Though his father had ordered a retreat, Shem didn’t dare face him empty-handed. When he fled from the clinic he simply set the ship down in a wooded area and disguised it with branches. He wanted to go that night, but the equipment he had ordered had not arrived yet. He spent a day cooped up in his metal ball watching grasshoppers and centipedes crawl across his viewing glass. He checked his dash screen regularly to make sure it still tracked the pearl.
That evening a flying drone emblazoned with the Dark&Dagger logo delivered his package. It displayed a hologram of a piece of paper, which Shem used his fingertip to sign. The drone released his package and immediately shot back into the sky. Shem examined the new supplies, including a new laser, and tucked the case into a bag. He sheathed his knife, which he had been using to carve stick figures into his arm rest.
“This is what happens when you mess with the grandson of god,” he said with a smirk.
When he reached the hotel under the cover of darkness he was pleased to see the building was not yet operational. The only security was the lock on the doors and all the rooms, except the ones he was interested in, were empty. He set his laser to low and used it to melt the locks on the door. From there he slinked through the halls as cat-like as he could and listened for signs of life. He pulled a scanning device from his bag, a tool that had helped him steal the pearl in the first place, and held it up to the walls. It eventually identified four heat signatures in four adjacent rooms. They were making it too easy.
He set the black case the drone had delivered gently on the carpeted floor and clicked it open. Inside there were several devices that looked like red coin purses made from plastic bags. Their openings were lined with metal beads and had two curled wing-like attachments on either side. They were kissing bug robots: the latest and greatest tool of the busy assassin. They were small enough to slip under doors, used wings for silent flight rather than the steady hum of a diamagnetic unit, and could be programmed to either return to their case or speed away and self-destruct once the task was finished. Shem had chosen the latter. He didn’t need to keep them; he just needed enough time to snatch the pearl.
Shem slid one unit under each door. Then he positioned himself outside the door that protected the largest heat signature. He guessed the Amazon was still the one guarding the pearl. He clicked a small remote and activated the kissing bugs.
The bug in Dana’s room silently inflated. When the red balloon was full it unfurled its wings and lifted off the ground. Quieter than a mosquito, it floated towards him. Until that moment Dana had only worried about the figurative red object that loomed over him during his nights. The balloon wobbled in the slight warm breeze from his nose as it drew closer. It was inches from his head. The circle of metal beads opened in anticipation. Dana exhaled. The bug struck as soon as the last bit of breath flowed out of him. The beads opened wide and grabbed the front of his face. One side spread over his hair and the other pulled across his cheeks and jaw like a snake rapidly moving its dislocated mouth over the body of a rat. It swallowed his entire head.
It tightened. The bag deflated and conformed to Dana’s face. The metal beads squeezed his neck. He shot up in confusion. Through the bag everything appeared red and warped. He tried to breathe and got a mouthful of plastic. The beads squeezed relentlessly. He clawed at them, fingers sliding off their round forms futilely. He staggered to his feet, tripped on the bed’s comforter, and smashed his head into the wall.
He thought he heard some noises from outside, but the bag made it difficult to tell. A smash… someone kicking a door in? Footsteps? Dana’s head swam. White spots popped in his vision but gave way to the darkening red of the bag. Why did that have to be the last color… why red… why that bloody red…
In Natalie’s room the bug’s embrace sent her into blackness as well.
Buck didn’t fare any better.
Shem kicked the melted lock on Shay’s door into her room. The sizzling object rolled across the bed and burned the fabric before colliding with the back wall. He saw the Amazon struggling with the bug and apparently winning. It had never made it over her mouth and she was growling as she tried to rip the rest of it off her eyes.
“Shit,” Shem yipped. “I guess I needed a bigger size for you!” He spotted the pearl sitting idly by like a stuffed animal and snatched it out from under the flailing giant. As soon as he touched it the pearl shrieked.
The sound was horrifying and alien. It stabbed his ears like shards of heated glass. It was like the strained cries of a million seagulls with bronchitis. His inner ear bones felt like they’d exploded into grains of cartilaginous sand. He cried out and tried to cover one of his ears while he shoved the pearl into his bag. Once the bag was sealed the screeching stopped. He pulled his hand away from his ear and found a smear of blood. He cursed and realized he couldn’t hear his own voice. The hollering of the Amazon was just a faint echo.
Shem hoisted the bag onto his shoulder, thrown off by its sudden weight. The pearl now felt like a gluttonous bowling ball as it sagged against his lower back. He did his best to run.
Shay eventually ripped the kissing bug down the middle like a piece of fruit leather. Small sparks flew from its discarded halves. By the time she stepped out into the hall Shem had gone. She heard weak banging on Buck’s door. There was no room for a running start so Shay had to kick the door down with no momentum to help her. It took three thundering strikes for it to buckle in its frame. She powered into the room and ripped the bug from Buck’s head as if it were a sock. She stomped it into oblivion and checked to see if Buck was at least gasping. He was. He motioned wildly with his arm, telling her to help the others.
Natalie had managed to open her door and was lying in the hallway, legs barely moving. Shay freed her and waited for a successful inhale. She noticed the row of precise dark bruises around her neck that hadn’t been visible on Buck’s green skin. They made her picture Dana’s neck. Every second those bruises grew darker for him. This frightened Shay more than she’d ever been frightened. Her hands shook and her foot slipped as she tried to kick his door down. This time it took five kicks.
Shay tore the bug from his prone form. She held the robot’s deflated bag under one knee as she examined him; its wings flapped resolutely. She tilted his head back. An unexpected tear dropped from her eye and hit his cheek. I remember how to do this, she thought. I’m an Amazon. Every breath is bigger. Stronger. I can bring him back. He doesn’t have a choice. He has to come back. She opened his mouth and then she leaned over and breathed into him. Then she tried chest compressions, being careful not to break his ribs with her powerful arms. Nothing. She gave him breath again. Compressions again. Less than nothing. Color drained from his skin.
“No, no, no!” she cried. She touched her cheek to his. “You have to come back,” she whispered desperately. “Are you going to let somebody else take this body? Own that ruby? Are you only the second of many? Come on Dana…” She gave him breath again. Compressions again. Breath again. Compressions again.
Dana coughed violently. For twenty seconds that was all he did. He didn’t think, he didn’t open his eyes, and he barely moved. He coughed and hacked quieter and quieter until the noises became ragged breathing. When he was certain the horrible noises he made were not death rattles, he opened his eyes. Shay was leaning against the bed with both hands over her mouth. Tears streamed down her eyes.
“I thought you were gone,” she croaked. Dana tried to speak but he couldn’t yet manage. He grabbed her wrist as a way of thanking her. She nodded and told him not to strain himself. Eventually Buck shambled in under his own power and gave them a thumbs-up before collapsing onto the bed. Shay was not eager to leave Dana’s side, but she took thirty seconds to retrieve Natalie and place her on the bed as well. The girl was unconscious but breathing.
They all sat there until Sunsa’s star began to rise, cherishing their heartbeats.
“The pearl,” Dana eventually sputtered.
“He took it,” Shay said. “He took our pearl.” Everyone, including the now-conscious Natalie, lowered their heads.
“How did he find us?” Dana asked weakly.
“I think I know,” Buck said. Of the three of them his throat had been squeezed the least, so his speaking voice was almost fully restored. “The pearl connected to his computer when we sent him to Tortim. It doesn’t know any better… it probably never thought about closing it. He tracked us. That’s how he found us at the clinic. How he found us here. I should’ve thought about it sooner.”
