Iris had never understood why first dates were dreaded the way they were. Her friends talked about them like they were some kind of combat ritual, some horror show that had to be endured so that they might enter the realms of the mighty who had boyfriends and girlfriends. They traded stories about they guys who were too clingy, the ones who were too rough, the girls who were too shy or too loud, and each and every one of them just reinforced their ideas that the world was full of miserable, deranged sociopaths who wanted nothing more than to destroy a lovely evening out.
All she knew at this point was that she wouldn’t be able to tell stories about this date to her friends. “Yeah, he was really nice and we had a good time” would fall flat.
It was the truth, though. She’d met Lloyd at the post office, of all places, waiting in line behind an old woman who apparently wanted to send birthday cards to all of her grandchildren at once and with excruciating care. He and Iris had gotten to chatting about how this was such a first-world problem, and she told him about the time she had to wait a whole extra half hour at the DMV and he lamented about the cable company never coming when they promised, and they really hit it off. By the time they picked up their respective packages, he had her number, and called a couple of days later for a date.
They met at Javaville, because coffee shops were considered neutral ground, and talked about themselves over drinks. A few people waved at him when he came in, which was good. She got her coffee black, his was a soy milk latte, and she took a chance with some routine she’d heard from a comedian on TV a few years ago.
“You know that’s not soy milk, right?” she said.
He lifted an eyebrow. It looked good on him.
“Milk,” she went on, “has to come from a mammal, right? And last time I looked, soybeans didn’t lactate.”
He thought about this and nodded. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “But then we’d have to call it ‘soy juice,’ and no one in their right mind would drink soy juice.” He winked and sipped at his latte. Iris suspected he had seen the same comedian, because that was pretty much the punchline to the joke. If he had, though, he didn’t call her on it.
They walked through the Hortus, the vast park in the center of the city. It was a lovely spring day and the water lilies were in bloom, making it almost tailor-made for a romantic first date. He walked close to her, but not too close, and talked about himself without seeming self-obsessed. In turn, Iris told stories about what she had done and where she had been, and didn’t try to crib from comedians anymore.
It wasn’t a date she could gripe about with her friends, but that was okay. She’d take this.
They ended the day at dinner, at a restaurant he promised was the best in the city. She stood in front of the chalkboard for a good minute and a half trying to work out the name of the place. Lloyd let her try it out a few times before he grinned and said, “It’s ‘Yggdrasillusions.’” He shrugged. “The owner has a thing for Norse mythology. Most of us just call it ‘Iggy’s’ to keep things simple.” He walked over and opened the door. “Ladies first?”
The restaurant was green. Really green. There were plants everywhere – hanging from the ceiling, growing in window boxes, and even vines crawling up the rough-hewn wooden walls. The restaurant smelled of heavy spices and loam, and light jazzy music piped in through speakers overhead. Young, pretty waitresses weaved through tables where couples and threesomes and foursomes were eating and chatting and laughing. Lloyd waved to a few people and patted some shoulders as they went to their table. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled when they saw him, all of which struck Iris as a good sign. Not how she was usually greeted when she walked into a place, but she’d take it.
The waitress was at their table as soon as they sat down. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Emili, and our specials tonight are a raw Mediterranean pesto torta, portabello burgers, and the chef’s special kale and spinach lasagna.” She beamed. “It’s really good, I had some for lunch today.”
“Thanks, Emili,” Lloyd said. “Give us a minute?”
Emili nodded and handed them menus before gliding off to help someone else. As Iris leafed through the menu, she felt her stomach grow cold. A sneaking suspicion was winding its way though her mind, and each dish she read off the menu seemed to confirm it. After a few minutes she looked up at Lloyd. “Is this a vegan restaurant?” she asked.
Lloyd smiled. “Best in the city,” he said. His smile wavered. “Is… that is okay, isn’t it?”
She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t remotely okay. She wanted to tell him that an otherwise lovely first date had suddenly turned into the inevitable horrible endurance trial her friends talked about, where she could see if she could get through the next hour and a half without being sick. Or going mad.
But she didn’t. “No,” she said. “No, it’s fine.” She smiled back at him, but she suspected Lloyd knew something was wrong.
They started off with a mountain vegetable tempura, accompanied by two different dipping sauces – one a spicy chili and the other a sweet plum sauce. Lloyd raved about them and told her about the time he tried to get the recipe off the chef, and how that had led him to a whole weird series of bets and bargains. To Iris, they tasted like chalk. Bland, flavorless bits that vanished from her memory as soon as she swallowed them.
The main course was a spicy chana masala, one of several Indian dishes that were on the menu. Emili told them about how the restaurant owner had gotten that recipe from a man he met while backpacking in India and how they were the only restaurant in the city to serve it. Lloyd clearly loved it, barely stopping to talk as he ate. Emili brought over some lychee-soy milk drinks and said they were on the house.
Iris picked at her food until she realized she was picking at it. She didn’t want to be That Date, the one he told stories about to his friends – Yeah, I brought her to my favorite place and she just nibbled at the food – so she scooped up spoonfuls and tried her best to look like she was enjoying herself. It went down like the flavorless pap they gave to babies and old people. There was no substance to it, no energy, and she wasn’t even sure it reached her stomach. The only thing even remotely good was the wine, but she suspected it was made from organic grapes by the thinness and emptiness of its flavor.
After a dessert of non-dairy ice cream and some coffee, Lloyd sat back, looking full and happy. “This really is a great place,” he said. “I’d come here every night if I could.”
Iris forced herself to smile and hoped her stomach wouldn’t growl. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she said. There was a moment of awkward silence. “I do need to know, though – do you come here because the food is good, or because you’re vegan?”
He shrugged. “Any reason it can’t be both?” he asked. “The food’s great, and no animals died to get it to us. Win-win.” He sipped at his coffee. “Thanks for having an open mind about this, by the way,” he said. “I think you’ll find that vegan food is better than anything else you’ve eaten, and you’ll have a clean conscience in the end to boot.”
Iris nodded, and knew that there would be no second date.
He paid for dinner, although she tried to go in for half. He walked with her to the subway station and took her hand as they waited for his train. He’d had a really good time, and he’d definitely call her again. Soon. He promised. Iris tried not to let the mask slip and just said, “That would be nice.”
He waved to her as the subway pulled out. She waved back, once.
When the train was out of sight, she went back up aboveground and headed to the nearest SmackyBurger just a few blocks away.
The kid at the counter welcomed her to SmackyBurger, but she cut him off.
“Gimme a super-double burger with bacon.” She took a twenty out of her wallet. “Throw a couple of extra patties on there and this is yours.” The young man didn’t even hesitate to take the money.
Three minutes and forty-five seconds later, Iris was sitting in a booth and took a great, jaw-cracking bite of her burger.
The cows that had been slaughtered to make this burger had lived short and uneventful lives. Memories of packed bodies and chemical-laden feed flooded over her tongue and almost made her moan. The darkness of the slaughterhouse, the smell of blood and that last moment of realization before oblivion all washed over her, and within moments, she was licking her fingers. She went back up and ordered a chicken filet sandwich. This one was better than the first. The birds had been raised in a battery farm, kept in cages only slightly bigger than they were. They knew only suffering until the last moment of their lives, and that suffering, that knowledge of horror was what filled Iris’ stomach. The energy of fear and hopelessness and pain rushed through her. The world became vivid, alive.
