The Ticking Tunnel
Tick tock tick tuck tick teck tick tick tick tick tack. Every other tick sounded a little bit different. She was starting to hear variation in something mechanically identical and she knew it probably wasn’t the best sign for her sanity. Tai Chen forced her eyes open. She still couldn’t see anything. Tickticktickticktickticktickticktick. She hopped to her feet, banging her knees on a groaning pipe in the process. Something fluttered against her nose. She smacked herself in the face to stop it and came away with a note written on lined paper.
I went out to pick up some things. I’m not dead or kidnapped, just like yesterday. Safety word: Shelley. You’ve got a busy day ahead of you, very busy. Bernenstein’s got another fishing lesson for you during his lunch. 12:30. Your serial is on at 1. I’ll be back around 1 or 2. Saw two more mites this morning. One of them was Grandmother Stark. I know a couple of her words: communion, saddle, reins, rock, and belt. Eat your breakfast and your lunch.
Tai Chen crumpled the note and tossed it at the clock. Tick tock tick tock. Even if she broke the clock there were ten more in the tunnel, all ticking away at exactly the same pace. They all had the same source, so in between ticks there was a micro-moment of complete silence. She wanted them to stop, but B.J. would have a fit if even one spring was out of place… or if even one tick was in the wrong nanosecond. She knew it was for her own good but if she could just have one second without the ticktockticktack, maybe everything would fall into place and she could leave that godforsaken tunnel.
The tunnel was the only place she was safe. She’d always planned on hiding there, since the moment Bernenstein told her there was a Copy-car outside her place. She’d only said otherwise to get the poor ambulance driver to play chauffeur. It was a rotten trick, but she thought it excusable given her rotten luck that day and every day since. B.J.’s tunnel was born of the word tunnel, so it could be whatever sort of tunnel they needed. It could lead to any manhole cover in Carlo. That was how she checked up on her own place. Of course, it wasn’t her place anymore. The Copyright Company had gone and annexed it.
Every time she stuck her head above ground the first week after her attack, the car was there. Then they only showed up every other day, but when they came they knocked on the door, checked the yard, and then let themselves in. She assumed that Mackenny and Edmundus had informed their employer of their scuffle and they had tried to retrieve her body from the bay. When they failed they must’ve decided they couldn’t just let the risk go. It had been a full month and they were still checking.
She had a few friends who could still go out. They gave her reports on the condition of Carlo frequently. Things were getting worse. Everyday more people showed up with the C between their eyes. At first Tai Chen felt fine going out in public during the day, but then she started to notice the stares.
The first two times it really started to get to her she was in Carlo’s one sad little public park. The land their city was built upon was a wasteland, so everything alive had to be shipped in on the boats just like they were. The trees had that flat cardboard look to them, like stage scenery. Even the acorns they produced were flat. The squirrels could barely climb on trees like that, so they scurried around and hid in storm drains like rats instead. When Tai Chen had first come to Carlo she’d held out hope that certain things about it could be great, and then she saw a wet squirrel run terrified across her path, a candy bar wrapper practically glued to its back. That was when she stopped hoping and started smoking.
The pigeons too were shipped into the park for that authentic city park feeling. Any time a pigeon was mentioned in a book it was set aside to fill the urban corners. The birds sensed the other pigeons around them weren’t from the same work. They were only sociable when food was present, and even then they attacked each other like hawks. The ornery beasts hated anything that wasn’t from their own work, so they indiscriminately attacked squirrels, finches, dogs, cats, and ankles. People still fed them with breadcrumbs, but it was mostly so the birds wouldn’t harass them.
Tai Chen was in the park that day looking for Kloo-kooch, who always walked her dog Spanker there. She’d seen them several times before, playing in a pile of snow Kloo-kooch had made to remind them of White Fang. Tai Chen wanted to tell her friend that she didn’t need to worry about Hortotef’s quinine anymore. (She wasn’t actually sure where he was, just that the Egyptian was now living in Copyright Company housing and working under their insurance plan.)
There was no sign of her friend, so she just strolled for a while to enjoy the fresh air. The pigeons were almost cute when they were distracted by their reflections in the fountain. After about five minutes of walking she noticed a set of footsteps behind her. They kept the same distance behind and never changed path. When she stopped they stopped. She turned around to see a man ‘struggling’ to light a match for his wordy cigar. He didn’t know what to do when he successfully struck it, so he ‘dropped’ it and dug around for another in his pocket. She was curious how long he could go on pretending to do things in the middle of the walkway.
He hadn’t tried anything, but nearly a week later she’d been in the park again to escape the ticktickticktock. Everyone around her had a C on their foreheads. She felt like the only egg without speckles in the dozen. She only realized how easy it was to hide behind the flat trees when it was too late. One set of footsteps multiplied into four. She stole one glance over her shoulder and saw four people walking behind her. One was already holding a reference page.
These people aren’t trained, Tai Chen realized. The copymites were just working stiffs willing to do anything shady for a buck. Of course it’s not like I’m Quatermain. She silently veered off the paved path and into some muddy grass. She heard them squelching behind her. The woman in heels gave up, leaving three pursuers. She walked through the dog-walking area. Another mite started sneezing uncontrollably. Two to go.
She approached a group of pigeons that were bickering over the remains of a soft pretzel near the fountain. When they spotted her they started marching towards her, intent on harassment. Tai Chen reached into her shirt and pulled out a reference page. She tapped rice and crumpled it up. The page turned to a pile of dried grains in her hand.
She stopped at the fountain and stared into the water. The birds pecked at her socks and cooed angrily. She ignored the tiny jabs. The mites following her didn’t stop; they kept getting closer and closer. They were ten feet away. Five. A few pigeon heads turned towards them.
Tai Chen spun on her heels and tossed the pile of rice like sand. Her pursuers threw up their hands like they expected buckshot and then the grains rained over them harmlessly. One of them started to laugh, but then a pigeon burrowed into his sock after a grain. Another bird spotted a speck of rice on the other’s shirt collar and flapped right into his face. In a second the entire flock was harassing them like seagulls to pluck the rice from their folds and wrinkles. Tai Chen wasted no time in fleeing the park.
Once she was done reminiscing about how she’d gotten stuck underground, Tai Chen, having suddenly remembered that the psychological torture devices around her could tell time, checked to see how long it would be until Bernenstein squeezed himself in the tunnel. 11:00. I guess I’m supposed to eat breakfast.
B.J. wasn’t limited to just clocks and tunnels; she was a very technical woman what with her access to batteries, motors, and wires. The tunnel had several machines set up along the wall, next to the cot Tai Chen was using. They were fed power from B.J.’s home, which was directly above. The ticktucktack was joined by the occasional humming of a refrigerator and the hissing rattles of the water heater. After Tai Chen absentmindedly burned her hand on the water heater she moved a few feet to the left and opened the fridge. Cold eggs, cold cuts, cold salad… what am I expecting? Juno with a cup of steaming cocoa? She grabbed a hunk of cheese, sniffed at it, and took a few bites. When she was done she rubbed her hands on the seat of her pants. Breakfast complete.
When 12:30 rolled around Bernenstein knocked on the roof hatch twice.
“Password?” Tai Chen asked.
