Mara hated how her breathing sounded inside the spacesuit. Her helmet amplified everything – the slow draw of the inhale, with that ever-so-faint squeak at the end. A leftover from the asthma she’d had as a child. The exhale that whooshed out and echoed in her ears, a hollow, close sound that made her feel like she’d been buried alive. It would have been worse if the visor had fogged up, but the thermal plastic kept that from happening. A small blessing. With her own hollow breath in her ears, she turned on her helmet camera and keyed in the override for the airlock.
The interior of the derelict ship wasn’t what she’d expected. Darkness, dust, broken things – that was what every fiction she’d seen since childhood had prepared her for. It was a well-worn plot, after all: distress call, motionless ship, no answer. Followed by a throwaway character going in to explore and being devoured by something the filmmakers could barely afford to pay for.
Of course, no one had ever run into a horrible, carnivorous Monster from Beyond the Stars before, so Mara assured herself that she was perfectly safe. Right on the heels of that thought was the quiet whisper in the back of her mind that said, “But there’s always a first time.”
She wasn’t sure what bothered her more, that she might get eaten alive or that she might be a throwaway character. Neither was very appealing to think about.
The helmet radio crackled in her ear. “Mara, we’re seeing the airlock open. How does everything look?”
She gave herself a light push off the wall and drifted through the hatch. “All looks good, Marco,” she said. “The lights are on.” She checked the readout on her helmet display. “Atmosphere seems intact.” She reached out to the wall and let the ridged fingertips of her gloves drag her to a halt. “Gravity’s off, but otherwise…”
Otherwise it looked like someone should come around the corner any minute and ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing there. “Marco, what’s the stats on this ship?”
“Hold,” he said. A few loud breaths later, he was back. “Huh,” he said. “Looks like a Hermes-class, small diplomatic vessel. Uploading schematics now.” An orange icon blinked into life on her helmet screen, in the lower left. Mara held her gaze on it, and a detailed 3-D map of the ship blossomed before her eyes.
“Did the S.O.S. say anything about it being a diplomatic mission?” she asked.
“Not a thing,” Marco said. “And you’d think that might be the kind of information that’d be useful. But it was just a distress call, and nothing else. Automated, sent out to Any and All.”
“Nope. If I can get the ship’s ID code, Ken might able to dig something up. He said he did a database backup at our last station visit. Try the bridge, see what you can find.”
“Gotcha.” She glanced around the schematic until she found the bridge – three decks up and at the farthest point from where she was now. “Marco. Grab my helmet feed. Tell me if I’m missing anything.”
“Already done,” he said. “Off with you.” The persistent hiss of the open channel clicked off.
There was a lift about ten meters down the corridor. She thought about it, and then called up the schematics again to look for an access vent. Someplace where she would be slightly less trapped. She pulled a vent cover off and stuck her head inside. It would be close, but she could fit.
The trip along the vent was short and uneventful. She braced her back against the wall and pushed with her feet, popping the vent cover off and sending it bouncing off the opposite wall. When she looked out into the corridor, the first thing she did was curse. Loudly and well.
“Mara?” Marco’s voice cut through the mix of rage and fear that she found herself overwhelmed by. “Mara, is everything okay?”
Everything was most certainly not okay. The walls were covered with old, dried blood. There were splashes on the floor and ceiling alike, bloody handprints, and long, smeared drag marks. It was all a dark, iron brown, and there were tiny flecks of dried blood floating in the air like motes of dust in an abandoned house.
“Holy shit,” Marco said.
Mara swallowed hard. “My thoughts exactly.”
“What do you think happened?”
Mara was pretty sure she knew what happened. She figured Marco knew too, but the question still had to be asked. “Looks like we’re gonna have to find out,” she said. The blood trail led off to her right, which the schematics said was in the direction of the bridge. “I’ll follow this,” she said. She pulled herself out of the access vent and started floating along the corridor, following the blood.
There was more blood as she went along, and the bloody dust in the air seemed to be getting thicker. When she turned the first corner, it just got worse.
There was a head resting where the floor and wall met, and it was facing away from her. It was a small blessing, but the rest of the corridor looked like a slaughterhouse. The blood was now mixed with what was unmistakably flesh, and it caked the walls where it wasn’t floating through the air. “Marco,” she said. “How many people does a Hermes usually carry?”
There as a pause. When he spoke, Marco’s voice was quiet and hoarse. “Around fifty,” he said. “Maybe more, depending on the mission.”
“Jesus,” she said.
She checked the map. The bridge was just up the corridor, but she really, really didn’t want to find it. Whoever – and she couldn’t stop amending that to Whatever – had either come from or gone to the bridge. In a ship this size, there were plenty of places to hide, but everything pointed to Mara walking into a horror house.
The bridge door was covered with bloody handprints. Mara took a deep breath and thought about how lucky she was that she couldn’t smell anything. Her stomach lurched anyway, and she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. The suit had ways of handling puke in the helmet, but it was still horrible, and she’d never live it down.
The door opened at her approach.
Except for the floating naked corpse in the middle of the bridge, it all looked perfectly normal. the man was thin and very clearly dead. His throat had been cut, and he was hovering in a thick cloud of dried blood. The main screen was dark, as we’re most of the other consoles on the bridge. Mara moved from point to point, trying to get an idea of who this ship was.
There was an axe buried in the communications console.
To Be Continued… (I keep using that phrase… I do not think it means what I think it means…)
A man of inhuman proportions stepped around the corner into the frozen food aisle of the supermarket, stopped at the vegetables, and sat cross-legged on the floor. Waiting.
Even sitting down, he was tall, taller than most of the men and women who had come to do their shopping. His leather greatcoat fanned out behind him on the floor, and he creaked and jingled when he moved, as though there were still more layers of metal and leather underneath. His face looked like it had been carved from volcanic rock, with a single livid scar that slashed across his nose from one cheek to the other. He had long, silver hair that was bound with a red leather cord, and looked like someone who had stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel.
The other Sunday shoppers didn’t seem to notice him at all. One middle-aged woman with two kids in a shopping cart stopped next to him, reached past his face, and took out a package of peas. Her littlest started at the man, and made to say something, but the child was soon distracted by its older brother, who smacked it with a package of snack cakes.
The man sat there, cross-legged, eyes closed, for hours as the shoppers went by. They guided their carts around him, never really noticing that he was there. Perhaps some of them wondered why it was they should suddenly want to veer left and look at the frozen pizzas. Some of the more sensitive of them may have noticed the faintest smell of woodsmoke curl up into the deep recesses of their brain, but they would have dismissed it as soon as they walked by. Only a few very young children seemed to see him, and none of their parents were interested in following up on the strange fantasies of their toddlers.
The day wore on. More people came in to shop for dinner or to get their groceries for the week. As the night came in, the tide of shoppers slowed, and by midnight the store was populated mostly by the skeleton crew of employees and college students looking to meet their immediate snack and soda needs. The supermarket was quiet, except for the constant hum of compressors and the quiet melodies of the overhead music.
At about one in the morning, the man opened his eyes. They were a deep, terra-cotta red set in black, and they seemed to be following the movements of something outside his own vision. A moment later, a girl walked around the corner. She looked like she had pulled her outfit together from the first items she’d laid hands on in a thrift shop, with oversized combat boots on her feet and a fez on her head. She stopped in front of the man on the floor and flashed a grin that was brilliant under the fluorescents. “Been here long?” she said. She planted her feet and crossed her arms, and somehow managed to look more solid than the giant in front of her.
The man leveled his gaze at her. “All day,” he said. “Where have you been?”
She shrugged and twirled a finger. “You know. Out. About. Doing things and stuff and things.”
He unfolded himself from where he’d been sitting and sighed as he stood. “I should have set the bargain for a dusk limit instead of dawn.” He looked down at her. “I was told that you were more reliable.”
That grin again. “You were told wrong, big man.”
The man sighed, and it was a rumble in his chest. “Shall we begin?” he asked.
“Yup. Let’s get this over with.”
The man reached into a pocket of the greatcoat and pulled out a small cloth bag. He held it up to his lips and whispered to it, words too quick and too soft for anyone to hear. Then he gestured to the girl, for her to move closer. She did. “In this place,” the man said, “this sanctuary, we have come here to make a bargain. In honesty and good faith.” He poured red sand out of the bag, making a half-circle around them. “Siorad of the Western Hills does so swear.” He took the bag in both hands and presented it to the girl with all the solemnity of ancient ritual.
She swiped it from his hands, rolling her eyes. “We’re here to make a deal,” she said. “Nobody tries anything, nobody gets hurt.” She poured the rest of the sand from the bag, but now it was blue. When she completed the circle, she stood up straight. “I’m Liryl of the Underground, and I approve this message.” She tossed the bag to Siorad, who caught it with a look of disapproval. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again they glowed the dull orange of old coals. He spoke a word, and the supermarket around him seemed to ripple and change. For a moment, it wasn’t a supermarket at all. It was a great meeting-hall, ancient and dangerous. A place where even blood enemies could meet and parley without fear of betrayal. It was the place it had always been, even when it had changed beyond all recognition.
The strange waves subsided, and Siorad looked a little more relaxed. Liryl, on the other hand, was shuffling her feet and never letting her gaze settle. She kept away from the sand circle.
“Very well,” Siorad rumbled. “Let’s begin.”
To Be Continued… at some point.