No block of tofu had ever watched a farmer come at it with an axe. No carrot had ever smelled the blood of its brothers on the killing floor and been unable to run. No bean sprout had ever struggled for life, caged in with hundreds of competitors who wanted it dead.
Iris needed that suffering, that pain. She didn’t know why, but she knew what she liked. And she was pretty sure Lloyd wouldn’t understand.
She finished the chicken sandwich, wiped her hands on a napkin, and left the restaurant. She wasn’t sure how she would spin this into a first date horror story, but she was sure it would be better than the truth.
“Go ahead,” the genie said to Jack. “Put on the ring and complete the circuit. And when you do, you and April will know everything about each other.” The genie took a long drag off his cigarette, and smiled when he exhaled smoke that was pink and shimmered slightly in the light from the kitchen lamp.
Jack turned the ring over in his hand. It was small, made of silver, with a pale blue gem set into it. His wife had the other one, identical except that her gem was pale pink. She had already put it on, and was staring at him while he hemmed and hawed. He could feel her urging him on. The genie just watched.
It had been a simple wish, though Jack hadn’t really been expecting it when he came home. After a long day trying to develop new things that could be done with processed food, he came hope in the hopes of having something to eat with his wife, maybe a beer while he went through his web-surfing, and then bed.
Instead, he found this strange man standing in the living room, next to his wife. The man was dressed in an immaculate white suit, with a few gold rings and a bracelet that gleamed against his olive skin. He had longish hair, so black that it was almost blue, and just the right amount of stubble on his face to bring him over from “too lazy to shave” to “incredibly sexy.”
At first, he thought his wife was admitting to an affair. If that had been true, it would have been a relief. Though Jack had never had any real reason to suspect she would sleep with someone else, he couldn’t think of a good reason why she wouldn’t. If the opportunity arose.
He didn’t understand her, and that was the real problem, wasn’t it? They’d been to couples counseling, but hadn’t had much luck with it. Neither of them was the type to pour out their innermost wants and needs to anyone, so they got along with each other and set up a life together that worked reasonably well. Or at least, well enough.
But there were times when he looked over at her, and he couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going on in her head. He was pretty sure she felt the same.
So when he came home and saw the strange, very handsome man, he thought, Well, here it is at last. One of us has done something, so I suppose the hard work is done.
No such luck. “Honey!” she yelled when he came in. She ran up to him and hugged him for a lot longer than usual. His hug was safe. Non-committal. Three pats and a squeeze. He never took his eyes off the man.
When April pulled away, her face was practically glowing. “You won’t believe what happened,” she said. “I was out shopping and I went over to the thrift store.” Jack bit his tongue. Their house was already cluttered from her thrift store adventures. “And there was this oil lamp,” she went on. “So I thought it might look nice on the mantle.”
“Is there room?”
She laughed and slapped his arm. “Of course there is – I was going to move the ducks to the bedroom. Anyway.” She walked over to the strange man and grasped his arm. “I was polishing it, and this man – no, not a man. This genie just appeared out of nowhere!”
The genie tipped his hat. It took Jack a moment to realize that the genie hadn’t been wearing a hat before.
Or had he?
“A genie, huh?” Jack said. He sighed and took off his jacket. “Honey, I’m really too tired for this. If this is your new boyfriend or something, I wish you would just -”
April’s gasp was enough to stop him cold. “Boyfriend?” she whispered. She stood there, hand to her heart, just blinking at him for a moment. “Jack, what on Earth would make you think I want a boyfriend?”
There was no good answer to that question. Of that much, Jack was sure. “Sorry,” he said. “It was a joke, honey.” He leaned over to kiss her, but she pulled back.
The man – the genie – stepped between them. “I understand your confusion, Mister Logan,” he said. He extended a hand and gave a bright smile. Jack noticed that the man’s eyes were a strange blue-green. “I am Nawfal,” the genie said. He took Jack’s hand and give it a single squeeze.
A wave of warmth rushed through Jack’s body, and he gasped and shuddered. He nearly fell to the floor, but Nawfal caught him. When Jack stood again, he knew something had changed. He wasn’t sure what, but something… April was staring at him with wide eyes. Jack looked from one to the other. “What?” he said, running a hand through his hair.
Whatever was on his head, it wasn’t the thinning crop of hair that he tried every morning to make as inconspicuous as possible. He hurried into the bathroom and flicked on the light.
Not only did he now have a full head of thick, auburn hair – hair he hadn’t had since high school, for god’s sake – but he had the body that he always imagined he should have. His waist was narrow, his shoulders broad, and his back was straight and strong. No twinge at the base of his spine, no dull ache in his hip that was a signal of things to come. The man in the mirror wasn’t young again, but he was the man he would have been if he’d taken care of himself.
Nawfal came up behind him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Not bad, eh?” he said. “That one’s for free. Just to cut short the ‘You cannot possibly be a genie’ conversation.” He lit another cigarette, and the smoke smelled of freshly-baking cookies. “I hate that conversation.”
He guided Jack out of the bathroom with some effort. “Your wife has a wish,” the genie said. “And it involves you.” He parked Jack in front of April, who kept looking him over. He was tempted to tell her that his face was up here, but it seemed in poor taste.
The genie nudged April. “Your wish?” he said.
She started. “Oh,” she said. “Right. Well.” She laid a hand on Jack’s chest and nearly lost her train of thought again. “I… I thought a lot about what to wish for,” she said. “I know we still have a lot of money on the house to pay off and there’s the credit cards, but…”
Jack’s stomach dropped. Those would have been really good wishes. The house was never going to get paid off, and the credit cards would probably go right before they died of extreme old age. Wishing for permanent financial security was probably a really good idea. “But what I wanted was…” She took a deep breath, and Jack waited for the shoe to drop.
“What I wanted was for us to understand each other, honey,” she said. “I know sometimes we have trouble communicating. I don’t know what you want, you don’t know what I want.” She gestured towards the genie. “But he said he could help. He could change that.”
“And I can,” the genie said. “But you have to choose to do it.” He held out a hand, and then opened it. There were two silver rings on his palm. One with a pink stone, one with blue. Nawfal told them that the rings would link them together permanently, and that they would perfectly understand each other from now on.
April had put the ring on right away.
Jack wasn’t so sure.
Which was weird, because he wanted to. He really did. He and April had been together for a long while, and he’d thought that they would know each other inside and out by now. That’s what everyone else seemed to do, anyway. Finish each other’s sentences, know where everything was, remember all their commitments and problems and hang-ups. And every time he had to drop hints about a Christmas present, or forgot what kind of flowers her mother liked, or what book she was reading, he felt like a failure. This would almost certainly fix all that. She would be happy, he wouldn’t have to scramble to avoid making an ass of himself. Everyone wins.
