Shem Knarkid Needs his Mommy
Nestled in the heart of the Cosmic Collective, the planet Maymow slowly waltzed its way around its sun. Under the blanket of its cool atmosphere, great mountain chains curled around each other and poked through the clouds like the intertwined knees of giant sleeping lovers, some of whom must not have cared to shave their legs given the thick pine forests across most peaks. Some referred to Maymow as Carnal Rock, others as the Sinner’s Stones. It was a modern planet full of civilized kitchens, bathrooms, studies, terraces, gardens… but not bedrooms. No the bedrooms of Maymow were places of exploration. Places where people set out to discover new passions with old flames.
Most of the planet’s population was middle-aged and married, and when the boredom of building their retirement homes and holding barbecues became too much to bear, they branched out. While monogamy was very much alive in the culture, so was swinging. Maymow’s people did not consider it paradoxical to wear wedding rings and also outfit their bedrooms with revolving doors.
Magdalayna Knarkid was not there to partake in partner swapping. The opulent mansion she resided in, with its four stories, ten hovercraft garage, lagoon pool with simulated beach side, and four fulltime servant staff, might make you think she was a permanent resident, but this was just a vacation home gifted to her by her husband for when she was in the delicate condition she was in now.
She sunk a little lower into the tub and sighed. It was good to be blessed by god with such wealth. She grabbed a bar of soap infused with flower petals from Bloomury, which was so many worlds away, and washed her arms. The thick yellow bubbles slid between her fingers and down her palm. Her left hand disappeared into the hot water and re-emerged clean.
Young. So much younger than nature intended. Her telomere boosts were just another flower in the bouquet of gifts her great and wise husband so frequently showered her with. As of two months ago she was officially seventy-seven years old, but the boosts interfered with the natural clock and set it back a few hours. Nobody would guess she was more than thirty-seven and it only cost her husband a few million crumbs for each boost. (He partook as well of course)
It was a shame it could not last forever. Your first boost slowed things down, reversed them, and granted you maybe sixty more years. The second gave you thirty. The third, fifteen. So on and so forth until even the vastest fortunes run dry because injections were needed hourly to keep that last droplet of life on the mortal coil. It was certainly better than a meager ninety years or so. After all, humans needed the boosts to keep up with the other subspecies. Leprechauns, on average, made it one hundred and five years before going under. Those Amazons had an even more egregious advantage, many of them not turning gray until their nineties and not dying until they were one hundred and forty!
Magdalayna’s hands submerged again and ran across her very round abdomen. She felt a kick. Not to be outdone by its sibling, the other baby kicked as well. Her boosts had a purpose. They weren’t just vanity patches meant to press the crow’s feet back into her eyes; they had extended her bearing years greatly, allowed her to reach her full potential.
“Sorry to interrupt madam but there’s an emergency call from your son Shem coming in,” the voice of her butler called from the intercom.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said and reached out of the tub to grab her datawatch. She clicked it on and placed it on a small floating sponge in front of her. It projected a square hologram window containing the face of one of her more irritable middle children. He looked very upset.
“Hello son,” Magdalayna said.
“Ugh mother, are you bathing?” he asked in disgust, thankful that everything below her shoulders was obscured by bubbles.
“Everyone gets dirty,” she said. “How is your mission going dear?”
A tear rolled down Shem’s cheek and he quickly wiped it away. He stared into his mother’s caring eyes that were framed by her thick chestnut hair, her pale lips, and her ears that stuck out somewhat. Ears that he had inherited. He might have gotten his black hair from his father, but everything else about him came from his mother’s side of the family.
“I screwed up,” he said, trying to keep his voice from quivering. “I was getting ready to get on the boat to come meet you and I saw an Amazon. I still had some of the stuff I used on the guards so I figured I’d wait until she was alone, knock her out, and just get what Dad needed for him.” He sniveled and swallowed air. “But this guy followed me and then she woke up and they both attacked. I barely got away.” Shem again rubbed his face across his sleeve, turning it red.
“Where is the Appearl?” his mother asked, her voice filling with a different kind of concern.
“They took it,” Shem said. “I’m sorry mom. I couldn’t do anything. I had to get out of there or I was gonna get caught. How mad is Dad gonna be?”
“Well…” she paused. Suddenly the flowery soap smell was making her a little ill. “Well we’re not going to worry about that yet. We’ll just get it back before your father finds out. What do you know about the people who took it?”
“Nothing,” he whined. “The guy had graying hair. He’s IML trained… had a short sword. I overheard them saying the Amazon was from Tortim. After they stole it I kept my distance but I saw them leave. They got on the flight I was supposed to take to come see you.”
“So they’re headed to Maymow?”
“Okay that’s good. Don’t worry honey, we’ll fix this. You just got a little ahead of yourself.”
“As if Dad doesn’t hate me enough.”
“Hey,” Magdalayna scolded. “He loves you. He loves you and your brothers and your sisters more than anything. Now dry those tears and book another flight. I’ll take care of things and we’ll get the pearl back.”
“Thanks Mom,” Shem said and hung up. Magdalayna sank lower into the tub and blew some of the bubbles away while she laid out a plan. She had a number of calls to make and only a few hours to do it before the pearl thieves set foot on Maymow.
“Datawatch: call my daughter Emzara.”
The staff of the Blind Spirit Inn was all abuzz as they waited for the arrival of their first critic.
“This is it everybody,” the manager said, wringing her hands. Everything rode on this. Dana Rudolph’s review could make or break a hotel. She’d interviewed lots of other hotel and restaurant owners to learn what he liked: luxury without the noise. Everyone was instructed to be at his every beck and call, but to not make a peep unless spoken to.
When she’d first heard about the man she thought he seemed spoiled and unpleasant. Even when he smiled in photographs it was thin and forced. What right did he have to be so sour? Most people she knew would kill to jet across the galaxy and eat five-star food for free. Her opinion of him did change when she learned he had been a witness. Of course it’s hard to smile when you’ve got no joy to reference. No childhood memories to mull. No fireworks displays while riding on a parent’s shoulders. No sandboxes with bright plastic shovels. Maybe he deserved his job after all.
If they didn’t get a positive write-up in Rudolph’s Directory they wouldn’t get the exposure they needed to draw in interplanetary customers; they would all be siphoned off by the larger resorts with their jazzy nightclubs and touring pop stars. The Blind Spirit Inn had a little steam behind its image, what with the myths of the caves it was attached to being haunted. They’d done the best they could to play that up by adding a few hidden hologram projectors here and there, active only in the dark, that would make spectral shapes fly through a guest’s peripheral vision. Would something like that just piss Mr. Rudolph off? He didn’t seem like the kind of person to get sucked in by ghost rumors.
The manager didn’t have any time to dwell on it though, because he was arriving. He came through the glass doors with a bag over his shoulder and a truly massive gray suitcase hovering behind him. The case looked very new and very full, like a sardine tin stuffed with people instead of fish. She did not expect the woman who came in behind him, ducking under the door frame. Her suitcase was much smaller and on wheels. It bumped back and forth as she dragged it over the threshold. Fantastic. A giant gawky Amazon in the hotel. It was the first week they were open and she was probably going to bump into one of their decorative vases and smash it to bits. She was with Dana though, so they wouldn’t be able to bill her for anything.