Sarah’s fingers started to lose feeling as she clung to the edge of the platform. She tried to use her feet to lift herself higher, but the sides seem to have been coated with the same ultra-slippery coating that they’d put on the ramp far behind her. No friction, no super-speed, and in a few moments she would plunge into the water below.
And that would be the end of her career as a superhero.
Thousands of young people applied to be an official Sidekick with the Global Defenders every year. Of those thousands, hundreds were invited to take part in a rigorous week of exams, tests, and challenges. Of those hundreds, only twenty would be chosen.
Her fingers slipped again, and she whimpered. Any further and she’d be out of the running permanently.
The obstacle course was the most famous part of the test, and the only one that anyone really knew about going in. It started in a vast gymnasium, five kids at a time. Each one had to follow their color-coded track through the room and out into an individually-tailored course. The Global Defenders would provide obstacles that were designed to test each particular applicant’s special power or ability, and failing the course usually meant being kicked out of the trials.
Sarah’s course had started off as a racetrack from hell. When the gun sounded, and the other four students were still getting started, Sarah was already off and running. The track twisted and bent and spun, with a helical loop-the-loop just close enough to the start that she wasn’t sure she could build up enough speed.
She’d made it through, though, and headed for the ramp. There was a gap of about fifty feet, and if she hit the end of the ramp fast enough, she would have cleared the gap easily. But the ramp had been coated, made so slippery that she lost her footing and her speed. She was still going fast, but just barely fast enough. She flew off the end of the ramp, hurtled through the air, and landed arms-first on the other side.
She tried not to look down as her grip slipped again. “No, no, no, no,” she said to herself. Her feet scrabbled against the wall, but nothing happened. She forced herself to breathe slowly, to think about her options. She was a fast thinker, too. Another benefit of super-speed. No matter how fast she thought, though, she couldn’t get ahead of the panic that threatened to engulf her. Another few inches and the dream she’d had since she was a child would be gone.
A howl crawled its way out of her throat as she slipped again and felt her grip come free of the platform. She dropped – and landed on something solid a moment later. Sarah looked down and saw that she was standing on a tall pillar of ice that had risen from the water below.
“Got ya!” Sarah turned to look at the only person it could have been. Claire skidded to a stop on the ice bridge she was using to get across the room, a broad smile crossing her pale face. She waved. “Gotta be more careful, roomie!” she said. A fine mist formed around her hand, and the ice pillar started to rise until it brought Sarah to the edge of the platform.
Once Sarah was out of danger, Claire swept herself off to continue her own course. The two had been assigned as roommates when they arrived at the Global Defenders’ headquarters, and they’d become friends almost immediately. This was the first time they were actually in competition with each other, though. If Sarah had dropped, Claire would have a slightly better chance of getting in.
She shook her head. Enough wasting time. Whatever Claire wanted to do was up to her. Maybe she’d buy her an ice cream later to say thanks.
Sarah hopped on her toes for a moment and took off.
In an instant, she was out of the vast main obstacle room, following the red line that led her through the course on her way through a featureless corridor that seemed to go on forever, even at her speed. She was slightly surprised when the wall started sprouting barriers, when sections of the floor rose and dropped just before she got to them, when hidden guns started to fire beanbags at her from the walls and ceiling. With her reflexes cranked up, they weren’t all that hard to avoid. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, and she sidestepped, ducked, and jumped in all the right places.
There was another jump, this time a lot longer than the first, and she felt her heart skip. If this was was treated the way the last one was, she’d probably go flying right off the edge and into the water. On the other hand, if she slowed down then she’d do the same, treated or not. Sarah gritted her teeth and poured on the speed. The air around her seemed to turn slippery and oily as it slid over her skin, held back from killing her by some strange feature of her powers that she’d never fully understood.
As she shot out over the dark, cold water below, she realized that she was howling – a long, keening scream that trailed behind her like a slipstream. She seemed to hang in the air forever, watching the far platform inch towards her at an impossibly slow speed.
The impact went all the way through her as she landed, and it was a moment before she took off again.
The track curved and looped. There was a maze that shifted and changed as she ran it, and a route that made her skip across the water’s surface like a flat river stone.
Finally, she came to the final room. It was a small chamber with a button on a pedestal, and all she had to do was press the button. She stepped forward…
A curtain of violet energy dropped down around her. It shimmered and hummed, and when she tried to go through it, she got a mild shock for her troubles. The emitter was far above her, a small glowing panel embedded in the high ceiling, out of her reach.
“Damn,” she said, and she could hear her voice quaver. She had come so far, and she could see the end in front of her. She hit the field with the flat of her hand, and the jolt traveled through her arm.
This was the end of a long, long dream. Her powers had started when she was a child, much to the consternation of her parents, and all she’d ever wanted to do was to be a super-hero. To be one of those colorful servants of justice that made the world a better place, and what better place to learn how to do it than here? The Global Defenders had fought off everything from bank robbers to international terrorists to alien armadas, and the graduates of their Sidekick program had gone on to great super-hero careers of their own.
It was all she’d ever wanted, and a thin sheet of energy was all that was keeping her from getting there.
The signs of panic were pretty clear. She was breathing hard, she could feel her heart beating in her chest. Her eyes were watering and ready to overflow, but she kept telling herself that super-heroes didn’t cry. They never cried. And for a moment, she thought that the flickering of the force field was just an illusion, a distortion caused by the tears.
When she wiped her eyes away, though, she could see it – the emitter was flickering and strobing. She took a breath to calm down, and the effect went away.
That was enough to tell her what she needed to know.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. She looked up – the emitter seemed to be glowing with a nice constant light, but as she stared at it, she thought to herself, Faster. Faster…
The emitter began to flicker faintly, and she concentrated on those gaps, those intermittent pauses. As she did, they became longer – in reality only fractions of a fraction of a second, but she stretched them out and slowed them down until they became a regular pulse. The energy curtain blinked in and out of existence as well, more and more slowly until she could actually see it flow downward from the emitter, like water cascading off a rooftop, only to cut off and vanish into the floor.
Sarah counted to herself – three, two… One.
She stepped through the gap in the curtain of light, walked up to the button and pressed it. The emitter shut down and lights in the ceiling came on, and Sarah could feel her concentration give way. Time seemed to resume its normal flow as the wall in front of her slid upwards, revealing a reception room.
Somehow, Claire was already there. “How’d you…?”
Claire shrugged. “I guess I don’t waste time like some people,” she said, winking.
It was clear that the rest of their group had failed the test. A hologram flickered to life in the center of the room. It was one of the Global Defenders, a young man who called himself Detour. He was able to create wormholes to move from place to place almost instantly. “Good work,” he said. The hologram seemed bigger than life size, and he stood looking down on them, strong arms crossed in front of a broad chest. “We would like to remind you both, however,” he said, seeming to look right at Claire as he spoke, “that these tests are to measure your individual abilities. Wishing to help each other is admirable, but not part of the test. Do it again, Miss Carrington, and you’ll be out.”
Claire looked down at the floor. “Yessir,” she said.
Detour smiled. “Head back to your dormitory,” he said. “Get some rest. The final round begins tomorrow.” The hologram blinked out, and the kids started to move.
“I’m glad you got through,” Sarah said. “But you shouldn’t've risked your chances to help me.”
Claire shrugged. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. Then she grinned and put her arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “That’s what heroes do, right?”
Sarah nodded, and they walked together towards the dormitory.
I needed a new hobby. I tried music, but I couldn’t sing worth a damn, and the noises I made on the guitar were just freaking everybody out. I tried to study some languages, and that was kind of cool up until I realized that I didn’t know anyone else who spoke Arabic or Japanese or Russian. I mean, it’s all well and good to be able to rattle off a nice お手洗いはどこですか? whenever you want, but your friends are just gonna look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
Woodworking sent me to the hospital, and every time I tried to cook something, I would end up with a result that was almost, but not completely, unlike whatever it was the cookbook claimed I was supposed to get. The goldfish died, oil paints gave me a headache, I lost count every time I tried to knit, and the sunburn I got when I tried gardening doesn’t bear talking about.
So. Magick. Yes – with a k.
When I was in college, there was a guy in my dorm who said he could do it. Wore black a lot, liked candles, had this big, ostentatious pentagram pendant he liked to wear. He’d stalk around the campus like some kind of hunting crow, looking for something that only he cared about. He’d perch on the back of chairs, with his fingers steepled, talking about the “occult forces that govern the world” as if he knew half of what he was talking about. When you called him on his bullshit, he’d just glare at you until you went away. Then he’d go back to shuffling his tarot cards or playing with the cheap crystal pendulum he’d bought at the rock shop.
I never believed him, of course. He said he could talk to spirits with this homemade Ouija board he kept in his closet, but when I said I wanted to try it he told me that I was surrounded by “disruptive energies” and that he couldn’t risk my getting involved.
Last I heard he was working in some secondhand bookshop in Corsair. Grapevine has it that he drives a minivan.
Still and all, he really seemed to be into it, and there were enough weird stories around the guy that eventually I figured that it couldn’t hurt to at least look into it. At the very least, it would keep me busy, which was all I really needed from a hobby. It’s not like my job requires a whole lot of creative thinking, anyway. The mailroom isn’t the kind of place that cultivates the creative types.
