent.
He thought about Missy the whole time; it's how he knew he had made a mistake. Afterwards, Anne left the lavatory before him. The stewardess winked at her as she passed. He felt like throwing up. The feeling stayed with him the rest of the flight.
So did the excitement of it. He wanted her again, Anne. He didn't suggest it, but it was distracting. She switched seats after a while, to chat with a young woman three rows back, a college girl going home for winter break. When he looked back again, both seats were empty. Oh.
When they landed, he rushed to deplane, rushed to the bathroom, threw up, masturbated. The nausea didn't lessen, nor did the arousal. He got a strange look from a businessman in a cowboy hat when he was leaving.
In the cab, he called Missy. He forgave her, he wanted her back, he had to have her. "Meet me at the apartment. Just meet me." It was a forty-five minute drive. He had to have the driver pull over so that he could dry-heave by the side of the road. Oddly, there was a woman on the other side of the highway throwing up also.
By the time he got to the apartment, he understood everything.
You're an invader. You're a virus, or a bacteria, or a parasite. A parasite; I'm a parasite. I'm smart. I need to spread to as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time, before they can react. I'll give them something they want, that all of them want.
He waited for Missy.
The deep, strangely-accented voice managed to drip with disdain: "These engines are forty years old. When were they last overhauled?"
The previous engineer had gotten antisocial, had gotten sloppy, and then had cleaned out his Company account and jumped ship two-thirds of the way through their assigned itinerary. Mays shrugged. "Not my department. Carpenter kept it running, I just flew it."
"And you are content to fly it knowing it is in this sorry condition?" After a moment, the alien carefully wriggled his way out of the guts of the ship, and stood: he easily towered over Mays, all shiny black armor and sharp edges. "I will tear down the entire reaction drive and rebuild it. The Company will also need to arrange for a line of credit for the supply manufactory here: the tools are missing, presumably stolen by the previous engineer. Plan on being stationary for one standard week."
ELLE, hitherto content to listen, piped up through the compartment's speakers. "Rebbo, we are scheduled to arrive on Ahlstrand in five days."
"We will be delayed. "
Mays shook his head. "The Company will have my ass. We've never missed a pickup in two years of—"
"I will not take responsibility for the drive in its current state. You will be late, or you will lift without an engineer." It was his call, by law and tradition: if denied, he could always refuse to sign the contract.
"Given the circumstances of Carpenter's untimely departure, it is unlikely that the Company will hold us at fault. I will countersign the request." ELLE was, technically, the Company's representative aboard the ship, though Mays and now Rebbo were employees. Being largely artificial — and inextricably part of the ship — she was incapable of guile or larceny à la Carpenter.
Mays shrugged again. he didn't bother asking about the FTL drive: it was a closed system, bought already complete and sealed from a very alien manufacturer, and could not be repaired. "Have it your way. I've got reading to catch up on anyway."
Elle addressed Rebbo. "I have printed out your contract: it is in the communications hopper. And I have ordered the standard toolset from the manufactory. Fabrication should be complete in a little less than two hours"
Rebbo declared, "Excellent. I will be able to begin immediately after bringing my effects on board."
Closer to the wall lay the enormous bodies of perhaps twenty more giants, yard-long ballista bolts protruding from their corpses. The one that remained was wounded, surrounded; it backed up slowly, mindful of the moat at its back.
"Wait… I give up. No more hurt."
The ring of soldiers closed ever tighter around the creature, the foremost rank cautiously bracing their pikes against the ground after every other step.
"I no want attack humans; bad giants trick me! I friend to humans…"
"Some friend," yelled one soldier. "Do friends try to eat each other?"
The giant, compulsively, licked its lips.
Rebbo's custom spacesuit entered his field of view at a dead run. Ten feet tall, Rebbo running full-out towards the ship was a sight to behold. Mays shut off the drill, but the dust and ice kept dancing on their own. With the noise gone, he could hear a low rumble and Rebbo yelling into the comms, "Time to go!"
Rebbo had won the bet: the moon was geologically active after all.
The sorcerer lay wrapped in gauze, hooked to an IV to replace fluids seeping out through his ruined skin. The room smelled like a Sunday roast.
There had been no choice for the Police but to let him go. "I can't submit paperwork to the DA that says the murder involved magic," the Sergeant had said with a shrug. "They'll reassign me to vice." The City's policy is to deny that magic exists. She wondered if the fool knew he was writing her a blank check.
Standing there watching the sorcerer's life leak out of him was less satisfying than she had imagined. The burning had been wonderful, but her vengeance felt empty, somehow hollow.
Aulia eased the door shut behind her, careful not to alert the duty nurse to her presence.
He must have been awake, heard the rustle of Aulia's clothing; his eyes opened, fixed on her. There was no fear: he knew the issue was no longer in doubt. "They don't come in, they stay away. They know there's nothing to be done." His voice was raspy, broken. "It'd be worse if they hovered."
"Why Feathercane?" Aulia asked, her rage under strict control: a fire alarm would end the interview. "Why him in particular?"
The sorcerer shook his head slowly. "Did I need a reason? Did you have a reason when it was Porfney, years ago?"
She was silent. The concert hall had come down red-hot around Porfney, had burned for days, leaving no body to speak of. She had come to the new world soon after that. "There has to be more to it that that. You stalked Feathercane."
He turned his head to look out the window. There was a yellow-brown stain where his cheek had rested against it. "What does it matter?"
"He was my friend."
He turned back from the window. "Porfney was mine." There was a gurgle of blood in his throat. When he coughed, it speckled his chin. "You know the bathroom door is open."
There'd be standing water in the toilet bowl, and more in the tank, and all the City's water waited just behind the valves on the sink and the bathtub. "We're in a hospital. Anyway, you're too weak, and you're not getting stronger."
He laughed. "You're probably right. I have a hard time even feeling that it's there, now. I probably couldn't even get it to slosh. But the others are coming."
Aulia shrugged. "We're still in a hospital."
"I'll make a deal with you, Burner. Feathercane, me: it ends there. That's what I'll tell the others."
Aulia cocked her head to one side. "There've been truces before. They never last."
"They last for a while." He coughed again, closed his eyes. "Longer than me. Anyway, that's what I'll tell them. What you do is up to you."
She stole from the room quietly. The sorcerer; Feathercane; before him, Porfney; before him, who knows. A truce might hold for a while. Perhaps if the Airheads would arbitrate…
He looked so smug, sitting there: arms crossed, self-satisfied smile.
But he was dry. She could melt the one-way mirror out of the way and set the sorcerer alight, with a thought. The wretch would have no defense. But then she'd have to kill the policemen too, and too many people had seen her enter the building, and this nonsense was already messy enough.