“We need to leave,” Dana said. They all looked at him like he was mad. Dana longed for the days when there was no one to stare at his madness. The looks of strangers he could shrug off or shout down, but these stuck on him like ringworm. “They own police remember? They’ve busted down our doors before… and Shay already did the hard work for them.” They all looked at the gaping splintered hole the Amazon had turned the door into. “I have a timeshare… on Autique.”
“No,” Buck interrupted. “We can go stay with my family on Galglow. It’s closer. I doubt Knarkid has chopped through the weeds just to sprinkle some of his cops there.” Dana and Shay agreed before they turned to Natalie.
“Is there somewhere we can take you?” Dana asked.
“I’m coming with you,” she said. Her voice was a shade darker than exhaustion, like roadkill delivering its own eulogy. “Nobody has ever tried to kill me before… I can’t go back to my clinic. It’s helping make monsters like that… It doesn’t matter where I go now. Besides, I like the idea of having her watching over us while we sleep.” Shay smiled. Perhaps Natalie had what it took to join their caravan of lunacy after all. Just in time for the fiery collision with Perseus’.
Dana sat up and wheezed. Shay helped him onto the bed while Buck stepped out to begin organizing their belongings.
“What are we going to do about the pearl?” Shay asked. “The poor thing must be terrified. It screamed when he took it. It was so weird… the scream seemed to hurt him and not me.”
“The pearl is ours,” Dana said. “We’re going to see this through. We’ll find a way to get it back. It won’t be corrupted. Not with Shay Leaf as its mother.” He smiled at her.
They spoke very little over the next few hours. Shay visited a pharmacy on the street and came back with a bag of bomberry lozenges. They each gratefully took one and sucked on them to soothe their throats.
Natalie composed several messages on her watch and mailed them to the clinic’s staff. She was taking a leave of absence.
Dana similarly wrote a message to Lorie. He apologized for the damage to the hotel doors and the burn marks on Shay’s comforter. Luckily he knew her well enough that he didn’t have to explain himself. He just described it as a bit of trouble. He wrote her a virtual check for a few hundred loaves to cover the damage.
They packed their bags. Natalie felt very odd as all she had to pack was a suit of armor, a shield, and a small purple cleaning cloth for her glasses. Their departure from the hotel did not feel pleasant, but they had no idea if more police or assassins would show up when Perseus realized they weren’t dead. They made their way to the garage where Buck’s boat was stored. It would be about an eight hour flight to Galglow, so they purchased a pile of individually wrapped salty snacks and bottles of limeade and water. When they were all settled in and the C-gel was applied, Buck lifted the controls and sent the craft off into bright sky. Sunsa’s one thin continent became a smudge of dirt on a blue marble.
I guess it wasn’t that bad, Shay thought. As far as hideouts go. With three separate near-death experiences filling up the previous night, Shay hadn’t had much time to think about her predicament. There was a big empty spot in her bag where the pearl should have been nestled. It wasn’t completely empty though, as a small thin box took up some of that space. It was just a little something she’d picked up at the pharmacy along with the lozenges. It was just to bump her certainty up from ninety-nine percent to one hundred. Amazons were tuned into the process quite dramatically, but there couldn’t be a single molecule of doubt if she was going to tell Dana. She decided to wait a day or two. When the bruises on his neck faded to the yellow of an industrialized sky she would break the news.
“I have some good news,” Buck said about four hours into their flight. Dana opened his eyes, ending the pretend nap he’d been enjoying for an hour. Natalie and Shay looked towards their pilot and away from the hologram game they were quietly playing on Natalie’s watch. “Well, maybe it’s good news. I think there’s a good chance we can find the pearl again. If it left the connection to the ship open, it probably has several open connections. It spent a lot of time interacting with my datawatch. Maybe if I dig through all the processes I can find it and use it. The pearl never took control of my watch, so it might be hard to find the connection. It doesn’t just store files and programs the normal way… They move around a lot. They’re like fish in an aquarium though… there’s only so far they can go in such a tiny space.”
Dana closed his eyes again. Shay muttered something falsely optimistic. If Buck was right they would use that information, but the time for excitement had passed. Everything was necessity now.
“I’ll call my parents,” the Leprechaun continued. “When we land they’ll have a proper meal ready. Garden greens with sugary dressing. Banana bread with cocoa spread. A nice pink roast with potatoes and onions… And just wait until you guys see Palawan. I know you’ve seen pictures but there’s really nothing else like it.”
“That’s true,” Dana commented without opening his eyes.
Galglow had been seeded, like most other planets, before colonists ever arrived. Usually a successful ecosystem sprang up in the following decades with a wide variety of plants, animals, fungi, and protists. On occasion though, the genetic tampering that sped the process resulted in some strange aberrations. Galglow’s surface was nearly covered by a clonal colony of a single pine tree. While some of its surface appeared to be normal forest, a few shovel strikes would reveal every tree was connected by the roots.
In some places there wasn’t even a semblance of separation: the land was stitched with titanic columns and arches of wood and foliage. When Leprechaun colonists arrived they named the tree Palawan. They had named it to help integrate it into their lives, for there was no way to remove it without burning the entire planet’s surface and starting over. At first it was nearly impossible as they tried to build in the holes between its canyon-spanning roots and sun-blocking forests. The tree’s rampant growth often invaded their plumbing and cracked their foundations.
It was during the War of Cousins that the solution had been stumbled upon. Leprechaun forces had no choice but to use Galglow as a base to hide more than two million refugees. Among them was a hobbyist group of botanists and gardeners who worked up a compound that could be used to rapidly stimulate growth of Palawan wherever it was applied. They coated gloves and wires in it and used it to mold structures out of the new growth. At first it was just artistic, living statues of wood and the like. Eventually someone grew a building. They built molds that helped create hollow roots that you could funnel water, heated or cooled air, and electrical cables through.
As they approached Galglow they saw the end result: a garden world of organic skyscrapers. When they broke cloud cover Shay and Natalie stared in awe at the variety of shapes. They saw thousands of round lit windows like fireflies resting on the bark. One tower had two trees spinning around each other in a double helix. A different one fanned out at the top like an umbrella and dangled metal boxes from vines thicker than bridge cables. Buck pulled in under the umbrella and landed their craft inside one of the boxes. From there a smaller shuttle took them to the ground.
Many in the galaxy considered Galglow to be the Leprechaun equivalent of Tortim, though significantly less hostile to outsiders. It was the essence of Leprechuan culture and as such, most humans and Amazons could not legally live there outside of marriage.
The streets were solid seamless wood that were dyed and lacquered to a bright shine. It was evening there and the city they’d landed in was gearing up for its nightlife. Vendors pulled out their street food stands. Clubs opened their doors and set up green felt ropes.
Shay was somewhat used to feeling like a giant at this point, but a world designed for Leprechauns rather than humans had her on edge. Don’t step on anything, she reminded herself over and over. Don’t step on anybody.
Natalie had to restrain herself. She was so used to patting the heads of the children that moved through her clinic’s halls that her arms twitched whenever a Leprechaun passed by. She distracted herself by checking her watch again. Her mother still had not responded.
“Knowing her she probably decided to take a week-long technology fast and get some snorkeling lessons from a chronically shirtless guy named Pierre,” she joked when Dana saw her check for the fifth time.