I got on the internet and looked around for a while on what magick was and how it worked. Turns out that half the places I looked at contradicted the other half, and the ones that didn’t seem outright crazy just had that kind of bland, new-age tofu-ness that made me wonder if it was worth getting into at all. Experiencing a oneness with the earth is all well and good, but I was hoping for something a little more concrete. Maybe a new job, a girlfriend or something. Better luck all around, if I could swing it.
I ended up ordering a “Beginniner’s Magician Kit,” which I carefully made sure did not include a rubber thumb and a fake wand. This one had a few candles of Approved Occult Colors – black, white, and red – some cords, a few sticks of incense, and a little bag of rock salt. With it came a nice, concise booklet explaining the basics of magick and how to make the Occult Forces that Govern the World do your bidding.
It seemed a little silly, really. The booklet said I should have a ceremonial robe, but never really explained why. I wasn’t about to sew one, and they don’t do a lot of ceremonial robes at Wal-Mart, so I just tied on my flannel bathrobe and hoped for the best. It said I needed a ceremonial knife – by old bread knife would have to do – and an altar, which was the top of a rolling file cabinet that I kept my tax stuff in.
The hard part was keeping a straight face, honestly.
I lit the candles, keeping the black one on the left, the white one on the right, just like the booklet said. I wrote down my wish on a piece of paper and tied it with a red thread. That went on the altar, too. The booklet said I needed to light the red candle at the far end of the altar and then do the ceremony every day, moving it a little closer to my tied-up wish every day. I wasn’t sure if I had that kind of fortitude, so I just started with the candle in the middle and hoped for the best.
A few taps of the bread knife against the altar, a cone of incense, and I started with the Words. They were loosely based on what was in the booklet, which stressed that the words themselves were less important than the intention behind them. Good thing, too, because of all the things I don’t have much talent with, poetry ranks pretty high.
O night above and day below,
Where the winds and breezes blow,
Here is what you need to know:
My boss, Frank Spry, has got to go!
Every day I live in fear
That Frank is always coming near.
So kick that guy out on his ear
And I will buy you all a beer!
I held the knife in both hands and closed my eyes, visualizing what I wanted. I saw my boss leaving the building, cardboard box in his hands and security at his side. I saw him walk to the bus stop and look back at the office building. His face is wistful and full of regret, knowing that he has ruined the one good thing in his life. As the bus approaches, he wipes a single tear from his eye and nods, as though he has come to an important decision. While I never take the fantasy quite this far, I’m pretty sure he’s going to hang himself.
When I opened my eyes, I leaned over and blew out the red candle. For a moment, I thought it might actually work. I felt a kind of energy pass out of me, or through me, and exit with my breath. In fact, I could almost see it – a silvery puff of air that wrapped itself around the flame and then flew off to take my ill wishes to Frank, wherever he was.
But it was only a moment, really. I know better than most what buyer’s remorse feels like, and I was feeling it already. If you looked at the path my life had taken, you would see it littered with the rubble of a hundred abandoned lifetime passions, and I could already feel that magick was going to join them pretty quickly.
I stared at the smoke rising from the wick and then shrugged. “Oh well,” I said. I blew out the other two candles and thought about cleaning up the altar. It could wait. There was leftover pizza in the fridge, and at least that would make me feel better.
When I turned around, I nearly dropped the knife on my foot. There was a woman sitting on my sofa, and she was like no woman I’d ever seen before. She looked like some kind of international super-spy, with an expensive black suit and reflective sunglasses. Her long, blue-black hair was done up in a complicated braid that she’d pulled over her shoulder and she wore black leather gloves. Her skin seemed to shine from within, and she made all those women in magazines look like trolls. I tried to speak, but nothing came out but incoherent noise.
“I prefer Uware,” she said.
It took me a moment to come up with the cogent, suave reply of: “Buh?”
She smiled, and my heart broke. “Uware,” she said again. “It’s a Japanese beer, and it’s probably the best thing mankind has ever made.” She stood up in a smooth, liquid motion and was about a head taller than I was. “Russell Deloria?” she said, holding out a hand.
I looked at her hand for a moment, and then at her. It took another long, humiliating moment before I could say, “Yes.” And I swear, my voice cracked. Because it hates me.
“Good,” she said. “My name is Iaxiel, and I’m here to fix your little boss problem.”
Malcolm carefully unwrapped the long, thin box he had been given by the JobFair organizers when he signed in at the crack of dawn. There were half a hundred people assembled in the cold parking lot outside a mall that had gone bust a few years ago, and everyone had one of these boxes. They varied in size and shape, but they all had the distinctive red logo of the National JobFair printed all over them.
He felt a certain twinge of trepidation as he opened the box – they said that the items would be totally random, and that their usefulness would often depend on the applicant’s imagination and creativity. That worried Malcolm a little bit. He was what his high school guidance counselor had called “a straight-line thinker.” Give him a task to do, and he’d do it. Let him know what steps were required and what the expected outcome was, and you would get exactly what you wanted from him, with no complaints or problems. The job was there, and Malcolm got it done – get the numbers, put them in order and make them make sense. There was no glamour to it, but it worked.
Then came all the new management gurus, these kids with their MBA degrees who would waltz into a company, turn it upside down and then leave with giant checks in their pockets with no thought as to the damage they’d done. Suddenly, after more than a decade of just coming to work and doing his job – and doing it well – Malcolm was expected to excel, to think outside the box and to innovate. There were meetings and retreats and countless hours of managers writing things on giant pads of paper and making Malcolm and his co-workers do role-plays and brainstorming sessions.
All Malcolm wanted to do was his job. In the end, they wouldn’t let him do it. Along with a bunch of other “old dogs,” he was given what they called “mandatory early retirement.” A pat on the back and a kick in the ass and a check every month that was more of an insult than a pension. Not even a gold watch and a chance to get drunk and rip the boss a new one in public.
He’d been sent home to the wife he’d promised to take care of and the kids he hoped to put through college. He explained to them what had happened, and they were all understanding and supportive and it ate away at him inside. He wanted them to be upset, to tell him that he needed to be stronger. Not to pray or to commiserate or to understand.
He was supposed to support them, not the other way around. And he’d failed.
Now he needed work, but it looked like the work didn’t need him. Jobs were thin on the ground, and getting thinner. The unemployment rate was grinding higher and higher while politicians bickered and all the rich businesses moved themselves where the labor laws were less existent. No matter how often the talking heads on TV said that brighter days were around the corner, there were more and more people hunting for fewer and fewer jobs. Of the companies that remained, nobody wanted to waste time and resources retraining a man in his early fifties to sell computers or flip burgers unless they knew that he really wanted the job.
Thus, the contest. They still called it a Job Fair, out of a sense of tradition, but everyone knew what it was, and “fair” had nothing to do with it.
The box held an aluminum baseball bat, shiny and new. It was nestled in bright white styrofoam peanuts and glinted in the half-light of the morning. He took it out of the box and hefted it. It had been a long time since he’d held a bat – probably not since his little league games as a kid. He glanced around, aware that people were staring at him. One guy had a length of pipe. Another had a frying pan. One guy by the coffee truck was cradling what looked like an old Army service pistol. Everyone had something, and not all of them seemed happy with what they’d gotten.
The big screen that had been mounted above the doors flickered to life, and the familiar face of the CEO of JobFair, Stephan Stokely, grinned out at all of them. He clearly had no problem covering his dental work.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Welcome to the fifth annual regional Job Fair!” He paused, grinning madly, as though he were waiting for applause. There was none. The guy with the gun shot off a round at the screen, but the high-strength plastic just absorbed the impact and the bullet fell to the ground. Stupid, Malcolm thought. One less bullet to use inside. He cringed inwardly at the thought, and wondered if his wife would let him home even if he passed. She hated the whole thing, wouldn’t even watch it on TV like everyone else.
“In a moment,” Stokely boomed, “the doors will open and the job fair will begin!” His face was replaced with a map of the mall. It was a standard model of the twentieth century: two anchor stores, three floors, with a food court and hundreds of shops that had been shuttered long ago. “All you have to do is make it from here -” A bright blue dot appeared on the screen, right at the doors of Finamore’s, where they were all watching him. “To here!” A bright red dot appeared at the other end of the mall, at the far end of the Denton Department Store.
“Now it sure looks easy, but we’ve made it quite the challenge!” Little cartoon exclamation points popped up and danced about the map. “You all have your own personal tools to help you get past some of the obstacles we’ve put in, and we hope to see some vigorous competition!” Malcolm tried not to look at anyone else, and was pretty sure they were trying the same thing. Nonetheless, he could see them staring at the weapons they’d been given, trying to imagine how they would use them.
He felt sick as he realized what he was about to do, and wondered if anyone else felt the same way.
“You have one hour,” Stokely said. Now there was a giant stopwatch on the screen. “Anyone who makes it to the end of the course before the whistle blows will have a fantastic opportunity ahead of them!”
The JobFair employees moved to the doors. These men were large and dangerous-looking, carrying what looked like cattle prods and wearing bright red armor emblazoned with the JobFair logo. Each man took hold of a door handle, and the crowd started to move in. One of the JobFair guards brandished his prod, and everyone moved back a step. The man grinned, and it was nasty.
“Ready?” Stokely’s voice sounded far too excited.
“Set?” Malcolm dropped the box on the ground and took a solid grip on the bat. He was at the back of the crowd, and could feel the energy that was building up around everyone. There’d probably be a few losses right at the start just from trampling.