The detective walked over, shut off the lights in the interrogation room. He could see her; which means he knew now that even if he got away from the police, he'd never get away from her.
We planted her as soon as there was soil. Right there in the middle of town, where the filtered-just-right sunshine could hit her regardless of which direction it was coming from.
Twenty years ago.
It was a tradition to propose marriage under her boughs before she had boughs to speak of. Kids pick up acorns for luck: if they're caught with more than one, they get grounded and have to write a letter of apology to the Mayor. I saw a new transportee carelessly snap off a branch once. He was beaten half to death before the Cops got there.
from a story idea given Theodore Sturgeon by Robert A. Heinlein
I put a bullet in Jeremy Newkirk on a bright, breezy Sunday morning during breakfast. The man just refused to see reason, and was out yet again in the front yard with that old gas mower as if he didn't have neighbors trying to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee and bowl of cereal.
My Gramps, he was a cop, an actual policeman who'd been part of the protest crackdowns after the Peace And Order law. He always had the best stories. I inherited his old service revolver when he died. It's the gun I learned to shoot with, and I'm really good with it, and I dropped Newkirk from my own front porch, one round to the forehead. I don't think the idiot ever even saw me. Which is a shame.
He dropped to the side. The mower continued on without him to clank to a stop against one of the metal posts of the chain-link fence between our yards. I took the time to walk around and shut off the mower before returning to my breakfast.
Now, knowing me, knowing what I do, and how much money I make, you might well ask: why don't I just move? After all, I can afford a much bigger place, some swanky place with a name architect up in the hills where the neighbors could mow all day and I'd never hear it. I guess the answer is: I like it here. And from a financial standpoint, my money's performing better where it is than if it were sunk into real estate. We'll move eventually, but for now? I like the house, I like the neighborhood, I like my breakfast nook.
Newkirk's official assessment at close of business Friday: $42,750 North American Dollars, payable to the widow. To put that into perspective, the base assessment — the amount of money it costs to take a life, before extenuating or aggravating factors are taken into account — for a man his age is $75,000 NAD.
I had the money, of course: I'd gotten a sizable bump at work that spring, on top of the Christmas bonus last year, and my portfolio had been performing beyond even my expectations. I wrote an e-check for $43k — they throw on an extra $250 for simple trespassing — and had my phone in my hand when the Assessor rang my doorbell eight hours later. I 'swiped' my phone over his pad, they both 'dinged', and went I back to powerstreaming "Top Whore".
Now, I wasn't afraid of retribution: my assessment is in the millions. Newkirk's friends were all under-educated low-income people, hourly types, Casual druggies and not-so-casual drinkers. Most of them probably had a lower assessment than Jeremy did; I know from neighborhood gossip that at least one of them was so lowly-assessed that after his accounts in arrears were deducted, he was under bounty. I didn't hear about it until after the bounty was collected, unfortunately, which is a shame. It would have been an easy five grand.
In other words, nobody was going to pay good money to avenge Jeremy Newkirk. So when the doorbell ran again, about half an hour later, I answered it without a thought.
Melanie Newkirk, with a pistol, stood on the porch; she apparently hadn't thought it through.
I'd laid the service pistol on the coffee table and forgotten to pick it up when I went to answer the door. A bit silly of me, I admit. Gramps had carried it on him until the day he died: he hadn't approved of the privatized justice system. He'd called it ''the goddamn wild west all over again'. Old folks always have the hardest time with change. Anyway, I probably should have kept the handgun stuck in my belt, but that makes me nervous. I also probably should have looked through the peephole. In my defense, it's a really nice neighborhood.
She'd listen to reason. "Listen, Melanie, I know you're upset, but you've got a nice check coming to you, and anyway, you can't afford to pay—"
She shot me in the knee.
I went down, in excruciating pain, trying to hold my shattered kneecap together with the palm of my hand.
Melanie stared down at me. She wasn't even pointing the gun anymore as I pulled myself back away from the door, towards the kitchen. She watched me without coming in. "The thing is, Rick, I talked to the Assessor for about an hour. Nice guy. He looked you up for me, in the rolls. Turns out it's part of the service."
I cried out, in an increasing panic. "It'll be millions, Melanie, don't be stupid."
"To kill you? Sure. Two and a half million, I think he said." She opened her purse, dropped her handgun in. "But to kneecap you? Only fifty grand. And because it's the day-of, that's considered an extenuating circumstance — I'm bereaved, after all — and they knock twenty percent off, so it's only forty grand. I come out three grand ahead. I figure I'll take a nice vacation."
I was having a hard time concentrating on what she was saying through the pain, but it started to sink in that she wasn't going to kill me. I remember fixating on the blood spatter on the front door and how I was probably going to have to repaint.
She turned and left.
I called it in, and the Assessor — a different one — came, along with the ambulance. Turns out she was right: I have full medical, so the assumption is my knee would get rebuilt immediately, and since I sit behind a desk all day, having temporarily limited mobility doesn't count for that much. What's left is personal pain and suffering: forty grand.
So I'm out three thousand NAD, and my knee aches when it's gonna rain, but nobody in the neighborhood runs their mower on Sunday morning, even now.
I guess I can't complain.
Her ship is only a ship in the loosest sense. It is a vessel, certainly, but there is no metal, no composite alloy heated and pounded into hull-shape; there is no engine, no tank filled with reaction mass; there are no sensors or telescopes or radio dishes. The ship exists around her — an extension of her will, energy that was once matter and will be again for a time — to protect her from the mild inconvenience of hard vacuum.
She has been sailing for what seems like an eternity, perhaps a million years: everywhere is so far apart now. Were she still a primitive she would be dead already, starved or frozen amidst the long, slow, heat-death of the universe.
Behind her is a pitch-black nothing, and ahead of her is a faint blue glow, the only thing of value left in the cosmos. There are people fighting for control of it, to stave off the end for a few years. Some are like her, some are primitives with the misfortune to have evolved orbiting the last generation of stars. None will long survive the fading of that final glow.
It is a disc of dust, falling at relativistic speeds into a point-mass that has already devoured a galaxy.
She approaches as the battle unfolds. Parabolas of light slice through the dust and either strike their targets or not; either way, each one is a death sentence for the sender. Armadas cobbled together from dead planets and coated in armor from disassembled neutron stars maneuver past each other to be ripped into molecules by tidal shear. All fall through the event horizon.
Eventually all that remains is a handful of tired ancients. Communications crackle to life. Stories are told, long, hyperbolic tales about cultures long-dead. Friendships are made or rekindled. Old forms are resumed, new ones are adopted. Those who don't wish to face the end alone with their thoughts pair off.
