Tales from Space

Vol. 1

A GAF Short Story Anthology

Written by

Virginia Carraway & Tony Stark

© StarkLight Press 2013

STARKLIGHT PRESS

Published by StarkLight Press

a Division of StarkLight Industries

1 Kala Road, Fraser Lake, B.C.

Canada

V0J 1S0

www.starklightindustries.com

Copyright © Virginia Carraway and Tony Stark, for StarkLight Press, 2013

All rights reserved

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted

Any similarities between persons living or dead is purely coincidental… you know.

Set in FreeSans 8/10.5/13/16/28

Printed by IngramSpark. 48Hour Books

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published herein and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

I will speak of you as brahman manifest.

I will speak law. I will speak truth.

May that protect me: may that protect the speaker.”

– Taittiriya Upanishad

Table of Contents

Foreword 5

Prologue 7

Dalton’s Daughter 10

Buxbie’s Better Bees 42

Waiting to be Human 70

Beyond the Wall 93

His Own Ticket 109

Death, Diet and Education 126

The Legend of the Bluestone Maenad 161

Daddy’s Girl 190

Kidnapped 237

The Quarantine of Zealand II 261

The Last Living Performance of Dom Donovan 290

The Philosophers of Fame 330

Foreword

Many of the adventures of the GAF focus on Verily Wrought and his command, although there are many other stories in the universe. Some of these stories are contained in the Tales From Space anthologies and other stories focus on the origins of the members of Detach Detachment. The stories within are written by Tony Stark and myself, the two founders of the GAF universe- but there are quite a few stories who have been contributed by people who feel they have found their own niche within our universe available in future anthologies and for now, on GAFMainframe.com.

Tony and I met through writing the GAF online. Originally his stories centered around Verily Wrought and my stories focused around Sasha. Much like our lead characters, we eventually met and found love. Our universe has since expanded far beyond the scope of Sasha’s home planet of Dalton and the asteroid that Verily was raised on. At the writing of this foreword, Tony and I are planning our wedding. It is amazing to think that from a fictional universe real love could bloom.

Every GAF story is grown with love and our personal devotion to telling ‘true’ stories. We are often asked how fiction could ever be ‘true’ stories, but anyone who has ever been an audience member cheated by an author or a screenwriter will know the truth of this statement exactly. It is hard to put into words the feeling of seeing a beloved character or world behave in a way that you find unbelievable or ‘untrue’. If you have never experienced this as a reader I suggest you read Stephen King’s classic story Misery to understand more of how this can be and the deep impact it can have on both the writer and the readers.

Much of the structure of the Galactic Armed Forces and the GAGA are from Tony’s pen as is the original idea itself. Although we built the universe together the idea of the Hodge Podge world of the GAF was brought to our reality through his vision of it. I consider myself to be both honored and fortunate to have been invited to help draw more of the GAF into reality.

Now the GAF is all grown up and while we continue to learn more about its vast reaches and the many races and planets it encompasses both within and without the GAGA, there is a certain stability and largeness to it now that is wonderful to see from its tiny online beginnings. With every new reader and every new contributor I am delighted to see people discover this vast universe with the same eyes I first saw it.

Its diversity and its largeness gives so much freedom to writing the characters and worlds within and as each new world is expanded and explored by characters who become more beloved to me every day, I feel as though I am only beginning to see the GAF unfold. It makes sense that this is only a start, it’s a big universe out there and it will take some time to map it all. Thanks for joining us on this adventure and taking time so see what we’ve seen.

– M. Virginia Carraway, 2013.

Prologue: The Universe So Far

The year is 2714 and humans have spread from earth to colonize vast swaths of the galaxy. The GAGA (Galactic Association of Globes and Asteroids) is the governing body of the largest collection of planets and other inhabitable bodies. The GAGA enforces agreed upon laws and societal standards for all peoples who are part of its collective as well as regulating substances, drugs and weapons. It began as part of Old Earth’s colonizations of the galaxy but grew to include many non-human beings as well. Joining the GAGA is seen as a position of esteem amongst galactic inhabitants as it shows a certain level of civilization and also increases trade opportunities.

People of the GAGA use a universal monetary system legally referred to as ‘credits’ but slang is regularly used to refer to it as ‘money’ or as ‘dollars’ or many other names, some from old earth and others picked up from alien races.

The GAF, or Galactic Armed Forces, is the military arm of the entire galaxy. Although it often enforces the will of the GAGA, it does have a certain degree of independent freedom and could conceivably operate to enforce justice against the GAGA if it was accused of becoming tryrannical or abusive of its massive powers. The GAGA is run by a Supreme President of the Universe and is backed back a Prime Minister of the Galaxy- whose stories can be found in other volumes. There is a complex political structure of checks and balances that work to keep too much power from falling into the hands of the President and Prime Minister and there are many stories of intrigue about political struggles fit to rival Imperial China in magnitude and sheer diabolical convolutions.

GAF accepts anyone who wants to enlist into military service. Anyone who enlists is given the rank of ‘Cadet’ until they finish training and are placed in a Detachment. Potential Commissioned Officers also begin their GAF careers as Cadets and are only considered for officers if they buy their way in. They must then complete training to the satisfaction of the Cadet Academy. If a Cadet does not have the funds to become an officer, they will not be considered for a position above Non-Commissioned Officers (Non-coms) unless they can save up for entrance exams and ranking privileges.

Although many groups have argued this to be a classist system, the GAF response has simply been, ‘Of course it’s classist, we’re the military.’.

Within GAF are many Detachments that are deployed by GAF head-quarters. Each Detachment is considered to have measureable strengths and weaknesses that define them and make it possible for them to be successfully deployed by GAF HQ. This is done for many reasons, but the largest one is that it is impractical for GAF HQ to be aware of the individuals under their command as human beings and that having them categorized taxonomically makes it much easier to understand what is happening or going to happen in the galaxy without the Generals and Bigwigs at HQ having to go through the hassle of finding out in person.

Since GAF accepts any and all applicants, military service is often an option for people who face criminal charges or who are in some way disgraced or deemed as Un- or A-social personalities. The majority of these people are placed in Detached Detachment and their main purpose within the Galactic Armed Forces was originally cannon fodder.

This all changed when Captain Verily Wrought joined the GAF. Captain Wrought inexplicably signed up despite his status in the GAGA as the son of the wealthiest man in the universe, Victorinus Wrought. Captain Wrought felt morally compelled to fight for the disadvantaged peoples of the galaxy but his personal morality led him to cause a situation of potential intergalactic warfare. He was punished by being forced to Captain Detach Detachment where HQ was certain he would soon be killed and they would be absolved of having the blood of Victorinus Wrought’s son on their hands. The situation was further complicated (see Verily Wrought Takes Command for the full story) by the fact that nearly all the weapons used by GAF were purchased from Victorinus Wrought or from Verily Wrought himself.

Adapting to his new situation, Verily soon turned Detach Detachment around, finding ways to deal with the more disorderly elements and to help the underappreciated members to find their strengths and flourish under his command. Detach Detachment became fiercely loyal to Captain Wrought after many adventures and Verily eventually found love with one of them- Lieutenant Sasha Wheaton.

The adventures in this anthology focus mainly on present day GAGA, ranging from 2700-2714 AD. It follows the future history of Old Earth, many of her peoples and their places in the galaxy. Many of the places have a familiar feel, like the Cayman System and the continent of Miami on Brandenburg. Many of them are brand new, like the Gendler Galaxy where calcium doesn’t exist as an element and the entire galaxy is being rapidly eaten by twin black holes. This anthology is a sampler of worlds, solar systems and galaxies, some of them taken from full length novels, some short stories written expressly for this anthology. Wherever the stories come from, jump in and find your place in the GAGA.

– M. Virginia Carraway, 2013.

Dalton’s Daughter

A Story of Sasha Wheaton

by

Virginia Carraway

It was a warm day in late spring, but as I walked home from the bus I felt only the heavy pollution in the air and saw only the repetition of the sameness of the houses on the street. There was a weight across my brow that made me feel as though my vision was obstructed by my own eyelids and a dull fist of worry sat in my solar plexus.

The worry had started hours ago. Well, actually it had started with a sudden terror that had flooded me and left me feeling a need to run home, despite the fact that getting home without the bus from school was virtually impossible with the various checkpoints and fencing that only authorized vehicles could pass through.

The panic had then snapped shut and that dull heaviness had replaced it. It was as though someone had flipped a breaker box in my mind and shut the panic down. I knew who that someone was.

Anastasia.

Walking home from the bus stop I clutched my holo-tablet to my chest and hummed Glen Miller to myself. As always when I hummed Glen Miller, I heard Stasia’s soft sweet voice chime in with me, singing the words in her pure, guileless way. Her voice was muted, far away, but I was relieved to hear it. With the panic and the sudden clamping down on it, from her end, not from my end, I had feared the worst.

The attached rows of houses were white and grey and slate grey. They had small yards, about four by six feet in size out front, but most had larger yards out the back. It was rare that there wouldn’t be an illegal garden or chicken hutch as well. A railed balcony ran the length of each block of houses. Doors were individualized with planters of flowers or peas or plastic flower pots or welcome mats ranging from classy to ‘witty’. The veranda that ran along the block of houses was quite small as well. Nearly everyone had a chair or two to sit on and maybe a table at which to have a jar of iced Kaffee, the legalized chemical version of coffee that the poor drank. Only the rich with access to the black market would ever taste real coffee, which was technically illegal to possess.

At the time, I didn’t even realize there was a difference between Kaffee and Coffee. Everyone I knew drank Kaffee and the slight chemical buzz derived from it, I was told, was an augmented and superior version of what caffeine caused in the system. It would be a long time and very far away from this street of row housing before I would taste the delight of real coffee… and in very different company than the people I found on my own stoop.

The veranda was a social networking opportunity as well as a place to get some fresh air. It was where we all went to get the latest gossip and news that the holo-vison wouldn’t tell you… and that we shouldn’t have been telling each other for that matter, either. Today the verandas were deserted. A lone pitcher of Lemon-fresh drink stood abandoned on an ornate plastic table that had been molded and painted to look like wrought iron. The pitcher’s contents were spoiled, thick with particles from being left out uncovered.

Two girls from school, Theresa and Stacy, went into their neighbouring doors across the street and down the way. Their voices had been quiet or perhaps they hadn’t spoken as they walked back from the bus. Their footfalls had been nearly silent. It was only the thudding of their screen doors that had let me know that I wasn’t alone on the street after all.

Still humming ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’ as I put my hand on the latch for my own screen door, Anastasia’s voice cut out abruptly.

I opened the door to the sound of the holovision playing loudly in the living room. The foyer of my house was very small, the inner door barely had room to open up into it and then you had to shut it again in order to open any of the other doors or even get into the closet.

I was still attempting to close the outside door when my mom opened the door leading from the kitchen. I squeezed around the outside door and closed it so that she could get through. I took one look at her face and didn’t like what I saw. The panic I felt earlier that day rose up again. Mom’s make up was slightly blurred around her eyes as though she had fallen asleep and cried a little while she slept. Her eyes wore the slack dreamy look of someone who had taken twice her medication before her nap and woke feeling much less of whatever had made her cry.

“I made your favourite for dinner, Sasha.”

She smiled at me, her eyes never making eye contact with mine while she did.

“Where’s Anastasia?” I blurted through lips that felt swollen and numb. Her eyes darted down and to the left and she turned in a little circle and went back into the kitchen, shutting the door behind her with a tiny ‘snicking’ noise. The holovision continued to blare from behind the door to the living room. I put my shoes into the closet and went into the living room with a dreamy feeling in my head of impending doom.

Daddy was sitting in his reclining chair and watching three holographinc girls give a rowsing cheer calling for manly men to buy more Puddin’ Hots. The ad was typical of the sort that appealed this time of day and called for manly men to ‘put it to them while the Puddin’ was Hot’. I swallowed the lump in my throat. The power of the man sitting in his E-Z Boy recliner that was too big for the room was profound over me. He had feared Anastasia since she had been born, he and mother both had, but at least mother loved her as much as she knew how.

“Hi, Daddy,” I said through a sick, forced smile. He looked at me with eyes deliberately dimmed to hide his triumph. Where oh where was ‘Stasia?

I didn’t say the question screaming behind my eyes that stung with unshed tears. I could only hide them and the thudding of my heart in my chest so much. She wasn’t here. Anastasia wasn’t here.

“How was school?”

“It was good. I passed my chemistry test.”

“That’s good. The boss said we would all have dinner soon. It’s your big chance, Sash.”

“Where’s ‘Stasia?” I blurted. I didn’t want to hear about my big chance to work at the nuclear power plant. Terra 65F, more commonly known as Dalton, was designated an energy planet. Dalton had been discovered by one of the thousands of probes that the Galactic Association of Globes and Asteroids or GAGA,used to expand its empire and was named for the scientist who had discovered its commercial worth, Albert Dalton. He had discovered my planet to be a rich reserve of natural uranium and phosphorous. Colonists had been selected to come and work at the factories and plants that Verily Munitions built. For five generations now Dalton had been an inhabited planet.

Where there were uranium deposits, uranium enriching facilities were built and nearby nuclear power plants were built like the one less then a mile east from where I lived. Except for the parking lot, there were rows of houses just like mine built right up to the chainlink fence that surrounded the Nuke plant. Enormous high voltage powerlines ran radially out from the plant. One set touched the edge of the alley behind my house.

The power lines went to a different type of factory where it was transformed with patented Verily technology into large concentrated batteries that were used in munitions and war torn areas to fortify the GAGA troops. As it was pointed out to me daily in school, it was good to know that we were helping out the good guys.

In five generations, we had successfully mined and refined 12% of Dalton’s mass and exported it off the planet. It was a pretty good statistic, most energy planets shot for 8% in that amount of time but I guess our first settlers must have brought some genes for over-achieving with them.

The cooling towers that loomed in the east had been with me my whole life. They towered over the nearby plateau to the north and it would be a long time on other planets before I would ever learn to see a sunrise without cooling towers silhouetted in it as anything but unnatural.

Once we had mined about 45% of the planet’s mass, the planet’s orbit would no longer be able to be sustained, even with Wrought Satellites to hold it in place. Even then, my whole world depended on Verily Wrought Munitions and I said or thought the name fifty or sixty times a day just in the course of going to school and cooking dinner, or washing my hair with Verily High Shine Resolution Shampoo.

But none of these truths, or even the name Verily, could stop the words coming from Daddy’s mouth now.

Daddy looked at me, his face a mask of sorrow. “I`m sorry, Sasha. We all loved Anastasia very much, but there was a problem with her today. I was at work but I came home as quickly as I could, it was too late…“

“What happened?” I was crying now. Let him see. He held out his arms to me. I went to him, reluctant but happy for any contact, even his. He put his footstool down and I sat on his lap while he stroked my hair.

“She started to have a seizure. The doctor said that she probably died of a stroke.”

“Probably?”

“Probably. We’ll never really know, I signed the agreement for her body to be incinerated. We were lucky for every day with her… you know, when she was born the doctors said she probably wouldn’t live to be six- she made it to fourteen. Fourteen goddamn years. She was a fighter, sweety. My sweet Sasha. We still have each other, don’t we. You’ve always been Daddy’s girl.”

His hand stroking my hair was hot and dry. It stopped stroking my hair and he cupped the shape of my head with his whole hand and pushed it against his chest firmly. After a moment he started to stroke my hair again. I was facing the bookshelf, it was a small one but the antique collection of books on it was one of the few things that was a family heirloom. Those books had been on Dalton for five generations now and would leave when the planet had been so thoroughly mined that it could no longer support life, assuming there were any Wheatons still on the planet to take them that was. Daddy was still talking, telling me about how lucky we had been to have had ‘Stasia, but she was never quite right, was she. We were still a family though.

I looked at the spines of the books to escape his words and his false soothings, justification for his joy that Anastasia had died and he had me all to himself now. No ‘Stasia to protect me from night time visits from Daddy now. It would be just like when I was four all over again, just like before ‘Stasia had been born and she had used her special ways to save me for fourteen years from sleepless nights of terror of the boogeyman.

I found a book with my eyes, it was the one about Camelot and Arthur and his knights. That place, back on earth, the first Terra, a place that I had never seen and knew nothing about except from books and pictures. It was a place so far away in scope, with rolling hills where there were no prefabricated Axiom Modular Structures like the ones that surrounded me. Back there, there would be trees everywhere, not just one every sixth house, trees that didn’t have fences around them… and there would be the Lords and Ladies. In my mind I was, of course, Guenevire. What girl could resist playing at being her? The king, the greatest king in the history of our galaxy, and he wanted me. Our love was pure… too pure, and it was the passion of Lancelot that would be my downfall…

Trapped by my imagining I ran into a wayward memory, Anastisia jumping out from behind the door of our shared room, she had a play sword and she spoke, I always remembered when she spoke. Daddy and I had just had a fight he had been yelling at me outside the door.

“Dragon! I Lancelot, Sister.”

She was slaying the dragon with her sword, the deadly lizard that was our father. She was Lancelot and I was Guenevire. She spoke so little and very few people understood the words she spoke. When Anastasia spoke to me, or even just looked at me, her whole story was in my mind as clearly as though I had read it in a book or watched it on holo-visoin. I smiled through my tears (Daddy could always make me cry) and said, “My hero!”

We had played Lancelot and Guenevire for the rest of that evening. We were hunting a crystal that, once found, would keep all dragons from the Kingdom for all time. We would give it as a gift to Merlin and he would set it in his staff to protect us.

I guess we never found the crystal. The dragon had killed Lancelot and it was only a matter of time before he ravished the damsel Guenevire.

Merlin is never around when you need him.

Daddy’s hand had moved from my hair to my back where his fingers traced the outline of my bra strap. I jumped out of his lap and wiped the tears from my eyes. I fled up the stairs and could hear Daddy humming the theme song for Puddin’ Hots as I did.

As I have mentioned, our house was very small. It was actually, of course, a townhouse, but on Dalton, it was about the only type of house built and so we just called it a house. Even the bigwigs who worked at the nuke plant rarely had their very own house. Energy planets just didn’t warrant a whole lot of luxury. I ran up the narrow stairway, it was so narrow that if two people met on it one of them would have to go up or down to let the other pass. There were two bedrooms upstairs and the bathroom.

One was my parents’ and one belonged to me and ‘Stasia. It had a set of bunkbeds, Anastasia’s toy box, a small closet where our dresser was as well, a night stand and my desk for schoolwork in it. That was about all there was room for but it had enough space in the center of the room for ‘Stasia to play with her dolls or to stretch out and colour and lay out some of her other pictures for comparison. There was no space for a desk for ‘Stasia to do school work- which worked out all right as she would never go to school.

My Daddy lied about a lot of things, but he didn’t lie about what the doctors had said about Anastasia when she was born. She was unlikely to survive until she was six. She was born autistic and with alterations (what they used to call mutations) in her brain that made survival dubious. They didn’t understand the alterations, they didn’t care to investigate them, too many children had them to bother and each child had a different alteration so investigating their etiology for one child would prove nothing.

I didn`t want them to look at Anastasia`s alterations. Whether it was something in her chemistry or something in her brain or just the nature of her spirit, what she lacked in I.Q. she made up for in her other talents. She could do things. She could move things. She put on music without standing up or saying a word. Even when she had been a baby, her favourite toys would jump off the ground and into her crib.

The first time Daddy had come into our room after ‘Stasia had come home from the hospital she had started to murmur. She didn`t cry. Not ever, not once that I knew her even as a baby did she cry. We didn`t have a bunkbed then. My desk wasn`t there either as I was too young to need one. Where it would be was where ‘Stasia`s crib rested, and hung from the ceiling was our entire solar system. At the sound of the murmurings from Anastasia`s crib, the planets began to fall. They didn’t just fall though, they were thrown. I could see them by the glow of the night light. They were thrown right at Daddy who cried out when the first one hit him on the crown of his head.

Then they were picked up from the floor and thrown again. Bam, fifteen planets and their moons pelting him on the head and in the face. He clambered off of me, he was terrified. Oddly, I wasn’t. I sat up and pulled the covers around me. Baby Anastasia raised her hand in the air and the planets rose as one, she was going to hit him all at once with them. They weren’t that heavy but I knew that Daddy would go from frightened to angry in a hurry if he was actually hurt.

“Anastasia, don’t.”

Her little fist was still in the air, her eyes blinking in that unfocused way that newborns have. She lowered her fist and put it in her mouth instead. The planets fell to the ground but Daddy hadn’t been content to leave well enough alone. He kept at me, and one day when ‘Stasia was three, what had followed had been much worse. Only then had it stopped the bedroom visits from Daddy.

Nothing was said about Stasia’s abilities for ages. It wasn’t entirely unknown for it to happen, but it was an alteration and alterations were bad. Many children would have special talents and then they would die, usually from a stroke or a seizure. Their minds were special and they held more spirit than a normal body contained, but their bodies were flawed and they would fail them. The special talents could be extremely frightening. Rows of houses had been burned down by accidents caused by fire starters. Mind readers who drove those around them insane from what could be dangerous to the person being read… the rumours were as disparate as the talents.

There were also rumours of successful talents, and the troops who wore all black and drove the black turtle tanks to take them away to where they could be understood, monitored and utilized. That was what happened to the ones who learned how to control their talents. Nobody ever saw them again so all the rest was rumours and supposition.

That was why nobody talked about Anastasia. If you loved someone or related to their situation, you just didn’t talk about things that could hurt them. I knew other boys and girls who went to Stasia’s daycare and could do little things. Nothing like ‘Stasia, but they could do these things and nobody ever talked about them. If raising their hand made their toy spin on the floor, you gently lowered their hand and told them that wasn’t a good thing to do. Then you found something else to entertain them. I knew a lot about what the children in Anastasia’s daycare were like because I liked to volunteer there on the weekends.

That was what I wanted to do, was to work at a daycare group with children and to be with Anastasia every day. I didn’t want to work at the nuclear plant even though it was better pay and better benefits. I wanted to be with ‘Stasia.

I got to the top of the stairs and turned into our bedroom. I could see immediately that it was just my bedroom now.

The bedroom had been sanitized. I walked into it and all signs of Anastasia had been eradicated. Her toy box was gone, her blankets and pillow were gone, even her mattress pad had been removed. Her clothes had been taken out of the closet and the dresser. Her crayon pictures removed from the wall. There was nothing left of her. I closed the door and sat on the floor with my back leaning against it. She was really gone.

I wondered who had cleaned the bedroom. Maybe mother had done it before she took more pills to dull her pain and sleep it off. Maybe it had been a vestige of her caring, since ‘Stasia was dead now, maybe Mother felt safe enough to show some sort of strange version of affection by removing Anastasia’s things. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that removing a child’s things only hours after her death was weird. It didn’t fit with either of my parents and what I knew of them.

I noticed a red, half used crayon that whoever had cleaned the bedroom had left behind. I picked it up and smiled at it, it felt like Anastasia and I was frankly surprised that the feel of her didn’t make me cry again. I felt happy and content. The way she always made me feel. Safe.

“Roses are RED, Sister.”

Her voice, in my mind. Her voice, as clear as though she were in the room with me. I tried to remember when she had told me that, Roses are RED, but I couldn’t recall, and I always recalled when she spoke.

I put the crayon in the top drawer of our dresser. I needed some air. I went downstairs to go out into the backyard. The door to go outside is through the kitchen so I had to go back down the stairs, through the living room where Daddy smiled at me in a smug way and through the miniscule foyer back into the kitchen. Mother was still in the kitchen.

She was standing motionless by the counter.

“Mother?” I walked up to her cautiously. She felt brittle to me. “Are you all right?”

She turned to me, she had been crying since I saw her last. I put a hand on her shoulder. She shook her head, no, she wasn’t all right. She had been standing over our family’s Verily Made Wrought instant dinners. She was trying to ‘make’ mine and Anastasia’s favourite dinner. It was something I had invented one evening to please ‘Stasia and I was nuts about it too. Mother and Daddy thought it was good but didn’t like how much work it was to make.

It was really very decadent as it was one and a half meal a piece. You took a mushroom pasta linguine meal and you put the mushroom sauce, pretty much congealed mushroom soup, onto the ham and fresh vegetable meal. I realized that Mother couldn’t figure out how to make the meal for three people as it meant that half of one of the extra opened meals was wasted. It worked to make the meal for two people or four people, but not for three.

“I don’t know what to do.” She sobbed. I nodded in understanding.

“I’m really not hungry, Mother. Just open the two ham dinners and one mushroom dinner. That’ll work out just fine.”

She inhaled deeply with relief, grateful to be told what to do and to be offered a solution to her dillema. I went past her and out the door. I didn’t know if I would be able to eat tonight or not but I thought that I would likely just pull the tab on a Puddin’ Hot if I wanted something. They were my favourite comfort food of the time and what I considered to be Victorinus Wrought’s, owner of Verily Wrought Industries, greatest invention. Puddin’ Hots came in all flavours- butterscotch, strawberry, chocolate, banana… pretty much any fruit or sweet thing.

(Here’s how they work. All you do is pull the tab on the little dome shaped plastic bowl and it releases a chemical reaction that freshly cooks and warms the puddin’- which is really more like a sauce cake than pudding- and its ready for your personal enjoyment.)

I went out into the back yard. It was one of the areas that we had for our personal living space that actually had room in it. Our backyard had an illegal garden in it that me and my mother tended and it gave us all of our fresh vegetables and herbs. It was a job of work growing anything but we did it. We had to grow the plants under plastic awnings that let in sun but not rain as the rain on Dalton tended to eat holes in all the vegetation if it’s a bad day. We ran the water through a filter and that got rid of most of the alpha particles that did damage to leaves and we just didn’t eat the fruits and vegetables that looked too funky. Too many alterations.

Ours was a nice backyard. One of the limbs of our neighbour’s tree stuck over the high wooden fence and Daddy put up a swing on it for me and ‘Stasia. It was my favourite place to be. I sat on the swing and gave myself a little push. I still couldn’t believe that Anastasia was dead. I closed my eyes and relived the feeling that I had had a school. That sudden panic and fear… it wasn’t sorrow, that had come later… and it had the sensation of being rended in half, not of being killed though. I reached out in my mind for the tenuous connection that still existed where the strong connection had been before this afternoon. It was still there.

Was it in my imagination? I didn’t believe anything was in my imagination with Anastasia, I had had too much physical proof since she had come into my life and I respected her too much then to put doubts and fears onto her.

I was sure that she was still alive. She was somewhere and she wasn’t very happy, but she wasn’t in immediate danger either. I thought of black turtle tanks and shuddered. How could I find out if my feeling was true or not? Mother and Daddy’s story made a lot less sense then the trucks coming for ‘Stasia. It was naive of me to think that they were above finding a way out from having to put up with Anastasia anymore. There were rewards for reporting ‘dangerous altered persons’, or D.A.P.’s as they were casually referred. I didn’t want to believe it could have been mother or Daddy and so I turned my feeling of anger and sorrow out at the world at large and let myself cry quietly but with large hitchings in my chest and tears so bitter and salty they burned my cheeks where they ran.

I was nearly cried out, and I’m not sure how much time had passed as I sat on the swing, but my legs and feet had fallen asleep and so I wiggled them around while I wiped my face on the edge of my pink t-shirt and tried not to do or think anything that might set me off again.

Then my second favourite person in the whole world came to see me and made my day. The fence between our place and our neighbours’ isn’t all that secure in places along the bottom. That was where Penny pushed aside a fence board and came to see me. She snuffled my hand, put her paws on my chest and licked my face clean of salty tears.

Rhoda opened the gate that adjoined our yards and came huffing and panting under her large girth over to see me. Penny was Rhoda’s incredibly illegal Pitbull. I loved Penny more than I loved anyone other then Anastasia. I picked Penny up on the swing and hugged her hard. It helped so much.

Rhoda was ostensibly on disablity due to ‘injury’ received through working at the nuke plant. She was (what I thought of at the time) a master of the black market. I would learn later on that she was barely a dabbler but she constantly impressed me with her gift for getting obscure and illegal merchandise. Penny was an example of this. Where on earth had Rhoda come across a puppy on Dalton? Not just a puppy, but a pit bull puppy? They were considered to be illegal weapons and if anyone ever tattled on Rhoda she would not just be fined but also imprisoned.

Rhoda had kept Penny for seven years now. I could still remember the first time I saw the dog. She was a squirming little puppy and the first living animal other than a chicken I had ever seen. It wouldn’t be until I left Dalton that I would see another living animal. Energy planets have very strict laws in place, way stricter then most planets, although there are exceptions that are far stricter. Nobody ever tattled on Rhoda, at least not while I knew her.

Rhoda was in her own orbit, and was large enough to possibly have her own gravitational pull. I never met anyone who didn’t like her. She was like Santa and the Easter Bunny and a grandmother all rolled into one. She was beaming her usual smile, but I could see that her eyes were sad for me. I avoided her gaze, and focused on loving and hugging Penny. Other than the red crayon, the dog was the first thing all day that made me feel like I wasn’t drowning in sorrow or panic.

Rhoda knew what had happened. I could see that from my furtive side glances at her face. It made sense she would have seen some sort of kerfuffle. She was the only one in our neighbourhood who would likely have been around to see it. Everyone worked and there wouldn’t have been anyone else around to see.

A discrepancy in my theory swam into my sight. Anastasia should have been at the daycare today. If she was at the daycare, how would Rhoda have known about the turtle tanks or an ambulance? It was like our bedroom being cleaned of all of Anastasia’s things, it just didn’t fit the story. The knowledge of my loss was on her face though. Rhoda knew that Anastasia was gone and had brought Penny to comfort me.

“I came over to show you something, my dear!” Her eyes were still sad for me, but there was something else as well, genuine excitement.

I smiled, just a little. Rhoda and Penny had that effect on me. “What is it?”

“The apple tree has set.” It took me a minute to understand and then a minute more to believe her.

Every sixth house has a tree in the back yard. It was an initiative that was started thirty years ago to quell a movement that complained about the dearth of fruit on the planet. The commissioners of Dalton imported fruit-bearing trees to compensate. Each tree is a different sort of fruit tree- apple, peach, plum or cherry. They alternate all the way down the row housing. The person who has the tree shares their bounty in exchange for the vegetables and other things that other people have. It was a great gift, even better since it was legal fruit.

I should specify that it isn’t actually illegal to grow vegetables, it’s just illegal to own or plant seeds. Of course, the seeds must be obtained and planted in order to grow a garden so you can draw some conclusions from the existence of fresh vegetables in a yard as they aren’t sold as seedlings on our planet and they are also illegal to import. Fortunately there isn’t a specific police force or government agency to enforce these rules, so it’s really just something that’s trotted out every so often if you get into trouble with really really the wrong bigwig. It’s such a rare thing to get into trouble over and almost everyone has garden space, it’s just not something to really talk about or acknowledge.

Rhoda’s fruit tree was great. All the fruit trees were great! There was just one problem that the community planners had either failed to take into account or had thought of and had a good laugh at. The fruit trees were imported by Enora Wrought Green Growers Cooperative as saplings but they required pollination to bear fruit. The few winged insects that had existed on Dalton before the first colonists arrived had been extinct for ages now. There was no way for the trees to be pollinated.

We are all still colonists, even though we are fifth generation. We came up with a solution for the problem. Every spring when the blossoms come out we have spring setting parties. They happen at different times depending on the fruit and the variety but the owners of each tree have learned how to tell when its time for a party without fail. I knew that Rhoda’s party was supposed to be next week, we all dressed up with yellow and black fuzzy antenna headbands… the antennas came out in little springs and bounced about while we took the long telescoping sticks with special soft sponges on the end and gently pollinated each blossom.

The party wasn’t until next week, so how on earth had they set?

“Do you want to come have a look at the blossoms?” Rhoda was bouncing on her feet she was so excited. For the moment, I forgot about Anastasia and followed Rhoda through the gate with Penny following at my heels.

I looked up at the apple tree. Its leaves were gently fuzzy on the bottom and the blossoms were stained pink. I took hold of a small branch at face height and gently shook it, the blossoms held. I inspected the base of a blossom, and a tiny swelling had formed already. Rhoda wasn’t kidding the blossoms had set. I took hold of another branch and pulled back my hand in surprise at a strange vibration that took hold of my fingers, I removed my hand and the vibration stopped. I had heard it in my ears as well and after a minute it started up again. Rhoda watched my face expectantly. I looked at her and then back at the branch. I put my face close up by the branch. Something yellow and orange with a little black head and wings looked up at me. I looked at Rhoda again. “Is that-”

“A real life honey bee? Yes!” Rhoda clasped her hands over her large bosom and jumped up on her tiptoes excitedly. “I bought them… a whole hive of them!”

“But how? The air here isn’t rated for flying insects!”

“These are Buxbie’s Better Bees. Genetically enhanced bees designed by Dr. Buxbie. He takes orders and designs bees especially for your planet if can’t support such things.”

“Are they legal?” I asked the answer mentally and stopped the words before they got over my tongue. Of course they wouldn’t be legal! Genetically enhanced organisms were never legal to import unless you were an industrial company with large resources to ensure that they were compatible with existing lifeforms. That point was absurd since Dalton didn’t have any insects or animals but wouldn’t stop serious legal consequences from coming crashing down on the huge entrepreneuse. Rhoda could be in big trouble for this, bigger the the trouble with Penny who had at least been bred locally on Dalton.

Rhoda beckoned for me to follow her and led me to a white plastic box that she had attached to the back of her house. Penny walked over to the the hive which was buzzing merrily and wagged her tail at me. She was happy something had made Rhoda so happy, but then, who knows how much dogs like Penny can understand.

There was a shimmering all around the hive, almost as though a heat haze were surrounding the box. I wondered if it were hot, if maybe the bees needed it warmer or produced heat, but there was no change in temperature as I approached. I could see bees crawling around the edges of the box. They seemed to shimmer into the background of the easement as they flew away. Rhoda lifted up the lid of the hive. Several eye-warping shimmers set on her hands and solidified into bees. They crawled around on her skin. I recoiled a bit.

“Don’t bees sting? Are these ones fixed so they don’t?” I watched in fascination as a shimmer landed on Rhoda’s face, transformed into a bee that walked around on her forehead.

“Oh, these guys still sting, Buxbie’s Better Bees are made to survive and stinging helps them protect themselves. Plus they have other protections. They’re invisible when they fly to keep out of the eye of most of the hoverdrones and wedge heads who might report them to the planet cops.”

“Aren’t you afraid when they walk on you?”

Rhoda laughed and shooed the bees off of her hands and back to the hive. They turned into shimmers that reflected the cammo paint of the box and re-solidified as they settled on the combs. She closed the hive’s lid.

No, what’s to be afraid of? These guys might sting me a bit but only if I scare them or get too clumsy with them. Look here, sweetheart, look how they make it up to me.” She took a small jar from beside her back steps and held it out to me. It was amber and gold in the sunlight.

She opened the jar and dipped her finger into it and popped it into her mouth and then held the jar out to me. I followed her lead and smiled broadly. “Real honey!”

She nodded excitedly and pushed the jar into my hands. “For you, sweetheart, to make the days ahead a bit sweeter.”

My first thought was to share it it with Anastasia. Realizing I had no one I could share it with was a fresh punch in my liver and tears came back to my eyes. Dusk was spreading out from the east between the cooling tower and the world was stained red brown from the large sun of Dalton setting. Our dusk always dyed the world into colors of blood, but tonight it seemed real and true to me, it seemed like my world was blood and death. My eyes hurt with shed and unshed tears. Rhoda hugged me to her warm softness in an encompassing embrace. I felt it then, the fact that the spiritual ties that had bound me to Anastasia were strained or gone. She was gone.

Honey filled my mouth with sweetness different from the chemical sweetness to which I was accustomed.

Rhoda let me cry until her bosom and armpit were covered in my tears. She whispered in my ear.

“I saw it all, I saw it all. Your Dad brought her home, she was sound asleep on his shoulder… then the turtle tanks came… he called them, Sasha, sweet Sasha, it could only have been your dad… if she had been awake they wouldn’t have dared take her, she would have stopped them… they have drugs they give her kind, to make them sleep, drugs that are illegal unless the military issues them… I’m so sorry, my dear, but they took her, soldiers dressed in black… she was still asleep, not dead but asleep… I’m so sorry, if I had been braver perhaps I could have woken her, but you know I’m not brave, and I have Penny to think about… Penny and the bees… I’m sorry my dear, but you know that I’m not brave…”

Rhoda’s litany continued and the only words that rung with me then were, ‘not dead but asleep’, ‘it could only have been your dad’, and ‘drugs they give her kind’. I felt dizzy and Rhoda helped me into her house and sat me on her small couch.

Her house was, of course, as small as our house but with only Rhoda and Penny in it and the holovision turned off, it seemed much larger then our cramped one, the mirror of this one only right next door. I could hear small sounds coming through the wall from my own house. Someone clunking in the kitchen and the holovision coming tinnily through the wall. Daddy had the game turned up too loud. Rhoda let me cry myself out and Penny licked my cheeks. What did I think about Rhoda’s revelations?

They weren’t exactly revelations to me. I had felt that Anastasia wasn’t dead after all. I had known that Daddy had wanted her gone for years now… I couldn’t imagine what had made him decide then to report her and have her taken and I never found out what did. Perhaps there was a commercial on holo about the importance of reporting altered persons, or maybe ‘Stasia had said something to him that had cut him. It was immaterial and all that mattered was that he had betrayed his own children for selfish gain. I’m sure he justified it with the same language that Rhoda justified for her own cowardice . I loved Penny and the honey from the bees as well, but there was no justification. Anastasia was special, is special and she deserved to be protected by the people in her life. It’s always the ones who deserve to be protected who are betrayed. Worthless people like my Daddy have nothing to be betrayed about, they are null and void and serve only to null and void others- and no one threatens them because of it.

So people like Daddy just null and void others like Anastasia, but also others like myself.

Back in my own bedroom now, the door creaked open and Daddy was standing there, then he was under the covers with me and now he didn’t bother being kind. He cried acid salty tears that burned on my skin as he bemoaned all the years he had lost with me and loved me as though I were his wife. Daddy had what he wanted, it was all his betrayal and all his gain.

The vulnerable shouldn’t be at the mercy of the stronger, that was part of what made me decide to join the GAF. That was what I told the recruiting sergeant when the time came and I paid the fee to take the officer’s exam. I filled that in, the answer to question number one.

Number one: Why are you interested in becoming a commanding officer in the Galactic Armed Forces?

I want to join the GAF because I believe that the vulnerable should not be at the mercy of the stronger and I will use all force to ensure this. I also want off of Dalton ASAP.

I think the answer I gave was fairly immaterial since I found out later on that it was more about the fee and less about the answers you gave but my answer got me through a lot of dark nights after I enlisted.

That first dark night with no Anastasia and with Daddy in my bed, I couldn’t imagine any sort of future. I thought about killing myself. It wasn’t a dramatic sort of thought, it was quiet and constructive. I wondered about methods and itinerized how I could kill myself with minimum discomfort and mess. I thought about my mother’s pills and wondered how many I would have to take and if I would fall asleep like she did every night, like she was right now and closed off to the loss of one daughter and the violation of the other. I wondered if I would get sick and throw up before I took enough to die. I wondered if I could stab myself in the throat with a kitchen knife. Those were the thoughts I thought to try to forget about the man/monster slavering and stabbing on top of me.

The next day I got up, I could barely walk and I was bruised on my breasts and shoulders and thighs. Daddy wasn’t gentle about the things he wanted after such a long wait.

I went to school, glad for the distraction of the work. The GOOD!/yes BAD!/no bear came out time after time on my screen as I plowed through my tests and quiz work. Most of our school work was done singularly on our holoputers. The school bear came out for each question answered. He walked in from the horizon, starting small and growing bigger and holding a sign on a two-by-four. As he came closer to the observer he would look at you speculatively and then turn the sign one way or the other as a response to the input you had given. Either GOOD!/yes or BAD!/no. The school system on Dalton was said to be exceedingly good. The rest of the galaxy didn’t think the same way.

GOOD!/yes or BAD!/no, I would have spent all day and all night at school if I could have, but of course, I had to go home at the end of the day, home and to Daddy.

It was Anastasia that kept me from killing myself those first days. I could feel her put the brakes on those thoughts. It sounds crazy to say, but if you believe that she could stop Daddy from getting at me all those years, you have to believe that she could stop me from doing something that I didn’t want to do anyhow.

I didn’t really want to kill myself. Everyday that I woke up and Daddy had gone back to his own bed, I could hear the speakers outside playing the customary morning sounds of birds singing and the sun was shining. Sometimes I would see a bee materialize from its shimmering invisible flight as it landed on my window ledge. Other times I would wave at Penny who liked to chew on various items in the backyard, I would feel glad that I was still alive. I would shower and get His smell out of my nose and have breakfast and not think about how much more time I had every morning now that I don’t have to make breakfast for ‘Stasia and help her with her socks and shoes. So much extra time and so much less love.

The walk to school was a delusion of a real and natural planet. It was with the sound of birds that would never fly in Dalton’s skies and under a plum tree that would have to be pollinated by students. It was under a tree like that where I said ‘yes’ to Victor Lathen when he asked me to go to prom. It was the end of the school year and I had refused to look into any job in a serious way. I found thoughts of the future put me into dark places too quickly and easily and so I avoided them. I knew that this was idiocy, the sooner I could get a career path the sooner I could apply for my own housing alotment and the sooner I could shut the door forever on Daddy.

It wasn’t Daddy that kept me from a new job, it was the thought of losing the last whispers of Anastasia that kept me from pursuing my own future. I didn’t want to get into the nuclear plant, I didn’t want to take care of disadvantaged children with autism or other alterations. I didn’t want anything.

When I went to prom. Daddy was very angry with me.

He was angry when he heard I had a date, he was angry when mother brought me home a midnight blue dress, he was furious when Vic came to the door to walk me to the bus. Vic and I danced and I drank from the metal flask he gave me, watching me avidly as I did so. My stomach burned and I was surprised to feel the knot of pain that lived with me all the time relax a little. I asked for the flask again and Vic elbowed one of his buddies as I drank it back as quickly as the burning allowed.

Underneath the plum tree I lay under Vic passively and watched the stars I could see twinkle between the branches above my head. Vic threw up my skirt and explored where he wanted. He was rough compared to some, but his touch seemed kind to me then. He touched me timorously, eagerly, scared that I would wake up from my drunken fugue and tell him to stop. I didn’t even know that you could tell someone ‘no’ when they did things to you. It would always be the bear with the sign for years to come. If I said ‘yes’ I was GOOD! and ‘no’ was BAD.

I was GOOD! for Vic and the next morning I returned home on the bus feeling oddly happy with myself. Vic hadn’t bruised me and I had felt something like pleasure from his fumblings, I had at the very least been happy to be GOOD! for someone who wasn’t Daddy.

It wasn’t Vic who tore my prom dress and it wasn’t Vic who left me unable to walk for three days after prom. It was Daddy in the early morning hours who did that.

I hadn’t had my period for three months by the time prom came. I didn’t know that there was necessarily a problem with that, lots of girls didn’t get a period in their whole life on Dalton. The school was doing the final breeding viability tests when they found out that I was pregnant. Only I knew that there had been no one four months ago except daddy.

I walked away from school after I was told about the baby inside of me. The baby who was a monster. It wasn’t my fault most likely, they said. They said that it was most likely an environmental difficulty but that I had to come to the hospital and tell them the details of the parentage and allow them to remove the horror that was growing in me. I didn’t believe them that it was a non-viable, I asked to be given a picture. The blonde doctor’s mouth twitched into a frown and she looked at me so kindly I nearly cried and didn’t take the print out she handed me. I took it from her and saw the child, the thing that was all the horror that Anastasia had been accused of and wasn’t. This was all that horror- a demon inside of me and ‘Stasia had been an angel.

It was all Daddy left for me.

I walked all the way to the enormous concrete barrier that protected our compound from the undesireable elements of Dalton. Elements like criminals, even greater industrial pollution and black marketeers. I didn’t have the paperwork to go through and cameras watched me look through the bars that kept me safely locked up. My belly had been growing and it rubbed up against the bars. I hadn’t noticed in my grief. I hadn’t cared when my pants grew too tight and had just asked mother for new ones.

I glimpsed the world through the bars for several hours and slowly a plan started to form in rough hash marks in my mind. Would it work? It might, and if it didn’t, I would kill myself and the monster growing inside of me. The monster that wouldn’t survive an hour in the air if it survived to full term. Anastasia couldn’t stop me from this, this time I would want to kill myself- if I had to go to the hospital and have it removed, have them all know who the father was.

Daddy’s behavior was a sure sign of alteration. It was not ‘cool’ with the nuclear bosses that many of their workers had severe personality problems as a result of non-physically presenting alterations in their makeup. It was important to be perceived as wholesome and safe by the bosses. Daddy’s behavior wouldn’t have surprised many of his co-workers who had perversions of their own, but any such perversions brought to light would result in summary firing. Daddy would be sent to the far side of the wall. I might be sent there too if the right person decided to send me there. It was all down to what would look best for the company. What would be easiest. Whatever happened, I wouldn’t be living in this compound for long and life was tough past these gates and it was all in Daddy’s hands.

Daddy was watching the holovision in his e-z boy when I came home. I walked into the living room and slammed the door quietly behind me.

“Daddy, we have to talk. No. You have to listen.”

My eyes glimmered and my thighs were shaking with fear of my ultimatum. All that kept me from going to pieces was the detached part of my mind that didn’t want him to say ‘yes’ (GOOD!), that wanted to get mother’s bottle of pills and be done with the whole sorry mess of my life.

I told Daddy about my appointment the next day, I told him in the vaguest of terms and without meeting his eyes about the alteration of the fetus inside me. Even when told vaguely, he pulled away from me in distaste at the thought of what my body, our bodies, had made together. I told him that I knew about Anastasia, that I knew about the reward money the government had paid him and that I wanted it. All of it, or I would keep my appointment tomorrow and tell them every detail.

My eyes spat fire when I told him that part and I lifted my trembling chin defiantly at him. This part was all bluff and I was drawing on all of my rage to keep the lie out of my eyes. He couldn’t know that I would rather he killed me then to keep that appointment. He had to believe me.

He did believe me. He turned into an old, defeated man before my eyes and it was his knees that trembled, it was he who staggered backward into his e-z boy and clutched his head.

He left the house immediately after telling me I could take his and mother’s travel cases from the closet in their room and take anything I wanted from the house. He didn’t ask me where I would go or what I would do when the money ran out, he just asked me repeatedly to swear I would ‘get rid of it’ without anyone finding out. I had surprised him into a state of shock and I don’t think he realized exactly that I was leaving Dalton. He didn’t really think that no matter what, I would have to explain where the mutant miscarriage had gone to. It was a criminal act to ‘self-dispose of hazardous biological material’ as it was euphemistically called. I had a plan and Daddy didn’t care what it was so long as he didn’t get into trouble for it. He didn’t want to have to face the consequences of his crimes but in the end, women must always face the crimes that men have the luxury of turning away from.

I packed my things and some of the books on the shelf, only the ones that wouldn’t make me too sad though. I made sure, sad or not, to bring our family’s Camelot book. I put everything into one suitcase and waited anxiously for Daddy to come home, hoping mother’s work would keep her away so we wouldn’t have to deal with any more questions.

Daddy and I had become ‘we’ in our conspiracy and I detested myself for wanting him to come home with what I needed to survive. I wrung my hands and looked out the front window.

He finally came home with a large envelope stuffed full of money. It was everything from their savings account, everything except what they needed to pay for their immediate expenses and bills. I know because he also showed me his bank statement. He had produced it to me with the air of a martyr but I had nodded in satisfaction when I read it. I wanted to leave them both bereft. Mother for not helping either of her daughters and daddy for… well, you know, for everything.

He had also gotten the papers required to attach to my i.d. so that I could leave the compound and go into the city proper. I don’t know how he got those papers but I suspect that they were the reason he took as long as he did to return. I put everything, papers and money into the suitcase and put my hand on the doorknob to leave. Daddy looked as though he was going to hug me and I wondered if I could stop him and still escape without a fuss or one big ‘farewell’ if I told him not to touch me. I was saved from telling him anything when he glanced down briefly at my distended belly and then sat back in his e-z boy with the remote and turned on the holovision. He acted as though I wasn’t there and if he glanced after me when I closed the door behind me for the last time, I’ll never know.

I had wanted to say ‘goodbye’ to Penny and Rhoda and her bees, but I knew better then that. I would cry and telling Rhoda anything would only get her into trouble. Much better if nobody ever heard another word from me. I carried my suitcase and walked the long walk to the compound gate. I would have to soothe myself with knowledge of her gift of honey in my suitcase and memory of her smile and Penny’s nose licking my face. I would content myself with the knowlege of the miracle of a shimmering beehive and apple blossoms that set themselves.

For the first time in my memory I slept in a strange bed that night.

It was not pleasant and I woke up with itchy welting bedbug bites and a sore throat from being so close to the waste that wasn’t screened or filtered from the air here. No artificial birdsong greeted my morning, but I could hear someone hacking themselves what sounded to death next door to me. I wondered what Penny and Rhoda were doing this morning. I wondered what Daddy had told Mother about where I had gone.

He would make sure that I had permission for at least forty eight hours beyond the fence, but when I didn’t show up for my hospital appointment this afternoon the timer would be ticking and my identification would have me apprehended and remanded for immediate treatment. I had to hurry.

The previous day hadn’t been wasted. I had found this room to rent and I had also found a black market abortion doctor to remove ‘the matter’. I had to find my way to him first thing and then I had to find the recruitment office and get of Dalton before any alert was called out on me.

The ‘process’ wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I was given more fiery liquid and a sweet syrup that gave me waking nightmares while the ‘doctor’ worked. The dreams were dreadful and when he was finished I staggered out of his office hoping to leave the nightmares behind me. Still high on syrup and grief I found my way into the GAF recruiting office in the downtown core and filed my paperwork to be on the next transit out.

The GAF was used to ‘sudden’ recruits who were eager to leave within the day and I was leaving the planet before my appointment at the hospital. Once at the nearest space station, home to the sector’s GAF regiment, I paid to become an officer with the money in my suitcase. Whatever they thought of my answers, I passed the exam and was given a different uniform and badge then the first one I had rode out of Dalton on. My first night spent in a space vessel was far more pleasant than the one in the room I had rented. The bed was hard and narrow and the sheets were thin and balled with lint, but there were no bugs, no pollution, no people dying slowly alongside me, and I was free. It was my own freedom that had allowed me to enlist, just like with everyone else in the GAF.

I had things I was running away from, things I didn’t want to talk about and confusion that I might never figure out. But the bed was free from bugs and the food was chemical but plentiful and fortified with vitamins. Best of all, I was off of Dalton and ready to see what the rest of the galaxy held. A galaxy with Daddy left far behind and I would never see another sunrise framed by cooling stacks.

I would see mountains and streams, real birds and even some natural bees. I would see alien people stranger to look at and yet marvelously more kind than people I had grown up alongside. I would get to know the most famous people in the galaxy, people I had only seen on the holo in my family’s miniscule living room on Dalton.

I would meet the love of my life and melt in his arms. I would save lives and protect people who were being victimized by people stronger then them. I was happy, I was whole and I knew everything else I would heal.

This is an excerpt from the full length novel “Dalton’s Daughter” by Virginia Carraway. This chapter is only the beginning of Sasha’s intergalactic journey and the many adventures she has while enlisted in the GAF.

Buxbie’s Better Bees

A Story of the Creation

of the Most Controversial Insect in the Galaxy

by

Tony Stark

Christopher Buxbie sat in a rickety chair outside a mouldering medieval building and waited. He had a pint of watery stout in hand from the public house to which the rickety chair belonged. He idly smoked an antiquated paper cigarette that held even more antiquated tobacco and mint leaves. His scarf, blue and red Dorchester wool, was sprinkled with ash under his chin and where its ends lay hanging by his chest. His cap was determinedly perched at a jaunty angle on his broad skull, where it offered little to no protection from the elements that were misting down upon him this dank afternoon in Cambridge.

