Ezra Reznick stood against the wrought-iron fence, between a couple from Japan who were having their picture taken, and a family of five from somewhere in the Midwest who couldn’t get their littlest to stop screaming for more than half a minute. There were tourists everywhere on Pennsylvania Avenue, along with police, Secret Service agents, and people who actually had jobs to go to, and Ezra wondered again if what he was about to do was a good idea.
The teachers had taken his class off to walk through the Mall, with plans to stop at every major monument that they ran across. From the last time his family had visited, he knew the Washington Death March very well, and had no interest in wearing out the soles of his shoes to go see stuff he could perfectly well see on a postcard. So he hung back and counted on the natural chaos that comes with trying to shepherd a hundred high school students through the city to hide his escape at least for a little while. Even if they did find him, there was nothing they could do that would be worse that what the Secret Service could dish out.
And they would. Of that he was certain. Only if they could catch him, though, and that was the key bit.
He took a breath, held it, and let it out. The black fence was solid and hard, as iron usually is. He rapped his knuckles against it and there was just a dull thud. He flexed his fingers and held them up to the bar again and pushed. This time, his hand went through as though the bar wasn’t even there.
Which, if you wanted to be really pedantic about it, it wasn’t.
Ezra had no idea how he did what he did. The first time he’d managed it was when he was eleven and his drunk stepfather thought it would be a good idea to lock him in a closet for spilling a beer. Ezra had yelled and screamed and pounded on the door until he he just fell right through it. Like a ghost.
It happened again about a week later as he slipped from the crushing arms of Otto Dunnigan, the resident bully at Ravensbrook Elementary, and a third time when that selfsame bully tried to shove him into a locker and he fell through into the classroom on the other side. Clearly, something strange was going on. And for a boy who grew up stealing comic books from the local drugstore, he was pretty sure he knew what it was.
He experimented, trying to make his new talent work without being furious or in mortal danger. And he couldn’t.
Several bloody noses and a few visits to his school counselor later, he was beginning to wonder if he had imagined everything. If maybe he was going to end up being the crazy kid in the school, the one who walked into walls and muttered about how it worked before, dammit.
In the end, it was his science teacher who convinced him. Mr. Tebow, teaching them about atoms and electrons and other things that none of the kids would ever need to know about when they grew up, said something that caught Ezra’s ear.
“Matter,” he’d said, rapping his knuckles on the desk, “is mostly empty space. It seems solid enough, but in reality, there’s more nothing in this desk than there is something.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a golf ball. “If the nucleus of an atom were the size of this ball, the nearest electron would be almost a mile away. And in between here and there?” He bounced the ball on the floor once and caught it. “Nothing at all.”
Nothing. That word hung in Ezra’s head. Nothing. Lots of nothing.
He looked down at his desk and tried to imagine all the nothing that was in there. In between the atoms, between the electrons and the nuclei – nothing. He raised his hand, and Mr. Tebow looked a little startled before he called on him. “If there’s mostly nothing, how come we can touch things?”
His science teacher grinned broadly and said, “An excellent question, Ezra!” He then started drawing pictures of atoms on the board, explaining about electrical charges and how they came in positives and negatives. He went to the supply closet and brought out a stick on a base, put it on his desk and started floating magnets on it, north-to-north and south-to-south. It was the happiest Ezra had seen his science teacher in a long time, and he tried to pay attention.
About a minute before the bell rang, Mr. Tebow said, “And that’s why we can touch things, Ezra.” He picked up the golf ball and tossed it to Ezra, who caught it. “Your electrons won’t go past the electrons in that golf ball. If they could, then, well, – you wouldn’t be able to catch it.” The bell rang and everyone filed out. Ezra sat at his desk while the other kids ran to lunch, just pressing his finger on the desktop.
Mr. Tebow walked over, books and papers in his arms. “Thank you, Ezra,” he said. “Your question was really very good. Keep it up.” He smiled and left, and Ezra felt a little grin of his own crawl across his face. Empty space, he thought. He stared at the desk and his finger. And he had pushed.
Now, in front of the White House, he was ready. He pulled his baseball cap down low and put on a large pair of dark sunglasses. He took a few more deep breaths, closed his eyes, and took a step forward.
There was shouting from the street almost before he’d taken three steps. He opened his eyes and looked behind him – the fence was still there, along with a group of gawping tourists. He grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets. He whistled as he walked casually across the North Lawn towards the White House.
Moments later, there were three men in black uniforms barreling towards him. They looked like football players and were shouting at him to stop and get on the ground. Ezra felt his mouth dry up, and for a moment felt his feet settle on the close-cropped grass. He focused – this would be a very bad time to lose control – and kept walking. Whistling was a bit of a challenge, though.
One of the men dove at him, his arms stretched out to catch him at the waist, and wend right through. Ezra didn’t look back, but kept going through the fountain at a casual, almost touristy pace. The other two reached for his shoulders and grabbed handfuls of nothing at all. Ezra did his best not to laugh as they yelled into their radios for backup.
He had looked at floor plans online, and knew where he wanted to go. After all, if he was going to just walk into the White House, there was really only one room you had to see. He kept the West Wing in his sights and made a straight line for it.
A group of men in suits ran out to block his way and stood with guns drawn. An older man held up his hands. “Stop right there, son,” he said. “I’m -”
Ezra didn’t know who he was and didn’t really care. He walked right through him and kept on his way.
The first wall that he walked through led to a small office with a very surprised young woman on the phone. She yelled out to someone in the hall, who tried to block the door and failed. Ezra turned left down the corridor and headed towards the small suite of offices that surrounded the one he wanted to see.
The White House was in a panic. There were Secret Service agents filling the corridor, and none of them were able to touch him. They were barking orders in strong, authoritative voices that he just pretended were his father’s and ignored. He kept walking. An older woman stood in the doorway of the President’s secretary’s office, her arms crossed. “Young man,” she said. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
Ezra stopped and looked up at her. She was really trying hard, even he could see that. “I’m visiting the President,” he said. And stepped forward.
She screamed when he walked through her, but he didn’t look back. He was a little startled when a stapler flew through his head and bounced off the wall, but he kept his focus on the simple white door in front of him. Nothing fancy or elaborate about it. Just a door. And on the other side of that door was the most powerful man in the world. A man who was supposed to represent the hopes and dreams of millions around the world. For the first time, Ezra wondered what he’d say when he saw him. He grimaced. The rest of the plan had been meticulously planned out, but somehow he’d avoided thinking about that.
He shrugged. He was a bright kid, he knew that. He’d think of something.
Ezra stepped through the door and entered the Oval Office.
It was just like he’d seen on TV. Paintings on the walls and elegant, uncomfortable-looking furniture. He stepped onto the carpet, pale gray and blue, with the giant eagle in the center. There were bookcases with carefully displayed books and gifts from other nations, and a bust of some guy with a huge mustache and tiny glasses on an antique desk. In front of the tall windows at one end, in between a pair of flags, was the biggest desk he’d ever seen, made from wood so dark it seemed almost black.
There was no one else in the room but him.
“The hell?” he said. He looked around, but he was alone in the Oval Office. “Aww, man,” he said, his shoulders slumping. “This sucks.”
“He’s in Indonesia.” The woman he’d walked through before was standing in the doorway, looking like she was trying very hard not to be angry. “And even if he weren’t, do you really think the Secret Service would have let him stay here?” She took a few steps in and closed the door. “You didn’t really think this through, did you?”
She was right. If this had been a movie, the Secret Service probably would have picked up the President like a football and carried him off to some bunker or other where no one – ghost-kid or otherwise – would be able to find him until he was meant to be found. All the panic that Ezra had caused would be nothing compared to what it would have been like if the President were actually in the house.
“No,” he finally said. “I guess I didn’t.”
She seemed a little more at ease, and took another step towards him. “And you probably don’t have a plan for getting out of here either, do you?” She smiled, and right there he decided he wasn’t going to like her. The woman was pretty enough, but there was a gleam in her eyes. She looked like one of those kids in school who knew they had you where they wanted you. Those jocks who made you buy lunch for them, or the girls who pretended to be friends just long enough for you to embarrass yourself. The fact that she was right again didn’t make any difference. This woman would bully him if she could.
“No,” he said again. “I didn’t.” He looked about the office again and did his best to look completely bored by it. “I guess it all wasn’t worth it, really.”
She nodded. “Now, why don’t you tell me your name and we can get this unpleasantness sorted out.” She reached out a hand to him.
Ezra stared at it for a moment. “No,” he said. “I don’t think I will.” He wasn’t sure if what he was about to try would actually work, but he sure couldn’t make things worse. He waved at her, said “Buh-bye, lady,” and dropped through the floor.
He found himself in a cafeteria, surrounded by more very large men who looked very surprised at his appearance. As they started reaching for their guns, he dropped through the floor again. This time he found himself in a service tunnel, empty and dark, lit every few feet by dim lights. For the first time, he let his feet settle to the floor, and he leaned against the cold concrete wall. His heart was racing, and he was just noticing it now. “Holy shit,” he whispered. “Ho. Ly. Shit.”
He started laughing. He knew that he still had to get out, and he still wasn’t sure how he was going to manage that, but that wasn’t important. He had done it. He had walked into the White Frikkin’ House, and hadn’t gotten caught. Anything else ought to be a cakewalk.
He let his laughter die down, took off his sunglasses and wiped his eyes. There was a whole new world open to him now, and he was going to have as much fun in it as he could.
As he walked down the tunnel, he started making new plans.
Maybe the Pentagon.
Starlight Moonwhispers sat among her people in the middle of the Goldwell oil company’s lavish New York City headquarters and looked around the lobby. There were sleeping bags strewn about, small gas stoves to boil water and cook with, and a poetry reading going on near the elevator bank. Mothers were nursing small children, and older kids were running about the marble hall, chasing each other and laughing.
About a hundred people had, like Starlight, barricaded themselves in the lobby in order to protest the oil company’s continued operations. They had been there for six days straight and had refused all offers by the company to come to some sort of compromise. Starlight Moonwhispers had led them all here. She had told them of her visions, her clarity – that if they made a stand in this place, at this time, they would set in motion a revolution that would free their Mother Gaia from human bondage. The local TV stations had been running her videotape all week:
…and it is only when we accept what we are, we human beings, that we will truly know the love that our Mother, Gaia, has for us. She wants us to thrive and be well, to live in peace and harmony with all nature. But the work of evil that Goldwell and other greedy, anti-life corporations do is what ultimately keeps us from knowing Gaia’s love. They rape our Mother with their oil rigs and wells. They suck the life out of Her and burn it into the air, fouling Her precious lungs with the burned filth of Her own body. Is it any wonder that we have earthquakes devastating cities? Is it any wonder that we have floods wiping away homes? Is it any wonder that the Earth Herself is rising up against us? No, it is not.
But our group, the Heart of the Earth, is committed to putting humanity on the right track. We will not leave this place until Goldwell and its vampire brethren dismantle their operations and commit their resources to the development of clean, renewable power that shows our Mother Earth the gratitude that She deserves….
The media had been in and around the occupied lobby for nearly as long as Starlight’s group had, and she was not shy about giving interviews. Every time she was on camera, she repeated her message and made sure she was heard.
The police waited outside the building, waiting for word from the executives at Goldwell. Their CEO had gone on The Biff Browley Hour and said that he was curious to see how long they’d stick around. “Frankly, we do everything off a cloud network right now,” he said. “We could probably run the company from Starbucks if we wanted to. So as long as they stay entertaining, I say let ‘em have their fun.”
A young girl, no more than fifteen, approached Starlight nervously. She had taken to dressing like her leader – long, flowing clothes that were made only from natural fibers, without any leather or animal products. Her dark hair twinkled with little beads, and she went barefoot everywhere. She smelled of patchouli. “Starlight,” she said. “Some of us were wondering…” The girl looked nervous, and Starlight tried to recall her name. Something about moss, maybe? “Some of us were wondering if you were going to have another of your sacred meditations today.”
A few times a week, Starlight Moonwhispers meditated. When she came out of her meditations, she told of the Spirit of Gaia, an entity that communicated with her on an astral level, soul-to-soul. She spoke of this spirit as uplifting, empowering, but terribly, terribly weak all at the same time. It was pale and thin and frail, but there was an inner strength that Starlight could see through her enlightened eyes. Since she started doing the meditations – and coming back from them with inspiration for the group – others had been asking to meditate with her, to learn from her how to experience a oneness with the Great Mother herself.
Starlight smiled and brushed a long lock of red hair from her eyes. “Of course, sister,” she said. She stood up, smoothing down her flowing skirts. “Brothers and sisters!” she called out, and her melodic voice rang through the lobby. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked to her. Some with curiosity, others with awe. Her visions had assembled them here. They had brought them to the houses of the powerful, and now they would guide them further.
“I plan to embark on another spiritual journey soon,” she said, “and all who wish to join me are welcome.” She spread her arms wide, letting the hand-made shawl hang from her shoulders. “Let us all experience the oneness that is unity with our Great Mother!” The crowd started to applaud, and some of them followed as she stepped over backpacks and sleeping bags to get to her preferred meditation spot, a landing on the staircase that went up to the second floor. She had a meditation pillow set up and a glass of purified water. She arranged her skirts around her and pulled her hair into a long ponytail. As she did so a few other people gathered around on the landing, sitting cross-legged in spots of their own.
When she was ready, Starlight looked at each one of them in turn. “We are all connected,” she said. “The pure energy of Mother Earth is in all of us, and we are in Her. Calm your mind, focus on the light of true love, and seek a oneness with our Great Mother.” She sat with her back straight and her fingertips touching, and then closed her eyes. A moment later, she began to chant the mantra that she had been given from the fragile, yet strong spirit of her planet. “Ommm Muuuummmm Annamummmm…..” The others started chanting with her, all of them familiar with the sacred words that she had brought back for them.