The crowd surged forward, and the collective howl that came out of that group was horrifying. There were yells and screams and the quick popping of gunfire, and Malcolm watched as the crowd poured into the mall like ants on a raid. He followed, trying to look everywhere at once while at the same time trying to be as inconspicuous as he could. He hopped over a few people on the ground who were moaning and crying, and a few more who weren’t moving at all. They guy who’d had the gun was bleeding from the head and the gun was lying on the asphalt. Malcolm picked it up gingerly and then dropped it again. What did he know about guns? Probably shoot himself in the foot…
There were more screams and shots coming from inside, and Malcolm paused at the doorway. One of the guards lifted his prod, and Malcolm saw himself reflected in the man’s visor: thin and old and scared, and holding a bat that he didn’t want to use. The guard’s grin was positively malicious. “In or out, man,” he said. He gestured with the prod and started to close the doors.
Malcolm jumped through them, into the fluorescent half-light of the mall. He couldn’t see anyone else, but he could still hear them.
The doors closed behind him.
He adjusted his grip on the bat and took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “Get to the other side.” He swallowed hard. “Let’s go.”
Adam refilled his date’s wine and took a moment to notice how lovely she looked in the low lighting of the restaurant. She had curves to her, which he loved, and skin that seemed to glow in candlelight. Her eyes were as dark as her long, curling hair, and she always seemed to be waiting for the punchline to a joke that he didn’t know.
That wasn’t going to stop him from trying to tell them, though.
“Hope you like the wine,” he said.
“It’s lovely.” Carlana tapped her glass against his again before she took a sip.
“Glad to hear it,” he said. “But next time I should probably remember the antidote.”
Carlana grinned around the rim of the glass. “Ah.” She put it down and leaned forward. “But what you do not know is that I have spent years building up an immunity to iocane powder.”
Adam blinked and said, “Oh my god. Marry me.”
Their laughter drew attention from the other tables, but they didn’t notice. They were having too much fun. His brother had set them up together after Adam had gone through a long spell of being single. He hadn’t minded, really. Being single had its perks. The free schedule, the lack of a need to clean all the time or close the door when he peed. But after a while the quiet and the solitude had gotten to him, so he’d asked Marv if he knew anyone. The result was what was turning out to be the best first date he’d ever had.
Adam ignored the voice and went on flirting. “So how is it, working at Qualis? I hear gaming jobs are really tough.”
She shrugged. “No more than any other job, really. There are some tough days, and it can be a little much being The Girl sometimes…” He could hear the capital letters she put on it and could only imagine. He worked at a small bookstore, and was the only guy there. But other than being the one person who seemed to be able to get heavy things off of high shelves, he hadn’t really noticed any kind of strangeness to it. He knew some gamers, though, and he could easily picture how they’d devolve around a gorgeous woman like this.
It turned out she’d worked on one of his favorite games, Stonecracker Kingdom, and they spent some time talking about the puzzles that were the heart of the game. “Are you sure you can’t tell me how to get the key out of the cage?” he asked.
She just shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “Gotta figure it out.”
“Or look it up online.”
She put her glass down. “Oh, you’re not one of those, are you?” He almost thought she was serious for a moment. “Because if you are, then I think we’re done here.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “I assure you. I figure them all out on my own, bleeding from the eyes or no.”
“Good to hear,” she said. “Bleeding from the eyes is actually a beta feature.”
C’mon, man, kiss her!
He coughed slightly. “Would you excuse me for a moment?” he asked. “Call of nature and all that.”
She raised her glass and said, “Be careful in there.” He was grinning all the way to the toilets, but the grin dropped once he got into the stall and locked the door.
There was a small blue panda bear hovering about a foot above his head. He reached up and grabbed it by the neck, dragging it down in front of his face. “Shut up!” he whispered. “I am trying to have a date!”
The bear looked completely unimpressed. “Yeah,” it said. “I know that. And all I’m trying to do is my job.”
“I don’t need you to do your job,” Adam said. “I need you to leave me alone!”
“You need to get into that girl’s pants before the week is out, kid.”
Adam wanted to scream. “That’s the kind of advice I really don’t need right now!” He let the bear go, and it hovered just out of arm’s reach. “You do that, and there’s pressure on me. There’s pressure on me, and I start to get nervous and nobody’s getting anything!” He had to drop his voice back down to a hoarse whisper. “Got it?”
The bear shrugged and did a slow somersault in mid-air. “Suit yourself,” it said. “But she wants you to kiss her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Kid, I’m your spirit guide. I know everything you need to know, and I’m telling you – she’s ready to go.” The panda spun to face him and made little thrusting jabs with its hips. “You play it right and you can leave that porno folder closed for once.”
“Oh, for the love of god…”
Adam leaned his head against the tiles and counted his breaths. He’d had the panda for a few months now, and the fun of it was starting to wear thin. He had no idea where it came from, or why it chose him, but from the moment he woke up to the moment he went to sleep – and as far as he knew, all night – this little blue panda was there. Telling him what he should do in all kinds of situations. Talking to his boss, buying furniture, walking around the city. The bear didn’t always talk – most of the time it just hung out, doing whatever it was spirit guides did when they weren’t guiding. When it did talk, though, it was pretty insistent on getting its way.
“Look,” he said after a few minutes. “You have to let me make my own decisions, okay?”
The bear shrugged. “Well, yeah. Fine. But it’s my job to offer advice, so that’s what I’m gonna do.” It tapped its wrist. “She’s probably wondering where you are, by the way. Every minute you spend arguing with me is a five percent decrease in your chances of doing the nasty anytime soon.”
“See? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about!” Adam’s words were coming out in a hoarse rush. “I’m gonna go out there, and have a nice time with a lovely girl, and if anything happens, then it happens and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t and I don’t need you or anyone else nagging me about it. Okay?” He jabbed the flush button for the toilet. “Now shut. The hell. Up!”
Adam yanked open the stall door. There was an older gentleman at the mirror, combing his hair and watching Adam from the corner of his eyes.
“Trouble, young man?” he said.
Adam took a deep breath and forced on a smile. “First date jitters,” he said. “Nothing to it.” He took his hands out of the sink and let the water shut off.
Ten percent and falling.
Adam winced and smiled again. “Gonna be fine.” He yanked a towel from the dispenser. “Juuuust fine.”
The chief himself came down to my basement office to get me to make an indestructible mime.
“You want me to what?” I asked him.
“You heard me,” he said.
“Yeah, I heard you. I just thought maybe I heard you wrong, is all. You want me to make, what – a mime golem?”
“An indestructible one, that’s right.” He stood there with his hands on his hips and his jaw furiously working over a wad of gum.
Someone had been killing mimes, you see.
The newspapers were having good fun with it, of course, and even the head of the Estervale city council was caught cracking a “silent but deadly” joke when he thought the microphones were off. But mimes or not, they were still citizens, and it was the job of the police to find and stop this killer.
All the evidence thus far had been that the killer liked to work up close. Several mimes had been stabbed, a few poisoned – two had been shot, presumably with a silencer. So what we needed was a decoy, someone that could be a target without being vulnerable. We could set it up to attract the killer’s attention and then nab him in the act.
And so the job of creating the indestructible mime fell to me, the department’s resident thaumaturge. I tried to hold on to my temper by shuffling some papers around, but it was quickly clear that it wasn’t going to work. I dropped a packet of intra-departmental forms into a drawer and slammed it shut.
“So we can flush out some criminal mime-murderer? That’s why you want me to create an abomination in the eye of God?”
“That’s right,” he said, switching the wad of gum from right cheek to left.
“You realize I could lose my license over this.”
He waved my objection away. “You’re doing this under the authority of the mayor. You’ll be fine.”
“But what if -”
“Gripe all you like, Zoltaire,” he said, pulling yet another piece of gum from the package in his pocket. “I’m not about to let the media keep using my department as its butt-boy.” He jammed it into his cheek. “Get to work.”
So. I made a golem out of clay, and I painted it to look like a mime.
Creating life technically falls under the heading of “forbidden” uses of magic and other eldrich energies, and I suppose if you were being really liberal with your definition of “life” then you’d be right. I’d be a monster. The regional bureau would be within their rights to revoke my license to practice thaumaturgy. They might even tar and feather me, for old times’ sake. But look: a golem? I don’t know if I’d exactly call that “life.”
Golems are usually made of clay – not even good clay, in this instance. The good clay is expensive, and I’m just trying to make it by on a police department budget which, as the chief will tell you often and at great length, is never enough. This was stuff I managed to beg, borrow and steal from wherever I could. This was slag clay, elementary art-school clay. Wednesday night at the senior center clay. So if I was really trying to create a living thing, I sure as hell would have splurged on the good stuff. Marble or granite or something.
I will say this for clay, though – it’s easy to work with. All I had to do was make a plaster mold of some mannequin parts and then just go from there. Before I knew it, I had my golem, and it looked human.
Well, human-ish. Close enough, anyway. Not the Uncanny Valley, but I could see it from there.
After that, it was just a matter of making sure he’d fit in. The problem with that was that it was a kind of dull grey-brown color, something you don’t usually see on people who aren’t zombies. Fortunately, however, the problem I was trying to solve also presented me with its solution.