Buck led them away from the busiest streets and into a quieter part of town. His parents lived in a complex that was part of an extremely wide building that looked like a stump weighed down by the galaxy’s largest burl.
The hollow burl acted as the lobby of the miniature city inside the stump. The golden swirling ceiling was illuminated by a hundred spherical lamps hanging from gold-colored chains. Information desks and shop fronts grew right up out of the floor all around the burl’s edges. Wide swirling sets of stairs branched off into various entrances and exits. Three sets of sunken wooden tracks along the left side supported a stream of diamagnetic trains.
Too exhausted to be tourists, Buck simply led them to a diamagnetic elevator that took them to his parents’ apartment.
As Dana had feared, they turned out to be perfectly lovely people eager for conversation. The Renshis were in their sixties but their posture had not yet suffered. Their red hair was only beginning to oxidize to a lighter color. Buck’s mother hugged him and then welcomed everybody in. She apologized to Shay for the fact that she had to lean over and quickly corralled her into the biggest armchair available, which was still snug. Buck’s mustached and bespectacled father gave everyone a friendly nod and wasted no time in producing a copy of Rudolph’s Directory for Dana to sign. Dana noticed the price sticker on it and assumed he’d rushed down to the train station to buy one before they’d arrived. He tried not to grimace at the stalest of questions: So what’s the best place you’ve ever been?
“Maybe I haven’t been there yet,” he answered with a polite chuckle.
Buck’s mother did indeed have food ready for them. It was traditional in Leprechaun households to have dinner around a fireplace rather than a table, so everyone gathered around the hearth. A real fireplace was expensive on Galglow because of all the fireproofing and chimney growing that often had to be done, so Buck’s parents had a more economical heater disguised as a pile of logs that emitted hologram flames. I’d love to see what the pearl could do with those, Shay thought as she stared into the flames.
Buck’s mother served them steaming soup in clay cups for them to sip until the roast was finished. She looked around the room and muttered something about drinks.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” Natalie asked. She picked up a plastic green pitcher with a safety cap.
“Oh no,” Buck’s mother said, smiling at the cultural snafu. “That’s the palawater. It’s for shaping the tree in case we need a new end table or need to fix a scratch on the wall.” She eyed her husband accusingly.
“I toss my boots after a hard day’s work and scratched the wall. Once,” Buck’s father said. Everyone chuckled.
“It was a three foot scratch! I thought you’d taken a chainsaw to it.”
“It was twelve years ago,” Buck’s father whispered to Natalie. He tapped his soup cup against hers and slurped heartily. “One of these days I’m going to make a five foot scratch. Got to keep this romance going somehow.”
While Buck had kept his parents informed of his financial troubles and his grudge against Perseus, the group still had a hell of a time coordinating their answers to keep the pearl and all the violent encounters out of their stories. Dana, Natalie, and Buck had to pretend their throats didn’t hurt with every swallow and constantly adjusted themselves to make sure their collars hid their bruises. Eventually their lies lumped together and became a decent enough explanation for how such a group of people befriended each other and decided to spend a few days on Galglow. As usual Dana’s work did the heavy lifting in the excuses department. There was always something opening on each rock that needed a critic’s eye.
After a dinner hearty enough to satisfy everyone, including Shay, they retired to their rooms for the night. The Leprechauns brought out a pile of blankets and apologized to Shay for the lack of an appropriate bed. She told them she didn’t mind the floor. Natalie and the Amazon took the guest room while Dana snagged the couch next to the electric fireplace. Buck’s parents didn’t think it very polite of their son to not offer Dana his room, but Buck needed the space and privacy to sift through his datawatch. He knew their only hope was some loose thread of code swimming between the programs. He just needed a little something to tug on, something the pearl could feel.
That night they all wondered what the pearl was feeling. Was it scared? As scared as they were?
Shem arrived on Proplay ahead of schedule. He always saw it as a dull planet, too much like the original Earth to be any fun. It had no notable gravity difference and no strange flora or fauna. It had rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, and coyotes. There hadn’t been a significant epidemic or cataclysmic disaster since colonization.
Perhaps it was its stability that convinced the Collective’s rich and powerful to invest in it as they had. Proplay would’ve boasted about its culture of individual rights and privacy if they didn’t like keeping that kind of thing to themselves so much. Some of the galaxy’s largest security firms had their headquarters there. The rock handled banking, corporate espionage, and the astounding transactions that occurred between the wealthiest people with the most time on their hands. Most buildings had at least one object under a red sheet with a rope around it and a do not touch sign.
Perseus’ home there was a three story manor with decorative columns out front painted like Greek pottery. Black figures acted out their legends as they spiraled around the structures. The highest story had a huge round balcony for dancing under the starry sky. Many a romance bloomed on that balcony, something that did not conflict with Perseus’ functions there being mostly family affairs.
Shem had beaten his father to Proplay, which gave him an opportunity to relax. He had time to put the pearl in a classy black box with a ribbon. What he wasn’t happy about were his half-brothers and sisters that had arrived for the same event. It was always a parade of downward glances and insincere remarks. He could never remember their names. Sometimes he thought he remembered the name of someone he’d never actually met. The worst were the ones that looked like him. He’d had to shake the hand of a Leprechaun half-brother from Oiloash who looked like his long-lost twin shrunk in the wash and then dyed green. While he waited for his father Shem did his best to hide in his room and only eat when his mother was in the kitchen. Her chattering allowed him to stay on the sidelines.
In addition to the swarms of unfamiliar relatives, the Proplay house was populated by something else that sent shivers down Shem’s spine: robots. They weren’t practical in their design like a robotic surgeon or the kissing bugs; they were designed to look very alive. They were two and half feet long and most of that was a wriggling tail with translucent green webbing. They had small beady eyes that changed direction constantly. Their diamagnetic cells usually kept them near the ceiling but they had a strange habit of investigating people by swirling around them. Perseus had modeled them after tadpoles and Shem had to admit as he watched them swim quietly across the ceiling in an organized school that they certainly looked the part.
The robots seemed positively delighted when Perseus eventually came through the main doors. They formed a whirlpool around him that only dispersed when Perseus’ human creations ran up to embrace him. The youngest children grabbed at his legs, some of them yelling Grandpa and others Daddy.
“Hello little ones!” he boomed and struggled to set down the massive bag he carried. He unzipped it and started dispersing presents, fully aware that he looked like the spirit of St. Nick himself. There was nothing wrong with emulating yet another mythic figure. Emzara arrived with him and handed out a few gifts to the adult visitors: small boxes of jewelry and bottles of cologne or perfume. A six year old half-sister of hers wiggled the end of the sheath on her belt and Emzara gently pushed the girl away with her steel-tipped boot. She’d spent quite a bit replacing the blade she lost to the river.
During their shared travel to Proplay Perseus had deigned to share his plan for the Appearl with Emzara. It did not surprise or impress her. She wouldn’t get involved in such an affair for anyone but her maker.
Shem waited, boxed pearl in hand, until the crowd of adoring kids thinned and ran off to play with their new toys. He marched up to his father with a smile and gave him the box.
“Father, I present to you the Appearl,” he said. Perseus looked at his son like a cat that had brought him a dead vole. He took the box, lifted the lid slightly, and examined the contents.
“Excellent,” he muttered before closing the box. He handed it to Emzara. “Please go place this in the tank,” he told her. She nodded and walked off. He turned back to Shem. “I ordered you not to engage them further.”