In her own peaceful and warm darkness, Starlight chanted and focused on the words and her breathing. She focused on making it to that place inside her that was a white light, a shining and incorruptible place in her heart. After some amount of time, she was aware that she couldn’t hear herself chanting anymore, and took it for a good sign. Soon, the darkness would be pierced by light, and she would once again commune with the spirit of Earth.
She always looked forward to these meetings, but feared them as well. The spirit she saw – it was ill. Fragile. In great pain. What if one day she came here, and that spirit was gone? What if it had died, or left, abandoning humanity to the whims of an unforgiving world? Starlight was vaguely aware that she had shuddered at the thought, and that was when she felt something new.
It felt like she had just dropped from a great height, and she screamed, not sure if she was only screaming in her head or out loud. Whatever it was, she screamed as she fell through the darkness, moving but not moving, and not at all sure how she knew that she was moving in the first place. There was no wind rushing up to greet her, nothing she could see. But she knew she was falling, and she dreaded what would happen when she stopped.
And then she did. Again, without knowing why or how she knew. And when she stopped, her vision began to clear and the darkness burned away as if it were a late-morning fog.
There was metal under her bare feet, and the smell of oil in the air. Great towering machines vanished in the darkness above her, and ruddy light slipped through the cracks between them. The sound of things moving – huge, metal sounds – assaulted her ears, and she cried out against the grinding and the thumping and the sound of parts sliding against each other and squealing in protest. It was a factory. Huge and impersonal and horrible, and Starlight felt sick to her stomach. “Hello?” she said. “I… I don’t think I’m supposed to be here!”
Starlight yelped and spun around. The woman standing behind her was short and muscular and holding a large wrench. She brushed a curl of hair out of her eyes and glared at Starlight. “What’re you doing here?” she asked.
Starlight tried to gather herself. “Well, I’m…” She couldn’t finish. She knew what she wanted to say – that she was in the middle of a mystical astral journey to see the spirit of Gaia, but somehow she’d gotten lost – but as she thought about it, she looked at this woman and, for the first time, realized how ridiculous that sounded. “I’m lost,” she said, looking down at the metal catwalk she was standing on.
The woman rolled her eyes and nodded. “You’d have to be,” she said. “Follow me.” Without waiting to see if Starlight would follow, the woman turned and walked away. She led Starlight to what looked like a massive master control room. Pipes stretched about everywhere – some of them steaming, others with frost all along their length. Where there weren’t pipes, there were great, oily gears, turning at a steady pace. Nearer the floor were huge ovens that blazed white-hot and fed their heat to boilers that must have been twenty feet high. The noise was indescribable, but Starlight found she could still hear the woman when she talked.
“Okay,” the woman said, standing by a nest of levers and buttons. “Tell me where you were going when you got lost. Let’s see if we can’t help you find your way back.”
Starlight wrung her hands. “Well,” she said. “I was meditating with my brothers and sisters, and trying to contact the spirit of Mother Earth so that I could commune with her some more.”
The woman held up a grease-covered hand. “Waitaminit,” she said. “You were trying to contact who?”
“The spirit of Mother Earth,” Starlight said. “Gaia.” She smiled and twirled her finger in her beaded necklace. This was familiar territory. “I have been communing with Her for several years now. When I meditate, she comes to me and I feel the great pain that we humans have inflicted on her.” To her credit, tears began to well up in her eyes. “She’s in such pain and so fragile,” she said, her voice beginning to crack. “I just wish I could do more!”
The woman just stared at her for a moment. Then she put her hands on her belly and laughed. Her laughter rang around the factory, bouncing off pipes and walls and coming back to her. She laughed so hard that she nudged one of the levers, sending a boiler up a little hotter and turning a small set of gears a little faster. When she noticed, she was still laughing and wiping tears from her eyes, but she adjusted the lever back to where it was.
“Oh, that was good,” she said to Starlight. “Seriously, that was really funny. Good work.” She reached out to pat Starlight on the arm, but the other woman shrank back.
“I hate to tell you this, kid,” she said, “but you haven’t been communing with anyone.” She tossed the wrench in the air, flipped it and caught it. “Maybe the inside of your own head, but that’s it.” She reached up and started adjusting a pipe fitting.
Starlight stared at her. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“Kid,” the woman said. “I mean you made it all up. It was a dream or a hallucination or something.” She gave the pipe another twist and faced her again. “Good news, though. If you wanted to commune with the spirit of the Earth then, well, now’s your chance.” She shoved the wrench into a loop on her stained jeans. “What do you want?”
The truth of it took a while to sink in, but eventually Starlight said, “You’re the Earth Spirit?” The other woman nodded. “You’re Mother Gaia?”
She shrugged. “That name sounds a little pretentious, but sure. Mother Gaia. Whatever works.”
“But that can’t be,” Starlight said. “You’re not…” She looked around. “This isn’t… You can’t be!”
“Yeah, well, I am,” Gaia said. “So what did you want that was so important you had to come down here and bug me?” She gestured to the lever that she’d bumped. “You just inadvertently caused an earthquake, by the way” she said. “Hope you didn’t know anyone in Peru.”
“No!” Starlight said. “This is all wrong!”
Gaia crossed her arms and leaned up against a steam pipe that was wider across than she was. “Why? Because I’m not all frail and fragile?”
“Well… Well, yes,” Starlight said. Her confusion was fogging her thinking. “I mean, we’ve done so much damage to the Earth with our strip mines and oil rigs and pollution – I just thought…”
She stopped as Gaia stepped closer, seeming to examine her face in minute detail. After a minute, the other woman’s eyes went wide and she leaned back. “Oh,” she said. “I get it now – you’re a human, aren’t you?
“Yes!” Starlight said. “And I’m trying to undo the horrible, horrible damage that we’ve done over the years.”
Gaia smiled, reached out and patted her on the shoulder with a grease-stained hand. “That’s adorable,” she said. “Go home.”
“You heard me,” she said. She gestured around to the vast machinery around her. “Do I look like I’m in any trouble?” she asked.
“But.. but the ozone layer! And global warming!”
Gaia sighed and took Starlight by the arm. “I’m gonna show you something,” she said. “You ready?” Starlight nodded, because if she had spoken she almost certainly would have said “No.”
A moment later, they were standing on a vast plain of ice, with wind howling past them, scouring the surface. The sky was cold and clear, and there was nothing but ice and sky anywhere in sight. Starlight rubbed her arms, but then realized she wasn’t actually cold. She turned to Gaia for an explanation.
“Everything was like this,” Gaia said, and she spoke softly. Even with the howling wind, Starlight could still hear her. “From one pole to the other, the world was a great snowball.” She looked over at Starlight. “For five million years, nothing but ice, wind and more ice.” She took Starlight’s hand, and the scene changed again.
The ice was replaced with land, and the air stank of rot and death. Starlight looked at her feet, and found that she was standing on the husks of great and strange insects, the likes of which she’d never seen before. The air around them was still and quiet.
“The third great dying,” Gaia said. “I nearly lost everything – from the land and the sea alike.” She reached down and picked up one of the dead insects. “So many wonderful things vanished, never to be seen again.” Her voice caught as she dropped it back onto the ground. “You have no idea what it was like then,” she said.
Starlight tried to find something living in that wasteland. She couldn’t. “How did this happen?” she whispered.
Gaia shrugged. “Things happen,” she said. “The universe is a tough place.” She patted Starlight on the arm. “C’mon, human,” she said. “One more.”
There was a dinosaur only a few feet away, stumbling across ash-covered ground, and Starlight’s hands flew to her mouth in shock. It was a towering tyrannosaurus, one of the largest hunters the world had ever known. And it was very clearly dying. Its great, pebbly skin was covered in open sores and lesions, bleeding through the coat of ash. Its ribs protruded from its chest, and Starlight could see nearly every bone in its body.
Without a sound, the great dinosaur stopped walking, fell over, and died.
Gaia went to it and ran her hand over the rough, ashen skin. “I really liked these guys,” she said. She looked back at Starlight. “Nearly two hundred million years, the dinosaurs were it. They ran the food chain.” She patted it and stepped back. “Then a meteor, a few volcanoes and…” She gestured around. When she looked over at Starlight, the girl was on the verge of tears, trying not to look at the dead dinosaur. “C’mon,” Gaia said. “Let’s get out of here.”
They were back in the factory, and Starlight was crying. “What were those things?” she said. “Why did you show them to me?”
Gaia sat on a tall wooden stool that had appeared in front of the control station. “Girl, you humans haven’t even begun to live. You’ve been around what – two hundred thousand years? If I’m being generous?” She laughed, and it was a dark laugh. “You really don’t know anything about the universe yet. Wait until you’ve been around half as long as… as cockroaches.” The smile that blossomed on her face was warm and genuine. “Wonderful critters, my cockroaches,” she said.
“Point is, the planet got turned into a snowball: it survived. Nearly every living thing got wiped out: it survived. It got slammed by a huge damn rock: it survived.” She stood up and lifted Starlight’s chin in her hand. “The Earth doesn’t need you to save it,” Gaia said. “It’ll do just fine with or without you.”
Starlight sniffled. “But what about the ozone?” she asked. “The sea levels rising? Global warming?”
Gaia shrugged. “We’ll adapt,” she said. “That’s the game. You kids have lived in a time of relative peace and tranquility, and you think this is how it’s always been.” She laughed. “Well, you’re so wrong about that, I don’t even know where to begin.” Her smile faded. “Point is, the planet will adapt. Life will adapt.” She sat back down again. “Although, if we’re being honest, you probably won’t.”
“Humans are delicate,” Gaia said. “Too much change, and you won’t be around much longer as a species. Which would be pretty pathetic if you ask me – I mean, even rats have been around for about five million, so if you don’t have a problem not outlasting rats?” She shrugged again. “Knock yourselves out.” She stood up again, reached up, and tapped a dial. “If you need to fight for something, don’t fight for me.” She grinned. “I’m a big girl. Fight for your species.”
Starlight opened her mouth to speak and found that she couldn’t. Gaia had one hand on a lever and the other held up. “I’m afraid that’s all the time we have,” she said. “Good luck to you.”
She pulled the lever, and Starlight’s eyes snapped open.
The people on the landing were still sitting, still mediating. One or two of them had fallen asleep and tipped over. Everyone else in the lobby was still going about the business of the occupation.
Her feet unsteady, Starlight stood up, and the young woman who had approached her before looked up from her meditations. “Sister!” the girl said, and everyone else opened their eyes and looked up at her. The young girl came over and took Starlight’s hands. “Sister,” she said again. “Did you have a revelation?”
Starlight looked around at all the people in the lobby and wasn’t sure what she was doing there. They looked so alien to her. So small and so fragile.
She shook her head and said, “Yes.” She brushed the hair back from her face and stood up straight. “Get me a video camera,” she said. “It’s time to adjust our message.”
As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two or three characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.
When I got to the “Earth” section of this month’s project, I knew I wanted to revisit Evelyn Pierce – first seen as a minor character in Interviews on Day 36, and later as a main character in A Friend in Need, which was Day 38. Her ability to talk to and – one day – control plants made her a natural for this section.
Tanner Quan wasn’t going to be in this story at all – I had come up with a different government agent when I realized that I already had one. And a pretty entertaining one at that. Tanner showed up in the three-part series Special Agent Khrys Ferro on days 133-135. The bagpipes were definitely his idea.
The desert was empty and vicious and bright. The sun hung in the sky, a tiny, brilliant point in a cloudless expanse of blue. Heat rose from the hard-packed floor in waves, and the air itself did everything it could to suck the water from the bones of any creature lucky enough to try and traverse it. There was no wind, no sound at all. Just an endless, dry, hot silence.
A wheezing pickup truck trundled around the hard pack and shrubbery, sending up a plume of dust behind it. It was filthy, covered in road grime from a trip of hundreds of miles, and it looked tiny in the vast emptiness of the desert.
The house it was driving to was weatherbeaten and small, but solid, built up against a cliff face where the sun wouldn’t touch it. An array of solar panels soaked in the sunlight about fifty feet away, and the house had its own filthy truck parked in front of it. A dirt road stretched from its front door all the way to the nearest state road, a good ten miles away. The pickup pulled in, sat for a moment, and then the engine shuddered to a stop.
The driver was small and slight, a man of Asian descent who had dressed wisely for the desert. He had on dark glasses and carried a briefcase, and took a deep breath before he walked up to the faded, sand-blown front door and knocked.
A minute later, the door opened into darkness. A young woman stepped out, dressed in a tank-top and shorts, with a bandanna holding back green hair. She looked the man up and down. “Yeah?” she said.
The man put on a bright smile. “Ms. Evelyn Pierce?” he said.
She slammed the door, nearly crushing his foot.
He nodded to himself. He’d expected this, or at least something very much like it. He went back to the truck, opened the passenger side door, and took out a battery-powered CD player, a folding chair, and a large hardcover book. He brought them closer to the house, in the shade of the cliff, opened the chair and sat down. He put the CD player on the ground, turned on the power and set the volume as high as it could go. He hit the “repeat” button and then “play,” and settled down to read his book.
A moment later, the brash, weedy sound of bagpipes filled the formerly quiet desert afternoon. A bone-chilling rendition of “Amazing Grace” was the first track, and to Evelyn’s credit she made it all the way through the “Skye Boat Song” and halfway to the end of “The Blue Bells of Scotland” before she burst out of her front door with a large handgun.
“Get the hell off my land!” she growled.
The man didn’t look up from his book, but casually paused the CD player and then turned a page. “Sorry, Ms. Pierce,” he said. “No can do.”