“Welcome to the Blind Spirit Inn Mr. Rudolph,” she said as he came up to the reception desk. “We’ve got everything set up for you as requested. You probably want to rest tonight but we have our haunted cave tour going tomorr…”
“Could I get you to move up my dinner reservation?” Dana asked, interrupting her.
“Uhm… of course. We’ve got you down for eight o’clock tonight at the Red Hearth. When would you like to eat?”
“Right now,” he said. “Just give us a minute to check in and drop some things in the room and then we’ll head straight there.”
“Hungry are we?” she asked, a little blindsided.
“You know how it is,” Shay said. The manager craned her neck up to look at her. “You take a long trip and everything goes wrong. You just want to stuff yourself so full that you’re like an anchor and nobody can make you move.”
“Uh… of course,” the manager said with a fake smile. Great. The lousy jungle girl was probably going to eat half the kitchen’s stores.
After Dana and Shay carefully stored their belongings in the room and the Appearl in the room’s safe, they made their way to the restaurant where they were given one of the best tables.
The restaurant was small and built into the mountain’s side; the walls were rugged brown stone. Everything was arranged in a circle around a central fire pit that always crackled and popped; it took special logs that kept the color of the flames a bright red. Two huge turnspits arranged in an X rotated over the flames. Shay was immediately enthralled by the drops of grease that fell from the roast lamb and sizzled on the logs.
“Finally some real food,” she said. “No more of that packaged boat stuff.” She practically ripped open the menu and scanned it. “Everything’s free right?” she asked, not bothering to lower the menu and look at Dana for confirmation.
“Yeah, go nuts,” he replied.
“Good. You’d never have to pay this many crumbs for good meat on Tortim. Of course that’s probably because you can just go out back, clock whatever’s rooting around in your garbage on the head, and drag it into the kitchen.”
Their waiter appeared, dressed in a red and black get-up. He sweated nervously because he’d been told how important Mr. Rudolph’s complete satisfaction was. All together he looked like he’d been roasted over the fire a few minutes himself.
“How are we this evening?” he asked politely. Dana and Shay continued to scan their menus. “Could I get your lady something to drink?” he asked Dana.
“She’s not my lady,” he growled back. “And she can make up her own mind.”
“Alright,” the waiter stammered before turning to Shay. “Miss?”
“I don’t give a fishtail if you call me your lady as long as you’re buying,” she said to Dana before questioning the waiter. “Absinthe?”
“I’m afraid not Miss.”
“A good ale then? Something dark?”
“Again, I’m sorry Miss. We only have our wine list here at the Hearth. They all come from grapes grown in the Sunthroat Valley just two hundred miles from here.”
“Okay, I’ll take a flagon of wine then. The red stuff.”
“You have to pick a year,” Dana said gruffly.
“Really? I’m not buying a boat here, just getting a drink.” The waiter looked at her and she could tell he was ready to get an answer and scuttle away. “Fine. Take one glass for the last ten years or so, throw them all together, and bring it here. That way I can get a feel for the whole decade.”
“That’s not how you drink at a place like this,” Dana argued. “Show some respect.”
“You mean class,” Shay shot back. “He can bring it to me in a gilded chalice if he wants, as long as I get it.”
“I’ll see what I can do Miss,” the waiter said, trying to keep things peaceful.
“Thank you very much,” Shay said back with her chin held high. Her knee bumped the underside of the table and jostled all their silverware.
“Look buddy,” Dana said, sympathetic to the waiter’s plight. “Why don’t we go ahead and order too so you can move on.” The waiter nodded. “I’ll just take an ice water. For the entrée I’d like the artichoke-dressed hare. Light on the pine nuts please.”
“Very good sir. Miss?”
“Yeah ummmm,” Shay said, pondering. “I’ll take the oysters on the half shell appetizer, the crispy skin trout, a feta salad, and a nice cut of that lamb up there,” she ordered, pointing to the meat over the fire. Their waiter bowed, took their menus, and rushed to the kitchen. The two sat in silence for an awkward minute. Shay couldn’t help noticing all the couples around them whispering and smiling at each other, occasionally reaching their hands across the table to touch each other’s shoulders or cheeks.
“This is a pretty romantic place,” she commented.
“It’s kind of a romantic planet,” Dana added.
“Ah,” Shay murmured, ushering in more uncomfortable quiet. She eyed Dana while he stared into the fire with his arms crossed. Should she tell him? Should she be as blunt about it as she suspected he would? Or should she go the subtle route and merely mention how it would take more than sight-seeing to get her to leave Tortim? Then she remembered there were bigger issues to worry about. “What are we going to do about the pearl?” she whispered. Dana continued to stare at the fire.
“Let’s just relax for now. We’ll give it some real investigation when we head up to the room for the night.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Shay said. “It doesn’t belong to us. Shouldn’t we try to get it back to the guys on Seismodem? People died for this thing.”
“That is a bad idea for so many reasons,” Dana said. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb. “If we show up anywhere in the Collective holding that thing out we’ll be marked as thieves. They won’t care that we’re bringing it back. Besides, who says the guys on Seismodem own it?”
“I don’t follow,” Shay admitted. “It came out of their computer.”
“Yes it did, but they didn’t make it on purpose and they never bought it. Who knows what property law might apply. Say a dust bunny forms inside some guy’s fancy antique cabinet and when he opens it up it flies out the window and into some other guy’s house. Is that other guy a thief? This pearl, interesting as it is, is just an accidental blob. A smudge of grease they wiped off some machine parts.”
“It sounds like you’re just trying to justify keeping it,” Shay accused.
“Maybe just for a little while. We can return it anonymously by mail or something later. Besides, it’s not like it was safe where it was.” He looked up and stared directly into the Amazon’s eyes. “You saw it. Have you ever seen anything like it? You can’t tell me you don’t want to keep it.”
“No,” she said quietly. “That light… I want to see it every day for the rest of my life.”
“That’s the spirit. So come on, let’s talk about something else.”
“You know I’m a writer, but I never asked you what you did for a living.”
“What more do I need? Tortim grows four hundred foot tall trees faster than other planets grow dandelions. We need people to cut them down and drag them to the carvers and shop owners. I’m an independent contractor so I get to set my own hours. The only limit to what I cut is how much I can drag back each day, assuming some other lumberjill doesn’t try and steal the best trees out from under me.”
“So you’re a lumberjill. I can understand work like that. You know, there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to know about you girls on Tortim. You’re in the Collective but you keep all your sociological data to yourselves.”
“Because it’s nobody else’s business,” Shay said tersely. The waiter arrived with their drinks. Dana took his water glass from him silently and sipped at it. Shay’s lagoon of wine came in an odd vessel that looked like a miniature cast iron birdbath. “I knew you’d find something to put it all in,” she said to the waiter with a wink. He smiled uncomfortably and excused himself. She hoisted the vessel into the air, took a large gulp, and set it back down with a thunk. “Good years,” she joked.
“You’re not on a manhunt are you?” Dana asked, not dropping his line of questioning.