His wide blue irises, habitually contracted to nearly complete sky blue disks, stared aimlessly off into space behind his quaint bifocals. His large features and frame gave the impression of a rather large palace guardian that had been dressed up as a caricature of a jaunty European traveler, rather than the chair of Biochemistry and Genetics at King’s College. Buxbie seemed as though he had just landed from off a long and turbulence riddled flight across Asia, with a case full of souvenirs slung across the rickety chair’s shoulders instead of the term papers he was marking. The duffel bag at his feet furthered the impression of world traveler abandoned at a stuffy university pub. That was the only thing about Buxbie that was destined to travel anywhere beyond the bound of this ancient town of learning on this day save the fancies he entertained while he waited for the man to come and take the duffel bag.

Whatever those fancies were, Christopher gave no sign of their nature in his face, which remained as impassive and inscrutable as a sphinx. Moisture made the dark felt of his beret sparkle, and occluded his vision by coalescing on his spectacles. At length, as a concession to the growing damp, Buxbie covered his stout with the paper coaster.

A figure approached the pub from out of the gloaming. It was quiet at the pub on this day, close to closing before term exams on a Tuesday, when most of the students had given up on distractions from studying and admitted it was time to get down to the real thing. It was not the singularity of the individual’s approach that led Buxbie to intuit this was the man he had been waiting for, as several students and other locals had passed him by on his dark vigil this evening. This man walked like an American, a sturdy, arrogant step, at once irritated by and modulated by the indistinct fog and slippery cobbles of the narrow street.

Buxbie blinked, otherwise remaining motionless. The man slid around on the cobbles as he swam out of the fog and into Buxbie’s vision, and still the Cambridge Don remained still. The American strode up to his table, and stared at the broad shouldered, big handed man crammed into the absurdly tiny wicker chair and table under the dripping eave of the pub.

“Buxbie?”

Dr. Buxbie stared up at the tourist. “Yes, I am he,” he replied. His voice was deep and resonant, and it hit the American in the hindbrain. He twitched, and sat reflexively in the other rickety chair at the table.

“You must be Parker Howell,” Buxbie continued without making an overture to the man.

Parker Howell nodded, distracted and squirming by the damp foggy mist he was absorbing from the chair seat. “It took me ages to find the place, Dr… this is quite the hole of a town you’ve got here.”

At that, Buxbie laughed, a deep barrel-chested rumble like amused thunder. “I do suppose you could say that.” He took the coaster off of his stout and had a sip.

“May I offer you a drink, sir.”

The animosity in his politeness cut Howell like a knife, and the American shook his head.

“I’d just like to do this and get the hell back to Heathrow and my plane,” he admitted. “You’re sure this is a safe place to do the drop?”

“Quite, I assure you,” Buxbie smirked. “Cambridge is a closed system… as you said, it is a hole, a dank and medieval one, and no one comes here unless it’s to learn. Students are screened and scanned at the county border, as are workers, professors… and the occasional tourist, as I’m sure you noticed.”

Howell nodded. “How am I going to get the… exchange items past the border guards?”

Buxbie shrugged. “That’s not my problem, is it? You wanted what you wanted, sir, and I have provided it. Might I suggest you buy an awful lot of scotch mints, and two magic markers for labeling.”

“What?” Howell snapped. His ass was sodden as was his coat and his hair, he was shivering in the mother of all dampness, and this British asshole was talking about scotch mints or some fucking thing.

“Might I suggest pink for your articles, and blue for the decoys. A happy little dot on each… the border guards are aware Miss Pinkham’s Candy Repository is one of Cambridge’s few tourist draws. An American on a mint run is not an unusual occurrence.”

“But what does that have to do with my payment?” Howell asked, mystified and plaintive.

Buxbie smirked again and nudged the duffel bag at his feet toward the American.

Howell stared down at it, then bent in his chair and unzipped the main compartment. Inside were five large ziploc bags full over rounded cylinders, white and chalky.

“Is this… is this the hormone cocktail?” Howell bent his head up to stare in wonderment at Buxbie, who was smoking impassively.

Buxbie nodded once, satisfied and more than a little smug. “It’s two thousand units of single dose Hormutual A, just as you requested.”

“And you’re just giving this shit to me?” Howell zipped the bag back up, hefted it. There was definitely room for five or six more bags full of mints in the duffel. “I see your point about the candy, Buxbie… nice format for travel. Very thoughtful. Thank you.”

Buxbie nodded, pulled the bag back toward himself by a side handle. Howell reached after it in vain.

“You’re most welcome,” Buxbie said blandly. “However, I’m not merely giving this shit to you, as you so blithely stated.” Buxbie butt out his cigarette and leaned forward. “I know they aren’t much to you, and these little chemicals will fetch over a million in North American club scene markets, but they mean quite a lot to me. So why don’t we finish this as what it was meant to be, a trade, shall we?”

Howell’s brow furrowed. He nodded, rummaged in his coat pockets, found what he was looking for after the third try. “Sure, sure, Buxbie… I don’t mean to denigrate whatever kink you’ve got going here, it just seems like, if you had two thousand Hormutuals you’d want to make a bit of coin… let alone if you could whip those puppies up like nobody’s business.”

Buxbie smiled thinly. “Money is not my object, Mr. Howell, it is merely an unfortunate means to an end. And of course I can whip up “those puppies” as you call them… they are my own creation.”

Howell, who had found the tiny vial he was seeking and held it clutched in his fist, stared in disbelief at the Cambridge Don.

You’re Dr. B? The guy who made Hormutual? The guy who made BlissBee? You’re a legend in the hallucinogenic drug scene!”

Buxbie nodded acknowledgment. “Biochemistry is a love of mine,” he admitted.

“Wowwww,” Howell whistled low. “Let me shake your hand, man.”

Buxbie’s smile faded. “Of course. After our trade is complete.”

Howell remembered the vial in his hand, and set it hastily on the table. It rocked and spun a moment, then decided to stay upright.

“There you go man,” Howell said. “I mean, they weren’t easy to find, but they weren’t worth… hell, I shouldn’t tell you this, but you’re Dr. B, man… they weren’t worth all these babies the the bag here.”

“Irrelevant,” Buxbie murmured, bending low and pulling his glasses to the tip of his nose to get a better view of the vial’s contents. It was actually a vial that contained three smaller ones inside it, held in an inertial dampening field for transport. In the three vials were three oversized bees, with large egg sacs, sitting alongside royal jelly.

“Ah, you found three queens,” Buxbie smiled, and delicately, reverently, picked up the vial.

“They’re all proven, so I was told,” Howell said, growing calm and still at the serious attitude expressed by his idol.

Buxbie smiled quietly at the queens, then spirited the vial away in his breast pocket. He gazed at Howell with his opaque blue eyes, and pushed the bag toward the American.

“Can I shake your hand now, man?” Howell asked, grinning.

“You may, sir,” Buxbie said seriously.

Buxbie sat in his lab and gazed at the three queen bees in their new environment. He had painstakingly set up three ideal clear plexiglass honeycombs for them, and a string array of cameras to monitor every aspect of their behaviour and responses to his experiments. He gazed at them, these rarities of the cosmos, anachronistic insects from a time before humans had become the so called masters of creation they were today. Now that he had them in his possession, he was afraid to touch them.

So delicate… so unlikely, he thought to himself. Buxbie found himself possessed now of a sense of cautious avarice rather than excited scientific inquiry. Now that he had these amazing producers of delicacy, wax and honey, royal jelly, Buxbie found he was reluctant to put them to use. The idea of just setting them up in his special hives, letting them make their own multitudes, gathering in the simple bounties they made…

But then, he thought to himself, he would be the only one to have it. And there were the problems of pollination, of fruit and crop production GAGA wide. With no one to pollinate in adverse environments, many industrial GAGA planets had to rely on only a few heavily modified cash crops and reduced chem foods for sole sustenance. Buxbie didn’t need to have been a biochemist to know the evils of the foods that were molecularly designed from waste organochemicals coming out the ass end of factories and refineries. The mutations, the illnesses were visible on the streets of these planets. Even by GAGA’s laughable educational standards, I.Qs and test scores lowered markedly by the third generation. Nutrients needed to be absorbed by the melange of natural foods- not crammed into chem food paste in pure molecular form.

No, Buxbie sighed, and watched three queens crawl lazily about in their travel containers, if he didn’t proceed with his plan, more billions of children would grow up not knowing what an apple was- the taste, the smell, the effect it had on their bodies. More children would grow up without wheat, or rice, or lentils. More children would sup on the pre-formed paste patties and noodles that made up Wrought Industries Verily Reddi-Made Wrought Meals. The GAGA would get stupider and sicker, and finally collapse under the weight of its own mutated humanity.

Dr. Buxbie had no children, but he despised stupidity, ignorance and idiocy with a fiery passion. He also was, for such a large, imposing and critical man, possessed of a peculiarly deep compassion regarding human suffering of any kind, especially that inflicted on the unwitting. He had toured the galaxy and been guest lecturer at a dozen GAGA universities, including many of the finest schools they possessed. Shocked, sickened and deeply disillusioned, Buxbie had fled back to old Earth and his roots at Cambridge- a school still respected for its history and name, but hopelessly outclassed in technical outfitting and latest teaching. It was a grand old dinosaur of a school that nobody really favored, but still let around the other universities because it had been quite the comer in its day, like the senile old back bencher that lounges in the bar at Parliament and is allowed to stay on until he finally gets too sick to come in to work one day.

Buxbie knew that he had retreated, knew he had lost some grand battle of the light of knowledge against the forces of darkened demonic stupidity. His chest still clenched and he bristled even now, years later, thinking about coming back to old Earth. The bare fact of the matter was, overcrowded and polluted though it may be, on old Earth they still kept up farming methods, conservation and parks, and believed that food should, if not farmed under a polluted sky, at least come from food. As a result, there were a preponderance of minds at Cambridge with intelligence worthy of teaching- no bright lights like in his early days as a professor, but people who, with the right coaching and gentle prodding, would make thoughtful, maybe even brilliant scientists one day.

Buxbie consoled himself with thoughts of that nature while he stewed in his self-imposed exile. Of course, the matter of Victorinus Wrought suing him for patent fraud, and the resulting counter-suit before the Galactic Human Rights tribunal regarding use of white phosphorus weapons, hyper-atomic molecules in shell casings and profiteering blotted all that out. For a time. But Buxbie had been smeared left right and center by Wrought and his legal legions, and by the time Buxbie had retreated, having won half of the claims on his Human Rights case, it had been suspiciously more of a fleeing with his tail between his legs than storming back to old Earth in a huff. It made the quiet coaching of new minds in his old stomping grounds rankle in a powerless sort of quivering jelly fury that grated with increasing intensity as the years rolled by.

So he sat in his flat, married and divorced his wife, trained his students, and ruminated like the oldest billy goat in the barn- intensely, with vigour, and with sudden outbursts of noxious effulgence. Papers and articles flew out of his lab with pithy regularity. He was slammed and mocked and ranted at in counter articles. The full breadth of the pissy little vaginas of the Uber scientific community were tackled relentlessly by a man propelled by a scope of rancourous disdain that could rightfully be called unholy. And between the papers, the teaching, the being brought up on charges of drug trafficking and other, less chemically minded but no less scientific pursuits, Buxbie took apart the fundamental problems of the GAGA.

It all boiled down to food. Like the Roman Empire, the Union Army or any other paramilitary organization of totalitarian control, the GAGA was totally dependent on food. Buxbie wasn’t in theory against totalitarianism per se- there was a certain stark beauty and efficiency in a really good dictatorship that appealed to his scientific, and rather sadistic, mindset. But the GAGA, well, there was a regime that was handled laughably badly. It was inefficient to the extreme, and resulted on sheer bloody-minded capitalist excess to spew out the side effects of population sustenance, education and well being on its idiotic populace. And Buxbie realized that a large part of the GAGA’s lack of ability to succeed further was due to the profound dullness of its executives, the lackluster, sickly apathy of its population. It was down to poor food.

And what was the reason why food was so poor, he thought to himself? Economics, of course- proper food cost money. But proper food wasn’t widely available not just to protect luxury prices- on a great many planets in the GAGA supporting most of its working class lifeforms, decent food was impossible to make.

It was a side effect of colonization, you see,” he continued aloud to the bees. “Terraforming a planet requires the attention to detail of a Michaelangelo, the fussiness of a Tolkien, the thoughtfulness of the best manservant money could buy. And people failed to realize the necessitous nature of the primary vectors of food production- little pollinators like yourselves. They failed to import bees at first, which led to tender new trees and crops not growing into sustainable food producers. Then they polluted their new homes with the relentless cruel thoughtlessness of a fat child playing with toys on Christmas Day, so when your ancestors and others of your delicately miraculous kind were imported to play catchup with resistant, thinly xylemed trees and nutrient-ravaged fields, you all died.”

He held his hands up imploringly at the queens. “I know, I know my dears, horrible genocides were committed, worse even than here on Earth… but that was largely before my time, you see.” He sighed.

Even when I was a child, the idea of using your kind for pollination galaxy wide had been abandoned. And now, with that devil Victorinus Wrought maintaining a stranglehold on food production with his Hyper honeys and his chem food paste barrels, just waiting to be injection molded into a myriad of forms… no one would even begin to re-examine your efficacy. You would have to spawn genetic hybrids with the facility to be posion, chemical and radiation immune to even begin to be useful on most GAGA worlds, and that’s a feat of genetic engineering far, far beyond the scope of even a bevvy of these idiot scientists with supercomputers. Why, it would take a genius several years to unwind the intricacies of your remarkably delicate genetic code, let alone have proper genetic therapies to mutate your spawn into usefulness. ”

He bent low over the trio. “On that note, allow me to introduce myself to you… Dr. Christopher Buxbie- genius.”

From inside her enclosure, the largest queen bee gazed back at Dr. Buxbie with a decade of remarkably thoughtful eyes.

Thus began the long and arduous task of mapping the genomes of the three queen bees. Buxbie abandoned before he even went to the trouble of purchasing the queens the concept of refining existing genomes of the bee population that were on public record. Those ‘beenomes’, as he came to call the intricate genetic codes of the insects, had been made as a cross-section of the bee populations in an era when bees were still nascent on planet Earth. These bees before him would have mutated already to cope with the multitudinous chemicals and carcinogens, pollutants and polymers sprayed on their blossoms. It would be foolish to toss out seventy years of Mother Nature’s work for the safety of empirical accessibility, and it would be dangerous for Buxbie’s bees to try to develop genomic therapies based on genetic maps that were inaccurate.

Buxbie had befriended the head horticulturalist at Cambridge, a stout, no-nonsense woman named Hyacinth Fletcher who stalked around the sizeable indoor atriums at the north end of the Old School grounds in her gumboots and gardener’s apron. From the beginning Hyacinth could appreciate Buxbie’s plan.

They had sat at a small table underneath a banyan tree by which a small artificial brook babbled. Lotus flowers closed up their blooms for the night as Hyacinth considered the scheme. Buxbie sat and regarded her over the bottle of port he had brought to her as an offering.

Most of the pollinating here we do like the colonists, with our own two hands,” she had remarked. “A flower isn’t a flower, however, unless it can be graced by a bee. Every gardener knows that.” She squinted at him cannily.

Buxbie returned the gaze unflinchingly. It was a gaze that sent many a terraforming student or agriculture major skittering away in terror. She grinned as she accepted his knowing stare.

You would of course be able to keep one of the first perfected hives, for the botanical gardens and agridomes.”

Hyacinth took another drink of her port. “Of course,” she replied. “Only fair. Once my flowers get used to Proper Pollination,” she had a way of pronouncing capitals- “there’s no going back.” She sighed, and looked soulfully at Buxbie.

The problem I see is the human question.”

Explain.”

She waved her hands expansively, wobbling slightly on her chair. “I mean, I mean none of these paste-raised chem-riddled students would know the first thing about bees, or even what one was! They’d probably run to get the bug spray- purely organic essential oils of course, but a touch of garlic and soap on the wings, let alone capsicum…”

Buxbie winced. “And explaining the illicit presence of so many bees would be a serious problem. The chance of informants running to Wrought’s GAGA FDA authorities would be very high.”

And the chance one of the little buggers sitting on one of glorious insects and suing the college would be even greater,” Hyacinth sighed. She took another swig of port. Buxbie paused a moment, then joined her. He nodded gravely.

They are all idiots,” he replied. His brow furrowed. It raised. His eyes widened, he looked as if he were going to speak.

Hyacinth watched all this avidly. “What is it, man?” she cried at length.

You raise a very good point,” Buxbie advised her, one hand up. “The individuals who will be taking my Better Bees to their home colonies might, just might, be smart enough to know which end of a bee is up- but the poor dears will be surrounded by a multitude of insect-ignorant germophobes for whom the sight of a flying insect will be more terrifying than the idea of a night without Holovision.”

Hyacinth’s eyes widened. “That’s true! The blighters’ll be swatting and spraying our bees out of existence before their first trip back to the hive! They’ll carry poison back on their wings, they’ll kill the Queen, and their young!”

Her brow furrowed, perhaps a trifle owlishly. She took another drink. “So- what do we do about it?” she asked.

Buxbie smiled slowly. He leaned across the table and took the Head Horticulturalist’s hands in his. “That’s where your ladylike charms come in, my dear.”

Buxbie had been prepared to have to plead, cajole, blackmail and finally bribe Hyacinth Fletcher into exploiting the crush the Herpetologist at the London Zoo had on her. Stanislaw Carruthers had been an old flame of Hyacinth’s back in their King’s College days, and Buxbie knew of the weakness the lizard specialist had for his old flame when Stanislaw climbed up on a table at the Cambridge Alumni Anniversary Dinner and started to sing “Take a Chance on Me” to Dr. Fletcher. Buxbie’s lightning fast mind churned this instance up out of its depths, along with the roll call of animals Carruthers tended at the Zoo. His Eureka moment complete, Buxbie began to introduce Hyacinth to the idea of a gentle Mata Hari deception to improve the lives of all mankind, and all beekind for that matter.

As it turned out, Dr. Fletcher had remarkably little qualms about seducing her old admirer long enough to allow Buxbie to take a good, hard swab of the inside of one of the Carruthers’ chamelons. As it turned out, Hyacinth was available to accompany Buxbie on his guerrila genome run the very next day.

As the pair of professors sat in a compartment of a rickety British Rail train, slowly rocked and rattled to pieces, Hyacinth grilled her co-conspirator.

So, Chris, is it your intention to make an insect resistant to all manner of pollutants? It seems like an impossible mountain to climb.”

Buxbie shook his head, barely discernible over the rattling of the ancient carriage.

It is my determination that the chief pollutant groups in the galaxy boil down to three major divisions- radiological, organo-chemical and heavy metals, be they from native hostile ecosystems terraformed or mining.”

I see,” Hyacinth replied, gingerly pouring herself a half cup of tea from a St. Michael’s thermos.

With judicious cross-breeding of three strains designed according to these chief dangers, I believe most pollutants and other apian dangers can be mitigated, if not eradicated. Assuming I ensure the cross-breedability of the three master species, the worst I should be looking at is slight, case-to-case genetic modifications for specific, especially caustic colonies.”

Hyacinth’s eyebrows raised. “Remarkably ingenious. Will it be viable to produce three different strains?”

I do hope so,” Buxbie replied. “Most of our galaxy’s chief pollutants revolve around a certain set of organo-chemicals from which the plethora of dangerous substances are produced. It would appear that is the biological organism’s chief adaptive ability- to distill down an apparent myriad of threats to a few common ones so that defences can be made.”

Buxbie looked owlishly at Hyacinth. “Which brings us to the most pertinent point- why endanger your own defences with a spurious trip to your suitor’s den?”

Hyacinth was jarred out of thoughts of genetically modified bees. She snorted wryly. “My ‘suitor’ poses no threat to my formidable defences, my dear. I decided a long time ago it was not for me the life of helpmate and companion, and Stanislaw received that revelation with gentlemanly aplomb. At least, as far as he ever showed me.” She offered Buxbie a sandwich from her case, which he accepted.

How does your inclination to join the man in a romantic duet lean?” he asked, inspecting the sandwich for content before eating.

Ha, you still remember that from the Alumni Dinner, do you?” she asked. “He always was a fool, with absolutely no sense of dignity when it came to the romantic.” She offered Buxbie a cookie dusted with sugar, which he also accepted. “Perhaps I may sing the odd verse with the man, but I would never form a lasting musical partnership, if you know what I mean.”

Buxbie nodded, smiling. “I see completely. Well, I should only require ten or fifteen minutes’ distraction in the chameleon habitat in order to obtain my specimens. It’s a shame Stanislaw is so obdurate about his charges… his firm belief that their genes not be experimented on lest it dilute their essential energy is positively medieval.”

It’s certainly a deeply animistic view of genetic science,” Hyacinth agreed. “However, I don’t pretend to understand in the slightest either the mentality of the herpetian soul, nor the effects of genetic testing, so who am I to argue?”

Buxbie laughed at that. “I suppose there may be an uniquely damaging effect on the ‘ness’ of the reptilian entity posed by cloning and splicing… I’m sure there’s been absolutely no research done on that point.” He chortled to himself. “Perhaps we shall make another booty call on Stanislaw next year to convince him to partake in such a study, eh?”

Hyacinth smacked the Chair of Biochemistry and Genetics in the arm.

The London Zoo, home to the Carruthers Collection of Reptiles, was still in the same location as it had been since the nineteenth century, nestled within the city’s limits on a piece of real estate entirely too small for the necessities of a modern zoo.

The British devotion to tradition that had kept their undoubtedly beloved animal specimens in such tight quarters for so many years had been redeemed with the invention of anti-gravity modular structures. Zoo planners had fundraised a fortune in GAGA grants and private donations to turn their little plot of land into a floating sky scraper of bio-diversity. Seven levels of AG construction nearly as big as the original square footage of the London Zoo had turned it from a quaint curiosity into a galaxy class animal sanctuary. Artificial sunlight was beamed down in perfect balance to the levels beneath the top floor, and the whole thing was buffered from the vagaries of the British climate (which was more unstable and prone to vast shifts of weather than ever it had been) by ion dome. The London Zoo therefore looked like a snowglobe of Noah’s Ark gone wild with design as the professors approached by black cab.

Stanislaw came from a wealthy family of British IT investors and Russian developers, and was positively obsessed with reptiles. He had poured most of his money into an entire floor of the Zoo, which he then commenced to populate with all of his favorite reptiles from across Earth, and the galaxy. He practically lived at his Collection, often sleeping in the expansive jungle habitats with his geckos and snakes, or in the main area of the smaller habitats, pulling a sleeping bag in front of the large plexiglass windows behind which rested Komodo dragons and tiny Amazonian tree frogs and Orion salamanders smouldering in the dark.

He had received word of Hyacinth’s appearance that afternoon with a call from his love the night before, and Stanislaw was giddy with expectation. He greeted them at the main gate on ground level, and ushered them up to his third floor accommodations in one of the staff hover-vators. Though somewhat taken aback by the presence of Dr. Buxbie, Carruthers handled it with aplomb and was genteel and friendly with a man whom he could have perceived as a threat to his romance.

They made no bones about their visit.

I’m most interested, Stanislaw, in monitoring the behaviour of the chameleons for a few minutes,” Buxbie said plainly as they rose in the hover-vator. It, like the vators used by the public, were clear and the level of the zoo beneath them was spread out in a tableau as they were raised the seventy five feet into the next level.

Fascinating creatures, Chris, just remarkable, and so peaceable, too,” Stanislaw remarked lovingly. “They have such a placid, accepting attitude to the world, yet fiercely protective of their family units.” He peered abruptly at the large biochemist. “What do you want to monitor them for, exactly?”

Hyacinth opened her mouth to come to his aid, but Buxbie replied smoothly, “For those exact characteristics, as a matter of fact. I’m writing a paper rebutting the hypothesis that family clan behavior leads to warlike mannerisms, and I recalled you mentioning the peaceable chameleon at the Alumni Dinner. I’d like to garner several examples from the natural world putting that Neanderthal notion to rest, and be able to cite first hand exemplars to drive the point home.”
Stanislaw, who was a paid-in-full member of the GAGA Coalition for Peace, nodded sagely. “You couldn’t have picked a better choice than the defensively fortified, gentle chameleon,” he began as they stepped out of the vator. Buxbie motioned for Hyacinth to exit next, and she gave him an impressed look at his line of marlarkey. Buxbie grinned and followed her.

I keep the beauties not far from my office, just down this hallway,” he called back to them. “As it’s in such a good cause, I’ll let you bask first hand in their placid glory, Chris… but don’t get to close to them. I can’t have you riling them up, and they are protective of their clan, as we both know.”

I shall be as quiet as a little pie,” Buxbie held three fingers over his heart.

Stanislaw smiled, and unlocked the door to the chameleon habitat.

I’ll give you fifteen minutes in the habitat, to get a real sense of their majestic sentience uninhibited by ion barriers and plexiglass,” he told Buxbie. “Then you can watch them all you like from the benches here, once you’ve got to know them face to face, as it were.”

Hyacinth took Carruthers’ hand in hers as he moved away from the palm scanner for the habitat. Stanislaw gasped, and turned to face her, eyes huge and cheeks flushing.

You’ve done such amazing things with your hover-level, Stan,” she breathed at him. “I have to say, I never thought it would have turned out quite so exquisitely.”

Stanislaw’s eyes gleamed, and he smiled the absurd smile of every man who is attended by the woman of his dreams.

Buxbie struggled desperately to neither roll his eyes or sigh in exasperation, and focused instead on the automatic timer which Carruthers had successfully been distracted from setting. Hyacinth cast her cohort a knowing glance and led Stanislaw away down the hallway, all the while extracting descriptions of the “grueling hard work” he must have put in to make the Carruthers Collection such a “magnificent reality.”

Buxbie stood motionless outside the slightly ajar door until he heard the door to Stanislaw’s office snick shut behind the pair of lovebirds. He then swiftly entered the chameleon habitat and only once its door was closed did he dare give off the long shudder of revulsion he felt.

Godspeed, Hyacinth,” he murmured, and cast his eyes upon the well-camoflaged lizards before him.

The group of twelve reptiles regarded the intruder in their midst with their unlikely rotating cones.

Buxbie lifted his chin, and began untwisting the lid of one of his sterile swabs.

Right then,” he said grimly. “Which one of you blokes wants to be a part of history?”

As it turned out, none of the chameleons did.

It had taken Buxbie a staggering hour and fifteen minutes to secure properly sterilized samples of the recalcitrant lizards. What he had first assumed was purely poppycock, that such lethargic, seemingly inorganic creatures could be fiercely protective, turned out to be gashingly correct. Buxbie was just glad that their sizeable talons’ wounds hadn’t illicited any sort of previously unrecorded bloodlust on the part of the lizards, and that they weren’t the size of gila monsters or Komodo dragons.

Demurely proportioned as they were, it still took several dozen scratches and a couple of dips in their watering hole, and an overturned fake tree for sunning, before he was able to grasp one long enough to get a sterile sample. Trying to hold a riled up chameleon away from their nest mates while unscrewing a sterile swab was a lot like trying to do the same maneuver with a rabbit- whom, as both gardeners and afficionados know, can be a remarkably insane and vicious handful of creature.

In the end, five of Buxbie’s ten swabs lay discarded and broken across the habitat, and only two of the twelve animals had been successfully sampled. He was covered in scratches and more than a few bite marks, including half a dozen new holes in his beret and leather coat. The large, burly man leaned against the far wall of the enclosure, panting and glaring balefully at the lizards, who had all retreated to the opposite corner to do the same.

Barmy little bastards,” he muttered, wondering if the genes could be separated from their ferociously territorial nature enough to make the free-flying bees anything less than well-camoflaged psychopaths. Well, at any rate, he had the rare samples not only to examine for compliance with the beenomes, but he had garnered the opportunity to make a lucrative contribution to the GAGA’s genomic sequencing initiative.

He huffed a breath, which made the chameleons make devastatingly ominous noises in return. After his ordeal, the hissings made his blood run cold. He eyed them suspiciously and edged toward the toppled false tree to right his wrongs, clean up his mess and extricate himself as swiftly as possible.

Closing the enclosure door firmly behind him, Buxbie knew he was in a fair spot of trouble. He was wet, muddy and covered in what most likely was chameleon piss. He reeked of ammonia. He was also far more tardy than fifteen minutes of indoor experience.

Buxbie glanced around him, certain that Carruthers would come leaping out of some corner to catch him being so abusive of the kindness showed him. The hallway was studiously empty and dim, however, as deserted as when the trio had first walked through it.

My God, woman,” Buxbie breathed, a look of shock and respect on his face. “That’s impressive.”

He touched the breast pocket of his coat to ensure the viable swabs were still there and trotted down the darkened hallway, glancing at Stanislaw Carruther’s office door as he passed. Buxbie felt more than heard a pleasing moan from inside the oak door, and broke into a long-gaited run.

Much as he had done in the chameleon pen, Hyacinth would have to fend for herself.

Buxbie wound up taking the evening train back to Cambridge by himself, and didn’t see Professor Fletcher for several days. He took the samples immediately back to his labs.

Grad graduate students who worked feverishly on sequencing each of the three beenomes had nearly completed their work. Buxbie took over the remainder of the beenome mapping and set the grad students to map the chameleon samples.

Prof. Buxbie was loading the five rough sequences into a holo drive when he heard the clompy footsteps of Dr. Fletcher in the hall outside his lab.

I wondered if Stanislaw had eaten you,” Buxbie remarked as he fiddled with the cables in the dim room. He blinked as the horticulturalist turned on the overhead lights.

You should have been worried the other way round,” she grinned. “He might be a boa, but I’m a flytrap.”

Buxbie made a face. “I’m so pleased that I played some small part in the rekindling of young love.” He fiddled another moment. “I’ve got it now. Would you care to be here for the big moment?”

And what moment is that?” Hyacinth asked. She shut of the lights and moved obligingly into the room, despite her rakish air.

This is the first time I have generated three dimensional models of the genomes I am hoping to compile. Not just the three queens, but the other ideas I have for the bees, the chameleon genes included.” He looked over his glasses at the older woman. “I never had a chance to thank you for your contribution, by the way.”

Hyacinth blushed slightly, but her chin lifted and she smiled. “T’was nothing. Anything for the bees.”

Buxbie smiled, and turned on the holo. Fifty different strands of genetic code wound their way from floor to ceiling around the pair of professors. Hyacinth’s eyes lit up with innumerable tiny sparkles of red, green, yellow, blue and white.

Why, these are the bees?” she asked.

Buxbie nodded.

Where’s our chameleon?” she asked, searching the room avidly. “Where are the bees?!”

Buxbie smiled. “Allow me to take you on a tour,” he said. With a laser pointer he pointed at three long, intricate and delicate strands of light. They looked like bejeweled garlands.

Our three queens are here, by the bunsen burners,” he tugged at them with the laser pointer, and the strands bulged toward them obligingly. Buxbie circled them with light, clicked a button and the beenomes glowed faintly yellow.

Magnificent!” Hyacinth breathed. “They almost make me wish I had become a geneticist.”

Here,” Buxbie tugged at another strand, less refined and delicate, but still lovely as it rotated slowly in the air, “is the chameleon.” He circled the lizard’s DNA, and it glowed a characteristic green.

And here are cockroaches, salmon, camels, spiders, snow lice, llamas, hummingbirds, bumblebees, crocodiles, Martian sapsuckers, kangaroos, praying mantises, krill, crickets, locusts, Rigellian Pathfinders, three species of bats and dogs.”

Hyacinth nodded at each species, then turned her head sharply to eye Buxbie. “Dogs?”

Buxbie looked chagrined. “I like dogs. They’re friendly, and personable, and loyal, and useful. You never know when one may come in handy.”

Hyacinth considered, then nodded. “Fair enough.”

Now begins the long and arduous task of comparing sequence points. We run the samples through computer banks, looking for ‘compliant’ areas of the gene sequence of the bees. We compare those areas to ‘compliant areas’ of the other species.”

Hyacinth let her eyes roll slowly over the miles of strands that surrounded them. “Sounds exhausting, even with computers.”
Buxbie nodded. “That process will probably take up to fourteen months, at least according to my calculations. There’s no easier way to do it. But it’s not over then,” he added.

It isn’t?” Hyacinth asked weakly.

No,” Buxbie advised. “Every time the computer spits out a compliance, I have to cross-reference it with the master genome index to determine what, if anything, the genes in question do. It would be too easy to assume we would only find compliant areas on other species that would benefit the bees, and in the right places for the bees to utilize appropriately.”

Hyacinth wore a look of horror on her face. “Good Lord, that’s true!” she whispered. The presence of the genomes had made her reverent, and muted, as though she were in church, or near sleeping babies. “How horrible to have a bee with a dog tail growing out of its face!”

Buxbie nodded, and grinned. “That would put us back into the dark ages of genetic splicing, back to the days of fishmatoes and Roundup ready corn.” He sniggered. “Thankfully I’ve developed a few new tricks for pinpointing accurately the efficacy and purpose of specific genes in species, which puts me ahead of even the GAGA scientists, let alone Victorinus’ butchers.”

But it will still take months?” Hyacinth asked. She gazed at the lines and lines of glittery genes floating in the lab. “On second thought, I’m relieved I didn’t become a geneticist.”

Years probably,” Buxbie admitted. “It’s a matter of finding the compliance zones and seeing what will fit ‘naturally’ together. It’s like building a house, you see. You don’t add the skylights and the funky weathervane while the frame is still in pieces on the ground. The bells and whistles that will make these truly Better Bees are like add-ons for your hoverjet. First you need a solid foundation, and a goodly constructed vehicle.”

So you find doubly compliant genes that fit together without that nasty ‘softening’ they’re going on about on the holo all the time,” Hyacinth replied. “Where they can make inter-species humanoid children from alien races previously considered unbreedable.”
“Precisely,” Buxbie replied, fiddling with the keypad on his pointer. From the far wall, a darkened row of computers fired to life with a polite whir. Hyacinth started, and glanced over her shoulder.

Softening genes is analogous to hammering a square peg into a round hole,” he explained. “Well, it’s precisely that, actually. Two genes that aren’t meant to fit together can be forced, and held in place with anti-rejection drugs and hormones excreted by other genes built right into the system. But it’s not a true and viable lifeform. Softened creatures are all mules, for one thing, and they’re riddled with illness and deformity for another. They use radiation to soften the genes they want to splice, and chemicals and more radiation to melt them together. It’s quite a bit like building a car out of solder.”

I can’t believe that couples would force children to live like that, just for the sake of their own vanity,” Hyacinth spat. “I’m very happy to hear that you won’t build your bees like that.”

Buxbie nodded. “There may be a bit of softening utilized for some of the bells and whistles, but no radiation, no enforced mutation. Doing that means the children won’t breed true, and that’s not what I want.”

Like an F2 hybrid,” Hyacinth nodded.

Buxbie smiled. “Exactly, if the F2 bred mutated F2s and Fs and some Gs and Ds. It’s a horrible mess, softening. No, if my bees won’t keep the genetic add-ons I suggest in their breeding across generations, or if it harms the integrity of their code, there’s no point in keeping them. They’ve got to have rock hard genomes in order to withstand some of the blighted planets on which they are most needed- softening will only make them more susceptible.”

Dr. Fletcher nodded. “Have you considered using lichen genes? I know it’s a plant, but I know that cross genus hybrids can be made.”

Buxbie frowned, interested. “Lichen? No… but it’s a clever idea.”

They’re the hardiest things anywhere, Chris. Terraforming students have developed a wide variety of hardy, easily replicated lichens for terraforming even the most dire of worlds. They’re frost resistant, pollution adaptive and are powerhouses of energy production.”

Buxbie’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak.

I’ll get you the links to the Cambridge Lichen Bank for the morning,” she nodded.

That’s a fabulous idea, Hyacinth,” Buxbie nodded, impressed. “Thank you.”

You might want to check out a few of the fungi strains I send you, too. Very hardy, and capable of extended periods of dormancy. They can turn plastic into sugar, very like honey… and a la lichen, these are very hardy.”

It was Buxbie’s turn to look impressed. The fluttering terror he had been harboring in the recesses of his heart that the beenome would prove too delicate and non-compliant to advanced genes of other species was soothed by these two landmark options. He smiled slightly. He could see in the pit of his heart Buxbie’s Better Bees start to solidify into reality.

A very promising sign.

Hyacinth looked around at the spinning strands another moment. “It’s a great venture you’re undertaking, Chris,” she told him and put a hand on his shoulder. “If you were only known for this, you’d be a saint.”

Buxbie grinned. “But we know I’m much, much cleverer than that, don’t we?”

Waiting To Be Human

A Story of the Casablanca Spaceport

by

Virginia Carraway

Life on the remote space station Casablanca 1 was not an easy one. The space station had been set up in response to the war with the Al Noor sector of the galaxy as the first of many Casablanca stations to follow and its initial set up was doggerol and outdated to say the least.

The first settlers had arrived on Casablanca over a hundred and fifty years ago and the station was barely airtight when the soldiers, young wives, children and a few criminals looking for a better sentence than the penal system would usually offer disembarked. They were given supplies and told to build their own homes and to stake out areas that they could claim for themselves. To say it was disorganized would be an enormous understatement. Casablanca was aligned vertically, it was shaped like an oversized pill capsule. It was translucent and thin skinned. Its protections lay not in thick steel or alloys for protection, but in the energy shields that were layered invisibly outside of the station.

When the first settlers arrived they found what looked like a gelatine capsule floating in the blackness of space. There were no stars close enough to give any light other than distant glimmers and the station only had a few levels completed in it so it looked almost as though it were empty as the settlers came within viewing distance of their bleak new home. There was a set of loading bays three quarters up on the capsule that irised open to form an airlock with the first vessel to contain anything other then the engineers and their robot worker drones that had set up the place so far out in the galaxy.

The Galactic Association of Globes and Asteroids, or GAGA, had been at war with the Al Noor sector for a hundred years already by the time the technology was available to build the first Casablanca space station and would continue with lulls and swells to modern day, a hundred and fifty years after Casablanca was first colonized.

The war with Al Noor was hot and active when Casablanca was built and the soldiers who were trying to turn the empty capsule into a working station were competent but unfamiliar with the complexities of planning a station. As soon as they would start to build and to organize a committee or find someone any good at community planning, a new directive would arrive from HQ and battalions would be shipped out as exhausted homesteaders arrived back once more. The combination of disruptions and injections of new faces caused everyone to look out for their own interests and people built where they were most comfortable in whatever way seemed to work best for them.

They had been shipped plenty of raw materials as the GAGA threw resources in place of planning into the war effort. Over a hundred and fifty years passed with Casablanca losing import in the eyes of the GAGA with each succeeding space station built. The end result was a rarity amongst spacestations: chaos.

For several decades Generals and Beaureaucrats had argued back and forth about the station, many in favor of demolishing the station while others argued that it was already there and it was mostly working so it would be a waste of resources to wreck the whole place up. Casablanca was a glaring sore spot in the GAGA with unsolved crime and high rates of violence seen in few other sectors. There was no master map of Casablanca, only the oldest of family bloodlines had any idea of where the ladders, stairwells and twisting alleyways led to and they were unmotivated to share the information that they had with anyone.

The spacestation had had almost a hundred and eighty years to fester in the deepest reaches of the GAGA empire and the spazzy erratic doctrines that GAGA would occasionally bring down in an effort to bring Casablanca under control caused murmurings and derision rather than law and order. It was in this setting that people lived their lives, raised families, ran businesses and for the most part, would never see light from a natural source or feel the wind.

Leaving Casablanca wasn’t an option for most people born and raised there. There was no educational system on Casablanca, a point that once noticed would eventually result in reform. For now, however, the people were barely literate and useless for intergalactic use. They were left to drift on their anchor, a symbol of incursion into Al Noor and a place to sell imported goods to at discount prices.

Wyona Erp was born on Casablanca and she had heard stories about other places from her mother, but those stories were the same to Wyona as stories about heaven were to earth children in the distant past. It was believable, hopeful but all too far away and certainly out of reach of a girl like her.

Wyona had never been promised an easy life and had never promised her children one either. She had seen her own mother die when she had been a pre-teen and had realized that an early death was likely her fate as well. She would tell her children the stories she had heard from her mother about ‘planets’ and ‘suns’ and ‘clouds’ as well as she could remember them, often inventing small details to explain the things she hadn’t understood or had forgotten. It was never dark on Casablanca, it was never cold on Casablanca but it could be lonely and scary and those were the times when Wyona would hold her babies and croon lullabies and stories her children. It was as comforting for her as it was for the children.

There weren’t a lot of soothing stories to be told about Casablanca itself, everything there was mechanical and old or new and jarring. Things didn’t fit together properly and there were seams everywhere, signs of times when repairs had been done or disaster to bring a family or business low. There weren’t places for creatures like faery to hide in, there weren’t streams for nyads to bathe in and Wyona struggled to describe what such settings would be like, patching together the evidence her mother had given her and using her own instincts to make sense of them.

Clutching her children she would explain how a stream was as though a water tap had been left on and the street left to flood the entire place.

Her daughter asked, “But where would the water go, Mummy?”

Wyona thought about it for awhile, “Well, I suppose the nyads would have water recyclers so that the water could be filtered and then sent back to the top of the station so that it could be used again.”

Her daughter nodded, the stories Wyona told about nyads had them all be quite clever so it would make sense that they would prevent water loss in the same practical ways the station used.

Wyona had made a living from the time she was twelve selling her body to whoever would have her and not thinking about anything except survival until she turned fifteen and her monthly blood stopped coming. It had been hard to work the streets but being pregnant made it harder still. The clients shunned her, thinking her either fat, or knowing her to be pregnant and therefore far less useful than another girl without her particular disability.

When Wyona found that she was going to have a baby, she went to an old crone named Dahlia who had sold her a powder to help her to lose the child so she could feed herself. Wyona had changed her mind about taking the powder when Dahlia had put her blackened fingers on Wyona’s hardened stomach and pronounced that there was a girl child within. Wyona threw the credits she had agreed to pay at the old woman’s feet as well as the packet of powder. The child would be born, she would raise it. If it was a girl, it was like her, it wasn’t like the men who took her body and left her alone to clean up the mess they left between her legs.

Wyona hadn’t realized that the prospect of carrying a son was part of her motivation in excising the child from her womb. She hadn’t ever thought about how she thought about men before. They were necessary, they gave her money, sometimes they also gave her pretty things and there had been one man who had invited her to live with him. She had lived with him for a few months, she had liked staying in one place, having regular meals and only one man to learn how to please. She had been driven out by one of his household staff who had perceived Wyona as usurping her. For all Wyona knew it was true, she found it hard to believe this girl with the large girth and doughy breasts and toothless smile could have appealed to anyone.

She was alone and half-starved when she gave birth to her daughter by a pile of trash in an alleyway. She had found the spot farthest away from anyone to give birth so as not to be interrupted and driven off. It was after the pain and when she lifted her daughter from between her legs and to her breast that she realized for the first time since her own mother had died that she was no longer alone in the world.

She named her daughter Luv.

After she had given birth, the men didn’t avoid her as much. They didn’t seem to mind just so long as she was willing to put the baby to the side while they did their business. Luv was a good girl and she rarely cried or made a nuisance of herself. Wyona was relieved for many reasons, but also because she reasoned that Luv must be a healthy child to cause so little fuss.

When Luv was a year old, Wyona found that she missed her blood once more. This time she did not visit the old crone for a cure, she would have the child and she would have more love in her world. The child came, and to Wyona’s shock, it was a boy. Wyona looked at the boy’s small penis while he breastfed for the first time with a faint frown across her brow. How strange that a man had come out of her. After Luv had been born, she had somehow come to the conclusion that she was a woman and only made women. It wasn’t a logical conclusion, nor something she thought out in the rational part of her brain, it was just something that some part of her mind must have decided at some point.

The boy had bright eyes and a strong grip. He looked like Luv and like Wyona. She didn’t know who the father might have been, there had been so very many. After he had fed for the first time and was sleeping on her breast she decided that she was glad he had been born and then she named him ‘Mine’.

When Luv was three and Mine was two, Wyona came across a spot of good fortune. It was one of the first times in Wyona’s life that she had come into good fortune and she was surprised at how well everything in her life suddenly worked.

She awoke one morning to discover a woman with a kerchief on her head looking down at her where she lie on the cobbles with her few belongings and her children. Luv was curled up under her arm with her thumb in her mouth, her thick black hair lay against her pale skin and made her look angelic, even with the smudges of dirt on her cheek. Mine was on her chest, his arms laced around her neck as far as they would go, locks of her hair trapped in his fingers. The lady with the kerchief was observing this tableau with the air of someone who had unexpectedly come across a painting or some work of art in the alley instead of a working girl and her inevitable entourage.

“Hey there, girl, do you know how to clean?”

Wyona blinked sleep from her eyes. It was not unusual to be awoken by a stranger on the nights when business had been too slow to afford a sheltered place to sleep, but it was nearly always either business or someone telling her to move along, or at worse case some sort of terrifying onslaught. The woman’s eyes were bright and kind.

“I don’t understand.”

“No, I don’t suppose you do understand.” The woman’s voice sounded amused. Mine woke up and looked as though he was going to start to cry. Wyona popped her breast out of her low cut top and into his mouth to silence him before he could start. The old woman with the bright eyes watched this and then continued.

“I’m looking for a girl to come and do my cleaning for me. Do you know how to clean?”

Wyona nodded, but warily. “I know how to clean, at least well enough for myself.”

The woman nodded and held out a hand. It was brittle with age and knotted with rheumatoid but still remarkably strong. Wyona took the hand, she couldn’t recall ever having shook someone’s hand before. “It’s near impossible to know how to clean for someone else anyhow, no matter how you clean it, everyone’s got ideas on how these things ought to be done. If you can be tidy, I can show you how I like it done.”

The conversation was surreal. Wyona couldn’t help but think that the instructions sounded similar to someone asking after a particular fetish or specialty. She had been approached by women for sex before and she supposed it could be some sort of elaborate code the woman had concocted but looking at those bright eyes, she knew that wasn’t the case.

“My name is Rita, you’ve fallen asleep on my back door, so you might as well come in and get cleaned up. Let’s start with that, I want to make sure if you are going to be in my house that you can keep yourself clean.”

“Rita… thank you, that would be nice, but I can’t leave my children out here.” Luv had woken up and was looking to her mother in alarm.

Rita gasped, shocked. “Bring the little ones in! You have to keep them clean as well!”

Rita opened the door that Wyona had failed to notice the night before in her exhaustion. In the daylight, she could see that it was painted bright blue and looked much tidier then most houses in the Carnal District where Wyona habitually stayed. The other layers of Casablanca varied in character to much better closer to where ships docked near the top of the capsule and still worse on the layers below. Near the nuclear core and where the sewage was, it was rumoured that things lived there that were neither human nor animal.

Wyona walked into a world that was far removed from those rumoured places. Rita had the bottom floor of a small set of apartments. Her husband had owned them and his father’s time the Carnal District had expanded to encompass the once merchant class neighbourhood into its foul clutches. The result was that their income had plummeted and her husband had spent the rest of his life fighting with increasingly disreputable tenants who had spent their money on opium derivatives and other novelty drugs and subsequently spent their nights screaming bloody murder and putting holes into their carefully plastered walls.

“Since John’s death, I’ve got by, I’ve always been lucky with people you know. There was always somebody to lend a hand when I couldn’t do something, something that maybe John could have handled.” Rita lingered in the bathroom doorway while Wyona washed the children in the big cast iron bathtub. Luv and Mine were having a great time in the water, Rita had put some bubbles into it and Luv had decorated first herself and then Mine with a toupee and beard out of the suds. Wyona tried to imagine what it would be like to be with a man who did all those things for you that you ‘just couldn’t’. She imagined it would be like when she was small, before her mother had died.

“How old are you, child?” Rita asked Wyona. Wyona took a minute to think about it.

“I’m just about nineteen.”

Rita shook her head and tsked. “Nineteen, when I think about what I was like at nineteen! And to imagine, you are doing for yourself and these two little ones alone on the street!”

Wyona felt her pride sting. “We do all right for ourselves! We don’t need anyone. We have each other!”

Luv smiled at Wyona and smacked the water hard with both hands to demonstrate her solidarity with her mother. Suds flew in an arc across the bathroom. Rita laughed.

“I can see you have each other. I didn’t mean anything bad about yourself or your children. I just know that when I was nineteen I barely had a thought in my head that wasn’t about pleasing John or figuring out how to be the most fashionable on the tightest budgets.”

Wyona was chagrined. “I appreciate you letting us use your bathtub, I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful.”

“I didn’t take you to be ungrateful. Besides, I need you to earn your keep around here and I won’t have it with dirty hands. I’ll be as fair to you and yours as you are to me. I can tell you that. But I have a way of knowing people, and of finding people and I can tell you are good people.”

Rita left the bathroom then and Wyona took the children out of the tub and then had a bath herself. She had most often been able to rent rooms that had at best a shower, but usually a shared shower and it was a luxury to have a whole bathtub to themselves. Mine and Luv played in the corner while Wyona enjoyed the bubbles for a few minutes herself. It was nice to be able to close her eyes, even for a minute and know that Luv and Mine were safe. She hadn’t realized until she stopped worrying for a moment that she was worried every minute about her children. Luv waved at her and asked if ‘Wy was a nyad now too?’

Wyona smiled at Luv and nodded, then plunged under the bubbles in play.

When Wyona left the bath, she found that her clothing had been removed and a clean but plain shirt and pants had been left in their place. She rarely wore pants, they were really remarkably inconvenient, but she changed into them without complaint. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done her own laundry, the children’s clothing was always first priority and she was happy if she got a chance to rinse out her underthings.

The three left the bathroom with uncertainty, who could say what might happen next.

The smells in the kitchen were promising of good things. Rita had cooked oatmeal with ginger and cinnamon and big, plump raisins and brewed up a pot of tea. Three bowls had been laid out. Wyona sat before a bowl with Mine on her lap. She was surprised when Rita asked to take him but gave him into her arms.

“You can’t eat if you’re busy feeding him.” She said. Mine looked surprised but he didn’t cry. Rita sat across from Wyona and started to spoon oatmeal into Mine’s mouth with a practiced , no nonsense style that let Wyona know Rita knew exactly what she was doing.

While they ate and Rita fed Mine, Rita went over what she was asking from Wyona and what she was willing to offer in payment. Rita had always kept the place as tidy as she could, but lately her fingers had started to hurt her too much and carrying things had become difficult since she had injured her back. Rita needed someone who was young and spry to run up the stairs when the tenants came to view apartments, someone who would clean out the sometimes considerable messes that tenants left behind and someone who could help out with the daily household chores that had become difficult for Rita of late as well.

Rita stressed that she wasn’t able to pay much. “I can make sure that you and your children keep in clean clothes and I can feed you plenty of good wholesome food, but I can’t give you a lot else.”

Wyona wondered what the catch might be, it was too good to be true. Surely the woman would want some other price, some other thing? It didn’t matter, not really. The worst that Rita could ask, Wyona felt sure she could give, and give gratefully for a place to stay and for more of those moments of not worrying about Luv and Mine.

Rita showed Wyona how she wanted things cleaned. It was a lot more work than Wyona expected. Rita was a very clean woman and had set ideas for how things should look and where things should be put. Everything had a place and Wyona was expected to learn the places after being told once where they were. It was more work than she was used to doing but she didn’t mind it. After the first ten days, she began to feel proprietorial about the apartment where she and the children lived with Rita and after that keeping it clean became a matter of pride for her. After that, Rita taught her how to cook and soon Wyona felt like she too was the mistress of the house.

At the end of a month, Rita had adopted Wyona as her own and the two women were fast friends. Luv and Mine lost much of the shadow that had covered them. Mine smiled all the time and clapped his hands in the air while Luv spun in circles to amuse them.

Rita didn’t keep Wyona a prisoner in the house but she also didn’t encourage her to leave the house. It was always Rita who went out shopping for groceries and supplies while Wyona kept an eye on the apartment and cleaned or cooked. Wyona assumed that Rita was wary of trusting her with the cash money and that was why she insisted on doing the shopping, even when the bags were really too heavy for her and she had to make more than one trip to get everything required.

The younger woman felt badly since Rita had to buy so much more to feed the three of them and wished that Rita would let her help out with the shopping. She didn’t push the matter, she didn’t want to offend Rita and she was worried that her canny friend might think she was being greedy somehow. More than anything else, she didn’t push the matter because she liked the apartment. She liked having a home, she liked not being in new places and she liked not having to look at strange faces and fear what they might want from her.

Wyona had been at Rita’s for six months and she had barely left the house in all that time. One morning she woke up before dawn to a sound and found Rita in the bathroom, collapsed against the toilet.