She lifted the gun and pointed it at him. “You do know that Arizona has some pretty loose castle laws, mister? I don’t think it would be too hard for me to convince a judge you were a threat to a young girl living out here by herself.”
The man turned another page. “Probably not,” he said. He reached into his shirt and pulled out a gleaming golden badge on a chain. “Shoot a federal agent, though, and no one will give a damn about your…” He glanced over at her house and then up at her. “Castle.”
Evelyn’s eyes narrowed, and she held the gun up a heartbeat longer. Then she let it drop. “You have a warrant?” she said with a sigh.
The man closed his book and put it on the chair when he stood up. “That’s not what I’m here for,” he said. “I’m here to talk to you, and ask if you would be willing to do your country a favor.” He spread his arms wide in a show of innocence. “That’s it.”
She thought for a moment. “What’s in it for me?” she asked.
“Ms. Pierce,” he said. “What ever happened to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’?”
“Before my time,” she said. “Make your pitch and get the hell out of here.”
He shrugged and picked up the briefcase. “Mind if we do this inside?” he asked. “It’s a little toasty out here.”
She stared at him and then shrugged. “What the hell,” she said. She started to turn, but then stopped. “Is that shirt cotton?” she asked.
His face passed through a moment of puzzlement, but then he smiled. “No,” he said. “Linen. Will that be a problem?”
Evelyn shrugged. “We’ll see. Come on in.”
The inside of the house was cool and dark, and stretched back into the cliff face. It was sparsely decorated, with some throw rugs and bookshelves, and the occasional bit of bric-a-brac wherever she could fit it. He peered back as far as he could see, but she stepped in front of him. “Are we going to do this?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. He put the briefcase down on the coffee table and took a place on the sofa. “For starters,” he said, “my name is Tanner Quan. I’m an agent with the Department of National Security.” She didn’t say anything, but just crossed one leg over the other and gripped the arms of her chair. “I followed a very long and tangled investigation to find you, Ms. Pierce.” He popped open the briefcase and noticed that she flinched a little. He started taking out manila folders and laying them on the table. “We don’t know a whole lot about you, I’ll be honest,” he said, “but what we do know is very interesting indeed.”
“Like what?” she asked quietly through a clenched jaw.
“Well…” He picked up a folder and began to flip through it. “We know that you dropped off the grid about a year ago and moved out here. Prior to that you were living with your folks in Scottsdale.” He turned a page. “Before that, you were living in Ravensbrook, Illinois of all places.” He glanced up. “Interesting little town, that.”
“I didn’t think so,” she said.
Tanner shrugged. “You were sixteen. No one’s hometown is interesting when they’re sixteen.” He put down the folder and leaned forward. “We found out, of course, why you had to leave Ravensbrook.” He arched an eyebrow. “Rachael Decker?”
Evelyn stood up and grabbed her head. “I want you out,” she said. She flung a hand to the door. “Out. NOW!”
He stood with her. “Ms. Pierce, please. I’m sorry if you’re upset, but -” Tanner stopped talking as his shirt began to writhe and twist on him. It bunched up, wrapping itself around his chest, and started to squeeze. As it did, thin green shoots emerged, which blossomed into pale blue flowers. He grabbed at it, pulling and trying to get it off.
Evelyn was on her knees, holding her head in her hands and muttering to herself. “No, no, no,” she said. “Not this again, no…”
“Please. Evelyn,” Tanner wheezed. “You can stop this.” He tried to cough, but the linen pulled tighter around his chest and began to creep up to his throat. “You can stop this,” he said again, his last word ending in a gurgle.
Evelyn picked up her head, and her eyes had gone a bright emerald green. She looked over at his shirt, and it fell away in pieces, dropping to the floor. The shoots it had produced dried and withered, and Evelyn whimpered a bit as they did. Tanner pushed the shirt away with his foot and stared at Evelyn. “Are you… Are you okay?” he asked once he’d caught his breath.
She looked up at him and nodded. Her eyes were a normal green now, matching the hair that was coming out of her ponytail. “That was close,” Tanner said as she got up and went back to the chair. “Good thing the underwear’s silk.” He grinned, but she didn’t even notice. He sat down again.
“Ms. Pierce, I know what you can do.” He glanced down at the shirt and rubbed his bare arms. “I mean, I knew it before I came here. And I’m sorry that it’s difficult to live with.”
“Difficult?” she asked. “Why do you think I live out here, where there’s almost no plants?” She looked up at him, eyes shining. “I can hear them,” she said. “All the time, I can hear them. And they know that I hear them and they want to… to help me.” A laugh escaped her, almost a sob. “Help,” she said.
“We have people, Ms. Pierce. People who can help you.” He took a breath. “If you help us.”
“And why should I help you?” she asked. “What do you know?”
“You’d be surprised, Ms. Pierce,” he said. He took another folder from the briefcase, this one marked with a red stripe down one side. “Have you heard of Papaver demensum?” He dropped a glossy photograph on the table. It showed a flower, like a poppy but bigger. Its petals were dead black, with a corpse-white center, all perched atop a slender, pale stem.
She picked it up, looked at it for a moment and then shrugged. “No,” she said. “Should I have?”
“It was worth a shot,” he said. “This is the Madness Poppy. It’s a whole new cultivar out of Peru, just starting to reach the U.S. and it’s a nasty piece of work.”
Evelyn sat back in her chair. “How nasty?” she said.
“Well over five hundred beds filled with coma patients up and down the border.” He shuddered. “They just lie there,” he said, “with their eyes open, looking at… something. No idea what it is, but when the screaming starts…” He rubbed his arms again. “It’s not like anything you’ve ever heard before.”
Evelyn looked at him for a while and then got up. She came back a minute later with a sweatshirt. “Here,” she says. “You look about my size.”
He looked at it and shrugged. “Maybe so,” he said. He pulled it on, and it was a little short in the sleeves. He smiled at her and slid them up before he went on. “We’re intercepting the plants as they come across the border, but they’re like no poppy we’ve ever seen. They grow fast, they’re ridiculously low-maintenance, and the profit margin is enormous.” He looked up at her again. “Better than meth, and that’s without all the explosion hazard.”
Evelyn picked up the picture again and then looked back at Tanner. “I still don’t know what you expect me to do,” she said. “I mean, if you wanted them to grow faster, I think I could manage that. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what you want.”
He smiled and shook his head. “They grow plenty fast on their own,” he said. “What we need you to do is to… change them. See if you can convince them to produce less of whatever it is that makes them so potent. Tweak the DNA and just…” He waved a hand about aimlessly. “Out-evolve them.”
Evelyn stared at him for a moment. “Are you kidding me?” she said. She stood up and grabbed a scrap of his shirt from the floor. “I can barely control what I do with those things!” She flung it at him and shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’m not what you think I am.” She opened the door to blazing sunlight and stood by it. “You need to find somebody else. I can’t do this.”
Tanner stood up. “Ms. Pierce,” he said. “Like I said, we have people who’ve got some experience helping people… like you.”
“There are no people like me,” she said.
“Oh, but there are,” he replied, that bright smile working its way out again. “You’d be surprised.” He stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “Some with more troubles than you, believe me.”
She glanced at him for a moment and then looked away.
“You really think they can help me?” she said softly after a while.
He went to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I know they can,” he said. “With a little work, you can live a normal life again. Somewhere that isn’t…” He looked around. “That isn’t here.”
They stood there for a moment, the breeze from the desert bringing sand in over the threshold. Finally she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “But if I get everyone killed, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Tanner took his hand back. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We do this sort of thing all the time.”
I was surrounded by mimes.
The Estervale Civic Center was packed to the walls with mimes from all over the world. There were booths set up to display the latest in mime costuming, props, and makeup; mimes of international renown selling autographed head shots for twenty bucks a pop, and hundreds of people – mimes and mime wanna-bes alike – wandering through the convention center, toting giant bags full of stuff that they’d probably throw away the moment they got home. People came dressed as their favorite mimes and posed for pictures to put up on the Internet, and a couple of guys were done up to look like birthday clowns, just for the shock value.
I didn’t care about any of that. I was there to catch a killer.
People were filing in to the Great Hall for the convention’s keynote panel entitled “The Sad Clown: Emotional Perspectives on Post-Modern Mimery,” whatever all that meant. Three of the world’s greatest mimes were going to lead a discussion on the main stage.
Yes, mimes can, in fact, talk. They just choose not to.
Raul Jiminez-Péron from Spain was slated to lead the discussion, along with his colleagues Michel LeMarch from France and Hiroyuki Hasugawa from Japan. The talk was scheduled to begin in fifteen minutes, and there were hundreds of suspects filing in as I watched. Any one of them could have been the Mime Killer, a man who harbored such a hatred of mimes that he had embarked on a killing spree. Ten performers had died in the last year, and the city was getting tired of taking the blame.
The police presence at the conference was strong. There were uniformed officers patrolling the building, outside and in, and plenty of plainclothes guys like me. If anyone made a move, we’d know about it. This place was going to be our honeypot. No one with a need to kill mimes would be able to pass this up.
But what really gave us the advantage was my golem. I gave it a fresh coat of face paint and a change of costume and put it backstage to watch the crowd. So far, the golem had been useful. True, the police department had already received dozens of complaints from all kinds of official magical organizations, who were affronted and appalled that I would “create life,” as they saw it. Fortunately, the mayor’s office had promised to shield us from the worst of it if the golem worked out, and I honestly didn’t care what they thought anymore. I watched people walk in, and then I ducked in through the backstage door to join the golem and the chief.
For once, he didn’t have his mouth full of gum. I took a sniff to see if he’d been smoking again. “This had better work,” he said. “We’re taking a big chance with this many people.”
I nodded. “He’ll be here, chief. We just have to wait for him to make his move.”
The chief tapped the golem’s chest, and it made a dull thumping sound. “Can’t your flowerpot here find him?”
I shook my head. The golem had brought me to the killer’s house, which brought us here. But no matter how I commanded it, the golem didn’t seem to be able to bring me to the killer himself. Honestly, after all the time I’d spent with it so far, I don’t think I understand how it works any better than I did when I made it. And if I had known what it would be when I made it, I might have agreed with those people who thought it was an abomination.
The golem just kept getting more… real. Maybe it was just obeying the Words I’d put in its head as far as it could, maybe there was something else going on. I really had no idea, but I was already starting to worry about what we’d do with the thing when this case was over.
The lights in the hall dimmed, and the audience quieted down right away. The emcee, a well-known TV mime named Lucas Allbridge, took the stage to eager and polite applause. He thanked the audience for coming, made a few jokes about how he really shouldn’t run off at the mouth, and then introduced the panelists. I watched the golem, and it watched the crowd.
I didn’t really follow the discussion. The bits I did hear didn’t make much sense to me – the meta-re-imagining of the role of the negative in anthro-centric performance modes and all that. The peace and quiet were beginning to bother me, though. Everything said that the killer should be there. Everything pointed right to this place, this time.
That sinking feeling hit me again. Was this guy really this clever? That he’d send us on some crazy chase while he runs around free as a bird? I imagined him coming home to find the door smashed, a dent in his desk and the convention flyer missing. He probably put two and two together and figured out that we knew what he was up to, so he stayed away. Stayed at home to plan his next hit while we twiddled our thumbs and watched mimes discuss mimery.
But could he really do it? That bedroom wasn’t the den of someone interested in killing mimes – it was the den of someone obsessed with killing mimes. And here was the mother lode, the greatest concentration of mimes for hundreds of miles around. Would the man who owned that room really be able to stay away?
A tiny red light answered my question.
I saw it about a second before he golem did. The darkness underneath the Spanish mime’s chair turned a dim, pulsing red. I bent down to get a better view, but the golem was already on its way. The audience murmured as it walked on stage and then started shouting as it lifted Raul Jiminez-Péron bodily from his chair and pushed him away. The other two mimes stood – Hasugawa moved to help his colleague while LeMarch started shouting at the golem in rapid French.
He stopped, however, when the golem turned the chair over and ripped the tape off a small radio receiver that was stuck into what looked like half a pound of modeling clay. A small red light was blinking on the receiver.
“All right,” I shouted, holding my badge as high in the air as I could. The men on the stage were already starting to scramble off, and the people in the first few rows were just beginning to guess what it was the golem held. “I need everyone to move away from the stage in an orderly -”
The explosion was deafening.
I was thrown twenty feet, skidding on my back. My ears hurt like hell, and everything sounded like I had my head wrapped in layers and layers of wet wool. I could hear shouting, and something that sounded like drumbeats, like strong hits on a snare drum. I opened my eyes and staggered to my feet, gun drawn. My vision was bleary, but what I saw was impossible to mistake. A man in a mime outfit was standing over the fallen golem, shooting it and screaming.
I pointed my gun at him and fired. I missed, but got his attention. “Police!” I wondered absently where the other officers were.
He responded by lifting his gun and taking a shot at me, yelling something as he did so. He would have had me dead if the golem hadn’t saved my life.
Its hand – cracked and broken and missing two fingers – darted out and grabbed the gunman’s leg, pulling him off-balance. The gunman fell to the ground and emptied his weapon into he golem’s face, sending little chips flying and tiny clouds of white dust into the air. Still, the golem wasn’t stopped. It stood up, still holding the killer by the ankle, and I got my first good look at the damage that had been done.
The golem had used its body as a shield and absorbed as much of the blast as it could. From its collar to its groin, half its torso was just… gone. The only thing holding it up was the clay of its back, and yet it stood as tall as it ever had. It lifted the gunman high in the air and squeezed its hand. The gunman screamed, and I knew my hearing was coming back because I heard that just fine. With its other hand, the golem took the gun. Casually, without even looking at it, the golem crushed the gun one-handed and threw it over its shoulder. It looked at the screaming gunman, and then it turned its ruined face towards me.