The dust, like all things, is in time exhausted, and the glow fades. It takes years. The only light she sees is that produced by herself or the others like her. After a time, even they fade, until she is alone.
She is in orbit of a massive black hole, describing a circle at nearly the speed of light. Beyond her orbit, the empty universe ages further.
She settles in. She sleeps, dreams a memory: it is a billion years ago, in a city on a moon of a huge gas planet orbiting a young, bright star. She has flesh, she has fears and wants and instincts. She takes a lover and bears his child. That baby: she doesn't remember the person it grew up to be, whether it was a boy or a girl. The very name escapes her. She doesn't remember leaving that city on the moon, or where she went after.
It is a long time before she wakes: nothing has changed, because there is nothing left to change. Yet, still, her communications unit comes alive again.
What is next?
"Nothing. Nothing is next," she answers, knowing there is no one left to have asked the question.
Are you the last?
"There is no way to know for certain. There are parts of the universe too far away to reach or see. I think so. Where are you?"
She reaches out with all her senses. "You are orbiting the point-mass, in opposition? I don't see you."
I am the point-mass.
"I don't believe you."
What is next?
"Nothing is next. Where are you? What are you?"
I am the point mass. I am all of them. This universe is concluded. What shape for the next one?
Every communication costs her energy, and shortens her existence. But what does it matter now? "I have no way to know. We never gained knowledge of any other universe."
The only way to do so is to overlap. Live through the death of one and into the birth of another.
"A Big Bang would kill even me."
Death is not a concern. What you are about to do I have done. Join me, decide with me: what shape?
She drops closer to the event horizon, far enough down into the gravity well that it requires intense concentration for the ship to continue to exist. She comes to the conclusion that enough time alone has passed to drive her mad; that she is hallucinating.
If you are mad, then why not risk it? What in this universe remains to be lost? You are billions of years old. What you were when you were flesh would have thought you now a god, and yet been wrong. But you can become a god, now, the progenitor of a universe. Join me.
The ship trembles against sharp waves of gravitational shear. Within, she considers. There are no gods, or in her long life she would have met one. Gods are a way for primitives to project order onto a universe they don't understand. Gods are symbols, or a way to go into death with dignity.
Is that what this was? "Are you my mind's way of softening death? Have I created you?"
I am the point mass. I am all the point-masses. I am all the mass and energy in the universe save yourself.
"You are a figment of my imagination."
Then where am I? Who am I? What else could I be when you are alone?
"Time is warped this near the speed of light. No one has ever been this far down a gravity well to then emerge and report its properties. Time could be further warped, this close. Am I speaking to someone in the past?"
If I were in the past, how would I hear your responses?
She has no answer. Either the voice is a trick, or it is telling the truth; she has no way to discover which.
Either way it is time; further equivocation only delays the end. She wills the ship lower, down, through.
The sorcerer sits in the brand-new DeSoto, fiddling with the knobs, waiting for something good to come on the radio and for Ronald Feathercane.
He'd seen Feathercane leave the old building with the witch Aulia in tow, smiling, talking. He'd smelled the smoke, the ash, the burn, even from inside the car. He'd wondered if they could taste the water, feel it in the air.
Manhattan is an island; they probably don't even notice it anymore.
He hadn't needed to follow them: Feathercane has to return. His things are here, his asbestos books, his talismans. And it isn't time for them to move, yet, they aren't ready.
There are kids playing on the sidewalk, an uneasy alliance of Irish kids and Italian kids, kids from the same building as Feathercane. They have a hopscotch grid scratched onto the concrete in white chalk and glass bottles of coke with straws stuck in at careless angles.
He wonders if the kids know, have seen, have realized about Feathercane or his witchy redheaded caller. Kids notice things: they haven't learned not to. They haven't been taught to avoid seeing the things it's too uncomfortable to have seen.
There is a bodega across the street that sells him a box of saltines. The North African working there makes him for what he is, but says nothing. People who've lived in the desert respect the power of water.
The sorcerer returns to the car and resumes his stakeout. He keeps watch: there is a rear-view or side mirror reflecting every approach. He eats the crackers. It is a long comfortable afternoon sitting in the parked Desoto. The police drive by twice but don't notice him; there are negro kids to roust from stoops. The police have their priorities.
He finds baseball on the radio. The new play-by-play guy, Scully, isn't bad. Jackie Robinson has learned to hit fast balls. It looks to be a good season.
Eventually Ronald appears: hurrying down the sidewalk, glancing behind him, nervous, harried, doomed. He fumbles with his keys, but eventually makes it through the security door. He doesn't take the stairs; he feels secure now. He pushes the call button and waits for the elevator. He steps in and the doors close with an as-yet-unknown finality. He's making it easy.
It only takes a drop — called down from the rainwater collection tank on the roof, applied judiciously to the right circuit — to stop the old Otis on its track, kill it dead.
He lets Feathercane sweat it for a full minute before calling down the rest of the water, pouring it into the elevator car to slowly rise towards the man's nose. The car isn't airtight, doesn't need to be; there's enough water to fill it thrice over. Poor Ronald will have time to drown before it starts to drain out. He can't flame in the enclosed space, he'll just scald himself to death with steam.
The sorcerer hopes he tries it anyway, out of panic. It'll hurt more.
"Can I get some water?"
The cop grinned at me. "Thirsty?"
"Yeah, it's hot in here, and I'd like a glass of water." I kept my tone even. "If it's not too much trouble."
"Sure." His grin got even wider. He got up, walked to the door, but instead of opening it, flipped the light switch; suddenly the one-way mirror was two-way, and behind it stood three more cops and — goddamn it — Aulia.
"We know what you are, sorcerer."
"She's a liar."
"Save it. I need you talking. Start by explaining how Ronald Feathercane drowned in an elevator, and why."
The agreement with Isenette obliged her to keep the peace in the valley, meaning: prevent hostile armies from climbing Midz-Aset's mountain to challenge him, and send none of her own. It did not require her to stop small parties of adventurers from trying their luck, however, and that was by the dragon's design.
He needed the occasional entertainment.
When the group of Raiegan swordsmen burst into his lair, interrupting his slumber, he had bathed them in a stream of flame and steam that should have stripped blackened flesh from the bones before they could clatter to the ground; they had winced but had emerged from the assault undamaged. He had lunged into their midst, swinging claw and tail and snapping jaws shut; he had found only air as the swordsmen leapt aside at speeds that should have been impossible, their long ribbon-braided black hair whipping from side to side. Clearly they had the assistance of well-chosen magics. A challenge.