“That’s the only thing you humans ever ask about,” Shay said, eyes rolling energetically. “There are other aspects of Amazon culture. We’re not barbarians. We’ve got computers and boats just like everyone else.”
“I’m just curious,” Dana said. “I like to have data like this for my books. Cultural trends. Myths. Things like that. Where do the Tortim manhunters really fall on that scale?”
“Okay fine,” Shay conceded. “You want the truth; I’ll give it to you. And you should put it in one of your books so people stop asking about it. Do you need to get out a pen?” she asked deridingly.
“No I’m good,” Dana said with a smile. He really did want to know how common it was, as well as what percentage of the Amazons on Tortim were like him.
“Alright. You humans think we’re all manhunters that invade other planets, kidnap other women’s husbands, hold them prisoner for the rest of their lives, and make them do our laundry and cooking. In truth, thirty percent of Tortim Amazons are lesbians. They would never bother to go kidnap some tiny fat law clerk from a random rock.”
“And the other seventy percent?” Dana asked.
“Most of the rest of us are straight. Nothing weird about it. Only gay men and married men can visit or live on Tortim legally though. You know how it is; we’re pretty serious about making sure no man gets a chance to treat us the way they used to. So if we want to find a partner we have to go off-world to meet people. That’s all.”
“That’s not all,” Dana said, tilting his head suggestively. “I’ve heard many accounts. Verified accounts.”
“Okay okay,” Shay said, holding her hands up. She made her voice very soft and light to make what she was about to say sound much more innocent. “Manhunts do exist. There are some Amazons, a minority of Amazons, who steal men. It’s not a crime on Tortim to keep an unwilling man. But you know what, most of those men end up being willing anyway. After a couple of months they tend to realize that a life of cooking, laundry, and sex isn’t all that bad.”
“So…” Dana’s voice trailed off.
“No,” Shay said resolutely. “I’m not on a manhunt. I mean I’m open to meeting somebody, but I’m not going to bring him home in a bird cage.”
“Fair enough,” Dana said. “Here’s another one for you. How old are you?”
“Forty-nine,” she said plainly.
“Damn,” Dana said. He took a huge gulp of water. “Older than me. Those Amazon genes sure are something. If you were human I’d guess you couldn’t be over thirty-four.”
Two waiters approached this time, one with Dana’s food and Shay’s appetizer, the other with the rest of Shay’s food. A third waiter couldn’t have hurt. Shay’s oysters came on a metal tray so large that it hung off the edge of the table. With all the various garnishes Shay’s side looked like the canopy of a jungle compared to Dana’s single plate. The Amazon grabbed an oyster shell as the waiters departed and sucked the poor bivalve down in one noisy gulp. The other patrons stared. A few of the men laughed while most of the women curled their upper lips in disgust. Shay ignored them.
“My turn,” she said.
“Your turn for what?” Dana asked, pretending not to know.
“Ask you something,” she said. “Why don’t you drink?”
“How do you know I don’t drink?”
“Well you ordered a water here. A food critic/travel writer kind of guy would get some fancy wine… unless he doesn’t drink.”
“That’s a bit of a long story for dinner,” Dana said, a little coldly.
“I ordered a lot of dinner,” Shay countered.
“Bitter stories don’t enhance sweet meals,” he said, trying to end it there.
“What a clever and pointless thing to say,” Shay challenged. “I told you of my people. So tell me about you. Why do you abstain?”
“Fine,” Dana surrendered. At least he could look at the fire while he spoke; he could just let his throat run like an old record while his mind rested on the flames. He didn’t have to think about it ever again if he didn’t want to. It didn’t even happen to me, he thought. That kid’s dead.
Dana Rudolph’s Blood Ruby
The air was thick with red dust. It was really a terrible place to hold a battle. The uniforms on both sides lost their color in the storm; everyone was just human until you squinted hard enough to separate friend from foe.
Chappacheck was a mildly dry planet so the dense grasses beneath all the storming boots were used to hardship. What they were not used to were the splashes of blood that now weighed their blades down.
This was war in the polymer age, after the age of shooting irons. The bombs and guns had dropped away with the advent of tincloth: a fabric that absorbed harmful kinetic energy and deflected metal slugs. It was a brilliantly reactionary substance that responded to rapid energy output by tightening its bonds on a molecular level.
Its one weakness changed the face of warfare; while bullets and shrapnel forced an immediate response, slower displays of force could still damage it. In this way the cloth acted like incredibly thick putty. Any attempt to punch through it could damage your hand, but if you put your palm up against it and pushed gently it would eventually bend out of the way and break.
So the sword, the hammer, the spear, and the arrow returned since their strikes were just slow enough to make the blood flow again.
Private John Doe trudged forward through the wind and dust with his left hand forming a visor over his eyes. His right held a standard issue straight sword. The government of the Christian District was too cheap to spring for IML gear for all their soldiers so he was left with the brittle blade with the plastic handle that he now held. Wielding the pop tab from a soda can would have been more effective.
A second private followed behind Doe. Both men were young, but Doe’s companion had blonde hair and a longer face. Their dull green uniforms gave him the appearance of an ear of corn still lazing about in its husk. From the neck down they were covered in tincloth; even the soles of their boots were infused with it. What looked like a plate of plastic armor strapped to their belts covered both of their lower stomachs.
Doe looked back and caught a glimpse of his frightened friend. Yes, they were friends. So why couldn’t he remember his name? Come to think of it… what was his own name? That would have to wait since they needed to regroup with the rest of their unit.
John hopped over a brown-clad corpse with a swollen purple jaw and two throwing knives jutting out of its guts like young bamboo shoots. The battle had been raging for more than ten minutes now and thanks to all the dust it had been more than three since the two privates had seen another living soul. Radios were useless in these new battles as well since each side could just scramble the other’s signals.
The whole thing was a relatively small scuffle occurring at a mutually agreed upon time by both factions who stayed within Chappacheck’s and the Cosmic Collective’s rules of war. A few church leaders and politicians had taken offense at the way the leaders of the Islam District had claimed a meteorite that landed a few weeks earlier. The stone in question contained an extremely valuable mineral. This made the districts’ resident deities bicker. Apparently Allah had intended for the Islam District to have the riches because he placed it squarely in the dirt outside one of their most populous cities. Yahweh, on the other hand, seemed to think the meteorite belonged to his people, which is why he had it burn its way across their sky for every god-fearing Christian to marvel at. With no other recourse they had to duke it out.
So private John Doe pushed against the wind and dust for god and country. Or maybe to survive. Or maybe to have his family look on him with pride. The reason had blown away with the red sand just like his tincloth cadet cap.
“Hellooo!” his blonde friend shouted into the storm. “Is anyone out there?” No answer.
“Quiet!” John hissed back at him. “You’re going to get us killed.”
“We’re the only ones left!” the other private cried back. “I think we lost.”
The two came up on a rocky outcropping and crouched under it to get their bearings. John Doe pulled out a paper map of the battle zone and tried to figure out where they were. Their unit had been advancing through the tallest grasses when they were ambushed on two sides by a company of enemy cavalry. Spears rained down on them from horseback and most of their friends sank deep into the grass never to resurface. They were just fertilizer now. Only about a third of them escaped by ducking down and splitting up.