“Shelley,” he said. She popped the hatch open and watched him climb down the ladder. As if he’d read her mind, he offered her a warm cinnamon bun in crinkly bakery paper. She took it, mumbled a thanks, and shoved her face into it. “You ready for some fishing?” She gave him a thumbs-up and then licked the frosting from her thumb. “What are we trying out today?”
Tai Chen tossed the paper from the bun over her shoulder so B.J.’s note wouldn’t be lonely. She moved to the wall where they’d put up a calendar. Each little box had three or four things written in it. Nearly all of them were crossed out up to the current day. Today’s box read:
Bernenstein reached a lanky arm into his shirt and grabbed a reference page. He folded it into a tiny sword and made a thrusting motion. The paper shot forward and hardened, creating a steel blade. Tai Chen grabbed her own page and pressed fish. Since she was now in the business of fighting copymites, she was doing her best to diversify her most reliable self-defense word.
Fish could mean anything, so while she was trapped underground during the day she worked to discover what type of fish was best for dispatching threats. Of course they had tried swordfish first, but apparently that meant an adult swordfish about ten feet in length and impossible for her to lift, let alone swing. Bernenstein was a whiz with his blade, so he was doing his best to teach her how to use her fish in a similar manner.
“Blades are more flexible than people think,” he’d said. “So while a sword is better than a fish, a fish isn’t nothing… especially if it’s light and has tough scales.” First up on the agenda was the sockeye salmon. Tai Chen had high hopes for that one; she’d seen its sharp hooked jaw in pictures before. It was a real hang-on-your-wall kind of fish. If it turned out to be the best one she silently swore she’d find a real one to put up over her fireplace one day.
Sockeye, she thought. She focused in on the word and its physical features. Flat tiny eyes. Hooked jaw. Swims up the way it came from, gets some action, and then rots alive until it can’t wiggle that tailfin anymore. Sockeye, Sockeye, Sockeye… She folded the same origami fish as usual, but instead of the traditional mackerel it grew into a thicker and longer fish with a vicious hook at the end. It drooped in her hand and she struggled to hold it up.
“Darn,” Bernenstein said as he watched her mop the floor with the end of the fish. “It’s too heavy. I thought for sure that one would be a really tough customer.”
“I’m not giving up on it yet,” Ta Chen said. She wrapped both hands around the fish’s tail and hefted it over her shoulder like a bag of dirty laundry. “Show me what you’ve got Bernenstein.”
“It won’t work Tai Chen.”
“That’s just what a coward would say to talk his way out of a fish slap. En garde!” She rushed forward and brought the salmon down over her head. Bernenstein took a step back. Swock! The fish smacked against the concrete floor. One of its gloppy eyes popped out of the socket. Tai Chen issued another war cry and swung the fish in a big circle, nearly slipping on the wet patch from her first strike. Bernenstein effortlessly sliced through the middle of the salmon. The front half of it smashed into the ceiling. A shower of tiny sparkling eggs covered Tai Chen and stuck in her hair.
“I told you.”
“The first time I didn’t wear my cap,” she muttered as she picked the roe out.
“Try the next one.” Tai Chen dropped the fish tail and kicked it over by the note and the bun wrapper. It would be paper in a little while anyway, but not before it further cemented the fishy smell in the tunnel. She grabbed a fresh reference page and concentrated on the image of a bigmouth bass. The fish was a little more manageable in its size, but no more effective at slapping Bernenstein’s blade before it could cut the slimy creature in half.
“Do I even bother trying flounder?” Tai Chen asked. “Whose idea was that one anyway?”
“We should try them all,” Bernenstein said, without mentioning that the flatfish was his idea. Its puffy sideways face maybe could’ve scared an attacker away, but its swing was far too slow and its flesh far too flimsy.
“Alright conger eel, it’s all up to you now,” Tai Chen whispered to the long, dead-eyed, floppy creature in her grasp. After twenty minutes of failure their lesson was drawing to a close. She swung the end of the eel in a circle like a lasso and strafed around Bernenstein. The ambulance driver did not appear concerned. She tried to trip him with the eel, but Bernenstein jumped over it. He smashed his head on a pipe and wobbled around. She seized the opportunity and whipped the eel as hard as she could. Its face smacked into his and knocked him sideways onto the cot. They both stopped to take a breath. Tai Chen wrapped the eel around her neck like a towel after a long session of tennis.
“That was a fluke,” Bernenstein said.
“I know,” she said. “This thing is just as heavy as the salmon. We’re not going to find anything good enough.” She dropped on to the bed next to him. She didn’t particularly want to be close to him, but there was nowhere else to sit other than a hot water pipe.
In the quiet her mind drifted back to the schedule. The next thing on it was the radio serial. It was supposed to be her hobby down there in the tunnel, something innocent enough to relax her without being so dull that cobwebs would start appearing in the corners. “Have you ever listened to The Secret Planter Bernenstein?” she asked after a few minutes of silence, if only to dispel the thought that the moment would’ve been far more pleasant with lazy smoke trails in the air.
“Which one is that again?” It was clear he’d wanted to simply say yes, but doubted his ability to lie his way through the conversation.
“It’s the one with the guy who used to do communications during the war.”
“… I think they just call it the war. Anyway, once he gets out of a combat role he finds he doesn’t have anything to do with himself. He starts making things up. Then he decides he wants these things to make an impact. He starts planting radios in strange places like people’s gardens. Then he broadcasts rumors on them.”
“That’s a serial? That sounds like a one-off where the guy gets thrown in the slammer at the end.”
“He starts to grow a conscience in the middle of it and decides he’ll only broadcast true things like corruption. I found that duller,” Tai Chen said. “I was interested in the liar. Can you blame him for doing what he did? Tell me, what’s the difference between him and the guy who wrote you?”
“What kind of question is that? Nobody meets their writer.”
“That’s because both parties can only be disappointing to each other. I already know everything I need to know about my maker, just from everything that’s wrong with me.”
“Why are we talking about this?”
“Because the day’s catch was lousy and I need something to do. Here’s another one for you. Do you think there’s a place somewhere where the actual secret planter is sitting on a cot and thinking things over?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Somebody here in the Public Domain is pretending to be the secret planter. That’s an act of creation. There’s got to be a place where that role gets to live. Some dusty corner of space where those sound waves vibrate all together and make him real.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is that if the serial ends with him going to jail… I’m going to be furious. I’m talking a few steps past letter writing. He doesn’t deserve that.”
“Jellyfish,” Bernenstein said in response. He sat up and looked at her with a look in his eye like he’d pulled up dandelions and found truffles in their roots. “Jellyfish,” he said slower.
“It’ll never work,” Tai Chen said. She shook her head against the one pillow on the cot. “It’s not a real fish. The word won’t let it happen.”
“You’ll never know unless you try. What could it hurt?”
“I haven’t seen anything hurt that yet.” She glared at him. “Sorry.”
“Every time it seems like you have a spine it flops over like a wet noodle. I guess I should put at least as much effort in as you are though.” Tai Chen stood and whipped out another reference page. She pressed on the word and thought about a jellyfish. No eyes. No fins. Just tendrils liked jellied vermicelli. She folded the page into a new shape. It felt strange; she hadn’t made a new shape in ages. She realized a little too late that the manifesting creature could grow its tentacles right over her hand and sting her, but luck was on her side for the moment. She gripped a limp blob of silver-white goo by the bell. Its jiggling tentacles hung down.