“I don’t think I can do this,” he said.
April’s face fell and then pulled itself back together. “What?” she said. “Why not?”
He shook his head and held the ring out for the genie to take. “I don’t think it’ll end well,” he said. “I mean, there are parts of me…” He stepped forward and took her hands. “There are parts of me that I’m not proud of,” he said. “Parts that I wish I didn’t have. And while I love you and I think you’re a wonderful woman, I’m pretty sure you have things like that too.”
“What,” she said. “You think I’m keeping secrets from you?” Her anger, usually very slow to come out, was showing all over her face.
“No, no,” he said. “Nothing like that. Just… things.” He tried to get close to the idea without giving it away. “Thoughts, maybe. Thoughts you wish you didn’t have. Things you want that you know you shouldn’t. Things you did that you wish you hadn’t.” He reached out to hug her, and at first she was stiff and still. “I want you to think the best of me,” he said. “And I don’t think you would anymore.”
It took a moment, but April relaxed into his embrace, putting her arms around him as well. “I understand,” she said. Her voice sounded thick, but she laughed. “Guess it’s back to couples counseling?”
Jack looked over at Nawfal, who was busy flipping through something on a cell phone. “They’d never believe us,” he said.
The genie looked up when April handed him the ring. “You sure?” he asked.
They nodded together. “We’re sure,” April said.
The genie shrugged. “Suit yourselves,” he said. He squeezed his hand into a fist, and when he opened it the rings were gone. “You still have a wish, though.”
After the genie and his lamp were gone, vanished in a shimmering veil of light, Jack and April were on their computers, checking their bank balances and booking spots on a cruise. Jack input the numbers that April read from a small card that seemed to be made of solid silver, and they both grinned like children as they made their plans.
When Bethany Higgins opened the door, her first thought was, Wow. Looks like someone knows how to use Photoshop.
The man in front of her didn’t have as much hair as he did in his picture. His jawline was a little softer, he looked puffier, and the benefits of taking a profile photo from above were clear. He was thicker around the middle than she’d thought he was. All told, they were tiny changes that added up to a big difference. He looked like his picture, only not quite so much.
Oh well, she thought. Beggars, choosers, all that. She had already put her wedding band into her pocket, so she was halfway committed already. She hoped that she hadn’t let her disappointment show, so she smiled broadly. “Hey there,” she said. “You must be Matt.”
He grinned back, and pulled a small bouquet of flowers from behind his back. “And you’re Beth, of course.” He handed the flowers over. They were a little scraggly, but nice in their own way. “Gosh, your picture didn’t half do you justice.”
“You, sir, are a flatterer.” Beth felt the blush rise. “And that means you get to come in.” She stepped aside and let him into the apartment.
It wasn’t a terribly big place, and she wished she’d done a better job of cleaning up. There were still dishes in the sink from breakfast, and she noticed too late that there was a pair of her fuzzy socks hanging over the back of the sofa. She put her arm around his waist and maneuvered him into the dining room. “You make yourself comfortable,” she said. “I’ll make us some coffee.” She winked, and his grin grew broader.
“So you manage a bookstore?” she called out from the kitchen.
“I do,” he said. “And I have to say, you have a nice collection in the living room out there.” Beth winced, but the damage was done. At this point, fuzzy socks probably weren’t going to be a deal-breaker.
“Glad you approve,” she said. “I love to read whenever I have free time.” She turned on the coffeemaker and stood in the doorway to the dining room. It was a good place to stand – arms up, hip cocked just so… she could practically see his mouth go dry. Beth had no illusions about her body – she’d never make it as a model or a cover girl, but she knew how to use what she had. And what she had seemed to be what Matt wanted, because it took him a few moments to speak.
“Um. Yeah,” he said. She counted to four before his eyes jumped up to meet hers, and he blushed a little. “Wow,” he said. “You really are something.”
“Why thank you,” she said with a smile. “You know just what to say, don’t you?” She could smell the coffee already. “Managing a bookstore must keep you busy,” she said. “Cataloging and shelving and all that.”
“Well,” he said, “that’s why I have employees. They do the heavy lifting, and I make sure we all get paid at the end of the week.” He glanced over at her bookshelves again. “You know, we have the new Paula Grant in. Maybe I can -”
He stopped when he turned around, because Beth had taken the opportunity to get in closer to him. Much closer. He was wearing a light cologne she hadn’t noticed before, and it did smell nice. Kind of a leather and citrus blend that reminded her of… school, for some reason. Matt found his face nearly buried in her chest, and had to back up a little to look her in the eye again. “Um,” he started.
“Matt,” she said. “I really hope you didn’t come here just to scope out my book collection.”
“Because if you did, then I may have to… correct you.” She ran a nail down the side of his face, from temple to jaw, and he shuddered almost imperceptibly. Beth wanted to glance down, but she was pretty sure she knew what was happening down there.
He squeaked slightly. “I don’t… I don’t think I need the coffee all that much,” he said.
“Me neither,” Beth said. She stepped back, and he started to stand. “Just one thing, Matt,” she said. He looked worried all of a sudden, and she tried to smile sweetly. “I did tell you that I’m married, right?”
Matt seemed to take those words into his mind and chew them around for a moment. The look of hunger on his face changed, almost perfectly reflecting the horrible argument that was going on between his sense of right and his need to get laid. Finally, he said, “Yeah. Yeah, you might have.”
“Good,” she said. “I’d hate for you to be surprised. My husband would be…” She grabbed his belt and pulled him close. “Awfully angry if he knew.” Their lips were just a breath apart.
“You’re right. I would.” They both looked over towards the living room. The man standing there was tall and heavy, and his dark face was set in a scowl. He wore what looked like medical scrubs under a winter topcoat, and it looked like there was a spot of blood on the front.
Matt backed away from Beth so fast that he fell over, repeating curses over and over again. Beth was able to call out, “Tim!” before he was on top of the other man. Tim yanked a stun gun out of his pocket and jammed it into Matt’s side. The other man yelled and jerked on the floor. Tim hit him again and again, until the man lay passed out on the floor, the whites of his eyes showing under half-closed lids.
Tim looked up at his wife, and then stood, pocketing the stun gun. “Bethany,” he said. His fingers were flexing into and out of a fist, and the scowl seemed to deepen as they stared at each other.
They stood there, staring at one another for a long time. Bethany was the first to break, with a long sigh that was halfway to being a laugh. “I didn’t think you were going to wait that long,” she said.
“I didn’t think you were going to play the part that well,” he muttered. He looked down at the unconscious man. “Whatever. We’ve got someone I can use, finally.” Beth went into the kitchen, which smelled of coffee, and took a capped hypodermic needle from the refrigerator. She handed it to Tim, who used it on Matt. “That ought to keep him out until I can get him to the lab.”
Beth grinned. “I love that. ‘The lab.’ It sounds so official.”
Tim shrugged and handed the needle back to her. “Would you rather I called it the rental box? Besides, I do experiments there.” He looked at Matt again. “Therefore it’s a lab.”