“What are we going to do zshshzhzh?” John’s friend asked, on the verge of tears. John looked at him. What was that sound he just made? John thought. That static. That static was supposed to be my name. This was just a memory though, so it wasn’t possible to dwell on the redaction. Things had to go according to schedule, just like they did every time.
Several egg-sized plastic balls sailed through the air in arc. One of them bounced off the rocks and broke open. Another landed right next to the beleaguered soldiers and they leaned in to hear its message.
“Falling back! Falling back!” an electric voice said. It was emitting from little speakers all over the ball, spaced between the Christian District’s army emblems. The balls had been launched, like scattershot, from a large cannon in the hopes that they would reach the remaining infantry. With no radios, it was only a slightly better option than shouting.
“It flew in from that way,” the blonde private said excitedly. “They’ve got to be over there.” John nodded and quickly crumpled the map back into a pouch on his belt. The two men extricated themselves from under the rocks and started running in the direction the orders had come from. All they had to do was not let the dust send them off course. And survive the attack.
A horse came galloping in from the storm and blocked their path. It was robotic, as they could see from the red lights shining from the seams between its front legs and shoulders. Its mane was a series of stiff bristles for its rider to hold onto. Its tail was one solid piece of rubber that had been torn in half at some point in the fray. The bearded man atop the electric beast brandished a long-handled axe in one hand and the reins in the other.
They had no time to react. The mounted soldier barreled towards them and swung his axe low. The blonde private held his sword up to block but the clashing blow was so powerful that it sent his own blade back into his shoulder. He fell instantly, the grass crunching under his weight. Blood poured out from the wound. He quickly lost the energy to cry out. All he could do was stare up at the sky, which in the dust just looked like everything else. The world spun; it was like dying inside a tumbleweed.
John tried to reach him but the mounted soldier was already coming back for another pass. He’ll be okay, John thought. The medbot will fix him.
The axe approached John’s neck. The piston sound of robotic horse feet grew threateningly loud. He threw up his sword to deflect the blade and was only partially successful. The axe struck on his chest just under his left arm. Warm blood washed down his side and into his pants. He wasn’t finished yet. Before the horse finished passing by John twisted and jammed his sword into its gut. Sparks flew as the sword was wrenched from his hands. The horse malfunctioned and its back legs kicked wildly. The axe wielder tried to hold on but he was bucked off. With an actual engine powering it, the steed was far mightier than the ‘one horsepower’ steeds of old; its rider was thrown twenty feet, back to the rocks where John and his friend had hidden. His head smashed into the stones and he was knocked cold. The horse continued to run and buck until it disappeared into the dust.
John dropped to his knees and pressed a hand against his injury. He looked over to see his friend’s fate. As predicted, the medbot had immediately gone to work patching him up. It was already sewing his shoulder shut with the speed of a garment sweat shop worker.
Free to focus on his own wound, John returned to the rocks and slid himself under the outcropping again to keep his exposed flesh away from the elements. He laid flat and waited for his own medbot to realize it was safe to start work. It only took a moment.
The large flat piece of plastic on his abdomen raised itself up on two thin metal struts, revealing the face of the small robot hidden underneath. The little surgeons were standard issue in most civilized battles; any time someone fell they instantly went to work transfusing fluids, injecting painkillers, cauterizing wounds, removing shrapnel, and even defibrillating when necessary.
It was a relief to see that his seemed to be working properly. Its one blue eye analyzed the slash on his side, and then it reached under its plastic shell, the same way a horseshoe crab might pull something from under one of its own legs, and withdrew what looked like a tiny tattoo gun with a fishing reel attached. The robot’s back legs extended and it scuttled up to the injury. A quick stab with its left arm numbed the area. John inhaled sharply. Rapid jabs. Thip thip thip thip thip thip; it sounded just like an old sewing machine as it finished closing the wound.
I’m alright, John told himself. The wound is closed. I can’t fight. At worst I’ll be taken prisoner.
A gargling scream reached his ears. John turned himself partially over, knocking his medbot onto the square shell of its back where it struggled to right itself. His newly stitched side protested but the horror of what he saw overpowered it.
The blonde private was the one screaming. He reached feebly towards his navel trying to stop what was happening. His medbot had turned around to face its charge’s legs. It stabbed violently downward like some mutated dwarf in a sleazy slasher film. The scalpel attachment on its arm connected over and over again… right between the blonde private’s legs. His pants were dark and glistening with blood.
John’s confusion and horror mixed into something that stunned him. What was he seeing? The bot wasn’t helping…. It was castrating him! How? The little robots would make excellent spies, but there were far easier ways to kill a man.
John’s medbot managed to right itself. It climbed back onto him. John recoiled in response and swatted at it. Was his malfunctioning as well? At first the little machine just tried to climb back on but it grew more aggressive as John slapped it away. The private reached for his sword but the medbot made a terrible chirping sound and stabbed at his hand with the anesthetic needle. All the feeling in his fingers vanished. The bot stabbed again, through the tincloth of his pants and into his thigh. Pretty soon I won’t feel a thing, John realized. The bot reached into its shell again and a tiny circular saw clicked into place on the tip of its rod-like arm. It spun to life. The bot turned away from John’s face and towards his crotch. It reached out with the saw. John pulled himself back but he couldn’t go far; he was right up against the rock. If he tried to sit up his head would smash into the stone.
The saw tore into the flesh above his hip bone. Tiny chunks of him splashed red streaks across the dirt and grass. It kept going. Towards something precious to men.
“Help!” John screamed uselessly. With all the dust and wind it was like the scream wilted and died three feet from his mouth. The saw dug a little deeper. John gritted his teeth. He reached out with the one hand that wasn’t sleeping soundly and grabbed the top of the medbot’s plastic shell. He pulled it up and away, giving him a sweet second where he wasn’t being cut into. Blood pooled into his navel and down his side in rivulets. It dyed his uniform an infernal dark color like he was slowly joining the armed forces of the underworld.
The bot chirped and shrieked. Its little saw dug into the stone overhead, pouring sand into John’s open tissues. Then the tool sparked and all its little teeth broke off one by one and flew in random directions; one of those directions being right into John’s neck.
It suddenly became difficult to breathe as syrupy blood filled his airway. John sputtered and dropped the sadistic robot; it wasted no time righting itself and heading back to its dig site. Since its saw was destroyed, it reached into itself once again and pulled out the scalpel.
The poor private’s head spun. Part of him wanted to let the darkness take him, but his imagination kept him awake and squirming; it showed him terrible images of what the bot was trying to do. John couldn’t remember if he had ever planned on having kids, but he was sure he wanted that avenue to remain open. He was sure he did not want to have his manhood carved out and tossed aside like the stem of a jack-o-lantern. John bucked his body, hoping to get the same effect the robotic steed did earlier. The grip of the bot’s legs around his waist was too firm. John could barely do anything in his weakened state. Even in his haze he felt the slash of the scalpel. Now or never, the most primal part of his brain thought, the part that had to borrow those words from other parts because it was so simple and frightened. John arced his back as fast and as high as he could, smashing the medbot into the stone above them. That forced the scalpel much deeper than even the medbot had intended. It snapped off. The plastic on the robot’s shell cracked, but it still squirmed wildly. John lowered his waist and then forced it up again. Again. Again. The stone above was covered in scratches and blood. John started to hear his own heartbeat as the sounds of the bot’s struggles became muffled. The silence of death poured in. For the first time, John realized how much pain he was actually in. He was struck by the shape of the stone outcropping he was wedged under, rather like a sarcophagus with its side hanging open. Maybe I should shut it, John managed to think. His body dropped to the ground.