We contacted the local union of mimes and clowns and told them that we needed a costume as part of our investigations. They were so happy to finally be taken seriously that they sent over boxes of old mime gear – half a hundred striped shirts and pairs of stretchy black pants. Lots of floppy hats and dance shoes and just buckets of face paint and makeup. It was enough to make a good man cry.
I asked the folks up at Records to send me pictures of the dead mimes, so I could use their faces as reference. As it turned out, I didn’t really need to. The picture that my brain provided when I thought “Mime” was almost preternaturally accurate: white face, black-rimmed eyes, and black lipstick done up in a frowny-face. I even put in a teardrop coming from its left eye to sell the illusion.
A floppy hat and some white gloves and it was all ready. Looking at it, you wouldn’t know it wasn’t human. Except for the fact that it wasn’t breathing, and probably would’ve cracked into a hundred pieces if you hit it real good with a hammer. It was good to go, except for that one last thing.
Or, as my lawyers would rather I say, “The thaumaturgically-inspired simulacrum of life.”
Animating a golem hasn’t changed since the first golem was made. In the beginning, God made a little clay doll, said the Word, and there was Adam, ready to get up and start naming things. Every golem since Adam has been made on pretty much the same principle, except that our Words aren’t nearly as powerful as God’s Word. Human Words are annoyingly vague, and you have to choose them very, very carefully or bad things will result.
I had the clay. All I needed now were the Words.
If I could have, I would have just written, “Oy. Wake up and fight crime,” but that wouldn’t have worked. You need Words, not words, and the only way to get those is to make them yourself. So I headed on out to the Barrowmill Academy library and started pulling everything I could find on sigilcraft. There were some really heavy-duty texts there, the ones that all the graduate students at the school use, and a few that were more popular reading, for the serious amateur who wants to make his pretty doodles actually do something.
Then there are the books for the pros. These are the ones that you can’t check out. They’re in a special room all by themselves, dark and quiet and lit by softly glowing crystals, and guarded by three ancient librarians who never sleep. The book I wanted was the Liber Sermonium Potentibus, and it looked just as scary as the title made it sound. A heavy black cover, bound in the skin of something that probably never saw daylight. The pages were brittle and old, the writing a blood-brown that skipped and leaked across the page. I flipped to the index and took out my notebook and pen.
Well, my notebook, anyway. The pen flew through the air and smacked into the withered paw of one of the unsleeping Librarians, who opened her beaklike mouth and said, “NO WRITING!” Her voice crawled up and down my spine.
I took out my badge. Yeah, I’m not a beat cop or anything like that, but I still get a badge, which is more useful than you’d think. It’s a sigil in and of itself, and a pretty powerful one. “I’m with the police,” I said, holding it in front of her watery white eyes. “I need that book for a case I’m working on.” The Librarian studied the badge for a good long while, time I could have been using to figure out how to animate the golem. She whispered under her breath and I had to fight the urge to scratch every square inch of skin. Finally she looked at me and said, “Mark not the book.”
Slowly, carefully, I took the pen from her hand. “No worries,” I said. “Your book is perfectly safe.” And I meant it, too. I heard that someone went over one of their books – from the general catalog, mind you, not one of these down here – with a highlighter pen, and the next time anyone saw him again it was eight months later and he was screaming at subway trains in his underwear.
To make the sigils, I had to know exactly what I wanted the golem to do and why I wanted it to do it. That alone took a couple of hours. Then I needed to know who the golem had to think it was, and that was even harder. There are no ancient sigils for “mime artist,” after all. For good reason.
After hours of work and nearly every page in my notebook, I had them. Seven complicated little sigils that, when put into the golem’s head, would make it what we needed it to be. An indestructible mime-slash-cop.
I went back to my office. By now, it was getting late. I stashed the Words in my safe and crashed out on the sofa in the break room.
The next day I awoke to crappy coffee and stale donuts from the day before. I went up to the cafe on the corner for a real breakfast, and caught the morning headline: another mime had been killed. His delicate scarf had been twisted around his neck until he asphyxiated. I shook my head and took a bite of a cherry danish. Hell of a way to go. But all it meant that it was more important than before to get this thing wrapped up and done.
I brought my coffee back to work with me, got the Words out of the safe, and settled in for another long day.
Since nothing in magic can ever be simple, it’s not enough to just pop the top off and drop the Words in. You have to prepare yourself, mentally and physically, for the process. I brought my white robe to the showers, scrubbed down with an herbal soap that was made with the fat of sacrificial lambs, and anointed myself with oil that had been blessed by a magus I knew from back in college. My colleagues tried not to laugh, but I knew what they were all thinking, the jerks.
Back in my office, I sat on the floor and meditated for a while, trying to keep my mind focused on what I was about to do. Laws or no laws, I was bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before, and that took some concentration and, of course, a little bit of humility. Deep breaths in and out, repeat as necessary.
Finally, it was time. I took the top off the golem’s head and very gingerly placed the Words inside. I felt a kind of electric charge building up in there, and pulled my hand out as quickly as I could. I replaced its cranium and started walking around the golem in a clockwise direction, chanting over and over again the Words that I had put in its head. I soon began to sweat and to lose sight of where I was and what I was doing. The golem was the only thing in the world that I could see right now, the only thing that even came close to being real. I wasn’t sure how long I walked, or even who I was anymore.
Suddenly, without a noise, the golem sat up.
I nearly crapped my robe. I rolled to the ground, the Words still coming out of my mouth, and I had to force myself to stop talking. My legs still wanted to move, and I grabbed them and curled into a ball for a few minutes until I was sure I could stand up and stand still. I was breathing heavily and had to mop my brow dry a few times.
It was downright eerie. It sat there, staring at me with these unblinking glass eyes. With its makeup and costume and that stupid floppy hat, it should have looked funny, but there was nothing funny about the still, unmoving form. I moved to walk around it, and its head followed me, the neck making a slight scraping noise as it turned. I continued around the table, and its head continued to follow, three hundred and sixty degrees. I shuddered when I stopped. “You’re gonna have to not do that,” I muttered. The golem didn’t respond. It just watched me as I went to my phone and called the chief down to my office.
When he came in, the golem’s attention snapped to him. I swear I saw him jump, but he’ll never admit to it. “Good gods,” he said through a mouthful of gum. “Is that it?”
I nodded. “That’s it,” I said. “Our very own golem mime.”
We both stared at it for a while, and the golem tried to watch us both. Then the chief said, “Make it do something. It’s starting to annoy me, just sitting there. Watching us.”
“Okay,” I said. I cleared my throat. “Golem. Stand up.”
Without hesitation, the golem stood. It was taller than I thought it would be, having a good eight inches on both of us. “Golem,” I said. “Invisible box.”
The golem reached up and placed its hands flat out in front of it. It started to feel around the edges of an invisible box, trying to see where the walls ended, where the ceiling came down. It patted the walls and even bounced its shoulder off, which got a chuckle from the chief. As it performed, something weird seemed to happen.
It seemed to gain a bit of life. The frozen clay face began to look more panicky, more frantic as it realized that it was trapped inside a prison it couldn’t see. Now, I know I was probably just projecting onto the thing, like I do when I think my dog looks guilty for having stolen food. But for that moment, it really looked like it was a real, living thing.
I wasn’t sure how to deal with that.
“Golem. Stop.” The golem froze in mid-panic and stood up straight. Any semblance of life or emotion vanished from its face in a flash.
“Hell,” the chief said. He walked around it as I had done, but the golem kept its dull, lifeless eyes on me. “Does it do anything else?” the chief asked.
“As long as it’s within the parameters of the Words, sure,” I said. “Anything relating to being a mime or stopping a killer. After that, you’re outta luck.”
The chief grunted as he returned to my side. “All right,” he said. “Looks good.” He took the pack of gum from his pocket and shook out another stick. “Get it prepped. We’ll plant an article in the paper advertising an up-and-coming new mime, and see if we can catch a murderer.” He patted the golem on the shoulder, stuck the gum in his mouth, and walked out of my office.
I sighed. “Looks like you’re going right into action,” I said. “Golem. Lie down.” It did as I instructed, but didn’t close its eyes. It just watched me. I could have ordered it to close its eyes, but I had a feeling like it would still be watching me anyway. Somehow.
I sat down at my desk to do paperwork – creating life or not, there was always paperwork – and thought about what we’d do with the golem once it was out in the world.
Somehow, I didn’t think it would end well.
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!
Ever since I was a little girl, water has talked to me. It doesn’t bother me now as much as it used to.
The first memory I have of it was when I was about ten. I went out to the country to visit my grandmother, who lived in a lovely little neighborhood that was nestled next to a state park. I grew up in a city, so these visits out to where everything was green, and where the noises were all different and I could see the stars at night was a real treat. My mother would let me go out and play with other kids all day, something she’d never consider letting me do in our neighborhood. My father had run off before I was born, which she dealt with by becoming suspicious and over-protective. But there was something about coming out to the country. The sun felt warmer, the air smelled sweeter, and even my mother could relax and let life happen without twenty-four hour supervision for a little while. I really couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than at my grandmother’s house.
The only problem, really, was the creek.
It wound its way through the park about five minutes from the house, and for a kid who never got to see a whole lot of nature, it was a playground. There were frogs to catch and bugs to look at and tiny fish and even the occasional snake. None of that bothered me, either, which would have stunned my city friends. I loved going into the water, whether it was the creek, or the pond it flowed into a few miles away. What bothered me was the day the creek started talking to me.