“I know Dad, but I got it. You just needed to give me a chance.” Shem’s smile shrank. His father’s visible eye did not blink.
“Come with me son.” Perseus put his arm around Shem and started leading him to a part of the mansion Shem had never bothered to explore. Suddenly, he did not feel so safe under his father’s wing. If he was going to be rewarded it should have come out of the same bag of presents Perseus brought with him. No adequate gift would be stored in some dark back room. “While I am pleased to have the pearl, you should have left it behind.”
“Your methods are despicable my son. You killed people to get it in the first place. You lost it when you tried to take my plan to the next step without consulting me. You repeatedly attacked that man and his friends with cowardly tactics. You bring me shame.”
“Did Emzara tell you?” Shem squealed, freeing himself from his father’s arm. “Then she disobeyed Mom!”
“Your mother’s orders are meaningless,” Perseus said coldly. “Her purpose is to carry children and that’s what she does. Why do you think I married her? It was early in my efforts and her family had a known genetic predisposition for multiple births.”
“Mom has to mean more to you than…”
“Enough about Magdalyana,” Perseus thundered. “Your sister did not tell me. You think I don’t know how you spend your crumbs? Where do you think that money comes from? My corporations. My accounts. My investments. My labor has financed your fetish for skulking about with the weapons of thieves.”
“Those weapons helped me get the pearl!”
“Your methods drew attention! That, along with your lack of honor on the battlefield, is why you have failed me. That writer may know who I am at this point. I need to be nothing more than an aristocrat to the galaxy. A foolish aristocrat. They must not know or our species will put up barriers to stop me. It’s been documented throughout history that people first deny divinity and then come for it with torches!”
Perseus opened a door. There was a set of stairs leading down. He ordered Shem to descend them and followed behind his sweating son. They came to a room with a heavy metal door and no windows save for a thin rectangular viewing strip on the door. Perseus pulled the door open.
The room had a high ceiling. The walls were solid smooth concrete with mountainous landscapes painted on them. The blue sky of the paintings dulled to lifeless gray halfway up the wall. In the center of the room there was a large thin ramp with a curved surface. There was a divot at the top that looked meant to hold something in place. There was a large metal sphere at the base of the ramp with the Dark&Dagger logo on it.
“Is that… is that the flail from my ship?” Shem asked.
“Yes it is son. It is your punishment for your cowardice and ineptitude.”
“What do you mean punishment?”
“Do you remember the tale of Sisyphus?”
“The man who had to push the rock…”
“The man who was punished by the gods,” Perseus clarified. “For his lies. He was taken to the underworld and forced to push a boulder up a hill only to have it fall back down again. Push that to the top of the hill.”
“Dad, that thing’s solid metal. I don’t think I can even move it.”
“After I had it ripped from your ship I had some machinists mostly hollow it. Now push.”
Shem nervously walked over to the boulder. He touched it, fearing electric shock or a heated surface. Nothing happened. He took a moment to stretch and glance at his father’s face for any sign his decision was wavering. Perseus’ expression was blank. Shem placed both his hands flat against the flail. He grunted and pushed forward. The ball was quite heavy, but he managed to keep it moving as the ground tilted up. He could already feel the sweat on his forehead when he gave it the final shove into the divot. He descended the hill carefully and waited for his father to say something.
A powerful piston built into the ramp struck the flail from below. It popped into the air, hit the ramp, and rolled back down where it collided with a square pad on the back wall. It settled into another little divot at the base of the ramp like a golf ball ready for the putter.
“Now push it,” Perseus ordered. Shem silently obeyed. The piston popped it back out again. “Now push it.” Shem obeyed. The piston refused the sphere again. The sound of it striking the flail quickly became irritating and stung Shem’s ears, which still ached from the pearl’s scream. “Now push it.”
“Dad why do I have to do this!?”
“You need to learn what an impossible task is. I have given you plenty of possible ones and you have disappointed me every time by finding the easy way out. There is no easy way out of this. This will be your first labor.”
“Well… how long do I have to do this? A few days? A week?”
“You will push that stone for one year.”
“You will be watched by my staff. Any significant amount of time you are not pushing that stone will be added to your labor. They will bring you modest meals and plenty of water. There is a pull-out toilet and a cot built into that wall. You will get eight hours sleep each night.”
“Dad you can’t do this to me! I’m your son! This is prison!”
“This is my will,” Perseus said icily. “I will return when your labor is finished and hopefully be greeted by a man that deserves his birthright.” Perseus turned on his son, strode out of the room, and shut the door behind him. Shem bolted over and banged on the metal, screaming to be released. No one came. He screamed himself raw, the last of his voice echoing away over the painted mountains. Those mountains made him feel even more alone, as if there really was nothing but patches of snow and disinterested birds for a hundred miles.
Shem started his sentence disobediently. Instead of pushing the flail he rested against the pad on the wall and wept into his knees. It’s not fair, he mewled in his head over and over. I did it. I got the pearl. That was a labor. This is worse than that hole on Tortim.
He languished in his misery for so many hours that he didn’t even notice when his dinner was delivered: a piping hot baked potato.
Buck’s Bad News
He didn’t want to tell them until he was absolutely sure. Once he found his watch’s connection to the pearl paddling about in some software presets, he carefully manipulated it into feeding him the data the pearl was absorbing solar systems away. Buck plucked out every relevant detail he could and organized them all into folders. Wherever the pearl was, it was in reach of the Knarkid family’s most private data. Slowly he constructed the narrative Perseus had whispered to the galaxy under his breath: threats, manipulation, blackmail, lies, and only occasionally sparks of bloody violence.
The Leprechaun’s horror grew with every file. He was forced to feign selfishness when his parents knocked and asked him to join the group for a meal, but he didn’t mind their disapproving glances. He would take glances from them, a pair of real parents, any day over what Perseus did to shape his children. The ones that never got to meet him were the luckiest. Buck solemnly arranged his discoveries into a presentation. When it was finished and he knew his parents were out for their weekly game night, he brought his watch out to Dana, Shay, and Natalie around the electric hearth.
“I don’t know how he plans to use the pearl yet,” he started, “but I know what he’s been doing with his life before we got involved.” Everyone waited silently as he took a moment to grab Shay’s beer off the table and take a swig. “Perseus thinks he’s the son of god.”
“Wait. Literally?” Natalie asked. “Not like ‘he thinks he’s god’s gift to women’ or anything like that?”
“No. The man literally thinks he is the flesh and blood son of god almighty.” Buck pulled up some hologram snapshots of E-mails he’d dug up between Perseus and one of his wives on Suburble. “It’s not super clear if it’s the Abrahamic god. He seems to mix mythologies some. Christian stuff here and there but most of the rest of it has references to the Greek and Roman pantheons.”
“Why does he think so much of himself? Did three wise men show up at the hospital where he was born?”
“I don’t know what the trigger was. Maybe it was just his ego. As weird as it sounds, that’s not really the point. The point is the pile of treasure he’s curled around and what he’s doing with it.” Buck swiped his finger through the air and moved on to the next slide. “We were right to worry about his connections. He has to be the richest person ever. It started with him managing a company on Nephilnaut that made and packaged weapon cleaning products: blade oils and sanding cloths and stuff like that. Then he bought up basically everything above the smog on that whole rock. He used some family connections, that he created by the way, to buy some influence in the Collective and from there he didn’t stop. The fuel industry, medical supplies, computing, political campaigns, food service… you name it and he has a finger in the pie…. Sometimes the entire pie’s already smeared across his face. All of this is accomplished with shell corporations, suspect stock actions, and a network of people who seem to have dedicated their lives to him.”