“You did it!” Bernenstein hooted. “Can you imagine how much that’ll hurt a copymite when you slap them across the face with it?”
“One problem,” Tai Chen said. “How do I whip this thing around without hitting myself?”
“Good point. Maybe you’ll have to wear gloves.”
“I won’t have time to put on gloves when these guys are following me down the streets. Maybe if I just…” Tai Chen jiggled the limp thing and tried to crack it like a bullwhip; the tendrils swung back and landed on the back of her palm. Shooting hot pain hit her like a sizzling egg and then ran up her forearm. She tried to let go but it clung to her. She howled in pain and jumped on the cot, waving her arms back and forth to shake it loose. She was a few seconds from passing out when Bernenstein reached out, she was only just as high as his arms on the bed, and grabbed the ball of slime away from her. He stood there staring at it like an eclipse for a second, then screamed bloody murder and hurled it to the far end of the tunnel to sleep with the ticktocktecktacks.
Once again they both collapsed onto the bed, except this time they were wiping tears away with their biceps and blowing on their hands like birthday candles. Tai Chen delicately grabbed another page and pressed water. She wiped her own hands down and made another one for Bernenstein. When they were both on their backs with their hands held high in the air, she mentioned that they didn’t stand much of a chance against people with gun and blade words.
That was when the hatch opened again and B.J. descended the ladder. She caught them waving their hands about like cornstalks in the wind. The two pulled them down as soon as they spotted her.
“B.J.! I thought you weren’t coming back until later,” Tai Chen said. She sat up and looked at her friend. Belinda Joslyn was a plain woman with curly hair pulled back into a ponytail that looked like a bouquet of shredded documents. Her eyes tended to look shallow, but the second she caught wind of something funny they sharpened to charcoal pencil points.
She’d leapt from the pages of L. Frank Baum’s The Master Key: An Electrical fairy Tale Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of its Devotees. That was a mouthful of a title, but in it she was just the mother of the child protagonist. Tai Chen thought it was the instinct of chasing around a science-obsessed boy that gave her those suspicious eyes.
“I wasn’t supposed to be back,” Belinda confirmed, “but weird stuff is going on up there. I’m getting looks now.”
“How would they know you’ve got me in your basement?”
“They can’t. I don’t think that’s it. I think they’re looking at me because I don’t have a C.”
“I didn’t want to say anything, but I’ve been getting that too,” Bernenstein said. “There was a call the other day. Some guy had sliced his hand open on a deli slicer. When I got there he refused to come with me; he just got in a Copyright car instead and they drove him away… not towards the hospital either.”
“At the deli?” Tai Chen questioned. “I know that guy; he’s from… shoot… something by Burroughs.”
“No, not him,” Bernenstein said. “Somebody new. Somebody with a C. All these copymites are getting shuffled around to different jobs. Every time I go to the diner there’s a whole new set of waitresses. I have to tell them what my usual is every time. It defeats the point of having a usual.”
“Bernenstein shouldn’t you be heading out? How long is your lunch break anyway?” Belinda asked.
“It’s been over for about ten minutes; you know we’re never busy.”
“Take the hint and get out you big lug,” she said. He nodded and rose to his feet. When he reached the ladder he stared at it like it was a thousand feet high. He wrapped one of his stung hands around the metal bar and hissed. He hissed and squealed all the way up and out of the tunnel. “What did you two do to yourselves?”
“There’s a jellyfish back there somewhere,” Tai Chen warned her. “Came out of nowhere.”
“Like these copymites.”
“What do you suppose their endgame is here anyway?” she asked B.J.
“They’re taking advantage of us. They waited for us to get desperate for work and recognition and then they swooped in like they were foreign aid. They’re going to turn this whole place into a slum.”
“It isn’t one already?”
“That was our fault. This will be theirs.”
“What are you getting at saying it was our fault? When did anybody here ever have a choice?”
“You don’t have to be a protagonist to act like one,” B.J. said. She sat down on the cot.
“We really need some more furniture,” Tai Chen said.
“I don’t want you getting too comfortable down here. You have to resurface one of these days.”
“I need options B.J.”
“I might have one for you,” her friend said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope with a silver sticker. She handed it to Tai Chen, who ripped it open and scanned the paper inside. It was an invitation to some sort of auction being held at one of those fancy restaurants with a bar glued to the side of its dance floor.
“What is this?”
“Elspeth gave that to Diane. And that was after she tried to give it to Kloo-kooch to give to you. She’s been angling for you up there. Diane brought it to me.”
“What does Elspeth want?”
“Other than tossing you between her sheets? Don’t know. Maybe she’s courting controversy more than you. Diane told me that Elspeth said she had some information for you on what the Copyright Company thinks you saw. She said she wants to meet somewhere in public because she’s scared of them. Naturally to her, public is a black tie affair rather than the diner down the street.”
“Do you think she’s pulling my leg?”
“Whatever she’s doing she doesn’t have a C stamped on her pretty face.” Tai Chen immediately imagined all of the problems with going out to that auction and vocalized them. B.J. expertly neutralized each one. That was why Tai Chen had come to her in the first place; she’d never let Princess Taik recline back into her throne of curled smoke. When you looked deep into Belinda’s soul, past the modern woman and her technical knowhow, you saw a grieving mother, a woman split from her kids by the edge of a page. She was in Carlo… and they were something else. The best thing to fill a hole left by a child is an adult that needs just as much care and attention. She had her little Princess Taik, who’d gotten herself in trouble and needed help and some supervision. She couldn’t be left to her own devices, but she could be left to Belinda’s. tickticktick.
“This thing is tomorrow,” Tai Chen noticed. “There’s no way I can scrape a plan together.”
“I already did the scraping,” Belinda offered. “I’ll build you a tunnel to the nearest storm drain. You won’t have to be out on the street at all. Bernenstein and I will hang out outside while it’s going on in case you need a speedier getaway.”
“This is a black tie thing? I don’t have any black ties,” Tai Chen said.
“I’ll go out in a bit and buy you something to wear. I’m sure there’s a black evening dress out there somewhere that works with that twig body of yours.” Tai Chen opened her mouth. “Naturally you can’t wear your cap,” Belinda said before her friend could get the words out. She snatched the hat off from her head and tousled her hair. “When was the last time you washed this thing anyway?”
“You’re supposed to wash hats? That doesn’t sound right. You’ll wash all the daydreams out of them.”
“What are your dreams doing in your cap? You have a hole in your skull?”
“It sure seems like it sometimes. If I have any memory of how I got myself in this situation it has leaked out.”
“Stop talking like that. I told you I wouldn’t tolerate a defeatist attitude in my tunnel. If you make me sweep cobwebs out of here I’ll never forgive you.”
“I guess I better get out of here so I can go back to feeling sorry for myself. Go get that dress.” Belinda smiled and returned the cap to her friend’s head. She reminded Tai Chen not to miss The Secret Planter. Then she was out of the hatch and Tai Chen was alone with her thoughts, her crumpled notes, the pale three-dimensional stain that was the jellyfish, and enough damn ticking and tocking to make the doomsday clock hit midnight.