She pulled him close and kissed Tim hard on the lips. He wrapped his arms around her and relaxed for the first time since they’d put this plan together. “It’ll work,” she said when they pulled apart. “This time it’ll work.” She looked over at Matt and shook her head. “Pity,” she said. “He seemed like a nice guy.”
NOTE: The day count has been adjusted to the actual number of days, including the five slacktastic days I missed in January.
Sharon looked over from her tablet when the doctor cleared his throat a second time. “Oh,” she said. She sniffed, and noticed that the disinfectant smell of the delivery room had changed into something… meaty. “Are we done already?”
One of the nurses – they were all masked and wrapped up, so she couldn’t tell which one – approached the bed, holding a red, wriggling newborn baby boy. His head wobbled for a moment, and then he opened his mouth and started to howl. It was high and wordless and pure, a noise that had been passed down since the first generation of humans emerged.
Sharon winced. “Any way to, y’know, turn it down?” she said.
The nurse carried the baby boy to the incubator that had been prepared and laid it gently on a blanket. When she closed the cover, there was a small hiss as the incubator pressurized, and the sound was cut off mid-wail.
“Thank god for that,” Sharon said, returning to her book.
The doctor cleared his throat again. “Ms. Ramsey,” he said. “There are still some procedures that have to be taken care of, and I’m afraid we have to do them now.” He stripped off his gloves while one of the nurses took his place beyond the curtain they had erected at Sharon’s midsection. Another nurse handed him a tablet. “Could you… could you put that down please?”
With the put-out sigh of a girl ten years her junior, Sharon thumbed the standby button and put the tablet on the bed beside her. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”
The doctor pulled his mask down. He was handsome enough, she supposed, and if she was going to have another baby, she might ask him to donate for her. It’d be expensive, though. She’d passed up buying a house to get the underwear model’s sperm that she used for this one, and even that had been a compromise. The guy had been a redhead, after all.
“There are forms to be filled out before we can let you home with him,” the doctor said. He uncapped the stylus and clicked it. “The boy’s name?”
That’s right. Name. “What’s your name?” she asked.
He blinked and looked to the nurses, who were all busy. “Um. Mitchell,” he said.
Her face scrunched up. “Ew. No.” She brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes and wondered if her boy’s hair would be dark like hers, or if she’d have to start dying the red away. She couldn’t see him really well from where she was lying, but she thought he might have had some red hair. “I dunno,” she said. Then it came to her. “Got it,” she said. “Willard.”
“Willard?” the doctor said, his eyebrows crawling up towards his hairline.
“Yup.” Sharon tapped on the darkened pad. “I was just reading an article about that basketball player, Willard Jennings? He’s kinda hot, so you know…”
The doctor shrugged and entered the name. “Okay,” he said. “Willard Ramsey.” He spent a moment entering his vitals – height, weight, blood test results, the usual – and then said, “I see on your application form that you’re a…” He tapped the screen to hilight the term she’d entered. “A post-hereditary wealth distribution analyst?” He looked over at her, puzzled. Sharon was grinning.
“Yeah,” she said, twisting a lock of hair. “Isn’t that good?”
“I suppose it would be, Ms. Ramsey. But… What exactly is it you do?”
She looked around and beckoned him closer. He leaned in, and she whispered loudly into his ear. “I’m an heiress,” she said. “My father is Nicolas Ramsey? He owns Ramsey Media Worldwide?” She grinned like someone who’d just found the secret sale item at her favorite boutique. “My job is to spend his money.” Sharon winked.
“Um.” The doctor cleared his throat again and tapped a nurse on the shoulder. She looked at the screen, nodded, and left the room.
“Ms. Ramsey,” he said. “Are you aware of the regulations regarding childbirth? Specifically the one that says you must have a reliable source of employment?”
She laughed, and it sounded strung out. Maybe the drugs were finally kicking in the way they were supposed to. “I don’t need a job,” she said. “I just made that stuff up so I could get the approval.” She crooked her fingers into air quotes. “Post-hereditary wealth distribution analyst, right?” That cackle again. “My friend Becky came up with that. She went to law school and everything.”
“That’s all well and good, Ms. Ramsey,” the doctor said. “But you do not, in fact have a job?”
Amusement was slowly fading into annoyance. He father could probably buy this guy if she wanted. Buy him and make him clean her toilets. “Look,” she said. “I got the approval. I got the sperm up in there, and I got the baby.” She put her hands behind her head, and noticed how his eyes flickered to her chest for the briefest moment. Never failed. “So why don’t we just get on with this, give me the kid, and I can be out of here.”
Two women came into the delivery room and stood in the doorway. They were dressed in the same scrubs as everyone else, but their expressions were hard. Not that constantly worried yet capable look that the nurses always had, as though they were trying to juggle a dozen different thoughts at once. These women had exactly one thing to do, and their faces said that they knew exactly what it was. The doctor looked over his shoulder.
“Who are they?” Sharon asked.
The doctor reached out to her, like he was trying to comfort her, but Sharon would have none of it. She pulled away from his touch. “No,” she said. She didn’t like the two women. She couldn’t say why, but something about them set her teeth on edge. “Who are they? Why are they here?”
“Ms. Ramsey,” the doctor said, “the laws are very clear on this subject. And not only do you not have a job, but you’ve perjured yourself on a federal document.” His expression of worry never changed, but she suspected he wanted to smile. His voice was too nice. “I’m afraid we have to keep the boy. He’ll be reassigned to a state facility.”
“No!” Sharon yelled. She tried to get up, but everything below her waist was dead, and the best she could do was twist her arms to lift herself up on the bed. “No,” she yelled again, “you can’t have him!” She tried to crawl, and a couple of the nurses held her back. There was no way she was going to walk anywhere, but there was a real chance of falling on the floor. “I paid for him, dammit, you can’t have him!”
“I’m very sorry,” the doctor said. “But those are the regulations. And we can’t expose the hospital to that kind of liability.” He tapped on the tablet again. “You can apply to reclaim him within six months, or wait a year to have another one.” He turned to the two women in the doorway and nodded. They nodded back, then each took one side of the incubator and they started to roll it out of the room.
Sharon ended up falling out of the bed after all, naked and bloody below the waist but not caring. She screamed that she had a lawyer, that she had a hundred lawyers, and that her father would have them all fired. She got as far as promising to have her boyfriend show up at the hospital with a shotgun before one of the nurses managed to tranquilize her.
When she was quiet, they lifted her back into her bed. The doctor shook his head and closed out the documentation on the tablet. “Maybe next time,” he said.
“Some people look into the future,” the man said, “and they see a vista of wondrous opportunity. Great branching paths laid out before them that will take them to lands unknown and accomplishments the likes of which they never imagined.” He took a drag off his cigarette and the wind whipped the smoke away as soon as it left his mouth.
“Is that so?” Devin asked, He hugged his arms for warmth and wished he’d brought a jacket or a sweater or something. Or that there was something he could do to speed this up. He’d only been listening to this guy for fifteen minutes or so, and they were fifteen minutes too many.
“When I look into the future, do you know what I see?” the man asked.
“I can’t imagine.”