The paint was gone. A jagged crack ran across its face, from jaw to ear, and the remaining eye was shattered and crumbling. But still, it looked at me. It looked at me as if to ask what I wanted to do with this man. This thing. This living being that had less regard for life and law than a creature made from dust and clay only a week ago. The golem looked at me. And waited.
The other officers were pouring into the auditorium, shouting orders and all-clears, but the golem heard me anyway. “Golem,” I said. “Put him down. Gently.”
The golem didn’t have eyebrows – not unless I painted them back on – but I’m pretty sure it cocked one at me before it let the gunman down to the splintered stage floor. The guy was crying and holding his ankle, and begging for mercy in between promises to destroy the abomination. And I wasn’t sure if he meant the golem or me.
Mercy. I was too tired to banter with a crazy man. I let one of the other officers do the litany this time and I watched them take him away, struggling and screaming. “Golem,” I said. “You did good work.”
I was answered by a great, shattering thud behind me and I spun around.
The golem’s body had finally given in to the damage done, and I cursed myself for not seeing it coming. I had used cheap clay, and that much C4 is not something you can shrug off, golem or no. I ran to its side, and a groan escaped me when I saw it.
The head had cracked open and lay shattered on the boards, leaving only a small piece that would be recognizable as its face. There, in the dust and pottery shards, were the Words that I had put into its head. The paper I had written them on was fragile and brittle, the sigils were faded and gray. Great power had come through those words somehow, and they crumbled to dust in my fingers.
I knelt in the shattered remnants of my golem until the chief came over and put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s over, Zoltaire,” he said quietly. “Your golem worked. No one died.” He patted me and I shrugged has hand off with a wordless grunt. “Whatever,” he said. “Back to the station. There’s paperwork to do.” I smelled spearmint and I wanted to stand up and punch him.
Before I left the convention center, I made sure that every last speck of dust, every tiny piece of clay was collected from that stage. I brought it all back to the station and shut myself in my workshop for days. I reconstituted the clay, dug into my my bank account to pay for some of the good stuff to mix it in with, and didn’t sleep until I had built it a new body. Then I went back to the library and cursed out those harpy librarians again to re-build the sigils. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t want to admit what I wanted. It felt stupid, getting this upset about a golem, a made thing, for crying out loud! It was no more alive than a car or a cell phone or a chair. I knew that.
But I didn’t care. I just wanted it – him – back.
The chief came down and offered to let me go on leave for a while, but I didn’t listen. I shut him and all the other officers out of my workshop while I kept at it.
Finally, after days, I was done. I was exhausted, I was starving, and I stank, but I was done. I had the body. I had the Words. I knew what I wanted.
I was ready.
The ritual was the same as before. I had to cleanse. I took a quick shower with that herbal soap, then came back to the office and dropped onto the sofa to meditate. I tried every visualization technique I could think of to calm my mind – ocean waves, a flower bud opening, a mountain stream gurgling past me – but nothing worked. So I got up, went to the golem, and started the ritual. I threw the Words into its head, rubbed my hands together and started walking around it. I chanted, quickly, quietly, through teeth clenched in frustration at how long this was taking. I chanted the Words and tried to pour everything I had into them. I lost track of time and who I was and what I was doing.
And then I passed out.
When I woke up and got off the floor, I looked at the table.
The golem lay there, inert. Not moving, not wanting to move. There was nothing there but clay.
I slumped down in the corner and wept. Part of me was astounded, amazed that I would be crying over a golem. A golem, of all things. The rest of me just wheeled around and punched that part of me in the mouth until it shut up. I stayed there for a while, at least until the pain broke and I could stand up again. I didn’t look at it as I left.
The chief gave me two weeks. He told me that the International Mime Union would be willing to take the failed replacement off our hands. They wanted to display it as a sign of their gratitude for saving so many of their members’ lives. They said that they didn’t know how to repay me or the department for all that we had done, and that they would honor the memory of the golem forever.
I didn’t care.
I took the two weeks and spent most of them indoors, in bed, with the lights off.
After a while, though, I couldn’t stand to be cooped up inside anymore. I put on a jacket and headed out, squinting into the sunlight. The air smelled fresh, but that was probably just because I’d been indoors for days on end. The people looked happy, but that was probably just because I was a miserable sad sack.
The park nearby was quiet, as always. I bought some bread at the corner store, found a bench by the tiny duck pond, and went to feed some ducks.
While I sat there, I noticed motion out of the corner of my eye. A white flash. I glanced over, and my breath caught for a moment. It was a mime. A little guy, walking smoothly through the park, soon followed by another, who was pretending to be tied to the first by an invisible rope. I heard something from my other side and turned around – three more mimes, making their way towards me and the pond. Soon, there were ten. And then twenty, all coming towards me, and my heart was beating to break through my chest. The only thing I could think of was how I had given up my gun at the police station, and that after all this time, this was how it would end.
They stopped some ways from me, and lined up around the pond. There were enough of them that they went all the way around it and off to the sides. All of them, staring at me with white, unreadable faces and graceful, unpredictable poses.
Then, in a wave as fluid and as perfect as any on water, they bowed. The one closest to my left started it, and the bow traveled through the crowd, passing from one mime to another, all the way around the duck pond until it reached the mime to my right. They had their floppy hats and berets off, heads hanging low to the ground. And then, left to right, they stood again, one after the other.
Without a word, the mimes left. Each by his or her own way, as though there had never been a group there, but that they had all come there by random, unknowable coincidence. In moments, they were gone, and I was once again alone with the ducks.
The sadness was gone, though. Something in the mimes had taken it from me and replaced it with warmth. With… gratitude.
I sat back on the bench and turned my face towards the sun, breathing easy for the first time in days. There would be work to do tomorrow.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Seriously, I had no idea this would go on as long as it did. I meant it to be a nice, tight 1,500 word piece for Worth1000.com, and it just… didn’t want to stop. So thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.
There was a crowd by the fountain in the middle of Blue River Park, watching a mime. Every now and then they would applaud or laugh, and there was the occasional tinkle of coins as people showed their appreciation in a more tangible way. The mime would walk against the wind or pretend to climb a rope or stumble and fall and roll around, and the people just ate it up.
I stood at the edge of the crowd, glaring at each and every one of them.
The plug in my ear vibrated and I tapped it with a finger. “Yeah?”
I could hear him chewing gum as he spoke, and my stomach turned. “Nothing yet, chief. I think we’re making enough money that we can buy some better coffee for the station, though.”
“Dammit, Zoltaire, it’s been a week! I thought your golem-mime-thing was supposed to lure the killer out of the woodwork!”
I looked over at it. The mime was pretending to pull flowers from a little girl’s hair, and the child was shrieking with laughter. I don’t know how it knew how to do that, to be honest. I just wanted to make something that looked like a mime to solve some murders. A little clay, some Words, and a week later, it was entertaining small children left and right. Whatever I had made, it was starting to creep me out, and I hoped that the Mime Killer would strike so that we could put all this behind us.
“I’m sure it’ll happen, Chief. Just make sure the boys are ready when it does.” I tapped the plug again and disconnected. I sat and watched my mime perform for a crowd that was slowly growing bigger. They clapped at all of his – its – antics and moves, and I even found myself chuckling once or twice. Then I reminded myself: that thing wasn’t human and never would be. It would keep walking against the wind until I told it to stop, and if I wanted it to perform until the end of time then it would.
The sun was dropping towards the trees and I sighed. I tapped the plug in the other ear and said, “Golem. Finish your act and return to base.”
It pulled one more rose out of the little girl’s hair and mocked bone-deep sorrow at their tragic yet inevitable parting, then turned to the rest of the crowd and took a bow. Everyone applauded heartily, throwing more coins into its hat. With luck I’d be able to treat the guys in my department to donuts in the morning.
Suddenly, the golem stood straight upright, it’s expression hard and cold, and quickly started scanning the crowd. The people who had been applauding stopped instantly and started to back away. This wasn’t the friendly mime that they had come to see – this was clearly something else, and whatever it was it scared the hell out of them.
I made my way through the crowd to the golem and tried to look where it was looking. As I did, I noticed a hole that had been made in its head, near the temple. Flakes of clay still fell out when it moved. The killer had finally taken his shot.
My eyes hit on a man who was walking swiftly away from the scene, trying his best to look inconspicuous. “Golem!” I yelled. “Get him!”
The golem burst into a run, its heavy clay feet pounding on the pavement. It ran like a freight train – unstoppable and deceptively fast. The man he was chasing heard the thunder of its footsteps and took off in a run of his own, but there was no contest. Within seconds, the golem had him on the ground, hands clamped together in an unbreakable grip.
I caught up a few moments later, breathing heavy and holding my side.
Hey, I’m a thaumaturge. We’re not famous for our physical fitness.
“You have the right,” I wheezed, “to remain silent.” My heart was pounding in my ears, and it took a few breaths before I was able to say the litany all the way through. “You say anything, you better damn well believe we’ll use it, so if you have a lawyer, get one,” I swallowed hard. “Got it?”
The man’s eyes were pinned to the golem’s cold, unchanging face. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Get this… this thing off me!”
“Sure you didn’t,” I said. “Golem. Let him up.” The golem stood, hauling the man to his feet. I started to pat the guy down, and right away I had a sinking feeling. There was no weapon. “Where’d you throw it?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.
“Throw what? What are you talking about?”
I wanted to smack him. “The gun! Where did you throw the gun?”
“I don’t have a gun,” he babbled. “I hate guns, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
That sinking feeling was getting deeper. Just looking at the golem’s damage, I knew a couple of things. The shooter had to be using a heavy caliber weapon, probably from close range – there weren’t a lot of good spots for a sniper to sit. And secondly, if they did, then they’d be using a silencer, so as to blend in with the applause of the crowd. That meant I was looking for a pretty sizable weapon, and I didn’t see anything like that on the run over.
And there sure as hell wasn’t anything like that on his person.
“Why did you run?” I asked him. The man didn’t answer, but just looked at the golem. It lifted the guy off his feet, and a large wet stain spread across the front of his pants. I sighed. “Golem. Put him down.”
The golem hesitated. Just for a moment, and no one else would have noticed. But I did.
Slowly, it set the man on his feet. He promptly fell to the pavement. I handed him a business card. “Here,” I said. “For the cleaning. My apologies, sir.” I reached out to help him up, but he shrank back. “Fine,” I said. “Golem. Come with me.” I walked away without looking back, and a moment later I heard its heavy footsteps behind me.
I brought it back to the station, pulled out the bullet and patched up the damage. Then the chief spent a good half hour hauling my ass over the coals for the screw-up in the park. His main concern was that we’d blown our cover, which I thought was nonsense. The thing was a mime, for gods’ sake – a quick paint job, new clothes, and no one would ever know.
But I did agree that what we were doing wasn’t working out. If the golem had been a real mime, it would have been dead and the killer would have escaped scot free. We needed a new plan.
It was right there that I had my idea. I almost didn’t want to think about it at first, it was that weird. If I thought about it at all, there was a chance that I’d actually think it could work, and if I really thought it could work, then there would probably be nothing but disappointment when it didn’t. But it felt like inspiration, a bolt from the blue.
So what did I have to lose?
I went back to my office and got the bullet that I’d pulled from the golem’s head. “Golem,” I said. It sat up from the table where I had left it. “Hand.” It reached its hand out and I dropped the bullet into it. The golem looked down at the bullet and then back at me. “Find the person who shot this,” I said.
There was no real reason it should have worked. Golems aren’t bloodhounds. They don’t work by sympathetic magic the way a voodoo doll does. They operate on a whole different plane of thaumaturgy, one of life forces and animation and intention. Nevertheless, the golem got to its feet and immediately started walking, bullet in hand. I grabbed my jacket and followed it. I wanted to yell as I passed the chief’s office – tell him I had a lead and I was going to finish the job once and for all. But if the golem decided to walk me straight into the middle of the Blue River Pond, well… I can only stand so much humiliation in one day.
The golem took a relentless course due east from the station. It navigated streets without a pause, stopping at crosswalks and only crossing on the green. “Who told you to do that?” I wheezed as I followed it. I wanted to tell it to slow the hell down, but for all I knew that might have ruined the whole thing. Anybody in its way moved to the side right quick – a tall, slender mime, with footsteps that thundered and a concentrated stare that made it look like it could walk through a brick wall. Which it may very well have.
I followed it for nearly an hour as we made our way to one of the more residential neighborhoods. Oak Hollow had been the preferred borough for grandparents and young yuppie couples from time immemorial, and the neat lawns and well-trimmed shrubbery made the whole place look more like the set for a TV show than a place where people actually lived. The golem strode through the neighborhood, setting more than a few curtains a-twitching, and then finally, blessedly, stopped.
The house it was staring at was a small blue one-story, with some dead flower beds and peeling paint. It was the worst-maintained house on its street, and it looked like the owner had just given up. I looked over at the golem. “This is it?” I asked. It didn’t reply. “You sure?”
This time the golem did reply – by walking right up to the front door and smacking it with the flat of its hand. The door flew off its hinges, spinning back into the dim recesses of the living room, and landed halfway in the kitchen. “Oh, that’s not good,” I said as the golem walked straight into the house, the bullet still gripped in its hand. “We’re supposed to get a warrant, you stupid pile of -” I finished my sentence with an inarticulate growl and followed it into the house, drawing my gun as I did so. I felt goosebumps when I entered the house and hollered “POLICE!” There wasn’t anything magical involved – just years and years of police procedure. The thought of investigating a place without a warrant was just… wrong.
I suppose I could say I was following lost property. Yeah, that would have to do.