There was nothing for her to do but pace back and forth and listen to the radio. The static was constant because of the layer of dirt overhead; every song sounded like it was transmitted through three other radios before it got to hers. The same thing happened with all the voices in her serial. To help keep the madness at bay she took off her shoes and walked as close to the jellyfish as possible at the end of each lap around the tunnel. Closer. Closer. One of her toes itched. Maybe one single stinging cell had gotten her. I think I can handle at least five, she thought after that lap. She might’ve destroyed her foot and her chances of walking anywhere the next day if Belinda’s return hadn’t stopped her. She returned with one hell of a dress.
She made Tai Chen try it on and give herself the once-over in a mirror. It was strapless and black. B.J. lent her a necklace of glittering black pearls to go with it. She also lent her an onyx poison ring; the tiny secret compartment behind the stone held one shred of a reference page, a single word curled up like a wood shaving.
“It’s one of my words: telephone,” B.J. explained. “A phone is supposed to call people, so that’s what it does. It’ll connect the wire right through the ground if it has to. You can use it to call us in if there’s any trouble tomorrow.”
Tai Chen looked at herself in the mirror silently. She ran her hands down her skinny thighs and her bony knees. She felt the tiny scar under her dress from where she’d toppled her sail-barrow on the day she’d dragged Hortotef to the docks and the doorstep of that infernal company.
Don’t know if I want Bernenstein seeing me like this; he’s already hounding me for a date. Come to think of it, Elspeth will probably get a kick out of it too. Everybody’s getting their kicks except me. The Copyright Company can’t be worth all this. She looked at the thin outline of her reference page, its pressed black edge standing out against her white skin like the contrast of piano keys. Belinda grabbed her bare shoulder and gave her a confident pat on the back.
“You look amazing. First stop: the sewer.”
Everybody gets a Redo
The day of the auction was overcast and rainy. It was a stroke of luck Tai Chen moved toward the restaurant under the roads, nothing threw a wrench in the works like a wet reference page. To deal with the water in the concrete sewers she wore a big pair of rubber boots and carried her delicate dancing shoes, one in each hand. The smell in the pipe wasn’t as bad as she’d expected. I guess the sewers catch the city’s worst, so a boring place like Carlo can’t even work up a powerful stench. No wild parties means no drunken vomit. No mob means no rotting bodies wrapped in rugs.
She still had a few blocks to go before she reached The Satin Impasse. Judging from the pictures in the paper, it was probably the nicest place in all of Carlo. It was the kind of place where hard rum came in crystal glasses and the waiters giving you attitude was part of the atmosphere. It was a constant mean-spirited game where the head chef and the drink schleppers tried to convince you that even with all your money they were still more important than you because they spent all their time at The Satin Impasse.
Tai Chen stopped when she heard the music emanating from the building above and put her bare back against the driest patch of concrete she could find. She looked up at the storm drain she was going to have to crawl out of in a few minutes’ time. The feet that walked by almost always came in two pairs side by side. Couples. Men bringing their wives because it was okay for them to place ridiculous bids on useless things as long as she was there to see it. As she got more intoxicated and lost in conversation with the other wives the ridiculousness of the bids would increase dramatically. They had to be sure to leave with as many flavors of headache as possible.
The waiting game left her feeling colder than the rain did. There was no way she’d get in without two full sleeves of goosebumps, which could be mistaken for the raised follicles of nervousness, something Elspeth would no doubt pick up on. She didn’t have a choice; there wasn’t much more suspicious than a woman in evening wear crawling out of a storm drain. She had to wait for the pairs of feet to slow to a crawl so she at least had a shot of getting above ground without anyone spotting her. Part of her wondered if there was any point to such tactics, if some of the rats in the sewer had the letter C tattooed along the rim of their round ears.
When the feet stopped she assumed the auction had begun and that she was officially late. That didn’t worry her since Elspeth lingered at events like that long after they were over. She had a habit of staying until she was literally the last person in the building, even if it meant hiding in the bathroom until the staff was gone for the night. Tai Chen remembered her saying how much she liked being alone in a building and singing to the walls.
She ascended to the drain by stacking two wheelbarrows and climbing them. The grate was extremely heavy and she barely missed spreading some street scum across her armpit like peanut butter on a piece of toast. When she was up in the street she grabbed the tiny black purse over her shoulder and popped it open. Inside there was a layer of reference pages, for quick access, and a few odds and ends. She grabbed a compact mirror and examined her face. Then she grabbed her most crucial cosmetic: a rubber stamp. She inked it on a pad and then firmly pressed it against her forehead, leaving behind a bold black C with a circle around it. She tossed her boots in an alley and slipped into the flat dance shoes. There, now nobody will know me from Eve.
The bouncer in front of the door took her invitation and tucked it into his jacket like she was paying him off. He pulled open a curtain and then a door. Tai Chen stepped inside the restaurant. Well this is a blurb of a place, she thought.
There were two jazz bands of three musicians each on opposite sides of the main room. Whenever the singer, the saxophonist, and the drummer finished a number and started imbibing their liquid refreshments, the clarinetist, the trumpeter, and the guitarist dropped their glasses and started playing.
Between them there was a stretch of carpet doing its best to look like marble tile and a dancefloor of slick hardwood. When she looked to the back of the restaurant, past all the silver trays gliding around like flying saucers, it became apparent why the bands had been pushed off to the sides to entertain the people entering and exiting the bathrooms. The stage was occupied by the auctioneer: a heavy woman with a naturally loud voice made slightly irritating by the needless crackle of the square microphone in front of her. Tai Chen was not happy with what the woman was trying to sell.
Up there with the auctioneer there was another woman in a dress sewn to be far more suggestive than Tai Chen’s. She, along with just about everybody else Tai Chen could see, had the brand on her forehead. The auctioneer rattled off the details of the current item.
“Come on gentlemen she’s lovelier than a lousy hundred dollars. Look at that smile. Look at every one of those teeth in that smile. Every inch of her is flawless perfection. One hundred, can I get one fifty?” A paddle went up around one of the dining tables. “I have one fifty but that’s not even close to what one night with this woman is worth. Can I hear two hundred? Don’t insult her gentlemen… or you ladies if you’ve got the cash and a swinging front gate. Can I hear two hundred?”
This is a date auction, Tai Chen realized. Of course it is. There’s nothing in Carlo but labor. What would they be selling otherwise? Feather dusters? A hostess approached her and asked her where she would like to sit. She quietly mentioned she was expected at a table already. That was about when she spotted Elspeth over the hostess’ left ear. Elspeth didn’t wave; she just stared back. Tai Chen made her way to the table and sat down.
There was an open bottle of wine in a bucket of ice. Its perspiration wrinkled the white tablecloth beneath it. Elspeth had poured a glass for each of them; the lipstick on hers indicated she’d been testing the quality of the wine for a while. The glistening silverware looked clean enough for surgery. All Tai Chen saw was tiny pitchforks and knives like swords. When she sat down she immediately folded the napkin in her lap and grabbed a menu. She pretended to look over it casually, a charade that became far more difficult when she noticed the prices.
“Twain alive! How can they charge that much for a cup of soup?” she exclaimed. The woman on stage sold for four hundred dollars. She stepped down and sat in the lap of the man that had purchased her. The next Copyrighted girl came out on stage and did a little twirl. The auctioneer threw out a plea for a hundred dollars.
“That soup has vegetables in it that take a week to prepare properly. They need to be soaked until they’re just air in the shape of a vegetable,” Elspeth said. “It’s worth every penny.” She said nothing about the C, because it was obvious to her that it was just a disguise.