At first, it just whispered, and I thought it was the water flowing over the stones. I was out there by myself, since Jimmy Sandinsky was being sent by his mom to tennis lessons, and I was looking for skinks or newts or something else that was slimy and would freak my mother out when I showed them to her. I was so focused on what I was looking for that when someone finally said my name out loud, I jumped up and yelped, which was incredibly embarrassing for a girl who had managed to build up a reputation for being the tough one in the neighborhood.
When I looked around, there was a girl standing in the creek with me. She seemed to be about my age, but she was no one I’d seen before. She was wearing a simple white dress, no shoes, and was dripping wet.
“Hi,” she said. “You’re Katerina, aren’t you?”
“Kate,” I said automatically, wiping my hands on my jeans. “Jeez, you really scared me!”
The girl shrugged. “Sorry,” she said. She took a few steps towards me through the water, her hands behind her back. “What’re you doing?”
“Looking for salamanders,” I said. “Wanna help?”
The girl looked thoughtful for a moment and then shook her head. “I have a better idea,” she said. Her eyes seemed to shine, and it occurred to me that they were bigger than they should have been. And black, with just the barest slivers of white showing around the edges. The closer I looked at her, the stranger she seemed, and being alone in the creek suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea. She smiled, and her teeth looked pointy. “If you come home with me, we can have a lot of fun together.” She held out a hand to me, and I noticed that the fingers were webbed. “What say you?”
While my mother had failed to raise me to be ladylike, she had made damn sure I was polite. “No thanks,” I said, backing away. She smelled, too, like clay and moss. I had to concentrate to not wrinkle my nose at it. “I have to get home. For lunch. Now.” I started to climb up the bank of the creek, leaving the girl standing in the water. “Thanks anyway!” I called.
The girl waved at me. “I’ll be waiting,” she said. And then, as I watched, she melted away into the waters of the creek and disappeared.
There’s really no good way you can bring up something like that in casual conversation with someone like my mother over lunch. Even at that age, I knew it couldn’t be done. She’d think I’d gone nuts, and our vacation would very quickly turn bad.
But my grandmother was different.
Grandma Sadie loved to tell stories, and they were usually about horrible things that happened to little girls who were, in her wonderfully strange accent, “Chust like yu, Katie!” I loved them. They were weird and scary and funny sometimes, and she told them in enough gruesome detail to make my mother uncomfortable. Which was half the fun in itself.
“Grandma,” I said while she was peeling potatoes for dinner. It was our time – I washed, she peeled, and there would be a mound of mashed potatoes in the future for us. “There was this girl down by the creek, and she wanted to take me to her house.”
“Ya?” she said. “Where does this girl live?”
I shrugged and ran another potato under the water. “I dunno,” I said. “But she was kinda weird.”
“Well…” I took a deep breath and wondered if there was some special place they sent crazy children, or if they just shipped them off into the woods, like in her stories. “Well,” I said again, “after I said that I didn’t want to go, she kind of… turned into water.” I looked up at my grandmother. “And disappeared.”
My grandmother raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?” He held out her hand for another potato and I gave to to her. “That is very weird.”
We prepared potatoes in silence for a little while – washing, peeling, washing, peeling – and then I said, “So what do you think she was, Grandma?”
My grandmother scraped the skin off the last potato, put it in the colander with the rest and ran some cold water over them. “You think I know?” she asked. I just shrugged. Of course she knew. She had to know. She looked sidelong at me, and I knew from her expression that she had a story. I couldn’t pin down what it was – her eyes, the tilt of her head, the vaguest hint of a smile, but I knew what was coming.
She dumped the potatoes into a large pot of water and set it to boiling. “Sit down,” she said as she went to the oven to check the chicken. Satisfied that it was roasting happily, she came to the kitchen table and sat down across from me.
“When I was young,” she said, which was how nearly all of her stories began, “a long, long time ago, there was a friend living near me. Edie, her name was. And she was a lovely little girl. Just like you, Katie.” She reached out and patted my hand, and I grinned. “And one day, Edie went down to play in a little pond that we had in our town. She loved to swim, Edie did, and she swimmed all day in the summertime.” Her eyes glinted and her fingers wiggled like little fish in the water.
“Well, Edie’s mother was very worried about Edie. She knew that there were tricky spirits in the water, who wanted to take her little girl to their home forever. And so she made her a lucky charm to wear when she went swimming, and Edie wore it every day.” She held up a finger, and her face became serious. “But one day, Edie forgot. Maybe she was lazy, maybe she was excited to go swimming. But she forgot. And do you know what happened?”
I shook my head. I could guess, of course, but there was never any need to answer when my grandmother asked that in a story.
“When they found poor little Edie, she was blue all over.” She touched the sleeve of my shirt, which was a pale sky blue. “Just like that, she was. And her mouth was full of water and her hair was green like the weeds.” She sighed and clasped her hands together. “The spirits in the water had taken her, it seemed. But they could not keep her there, because little girls do not live well in the water. But the water spirits, they didn’t know that so well.”
The oven timer dinged, and she stood up slowly. “So. If you meet a water spirit, Katie, do not go with it. Nothing good will come.”
As stories went, it wasn’t her best. “But why did they take Edie, grandma? I mean, they must have wanted something, right?”
She shrugged and checked the potatoes, which had started to boil. “Don’t know,” she said. “Those water spirits are tricky, like I said.” She turned around, wooden spoon in hand. “Maybe they wanted to be her friend. Maybe they wanted to play with her, like a dog or a cat. Who knows?” She came over and patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “Now go on and play. I have to finish the cooking.”
I left the kitchen, questions still in my mind about what had happened, but there were no more answers for me that day. I didn’t go back to the creek for the rest of the summer, and by the time we went back to the city, I had pretty much put it out of my mind.
That didn’t mean that they had forgotten about me, though.
As I grew up, I started to notice them more and more. I didn’t go back to that creek, but that didn’t mean I stopped going to water. There was a pond in the park near my school, and more than once when I went swimming I could swear I saw eyes peeking up above the water to watch me. We took a field trip in high school to the Edles River Aquanaut Museum and I eventually had to beg my teacher to let me sit in the bus.
And, of course, god forbid it should rain.
A Wikipedia search brought up more information about water spirits than I wanted to know, and I spend a whole afternoon trying to find something familiar. The kelpies and kappas and undines sounded close, but none of them seemed quite right. Aside from that little girl I’d seen, none of them were so forward in showing themselves to me. They just let me know that they were there, even if I couldn’t see them. Which made it that much worse, of course. I did my best to stay away from water, which felt weird. Even swimming pools, which had never given me any problem. I missed going to the beach and the lake and exploring the waters, but I hated the feeling of being watched all the time so much more.
I didn’t want to bring it up again with my grandmother, though I don’t know why. As I got older and her stories stopped becoming my favorite reason for visiting her, I thought that maybe I should keep things like that out of mind when I saw her. Maybe she’d think I was making fun of her if I kept bringing her tales of strange water creatures, snakes and frogs that spoke my name and whispers in the rain. Maybe I was just trying to pretend it never happened. When she died, I whispered the truth to her at the wake. Maybe she was listening somewhere, and maybe not. I hope that she was.
But the camel’s back broke when my best friends planned our graduation trip. I offered all sorts of suggestions that would be fun and entertaining and all-around good times. But the consensus among the rest of the group was unanimous: Florida. La Fontana, Florida, to be specific. A vacation town that was pretty much all beaches.
I tried to talk them out of it, to suggest a nice trip to, say, Arizona or New Mexico, but they weren’t having it. And so I was torn between having a great final graduation bash with my friends and giving in to the ridiculous notion that there were water spirits that were trying to take me away to their secret watery kingdom.
And yes, when I said it out loud to myself, it sounded exactly that ridiculous.
The Hotel in La Fontana was about a five minute walk from the beach, and that’s where everyone wanted to go as soon as we arrived. I made an excuse, saying that I wasn’t feeling well, but that I’d join them for dinner. I stepped out onto the balcony and stared at the sea. It was the first time I’d been to the ocean in a long time, and I was struck by how beautiful it was. Bright blue water against white-gold sand, it came in and out and in again, slow and unstoppable. I stared at it for a long while, until the waves said my name, quietly but very clearly.
“Nope,” I said. “Not happening.” I closed the door to the balcony and stayed inside until dinnertime.
By the third day, my friends decided to have an intervention. They sat me down and explained, in perfect detail, all the ways that I was hurting their feelings and screwing up their vacation and how I should get over whatever I was going through and just have some fun for once.
“I’m having plenty of fun,” I said. “I brought books.”
That didn’t go over well. They left for yet another beach party and I went down to the restaurant in the hotel for some dinner.
The thing of it was, though, that they were right, even if there was no way I could explain to them why. I looked forward towards the rest of my life and wondered if I could really keep this up. If I could really spend the rest of my life away from something like water. Never enjoy a day at the beach or go white-water rafting or go out on one of those stupid pedal-boats on the pond with a cute guy. All those things I really wanted to do. Was I really ready to spend the rest of my days holed up in some desert cabin, as far away from water as possible? Afraid?
And that was it. As soon as I thought it, I knew the answer. Was I really prepared to live my life in fear?