Wyona helped Rita to her bed, terrified by Rita’s grey colour and the shudder that went through her wrinkled body. She spent most of the day emptying Rita’s bedpan and bringing her warm towels and cloths to try to keep the warmth in the old woman’s bones. The chill that had caused Rita to become ill seemed determined to hold onto her and it was after three days that she began to feel warm again and stopped voiding herself from both ends in a frighteningly endless way.

On the fourth day, Rita smiled at Wyona when she came in at dawn to check on her. Wyona was exhausted. She stayed up through the night tending Rita and looked after the children besides. Mine had caught a less extreme version of whatever virus had struck Rita and Wyona had washed more linen and diapers than she had imagined could exist.

She also tended the tenants in the apartment block and that had become much more difficult without Rita around to bulldog them. Fortunately the rents were not due for another week so she was saved from demanding collection but one tenant had died from the same mysterious virus that Rita and Mine had come down with. Wyona had felt like her world was collapsing around her and was terrified when she realized that this was a contagious and possibly fatal virus.

When Rita smiled at her on the fourth morning Wyona was certain that it would be all right.

The old woman looked pale and ashen but her eyes were sparkling once more.

“Could you hand me a scrap of paper, dear? Just a little one, and a pen too, if you please.”

Wyona did as she was asked. She watched Rita form the letters, she had learned how to read some basic words and how to draw letters herself, it seemed to be a sort of food for her brain to have the chance to take in such things and she was a quick learner. Wy could see that Rita was writing up a shopping list.

“I would imagine we are near out of everything in the kitchen, I was supposed to go to the shops two days ago now.”

“We’re all right. I think you should wait a bit longer. You aren’t well enough yet to go out.”

“There’s no reason for me to go out, you seem perfectly healthy.”

Wyona couldn’t hide her surprise. “Of course, I can go right after breakfast!”

She was strangely nervous as she closed the front door behind her. She had never actually been out through the front door before. On the few outings she had gone on, mostly to take Luv and Mine out into the ‘natural’ light from time to time, she had always gone out through the back door, the same as she had first come into Rita’s life. She had often used the internal staircase or the metal fire escape to do things for tenants and had spent time on the roof of the building even, but she had never so much as opened the front doors.

Walking in the Carnal District was a strange and upsetting experience. She was surprised at how scary of a place it was after being removed from it for so long. She had never seen it from this perspective before. There was a lot of noise, some of it angry and some of it just busy. Girls were everywhere in scanty, filthy clothes. They looked at her but did not see her. She looked clean and comparatively affluent, she was not a possible client and she wasn’t competition either. She was a non sequiter and thus, invisible.

Rita had given her a purse of money that she had tucked under her belt. Dressed in pants and a heavy linen blouse and sturdy shoes between her and the streets, she felt capable and focused on her task.

She bought the groceries with few problems. Rita had written down directions as well as the names of the shops and their keepers that she was to go to. As soon as she mentioned Rita’s name the shopkeepers were uniformly kind and polite. They were alarmed to hear that Rita was ill and one man included several extra apples in the order and another a small bouquet of white and yellow flowers to give to ‘sweet Rita’.

As she was leaving the market she saw the space traveler. He noticed her right away and assumed that she was a street whore that managed to clean up enough to be palatable to his tastes. What he was doing in the CD, Wyona could imagine. He was wearing a military uniform that marked him as clearly from ‘away’ and he had a sour expression on his face at everything he saw in Casablanca. He had just finished having words with an adolescent boy who was with him who had apparently displeased him. He was cross and looking for a place to take it out on.

He grabbed Wyona by the arm as she walked by him. A bag of groceries fell to the ground and she glared at the soldier with irritation.

She had heard stories about the soldiers for GAGA being badly behaved but they could afford better fare then was offered in the Carnal District and rarely strayed far from the docks. The few she had entertained seemed shy and ran away from her as soon as they had finished their business. This man was clearly looking for trouble. He twisted her arm when she tried to get away from him to pick up the groceries that had spilled.

“Where do you think you are going, slut?”

Wyona had gone six months without being called some foul name or other and the word made a rage light inside her. He smirked when he saw the anger in her eyes. “You don’t like that? Think you’re too good for me? I’ve got good money for you, whore.”

“I don’t need your money.”

He looked at the spilt groceries and a package of children’s cookies caught his eye. Rita had told her to buy them as a special treat for Luv and Mine since no baking had been done for several days.

“Don’t you have children, are you really too good for my money.” He held out a fistful of credits. Wyona was shocked at the amount. She had never been offered so much for her favours. She bowed her head in concession.

“I have to pick up my groceries.” She said in a whisper.

He smiled and waited patiently while she did so, even holding them for her while she organized them into a bag. His adolescent friend watched all of this

quietly but eagerly.

“We need a quiet place.” He said when she had picked everything up.

“There’s an alley.” Wyona eyed the credits he held in his hand and walked into the alley with him.

He wasn’t particularly rough or long at her. He pushed her up against the wall and became aggravated by her pants when he couldn’t get them off of her hips quickly enough. He yanked them down in frustration. His pants were already around his boots and he was ready for her. She watched his member with eyes that were tired and hooded and didn’t try to help him with her pants but let him bruise her hips with his tugging. Finally they were off and he stuck himself into her and as finished in eight or nine savage grunts. He paid her the chips and then asked her to do the same for his young friend.

Wyona was about to refuse but he brought out another fist of cash dollars and smirked at her.

She nodded agreement. He said, “There’s a good girl.”

She left her pants off while the younger man took off his own pants and pushed her to the ground. She was shocked and disgusted by how filthy the ground was and grimaced in disgust as the boy ground into her. He pulled her hair under his elbow with his clumsy fumblings and unlike his uncle, he took a good deal longer to finish.

After he had finished as well the two men left the alley with barely a backward glance at the young girl struggling to get up and put her pants back on. The older of the two clapped the younger on the back and then discussed where they might ‘find a place to drink in this filth hole.’

Wyona picked up the bags of groceries and walked back to the apartment block. She realized that as respectable as she had felt and as clean as she was, she would never be anything then something to have sex with. She was just a girl in the Carnal District, one of the bad neighbourhoods of Casablanca, the filth hole of the GAGA. She felt like she was the filth hole. She cried when she thought this and then stopped herself even though she knew it was unlikely that anyone would notice girl crying in the Carnal District.

Back at the apartments, she put the groceries away and had a shower. She hoped that Rita hadn’t seen how grimy she was when she walked by the sharp-eyed woman’s open bedroom door but feared the worst and that Rita would know exactly what she had been up to.

She made some broth for Rita with the groceries and went into her room.

Rita was holding Mine in one arm and Luv was curled up with some blocks on the bed. Rita smiled weakly at Wyona. “How did it go, dear?”

Wyona’s tongue clung to the roof of her mouth. She suddenly wondered if Rita would kick her out for doing what she had done. They had never discussed it, but Rita had also talked about how dangerous it was to work on the streets and to do what she had just done less than an hour before. She had never once lied to Rita though, and she didn’t want to add that to their relationship at this point. Not when Rita had always been so very fair to her.

“I brought home some money. I think, maybe I should give it to you, as rent…”

Rita’s eyes grew hard and Wyona stumbled more over her words.

“Or, as an apology, or something.” Still Rita watched her with her gimlet stare. Wyona collapsed into tears.

“I’m sorry, so sorry… it just happened, I didn’t stop it, but I wasn’t looking for it either!”

Rita nodded. “Could you have stopped it?”

Wyona thought about the soldier’s smirking face and the hard muscles on his thighs when he had taken down his pants, the feel of his biceps flexing as he held her against the wall. She shook her head. She was hitching and sobbing and couldn’t speak through her tears. Mine woke up and started to cry and Luv held her arms out to her mother, her eyes wide with fear.

Rita nodded again. “I know. I know how it happens. Before I married John, I did the same job you were doing when I found you that morning six months ago. It seems like so much longer than that, it seems like you were always a part of my life.”

The old lady’s voice was so tender that Wyona stopped crying. She came and sat on the edge of the bed.

Mine said, “Mama, Wywy!”

He grabbed her wet hair in his hands and hugged onto her. Luv scooted over on the bed and hugged her as well. “You were a street girl?”

It seemed impossible to imagine this canny lady who always knew what was happening and held the building in the anvil of her will ever turning tricks at strangers behest. Rita smiled at her.

“I was. I worked until I met my John, he saw that I could be more. He helped me figure out who I was and taught me how to turn on my brain and think. That whole time I worked I don’t think I thought about anything at all. Except, I remember thinking that I wanted children. I wanted to have a little girl who looked just like me and who would be there for me when I got old and grey.”

“Did you have any children?” Wyona realized that this had never come up as a topic between them.

Rita had tears in her eyes when she answered. “I did, I had a beautiful daughter, but I never knew that I had her until the day that I opened my door and there she was, all grown up.”

“Me? But my mother died.”

“I know that she did, but I am your mother in spirit, and you are the only daughter I will ever have.”

Wyona felt the tears well up again. “I’m so sorry I let you down today.”

“You didn’t let me down, you did what you had to do.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I know. I had the same job as you and then I left that job but the job wouldn’t leave me. Every time I left the house the trouble would start fresh. It didn’t matter if I wanted it or not, business would come and I was scared to say no.”

“So what did you do?”

“I didn’t leave the house. Not for years. I was married and it would have broken John’s heart if he would have found out. I never wanted to be unfaithful to him but some clients don’t take no for an answer.”

“How did you stop it?”

Rita looked sad, her eyes looked older than they had looked even when she had been at her most ill. “I got old, my dear. I got old and became ‘sweet Rita’. Suddenly I found that I was a person in the community. I was known for my acumen and my grit. Nobody even remembered that I had once walked the streets. I think even John forgot about it before the end. He never held it against me though, he loved me.”

“I’m only nineteen… when will they see that I’m a person like they did with you?”

“I don’t know, my dear. I don’t know.”

Rita and Wyona looked at Luv and stroked her dark hair. It was her fourth birthday in a month, they could both see already that she would grow into a beauty.

Beyond the Wall

A Story of Dalton

by

Virginia Carraway

“Scat?”

“Scat.” He took a drink of the amber scotch that sparkled and clinked with ice and crystal.

Daphne Wheaton loved the way that highballs looked, especially in the dim lights of one of the high-roller clubs that only the elite on planet Dalton knew about and were allowed access into. Her own husband, who had security clearance much lower then her own, would have scoffed at its existence had she ever tried to tell him about it. She never would have breathed a word about their existence, or any of the other exotic secrets and wonders she was privy to as a high level secretary and courier. She was passed from office to office as necessity dictated and she had had many an eyefull in her career so far.

“But what does it mean?” Her eyes looked luminous to the man who sat across from her. Daphne wasn’t a spring chicken but she came alive under the right circumstances and these were definitely the sort of circumstances that made her shine.

He shrugged. “It means it’s shit.”

Daphne looked crushed and he laughed at her. Her mouth twitched and she picked up the thin stem of her glass and drank several mouthfuls. He laughed harder. She thought that was over doing it but the warmth of the alcohol gave her the fortitude to let it slide and she laughed as though she were in on the joke.

“I don’t mean that the music is shit, I mean that the singers, when they fool around with it, when they ‘scat’, it’s like saying it’s bullshit.”

“Is that true?”

He crushed his cigar out on the ashtray. “That’s what my father told me when I was twelve and I asked him the same question you just asked me. Imagine, at your age, you’re asking the same questions that I asked when I was twelve. He was a man who could scat himself though, if you know what I mean?”

A waitress wearing nothing but a leather harness whisked away the thin stemmed glass and replaced it with a full one.

“You mean he was a jazz singer?”

Mr. Boulding laughed loud braying laughter and Daphne’s smile froze on her face, her eyes looked around nervously to see if she could spot anyone noticing her embarrassment without moving her head around.

“I mean he was a nuclear regulator! You don’t get the position unless you can be political, and honey, you have to know that means a man who can spin a line of bullshit!”

It wasn’t the first time Daphne had been taken to one of these clubs and it wouldn’t be the last. The executives enjoyed taking the office with them and having work be punctuated by singers, entertainment and naked ladies doing various naked lady activities. Daphne liked it because she got to be seen in the clubs and it took her out of the banality of the walled compound which she and her family lived in. It was a middle class privilege to live in the safe enclosing arms of the wall, safe from the dangerous elements of society that inevitably sank to the bottom but there was a part of Daphne that enjoyed seeing so much movement, that even enjoyed the danger.

Her family would have barely recognized her if they had ever seen her in the working aspect of her job. Her medication was adjusted much lighter then when her daughter, Sasha got home from school. On the drive home Daphne would take several downers to compensate for the uppers she took on her way to work and the interaction with her antidepressants was profound. By the time Daphne became ‘mom’, she was a different person. The uppers encouraged her to be talkative, which was encouraged as the social aspect of her job and important to her being requested and retained by any employer. Once she was operating on her own dime, being talkative was highly discouraged and the downers also had a component in them similar to ketamine. She heartily agreed that it was best to need to be reminded about things the next day at work rather then to be burdened with them at home.

Her job paid well in both credits and in perks and she considered herself privileged to be sitting across from Mr. Boulding and happy to be watching the entertainment rather then a part of the entertainment. Daphne watched the girls on stage, feeling grateful that she had a home and family that kept her largely unable to be involved in such things. She knew both from the conversations she had had on occasion with those sorts of girls as well as from various missives she had handled for her employers that these girls were from a lower social strata then herself and that they didn’t really have any concept whatsoever that they were being humiliated and treated like the disposable dishes Daphne used each night when she served up dinner for her family. These girls were sub-human, really. They had extremely low iq’s and were practically insensible to pain or understanding what was happening to them.

In addition to their natural dimness, in no small part contributed to by the mutigens that their mothers had been exposed to and that they had ingested in the air, water and foodstuffs since birth, they were also fed a careful diet by their wranglers of low nutrient food that was high in chemicals and hormones that made them highly suggestible. It was still distasteful to see anything even vaguely alive to be treated the way these girls, and often boys in other clubs, were treated. Daphne couldn’t put her finger on why her stomach turned as one of the girls was sprayed in the face with an unidentifiable fluid from a machine that had been sodomizing the girl moments before, but it did.

She knew that it was provincial and that the business men laughed at her for her squeamishness but she felt it anyway and it was only her evening cocktail of medication that made it possible for her to forget about the things she saw during the day to let her sleep. She still had some very peculiar dreams but she was grateful that she rarely remembered her dreams and could continue to her job with a clear conscience and an understanding of her good fortune at having an easy life.

It was with a start that she realized that she had been watching the girl on stage for several minutes and that Mr. Boulding was regarding her with a strange, cool look in his eyes.

He took her back to the office soon after that and she was quickly embroiled in the rest of the day. She got home well after Sasha and Anastasia came home and she tore the tops off of the pre-made food and tossed them into the redi-baker without looking at the labels. She knew that Wrought Munitions, the makers of most of the quality foodstuffs on Dalton, monitored content and that all Complete Meals were designed to be perfectly balanced for a healthy lifestyle.

The pills that she had taken on her way home had taken affect and it was her daughter, Sasha who came into the tiny kitchen and removed the meals from the still beeping redi-baker and took all four into the living room where they would eat in front of the holo-vision. Sasha gave Daphne a gentle squeeze on her shoulder as she pushed by her to get the door to the baker open. Sasha’s eyes were always anxious and she scanned her mother’s eyes with the same searching gaze that she always gave her mother. Except for Sasha’s latent anxiety and a certain serenity that defied consumerism and advertising, Sasha was a normal, healthy child. She was a blessing, unlike Anastasia. Daphne’s own gaze grew anxious at the thought but she blotted it from her mind with the ease of a veteran.

Daphne knew what do.

The sounds of the holo-vision snapped her from her reverie. It was time for Celebrity Scandal. They watched it every night over dinner unless there was an important game on the holo or, of course, any sort of death sport. Not even a celebrity scandal could compete with a death sport in Ed’s books.

There wasn’t any death sport to compete tonight, it was a story about the rich young playboy, Verily Wrought. The girl he had been engaged to had broken the engagement and run off with someone else. There was rampant speculation about what sort of sick thing Verily was into in the bedroom that he had scared off his finacee so close to the big day. The people at Celebrity Scandal did theoretical reenactments of the various ways that it could have played on. Sasha toyed with the food on her plate during the dramatizations and then stared at the screen avidly when Verily came onto the screen. He wasn’t yet giving interviews, but an intrepid reporter had captured some footage of Verily crying while sitting on the grass at the base of a tree.

Daphne thought she smiled at her daughter’s crush but the smile never actually touched her lips. She felt the same way about Verily Wrought and certainly the many sex scandals that had broken about the young man with proud jaw and the humble eyes had fueled many a fantasy for her while splayed out on one of her employers desks between memos.

She finished her food without tasting it and carried her discardable plate, fork, knife and glass into the kitchen to be put into the recycler. The act of doing so reminded her of something unpleasant earlier in the day but she couldn’t remember what it was. She went upstairs to shower and go to bed for her shift to begin early the next morning.

It was at the first break of dawn that Daphne woke up and checked her messages on her personal device. As usual the message light on her peedee, as the personal device was affectionately called, was blinking a three digit number of messages at her. She drank her hot synth-orange beverage while reviewing the list of tasks that had been requested of her for the day. On occasion she was asked to do two tasks at once or ones that interfered with the others and it was part of her job to identify any problem areas and to send a missive through the peedee so that the extra tasks could be reassigned as soon as possible.

Daphne identified eighteen different small jobs that she could not physically accomplish in the day and rejected them before she was done her synth-orange.

The sky was red and clouds boiled around the twin cooling stacks that dwarfed the enormous subdivision. Speakers were placed discretely at intervals on the street and they artfully played out early morning bird calls and insect noises as she walked to the holding lot to claim her vehicle for the day. There were no insects or birds on Dalton and Daphne had never been to a planet other then Dalton so she had no context for why the expense had been made to implant the speakers. The rationale was lost to her but the effect wasn’t and the walk to work was always a relaxing and soothing one so long as the weather stayed clear.

On rainy days there was an undeniable sense of tension and unease that couldn’t be dismissed. It was all too often on the rainy days that it seemed everyone came down with headaches and flu and bad bouts of the being cranky. Work couldn’t be missed unless you were ill enough to require a doctor and the doctors were unsympathetic to slackers. If you were brash enough to try to have one come to your house when you weren’t actually extremely ill they would snap at you that ‘everyone has the flu today! Get to work, do you think reactors cool themselves?’

Daphne arrived at the vehicle depot and showed the young man who scanned her peedee for its recommendation for type of vehicle. She was surprised when he handed her the tag for a tiny one person transit vehicle. She protested that she had some large deliveries to make but he shook his head and showed her the short list of recommendations that her peedee had given him. She had already taken her uppers on the way over and she prepared to argue with him, bringing up her list of itinerary for the day. Her protest abruptly died on her lips when she saw that everything had been deleted except for one new errand: Meet Mr. Boulding at the Hectic Begonia by 8 a.m. Table twelve.

Daphne wracked her brain as she waited for the gate to be opened for the morning exodus to try to think of another such incident and what had occurred as a result. She couldn’t think of anything and it was making her feel confused and upset for trying so she stopped and hummed the tune for the ‘puddin’ hot’ commercial. The gate opened and the vehicles hovered or drove their way through the gate with awkward early morning unease.

Once she was away from the morning crush the traffic cleared off entirely until she reached the Wall checkstop. The guards scanned her peedee and waved her through without a second glance. She came through here regularly and they only ever took note if there was a new face or a lack of corroborating information from someone’s peedee. On the other side of the wall there was little to no vehicular transport and only the odd junky or mutant out wandering the streets in the early morning light. It was strange to be going to a club so early in the morning. She found her way easily with the in-car guide’n’go system directing her through the dirty streets.

She parked the car on a quiet curb and activated the energy field that could only be deactivated with the use of her own personal peedee code. Nothing could get within eighteen inches of the car so it was safe to leave it even in this neighborhood.

Outside of the car’s filtered and freshly scented air system, the air stank. This area lacked sensible recycling facilities and dumpsters stood open and rotten. A homeless mutant, curled up under a green coat slept behind the one of the dumpsters, tossing in pained slumber. Stale urine mingled with the chemical stench of industry that poured onto the filthy river nearby. Daphne walked quickly to the doors of the Hectic Begonia and was surprised to find them barred shut and no sign of the bouncer or anyone to let her in.

She glanced at her PD. It was ten minutes until eight, maybe that was when they opened. She debated going back to her vehicle but decided against it. Her legs ached from taking her pills and having nothing to do with the excess of energy they gave her. She didn’t want to be late for Mr. Boulding either. She walked up and down in front of the Hectic Begonia.

It didn’t seem to live up to its name at this time of the morning, although she knew that in the afternoon and evenings it was quite hectic indeed and had a reputation for being a good place to get ‘freaky’. In the dawn light the old red bricks it was made out of looked drearily faded with the gobs of grey mortar that placed them. The red steel doors were dented and the entire building was covered in blue and yellow graffiti.

Mr. Boulding was one of the most important men that she had contact with. He often spoke on the nuclear safety board conventions and he had met Victorinus Wrought, Verily Wrought’s notorious father, on more then one occasion. Once he had even had a drink with him, or so Mr. Boulding claimed.

It seemed Mr. Boulding made some claims that weren’t 100% true though, like the claim that the Hectic Begonia opened at this time of the morning. There was nobody around and the place was as quiet as a tomb. Daphne poked here peedee with her finger and texted a message to Boulding’s office. It would be dreadful if she had misunderstood his directives.

There was no immediate answer and Daphne wandered up and down the sidewalk with unusual restlessness. She was trying to shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. It was an unusual feeling, especially when she wasn’t at home. When she was at home there was always the chance that something might happen, something strange and unnatural, but in the wider world, things were more reliable, more contained.

The PD blipped at Daphne and she checked the message that came up on it. “Go around back of building, use back the door.” it read.

Daphne looked around nervously and did as her PD directed.

She didn’t know how long she had been here, but she knew that however long it had been, it was ages since she had last had her medication and she desperately needed more.

Her carefully applied makeup was streaked down her face now and her mascara was pooled at the edge of her upper lip that was wiped bare of anything but lip liner and chapped bits of skin. She was desperate and lonely now as well as feeling the full on effects of withdrawl from the various substances she required in order to maintain her career and her family and even her sense of who she was. She certainly didn’t recognize who she had become. Her emotions were all over the place but centered around a core of all consuming numbness and lack of reality.

“If it’s too difficult to talk about, we can talk about something else for awhile.”

Daphne came out of her reverie and looked at her psychiatrist. Tears were pooling down her cheeks but devoidly, lacking any sense of muscle control they were independent of her emotions. She still felt nothing about the incident that had occurred, the joke Mr. Boulding had played on her.

She thought she perceived the slightest bit of a smirk on her doctor’s lips and she stared at it as though entranced. She wondered why she came to talk to him, he didn’t care, he was just like the others who had laughed at her and the bear in the clown hat, both of them disciplined with electricity and cruel patience into performing for the business men who had come to see the special, one week only show. It flitted across her mind that he might have even been one of the men to have paid the entry fee to come and see her special show.

She needed to talk about what had happened though, and she certainly couldn’t speak about it with here family, if she said a word about it at work she could lose her job. She shuddered at the thought and nodded her head in agreement. They could talk about something else for a few minutes.

Daphne wished more then anything else that she could figure out why Mr. Boulding had decided to play his joke on her. The back doors of the Hectic Begonia had been open just the tiniest bit. She had given her name to a harried cook who had directed her to a man with a waxed mustache and shiny black hair. He had recognized her name and directed her to a set of stairs at the end of a dingy pale green hallway.

She had gone, she had wished she had more pills to dose herself with as her arms broke out in goosebumps when she had heard the noises coming from the bottom of the stairs. The smells, excrement, vomit, sweat, fear and sex were rampant in the air. There were screams.

She had gone, she had been incapable of not going, after all, Mr. Boulding had directed her to the Hectic Begonia, it was official company business and her feet carried her smoothly forward without an ounce of the fear that her heart and mind screamed at her.

Numb, now.

She was numb now.


Dr. Freid watched her and handed her a tissue for her eyes.

“I feel numb.” Daphne said. She also felt angry. It was a small flame of anger, but it was there.

Dr. Freid nodded sympathetically, “It will get better.”

He said it matter of factly and Daphne wondered afresh if he had been to the Hectic Begonia. He worked for the nuclear power plant, it was the only reason she could afford to see him, it was covered with her medical.

She had been dropped off at home and had dully told her husband that she had been mugged while working for the plant. She had lost her PD and so nobody had known where to return her and that is why she had been gone for two weeks. Her lip was split where and overly enthusiastic partner had clipped her and her head had quite a few goose eggs that were hidden by her hair. She had bruises, most of them turning to yellow, but electricity didn’t leave any marks and Daphne had tried very hard to do as she was told. It was beyond her comprehension of why this had been ordered to her to do, but she would do it to the best of her capability… somethings weren’t really physically possible though, not for a woman who was no longer a young girl, and other things were so distasteful or painful that she had to be goaded into the proper behaviour despite her best intentions to be good.

The worst part of it all had been when Mr. Boulding had come to see her after a performance. He had brought her flowers as though he had come to a starlet’s dressing room and he was an infatuated fan. His eyes had been laughing and then he had left her there for four more days.

The sense of unreality that had filled her had done terrible things to her mind and now, as she listened dully to Dr. Freid assure her that he would prescribe a higher dose for a few weeks until she felt better, there was a part of her that wanted to be back in the Hectic Begonia. A part of her that felt the pain would get better only in her complete and utter submission to the degradation pushed onto her.

She took the scrip he handed her and went home.

That night, in bed with her husband, she found that her sleeping pills had failed her and that she was left awake and in darkness wondering and remembering.

It had been a month since she had been returned to her home, bathed and in fresh, alien clothing. Her wounds were dressed and her mind was in a cloud of opiate derived pharmaceuticals. Looking at her own door, identical to all the other doors, and wondering what her family would say on the other side of it. She had been told what to say and she never conceived of telling her husband the truth of the story. Her loyalty was always number one to the plant and all the Mr. Boulding’s who held her life and the life of her family in the palm of their perfectly manicured hand. She mostly worried that her husband would care too much, that his loyalty might not be as perfect as hers.

She worried that he would question her too hard, that he might ask the wrong question and she wouldn’t know the answer. What if he was angry with the plant? What if he somehow knew who had played the joke on her and he confronted Mr. Boulding?

Her fears weren’t justified. He had hugged her briefly and told her that they had been worried about her. Daphne wondered if that was true and then was grateful that he had let it go and he had then offered to make her dinner. She couldn’t recall a time since their honeymoon when he had made her dinner and she had collapsed onto the couch, feeling like she was the luckiest woman alive to have a man like this at her side.

She had had to work with Mr. Boulding twice now and that had been the hardest. He was the same for the most part, but one or two jokes that he had made had nearly undone her careful composure. It was then that she had waited until her lunch break and had calmly but shakily made her request at the front desk for the paperwork needed to file a psychiatric visit under the company’s medical plan.

She was supposed to work with Mr. Boulding first thing in the morning tomorrow.

Daphne woke up feeling the tight fist of anxiety in her chest. She had had a nightmare. She couldn’t remember the details, but there had been a man, naked, sweaty, tattooed and covered in grey flecks of skin that were never properly washed off. He smelled.

She got out of bed and went to the kitchen and took her pills.

Mr. Boulding was in a jaunty mood today. He held the door for her when they left the plant and again when they stopped for lunch to meet some business associate at the Hectic Begonia.

There were live acts on stage, as there always were and always had been. Daphne recognized the bear and wondered if Mr. Boulding had chosen to come to this show on purpose, she wondered if he was rubbing it in. He smiled at her from across the table, his business associates hooted at something on the stage. She didn’t look in the direction they were looking in. She didn’t hear the sounds from the stage, she barely even smelled the smells. She felt a tingling, a bit of feeling and her shoulder twitched as though bitten by a cattle prod.

Mr. Boulding smiled more broadly and yes, there was definite cruelty there, even malice. Daphne submitted to it. It was her place at the company and she would always follow where she was lead, even if it meant her life or the life of her children.

She would not protest even if she had no choice but to cry.

She didn’t look at the stage. She didn’t want to see what was happening up there.

His Own Ticket

A Story of the Gendler Exodus

by

Virginia Carraway

The sky was pink and tall. Fern-like plants obscured the young Gendler’s view of the rivers of reddish debris visible even in the afternoon sunlight. The Gendler stood as high up on his tiny blue tip toes as he could, but the sky was still filled with the ferns’ green fingers and hands.

The young Gendler’s name was Esser. He was covered in blue fur and was shaped like an apple. A blue, furry apple. He had long arms and legs that moved as though they had no bones in them and blobby, pudgy fingers. His arms and legs were boneless, which is why they gave the appearance of moving bonelessly. The entire Gendler solar system lacked elemental calcium and so the inhabitants had learned to do without. Cartilage and tendon served the Gendlers in place of bone. Their sharp teeth were made of keratin and cartilage and shimmered like opal or the scales of a rainbow trout.

Esser’s large eyes, positioned high on the globe of his body, were well placed for watching Gendler V’s sky- if it weren’t for the ferns obstruction. Even if Esser found the tallest mountain on Gendler Five he would not see what he wished to see.

His parents.

His parents had been selected as being in the fourth grouping chosen for evacuation from the Gendler System. His mother was an astrophysicist and his father a galaxy class engineer. His father had originally been chosen to be in second grouping but had requested to be downgraded to his wife’s sixth grouping. The two Gendlers had years of breeding left to them and Lord Wif had granted Esser’s parents permission to average them both out to the fourth grouping. This meant they had left the system some time ago.

Esser was young, unproven and only in his third year of school. He had been selected for the fiftieth grouping and it could still be over a year before he would be evacuated. This was sad-making for Esser. Not only was he extremely lonely for his parents right at this moment but a year is an extremely long time to the young who have known very few years personally.

The thing that made Esser very sad and that he tried not to think about at all was that Gendler V might not survive for another six months, let alone for another year. He and the other Evacuation Orphans tried to never think about the deadlines, new, possible destruction dates that were re-formulated hourly and released in the morning and evening news.

In the darkened dormitory, in the the wee pink hours of the Gendler morning, it was not uncommon for the sounds of quiet sobs to be heard as first one and then more orphans lay sleepless and lonely and with too many dark equations on their young minds.

Their pain thoughts ran like a contagion through the orphanage some nights. Gendlers were all very sensitive to their own species’ pheromones. Tears almost always set other Gendlers off unless they were very prepared for them.

Esser didn’t want to think about the dormitory and the other orphans. He had fled the confines of the play yard to look at the sky and search it in the vain hope of the very young- a desire that outweighs the laws of physics. His parents had been gone three weeks now. They had packed up the small suitcases that were all they had been allowed to bring. Esser asked his mother if she could bring him instead of the second suitcase.

He had been brave up until then, but on the last word of his query his voice broke and tears leaked down his blue fur and glistened on his huge, globular eyes. His mother, unprepared for the sudden burst of pheromone, wept as well and held him, wrapped in her strong, cartilaginous arms.

Esser’s father watched from the doorway, his own eyes watering with emotion. How could he leave his only son?

The enormous black hole that sat in the center of the Gendler galaxy was not only eating their entire galaxy in huge, ravenous bits, it was also spewing out clouds of debris and radiation. It was the radiation that would destroy Esser’s world, not the gravitation and hunger of the black hole. Esser’s generation was on the final edge of viability due to the massive increases in radiation.

More and more Gendlings had been being born with defects and mutations. It had started in earnest in Esser’s Father’s generation. Gendlings had been born in litters in Esser’s grandfather’s time. In Esser’s father’s generation they had been born as twins or as triplets.

Esser’s mother, nearly a generation younger than his father, was born a singleton. Such births had become common, even desireable, as more twins were born conjoined or in ‘bad repair’. Radiation levels across the planet were sky rocketing and along with the rise in radiation came sudden downward spikes in I.Q.’s and genetic quality.

Gendlers were born alive less and less often. Instances of mental illness and crime rates were off the charts. All these statistics had been compiled and caused intense consternation with the older Gendlers who remembered better days. It was a painful dawning realization of facts leaving few deniers: they must evacuate.

The Gendlers had a vast civilization. Highly technologically advanced, intelligent and intrepid, they had successfully colonized twelve planets in their galaxy and terraformed to various stages six other planets. They had ventured out of their galaxy in the past, but had only the vaguest of colonies outside of their system. They put all of their not inconsiderable resources of brainpower and technology to work at solving the problem of finding a way to evacuate their large population to worlds outside of the Gendler galaxy.

The Gendlers now had the difficult job of sorting out who had priority to go to their new homes. The radiation complicated the matter beyond estimate. The older generation were the ones who had the mental wherewithall to organize the setting up of a new civilization and the authority to, hopefully, prevent lawless anarchy in such a new frontier. They were also safer from the genetic unravelling and the bio chemical disorders that plagued radiation stricken populations.

The young were the most vulnerable but were therefore, leaving sentiment behind and instead focusing on rationality, the ones who should be left behind. Gendlers were long lived and remained fertile until they were two hundred or two hundred and thirty years old. The young had unstable DNA and they had found that the genetic defects were passed on… it was thus that the evacuation orphanages had been established and the young were given multiple strikes against leaving the Gendler galaxy early.

The young like Esser who were genetically untested or worse, mutated, were put to the bottom of the list. The intelligent, the proven breeders, the educated, the skilled and those with recognizable notoriety or authority were given priority. By birthing Esser, a normal, healthy child without even the standard, ‘hole in the heart’ defect, his parents had proven that they were superior breeders.

The proof of their viability would have to be left behind. It was not an easy decision for Esser’s parents to leave him. They knew the statistics and the chance to have healthy children in an environment not saturated by radiation was an irresistible lure. It was rational and the end of a galaxy was no time for sentiment. Esser’s mother even stood a chance at breeding litters if she left sooner rather than later. Staying with Esser would not save his life and at least this way he had a chance at having siblings, and perhaps he would make it, perhaps he would survive the radiation and make it on a transport to reunite with them. Their doctors had been working on foods and vitamin supplements for generations now to minimize the damage of the radiation to which he would be exposed on the planet.

The justifications ran through Esser’s mother’s mind again and again. It was useless to justify. She wished with all the deep longing of a mother to take Esser with her but there was no way. Staying was simply a futile emotional idea to stay with her young until the very end. But to what purpose? To watch Esser’s blue fur start to fall out and be helpless to stop it? To watch his wide eyes go cloudy and blind as the radiation picked up? Assuming he survived until then. Assuming he didn’t already have one of the many exotic cancers that now plagued their young?

These were the cold thoughts that helped her to board the docking jet and give Esser what was likely to be the last hug that she would ever give him. It was the idea of a miracle though that kept her from losing her sanity as she watched the blue dot of her only child, distinguishable to a mother’s keen eyes even amongst the crowd, fade from view as she headed towards orbit.

Esser knew that his chances in life were slim. He had been educated about the effects of the black hole in the three years of formal schooling he had received but he had learned much much more from his parents about the mechanics and physics of radiation and the damage it could do. His father knew a lot about ionizing radiation as a galaxy class engineer. There was a lot of visible phenomena in the Gendler skies as a result of the debris being constantly spewed from the black hole. It was so impressive that the spiral armed galaxy appeared to have four arms instead of two. The second set of arms poured outward from the hole while the arms laden with stars were slowly but inexorably pulled into the hole.

Sometimes the night sky was lit up with the debris that had temporarily escaped the clutches of the omni-present maw. It put on displays that were much like firework displays as the mostly radioactive substances burned from sudden comets produced by the hole munching on stars and planets. They all burned in different colours. Strontium was red, sodium yellow, magnesium looked white but if you held up a UV filter it looked bright pinky purple, arsenic was blue, boron was bright green, you could tell it apart easy from zinc (blue green) and easy to tell apart from Thallium which was a sort of fern green. It was a sort of game that Esser and his mother played while looking up at the sky, either with her telescope or with their naked eyes.

He sat by the fern and sighed. A comet coming through the sky caught Esser’s eye. His mind started to scroll through the different elements that it might contain. Some elements were very hard to tell apart and you had to pick a range of options. Selenium and arsenic looked almost the same, especially from the ground and it was only with the spectrograph that even his mother could tell them apart.

His parents had explained the differences in colour to him but it had been hard for him to follow. He understood that there it had something to do with electrons, everyone in third year except the very most mutated mutants knew about electrons! What he didn’t really understand was his mother’s explanations about why ‘relaxing’ them made them burn different colours. His father said that he was a smart furball and that he would get it in a year or two when his brain got a few more furrows in it.

This particular comet was large and slow moving. It was not unusual to see comets suddenly appear in the sky that were never there before. Sometimes the evening news would report that one might hit Gendler but they had an extensive system of ionic repulsers around their planet and the rare one that slid past the sensors was too broken to do any real harm.

This comet was a real beauty. It was shimmering in an opal rainbow of irridescent colors. He spotted blues, greens, yellows, pink and purples. The pink was very bright and eye catching… and rare. Esser could only remember one or two other times when there was bright pink in a comet and he recalled that both of his parents had commented on it.

His mother had exclaimed and taken out her telescope for a closer look. She had said that lithium was a very rare element and then his father had said that it was the lack of lithium that prevented them from making more galaxy class ships.

Esser’s eyes grew large as he remembered what his father had said, how if they only had more lithium they could get more people out of the galaxy much faster. Why, with enough lithium, the evacuation could be completed in months rather than years! He watched the comet for a minute more as it flared more pink light, blasting more lithium into the vacuum of space.

The Gendlers’ ships all required processed lithium in small degrees, even to travel across the solar system they used lithium ion scoops to gather enough to make the journey in hours instead of months or even years. It was an effecient mini warp drive that made it as easy to visit family on Gendler IV as it was to visit family on the same continent of Gendler V. With their lithium drives, the solar system was the Gendlers’ back yard.

There was enough free floating lithium in their backyard that it could be gathered from space for short trips. Intergalactic trips required a huge boost of lithium ions in order to gather up the speed for the large jump that allowed them to leave the galaxy in only a few months. The problem wasn`t in the number of ships available so much as it was in powering the lithium drives.

The young Gendler had to tear his eyes from the sky. He didn`t know what technology was used for gathering ions from comets, but he had heard adults talk about it as a process that was possible. This comet could save who knows how many Gendlers from their fate of radiation death if only he could make his feet move and stop watching the comet burn up its lithium supplies. He started to run through the ferns, he had forgotten all about the orphanage, all about his sorrow over his parents being gone and all he could think about was that he had to alert someone, the right someone and more Gendlers would be saved!

His feet took him in the opposite direction from where he had come from the orphanage. He headed right for home.

It wasn`t far to where he had once lived. The house that he had grown up in was lit up dimly from within. The power was still on in it and all that they had had together as a family sat untouched in this oasis set amidst the ferns. No one had bothered to shut off the power to the houses of the evacuees. It made it harder to distinguish who was gone and kept morale higher and looting lower. There was no shortage of energy to light buildings and streets in the Gendler galaxy. Power plants, set in orbit, ran off the radiation generated by the black hole and there was plenty of that to go around.

Esser found the hidden key in the garden in the mouth of a plasto-form amphibian not unlike an earth frog. He opened the door and let it slam behind him. The house brought back his parents’ absence with the very closeness of their pheromones. His Dad had had a cup of tea while he had finished packing and the cup sat empty on the otherwise clean counter. His mother had forgotten her gloves and they sat on the ledge by the front door. He picked up the gloves and inhaled his mother`s perfume and soft scent.

The pheromones in the house were the familiar family ones he had grown up with and it was those scents that he missed at the orphanage almost as tangibly as the physical closeness of his parents. Esser was momentarily stunned out of his plan to use the comm unit to contact Dr. Frid, his mother`s assistant and a family friend.

The house was warm with the love that they had shared and had the characteristics that homes that have been lived and loved in have. Pictures on the wall, little things that Esser had found or made tucked into all the nooks and crannies. His mother`s favourite blanket draped across the back of the couch, the one that was too bright for the dark, woody look of the rest of the decor but that she loved and so Esser loved and his father loved it too.

Esser climbed onto the couch, the fabric dented in beside him from where his parents would sit, his father`s long arms holding Esser`s mother to him while Esser made himself comfortable on them, by them or near them depending on his childish moods and needs.

The house was silent, a bit of water dripped in the kitchen and Esser turned on the video-comm unit out of habit to quell the silence. It was the news, as it so often was now, they were showing the latest galaxy class ship that was preparing for launch… the announcer started giving the technical explanation yet again about why they couldn`t take more people faster, not without lithium…

Esser jumped off the couch and ran to the phone. He froze for a moment as his mind was totally vacant of Dr. Frid`s identity number. Then it came back to him and he punched it in quickly before he forgot it again. Dr. Frid picked up the phone on the second ring and he felt his nearly non existent shoulders go slack with relief.

Talking to Dr. Frid was the best thing that had happened to Esser since his parents left. He wished he could have been sent to stay with the assistant who was younger than Esser`s parents. Esser liked the way Frid would tell Esser about every last thing in the lab and what they did.

Esser’s own explanations of the comet were not very coherent at first but Dr. Frid waited through Esser`s tongue tied explanation and then seemed to understand and hung up with him, thanking him for the information and telling him to take care of himself.

It was good to have someone he knew, someone from before to talk to, even briefly. Losing his parents had seemed to sever reality in his mind and the orphanage was more like a nightmare then the next thing that happened in his life. Esser climbed onto the couch and turned the video-comm off. It was good that he had done something that might help with the evacuation. He felt of value. More importantly, being home again he felt like a real person again rather then an orphan. He rooted around on the couch, making a nest on it as he had done next to his parents in his other life. His mother`s blanket and scent under him and over him and his dad`s cologne on the fabric of the couch let him believe for the time from wakefulness to sleep that everything was all right.

When Esser woke up it was dark outside. He got up and went to the kitchen in search of some sort of food. His parents had not known the exact time when they would be evacuated, in each case there were windows of opportunity when radiation levels were lower or higher and it was safer to send ships out of the galaxy. They had continued to buy food and take care of the house as though they were always going to be there and so there was food in the cupboards when Esser opened them.

He was only half finished rummaging when he heard the sounds of a transport coming across the fern field. He stopped eating the cracker he had half consumed with the realization that he could be in big trouble. He wasn`t supposed to be out of the orphanage. He hadn`t had permission to leave in the first place and being gone after dark would have caused grave concern or even panic. The Gendlers cared greatly for their children and that was why they had set up the orphanages and encouraged parents to use them rather then sending young Gendlers to stay with friends or family. Since children were low priority to evacuate they would likely have to be moved to multiple homes while they waited for their turn and it was reasoned that one move was hard enough. Children could not be left untended or with people who were already ill from the radiation. Most children had special medical requirements of their own and someone not familiar with the child might make an error which could prove fatal.

The Gendlers were realistic about their children`s viability but they were also a loving society and they wanted their children to be as happy as they could make them. Part of a young Gendler`s happiness relied strongly on familiarity and stability. It was only after puberty that the urge to travel the stars started to wind up in them and adventure became synonymous with fun.

Esser didn`t want to go back to the orphanage and he also didn`t want to get into trouble. He hadn`t meant to scare anyone or be bad when he ran away, he did it with the heedlessness of the very young. He pulled his mother`s blanket around his shoulders and walked to the door to answer the loud banging on it.

A military transport hovered outside is front door and two blue Gendlers in military police white and black stood at his front door. Esser obeyed their request that he come with them with trepidation and took his mother`s gloves and blanket and his father`s mug with a smidge of defiance at having to leave his home once more. One of the MPs took his hand in his and smiled a gentle smile at him that shamed Esser. Here they were, a planet in crisis and instead of being sensible and informing the orphanage of his find he had run all the way home to eat crackers and scare everyone to death. His face felt hot under his fur as he blushed.

The ride back to town was torture for Esser. He didn`t want to go back to the orphanage and more then anything else he wanted to throw a temper tantrum despite his shame and bad behaviour. He wanted to demand that he be taken back and that they leave him alone. One MP drove while the other sat in the back of the transport and watched Esser. The MP tried to make some light conversation with him but Esser could barely speak around his conflict of shame and wanting to get his own way and go home.

He was surprised when they drove right past the orphanage. Surprised and then terrified. He suddenly realized that he might be in more trouble then he thought. What if running away from the orphanage was a crime?

He looked at the kindly face of the MP who had was leaning lightly against his auto ray-o-nizer and tried to interpret what he had said to Esser about where they were taking him and realized that they hadn’t said. That was bad, but not so bad, he also hadn’t been arrested, although, he realized with a gulp, they could be planning on making an example of him. Such things were not unheard of in these days where maintaining the peace had become a priority.

The transport was too big for picking up one orphan on the run. Esser looked at the empty seat anxiously, searching for interpretation but not having the experience to understand the complexities of meaning that may or may not exist.

They pulled in at a familiar building. Esser jumped off of his seat as he viewed it out of the window. It was his mother’s building where her lab was! The MP smiled at Esser and took him by the hand once more and helped him to jump down from where they perched in the air. There were more vehicles parked in the parking lot despite the lateness of the hour and there were a couple of shiny long black luxo-carriers that important people used for the combination of convenience and luxury. Esser ran out of the carrier and into the building. An MP obligingly opened the door for Esser who ran through the familiar hallways down to his mother’s lab was. It contained some of the most advanced telescopes and spectrometers on Gendler V.

He could hear Dr. Frid’s voice from down the hallway and he threw himself through the door and wrapped himself around Dr. Frid’s legs, exuberant with the joy of seeing a friend after being in the orphanage. Conversation broke off as Dr. Frid leaned down and picked Esser up and gave him a firm hug in return and then ruffled his fur affectionately.

Ah, here he is, the hero himself!”

Dr. Frid held Esser up proudly to the gathered Gendlers. Esser gulped at his impropriety as he saw the insignia of generals on some of the indigo military uniforms. His eyes grew enormous as he recognized a face from television. Lord Vagran himself was standing directly in front of him and the miracle was that he and everyone else in the room began to applaud the small Gendler.

Lord Vagran, dressed in the splendid robes of a lordly Gendler, shook Esser’s hand while Dr. Frid left one hand on Esser’s shoulder protectively to let him know that he had a familiar friend behind him. Lord Vagran was in charge of evacuation and he made nearly nightly announcements on the comm. Vagran had the ear of the High Lord Fraw, the Ruler of Gendler V.

We are very proud of you, my young furling!” Lord Vagran had a warm and hearty voice and he looked into Esser’s eyes with approval and relief. “You are a very clever fellow! Very observant as well!”

Will the comet help? It was lithium that made it pink? Wasn’t it?”

It was indeed lithium! Show him, Dr. Frid.”

Dr. Frid lowered the eye scope for a spectral telescope and polished the lens for Esser. Esser looked into the scope. A chart on the side showed percentages of elements and lithium was listed as being 32%. The comet was beautiful up close, like a melting opal.

Lord Vagran smiled at Esser. “That’s your comet, my boy. Esser One. We were all so busy with the plans for getting out of here that we might have just blasted that comet apart or missed it entirely. It’s got enough lithium in if for many trips out of the galaxy. We are mobilizing ion scoops as we speak to go and chase it around for its ions. That’s your ticket, little Esser.”

My ticket?”

Yes, your ticket. You’re a bloody hero, my boy! You have proven your intellectual worth and your discovery will save millions of Gendlers. But it’s your comet, Esser, and you are the first person it will save.”

Esser felt his eyes tearing with hope. “You mean, I can leave the galaxy?”

Dr. Frid nodded. “You are an asset to our species. You are going to be on the next trip out of the Gendler Galaxy.”

To be with my parents?”

Lord Vagran nodded, but it was only when Dr. Frid nodded too that Esser truly believed them.

The next ship was able to leave only four days later. Esser was very glad to board and fell asleep before they were even out of the solar system, blasting lithium ion drives to escape the pull of the black hole that he had never known a life without. He had barely had a moments sleep in those four days as they showed his story and had him do interview after interview. He visited the orphanage he had left and told the other orphans that they would get to leave the galaxy and would be in their new home with their parents within a couple of months. There had been a lot of tears and Esser was surprised to realize that he had made friends in the three weeks he had spent in the orphanage that he didn’t know he had. They all promised to keep in touch once they reached their new colonies and exchanged small children’s treasures to remember each other by. Getting the children away from the radiation now would give them a chance to grow more normally and medicine could mend some of the damage once they could only stop the constant barage of radiation on them.

The day before he had left he had been taken back out to the house, this time by Dr. Frid who would be travelling with Esser to the new Galaxy. They packed up two large trunks of items. Now that the ion drives had more fuel there were fewer restrictions on what could be brought as well. Esser brought some of his toys and the blanket off the bed that his mother had made for him before he had been born but he also brought his father’s slippers and his mother’s favorite bathrobe. He would never forget to bring his mother her gloves and her own blanket and of course, his father’s mug. Leaving the house and closing the door for the last time felt like a small death in his life but it also felt like a freedom.

The young Gendler looked up at the sky where Esser One glimmered in the sky. Esser knew that he wasn’t a mutant, he wasn’t ruined. He was an asset to his species with a healthy functional mind. Best of all he was going to his new home and he had earned his own ticket.

An Excerpt from the novel Verily Wrought Rescues the Gendlers.

This is a novel that tells the story of how the Gendlers were integrated with the GAGA afer they were discovered by Captain Verily Wrought and his GAF troops. In the novel, Esser is reunited with his parents who feared him dead. Together Esser and his people have many things to learn about adapting to a galaxy with different elements and gravity. Read about the rest of their story and their near extinction in their new home in the reprint coming out in 2014, written by Virginia Carraway.

Death, Diet and Education

A Story of Verily Wrought

by

Anthony Stark

Bluestone Academy was an institution of pre-eminent repute throughout the galaxy. Founded two hundred years ago by Jesuit priests and peers of Cambridge, Bluestone was one of the two places to send your child if you wanted to ensure your family’s position in the topmost echelon of galactic society. Slots for your secondary-school aged child were best secured about two years before you and your spouse wanted to get pregnant, although certain extremely wealthy people had inserted their children into the scholastic programme for seventh grade with incredible surcharges. Buying an asteroid, building a school and headhunting several professors from Bluestone Academy would have been more economically expedient.

Of course, such an edeavour would have foregone the entire point of attendance at Bluestone Academy- the prestige of the name. The Academy’s uniforms were ubiquitous, iconic affairs that harkened back to the old days of British Public school. Senior year students wore the black robe of the Ivy League student over their existing navy blazers, grey pants or pleated skirts and red school ties. This image of the Bluestone student was exclusively the province of alumni, who were the only ones who could wear this combination of clothes safely without severely prompt and debiliating legal action.

This was taken at issue in court against one of their alumni, Dominic Donovan, who had been prosecuted for using his uniform in an extremely revealing photo shoot for In Quotes magazine. The younger Donovan was in fact the only student in the Academy’s history to ever be prohibited under law from wearing his old school jacket and tie. This was a verdict that was taken by said student to Galactic High Human Rights Court and ultimately overturned, much to the Academy’s chagrin. The aforementioned student’s reception at alumni functions was understandably much cooled following the High Court’s ruling, and Dominic Donovan’s request to Bluestone Academy for rights to a second photo shoot involving his uniform on school grounds was summarily refused.

The student who rose, or fell perhaps, such ignominious distances just so happened to be classmates with the one young man in the Galaxy who leant Bluestone Academy as much prestige as the Academy gave to him. Verily Wrought was at thirteen already the richest individual in the galaxy, surpassing his father Victorinus’ fortune with several keen stock market plays. The independently wealthy youngster was slated to attend the fall semester at Bluestone- much to the nervous delight and excitement of the staff.

For Verily’s part, raised on an asteroid paradise of his father’s own acquisition and design, his feelings toward the new school were the same as every other boy who had ever faced the prospect of the first day of school. He was nervous, he was unsure, and above all, in the days leading up to his shuttle flight, he was already feeling homesick. Verily had just suffered a hideous loss, and knew home would not offer comfort or respite ever again as it had in his past.