“So what is he doing with all that money?” Dana asked. “Other than secretly raising batches of kids.”
“That’s just it,” Buck said, “That’s what he’s doing. The clinics like Natalie’s… there are more of them on other rocks. He has operations that replace sperm at sperm banks with his own samples. He blackmails women into having and raising his kids or just stuns them into consenting with expensive gifts.”
“How did he get to my clinic?” Natalie asked. “Did you find that out?”
“I didn’t get any files specific to your clinic but… there’s always someone on the payroll who knows something about Perseus or his operation. And… well a lot of these people seem brainwashed. People talk about him like he’s god. There’s some kind of cult element to all of this too. Maybe that’s why nobody knows. Perseus has all the money and his finger on the trapdoor to the underworld.”
“Are you saying you think my mother knew about this?” Natalie asked. She stood up and waved her hands in Buck’s presentation until the holograms dissipated. “You think she kneels next to her bed and prays to Perseus at night? It’s ridiculous.”
“Another thing,” Buck said, ignoring Natalie’s outburst. “He likes to keep it in the family. Every aspect of it. He… has children with his children.”
Shay spat her sip of beer back into the bottle and wiped her mouth with her shirt. Dana grimaced. Natalie stood there, mouth agape, practically turned to stone by disgust.
“As close as I can estimate… the man has about one hundred and sixty thousand children,” Buck said.
“Tell me you’re joking,” Shay said. She was struck by a waking nightmare where she walked into a bar, sat down, ordered a drink, and then realized every man in the place was Shem Knarkid.
“You have to be overestimating,” Dana said.
“If anything I’m underestimating,” Buck countered. “Even though I only got pieces of the story, the records are immaculate. Birth certificates. Vaccinations. Vehicle licenses. University degrees. There are at least that many out there and quite a few of them are older than us. Obviously Perseus has been getting telomere boosts. As far as the other thing… about one tenth of those kids seem to be his kids twice over. Ugh, I don’t even know how to phrase these things. There’s yet another element to it. On the corporate side of things it’s a program and on the cult side it’s just part of this Perseus culture. His kids are encouraged to have children with each other. There are so many Knarkids that he can’t even track them all.”
“He must have planted all that fake stuff for you to find,” Natalie suggested. “Do you hear how silly this all sounds? I’m going to call my mom right now and she’s going to answer because she has to pick up the damn watch at some point. She’s going to hear what happened and she’s going to look at us all like we’re crazy and I’m going to have to give her a glorious wonderful apology that ends this.” She pushed Buck’s watch away from the center of the table it rested on and replaced it with her own. Her finger spiraled across its surface a few times. It produced a cycling hologram and a ringtone. “Come on, pick up,” Natalie seethed.
After about ten seconds the face and torso of a woman in her forties appeared. She wore a hot pink one piece bathing suit and was drying her hair with a plush hotel hand towel.
“Natalie! I was just about to call you. The girls sent me some messages saying part of the clinic was damaged? What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” Natalie barked. “Mom, these are some friends of mine: Dana, Shay, and Buck. Everyone this is my mother Margot.” They all waved at the hologram uncomfortably.
“Oh, hello,” Margot stammered. “I didn’t know I’d be meeting anybody. I apologize for my appearance.”
“Where have you been Mom? I’ve been trying to reach you for days.”
“I had a bit of an adventure,” her mother bragged. “I made a new girlfriend; her name’s Gina. She was telling me all about her rotten husband and then we had a few drinks… one thing led to another and we signed up for a four day cruise so I could help her mingle with some new guys. It’s a lot harder for them to get away when they’re stuck on a boat with you.” She giggled. “Everything happened so fast that by the time the boat left shore I realized I wasn’t wearing my watch. I decided to just let it go for a while; I didn’t want anything calling me but the sea.”
“That’s all well and good Mom, but I needed to talk to you.”
“I thought you could handle things by yourself for a while. If you’re going to keep running the…”
“Stop talking Mom. Listen. There’s something that I need you to clear up. These three have been investigating a…. white collar criminal… of sorts. They got it in their heads that this guy has been running our clinic and that you knew about it.”
“Well what is the name of my mysterious conspirator?” Margot asked with a sly smile.
The color drained out of Margot’s face. She put the hand towel aside and straightened her hair with her hands. Then she moved on to applying some cosmetics without responding.
“Mom, tell them you don’t know any Perseus,” Natalie demanded.
“I wouldn’t trust the people you’re with,” Margot said quietly, as if they couldn’t hear her. She opened a tube of lipstick and applied it. “I do know Perseus. He is a fine man. The finest.”
“What!?” Natalie exploded. “So what is it this time Mom? Did you sleep with him so he’d fund the clinic? Huh? I always had a feeling something was off about you starting that place. You don’t have the management sense to keep that…”
“Natty! Don’t speak to me that way. I’m not a child; I’m your mother.”
“Focus Mom! This Perseus guy has been using the clinic to raise his own kids. We don’t even know how many kids he has. How did you not notice these things?”
“I don’t think now is the time to discuss this…”
“What’s there to discuss? You should be denying. I’m not hearing any denying.”
“I have no desire to deny the love of my life,” Margot said, face sharpened by indignation. She straightened her posture and pulled a robe over her swimming suit. “I don’t know what those people have told you about Perseus but he’s not a criminal.”
“I don’t think Perseus would get up in the morning just for something criminal,” Shay said. “Throw in a thousand rapes and maybe you’ll get his attention.”
“What do you know about it?” Margot snapped. “Perseus cannot even commit crimes. Our laws can’t apply to him. Honestly, would you tell a soaring bird he can’t set foot on your property? No. That doesn’t even make sense!”
Dana took a deep breath. He was the only one that knew what was coming. Buck and Shay had a few ideas, but Dana knew. This was what he sensed about Natalie when he first saw her. Her eyebrows. Her jawline. They looked very similar to the face he had seen Buck’s punching bag mimic so convincingly. He hated that there was nothing he could do to stop it. Natalie’s ruby was going to play out in front of him and there had been no real way to prevent it or warn her. She was a victim the same way Dana was a scared young conscript hiding under a rock with blood pouring out of his pants. As Margot rattled off the divine properties of Perseus’ mind, Natalie put some of it together herself.
“Shut Up!” she yelled. “Mom… when were you with him? Was it before Dad?”
“Sweetie,” her mother tried to interrupt.
“Was it before or after Dad? Was it before or after he died?
“Natty calm down…”
“You told me! You told me Dad had pancreatic cancer. You said! You called it rare! When I was eight you told me exactly why I never met my father. He was taken from us… wasn’t he?”
“I’m sorry you had to find out this way,” Margot said. “No, your father did not die of cancer before you were born. I’m sorry I lied but you were too young for me to explain what really happened. When you got older Perseus didn’t really have time for us so I put off telling you… but I shouldn’t have.”
“Perseus is my father!?” Natalie nearly choked on the words.
“Yes he is, but I need you to understand how wonderful that is! Don’t listen to those people. I know it’s hard to believe… oh just wait until you meet him… then you’ll see. He’s divine. He’s watching out for everyone and steering the Collective to greatness. Part of that is in you. You’re part god Natty and I’m so grateful for it.”
“Which part is it Mom? Huh? My bad eyes? My kiwi allergy? It’s weird how nobody ever noticed my dad was god damn Zeus!”