There was no answer to my shout, so I called it again. Still, silence. The golem went upstairs, and I followed with my gun at the ready. It stopped a few steps into a small bedroom, and I felt the blood drain from my face when I went in.
The walls were covered with photographs, paintings, drawings, sketches – of mimes. Hundreds of black and white faces stared out at me from all directions, and it was all I could do not to run from the room screaming in terror. There were newspaper articles stuck to the wall, in classic serial-killer fashion, and they were all meticulously highlighted and underlined. Each one, as near as I could tell, was a story about a mime. New mimes debuting on the circuit. Veteran mimes retiring. Avant-garde mimes trying out new and controversial material.
Walking with the wind or something. Damned if I know.
In one special section of this Wall of Mimery, there was a corkboard with several glossy photographs pinned to it. The photos had clearly been taken from a stealth location, but they all showed the faces of the mimes clearly and distinctly. Except for the large red X that covered them. Upon closer inspection, I was pretty sure that these were the mimes that he had killed. The rest of them surrounded me, covering the walls nearly completely. I scanned the faces, and sure enough – there was the golem. It was a photo from a few days ago, when it had been performing in front of city hall. The golem almost looked like it was smiling in this picture, as it reached out a hand to a young woman.
A loud THUD behind me shook me back to attention, and I spun around. The golem had slammed its hand down on the desk, leaving the bullet sitting there on top of some scattered papers. It stood there, staring down at the desk, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was excited. There had been no change in the way it moved or stood – it was stock-still, without any of those countless unconscious movements that humans make. But the way it was staring, it seemed to be ready to dash off again.
I looked at the papers on the desk. Most of them were handwritten notes, varying from simple reminders to buy bread and ammunition, all the way to tightly-scrawled screeds about mimes and the horrors they inflicted on society. I picked one up and started to read it:
By their very actions, the mimes are simulacra of reality, fakers and frauds who deny the reality of our reality, a world in which we must all live. They paint their faces a dead white, for they are the dead, the haunted, the living ghosts of our subconscious desire for simplicity and for a way to face the world in a way that makes sense to our simple, sheeplike minds. Those of us who protest, who fight, who see the world for what it is, we are the ones they mock. They mock us with their invisible boxes and their walking against the wind and vanishing down stairs that aren’t there – YOU’RE JUST CROUCHING DOWN YOU FRAUDS WE KNOW HOW IT’S DONE! They see us and they know how we struggle. But they are the agents of the Absurd, the carriers of the cosmic joke of which we are all the punchlines, and until they are gone, until the mimes are wiped from the earth, I cannot have peace, fight the fight against the forces that truly control our world and enslave us all.
I looked up at the golem, which was still staring down at the desk. “This guy’s nuts,” I said.
The golem stabbed a finger down onto the desktop, nearly punching a hole through the wood. It had pinned down a printed flyer, one that was done up on nice glossy paper. When I saw the title, I wasn’t sure if I should jump for joy or throw up. Instead, I clapped the golem on its rock-hard arm. “Good police work,” I said. The golem didn’t reply, of course, but it did seem to stand a little straighter.
I took out my phone and dialed the station. The chief answered, and I started talking before he could take a breath. “There’s a convention,” I said. “All mimes, all the time.” I looked down at the glossy flyer, which was advertising the first ever Estervale International Mime Conference. Mimes from all over the world, all in one place to talk about the craft. “I guarantee he’ll be there.”
I closed the phone and looked up at the golem. “Think you can find him?” I asked.
The golem turned its head with deliberate slowness and looked at me. Its white, ceramic expression and its glassy, dead eyes never changed. But I was pretty sure it smiled.
TO BE CONCLUDED! (I hope)
The sinkhole had opened up in the middle of downtown Freestone at a little after three in the morning. This was fortuitous, of course, as it would have killed or injured hundreds – if not thousands – if it had appeared during business hours. It was almost perfectly circular and took out the entire intersection of Twain and Fifth, along with the properties on the corners. By the time the morning commute started, the police had blocked off the roads and set up detours, which inconvenienced drivers, but not too much.
By chance or the grace of God, the hole had just missed a major subway line. Still, that line had to be closed down between stations, just to be on the safe side. The gas and electric lines were shut off from the main station, which left a few blocks without power, but the rest of the city could continue on without trouble. The sinkhole made the morning news and crowds came to see it, those who didn’t have jobs that necessitated them staying in the office. It was the biggest event of the year thus far, aside from the fire at the north docks that killed forty-one people.
Still, city officials had to deal with angry property owners who wanted to know where their businesses and buildings had gone, and reporters who kept asking the same unanswerable question: how did this happen?
The truth of it was that no one knew how it had happened. From initial observations, it seemed to go down forever. That was, however, an inexpert view by some of the police officers on the scene, who dropped a piece of asphalt from the edge and waited to hear it land, which they didn’t. As the sun rose higher in the sky and shined deeper into the pit, the bottom remained in shadow. It was eventually decided by Mayor Levens that experts should be called in and allowed to find out what exactly had opened up in his city.
The geology department at nearby Sallicen College sent their team over, headed by professor Jenna Spenser. Professor Spenser had gained notoriety in the past decade for leading teams into the most inaccessible regions of the world. She was an expert mountaineer and spelunker, and her expertise had been sought by some of the nation’s top corporations and governmental bodies. An event like this, which was already becoming known as the Freehole, was one that she could hardly pass up.
Early the next day, she brought her team to the hole and walked three full circuits around it. When she finished, she stood at the very edge, her chin in her hand and her foot slowly rubbing back and forth on the rim. “The northwest corner,” she finally said, and her team of eight started making their way to the corner where there used to be an upscale clothier.
“Why there?” the mayor asked. He had come out to see off the expedition, and had to be convinced not to make it a media event. His original plan was for a brass band and some bunting, to turn it into a gala moment for the city. His advisors reminded him that there was a good chance professor Spenser’s team would find nothing, and even some chance that not all of them would come back. Added to the still-increasing financial cost of the sinkhole, it was suggested to him that he might keep it as low profile as possible.
“The ground is more solid there,” she said. “And there are structures in the remaining buildings that can act as excellent foundations for our tethers.” She looked over her shoulder. “Lucy, when we get there, I want the harnesses out and ready to go!”
The young woman who was carrying a large black duffel bag nodded and ran ahead. The other students picked up their pace. When the team arrived, the harnesses came out and were put on immediately. Professor Spenser checked each of them, and nodded in appreciation to find that nothing was out of place. They spent the next hour preparing for their expedition, checking lists of equipment, readying the lines that they would descend on, and making sure that every possible safety measure would be taken. When they were finished, the mayor came over, followed closely by the TV crew that he hadn’t been able to resist calling in.
“I would just like to say,” he said, “that we are all of us grateful for your agreeing to help us in our time of need.” He turned to the camera. “Truly it is the great spirit of Freestone that has moved us all to pull together when it seems that the world is, truly, falling apart around us.”
The cameraman zoomed in on professor Spenser’s face, which was very carefully blank. After a moment, she said, “We have enough line here to take us to about five hundred meters down. We’ll be taking samples -” she patted the bag around her waist, “and documenting the whole thing on our helmet-cams here.” She walked over to the winches that had been bolted to the supporting columns of the building. “When we’re done, my two people here – Carter and Maria – will start these up and bring us back.”
She turned back to the mayor and glanced sidelong at the cameraman and the reporters. “When we get back, we’ll bring our samples up to the university and start work on them right away. But to warn you – the process will take a while. A few days, maybe.” She looked at the reporters again. “So don’t get your hopes up, okay?”
The mayor smiled and nodded and promised that no, he would not expect too much too soon. Then he walked professor Spenser and her remaining team members to the edge of the hole, where they had already installed a ladder system that would allow them to descend more easily. “Into the bowels of the earth you go,” he said. “And I pray for your safe return, with the knowledge that we have advanced in our understanding of what goes on beneath our feet.” He stood, smiling for the cameras for a moment, before he realized that professor Spenser was already in the hole, and her team members were on their way to follow her.
The pit was truly vast – at least thirty feet across, which made the geologists look utterly tiny as they crawled down. Within a few minutes, they had vanished into the shadow of the pit, and it was only a few minutes more before even the lights of their headlamps could no longer be seen. The darkness had swallowed them utterly, and no one who watched could suppress a feeling of dread.
Up on the edge, Mayor Levens hovered around the surface team. Every time their radios would crackle he would snap to attention and listen for the voice of professor Spenser. Each time, however, she simply radioed up her depth, and that she had nothing to report. A hundred meters, a hundred and fifty. Two hundred, two hundred and fifty. Three hu-
The radios squawked loudly, letting out a squeal that pierced the air. Everyone put their hands to their ears, but it didn’t help. The noise went on and on until one of the students picked up the radio and dashed to to the concrete floor. The radio warbled and hissed a bit, and then went silent.
Everyone started at the broken radio and then ran out to the pit.
The sun struck the northern edge of the pit, but all the rest was impenetrable shadow. The lines still stretched from the winches into the darkness, but they no longer played out. There was no sign of the team. “Hallooooo!” the mayor yelled. All he got was silence.
The students ran back to their base area and started setting up the backup radio. It took time, and the mayor had the chief of police set up a cordon around them to keep the reporters away. Word of the loss of contact had already leaked out, and the media wanted to know what was happening. What had seemed to be a simple operation was rapidly becoming a human tragedy.
Then the earthquake struck.
It started low and quiet, a mere tremor that barely shook dust off the rim of the pit. People looked at each other as if to confirm what they were feeling, and no one was entirely sure. Freestone stood far from any active fault lines, and the last quake that anyone could remember feeling was decades ago. That quake had managed to knock stock off shelves in the grocery store, but little more. This one was prepared to do far worse.
The vibrations became a rumbling, which became a shaking. People fled from the rim of the pit, helping up those who were at risk of being trampled by those who came behind. The police looked about, unsure of what to do, and some of them saw to it that the impromptu evacuation was made more orderly. It was hard to do, however, as the quake grew stronger, knocking people off their feet and into each other. The buildings shook and rattled, masonry dropping and smashing on the street. Glass began to break and burst outwards in great shards, cars were overturned by the force, and in moments, it seemed as though the entire city was destined to collapse into rubble – or worse, to fall into a vastly larger hole than the one before them. The mayor clung to a wall, crying out for someone to make it stop, for anyone who could save his city.
As though a switch had been hit, the shaking stopped.
Buildings that had been damaged too far started to crumble, blowing great clouds of masonry dust into the air. Smoke could be seen rising above the skyline in several different directions. Water mains had burst and were spraying all over the street, covering it in a thick slurry of mud.
The mayor walked out on shaking legs, looking at the wreck his city had become. Windows gaped emptily from the faces of buildings that were crazed with great gaps and cracks. A city that had never been built to withstand the shaking of the earth was revealing its flaws before his eyes. Mayor Levins started to weep quietly on the edge of the pit.
It was one of professor Spenser’s students who first saw the light emerge from the terrible darkness and called out to her companion. They all crowded the edge, wary of the crumbling asphalt, and looked down.
There, deep in the bowls of the sinkhole, was a shining light. A blue-white point of brilliance that seemed to be getting larger and larger as they watched it. A cold wind began to howl up from the hole, blowing away dust and debris and forcing them back as far as they could go.
Moments later, in a great whirlwind, a crystalline platform burst up from the sinkhole. It shot up into the sky and glittered in the sun above them, a great diamond more brilliant than anyone would have imagined. It spun lazily, throwing light and rainbows everywhere in the ruined city, sending spots of illumination into every shadow.
Slowly, then, it began to descend. The platform was nearly as big across as the sinkhole, and had no visible way of holding itself up, unless it was being powered by the six glowing crystals that jutted down towards the pit. As it dropped, the onlookers could see what looked like people standing on the smooth and glittering platform. They were tall and looked strong. Each of them was dressed in a spiked armor made of the same stuff as the platform, and they held shining spears and swords and tridents at the ready. They each looked like they were ready for an attack, even from a city that had been so recently devestated.
And in the center of the platform, standing in a small, filthy group, was the unmistakable figure of professor Spenser and her team. They were bound at the hands and feet with crystals that looked like they had been grown into place, but they looked unharmed. Professor Spenser stood between her team and the soldier who guarded them, and she looked ready to fight if necessary. Her eyes were as hard as the crystal, and she looked as dangerous as anyone else on the platform.
When the great crystal surface was even with the street level, it stopped. The mayor looked at the two students, who in turn suggested with subtle nods and gestures that he might want to go do something about this.
He straightened his suit jacket – which was covered in dust and debris, and was badly torn at the shoulder – raised his substantial chin high and walked out to the edge of the crystal platform. Several of the armored men saw him approach and moved to intercept him with their glimmering weapons. The mayor forced himself not to look at them, but instead trained his eyes on the woman who had led the mission into the first place.
“Professor Spenser!” he called, and she looked over at him. A sudden playfulness overtook him, undoubtedly an irrational reaction to the stress he had endured that day. “Did you find anything?” he asked.
To her credit, professor Spenser didn’t laugh, nor did she look astounded that he had asked such a plainly ridiculous question. She did smile, though. “I may have,” she called back. “I’ll have to wait for the test results to be sure. It might be a few days.”
The mayor bit his tongue and then said, “Well, be sure to let me know if you find anything.”
She shrugged. “I wouldn’t get my hopes up.” She barely got the last word out before she finally cracked and let loose with a peal of laughter. She was quickly followed by the mayor, and then by her exploration team. The crystal platform seemed to amplify it and send it ringing out far and wide. The armed men looked confused and worried, and didn’t seem quite sure what to do about this strange and unexpected reaction.