Verily had been raised on his asteroid with his father, the imposing and bombastic Victorinus Wrought and Enora Wrought, Victorinus’ isolated and beautiful wife. Verily’s mother, Enora, was a galactic socialite and former actress who had married Victorinus after months of relentless courtship. Verily was their first child, and his red-headed, clear eyed visage contrasted sharply with Enora’s pale, dark haired face and Victorinus’ ruddy, black haired mop. From Verily’s earliest appearance in the public arena as a babe in his mother’s arms, there was talk. No one could pin down who the russet haired father could have been, or indeed have proved conclusively that the Wrought’s genes might not have thrown such an antiquated creature as a carrot top.

With the eye of the galactic press heavily upon him, Verily put strain on the Wroughts’ marriage. The arrival of Verily’s sister, Samantha, helped even less. The Wroughts became a reserved family who only ventured out for public appearances or business affairs, preferring to avoid the spotlight their other mega-rich forebears coveted. Verily and his sister Samantha were raised in a vacuum, figuratively if not literally. As such developed a sense that they were children like any others that may or may not exist, from a family identical to the others in the galaxy they saw on the holos.

The rest of the galaxy felt somewhat differently. Paparazzi were constantly being chased off the asteroid’s flight path for attempting to take illicit heat sensitive pictures, photos and surveillance of the Wrought family. Speculation abounded on celebrity talk shows and light news broadcasts about the kind of “wild” child especially Verily Wrought might be. His red hair was singularly eyecatching to a galaxy that had largely bred it out eons ago. The ancient superstitions of fiery temper and ‘demonic’ nature rose up in spite of Verily’s patently cherubic, calm behaviour. Due to his sheltered upbringing, Verily was of course nearly completely unaware people were speculating in such a fashion about him. He enjoyed his home schooling and visits with his family’s few friends with innocent, unblemished contentment.

He became aware that the rest of the galaxy was casting wide nets of gossipy suspicion after his mother committed suicide when he was thirteen.

Suddenly the brunt of galactic suscpicousness fell at his asteroid’s doorstep. For the first time Verily comprehended the snapping staring eyes of the cameras upon him, his weeping sister and father while they stood in the rain on old earth and watched his mother’s coffin be lowered into the ground. These cameras would take his picture and send the picture to the news media who would compile it with dozens of other pictures in broadcasts with titles like, “Little heir loses his mommy,” and “Over Wrought with Grief”. These were just a few of the segments Verily later saw on the holo at the home of family friends the Donovans.

Verily watched the news media avidly in the weeks following Enora Wrought’s death. The galaxy appeared to want nothing more than to talk about Verily, his father Victorinus, and his sister Samantha. Noticing the practiced and familiar tones of the broadcasts, Verily became concerned that this was not a suddenly new occurrence. He intimated his concern to his best friend, Dominic, while they flipped through yet more Wrought-laden broadcasts.

Dominic’s father, Howard Donovan, was a propulsion magnate and spaceship designer, creator of the Sky Pilot and the Jump Jet, the top selling personal interplanetary crafts. The Donovans were also a constant target for the galactic rumor media. For reasons of economics and fame, Howard and Victorinus swam in the same circles and had become friends of a sort- two incredibly rich peas in the same galactic pod, both saddled with sudden families and wives who needed quiet time to raise their children.

The two men pared down their industrial rivalry, formed business alliances and were rather surprised to see that the family-spawned truce made them a tidy profit. Howard was constantly jetting all over the galaxy for business. Whenever he knew he would be in range of the Wroughtsteroid, as it was called, brought his wife Rhea and son Dom to visit with the Wroughts. Dominic, who came up to Verily’s shoulder, was a small, round-faced boy with a shock of curly dark hair and almond shaped brown eyes. He and his red-headed counterpart had been playmates since the year of their birth; the boys had developed a particular telepathic closeness that came from children being raised in a vacuum together. Both were the rarest of children, born to incredible entitlement and miraculously, never caring it had happened.

The boys sat cross-legged in front of the holo pad. Dominic laughed at his friend kindly, and patted Verily on his freckled knee.

“They’ve been talking about you for a while now, Verily,” Dom advised his friend gravely, careful not to sound too knowing lest the shock of it intimidate the young redhead. “They do that.”

Verily furrowed his brow and stared at the holo screen where images of his mother emerging from a holo limo with baby Verily in her arms still brought stinging tears to his eyes.

“Why?” he asked. “Why are we so interesting?”

Dom shrugged. He watched his friend carefully. “Because everyone knows who we are,” he said simply. “We’re the same as everyone else, as dad says, we fight and-” he lowered his voice to a whisper, “-Fuck-”, he raised his voice to normal levels, “-and we do what we do, but everybody knows our name, so it’s news.”

Verily thought long and hard about this. “But what about all the other kids whose moms died last week? Nobody’s giving them news coverage and sympathy… they aren’t getting cards and gifts by the dozen.”

Dom laughed again and waved his hand to shut off the holo. It obligingly faded to the floating Donovan Industries logo.

“Leave it to you, Verily, to care about everybody else when you’ve lost someone.” He hugged his friend, who collapsed into Dom’s embrace.

“You know what? Everyone who lost their mom this week is comforted that they’re not alone- that you’re going through the same thing they are, that if someone everyone knows like you can do it- well, so can they.”

Verily nodded, wiped a tear from his eye, raised a stalwart face. “That’s true, Dom,” he sighed. “I guess that’s one good thing about all this holo stuff.”

Dominic stood up and helped Verily to his feet.

“You want to go pray?” he asked his friend. Verily nodded again, lump in his throat. He rummaged in his pocket for the pearl and garnet rosary that had belonged to his mother. Dom smacked his friend on the back.

“Come on, I’ll race you to the shrine!” he called as he ran ahead. “Last one in lights the incense for Vishnu, and Mary!”

Verily took off after his friend. “When we’re done, I want to look into this whole business about the news!” Verily shouted. “I need to know what I’ve been missing about me!”

Dominic’s shorter legs had left him to light incense to Vishnu, Lakshmi and to Siva. He sat cross legged beside Verily, who knelt before Howard Donovan’s Our Lady of Fatima statue and prayed on his mother’s rosary. The smaller boy watched his friend as emotion flowed over his face, coloring his skin scarlet under his freckles, then blanching it like a sudden frost. Occasionally tears would flow and Verily continued his decades in silence. Dominic, whose father had unrepentantly taught his son both Hinduism and Catholicism in tandem, prayed the decade markers out loud with Verily in latin, but wisely left his friend to his own thoughts through the long rows of Hail Marys.

While Verily prayed his decades, Dom would ladle small handfulls of rice from an urn by the altar into little bowls for each of the gods, including Mary and into a fifth bowl in front of a picture of Enora Wrought that Howard had left in the shrine the day before. Verily finished his prayers and Dominic helped him to close the rosary. Then Verily watched while Dom ladled yet more rice painstakingly into the bowls with the long-handled ladle.

“What does that do?” Verily asked. His voice sounded thick with tears.

Dom looked a long moment at his friend, inscrutability written on his face, before answering. “Hindus believe the rice contains the sap of life, and it is nourishing to the gods, and to your mother’s spirit. It will give them all energy to do what needs to be done to turn her from an ativatike-sarira to a preta, and thence to a pitr.”

Verily nodded. His large, red-tinged eyes looked questioningly at Dom.

“We believe when a body dies, the person becomes a vague astral version of itself, made up of heat and wind and space. It lives in a limbo area near us, but not with us… like pergatory combined with Hades.”

Verily’s brow furrowed, but he nodded. “It sounds unpleasant.”

Dom nodded. “Not like heaven, certainly. If we make offerings to the gods, and to your mother, they can help cleanse the heat and wind from her, and make her an astral body, like a ghost or shade that would actually work through pergatory toward heaven. As an ativatke, your mother is too… tired from living and dying to work toward her salvation.”

“So this is like the prayers for the souls in pergatory,” Verily asked, and motioned to the rice. His nose snirked.

Dom nodded and handed his friend a tissue from the packet he had in his pocket. “This is like the grease that makes sure your prayers and our prayers make it to her, so your mother can use them to get through pergatory,” Dom said evenly. “But alone, well, it would take a lot of rice to help your mother turn into an astral spirit, let alone a pitr, or heavenly spirit like a saint or like Our Lady when she appeared in Fatima.”

Verily gulped, and nodded. He blew his nose robustly. Dom smiled sadly at his friend and offered him the ladle. Verily took it shakily and added some rice to the bowls with inexpert movements.

“What else can we do?” Verily asked. “I bet you guys have something else up your sleeves than just rice.”

Dom nodded. “We make cakes for the dead, and offer them to the spirit with prayers, so that they can form parts of their astral body from them.” Dom looked at his friend appraisingly, then shrugged. “It takes ten cakes. Ten days. A cake a day.”

Verily looked at Mary for a long moment, thumbing the rosary. He regarded the blue Vishnu, the bright pink Lakshmi, the dusky Siva, and finally his mother’s photograph.

At the same time, Verily asked, “Will you help me?” and Dom said, “Yes.”

Dom took his friend into the Donovan’s large kitchen, grateful to have distracted Verily from the disabusing gossip history he had wanted to uncover. Howard Donovan, a perhaps harshly pragmatic man, had never attempted to hide from his son the harsh realities of life as a wealthy celebrity. Dom therefore knew all the things, true and false, absurd and hurtful, that the galactic media had ever spewed about his best friend and his family as well as about his own. And at a time like this, when the ichor of the media’s rhetoric was most shameless and every piece of gossip ever printed, whispered or broadcast about Verily’s mother was being played and replayed, it was not the time to introduce the innocently ignorant Verily to that seamy world.

In addition, Dom was grateful to have the opportunity to make his own puraka offerings for Verily’s mother. Enora had been a sad and lonely woman, but she had always had time for a gentle head pat or smile for her son’s friend, whose own mother had been somewhat… confused about the nature of matronly affection. Dom wished for Enora to find her way to a place more of her suiting than the isolated and sterile world Victorinus had made for her on the asteroid. Having Verily’s help in the matter was that much more of a boon.

Dom pulled a stool up to the large cupboard where dry goods were kept while Verily fetched a pot and filled it with water. Verily stopped to look at the contents of the cupboard where Dominic was rummaging- rich, vibrant spice smells mingled with the dusty odors of dried papadum, chana flours and mung beans. Several different kinds of rice colored huge jars, barks and dried fruits were trapped in others like collections of a magician or mad scientist.

For Verily, whose parents ate fresh vegetables and fruits and only occasionally home farmed meat seasoned with a French or blandly European air, this cupboard was a compelling glimpse into an alien world. At the same time the cupboard contained things Verily found familiar- olives and feta cheese in tubs, soda crackers (beloved by the very busy and often malnourished nervous stomach of Dom’s father), soda and tinned soups, some from Verily Wrought Industries, tinned peaches and tomatoes, white flour and breakfast cereal.

None of the familiar food was fetched out by Dominic though, save for the rice he handed shakily down to Verily and the large container of sesame seeds. Verily transported in addition to these, containers filled with something that looked like giant brown pea pods and some sort of fruit or vegetable that looked as though it were actually tiny wizened bladders pickled in a salty brine.

The boys stood and looked at the ingredients together for a long while.

“This makes cake,” Verily remarked uncertainly. “No eggs?”

Dom shrugged. “Cake is more of a general description. They’re actually balls of goo.”

Verily nodded. They stood together another moment. “Have you ever made them before, Dominic?”

Dom cast a mischevious glance at his redheaded friend. “I saw dad make them, when Aunty died. They don’t have to taste good- it’s just the ingredients that count.”

“To make a proper astral body for mom, now that she’s…dead.”

Dom nodded. “Right. Let’s boil the rice.”

He started put a pot filled with water onto a gas burner, measuring out rice into the water warming under the flame.

The lights came on in the kitchen over their heads. Both boys started and Dominic, who was always easily startled, let out a little yelp. They looked guiltily over their shoulders at the door and the light switch there they had forgotten to use.

Howard Donovan stood leaning against the door jamb, v-cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He looked with tired, kind eyes at the boys.

“Whatcha doin?” he asked around the virtual cigarette.

“Making puraka cakes,” Dom answered boldly. Father and son regarded each other across the kitchen. Verily noticed for the first time how they shared the same placid authority. It was like watching two still pools ripple in the same wind.

Howard Donovan nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a good idea, son,” he replied, and glanced at Verily.

“I asked Dom if he would do it for me,” Verily said by way of an apology to the older man.

Howard walked into the kitchen and put his v-cigarette in the pocket of his shirt. “That’s very kind of you to do for your mother, Verily,” he told the taller boy, and ruffled both their hair.

“Would you help us, dad?” Dom asked, hoisting himself up on the counter with a little grunt.

“I will help you,” Howard told him. “Why don’t you two get a big bowl and a big knife. The special steel ones from the drawer, Dommie.”

Dom hopped down obligingly from his hard won perch and they boys returned with their items as Howard was finishing rolling up his sleeves. He gave his cufflinks to his son to hold. “You’ve got the right idea with the tamarind and fig, son… we should add some peach, and raisin, and apricot, too.”

“Mom liked those,” Verily said, and sniffed a little in spite of his attempt to be brave.

Howard nodded, and smiled again a little at Verily. “That she did. The puraka cakes are meant to nourish her… she’s been through a lot at the moment, and anything that would comfort her in life you can offer to her now. It’s much appreciated over there.”

“Is it purgatory, Mr. Donovan?” Verily asked as Howard began expertly chopping up the tamarind with the hand-forged steel blade. Verily watched it move, mesmerized. It looked very old, and had filligree on the blade cut in deep swirls. A garnet was inlaid in the hilt, half-hidden under the elder Donovan’s hand.

“No, it’s much more…vague than that, where she is,” he explained, adding the sticky tamarind to the stainless steel bowl with his knife. “It’s like a bad dream where you’re downtown and it’s dark and all the shops are closed and you can’t find a phone. You can see people inside, but they won’t open the door for you, and you get blown from street to street. It’s hard to sit in one place over there without a preta body… which these cakes will make for Enora. And it’s hard to make an impact on the in between world where you are without a preta body, too.”

“Is mom ok?” Verily asked, eyes huge.

“Yes, son,” Howard told him seriously, and moved on to chopping figs. “Dommie, add some cinnamon and nutmeg to that water there.” Dom obeyed placidly, and Verily was struck again by the similarity between the movements of father and son. He had never seen such a versimilitude before, and it made him at once incredibly soothed and a little mournful. Verily had been like his mother, and they had shared the same expressions, the same gestures, like Dom and his father. And now that was gone.

“Your mother’s ok,” Mr. Donovan reiterated. “Nothing bad happens in the dream, nobody will accost her or anything. It’s more like a half-remembered dream right now, where the images I told you about are all you can recall. But without helping her to form a preta body, that can coalesce for Enora into a lucid dream where people can hurt her, or push her around… or she can fade to blackness, a deep, dreamless sleep. The preta body gives her an anchor, Verily… which means she’s still got a life in the otherworld, even if it isn’t the life you knew with her.”

“That’s very good,” Verily said emphatically. He took a deep breath in, and inhaled the rich spices as they boiled in the water. Dom sat on the counter by his friend and kicked his sneakers gently against the cupboards beneath him, listening.

“Your mother will have places to go to, other places… she’s going to go home, son,” Howard advised Verily kindly. “You do know that this place wasn’t her home, right?”

Verily thought a long moment. Both Donovans watched him.

“I- I think so. Yes. She was never comfortable here. Anywhere, really. “

“That’s because this world, this universe, well, it wasn’t her home. It’s not mine, either,” Howard said confidingly, and winked at the boys. Even Verily smiled back, both boys drawn in by Howard’s hypnotic voice and repetitive motions. Howard chopped up a couple handfuls of raisins Dom had fetched for him and continued.

“It’s not any of our homes here, and we need a solid, preta body to begin to travel back to where we belong. It’s a long process… ten days of offerings like these for Enora, properly done, will get her this vessel, this preta body, for her otherworld journey. But that’s not the end.”

“It isn’t?” Verily asked, and took a sharp breath in.

Howard glanced at his son. “Dom?”

“Mrs. Wrought will need to become a pitr, so she can return to her pitr-loka, or the place of her emanation,” Dom offered.

“That’s like being a saint, or how our Lady appears to us,” Verily said uncertainly.

Howard smiled. “Very similar, yes, Verily, That’s the form she can use to travel home with. And it ensures that, when she gets there, she can settle in and be home. Not be a shade, or a disembodied spirit, or a vetana- that’s like a vampire, son- but be home, and safe.”

“Is home heaven?” Verily asked the elder Donovan, staring up at his canny green eyes.

“No, not really heaven, son,” Howard told him. “But she belongs there, so it’s gonna seem a lot like heaven compared to the crap-fest we got here. And if she’s tired, and doesn’t want to reenter the wheel of life, Enora can go to heaven there, and rest.”

Verily smiled. “I guess reincarnation is an option with all this, then.”

Howard laughed. “Yes, it is.” He added the raisins and some peaches he had chopped while they talked to the bowl, then paused, and held up the knife, stained with fruit sugars, by way of a pointer stick.

“Let me tell you a little something about the Church, Verily,” Howard began confidingly. “It’s very, very old, right? Like thousands of years.”

Verily and Dom nodded, Dom smiling slightly at the familiar story he was hearing the beginnings of.

“Well, these puraka cakes, this preta body stuff, all this belief about where your mother is now, and where she can go… this comes from a belief structure that was thousands of years old when St. Peter became the first Pope.”

Verily’s eyebrows raised.

“There was a barrier up between the Roman world, and the Ayurvedic one, the one where we get these traditions, Verily,” Howard advised. “It was a geographic barrier, the mountains beyond Lebanon, the desert of Kashmir. The Himalayas, and to the south of it, the sea. Sure, there was some small trade, but the geography made the Romans reluctant to delve into the jungles and the acrid desert wastes and learn about the strange dusky people with whom they traded…”

“… and the Romans’ leather armour and jangling medallions, their spears and their hard eyes made the Indians reluctant to ask them to stay. So when Peter formed the Church, and the others like Peter who came after it, they had the sense and spirit of the very oldest traditions of humankind, brought to them by Jesus, but they didn’t have the tested practice that had been discovered and perfected through trial and error over countless centuries.”

Howard Donovan resumed using the blade for preparing the puraka cakes. Verily sat and thought about all this for a moment.

“Do you think that Peter and the popes would have kept these traditions of yours, if they had known about them, Mr. Donovan?”

Howard smiled. “Indubidably, young sir Wrought. The Roman Catholic Church knows power when it sees it, and absorbs into itself anything that has real effectiveness. Our mass comes from Roman pagan tradition, our Eucharist from Greek, our death rites and Easter service from the Celts. If Peter had known, he would have approved of these little cakes we’re makin’, and of the other rites you and Dominic will have to perform for your mother this year while you’re away at school, too.”

Verily looked over at Dom. “There’s more?”

Dom nodded. “Once your mother has her preta body, then we have to propel her to her pitr form with sixteen offerings, spread… what is it, dad, how do they fall out?”

“Roughly once each lunar month, with a couple extra thrown in, each one on the anniversary of the event,” Howard looked at Verily gaguingly, divining if the child had the mettle to commemorate his mother’s monthly demise for a year.

Verily nodded, eyes thoughtful. Howard Donovan noted his studious attentiveness. Enora’s boy was taking it all in very seriously.

“Will you write down the days for us, Mr. Donovan?” Verily asked after a moment. And then- “And will you write down how you make the cakes?”

Howard grinned. He pointed the knife at the jar of seame seeds. “I won’t need to, son. You’re already learning how. Now, grab some handfulls of seeds and put them in here. We will each grab a portion and mix in our own bowls.”

Dom obligingly handed a bowl to Verily and took one of his own. Each of them took a large handful of sesame seeds. Verily started to sift them onto the macerated fruit, stopping when he saw Howard pause.

He winked at Verily, then closed his eyes a moment, bowing his head over his closed fist, which he held close to his heart. The boys followed suit.

“Enora, mother of Verily, mother of us all, sister of the cosmos, my sister, may this offering be acceptable to thee.”

“Amen,” Verily added, then opened his eyes and glanced at the elder Donovan, who winked again. He sprinkled the seeds onto the fruit, and the boys followed.

“Well, get in there, mix it up, kids,” Howard advised, and he went to the stove to remove the cooked rice from the heat. He put the pot in the walk in freezer and returned to the boys, who had their hands coated in delicious goo.

“May we eat it?” Verily asked.

Howard stuck his hand in the mix, finished dispersing the seeds, then stuck his finger into his mouth speculatively. “I’m gonna,” he said.

The boys licked off their hands with thoughtful contentment, then Howard fixed the water in the sink for washing.

“You will need ten cakes for each of you,” Howard advised. “We offer her one each day… this is a procedure best left unrushed. You won’t need to repeat this for each of the successive sixteen rituals. Just a single simple offering for Enora’s pitr form will do… Dom knows how to do it, he helped with his Aunty’s rites. But since you’re going to be here for the next couple weeks, we can do this together.”

Howard dried his hands, handed the towel to the boys, and took his cigarette out of his pocket. Taking a speculative drag, he then asked the boys, “So, how are you two looking forward to your schooling at Bluestone?”

Dom smiled slightly, shrugged. “It is what it is,” he said with that peculiar wisdom beyond his years that Verily always found soothing.

Verily looked skyward. “I’m nervous, Mr. Donovan, “ he admitted unashamed. “I don’t know how I’ll handle being away from home, and with all the strange other kids, and teachers… I’ve never really met so many people in my life before.”

Howard nodded. “You have been somewhat sheltered, kid,” he agreed. “Don’t worry too much about the other people… Dommie here’s been every fucking place so he can help you handle them.” He squeezed Dom around his narrow shoulders, and Dom leaned in like a loving puppydog.

“Pardon my french,” the elder Donovan corrected himself.

“I can tell you, Verily, that people are always going to be mean, and fractious, and run in packs, and you’re never going to get along as closely with most of them as you do with us… but don’t for a minute think that’s because you’re Verily Wrought, or the richest little guy in the galaxy, or because Enora killed herself, or because you’re Victorinus’ son, or even because you’re a redhead.”

Dom smiled, listening to his father recount in short, remarkably easy to swallow broad strokes the gist of the horrible gossip that circled around Verily’s family. That would give Verily a primer on what to expect from the rest of the galaxy without having to view the smear holos firsthand.

“People are just people, son, and they act that way to each other, too… and to themselves. In front of the mirror, in their diaries, in front of the Lord after they die. You can’t change them, you can’t stop it… just cruise on by and do what you do. You’ve got one hell of a moral compass on you, kid- follow that, and show them a working amount of compassion, a working amount of discipline, and you’ll do just fine in this life.”

Howard Donovan took another long drag, and blew out a series of perfect smoke rings. The boys looked up at them appreciatively. Verily thought how they looked like little haloes. Dom thought that he wanted to smoke one day so he could learn to do the same.

Howard gazed at both the boys and read this in their eyes. He smiled with the corner of his mouth.

The boys formed the balls with their hands, and Howard Donovan helped them, confessing it had been his intention to do this clandestinely for Enora Wrought later that night. When their cakes had been prepared, Howard took three of them and put them on a saucer, and motioned for the boys to follow.

He walked them through the wide french doors that opened from the kitchen to the garden area, across the little greenway between two gazebos, one black and one white, and down to a little fountain under a large pine tree. Verily noticed that there was a slab of white granite set up on its end, with flowers, a small whisk of grass, some incense and other articles laid across it. The ground in front had been swept clean, and a small hand broom, obviously made from the cedar boughs off of nearby trees, leaned against the impromptu altar.

“Give it a sweep, boys,” Howard advised, v-cigarette clamped between his teeth. “It clears away any of your cross-purposes before we start.”

Dom offered the broom to his friend, who glanced at his companions, offered a nervous smile, and swept the dirt arena clean. Dom did the same, and handed the broom to his father, who completed the same maneuver with plate of cakes in one hand. He mumbled words in Hindi and Latin as he did so.

Howard rummaged in his pocket and found an incongruous lighter, which he used to light the wicks of the two candles he had left on the rock. Instinctively, Verily knelt, and Dom sat cross legged beside him in the dirt.

“Well, boys, here goes,” Howard told them, and proffered them the plate with their puraka cakes.

They each took one, and Mr. Donovan held a third. Howard skritched some sort of symbol into the ground with the stick end of his broom, repeating the words he said in the kitchen. Verily jumped as though a current of electricity had run through his heart as the elder Donovan intoned his words this time.

“Enora, mother of Verily, mother of us all, sister of the cosmos, my sister, may this offering be acceptable to thee.”

Howard lay his cake in the symbol in the sand, and the boys did the same. “May this first puraka cake restore your head to thee.”

He motioned for the boys to take a flower blossom and betel seed and put it on the cake.

Howard then reached behind the rock and brought forth a woolen scarf, pale pink with strands of silver thread shot through it. He also plucked forth a brass lamp with a hand made wick, and lit it from the flame. The oil spilled slightly onto the rock and the earth as he placed it by the flower covered cakes.

“May this scarf and this lamp be acceptable to thee.”

Mr. Donovan then took the clay pot of water and showed it to the boys. They noted it had black sesame seeds in its depths. Howard winked at them, and then laid the pot by the other offerings.

“May this water and sesame be acceptable to thee.”

Verily stared down at the collection of items for his dead mother. They seemed unlikely and rather exotic, but they felt real, at least when Mr. Donovan had finished arranging them there at the foot of this piece of marble. He realized that what had occurred was the same subtle transformation as during the Eucharist service. Words, actions, items, all combined to make something more than the possible sum of their parts- something that could penetrate through to the otherworld.

“That’s it, boys,” Howard told them, and sat back on his heels. “We don’t have any sacred waters here for these to pass away into, so we will have to call on Lord Agni in his position as incinerator for the compound to help us out. You can do the same at school, Dom.”

Dom nodded. His quiet placid air throughout had fed Verily steadiness the strange ritual had failed to bestow. Verily was grateful for the matter-of-fact advisement Mr. Donovan was giving his son so that Dom could help Verily in their new school.

Howard scooped up the offering in the scarf and stood, wincing as his knees popped. He took the boys to the garden incinerator and had Dominic open the door.

“May Lord Agni bless these offerings and cleanse them,” Dom said quietly. Howard nodded, glanced at Verily, who also nodded. Only then did Howard put the items in the chute. The door shut and the items slid away. Verily straightened up, his eyes clearing. It felt as though some weight had lifted off his back. For the first time it seemed as though his mother’s death might actually, in some way, be o.k.

Howard Donovan looked at the boys, then knelt down and held out his arms. They squished themselves into him thankfully.

These events lead directly to the rather unlikely but cruel article published in the notable trend-setting magazine El Pomodor, a publication devoted to recounting the “bits and pieces of better lives lived”, as their byline reads. It was essentially a glossy, triple sized scandal sheet with smaller print, longer sentences and ads for designer fashion.

The article was a rather biting, sarcastic one column affair whose title read, “Rich boys do pack their own lunches, Bluestone Academy uncovers contraband foodstuffs in trunk of youngest Donovan” … and on the cover, in red ink-“Son of Shipping Magnate in Smuggling Debacle”.

The article led with a picture of the school, and a shot of two boys wearing school uniforms entering the large oak doors of the Academy. The one boy was lanky and freckled, the other short and olive skinned.

The gist of the print was that sources at the Academy said headmaster Thurston had confiscated several “ethnic food articles” containing controlled substances on the GAGA’s Illegals list. These food articles had been taken from out of the trunk of Dominic Donovan, who prompty and with reported “eerie calm” called down the weight of his father’s wrath upon the school, causing Thurston and chief nutritionist Palming to hand the items back to the boy before they could be handed over to GAGA authorities.

The entire piece was written in that peculiarly high-handed, derisive fashion reserved for anything untoward about the beautiful and wealthy. It is a tone used to convey the most meaningful damage to the reputation. The article concluded that “Bluestone Academy had unwittingly admitted only its third ethnically Hindu member in its history”, and that now it should apply to the GAGA for grants for multicultural education.

Donovan Industries, the multitrillion dollar company that made and maintained almost 70 percent of the galactic transport fleet and had its hands in the warship and surveillance craft markets as well, was forced to pay a 3000 credit dollar fine to GAGA for the illegal contraband. The fee was paid in credit bills by Howard Donovan himself, in what he called a “regrettable convergence of bureaucratic bullshit and religious freedom”.

Back at Bluestone, Headmaster Thurston, his feathers ruffled, narrowed his eyes at the small darkhaired boy and the already imposing redheaded presence of his most prestigious student each time he passed them in the hallways. The headmaster’s scrutiny made their first weeks at school bracing. Thurston’s ire leant the two newcomers a certain street credibility amongst their fellow students who watched them from a polite distance, waiting to see if their notoriety would turn to cool, or rot into scapegoatery.

Verily escaped much of the staff’s wrath over the puraka cake incident, but was dismayed to find Dom the centre of his mother’s ritual’s storm. The nutrition counsellor Palming scheduled bi weekly meetings with the diminutive Dominic to “assess his health spectrum” in light of Dom’s inadvertent assertion he was a Hindu and thus a malnourished vegan by GAGA nutrition guidelines- guidelines which failed to assess protein from “non-animal sources” as complete protein at all. Verily tried to step in to assure Palming and Thurston that Dominic was neither malnourished nor maltreated. Much to his surprise, his earnest assertions only seemed to deepen the teachers’ determination to give Dominic the closest scrutiny possible.

Thurston pulled Dom out of class twice a week himself and walked him, hand on the boy’s tiny shoulder, down to the nutritionist’s office. After Dom had left, Verily’s ears would burn with frustration for the rest of the afternoon. It was only Bobby Clarendon, a lanky, sad-eyed Irish boy, whose father had developed a way to flash ferment nearly any cellulose product into drinkable ethanol and made a mint in the process. Bobby stepped forward to stand by both Verily and Dominic- first by offering to fill out their half-empty dorm room, second by being a remarkably open and like-minded confidant for the pair.

Bobby listened with empathy to the boys’ frustration over the situation, and with quiet compassion to the real reasons the situation had to be played out as it did. Both Verily and Dom were surprised to find in Bobby a third mind who was alike to their own- raised wealthy, careless of it, and concerned only with finding and keeping good company as close as possible. Bobby distracted their classmates when Dom was pulled out for nutritional counselling with witty commentary on the teacher’s lecture, and Verily’s ears burned for less and less time. Dom was grateful to hear the distraction echoing down the hallway as Thurston marched him to his bi-weekly doom.

In these enforced sessions, nutritionist Palming was informed by Dominic that he was in the middle of a particular Hindu convention of faith for Verily’s dead mother and that he would require private time in the kitchen on sixteen dates in order to properly express his grief. Palming took several weeks to fully appreciate this, so appalled was he by the nearly abusive way in which the clearly underheight and weight child had been raised. Once the right to worship had been established in Palming’s mind, however, the nutritionist agreed heartily on the condition Dominic immediately start eating meat once a week.

“So I told him I could only conscion doing such a thing if it were lamb, fresh lamb,” Dom told Verily in their dorm room that night. In addition to Bobby, another student was bunking with them in the group room, a tall thin sad boy named Wendell Mock. Wendell and Bobby laughed along with Verily.

Sheep had not fared well in the galactic expansion, proving remarkably susceptible to high levels of pollution, fatal digestive upsets and mineral imbalances from native grasses. Worst of all, they proved very very unstable in hyperspace. As such, lamb had become the single most decadent meat in the galaxy.

“What did Palming say?” Bobby asked. His knees were tucked up under his chin and he watched with a wry smile as Dominic recounted the story. He passed a bag of sugar candies to Verily, who took one with the delight of someone who had few friends and has recently discovered he has made one more. Bobby, Dominic and Verily had by this point fallen in like thieves together, with Bobby’s quiet, surprising wit forming an unique counterpoint to Verily’s earnest intensity and Dom’s languid implacability.

Wendell, the fourth member of their new group, was not meshing in such a seamless manner. He guffawed. “Well, no, of course!” he snorted. “There’s no way the school would spring for lamb once a week! Not even to turn you from being a veggie or a vaygan!”

The three boys glanced at each other. It was obvious this wasn’t working out with Wendell.

“He said yes,” Bobby told him, visibly bored.

Bobby did not offer Wendell a candy after passing the bag to Dominic.

Wendell watched the candy bag return to Bobby’s side and glowered at Dom for rebuttal.

“Of course he did,” Verily said, nodding. Verily was already learning to ignore the glares of the animous.

“They’re right, Palming did agree,” Dom said. “And I’m not a vegetarian, or a vegan, Wendell.”

“And it’s pronounced veeegan, Wendell,” Bobby corrected harshly.

“Technically if Dom were a vegan, and a veggie as you say, he’d also be a cannibal,” Verily pointed out, and the other two boys laughed while Wendell tried to work out the joke.

“Awesome,” Bobby congratulated Dom. “I hate that guy Palming. He’s always on me about my Irish upbringing and how potatoes aren’t the only starch. I’m like, dude, they’re not even native to my country, we ate oats. Bigot.”

Dom grinned and glanced at Verily, who was surprised into laughter. Dom liked Bobby’s sense of humor, and was pleased to find that Verily was developing a friendship with Bobby without any rancour or hurt feelings. Dom certainly knew that, if he had been raised in such a bubble, he couldn’t necessarily have absorbed new people into his life without some emotional grumbling at least. He smiled at Verily, who had started to look happy again for the first time since his mum had died. The ease with which Verily had made his many social adjustments was astounding, Dom thought to himself, but that was Verily, wasn’t it- so plainly better than the rest of us, but so decently so it just made you want to do better too.

“What is wrong with that guy Palming?” Verily asked. “He’s the single most ignorant healthcare advisor I’ve ever seen.”

“And you’ve seen a lot, Wrought?” Wendell asked sarcastically.

“Dad is very health conscious,” Verily told him. “We had a variety of nutritionists, chemists and doctors as advisors. And from all of them, I have to say Palming is the most, well, retarded.”

Dom laughed, and pulled his soft sugar candy with his teeth. “Palming is here purely to inject a degree of GAGA sponsored homogoneity into the elite of Bluestone Academy.”

Bobby nodded ruefully. “He’s not actually on the staff payroll, he’s paid for by the Galactic Association. He really just knows the regs in and out- best protein percentages for the most growth of the most kids, when to increase that and vitamin contents for the most overgrown bastards you’ve ever seen.”

Verily put up a finger. “Ok, so I have to ask… why is everybody so overgrown? I mean, half of our class is almost half again as big as me.”

“And twice as big as me,” Dom said, and his two friends laughed.

“It’s probably because you don’t eat meat, Dominic,” Wendell told him. Wendell had already decided Bobby was mean, and Verily was too “nice” to bear, but Dom had edges of the eternal archetype of “Cool Kid” that, despite Dom’s friendship with the other two and antipathy for Wendell, made Wendell try to be nice to him for longer. “I can’t believe you get lamb, but it’s bound to help you. You don’t have to go all Bluestone Maenad to get a boost from a little proper nutrition, you know.”

Wendell was about to see more than just a facade of the Cool Kid in Dom. Verily nodded slightly at Bobby for him to pay attention as Dom grew abruptly still and turned his head in one eerily smooth motion to look the fourth boy in the eye.

“Help me,” Dominic said calmly.

“My father is five foot four. My mother four foot ten. Nothing short of growth hormones is going to “help” me in the direction you like, and apart from the deliterious effect such chemicals would have on my otherwise thoroughbred champion’s loins, I would shudder to ever crest into the gargantuan idiocy that typifies anyone who is unfortunate enough to be over six and a half feet tall.”

Bobby’s eyebrows raised, and he rocked in his seat in an impressed nod. Verily made a motion with his lips as if to say, shh, he’s not done yet.

Wendell, who was two inches shy of the six foot mark at thirteen, and whose large hands and feet indicated he was to join the twenty percent of the galaxy over seven feet, jumped back in his seat as if stung. Having sought affinity too long with Dominic’s constantly cooling responses, this blatant strike was too much. Wendel started to cry.

“I just thought you’d want to be bigger!” he sobbed.

Astounded that Wendell didn’t know when to quit, Verily shook his head. Bobby, watching the scene, snorted with amusement.

Dom sniffed, and smiled a smile that looked a mirror of his father’s rueful grin. “Good for you for managing to eke out a conclusion from those grossly overgrown, sluggish neurons in that immense wasteland between your ears. Bigger isn’t better, Wendell- they want you big so you’ll be slow and sluggish and clumsy and badly designed, so you’ll be dependent on them for everything from orthotics for your feet that can’t hold your weight to the average four back surgeries a leviathan like you is bound to need in his lifetime for his spine that’s too long to support a creature that walks upright!”

Bobby laughed out loud. “With a swayback like that, you’ll never hold a saddle, either, Wendell.”

“It’s a GAGA wide policy to grow people large, Wendell,” Verily told him. “A larger person consumes twenty to forty percent on average more resources than a smaller one, and only lives as long with the aid of massive amounts of healthcare. It’s how the galaxy goes round, Wendell- you’re an important part of the economic gears that keep us all afloat, though.”

It was Dom’s turn to cast an impressed gaze at Bobby. He does this all the time, he told the Irish boy with his eyes. Verily’s earnest honesty could often cut deeper than Dominic’s harsh tongue.

Wendell stood up and ran out of the room.

“And for the last time, I’m not a vegetarian!” Dom called after him.

The three boys sat looking at each other, enjoying the power they wielded with their group offensive maneuver.

Finally it was Verily that spoke. “Well, do you think that got rid of him?”

It did, as a matter of fact.

Wendell’s parents came and fetched him the next day. They were easily recognizable by the way they both stooped to cross the old fashioned threshold of Bluestone’s doors.

Dom and Bobby and Verily’s exploits had circulated through the rest of the school. The Trio, as they were already called, was being regarded with growing admiration and respect.

The boys were gathered by Verily’s locker with other students nearby, some milling, some trying to overhear the repartee of their three classmates. Wendell hurried around the corner with his parents bookending him. His face was red and streaked with tears.

Mr. Mock, father of the unfortunately surnamed Wendell, cast a withering glare over his son’s head down at the three boys, and his jaw clenched with scarlet rage as Dominic made a discreet but obvious kissing gesture in response to the elder man’s regard.

Mr. Mock put his arm around Wendell and quickened his pace, but Mrs. Mock stopped and zeroed in on the diminutive, navy blazered student. Verily took a step forward to try to diffuse the situation, but Bobby held his cuff. Bobby Clarendon hadn’t known Dom long, but he figured his the boy could handle this himself… and he wanted to hear what might come out of the kid’s mouth.

Mrs. Mock poked one long finger in Dominic’s face. “You’re a little monster, is what you are!” she shrieked at him. “You’re nothing but a little runt, you and your whole family are nothing but little freaks, with the way your father carries on with half the galaxy, and your mother balling everything with a prick!”

Dom blinked at her. Bobby raised his eyebrows and held his breath. Like the rest of the school, Bobby knew that the Donovans were one of the galaxy’s train wreck marriages that refused to die, and Bobby had already gleaned Mock-chasing mileage within Wendell’s earshot about the scandal of Rhea Donovan seducing the mile-long Cartwright Mock three years ago. But Bobby had not known Dom long enough to know how he’d handle such outright insults.

No one in the hallway knew Dom well enough yet to know how he’d respond.

Wendell held back, turning slightly in the hope that maybe his mother would avenge him and make Dominic cry, as Dom had sliced tears out of him with the lazer scalpel of a tongue he inherited from Howard Donovan.

“Amply apportioned in the libido department we Donovans may be, you great troll of a woman, but you’re very welcome that Donovan Industries graciously deigns to put more legroom on its interplanetary shuttles than any other shuttle in its class… so at least my family is well mannered.”

“Ho-lee- shit,” Bobby breathed, laughing.

Mrs. Mock’s face blanched, and her mouth dropped open. Her finger began to shake.

“Alnira!” Cartwright Mock shouted from down the hallway as Wendell began to cry again.

She stared into Dominic’s dark eyes, and he tried desperately to conjure up a look that would appear the most like his mother’s as possible. It must have worked, for Mrs. Mock gasped, then fled down the hall in easy strides back to her husband. In seconds, the massive family was gone.

The students erupted in varied exclamations of delight.

Dom deflated, quivering, and put his head on Verily’s shoulder, who draped his arm around his friend kindly.

“Great shot,” Verily told Dom.

“That was freaking amazing!” Bobby cried, and slapped Dom on his tiny quivering shoulder.

Students were crowded around the trio, eager to partake in some way in the encounter. They were already recounting it eagerly with each other.

“She shouldn’t have brought up mum,” Dom said apologetically to Verily.

Verily, who knew Dom’s tangled relationship with his mother Rhea all too well, nodded.

The redhead bent to Dom’s ear, and Bobby leaned in, hesitating only a moment to make certian the other boys felt it was allright. Seeing it was, Bobby smiled and blushed to himself, and listened as Verily said:

“I wondered if you hadn’t crossed one of your own lines of internal adult-child politeness with that one, but in such an ambivalent and inagural situation as the first month at Bluestone Academy, I feel it was a risky maneuver perfectly executed, and ultimately well worth it.”

Dom smiled broadly, and laughed, gazing at Verily gratefully. “Thank you, Verily,” he told him. He held out his hand and his friend shook it solemnly. “You will always be my final word in morality.”

Bobby looked at Verily appreciatively. “I didn’t know Dom had crossed a line there, but I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

The bell for class rang, and reluctantly the students parted with the trio amidst much back clapping and congratulation. “Oh, you’ll learn about him in time,” Verily advised. “And what lines he might have left, after that.”

Bobby stood a pace behind the pair as they entered Math class. He nodded, and smiled satisfied to himself.

“Cool,” he replied to the empty hallway, then he hurried in to his desk beside his new friends.

The Legend of the Bluestone Maenad

A Galactic Myth

by

Virginia Carraway

It all started with the greatest job a teenager could ever have: house sitting.

Sylvia wasn’t house sitting for just anyone either, she was house sitting for her aunt and uncle, the two people with the best house ever. Sylvia’s parents had never been wealthy, but her aunt and uncle had always seen to it that Sylvia enjoyed luxuries like attending the prestigious Bluestone Acadamy as well as being sent to different elite summer camps and paying for piano lessons. Her aunt and uncle were childless and enjoyed making sure that their only niece was lavished with as many gifts and opportunities as her parents would allow.

Their house was huge. It had a hot tub and a sauna, a pool out back and a gigantic wine cellar. They had a satellite that played thousands of channels, some of them were sexually explicit. Her relations’ subscriptions to the multiple channels gave her a new perspective on aspects of their grown up relationship that Sylvia had never suspected could exist. She felt herself to be much better informed about adults in general and much more educated on a personal level.

“My eyes have been opened.” She thought to herself during a graphic insertion. Her mouth was slack as she absorbed the information portrayed before her by the holo-vision in vivid 3-D format.

Sylvia spent a week looking through the house and enjoying her summer vacation and having what was essentially her own private country club and spa. She speculatively considered the idea of throwing some sort of party but then dismissed the idea as a bad one. She had never been Miss Popular and anyone who came to a party she would throw like this would most likely be coming to puke in her aunt’s ferns and crap in the pool. This was her private paradise and she didn’t feel a need to add intruders to it to make a point to her peers about her coolness level.

The other kids at Bluestone knew that she was essentially a scholarship student and that she had no real right to be there, unlike nearly everyone else. She found even the kind students to be condescending and had stopped inviting people over to her house after the first few attempts. Nobody was exactly rude to her about it, it was more of that same snobby kindness. They were patronizing. Now that she had the chance to be on a more or less even par with them she didn’t want them to enter into her world.

She thought the word, “sully”. She decided it was a good one. Those other people would sully this experience, this skit she was doing where she was an adult and this was her domain.

That was the game here, that was house sitting. She was Lady Sylvia for the rest of the summer and free of all the responsibilities and the costly price that adults paid for their aquisitions. She was being paid for her existence, for being resident and she didn’t want to rule other people who would simply remind her that a week before she had simply been Sylvia. Not popular but not derided, not overly gifted in any area but certainly not stupid. Plain but far from ugly, she was not a wallflower in her domain, she was a lady and although their was no one to admire her, there was also none who would call her on it with a sudden demeaning chop to the knees that would bring her down and cause some part of her brain so active in her current delusion to stop providing her with the mental crack that was giving her her particular glow this early July.

She also didn’t want to be reminded that she was a tourist in this world when they lived like this their entire lives. In fact, her aunt and uncle’s house looked like a summer cottage comparatively. It was really best not to invite opportunities for comparison or rational thought, it would just be a burden. Sylvia had imagined scenarios where her aunt and uncle were her real parents but knew that they were absurd. She looked like her real parents and it was sad but true that her aunt was unable to have children, didn’t want to adopt and was merely displacing on her niece.

The few servants that her benefactors employed had been dismissed for their own summer vacations and the whole place had been left under Sylvia’s command. Her only real chores were to take care of the cat who had just had kittens and to make sure that no one ransacked the place while they were gone. This added nicely to her illusion of lady hood and made her feel more special than anything else in her life ever had.

As far as she could think, and what she would always think, none of these ideas were what gave her her problem. Her disorder began with the freezers, eight of them. All eight feet long and nearly four feet wide stainless steel humming in the pantry off the kitchen. They were all stocked by her aunt who loved to throw dinner parties and who also thought that children needed a food on an equal par with needing love or oxygen and and she had packed them with bonus goodies thinking of Sylvia enjoying them while she took care of her adult errands off planet.

The frozen food was gourmet and all ready to put into the microwave or oven. Sylvia had never tasted anything so good. Most of the food was all real which had always been one of the perks of dinner at Uncle Herb and Aunt Ivy’s house. Sylvia’s family was comfortable, but buying foods made with real cream and sugar, meat that came from animals rather then being cloned in a petrie dish or made from a slurry of protein products was a luxury of the upper class. Herb and Ivy could afford to take vacations off world and could also afford food made from real food.

The difference between real food and food made through chemistry and science was not nutrient quality so much as it was an intagible release of hormonal chemicals that the best technicians at Verily Wrought Industries were still working to perfect. Having the many freezers at her disposal was in many ways, purely speaking in terms of biochemistry, a more intoxicating and fulfilling whole body cocktail then any mere emotion like ‘love’ could supply.

First of all there were the cheesecakes.

They came in all sorts of flavours. Maple, chocolate, carmel, double chocolate, double carmel, swirls of those flavours mixed together, raspberry, cherry, blueberry, mango… They were all wrapped in thin cardboard boxes with a perfectly transluscent round window to gives a picture perfect view of the delicacy inside. Each cake was pre-cut, a piece of folded over wax paper seperating each slice from the others for easy removal.

Sylvia had had Cheeese cake before, of course. Her mother had a soft spot for the stuff that Sylvia had never understood. Her mother was a great lump of a woman who would look at the forkful of white Cheese cake, nearly corpselike in colour, covered over with unnaturally bright cherries that glistened in the equally unnaturally bright red goo that covered the berries.

Sometimes Syvia’s mom would look as though she was going to break into tears as she sighed and said with the ritual of a veteren: “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips!”

Then she would put it in her mouth with the same mournful thoughtfulness.

Sylvia had shared pieces of Cheese cake with her mother, always stopping long before she had finished her half of the slice. The blandness and gone sour taste of cheese that was not cheese made her feel queasy.

The freezer cheese cakes were different than any of those dead things. They even looked different. Each one had artfully placed chocolate or candy fruit on them. Her absolute favourite had flakes of white chocolate on a dark chocolate background it had almonds on it too, tiny espresso beans and a candied orange in miniature. It was triple chocolate orange mocha almond swirl, it was also moderately illegal and had to be obtained from the black market. Real coffee was an illegal substance, Uncle Herb made no secret of his love of coffee and his disdain of the legislation that had banned legal sales of the beans.

She had been told that she was free to help herself to anything she wanted and respectfully asked to invite no more than one or two friends over at a time. They warned her to stay out of the wine cellar but her aunt breathlessly informed her with a smile before they left that there was everyday wine she could have in the upstairs cooler, so long as she promised not to tell her parents she had been sampling. Real wine and real coffee… Sylvia’s father had speculated more than once that Ivy and Herb might have risen to an entire higher layer of the social strata if they didn’t spend so much of their money on their gourmand fetishes.

By the end of her second week of house sitting, Sylvia was beginning to feel at home. She had explored the wine cellar until she had remembered an old horror movie that she had watched in junior high and panicked and ran upstairs with her heart thunking in her chest. She was sure there had been something down there… then she laughed and the sound rang out bleakly in the gathering dusk. She turned on the holo-vision and put the latch on the door to the wine cellar. Day by day she had felt an isolation occur that while not at odds with her surroundings was certainly odd for Sylvia.

Sylvia had seen holos about other planets and knew that they were fortunate on Virgo to have a planet largely devoted to less industrial interests and priorities that focused more on tourism and elite schools such as Bluestone. Sylvia’s father, Oliver Elwood, had worked at Bluestone as technical support for fifteen years. Sylvia had been born on Roland Six and Herb had put in a good word for Elwood at Bluestone so that they could help out with the ’employment sitution’ as they delicately phrased it, and also get to know their brand new niece. Not everyone who worked at Bluestone and the nearby town of Miller’s Creek was wealthy, but the kids who belonged to Sylvia’s social strata all went to a different school from the super elite academy. They didn’t have relatives determined to be kind at the expense of comfort. Sylvia wished she could go to school with the other kids who dressed like her when she wasn’t in the school uniform. Yet a part of her thought that she deserved to be the Lady Sylvia, and deserved to go to Bluestone as much as anyone else.

Herb and Ivy’s house was about an hour’s drive outside of Miller’s Creek. It was a walk to the nearest neighbours and she didn’t have her driver’s license yet so she if she needed anything she would have to wait until her mom or dad could spare the time to pick her up. In a way, taking this job was an odd sort of spiritual path she was taking. To be alone, to have all she wanted in terms of creature comforts and the joys of unlimited holo entertainment but nonetheless it was a hermitage.

She started to keep odd hours, waking up hours after dark and prowling the house, still avoiding the wine cellar but going for swims by star light and sitting in solitude in the hot tub. She realized she was really quite bereft of hobbies or interests. She read a paperback or two from her aunt’s shelves, once more startled by her aunt’s interests as her eyebrows climbed and she ate more cheesecake and read the titilating novel Ravished, about Maiden and how Brute in his castle made her the ultimate woman through subjugation, humiliation, pain and bondage. She wondered what her aunt and uncle were really like. How they spent their many quiet nights and how much this was casual macabre interest and how much of it was put into practice. She felt longings to have a boyfriend. The thought led her through a catalog of all the faces of the cute wealthy boys she secretly wished would flirt with her. She wondered if she would want to be Maiden. She touched herself in a vague and unfamiliar way and gave up the job in disgust. She didn’t know what her body wanted and then she thought about having a party again.

Sylvia felt that having a party would be some sort of capitulation, a sign that she couldn’t handle this undertaking and she didn’t know anyone well enough to have their parents drive them out so far to spend the night. She told herself that and then several names presented themselves as a possibility before she tossed the idea on the rubbish heap. She felt territorial and and angry at the idea and she went back to look at the freezers as a sort of totem of her ownership.

The meal of her first night, pizza and soda followed by cheese cake had become her favourite dinner although she had sampled many gourmet delights from across the GAGA. On this particular night in early August she decided to go back to what had become comfort food. She had opened the freezer that poured out vapour and glowed like a gateway to another world. She cooked it in the oven until dark golden patches rose up like blisters and the whole pizza bubbled merrily. She opened a bottle of wine with much difficulty and then switched immediately to soda as the taste made her throat clench and gag. She finished the entire pizza herself. It was a large one, twenty four inches and she ate it in a coma of deliciousness while watching one of the sex channels. Herb and Ivy had an entire raised up platform so that the images weren’t scale-sized versions of actual images but instead life size or bigger depending on how you adjusted the settings. Her eyebrows climbed higher and higher as she took bite after bite of the pizza, washing it down with bubbling sweetness without even realizing what she was putting in her mouth next. It was like being a wallflower at a real life orgy.

Sylvia shut off the holo-vision, staring at her plate that held only crumbs now. She absently licked her index finger and collected some of the crumbs off it and put it in her mouth. She was startled to find that she was still hungry.

She went back to the deep freezer and opened it with silent reverence. Cold vapour escaped, revealing as it parted the bounty within. She decided on the carmel cheesecake after barely a moment’s thought. She pulled it out, the cold felt good on her hands after the hot pizza that she had barely let cool before tearing into it.