“What are you getting? Hopefully not a date.”
“No I’m not here for the meat market. I’m just here to help you.”
“Then we can make this quick. I don’t have the money for any of this anyway.”
“I’m buying,” Elspeth insisted. She took a rolled reference page from her bag and a lighter in the shape of a fountain pen. She lit the end of the page and then sucked on it. Fittttttthhhhh. She exhaled slowly, sending a curtain of smoky letters up to the ceiling. The last of it was sent towards Tai Chen, who blocked the smoke with the back of the menu. “I brought one for you.” Another rolled page came out of her bag.
“What is it?”
“Red Hunters and the Animal People.”
“Always so touchy Princess. It’s not even your race.”
“I take offense on everybody’s behalf.”
“Someone’s offended and I’m not the cause?” a third voice interjected. Elspeth and Tai Chen were pulled out of their stare by a third woman flanked by two wild-looking lanky dogs. She pulled up a chair and sat at their table, the wine glass she’d brought with her sloshing a few drops onto the tablecloth like spray from an artery. The best description of her was the one from her book, Captain Blood:
“She was a girl upon the threshold of glorious womanhood, of a fine height and nobly moulded, with heavy coils of glossy black hair above and about a face that was the colour of old ivory. Her countenance was cast in lines of arrogance, stressed by the low lids of her full dark eyes.”
She was Mademoiselle D’ogeron and she assumed she was invited to any meeting of two or more women from the same age group. She pet one of her jackals and then rested her glass on the head of the other. The animal dutifully sat and balanced it. Tai Chen wasn’t sure how to feel about the interruption. For the moment it was acceptable because it got Elspeth’s eyes off of her. After noticing the tiny irritation marks on the Mademoiselle’s chin, likely from the stubble of the gentleman she’d just been speaking with at the bar, Tai Chen saw the glorious absence of the C.
“I think Elspeth and me are the only two girls here who aren’t signed up,” the Mademoiselle pretended to whisper. Tai Chen was about to correct her when she remembered the oily stamp she’d put between her eyes.
“So what are you doing here if you’re not part of the club?” Tai Chen asked.
“I’m looking for some hired help,” D’ogeron said. “My jackals are so helpful but they can’t write letters for me or hold the door open.”
“So you’re going to buy one of these girls for what? A day of chores?” Tai Chen asked. Elspeth stared past them both, at one of the bands. She smoked her page angrily and blew it out like a train whistle.
“What? No,” D’ogeron said. “You can get anything here, not just dates. That one on stage now looks like she’d be a good assistant.” D’ogeron took her paddle from one of the jackals’ mouths, threw it up into the air, and wiggled it enthusiastically.
“That’s three hundred from the Mademoiselle,” the auctioneer declared. Tai Chen turned in her chair and looked at the stage again. The Copyrighted woman on stage now certainly didn’t look like the nightclub type. She was older and her hair looked fresh out of curlers. Her glasses were on a strong of beads. “Come on ladies and gentlemen she has years of clerical experience…”
“What kind of auction is this exactly?” Tai Chen asked herself more than anyone else.
“The Copyright Company has these every week,” D’ogeron said in a tone that suggested it was odd that she, or anyone in Carlo really, didn’t know about it by now. “It’s like buying a temporary employee.” Tai Chen wanted to ask Elspeth why she’d picked such a place for a meeting, but the presence of the Mademoiselle stopped her. Instead she just stared at the coy singer while she smoked her page down to the last shred. D’ogeron kept chatting like they were the best of friends.
“I can’t stay too long as I promised to have another drink with Captain March.” Tai Chen looked at the bar and saw that it was in fact Adolphus March sitting on a stool like a bag full of wet leaves and throwing back whiskey. He didn’t look right without his birds about him. Either they don’t allow birds in here or drunken fumbling with a page makes drunk birds that can’t stay upright.
“By all means return to the man,” Elspeth said as she dropped the last glowing shred of her page into the ice bucket. “Tai Chen and I have something we need to discuss in private.”
“Yes, but we’re in public now,” Tai Chen countered. “So what’s the harm?” D’ogeron smiled. Tai Chen pet the jackal that wasn’t balancing a glass.
“Don’t mind me,” D’ogeron said. She raised her paddle again but was quickly outbid. “I’m on a quest for an assistant and it is plenty distracting.”
“Go ahead Elspeth… what did you want to tell me about?” Elspeth and Tai Chen stared at each other for several seconds. Tai Chen suddenly felt uneasy, like their table was a life raft and she was about to be pushed overboard.
“I wanted to see what you know about rights,” Elspeth said. She flicked the other rolled page from Red Hunters and the Animal People with a smooth polished fingernail; it rolled until Tai Chen’s stationary hand stopped it.
“Rights?” Tai Chen needed to keep her wording subtle so as not to confuse D’ogeron or draw any more attention. “I have the right to remain silent. I have the right to an attorney.”
“I suppose those are the ones you’ve heard most often,” Elspeth mused. “Those aren’t the rights I’m talking about.” She offered Tai Chen her pen lighter. She pressed its grip and ignited it aggressively. Tai Chen blew it out and pushed it back. She flicked the page and sent it rolling back to Elspeth’s hand. Her hand swallowed it up, the perfect nails dropping down over it like a portcullis.
“I have a right to free expression.”
“One you use liberally, but still not the right rights.”
“Apparently you have the right to beat around the bush.”
“What about property rights?”
“Which one are we discussing?”
“They’re one and the same.”
“There are no character rights in Carlo. Those are for people still working out there past the water. That’s protagonist stuff.”
“So what do you think happened to your rights after Bramah gave them up?” Elspeth asked. She opened the portcullis and, more gently this time, rolled the page back to Tai Chen, who flicked it onto the floor where a waiter’s foot crushed it.
“Bramah threw them away and I picked them up. They’re mine,” Tai Chen said, her mouth tight. What is she getting at? She said she was scared to meet me but she looks right at home. Then she remembered what the mayor had said.
“Tell me, did you ever, physically actually really, pick anything up when you got to Carlo?”
“You know what that means don’t you? You don’t own the rights to your own being.”
“We’re not players anymore Elspeth. Nobody needs to own us and nobody does. We’re free characters. We pull our own strings.”
“Functionally… for now… yes. When it comes down to legal formalities… it never has been that way. You don’t live in the world of the authors. You’re not a born person. You’re full of ink. Your rights are as much a part of you as those big beautiful eyes of yours Princess.”
“Over here,” D’ogeron stressed quietly, her paddle shooting up once again. The other two women cringed and went back to clawing at each other.
“Are you telling me somebody in the Public Domain has my rights? There’s an actual document?”
“Shoot, what a cute assistant he could’ve been,” D’ogeron said. Tai Chen was distracted enough by the male pronoun to glance at the stage again. She saw another C attached to a forehead above a miserable droopy pair of eyes. The eyes drew attention away from the slumped shoulders and the shaking knees. Every pathetic part belonged to Hortotef. Tai Chen swallowed and stared in horror at her friend. The horror instantly transformed into steaming rage. She twisted the napkin in her lap.
“You know him?” Elspeth asked after reading her expression.
“I helped him get a job with these monsters.” Tai Chen started to stand, but Elspeth urged her to sit back down.