Mayor Levins laughed until his jaw hurt. He would have to deal with this problem, certainly, and in the back of his mind he knew it would not be easy. But for right now, he was able to laugh in the face of the unknown, and it was the best thing he could do.
Oscar stripped wires under the bright light of his workbench and cursed the kids today. They had no discipline, no drive. They didn’t know the value of hard work or what it took to make something of themselves.
He turned off the TV so he could concentrate. It was election season, and the jackass running to stay in the White House was getting on his nerves. The man had done everything in his power to screw up the country, and now he was asking for another four years? Oscar shook his head in disbelief just thinking about it.
He took up the soldering iron and secured the wires on the circuitboard with the precision of an artist. The wires stretched away from the box in three different directions – to the battery pack, to the radio receiver, and to the electronic trigger. A ribbon cable connected the voice recognition chip to his computer, which was waiting for input. He’d tested everything out and was meticulous in hunting down bugs and problems. He’d had a vision, a plan of action that he saw through from the very beginning, and didn’t give up at the first sign of a problem. The end result was that by God, when Oscar Lembrick wanted someone blown up, he got blown up good and hard.
Ever since the good old days of the anarchists, there had always been a place for the bomber, mad or otherwise. In the old days they had the most primitive of grenades, where you had to light the fuse, throw and run, and pray that it blew up after it left your hand and not before. And as silly as those things were, they worked. A grenade set the world on the path to World War I. Bombers were the boogeymen of their age, long before there were mindless Communist hordes. They were messy and imprecise, true, but they got the job done. Sometimes you needed a delicate precision instrument, and sometimes you needed a big goddamn hammer.
And there was no bigger hammer than Oscar.
When he was young, Oscar discovered he had a love of seeing things explode. He was an avid fan of the Storybreakers show, which revolved around the premise that there was no explosion too big to put on TV, and soon found himself looking for ways to do what they did, only at home – in direct disregard of their pre-show warning. He bought fireworks from roadside stands and made low-power explosives from instructions on the internet. While other kids languished in their air-conditioned homes playing their video games, he was out past the woods, strapping his own tiny bombs to old toys to see what would happen when he set them off.
Unlike other childhood fascinations, this one stayed with him as he grew up, and it made the course of his life crystal clear. He studied chemistry and physics, learning about reactions both slow and fast. He began to lurk in some of the more disreputable sections of the internet, looking for people who knew more about explosives than he did and quizzing them as best he could without scaring them away. The art of destruction became a passion for him, and it wasn’t long before he graduated to the major leagues.
His first true bombing was a biker bar a few miles out of his hometown. The Crow’s Nest was where the scum of the earth came to drink and wind themselves up for some real violence. The townsfolk could hear the roar of their motorcycles as they came in along the main boulevard, and that was the signal to get off the streets and hope they would pass through without wreaking havoc. Even at their most gentle, the barbarians who made the Crow’s Nest their home would cause thousands of dollars of damage, and the police had neither the will nor the means to take them out.
Oscar, on the other hand, had both.
A few well-placed pipe bombs, and the Crow’s Nest was reduced to a smoking ruin. Of the fifty-three people inside, five were alive when the ambulance showed up, and two of them didn’t even make it to the hospital. There was an investigation, of course, but nobody looked too hard. These were not people whose deaths made the world a dimmer and less wonderful place to live in. As far as the authorities were concerned – unofficially, of course – someone had done them a favor, and if he wanted to remain anonymous, well, they would have to live with that.
Oscar’s career took off from there. Over the years he made better contacts and pulled bigger jobs, always aimed at people whose deaths would be considered a public good. Still, he managed to pull off some spectacular blasts. He blew out a soon-to-open casino in Vegas for a bitter son of the Nardozzi family, angry at his father cutting him out of the vast criminal network they managed. The blast effectively dismantled the family organization in an instant, leaving the son to finish the job.
He’d done a bomb in Germany, taking out the headquarters of the Weisshammer neo-Nazi group, and lent his expertise in Baghdad against a cell of insurgents there who thought that their goat-corpse I.E.D.s were actually clever. The money he made allowed him to move to a more isolated location and buy better supplies. As the years passed, his internet colleagues began to call him the Good Guy Bomber, the man who made sure that the bad guys were well and truly eliminated. He wasn’t entirely sure how that happened, but it was better than blowing up women and children by a long shot.
After years of explosions, he was able to retire. He took the money he’d made, bought a few dozen acres of land out in the middle of nowhere and decided that he was going to live the quiet life. Maybe take up a less dangerous hobby, now that he was getting older and his hands weren’t as steady as they’d been when he was in his twenties. He would make fireworks, maybe, something that could still bring in a little honest money. He could leave the troubles of the world behind him – the people losing their jobs, the economy slowly circling the drain, the poison in the air and the water. It would just be him and his ranch and the occasional experiment with fuel oil and fertilizer.
That lasted just about six months. There are some things you can’t walk away from, and blowing up the bastards seemed to be one of them.
This job was a little different from the others he’d done in his professional days. No one was paying him for it, and no one had asked him to do it. He was doing it pro bono, because it had to be done, and because none of the punk-ass kids these days were able to get it right. The news was full of stories about the most recent event, a blast that had gone off in a shopping mall and killed ten people. Ten people except for the one that they were trying to get to. What’s more, the morons were dumb enough to put their bomb-making video up on some website, so they were all in cuffs within hours of the blast while the sonofabitch they were trying to take out walked away looking like a martyr.
He tapped a few keys on the computer and fired up the voice-recognition program. When it was ready, he pulled the microphone close, cleared his throat and said, “My fellow Americans.” The wave-form on the screen blinked blue and then a steady green. He said it a few more times at different speeds and pitches and tones until the program had it down cold. Then he did the same with “God bless the United States of America.”
Those two phrases would go into the activation chip, which would fit snugly into the microphone casing he’d bought. The head of the microphone would be a shaped charge packed with C4. Getting the microphone up onto the lectern would be the trickiest part, but the moment that man spoke either of those phrases, he would soon be missing a head, and the country could go about electing someone who wasn’t actively trying to run it into ruin.
Oscar smiled grimly. He’d taken out a lot of people in his time, but this would be his first president. If he succeeded, he would probably be found. This wasn’t taking out a bunch of scumbag bikers. The authorities wouldn’t just shrug it off and close the case. His name would go down in infamy.
He turned the TV on again, where the man he was going to kill was giving a medal to another man who had admitted to stealing billions from pension funds and retirement accounts. The next guy in line had barely escaped being convicted of selling military electronics on the black market. The President himself was under investigation for taking bribes from three industrial lobbying groups to cut regulations back to the point where rivers were starting to catch fire again. In four short years, everything had gone bad. Everything had gone wrong.
Oscar smiled grimly and started to assemble the bomb.
He could live with that.
“Carl, no you don’t.”
“I do! Seriously, Annie, I do!”
Annie sighed and slammed her pencil down on her desk. The teacher looked up from the front of the classroom and raised an eyebrow – they were supposed to be reading silently, not arguing with each other. Annie ducked her head in apology and the teacher went back to writing. She flipped back to the page she had been reading so she could get back into the story. This lasted about three minutes before Carl leaned over and slid a note onto her desk.
She stared at it and sighed. Her friends had told her that the new kid was weird, that she shouldn’t have anything to do with him. They had already started their special brand of high school harassment on him: whispers in the hall, lying to him about classes or where rooms were in the building, that sort of thing. They hadn’t started beating him yet, but she could see that coming on the horizon.
He seemed kind of weird, true. He dressed like he’d never heard of co-ordination and wore an old fedora that he said his grandfather had given him. He was an absolute catastrophe in gym class, he did his summer reading report on a twelve-issue comic book maxiseries that no one else had read and went into great detail about how universe-shaking it was. With PowerPoint.
Still, he was cute, in a nerdy way, and he was relentlessly upbeat. Annie just didn’t get it, but he came to school in a good mood every day, really seemed to enjoy his classes, and at the end of the day he was just as cheerful as he was when he arrived. In her experience as a teenager, that wasn’t just bizarre – that was downright alien. But as alien as it was, she found herself wanting to be nice to this poor, weird kid, and took the time to introduce herself and welcome him to Ravensbrook High.
Then he started talking about his dragon, and Annie saw the rest of her high school career going down in flames.
She picked up the note and slowly unfolded it, glancing up at the teacher. When she saw it, she sighed and put her head on her desk:
I really do have a dragon. Do you want to see it?
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
[ ] Maybe (please elaborate)
This was the third day he’d asked, and she had said in the nicest way she knew that she thought he was insane. she’d laughed it off and argued it away and outright dismissed it, but it seemed like no matter how she tried, there he was. And he wanted her to believe in his dragon.
Maybe that was it. He wanted her to believe him, and he was so sure that she would if only she gave him a chance. It was crazy, of course. There were no dragons and never had been, and even if there were, why would one be living with him? Why not on some mountaintop somewhere, with a giant pile of gold? Or a small country with a few extra virgins?
But he didn’t seem crazy. Excited, eager, a little baffled that she wouldn’t even entertain the notion, maybe. Somehow, for whatever reason, Annie found herself checking the little “Yes” box. She wrote down below, Don’t think that I believe you. I’m just doing this so you’ll stop bugging me about it. Keeping an eye on the teacher, she slid the note over to his desk. She felt her shoulders tighten up as he unfolded it and read it.
Carl managed to keep quiet for about an eighth of a second before crying out, “YES!” this earned him a stern rebuke from the teacher, and by this time everyone was looking at him. At them. Annie put her head down on her desk again and wonder what she had done to deserve this.
They agreed that she would come to his house at four, and then she made him promise not to talk to her again for the rest of the day. He seemed almost gleeful when he agreed, and Annie set about making sure no one else knew.
That, of course, wasn’t going to happen.
Becky was the first one to find her, and certainly not the last. “So,” she said, and the insinuation was clear in her voice, “You’re going with weird kid now?” She clucked her tongue, opened her locker and shook her head. “Never would have expected it of you, Annie.”
Annie counted to five, but that didn’t work, so she just slammed her locker shut. “I’m just humoring him so he’ll stop bugging me,” she growled.
“Oh, of course,” Becky said, batting her eyelashes. She patted Annie on the shoulder gently. “Good luck with that.” She flashed a patently artificial smile and flounced away. Annie tried not to think of how she wanted to just grab that pretty brown ponytail and throw her against the wall and -
Annie took a deep breath. This wasn’t helping. She opened the locker again and grabbed her iPod. Skipping biology class would give her a chance to cool off, so she headed to the library and found a quiet place where no one would come looking for her.
After school, she made her way to Carl’s house slowly. His family had moved into an older housing development that was within walking distance of the school, which meant they had some money. Maybe the dragon’s gold, she thought, and that got her the first smile of a very long day. The houses were much nicer than hers, and she was starting to feel a little underdressed just walking around there.
When she rang the bell, Carl’s mother opened it and got about halfway through saying, “Oh, you must be Annie,” when there was a thunder of footsteps and Carl practically shoved her out of the way. “Annie!” he said, breathless. “You’re here!”
“Yeah,” Annie said. “I’m here.” She avoided looking at him and pretended to be very interested in the shrubbery around the front yard. “So, are you gonna show me that dragon of yours or what?”
Carl looked to his mother, who rolled her eyes. “Carl Andrew Stockman,” she said, “what do we do when we have a guest?”
He seemed to think for a moment. “Offer a drink?”
“Offer a drink, yes.” She opened the door a little wider, inviting Annie in. and then walked ahead to the kitchen.
The house looked barely lived-in. She knew Carl had been coming to school for about two months, but from the emptiness of, well, everything, it looked like they didn’t expect to stay for long. The walls were mostly unadorned, and there were still cardboard boxes in the corner of the kitchen. The whole house had an un-lived-in feel to it that made her uncomfortable, and it was worse when Carl’s mother had to check three different cupboards before she found the glasses.
“Sorry the place is in such a state,” she said. “We’re a little slow to unpack.” She smiled as she put a glass of fruit juice down on the kitchen counter. “Something to eat?” she asked, looking at the two of them. “Snacks?”
Carl was practically vibrating. “Mom, Annie’s here to see the dragon, okay?” He sounded like he was begging with her, and she didn’t seem at all bothered. Annie wondered how often they had conversations like this. “Can we go? Please?”
There was that moment of thought, and then she threw up her hands. “Oh, go ahead,” she said. “Have fun with your dragon.”
Carl leaped up and grabbed Annie by the hand, dragging her to the back door. “Okay,” he said. He glanced out the window. “He’s out there, but I don’t want you to freak out or anything, okay?” He looked at her intently. “He’s really nice. Really.”
“Okay,” Annie said, not quite sure what else would work.
He grinned broadly and opened the door, leading her out to the backyard. He stood on the porch and gestured proudly out to the backyard. “Well?” he said. “What do you think?”
What she thought was that Carl was, in fact, insane.
The backyard was empty. The grass was overlong and needed to be mowed. There were some flowers in the middle, poor faded things that huddled together in a tiny patch of mulch. The whole yard was bordered by tall, scraggly hedges that just blocked out the other houses. And that was it.
She looked out at the yard and back at Carl. Then out in the yard again. “I’m leaving,” she said. She turned around and opened the door back into the house.
“NO!” Carl yelled, and he grabbed at her arm. She pulled it away, her anger rising at him. She had trusted him, taken his crazy seriously enough, and now he shows her his stupid empty backyard? She wanted to snap at him, to yell at him. To hit him, even. He looked furious at her, that she would try to walk away, and all that cute nerdiness seemed to slip right off him. “No!” he said again. “You made a promise!”
“A promise?” she said. “Look out there, Carl! There’s nothing there! Your crappy yard is empty – no dragon, no nothing!”