The caramel cheese cake had little carmelly globs on it that were covered in a chocolaty substance similar to mousse. Sylvia carefully removed one of the pieces with a pie spatula and put it on a desert plate. She thought disdainfully about the comparison between these masterpieces and the Puddin’ Hots that she ate as a snack from her parents when she went to school. After a moments more thought she added some carmel desert topping from out of the cupboard and artisically zig zagged it across the cake. She poured herself a glass of milk and sat down at the table.

The taste of cheese cake was pure heaven. This wasn`t her mother`s Cheese cake!

She ate the entire piece. Finishing the pizza and eating a piece of cheese cake had become the norm. She looked at the box of caramel cheese cake on the counter. This had been her first piece of the cake. She licked a bit of caramel drizzle off of her fingers, she liked to add that to all the cheese cake now. She sucked on each of her fingers, one industrious lick at a time. Drops of water glistened inside the window of the box which revealed the gaping emptiness of the removed piece.

“Just one piece of the whole pie.” It was her Dad’s expression and sounded like it was even in her Dad’s voice.

“Yes, sir,” she said into the silent kitchen. She picked up the box of cheesecake and carried over to the table. She opened up the softly floppy lid and slid another piece onto her plate. She didn’t bother adding the carmel syrup to the Cheese cake this time, out of the bottle would be fine, just fine. She smiled at her newly discovered sense of economy and wondered if this was all part of growing up. The whole cake was starting to defrost now. The first piece always tasted like ice cream cake and the flavour was more delicate and grew increasingly piquant as it melted.

The rest of the box beckoned her. She finished it off in large mouthfuls. She felt uncomfortably full, it had been a lot of cheesecake! She wondered if maybe a swim would be a good idea. She knew she had been putting on weight since she had started eating so much of the freezer food and had tried to make more use of the other facilities as well but she circled the kitchen like a moon in orbit around a planet, sometimes erratic, sometimes eliptical, but always there. She thought of her mother looking like a huge white jelly as she read the side of the box. Each piece had over eight hundred calories. She licked her fork, twelve pieces to a box… she probably should go for a swim, or maybe a walk. Didn’t you get cramps if you swam after eating? She felt a sort of terror at the idea.

Sylvia realized that even though she was plain and her hair frizzed no matter what she did, and no glasses in the world would make her look less like a geek and more like an intellectual, she loved her body. Even now that her jeans were too tight and she had to wear her jogging pants all the time, she could be stranded here and helpless if anything at all went wrong. It had been a concern both her parents had had and it seemed obvious to everyone except a girl who had only just turned sixteen and thought herself immortal, but something Sylvia had laughed at. Now it stared her in the face and she realized that she would have to be very very careful or something very very bad at any moment could happen to her.

She thought about calling her parents but dismissed the idea, this was her place, there was no room in it for outsiders, even her parents. She wished that her mother had let Ivy buy her the waterproofed modern Personal Device so that she could wear it on her wrist everywhere she went instead of the old fashioned one she had that required regular charging from a wall outlet rather than being fueled from biorhythms and solar power. Her PD was old and if it was jarred too much it sometimes didn’t work. She couldn’t carry it around with her, what if she damaged it somehow? It was her only link to the safety of the real world.

Even her jogging pants were too tight on her and she took them off. Her stomach was groaning under the pressure. She went to the washroom, her stomach was cold from the icy cheesecake and overly bloated from the pizza and all the soda. Kneeling in front of the toilet she realized that these were some extra calories that she wasn’t going to have to worry about. Her body had realized what she had done to it and had decided to deal with the manner in a decisive and thorough manner.

It seemed to boil out of her, still tasting like caramel and the wretching seemed to go on forever. When she was finally finished she washed her face and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face looked bloated, even more so than it usually did these days and her eyes were red rimmed. What had possessed her to do that? Was she crazy or just that bored?

Sylvia could still taste the cheesy flavour in her mouth and she found some mouth wash to rinse with. She leaned over the tap after and gulped fresh water in, her hair was soiled and hung in her face in filthy strands. She needed something to get that taste out of her mouth. It was sick, but it was somehow making her want more cheesecake. She made a face at herself in the mirror and brushed her teeth, scrubbing viciously at the taste that still malingered.

It was no good, the taste of the cheesecake was firmly lodged under her soft palate. She needed something to cleanse it out properly, now her cheesecake just tasted like it was one of the mint chocolatey sort of cakes. She thought of the most astringent thing she could think of and then sought out the bottle of wine. She thought of the taste of it and decided that a bit of that would cure her of the need to eat anything and her throbbing abused stomache might actually thank her for it.

She went to find the bottle of wine from earlier but gave that up as a bad job as well. She found another bottle of wine, this one a pinkish white colour and struggled with the cork screw once more. Finally she put the bottle between her legs and jimmied the cork out by slow degrees. She took out one of the larger wine glasses and poured the delicately tinged mixture into the glass and took a big swig of it. She frowned as she tasted it.

This stuff was good. It wasn’t anything like the stuff she had had earlier in the evening, this was sweet and a little tart, it reminded her more of cheesecake but at least it was strangely soothing as it landed in her emptied belly and warmed first it and then worked its way up to her ears. She drank it down and poured most of the rest of the bottle into the glass.

Fifteen minutes later, and now walking with a weave, Sylvia made her way back to the freezer and opened it up. She was still holding the wine glass in her hand and her stomach was feeling a lot better now and her head was feeling a lot cloudier. The cheesecakes were still there, of course. The freezer had them all stacked up, ten cheesecakes per a stack, each of matching kind.

They weren’t the only desert either, frozen eclairs, frozen butterhorns, frozen strudels, pretty much any desert you could freeze was in there, some of it was stuff that she couldn’t even identify or pronounce. Then there were the entrees, pizzas, hams, meat pies… Sylvia found herself salivating. Who was to say how much of her dinner she had actually kept down? She was probably half starved right now. That was the secret to bulimia, she had read, how those girls stayed thin and got to eat all they wanted… She thought she had better have something to eat, if for no other reason than that she had technically not kept anything down all day.

Sylvia pulled out the meat pie, she had her hands full with the wine glass and the pie so she left the freezer door open. She tucked the pie onto the counter, pulling it out of its cardboard box and sliding the disposable aluminum plate into the oven with a flourish.

She eyed up her wine glass. That stuff was sure good for the digestion! She felt a soft wave of self pity and her eyes welled with tears. She had been through so much today and the meat pie would be forty five minutes before it was ready. She decided another bottle of wine might hold her steady until her ordeal would be over with the ‘ding’ of the oven timer.

She was much better with the corkscrew this time. She thought given some time she could be a pro. She sat at the table with her glass and her bottle feeling very grown up. She wished she had a cigarette to complete the image. She had another idea, her bathrobe had to go. She ran upstairs and snagged a little black dress off one of her aunt’s coat hangers. She went through a drawer and found make up and put it on to the best of her ability at an approximation of a Brandenburg super star. Brandenburg super stars always wore little black dresses. She ran back downstairs and checked the timer, sure she must almost be ready for her just reward. She had only been gone ten minutes!

She sat back down to the table and poured a glass of wine. She talked to a hunky co-star who found her irrestible. The pie was starting to release the far away smell of flour and butter. She watched the pie cook and talked to her co-star until she realized that the conversation was not evolving past her laughing charmingly at his admiring compliments. Then she remembered the freezer that she never completely forgot. She left her wine glass at the tabe.

It was oozing cold and fog into the warm room. She started to close it and her glance fell on a raspberry cheesecake. Some fruit would be good for her while she waited. Sylvia was aware that the wine was making her feel spinny and she didn’t want to fall down and not be able to liberate her meat pie from the oven. The room was twirling.

Perhaps this wasn’t the effect of the wine. She could be weak from hunger. Before she was aware she had removed the cheesecake she found herself in the kitchen, ripping off the wrapper and setting the round cardboard plate onto the table. She wanted to see it in its full glory, she wanted this moment of… of ritual and adoration. She knelt on the cold tile floor, her stomach felt floopsy and she was beginning to wonder how good the wine was for her digestion after all. This moment called for something grand. She decided on raspberry syrup.

The kitchen was getting to be quite the mess. There were quite a few dirty plates scattered about and utensils and she hadn’t noticed that she had spilt carmel drizzle earlier. She had gotten some of it onto the bodice of her aunt’s dress in her strange moment of cheesecake worship. She rubbed her forehead. What had possessed her to do that exactly? Ideas, poetry and lectures of Old Earth English literature played about vaguely in her mind. Bluestone did like to focus on the classics! Bacchus, Dionysius, Silenus.

She was a maenad.

Sylvia looked at the reflection of herself in the oven door where a meatpie was superimposed on her features. She had smeared lipstick across her face, her hair was wild and still reaked of vomit. She was a maenad and maenads had no need for plates. She clutched the bottle of raspberry syrup and made grand zig zags across the entire cake. The lines were thick and impercise. This didn’t matter, it was in the wine. Dionysius had spoken and he required the blood of the raspberry on this delicious offering. The little folded squares of wax paper were a nuisance. She held the raspberry swirled cake, dripping the blood of its brethern down her forearm up high in one hand while she efficiently plucked the rectangles out, one after the other. The piece of cake in her hand was done by the time she was finished.

The oven timer said she still had fifteen minutes until it was finished. This was an impossibility! She had accomplished so much, she had a makeover, impressed her dreamy co-star, become a practicing maenad and finished an entire raspberry cheesecake! She couldn’t possibly wait another fifteen minutes! It was bubbling and brown at the edges, perhaps the timer wasn’t working right. Sylvia reached into the oven with a fork and prodded the meat pie It was still a little frozen in the center even though the rest of it was steaming and plopping with readiness. She could really use something salty after all that sweet. Her head was still spinning as well, perhaps she was still hungry? The wine should have been absorbed by now by the cheesecake otherwise? She wished she understood how drinking worked a bit better but consoled herself by making a positive effort to err on the side of caution and opened up the fridge.

The fridge wasn’t as full as the freezers. Her aunt had left her an advance as well as an allowance for anything she might require to buy during the months of house sitting but she had repeatedly refused her mother’s offers for rides into town or for her to drop off groceries. Sylvia’s kingdom was self reliant and she didn’t need anything from outside, nothing could be as good as here, this sacred place. There was some processed meat that was before the expiration date and she thought the packet of it ought to tide her over for the next fifteen, maybe down to fourteen minutes left to wait.

She puled a chair up close to the oven window so she coud make certain nothing went wrong. She pulled pieces of ham out of the package one by one, rolling them into a tight little roll and popping them into her mouth with barely the need to chew.

The package was gone. That was it then. She just had to wait. She thought about how much food she had thrown up. The toilet had been nearly blocked up it had been so much. A bit of cheesecake and a smidge of ham really wasn’t a meal and the meat pie had ten minutes left on it. She remembered something she had read in class, about how much work it was to throw up and how many muscles were used with every heave.

It was no wonder she was so hungry! She had likely done the equivalent of a grueling three hour workout! She opened the fridge again, she was definitely feeling a little wobbly. That was from eating so little. More food was in order! The meat pie was nearly done. The timer moved with imperceptible inexorcism towards the finish line. A little bit of gravy dripped out of the pie plate and onto the clean oven below. It hissed and Sylvia drew in her breath sharply in a similar hiss between her teeth. God it looked good! She grabbed a jar of pickled eggs out of the fridge and went back to her chair at the oven door. She hiked up her black skirts so she could hold the jar between her thighs and watch the final few minutes of pie cookery. Avidly watching the pie, she pulled eggs out with two of her fingers and ate them in two bites each.

She finished the jar. The pickled taste was really good. So salty after all the sweet. She tipped the jar back into her mouth and drank down the brine. So good!

Sylvia looked around the kitchen, unsure of what to eat next and was delighted by the alarm of the oven timer. It was finally ready. She was truly excited by the look of the pie as she set it on the cluttered table. It was very hot but that didn’t stop her, she had a devotion to attend. More of the numbing elixir of her god made her forget the heat, it was less than a worry for another day. Her body needed the pie, craved it in great gulps dearer to her heart than even air.

The next morning Sylvia woke up with a gagging burst of acid reflux. She didn’t remember falling asleep. She didn’t remember opening the third bottle of wine and she certainly didn’t remember getting the third cheesecake out of the freezer, or the fourth.

There was a bit of vomit beside her on the floor. She realized that there must be something wrong with her. She kept on eating, but kept on throwing up. She obviously wasn’t getting enough nutrients. Her head was killing her. She was prone to headaches when she didn’t eat enough.

She found herself wanting orange juice very badly. She had torn her aunts black dress and it was smeared with streaks of meat pie, bits of whipped cream and strange things she couldn’t identify. She poured herself some orange juice and then decided that she should have a bath and maybe a swim. She felt disgusting. She decided to shower first and filled a travel mug with orange juice to take with her.

After the orange juice and getting a bit cleaner she thought she ought to have a bit of wine to help with the renewal of her queazy feeling and something to eat so she didn’t get too tipply off of the wine. It was a solid plan. She went to the freezer. Strudels were in sets of six and she took one out and put it in the microwave so it was warm and succulent. She ate it quickly, her gums and tongue were sore from the hot pie the night before.

What had she been thinking? She asked herself for the second time in twenty four hours. One strudel would hardly be enough for a morsel, let alone to help her heal from the vast amounts of physical expenditure she had doubtless suffered through during the festivities. In fact, she could recall something about wine speeding up metabolism as well. She put the rest of the strudels in the microwave and let them finish while she brushed her teeth and found some blue jeans. She came back to the kitchen with them and stripped off her robe between jamming the strudels in her mouth. She got the jeans around her thighs and then found they were too snug to go any higher.

“I must be bloated from throwing up so much. Dehydrated I imagine.” She spoke aloud into the silent kitchen. Sylvia poked her belly experimentally, it seemed very bloated. She shrugged and put her robe back tightly around her, discarding the jeans in a heap in the corner of the kitchen. She was definitely fighting something off. Bloat fever, Blue flu, something exotic perhaps. She felt fortunate in her infirmity that there was plenty of easily prepared food to eat. She had worried about swimming causing some sort of misfortune but this went to prove that misfortune was beyond anyone’s ability to control or ward off.

She decided to put another meat pie in the oven and then shrugged and put in two. She went outside while she waited and fed the cat and her kittens. The kittens were getting very mobile now and starting to be fun. She found a package of licorice and munched on them, two long strands beingtaken into her mouth a chomp at a time while petting the tiny kittens. They were little fuzzballs now and they mewled plaintively when she put them back down.

She headed back to the kitchen after making sure they had fresh water to check the pies. The pies were nearly done but she could tell her metabolism was ramping up again and she decided to quench the feeling with a dose of milk and she augmented her need for calories by removing the lid from the chocolate drizzle and pouring it into a pitcher along with the last of the milk (although there was sure to be more in the freezer).

While she was in the freezer she found a turkey and determined to make herself a home cooked butterball of a meal. She was surprised to see that the freezer level was getting low and opened the next one, she had been dipping into this one as well but there was enough. She walked back to the kitchen, balancing two cheesecakes on one hand and the turkey cradled under her other arm like a frozen baby. Sylvia didn’t know how long it would take to cook the turkey but she stripped it out of its plastic wrapper and dumped it into a roasting pan where it made a metal thunking noise that truly disheartened her. This could take ages to cook! She put it into the oven, jostling the meatpies onto the lower shelf to make room. She realized managing the limited oven space could be a problem. Her aunt had bragged to her that the stainless steel monstrosity could cook an entire Christmas banquet complete with apple pie in it but Sylvia suspected that this was rather optimistic. As soon as the oven timer dinged for the meatpies she replaced them with two more and a small ham. She felt her options were closing in on her and she needed to attempt to cover her bases.

By the end of the day, everything felt too tight or uncomfortable on her. She stopped wearing clothes entirely. She thought the virus had moved into her cells. It explained the bloating and the discomfort. She had red lines on her abdomen and legs and feared the worse, perhaps she had blood poisoning. She determined to do better for herself and to try to boost her immune system in any way possible.

She slept oddly that night. She had dreams that she was ripping chunks out of a gigantic serpent, his head towered over her and its girth was larger than if she and two other people joined hands and attempted to give it an enormous hug. She ripped the chunks of flesh out of the serpent with her bare hands and naked and covered in blood, ate them, screaming and injuring herself with her own jagged and broken fingernails between attacks.

When she woke up she found she must have walked in her sleep as she woke up in the sauna, clutching the roasting pan. After putting on more food to cook she walked around the house, examining the other damage she had caused in her sleep. She had seemingly went around and cut or broken nearly every exposed wire in the house. Several circuits had been blown and the holovision was out of commission and so was her personal device. After all the care she had taken of it and how much she had worried about dropping it she had destroyed it herself in some sort of somnabulistic insanity. The welts on her skin had spread and she barely recognized her bloated face in the mirror. She feared for her life but knew somehow that she could not leave this place even if it did mean her life.

A greater fear went through her when she examined the levels of food in the freezer. She actually didn’t remember how long she had been in her fugue state but a lot of food was missing from the freezers. The fridge was bare and she started to tremble with terror. What had her aunt been thinking? This amount of food wouldn’t last the week, let alone until the end of summer. Nervously, she opened a bottle of wine and then another bottle immediately after. She had learned that her hands grew weak and unable to operate the corkscrew as the night went on. She needed the calories so badly that she grew infirm as she digested them along with the wine.

That day and the week to follow was an orgy of wine and eating. She fell asleep after eating and woke up with whispers of her nightmares that seemed to grow increasingly into a pleasureable memory. She started to see in the dreams that she wasn’t alone, that there were other girls with wild hair and rounded bellies and blood dripping from broken teeth. Her sister maenads. She knew this to be true the way she knew her hunger was not being fulfilled, they screamed that their hunger was never fulfilled either, their hunger sealed them in their sisterhood. She would fall asleep naked on the kitchen floor with a drumstick or a slice of pie clutched in her hands and wake up in the dark with only the lights from the appliances to guide her.

She stopped turning out the lights because she was afraid of the shadows, that perhaps her sisters would find her and consume her in chunks as they consumed the serpent. She feared the serpent as well, even while she craved him and missed his presence in her waking hours. He would sometimes consume one of the other maenads in one huge mouthful while she and the others would scream and tear their breasts with hooked fingers. How horrible! How beautiful! How spendid he was!

After one of her fugue slumbers she woke up and it was early dawn. The air was chill with dew and a bird trilled outside. Sylvia hadn’t bathed for days and she was naked and filthy. A mewl answered the bird song and a tabby coloured paw was reaching out from under the door leading to the garage. When had she last watered them? She remembered leaving a bag of food out for them, but how long ago had that been? Sylvia staggered to her feet and drank some more wine. She was grateful to remember the wine cellar, her digestion required the wine to function after her illness had set in and she was glad it was one less thing to worry about. The dwindling food supply was a grave concern, on the other hand and without a functional PD she really was stranded. She was sure her mother would come out to check on her after awhile when she tried and tried to call but to no avail.

That was another worry. What if her mother showed up? She pushed that thought from her mind as well. She should shower, she thought absently as she went to check the kittens in the garage.

Sylvia pet the kittens in an absent way. They had eaten all of their food and their water dish was dry but they all seemed fine and the momma cat was irritated with her but looked well enough. In her upset she had forgotten to bring any fresh food for them with her. She was doubly shocked that she had forgotten to bring any food for herself. Sylvia knew she had become a finely tuned machine that required constant input of sustenance if she were to survive. Damn her mother for worrying her to the point where she wasn’t able to take care of herself, let alone a bunch of cats!

The kittens were very mobile now. A couple of them had already made their way into the kitchen and were playing with each other under the door, gently pushing it closed. They were adorable. She knew this on an intellectual level but seemed incapable of taking it into her heart and appreciating it. She was just too distracted by her own plights. Her plight was becoming very bad. She could really tell that she hadn’t refueled since she woke up. She could barely catch her breath now and her chest hurt her. It was a terrible stabbing sensation and she felt it come on very strongly now. Her fingers and toes were numb. The door gently closed with a click and the garage was dim, the automatic door was sealed close and only a bit of light came through the bottom of it. Sylvia worried a lot about pnemonia. It had probably caused her to come down with blood poisoning, her back hurt, kidney failure, she thought glumly and likely with some accuracy.

She thought that if the phone still worked she would probably call her mom today after all, but it didn’t work and that was fine. She didn’t want anyone coming around and mooching her food.

She had to push up off her thights to get vertical and she felt her forehead break out in a sweat and could hear her pulse loudly in her temples. She walked to the door, guided by the thin rays of light that outlined it. Her arms were trembling and her legs were so weak she staggered as she walked. She pushed weakly against the door. It didn’t open. She tried the door with purple red fingers that didn’t want to close around the knob. The knob rattled. Locked. It had closed and locked her in here. On the otherside of the door a kitten cried as it realized it was on the other side alone. A small paw with tiny tranluscent claws batted under the door. Sylvia tried the door more desperately. Nothing.

The kitten’s mother was pacing and looking reproachfully at her. Sylvia was weak but she jammed her shoulder into it as hard as she could. She saw sparks in front of her eyes and closed them to red lids that pulsed with her rapid heart beat.

She barely made it to the big garage door and found that it had indeed been padlocked from the outside.

Oh, she was in for it now. She was stuck in here with no one to come and get her. Her super boosted metabolism was killing her by the second, she needed to keep her energy up. If only the cats hadn’t eaten all of the cat food, maybe she could garner enough energy to escape this death trap. She found the bag of food on top of a pile of boxes, it was crushed but not entirely empty after all. There might be enough to help her out of this mess, even a couple of handfulls.

She glared at the cats, they had barely left her a morsel. They didn’t need all this food, she did! She was the sick one! She ate a handful of food, grabbing up a morsel that fell before the cats could steal it from her. It wasn’t half bad, tasted a lot like bacon rinds, but crunchy, she thought. She finished was was left in the bag and stood up on tottering legs. It had to be enough, it had to give her the strength she needed to batter down the door.

She rammed into it repeatedly but with no success and her dizziness was getting extreme. She slid down the smooth white surface of the door in the dim, crying as she did so. This was so unfair. She had tried to hard to take care of herself and to have disaster strike now!

“This can’t be happening,” Sylvia murmured. The mother cat merrowed at her questioningly and rubbed up against her leg. The kitten that was still locked out was mewling pitieously but the mama seemed to have forgiven Sylvia for it and now she was interested in licking a bit of strange dribble from off of Sylvia’s calf. The sandpaper tongue seemed to trigger Sylvia’s delicate stomache and she barely made it onto her knees before vomiting.

It just got more cruel by the minute. She tried to stop the tears that insisted on coming. That was the last thing she needed. She had just lost all her caloric intake for the morning and done an enormous workout and the crying would just sap more of her energy and the last of her calories. How could she be so stupid?

The kittens had found her pile of vomit and were paddling through it with their paws and trying experimental mouthfuls. They were stealing her nutrients! They gave it up as an experiment and decided it was delicious! They were gobbling it down, a delicacy, kibble and sauce. She swatted the kittens away from it and scooped it up in her hands. It was warm and lumpy between her fingers, most of the chunks were still in it, barely even digested or chewed. She licked her fingers off. It wasn’t bad, really, no different than eating pickled eggs. Vinegary!

Sylvia finished the saucy food for the second time that morning. It was the last food available to her and she thought of the freezers, so close she could almost feel that first gust of chill air and hear the sound of the seal being broken. The thought was really too much. She wept earnestly now, wailing and licking the floor as she sobbed.

The sun was coming up in earnest now and a sunbeam stabbed under the door cheerfully. One of the kittens nosed around the streaks she had left on the floor. Sylvia lifted her head enough so she could glare and then swatted it away. The kitten went head over heels and then shook itself off with cat indignation and started licking a paw.

Sylvia narrowed her eyes. Had the kitten found some vomit she had missed licking up? She grabbed the kitten and licked its paw with long, nearly sensuous stronkes of her tongue. The kitten ate her crazed hair and started to mewl when Sylvia squeeaed it a bit too hard. She fell asleep a few minutes later, still too weak to do more than raise her head off of the cement. When she woke up she was ravenous. The kittens and the mother had fallen asleep on her and she shook them off grouchily.

She started to obsessively count the kittens. There were nine of them, plus their mother. The kitten that was trapped in the other part of the house still mewled from time to time but it had mostly given up and sat curled up as close to the door as it could. Tufts of fur stuck out under the door. They were going to have long hair when they grow up, she thought randomly.

There were nine kittens and maybe, just maybe if she could convince the mother that she was worth sharing with she could get some small sustenance in the way the kittens did. The mother cat jumped up when she put her face down among the kittens and finally clawed her face.

It was no good. She knew it wasn’t her fault. The mother had really pushed her to this end. If she could have gotten even some small nutrients from the breast milk, maybe she wouldn’t be in the position. Holding a white and orange kitten close to her mouth she thought, it’s no different than any other meat, it’ll be like going out for chinese food, even!

If her situation hadn’t been so dire she would have laughed at that but she knew she no longer had the strength for laughter. There were nine kittens. The good news was that they had all had a lot to eat. Between their mother’s milk and all the cat food they had so selfishly eaten they were still quite fat and vital. She hoped she would have enough but the fear was there, and she wondered if mama cat would share her milk when it was called on or how exactly she would handle that when it all came down to just her and Sylvia.

Sylvia stroked the kitten’s ears and smoothed its fur. It really wasn’t so hard, after all, she needed to eat.

Daddy’s Girl

A Story of the Grater Love Faith

by

Virginia Carraway

I was only eight when it happened, just a kid, but now I know a lot more about the world and what happened. You learn a lot in four years.

It was sunny, I remember that, and I remember that I had plans for that Saturday morning in May.

Daddy was going to take me out to the desert after we had breakfast and we were going to go hiking. It was my favorite thing to do back in the day. I hate hiking now and I’m happy for the fences that keep out the outside world of horizons and paths that could lead anywhere.

I was always a Daddy’s girl. Mom, what was she good for? Other then making dinner for me and Daddy, I couldn’t really see that she was good for much and after that Saturday in may, I quickly learned that she was barely even good enough for that if Daddy didn’t enforce it. Mom was just a manifestation of Daddy’s iron will and I guess she had other uses too, uses that moms serve for dads. Grown up uses.

Daddy was supposed to come home late from the base Friday night and it was important Saturday that I let him sleep in or else he would be cranky when we went hiking and Daddy is definitely no fun when he is cranky. So even though it was nine in the morning Saturday and the birds were singing and the sun was bright through my curtains I pulled the blankets over my head and tried to go back to sleep.

It was no good trying to get back to sleep though, my ears were awake and listening for any sound coming from Daddy’s bedroom where he slept with mom. If even a spring squeaked I would be out of bed like a shot, tearing barefoot across the slippy hardwood floor in the hallway and jumping onto their bed. Sometimes Daddy can get distracted by mom and it was important to nip that sort of thing in the bud or it would result in romance. Romance meant that there was no room for me and a babysitter would have to come by while she went out for dinner with him and then it would be daddy headed back to work and I wouldn’t see him again for most of the week. She constantly worked her wiles to keep me and Daddy apart, lucky for me and daddy, I had my own whiles.

I didn’t hear a creak of the bed, or the shuffle of slippers that meant daddy was ready to start drinking coffee. I made myself wait and wait, as quiet and good as a little mouse, but there was no sound from their room. I pulled the blankets off of my head and blew an impatient raspberry through my lips. The bedside clock read 9:45. After ten am, Daddy was fair game. He didn’t like sleeping past then because he said it made him feel funky all day.

I got out of bed and went downstairs. My tummy was growling and I could get something to eat and then wake daddy up. I could turn on cartoons quiet so they didn’t bug him and watch him eat muffins and sausages like he did every Saturday and Sunday and drink his coffee and O.J. He liked to talk while he ate, at first not a lot. But coffee has an effect on grown ups, its like giving water to a wilted plant in the garden. Grown ups aren’t like you and I and they need certain things before they act like themelves.

I would ask daddy how his week was and he would start by telling me ‘good’, but I’m a good listener, at least with the right person, and before he knew it Daddy’d be using a sausage stuck to his fork to explode his muffin as he demonstrated how munitions had worked out on the munition range. That was Daddy’s job that he did on the base, be was a munitions tester and he said it was the best job ever because his job was exploding things all day. He said that it was like he never had to get older then twelve and acct like a grown up but he seemed plenty grown up to me.

When I got downstairs I was at first very excited because someone was already down there, but then I saw it was only Mom. That was very weird and I knew that something was really wrong. She hardly ever wakes up before daddy but she was sitting down there all alone with a blue cup held between her hands. She looked up when she saw me and smiled, but her eyes skittered away from mine and her smile was a lying smile. She was worried or upset and I felt my heart skip a happy beat in my chest. Maybe she and daddy had had a fight! That was always great for me, lots more time for me and Daddy and he would say things about her that I would never share with mom. I would hold them against my heart like a soothing balm and the next time their springs squeaked and they went out for dinner without me that goofy light in both their eyes and their fingers laced together, I would think about what Daddy actually thought about her and I could get through the night.

I don’t want to give the impression that I hate mom. It’s not like that, she’s nice enough and everything over short periods of time, but overall, she’s real useless and so far beneath Daddy that she’s really a waste of time to be around. Why have skim milk when you can have cream?

I grabbed a bowl of cereal and sat down across from Mom. She’s not a big talker. I often wondered what Daddy had seen in her when he first started to date her, I figure that she must have told him some sob story and got him to feel sorry for her. That’s really what she’s good at, being a victim and making people do what she wants because they all just want her to shut up.

Kezia sat across me with the cocksure attitude that reminded me firmly that she was Kevin’s daughter. I smiled at her and she smiled back. I looked down at my magazine, wishing that I knew why he hadn’t come home last night from the base. Kezia watched me under eyes, that I swore were malignant as she sloshed milk out of her cereal bowl and onto the table cloth. I briefly considered correcting her then averted my gaze, she smirked and dropped Loopy-Sweets off her spoon and onto the table.

Kevin should be here this morning and I knew she was acting out to try to work it out of me why he wasn’t. She was probably upset and thought we had been fighting. Fights had been coming up more and more with me and Kevin. They seemed to just creep into our conversation and before I knew it I was defending a point I hadn’t meant to make and didn’t think was important but I was fiercely fighting anyway. I didn’t want to fight and I didn’t want to pick a fight this morning with Kezia, not when I was so worried about her father anyway.

I had tried to contact his his Personal Device several times and just gotten the recorded message that meant he was still working or unavailable. He hadn’t sent a message saying he was going to be late and that wasn’t like him either.

Kezia was mashing the Loopy-sweets against the side of her bowl and kicking the central leg of the table now as she watched me from under hooded eyes. I wanted to like her more then I did. I really did wish we had a better relationship, but the truth was, for every good way she was like Kevin, she was far more like all the parts of him that drove me crazy. I could tell that she looked down on me, even disliked me more then I disliked her… and when she lost her temper at me, the things she said… all the things that I feared Kevin felt about me poured out of her. The hateful looks she gave me were a nightmare version of the looks Kevin gave me when we fought. They were devoid of a lover’s knowledge and compassion that mitigated a quarrel, they held knowledge of another sort. The worst sort. What had I done to make her hate me so?

I stood up suddenly and tied my robe tighter around me waist as I did so. I grabbed her nearly empty bowl from her and took her spoon out of her bored fingers. She whipped her head up in a glare, her chubby cheeks wobbled at me with a threatened tantrum.

“Go get dressed, Kezia.”

“I wasn’t done eating, Desiree.” She said my name maliciously, refusing to call me ‘mom’ as she so often did when she was angry with me.

“You looked like you were done, none of it was going in your mouth.” I had to work hard to keep my voice from trembling and the hand that held the half full bowl of milk was shaking perceptibly. I turned my back on her and put the bowl in the sink, hoping Kezia would just take it for once, would not challenge me for once and would just do what I asked.

With a shriek of rage she jumped out of her chair, knocking it backward with her momentum, her arms pinwheeling in the air as she raged towards me. Her chair hit the ground with a morning shattering loudness and she impacted into me in one of her tantrums.

“I hate you I hate you I hateyouhateyouhateyouhateyouhate!!!!!!!!!!!” She screamed loudly as she pummeled me with closed fists. She was just over four feet tall, only a foot and a half shorter than me and already thicker then me, her weight knocked me back against the counter. She pulled my robe open, I frantically tried to close it, dreading her finding bare skin under my night gown and pinching, punching or biting the tender flesh. I had felt her attacks on my bare skin often enough to cringe pre-emptorily from her assault. On the defense and trying to shield myself I endured her attack as best as I could, turning my face from her fists and teeth. I knew she would tire soon and fall into angry tears, all I could think in the flurry of my pain was that I wished Kevin were home.

I was used to noise at work and this silence was having an odd effect on me.

Ever since the voices had spoken to me in my head the rest of the world sounded like it was under water, it was muffled and far, far away.

The voices had begun speaking to me Friday the eleventh at 1800 hours. I had been working late into the night on many nights as I attempted to work out a strange kink in the Wrought Munitions new Gamma Burst and EMP grenade. It was a big upgrade to the old EMP we had from Wrought Munitions and with the Gamma Burst technology it was capable of wiping out most of even the most recent

shielding developed by both competing companies and Wrought Munitions own technology.

I had been standing behind the leaded shielding glass, recording the effects of the explosion on the target when I first heard a whisper loudly in my head.

“What was that?” The whisper asked, shakily and hoarse sounding it was nevertheless louder then the sound of my colleagues’ voices.

“What was that?” I echoed, directing my inquiry towards my co-workers. Emmaline shrugged and furrowed her brow, Val frowned at me and continued with his commentary.

I looked around, feeling bewildered and a little dizzy. My ears started to hum, at first quietly though high in pitch and then the volume raised and the sounds of the world were slowly phased onto a quieter bandwidth. I was very concerned. This sort of reaction wasn’t uncommon for a munitions worker. I checked my RadBadge and noted with alarm that my exposure level what superseded my badge’s ability to measure radiation exposure. I hoped it was broken, after all it hadn’t sounded its alarm. I set down my databoard and touch pen and stepped away from my friends.

“Guys,” I said and then cleared my throat. My voice was quiet and Emmaline laughed at something Dutch said. “Hey, guys.”

They turned to look at me. I had a strange idea that I was annoying them. I held up my RadBadge as a talisman against their ire. “My badge has gone bad. I have to go.”

Emmaline paled and Dutch scrabbled at his own badge. I turned and left towards HQ. Muted I could hear them comparing RadBadge levels behind me. Their voices sounded upset but relieved and then concerned. I thumbed my PD to let Rhonda know I’d be coming in with a radiation level 5 alert and to get quarantine and medics prepared for myself and the rest of my team. Even if their levels read normal we’d all be in for some medical tests and body scans. They would want to know if nothing else why only I had been exposed.

My PD refused to engage HQ. I swore under my breathe and tried again. Nothing. If my PD was interfered with it had either been hit by the EMP or the rads, I hoped to holy hell it was the EMP.

Three figures in white recal suits hurriedly headed from HQ towards me. They had a stretcher between two of them, the third one was sweeping the area with some sort of gadget, I assumed he was measuring ambient levels just in case something had gone cataclysmically wrong with the Wrought technology.

The world was still muted and I felt dizzy. I heard the hoarse whisper again.

“He’s going down.”

Suddenly I fell to me knees, I put my hands to my mouth in time to spray them with vomit as I spilled my lunch onto my pants and the grass. Lights in purple and green exploded in my vision. Hands grabbed me and put me on the stretcher. Their faces were alien and distorted, maybe it was their suits that made them look like that, or maybe it was my own vertigo. I could see their lips move but I couldn’t hear their words. Thickly gloved hands sliced off my shirt on the stretcher so that electrodes and gelled pads could be applied to me. I was grateful that my team had called in the emergency so that help had been sent to me or I didn’t think I would have made it to HQ with my defunct Personal Device.

I struggled to sit up enough to throw up again. I panted in exhaustion and rubbed a hand across my sweaty forehead. A soft shower my short brown hair fell onto my forearm. I lay back down and closed my eyes. Lights played in the loud silence of my ears. I fell into uneasy darkness with loud whispers of words I couldn’t understand babbling through my head.

Mom hung up the phone and leaned against the kitchen counter. I walked in, trying not to feel like I was going to faint with terror. She didn’t look happy, she didn’t look at all happy.

I felt as though my entire future was poised on an edge that could cause me to fall into a hell I had never dreamed of. It was so cool that Daddy was in the army, he had access to all sorts of neat things and on career day, everyone wanted to hear what my Daddy would have to say. It had always been just a cool thing, but thoughts threatened my mind like dark winged birds. What if my Daddy was hurt? What if he was killed?

It was impossible to conceive of, he’s my Daddy… and yet, other people had lost their Daddies, or their moms.

It couldn’t be, that couldn’t be what happened next!

“Is Daddy coming home soon?”

“I don’t know, Kezia.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? It’s your job to know!”

“I spoke to the Major, He said that your Dad had come down with a bad cold and that he was going to stay in the infirmary.”

I looked at mom, dubious of her words. “Does that make any sense? Shouldn’t they send him home if he has a cold?”

“Yes, they really should.”

“Well, then lets go get him!” Mom just looked at me for a minute, her hand fiddling with her wedding band in a way that never ceased to irritate me. She blinked her eyes and I saw the strange veil that all adults seem to possess fall across them. She had information, or thoughts or knowledge and didn’t think I was up to the job of dealing with it. Well, he’s my Daddy and no matter what is going on, Ihave a right to know everything.

“I said, ‘let’s go get him’!”

“They want him to stay there.”

“Well, I want to visit him.”

“They said we can’t visit him, Kezia.”

“Is he germy?”

“It sounds like it’s something like that… they said he was on special medicine and it was important he be let to sleep.”

“But he’s going to be ok?” Now I felt like crying. I wanted my Daddy. Nobody has any right to keep me from him!

“The military does have a right to… his job usually lets him come home every night, but we’ve been very lucky about that, lots of Daddy’s don’t come home for months or even years sometimes. It’s a big galaxy and the GAGA owns its soldiers until their enlistment is over.”

“You pick up the phone right now and tell them that they have to let me see my Daddy.” I stated this as clearly as I could but my voice sounded throaty and strange to me now, I didn’t feel well, I needed my Daddy.

Mom walked away from me and opened a bottle of pills. She took a couple of them and sat at the table, ignoring me. I wished I was old enough to get the information she was keeping behind the veil of her eyes. I wished I was a grown up.

There was no pain.

Even with my skin sloughing off of me and my fingernails falling off, the only pain I felt was the initial upset of my stomach and a headache that had faded to nothing. I couldn’t hear anything except a roaring in my head, and that was kind of scary, but there was a peacefullness to it as well, there was a peace in me that made all of seem ok. I knew that I should be afraid, but I just wasn’t.

A nurse held up a whiteboard in front of my eyes. I read it through my closed eyelids that had become trasparent as they had sealed shut.

“Did you feel that?” The whiteboard asked.

I tried to shrug my shoulders then settled for a slight negatory movement of my head. Technically I could still talk, but it was hard for me to know for certain if the sounds I was making were getting through. Also, everything I did manage to make as a noise echoed on me like a sattelite phone connection. It was… unpleasant.

The nurse left my line of sight, her hoses and white racal suit disappearing over the horizon of my current world. I wondered if everyone on the brink of death felt so calm, I was more serene then I had ever felt. Normally it was impossible for me to just sit quietly without doing something, watching holovision or yacking or exploding something… I just wanted to lie where I had been placed on the gurney and watch the white ceiling. It was fortunate that I didn’t mind just sitting since I couldn’t even close my eyes I didn’t know how I was going to get to sleep. I opened my mouth to speak, ask the nurse for a cloth or something for later when I might want to close my eyes, I could just cover my face, maybe that would work.

“Kevin.”

It was the voice I had heard earlier. I looked around for its author knowing I was alone in the room except for the nurse.

I tried to speak but I found that I had been wrong about being able to speak or make noise. My mouth had sealed over the way my eyes had, my lips had melted into a stretchy mush.

“Don’t speak the words, do you hear me now?”

“I hear you.”

I tried to think the words as loudly as I could through the rushing wind of noise.

I heard a slight sound of amusement, not laughter but close. “You don’t need to yell.”

“Oh.”

“Kevin, I need to ask you some questions about what happened today.”

“You can ask, but I’m not allowed to talk about any of it unless I see your clearance levels..”

“I’m not asking you to talk to me about them, I just need you to think about it, the GAGA can’t stop you from thinking about things, can they?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Very good then. Could you think a bit about the weapon that you were firing earlier today, Kevin?’

“It’s the new Gamma Burst with EMP grenade from Wrought Munitions.”

“EMP?”

“Electro Magnetic Pulse… it’s supposed to hurt electronics but not people or structures…”

“Oh, yes, I understand. Was there anything special about this weapon? Was this your species first time playing with your EMP technology?”

I felt a mental laugh. “No, it’s very old technology, it was being played with on twentieth century earth.”

“That’s where you are from?”

“No, I’m from America, the planet America, not the old earth country. That’s where we are right now. My family was on the Galactic Mayflower.”

“Oh, I see…”

I wondered if the voice did see. Then I wondered what the voice meant by ‘your species’. I would have liked to have been able to blink my eyes nervously, gulp with fear perhaps or even call for help but I didn’t really feel afraid enough to even signal the nurse. It occurred to me that the calm I felt was preternatural.

“You don’t need to feel alarmed.” The voice said definitively.

“Did you do this to me?”

“Yes, we did.”

“You did? Why? What did you do to me? Am I dying?”

“You aren’t dying, you’re just not existing very well in the place you are from.”

“You mean I’m going to stop existing?”

“Well, maybe, for a little while, at least in your home dimension. We need to have a talk to you and we can’t talk to you when you are so much in the other place, sorry, I mean to say, when you are in your place. First I need to understand more about the Gamma Burst.”

“I don’t know a lot about it, I just measure the results from it, I don’t design the things.”

“Who does?”

“Victorinus Wrought owns Wrought Munitions… I guess he has scientists who do most of his designing for him but I’ve heard he’s got a pretty good handle on his company.”

“Is he on your planet of America?”

“Yes, he is visiting my country this week to get the results of the munitions testing. He’s in the capital of New Illinois.”

“Where is that?”

“New Illinois is the country you’re in right now. Well, I guess, I don’t know, are you here? Or are you talking to me from a long ways away?”

“I’m very close to the physical place you call New Illinois on the planet of America. I’m not capable of becoming manifest where you are… although as you can see from the changes in your own body, I am capable of causing things to happen in your plane of existence.”

I looked at the white ceiling speculatively, as it was all I was capable of doing anyhow. “What are you?”

“I’m a diplomat, if you will, from my species to yours. That wasn’t just a burst of Gamma radiation that your weapon released, it was something else. Do you have any idea what that something else might be?”

I thought about what he was saying but everything I had heard was pretty straight up about the Gamma grenade. It was just a two in one revamp of two designs already in use.

I thought over the specs I had read over and the schematics of the design. The voice interrupted in excitement. “Wait! Stop that thought right there. Think more about that, I think you may be onto something.”

Victorinus Wrought was enjoying the ammenities of the New Springfield Spaceport Hotel and Spa when he first began to feel queasy. He cursed the smoked salmon he had eaten at the brunch meeting he had had with General Quizzet and called his doctor of his PD to come directly to the dry sauna with something for food poisoning.

Doctor Gammel always traveled with Victorinus to ensure that he was always in top medical condition and that nothing untoward ever happened to him. Victorinus took excellent care of himself and he usually needed minimal care from Gammel who came running as soon as he was alerted. It only took Gammel ten minutes to go from the gym where he’d been working on the Flexomatic, back to his room to get his equipment and then down all the way to the dry sauna, but by the time he got there, Victorinus Wrought, the richest man in the galaxy, was fading fast.

Gammel didn’t like the look of Victorinus at all and sent messages immediately after arranging for transport to the New Springfield Private Hospital to Victorinus’ son and also to his private secretary. There was no way that Wrought was going to make it to any of his scheduled meetings while he was on America and he just hoped that they could reverse the strange and alarming changes that seemed to be causing Victorinus to melt before their eyes.

When Gammel had arrived at the sauna, Wrought was prostrate on one of the cedar benches, face first in a pool of vomit. He had rolled him out of the mess and a handful of Wrought’s skin had been left on his hands and the steel colored hair had fallen off and been left to land on the floor. Gammel’s eyes grew wide and he fumbled for Wrought’s arm to try to find a pulse.

“Victorinus, what’s happened? Are you alright?” Gammel spoke loudly until he found a thready pulse in the wrist that had an unsettling similarity in texture to mashed potatoes. Victorinus wasn’t responding at all. Gammel called on his Personal Device to the hospital and requested emergency response and a containment team.

Whatever was happening, he just hoped it wasn’t contagious, if it was and one of the most infamous people in the GAGA were to succumb to it, it would be a publicity nightmare that would be impossible to contain. Gammel saw everything he had worked for all his life being potentially snatched from him in the blink of an eye. His repuation, his one patient, his very comfortable life style… it was a nightmare. He mentally counted up the millions of credits he had set aside in the Cayman District and hoped that it would be enough to live out the rest of his days.

Gammel tried to open one of Victorinus’ eyes and see if there was any response at all but his eye was gummed shut with something that looked like jelly. When he looked closer for eye movement he was surprised to see that he could make out the blue of Wrought’s eye even though his eye was closed. The eye was tracking Gammel’s movement.

Suited up emergency response burst into the sauna. Gammel stood away from Wrought so they could load him onto the gurney. A tent was put up around the gurney, sealed off with oxygen tanks to pump it full of air and then wheeled quickly out of the sauna.

“What happened? How long has he been sick for? How are you feeling Doctor Gammel?”

“He was healthy as a horse this morning. I’m feeling ok, freaked out, but ok.” Gammel hoped that was the truth, he felt light headed and queasy. He tried to get some of Wrought’s grey and transluscent skin off of his fingers.

“I need to wash my hands. I need to wash my hands, right now.” Panic crept into Gammel’s voice and he looked around urgently.

“Right now, I just need you to lie down on this gurney and we’ll take you to the hospital too, check you out and make sure you can get cleaned up.”

The second gurney was identical to the one that had wheeled Victorinus out of the sauna. Gammel meekly climbed onto it and the tent erected itself automatically in the next moment. They gave him an injection and the panic and fear that was threatening to overwhelm him blissfully faded even as he wondered what scandal he might wake up into.

And in other news, Weapons Mogul Victorinus Wrought was rushed to New Springfield Hospital from an unknown illness earlier today. One witness reported containment gurneys were used at the scene. Another witness said that they had thoroughly decontaminated the spa facilities at the Spaceport Inn after Wrought collapsed during a beauty and massage treatment.

His heir, Verily Wrought, was flown in from his glamorous asteroid home to be there for what may be his father’s last moments. Our reporters, Trisha Gonzeula attempted to get an interview and to give our viewers the opportunity to find out what the young heir has planned once he inherits his father’s weapons and other manufacturing concerns.

Unfortunately we only received this response:

Voice of Verily Wrought: What is this about? No! I don’t have any plans! My father isn’t even dead. I don’t have any comment except that you’re a ghoul and you can roast in hell for trying to take advantage of me when my father has collapsed. Don’t call me ever again.

Well Dave, I can say that that is the voice of a very upset young man.”

Yes, those redheads certainly have quite the tempers on them.”

Well, better luck with the next interview, Trisha.”

It would be nice if people realized that I’m just doing my job here, the same as anyone else and they might treat me with a bit of respect.”

I know, I know, we’ve all been through it Trish.”

I think it means that his father is dying or dead and he just, he just can’t deal with it. He’s lashing out in his pain. I mean, in a way, its good, you’d think he’d be counting his cash now, but he really is a young man in grief.”

That’s an excellent point, Olivia, here we have a young man, grief struck from his father’s death, lashing out at the very reporters who are here to help him in his grief.”

Is that definite, Dave? Do we know that Victorinus Wrought is in fact deceased?”

Well, Trisha, I think it’s a pretty safe assumption, because if he isn’t mourning the death of his father, then Verily is simply a very rude young man.”

I’ve interviewed him before, he’s always been very nice.”

Maybe he just likes your rack, Olivia.”

What are you trying to say, Dave?”

He’s trying to say that you should do up your buttons on your shirt, everyone says you dress like a slut.”

This just in, Olivia dresses like a slut. Do you agree? Call our number and voice your opinion. Will you take off your top if people say they like your style, Olivia?”

Well, I guess it would really be down to how they said it, I mean, I guess if they asked for me to take it off specifically and maybe if there was some sort of good cause it served, then I guess I would.”

Alright then, for everyone who calls in and asks Olivia to take off her shirt, we will NOT kill one puppy.”

Olivia: “Awww, I love puppies.”

It’s a good cause Olivia, let me be the first to ask you to take off your shirt so that those puppies don’t die.”

Kezia changed the channel on the holovision and animated villains began to plot to take over some distant planet. I debated asking her to change it back but decided it wasn’t worth the fight. I had had it on night and day for the past three days, hoping for some news that might explain why Kevin wasn’t home yet.

The GAGA personnel had gone from being vague but reassuring, to obfuscating but firm and finally today to telling me that Kevin was involved in a mission but was recovered from his illness and would contact me when he was off duty. When I asked when that might be I was told that they didn’t have that information available to them.

Kezia had gone to school for the morning but had called for a ride home at lunchtime. She was stressed out and had gotten into a fight over nothing with one of the other students. She was crying when I picked her up at the front doors and she ran to her room in despair when she verified with me that her Daddy still wasn’t home.

She was calm now and happy to eat her cereal and watch her shows. I called the school and got her homework for the afternoon and tomorrow sent to me through the PD. Kezia tended to handle stressful situations by picking fights so I doubted she’d be back at school until Kevin came home.

I didn’t know what to tell Kezia about her father’s continued absence. She didn’t even believe me when I told her that I didn’t know what was going on, or worse, she would rant and rail at me to change it. Ever since she had been a baby she had challenged me while adoring Kevin. If he walked into a room she was all smiles and docile agreeablitiy, but she was a different story around me. Even in front of Kevin she would scream in my face, throw food at me, hit or bite me… He seemed to think it was a game, but it really wasn’t a game for me. I was scared of Kezia. I was scared of her temper tantrums and of her violence but I always knew that Kevin would be home at the end of the day to keep me safe. Now, left on our own and uncertainty hanging over us both, Kezia was working herself into a state I had never seen before.

From the other room I could hear her in muted conversation with herself or one of her toys, then I heard her start to scream and all hell broke loose.

After my hearing had gone my vision began to slowly follow the same course. Much like how my ears had been overwhelmed and superceded by the roar of the strange sounds by vision was being interfered with by strange sights. The view in the quarantine room was extremely dull and so it was interesting to see what started off as glimpses into that other place and then slowly it solidified into a story I could follow.

At first I thought I was looking into a room, it was dark and had lines through it, as though I was watching a transmission with bad static. The colors weren’t quite right. The background was black, then charcoal, then blue, then black again. A figure was bent over some sort of thing that looked like a darker shadow in the darkness. The figure glowed white in the darkness, but as I watched there were increasing flashes, much like someone wearing a watch in the desert will flash light. Other figures came and went in the darkness and I could see that it was some sort of machine or device that the first figure was watching and tending avidly.

Sometimes the first figure would turn and watch me and then return back to the business he was attending. Once he stopped and waved at me before a glowing figure came back ‘in’ and gave him something. I thought that he was ‘signing’ some sort of document or paper, as it really appeared he had been handed a clipboard. He imprinted his hand on it after gazing at it for a few moments and then handed it back to the first figure who appeared to click his heels together and bow slightly before ‘leaving’ again.

I think I feel asleep for awhile or perhaps I just lost focus but I realized that things were in much sharper focus now and that far from being a room that I was perceiving, my friend at the console was in fact in an outdoor space. It was still quite dark but I could see tall things that looked like trees but with pink and purple tops that reminded me more of flowers then of leaves or tree tops. The figure I was watching was in a clearing of these trees. He was looking at a dull silver machine that was covered in gold and platinum shining devices that I couldn’t understand although I was sure that one of the things was probably a telescope. My friend would sometimes orient it on the sky and then make a note on one of the clipboards that his people seemed to favor.

I wanted to get a better view of what was going on and so I sat up on the bed I had been lying on. I was very surprised to find that I could after I had done it. The bed I was sitting on looked like a very dark mass and it lacked any sort of detail. After a moment of sitting up I noticed that I wasn’t exactly sitting on the bed, I was sitting about an inch and a half into the bed. It was an upsetting sensation and so I stood up, pleased to discover cool grass under my feet when I did. I took a few steps and the bed now seemed more like a dark mist then anything real. I walked to where my friend was working, glad to be closer to something more real then the fading gurney.