The medbot slid off his side, dead but twitching. The toughest bug John had ever crushed.
The private’s head lolled to the side. At least I can rest now, he thought. If only I could breathe. That would be the icing on the cake. He coughed weakly. In the descending elevator of near death, John’s mind was a little freer. It didn’t have to follow the track of the memory exactly. He wondered again why he couldn’t remember any names. Or anything else really. Where am I from? Who are my parents? What was my first pet? Did I take care of it? I hope I did. Maybe the memory loss was just death getting a jumpstart on things, erasing the hard drive in the moments before the computer lost power. It had to make sure every bit of John Doe was gone.
As his vision faded John saw something crawling towards him. It was very low to the ground… his injured friend maybe? Someone too weak to walk. No… This thing was quick. John would have sighed in frustration if he could, but only blood came out when he opened his mouth. Of course. It was his friend’s medbot coming to finish what its brother couldn’t. After all that he was going to get sliced like a pizza anyway. Just his luck. Or maybe it wasn’t, since he couldn’t remember how much luck he’d won in life’s lottery before that day.
Another collection of orbs flew through the air delivering an order of full retreat. One of the balls struck the approaching medbot in the head. Its legs dropped out from under it and it stopped moving. I guess I am lucky, John thought before passing out. His blood slowed. His heart fluttered. Private John Doe had witnessed something atrocious. He would have to testify.
Enough meat had been roasted for the night, so the fire pit began to die down. Its flames became short, lazy, and redder as the coals crackled and pulsed with light. The restaurant had become much dimmer; it seemed romantic to most of the patrons but not to Shay. To her the light had left as Dana’s story dragged on. The light died with the hope and innocence of a little soldier boy worlds away. She spoke quietly and picked at her food the way a much smaller and shyer woman would.
“Well that’s… terrible. It just goes to show you that you can’t trust robots. I thought the Collective didn’t allow bots to do men’s jobs. You know, the theft of livelihood and all that,” Shay said.
“There are exceptions,” Dana explained. His forehead was hot so he pressed the side of his sweating water glass to it. “Sometimes they let robots do jobs that are too dangerous or that require the steadiest hands possible.”
“Like combat surgery?” Shay suggested. Dana nodded. She watched him take a bite of his hare; his expression suggested that it tasted like sand. Probably still the bad taste of the tale, she thought. “How does any of that answer my question?” Shay asked.
Dana looked around to see if anyone was looking at them. Many were. That’s the price you pay for saying interesting things on Maymow. He decided he didn’t care, grabbed the sides of his chair, and slid over next to Shay. Then he grabbed the bottom of his shirt and the top of his pants, pulling them apart to reveal the spot above his hip bone. Shay saw a long white scar. Before she could blink Dana had already covered it up and slid back to his side of the table. He took another few bites of his meal. This time he looked like he was inhaling someone else’s cigar smoke.
“So you’re John Doe?” she asked.
“Yes and no,” Dana said brusquely.
“I don’t mean to be insensitive,” she said, “but we’re not going to get anywhere unless you go ahead and explain all of it.”
“Give me a second,” Dana said. How best to tell her? What should come first? He decided to just keep going in chronological order. “Have you ever heard of the witness procedure?”
“No,” Shay said.
“For once you should be glad you don’t know something. You’ll never have to worry about it anyway, what with you being an Amazon. The Cosmic Collective would never try it on a subspecies lest they start another War of Cousins.” He took a deep breath. “The procedure is reserved for only the most heinous large scale crimes; they won’t even consider it unless there are over 200,000 victims. At those numbers… one person doesn’t seem so important. If they destroy one life they can get justice for so many others… so they do.”
“How does that work?”
“They take a victim. Me, in this case… and they turn him into a security recording. They delete everything but their memories of the atrocity they suffered. That way their testimony is irrefutable. They’ve got no biases left to color the facts. No prior experiences to muck up the details. It helps to ensure a conviction at trial.”
“A memory wipe? I didn’t even know that was possible,” Shay said, sickened by the idea that a human could be erased as easily as putting a magnet on a computer screen.
“They pump you full of truth serum and hook you up to a lie detector,” Dana said in a clinical tone. “Then they shoot another solution into your brain and watch projections of your mind’s electrical activity on a bunch of monitors. They ask questions. Find the spot they need to protect. Then they run an electric current through you which activates the solution and burns out everything but what you saw.”
“Everything?” Shay asked. Her skin had turned a little white. “Your childhood? First love? Your family?”
“Everything,” Dana said definitively.
“So that’s why in your memory your name is John Doe? You don’t know what your real name is? Or… was?”
“The courts called me John Doe because they needed to call me something at the trial.”
“So who were you? Is Dana Rudolph your first name? The one you forgot?”
“No,” Dana said. His fork moved in and out of his hare now but didn’t go near his mouth. “Who I was is locked up in a databank somewhere where I’ll never get to it. Apparently, telling a witness who they used to be drives them mad. They go on killing sprees of their own or just throw themselves off bridges or out airlocks.”
Shay was speechless. All of a sudden the man across from her had become so much more complicated; she’d thought him just a curmudgeon: a man too angry to laugh, lust, or relax. A ‘get-off-my-lawn’ type of man. She stared into his eyes whenever they weren’t glued to the table. She saw tears in them. Not physical tears. No wiggling sparkles. Tears that fell from his confused and alone mind and dripped, coldly, onto his heart. Tears that filled him with sadness like a bucket under the leaky roof of what used to be some family’s happy little home.
“I don’t need your pity,” Dana said. He wasn’t angry, but he wasn’t grateful for her concern either. “None of it happened to me.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. He would get her empathy whether he wanted it or not.
“Whoever that kid was… is dead. What is a person without memory? The private died; he just left behind a pulse. Eventually that pulse became me. I’m… new. My body might be careening down the hill but my mind is only in its mid-twenties. All I did was move in where there was a vacancy.”
“But they left you with certain things,” Shay guessed. “Your intelligence. The ability to speak.”
“Yeah. They needed all that stuff. So… oh joy. I remembered what dogs, cats, and clouds were.”
“Your first memory… is what you just told me?” Shay asked. “The surgery bots malfunctioning? That’s as far back as you go?
“Right again. That first traumatic memory is called a blood ruby. It’s what all witnesses start with. After the trial the Collective gives you a stipend to go where you want and start a new life. Me, I just kept starting over on a different rock every few months. After a while I decided to write a book about it. To my surprise everyone loved it. I guess my being a witness was a real selling point. The public sees me as neutral, unlikely to favor any one planet or business. The rest is history.”