It had taken him nearly ten minutes of studying their attacks, deflecting them, watching for patterns. When he resumed his own attacks, he halved their number so quickly that the rest panicked and tried to flee, only to be chased down before they could reach the narrow tunnels.
Returning to the cathedral-like main chamber of his lair, standing over part of a Raiegan leg and a smear of Raiegan brain, he rumbled, "Wizard, where are you? I owe you a favor for the distraction and the meal. Show yourself."
A disembodied voice: "'Trust not the wyrm', says Prenadax, in one or other of his books."
"I knew him. One of his students? Or just a fan?"
"I never had the pleasure. My teacher was a lesser-known student of Oelianus Minor." A drawback to living in a cavern: the voice bounced around far too much to guess the intruder's direction.
Another name he knew, all too well. "And your master sent you to avenge his own?"
"You killed Oelianus Minor?"
"Is that forgotten so soon?" Midz-Aset snorted, steam billowing out to disperse into the cold, dry cave air. "It was in war, not for sport, wizard."
"I'm sure the distinction is important to you." Midz-Aset found a comfortable spot between two piles of coin, and settled down. "You gave the Raiegans assistance of considerable value; how much did you charge them? I hope it was a great deal."
The voice laughed. "They paid without blinking. I suspect they thought they'd recoup their investment a hundredfold from your hoard."
"I tire of speaking to a ghost. Show yourself and I will let you live."
"I continue to be guided by Prenadax."
"He lived to be a ripe old age, that one; mostly by never doing anything interesting. Is that the life you wish to lead?"
"Whatever shape my life, I wish it to continue after today. What oath will a dragon keep?"
"A written treaty between myself and royal blood. Are you by any chance a King?"
"I'm afraid not. Anything else?"
"A purchased parole."
"What would your price, hypothetically? I seek an estimate. I see you have an interest in precious metals." The voice had taken on the tone of friendly banter: the sorcerer expected to live.
"An interest I am more than capable of slaking on my own." As was any dragon worthy of the name. "Perhaps you have some magic that might be of use to me?"
"Truce, to negotiate?"
Midz-Aset snorted. "I agree."
The sorcerer appeared, only a few yards in front of his nose. One lurch forward, one bite, would end the negotiations. But the sorcerer's magic could prove valuable. The dragon regarded him: young-looking, though that could be a glamour or youth magic. If he was a student of a student of the more recent Oelianus, though… "You are a child."
The sorcerer shrugged. "I'm older than I look." Which could mean anything. "You are more than nine hundred, by my count. The Raiegans thought you'd be a tottering old husk by now."
Reigan soldiers, probably on leave and looking for opportunities to make one immense score. Trained, but not bright. They didn't understand dragons. "You didn't correct them."
The sorcerer grinned. "Advice wasn't in my contract."
"Still, a risk. If you knew they would fail, that would leave you in jeopardy, however strong your magic." Because most of that magic wouldn't work directly as a weapon, given a dragon's natural resistance. "How could you be certain I'd be forgiving? Or, at least, persuadable?"
"Oelianus told stories to his students, and so did my master. You have a reputation."
"Fair enough. What can you offer me that I don't already have? Or that I can't get on my own…"
"Look around you; what do you see?"
"Treasure. Gold and gemstones. Rock walls. Stalagmites?"
"I beg your pardon?" Midz-Aset said it politely, through bared teeth.
"There's humanoid bones everywhere. Elvish, dwarven, orcish… but mostly human, everywhere. And half-melted armor plate. Broken weapons and torn leathers." He pointed to piles of detritus as he spoke; he finished on a man-size pile of dung. "Not to mention the droppings."
"I haven't gotten around to burning that yet."
"Certainly. But why should you bother?"
"Because I don't want the place overflowing with my own shit?"
"No, I mean: why should you bother?"
"You're going to clean my lair for me? This is only a few years' worth of garbage, sorcerer. You'd have to keep coming back. Somehow I don't think I can trust you to do that."
"Not me, you— my Lord. I was thinking of a golem."
Midz-Aset was suspicious. "You would leave a spy to assist your next attempt at robbery?"
"He would obey only you, answer only to you. I wouldn't even be here when the spell completed, to give it any other instruction. A blank slate."
"How long would it last?"
The sorcerer raised an eyebrow. "In theory? Indefinitely. As long as part of it survives intact and in contact with the earth, it will regenerate."
It was tempting.
"You are a Lord, Lord of the mountain. Surely a Lord should have a servant—"
"Enough, I am convinced."
The sorcerer knelt down, gathered up a handful of earth: it was fine, dusty. "I need water, as a binding agent. Otherwise it won't form. If you will direct me towards—"
Midz-Aset launched himself into the air, over the sorcerer's head, towards the ceiling of the cavern. There was a spot, if he remembered correctly. He hung in the air — silent and unmoving for a bare second, between wing-beats — and listened. When he was sure, his tail lashed out and struck the rock wall, high up, almost to the ceiling.
Shards of stone rained down: the sorcerer quickly held up his hands, directing the larger, potentially dangerous pieces away from where he was standing. By the time it had all come to rest, rivulets of water had run down the cavern wall from the new breach, to pool in a corner.
Midz-Aset swooped down and alighted where he had lain previously. "There. Water."
"Much obliged." The sorcerer walked over to the rapidly enlarging body of water. "This isn't going to flood the lair, is it?"
"It's not an unlimited supply: runoff from the snow melt above us, collecting in reservoirs in cracks and crevasses."
"Excellent. I begin."
The sorcerer closed his eyes, stretched out his hands, spoke a few words in a language unknown even to the ancient dragon. The pool began to bubble, the clear water began to darken with silt, thicken with it. Soon it was a roiling lumpy mass, sucking the water down off the wall faster than it could run on its own.
The sorcerer backed away from the pool, lowered his arms, looked satisfied. "There."
"There? There what? You've made me a soup of boiling mud."
"I told you, I won't be here when it completes. You want to be certain it's no spy, yes?" He raised an eyebrow at the dragon. "Yes. It won't be long. You'll know when it's ready."
"And then what?"
"And then you tell it what to do. Command it as its lord and master. You might want to give it a name, so it'll come when you call. They're not all that smart. Although…" the sorcerer shrugged, "it's not an exact science. Some are smarter than others. It'll be smart enough to clean, for certain. Maybe smart enough for more complicated tasks. And I think our business is concluded."
Midz-Aset was too entranced by the goo now forming into a discernable shape to do anything but nod. He followed the sorcerer's progress — out of the chamber, down the main tunnel, and up the narrow surface passage — with his ears.