“It’s not like that. Perseus is a god among men, but he’s still a man. He doesn’t claim to be immortal or shoot lightning or anything silly like that. He just knows what we all need. We need him. That’s why I needed you. You’ve got his greatness in you… even more of it than the others.”
“What the hell does that mean!?”
“Perseus has been helping us for a very long time Natty. We owe everything to him. Literally everything. If he didn’t have me, then I couldn’t have had you.”
Natalie put both hands over her mouth. Tears streamed down them as she screamed into her fingers. She rocked back and forth in disbelief, trying to shake her spirit free from her body. Shay tried to hold her shoulders but she knocked the Amazon’s hands away.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried. She stood up. “You slept with your own father!?” The force of her voice made the hologram of her mother twitch a little.
“Natalie please listen to me. I can help you understand.”
“Why would I ever want to understand! I want to understand less! I want to know nothing about you. I want to know even less about myself. I’m… just your weakness. Your stupidity means I have to be this… I have to be… It’s incest Mom! How could you do this to me? How could you make me into this!? You stupid bitch!”
Natalie grabbed Shay’s beer bottle and smashed it down on her datawatch. The hologram of her mother flickered.
“Natty don’t,” the hologram said, static taking over the voice. Natalie smashed the watch again and a piece of it flew into the fireplace where the holograms refused to burn it.
“I need… I need to be alone,” Natalie sobbed. She couldn’t bring herself to look any of them in the eye.
“Take your time,” Dana said. “We’ll be out here.” Natalie didn’t bother nodding. She turned and retreated to the guest room, slamming the door behind her. For a few minutes they heard her crying before the sound grew muffled and eventually ceased.
“I’m… I’m going to go look at the data some more. I haven’t quite pinpointed the pearl’s location yet, but I’ve got a rough idea,” Buck said. He picked up his watch and headed to his room, leaving Dana and Shay alone with the simulated pops and hisses of the fire.
Is now a good time? Shay wondered. She looked over at Dana. He stared into the fire blankly. After news like that, maybe he won’t consider this that bad. Maybe he’s primed for strange unpleasant things. Oh, if only I could hear what he’s thinking. Why does he have to be made of granite all the time?
“Dana? As long as all this is coming out from under the rug… There’s something that I should tell you.”
“What is it?” he asked without looking away from the fire. He wasn’t in the mood to learn about any more rubies hidden in their vein. He wasn’t even considering the kind of secret Shay had.
“The thing is, I can’t just tell you. If I tell you something will happen. What I’m referring to isn’t nebulous either. The… thing will happen as soon as I tell you.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“If I tell you what I want to, you will lose the ability to tell anyone else.”
“What?” he finally looked over to her and was surprised to see fear in her eyes. She looked like she was about to place her hand on a hot stove.
“You need to trust me. If I tell you, something will happen that will prevent you, for the rest of your life, from talking about it directly.”
“Shay you’re not making any sense.”
“I wouldn’t bother you with this if I didn’t think it was important,” she said. She was ashamed to be so vulnerable in front of someone two thirds her size. She grabbed one of the couch pillows and squeezed it.
“You’re being completely serious?” Dana asked.
“Then I don’t want you to tell me.”
“I really think you should know Dana.”
“Can it wait until after we’re done with Perseus?”
“I… guess it could.”
“Shay, whatever you’re talking about… I’m not interested in losing any abilities. I don’t know what you could tell me that would make me glad that something is forcing me to keep it secret. I don’t need anything else messing with my head.”
“Okay. It can wait. I’m sorry about this; I really am. I always feel like I’m creating problems for you.”
“That’s because you are,” Dana said plainly. He saw a bolt of hurt flash across her face. “I’m glad we’re friends though,” he said, trying to recover. He looked back at the fire. The two of them sat there awkwardly for three full minutes. With each ticking second Dana could feel Shay’s sadness spilling over him like a rising tide. He thought if he looked at her he might see her entire head immersed inside one giant tear. Sure, it could wait, but the news would slowly suffocate her the entire time. She had already saved him from suffocation; he owed her one.
“Fine. Tell me what it is,” he finally relented. He was glad to see that she had restrained herself from shedding a single tear.
“You’re sure?” she asked, voice quivering lightly. She coughed to clear it up.
“No, but do it anyway. Secrets are distracting.”
“Alright. Here goes. I’m pregnant.”
“How did you even find the time to knock boots with somebody? We’ve been running and fighting for weeks. What did you have a twenty second quickie with one of the police in the dojo’s bathroom while we held the rest of them back? Or was it before we even met?”
“It was after.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to fight Perseus because you’re worried about your kid?”
“No. I want the pearl back more than anyone Dana. It’s still early so I can fight as well as ever.”
“That’s right; an Amazon pregnancy is what… one year? You probably won’t even show for another four months. So why couldn’t this wait? It’s not like you need to make excuses for something. You Amazons can drink all you want when you’re pregnant thanks to your tolerance.”
“It’s yours Dana.”
“I’m sorry!?” Dana blustered. “Is there a reason you’re spewing such an odorous brand of manure out of your mouth right now?”
“Dana, please don’t.”
“Don’t what?” he challenged loudly. His eyebrows looked ready to migrate from his forehead to the ceiling. “Don’t call you a liar?”
“It’s the truth.”
“Shay, I know you have feelings for me. You’re horrible at hiding things. That was the first thing I noticed about you, remember? Your feelings don’t actually matter in this situation though, because I did not sleep with you. I’m gay remember? I’d be more likely to believe that the Appearl knocked you up!”
“Dana, if you stop having a fit I can explain it.”
“Fine,” he said. He crossed his arms and waited.
“When the Amazons were engineering themselves they thought they needed more than extra muscle mass to fully separate from the patriarchy. They needed a way to cut men out of their societies entirely. They needed a way for Amazons to reproduce without men. I won’t claim to know exactly how it works… it was an age ago and the process they used was purposefully lost. They didn’t want anyone undoing the creation of the subspecies. Every Amazon has thousands of tiny robots, like the kind that made the pearl, swimming around in their heads. They monitor our emotions and our subconscious, whether we want them to or not. When the robots think their host is mature and stable enough to have and raise a child, they go to work.” She grabbed Dana’s hand, but it was not romantic. She just needed to demonstrate that she cared. That none of this was light for her. That the weight of this speech was crushing her heart.
“What work do they do?” Dana asked. He tried not to let his anger and confusion overwhelm him.
“They exit the body,” she explained. “They’re too tiny to be seen…. They collect genetic samples… Uhm… let me back up a second. We sort of choose who the other half of the child will be. The robots have a tendency to take DNA from the person you love most. It doesn’t have to be love; it can be admiration or even just respect. It doesn’t even have to be a man. When they’ve gathered the DNA they return and construct a fertilized egg and everything goes from there.”
“What if you don’t love anyone?” Dana asked. For a moment his longstanding curiosity about the Amazons protected him by overriding his horror.
“Like I said, it doesn’t have to be love. Some of us, the narcissists, love themselves most and end up giving birth to a clone.”
“So what if your unwilling donor isn’t close enough for them to sample? What if you’ve only seen him in films?”