“I see a dark wood, tangled and overgrown. I see darkness and shadows in every corner, covering lurking danger that could strike at any moment. Fallen leaves cover pit traps that, with a single misstep, will leave you impaled on excrement-covered spikes as the people of this dark and unholy place gather round the shrinking circle of daylight and laugh as you die in agony.”
Devin didn’t say anything. He had to admit, that was a tough little speech to follow.
The man took another draw on his cigarette. “There is only one certain future. Only one course of action I can take whose outcome is in any way knowable.” He flicked the still-smoldering butt out into the air and it spiraled lazily down, down, ten floors down to the pavement below, lost in the wash of police cars and gawkers.
The wind whistled.
“So,” Devin said. “That’s it, huh?”
The man didn’t look at him. All of his attention seemed to be on the scene below, one step off the ledge. He looked like some kind of lower management drone, in khakis and a pressed white short, with an ID badge on a red lanyard dangling from his neck. Devin wondered idly if he took the stairs, but figured the guy wouldn’t really looking to lose any weight at this point. He’d been up on the roof for about half an hour now. Someone had seen him, called the police, and that was where Devin had come in.
The movies always made this look easier. He’d do a flying tackle, but the airbag was still on its way, and there was no way in God’s green earth that he was going to jump off the edge of a building, no matter what anyone said.
There was a click in his earpiece. “Guy’s name is Alexander Norris. Got his manager down here. Says he’s been having a rough quarter.”
Devin nodded, then cleared his throat. “Hey, Mister Norris,” he called out.
The got the man’s attention. Alexander turned to look behind him, and his face was strangely calm. The knots that had been wrapping themselves around Devin’s guts drew a little bit tighter, and he licked his lips as he spoke. “Listen, Mister Norris. I get that you’re not doing so good right now. But you know, there’s no reason things can’t get better, right?”
A grin cracked Alexander’s calm expression. “No reason,” he said. “Right.” He turned to look at the gathering crowd below.
Devin was the “suicide guy” mainly because no one else had wanted to be. The state had given towns money for specialty training in this kind of thing, and he was the one who got tapped for the position. So, a week of seminars and role-plays later, Devin was the go-to man whenever there was someone threatening to blow their head off or take a street dive, which didn’t seem to happen often enough to justify the money the state was putting out for it. But he figured it was kind of like a week off, and the food was free, so he came out on top.
At least, that’s what he thought when he wasn’t on a rooftop in the middle of winter, listening to a cube drone try to be philosophical.
“Mister Norris,” Devin said, “Why don’t you tell me what it is that got you here? Maybe we can figure something out together.” He took a couple of steps closer, something that was generally not advised when the subject was about to fling himself to his death.
The crowd below was getting noisier. The police on the scene were telling people to keep away, and some jackass tried to start a chant of “Jump! Jump! Jump!” before the rest of the crowd shouted him down. The wind was still cutting through Devin’s shirt, and he wondered why Norris wasn’t shivering hard enough to fall off.
After a long time, the man said something, but it was too faint to hear. “What?” Devin shouted.
Alexander turned around again. “It was a song,” he said.
That was new. Devin wasn’t quite sure what to say to that either, so he just waited and strained to hear the siren of the approaching fire truck. The trainer had said that once the subject got going, they would usually keep talking, probably because the negotiator was the first person who’d actually offered to listen.
“I borrowed my son’s old iPod to bring to work,” Alexander said, “and there was this one song…” His face flinched, the first genuine emotion he’d shown. “It was all about… making mistakes. About being in the wrong place and not knowing how to get out.” He looked down over the edge again. “I’ve worked here for fifteen years,” he said, “and I’ve never once felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing.” He shuffled his feet and Devin’s heart leapt in his chest. “But what could I do? Pick up and start again?” He barked out a laugh, and then turned back again. Even a few yards away, Devin could see his eyes shining, the tears being pulled along by the wind.
“The song promised that someone would be there. Someone who would stand by me and help me and…” He gestured futilely at himself, at the building, at the world. “Someone who could fix me,” he said. “And all the wrong choices I’ve made.”
The moment of emotion seemed to grip him, and then, as quickly as it came, it passed. His face slipped back into the mask of indifference he’d been wearing the whole time he’d been on the roof. “But there’s no one,” he said. “My wife is off in her own little world, my kids just want to get out of the house and go to school.” He nodded down at the rooftop. “These people? They’re probably looking for someone who can do my job better and cheaper already.”
Devin took another step closer, and Alexander cocked his head in warning. He took a step back. “Don’t you have friends?” Devin asked. “People you can talk to?”
That mask cracked again, but only briefly. “No,” Alexander said. “I was never very good at that.” He took a deep breath and looked up, looking Devin in the eyes for the first time. “That’s the problem, officer,” he said. “People are unreliable. People lie. People say they’ll be there, but…”
“But they won’t,” Devin finished for him. Alexander nodded. “Well,” Devin said, taking a small step forward. “I’m here, Mister Norris,” he said. “That’s a start.”
Alexander shook his head. “No, officer,” he said. “You’re here because it’s your job. Any other day and you wouldn’t give a damn about me.” He slid his foot back, and it was right on the edge. “Not that you’d have any reason to.”
“Wait, Mister Norris,” Devin said. “There’s still a lot you can do. There’s therapy, there’s -”
“No, thank you, officer,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath, and a look of peace came over him. By the time he said, “I’m done now,” and stepped backwards over the ledge, Devin was already lunging for him.
His hands grabbed nothing but air. He watched Alexander Norris slowly fall away through the air and vanish beyond the edge of the rooftop. He was aware that he’d started yelling.
There was a long, long moment of silence. Even the wind seemed to stop.
Then the airy WHOOMPH of Norris hitting the air cushion that had been set up on the ground below.
Devin sat down heavily on the rooftop. His hands were shaking as he took the radio from its belt clip. He took a deep breath, then pressed the button to talk. “You might have told me,” he said, “that there was a cushion set up.” Then he dropped the radio and put his head in his hands.
Fleet Commander Sohnys Ad’tai wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hot bath and then drop something heavy and electrical into it.
“Explain to me again, Front Commander,” she said, “how you managed to lose an entire communications center in a city that we had already captured.”
The Front Commander tried to stand up straight, but her wounds made it difficult. She was bleeding from several different wounds, and her battle armor was covered with clear plasma. There hadn’t been time enough to treat her before bringing her to the orbital command center hovering about the benighted blue planet they were meant to be conquering. She gurgled slightly before answering, a sure sign that she was on the verge of collapse. “We had cleared the city, Fleet Commander,” she said. “Our air support had destroyed past the city limits, had destroyed a major military base out towards the desert. The city was ours.”
“That’s right,” Ad’tai said, raising a single clawed finger. “And that forces me to ask again how this city, which was, as you say, ‘ours,’ was infiltrated and our communications hub destroyed.”
The Front Commander swayed, and a med-tech came over to hold her up. “Fleet Commander, she must get medical attention,” the med-tech said. He began prepping a hypospray.
“Not yet, medic,” Ad’tai said. “I’m still waiting for my answer.”