“What are you doing? You want to draw attention to yourself? Get back here.” Tai Chen obeyed, only because Elspeth’s quiet rage seemed slightly stronger than her own and more controlled. For all she knew Elspeth, the incredible woman who could turn wrinkles back to porcelain, could turn anger into a bullet.
“I have to get him out of here. Look at him! Have they had him in a coal mine? He looks worse than when I pulled him out of the webs and handed him over.”
“Just be quiet. I’ll get him for you.” Elspeth produced a paddle from under the table and bid until she won Hortotef. Even though he was wearing a nice suit he wore it like prison rags. The wilted Egyptian walked down to them with eyes to the floor and bent into a low bow. The next person went up for auction.
“I am at your service,” Hortotef said.
“What happened to you?” Tai Chen asked. When he didn’t immediately respond she grabbed his chin and turned his face toward her. His eyes were as black as the C, with no sign of obscurvy, but his pupils were big and they reflected nothing. They were like two holes poked in an empty piñata.
“Miss Tai Chen,” he whispered upon recognizing her. “How are you?”
“Forget about me. You look like the gutter Hortotef. What happened?”
“I have been working,” he said in a voice that would’ve been proud if it didn’t have all the wind sucked out of it. “They haven’t fired me. I don’t think they ever fire anyone.”
“Why do you look like something in a dumpster a raccoon would pass over?”
“I have been very tired,” he said. “Every day it is a new job. Work the docks, work the phones, drive these men, clean this pool, stock these shelves…”
“Do you ever get a break?”
“A break is like being fired for a little while.”
“You need to sleep Hortotef!”
“If… I… sleep then they might forget about me.”
“You need to quit; you look like you’re about to drop dead!”
“I have a contract. I can’t quit.” Elspeth snapped her fingers. They both turned to look at her.
“My car is parked outside,” she told Hortotef. “It’s the one with the little silver woman hood ornament. Here is the key.” She dropped a key in his quaking calloused palm. “Go wait inside it until we’re done. Then you’ll drive us home.”
“Yes ma’am,” Hortotef said. He scurried out before Tai Chen could say anything else.
“Any chance I can have him when you’re done?” D’ogeron asked.
“Of course,” Elspeth said. Anything to quiet her so she could get back to batting at Tai Chen as she hung from the end of the conversation’s string.
“You can’t trade Hortotef like he’s a baseball card! He’s a magical Egyptian priest!” Tai Chen hissed.
“He’s whatever the Copyright Company says he is. He lives to make them money. Now… where were we? You were telling me you had no idea who owned your rights.”
“What does any of this have to do with the Copyright Company?”
“You don’t know…”
“Where my rights are? No I don’t.” It can’t be Bill. It can’t be another tenner. “Now stop this charade. Why are we in the middle of one of their slave trading sessions? What’s your angle?” Elspeth stared back silently for a few seconds. Then she turned around in her seat and peeled one of the straps off her dress, revealing her shoulder. The C. That big black grin that couldn’t stop enjoying Tai Chen’s pain. Elspeth was Copyrighted. I’m so stupid, Tai Chen thought. Whoever said it had to be on the forehead? We’re in public alright… their public. A bought and sold public that won’t hesitate to string me up and gut me like a dogfish.
“I just needed to see what you knew,” Elspeth said as she replaced the strap. “Now it is clear to me that you’re no threat. Of course you can’t be allowed to leave. You might grow a brain and figure it out eventually.”
“You’re going to let these copymites take my life?”
“No, I’m going to take your life,” Elspeth said with conviction. Without a blink. She pulled one of her reference pages and laid it flat on the table. Tai Chen scanned it. A word caught her eye. Eagles.
“You killed Skelmerton,” Tai Chen said, suppressing a gasp. She didn’t want Elspeth thinking she was surprised by her lack of conscience. “Why would you kill the mayor’s fiancé?”
“You’re looking at the wrong word,” Elspeth said. Her finger tapped just below another word several times. Explosion.
“You tap that word and we’ll both be blown to hell,” Tai Chen said. She stole a glance at D’ogeron, who was still blissfully distracted by the auction. Tai Chen couldn’t reach for her own reference page without Elspeth seeing, but she had the ones in her bag. She silently popped it open on her lap and grabbed the edge of one. She just needed Elspeth to keep playing games. She just needed a few seconds.
“Are you so sure I can’t delay it a few seconds?” Elspeth teased. “Or that I know how to aim it towards you?” Her finger circled the word menacingly. “There might be a way out of this for you Princess. We’re always looking for reliable characters.” Tai Chen pressed the word illusion on her reference page. She folded it into a little paper doll and thought about her reflection. “You can come live with me as my assistant. I’ll teach you how to own what you have.” The illusion crept up from the paper doll like a second skin. The wave of its progress was so subtle that Elspeth couldn’t see it through the smoky air of the club. Tai Chen, the real one, slowly pulled her chair backwards.
“I think I’m owning all of this pretty well,” she said with her head leaned forward so the sound seemed to come from the illusion’s lips.
“You have no idea of the value packed into every word,” Elspeth said. “Your body and soul are adaptable commodities. You can take them apart, revalue them, and sell them in ways you never thought about. You can be disassembled and rearranged into something that’s worth a lot to the people out there.”
“I’m not a jigsaw puzzle,” Tai Chen said. She didn’t want to speak anymore. Any other words would sound too far away. She’d scooched her chair so far back that one wrong step could send a waiter tumbling over her lap. She didn’t know if it was far enough because she didn’t know how angry Elspeth was or how much the anger correlated with the size of the explosion.
“No, you’re just a piece,” Elspeth’s voice stabbed. “A piece that can’t see the big picture. Who doesn’t even know who owns the puzzle.” D’ogeron dropped her paddle, dismayed at being outbid again. She turned her attention to the scene playing out across the table. It seemed they were in the middle of something.
“Who owns my rights?” Tai Chen asked. She grabbed another reference page, practically crushed fish, and made a good old-fashioned mackerel. She stood up out of her chair. The illusion held.
“Oh I know that one!” D’ogeron exclaimed. Elspeth shot arrows through her with her glare, but D’ogeron was already too excited at answering what she thought was a friendly trivia question. “The mayor!”
“Really?” Tai Chen questioned.
“Yes, it’s the mayor!” D’ogeron said and clapped her hands. “I had a romance with a man in the mayor’s office once. He let me see them on file. Our rights aren’t worth much, but somebody’s got to hold them. It’s in our town charter that the mayor gets them; he needs some responsibility to be a real mayor after all.”
Tai Chen suddenly recalled several of the phrases she remembered seeing on the Copyright contract back before she’d been stabbed and dumped in the bay like chum. Any objections created by or dispersed by the property in question are to be disregarded… Ownership will be complete and absolute with no regard given to the date of expiration of the original author or the duration of any previous rights assigned to the property under their own authority or the signee’s…
We’re the property, she realized. She didn’t know what the big picture was exactly, but it was certainly clearing up. The giant contract involved the sale of character rights. The mayor owned everybody in Carlo. The mayor’s fiancé had been murdered, sending him to the sandy unstable edge of obscurvy and making him very suggestible.
A waiter passed between Tai Chen and the seated illusion of her. The false image evaporated. Everyone who cared to look saw Tai Chen standing at the edge of the dance floor, a dead fish in her hand. Elspeth must have instantly realized Tai Chen was out of range of her controlled bomb, because she slid the paper towards D’ogeron and dropped her finger onto explosion.