“What about your name?” Shay asked. “Where does Dana Rudolph come from?”
“Dana is the name of a comedian I used to watch in the hospital just after my procedure. I was absorbing everything at that point since my head was so empty. I was kind of desperate about it… picture trying to build a raft out of debris while treading water in the middle of the ocean.”
“You remember that old legend? There’s a reindeer with a bright red nose that always gets made fun of. Then one day he’s needed to guide a sleigh through some fog…”
“Yeah of course. We just call him Rudy on Tortim though.”
“I figure people take that story the wrong way,” Dana suggested. “Everyone feels happy in the end because the deer belongs now. He has friends. It’s not true. He was just used. If that nose of his hadn’t turned out to have a practical purpose he’d still be an outcast. He’d be in a tree hollow somewhere building a bomb and repeating ‘I’ll show those bastards’ to himself over and over again… His nose. It reminded me of my blood ruby. Something hideous that everyone needed from me.” He paused. “All that is why I don’t drink. My head has been damaged enough; I won’t let alcohol take even an evening from my memory.”
She nodded. After that they both ate quietly for a while. Dana was actually able to enjoy his. He noted that it had just the right amount of pine nuts. The fire was nice. He would have to give the restaurant a decent review, especially given how well they handled his companion’s unusual orders.
Shay was almost through with those orders. She picked up the stripped trout by the tail, stuck its head in her mouth, and bit off the whole thing. As she chewed, a woman behind her groaned audibly in disgust. Shay whipped around in her chair and stared, chewing all the while just to make sure the woman knew that she didn’t care.
“Whuh is wif veez peeful?” She asked Dana through a full mouth.
“She probably thinks you’re not acting very lady-like for someone on a date.”
“A date?” Shay swallowed the head and wiped the sides of her mouth with her napkin. “Who says we’re on a date?”
“They just assumed because you ordered off the aphrodisiac menu,” Dana said with a smile. “And they just leave the head on the fish for presentation.”
“Okay, first of all,” Shay said exasperatedly, “the eyes are the best part of the fish, so these skirt-wearing, lip-glossing, lash-fluttering, moth-legged ladies can just keep their disgust to themselves. Second of all, I didn’t even know places had ‘aphrodisiac menus’.”
“It’s pretty common on Maymow,” Dana explained, basically quoting a footnote in one of his books. “If you’re out to dinner with someone and you order off the restaurant’s aphrodisiac menu it’s a not-so-subtle way of telling someone you’re interested in them.”
“Oh,” Shay said, a little deflated.
“Don’t worry,” Dana said. “You’re not my type anyway.”
“And why not?” Shay asked, sounding more affronted than she wanted to. “Is it because I could pick you up right now, fold you into a pretzel, and toast you over that fire?”
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” Dana said. “You’re gorgeous. And you’re tough, I like that. But I’m gay.”
“Oh,” Shay said again, now so deflated that her chin almost touched the rim of her wine vessel. “I just thought… you didn’t seem gay is all.”
“It’s one thing I know private John Doe and I have in common. The one thing they couldn’t erase. Sexuality’s just too deep for them to gouge out.” Shay just nodded in response. “It’s why I had to become a witness in the first place.” She looked a little more alert now. It was obvious to Dana that in the storm of questions she’d forgotten all about the actual crime. “Just your standard conservative Christian asshole,” Dana described. “Only this one happened to have plenty of medals on his chest and the word general in front of his name, as if that makes any difference. He hated gay men. Real vomit and brimstone kind of hate. Paid off one of the technicians who programmed the medbots. Any time a soldier went down the bot would check their file and if their sexuality was on record as dick-friendly the bot was ordered to castrate them on the spot. He planned for it to be written off as some kind of glitch but the technician ratted him out. He’s probably dead by now, haven’t bothered to check. If he’s not he’s still rotting in a concrete box somewhere.”
“That’s insane,” Shay said honestly. That kind of violence was unheard of on Tortim. No, that kind of violence could only go down on a human rock.
“Relax,” Dana said. “They only picked me because I’d seen it happen to someone else and then it happened to me. I’ve dealt with it. Like I said, it didn’t actually happen to me. I remember it but… I’m just carrying the scar for someone else.”
“Oh,” Shay said again, wondering if her vocabulary was degenerating into that one syllable. He’s gay. Oh, oh, oh.
After dinner they returned to their hotel room. The luxury suite, in its efforts to evoke the feeling of a much older building that just might be haunted, wound up having a grandma’s-bedroom atmosphere. There was a thick purple quilt on the giant bed with a few too many decorative pillows. There were rocking chairs out on the balcony and a few full length mirrors to remind them they still wore their ridiculous replacement clothes.
“We have got to change,” Dana said. “Suit case: up and open.” The gigantic case lifted itself off the ground and hovered about four feet in the air. It automatically unzipped and formed a right angle with its two halves. The bottom half was filled with clothes and toiletries, but it was the top half that held Shay’s attention. She whistled and approached the case.
Held in place by straps were several of the highest quality IML weapons she had ever seen. They were painted in what seemed to be Dana’s personal color scheme of gray and red. There was a buckler shield with the IML logo emblazoned on it: a sword, a spear, and a hammer with the bases of their handles touching and flames at their tips. There was a coiled ball and chain that looked brand new. A curved ice axe. Ten throwing knives with different animal heads on their bases. An ulu knife. A metal bat. The short sword she had seen him use earlier was tucked in there as well. Down at the bottom she could see about forty small glass cylinders with metal frames. They were all labeled 7.5 fl oz. and were filled with liquids in a variety of colors: light red, blue, crimson, neon yellow, white, and violet.
“Nice pipes,” she complimented.
“Yeah it’s a shame I didn’t have any of them on me when we were fighting that farcoward; I would’ve loved to see him running away with his hair on fire.”
“You’re like a one man army with all this stuff,” Shay said.
“Well I remember what happens to people who join real armies so I figured this was the best bet.”
“So… all of your IML skill… you must’ve learned it all after the trial?”
“Yeah. From my ruby I can tell John Doe wasn’t the best, so I made sure Dana Rudolph knew how to protect himself. I’m at level five proficiency in four IML hand-to-hand styles and I’m fully accredited with the gladius there, the ice axe, and the throwing knives.
“That takes years,” Shay said in slight awe. Her respect for him clicked up another notch.
The sense of fraternity was strong amongst those who appreciated the IML. Their full name was the Interplanetary Melee League and they had been a force of major influence in galactic culture for ages. They invented tincloth. They brought back the sword and the bow. They brought back the honor. And they made trillions of crumbs in profit doing it. The IML corporation had outlets and combat training camps scattered across the galaxy, seeming almost as numerous as the stars themselves. Their weapons and clothing were of the highest quality and tailored to each wielder no matter their subspecies.
So successful were they at changing attitudes that forty-two percent of all homo sapiens had some kind of IML product or training. People who saw each other in IML clothing silently nodded to each other in passing. It meant they agreed that it was better to be prepared, to wear their armor at all times. Dana took that sentiment to heart… and to bed.