The Front Commander took a step forward, and one of her knees gave out. She slumped to the floor, followed closely by the med-tech. She shoved him away and looked up at the Fleet Commander. “The humans are insidious, Fleet Commander,” she said. “You turn your back for a moment, and they’ll crawl through any crack they can find.” Her eyes filmed over for a moment, and she passed out.
The med-tech looked up at Ad’tai. “She will sleep,” he said. The anger in his eyes was very nearly concealed, but not quite. “And she will likely not be able to return to active duty for some time.”
Ad’tai nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Get her out of here. Show me the charts of their population centers and prepare for my orders.” The command center burst into action again, and the Front Commander was carried away. A lieutenant produced a display reader with charts of human coastal cities.
“Here you are, Fleet Commander,” he said. “We have more than twenty of their major population centers occupied.”
Ad’tai grimaced. “And soon the humans will likely spread the word about how to take out our communications hubs.” She sighed, flicking through the charts with a swipe of her finger. She had hoped that a land invasion would demoralize the humans, send them scattering. Or at the very least cow them into submission. The advance intelligence the fleet had gotten had labeled humans as incorrigibly violent, but with weapons technologies far inferior to theirs.
“Do you remember the legend of Crons Ct’omor?” Ad’tai said to her lieutenant.
He nearly dropped the pad, but didn’t say anything. He knew.
“A single villager managed to kill the greatest warrior of the Ir’awa Empire with nothing but a stone and good aim,” she went on. “Ct’omor’s people celebrated her as their savior. Their deliverer.” She looked over at the lieutenant. “Do you remember what happened next?”
The lieutenant hesitated before nodding. “The Ir’awa burned the village to the ground. It and every other village within a day’s run.”
Ad’tai flicked to another map. “Right in the middle of their victory celebrations, no less,” she said. “Their ‘savior’ died just like the rest of them.” She tapped the pad and the maps winked out. “I’m pulling the plug on the ground invasion,” she said. She tapped the pad again and called up a comm-link.
“Fleet Command to all ground command. Initiating Operation Ir’awa in one hour. Have all ground troops cleared out by then.” A moment later, confirmation icons glowed green on her pad. Orders were being given. The ground troops would no doubt be confused, but they would follow orders.
She keyed in her authorization code, and a new screen appeared. She entered the command code, and a countdown began. The pad would give her several chances to abort the mission as the deadline grew nearer, so she kept it nearby. She checked the status of tugships, which were busy dragging the communications hubs away from the population centers.
“Fleet Commander,” the lieutenant said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Ad’tai’s brow ridge twitched, but he’d earned the question. “No,” she said, and sighed. “I’ll probably get dragged across a bed of hot nails for this by Home Command. But once I explain, I’m sure they’ll understand.” She checked the display. Plenty of time.
“After all,” she said, “we only need the water, not the cities. A fusion barrage will take care of our infestation, and then we can get the water at our leisure.” She grimaced. “Don’t know why no one thought of doing that in the first place,” she muttered.
The Earth spun slowly beneath the command center. Soon it would be pinpricked with dozens of points of nuclear fire, and they could go about their mission in peace.
And when she got home, Fleet Commander Ad’tai was going to have words with whichever nitwit bureaucrat thought this was a good idea.
Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen! Thank you!
Thank you. Thank you.
Thank… Thank you.
Ladies and gentlemen.
We all know why we’re here tonight. There is no mystery to what I want. To what you want. To what the American people want.
Over the next few months, you’re going to hear a lot of people with a lot of ideas, all of them telling you what they think you want to hear. That your taxes are too high, or too low. That your jobs are at risk. That scary people are going to take your guns. Or your land. Or your freedom. They’re going to do their best to scare the pants off you, ladies and gentlemen, so that you’ll vote them into office and give them the power they so richly desire.
Ladies and gentlemen – these people are fools. They know nothing of what the American people need. They know nothing of what the American people want. They are out of touch, Washington elitists who have deigned to come down from their ivory towers to walk with the huddled masses just long enough to get your vote – and when they do, well… I can guarantee that’s the last time you’ll see them come to a town like this again.
And here’s the thing: they’re not wrong. We do have to worry about our jobs, about our economy, about our children. About strange, swarthy men who might hold up our flight to Chicago for a few hours. All of these things are real, ladies and gentlemen. But here is what those other guys, those born-and-bred Washington insiders won’t tell you:
They’re not real enough.
Have they spoken even once of the great, blood-red eye that sits under the floor of the rotunda in the Capitol building? The unblinking gaze of Keh-Xotha that stares into the infinite? Have they told you about the day when Keh-Xotha finally closes thon eye, and how on that day the great Empire of the United States will cease?
Now I know what some of you are thinking. It’s plain on your faces, and frankly – I don’t blame you. You’re thinking, “It all makes so much sense. Why didn’t I see this before” Am I right? Of course I am.
And it doesn’t stop there, either. Have they bothered to tell you about the Sub-Continental railroad, a secret transportation system that can only be accessed by the descendants of the Mayflower passengers? Have they ever brought up the secret moon mission of 1952, bringing back the first precious cargo of moon rocks that would be needed to develop the polio vaccine? And has any one of those establishment fat cats even thought to tell you – the hard-working people of America – about the supercomputer inside Mount Rushmore that is the true captain of the ship of state?
No! Countless debates and interviews and speeches, and none of them have said a word of this! Not even the candidate who benefits today from the re-animation technology developed for President Roosevelt by Nikola Tesla?
Of course they haven’t. Because they don’t want you to know.
Because the truth, my fellow Americans, is that they think you are weak. They think you are afraid. They think you are not strong enough to bear the truth.
But I know differently!
I know that the people of my America, the America I grew up in and I know is the real America, wouldn’t quail at the knowledge that Ronald Reagan died in 1981 and was replaced by a crude robot double. You know that now, you can’t un-know that. And that knowledge will make you stronger!
The truth will set you free, ladies and gentlemen, and I am the only candidate that is willing to offer you the truth, whole and unvarnished. Give me your trust and your vote, and I promise you:
You will know everything.
Thank you, and God Bless the United States of America.
The wind whipped and howled, picking up the tiny crystalline flecks of snow off the ground and sending them into Valerie’s eyes. She squinted against the snow, impossibly bright against a noontime sun that failed in its promise to bring warmth and life to the world. Every step was a trial, lifting her leg free of the snow and then plunging it back down again. She was breathing heavily almost as soon as she started out, and she was already sweating under the layers and layers of winter clothes that were all she had to protect herself from a freezing and unforgiving winter.
Her thoughts turned to her mother. It was for her that Valerie had gone out, and she found herself trying to choose between accepting her fate and hating the woman who had forced her out into the elements. Her mother was old, getting frail, and reveling in it. She knew that Valerie would want the best for her – she always had, even since she was a little girl. Their relationship was one of unbalance, a giver and a taker, and Valerie knew where she fell in that equation. Every time she said it would be different, and every time she gave in.