The bang knocked Tai Chen off her feet. Smoke filled the room. There was a terrible ringing in her ears and flexing her jaw did nothing to alleviate it, but it did let the acrid smell of burning paper coat her tongue. She hacked and rolled onto her side, ignoring the singed holes in the front of her dress. She couldn’t see D’ogeron to tell if she was alright. Nearly a dozen people were on the floor, either passed out or holding their heads down.
A pair of clawed feet swooped through the smoke and grabbed Tai Chen’s wrist. She responded sluggishly and by the time she was free the backs of her fingers were scratched and bleeding ink. The talons had stolen her mackerel. Eagles, she remembered. As the ringing dissipated she heard a gunshot. Bok! It couldn’t have been Elspeth, otherwise she would’ve used the gun instead of the explosion to begin with. Somebody else in the club had one.
“I knew there was something funny about you!” she heard someone yell. She scrambled to her feet only to have another eagle start clawing at her face. She ducked and rushed forward into the smoke just to dissuade the bird. She came face to face with Elspeth, who slapped her across the face so hard that the ringing returned on one side and nearly sent her to the floor again.
“Are you so intent on burning out in an ashtray like this?” Elspeth shrieked. An eagle landed on her forearm and she tossed the bird in Tai Chen’s direction. Tai Chen dodged its first dive and created another fish. Maybe I can feed it to death. Elspeth stalked forward, her high heels clicking on the dance floor. “Have it your w…”
Bok! Another bullet was fired into the smoke. It struck Elspeth in the temple. She teetered back and forth on her tall shoes for a second, as if she thought she could will herself back to life or will the bullet back into the gun, and then collapsed. Humph humph wumf… Three dead eagles dropped out of the smoke and landed around her. Their feathers became paper tabs like those at the end of posters offering piano lessons or babysitting services. They shrank back down to flat origami creations.
Now that the smoke was clearing Tai Chen caught a glimpse of the shooter: Adolphus March. The boat captain was teetering on his feet and waving a pistol around in the air. He ranted about the Copyright Company and how they were a bunch of secret fascists. He fired twice more into the air drunkenly. Bok! Bok! Tai Chen ducked. Bits of plaster fell into Adolphus’ drink, which he then spilled onto the floor with a sweep of his arm. Who writes a pistol onto a guy like that?
The explosion and the shots had everyone pretty well subdued. Those who hadn’t already fled were huddled against the walls trying to work the ringing out of their ears with the end of a finger. One genius copymite was trying to use a lemon fork. Tai Chen was going to use the opportunity to calm Captain March and drag him out of there, but the company wasn’t done with her yet.
The building shook. The man with the tip of the lemon fork in his ear screamed as ink ran down his chin. Glasses rattled on the tables and bars. The microphone stand toppled and sent feedback through the speakers. The lights flickered. Suddenly, as if the building had been tipped on its side, everyone and everything was tossed towards the stage.
Tai Chen rolled across the dance floor, smashed into the edge of the stage, and then broke a table when she landed on the back wall. She heard screaming. All around her she saw limbs clawing their way out of the debris, some with the faces of their fancy wrist watches cracked. Others had tiny bits of broken glass stuck in their flesh and oozing ink. Before she could stand the building tilted again, this time toward the left wall. This second tilt wasn’t as drastic, but it was still powerful enough to pull Tai Chen and a pile of furniture to another wall.
Gravity changed a third time. This time it moved so precisely that only Tai Chen and the objects immediately surrounding her were pulled. It dragged her across the dance floor, her fingertips squeaking against the wood. Then the floor seemed to buck like a horse; it sent her into the air and toward a closed door on the right wall. She caught a glimpse of the avalanche of fancy clothes and instruments falling all over the stage. Then the door flew open and swallowed her up.
Her body slammed into a desk. The door behind her, which was over her as well, closed on its own. There was something very strange about the tiny room she was in now; its gravity seemed permanently odd. Pushing the pain in her ribs to the back of her mind, Tai Chen stood on the front of the desk. When her vision cleared she spotted a man seated in a chair at the other side of the desk, seated like he wasn’t at all bothered by being suspended in the air by nothing more than the back of the chair. He folded a flat piece of paper on the desk and Tai Chen was suddenly forced down and back, into a chair facing him. She was in a normal sitting position, but the ink needle points under the skin on her cheeks told her she was upside down.
“That didn’t go well at all,” the man said. He wore a fine striped suit and a matching hat. She saw the slicked down ends of his hair poking from the brim like the teeth on a cookie cutter. He had a thick well-groomed mustache and a comb for it sticking out of his shirt pocket. There was a sword sheathed on his hip, a straight blade adorned with a silver cougar-head crest.
“Who are you?” Tai Chen asked, the question sending her aches and pains into overdrive. Her chest hurt, her arms hurt, her face stung, and her ear canals felt like trains had driven through them.
“My name is Sir Pertipole,” he said. He eyed her like the fly he couldn’t believe he’d spent so many minutes trying to swat. “I saw what happened out there. Elspeth is dead because of you.”
“She was a murderer…” Tai Chen sputtered. She hacked a little ink in his direction. He tapped the page on his desk and the glob of black fluid rolled off the air around him as if there’d been glass there.
“A life that isn’t Copyrighted is worthless,” he said. “I liked her very much. I wanted to keep her out of this, but once you stuck your nose into it she insisted on being the one to handle you.”
“You own… You own the company?”
“No. I’m just the tenner sent to round the others up and evaluate them. The owners try not to touch all the creative stuff. It’s not their specialty.”
“What is their specialty? Heunnnhhhh…” Tai Chen groaned as a fresh pain bloomed under her sternum. The suspension had her head swimming.
“The amassing of money.”
“There’s no money in Carlo.”
“Don’t sell yourself short Princess Taik. Of course if you didn’t there wouldn’t be much need for me. The landscape out there past the sea, past the cardboard forest, has changed a lot in the last few decades.”
“They don’t let tenners out there. You’re lying.” Her face felt swollen and hot like a stomach full of hissing hot tea.
“That’s the icing on this one Princess; you don’t have to stay a tenner. Back in the old days a thousand characters like us were carelessly thought up, pressed onto a story like sequins, and forgotten. Nobody cared when we flaked off and landed here. Like I said, things are different now.”
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
“Out there they’ve realized characters like us have infinite potential. You don’t have to be a stereotype. You don’t have to settle for one line. They’ve learned how to recycle us, make us useful to them. We can be remade, retooled, rebooted… into anything.”
“You took my friend…” she tried to find the words in the swirling draining hot tub of her mind. “Hortotef was a god among men. You made him into a driver.”
“He is whatever the Copyright Company wants,” Pertipole snapped. He pushed the paper on the desk forward an inch. The pressure on Tai Chen’s body intensified, like she was being stabbed by needles in every one of her pores, like a sheet of plastic was being stretched over her.
“How are you doing this?”
“There’s a very useful word on my page: gravitation. By far the best gift I received from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It’s not as helpful as the company has been though. Imagine being an endlessly employable character. Imagine everyone wanting a piece of you.”
“The authors let you do this?” she managed to ask before having to resort to snorting to get more air.