“As far as we can tell they make educated guesses about that person’s DNA based on appearance. They can construct their guess just from the raw materials in our body. It’s never a perfect match but it’s always close. There have been plenty of Amazons who have had children who are… how do I put this… spiritual successors to important people in history. Unfortunately it mostly just happens with movie stars…”
“A travel writer in your case.” Dana pulled his hand away and paced around the room.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with it Dana. I admire you for who you are. You’re strong. You’re intelligent. A deep part of me wants to see that live on. I know that you don’t want this. If I had an option to stop this I would. For your sake.”
“You can get an abortion,” he suggested.
“I can’t abort my emotions Dana. Nobody can. If I did that the process would just start again.”
“What if you found out I hated you?” he asked. He leaned towards her with clenched fists. “What if I told you that you disgust me? That this feels like the worst betrayal? That I think you should’ve stayed on Tortim so you couldn’t bring this on any innocent shmuck?”
“I’d know you were lying,” Shay said. She held back tears yet again. “You can’t make me hate you Dana. I already know who you are. I’m sorry if you think it’s selfish that I wanted you to know exactly how much I think of you. I promise that this can be the end of it if that’s what you want. Once we’ve got the pearl back and put this behind us, I’ll go back home and you never have to see me again. You don’t have to be part of our daughter’s life. Women like me live as single parents all the time.”
“How does nobody know about this?” Dana whispered. He didn’t have the fuel to stoke his fury anymore. Seeing Shay control herself and stay seated embarrassed him. She was the adult and he was a raging toddler. It would’ve been so much easier if she’d been forceful. If she shouted and used her intimidating arms to drag him away he would have no problem bringing her down. She’d prepared for such a reaction by bringing herself down first. She was honest, humble, and calm despite the swirling emotions behind her dammed eyes.
“The robots keep the secret Dana. If people knew they might try and find a way to kill us off. They influence your mind… but only on this issue. They make it so we can’t tell anyone but the parents of our children about their existence. If that person is out of range of the robots we can’t tell them at all. When they take samples they leave a few behind. They stay inside and prevent that person from revealing the secret either.”
“You’re telling me that I now permanently have Amazonian nanobots in my brain that will keep your secret?” Dana asked. His face felt hot. Suddenly he felt like he was being accosted by invisible mosquitos that preferred to inject sedatives rather than steal blood. He rolled his eyes back up into his head and tried to sense them. Aside from weariness he felt normal.
“I know you’re the last person who would want something else messing with their head,” Shay lamented, “but I told you what would happen if I revealed the secret.” Dana sat back down. He allowed her to put her hand on his knee. Silence drizzled over them. Eventually Shay took it upon herself to sweep up the broken pieces of Natalie’s watch with her hands and discard them. “Those were bugging me,” she muttered. “They looked like the bits of those robots the farcoward used.”
Dana’s mind suddenly regressed to their first encounter with Shem. He pictured Shem perched over an unconscious Shay. What was it that he said? I’m done with her anyway? He had the pearl… Dana’s depressing image of himself pushing a gray and red carriage was replaced by a crisp burst of understanding. His brain tingled as if doused in minty mouthwash.
“Shay!” he exclaimed and moved to stand in front of her.
“I know what Perseus has planned for our pearl.”
“Uhm… did you just figure it out?”
“Yeah. I don’t know if you remember, you might’ve been unconscious still, but when the farcoward dosed you he said something like ‘I’m done with her anyway’.”
“He didn’t have time to do anything Shay, but the pearl was in his bag. The pearl hardly needs five seconds to absorb the programming of something close to it.”
“All I had on me was my watch. Why would he need a program from that?”
“That was all you had on you, but he was after something inside you.”
“What do you… sweet thorny goddess! The nanobots. Of course. They’re machines. I just never think of them that way… they’re just part of growing up for us.”
“Think about it Shay. We’ve gotten the pearl to mimic and modify the functions of a bunch of different machines. With some time, I’m sure Perseus will be able to get it to do what he wants. Now consider the fact that it can absorb matter, move on its own, produce sound, and is already full of nanobots. I don’t doubt that it can produce more nanobots and give them a specific job.”
“What job is that?”
“Exactly what’s happening,” Dana asserted. “Perseus’ farcoward son stole the pearl. He then dosed you and put his bag near your head. He must’ve picked you because you were the first Amazon he came across who wandered down an isolated hallway. The pearl absorbed the programming from the nanobots in your head. That means the pearl now has the power to send nanobots into people that are capable of creating a pregnancy and keeping secrets permanently. Perseus is going to program his own genetic code in and then he’s going to leave the pearl somewhere inconspicuous. Maybe he’ll put it in the side of a metal detector at a train station. Maybe in the base of a potted plant at the Collective’s biggest spaceport. Somewhere where thousands of people will pass by it every day. With exactly zero choice in the matter, every woman who walks by that thing will wind up pregnant with a Knarkid and not be able to tell anybody the details. Perseus could have a million more kids before the year is out!”
“But how did Shem know what the nanobots do? The secret is well kept.”
“He wouldn’t even need to know. All he needed to know was that his dad wanted the pearl to be placed near an Amazon. As far as Perseus goes, I’m sure he knows the secret. With that many kids wrapped up in a cult at least one Amazon must’ve been in the mix and told him.”
“Everything about this is so… vile,” Shay said. She never felt squeamish in front of an open axe wound or a mound of rotting fish on the docks, but this was different. A chilling twinge had moved into her spine and threatened to become a permanent fixture alongside the nanobots. “I guess we should tell Buck and Natalie. If Natalie’s ready to hear anything…”
“How are we going to tell them? These things won’t let us talk about it.”
“They’ll help us fill in the holes. It’s really not all that bad. An excuse will form.”
The two of them headed for Buck’s room first. They moved single file since there wasn’t enough room for both of them and the occasional set of drawers growing out of the wall. Shay stopped and turned her head to the wall. She lowered herself to her knees and felt along the wood. It seemed shoddily grown; there were seams and a few tiny leaves forming an awkward line up the side.
“Hang on a second,” she said. Dana stopped and returned to her. “This is where Natalie and I are sleeping… but the door’s gone.” Shay knocked on the wall once and then again past the line. It sounded hollow.
“Buck, get out here!” Dana shouted. The Leprechaun came running. “Natalie took your parents’ palawater and sealed herself in her room! How do we open it back up?”
“There’s an editing solution but it works slowly. I’ll get the weapons,” Buck said. He ran to fetch their gear.
“Natalie let us in!” Dana yelled. He banged on the door with a flat hand. Shay joined him.
“Natty, come on. Open up!” the Amazon said. She leaned over to Dana. “Is she going to hurt herself?” she whispered.
“She might have already,” Dana said. “None of this is your fault,” he told the freshly grown wall. “We figured out what Perseus is planning and we’re going to stop him. We need your help. Don’t give them the satisfaction Natalie! It doesn’t matter who made you or how. We’re here for you. We’re angry like you are.”
She did not respond but they heard faint weeping. Shay braced her back against the opposite wall and started trying to kick it in. The fresh growth proved much stronger than she’d hoped. Only a few uneven pieces had chipped away by the time Buck returned. He handed Shay her mace and Dana his sword.
“Be careful,” he said, “The fresh stuff gets acidic if you break it open. You can burn yourself.”
They mostly ignored his warning as they hacked away at the wall. Droplets of green fluid hit Shay’s bare arms and left red streaks. Eventually Dana had to back off because Shay was being too effective. Some of her spatter struck his cheek as he retreated without protest to where Buck stood.