He looked from her to the yard, and for a moment he seemed genuinely puzzled. He looked out again, and said, “But he’s right there!”
“No, Carl,” she said. “He isn’t.” She crossed her arms, not sure if going for the door again was a good idea.
He seemed to think for a moment, and then burst into laughter. “I get it now!” he said.
“You mean you realize there’s no dragon?” she asked.
“No, no,” he said. He lifted a finger and pointed out into the yard. “He’s shy!”
She blinked. “Shy?”
“Shy! He’s never met you before, he doesn’t know anything about you – he’s shy! So he’s made it so only I can see him!”
Annie stared at him for a moment. “You’re kidding me,” she said.
He shook his head. “He really doesn’t get out a lot,” he said. “He stays in the yard, or maybe in the garage.” He turned and cupped his hands around his mouth. “You don’t have to hide!” he yelled. He waited for a moment and then laughed again, looking over at Annie to see if she was laughing too.
“What?” he said. “Don’t you get it?”
“His joke! ‘Monkey doesn’t see!’ It’s great!” He started laughing again until he realized that she wasn’t laughing with him. “What?”
Annie sighed. “Let me guess,” she said. “You’re the only one who can hear him. Right?”
He shook his head and looked disappointed. “Oh, now that’s just ridiculous,” he said. “You’re being silly!” he shouted out into the yard. He shrugged and looked back at her. “Like I said. Shy.” He waggled a finger out at the yard like he was chastising his dragon.
Annie wasn’t sure if he was trying to pull one over on her or if he was completely insane. If he was trying to trick her, then it was an awfully long game, and he wouldn’t gain anything from it. In fact, once she went back to school and told everyone what happened, his chances of ever having a normal high school life would be effectively zero. If he was insane… She thought that night explain a lot, actually. The cheerfulness, the intensity. The dragon.
If he was insane, then all she could do was humor him. She just wasn’t sure yet.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s assume there’s a dragon.”
“Okay, okay,” she said, holding up her hands. “If there’s a dragon out there, then…” She gestured out to the lawn. “Look at the grass.”
He looked. “What about it?” he asked.
“Well,” she said, “a dragon is a big creature. If there was a dragon out there, it would be trampling the grass down. But yours is all sticking up.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to look smug. “And it needs a mowing, too.”
He stared out for a moment and then back at her. “Well,” he said, “you’d be right if he wasn’t floating.”
She blinked. “Floating?”
He nodded. “Yeah. He floats, because of all the hot air he’s got inside.”
Annie narrowed her eyes at him for a moment, and then said, “Ah!” She grinned widely. “My dad has these infrared glasses he got from a catalog. I can get those, put them on and take a look! If he’s full of hot air, then he should light up like crazy!”
Her smugness drained away as he shook his head. “For one,” he said, “if he doesn’t want you to see him, you won’t see him. And even if that worked, it wouldn’t matter. Dragons are room temperature.”
That was too much. “You’re saying that your fire-breathing dragon is room temperature?” He nodded. “That’s nuts!”
“No,” he said. “They have to hold in all their heat so they can fly, spit fire, all that. So from the outside, they look cold – none of their heat escapes.”
Annie leaned on the deck railing. “And if I run out there and try to grab him?”
“He’ll probably just move away, yeah,” Carl said, starting to figure out where her logic was going.
She sighed and stared out at the yard. At this point, she wished there was a dragon out there, just so the crazy would stop. But stare as she might, she couldn’t make it appear, and she was beginning to get the feeling that she’d walked into a very weird and not-funny joke. Somehow, perhaps, this was his way of striking back for the teasing and the problems everyone was giving him at school. Maybe he thought that somehow this would get him some kind of weird respect, for having pulled a prank so far. Annie felt her temper rising again, and she wanted to stand up and yell at him for treating her like she was one of them. Like she had been one of the people making his life miserable instead of being the only person to show him any kind of kindness.
Instead, she looked up at the sky. It was starting to get dark. She stood up straight, took a deep breath, and said, “Carl, I have to go home.”
“What?” He looked up at the sky. “No, you – you can have dinner here! My dad is away, and mom always makes too much when he’s on a trip.” He started to move to the door. “It won’t be a problem, I promise!”
“No, Carl, I…” Her mind raced for an excuse. “I have to get home. My aunt is coming over tonight. It’s Friday – she comes over every Friday for family dinner.” She rolled her eyes and shrugged, trying to sell the lie. Her aunt lived in Winter Falls, and hadn’t visited in years. “It’s totally boring and everything, but she’ll give me hell if I don’t go.”
Carl looked deflated. “Oh,” he said. “Okay, I guess.” He looked out at the darkening lawn, then back at her. “You really can’t see him?” he asked. Annie shook her head. “Okay.” He looked down, and then brightened. “Maybe I can talk to him,” he said. “See if he’ll come around!”
“Maybe I can convince him to show himself to you! Are you busy tomorrow?” He grinned up at her, bouncing on his toes.
She wanted to say yes, to make up another visit or another relative, anything to put an end to this. The longer she went along, the worse it would be when he finally gave in and told her that he’d been messing with her the whole time. She’d look like even more of an idiot if she humored him, and she knew it… but a new thought blossomed in her mind. Okay, she thought. You want to take this to another level? Fine. I can do that.
“Tomorrow?” she said, smiling sweetly. She dropped the smile as quickly as she could, as it was probably suspicious. “Sure. I’ll come over in the morning. Okay?”
Carl showed her out through their curiously empty house and stood at the door until she was out of sight. As she walked her bicycle around the corner, she took out her phone and started sending texts. If that was how he wanted to play, then she would show him what happened when you tried to make Annie Deaver look like an idiot.
The next morning at ten thirty, Annie showed up at Carl’s house carrying a duffel bag. His mother opened the door again, a bandanna tied around her head and paint-stained clothes on. “Oh, yes, Annie!” she said. “Carl’s been waiting for you. He’s out in the back.” She let Annie into the house, and she went back to her painting. Annie hefted the bag onto her shoulder and checked the time on her phone. Another five minutes and she’d be ready to show Carl just what being embarrassed and humiliated meant.
He was in the yard, fixing his bicycle, and he stood up when he saw her. “Annie!” he cried. “I think I can get him to show himself!” He wiped his hands on his jeans and ran over as she came down into the yard. “I talked and talked to him, and I convinced him that you really are a good person. So, all he wants is an apology for being mean yesterday and he’ll let you see him!” Carl looked up at her expectantly, and then glanced down at the duffel bag. “What’s in there?” he asked.
“Well,” Annie said. “I was thinking about your dragon last night, actually.” She put the bag on the grass. “He can make himself invisible and talk inside people’s heads. He can hide his heat and float around, and all that is really cool.” She bent down and unzipped the bag. “But there was one more thing I wanted to try. Just to, you know, satisfy my curiosity.” She glanced around. “Can you tell me where he is right now?”
“Sure,” Carl said. He pointed to an empty space a couple of yards to her right. “He’s over there. What’re you gonna -”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence before she stood up, pulling a large water rifle from the bag. As she did so, she shouted, “NOW!” and a dozen kids from school erupted from behind the hedges, all of them armed with water guns and all of them yelling at the top of their lungs. As one, they began to shoot. Annie fired into the empty area first, and some of the kids joined her, but most of them just shot at Carl, soaking him in water that had been dyed different colors. Soon there were streams of blue and red and virulent green water flying through the air, accompanied by the cruel laughter of Carl’s classmates.
Worst of all was Annie’s laugh. It was high and shrill and mean in his ears, and he could see her face even as he tried to block the sharp sprays of water that were trying to hit everywhere they could. She looked happy, for the first time since he’d met her, but it wasn’t a good kind of happiness. It wasn’t the happiness he’d had in mind for her when he invited her over. It was the happiness of cruelty. Of anger. Just like all the other kids in school, it seemed that Annie was happy to tear him down just because he wasn’t like the rest of them. Carl sank to his knees under the onslaught of water and put his arms down, just letting them hit him where they wanted. He’d tried, and he’d lost. Just like all the other times and other schools.
It was a few moments before he realized that the water had stopped, and so had the shouting. All the kids were staring at something behind Carl, their faces white and slack with a mixture of terror and amazement. Carl turned around and looked up.
The dragon was hovering in the air behind him, dripping a dozen colors of water and glaring at the children with glowing cobalt eyes. Its iridescent silver scales glimmered wetly in the morning sun as it floated so very impossibly for a creature the size of an SUV. It stuck its head out on a long, sinuous neck, past Carl, and raised itself to look down on the small crowd of terrified teenagers. The dragon’s nostrils flared, and two wisps of grey-black smoke started to swirl upwards past the rest of its head. It made no sound as it moved, but the way the light came off it, and the way its eyes glowed, it should have sounded like metal uncoiling, like a furnace just about to roar into flame.
The dragon looked at each of them in turn and then slowly, carefully, it opened its great, fanged mouth.
“Run,” it said, and its voice was like an avalanche.
The kids scattered, flying back through the hedges as fast as their feet could carry them. All except for Annie, who was backing up slowly, her eyes never leaving the dragon’s. It came closer, more smoke escaping its nose and its mouth, and a low rumble started in the back of its throat.
Carl could barely hear her speak when her mouth started to move. After a moment, he realized she was saying, “It’s real. It’s real. It’s really real.”
The dragon chuckled, and said, “Yes. It is.” It snorted, and two jets of flame touched the grass right in front of her, instantly burning down to the soil. She jumped back, but never took her eyes off the great and terrible monster. “Now, woman-child,” the dragon said. “I will not tell you again.” It inhaled deeply, its chest expanding like a bellows. In the depths of its gaping, blackened mouth, a roar was coming. It was low, and it sounded far away, but it was the roar of firestorm that was ready to burn the world. Ahead of that roar, the dragon said again: “Run.”
This time Annie ran. The great gout of fire that blasted forth from the dragon’s mouth barely missed her before she could pass through the hedges and escape with her life.
The dragon chuckled and then watched as Carl walked, slump-shouldered, to get the garden hose. He came back and sprayed down the bits of burning lawn and hedge, and then turned to the dragon. “Did you really have to do that?”
“They were not worthy of you,” the dragon said, its eyes softening. “You deserve better.”
Carl nodded. He’d heard that before, too. “I guess this means we’re going to have to move again,” he said.
The dragon let go of the earth and lifted back into the air, its expression one of unconcern for the social damage it had just done. Carl sighed and walked with heavy steps back into the house. His mother was going to be furious.
This story was inspired by Carl Sagan’s excellent “Dragon in my Garage” essay that was part of his book The Demon-Haunted World, long considered an indispensable book on skepticism. I have, of course, taken certain liberties with it in the name of fiction, but I’m very nearly certain he would forgive me. The characters are, of course, named for him and his wife, Ann Druyan. No actual resemblance intended, of course, unless Ms. Druyan has enjoyed reading this story, in which case, OMYGOD – HI!!!!
Continued from Day 171: A New Star 1
The paperwork took five days to complete, even with fudging the numbers. During that time, Atris found himself nearly overwhelmed by his duties. Being the captain of a legacy ship usually involved little more than keeping people doing their daily work – maintaining systems, keeping up the greenhouse, not jettisoning themselves out the airlocks, that kind of thing.
Now, however, he found himself trying to organize a full-scale exodus from the ship. Even though the Nightfinder would remain their home once it was incorporated into Aurelius’ system, the passengers and crew ached to be allowed off. They wanted to see other places, meet other people, to experience anything that wasn’t the shipboard life they’d known for so long. Consequently, he had dozens of different disembarkation plans to consider, groups vying for prominence, and “experts” trying to get their voices heard.
In the end, he announced that he and a small group of officers and community leaders would be the first to go and present themselves to their new neighbors. Following that, people would initially be let off the ship according to their deck and section, and everyone would just have to be patient. “Aurelius isn’t going anywhere,” he said. The plan wasn’t met with great approval, but neither was it met with rage, and that was good enough for him.
Eventually, he got the signal from Beddesh that all was in readiness. He’d transmitted the documents to the appropriate branches of the Aurelian bureaucracy and they were free to board.
“Excellent,” Atris said. “My people are getting restless over here.”
Beddesh laughed, and it sounded jolly and genuine. “Oh, we’re looking forward to meeting them, too!” he said, looking a little too proud as he said it.
Atris gave him the outline of their plan, and after a little negotiation, it was approved. There would be a small ceremony for the newcomers, with all the pomp and circumstance that implied, and then an orderly immigration, part of which involved a fairly detailed interview and recording of each and every person on board. It was hard not to grimace when he heard that. It would only make the whole process slower. But there wasn’t a lot he could do about it.
The next day, he and Jackev were in their dress uniforms, waiting by the airlock. Behind them was a full contingent of Nightfinder’s elite – people who had been famous when they left Cygnus and somehow managed to hold on; deck presidents and their spouses; the most interesting philosophers, artists, historians and poets they could find. Everyone was dressed up, and everyone was watching the airlock door.
Atris stood on the balls of his feet and silently wished he could pass all this on to someone else. He thought about being able to say that it wasn’t his problem, but he knew that it most certainly was.
The messenger gave him a start. “For you, sir,” she said, handing him a thin piece of paper with a number written on it.
“Thank you,” he said, but she was already gone. He took his pad from his pocket, signed into the ship’s network, and tapped in the number. It took only a moment to scan the document, and he grimaced as its meaning sank in.
“Sir, are we -” Atris interrupted Jackev with a gesture and handed him the pad. The younger man read it slowly, and his face fell. He looked up. “Sir? Does this…” He swallowed. “Does this change anything?”
Atris shook his head. “No,” he said. “Everything goes as planned. When I have a moment, I’ll take Beddesh aside and… discuss what we’ve found.” He scowled and put the pad in his pocket. “I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say.” He turned to the younger man and give him the full force of his rank and experience. “Until then, you tell absolutely no one. Do you understand?”