He looked up at me and smiled. I could make out detail of what he looked like now and I smiled back as though at someone I had known for years.

He was shorter than me, only just over five feet and his proportions were much slighter than me or someone of my own race of the same height as him. He was very fine in his build, his wrists tapered gently as did his ankles before flaring into perfect small hands and feet. Both hands and feet looked exactly like ideal human hands and feet but with ever so slightly longer fingers and toes. He didn’t have fingernails or toenails but he looked normal nevertheless as his whole body seemed quite hard and his fingers clicked against the machinery like metal when he used it.

His whole body appeared to be made out of supple living gold. I felt strange to look at another masculine figure with so much admiration, but I couldn’t help but be impressed with the sheer artistry of his making, like a perfect sculpture in a slightly smaller proportion.

He wore no shoes and only a cloth around his groin for clothing. His abdomen was tapering and finely sculpted and his arms were minutely muscled with perfectly defined sleek muscle. His eyes appeared to be made of liquid mercury with golden flecks in them. His head was shaved but I could see the fine stubble where a different color of gold would sprout.

He smiled at me with golden lips, formed like a picture of male lips from a long ago earth time, somehow supple while metal. I put out my hand to shake his hand and he reciprocated the gesture with goodwill but a clumsy lack of practice. His palm was warm, almost hot, and slightly soft like very expensive gold is soft. The outside of his hand was harder and cool to the touch.

“I’m Kevin.”

“I am called Democles.”

Another perfectly shaped small man walked up with one of the clipboards, up close they resembled stone and Democles scanned the strange marking on it that seemed to give off a faint glow before placing his palm on it and handing it back to the second man who I caught stealing curious looks at me before he clicked his heels, bowed slightly and vanished into the trees.

“Democles… Am I dead?”

He frowned slightly. “I told you you weren’t dying.”

“That was you? I knew it was you talking to me.”

He nodded and after scanning his machine one more time sat down on the grass and gestured for me to join him. I sat down slowly, realizing as I did so that I couldn’t see my feet or hands and that I wasn’t wearing the hospital gown I had been put in. In fact, I didn’t seem to be wearing anything, or even have skin although I could feel the faint dew on my bottom when I sat down.

“Kevin… is that your full name?”

“Kevin Grater.”

“You’re a military man with the GAGA?”

“Yes… look, am I in some trouble here?”

Democles shook his head vaguely. “No, you aren’t in trouble, but I need you to make a promise to me or I can’t protect you or answer for you.”

“Shoot.” I said it and then winced, after all, this had all started because of me shooting off those grenades. Democles seemed to catch the irony and smiled.

“Yes, I see you are aware of what has caused this to happen to you. When I was scanning your mind about the schematics for the Gamma Burst and EMP grenade, I saw that it wasn’t merely old technology revamped. There was a newly equipped chip placed in it, in the manual it was supposed to be to increase the duration of the EMP before the grenade itself burned out.”

“Traditional EMP’s often didn’t break through shielding installed on it precisely so that the equipment would be protected from EMPs. It makes sense to extend the pulse in order to hit deeper into shielding.”

“That is the logic used in the Wrought Manual, however, the logic is erroneous.”

“It is?”

“Yes, the microchip lacks any shielding itself to protect from such a pulse, so it would be deactivated by the EMP before the chip would have a chance to even turn on. It would be totally useless if the specifications given to you in the manual were accurate.”

I thought about this for a moment and furrowed my brow. If he was correct, and he certainly seemed confident in what he was saying, then why even bother? Were the Wrought engineers sleeping on the job? It should never have been made into a prototype it was such an obvious mistake.

“If that’s the case, then it should act like a standard EMP and you wouldn’t be here talking to me if that were the case.”

“Smart boy,” Democles said and patted me on my knee that wasn’t a knee. “That’s exactly right. The chip wasn’t just a chip, it was fueled by a substance that has yet been used by human kind and it was developed not just to lengthen the time of the EMP, but to actually cause a very small loop in time that would allow it to operate in a tiny theoretical infinity.”

“That’s not possible.”

“You’re right. It is impossible according to all acceptable laws of physics in your dimension and the surrounding dimensions. Time loops are petty, inefficient and criminal.”

“How did Wrought do it? I don’t understand.”

“Under normal human conditions such an invention wouldn’t occur, it requires a type of radioactive material that does not exist except due to gross incompetence or horrific experimentation. Wrought laboratories has flown in the face of all dimensional treaties by inventing ‘Humanium’. Wrought named as it is an element that only the idiocy of humans would bother creating.”

“You said I wasn’t in trouble though!”

“Yes, getting back to that, I need you to promise me that you will never detonate a weapon with the possibility of containing Humanium.”

“I promise.” The words left my mouth with total sincerity before I could realize the consequences of such a promise. I had had no clue that the grenades I had blown up contained any experimental fuel, how could I ever be sure? What if I was ordered by the GAGA to blow something up and I made a mistake? Democles was watching me closely.

“I didn’t know.” I said lamely.

“Is ignorance of the law an excuse in your dimension?”

I shook my head and looked down at where his splayed fingers seemed to illuminate the purple blades of grass. He smiled at me and raised my head to meet his eyes with his other hand.

“Well, in my dimension we understand that ignorance and accidents do happen. Your promise is enough to spare you any consequence, but if it happens again for any reason you will be held accountable. The loops in time cause dangerous instability in all dimensions, including your home dimension, Kevin.”

The alien stood up and I followed him back to the machine that was humming quietly and emmitting melodic tones. Democles touched things with his fingertips that I couldn’t see and then looked through the telescope. He held it out to invite me to look in it after him.

I looked through it and was startled that such a small telescope showed the stars and planets in close detail. I could see the moons, I could see their craters and a tiny domed town that was doubtless a mining colony searching for rare earth minerals.

I scanned the skies, the little telescope didn’t need any focusing on my part, it seemed to know what I wanted to look at and it showed me to it, zooming in as though in response to my desires. I looked closer at the domed city and realized with a shock that it wasn’t a mining town, or if it was, it wasn’t a human mining town. Very small and nearly naked golden bodies were moving about under the dome.

I looked elsewhere, delighted by ability to point and see so far in my solar system with so little equipment and such great clarity. I saw something in the black of space, it was red and burning sparks and embers appeared to be flying from it even though it was in the void of space. I looked away to see if Democles had seen this strange sight as well and knew when I looked at his face that this was what he had wanted me to see.

“That is how time loops affect my dimension. In a way, we are fortunate as we have the technology to fix them if they are quickly spotted. In your dimension they don’t have an immediate physical presence and so they can cause problems for thousands of years or wipe out entire sections of a galaxy.”

I was about to ask Democles what we could do about it in my own galaxy when I saw a shimmering form appearing on a gurney similar to my own. It seemed to me to be happening very quickly that a body on the black shadow of a gurney went from the vaguest idea of a human form to an energy presence. I knew him almost immediately: Victorinus Wrought.

He didn’t look anything like his publicity photos but his energy signature was unmistakable Wrought.

I felt panic for the first time since I had become ill. Why was he here? Was he here? How was he here? Democles looked at me with his quiet, peaceful eyes. “It isn’t enough for you to promise, you were a pawn in all this. This man knew what he was doing, knew what he had ordered built and could build even more then the thousands that already stock his warehouses.”

I thought of the burning space hole and wished I knew someone to pray to. I had never been educated about that so I thought of my own father, the man who had always been able to make things right for me in life not matter how bad I messed up. He died in a training exercise when I was fourteen, but now he came to mind as though I had seen him yesterday and I spoke to him as though he could fix it.

“Please, Dad, I need your help, please don’t let Wrought destroy the universe. Please, let him listen to Democles and promise to never build another Gamma burst grenade or make or Humanium.”

Democles looked at me. “You have found what you need to do, Kevin. Thoughts to heal will heal, and your father was a good man.”

I hadn’t spoken my prayer out loud. Wrought was headed towards us. I stood behind Democles who I hoped would protect me from Wrought. As Victorinus appoached he did not feel like anything human, he felt like a boogeyman does to a five year old. He felt like death and despair, he felt like a monster. Democles must surely have felt the same but he did not flinch, he smiled at Wrought and held out his hand as I had done upon first arriving for a handshake.

Wrought ignored the extended hand. He gathered his energy to rage at Democles about returning him to home and how dare Democles have abducted him. The black storm of energy that barely had arms or legs, but only a dark slit of darkest red where the heart and mouth were seemed to retract in on itself even as its energy flared to rage.

Democles checked the readings on the machine, moved something slightly then put his hands back by his sides.

It was then that I heard Kezia’s voice talking to me very quietly. “Daddy, I need you to come home, I’m so worried about you.”

I looked to Democles for advice but his focus was solely on Victorninus now. I could hear Kezia talking to me with all the love a little girl could have for her missing Daddy, heard it as a prayer similar to the one I had offered up to my own father.

I longed to be with her at the same time that I knew that she would be fine at home with Desiree and that I needed to be here to witness this. I decided to try to ignore her and to watch what was playing out here with Victorninus instead. Democles had just finished explaining to Wrought about the effects of Humanium on the fabric of the universe and was earnestly imploring him to cease and desist.

Wrought seemed to be listening to Democles until he began to to talk about how they would accept him on the honor of his word that he wouldn’t attempt to make such a weapon again and all the ones that he had made would be carefully decommissioned with the assistance of the Golden Ones who understood their making and unmaking better than humans. It wasn’t until Democles mentioned consequences should Wrought not hold up his end of the bargain that Wrought let loose his energy. Violent black flames flipped outward, Democles held up his palms, forcing them back onto their source.

More of the Golden Ones came running, forming a ring around Victorinus, their palms held out as though they were warming their fingers against a campfire. Slowly, he was pushed back into his place and Democles turned to me.

“I’m sorry, he refuses to understand my words so I must show him the consequences of his actions. You must pray that he will see the value of a mutual treaty so that we can return him to his own dimension.”

“What will happen if he won’t listen?”

“He must listen. We can’t consider the alternative Kevin. It would be very bad for us all. Will you wait here? You can use the telescope if you like to amuse yourself as you know how to use it, the rest of our machinery won’t respond to you.”

“I’ll stay here.”

Democles shot me a grateful look and then attended to the flames that had grown for his brief lack of attention. The beings moved off in a ring and I sat on the grass to wait and ask my father for his help. I wondered how my father, who had been an explosives expert, would actually feel being asked to help the kingpin of weapons industry see reason on destroying weapons.

They were a pretty amazing weapon, I had to admit. It was devious and it was oddly simple and childlike to conclude that a time loop would fix the problem. It was also childlike in that it was totally over the top and exaggeratedd grandiose arrogance. My father would have thought that Wrought wasn’t being fair I realized. My father had liked weapons because they were each a piece of a puzzle in a conflict. They could be deployed with clever neatness and stop a planetary conflict with next to no mortality or they could be used sloppily and kill many. He had like weapons because they could be turned on their head so that they created peace in the path of destruction. They could be used like a scalpel to remove a disease in the hands of a brilliant mind and they showed the truth of the general’s minds who wielded them.

This weapon wasn’t like that, it was just a cheat. It was a knife in the dark in the hand of a coward. It was a knife that killed whole dimensions.

I composed myself to pray again but only got a few sentences out before I was interrupted again. “Daddy, I need you!”

Kezia’s voice had taken on the spoiled tone that it seemed to often have when he surprised her or on the rare occasions when he refused her requests. He frowned.

He didn’t like that tone of he voice but he had never realized how truly spoiled she sounded when she spoke like that. He thought about introducing her to his new friend and cringed. There was a lot that he overlooked about her and that for some reason he had always thought was all right to overlook.

Her voice rose and fell in it’s seemingly ceaseless demands. Kevin listened to them while trying to think his own thoughts.

“Mommy is soooo mean. She doesn’t ever want anything to do with me and she doesn’t love you the way I do. She doesn’t miss you, I don’t think she even knows you’re gone. I love you and you have to come home. You have to come home right now.”

Kevin could hear the Holovision in the background. He spoke Desiree’s name quietly, was it true? Did his wife not notice his absence?

I searched for the feel of her. I found it was easy in this place to search out the ones I loved. They were warm places in the darkness. I found Desiree, she was at the kitchen table. I knew that her eyes burned from crying to herself, trying to weep in silence so that Kezia wouldn’t hear her.

Her prayer was a whimper. “Oh Kevin, we need you, please be ok… please, know I love you, please be ok…”

I could feel her heart in her chest like a lead weight and all the doubt and uncertainty left behind by the callousness of the GAGA war machine and their lack of regard. I felt intense guilt that I hadn’t thought of how Desiree was doing while I was here. What had she been told by my friends and coworkers and commanding officers? Nothing. Nothing but the standard lines of bullshit. Nobody had been by to visit her or make sure she was alright, and then there was the fear she felt…

I plumbed the depths of her fear as she sat at the table and followed it to a box that was locked in chains in her heart. I opened the chains to see what she feared and inside, inside I found Kezia. She feared being left alone with her, she feared the pain that her own daughter dealt out. Had I ever thought that Kezia was playing a game? Had I thought her intentions towards her mother were less then homicidal?

Desiree was trapped in a nightmare and I had been blind to it, I had in fact catered to her enemy and made it worse by placidly allowing Kezia’s hurts and abuse to stand. My inattention and lack of ability to exert my authority had shown that Kezia was the one who had the respect in the house, she was the one who ruled us both.

I pulled back to the glade where I was sitting on the grass of another world. I promised myself that everything would be different when I got home. Desiree would know that she was in charge and Kezia would know that she was the daughter and would never be allowed to hurt Desiree ever again. I stood shakily to my feet and walked to the telescope. I looked at the skies and scanned to the tear the time loop had caused. It was no longer unattended in the heavens. Ships made of unusually tinted metals spun lazy UFO circles while golden men approached the hole with a burden with them.

The Golden Ones were not wearing space helmets although they had some sort of jet pack that they used to move in space. When I looked closely I could see that the burden they were carrying was the energy being of Victorinus Wrought who had been bound and chained in much the same way as my wife’s box of fears was chained. It looked as though they were going to throw him into the time tear.

I looked away, I couldn’t stand to see what their intentions were.

“Daddy… I found you Daddy!”

“Kezia?” I felt unexplainably afraid of the sweet voice. Why should I feel that way? Was I sharing in Desiree’s fears?

The fat and flacid figure of my daughter was walking towards me through the trees. She looked mostly like herself, she was shaped like a little girl although she was naked and her hands and feet were obliterated in blood red energy that spilled from them. I felt something tug on my chest and looked down where a hook was embedded there. I cord that looked like a dried and rotted umbilicus went from it to where my daughter stumbled through the alien woods searching for me.

I put my hand over my mouth, horrified as the hook pulled again and I saw that Kezia was pulling on it with the bloody stubs of her energy, following it as though she was blind and using it to seek for me. I was utterly revulsed and turned to find an escape, a place to hide, only to jerk on the cord and pull her towards me more quickly.

“Daddy? Where are you? I can’t see you Daddy.”

She drew closer and I saw that it was no wonder that she couldn’t see me. Her eyes were glazed over with a murky white caul and she stared at me like a fish dead too many days to be sold at the grocers. She was panting as though she had exerted herself to the point of exhaustion. As she came close I could smell the reek of death and carrion on her.

“Evil.” I said out loud, naming her.

“Daddy, don’t say that.” Her voice held a warning note to it. I was shocked to realize that she truly did feel as though she had command over me.

“Stay away from me.” The words left my lips as barely a whisper.

“Don’t do this, Daddy. Just love me.” She spat and one of her teeth fell rotted from her mouth and a chunk of her lip joined it. “Just love me!”

Her voice demanded, insisted and wailed. She ran toward me on shambling feet. Desperately I tore out the hook that was in my chest. It burned and hurt as though I had been shot or as though there was poison on the hook. I threw the hook onto the ground and ran but she picked up the hook, she twirled it like it was a grappling hook and threw it at me again. It stuck in my achilles tendon and I ripped it out again with an anguished scream and threw it at her face.

The hook flew through the air and landed in the tearduct of her right eye. She froze and moved her ‘hands’ to her eye. She looked incredulous, and then filled with rage. She pulled at it and started to scream.

I ran into the living room as quickly as I could. Kezia had gotten a hold of some sort of obscene object that looked like it was made out of flesh and bone. It had stunk up the whole living room and I didn’t know how I had been sitting in the next room and not noticed earlier. She was screaming and clutching at her eye where some sort of large hook made from the brown stained bone had gotten lodged in her eye. Blood was pouring out of her eye and her hands were stained with it as well as her feet and a radius around where she had been standing.

“What happened?” I tried to get her hands away from her eye but she wouldn’t let me. She screamed in my face.

“You did this to me! This is your fault Desiree! You let him see me!!”

When she screamed a rank smell blew over my face so strongly I had to run to the kitchen gagging. I grabbed up my PD where it had been on the table and frantically called in an emergency medical situation. She persued me from the living room. She was no longer trying to get the hook out of her eye. She was staring at me.

The hook and the cord hanging down, trailing behind her like she used to do with her blankey when she was smaller. Her eyes were opaque, covered in some sort of white film. Her mouth seemed to be rotting off her face as I stood watching her. She cocked her head as though listening and then she began to keen even as I noticed that I could see the kitchen counter right through her.

It seemed like forever before Democles returned. He did not bring Victorinus Wrought with him and I was glad as I did not think I could deal with the boogeyman after murdering the very essence of my daughter.

She sat in tatters around me, piles of rotted flesh and quivering fat. How could I even mourn her? She had been evil.

Democles looked at the scene that greeted his return with the same compassion I had seen when Wrought had responded violently to his own overtures.

“She wasn’t all bad. You have to believe me.”

“I do believe you.”

I nodded, grateful that he knew that I hadn’t just raised a monster. There had been love in her, real love for her father, it had been crushed by her selfish nature, and the inexplicable hatred and jealousy she had born for Desiree. I held up what I had found.

It glimmered in my hands, a little nugget of shining blue. “This was in her.”

It was the daughter I had thought I was raising, it was my little girl, the one who was part of a family, not a monster on a mission to destroy our family. She had known how to love but only just a little bit. This was the little bit.

Democles walked towards me. I stood up, I was covered in her muck, but as he came to me, the muck cleared off of me and I felt renewed and sane despite the horrors I had seen. I held out the little glowing nugget to Democles, I felt sure he would take it from me.

I didn’t mind if he did, I had proven what a poor guardian of it I was. He didn’t take it though. He closed my fist around it with his small fingers and pushed it back towards my lips. Without thinking about it, I put it to my lips, it felt cool and effervescent and I swallowed it. I felt it on my tongue and then my throat. Slowly, it descended through me.

When I was able to speak again I asked Democles where Wrought was.

“He is being settled. He will be able to return to his own home soon, although I think he will bear watching for a long time. I don’t trust the honor of his word.”

“I don’t trust it either.”

We stood for awhile in the quiet of those strange woods, only the sound of the machine for company. I wondered if they ever had birds sing in the trees or streams to babble along their roots. I wondered if it was night or day. I wondered how I could return home now and what would become of me. I knew that I had to leave the GAGA, there was no way that I could be a soldier anymore, I had become a philosopher and a man who felt the need for prayer.

“Are you ready to go home?” he asked kindly.

I felt like crying. I was ready to go home. Being here was a wonderful dream, and I didn’t belong in it. It wasn’t my dream and I was homesick, homesick for my own atoms and to know if there were birds and if there were streams. I nodded my head because I couldn’t find my voice.

“Things will be different for you in your place now. If you wish to leave the GAGA, I think Wrought will see to it that you receive an early exemption from your enlistment.”

“Thank you.”

I didn’t have any other words to say to Democles and I was suddenly very tired. Very, very tired. With Democles beside me, I walked to the place where the gurney had been and now it was becoming real again and Democles was no longer a being of gold but a being of burning white energy. I lay down and I started to feel as though skin were possible once more. I yawned and curled up on my side and fell into the deepest sleep I had ever slept.

When I woke up much of the uproar had come and gone.

I had slept through Desiree coming to visit me, I had slept through generals coming to visit me. I had even slept through the Prime Minister of the Galaxy coming to visit me. I had been discharged as a hero and the only problem was that no one could figure out how to wake me up.


When I finally did wake up three months had gone by. The remains of my daughter had been buried and I returned home to a quiet house. I never heard on this plane of existence what had happened to Wrought when the Golden Ones had taken him, but I do know that Humanium never became widespread in use. In fact, I don’t think it was ever used again.

After sleeping for so long after I woke up I just wanted to have a good think for awhile. So I thought for quite a bit and then I decided to pray. After all, there were no immediate physical manifestations of the time tears, but that didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous and I knew that healing thoughts healed.

So I prayed. At first I prayed to my father, but then I prayed to my mother. She was still alive so when I was done praying, I went to visit her and I brought her flowers and told her with my words all the ways that she had made me feel special everyday. Then I told her that she was special too. She told me about her parents and the ways they had helped her to later on help me. I had only met them when I was small, but I started to pray to them too.

Then, it was a bit harder, but I prayed to Desiree. I thanked her for how wonderful the house always smelled when she made dinner and for how she looked in her blue dress. I prayed for her to find peace and healing when I later prayed to Desiree’s mom and dad to thank them for bringing an angel into my world.

Then one day when we made love, I felt the efferescent bubble flow from me to Desiree and then back again, growing larger with each flowing. A couple of months later Desiree told me she was pregnant again and we both prayed to our parents and to the Golden Ones for us to have a child who knew love without selfishness and who we could love in return.

When our daughter Cassandra was born, she was born into a house of prayer. Desiree and I prayed every chance we got and the Golden Ones came to me and told me that we were healing the rifts from the time loops at long last.

We weren’t alone by then. There were other people who wanted to pray. We had prayed to them or they had seen the effects of our prayer and they wanted to be part of the healing of our dimension.

So I taught them everything I had learned from Democles on my first visit and after several years I made a second visit and learned much more. There aren’t too many places that the idea of Grater Love hasn’t penetrated. I’ve been on most of the holo shows and our daughter Cassandra often leads the prayer on the Grater Love Hour, it plays every night at nine although a lot of nights they show repeats because we only record one a week.

I’ve been interviewed with Victorinus Wrought on a couple of occasions, but it doesn’t seem like he has a lot to say to me and that’s ok too. I pray for him, I pray to him even. I try to kind of encourage him to keep on keeping away from the humanium. I guess he’s not all bad because from all accounts his son Verily Wrought has grown up to be one of the good guys.

Cassie is our little darling, and she will always be a daddy’s girl but she’ll always love her mother more then her own little self. I’m so grateful for her everyday, seeing her face light up in that effervescent way she has and feeling her throw her arms around me makes it easy to face another day.

Now, let us pray.

Verily Wrought- Kidnapped

A Story of Verily Wrought

by

Anthony Stark

The first thing Verily knew was that he was on the move.

He awoke with a blinding pain in the back of his skull that flared into vivid life each time the old fashioned combustion engines carrying him along sputtered. The dusty smell of burlap filled his nostrils, and he groggily opened his eyes to find that its rough texture obscured his vision of his surroundings, which were hopping and shaking with more than just the irregular motors’ whinings.

Verily was immediately grateful his open eyes were obscured from the attention of his captors- for captors his companions were, and rebels from the look of it. He had seen the rebels in the Gamma quadrant from a distance, classic South East Asian guerillas in fatigues, t shirts or wife beaters and flip flops, armed to the teeth with rounds and rounds of old fashioned, boondock quadrant bullets. And here were two of them, sitting not five feet from where Verily lay prostrate and, as the fire thrumming up his limbs informed him, hog-tied. They murmured to themselves in a language that was the Galactic shorthand in Gamma quadrant, a mixture of Vietnamese, Tagalog and English with no particular grammatical structure and few florid additions. They kept a reasonable eye on their charge. Verily could see their heads or eyes flick to him from time to time, but other than making sure his brief moan hadn’t meant he was awakening to struggle or scream, their attention quickly slackened.

Where the devil was he? He wondered to himself groggily. His eyes throbbed, and the hair on the back of his head was obviously matted to the back of his skull with what he could only assume was his own dried blood. He felt queasy and sick, and realized abruptly this wasn’t just from the blow to the head. The peculiar undulations of the vehicle, coupled with the air blowing on his face and rustling the bandanas and loose fatigues of his captors, informed Verily he was in an old fashioned propeller aircraft… which meant he wasn’t just in Gamma quadrant, but lost on a planet in the furthermost reaches of it. It also meant he was airsick, which could abruptly and hideously give away his secret alertness to his possessors… and that was the only card he held to his advantage at this point.

Gamma quadrant had never completely been absorbed into the sleek, consumer-capitalist structure of the GAGA, being remarkably resource poor and possessed of many dozens of viable planets of dubious habitability for the bulk of the glossy, domesticated inhabitants of the Galactic Association. Gamma quadrant had a large percentage of wet, stormy, flood-prone, hot planets, and as such had attracted a preponderance of Earthlings accustomed to such climes, chiefly from Southeast Asia and Central America, and also a large number of stoic, philosophical Venusians. Gamma quadrant was one of those rarities in the GAGA- a place to call home, rather than a place to make a living.

Verily had been in the outskirts of the Gamma quadrant for four months now, working with his friends from the Church and the Halvorrsson Offplanet Humanitarian Organization, or HOHO, to ensure that the intrepid and family-oriented inhabitants were not neglected by the GAGA in its focus on economics. Verily had been spearheading a quiet but fierce improvement scheme on three of the outlying planets that would result in authentic Southeast Asian resort facilities.

These resorts would not only employ thousands directly, but would provide a much needed economic boost for the entire sector as it provided resources to the resorts. Raising the profile of a galactic sector through tourism was a tried and tested method of increasing profitability while maintaining the majority of a culture’s customs. Verily truly believed that sharing one’s idiosyncratic beauties was the best way not just to survive, but to thrive.

He had been working with HOHO to establish clean water and renewable energy sources on the three main planets in Gamma-gamma prime… the last place he remembered.

Verily eyed the two men sitting on a bulkhead near him. He couldn’t remember their faces from the hotel, or from his business meetings. Of course, that didn’t mean a thing, not if someone wanted to kidnap you. These fellows had most likely been watching Verily since he arrived in Gamma-gamma prime, had been plotting this particular caper for quite a bit longer than that.

What was he going to do? He wondered to himself. Their old fashioned submachine guns sat comfortably in their laps and Verily suspected it was the butt of one of them that had christened the back of his head.

Think. Carefully.

Two thirds of the Gamma quadrant was settled to GAGA second tier culture standards. That meant hoverdrive vehicles predominated, basic battery and high-efficiency combustibles were in use for energy sources, there was some spirit derived fuel for transport but mostly long term stored battery power for that as well.

Wherever there were hover vehicles, airplanes were prohibited, of course. So where could he possibly be that he was clunking along through the lower stratosphere in this ungodly hunk of metal? Mr. Donovan might have got a kick out of the antiquated flying machine, heaven knew he had a fetish for the old airplanes, but to Verily this flying metal cyllinder seemed like an absurdity crossed with a terror.

Enough freaking out, he admonished himself. The thing will fly. You flew with Dom and his father in one once. Quit worrying and figure this out.

The third of the quadrant left to fourth tier culture standards bordered the edge of GAGA territory. It was light years from the light years that the edge of the quadrant Verily had been captured in was located. A mental map of the Gamma quadrant raised itself shakily in Verily’s mind. There was a gulf of asteroids held in check by the mutual gravity of two distant star systems, and the intrepid exploration of the Gammans had pushed past it to their own practically private colonies. The GAGA hadn’t bothered to sweep the asteroid belt, or to punch a hyperspace corridor to the remaining star system… what was it called… oh yes. Gamma Omega. Super.

There was no etherspace communication past the asteroid belt, no supply posts or stations past ERS 479. The GAGA’s Emergency Refueling Station was the last vestige of any civilization, and it was nestled on one of the asteroids in the belt. If Verily was in an airplane, he was far, far past its help- and any etherspace comm nets that could detect the nanotransmitters with which his father had implanted him to guard him from just this situation.

The trail of his nanos would lead to ERS 479, then cut out. That would leave the team of investigators who would be on Verily’s trail the moment the signal faded without him having alerted them a vast search area. Two star systems, twelve planets, no etherspace comm to relay to each other any progress in the search. They would need either a team of twelve hyperdrive Sky Pilots to search entire planets simultaneously, or one intrepid team with a lot of luck.

While Verily had no doubt that his hard-bitten father Victorinus would spring for the twelve groups, or perhaps more, he knew from trying to fineagle resource reports and intel for his own businesses just how long it would take to adequately search a planet for one particular thing. Even if that thing was singularly pale, freckled and red headed…

No, Verily gritted his teeth. He couldn’t wait for help to get out of this. He had to try to escape himself.

He tried to flex his arms and legs to see if there was any give in his binds. His muscles screamed agony at him and let him know that not only had he been tied in this manner a long while, he also wouldn’t be capable of any short sprints or heroic disablings of captors unless the feeling came back into his limbs.

He eyed up his guards. Following his brief moans upon awakening, they had paid him close heed, but believing he had not reached consciousness, they had resumed treating him like furniture. Would they loosen his bonds if they thought he was in distress, even if he was unconscious? Or would they just hit him again to shut him up?

It would behoove them, Verily thought, to keep me more or less in one piece. Especially for the filming of the ransom video. If I was useful to them dead, I wouldn’t be making this gamble. He forced his wooden, burning limbs to struggle weakly at his bonds. He made a whimpering noise. That part was easy.

The guards approached, speaking softly to each other in their dialect. Verily let his eyes close completely, and sure enough they took off his hood to check if he was awake. They smacked him roughly across the face, and when he didn’t respond, but moaned slightly and tried to wriggle his swollen, engorged fingers and toes, the captors had a brief but decisive communication.

Rough, stubby fingers loosened his bonds, then loosened them more. His feet hit the ground like dead meat, and Verily tried to hide his panic that the confinement might have ruined them forever. His arms followed suit, not quite as severely deadened as his legs but still terrifyingly immobile. He wondered what it would be like to spend the rest of his life like this, unable to move through or touch the world around him. Casting that thought out of his head (they do wonderful things with cloning, and cybernetics, you ninny, he thought to himself), Verily moaned sleepily, gratefully, and gave the distinct impression he had passed out completely once more.

This was not hard to do, as the blood was forcing its way into and out of his atrophied limbs with enough tingling, searing agony to make Verily nearly pass out. He felt a boot prod him viciously once, twice, then sensed more than heard two pairs of feet scuff their way back to the bulkhead.

Just a little rest, Verily thought. Then I will be ready for an escape.

A sudden jolt under him brought him to wakefulness. His eyes shot open in horror as his stomach rose into his throat. Remembering the kidnappers hadn’t re-hooded him more than aware he could see without obstruction, he closed his eyes again. Thankfully, the pair of captors was occupied with their own buckles that lashed them to the fuselage and hadn’t noticed their cargo was awake.

The plane was circling to land. Oh, super, Verily thought ironically. That was a sweet little nap. It didn’t leave a lot of time for planning, but maybe that was best. He wondered to himself if he was ready to try to make a break for it, even if that meant getting shot with a piece of lead and dying in this backwater. He decided he did- but started saying Hail Marys to hedge his bets.

He squirmed about, moaning, letting himself feel the dangerous pain in his skull, pushing out some of the despair he felt through his muscles and joints. As he did, he let the chemical cocktail of the pain and the panic soften his stiff limbs with adrenaline.

The captor closest him barked a word at his fellow. Verily heard their rubber flip flops shuffle uncertainly across the uneven metal floor of the fuselage. He felt a rifle tip poke at him savagely. Through his vermillion eyelashes he watched their feet. He moaned again, and let himself vomit.

Perhaps a mistake, as the involuntary jerkings cracked open new avenues of pain in his skull, but he couldn’t think of another way to get them to unbind him than to begin to choke. Faking that misfortune was much, much harder than he thought it would be- if he actually started to lose his breath while so dizzy and weak, that could be the end of him. Verily doubted these two would deliver the Heimlich without the butt of their guns, and getting his breath back from that certainly wouldn’t increase his chances of escape.

A hurried conversation, punctuated by gruntings and shufflings of feet as the plane banked again. Verily knew from his time at the Donovans’ test fields that large, conventional wing craft needed a lot of space to decellerate- if weather or a need for sureptitiousness prohibited a long two-dimensional run, the plane could wind that long descent into a spiral… and if turbulence dictated, that spiral could be very choppy indeed.

One of the men bent and slapped him. Verily opened his eyes groggily, let them roll back in his head, coughed and spluttered some more. He saw that the side door of the fuselage was directly behind him- unguarded. It had an antiquated turn bolt on it, without a lock he could see. The man spoke to the other man. They sounded dubious.

Time to wind it up a notch.

Verily began to fake seizures, hoping to thrust more required adrenaline into his limbs for his bolt for the door. He had to time this right, so that they could be close to the ground, or better yet, just landed. It would make for a long run away from the craft, and of course if there were parties there to meet them, all this was moot- but he had to try.

Quick, animated speech. Thick fingers struggled at his bonds. The plane banked around again, steeper this time, its engines on its wings straining at the change in torque. The guard untied his arms, which Verily began twitching in spasm. More rough fingers began untying his legs, which he was bruising against the floor of the craft savagely in his seizing. The other guard scuttled across the floor, bracing himself with his gun.

A sharp report, and wind started blasting Verily’s face. The idiot had shot a hole in the plane. Shouting ensued, and the second guard abandoned his efforts to untie Verily. Oh, Mary, he thought as he pressed his ankles against the rope and felt it fail to give. He was still bound at the feet. He risked opening his eyes as he heard their voices point toward the cockpit. A third voice joined them, and shouting was heard from the pilot’s chair. The plane hitched in its arc, roughly regained itself, dropped lower steeply.

Verily risked opening his eyes to orient. The co-pilot was screaming at the man with the rifle, who was shouting back. The guard who had untied him was struggling to stay upright, and they all three were clutching the netting on the side of the fuselage. Verily swung his head to the floor to peek out the egg sized hole the bullet had made. It was hard to see through the mist surrounding the plane. It cleared for a moment, and Verily’s heart sank. Far beneath him, further than he could have imagined for the interminable descent, was a swamp. Grey brown water sat gazing sullenly up at him, with patches of very small, very overgrown trees polka-dotting the wasteland.

In his decrepit state, he must have judged time badly, underestimated the length of the descent before he enacted his scheme. Either that, or the pilot was forced into a holding pattern. What did it matter, Verily thought, the harsh metal taste of futility rising in his throat, blotting out even the sour taste of his own vomit. There would be no run for it- by the time the plane landed, they would have recovered their composure, and most likely re-bound his arms, tightened his legs’ restraint.

The mist covered the hole, sucked its way into the craft through the hole. It cleared again, and Verily stared out at the swamp below. Was it really that far? He wondered. He had cliff dived on Argus VII, four hundred feet into the water below. Several seconds of rushing air while he held the Argusian diving pose designed to protect the hominid form. How high was this? It wasn’t over a thousand feet- things looked doll-like and distant then. Those trees, that water, it looked real enough to make your stomach churn apart from the poor flying of the pilot. Verily snuck a look over at his captors. The plane was banking again, struggling to keep its gyre. They were sliding all over the floor as the mist from the hole coated every metal surface in condensation.

Verily let the inertia of the plane slide him back, over the jagged hole unfortunately, halfway to the exit. He watched. The guards hadn’t noticed. He wouldn’t be able to untie his legs before he tried this gambit, but it was just as well- the ankle rope would hold his limbs close and straight in the diving posture best calculated to keep him from ripping them out of his sockets or smashing their sinews against water that would feel more like concrete. He sidled to the door, propped himself up in slow degrees, blue eyes watching the captors without gazing at them so as not to draw attention to his regard on them.

He raised his hands slowly, trying to keep them from shaking. He was within a foot of the bar controlling the lock mechanism when the co-pilot caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. He started shouting, and turned to run to Verily to stop him at the same time the trigger happy guard lifted his rifle, most likely to prove his proficiency with the weapon after being attacked over it. Instinctively, Verily ducked. The second report of the gun, not muffled by the floor of the aircraft, was deafening. The door by Verily’s hands exploded outward, and rained hot metal shards onto his scalp and arms. He saw the other guard grab the gun out of his associate’s hands, and heard their shouting through roaring ears.

The co-pilot was running across the little gulf between he and his captive as best as he could at a scrolling angle. He was grim-faced and determined in a way Verily’s guards were not. Verily looked into the man’s eyes and knew that, no matter what their intentions had been, Verily was going to pay in a deeply physical, damaging way for this attempt.

The man saw this knowledge on Verily’s face and gave a grim smile as he lurched toward him. Verily didn’t even have time to acknowledge that this attempt was going to prove to be a fatal error when the door creaked open on bent hinges, its blast-damaged lock finally giving way.

The last thing the co-pilot saw was a pair of huge, surprised blue eyes and a shock of blood-drenched red hair falling out of his aircraft- and his billion dollar scheme along with it.

Verily tumbled in freefall, the rough sisal rope slapping his body, whipping it with ignominious cruelty. He was falling back first toward the murky water, and he realized that, outside of the confines of the plane, he was really rather close to the ground. The lush verdant trees were moving up fast, and his body was cutting through the mist too quickly.

Summoning up all his strength, he managed to twist himself in the air to point his feet at the ground. The mist was cold, and Verily was shivering, shaking too much to keep to the Argusian diving pose that would save his life with any formality. The rope trailed up by his face, and he grabbed it to keep it from slapping himself.

The trees rushed up to meet him, and Verily was relieved to note he was in fact falling over one of the patches of water.

I hope it’s a deep patch, he thought suddenly to himself, with alarming acumen. Too late now, he added, and braced his lungs and neck in the appropriate way for impact.

The water was warm, warmer than the mist above it would give lie to. And thankfully, it was deep. Still, Verily plunged with disturbing quickness through the water and into the cooler underregions. His ears popped twice, three times, and his sinuses burned. He tried to slow himself, but only managed to when he had passed into the second cool layer of water. He was deep. The darkness of it surrounded him, and he was terrified.

His lungs were burning with used oxygen. The pressure on his chest was massive, nearly undeniable- he had to let it out and breathe. Verily stared up at the mass of bubbles clearing above his head, up through their sluggish dispersal to the small disk of light far, far above.

Start swimming,” he told himself, and with muscles on fire and a primal panic in his nerves, he started pulling himself upward with immense breast strokes.

Slowly the disc above him got bigger. Slowly. His arms were weak, exhausted, his legs more so. His vision was starting to go, and Verily was overcome by an urge to merely sit in the water and take a deep breath. It seemed silly to him that he couldn’t just breathe the water. The pressure on his lungs, the fluid pressing on his limbs and eyes, seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Just take a breath, he would surely be able to find the oxygen in it- fish did it all the time. Verily shook his head to clear it and swam harder.

Verily stopped, jerked in place. His eyes widened with true panic. He swam again upward, jerked.

The rope, he thought. It must have caught on something. With what little strength he had left, Verily twisted down in the murky water and pulled at the rope weakly with hands devoid of grip. Beneath him he could see a twisted branch that had caught the tail end of the rope. The wood looked ancient, and probably rubberized to near adamant strength, rather than brittle and flaky like it could have been.

Verily started to pass out. That seems a stupid way to end it, he thought to himself, then, but who am I to judge? He quit struggling and let out his final breath.

He started to consciousness when he felt cold, slithery tentacles around him. There were at least two, and they gripped him too tightly for comfort. A last glimpse of survival thrilled through him and he opened his eyes and started hitting at the tentacles.

Ow! A voice in his mind admonished. Your little human fists hurt, you know.

A tentacle the diameter of a banana with a firm, rounded end felt all over his face. It was cold like how people think a snake should feel, and left a slimy ooze on his face.

What are you? Verily asked in his mind, succumbing to the pinching constriction on his lungs and falling into his final sleep once more.

I’m the guy that’s saving your life, earthling, came the wry reply, as the questing tentacle forced its way with polite but persistent firmness into Verily’s mouth and partway down his throat.

Oxygen flooded his system, oozing out of the tentacles’ slime with exactly the same mechanism used by plant life. Verily’s eyes opened, his head pounding from the anoxia but his consciousness returning. He found he was looking into the huge visage of a Venusian, whose multiple eyes ringing his green, slimy head blinked in different rhythms back.

Hang in there, kid, the Venusian told Verily’s mind. I’ll get you up to the surface post haste. This is too deep for diving for your kind.

The Venusian took one of his prehensile tentacles and wrenched the tree branch holding Verily’s bind in place. The branch made a dreadful, final cracking under the water and fell downward. The Venusian spooled the rope up with businesslike surety and then rocketed the two of them surfaceward.

Verily sucked deeply on the oxygen and watched the small disc of the alien sun grow with great swiftness. He didn’t think he would have made it on his own. Thank God this Venusian was down in the depths doing some sport hunting for local fish and was kind enough to help him. Venusians were usually rather recalcitrant to humans, given their unkind treatment by them on first contact. It was unusual for a Venusian to even care if a human were in mortal danger, let alone rescue one. Verily thanked his lucky stars that this good samaritan had been on hand- and came with his own ready-produced scuba gear.

They broke the water with absurd swiftness and the Venusian began churning the waters beneath them with his many tentacles. Like a boat with twin propellers, the pair shot toward the nearest shore with remarkable swiftness. Verily clung to the moist slimy hide of the Venusian. Once the Venusian had beached himself, he propped his human cargo up against a driftwood tree and extricated his oxygen-producing protrubance.

Verily coughed hoarsely and spat out several mouthfuls of Venusian exudate. He glanced at his rescuer, wondering if that was perhaps a faux pas, not really caring as the metallic bitterness of it made him want to retch. The Venusian seemed nonplussed by it, and sat digging himself an absent-minded nest in the sand by Verily’s feet.

Thank you,” Verily croaked. “You saved my life.”

The Venusian nodded in his customary way, which meant he blinked his eyes from the innermost pair to the outermost set. This was the first communication humans had learned from the Venusians- inner to out, affirmative; outer to innermost, negative.

That was quite the dive you took,” The Venusian replied, and a few idle tentacles pointed skyward. “I take it you jumped from that plane that went over.”

Verily paused, surprised the Venusian had known about the plane. He supposed the antiquated engines produced noise that was more than audible in the swamp below.

My hosts and I had a bit of a disagreement,” Verily confessed wryly, and held up the end of the rope that was still binding his ankles. He started to untie it with some difficulty. “I decided to get out and walk.”

The Venusian laughed, which was a sound that reminded Verily of a bullfrog.

Look out for that first step, eh? It’s a doozy.” He smacked a tentacle or two onto his cephalopodic trunk. “And who were your hosts that they were flying you about in the sky?”

Kidnappers,” Verily answered. “They wanted to use me for ransom money… best case scenario.”

Why is that?” the Venusian asked, puzzled.

Well,” Verily began, somewhat taken aback. He supposed it was possible that the Venusian wasn’t up on the latest pop culture, but he had never been in a situation where his particular human appearance hadn’t garnered immediate recognition. “I’m Verily Wrought.”

The Venusian stared at him a moment, eyes blinking. “Pleased to meet you, Verily,” he replied. “My name is Veetoo.” He held out a tentacle in the customary human handshaking gesture. Verily shook it firmly, and smiled.

So why would they be kidnapping you, Verily?” Veetoo asked.

Verily blinked. “Um… I’m Verily Wrought.”

Yes, you told me that.” The Venusian paused. “Does that mean they would want to kidnap you?”

Verily’s stomach dropped. This was a very backwater planet indeed. The sensation of not having his entire existence and circumstance implicitly understood by another being was oddly discomfiting. He had often wondered what it would be like to not be famous, had wondered if perhaps he would like it. Maybe if it had been in less dire life or death circumstances Verily would have enjoyed the feeling of blank, polite interest, but here and now, needing to get light years away to the nearest sub-ether transmitter to not only get his nanotrackers picked up but to get at any of his credits from the GAGA bank… the feeling of anonymity made his blood run cold.

Yes, yes it does,” he said simply in a small voice. “My father is very, very wealthy. I am too.”

Oh, that explains it,” the Venusian nodded sagely. “You humans do like your credits, more than a deep and fish-riddled pond even.” He grinned, and three rows of translucent, needle-sharp teeth sparkled at Verily. “Well, not to worry, your kidnappers couldn’t have got anything out of you or your father… we don’t trade in credits on this planet. Don’t even have a POS terminal for them on the whole rock.”

Verily’s eyebrows climbed. “Oh. Well, that’s good.”

It was a good idea for you to have got out from under their tentacle, though,” the Venusian advised. “They might have decided to do something nasty to you in the meantime. You never can tell.”

Yeah,” Verily nodded.

The Venusian sat in his makeshift sand nest and regarded Verily for a long moment. “So this was an unplanned trip, then.”

Verily nodded again, weakly.

The Venusian blinked in to out. “You’re going to need a place to stay, then, until you can get up the fish to get a rocket ride home.” He stuck out a tentacle and with remarkable dextrousness, he extricated a chain from under Verily’s sodden shirt and pulled out a gold crucifix and Our Lady of Lourdes medallion.

I thought you seemed like a believer,” he said. “You seemed like one from the first breath.” Veetoo took another tentacle and brought out a Venusian rope necklace from under the fold of his cranium. It had a St. Peter medallion on it.

Verily recognized it immediately and smiled broadly. “Veetoo, if you could help me out, for a bit, I’d be so thankful!” He shook the Venusian’s tentacle warmly, and it twined around his wrist in response.

Of course, Verily Wrought,” the Venusian replied. “It’d be just as wrong to save your life and leave you to die in the swamp as it would have been not to rescue you.” He chortled like a bullfrog again and swept Verily up in his tentacles. The pair took off across the water to the east. “It’s much quicker to the village by water. I don’t know if you can actually make it there by land even.”

Verily clung to the Venusian’s tentacle and shivered in the moving mist. He looked at a pair of Veetoo’s eyes and smiled.

Egg o egg, St. Peter would be proud of me!” Veetoo cackled as he motored through the swamp. “I really am a fisher of men now!”

Veetoo set Verily down on shaky legs at the water’s edge. The village was built up all around them on stilt legs carved roughly from the limbus trees that predominated the jungle. The houses and business buildings that made up the community looked like stereotypical huts- palm and frond roofs, clapboard walls, few if any windows. Smoke rose lazily from a plethora of rickety chimneys and people walked to and fro across rough-hewn boardwalks held up by ropes of Venusian weave.

Welcome to the Village,” Veetoo waved a gregarious tentacle at the tableau. “I work for Mr. Jim at the local public house- I catch him fish and work the grill in busy hours. I will take you there, and we will ask him to take you in.”

Verily nodded, put on a resolved face. “I will work at whatever Mr. Jim needs doing to pay my way,” he said intently. He had never had a job before, and was a little afraid he might not be able to do whatever task was laid before him, but he was feeling very humble and determined to make a go of it in whatever new environment he was facing.

Veetoo blinked in out and led Verily up the Venusian accessible ramp to the main thoroughfare. The smells were overwhelming up on the village level- spices and frying foods, lemongrass and garlic and incense for the various South Asian gods whose statues adorned places of honor in the shop windows. Frying meat and rotting fruit and the clinging musk of people surrounded Verily. He found himself clinging to Veetoo’s tentacle like a small boy.

The Venusian’s bulk was not singular in the crowd. This community of humans had learned that their alien neighbors made good tradesmen, and were loyal and protective of any who served to provide for their clans. The Venusians moved amongst their smaller, bipedal counterparts with comparative ease, shifting their quasi gelatinous bulk into curved shapes and sliding their tentacles into wider spaces between the humans to gently propel themselves along. Verily traveled in this manner in Veetoo’s wake, passing a bevvy of restuarants, trade shop fronts, flophouses, laundries and more questionable businesses, until they came to the tallest shack of the village.

A rickety sign read, Mr. Jim Hotel. The paint was peeling. A series of separate wooden shingles had been attached to the first and hung from Venusian twine beneath it. Rooms weekly monthly, No Gangsters, and Check out our Sunday Brunch Specials wobbled in the moist breeze off the swamp. Over the doorway hung a crucifix.

Follow me,” Veetoo advised and held open the double door with two tentacles. “I’ll introduce you to Mr. Jim.”

Verily stepped over the tentacles trailing his new friend and into the smoky, hot, humid lobby of Mr. Jim Hotel. A bored Phillippina sat filing her nails behind the bamboo desk. Several chambermaids hurried with piles of unfolded clean sheets. Some customers lounged in the front room, taking in more heat and moisture from the sun that managed to pierce the greasy windows.

Veetoo ambulated through the lobby and to the cafe door on the right. The Phillippina eyed the pale, freckled newcomer with a hungry, appraising eye that Verily failed to notice.

Inside, the cafe was packed. People crowded around tall round tables with Vietnamese coffee, torta subs and pho. Smoke hung over their heads. Verily coughed slightly, unobtrusively. From the far end of the room a tiny Asian man of indistinct origin waved at the Venusian. He was wearing a greasy wife beater, a lowslung greasier apron and blue jeans. Wispy salt and pepper hair clung to his nut brown head.

Veetoo!” he barked in an oddly friendly admonishment. “You’re back too early for fish. I need carp!”

Veetoo blinked out in. “Sorry, Mr. Jim,” he apologized and clapped the tiny man on the back with a pair of tentacles. “I found other catch today.”

Veetoo gently pushed Verily out from behind him for Mr. Jim to behold. Mr. Jim looked at the tall white boy in front of him. His eyes briefly widened, and Verily wondered if he recognized him. Then Verily wondered if Mr. Jim perhaps had been in on the kidnapping plot. Mr. Jim’s eyes grew narrow with the pains of everyday living once more, and Verily filed the question away for later.

Mr. Jim looked Verily up and down, and down and up. He moved closer. He poked Verily in the ribs. Puzzled, Verily said nothing, but returned the attentions with a bland gaze of friendly accessibility. He was terrified, more of being turned out summarily on this alien planet than even the idea Mr. Jim had been expecting his arrival in a very different form.

Mr. Jim’s eyes flicked down to the chain on Verily’s neck, and the medallions there.

You good Catholic boy?” he asked. He pointed to the greasy devotional picture of the Divine Mercy on the wall behind him.

Verily nodded. “Yes sir.”

Mr. Jim nodded too. “You need job then. You no belong here, boy.”

I would like to earn my way home, sir,” Verily admitted.

You wash dish good?” he asked, and lit a cigarette speculatively in his direction.

I’m very neat and tidy, and a good fast worker,” Verily told him.

Mr. Jim looked at Veetoo. “I take your catch. New dishwasher. Help out round place. Change lightbulb. Good and tall. I take him see Father Tony tonight.” He squinted at Veetoo. “No pay for him though! I only pay for catch I can eat!”

Veetoo laughed. “You can’t eat him?” He held up one of Verily’s arms with a tentacle.

Verily looked at Veetoo wryly. Veetoo roared, and Mr. Jim slapped his belly while he chortled and coughed. “Maybe later! Maybe dinner special… if he can’t work!”

Veetoo sloshed happily in his skin. “I’m going to go grab some carp, Mr. Jim,” he advised. “I will see you tonight.”

Get good carp!” Mr. Jim shouted after him. “Young fresh carp! No old shit tasting carp!” He turned and looked up at Verily. “Follow me,” he said simply, and disappeared into the kitchen.

Verily paused. He was very confused, and hoped he had actually secured a job. He wondered if that included lodging. Well, he thought, if it didn’t, it was warm enough outside to sleep somewhere fairly private. He had nothing to steal from him while he slept, and there was always the church to curl up in for a few hours if the priest was halfway decent. Mr. Jim seemed a largely accessible if somewhat inscrutable fellow. He could tell that if he worked hard, he would at least be allowed a small wage and the chance to earn more. He hurried after Mr. Jim and into the cafe kitchen.

The Quarantine of Zealand II

A Story of the Vampire Plague

by

Virginia Carraway

& Anthony Stark

The pain was truly debilitating.

The fever had come after the first day of headache and had settled in at a prickling sweat that seemed to emenate from her skull and through her skin. She was burning up.

More than the fever, there was the mood. She felt so angry all the time, every noise was enough to set her off, every movement was an agony and she wanted to kill it, to kill it dead.