“Let us in!” the Amazon roared every third swing or so. The wood cracked and fluid spurted out like an opened artery. She did not slow down. As soon as the hole was large enough she pulled on it with her bare hands and bent the slab of fresh wood out into the hall. It splintered at the bottom; a hundred tiny spears were embedded in the carpet. Buck crawled into the hole and braced it with his shoulders and shoes so Shay could move. When the Amazon took her hands away they were raw and swollen from the acid. The flesh around her nails rolled over the cuticle.
Dana and the Amazon squeezed into the room. Shay bolted to the bathroom where she found Natalie sitting on the edge of the wooden tub. She had a small utility knife she’d found in one of the drawers pressed against her wrist, a curl of dried blood wrapped around it. Shay took the blade from her and dropped it in the sink. Natalie did not protest. The wound was superficial. Shay sat next to her and the girl wrapped her arms around the Amazon and buried her face in her chest. Shay patted her back. Natalie was glad they were there, but she didn’t want any of them to see her, so she kept trying to burrow into the Amazon. Shay’s core was strong and Natalie thought if she could find it maybe some of that strength could be hers too.
“You said,” she sniveled to Dana though it wasn’t clear who she spoke to through Shay’s clothing, “You said you have to have something that’s yours. Something they can’t take. I never even had a body. I was never even meant to be a person. I’m just part of this big gross… thing… spreading like mold…”
“Welcome to human society,” Dana said. He couldn’t help but picture a ball of mold growing under Shay’s navel. The Amazon looked at him sternly, suggesting it may not have been the best time to moan about his own troubles. “There’s something you can take Natalie. The Appearl. That thing brought us together.”
“Made us all a family,” Shay added.
“It’s the key to everything. Its power… can bring Perseus down.” Natalie’s face finally emerged, almost as red and swollen as Shay’s hands.
“It’s not like I’ve got anything else to do with this life,” she said. “But do we even know where he is?”
“We do,” Buck said and stepped forward. “I sorted some positioning data out a few minutes ago. I’ve got the pearl’s longitude and latitude… on Proplay.”
“That figures,” Dana said.
“Why does that figure?” Shay asked.
“Proplay imports everything and exports nothing. Their economy is based on the service of technologically enhanced privacy. The best resume there is a blank one because it means you know how to keep your mouth shut.”
“So how are the four of us supposed to get close to him?” Natalie asked. Shay wetted a hand towel under the tub’s faucet and wiped at Natalie’s bloody wrist.
“We’ll think of something on the way there,” Dana said. “Shay and I figured out his plan for the pearl by the way.” As Dana spoke he could feel a sort of warm breeze in his mind flowing down to his mouth. Those robots really were smooth talkers. He always considered himself an above average liar, but these things could convince an exterminator to pay a cockroach’s college tuition. They helped him knit a lie out of accurate details. He told Natalie and Buck that he suspected Perseus planned to write a program for the pearl that would hack fertility clinics’ computer systems and get their stock entirely replaced with his own. It was close enough to the truth though it lacked the more sinister bite of Perseus’ proximity impregnation. With one glance he and Shay silently agreed to not mention her pregnancy.
“I have a feeling that we’ll get in fine,” he continued. “It’s getting out that seems… impossible. If we do this, there’s a good chance we wind up dead or in prison.”
“Perseus already destroyed my life… without me even knowing it,” Natalie said bitterly.
“Mine’s in the toilet too,” Buck said with a laugh.
“I’d do anything to get the pearl away from him,” Shay said.
“And I’d really enjoy smacking this messiah upside the head,” Dana concluded. “So we’re in agreement? At the very least we’re going to set a damn fine example for the pearl.” He placed his hand out. Natalie pulled her feminine little hand away from Shay’s and put it on top of Dana’s. Buck added one of his green mitts. Shay covered the other hands with hers.
With their unholy alliance made, they began to prepare. Shay wrapped some gauze around Natalie’s wrist, even though she didn’t need it, as a gesture of concern. They bagged up all their weapons. Buck assured them that his parents wouldn’t mind them raiding the fridge for supplies for the flight.
Dana gave Natalie one last lesson with her shield. Shay watched them and thought about their daughter, who was still just a miniscule cluster of cells inside her. She didn’t feel very different, but the nanobots wouldn’t let her forget. She had to think about how Dana would likely never instruct her child with whatever implements she might use to express herself, be it sword or pen or anything else. He wasn’t the type to play catch with her or clap like an idiot when she won a third place ribbon. Maybe I’ll join one of those support groups, Shay thought. Maybe Two-Rock Families or Partner-Free Parenting. Then when the others ask me what kept us apart I’ll say… what exactly? We just kind of got stuck together and I just kind of adhered more than he did. We crossed paths and I got a souvenir.
Buck quietly worked on his hands and knees, plucking all the splinters out of the carpet and using the editing solution to fix the guest room door. He channeled his artistic talents and mimicked the frames of the other doors as accurately as he could. Forty minutes after he finished his parents returned home. They were a little upset by the unexpected departure.
“But we were going to get us all reservations at the Piping Hot River,” his mother complained.
“Damn,” Dana whispered to Shay and Natalie, “That’s a great place. You don’t even order; they just set you at a table with a hollow rim where a mechanism beneath it pulls these four sections of soup in a circle. They’re all perfectly separated by little walls of oil and you dip bread, vegetables, and meats into them.”
“How many reindeer did it get?” Shay asked. The girls giggled.
“A full sleigh’s worth?” Natalie asked. Dana suppressed his sourness so Natalie could have her happy moment. Any moment where she wasn’t dwelling on their situation was good for her. She didn’t get to enjoy it for long, as Buck’s mother spotted a small piece of her smashed datawatch in the carpet and picked it up. She asked if anyone had broken anything.
“That’s mine,” Natalie admitted. “I suddenly got fed up with my watch. It only ever had bad news anyway. People telling me where to go and what to do. So I smashed it.” There was an awkward pause.
“You’re an inspiration,” Buck’s dad declared. He undid his own datawatch and took it over to the kitchen counter. “No more of this eight A.M. alarm business,” he said as he pulled a wooden meat tenderizer out of a drawer. “It’ll be liberating,” he insisted when his wife took both of them from him to make sure there was no smashing. That lightened the mood enough that they were able to get out the door ten minutes later. Buck’s mother gave them all hugs and reached over her head to pat Shay on the arm affectionately. The Amazon was happy to lean down and hug her back. Buck absorbed a barrage of kisses.
“These are good people you got with you,” his dad said as they were moving to leave. He shook his son’s hand and patted him on the back. “None of that punching bag stuff matters,” he told his son. “You know I can read people. This bunch will take care of you. If any punching needs to happen I’m sure they’ll cover you.”
“Thanks dad,” Buck said. He hoped there would be enough punching for everyone. He would not be satisfied unless he personally knocked out at least one of Perseus’ teeth.
The group made their way through crowds and wooden streets. They bought palm-sized toys hand-carved from Palawan wood from an elderly vendor whose stand had a pile of sawdust next to it big enough to jump in; they would make excellent totems to mull over during the extended flight: a rhinoceros for Shay, a woodpecker for Buck, a raccoon for Natalie, and a snowplow for Dana. He couldn’t resist being the odd man out. If he was being honest with himself, he certainly didn’t feel that way. Even with the specter of parenthood hanging over him in ten different ways, he felt more at home with those three people than he ever had in some ten-loaf hotel with pillows as thick and warm as hibernating bears. There was only one thing missing. Their center. Their pearl.