I went to the concierge and asked where there was a nice quiet stretch of beach. I told him that I was a writer and I liked to take long walks by myself to get ideas. A total lie, of course, but his face lit up and he told me that one time Stephen King had stayed at this hotel and asked the same thing, and oh how interesting it must be to be a wordsmith. Yes, he said “wordsmith.” In any case, he gave me a map and pointed me towards a small cove that could be reached with a short taxi ride and sent me on my way.
The cove was just as he’d promised. It was small, with a white, sandy beach, and there was no one there. The sun was setting behind me, which gave the water a dark and cold look. The waves were coming in with the same rushing regularity, one after another, and I felt my heart trying to smash its way out of my chest.
“Okay,” I said to myself. “You can do this.”
I slipped off my shoes and walked down to the waterline, keeping my toes just barely beyond the reach of the waves. I crossed my arms and dug my toes into the sand and faced the ocean. Far away, the sky was dark with the oncoming night, and I suddenly wished I had done this, say, six hours ago. But there was nothing to be done about it. If I left now, there was no way I’d come back.
I took a deep breath and said to the ocean, “Okay. I’m here. What do you want?”
For a long, embarrassing moment, nothing happened. I started to wonder if maybe I really was crazy. If maybe I’d imagined all that, from the girl in the creek up to everything else, and whether or not getting professional help might be a good idea.
I imagined that right up until the waves stopped beating the shore and the surface of the ocean lay as flat as a swimming pool. The sudden silence in the cove was terrifying. The sound of the surf became one of those noises that you didn’t really notice until it stopped, but the surf wasn’t supposed to stop.
But it did.
The water at my feet began to bubble and swirl, and I took a few steps up the beach away from it. There was a kind of glowing phosphorescence to the water that I’d only ever seen in documentaries, and it made the water look like some terrible Disney sorcery. The water rose up in an impossible column, churning and twisting, but not falling, and then filled itself out in the shape of a man. I blinked and fell backwards, and the water took on form and color, resolving itself. The man took a step towards me, his feet making a slight sucking sound as they left the water.
He was tall, and older than I was, and wore a long coat that looked black in the dwindling sunset. His eyes glowed blue, though, and his skin was the color of a pale blue sky. His hair was the dark green of seaweed. He reached his hand down to me and said, “Let me help you up.” His voice sounded like it was coming from far away, like it was coming in at several pitches at once. It sounded like whalesong.
I took his hand. When I finally got a good look at his face, the first thought I had was that he was a king. He had that kind of strong, bearded look to him, with eyes that could flash from amusement to deadly seriousness. “Sorry to have frightened you,” he said.
“It’s a little late for that,” I said, brushing sand off my legs.
He seemed unprepared for the sarcasm. His face froze, but after a moment he laughed. “I knew I’d like you,” he said, and he put a hand on my shoulder. I resisted the urge to shrug it off.
I took another one of those deep breaths. “What do you want from me?” I asked him. In my head, I channeled the tough girl I had been as a kid. The one who wouldn’t put up with boys who thought I could be pushed around. “Because all this whispering and coming at me from over my shoulder? Yeah, that’s gotta stop.”
He nodded. “Well, you’ve been doing your best to avoid us. Honestly, I’m surprised you even came here.”
“I only came here to put an end to this, okay?” I jabbed his chest with my finger, and he looked down like he was surprised it was even possible. “Whatever you want, spit it out. And then leave me alone.”
The man – or whatever he was – stood there in front of me for a moment, staring at me like I was some weird new kind of undersea specimen. Then he laughed again, and his laugh had the sound of waves underneath it.
“Stop laughing at everything!” I yelled. “This is serious!”
“I know it is serious, Katerina.”
“Kate,” I said. “And who the hell are you, anyway?”
“Kate.” He nodded. “You can call me Proteus, Kate.”
That stopped me. “Proteus? Like Greek mythology Proteus?”
He shrugged. “Those stories change in the telling, but yes.” He spread his hands. “I have come to tell you something very important. About yourself.”
“Myself? What do I need to know about myself for?”
He seemed surprised, and bit back another one of those laughs. “We all need to know about ourselves, Kate. At least, ourselves as we are right now.”
I stared at him for a moment and then threw up my hands. “Okay. That’s it. I’m going back to the hotel, and never coming back to the ocean again.” I turned around and started digging in my bag for my phone.
When I heard the voice, I stopped cold. It was the only voice that could have made me stop at that point.
I turned around and there she was, standing by the waterline. The man was gone, and my grandmother stood there alone, just as I remembered her. “Please, Kate,” she said. The tone, the accent, were perfect, and I felt hot tears rise up in my eyes. “Please, I just want to talk to you.”
“Don’t you dare,” I said as I stalked towards her. “Don’t you dare use her to get to me!” I grabbed her by one of her bird-thin arms and pulled her away from the water. “Come on, get out of there! Let go of her!” I gave another yank and she fell over onto the sand. “Let go!”
When she fell, she splashed, and the water rushed back down to the ocean, which had started to move again. The waves came in and out quickly, as though trying to make up for lost time, and a moment later the man emerged from the water again.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” I yelled. “I don’t care what kind of god you think you are, but don’t you -”
A clap of thunder from the cloudless sky cut me short, and Proteus looked much bigger and much less avuncular than he had before. He stood close to me, towering over me as rain began to fall around us. “You do not get to tell me what to do,” he whispered, and it sounded like rocks falling into the sea. “I have humored you enough. Now we need to discuss what to do with you, daughter.”
I stared up at him for a long time. His eyes had been the bright blue of a tropical lagoon, but they slowly shifted to a color that could only be called “wine-dark” by anyone who’d read Homer. His last word seemed to skitter across my brain, refusing to let itself in. Finally, though, it did.
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, hell no.”
Rick sat on the subway as it pulled into the station and watched all the men who got on. His eyes flickered over their features, taking in the shape of their nose, their eyes, looking at their legs and shoulders and trying to see the form beneath the clothes as each one stepped through the doors and sat down or found a place to stand. Most of them weren’t very appealing. They were too old, or they had let their body go to seed. It was one thing that disappointed Rick about having to live in the United States – so few people took care of themselves anymore.
One young man caught Rick’s eye, and he focused his attention on him. Maybe eighteen. Tall, slim-hipped and broad-shouldered. Baggy jeans and a jacket made it hard to get a good idea of what he really looked like, but his face had a kind of delicacy to it that appealed to Rick. He ran his gaze down the young man’s jawline and cheekbones, trying to guess what his hair might be like under that wool cap he was wearing.
Good enough, Rick thought. He took a deep breath, adjusted his focus, and began to steal the young man’s body.
“Steal” wasn’t quite the right word for it, of course. The guy would still have his body when Rick was done, and aside from a slight itching feeling, he’d never know that anything unusual had happened at all. But if he happened to glance over at Rick during just the right moment, a brief second, he would have been startled to see himself sitting there.
Rick’s mind’s eye filled with information about the young man as a body-form built itself. He was clearly in good shape, probably an athlete in either high school or college. The long, muscular legs and broad chest suggested he was a swimmer, which brought a smile to Rick’s face.
Which wasn’t, strictly speaking, his.
He knew what his original face looked like, of course. That was kept safely in his mental gallery, where all the forms he’d copied over the years were stored. His was in the back. If his mind had been a physical place, his body would have been under glass, kept behind great steel doors that never opened. He hadn’t worn his face, or the rest of his original body, since he learned how to copy others, and he wasn’t about to start doing so now.
He settled back in his seat and felt his body shift in tiny, nearly imperceptible ways as he picked and chose which features to change. His fingernails got a little longer, his hair about an inch shorter. The bridge of his nose filled out a little, and his skin color darkened ever so slightly. Other things came along with it – an ache in the knee, a sore back from some injury or another. He erased them quickly and breathed a sigh of relief. His fingers started to twitch, and he suspected that the young man knew how to play the guitar. A useful skill sometimes, but not now. It would fade in a few hours anyway, so there was no reason to think too much about it.
When he got off the subway train, he looked much the same as he had when he got on, but the tiny changes added up. He smiled at his reflection in a store window above-ground and appreciated the white, straight teeth that flashed in the glass. The young man he’d taken from had left him with a sour feeling of anxiety, but he was able to force it off. After a few blocks, he was as cheerful as he’d ever been.
When he got back to his apartment, the excitement had him taking off clothes almost as soon as he was in the door. By the time he got to his living room, he was able to admire his new body in the floor-to-ceiling mirror that he had installed when he moved in. It was a large studio in the middle of the city, which was perfectly fine for him. He got good money from modeling, and used it to fashion a stylish little nest for himself.
He spent a long time admiring himself in the mirror. His skin was a light brown with hints of gold, his eyes bright green and his hair a lustrous black that was almost blue. He had high cheekbones and almond eyes, and a straight and clear jaw.
His body was tightly muscled without being bulky – slender, strong arms, and a broad chest. He rubbed his flat stomach with delicate, long-fingered hands and then glanced down. He grinned again and waggled his hips back and forth a bit. When he’d started to get a hang of his powers, he’d convinced himself that becoming better-hung was part of testing his limits, and to be fair, it did help. He learned that he only had the mass of his body to work with,and that increasing the size of one part – perhaps to ridiculous degrees – would result in losing mass in others. He weighed more than he looked like he should. He’d been shocked when he weighed in at just above three hundred pounds. At the same time he could look like a skinny hipster, and the payoff was that he could make himself – or parts of himself – much bigger than he should be.