She pinned her watering eyes on the red flag in the distance and trudged her way towards it. The wind cut through her clothes, and she wondered if the little skin that showed between her hat and her scarf might not turn black and freeze off. Unlikely, she knew, but her mind took the image and ran with it.
“Don’t you worry yourself about me,” her mother had said, ostentatiously leaning on her cane to wake up.
“Mom,” Valerie said, inflecting it into at least three syllables. She already had a second sweatshirt on and had her giant puffy red coat in hand. “You can’t go out there, mom. It’s not safe for you.”
Her mother raised a thin white eyebrow. “Oh, and it’s safe for you then?” She stood up all the way, trembling as she did so. “I should let my only daughter out into that weather?” She shook her head and waved a thin, veiny hand. “No. No, Valerie, you sit. Have some soup, and I’ll go.”
With a sigh of very long suffering, Valerie took her mother by the shoulder and guided her back to her chair. “Mom, those winds’ll know you off your feet before you know it.” Her mother sat down with far less difficulty than when she stood up, and Valerie was sure that her lips were about to curl up in a smile. “I’m not a little girl, mom. I’ll go, and I’ll be back before you know it.” She patted her mother on the shoulder and zipped up the coat. “Just you want,” she’d said.
Now it was hard for Valerie not to regret that decision. Not that she would have sent her mother out into this freezing, blasted hellscape. The woman could barely walk across the room without complaining about her back or her knees or just making a pointed remark about how it was never this cold when she was a girl. Without Valerie, the woman would have been without options.
The red flag was closer now. A few more feet, she thought. A few more and I’ll be able to make my way back. She lifted a foot and brought it down.
Lifted the other foot, brought it down.
Then the other.
Then the other.
She arrived at the little red flag. Quickly, almost angrily, she reached out and put it back down to the side of the mailbox. For all this, she wanted there to be something fantastic in the mail. Something to make going out feel more worthwhile. When she opened the mailbox, there were three catalogs, some flyer from a state senate candidate, and a bill for the credit card that Valerie was pretty sure her mother wasn’t supposed to have anymore.
She looked back up at the house and her trail of footsteps. The trip back would seem shorter than the trip out had been, that was for sure., but the storm that would hit when she got there would put anything the winter could throw at them to shame.
Valerie slammed the mailbox closed and started to trudge back to the house.
The things she did for that woman.
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab, one that the Government had closed down rather than clean up.
It wasn’t on any maps. It didn’t, officially speaking, exist – and if it did exist, well, he sure as hell hadn’t been there. That was in the briefing, a short speech overseen by a man who said nothing, but who stared at Shane the whole time, with ice-blue eyes and contempt practically painted onto his face.
His mission was straightforward and uncomplicated. He was to penetrate to the inner labs and retrieve the central AI core if possible, destroy it if necessary. The whys and wherefores were for the bureaucrats and the politicians as far as he was concerned. This was a hefty payout. If he survived.
“There may be…resistance,” the man who’d hired him said. The blue-eyed man just smirked. “We have reason to believe the AI is expecting you.”
Shane nodded at that. “All right,” he had said. “I’ll just have to be unexpected.”
He pulled open the door in front of him and looked out into the hallway beyond. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling. He took a step forward and felt a tugging at his foot. He had just enough time to look down and see the thin tripwire before the explosives on either side of him went off, killing him instantly.
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. There were old metal lockers that had fallen to the floor and torn posters on the wall, bearing information and announcements that no one would ever need again. He reached out for the door in front of him…
And hesitated. Something didn’t feel right.
The guy who’d briefed him had said that there might be resistance from the AI. He hadn’t gone into any detail as to what kind that would be, but he was pretty sure it would do its best as soon as it could.
He pulled open the door and looked down the hall. It was dim, lit only by fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling that flickered and trembled. In the low light, he took out his sidearm and turned on the laser sight. A red dot flicked into existence on the floor. He swept it up and down just in front of him, watching the dot until…
A tiny flash of red light confirmed what he suspected.
There was a tripwire stretched about six inches above the floor. It was hair-thin, and he probably would have missed it if he hadn’t known what to look for. He leaned out through the doorway and looked at the walls. “Very nice,” he muttered. There were patches of plaster about head-height that looked newer and cleaner than the rest of the wall. That was probably where the explosives were.
“Nice try,” he said. He stepped carefully over the tripwire and patted the wall. “You can’t get me that eas-”
Shane opened his eyes and tightened his grip on the gun. He was standing in the front entryway of an old, disused weapons lab. He hadn’t been there more than a moment and already he was starting to feel tense and frustrated, but he couldn’t say why.
He checked his handgun – it was ready to go, as it always was. The rifle he’d slung across his back was loaded and ready when he needed it. He had his flashlight, some water, first aid kit. Everything he should have had was right there. But he still felt… uneasy.
He pulled open the door, very slowly. Nothing happened. He turned on his laser sight and ran the beam along the floor through the doorway. Almost immediately, there was a tiny flash of light. A tripwire. Shane’s mouth twisted in a grin. He kept the laser moving forward, towards the end of the hall.
There were glimmers of light everywhere, all along the floor, crossing at chest height, head height, and they were all damn near invisible. Any one of them would be his death, of that he had no doubt. He directed his flashlight to the walls.
All down the corridor, there were sections of plaster that looked newer than the rest of the wall. “Hell,” he said.
Shane looked around the room. There were no other weapons that he could use, and getting close to the door would be a death sentence. He could try to shoot out one of the tripwires, in the hopes that one explosion would set the others off, but shooting something that thin, that invisible, would be a huge waste of ammo. His gaze fell on the old lockers that were strewn across the floor. “Gotcha,” he said.
He opened the door as wide as it would go and laid one of the lockers down, pointing down the corridor. Then another behind it, and then one more. The three lockers, end-to-end, were maybe eighteen feet, and he had to hope that was far enough away. He took the remaining two and set them between himself and the doorway, in the hopes that they would absorb some of the blast.
And then he pushed the lockers along the ground.
The explosion was deafening. Each charge by itself was small, but there were so many of them planted in that hallway that they just kept going off for what seemed like forever. It was a thunderous cacophony of noise and smoke, and when it cleared, it took him a few moments to come out from his makeshift bunker.
The corridor was a wreck. Great divots had been torn out of the walls where the explosives had been. He flicked on his laser sight, the beam now perfectly visible in the smoke and the dust, and he ran it along the length of the corridor, floor to ceiling. There were no more wires.
“There we go,” he said to himself. He checked his gun again and carefully, slowly, made his way down the corridor.
It went on a lot longer than he thought it would, turning a few times as he went. At every corner, he would run the laser up and down again, but the debris and the dust told the tale. He started to hear things, though, and he wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, or if it was hearing damage. Or something else, of course. It sounded like metal groaning. Like the hum of a speaker that’s ready to start playing really loud music. Like an idling engine.
There was another door at the end of the corridor, and it looked exactly like the first. He pulled it open, checked for wires. There were none. When he clicked on his flashlight, he was stunned to see the breadth and vastness of the room beyond.
The floor was white marble that seemed to glow where the light hit it. Great pillars reached up to a ceiling that was hidden in the darkness. There were windows, tall and ornate, but they were blocked by stone and soil. When had he gone underground?