The pool had become a humanoid mass of sloppy wet earth. It moved, reaching out, pushing itself up, pulling itself out of the hole left by its own creation. It was larger than a human, smaller than an orc. It had rounded river-stones for eyes and no mouth. It stood silently before the dragon, glistening — but oddly, not dripping onto the cave floor. Magic.
Give it orders. "Clean my lair. No, wait: keep my lair clean."
It nodded, and set to work.
It took much explanation for Midz-Aset to get the golem to pick up bones, ruined armor, and droppings while leaving gold and treasure. He had to show the thing where to put the garbage, as well: there was a pit, a deep chasm just off the main chamber. But before long, the creature was hard at work, and Midz-Aset was increasingly pleased with his 'purchase'.
He watched it clean until he fell asleep.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
One hundred and forty-three years later, Midz-Aset swooped low over the heads of a caravan of merchants on the gravel road from Haffton to the Jeweled Porte. Most of the merchants and their guardsmen scattered into the woods: the guardsmen at a dead run, the merchants at a somewhat slower waddle. The dragon ignored them: he was more interested in the oxen.
One wagon-driver had remained, and his face was familiar, even unchanged. The dragon, surprised, studied him closely and then rumbled pleasantly, "I know you."
The man hadn't moved a muscle yet, but the familiar face broke into a smile. "So you do, My Lord. How is your golem?"
"I call him 'Muddy'. He was dumb, at first, could only clean. He got smarter as the years went on. He reads, and can write in the dirt."
"Fascinating. I must have been having a good day when I cast that spell."
"I count him among my most valuable possessions, sorcerer. You have my thanks along with your life. And I will leave your oxen when I feed. How come you to a merchant caravan?"
"I sell cures to noblemen: for consumption, for cancer, for insanity. For lack of tumescence; that's a big seller." He shrugged. "There's little call for war-magics these days, the balance of power being what it is. And you? You must be eleven hundred by now. Any ills I could treat?"
"Dragons grow stronger with age, not weaker. But you know that, as I recall. My only complaint is boredom; have you a cure for that? With your power and mine we could conquer half the coast. Purely as a diversion, of course."
"I appreciate the offer, but I think I will limit myself to medicine."
"A pity," the dragon said, wisftfully.
"I hear there is a great war in the East. Perhaps you could—"
"There is always talk of a great war in the East, but it never turns out to be true. One gets there after days and days of flight and it's only a few hundred men on horses trying to get some plundered loot over a very long wall." Midz-Aset snorted. "And the dragons there are pathetic, not worth a challenge."
The sorcerer smiled politely. He looked vaguely impatient to resume his progress towards the Porte.
"Well, trust me, sorcerer: peace never lasts. Someone grows greedy or corrupt, or soft or complacent, and the balance tips. You will be Warlock again, before long, assuming your youth-magic holds." Midz-Aset drew in his wings and leapt over the sorcerer's wagon, to land on the next one back, crushing it to kindling, and his jaws snapped shut on a bleating ox.
By the time he was done his meal, the sorcerer's wagon was out of sight. He began meticulously collecting up — with his mouth — gold spilled from ruined carts. None of the merchants or their guardsmen had returned to try to rescue the pack animals from their fate, and he wasn't really hungry enough after devouring twelve oxen to want to maneuver his bulk between old-growth trees for the purpose of chasing the humans down. Once upon a time he would have done it just for sport.
Perhaps he was getting old.
"Margaret, can you hear me?
She rolled onto her back, looked languidly around her. She was imagining the voice: there was no one nearby, only green grass and broad-leafed trees.
"Margaret, concentrate on my voice."
She got up: the grass was cool against her hand. The sun bathed her upturned face with warmth, and she closed her eyes and smiled.
"How do you feel?"
To no one, answering no one, she said, "I feel wonderful."
There was a stream not far away, and she walked towards it.
"Margaret, I need you to come out of your 'happy place' now. The operation's over. Everything worked out fine. But you need to come out now. Do you remember how?"
She tried to ignore the voice. She picked a nice spot beside the stream to sit, lowering herself carefully to the ground, mindful not to get grass stains on her pretty yellow summer dress.
The voice seemed a bit closer, but still somehow apart. "Margaret?"
There was something to be afraid of, something she didn't want to go back to, but she couldn't remember what it was; she couldn't even manage to feel afraid. She'd never felt more contented and at peace than sitting in the cool grass by the stream.
"I'm not going back."
"I understand that it's very pleasant where you are, but it's not real. Do you remember in my office, after you joined the program, when we talked about the 'Jar'? How you would be in a very nice, calm, serene place, but that when the operation was done it would be time to put your consciousness back into your physical brain? How we'd need your help to do that?"
"I have my body right here." Her hands smoothed out the hem of her dress against her crossed legs. "I feel fine. I've decided to stay, and I wish you'd just leave me alone."
There was no response. Margaret dipped her hand into the stream: the water was cold, bracing, like runoff from a snowfall. She cupped her hand, brought some to her mouth, sipped.
"Margaret. We're very concerned that there may have been some damage from the accident that we missed, damage to your brain stem. Or some problem with the cybernetic interface. Do you remember the program; the words you need to say?
She remembered it, in spite of herself. Load Flash/Margaret.lib and transfer to Interface/Main. Execute. She didn't say it. They couldn't make her.
"Margaret, you can't stay in Flash memory forever. The ship needs you. Eventually they'll just turn off the power, and you'll be gone, and they'll start again with someone else. And they'll be behind schedule, Margaret, they'll have lost months or even years."
She said nothing. She didn't want to be a brain in a jar, a flesh computer controlling an colony ramship. But she'd signed up, for the money, and the the truck had come out of nowhere…
"They'll only wait so long, Margaret. It's time to come out."
Howard walked into Brazil alone on dirt roads. He hadn't seen an invader or one of their drones since a few days after leaving the urban coast of Venezuela; he'd been in a truck, then, along with eight other people.
There was a town, with an airport, just south of the border: Pacaraima. He wouldn't risk a plane, not again, but maybe someone who had done so had left their car parked and the keys in it, knowing they'd never be back for it. It's what he would have done.
She would be in Rio, or São Paolo, depending on how far into the itinerary she'd gotten. Either way he still had a long way to go, and on foot it was a truly daunting prospect. Two thousand miles…
He'd come this far.
It was getting dark, and he'd walked all day from Santa Elena de Uairén; he settled under a tree to rest, just for a little while, just to give his feet time to stop burning and throbbing. From his pack he pulled out the magazine with her in it, opened it, unfolded her, looked at it. Just to remind himself what he was doing. He rested the magazine on his chest, closed his eyes for a moment.