It had been an entertaining weekend, to say the least.
He stretched and moved to the opposite comer of the room, where he’d set up a black backdrop and some photography lamps. He set up the camera on a tripod, set the timer, and got pictures, front back and sides. They’d go into his computer for his records. He still didn’t know what he was going to do with those pictures, but he couldn’t bring himself not to take them.
Inspection complete, he started to get dressed again. The day was still young, and he had the weekend to himself. It couldn’t hurt to go out scouting again. There was no end to the beautiful people on Corsair City, after all.
He put on some baggy clothes, which would accommodate any changes he felt like making, and headed back out into the city. He practiced his speed-changing as he turned corners. From November Boulevard to Fifth Street, his skin darkened and he became taller and thinner. A beard sprouted on his face, and he became at least forty years older in a blink. He adjusted his stride to more of a shuffle until he got to October. He turned left, and his hair burst from his head into a long, red mane. Freckles popped out on skin that was now a pale pink, and a gap opened between his teeth. He adjusted to more of a strut for a few blocks. On Eighth, he turned right, this time shrinking down a full foot. His features became more delicate and childlike, and curly ash-brown hair dropped down in front of his eyes. He laughed and ran across the street to Juno Park, where he shifted again into the form he’d built earlier.
He had no idea why he was able to do what he did, and he didn’t care. It was what had saved him from his old life, from his old self, and whatever price he’d have to pay, he would do so gladly.
The cafe in the small park was one of his favorite places in the city. It was small, it was trendy, and it was expensive. The other customers tended towards the Beautiful People, which suited Rick just fine.
He took a seat in the corner where he could see as many people as possible and ordered a latte. A magazine gave him the pretense of reading, and he settled in for an afternoon of people-watching.
One man caught his eye nearly immediately. He was seated a couple of tables away, just within the range of Rick’s senses, and he looked like no one Rick had scanned before. He had a narrow, cleft chin and a nose with a graceful curve to it. His skin was pale to the point of translucence, and thick hair cascaded down to his shoulders, more gold than blonde.
I could use some of that, Rick thought, and reached out to scan him.
The pain that shot through him was enough to not only make him cry out, but he rocked back in his chair hard enough to hit his head. He then fell forward, tears in his eyes and a warm wetness leaking out of his nose.
A waitress came over, wide-eyed and worried. “Are you okay, sir?” She helped him sit up and winced at the blood that was running from his nose. “I’ll just… I’ll just get you some napkins,” she said. Rick rubbed his eyes, which sent another pain through his head, but nowhere near what there had been before. When the waitress came back with a pile of napkins and a large glass of ice water, he thanked her and worked on stopping the bleeding. He could fix it himself, but that would take concentration. He didn’t have a whole lot of that right now.
He’d never felt anything like that. Ever. He’d gotten feedback before, when he tried to copy a woman’s body, and once when he tried to copy an animal. It seemed to be one of the limits of his power – he could only copy men. Human men, at that.
The thought lingered in his mind for a moment as clarity returned to him. He sealed off the bleeding and used the napkins to clean up the blood that covered his mouth and chin.
He glanced over, wincing as he did so. The guy was still sitting there, perfectly calm and seemingly unaware of what had just happened. A number of thoughts ran through Rick’s mind, each more ridiculous than the last. He tried to think of reasonable explanations for what had just happened, but kept bumping up against the problem that what he did wasn’t exactly reasonable.
Carefully, very carefully, he extended his senses out towards the blonde man.
The pain this time was slower to hit. Rather than feeling like he’d been shot through the head, Rick felt like he was having a hot wire shoved through his brain by a very slow and very sadistic torturer. He felt the blood vessel in his nose go again and was vaguely aware that he was getting blood on his shirt. His jaw hurt from the effort of clenching his teeth, and he realized that he was making a high-pitched whine when the waitress came over to him again and shook his shoulder. “Oh, sir, you need to get to a hospital!”
He broke off contact and took a deep inhale that turned into a cough. Blood spattered over the table as he doubled over, and finally the blonde man glanced over in his direction. The waitress ran to get some more napkins, and maybe some help. Rick tried to do repair work, settling his lungs and his nose so that he could at least see again, and when she came back, he was already cleaning himself up. He had to thank her several times before she would leave, and that was when he noticed that the blonde man was gone.
Rick stood up like a shot and was halfway out of the restaurant before he dashed back, tore a twenty from his wallet, and ran out again. I must look like a freak, he thought, but the thought didn’t stop him. He dashed about outside until he got a glimpse of gold-blonde hair and went chasing after him.
The man didn’t seem to notice, so Rick slowed down a little. He took some deep, heaving breaths. For all that he had the muscles of an athlete, he really wasn’t in the habit of using them all that often, and made a note to find someone with a really good heart next time he was out. He grabbed some napkins from his pocket and tried to scrub drying blood off his face while the blonde man walked several blocks down September to a subway station. He hopped down the stairs, and Rick went down after him, shifting fluidly as he did so. By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, he looked like an exhausted businessman on casual day.
He followed the blonde man through a turnstile and shifted again, but when he got to the other side, the platform had changed.
There was no one there. A moment ago, the station had been bustling with afternoon traffic, but now? Now it was utterly empty and silent. He looked around, and no matter where he looked, he was the only one. Then he caught his reflection in one of the public service posters that hung on the wall and started to scream.
He was himself. For the first time in nearly a decade, he was in the body he’d been born into, the one he’d been so happy to be free of. His face was pale and soft, with eyes that looked small and too close together, a nose that sat like a lump in the middle of his face and thin, grayish lips that made his mouth look more like a gash across his face. Under his baggy clothes, he knew what his body looked like. It was pasty and flabby and spotty. It had scars and freckles and moles, and hair where he didn’t want hair and looked nothing like what he always thought he looked like in his head. He desperately tried to change, to shift into any other body but this one, but nothing happened. He was trapped, and beginning to panic.
“Why were you following me?” The voice was deep, and had a slight accent underneath it. Rick turned around to see the blonde man standing on the edge of the platform. He had his hands in his pockets and looked for all the world like he was just having a casual conversation, waiting for the train to come.
“What did you do?” Rick wheezed. He felt weak and leaden.
“I asked you first,” the man said. “Why were you following me?”
“I… I wasn’t,” Rick said. “I just wanted to ride the subway.”
The man shook his head and sighed. “I can leave you here, you know,” he said. “Trapped on this platform, in the body you detest. Is that what you want?” He raised an eyebrow, and Risk said nothing. “Good,” he said. “Now let’s try this again. Why were you following me?”
It took Rick a few moments to decide to tell the truth. He looked down at his nail-bitten hands and said, “I wanted to know who you were.” He looked up at the man, whose expression hadn’t changed. “I wanted to…” He laughed, and it was high and nervous. “God, this is going to sound stupid – I wanted to copy your body.”
The man nodded slowly. “Not stupid,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think I’m the best choice you could have made, but still. Thanks.”
“But,” Rick went on. “But I couldn’t read you,” he said. “And I wanted to know why.” Now that he’d started talking, the panic was giving way to that excited sense of mystery that made him chase the man in the first place. “I mean, I can read any man, you know? It’s easy. But you…”
“Yes,” the man said. “I saw the nosebleed. Looked terrible.”
Rick stared at him for a long while before he said the thing that he’d been thinking ever since the restaurant. “Are you…” He licked his lips. “Are you an alien?”
The man responded by bursting into laughter. He laughed so had that he had to lean over, hands on his knees, and take great heaving breaths before he was able to control himself. His laughs echoed off the tiled walls of the subway platform and finally, after a long while, he wiped tears from his eyes, straightened up, and looked Rick right in the eye with a straight face that seemed to lock in from nowhere: “No,” he said. “I am not an alien.” Then he turned and started to walk towards the turnstile.
“But – wait!” Rick ran up to him and grabbed his sleeve. Another spike of pain, not as bad as in the restaurant, shot through him and he let go. “What…” The pain subsided instantly. “What are you?” he asked.
The man smiled at him, and it actually made Rick feel a little better. “You’ll find out another time,” he said, and the harshness had gone from his voice. “But not now.” A smile flickered across his face and he walked through the turnstile.
As soon as he did, Rick found himself caught in a crowd that came from nowhere. Suddenly, people were all around him, pushing by and cursing him out for getting in everyone’s way. He weaved through the crowd until he got to a bench, sat down, and then – gingerly, carefully – tried to shift.
He felt that familiar feeling of everything changing, and let out a deep sigh as the body he’d built for himself slid into place. He stood up straight, stretching his fingers and his neck and running his hands down his sides just to make sure he was who he thought he was. A young Asian college student walked by and Rick reached out to him. There was no pain, no agony. Just a quick sketch of the young man’s shape and form, and Rick let it go without keeping it.
Everything seemed to be normal, or at least as normal as he got.
Part of him wanted to count his blessings and head back to his apartment. He could order Chinese food and watch TV and go to his gig in the morning and forget that all this had happened. Whoever that blonde man was, he was not someone that Rick wanted to make angry at him. Not. At. All.
And yet… He’d never met anyone like that before. Like him before. Someone who could do things, things that they shouldn’t be able to do.
This would take time. And care. And serious consideration. He sat back down on the bench a a subway train came past and disgorged its passengers, and he watched people go by.
And he thought.