As he stepped through the door, he felt a shiver. The door slammed shut behind him, and he had his pistol at the ready before he knew it. There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. He turned with his flashlight, just in time to see the gleam of the great metal blades before they sheared off the top of his skull.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor before he even knew why.
There was a noise from some ways off, like a quick metallic breath. A moment later, two bright steel discs came spinning out of the darkness and lodged themselves in the door, right where his head would have been.
“What the hell?!” he shouted. He had been told to expect resistance, but this seemed less like an AI protecting itself and more like some malevolent bastard that enjoyed killing people. Did AIs enjoy murder? The briefing hadn’t really covered that.
He crawled along for a few yards until he reached a pillar. He used it to stand up, straining his ears for that metallic breath again. Which was why he probably didn’t notice the twisted wire noose until it dropped down, coiled itself around his neck, and pulled up, hard and fast.
The door slammed shut behind him, and Shane dropped to the floor.
A moment later, there were twin THUDS in the door behind him, but he didn’t pay them any notice. He was cursing under his breath as he stood up and started walking through the pillars, making sure to stay as far away from them as he could. There was a… wrongness that he felt from them. He cocked his ears left and right, hoping he could hear the sound of those flying blades when they were launched. The laser on his sight didn’t show any more wires, but still, he walked with tiny, careful steps.
Off to his left, he heard a low rumbling, and stopped. His flashlight caught the low, spiked roller as it came at him, tearing up chunks of marble as it did.
Somehow, without even thinking about it, he jumped. The roller went right under him and kept going, its rumble fading in the distance. He continued forward, along the paths marked out by pillars he dared not go near. There was another roller that came out of the shadows to his right, and one that was directly in his path. He jumped each of them and moved on, his confidence growing as he did so.
He didn’t want to say anything – “I’m on to you,” for example, or “Is that the best you can do?” That way lay death, something he believed even if he couldn’t prove it.
He reached the door at the end and grabbed the handle. The electricity kept him moving until he fell.
Shane was on the floor before the door was shut, and was crawling forward before the two blades hit the door. He walked confidently between the pillars, keeping his ears out for noises from the shadows. When a roller came, he stopped, jumped, and moved on.
At the door, he reached out, but froze before he touched the handle. He looked around the door, and was surprised he hadn’t noticed the keypad right away.
It was small, but certainly not hidden, and it had a small diagram stuck to the wall above it. Shane stared at it for a while before he figured out what it meant.
There was an arrow and a dot that said, “You Are Here.” Beneath that was a double row of circles – ten in each row – that stretched towards the bottom. Five of the circles were numbered with 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. Shane looked at the keypad. The display was big enough for five digits. He turned around and trained his light on the columns and counted under his breath.
He took out his little digital camera and took a picture of the diagrams. Then he started going to the columns. In order.
The first column would have sprouted spikes if Shane came close. He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but the best way to avoid them was to set them off from far away. A single gunshot seemed to work, though he was loathe to waste the ammunition. The number carved into it was 7.
The second column spun in the opposite direction that he walked around it, keeping the number out of his sight. It didn’t have quite the reaction time that he did, though – if he got it spinning and then changed direction really fast, he’d be able to get in front of the number. It was good he had the foresight to stay low, however, because the laser that was embedded in the circular part of the 9 came pretty close to putting a hole in his head.
The third column had a drop-away floor around it. The marble around the base just looked strange to him, and as long as he didn’t get within three paces, he was fine. Its number was 1.
Four was the column that tried to noose him if he stood still for too long, and the number 8 that was carved into it was really tiny. A quick dodge to the left without even thinking about it, and he barely avoided being strangled.
Finally, the last one. He was lucky that he’d been holding his breath out of sheer anxiety, because he was pretty sure that the gas that jetted out from it was poisonous. It made his skin itch in any event, and he had to grab a salve from his first aid kit. The number on this column was 2.
He made his way back to the door and the keypad and entered “79182.” The display burned a steady red for a moment, and then turned green.
Carefully, gingerly, he took the doorknob, waiting for something horrible to happen. It didn’t. He opened the door and felt that shiver pass through him.
His last thought before the machine gun bullets tore him in half was, “There is something seriously wrong going on here.”
The package from her mother was wrapped in brown paper, a recycled grocery bag, and as soon as Alice saw who it was from, she knew what it was. Her mother’s precise, looping handwriting was in the upper-right hand corner. Her own name was printed with a heart above the “i,” and “Happy Birthday” was written in big, bold letters underneath the address.
“Is it gonna be a surprise this year?” Alice asked herself. She shook the box, but didn’t hear anything. She shook it harder, and hoped. But there was no sound from inside. It was either soft or very well-packed. She tucked it under her arm and brought it into the kitchen. She took a knife from the counter and started working it under the layers of packing tape that her mother had used to close up every possible seam. This was how every package from her came, and she said she just wanted to make sure nothing happened to the “precious contents.” Alice was pretty sure it was just to see how long it would take her to get through her defenses.
She out a laugh. “Very symbolic,” she said. “Mom would be proud.” Her mother had been an English teacher for decades, which made her one step below a psychologist when it came to ascribing meaning to every little thing she got her hands on. Unfortunately, it also made her think she was awfully clever. Alice disagreed.
The paper finally came off, and she started working on the box. There was really no reason to hurry on this, other than just to get it over with. Alice knew what was inside – the same thing that was in the box every year.
Well. Not exactly the same thing. But close enough. As far as her mother was concerned, it was a challenge to find something slightly different yet still the same. And every year, underneath her disappointment, Alice was actually impressed that her mother managed it.
She opened the box and pulled out a small package wrapped in white cotton batting. When she unwrapped it, it was a coffee mug. Printed on the mug was a stylized cartoon of a white rabbit with a gold pocketwatch. Underneath the drawing it said, “Don’t be late!”
“There we go,” Alice said. “Right on cue, Mom.”
She stuffed the cotton batting into the trash and folded up the box for future use. It would come in handy someday. The mug would go with all the others.
There was a case in her living room, made by her father – at her mother’s request. It really was beautifully done, probably the best thing her father had put together in that workshop haven of his. It was taller than she was, with adjustable shelves and wide, glass-fronted doors. The whole thing was made from dark-stained wood, and would probably last forever. She opened the door and took a look at the other twenty-five items that were on the shelves.
There were several stuffed rabbits, of various sizes. Little figurines, art that her mother had commissioned, a t-shirt that was folded up, showing the Disney character on it. A rabbit made of glass, another that had a bobble-head, and one that looked like a human-rabbit hybrid. From her first birthday, her mother had been giving her variations on the theme, and she showed no sign of letting up anytime soon.
Alice supposed it was better than her mother forgetting her birthday every year, but at the same time she really wished that she’d come up with something else.
She put the mug on the shelf next to last year’s present – an original vinyl pressing of Jefferson Airplane’s most famous single. That one actually had been pretty impressive.
She took her phone from its charger in the kitchen and dialed her mother. Thanks were in order.