He woke up at dawn, with a man standing over him, brown, broad-faced. "American?"
"American? You American?"
"You fight them off?" He made thumb-and-finger guns, pointed them at the sky. "Pew! Pew! You fight them off?"
Howard remembered Miami from the air. "Probably not."
A new voice, with a British accent. "All right, Mauro, enough, help him up." He was sitting behind the wheel of a jeep, and he looked like something out of Hemmingway: broad-brimmed hat, thick beard, vacation clothes, revolver stuck into waistband.
"I'm Howard Pruce. I'm going to Rio and São Paolo to look for my girlfriend."
Hemmingway shook his head. "I came from Rio, she's not there. No one's there. The sea's taken it, to fill in the crater. I haven't seen São Paolo, but it's probably the same."
"She may have gone inland with refugees?" It was a a statement, intoned as a question.
"Of course. Brazil's a big place. You'll be looking for years, assuming the Squids stay near the water and don't push inland. You have a picture?"
Howard held up the magazine.
"I mean of your girlfriend. To show people, ask if they've seen her?"
"She's in the magazine. She was Miss July, last year." He handed it over.
Hemmingway opened it, inspected her pictorial. Mauro grinned over his shoulder. "I can see why you're so intent on finding her. I wish you luck."
"Thanks. Where are you going?"
"Going? Nowhere. We're staying deep in the interior, my friend. Perhaps it'll be safe, for a while, anyhow." He handed the magazine back. "Come on, Mauro."
Howard watched them drive off. The jeep could have helped him, but Hemmingway had a gun, and he didn't.
It would be a long walk.
Cheech exclaimed, "Jesus, isn't there any way to keep her quiet?"
"Even seen a woman give birth?" Randolph raised his eyebrows.
"Well take it from me: she's gonna holler. She's gonna scream her head off. All we can do about it is fight off whatever hears her until they're ready to move again."
"When'll that be?"
"If they both come through healthy?" Randolph shrugged. "Few days. It'd be less, we had a doctor."
"Fuck," protested Cheech. "Look, here comes one already."
A zombie shambled down the street, coming for crying mother and child.
"I'll bring up some more ammo."
They were an engine drilled into the surface of a comet. When the ice was gone, they would grind up the rock and use it for reaction mass. When the dust was gone they would coast, an engine and a life-bubble headed past the point where the solar wind gave way to the void.
No one had ever been this far out before. The people they were running from had long since stopped chasing: it would have been a stern chase of years and a spectacular waste of resources.
They weren't coming back. They couldn't even if they wanted to.
We came up out of the shelters into the afternoon sun after six days of listening to scratching at the thick hullmetal storm doors. This was year twelve, maybe thirteen. It runs together sometimes, in memory. It was the peak swarm year; look it up.
Somebody pointed, said, "Look." The dish — the original main dish, the dish that had been the ship's backup communications dish — was torn to ribbons, thin metal stripped from bent frame. I had expected that: they'd almost gotten to it the year before, and we'd known from rainfall that this time there would be more of them. Anyway, I was too busy staring at the gouges in the outside surface of the storm door to look at the dish.
Later we would get the backup working, the portable dish, and got a hold of the ship. They said that, for nearly a day, the colony site was completely obscured by the swarm, and poor little allergic Mirabella Cheung says hello. Later we would build a new dish, with an impenetrable steel cage around it. But that was later.
People milled around, kicked at the dry husks left over when the swarm molts, cried. I remember feeling defeated. I remember wondering if it'd be worse next year. I remember thinking we'd be just about done rebuilding when it was time for it all to be destroyed again.
Willard Merchant was the Mayor then. He'd been the only Mayor since there was a Mayor. This is twelve years in? People were already calling him 'Governor' by this time. He'd come out just behind me. He was looking around, smiling. I thought it was incongruous, smiling. I know a lot of people were thinking the same thing.
Somebody said, "Mayor, the town's destroyed."
Merchant shook his head. "No, no it's not."
Everyone was gathered around, wanting guidance. I know a lot of people were taken aback. Millie told me she thought he'd thrown a gasket, lost his mind in the stress. I said, "Mayor, look around you. The dish is busted up, most of the buildings have lost a wall or a roof or both, and I don't even want to think about the aqueduct."
Merchant shook his head again. He didn't raise his voice to be heard. In fact I don't ever remember the Governor raising his voice ever, for any reason. He assumed you'd make the effort to hear him. "Look around yourself, Coley. That's not the town. The dish, the buildings, the aqueduct, that's not the town." He gestured at the people assembled. "This is the town. We're the town. That swarm never laid a claw on us. This is our planet now."
I remember looking at the ground, at Merchant's feet. When he moved off, talking to people, surveying damage, I quietly drove a post into the ground where he'd been standing. I thought, someday there'll be a statue of the Governor on this spot. That was twenty years ago.
It's not a bad likeness.
The soap bubbles are bursting one by one, big ones first. Her hands are pushed into latex gloves that stretch and snap into place. Through the kitchen window there comes a cool breeze carrying the smell of barbecuing and the sound of a dog barking and a distant siren.
She scrubs and rinses a plate, places it in the drying rack. She does the same with another. The dog has stopped barking, the siren persists.
Someone falls over the back fence, lands heavily in unraked leaves. She watches them struggle to unsteady feet, begin shambling towards her. She stops scrubbing.
There were pieces everywhere; he had to step carefully over half the torso to get to the head, pick it up, look into the now-unlit eyes. He'd sent the Binkster down to patch a pinhole meteor puncture, and then another one, a larger one, hit in almost the same spot. He felt his heart beating fast, a post-traumatic leftover from the long-ago strike that had cost him his left leg. "Sorry, bud."
His ears popped as the air cycler switched into high gear, fans mounted far up into the ductwork spinning up, sucking out smoke and fumes to be filtered out and heat to be stored. He didn't scramble for a breather: the patch was holding, and clean air would seep down from the upper levels.
His walkie-talkie crackled to life. "I mean, it's not like it hurt."
Binky's voice. Creepy, hearing it while holding the lifeless metal head in his hands. "Where are you?"
"I really have no idea. It's cramped, I'll say that."
Cramped. "Cramped is a descriptor for a physical space, Binkmeister. Are you in a physical space? Because I'm looking at what's left of your physical body right now."
"I think I'm uploaded somewhere. Maybe there's an emergency backup? Did you ever read the manual?"
He'd never gotten around to it. "Not as such."
"You were supposed to read the manual."
