Deus Ex Machina

You can tell the difference between idle fantasy and reality. They taste different.

Taste is the wrong word; telepathy doesn't work like that. But it's a good shorthand. Reality — a memory of a event that has occurred, or an intent towards an event that is planned — has a different character than something that the mind knows will only ever exist in imagination. Even the most terrifying imaginary fears, the ones that quicken the heart and bring forth cold chills and flop-sweat, never feel anything but false, illusory. Unreal. At least, to Morris, from outside.

Walking behind a couple coming out of the theater: his hand his is tucked into the back pocket of her jeans; hers rests more demurely on his hip-bone. His mind is replaying their lovemaking this morning. It was real, it happened. The detail is honest, if already somewhat idealized. He wants to mention it, to put it in her head, to get her thinking about it; to start the ball rolling again. She is trying to decide where they should stop to eat.

It's always like that with couples. Almost always.

The middle-aged man sitting on the bench is looking out over the man-made paddle-boat lake, is looking at his watch, is waiting for his wife who stopped to go to the bathroom. He is distracted, feeling pangs of guilt because he has stolen from his work a sum that would send him to prison if it was revealed. They'll never find out, he is all but certain; but he still fears discovery.

In Morris's youth he would have passed close to the man and said, as if to himself, "They already know." Just for perversity's sake.

Morris has matured; he says nothing. He stops, lights a cigarette. The young couple moves out of range, on their way to find food or have sex or both. The middle-aged man rises, greets his wife weakly, and trundles off towards the parking lot. A woman with two young children passes, her head full of stress and disappointment; their heads full of wonder and magic. A man walks by...

Morris is frozen in place. Inside the passerby's mind is a litany of horrors planned, rehearsed, executed, remembered. There is a gallery of victim's faces, contorted in fear and then pain and then death. There is blood slick between fingertips and the smell of decay.

He turns and leans over the railing and wretches, barely able to keep from vomiting. He manages to turn back, get a good look at the man.

Jack is normal; he is nondescript. He is plainly dressed. He is trying not to be noticed. He walks a bit too fast. Jack is not his real name. His real name is buried, deep, hidden from even his own consciousness. Jack is the part of him that is in charge when he kills.

Jack has a fifteen-year-old girl drugged and gagged with duct tape and handcuffed to a metal bar sunk into recently-hardened concrete in his basement. Her name is Kaelyn. Jack is already hunting for her replacement.

Morris straightens up, wills his diaphragm under control. Jack is fading into the parking lot, disappeared between sport utility vehicles, glimpsed behind a minivan, ducked into a sedan. Morris does not hurry to follow, he already knows where to go: Jack's map has written itself onto Morris's mind.

Morris makes his way to his car, fumbles with his keys, sits trembling behind the wheel. He fears driving while this shaken, but he can't delay overlong. He scratches the car next to him pulling out. He doesn't stop to leave his information. Priorities.

Morris stops at the convenience store and gas station combo positioned just inside the theater complex parking lot. The manager is worried about being held up because the security camera inside has been broken for three weeks and the repairman has yet to come fix it. After saying a mantra to calm his nerves Morris makes his way inside and buys a prepaid cell phone.

Jack lives one town over. His neighborhood is cookie-cutter suburban. His house is utterly lacking in character. Jack has made a stop as well; Morris has beat him here.

Kaelyn is inside, but is barely conscious. The chemicals leeching from her bloodstream into her soft tissues is sparing her the terror she would otherwise be feeling now. She is only vaguely aware of the discomfort of the cold concrete floor against her naked skin.

Morris dials the police. He gives Jack's address, Kaelyn's full name. "She's handcuffed in the basement and he's going to kill her." He hangs up. The police will, with no prompting from him needed, eventually find the seven girls already encased in the concrete floor.

Morris continues down the street, crosses an intersection, turns around, parks. He sees Jack pull up, get out of his car. He has a plastic bag with the name of a hardware store emblazoned on it. He has purchased new killing and dismembering tools as part of his ritual: to re-use the last set would be to disrespect something vaguely but decidedly sacred. He wants to rape the girl before killing her and hates himself for the former impulse but not the latter. Morris wants out of his mind.

Jack stands at the basement door, reaches out for the knob, lets his hand drop to his side without grasping it and turning it. He rebukes himself, he shakes it off; he reaches for the knob again, opens it, steps through and down onto the first step.

Morris dials another number.

Jack's cell phone, bought for emergencies, rings in his pocket. He has memorized this number but has never given it to anyone. He is startled, frightened. He calms himself, assumes it to be a wrong number, continues down the stairs.

Morris lets it ring. When it goes to voicemail he hangs up and dials again.

Jack fishes the phone out of his pocket, flips it open, stares at the number without realizing that by opening the phone he has answered the call.

"Jack? Jack, answer me one question."

Jack closes the phone, cutting off the call. When it rings again, Jack answers. "Who is this?"

"Jack. You're wrong about her. She's not a whore. She's a good girl." Morris knows Jack well now: it will slow the killer down just enough.

Morris hangs up, turns off the cell phone, wipes his fingerprints from its smooth plastic surfaces and tosses it out his window into the grass between curb and sidewalk. He can hear sirens approaching. He pulls away from the curb and makes a left at the intersection, headed back towards the interstate. Three police cruisers pass him moving fast. He pushes a button, and all his car windows slide down with a hum and a whirr. The sirens sound from every direction: more are coming.

He gets on the highway, he drives away. He leaves Jack and Kaelyn and the cell phone and the police behind. He cleanses them from his brain. They will sneak back in, tomorrow, in the newspaper and on the radio and on television, but only at one remove and a little bit at a time, as a story told from a distance.