She hadn’t always felt this way, she could remember that much. She remembered that there had been a time before when she hadn’t felt like shards of glass were in her blood stream and that life was something worth living. Now things had changed and Crystal didn’t know how things were going to go on for her. She couldn’t imagine living like this…

Her alarm clock started to buzz beside her on the bedstand and she roared and pulled it from its roost with an angry cry and threw it into the wall where it continued to buzz. How could she have forgotten to turn it off? There was no way that she was going to go into work today, no way. She pulled herself out from her bed and staggered across the room to where the clock continued to buzz with interspersed admonishes to ‘Wake up, Crystal. Crystal, it’s time to wake up.’

Between bar tending at night and waitressing during the day, it had been harder and harder for her to face each new shift and her alarm clock was supposed to help her to stop from being late, it wasn’t supposed to be designed to drive her crazy.

The sound, bright and cheerful, grated on her senses and she looked through the mound of filthy clothes where the alarm had landed and sought the off button without any luck in the darkened room. Crystal cursed and threw the alarm clock again, it hurt beyond anything she had felt before to utter the gutteral scream that came pouring out of her mouth but she couldn’t stop the sheer rage that fueled it and it was all that kept her from tearing off her own skin to voice the anguish she was feeling.

“Wake up, Crystal Crystal, it’s time to wake up, wake up Crystal, Crystal, it’s time to wake up.”

The volume on it was slowly but surely raising as she failed to turn it off. She clawed through a stack of dishes that she had begun to collect earlier in her illness, found the alarm and by a miracle, found the tiny button that let it know that she was awake enough for finer motor movements. She closed her eyes and sighed, even the sound of her own breath seemed loud to her. She knew that she should call her work and let them know that she wouldn’t be in again, she had promised them that she would be in, it was Saturday and the brunch traffic was horrific.

She had already been sick for almost a week, her last shift at Merlot’s had been the Saturday before and she had to go home an hour before her shift was over. The fever had set in then along with the headache and she had been so weak and trembly that she had spilled a tray of waffles and whipped cream all over a, fortunately, empty table. She hadn’t even tried to go into the bar that night, even using her personal device had been a chore that was almost beyond her ability by that point and she had called into work and then passed out for eighteen hours.

She had woken up, feeling like she was on fire and the grating feeling of her blood being somehow jagged had started up for the first time. Since then she had had a few good days but increasingly over the last twenty-four hours it had become unmitigated agony. She had managed to get to the kitchen and had made herself broth and some tea. The tea was her gran’s recipe, one she swore by for flus and colds.

The tea hadn’t helped although the broth had gone down surprisingly well at first. Her appetite had become more and more hesitant and then had dried up. She hadn’t eaten now for two days and had only had soda and a bit of tea to drink. Three days ago she had discovered that she liked the soda much better if she added salt to it and so she had ‘invented’ a basic way of ingesting electrolytes that had likely kept her alive until today.

She couldn’t find her personal device anywhere in the room. It occurred to Crystal that it might be and idea to either find it and call for medical aid or to knock on her neighbour’s door and ask them to call for an ambulance. She wanted more electrolyte and was nearly out of soda. She didn’t know what she would do if she ran out. The soda and salt wasn’t getting rid of the hot dry thirst that was driving her insane nearly as badly as the feeling that sharp grit had taken the place of her corpuscles.

She knocked a stack of pots off of the stove in her urgent search for the bag of salt and she clutched her hands to her ears, the bag of salt splashed up and onto her hands and floor.

She sat on the floor and started to cry. She was still cogent enough that she didn’t want to call for an ambulance, or have the neighbors see her like this. She was a wreckage, her apartment was even worse…. she didn’t even know where her p.d. was. Crystal found a large bottle of soda and poured a bit of it onto the floor so she could add some salt to the mixture and gratefully drank it. Her tongue was so dry, not even her invention was satiating her thirst now and she looked around the apartment, desperate for anything to stop the thirst that seemed to ever rise in her. It was like someone was constantly nattering in her ear, torturing her- so this was thirst. She hadn’t ever imagined that thirst could be this bad. Everytime she had in the past imagined she was thirsty, it had been nothing. This was the real deal, it was a wild animal that was consuming her.

Nothing made sense she was so thirsty, crying was stupid, she was just going to make her headache and the dehydration worse this way. Crystal wiped the tears from her eyes and then held her hands close to her face. This couldn’t be happening… her hands were freshly streaked with blood.

Unbelieving and terrified she went to the bathroom- it hurt too much to turn the light in the bathroom on but she could see well enough in the mirror that she had been crying tears of blood. Her face was pale in the dim light and the smears looked black against her skin. She inspected herself more closely, her gums and tongue looked oddly pale, almost white and a bit of blood was oozing out of her ear as well.

Feeling dizzy and weak in the knees she collapsed on the toilet seat and wailed and clawed at her chest in hopeless fear. Her fingernails looked too white also. Crystal closed her eyes as a wave of nausea struck her and made her bite her thumbnail. This was too much, she couldn’t stand it if she threw up with her head hurting like this. She whimpered in the dim and curled up on the cold tiled floor. She was only wearing a thin satin nightgown, it was the only thing that she could stand to have touching her when the glass-in-her-veins really started to kick up its head, the tiles were cool on her fevered skin and she started to shiver. She clutched her shoulders and wished that this would just end, that it would all have turned out to be a nightmare and she would wake up with the alarm telling her ‘Crystal, wake up.’

She didn’t wake up. Instead she fell asleep and for the first time since she had fallen ill her dreams weren’t about being in tortured agony. Like an answer to her prayer for relief, in her dream she felt fine, normal if a little sureal and euphoric.

She stood regally as a hot wind pulled at the blue robe she wore wrapped around herself. She surveilled a rolling field of shorn wheat at dusk. The sun had already set but the world had yet to go dark. The wheat field extended as far as she could see and was totally unobstructed from anything built by human hands. Clouds, tinted red and black with the remnants of sunlight, rolled across the sky with the speed of the wind behind them. Crystal heard the scream of the owl before she saw it flying, white and small at the edge of the horizon. It grew larger and she watched it as the wind grew still fiercer and she had to clutch her robe around her to try to protect herself from the wind that was hotter than breath. The wind shrieked and the owls flew silently towards her now. It came in close to her, talons outstretched and her voice was wrapped around a ball of thistles in her throat. The wind whipped her robe up and around her head despite her efforts to hold it in place and to conceal her nudity.

She wanted to scream out the word, “Stryge!” although she didn’t know what it meant.

She was unable to make any sound leave her constricted throat and the owl gripped her shroud with her outstretched talons and pulled it from Crystal, leaving her utterly exposed to the wind. The owl flew away and the calm that had been with her at the start of the dream along with it. She fell to the ground, her voice loosened enough to allow her scream and to cry hot tears that were more blood than salt.

Crystal opened her eyes and the dimness of her apartment seemed sterile and barren compared to the roiling darkness of the denuded field. She was fevered and violently nauseous. She barely managed to roll onto her stomach before throwing up. It had been days since she had eaten anything solid and what came out should have terrified her but instead made her feel… some other way. It was red with blood and black with some substance she couldn’t identify, a doctor would later explain that what she had been seeing was her body’s efforts to cannibalize itself and that she was looking at partially digested blood.

It was dusk outside as it had been in her dream, the vomit made her feel like… she needed to go out.

For the first time since she had become ill she felt a surge of energy and a need to see… someone. The need was flighty, as hot and panicked as a bird’s heart in his breast being clutched by a cruel hand. She stood up, she was naked now, she must have taken off her nightie in her sleep. Her knees, hand and chin were covered in bloody vomit. She swayed on her feet and looked around the room as though she had awoken in an alien territory.

She walked towards the door, her steps as unsteady as a landlubber out to sea in a quickening gale. She slammed into first one wall in the hallway and then into the other as she made her erratic progress towards the door. The lock nearly defeated her but her need was great and she forced her fingers to work and managed to get into the hallway.

Later, Crystal could recall how the hallway had looked to her as though it were underwater and she remembered leaving a handprint on her neighbours door ass she struggled to keep from falling. She recalled that the handprint was red with her own blood and stood out in stark relief against the white of the door. She remembered hitting the elevator button and slumping on her feet while she waited for it to come and that she had no other thoughts except for the desperate heartbeat of the bird she held in her hand as her task to go out and find someone, anyone…

She woke up in the hospital in restraints. Her room was darkened and no light came in from under the door. She was hooked up to several i.v. stands and a heart monitor made quiet commentary on her alert condition. Her fever seemed to be doing a bit better although she still felt wrapped in the heat of the empty wheat field. Clouds obscured her memory, how had she come here? She remembered a bloody handprint…

Crystal started to shriek. She couldn’t help it, they came out of her, short and high pitched. She felt homeless, alone and was terrified by her inability to move. It filled her heart with guilt, surely unreasonable guilt.

* * * *

Doctor Campell rubbed the bridge of his nose as he wrote the report on Crystal MacKenzie. It was another mystery case with the same symptoms as the others that had been sent to the emergency room at the heart of the Old Spire District of Williamsburg. Miss MacKenzie had upped the ante with her behavior, it was sure to be in all the papers and distributed through holovision, if they were fortunate it would stay on planet, but if not…

He leaned against the back of his chair and steepled his fingers. The contagion had been reported outside of the Old Spire District after the first holo-cast had been aired. People were hysterical, that was true, but the symptoms of extreme light sensitivity and the anger and bloodlust were unmistakable.

Regular flus might seem similar but if even one of the cases that had been reported was actually the mystery virus, then it had escaped the first containment efforts. Steps were already being taken to quarantine all of Williamsburg. The military had been deployed and were surreptitiously putting up blockades and checking to make sure that there were no escape routes available through sewers or subways. Campbell’s gut told him that they were too late, that the virus had eluded them and it would soon be planetwide.

There was too little known, even exactly how it spread seemed irregular. Family members were affected, family members were NOT affected. Children were affected, children were NOT affected, co-workers were affected, co-workers were NOT affected. Patients with no known vector were affected. Crystal MacKenzie’s co-workers were being rounded up and testing attempted, but the truth was that the tests that they had were crude and as hit-and-miss as anything else about the mystery virus.

Campbell looked at the big black binder on the shelf in front of him. Emblazoned in gold on the spine were the letters GCDCQR, which stood for Galactic Centers for Disease Control Quarantine Regulations. He didn’t need to pull the binder off the shelf to know that he should be on the subether to the centre of the GAGA right now, reporting the situation on his planet. Its virulence, its mortality certainly, its irregular spread, it all meant this particular virus was a leading contender for GCDC intervention.

Which would mean fleets of Galactic Armed Forces ships cutting off all flight and hyper routes to Zealand II, and scores of doctors and soldiers in ionic Racall suits taking over the hospitals and major centres- including Campbell’s own. He would most likely be quarantined away from anything to do with the research on the plague- it was quite likely to be incubating in his bloodstream now.

He ran his fingers through his hair and let out his breath in a slow whistle. He had no idea, none of the doctors and scientists on Zealand II had any idea, how to begin to fight this thing. Call the GCDC now, a little voice told him wisely. It’s your best hope of surviving, getting them in on the vaccine and treatment- God knows you don’t have anything up your sleeve.

A combination of pride, and the shame of the infected stayed Campbell’s hand. He would most likely be dead before they got here anyway, a man whose name would be villified for tainting the name of Zealand II for generations to come by pulling the pin on this- even if the GCDC managed to find a cure as a result of his call. There was no prudence or common sense when it came to trade, and the workers who survived would despise him and his family for calling down the GAGA on their heads. Survival rates had nothing to do with it, in trade circles.

And what if they did find a cure shortly? What if, worst of all, this thing just burned itself out, a flash in the pan like that strain of blue flu that mutated in the Gamma quadrant last year?

There was also Brahmlie to think about.

Charles Brahmlie was the head of the eponymous pharmaceutical and nutrition corporation on Zealand II. He ran a business that sold supplements to people as far away as Old Earth, and in as elite of circles as Brandenburg. Brahmlie’s eye for precision was legendary, which was what made Brahmlie Nutritionals a benchmark in health, wellness, and pharmaceutical products. He had made Zealand II known throughout the galaxy as the home of the best research and development labs in the field.

If Campbell just called the GCDC and summoned them down on Zealand II, it would stymie the planet’s biggest employer. No one would want any products newly created from any facility on Zealand II after a quarantine, or even a yellow code for possible quarantine circumstance. In fact, Campbell could probably bankrupt Charles Brahmlie in one fell swoop if he got on the subether at this moment.

And did Campbell really want to bankrupt his boss? Brahmlie owned the research hospital where Campbell worked, and he had met Brahmlie on several occasions. He liked to personally view the test subjects, meet them and follow the progress of their treatment- less for the personal touch such interactions conveyed from a CEO, more out of a clinical desire to gague every aspect of the treatment. Brahmlie was not a gregarious man, nor one of those suede elbowed, jean wearing, “accessible” billionaires to which he sold his supplements. Brahmlie was a lean, imposing man with greying dirty blonde hair and a terrifyingly well-chiseled face set with a pair of blue eyes that cut like a laser scalpel with a mere glance. He had a quiet stillness about him that could at any point produce a pithy, apt assessment of an employee’s performance that could make that employee want to eat his own face with shame- or terror. No, Brahmlie was not a man anyone would want to thwart.

Campbell looked over the files of the patients he had assessed. He didn’t need to, though- this virus was a killer. It was a killer, and it was already out of control. Campbell stared at the slowly swirling hospital logo at the bottom of his screen, the logo that read C.N. Brahmlie Research Hospital. He wondered if Brahmlie had been keeping up on the situation, and what he thought about this catastrophe.

Of course he had been keeping up on it, Campbell thought. Any new plague was a potential gold mine in the pharmaceutical industry. Brahmlie’s chief competitor, Alexxorr, had been fined several billion ten years ago for engineering new colds, flus and organ attacking viruses, then marketing the pre-made vaccines and treatments first off the block, while other pharmaceutical companies were still struggling to crack the RNA. If this evil little bug killing Campbell’s patients (and his friends, and family, and him, soon enough, he thought to himself) wasn’t so terribly good at its job, it stood to make Brahmlie a mint. He would be paying attention to this.

So where was he? Campbell wondered. Probably in a negative pressure bunker somewhere with a banana bag loaded full of anti-virals. Lucky bastard.

“Dr. Campbell, we need you to prepare a briefing on your findings so far, and prepare for virtual rounds of the quarantine ward,” a polite, strained nurse informed him over the speaker system. “Mr. Brahmlie is here, and wants to meet with you in ten minutes in the boardroom.”

Campbell’s eyes widened, and he listed sideways in his chair as though struck. Think of the devil, he thought to himself, and you summon him down upon you. Damnit!

“’Kay,” he said weakly to the speaker, and reluctantly began to download files onto his holo-projector stick.

Campbell walked into the boardroom to find an entire entourage attending Charles Brahmlie. Seven people, all dressed in the dour dark business suits that bespoke Zealand II’s British financeer heritage, ringed the table, the head of which was where Brahmlie sat.

Campbell sat down across from his employer, bumping into the chair as he did. Brahmlie regarded the last arrival to the meeting with a dreadful cool detachment that was impossible for Campbell to read.

“We all understand the circumstances surrounding our meeting today,” Brahmlie intoned in a clipped, New British accent. “What we don’t have at our command is an adequate understanding of the current epidemiological situation. Dr. Richard Campbell is the head of our research hospital here, and he has come to illuminate us.”

Despite himself, Campbell’s eyebrow raised. He cleared his throat and inserted his thumb into the table’s smartscanner, bringing up his presentation and hurriedly compiled notes to the local server. The room obligingly darknened to quite literally illuminate the holographic information Campbell was about to convey. He was merely thankful that the lights no longer accentuated his dishevelled, haggard appearance, slept-in clothes and expression of profound unpreparedness.

Campbell sighed. The dim helped with the pounding headache starting up behind his eyes. He brought up a chart. It looked like a sloppy paintbrush had been jammed into the page, then smeared all over it, as the time axis crawled to the right.

“This is a graph of our local reported cases of Virus HSD-IV,” he said simply. He had no idea what these people knew from the information he had uploaded to Brahmlie Pharma’s supercomputers or not. He decided just to give the entire mess a brief overview and answer questions as best as he could.

“As you can see, the communicability rate is a steeply climbing exponential,” He clicked a button on the remote that came with the table. Blue lights started blinking, and then lavender tinted the red cases like barium glowing outward on a patient’s digestive scan. Soon the graph looked more like a huge maple leaf with lilac blooms than a proper scientific chart. “Blue is a case of clear cut, verified HSD infection. The red cases first plotted turn purple as we link it decisively to a blue case.”

From across the table, Brahmlie raised an arched eyebrow. His well-creased face remained otherwise motionless. “Highly transmissible,” he said in his deep voice.

Campbell watched him through the holo chart. “Quite,” he said simply. No point in panicking here. These executives were as immutable as stone.

The remote clicked. A loop of clips of footage began, with yellow letters scrolling around the table in a gyre for all the members to see. As the footage progressed, the sphinx-like watchers crumbled into gasps and groans. One woman put her hand to her mouth and looked away. One man exited the boardroom hastily.

“Etiology,” Campbell said flatly. “Patient presents with highly elevated temperature, 103-105, loss of apetite, profound electrolyte imbalance. Some people came to the hospital at this point, the first of the blue cases, but not many. Most just worked through the pain, as it were.”

There was a tiny, vicious part of himself with which he had long since been familiar, that enjoyed wrenching a last drop of human reactivity out of these inhuman, pill-pushing monsters. He caught Brahmlie’s eye and saw that the middle-aged man understood. Campbell paused and continued.

“Within seventy two to ninety six hours, patients become acute. Vomiting, headache and muscular aphasia occur, combined with seizures, nystagmus and psycho-aggressive behaviours.” On the holo, a montage of several patients, some covered in the telltale black coffee-ground vomitus indicative of HSD-IV, were seizing violently, their eyes unable to hold steady, then they ran at the doors of their rooms or at health care workers, teeth bared, fingers curled into tearing claws.

“The virus attacks the adrenaline glands and limbic system, while at the same time ransacking the hypothalamus and burning out the liver,” Campbell clicked the remote, and vivid images of the affected organs viewed in autopsy footage played out. He could not conceal a grin as he lost two more executives to the toilet. Across the table, Brahmlie shifted in his chair and pulled his suit jacket down in response, more in response to the loss of his weak executives than due to the imagery on the holo, Campbell suspected.

“Patients literally starve to death in fast forward, as their livers cannot metabolize glycogen or fats, and their adrenaline glands run their metabolisms wild. The super-strength and aggression witnessed in the previous footage lasts only a few hours at most- then patients begin to cannibalize their own tissues in an attempt to survive.” Campbell showed next footage of corpses emaciated beyond recognition as humans, and blood serum samples with only a handful of haggard, wizened red corpuscles inside. “The patients begin to digest their own blood specifically, sucking it in a profound reversal out of the capilaries in their digestive tracts and lungs. The waste product bloats or chokes them.”

New footage, this with vivid wet retching sounds, met with actual cries of distaste. Brahmlie deigned to utter a sharp hiss of disapproval, and nodded at Campbell to continue.

“Once a patient reaches this stage,” he said simply, switching to an image of the virus as isolated in the blood, “it would appear that between 85 to 95 percent of patients die. We have been able to reduce that rate to 68 to 70 percent with immediate acute blood transfusion to get the patients over the worst part of the infection. However, mortality doesn’t seem to lower itself past 68-69 percent in any case.”

Brahmlie sat forward in his chair. “The survivors require constant transfusions of blood product, don’t they,” he stated, clasping his hands on the table.

“Once every day or two it seems,” Campbell replied, sitting down again. He raised the lights, and winced as his headache lanced back. “One unit each meal, as it were.”

“And do the patients respond to any of our blood substitutes?” Brahmlie asked.

Campbell regarded the man evenly. Here it was, the cool interest, the detachment, Campbell thought. He thinks he could make a mint off of the victims by selling them Serum A or BrahmGlobulin.

It was with no small amount of relish that Campbell replied, “No, no they don’t, sir. They don’t seem to like it at all.”

Brahmlie slumped. It was miniscule, but it was there. “I see,” he said simply. “So the raw numbers indicate that, with extensive treatment, Zealand II will have a 68 percent population reduction, of which 5 to15 percent of survivors will have to supply the other recuperating 15 to 25 percent of the population with living blood.”

Campbell, exhausted and headachey, looked at the ceiling and did the math. “At best, sir,” he replied at length. ”The fifteen percent immunity number is being eroded drastically by violent acts on the part of the infected. We’ve treated over 500 acute injury cases since this really blossomed and over half have been beyond hope of saving. About three quarters of those brought in are immune.” Campbell sighed and turned off the projector.

“The problem with that is that the immune just don’t see it coming,” he confessed. “The natural state of a human is no longer to be in a jumped up hypervigilant readiness. Even if we were cave men still, these patients have incredible speed and strength that regular people just can’t combat. And the patients are hungry, desperately so, which gives them a certain…”

“Animal cunning,” Brahmlie suggested.

“Exactly,” Campbell said.

Brahmlie sat back in his chair and regarded the doctor for a long moment. “It would appear to me that the only thing to do would be to declare martial law, curfew and summarily arrest anyone found outside. Keep the healthy in their homes, and let the infected break the rational curfew with their own hunger. Wait and watch with the surveillance net and scoop up the infected ones.”

“I suppose,” Campbell said slowly. “We could try to send everyone to makeshift medical units, separate out the sick from the healthy.”

Brahmlie shook his head. “From the incident reports we’ve already received, it’s gone too far past that point. The only thing that would serve would be to allow the rapidly deteriorating sick to eat the healthy in line amongst them. And we can’t underestimate the tendency for people showing symptoms, or fearing infection, to keep out of the medical tents. No, this way is best- it protects the immune and gives everyone a sense of absolution from any infection they may be hiding.”

“But what do we do in time?” Campbell asked. His head was swimming. “I mean, how do we extract the immune ones, and treat the sick?”

Brahmlie steepled his fingers. “We let nature take its course, my good man.”

Campbell sat at his desk watching the patient that had been brought in just before his meeting with Brahmlie. She was a young woman, had been a waitress or some such. Seemed normal, fresh faced. He regarded her through the ion barrier window as she writhed pointlessly in bed, panting, dripping oily, bloody sweat. Two units of blood were hanging from an IV stand to her left. They wobbled as she writhed.

Brahmlie had got on the horn to GAGA headquarters, right over the head of the GCDC, and requisitioned 10 million units of blood from the sector banks. For research, he had told them calmly. Unsuspecting, the GAGA official had rubber stamped the request. That was a lot of blood in anyone’s books, but Brahmlie Pharma shipped BrahmGlobulin and Serum A off of Zealand II in five times that amount every year, so it really didn’t matter.

“The healthy can have their replacement products,” Brahmlie informed Campbell cooly as he shut off the comm unit. “Zealand II needs the real thing.”

Campbell scribbled idly on a notepad as he watched the girl. Five million inhabitants of Zealand II, being a smallish planet with first tier culture. 69 percent mortality meant around… 3 450 000 casualties. Campbell kept circling that staggering figure with his pen.

Of the remaining 1 550 000 alive, around 1 050 000 would survive to become living vampires. Because, Campbell drew eyes and fangs on some of the zeroes in the figure, let’s face it… that’s what HSD did to people. It turned them into vampires.

Of an optimistic 500 000 immune, it looked like 60-70 percent were being killed. Assuming Brahmlie’s contain and ignore policy worked, there would probably be only about 175 000 living humans left on Zealand II within the month.

Campbell scribbled a bit more. That meant each living person, assuming they were of adult age and sound body and would volunteer, would have to give six units of blood a day to feed the survivors. And GAGA guidelines specified that the most someone could give was one unit every three days.

Which meant that under ideal circumstances, Zealand II’s surviving populace could sustain only between 52 500 and 76 000 vampire coinhabitants. Which meant that a million survivors would have to be killed.

And how could they even begin to tell the GAGA that their planet’s population had turned into vampires? Would the GAGA even support them? Or would it just obliterate them all after airlifting out survivors?

About one hundred years ago, a similar plague had surfaced in another quadrant of the galaxy. No one knew how it travelled in the vacuum of space, but it appeared to be a certain kind of stellar dust or particulate that could penetrate the thin membranous layer of atmosphere on life-giving planets. Clouds of the miasma floated through the galaxy, mostly in the depths of interstellar space. If an unlucky planet full of life was in its path, there was a small but significant chance that planet’s population would begin to succumb to this spontaneous infection.

One hundred years ago, the planets in question had been linked to the GAGA by the ion drives now relegated to second tier culture standards. No hyperspace, no week long cross galactic voyages. The plague had touched a system, spread to a neighboring planet in the system, then had been quarantined. By fire. By nuclear fire. The planets were still a no-go zone.

Now, hyperspace ships left Zealand II with trade cargo once every two days. They still were leaving. People connected to the ships could be all over the quadrant in a week, could spread throughout the galaxy in six weeks. How would the GAGA handle the taint on Campbell’s planet, when they discovered it? With fire? With quarantine? Would they put an electro-cord around the quadrant and let the infected survivors eat the hapless, blood-producing victims?

On a whim, Campbell looked up the number of employees working directly for Brahmlie Pharma on Zealand II. 48 000. It looked like about half of them were married, and the associated population employed by Brahmlie was around 90 000. So that wasn’t it. At least Brahmlie wasn’t so crazy as to think his people would all survive the plague.

Campbell paused. Wait. Bad math. He adjusted. 69 percent survival of his employees left around the magic number- 52 000 Brahmlie-ling vampires.

Brahmlie was cold, Campbell thought to himself. A very cold customer. Ten million units of blood would feed all the survivors for oh what, not quite four days. And they’d be hungry after that. But ten million units would feed the 52 500 survivors for… Campbell scribbled. 38 days. Huh. That was a good start, and quite a long while really, but it wouldn’t serve well to round up all the 175 000 survivors and force them to start milking themselves of corpuscles. Campbell supposed Brahmlie could take them by force, and coerce them, but Brahmlie’s hungry goons could do that within 38 days.

The figure niggled at him. Why would that be, that Brahmlie would need such a specific figure? He could have probably requisitioned another million units without too much problem, or of course much less. The plague would have burned through the populace in three weeks, leaving lots of time for a roundup. Not to mention that the infected survivors wouldn’t have to wait until the ol’ coast was clear.

Campbell pinched the bridge of his nose. What the hell was he thinking? He was thinking, he realized, that Brahmlie was planning on going down with this thing. He was planning on letting the non-employed members of his planet die. Those that lived through the plague would be exterminated by Brahmlie himself, and the immune survivors would be forced into some sort of hideous servitude of the most brutally visceral nature.

But why 38 days?

Campbell used his ID number to enter the Brahmlie Pharma shipping and receiving site. Beyond his screen, the waitress had fallen into an uneasy slumber. Her eyes were hollow and she had lost about thirty pounds in self-cannibalization, but the blood had sated her and she looked like she might just pull through. All the better to feast on you, Campbell thought ruefully. He wished idly he could shake this headache.

He clicked over to the interplanetary arrival lading site. The blood’s ETA was ticking down nicely. There were shipments of food, raw materials Zealand II didn’t produce, and some other articles. Campbell noted that the quantities of the shipments were much, much higher than those he had usually noticed while looking for his own medications’ arrivals on the lists.

Not good, Campbell thought to himself. Brahmlie’s planning for a siege. A huge number caught his eye and he opened the window for it, his heart suddenly racing.

What the hell was that? Bos Taurus. Bos taurus. Taurus was a bull. Was that cow? Cattle? Campbell stared at the number being shipped through hyperspace to Zealand II. 20 000.

The second one he knew. Ovis aries. That was the most expensive meat in the galaxy. Sheep. 10 000 bloody sheep were being sent to Brahmlie’s private spaceport. The cost of it was astounding. Campbell was looking at maybe a billion credits’ worth of livestock warping toward him at this moment. Brahmlie only had about 10 billion dollars.

Ovibos moschatus. Campbell had to look that one up. Musk ox. Very clever, Brahmlie, he thought. Zealand II had large land masses in the north and south pole areas with climates similar to that of Norway or Siberia.

So that was how he was going to keep people alive, Campbell thought. The cattle were coming in 38 days. So were the musk oxen. Tap a few veins and there’d be lots for the million and change vampires to eat.

But ten million units- that would only keep the survivors alive for twenty of those 38 days. Campbell scribbled some more. Assuming only about 175 000 surviving immune humans, or blood bags, Campbell thought ruefully… there would be only about 1.75 million units produced in addition in twenty days, and that was with pushing output to one unit every two days. That would leave the humans pretty weak and sickly. Campbell gulped. And easy to dispose of as Brahmlie saw fit.

So. 24 days at the most before the vampires got hungry. That meant the Bos Taurii would be a fortnight’s hyperspace travel away by the time the vampires started eating their bloodsacks.

Campbell circled the figure 38-24=14. How would Brahmlie cover that gap? Why hadn’t he thought of that?

Campbell stared at the screen, and clicked over onto his email. He raised the long letter complete with data and attachments. It was a push email, and addressees included the GCDC, the GAGA and the GAF HQ. This was all too much, he thought to himself. Brahmlie was going to make his own little vampire paradise here, and who’s to say he might not just string up the surviving humans onto perma-tansfusers and load them up with Hyperheminators to make them super produce blood until they were spent and died? A perfect treat for the elite. A perfect way to kill a fortnight before the food arrived.

“As a regional Pharmaceutical supplier, I can order on my authority up to ten million units for research purposes without a GAF veto,” a deep voice clipped behind Campbell’s head. Campbell jumped, turned in his chair to see Brahmlie standing down at him. How had he snuck up on Campbell like that, he wondered? The man looked positively haggard, and Campbell told him so.

“But I suppose plotting the juice-boxing of an entire human population is tiring,” he remarked.

Brahmlie paused a moment, then pursed his lips as though drawing through a straw while he clenched his fist. “Juice boxing. I like it. Very apt.”

“Thank you,” Campbell said. He tried unsuccessfully to obfuscate both the screen with the flashing lading bills and his notepad filled with incriminating scribbles.

“No point in hiding them,” Brahmlie remarked, glancing down at the pad. “I’ve been watching over your shoulder for a bit now… watching you, and watching her.” He nodded up at the window behind Campbell’s head, where Crystal was now sleeping peacefully.

“What I don’t understand,” Campbell said provocatively, “Is how you expect to be one of the ones who lives through the plague. That’s optimistic of you. You might get it and just vomit your guts up and die.”

Brahmlie looked at Campbell, unimpressed. Campbell looked at his dark circles, the collar that was definitely swimming around his neck, his peculiar pallor and stillness.

“Awww,” Campbell smacked his hand into his head. Brahmlie nodded. “I was one of the first to be infected, sadly,” he confided to Campbell. “My shuttle was caught in the miasma just as it left the planet’s orbit. We thought we had missed it, stayed at the station an extra week… but no such luck.”

“I attribute my lack of conclusion drawing to my overworked state,” Campbell apologized, and the two men shared an oddly friendly smile.

“Not to worry, my friend,” Brahmlie told him. “I’ve been following your work on this epidemic. You were an exceptional physician, and a good scientist to boot. I’d like to keep you on as head of our new HSD positive medical research department when this is all over.”

“So you assume that I’m going to be infected, and survive, too, eh?” Campbell asked. His blood ran cold at the thought. If he was lucky, he added ruefully to himself, that’s all it would do.

“Not quite…” Brahmlie conceded. “You’ve seen the projections, Dr. Campbell. You’ve noticed that the entire population should have begun exhibiting symptoms three days ago. Hence the public service announcements being transmitted on the holos as we speak.” Brahmlie reached over Campbell’s head with an ominous incursion on his personal space. He flicked on a holo, and a droning voice began intoning quietly-

“-ninety six hours until the effects have dissipated. Upon awakening, proceed out of your house to medical stations where nourishment will be administered. Check P.D.s for locations nearest to you. If you have not begun displaying symptoms it is imperative you stay inside your homes and wait for the all clear. If you are the only member of your family to resist infection, then leave immediately for the nearest medical station so your immunity can be added to the pool of information for doctors seeking a vaccine. I repeat, this is a public service announcement to all residents-”

Campbell stood up and shut off the holo. He had heard enough.

“So you think I’m immune,” Campbell said flatly. He was oddly indignant to be singled out as uninfected. There was a completely irascible part of him that wanted to shout out that he could still get sick, you know… he could wind up like Brahmlie.

Was he afraid of being one of the remaining humans left on the planet? Of being milked dry of his blood cells while the cattle came a fortnight too late?

“What are you going to do with me?” Campbell asked weakly. “Are you going to…” he trailed off.

“Juice box you?” Brahmlie asked. He smirked. “I can’t help but notice that you were mulling over the supply gap on your notepad.”

It was Campbell’s turn to laugh. “Supply gap? I guess you could call it that.”

“I have no intention of killing the immune with Hyperheminators, Doctor,” Brahmlie told him seriously. “However, I think that you could agree that I have managed to plan for every eventuality in this rather unfortunate circumstance but this one gap.”

Campbell nodded. He felt like prey.

“You can see that from the lading bills, I do not intend to keep you and the others like you as blood producers. I want the infected and the immune to live comfortably together.”

Two shadows loomed in the hallway behind Brahmlie’s back. Guards. Campbell looked at Brahmlie, fear unrepentantly emblazoned on his face.

“I don’t think that anyone would argue with the idea that a citizen must have to make sacrifices in times of dire planetary need,” Brahmlie told the terrified doctor. Campbell collapsed into his chair. “You must be aware, Doctor Campbell, that Hyperheminators can be used at full capacity for up to two weeks before irreperable damage to the human organism occurs.”

“Two weeks,” Campbell breathed. “I see.”

“We will take the best care of you all, I assure you,” Brahmlie said earnestly. It seemed to Campbell that Charles Brahmlie was very serious about this idea he had in his mind, the sanctity of his blood sacks. Yet, if the hyperspace transports were delayed, or if something else happened, would necessity dictate Brahmlie first push the two week limit, then push it again… to the death of every last immune human on Zealand II?

“I have no desire to destroy you, or bleed you dry,” he continued. “It’s a two week sacrifice for your fellowmen… a sacrifice which we will be eternally grateful. I can only promise that Brahmlie Pharma will take the best medical care of you, and the best care of you all in the future.”

“And you expect me to trust you about that,” Campbell remarked. The guards entered the room and stood silently by the doorjamb. They both looked wan and rather oddly hungry. Campbell gulped.

“All right,” Campbell said simply. “What choice do I have?” he leaned back in his chair and clicked the send button on his email.

Brahmlie, so involved in his fantastical philanthropic offer to Campbell, failed to notice the tiny click of the keyboard. Campbell stretched, stared at Brahmlie another moment. He rose from his chair.

“I guess I’ll see you in a couple of weeks, Mr. Brahmlie,” he said, and held out his hand.

Brahmlie, absurdly touched by the cross-communication, shook Campbell’s hand warmly. His eyes were shining, and remarkably kind for a blood-sucking vampire, Campbell thought.

It almost made him feel regret for the message he had sent. Almost.

The Last Living Performance of Dom Donovan

A Story of the Trio

by

Anthony Stark

It was a quarter of four in the morning on planet time.

Dom Donovan tossed in his bed, perched at the top of the Empire Pan-Galactic Resort, and waited for the dawn. Outside, the nightly winds that scoured the surface of Parstak IV clawed dust and grit against the holowalls of the suite. Their blackout privacy screens blotted out all the light from Parstak IV’s two moons, and also the swirling kaleidescope of saffron colored sands that would rage against the highrise until the dawn calmed the storms.

It was a desolate planet, and Dom was only on it for two reasons- the concert he had given the night before, and the one he was to give tonight. Parstak IV was a system hub for a region of twelve packed planets- despite its dreadful cyclic diurnal cyclones, it was the largest and most centrally located orb in the mess. It had been settled and tamed to a degree where it was home to almost a billion people who shunted trillions of dollars of trade goods and resources into the rest of the GAGA.

Its lower middle class inhabitants were the primary market for Dom’s most lucrative product- galactic sex-rock. He had given the first of the two Parstak concerts in the Hyperdome, a massive arena seating half a million people, laden with floating holo screens and the latest in quantum stereo sound systems that had to be synced with dampeners to ensure that the entire crowd wasn’t deafened and blinded by the escalating feedback of the twenty one identical holo-versions of the pop star beamed at them.

It was a massive feat of computing for the sound engineers to set up the right angles and sound levels for the broadcasts, and Dom had to adjust his usual choreography to ensure the holo-eyes wouldn’t pick up footage that would refract painfully across the Sky Pilotence’s visual array. He had arrived three days early to adjust the footwork for the engineers, itself not an unusual feat as many of the giant arenas had particularities of broadcast similar to this Hyperdome. But Dom had spent an extra week in isolation after his last venue on the Donovan Pan-Galactic tour, a period of limbo that was worse than the stint he had done in GAGA prison for indecent acts committed in public three years ago.

The worry was the worst part, and as Dominic tossed on the thick penthouse sheets, he supposed the worry of the medical isolation was still haunting him.

A sudden flash of the Galactic Centers for Disease Control isolation room in which he had been stowed with delicate yet irrefutable reverence flashed across his mind. The nurses, whose gushing had been palpable even through the protective barrier of their shimmering solid ion barrier suits, had stilled as they walked him down the long, sterile white hallway to the room where he would discover if he was to live or die.

“Here you go, Mr. Donovan,” the one nurse, the younger one, hot pink haired with holes for piercings in her lip and ear, ushered him into the starkly apportioned hospital room. She gazed with that same telltale longing at his large, watchful brown eyes, then had to avert her own. She turned and left the room, but not before Dom saw tears spilling down her cheeks. He watched the ion barrier suit shimmer its way down the hall and through the negative pressure airlock.

Dom went and sat down on the bed, his hands folded quietly in his lap. The small young man looked even smaller and younger in the middle of this white wasteland, with his cuffs unbound and his jacket hung around his shoulders. He gazed evenly at the remaining nurse.

She was older, but still hip enough to have sung along with one of the choruses of his pop hits with the other nurse. Her hair was shot with grey she didn’t bother to dye, and her eyes had crows’ feet she hadn’t thought to have eradicated.

“If you need anything, Mr. Donovan, just speak it,” she pointed with her gloved hand at the small blinking light in the ceiling. “You’re on camera.”

He glanced at the recording unit. “Thank you, Rebecca,” he told her kindly. “If there are pyjamas of any kind… I think I’d just like to have a rest.”

He was aware from his reflection as he passed the rows of double glazed windows that he looked tired, with darker circles than usual under his eyes, and a pale cast to his usually heavily tanned complexion. Surely being awoken in his hotel room following a concert and seized summarily by the GCDC, being told he had been in an arena with people who were infected with the HSD virus, being spirited away to the GCDC’s most heavily secured facility…surely this was enough to make even the sexiest of pop stars a little off his game, wasn’t it?

Surely.

The scratchy throat was merely from the hard singing he had done the night before- he had had sore throats often from performances. And the transport was cloying, small and lacking in air circulation, so he most likely didn’t have a fever. Coincidences the mind drew together after being indoctrinated over the past four months about early symptoms of the Hemoglobin Serum Deficiency virus which was spreading like wildfire through three different areas of the galaxy, one of which was admittedly this sector in which Dom was performing, but-

“There are pyjamas and hospital gowns, robes, towels and slippers in the cupboard over there, Mr. Donovan,” Rebecca said kindly.

Dom watched her for a long moment. She was a mature woman, a nurse who had no doubt spent most of her career working for the GCDC. She knew her job, knew its costs, and the particular straight posture, the veil of distance over her eyes, the thin set to her lips told Dom that here was a woman who knew when to withdraw in order to keep her sanity, in order to keep her paycheck.

He swallowed. His throat was definitely a bit swollen. “Thank you,” he replied, and stared at her vaguely, brow slightly creased as though he had a question to ask but had forgotten it.

How do you know I am going to die? He thought at her. Rebecca turned on her heel and left. The airlocked door snicked closed and the pressure in Dom’s ears changed painfully, which were sore he knew from more than just the pounding decibels of his music.

A shudder flew through him. He stared off into space, feeling his body. Something was off. Something that was unlike any other malady he had known was roving through him, searching for purchase. He felt still as a deer in headlights, small like when he was a young boy at Bluestone, lying in the alien dark. This dark replicating in his cells was bigger and more complete than any that had frightened him in his youth.

Dom rose, and went to the cupboard. There was a tiny closet inside, and he took off his blazer, reached for a hanger to put it away.

“If you don’t mind, Mr. Donovan, emptying your jacket pockets and placing it along with your other clothes into the drawer to your right,” a polite, apologetic voice stated from above. Dom glanced up at the red light, hanger in one hand, blazer in the other, then he glanced at the drawer. Less a drawer, more an incinerator door, he could tell. Very low key, very respectful. Lord Agni was to be his concierge for his stay with the GCDC.

Dom smiled vaguely, nodded. He stripped underneath the light, leaving his naked self exposed to the cameras. Let them record his final shocking performance. There was no point in feigning modesty here, and now- the double feature holo picture StarLight he had co-starred in last year had stripped away any reasons for shyness ever again. He placed his clothes, folded neatly, into the receptacle, shoes on top and most reluctantly. He loved those shoes, handmade calfskin from old Earth. He shut the drawer and turned the locking mechanism, heard his old life sucked away to a laser fire down some stainless steel pipe. He said a short prayer to Lord Agni, more of an apology for the shoes than anything else. He turned to the closet to put on his plain blue polycloth pyjamas.

How mortifying to die in these, Dom thought ruefully to himself, and uttered a small laugh. He could feel the watchers regard him quizzically, imagined the red light above his head cock itself to one side in a mute question.

Dom climbed into bed, which was firm and rough and coated in polyurethane under the thin sheets. The GCDC knew its symptoms well. If he had contracted HSD, he had a 78% likelihood of shitting and pissing and vomiting himself violently to death while his platelets broke down and oozed out his pores in agonizing liquefaction. God knew he wouldn’t want to inconvenience these fine doctors looking after him by ruining one of their mattresses.

“What’s on the schedule?” he asked the air from his seat in bed.

There was a brief pause, then: “At fourteen hundred hours, Dr. Sutherland will be in to examine you and discuss your situation, Mr. Donovan.”

Dom cocked his head to one side wryly. “That’s six and a half hours from now,” the voice clarified.

“I see,” he replied. “I think I will get a bit of rest between now and then.” Better than sitting here for six hours slowly relishing each of my symptoms, he thought. If I am going to die, I think I want to sleep or be drugged through this last- clinging desperately seems painful and pointless.

The lights obligingly dimmed to the customary 10% that signified secure slumber.


“Rest well, Mr. Donovan,” the voice said. After a pause, it added, “And Mr. Donovan?”

Dom raised his head quizzically. “Yes?”

“I loved your last album. Awesome.”

Dom smiled, and winked at the camera. “Thank you very much,” he replied. He laughed again, a quiet, spirited chuckle. He lowered his head to the pillow, feeling decidedly dizzy. He shamelessly enjoyed how much the compliment raised his spirits, and fell almost immediately asleep.

That had been a week ago, and miraculously Dr. Sutherland had appeared in six and a half hours without ion barrier suit or even a mask, pleased to report to Dominic Donovan, beloved pop idol, that he had a case of the Rigelian flu. They pumped vitamins and antigens into an i.v. and the next day he was feeling good as new, waving happily to the crowds of reporters that mobbed the heli-exit of the GCDC complex.

He had done another show on Lilith II, the giant space resort complex halfway between his last concert and Parstak IV as the hyperdrive flies. The press was touting him as proof the HSD epidemic was overblown. Wrought news agency was using it as a trumped up way to initiate an offensive against the terrorists whose fundamentalist elements had, Wrought News believed, released the long-dormant disease in the Galactic Home Sector for jihadist reasons. Having a mega-popular rock star brush with the virus and live was the feel good story of the year, and all the clips of the dead, the dying and the symptomatic ghoulish sick people were trumped by Dom’s smiling face and sound bites about how much he missed his shoes but gave them up anyway.

His publicist back on Brandenburg had already been deluged with over thirty thousand pairs of leather oxfords, which Dom had instructed be shipped off to disadvantaged planets in the nearby star cluster. His popularity skyrocketed, and sales on his new single were through the roof- througher than before.

The fact that, when they landed on Parstak IV, the desert light made Dominic wince was purely because of the contrast to the pale space light on the shuttle. The fact he had developed a minor skin burn was no doubt due to the caustic dust in the winds on the planet. His queasiness at eating anything but the rare steaks and lamb medallions he had instructed his cook to make was…troubling.

But, the GCDC had cleared his blood themselves, hadn’t they? They were the final word on infectious disease- Dom couldn’t have done better if God Himself had cleared his bloodwork, as Verily would have said. Coincidences all.

Then his roadie Alfa attacked him yesterday.

The whole troupe had been isolated by the GCDC, tested thoroughly. Two people on the lighting crew had been exposed, and had been left behind at the facility, but everyone else was clear- including Alfa, the large black man who personally carried all of Dom’s guitars about.

But Alfa had got ill during the trip, had slept and vomited and hidden himself away in his room. In the dark. Yet nobody wanted to say anything about it, not to each other, least of all report it. They were in hyperspace anyway, and would have to drop out of it to send a proper alert. Dom and his entourage padded sombrely past Alfa’s door, their worried glances at each other betraying the distinct possibility they might have abruptly fallen into a space slasher movie.

Alfa seemed to recover himself the last day, and even his pigment had returned to inky black from its previous pale blueish hue. They had shrugged it off, and Dom had gone to do a press conference with Parstak IV’s newsagents while the crew got to work on the Hyperdome. Dom arrived in a limo to the facility, and Gwendolym met him instead of Alfa at the loading bay.

They exchanged a look when he emerged from the vehicle and wordlessly she led him at brisk pace through the tunnels of the Dome to the staging area.

As they approached, Dom heard the roar.

Alfa was as big a man as Dom was compact, and Dom recognized the vocal chords from that huge chest cavity behind even that unholy noise.

“It’s bad,” Gwendolym advised her boss, and held the curtain of the wings back.

Alfa was roaming the stage with the remains of one of Dominic’s electric guitars, swinging the neck violently back and forth. One of the other roadies was in a heap on the stage, clearly and evisceratingly dead at the neck and shoulder.

“Maybe I can calm him down enough to let security stun him,” Dom suggested.

“It’s too dangerous!” Gwendolym bemoaned, and gripped Dom’s sleeve. “We are so fucked,” she added, glancing at the hulking, sweating, befanged fellow worker screaming on the stage.

“Get security to go round stage right,” Dom ordered his underling, and quietly walked out onto the stage.

Two of the grips had been standing guard in front of Dom’s dancers, and they slumped visibly with relief as they saw the star approach. Alfa seemed lost in a fugue of movement, enjoying the feel of flinging the guitar neck around at full speed. He was howling incoherent curses around the large yellow canine teeth that were protruding from his upper jaw. Dom stood still a third of the way onto the Hyperdome stage, watching the afflicted man. His huge arms bulged with the effort of his swings, and his neck tendons were glossy with the blood of the murdered roadie.

In 25% of cases, the victim of HSDV would become a carrier of the disease, coming to an uneasy truce with the virus in the body and living through the initial infection. The sufferer became chronically deficient in blood and adrenal hormones, and required human replacements. Dominic had heard that, on some of the quarantined planets, the sufferers had reached also an uneasy truce with their immune or uninfected human counterparts- blood was farmed, and adrenaline injected into it through carefully orchestrated, artificial inducements.

It was patently obvious that Alfa was not currently amenable to such urbane arrangements. From this vantage point on the stage, Dom could see the terrified rictus of the roadie. Alfa had purposefully induced as much fear on his co-worker as he could stand to before draining him of most of his blood with potent new fangs. The pageant with the guitar neck was obviously designed to tenderize the adrenaline glands of the other humans in biting distance. Dom watched Alfa lunge first at the one set of dancers, then at the lighting crew. The black man’s eyes were cogent, if somewhat livid with fevered enjoyment.

There was something about his display that Dominic could understand. In its primacy, in its fury, it was not entirely unlike the gyrations Dom himself so carefully coreographed for galactic consumption. The honesty of Alfa’s requirements, while abhorrent, were certainly worthy of a certain kind of respect. After all, Dom thought, as he took another step, and another nonchalantly closer to the freshly turned vampire, he had needs just like any other being…

Behind Alfa, Dom noticed the yellow flash of a security vest, then a second, then a third. Dom nodded across the stage at their huddled forms, then walked a few paces more, this time directly toward Alfa’s horrific dance.

The vampire stopped, musical club raised high above his head in one huge hand. His eyes were glistening with hunger and rage, and they locked in terrifying fleetness on Dom.

The pop star gulped. With some small effort, he managed to hold the giant monster’s gaze. Remember, Dom told himself, this is your friend, not a monster.

“Alfa,” Dom intoned. “That’s my guitar.”

There were a few gasps and a choked sob from the onlookers. Dom ignored these and walked a step closer to Alfa, but no more. The two stood regarding each other a moment, and the arena held its breath.

Alfa lowered his immense arm and looked at the sliver of wood in his hand. He glanced up, eyes clearing, at Dominic.

“Awww, Dom, sir, I’m sorry,” he said with some small effort around the drying blood on his mouth and the fangs inside it.

“That’s all right,” Dom replied calmly. “But we have work to do now, Alfa.”

Alfa paused. His stillness was no longer human but that of a predator in the forest. Dom held his breath, waiting. Behind their tableau, the security guards approached soundlessly, stun guns trained on the errant roadie.

“Yessir,” Alfa nodded, slowly, eyes swimming with conflict between blood and loyalty. He lowered the guitar neck further. Dom exhaled slowly as the guards closed in.

Alfa froze, and lifted his head, nostrils flaring at the scent of Dom’s breath as it headed his way. The light of reason left Alfa’s eyes and he grinned horribly at Dom, making a sound between that of a hissing cobra and a roaring tiger. He took off like a shot, like a demon, right for the singer.

Dom watched as the stun gun blasts seared the stage where Alfa had just stood.

The giant vampire barreled toward him, arms outstretched in a grotesque parody of the bear hugs Alfa usually gave Dom when they met at the start of their tours. Dom let out a reflexive shout, raised his arms defensively.

“Don’t shoot! You could hit Dom!” Gwendolym wisely cried.

The stun gun blasts were set to their highest setting, SOP for HSDV victims, and they would have cooked Dom’s nervous system entirely had the guards hit him. Dom understood why his tour manager had said it, but at the same time in the split second before Alfa connected with him, Dom couldn’t help but wish that something could have been done to save his life.

And then Alfa was upon him, knocking the wind out of Dom utterly and sliding his back across the stage in a burning smear that ripped his shirt and made Dom scream in sudden agony. His back tore with that raw plasma wound sensation while in front of him, Alfa’s massive skull, clothed in glossy ebony silk, bobbed with demonic swiftness toward Dom’s face and neck. The adrenaline in his system had given his arms a few moments’ strength to hold Alfa’s giant torso slightly away, but his muscles were already weakening, locked elbows trembling. His forearms, pressed up against Alfa’s massive slablike pectorals, were barely longer than one of them. He was no match for this mass of tearing teeth and writhing flesh.

Around him, from an immense distance, Dom heard first footsteps, then shouting. Calls of Get him off of him! And Shoot him! I can’t! Don’t, you’ll kill Dom if you do! Echoed hollowly through his ears. Saliva dripped on Dominic’s face from Alfa’s desperate, gaping mouth.

And suddenly, as quickly as Alfa had set upon him, he stopped.

Everyone around Dominic stopped along with him. They made an absurd tableau on the Hyperdome stage, Dom squished beneath this massive black man in an indecent posture, his tiny arms raised against his attacker, the security guards, becostumed dancers, grungy grips and Gwendolym all ringing the vampire and his prey. Nobody moved. No one hardly dared breathe.

Alfa moved first. He bent low, nose to nose with his employer, and sniffed him like a dog smells a scent. He ran his nose a hairsbreadth above Dom’s quivering flesh up to his hairline, down his chin and neck, hovering over his pounding brachial artery.

Alfa raised his skull and looked Dominic in the eye. Dom regarded him back for a long moment.