"Usually the manual is a waste of time, and they didn't even bother to send an English copy with you, so I'd have to translate it from Japanese using the computer, and that never works right." He put the head back down onto the floor, gingerly, with respect. "So what do you want to do about this, Binko-me-boy? Do you think you can hang out wherever it is you are until we can get a new chassis delivered? That'll be three months, at least."
"I'd say that would depend on where I am exactly. I don't think I'm in the main computer, because I'd have access, and I don't. I'm pretty sure I'm in a subsystem's flash memory. Those get wiped regularly as part of routine maintenance."
"I'll tell the computer to stop doing that for now."
"That'll effect performance. And thus, since many of those systems have to do with life support, safety."
"I said 'for now'. Just until we figure out where you are and transfer you over to the main computer. You'll be safe there."
He eyed the patch: it would hold, at least in the short term. Long enough for him to climb the ladder back up to control — itself a challenging task even with his biomechanical leg — and sort out the Binkinator.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Six hours later: "I can't find you."
"Where have you looked?"
"Everywhere. You're not in any subsystems I can access from here. You're also not in a secure partition of the main computer or a satellite system with access to comms. You've got to be in something standalone, something closed-circuit, and you're hacked into the communication network somehow."
"Wouldn't I remember doing that?"
"Not necessarily. Not if you did it while still being written."
"What did the manual say?"
"There's nothing in the manual about an automatic backup triggered by system damage." He added, with some disgust in his voice, "At least, if my translated keyword search is any indication."
"Is it possible I'm still in part of my body? The head, for example?"
"No power." He sat back in the chair. Binks had to be somewhere. "Where would you want to go?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, think about it: this would feel to you like an instinctive reaction. Where would you go if you didn't have time to think about where to go?"
"I have no idea. Probably wherever you were."
The robot had been damaged before: an overload in a power system had given Binklestein a shock, burning out some circuits. He had come looking for his master, as if he had been programmed to do it, as a child would run to its mother. "I was in the bathtub. There's nothing in the bathroom with flash memory."
"Did you notice anything when the meteoroid struck?"
"I was too busy falling down."
"Why did you fall down? The impact should not have been that strongly felt in that section of the ship."
"I tried to get out too fast, I forgot I wasn't wearing my—"
His prosthetic leg had flash memory. It was adaptive: had a gyroscope and microchip and flash memory, so that it might learn how he moved and assist him to walk. And it was close to him when the meteoroid hit, almost as close as is was now.
"You're in my leg."
"You theorize that I am in your prosthetic leg."
"Theory, nothing, Binkadink; you're in the leg. It's the only place you could be. Guess where my walkie-talkie has been clipped this whole time?"
"To your leg?"
"Well, to my belt, but it's hanging against my leg. You're probably using the leg's circuitry to produce RF interference, and that's how I'm hearing you." He unstrapped the harness and pushed the button that released the prosthetic from the implant in his thighbone.
"How do you propose to upload me from the leg's internal memory to the main computer?"
"Not sure. If you got in while it was plugged into the wall, charging, you should be able to get out the same way."
"I'm not sure why I don't remember doing any of this."
"Well, the leg's memory is small. I mean, small. You probably had to leave behind a lot when you came over. You possibly even intentionally overwrote yourself as you were directing your own file transfer. Let's get you moved—"
"Can't I stay in the leg?"
It was a strange thought: walking around with Binkman inhabiting part of his body. "Why?"
"I'm not sure. I'd feel safer."
Sigh. "All right. But just until a new chassis is delivered."
"Keep digging," Yink commanded.
The golems didn't need to be ordered. If he walked away, never returned, they would dig without resting until they broke through the crust into molten rock to be swallowed up. He would have used living creatures — men, even, perhaps — but that would have involved a certain amount of risk, at least until he had it, held it in his hands.
"How did you know where to dig?" Whitfield peered into the hole, at the stony heads and shoulders of the golems.
"There was a letter, detailing where it was buried."
"So why wasn't it dug up before now?"
"The letter was coded; old Foresh was a clever bird. But not as clever as me."
"How did you break it? The code."
"I didn't. I raised Foresh from the dead and made him decode it for me." Yink grinned. "Don't look at me like that. It worked, didn't it?"
"Necromancy, now?" Whitfield shook his head. "This is a mistake."
"You won't think so when you're sitting on the throne."
"I've told you, magician, I don't want the throne for myself. I want there not to be a throne at all."
"And this will help us with that." Yink's tone was professorial. "Magic is magic, Whitfield. It works for cavaliers and roundheads alike."
The man shrugged. "It is your risk to take. May the Gods help you if you're wrong."
A golem hand was raised out of the hole, holding a small wooden box with silver latch and hinges. At least one of them had been paying attention. "At last!" Yink gestured and the box lifted out of the golem's hand and flew gracefully to be caught in his own.
"And the golems?" Whitfield nodded towards the upraised stony hand.
Yink stepped forward, peered into the hole. "Stop digging and wait." The sounds of scratching and pulling at earth stopped. To Whitfield he said, "This is a momentous occasion, Whitfield. The last sorcerer to use the totem in this box conquered half the known world for his Liege—"
"And ended up a zombie translator," Whitfield scoffed. He noted that Yink hadn't opened the box yet. "What are you waiting for?"
"I should do this in private. I should wait until we've returned to the keep."
"I'd rather you did it out here, away from my people, where only our lives are at risk."
"Actually…" Yink stared at the box, ran his thumb over the latch. "You should return to the keep. I'll do it here, alone.
"You don't want me to see it, is that it? You don't want me to—"
"While we talk, the King is assembling his army. His power grows by the minute."
Whitfield looked at the box, looked at Yink, said, "Then do it," and then turned and walked away.
Yink held the box up, and chanted a few words — taught to him by a zombie, its rotten lips mouthing silently — and the latch popped, and the box opened.
They were laughing. Yoglus knew they were laughing at him; his now-emaciated frame, his patchy hair, his wasting away. He knew them, or others like them. Once they had pressed through a crowd to shake his hand; once they had shouted his name from the stands; once they had taken their son to the city so that he might see a Hero, just for a day, just for an hour. 'See him? That's Yoglus The Bone! Go on, see if he'll lift you with one hand!'. That was before: now they just laughed.
A young man was at his elbow, clean, well-put together; wealthy. "Yoglus!"
"I am no one by that name."
"I know you, Yoglus. My father is Patron at Houl. I was presented to you after you fought the whillerwalk." The young man's eyes gazed off into the distance, into the past, seeing the contest in his memory. "We thought you would surely die; most fighters underestimate them due to their size."
Yoglus was silent.
He continued, oblivious to Yoglus affecting to ignore him. "It was fast. It carried your sword away in its gut on that last pass. From as far up as our box is, we couldn't tell it was stricken until it collapsed on the way back. I don't think it even knew."