Jackev nodded, his expression fighting for composure. “Yes, sir,” he said. Atris wasn’t entirely certain his second could stay quiet. Not with news like that.
The crowd cheered when the airlock doors opened, and they were greeted by an applauding group on the other side. The Aurelian dignitaries looked about as comfortable in their formal clothes as did those of the Nightfinder, but they also looked genuinely pleased to be there. From the Aurelian group, Beddesh Ajaki stepped forward and gestured both crowds to silence. Atris put on his most congenial face and walked up to meet him.
“Friends,” Beddesh said. “Your long journey is over. Your lonely travels are at an end. We of Alpha Aurelius welcome you into our community as new friends, neighbors and family.” He extended a hand to Atris, who took it in a firm handshake. “Welcome home,” Beddesh said, bringing another great cheer from the assembled crowds.
When they quieted down, Atris cleared his throat. “People of Alpha Aurelius. We have traveled far and searched long for a new home, ever since Delta-b Cygnus grew unable to support those she had nurtured for so long. We are honored to be welcomed into your system, and look forward to adding to your strength and uniqueness for many generations to come.” He looked Beddesh in the eyes, and nodded when the other man met his gaze. “We are happy to be home.”
The cheering this time was even louder. The ceremony was complete, and the two sets of ambassadors and dignitaries surged forward to meet each other. The people from Aurelius wanted to see the ship that had brought all these newcomers, while the crew of the Nightfinder were more eager to start exploring their new home. The constant hum of conversation filled the bay, and the constant movement of people brought even more activity. In all of this, Atris caught Beddesh’s sleeve. “Administrator Ajaki,” he said with a smile that was hard to hold onto. “Thank you again for organizing this. I know it can’t have been easy.”
In person, Beddesh seemed much more relaxed. He grabbed Atris’ arm and gave it a friendly squeeze. “Well, you know how the beancounters are,” he said. “They need to feel like they’re in charge.” He gestured out beyond the walls of the bay. “And you know what’s out there.”
“What’s not out there,” Atris muttered.
“Aye,” Beddesh said. “What’s not out there.” He sighed. “Captain Atris, when you know that the universe is dying around you, you cling on to whatever you have.” He smiled grimly. “I don’t know how things were back at Cygnus, but here it has brought a new renaissance in bureaucracy.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small case to show Atris. Inside was an ornately carved stone stamp, red with ink. “We can’t control what goes on out there,” he said. “But we can damn well control what goes on in here.” He tossed the stamp in the air, caught it, and then pocketed it again.
“About that,” Atris said, taking out his pad. “There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.” He looked around for others. “Do you have a moment?”
Beddesh nodded without checking. “I reckon everyone will be busy here for a while, sure. Lead on!”
Atris took him to a small conference room near the bridge and closed the door. “Administrator,” he said, “where your people have cultivated bureaucracy to fight against the inevitable, mine have adopted a certain bluntness.” He put the pad on the table and called up the document he’d been sent. “We don’t see that there’s a lot of time for us to waste anymore.” He spun the pad around and slid it to Beddesh. “Any of us.”
The administrator squinted at the pad and picked it up. After a moment, he sighed and nodded. He put the pad down and rubbed his eyes. Neither man spoke for a long while.
Finally, Beddesh broke the silence. “We didn’t think you’d stay if we said anything,” he muttered.
“Aurelius has how long?” he asked. “Two generations? Maybe three?”
Beddesh nodded. “Maybe.” He picked up the pad again and flipped through it with a finger. “We’ve started making plans for an exodus within one, just in case.”
Atris pulled out a chair and slumped down in it. “What do I tell my people?” he asked. He gestured, unable to find the words he wanted. “How do I ask them to go through all this again?”
Beddesh nodded. “I have no idea,” he said. “We’ve been around Aurelius for as long as I can remember.” He looked at the wall as if he could see through it to the small, red sun outside. “I thought I would die long before he did.”
The room was quiet enough that Atris could hear the blood running through his ears. Finally, he asked, “Do your people know?”
“Only the administrators,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “And the top-level bureaucrats.” He grinned ruefully. “They’ve been funneling money into an exodus project for years. We’ve had to arrange for quite a few whistleblowers to get kicked as far out of the civil service as we can.”
Atris laughed quietly, but made himself stop. The laughing was too close to sobbing, which he couldn’t afford to let himself do. Instead, he took a deep breath and stood up. “Two or three generations,” he said. Beddesh nodded. “Okay,” Atris said, a little more loudly than he’d meant to. “That will have to do.”
He extended a hand to the administrator. “We know a bit about exodus,” he said. “Our experience is at your disposal.”
Beddesh looked surprised, but he shook the captain’s hand. “I appreciate it, sir,” he said.
“As for telling people…” Atris looked far away, through his ship to all the people in it. “As for them,” he said again, “we’ll let the future happen in the future.” He clapped the administrator on the back and smiled, genuinely this time. “Right now, let’s go meet our new neighbors.”
The two men left the conference room for the party. There would be a time to break hearts. But not today.
Captain Atris Parkell let his fingers unclench from the arms of his command chair as the Nightfinder dropped out of supra-luminal space within sight of the dull red star Alpha Aurelius. Its light was dim and ruddy, but it brought tears to Atris’ eyes just to know it was still there.
“Signal to the ring-docks that we’re on our way,” he said to his Second.
“They already know, sir,” Jackev said. “We’re getting ID requests one after another already.” He ran his fingers over the communications console. “Also receiving plaintext for the translation algorithm. Doesn’t look like it should be too much trouble.”
“Good,” Atris said. He didn’t look forward to the headache he’d get when the neural encoders started their work on the local language, but he smiled nonetheless. “I suppose they haven’t had any new faces out here for a long time,” he said. “Transmit our vitals to the administrators, whoever they are, and see if they have a place for us.”
Artis tore his view from the shining star in the view screen to look around the darkened bridge of his ship. Too many spaces were empty after so much time, and the few people who remained to keep the ship alive were just as transfixed as he had been. He cleared his throat to get their attention.
“We’re not there yet,” he said. “Once we’re docked and safe, we can celebrate. For now, let’s do our jobs.” Not inspirational, as speeches went, but it was enough. Slowly, carefully, the ship moved forward through the last of the infinite darkness towards the dim red star. The only one they’d seen in a thousand light years of travel.
They’d left Delta-b Cygnus so long ago that he wasn’t sure when it was. They’d been one of a hundred thousand ships that abandoned the ancient ringworld that circled their dying sun. Their starkeepers had been sure, and the ring administrators agreed, that within a century, maybe two, the cost of capturing energy from their little star would be more than they gained. In another generation, maybe two, the star would no longer be able to support their world. DbCygnus’ life was over. It was time for another diaspora.
Each ship was sent off with as many people and supplies as they could carry, and their departure was met with great pomp and ceremony. Nightfinder had been one of the last to leave, after watching hundreds of others scatter off to all parts of a black and featureless sky. The administrators had decided to stay, to eke out as much life as they could for as long as possible. Atris couldn’t have done it, but he admired their dedication.
Nightfinder had jumped to trans-luminal as soon as they could, dropping back into normal space at semi-random intervals to see what was out there.
Every time, there had been nothing. Nothing but empty blackness as far as their sensors could detect. A thin atomic soup of elementary particles spread evenly in every direction, the occasional proto-planet that had been flung out into deep space by some long-ago catastrophe. Other than that, though – nothing.
The suicides started after a few months. They’d been sent off with as many diversions and as much entertainment as possible, as well as a full complement of counselors and therapists and mental health experts. But all that couldn’t stand up to the existential dread that gripped each and every one of them, the sure and certain knowledge that they were truly and utterly alone in the universe. Atris lost some good members of his command crew within weeks of each other. Training replacements had been difficult at best.
The last time they surfaced, however, the sensors saw something. It was faint, at the very edge of their sensors’ range, but it was there.
Atris had summoned his command crew and sworn them to secrecy. He didn’t want people’s hopes brought up only to see them brought even lower if they should find that the star was unpopulated – or worse, abandoned. It was still hundreds of light-years away, after all. Anything could have happened in that time.
The vow of secrecy had lasted very nearly ten hours. After that, the entire ship spent their short, final journey talking about their hopes and dreams for this new star, this new world that they hoped they could find a hoe in, if only for a few more generations.
Now, within visual distance of their new home, the anticipation in the ship was palpable.
Alpha Aurelius had built something that looked like a combination of a ringworld and a sun-sphere – four great rings that circled the star at different angles, each ring connected to the others by an incomprehensible series of tubes, transitways, struts and supports. The star looked like it hung in a great woven basket made of carbon-fiber and ceramic steel. Lights ran all along the rings, blinking off and on as the ship changed its angle. It was beautiful to behold. Atris stared at it for a long while, this shimmering, shining gem that hung in the endless darkness, until his Second called his name again.
“Sir, we’re receiving a signal from Aurelius.”
Atris nodded. “Put it on the screen.”
The man on the screen looked like he had put together the only nice outfit he owned by wearing pieces of other outfits that hadn’t worn out yet. The clothes weren’t bad, just it was clear that the people of Aurelius hadn’t had visitors in a long time. Behind him, the room looked dark and dingy, as if that room, too, had not been long in use.
“Greetings from Alpha Aurelius!” he said. “I am administrator Beddesh Ajaki. Welcome to our fire and share in its warmth.”
Atris resisted the urge to wiggle a finger in his ear. The neuro-linguistic implants were working fine already, with help from the ship’s computers, but it was still uncomfortable to listen to him. The original language was consonant-heavy and sharp, and the computer translation lagged a half-second behind. The words, when he spoke, felt awkward and wrong on his tongue, and he was sure that he would sound just as strange as he felt.
“Greetings to you, Beddesh Ajaki of Alpha Aurelius,” Atris said. “I am Captain Atris Parkell of the Nightfinder, and we cannot begin to express how happy we are to see you.”
Beddesh smiled, and it made his worn, leathery face look as kind and welcoming as he sounded. “As we are you,” he said. “We haven’t seen anyone new in, well… Ages, I suppose!” He laughed heartily. “well roll out the welcome mat for you, just as soon as all the official business is taken care of.”
Atris cocked his head. “Official business?”
“Better believe it,” Beddesh said. “There are forms or be filled out, tests to be take, the whole thing.” he thought for a moment and then shrugged. “I don’t like it much either, but rules are rules, right?”
“Right,” Atris said. He glanced over at Jackev, whose hands were already moving quickly to deal with all the incoming data.
“It looks like forms, Captain. They want to know where we came from, our sensor data for the entire trip, our crew contingent, ages, genders, what we have on board, all of our ship specs…” He looked up, panic visible on his face. “Captain, this is ridiculous!”
The face on the viewscreen glanced over to the side before smiling and chuckling. “Yeah, it might be a little much,” he said, “but that’s the way we do things around here. Dot every t and cross every i, you know how it is.”
Atris took a step towards the screen, his hands behind his back. “Administrator, I can certainly appreciate your desire to run your ring as you wish. But we’ve come a very long way, and it would be… comforting for my people to know that we’re docked somewhere safe. I don’t suppose you can perhaps… bend the rules a little?”
The man looked taken aback. “I… well, I’m not sure, but…” He glanced to the side again, as if he was listening to someone. Then he looked back out from the screen. “Let me see what I can do for you, captain.” He gave another of those big grins, and the signal cut out.
“Permission to speak, sir?” Atris didn’t need to look at Jackev, but just nodded. “Sir, this is going to take ages to complete.” He tapped his panel, and the main screen was flooded with document data. One of them flashed and then filled the screen. “Look at this – they want a molecular breakdown of not just our cargo, but the ship and crew! To the mole, sir!”
“Did you see how he was set up?” Atris asked after a moment. “Those clothes? That room?” He turned around. “I reckon we could tell them the ship is made of ice cream and catshit and they wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise until it was too late.” He glared at the screen. “Let them wait a little while, and then feed them some numbers that look like they should be right. In the meantime, get our starkeepers working on Aurelius. I want to know what kind of home we’ve come home to.”
He made an announcement to the rest of the ship that they had arrived and that they were being welcomed with open arms. The cheering echoed from one end of the Nightfinder to the other, and he let it go on as long as it wanted. When it was done, he told them that there were some official issues that had to be taken care of, for everyone’s safety, and that they should be able to deboard in a few days. “Until then,” he said, “be patient, and try not to get your hopes up. They don’t look like they’ve seen visitors for a long while.”
Beddesh Ajaki called them back a day later, and this time the translation was much easier to cope with. Still not as good as actually learning their language, but that was something to deal with later. “Good news!” he said. “I’ve talked to the bureaucrats and they’re willing to relax some of the paperwork for you, seeing as how you’re a special case.” Atris raised an eyebrow at the mention of a bureaucracy, but let the man go on. “I’m transmitting the revised data package to you now. I think you’ll find it a little easier to deal with.”
Atris glanced over at Jackev, who was squinting at his screen. After a moment he looked up, shrugged, and made a “so-so” gesture with his hand. “Thank you very much,” Atris said to the screen. “We understand how important it is to know who’s coming into your colony. We will do everything we can to satisfy your requests, and then our people are greatly looking forward to getting to know their new home.”
The smile on Beddesh’s face froze for a moment, and it looked like he was actively trying not to look away. “That’s great!” he said. “We look forward to having you!” He cleared his throat. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some extra preparations to make. See you soon!” The picture snapped off.
Atris spun around. “Get to work on those documents. And get me the starkeepers.” He looked over at the screen, which was now showing the dull red star and its brilliant, enormous cage. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
To Be Continued!