“You even have IML pajamas?” she asked with a chuckle as she watched him pull the tincloth pajamas out of the suitcase. “Are you afraid someone’s going to stab you in your sleep?” One look at his mouth, which at that moment could have been used as a spirit level, told her that he was.
“I’ll get changed in the bathroom,” he said. “I forgot to change the booking to a twin bed; I hope you don’t mind sharing,” he said before shutting himself in the lavatory.
Nope, Shay thought. A moment later she realized she was staring at the bathroom door blankly so she snapped out of it and rummaged through her low-tech suitcase for something to wear to bed. She tossed the cheap clothes she’d been wearing all day under the bed in the hopes that they would fall through some boogeyman’s burrow and out of existence. Her whole body was very tan except for a few pale rings on her upper arms where she normally wore her wooden bands. Out of her suitcase came a baggy pair of green silk shorts that she slipped on. Thinking it was perhaps impolite to sleep as she normally did, topless, Shay put on a white undershirt before closing her bag.
Out the window she saw several of Maymow’s mountains, their tops coated in mist. Hovercraft occasionally passed through the clouds, leaving gray trails that vanished an instant later. She sat on the bed and rested her calloused hands on her thighs. One day, she thought. One day off-world and I’m already carrying stolen property and shacked up with a paranoiac. If nothing else, it’s exciting.
Dana emerged in his gray pajamas and went straight to the wall safe. He unlocked it, pulled out the farcoward’s bag, and set it on the middle of the bed.
“You ready to give this thing a more thorough examination?” he asked.
“Oh definitely,” she said, remembering the amazing light show back on the boat. She unzipped the bag, reached in, and carefully raised the sphere out of it. Something was different this time though; the pearl was not shining. It still had some reflective luster but otherwise it had gone gray. “Shit. Did we break it?” Shay asked. “Or is it just off? Or… napping or something?”
“I don’t know,” Dana said. He tapped it with a fingertip. No response. “Maybe it doesn’t do much of anything after all. It is just an accidental formation. Perhaps all the little gummed up robots in there just light up impotently every once in a while.”
“That light we saw was not impotent,” Shay rebuked. “It was like it was for us.” She tossed the Appearl lightly and caught it. “Come on,” she cooed. “Wake up. Wake up sweet little Appearl.” Dana looked at her with an arched eyebrow. “What? At least I’m trying something. This thing might be an accident but it’s an incredible one.”
“There’s no telling what stimuli it might need,” Dana said tiredly. He rubbed his eyes. “Maybe we should just call it a night. What time is it anyway?” He tapped his datawatch and glanced at the little blue numbers. They didn’t behave the way they were supposed to. Instead of fading away the numbers leapt off his watch in hologram form and moved oddly, as if they were positioned just under the surface of some disturbed water. The little hologram swam away from its home, circled the Appearl a few times, and then dove into it. The little blue light receded into the gray mass and vanished. The two observers leaned in silently.
A bead of blue light reappeared in the Appearl’s core. It grew so rapidly that when it extended beyond the sphere’s exterior it seemed to force Dana and Shay to lean back as if struck by a wave. The light they had seen earlier was back in all its glory, only now it was circling around a hundred numbers hovering in the air. The time from Dana’s watch was now displayed everywhere. It was all over the walls. It was on the pearl’s surface. It looked tattooed across Dana’s and Shay’s faces. Many of the holograms just floated in the air with a number occasionally spinning or turning upside down.
“What’d you do?” Shay asked.
“Nothing. I just checked the time.”
“Are you saying this wonderful thing is just a clock?”
“No,” Dana said, now quite sure. “Maybe it’s… emulating the watch. It was definitely the stimulus. Maybe if you put a machine nearby it acts like some kind of receiver and runs the program through itself… like a monitor.”
“I think it’s doing more than that,” Shay said as they both stared at the spinning and turning numbers. The time changed by one minute. “It’s like it’s playing around with what you showed it.”
“Let me try something,” Dana said. He took his index finger and ran it around the rim of his datawatch counterclockwise. A red line followed his finger, and when the circle was complete the watch powered down. They watched the numbers some more, just waiting. Twenty seconds… thirty… forty… fifty… One minute ticked by on all the little hologram clocks around them.
“It’s still tracking the time,” Shay said, “even though you turned your watch off. It is a watch now…”
“It absorbed the program,” Dana whispered. “It automatically adopted the function of the machine nearest it. That’s incredible. It’s… It’s beyond incredible. I mean, imagine the applications. You could steal data by proximity. You could double your computing power in an instant. And who knows what the storage limit is on this thing. It could have the computing power of a thousand objects of similar size.”
“Let’s find out if it can do more than one at a time,” Shay said enthusiastically. She reached over to the nightstand and picked up the control wand for the large television screen, but she seemed confused when she looked at the wall opposite the bed and saw no television. “I thought all hotel rooms had TVs in them,” she said.
“We’re in a Maymow hotel,” Dana reminded her. “They tend to do things more… suggestively here.”
“What do you m…” Shay started to ask, but then figured it out. She craned her neck back and, sure enough, the screen was built into the ceiling. “Seriously?” she asked with a snort. “They think everybody who stays in this place is so tired from knocking boots that they won’t even sit up to watch TV?”
“You’ve got to give the people what they want,” Dana said. “Turn it on.”
Shay gently set the Appearl down on the sheets, then the two of them laid on opposite sides of the bed and propped themselves up with their elbows. Shay waved the wand at the television and the screen came to life. For a moment they watched it to ascertain the show’s subject; it was some public access program about natural water filtration in the mountains. At first all the water onscreen prevented them from noticing that the picture was warped. It seemed to grow heavy in places like an old plaster roof under heavy rain. The entire picture, which showed a waterfall ending in a spinning turbine, collapsed and rained down on them. So real was the experience that both Dana and Shay threw up their arms to protect themselves from the fluid. The deluge of light bounced off them, broke into a million droplets, and sizzled on the surface of the Appearl. When the movement settled down the Appearl’s surface had become a spherical screen that played both the television program and its accompanying narration.
When striking a harmony between nature and engineering, it’s important to think organically, the Appearl said.
“Where’s the sound coming from?” Shay asked incredulously, wiping water from her forehead that wasn’t actually there. “I don’t see any speakers.”
“They must be internal,” Dana said, at a loss for a real explanation. The sound was crystal clear, which meant the surface of the pearl had to be… porous? Dana thought. Is there a better word? We need a whole new dictionary for this thing.
The Appearl projected the show as a hologram, making a mountain of light grow out of its top. Dana could see ten little waterfalls all over the mountain. He could hear the roar of the water careening down the rocks.
Many of the hovering numbers descended upon the mountain. They turned into little stone numerals and embedded themselves in the landscape of light. Numbers started to drop from the hotel ceiling like rain.
“That’s not part of the show,” Dana said. “It’s mixing the watch program with the television signals. And we didn’t tell it to do that. It’s just… messing around.” The narration became very warped.
The heads of the Maymow Water Council saw fit to senwhizzzzzzzz ssshheewww zzzhhhhaaaaaaiiiive five five seven six five four seven nine, the Appearl said.
“It’s saying numbers in the narrator’s voice,” Shay said. “Do they mean anything?”