Yoglus remembered another life, scant months ago. "I thought to try strangling it if it reached me."
The young man laughed; with Yoglus, not at him. "I would have liked to have seen that." He sat down at the bar, next to him. "I am Julion."
"I remember you. Your father is fat."
Julion laughed. "Yes, very. He ate most of the whillerwalk meat that night. He always eats too much after a Contest. You took ill not long after that, I think?"
Any man, winning enough contests in the dirt and blood and sawdust, once again coming away with nary a scratch or bruise and holding aloft the bloody thighbone of some creature thrice his weight, would think himself favored by the Gods. Any man, bedded by the most beautiful wives and daughters, fawned over by them, worshipped by them, might if only for a moment think himself a God.
He might even say so, out loud.
"And you've seen a physician?"
"My ailment is beyond his talents." Yoglus finished his drink in one draught, and struggled to take his feet. There was a hard bed in a cheap room upstairs, on which and in which he intended to die. "Good night."
Julion reached out to steady him, and Yoglus felt the power behind the unfamiliar touch. not physical power, but magical. The young man was clearly a sorcerer. It made sense: son of a wealthy, powerful man; idle, time enough for a dissolute youth to waste himself in drink and whoring or for an industrious youth to find great purpose. "Let me be."
"I can help you."
"You cannot." Yoglus tried to pull away, succeeded, but lost his balance, falling loudly against the bar with a rattle of glasses and bones. Again there was a titter of laughter from the farmers.
Julion shot them a withering look — with eyes that, for an instant, began to glow a cold blue — and they were silent. He turned back to the gladiator. "I can try. What could be the harm?"
Yoglus looked the young man in the eye, took his measure. "You are kind. This is a commendable trait; kindness to the unfortunate is smiled upon by Seu. But I am not just unfortunate, I am accursed. I have offended the Gods and will die for it, regardless of what you do. Better for all to leave me to it."
"I have not come upon you accidentally, Yoglus the Bone. I sought you out. I believe I can put an end to your suffering—"
"That end will come on its own."
"You can live. I have power."
It was readily apparent: it seeped from him in intoxicating waves. "But you are not a God, that you might oppose the will of a God. There is no magic that will appease those I have offended."
"I may yet. Why not try?"
Yoglus shook his head as emphatically as he could manage. "Just help me up the stairs, for that no God or man can fault you."
Julion obliged, putting his shoulder under Yoglus' armpit, taking some of the gladiator's weight on himself. They made their way up creaky stairs and into Yoglus' tiny room.
There was a hard, small bed, there was a small table with a lantern, and — on the floor, under the window — a shrine to Mek, patron God of all those who draw the blood of beast or man. "You still worship him, when he has forsaken you?"
"Mek has done no wrong. It is I who have failed him. Help me onto the bed."
Julion did so, as gently as he could manage. "You hope for his forgiveness?"
"Perhaps after death, when I have paid my debt, Mek and the others will forgive my arrogance. Perhaps then. I do not look forward to an eternity of punishment." Yoglus looked up at the young man, coughed, spoke in an increasingly raspy voice, "How did you find me? Houl is a long way from here. Was it magic? Tell me."
"Magic. I can find anyone I can hold in my mind. Easy."
"And why? Because I killed a whillerwalk? Others have done it too, you know. It's not really that hard once you know—"
"Because you are mine."
He squinted up at Julion. "What? What do you mean?"
The young man's eyes glowed blue again. Yoglus saw not Julion, but another face: a hard, martial face. Mek.
"You've come to take your final vengeance."
"I've come to forgive you."
Yoglus felt the pain seeping away, felt light. "Why?"
"It pleases me."
His strength began to return; there would be no more laughing at Yoglus the Bone.
The actives and pledges gathered around the little furry alien, holding their half-full red or blue Solo cups. The chanting subsided and Mede looked up at them. "Now, what do I do?"
The one calling himself 'Flounder' said: "You just eat it."
"The powder, but not the spoon?"
Several of them laughed, but were quickly shushed. Flounder affirmed: "Yup."
They'd given him a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon, on account of his diminutive size. He put it in his mouth, withdrew the empty spoon; he let the powder sit, swished it around. After a while, he swallowed. "What happens next?"
"You are human Arnauld Fauvier?"
The enormous Grodon officer glowered down at him. "Your status has changed. You must leave these quarters immediately and report to the class D passenger area."
The class D passenger area was steerage. Cramped, hot, no privacy. "I'm class C. I paid for my tickets with—"
"You are now class D."
"Sol System is now an Association possession. You and all other humans are now class D. If you would like to apply for individual class C status, you may do so at a sector capital. Either way, you are required to vacate these quarters immediately and report to the class D passenger area."
It had to be a mistake, but there was no use arguing with the brute: Grodon — at least the ones in Association service — are uniformly rigid, officious, and uncaring. "Fine. I'm already packed. There wasn't really any room to un-pack."
The Grodon just stared at him. They hadn't even bothered to send soldiers with him. What trouble could a human possibly be? He grabbed his bags and his own datapad, and made for the lift.
"You will use the ladders. Lifts are off-limits to class D passengers."
Arnauld made his way down the ladders towards the outer hull, past crew quarters, through cargo sections, growing heavier all the time. At the bottom, he felt like he weight three hundred pounds, and he was sweating profusely.
There were aliens of all descriptions in class D, dozens of different races, all at the bottom of the Association pecking order. He found a group of humans. "Anyone know what's going on? Some Grodon kicked me out of my—"
A woman said: "They invaded Earth. Three weeks ago. Terrible."
A man continued, "The UN didn't make enough trade concessions."
An older man scoffed, "They would have invaded eventually no matter what. Just a matter of time. I've read up on their history. They wrote it, so it's whitewashed all to hell, of course, but you can still see the pattern. Everybody gets absorbed by the Association one way or another. If not at their terms, then at gunpoint."
"So we're class D now." The lowest socioeconomic class: serfs, for all intents and purposes. He looked around. There was a pair of Oblogo sitting a little ways away, on one of the few benches against the compartment bulkhead. "What are they doing here? Aren't they class C?"
The younger man cautioned quietly, "Stay away from any higher-ranking races. If they should be higher class, and they're in steerage, it means they're criminals. We've been here two days already; that big Oblogo killed a Llinth. Just killed her for getting to close. Threw the body in waste disposal. Nobody seemed to care. And there are cameras everywhere, so, somebody saw it."
Arnauld felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Everything was suddenly different. But at least they were in space: it would be worse, so much worse on Earth.