Then a grip wisely poked Alfa savagely with a boom handle, and the security guards gave Alfa the full brunt of their stun guns. Dom wriggled away quickly on his burned shoulder blades and thighs, pulling himself backward toward Gwendolym with his elbows. Two stage hands and his tour manager helped him shakily to his feet.

Gwendolym grabbed him a towel and some sanitizer. Dom swabbed at his face and applied the cool gel, then scrubbed some more.

“That was a close one,” Gwendolym breathed, her large lavender eyes staring thankfully at her meal ticket’s unblemished corpus.

Dom nodded, glanced back at the smoking heap of flesh that was the stunned Alfa.

“Quite,” he responded. He looked at Gwendolym. She was staring at Dom, too hard, to searchingly, a half-asked question this time on her lips.

“How do we deal with Arthur’s death?” Dom artfully directed Gwendolym’s attentions back to her work before any points could be raised.

Her eyes clarified, and she turned to the corpse on the stage. “Right. You’re absolutely right, Dom. We’ve got to get this settled and get ready for the show!”

She marched off in her officious way, barking orders at crew and guard alike. Dom leaned against a woofer, towel in hand, watching carefully.

A couple of the roadies gave Dominic a sideways glance, but mostly everyone was so eager to clean up the horrific scene that had bloomed before them no one had time to think… or desire to draw conclusions.

The concert had been a grand success, met with roaring approval by the packed Hyperdome stadium. Dom had recovered himself nicely for the evening performance and had danced and gyrated and belted out as well as he ever had done. Afterward, he barely noticed the way his body simply glowed with feverish heat, or the way the fresh fruit and vegetables he usually devoured after a show held little interest for him. He was congratulated excessively by his crew and managers and retired to his hotel while the nighttime winds howled around his limousine.

The next day dawned and the automatic scrubbers were effortlessly sliding the caked dust and sand off the penthouse windows. Dom awoke to their silent rubbery scritchings to find himself wrapped restlessly in sodden sheets. He untangled limbs that felt burned and torn from overexertion, and let out a gasp of pain as he padded across the sunlit shag carpet. He wasn’t awake enough to notice that he moved instinctively out of the sunbeams as he made his way to the bathroom.

He relieved himself, swaying slightly. He couldn’t possibly have contracted HSD. Dom ran the doctor’s report over and over in his mind like it was a mantra. Blood panel clean. Blood panel- clean.

Then why had Alfa paused in his annihilation? Dom asked himself, staring at the tiles behind the toilet. Dom was about to be a juice box for Alfa’s appetite… and then he stopped. The giant, ravenous black vampire just stopped in his tracks.

Dom washed his hands, then his face. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. He looked rough. Very rough. Dark circles augmented the bags around his eyes. His olive skin was undertoned with a wan pallor that made his ample five o clock shadow stand in harsh relief on his face and neck. His dark eyes looked positively black in his head, and were shimmering with a feverish light. Dom squinted at himself dubiously. He had partied much, much harder than he had last night and never looked like this. He was still dripping with sweat, and as he held his hands before his eyes, he could see them shake.

He climbed in the shower and let the water run on his back and neck. It felt like bliss. His eyeballs were pounding with his pulse. He felt positively starving, but the idea of the fruit spread out on his penthouse island was repugnant to him. Dominic wiped water out of his eyes.

Blood panel clean, though.

When Alfa succumbed to the disease, he was sick for days beforehand. Vomiting and febrility, extreme light sensitivity not just to star emanation but any photon generation source. Dom had just spent two and a half hours gyrating and running and belting out lyrics at the top of his lungs while being bombarded by hundreds of photon generation sources. And he had done that three times since the GCDC had cleared him. There was no way Alfa could have been exposed to the lights on stage and maintained any semblance of normalcy.

Perhaps this was another flu, or some other bug… Brahma knew there were plenty of exotic space bugs out there to come down with. Dom emerged from the shower feeling scourged but somewhat refreshed. He looked at himself in the mirror again. Honestly, would he be worried about the gravity of his symptoms if there weren’t this HSD scare… if Alfa hadn’t come down with it?

No, he told himself honestly. He didn’t feel that bad, really. And he had felt much worse when he got that blue flu infection last summer. He didn’t need to keep worrying about his condition- there was no way he could have done his show if he had even the first edges of that damn vampireosis.

He raised his jaw, ran his thumb over his cheek.

“I’ll tell you what you do need,” he advised his mirror. Dominic took out his antique hand razor and soap and began to clean himself up for the day.

Halfway through his shave, the room entry chime sounded.

“Who is it?” Dom asked. The shave was helping him to feel more spry again, and the possibility of having to interact with other humans no longer seemed an insurrmountable obstacle.

“It’s Gwendolym, Dom,” her voice was transmitted through the hidden speakers in the room with digital precision.

“Access granted,” he advised the automated room. The main door slid back and Dom heard footsteps pad across the floor, then pause.

“I’m in here, Gwendolym,” he called, rinsing his razor.

His stage manager appeared in the doorway, tile in hand. “Morning, Dom,” she smiled at him, but he could see the edges of concern in her eyes. She stood looking at him appraisingly, and Dom was abruptly self-consciously aware that his pallor hadn’t recovered itself as much as he had thought for his shower.

Dom turned his head to face her as he shaved that side of his face. “Good morning,” he replied jauntily. “How is the post-show report?”

Gwendolym glanced down at her tile. “Really, really good, Dom,” she told him. “Hyperspace buzz is at 92 percent extreme positive, local chatter is all bonum, plus you’re the top story on all four news networks in the system. Localized sales of the new album have quadrupled since we touched down.”

Dom smiled, satisfied, and cleaned up his upper lip. “Excellent,” he remarked. “It was a good show, after all the ruckus. How did it holo, Gwendolym?”

She shook her head. “I personally haven’t seen the playback, but Rucky said sound and light levels were excellent on the rough cut.”

Dom nodded, and stripped his waist towel to wipe down his face. “Great, schedule a peek at it before tonight’s rehearsal.”

Despite herself, Gwendolym’s eyes flicked down Dom’s body. “There’s time over dinner, if you like,” she told him, having a hard time focusing on her boss’s face once more.

“Sounds good,” he said, and smiled a bit at her flushed cheeks. He turned and tossed the towel in the shower. “Still gets to you, does it… after all this time, that’s sweet.”

Gwendolym’s chest was moving in shallow breaths, and her eyes flicked up to his and away quickly. Her hand raised to her hair. “It’s just that… I wasn’t expecting that to happen- first thing in the morning…”

Dominic moved to pass her where she stood in the doorway of the bathroom. “When else am I going to be naked, if not first thing in the morning? This sector doesn’t allow full frontal for public appearances, Gwendolym.”

She moved obligingly to the side, eyes still averted. Dom held his breath with sudden expectation as he entered her aura. He felt himself begin to salivate, and the sweat that was already beginning to stand out on his body abruptly ceased its production. His arms felt suddenly liquid, as though he were just cresting into the Zone of combat in a ring… he must be flushed with adrenaline. He felt his prodigious sex appeal revv itself as he approached his manager. A little smile crossed his face.

Gwendolym’s eyes raised to his, and she gasped. The hand with the tile lowered and her shoulders slumped. She leaned against the door jamb. Dom squeezed through the door, inches from her. Eyes locked, he paused, licked his lips. It might have been his imagination, but he swore he could hear her pulse, a strong, escalated muted drum beat that made him, made him want to-

“Anything pressing before lunch?” he asked her.

Gwendolym, eyes huge, gulped. “Clear schedule, Dom,” she blurted out.

Dominic smiled at her, and his eyes crinkled. A tiny whimper escaped Gwendolym’s lips. In an instant, faster than Dom could remember having moved, he had swept her into his arms and buried his face in her neck, kissing, nipping at her.

She was completely yielding to him, hands running up and down his back, hips pressed against his naked body, eyes closed in bliss. Dom carried her to his bed, and stripped her skirt off her hurriedly. Gwendolym’s head was rolling in ecstasy on the sheets, her lips parted in a smile.

It’s been so long, Dommie,” she whispered. “Farquar VIII, last year…”

Too long,” Dom intoned, removing her panties and unbuttoning her shirt with practiced ease. “How I want you right now, Gwendolym.”

Gwendolym smiled broadly, and her hands ran up and down his chest, then migrated lower. “Oh, Dommie…”

Dom was upon her, and he buried his face once more in the crook of her neck. He buried the rest of him in her and, as she raised her hips to meet him fully, he drew her delicate flesh between his teeth with strong suction.

Their encounter was fervent, vibrant and long lasting. Dominic lost himself in a fugue of lovemaking, Gwendolym’s screams punctuating his efforts. He lay on his back beside her, and her hand ran idly up and down his torso. She was moaning with exhausted delight, and writhing slightly.

Oh my sweet Jesus,” she said hoarsely. “That was better than Farquar VIII, Dom, and I didn’t believe anything could have beaten that. Holy shit.”

Dom smiled quietly. He did enjoy the accolades of a job well done. “It was rather marvelous, Gwendolym… repression suits you.”

Her hand smacked him playfully across the face. “Watch it, bub,” she warned, and rolled over to prop herself up over him.

Dom’s eyes grew wide as he looked at her.

What?” she asked, brow furrowing. “What is it?”

Dom’s hand went to her neck, her chin, her shoulders. He looked at her, coy and guilty. “I think I may have…gone a bit overboard, Gwendolym.”

Your hickies?”she asked, fingertips following his. “Do I need a scarf?”

She rose and walked to the mirror in the main room. Dom put his head back on the bed and closed his eyes, wincing as he heard her exclamation.

What the hell, Dominic?” she exclaimed, turning around with hands outstretched. “I look like a fucking leopard!!”

Dom laughed in spite of himself, and sat up. “You rather do, actually,” he couldn’t help but say. He felt a world better than he had upon awakening, the feigned jauntiness replaced with real. He grinned at her. “That’s a fabulous similie, Gwendolym.”

She stomped her foot and put her hands on her hips. “Thanks. Thanks for the literary critique, Dom. How the hell am I going to hide these?” she pointed at the dozens of livid purple black bruises dotting the flesh of her upper torso. “A turtleneck isn’t going to cut it, bozo.”

Dom laughed and rose. He poured two drinks, offered his manager one. She took it, glaring at him ruefully.

I’m really not sure,” he told her. “Perhaps blatant unrepentance is best.”

I look like I was eaten by a vacuum cleaner,” Gwendolym sighed.

Well, how about a shower, manager?” he asked, kissing her cheek. Despite her irritation, Gwendolym sighed and her eyes closed a degree.

Thank you, Charmer,” Gwendolym smirked as she called Dom by his second album’s title. A flash of the iconic cover crossed her vision, and she grinned. She had been in final year business school when that had come out, and had never ever dreamed the space hunk whose Charmer poster had been on her dorm room wall would have become her boss… and the reason her knees were quivering this morning.

Dom smiled, and sauntered off to the bathroom. He glanced at himself in the mirror on his way by. The physical exertion had brought color into his cheeks and restored his healthy olive complexion. He looked positively glowing, as a matter of fact.

Let’s have that press conference in the atrium this afternoon, rather than this evening,” he called. “I want to cash in on this post-coital glow.”

Got it, Dom,” Gwendolym laughed. “I’ll set that up now, for a couple hours hence.”

The Galactic News media played and replayed Dominic Donovan’s press conference from the Empire Pan-Galactic Resort on Parstak 4, with commentators gushing about his effusive charm and effortless style. Did Dom have a new girlfriend in his life, one who had miraculously escaped the paparazzi’s attention? Was he on some new drug, or health treatment, to account for the magnetic attention the broadcast received?

No one knew, but between his publicity house’s existing media promotions and this latest spot on interview, it was thought that between 40-60 percent of galactic holovisions were going to be tuned in for the final performance at the Hyperdome on Parstak IV- the second biggest viewer turnout in recent memory.

Dom had felt impeccable all that afternoon and into the evening, but the exertions of the dress rehearsal early that evening had left him feeling washed out and a little vague. He picked at the meal he shared with dignitaries at the banquet room, and excused himself several times to wipe a growing cold sweat off of himself.

He let out a long, reedy breath between pursed lips as he stared at himself in the banquet room mirror. Maybe it was the dreadful above the mirror lighting, but Dom thought he looked pale again. His eyes were certainly hollow looking, his irises still very dark and sheeny, his dark circles coming back with a vengeance.

Don’t fucking do this to me tonight,” he advised, pleaded with his reflection. “Not tonight, with all this.”

He stared back at himself, unrepentant in his haggardness. There was a persistent quiver in his limbs, as though he had swallowed a high powered vibrator. His arms feel wooden, his legs stiff. How in hell was he going to do his performance when he barely felt like moving at all?

Dom returned to the dinner, smiling as best as he was able. No one save Gwendolym, who had wisely decided on a fetching peacock styled body paint to cover his ravages, could tell he was off. But Gwendolym watched Dom as he responded to the animated questions of his dinner companions, and her eyes darkened with concern.

After another twenty minutes, Gwendolym rose. “I’m sorry, everyone,” she apologized, “but Dominic has to go get ready for his show.”

Of course,” the president of the single country on Parstak 4 nodded. “I do hope we haven’t kept you too long, Mr. Donovan.”

Grateful for the exit, Dom smiled more warmly as he stood from the table. “No, not at all, Mr. President,” he told him, totally unable to remember the man’s name. “But thank goodness for my stage manager, keeping me in line.”

The table laughed merrily, and Dom shook a couple of hands, kissed a few ladies’ cheeks, and made his escape. Gwendolym walked him briskly to the elevators, and glanced at her charge severely.

Dom looked sidelong at her, breathing shallowly.

What’s going on?” she asked in low tones.

The doors opened, and they entered. Dom slumped against the mirrored wall as the elevator started its run. “I don’t know, Gwendolym… nothing serious. Perhaps just a bit of overexcitement.”

They exchanged a glance. “Bullshit,” Gwendolym replied.

Dom looked heavenward, nodded in agreement. “I’ll survive,” he told her as the doors opened to the penthouse floor. She stood motionless, staring at him.

I’ll survive,” he repeated emphatically. As if to prove his point, Dom stood up straight and left the elevator in one smooth motion. Gwendolym followed him as the doors swept shut.

Do you need anything, Dom?” she asked, touching his arm.

He smiled down at the contact, which Gwendolym normally studiously avoided for professional reasons.

No, dear,” he told her, fingertips touching hers. He could feel the pulse in her fingers, and the imagined sound of her heartbeat rose in his ears once more. He pressed her fingers into his arm, relishing the feel of her pulse.

Gwendolym stood stock still, not daring to breathe. She regarded Dominic with huge eyes.

I’ll be allright, I promise,” he nodded at her. “I’ll see you onstage in an hour.”

Do you want me to get someone to come get you?” she asked as they walked to his door.

Dom shook his head. “I can make it, I’m sure,” he said simply. “I’ll just freshen up, I’m sure I’ll feel a bit better for that.”

He kissed her blithely on the cheek before entering his penthouse, lips lingering over the flesh a long moment. Dom started to salivate again. He smiled at her, the bravest, best smile he could muster, and entered the suite.

It had been completely restored by the maid service. Dom turned on the mood lighting, and poured himself another whisky. He stood at the floor length windows and watched the sun sink behind the tall, jagged red mountains. Already in the shady hollows of the range, he could see little dust devils swirl to life.

He watched them a long moment. They looked the way his blood felt. Deep and swirling, malevolent and uncontrolled. Dom felt as though his body were spinning in dozens of different directions at once, and slowly rising in intensity to a crescendo… of what, he didn’t comprehend.

He caught his reflection in the window, a hollow eyed, pallid spectre. He admonished himself with a glance, finished his drink, and began to get ready for his show.

The hyperdome was packed to the gills with spectators as the hour for the performance neared. Dom had recovered himself slightly with a dose of Xcitement, a designer stimulant and euphoric. He was dressed in his first outfit, a close-fitting black suit with crisp white shirt and black tie. The set started with his treatment of an old standard, followed by his crossover hit “Need to Love You” and by the end of it, Dom would have pressed the activator on the foldaway garment so that it melted itself into his racier lat-rock outfit for songs from his third album. The foldaway suit was binding from the magnetic seams built into the garment, and restricted his languid movements. He stood in a ring of silence by the wing of the stage where he had entered the day before to dissuade Alfa from his rampage.

You ready for this, tiger?” Gwendolym asked, coming up on Dom from behind. Always prone to starting when surprised, Dom twitched even more.

Hm? Oh, yes, yes, Gwendolym. I’m ready.”

Gwendolym cued the mood music that signalled to the Sky Pilotence to settle and prepare for the show. Its classic melodies and strong horn presence ricocheted perfectly around the Hyperdome. Dominic reached up to his upper jaw and tapped it three times, signalling his ear implants to adjust to the concert setting. The music, while still intense and full, ceased to be as dire in his tympanae, allowing him to sing with relaxed verve instead of the strident shouting that marked old large venue performances of his forebears.

He glanced over at his stage manager and smiled. He felt very quivery, and a little chill with fever. Gwendolym searched his face but, finding no concrete reason to call the huge concert and broadcast off, patted her charge on the back instead.

The music faded, and expectant silence settled on the crowd.

Dom breathed in calmly and walked with easy step out to his mark on the middle of the stage. Behind him, the four piece band was rising slowly onto the stage proper, like him cloaked in blackness. Dom had never been prone to stage fright or jitters as performances started- he felt so blandly accepting of whatever show he had to put on that he had often wondered if there was something wrong with him. When he had performed in musical theatre in front of tens of thousands when their Bluestone drama class had gone touring, he had been stunned to see the nerves his fellow actors displayed.

Tonight he was thankful he was natively inured to nervousness- there was no way he could have pulled this off in the state he was in if nerves had been an issue.

He struck a nonchalant crooner pose, head down, left hand idly scratching at the back of his neck in his customary manner. The opening strains of the song commenced, the classic single spotlight flooded him, and the crowd roared approval.

Dom was shocked to find the lights hot on his skin. He was sweating slightly, but not excessively. His joints were thick and sore. He was starving, but not in his stomach. The energies from the crowd were massive, and Dom absorbed them as he normally did, but more ravenously this time, his psyche scanning through them desperately for a missing element that he swore he had had this morning, but was not here now.

He was surprised to find his eyes stung from the light. An abrupt chilling terror flooded his torso, a horrible combining of his aversion to the light and his realization of what that meant. He blinked, recovered himself, and started to sing. What else could he do?

The opening song went off without a hitch, but that wasn’t saying much. The old standards practically sung themselves, and the repetitive gymnastic dance moves that typified his big concerts had yet to come. Dominic felt giddy in a completely unwholesome way. His eyes penetrated the faces of the Sky Pilotence that sat within his aura, and he scanned further and further afield across the multitude, his psyche desperately seeking somethig that wasn’t there. Red hot, irate, prickly anger welled up inside of his snayu guccha. He felt as though he might twist apart with the strain, run into the crowd and rip them apart with his bare hands.

Suddenly, over the din of the music, the voice of his father’s old friend, Thor Neill, sprang into his head. Thor Neill worshipped eponymously, and had gained galactic reknown for being a berserking soldier on the battlefields of Reticula who ripped apart the enemy alien Maitre with his bare hands.

Blood lust, Thor said frankly. Bloth Losti is what you have here, Dominic son of Howard.

The song finished, and the lead in for the second transition number began. Dominic cocked his head to the side and laughed. The multitude laughed with him. He quivered all over with fever. His limbs felt raw and heavy, his snaya guccha was burning with hunger, and he felt as though he personally could murder, or ravish to death, or both he wasn’t certain, every single member. After this second song’s bridge, the rest of the show would be one big aerobic exercise- two hours of exertion with the mob of the crowd’s energies ramming down his throat no longer like sweet wine but like dry hard bread in the desert… and Dom without a single flask.

His singing voice held extra punch, his swaying movements extra swing and crisp sass. His eyes were aflame, daring the crowd to attempt to give him what he demanded. They roared, they clapped, they screamed. He paced up and down the stage as the second song began, vivid and alive with its neo-latin rhythms. His backup dancers entered from both wings of the stage, and Dom’s outfit melted into his second getup, a dusty lavender satin shirt with tight black bolero pants.

The crowd began to stomp its feet and clap their hands to the sultry, syncopated rhythm. The pounding of it sounded like Gwendolym’s heartbeat. Dom faltered slightly over the lyrics to the first chorus as it became apparent that the heartbeat of the crowd was aligning itself to the pounding drumbeat. The realization made his own heart swell, and made him flutter with expectation as though his first crush had just walked into the room. He laughed again, rueful at the thought, and continued the song.

The backup singers gyrated and stomped along with the music, and Dom told his tale about love, desire and revenge in the Latin quadrant. Sweat was standing out on his brow, and he knew that, whatever else was transpiring, he was deeply fevered and becoming dangerously dehydrated. There was nothing for it, however- at a show like this, one did not saunter over to the grand piano and sip from a tumbler of refreshment as his swing singing forebears may have done. This was the moderate price Dom paid for raking in over two million dollars for a single show- this was the time he worked for his profit.

His knees were shaking and he felt like vomiting when he took a deep breath to belt out the final chorus. The crescendo would transition with striking dance-mix staccato into the next set, which was all about the lascivious, grinding relentless nihilism of the party hangar sound that made Dominic a galactic star. He would be running and pacing, twisting and permuting himself into a myriad of different forms for the next forty-five minutes. His head spun, and vertigo set in in earnest. It was as though he had taken a double dose of Lucy and Xcitement, and he could only intuit the fact down was down by where his feet were placed.

The backup dancers began their wind up for the hangar music. Dom strode to the front of the stage and found his mark with no apparent difficulty the Sky Pilotence could see, though it seemed as though his feet were on fire and his limbs burning with hunger. His eyes burned horribly from the harsh lights, and his skin felt as though he had fallen asleep in an infrared sauna. His hair hurt.

On cue, he cast his finger out at the audience, swung his arm wide and twisted his torso for emphasis.

You’ll never give up!” he shouted at them, paraphrasing the line of his hit single.

The crowd screamed uproariously at him in agreement. Waves of their energy hit him, filling him with the same vibrant satisfaction as ever it had, but this time it was coupled with that swelling prickly rage that they refused to give him what he truly needed. He ripped off his shirt and tossed it at the audience, who obligingly scrambled for it.

He grinned shyly at them, lowering his hands. Coy was an integral part of his repertoire, and with his round, sweet face and large dark eyes, Dominic played it well. He swayed slightly, turned it into an oversexed, lost puppydog unsurety the audience ate up.

Neither will I,” he told them confidingly, and the music pounded to rushing life. He turned on his heel and snapped his finger over his head to the third rhythm. Behind him, hitting him like a tsunami, came the sound and sensation of the rising heartbeats of the multitude. It made his blood evaporate in his veins, and his screaming arteries demanded satisfaction.

He turned again to face the audience, dancing his way through the musical bridge, waiting for his cue to begin singing. The lights were blinding him, feeling as though thousands of needles were penetrating his body, twisting his flesh and blood to pulp. His view of the multitudes hidden behind them swam, stretching out of shape in time to the pulse of their hearts and the music.

I’m dying, Dom thought simply, and in futile echo he added, blood panel clean.

The backup dancers converged on Dom for the tidelike pulsing, bowing, undulating motions they were to bestow upon him. They reeked of warm, living humanity. Dom looked down and saw the pulses in their necks pound with effort. The blood was so close… so human.

Eyes wide with terror, Dom broke form with the concert and began pushing his way through them. Well trained dancers that they were, they tried for several moments to adjust to the apparently innovative coreography their leader was trying to introduce, turning the undulating worshipful movements into confining arms and pushing hands. Each time they touched him, Dominic had to strain his delirious self to keep from grabbing their pulsing wrists and ripping them open. There was no lying to himself now- he had the vampire plague, and was most likely going to die.

But damned if he was going to die on stage in a fury of murder and blood, besmirching permanently everything he had tried to build up. With a superhuman strength he had never before possessed, he grabbed two of the dancers and tossed them in two different directions. The mindless audience roared, believing it part of the show. The other dancers, close enough to feel the heat off of Dominic and see the bloth losti shining in his eyes, backed away with graceful fear.

He could feel his remaining strength failing him. His vision was exploding with the bruising starbursts that signified unconsciousness. What remained of his ability to tell up from down was faltering, and he stumbled out of the midst of the crowd to what he hoped was the wings of the stage. It turned out he was headed almost to center stage.

The audience quieted slowly, aware something was off. Still the music for the set pounded on in the Hyperdome with seamless acoustic clarity. Dom fell to his knees, arms akimbo, wrists outstretched as though he were begging the audience to strip the poison from his veins before it was too late. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and began to feel the vagueness of disembodiment settle upon him.

He smiled sadly at the galaxy, and cocked his head to one side.

I’m sorry,” he said simply. “I think I’m going to die now.”

There were some cheers from the audience, other shocked moans, as the confusion between fantasy and reality wroiled out amongst them. The backup singers left the stage. From the wings, Dom heard Gwendolym yell, “Get a doctor! Now!”

Dom’s eyes were burned and blinded from the lights, and his mind flashed over the country road that led to the Picard plantation on Lyon, the idyllic French colony famous for its wine, its fine food, its precious stone amandine… and the famous and beautiful actress of the same name.

Dom began to twitch with rhythmic seizures, shoulders undulating, head wobbling as his body succumbed to the disease running through it. His fingers moved as though he were playing a fine sonata upside down, his wrists straining against the killing fire within them.

From far away, Dom heard the audience start to call out, to scream with something other than delight. The music stopped abruptly, and he was flooded with the heartbeats and luscious human fear upon which they rode to him like a thousand pounding hooves. In his mind, he was walking down the tawny dusty road that wound through gentle hills of grain and pastureland, singing the songs that made him famous.

A voice, so much more infinitely sublime than his own, joined him, sang her parts of the songs so utterly perfectly it brought tears to his eyes. More than anything else in this life, Dominic loved music, and the voice of this girl, Amandine Picard, his fellow actor in the pivotal musical that made both their careers- her voice was perfect.

If this was death, he thought, still dimly aware his seizures were increasing and his head was hitting the stage floor, then let it come. That day had been perfect, unblemished even by that nagging premontion it might end, and Dominic had wanted nothing more than to stay on that country road with the painfully beautiful tones of Amandine’s voice making the sun shine and the birds sing.

Back in the Hyperdome, chaos ensued. Fans began to climb up on the stage in wrongheaded desire to assist Dominic. The backup dancers tried to form a ring around him, a strange mockery of the pageant they were to be performing. Dom’s back arched and his folded legs snapped out from under him, straight with tetany as the fever swelled his nerves to the point of seizure. His eyes rolled up in his head and his jaw clicked firmly closed around his slowly growing bicuspids.

There was nothing left, no hold Dom could keep on what was left of the thread of his humanity. Unable to grab the swarms of living limbs around him for sustenance due to his body’s writhing illness, Dom began to aspirate his own frothing blood. His eyes welled up in scarlet tears and the sound of music so much cleaner and more pure than any he would have sung in the Hyperdome tonight filled his mind.

Gwendolym pushed her way through the swarm with the doctor and medics. They had a stretcher. Security was cordoning off the stage, pushing the people back with a forcefield and electrical shock. A voice on the intercom instructed people the show was over, to proceed calmly to the nearest exit.

The doctors began working on Dom earnestly. Gwendolym put her hand on Dom’s burning forehead.

Sweetie? Dommie?” she said over the din. “Come back, Dom.”

On the country road, Dom turned, eyes alight with youthful clarity. He heard Gwendolym’s voice, smiled at it, then turned and looked at the diminutive form of the blonde girl whose hand clasped his tightly.

Stay a little while longer,” Amandine told him. Her blue eyes were huge and azure in the warm sunlight, which caressed Dom’s skin rather than burned it savagely. The wind was soft, and warm, and the day was perfect. There was no worry of what next he had to do on his agenda, what concert to practice for, what studio time to struggle through remixing in, what public appearance with what dignitary or mediocre reporter he had to attend, and all with the eternal heartbreak of his failure riding sleekly in the back of his heart, his inability to love solely the one girl who had been his everything.

There was only the road, the girl, and the music. And the sun.

The Philosophers of Fame

A Story of the Alien Infiltration of the GAGA

by

Anthony Stark

The highway sign read San Bernardino 5.

Robert’s head was a fountain of agony. Pain pulsed over his temple, his eyebrow, coursed down some hidden channel in the very center of his skull through his sinuses and into his collarbone. The red hot incandescence roamed throughout his right hemisphere, looking for purchase. The pain was like a marauding bear first making, then scuttling nest after nest in its quest for the coziest place to hibernate.

The sun was agonizingly bright. The desert around him pulsed with eye-swimming light reflected off of sand and rock. He rocketed the Sky Pilot down the road, headed east and away from Los Angeles. He swerved out with remarkable precision considering one and a half eyes were closed against the light, even behind his darkest of sunglasses. Robert pulled the speeding vehicle back into the right lane and gunned the engine. The sun glinted hideously off the shiny paint. The blacktop was an oily shimmer in the heat, rippling with heat waves that pulsed in counterpoint to Robert’s headache.

But it wasn’t a headache, was it, Robert thought as his body swam, undulating with some current of torture that ran through him. His limbs felt like more than rubber, less than real, but still very much connected to his torso, which felt inert and beaten. He moved his hands to shift the standard geared hovercar (a bad choice he realized now, but when he had headed out from his home in the Hollywood Hills just a couple of hours ago, he had been gloriously free from pain without even the slightest inkling such nightmares as these pains could exist).

His fingers gripped the leather clad wheel. He swiveled his head to check his blind spot as he arced up and over another car, then his half opened, hugely throbbing right eye peeked efficiently at this mirror and other blind spot. He could move all his body parts all right, but it felt as though at any moment he might just lose control of them all. Moving them seemed like trying to perform surgery with a mobile made from cantilevered butter knives- oddly over-performing, difficult along all three axes, and very, very rough.

Robert could see San Bernardino coming up before him as the freeway rose slowly into the San Gabriel Mountains. It seemed like a lifetime away, even though he was starting to come into the car lots and orange groves that marked the outskirts of the community. No, this wasn’t just a headache. This was vengeance brought to tart screaming reality in his cells. This was the black wing of Satan Himself swooping toward Robert to bring him back to the Fold. This was the sign he had been dreading, had refused to believe as he set out with a fistful of hundred dollar bills, his private credit card, and a small bag filled with his secret secret nobody knows about it stash of Xcitement, hormutual A and heroin. This was the-

-pain lanced through his head, from crown to collarbone, making him cry out in simplistic anguish and jerk the wheel of his car. The Sky Pilot’s handling was tight, and the efficient Hoverdrive effective. The fast moving car swerved abruptly into the passing lane. Desperately, through the tapioca pudding that had apparently filled his body as the pain pumped out rotten chemicals into his system, he woodenly compensated. The motions of his body were eerily sober, despite the shot of heroin he had taken just to dull the pain outside Sacramento, and the eight, or was it nine, heavy dose painkillers he had chewed on top of that. His hands effectively controlled the swerve in spite of the blinding pain, and the car regained its clear trajectory.

Robert let out a weak laugh of victory. He wished his aching eye would tear, and perhaps give a sense of relief, but his cheek was dry. He wished that he could either overcome this blinding horror as well as his motor skills indicated could be done, or that he would just succumb to the whole agony and lose consciousness. Neither happened, and Robert shot down the highway to San Bernardino in grotesque pergatory.

There was an increasing sense of panic in the jagged savagery of the pain in his head. He knew that They were coming, following him down his trail. He had obligingly left a giant billowing contrail of his ravaged energy streaming out behind him from the psychic attack on his brain. Robert knew that, in order to escape anything effectively, let alone his eerie pursuers, one must keep one’s energy girded, camouflaged and under wraps. He had failed miserably on this occasion to do any of those things. As soon as the pain first lanced through his skull, his defenses started to splinter. The agony was well-coordinated to make it impossible to move clandestinely… in fact, as Their machinery had bitten down on his psyche, Robert was only able to make forward progress at all by casting his mind forth wildly to the next roadsign, the next bend in the road, and laying a bumpy and dreadful track for his Sky Pilot to grip.

This unfortunate, and most definitely pre-meditated side effect, had left a brilliant stain of his energy pointing like an arrow down the freeway east of L.A. They hadn’t even needed to hurry to follow him. No, Robert thought as he signaled a turn into a truck stop, his pursuers could amble along in front of him while the pain slowly ground him to a halt.

Which it was now doing. His orientation was failing. As he turned into the diner’s ample dusty parking lot, the Sky Pilot’s earthdrive tires kicking up a trail of dust not unlike his own, it seemed as though he were driving along a wall perpendicular to what he thought of as the hoverway’s bound. He curved along the edge of the lot and parked under a lone lodgepole pine tree nestled in the curve of a small hill. The shade offered by the tree was incomplete, its sun-savaged needles sparse and erratic, but it would keep Robert from cooking from the outside in as well as the inside out. He kicked the Hoverdrive to off, and the Sky Pilot settled solely onto its tires with a sigh.

He rolled down all the windows, pawing at the automatic controls, and punched the button for the sun roof until it was completely open. A moderately cool breeze blew through the vehicle. It was a disgusting, dusty, polluted affair to drive with the windows open on the freeway, but Robert idly wished he had done so. The cool air was the first thing that offered any relief to the red, raw, ripping flesh of his tendons. He thought, as best as he could, about walk in deep freezers, about his time spent up in Canada working in the winter in that French town, what was its name… Montreal.

More pain. Fresh, whiplike, up his neck and through his teeth at the thought of the name. Ow, thought Robert. Won’t think about that again.

Yet, despite himself, as he clambered desperately over the armrest and into the backseat, he wondered what it was about

don’t think about it

(Montreal)

-that hurt him so. Then a memory floated up out of the soupy red glittery quagmire that was his mind. He had first decided to commit to his wife, Quinty, in that place. It was at the hotel where he had been booked. She was still his boss. They had dated, they had spent weekends together. It was getting fairly serious, at least, as serious as he had ever let anything get between himself and a woman.

He couldn’t recall the day. She had taken him out with her friends. Friends like the ones who were ambling down the road after him, for they were her friends, weren’t they, who had done this to him. Her friends, punishing him for even thinking of leaving her, and her precious Psychic Science.

Yes. In that place- Montreal. He and Quinty had spent the day together at her friends’ clubhouse one frozen February day in the Laurentians. Very pretty. Some people had gone skiing. They talked about this whole psychic science to which they adhered, so much a perfect philosophy it was a science- ahahaha. They ascribed the connections they made in their therapy sessions to their success in their occupations.

Robert, who had been at that point in life where crashing about crazily proving your own points had started to be expensive, tiring and in his case publicly embarrassing, had listened with more than his customary half an ear. Quinty had produced two movies with him in small but significant roles, and had used these connections derived from her mutual interest in Psychic Science to garner him another leading role for which he had received critical acclaim and awards. His career, which had pretty much been a smoking pile of wreckage, was almost completely healed. He was once again regarded as a gifted actor.

“You could be more than that,” one of her friends with the face that seemed a bit too much like a mask said. His eyes were small, and gimletey, and overbright in that thickly cumbersome flesh on his face.

Of course, they were all from L.A. so immobilized, slightly artificial faces were by far the norm. But this fellow, and his wife, and the two other PSers, as they called themselves, who were Quinty’s friends, all had faces oddly cut from the same mask-like cloth. They grimaced when they smiled, like pulling the tendons around was a crafty effort of machinery instead of a natural gesture. Their eyes looked dark, but too shiny and bright. They had an oddly nervous, frenetic energy about them, while at the same time sitting far too calmly in slightly unnatural positions. All points that, taken on their own, would probably have dismissed them as natives of Los Angeles, people in the tinseltown trade. But all together, even for Robert, who had been raised in the business around some truly dreadful, artificial excuses for human beings, Quinty’s friends seemed… alien.

Nevertheless, Robert was impressed by the success running with Quinty and her pals had leant him. They had managed to repair an untouchable career, in under three years.

Robert had cocked his head to one side and replied, “Specify.”

The man had paused, taken aback at Robert’s resistance to his passive hypnosis learned in his therapeutic technique conferences. Robert could tell the man was used to having people get all starry-eyed and giddy at such portentious, ominous statements. The man was lazy, Robert thought. This fellow had got used to herding people, wound up and excited, into the slots he made for them.

Robert sat in a comfortable pose in his chair by the fire and regarded the man in silence- Robert’s quiet nonchalance had been unnerving Quinty and her friends from the start.

As it turned out, it was something all the Psychic Scientists in downtown L.A. wanted to break in him. They despised his nonplussable core, his sheepishly unrepentant attitude regarding his own foibles and behaviour, his remarkable lack of shame. After the “something more” the man had mentioned had rocketed him to superstardom and he had married Quinty, that was when the PSers had decided to try to take him apart on their machines and rewire him back together in a more contrite, more easily shameable, more controllable package.

Robert had proven remarkably resistant to this procedure.

He had stubbornly acted the equivalent of psychic dead weight, keenly putting together the pieces of the “therapy sessions” that made up the backbone of Psychic Science transmission without having to either study or even particularly pay attention. They had no choice but to raise him through the ranks- after all, he and his newfound super stardom were adding substantially to their coffers.

But they had never trusted him, never considered him “inner circle” material. That much was plain, even before Quinty had captured him with a wedding ring. She was “inner circle” material, an up and up who knew at least most of the real agendas of the PS. She had never treated Robert like an equal, or even like a lower order of the same being. Quinty had treated Robert from the first day like a weird, badly trained animal whose quirky expressions looked “almost human”.

Robert, at the same time he knew it made him somewhat perverse, liked being treated that way. It kept a fine border up between him and the rest of the universe, and though he had come to be lulled into a relationship with Quinty, he was glad every day that border was there between him and his wife.

Quinty, for her part as an individual being, Robert’s version of humanoid or otherwise, was also glad for the distinction. She had her fellow questing PSers to be at ease with, and Robert was her pet. After all, they might have been on Old Earth, but they were still part of the GAGA, weren’t they… and any aliens that could balance a chequebook and handle profit were welcomed by the Galactic Association. Quinty and her strange-faced friends could certainly handle a chequebook- had handled Robert’s to excellent effect. If they felt some clannish need to ‘pass’ as regular humans, well, who was he to judge? After all, he was just a lowly hominid from a little blue rock in a backwoods corner of what had turned out to be a very big galaxy.

Yet as a Psychic Scientist she mirrored her fellows’ consternation and growing wrath that Robert’s wild fence of animal unrepentance failed to come down. Their frustration with his raw human energy was unusual for the permissive aliens he had met so far under the GAGA’s expansive banner. Half the time, Robert convinced himself the being he slept beside at night was just a puritanical human throwback.

That assurance melted away when Quinty was around her other PS friends and all their unnatural brows furrowed awkwardly as they failed and failed again to tame him.

Robert was unmistakably an animal, his habits, his mannerisms, his gregarious magnetism proved this to them. He was a maddeningly untrainable animal, and as the years clicked by, the PSers did what all handlers of untrainable animals did- they put tighter leashes on him, muzzles, electric shock collars, shoved medicine down his throat and stroked it until he swallowed. They raised his backyard fence.

Robert took all this with stoicism. He was getting what he wanted, and he was as unrepentant about that as he was about his other habits. He had a great career, he had people not only respect him now, but sympathize and respect his drug-addled swan dive of a few years ago. Robert wanted to shove the fact he had been a wacked out drug addict down the galaxy’s throat, and not only make them accept it, but love and laud him for it. He considered it a fine joke. And love and laud him the galaxy did.

When the PSers realized that Robert had effectively used them to facilitate his mischieviously gleeful, self-aggrandizing scheme, they were agog. Then they were furious. Robert had spent more than a few weeks in a small room paying for his hubris. He was unrepentant about the punishment he received as well.

This infuriated the Psychic Scientists even more.

The sun even under the pine tree was harsh.

It cut through him like daggers. Robert wished his eyelids were thicker.

It was a good run, he supposed, making it as far as he had from the backyard fence. He knew he would never have been able to escape Old Earth without his ID lighting up banks of alarms back in the big gated Psychic Science “Sanitarium” in L.A.

He had decided to get lost in plain sight, on the hoof as it were on the ground. The PS brass, when they noticed he was missing and failed their mental attempts at check-in, would be scanning the spaceports, not the old Hover Freeway east of L.A. Besides, it felt old-fashioned and rewarding to be at least near the ground of his homeworld, making classic miles between him and his captors. At least, it had at first.

He was certain dogs felt as he did when they ran away and the night fell and the confusion of freedom set in. He was also certain that humans didn’t hardwire such painful switches into the brains of their pets to cause such painful immobilization. The withdrawal he was going through from his missed meds alone could have accounted for some of his headache- some, but not all. Some pains were too preternaturally damaging to the psyche to be anything other than the unnatural will of the Psychic Scientists at full wrath. They had gone to no small pains to try to keep Robert to heel.

“That’s just cuz they love me,” Robert mirrored Quinty’s phrase to him, the one she used when she would come into his little room. Halfway through twelve hour runs on the PS machines, hopped up on drugs and vitamin and chemical cocktails and no food, sleep deprived, freshly tortured, Quinty would appear. It was so patently an exercise in Stockholm’s, but it was nevertheless uniformly effective.

Quinty would stroke his clammy forehead with her overlarge hand. She put his head on her lap. She let him drape one quivering arm around her. With the cool detachment of a religious icon, she offered just enough bland receptivity, just enough immobility to let Robert freely imagine she was the epitome of sympathy.

“We are only going to all this trouble, Robert, because we love you so much,” she would say quietly, regretfully.

“I know,” Robert would reply, his voice hoarse, occasionally choked with tears. He tried not to let that show, because he knew he was being filmed, and that Quinty and the others of her kind enjoyed any heightened emotion. Enjoyed was too broad a word- they ate it up, in a disturbingly literal manner.

A gust of wind blew through the car. It caressed Robert’s face, and the nerves on his temple throbbed like the wind was electrified. Like the wind was one of those electrodes that the PSers had placed in his skull.

It was an unfortunate side effect of his overidentification with Quinty, but Robert couldn’t help but feel that the wind had a real iconic presence in that caress. That it was the serene mother Quinty had only played at.

Robert wished he had been raised as something other than a disaffected Jew.

His stomach thrilled. He was unsure if it was vomit or if it was terror. He could see in his mind’s eye that dark car proceeding down the highway. Eating his dust like it was candy, delighting in the pain he left on the merciful breeze, their throats working like they were deep throating deliciousness itself.

They were coming.

He made a last ditch attempt to lift himself off of the car seat.

Try to get away.

Try to get anywhere.

Even leave the car, hide in the hills. Damn, he thought as the pain swallowed him whole, leaving not even a ghost of him behind. His head hit the seat, reverberating the agony throughout his body.

Nothing passed by.

“Robert.”

His name sunk down to him from far away. Down through blackness.

He could tell by the way the sound failed to reverberate in his ears that his captors had arrived.

He tried to moan, but the sound locked in his throat. Their voice or his, the Psychic Scientists had a way of doing that.

“Robert.”

He opened his eyes abruptly.

It was still light out, but the light was further away, cold and distant. Like winter light had taken over duty in Southern California. It reminded Robert of that town in February

-Montreal-

-he moaned then at the thought of the name. More pain, fresh- reminding him first that he had indeed awoken with the pain, and second, that yes, the pain could get worse.

A face swam into view above him. The door to Robert’s Sky Pilot was open and a man was standing over him, gazing down at him with alert disinterest. Robert recognized him. He was from the Mental Health Review Board, the security and intel branch of the PS organization. They handled matters of leaked information, Oppressive Entities or OEs, and espionage.

And apparently, Robert thought thickly, defectors.

What was his name? Robert thought to himself as he lifted up his wrecked head. The door at his feet was open, too, and a man was standing there. Robert couldn’t see his face, but the austere cheap suit of another Mental Health member was definitely blocking his alternate exit.

“Morgan,” Robert murmured.

The man staring into his face smiled thinly. The smiling just served to enunciate the fact that his face, too, looked like more badly stretched cloth over the wrong mold.

His throat was pulsing with gleeful absorption of his human prey’s pain.

“That’s right, Robert,” he said politely. “We’ve found you.”

With sudden clarity, Robert realized that the MHers either had a device aggravating the torturous pain in his skull or they themselves exacerbated it. Red hot metal bloomed in his brain stem, made his eyes water as the man’s attention focused finally on him. Cool pale brown eyes staring down, vehicles for the agony.

Unable to control himself, Robert pivoted in his seat and leaned out the open car door. He vomited profusely, the heaving wretching massaging pain into his whole body from his spine. He continued his vomiting with increased gusto.

With some small satisfaction, Robert noted he had targeted successfully Morgan’s shoes.

Morgan had taken a leap back, and cursed under his breath. From Robert’s new vantage position, he noticed that three other MHers were nearby. They took a step or two closer at Morgan’s sudden movement.

Robert stared at them with bleary eyes. He idly wiped his mouth. Bitter hops flavor tanged against his palette.

The presence of these Psychic Scientists made him shake all over as though he were galvanized with electricity. They had definitely contributed to his sudden effulgence, but it made his head feel a bit relieved, so Robert had two reasons to be grateful.

“Not feeling so well, are we, Robert?” Morgan asked, recovering his unearthly composure. He flicked the vomit off his shoes and across the grey and newly desolate parking lot. Robert stole a look around out the car door as Morgan cleaned himself.

I am so boned, he thought grimly.

The light had definitely taken on that caught between reality and dream quality that the Psychs were able to induce. Although the Sky Pilot had not been moved since Robert had pulled in however long ago it was, the diner and truckstop looked achingly out of reach, as though Robert had parked in a different time zone.

They had pulled me out, Robert thought. Pulled me out of reality.

The air around them was dead, lifeless. A facsimilie, Robert thought ruefully. However did they make a facsimilie of his reality…

“It’s because you tried to leave us,” Morgan told him idly. “And your only reality is with us, Robert… you agreed to that, remember?”

“What?” Robert murmured. He could feel the walls of his falsified reality closing in on him. The vain grasp for freedom he had so willfully attempted was sliding away from him like an icecube on a hot skillet.

“We’ve got drugs here, Morgan,” one of the other MHers declared. Robert looked up, over at the man who had opened the trunk of the Sky Pilot. Robert could just make out the edges of his briefcase between the line of the trunk and the edge of the frame of the car.

“Ohhh, Robert,” Morgan said ruefully.

Robert closed his eyes. There was a few thousand in drugs that he wouldn’t be getting back…ever. He had kept those little momentos of his former life secret and safe, hoarding them for a run like this. A run that was now quite obviously exterminated in cold blood.

“Maybe you can get something for them on the black market,” Robert murmured. He fell out of the backseat and onto his vomit on the taupe dust.

Morgan, incensed by the allegation of prospering from the drugs the PSers pretended to despise, cuffed Robert upside the head.

“Consider it a downpayment on my next Cognition Therapy Session,” he told Morgan.

“You sick fuck,” Morgan spat at him. The other MHers amassed themselves around Robert as he knelt in the dust in a thinly sliced pocket dimension of the PSers’ devising.

Robert stared up at Morgan, impassive.

He felt hands on his shoulders, gripping him more like bird talons than human hands. The sky grew darker. The light paled yet more, as though a cloud had passed in front of a cloud in front of the sun. Life was bleak blue grey, washed out like the color of day inside of an office block on the east coast.

The Mental Health Review Board members were around him, cheap suit pant legs ringing him. From between their legs, Robert could see the truckstop across the deep. Out there, in the living world where people went about their lives, a mother was showing her young son how to pump gas into their Donovan minicargo. A truckdriver was scratching himself as he walked his logbook over to the scale. A gas jockey was running some money back to the store. A crow was pacing around by the drive in, gobbling up scraps.

The crow turned and looked at Robert, the only living thing to notice the ominous tableau under the pine tree. The only creature of the world noticing that a damned soul was being repossessed back to hell.

The crow cocked his head.

Robert mirrored the gesture. The MH men narrowed their eyes at their prey, unsure of what his movements might signify.

With pinched, aquiline faces, they stared down at the animal they had hunted to his knees. Their eyes were black and sheenless. One of them shook his head at the gross affinity that Robert displayed with the lower animal.

“You are going to have to answer for this behaviour, Robert,” Morgan told him. His voice was dull and toneless, a cliché of inhumanity. “You are, after all, a thinking being.”

Robert nodded, profoundly fatigued. The people at the truck stop faded into mist. The grey light got duskier. The MH men took a shuffling step inward. Robert could feel the odd unnatural warmth of them through their pant legs. It abruptly reminded him of Quinty’s peculiar temperature as he held her at night. He swallowed hard as the bile rose up in him again. It wasn’t like a human warmth, or even the warmth of a crow. It wasn’t like the intense radiating warmth of a Gendler, or the striking heat of the Dnomish. It was-

-alien-

– actually, really, truly alien-

-Montreal-

-both words flashed through his mind like ice fire. Robert winced and clutched his head.

Morgan reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew an elongated pencillike rod. It was grey blue, and emanated a lazerlike cerulean light.

The captain of the Mental Health Review Board held the rod to Robert’s temple. Robert crumpled with relief as the pain abruptly ceased, turned off like a switch for an old electric circuit. He could clearly see in his mind’s eye the swollen, overabused nerve endings going blissfully, thankfully dark and still.

“Thank you,” Robert murmured, gazing up at Morgan. Morgan looked down at him, mirroring the beatific expression utilized to such good effect by Quinty. When Morgan saw the particular look in Robert’s eyes as he gazed up at his benefactor, Morgan recoiled.

It was common knowledge Robert was an animal, prone to coarse animal responses. Relief coupled with the raw relief of nerves overexposed was paraded across Robert’s tired, beaten face. He ran with this, amplifying his animalistic gratitude intentionally to try to frighten the MH men away just enough to ensure he might have a tiny modicum of wriggle room for the punitive measures coming up next.

Morgan took his second step back in five minutes, away from the animal he had captured. His clothlike mask curled up in a sneer. Their peculiar oily sweat popped across his forehead like moisture oozing from a squeezed teatowel.

“You goddamn drug addict faggot,” he spat.

Robert lifted his wrists limply to the MH agents on either side of him, motioning them to take him away. After a long pause, and urged on by Morgan’s disgusted nod, they lifted Robert on his shaking legs.

“What did you do while you were gone?” Morgan asked, dismayed.

Robert smiled slightly. The PSers couldn’t conceive of an apetite as willing and ready as what Robert consistently displayed. They were unable to read the irony in the acting he portrayed, unable to conceive of the nihilism he was willing to channel at a moment’s notice if asked to rise to the occasion. They assumed constantly, even before this little soujourn, that Robert had always been sneaking out to commit unnatural activities. It was the only explanation they could imagine for his irrepressible sexuality, for his self-satisfied indifference. To their credit, their concerns weren’t solely based in puritanical dogma. Robert did have a way of getting into it… even Quinty his overlord handler had been smeared on occasion for ‘engaging in excessive responsive retriggering’ with her husband.

Pushing Morgan’s buttons thusly was an easy card, too easy for when he was feeling good. But, and he smirked openly at this, he was not feeling very good today.

“Nothing you won’t have a hard time covering up… if it comes out on the Internet,” he replied. The open revulsion of the loyal PSers gave Robert the psychic space to stand up straight and take a deep breath.

He dusted himself off, extricating his hands briskly from the MH who were holding him captive with ginger strength.

“Let’s get back and get this thing rolling,” he told them. “You know, I have a press conference in New York for the new holo in three days.”

Morgan shot Robert the blackest look imaginable from a face that barely passed for authentic human. He ushered Robert burusquely into an unmarked white van.

As they pulled out of the lot, Robert noticed one of the MH agents fire up his Sky Pilot.

“Make sure that he gets the car back in one piece,” Robert added as one of his captors prepared an injection. Robert obligingly laid his head down on the stretcher provided. He knew from experience that these injections were fast acting.

“Yes sir,” Morgan replied through thin lips.

Animal he might be, but Robert’s millions made all this possible- including Morgan’s salary. It was an adult version of cops and robbers, or cowboys and aliens, Robert thought. The MH doctor injected the syringe into his neck, which Robert obligingly provided. Just like cops and robbers. There was no real consequence, and yet there was no real escape.

“That’s my boy,” Robert said dreamily. His eyes fluttered shut, and the white van turned and lifted itself onto the hoverway. It sped past a dusty roadsign. Without needing to see it, Robert knew that it read, Los Angeles 58.

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