“We don’t need the authors anymore now that we know they were making a renewable resource. The Copyright Company has shifted its focus to protecting its own interests.”
“The readers? The readers? Ha! The watchers Tai Chen! The bingers. The moviegoers. The couch potatoes. The players. We serve far more than just readers these days.”
“And they like seeing a powerful man turned into a circus monkey?”
“It doesn’t matter what they like; they’ll buy it anyway. They need something to fill the time and we’re the only provider. No more need to take risks with new characters when we’ve got silver mines like Carlo we can sweep up.”
“You’re missing the point,” she coughed out. “We’re characters. We’re only one thing: ourselves. You try and make us anything else you’ll destroy us.”
“Even if that’s true you don’t have to be destroyed,” Sir Pertipole hinted. He reached into the desk and pulled out a contract as tall as his hat. “You can sign up now before it becomes… mandatory. I can use somebody like you. Women and minorities are a trend right now. You should strike while the iron is hot before it gets back to the basics.” While he went over the basics of becoming an obscenely wealthy slave, Tai Chen forced her left hand to move towards her right. Even lifting her fingers from the arm rests was a titanic effort. She touched the lid of the tiny compartment on the poison ring.
“Where’d they stick that C on you?” she asked. “Did they shove it straight up your…”
“My navel actually,” Pertipole corrected. “I requested it be put there as a symbol. The Copyright Company is my new life line. They nourish me.”
“You look pretty starved to me.”
“Why wouldn’t you want this? It doesn’t even matter if you make a mistake with the company Princess. They’ll never throw you out. They’ll just start over again. You’ll be redone, retouched, and reborn.”
“And I’d come right back here to fight you all over again.”
“Am I to take this sass as a refusal of my offer?”
“Take it however you want slime ball. All you need to know is… My name is Wai Tai Chen. I am art. And I am not for sale.” She popped the ring open and jabbed her finger down on the word telephones. At first her plan was just to shout for help, but then she saw the black wire shoot out. In order for the phone to do what it was supposed to there had to be a wire from her phone to the next. The word was plural after all, so it would create the phone on the other end too.
The wire shot out like a cast from a fishing rod and then plunged into the desk. It pierced the wood and then the floor with a loud popping sound like a giant cork out of a bottle of champagne. More importantly, it pierced Pertipole’s reference page and neutralized its control of the room’s gravity. Things suddenly became very normal. All of the pressure holding her upside down in the chair was gone. She was just sitting with a black receiver in her hand. It crackled.
“Get me out of here!” she shouted into the phone just as Sir Pertipole leapt to his feet, drew his sword, and slashed through the phone cord. Tai Chen only had time for one real breath while her enemy vaulted over the desk. She jumped backward and knocked the chair over before reaching into her shirt with both hands. They came back out with a fine pair of slapping fish. Pertipole laughed in her face. “What? You think this is funny? Do these look like clown fish to you?” She swung and knocked the hat off his head. The king copymite was not pleased.
All of that training against Bernenstein in the tunnel finally paid off. Tai Chen kept her eyes on the flat part of the corporate knight’s sword. Every time he came in for a swipe she brought a mackerel down on it like a hammer. Pertipole grabbed another reference page with his free hand and slammed it behind him on the desk. She knew if he turned the gravity again she’d be flat on her face in no time at all, so she held the fish together and swung them like a baseball bat, catching Pertipole in the chest. The impact was strong enough to make him lose his grip on the page. While its master dropped to his knees with an oily patch gluing his shirt to his skin, the paper drifted through the air like an autumn leaf.
Pertipole swung his blade again and Tai Chen hopped over it. She used his shoulder as a stepping stone to get up on the desk and finally gain a height advantage. From there she turned into a windmill, swinging her arms in big circles and trying to whack him down with the fish like he was the high-score mole. He swung and she met him with a mackerel. The blade sliced halfway through the fish and stuck in its spine. Tai Chen dropped it and before he could shake it loose she had another fish out and was pummeling his back again. She brought them down as hard as she could and then dropped them, hoping it would give her enough time to go for a finishing page. She wanted nothing more than to bring a wheelbarrow down on his head and leave an impression more permanent than any C.
Pertipole, while hunched over and taking the beating from the mackerels, snagged another page of his own and pressed it against the floor. Gravitation. Tai Chen was halfway through an origami wheelbarrow when she was thrown against the back wall, along with Pertipole himself, and all the furniture. Pertipole had acted so hastily that he failed to control the effect as well as before. Tai Chen rolled backwards and sprang to her feet, ignoring the pain as she stubbed her toe on a light fixture. The door on the ceiling flew open.
“Tai Chen!” Bernenstein called to her as he looked down into the room. “Conger eel!” Tai Chen pulled anther page and focused on the long, usually useless fish. Then she tossed the head end up to Bernenstein like a rope. He wrapped the slimy fish around his arm and ran backwards to pull her out of the gravity pit. Up she went on the eel elevator, grabbing the door frame ledge the moment she could. She looked back only for a split second to see Sir Pertipole trying to jump and catch her feet. He missed and broke one of his own chairs. “Come on!”
The two of them booked out of the building as fast as their feet could carry them. The copymites in the restaurant were still recovering from the explosion and the gravity shifts, so they were in no condition to chase after them. Tai Chen was happy to see a confused Mademoiselle D’ogeron wandering around with nothing worse than some singe marks on her tweezed eyebrows.
Tai Chen leapt into the ambulance with so much force that she slipped out of her fancy shoes and left them behind on the wet street. B.J. drove while Bernenstein babbled the shock and excitement out of his system. While Tai caught her breath she looked over her shoulder and saw Hortotef lying on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance. She was about to say something when B.J. spoke first.
“He’s fine,” she said as she took a hard right and then checked the back herself to see if she’d made him less fine. “I saw him coming out the front and convinced him to come with us. It was the strangest thing. At first he was panicking about disobeying his boss, we were about to sedate him, but then he just passed out.”
“It’s not so strange,” Tai Chen said as she wiped the sweat and fish grease off her forehead. She snapped her fingers a few times. Bernenstein dropped her cap into her hand and she screwed it onto her head. “Elspeth was there. She was with them and she was the one who killed Lady Skelmerton. She didn’t make it… I know the Copyright Company’s game now. They swooped in here with all their jobs to soften us up and lessen resistance for the final blow.”
“What’s the final blow?”
“The mayor of Carlo technically owns the rights to every character that lives here. They killed Bill Smithers’ fiancé; they’re going to use his grief to convince him to sign all of our rights over to them. Then they’re going to tell us what beautiful little snowflakes we are and march us into some cultural work camp. They’ll own everything about us forever and ever. We’ll be stuck in legal limbo… tossed into hatboxes like accessories. They want to cheapen us and probably kill us in the process.”
“The mayor owns all of us?” Bernenstein repeated. He hadn’t quite gotten to the rest of her statement.
“So what do we do about it?” B.J. asked. Tai Chen thought about it as they flew through the streets.
“We go back to where this started,” she thought out loud. She held her small hand over her face like a light was shining in her eyes. “How did we get here? There was a search-light on a boat that pointed me to that room with the contract in it. There was an armored knight stomping around on the bed of the bay. Only I’m thinking the search-light and the knight were a bit bolder than I thought. We need to get back to the docks. I need to get aboard the Nancy Nox.”