“How should I know?” Dana asked. “I don’t think so. It’s just screwing with the components from its time-keeping ability. Maybe we can control it,” he suggested. He reached out one finger and touched the Appearl’s surface. He slid his finger across the same way he would any touchscreen device. He succeeded in making a large chunk of rock break off the mountain hologram. Dana lifted his finger and poked the main hologram itself. The false rocks cracked open at his touch like it was a jackhammer and the whole mountain turned to rubble. The rain of numbers stopped. The destroyed mountain faded and the Appearl seemed to pull all of its light back in and extinguish it. It once again appeared gray and inert.
“You broke it,” Shay accused and smacked him on the thigh.
“Ow,” Dana said and rubbed the spot. “I didn’t break it. It shut itself down. It looks like its surface works as a touchscreen, so you can probably mix components of different programs at will. Somebody would just need to get this thing’s temperament in check.”
“I know it shut down,” Shay said. “That’s not what I meant. You broke its creation. The little mountain. It built this little sand castle out of the toys we gave it and you came along and kicked it to pieces. That’s why it shut down.”
“I’ll be sure to be more sensitive next time,” Dana said sarcastically. “I’m beat. Why don’t you put that thing back in the safe and we’ll figure out a game plan in the morning.”
“I wouldn’t want to spend the night in the cold dark safe,” Shay said. “I think I’ll hold onto it.”
“Whatever,” Dana said. He yawned. “Just be careful.” With that the two settled in for the night. When Shay closed her eyes she had the pearl tucked tightly under her arm. Nice and safe.
Dreaming in a meaningful way is mostly impossible when your mind is filled with random facts and statistics rather than memories. Dana had no childhood fears that could grow and twist into nightmares like some jagged black briar patch. He had no first kiss of adolescence to warm his brain’s nightly haze. No embarrassment to replay in the form of sudden public nudity. When he did dream it was just a lazy flight through a series of drab skyscrapers, each one filled with computers and filing cabinets. It was an airless space devoid of life. Waking up was never sudden; it was just like walking out of a dusty closet and into an office. No surprises.
There was a small one after he awoke. Shay, who was still fast asleep face down, had one arm curled around the Appearl. Her opposite hand rested gently on his chest. Dana wiped the yellowed crust from his eyes and looked again. Yep. Still a giant woman’s hand there. He grabbed it by the wrist with two fingers, the same way he would pick up an ornery crayfish, and moved it to the sheets. Maybe I should check her suitcase for a birdcage, he thought.
With a few waves of the wand he turned the television on at a low volume and put it on the Cosmic Collective’s official news channel, hoping the sound would rouse his companion in a few minutes or so. Then he sealed himself in the bathroom for a shower and a shave.
He had to make a mental note of how impressive the bathroom was. While the bedroom was designed to evoke the rustic, the bathroom was outfitted with some of the more expensive luxuries of hygiene. The floor tiles were a bluish-gray stone that could be heated or cooled and turned a luminous teal in spots where it might be slippery to warn guests. The shower had a diamagnetic head, allowing it to move the water every way imaginable without gravity getting much of a say. It was the same technology that allowed Dana’s suitcase and a million other things to hover about. All it took was a little water hidden away in the object somewhere, the right kind of energy, and a little computer to direct the flow. So as Dana washed himself there was no sound of water hitting the tub. The shower head spun and adjusted, making tiny bubbles of water roll around his skin like he was the mold for a waterspout. They stayed away from his face, allowing him to concentrate.
What do I do about the pearl? He thought. I didn’t need this headache, so why did I latch onto it? God damn farcoward. Polarized me. Made me feel like a hero by comparison. Got me high on that shining knight shit and I went and adopted a clueless tree dame and a supercomputer that throws tantrums. He curved his hands into an orb shape and watched the water gather and flow between his fingers: a perfect curl for a miniature surfer. He opened his palms like the wings of a butterfly and the water splashed out against the tile, breaking the silence. I’ve set foot on every rock worth spitting on, he thought. I’ve got to know somebody who could help me out. Seattle knows computers; I could ask her. Probably wouldn’t stick her neck out for this though. Too much of a good girl. Derek Dreamer’s always ready for the weird stuff. Last I heard though he had six warrants on him and he was hiding out on Maximud. Would need an army of gumshoes and a tanker of detergent to find him in that puddle.
“Dana!” he heard Shay shout through the door.
“What?!” he shouted back, mouth opening a little too wide. A few blobs of water rolled in and he had to spit them out.
“Whaaaat?!” He clicked the shower off and all the water about him fell at once.
“You need to come see this.”
“I don’t care about whatever finger painting that pearl is working on.”
“It’s not that. Just get your sour self out here.”
“I’m not dressed.”
Shay responded by turning the volume on the television up much higher. Dana stepped out of the shower and placed his ear against the door.
Although their identities are not known, we do have a rough description of the possible thieves.
Dana swallowed hard. He wrapped a towel around his waist and exited the bathroom. Shay was kneeling on the bed. Both the Appearl and the television were streaming the news, so Dana could see a large and intimidating hologram of the female newscaster’s face. The pearl dyed her skin a shimmering blue like the rippling surface of a lake from the previous night’s water program.
Again for those of you just joining us: Two suspects have been targeted in the theft of the Appearl. It is now believed to be in the possession of a middle-aged Caucasian male who may or may not be traveling with an Amazon. The pearl has recently been certified as an object of historical value by the CC Museum Circle, which has substantially raised its value. When the thieves are captured they are looking at a minimum of twenty years on the penal planet Jork.
“Maybe I should just hop a boat back to Tortim,” Shay said nervously. “My sisters won’t let me be jailed over something like this.”
“You’re right,” Dana said. “You girls sure know how to circle the wagons. There’s something fishy about this story though.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nobody could have tipped them off… except for the farcoward.”
“Why would he do that? He’s the real thief.”
“My thoughts exactly.” They listened to the feed quietly for another moment. “That’s really vague,” Dana whispered, rubbing his chin. He spoke up. “Something else… those are terrible descriptions. This guy fought with us. He knows what our faces look like. He saw our clothes while you were still dressed like a Tortim girl. He saw our weapons, your curly hair, and our conversation with Isaac. Yet all he gives to the news is ‘white middle-aged male possibly with Amazon’?”
“So… he doesn’t want them to find us?” Shay asked, but then answered her own question. “He’s lighting a fire.”
“He’s setting the forest on fire so we have to leave our burrow. It’s an old terrible hunting technique. He just wants to turn the heat up on us. Make us seek him out and give him the pearl back. After all, if the Collective catches us the pearl will go back to Seismodem and he’ll have to murder his way back to it all over again.”
Dana grabbed his datawatch off the nightstand and began to fiddle with it. Shay switched off the television and both it and the Appearl went dark.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m going to make a call. Then I’m going to pay our farcoward a visit. You can bail out if you want to; I’ll buy you a one-way for Tortim.”
Shay picked up the Appearl and stared deeply into it. Tortim would never let me be in chains on Jork. I can handle this, she thought. It sure would feel great to clean that guy’s clock. Make him wish his drug had kept me out cold.