That he can handle.


They sat without talking in the café on the concourse by the gate; she distracted herself by people-watching while he studied — for the hundredth time, it seemed to her — the extensive 'Employee Guidelines (Human)' on his Pad.

"Everybody's human," she observed. The café staff, the security guards, even the ticket agents at the Polixaci Trade Authority counter had been human. "Where are all the aliens?"

"What do you mean?"

"It's a spaceport."

"Sure, but they employ locals to run it."

"If they're locals, shouldn't they be Chinese? Or Mongolian, or whatever?" Outside the plate-glass concourse window, the Gobi desert stretched away like the Martian plain. If only there was a window on the other side, looking towards the immense silver lander: that was another thing she wanted to see in person, at least once.

He chuckled; "Everything's relative."

"You can still back out, you know." She said it conversationally, trying not to betray the emotions churning her stomach.

He looked up from his Pad, he turned it off. "I really can't."

"They said. You won't have committed to anything until you actually get on the lander. Right? They said."

"Eight months isn't so long."

"Eight months is forever. Eight months with no face, no mail, nothing."

"In an emergency, I could—"

"So I get to hear from you when you're dead, great. Meanwhile, you'll miss everything." Her hand was on her stomach, just below her stomach, where there was as yet no appreciable bulge.

"Come on. You're exaggerating."

"Oh, okay, I'm exaggerating."

"Your father did, what, three tours in the middle east back when he was our age? Weren't you born while he was deployed?"

"That's different. He could call. He could write. He was still on Earth."

"I'll make enough money working this one circuit to start a real business, Jan; with enough left over for a nice house where we can raise our kids. It's just eight months."

She was silent a long time. She knew he was right. She didn't have to like it.

"Look, there's one." He gestured with his head.



It wasn't a Polixaci; something else. She'd seen one of these on the news, once. Lignol? They were rare, even near the embassy in New York. It plodded down the concourse, carrying a small silver case. "It's going home?"

"Probably. Change liners at Friktik. He'll have to wait there for the connection, though, maybe six months? They don't always line up the way you want." He'd done his research. He said, pointedly, "Eleven stops, each with a layover. I'll be back here before he's home."

"You don't have to go"

He switched his Pad back on. "I want to go."

Fantasy Drabble #302 "Ready To Wear"

The wizard, Yolgothorung, sent against me a golem: unkillable, made of metal known only to his arcane science.

I fought the golem for hours until I was bruised and nearly dead from exhaustion. Had I not been able to push it from atop the cliffs at Mandorum it would have taken my spine. I fled without shame; I knew it would follow. Inside the mountain, it blundered into a hastily-prepared dwarven trap. Held in the grip of their clamps, it was rendered helpless.

Even now they hammer it, white-hot and still living, into the shape of a suit of armor.

Wendell Millbern Has Two Secrets

Wendell Millbern was parked outside the Principal's office again today — head down, sniffling, looking simultaneously tough and ragdoll-broken — while I was replacing light bulbs in 'A' hall.

He isn't a bad kid. He's just acting out. I decided the bulbs in his general vicinity needed special attention.

"Wendell; how are things?"

Wendell talks to me. Wendell knows me. Wendell isn't one of these kids who thinks of the janitor as less-than-human. "Sucks."

"What are you in for?"

Wendell shrugged as if to say it was nothing, it was beyond his control, it was a bum rap. But he answered because he knows I'll keep asking. "I talked back to Ms. Gomez in music class."

Surprising. "You like Ms. Gomez."

Wendell shrugged again as if to say that Ms. Gomez was all right, for a teacher; as if to deflect the possibility that he might have a bit of a crush.

"Come hold the new bulbs for me."

"I'm not supposed to get up."

"It's fine, I'll explain it all if Principal Ngai comes out."

I handed him the box of bulbs, which he took carefully, held delicately.

"How's your dad? Still mad all the time?" Wendell's father was a habitual drinker of overlarge quantities of beer.

"Yeah." Wendell watched me unscrew the bulb. "Hey, that one was still good."

"I have a feeling it was going to burn out soon. Call it a preemptive replacement. Watch out, it's still hot." I handed down the old bulb and he handed up a new one. I didn't feel bad about the waste: the replacements were all the more efficient compact fluorescent types. Still frustratingly primitive technology, to be sure, but better than the incandescent bulbs the school had been using. "Ever hit you?"

Wendell's a bright kid. "Where you're from, what do they do to people who beat up on kids and their moms?"

"Well, Wendell, where I come from hardly anybody does anything like that. It's not perfect. We've got our problems," haphazard quality control in navigational sensors and far-from-prompt rescue services being two that spring immediately to mind, "but drinking, that's just not one of them."

"What would they do?"

I re-affixed the cover to the lighting fixture and climbed down the ladder. "Well, Wendell, when someone is hurting someone else, we change them. We make them different."


Changing brain chemistry; changing brain structure; rewriting memory… "It's complicated."

"Would it work on my dad?"

I put my hand on his shoulder. "If it was something that would work on your dad, Wendell, I would have done it already."

Wendell deflated. "Too bad."

"Mister Millbern, I'm getting tired of seeing you outside my office." Principal Ngai's voice is deep and impressive and somehow reassuring. He's a good man. "Come on."

Wendell shrugged at me and went in. He knows I will keep his secret because he keeps mine.

Ngai will ferret it out. He'll pick up on the patterns. I did, after all, and I'm not even human.