(This is the second in a trilogy. If you wish to go back to the beginning, here you go.)
Past the facts lies a realm where your guess has to be good enough: probable space! Its places and peoples have their own odds, from 2to1 on down, getting less substantial all the way. All the planets there are the ones merely theorized here, from tiny Vulcan, to Counter-Earth, to Phaeton, and beyond.
Long Odd Silver and Roman Koch are prisoners, stolen from the newest world in probable space and brought to the Counter-Earth called Antichthon. Buried deep in a desert prison, going mad, they must find a way to join forces with one of the locals: a crazy fellow by the name of Linus ‘Likely’ Hood. Linus is eager to break his brother out of that very same prison, and ride off together on the backs of stolen mechanical bulls!
Halloween is fast approaching, and the ghosts are getting restless. All will come to a head when the hollowing holiday arrives and the impossible becomes dreaded inevitability.
(reading time: 1 hour, 15 minutes) (reading time for entire novel: 6 hours, 5 minutes)
Planet in Theory
Funeral March to Gothic Rock
Banjo Says Tariff
The song playing on the radio was quaint the first few times. After that it was the height of irritation, even in that gravity-free place where height was relative. The only instrument was the banjo, and it only had one thing to say: sit tight or loosen the purse strings. These weren’t lyrics, that would’ve added a human voice to the endless plink and plonk of the four strings, which to many of the crew sounded like a hand with a missing finger going about its life clumsily and blissfully unaware.
No, the tune was a reminder that they weren’t in charge, and that the people who were in charge weren’t budging, not even an inch in that place where inches couldn’t matter less, unless their demands were met. There was a tariff, and they had to pay up if they wanted to enter Antichthon’s atmosphere with their perishable cargo.
But we need to back up, thankfully to a time where that terrible song wasn’t echoing through every air vent and waiting in ambush inside the tiniest turns of the radio dials. The instrument of space travel being subjected to the banjo’s torment looked much more like a clarinet.
If we follow its path in reverse we see other instruments join it, flutes and horns. Together this orchestra streaked across the solar system, away from the central fire since we’re going backwards. They passed the gray planet Phaeton, hardly sparing a glance, and continued on in their months long journey.
Their rewound destination was distant Pluto: an irreverent planet until you mentioned hearing something about it not being a real planet anymore. You see it had only recently shown up in that neck of the galaxy, a fall from grace truly unprecedented in the history of probable space.
If you were listening the first time around, which was called Pluto Takes the Stage, I went over it in great, lurid, sensational detail. There’s no possible way to both compact it and do it justice, but I’ll do my best. Anything for you dear reader.
In 2006, in the realest of worlds we call the 1to1, Pluto suffered a reclassification from planet to dwarf planet. This slight was anything but, booting the icy marble out of certainty and into theory. All the planets that mankind thought they were close to confirming, but never quite could, resided in probable space: Vulcan, the Counter-Earth called Antichthon, Phaeton, and now Pluto. Mephitis would be along shortly, but shortly was still a few years after Pluto.
The gap between Phaeton and Pluto had been quite large, in both distance and time, so the theoretical humans living on the others, themselves barely missing out on existence thanks to decisions that felt small and insignificant to the 1to1, were perturbed and wary of the demoted planet. Antichthon expressed their displeasure most aggressively, sending out a space-faring orchestra loaded with soldiers and bureaucrats to impose law on the fresh and lawless land.
Now, for those who don’t recall, a probable person has a few extra wrinkles than what you’re used to. In addition to their physical needs like food and shelter they also have to contend with their likelihood, which can fluctuate once a being is 2to1 or less. As their odds reduce so too does their physical presence and awareness. Those that hit 8 are called crazy8s, as that’s sort of sea level for a soul. You’d better know how to swim if you plan to come back from that.
A crazy8 has a life preserver though. At 8 their identity is fluid, and they can crash back to 5to1 if they use a mask or mask-like object to incorporate new features into their face and self. It changes who they are, makes their new face permanent no matter what it’s made of or what it looks like. Still, for most people it beats being 9to1, for though it comes with the ability to fly and survive outside the atmosphere it also makes you little more than a ghost, with a personality like an endlessly drifting bumblebee that has forgotten what flowers are.
In probable space objects have their own odds as well, though they are less subject to change. The bedrock and core of Pluto were 5to1, Phaeton 4, Antichthon 3, and Vulcan 2. In order for something to touch something else, the items or animals have to be within one increment of each other. A 5to1 drummer can bang on his 4to1, 5to1, and 6to1 drums all night long, but the second he tries to hit that 7to1 cymbal the jazz will be over. If that’s not clear enough, here’s a handy chart from our first story, found in a charming little library shop in Pluto’s Atrium City:
Humans Shared Animals
Visions of 1to1 space
Interacts with 2to1 and 3to1
Displays the number 2
Interacts with 2to1, 3to1, 4to1
Displays the number 3
Interacts with 3to1, 4to1, 5to1
Displays the number 4
doesn’t leave fingerprints
Interacts with 4to1, 5to1, 6to1
stomach doesn’t growl
Displays the number 5
Interacts with 5to1, 6to1, 7to1
hair and nails don’t grow
diving causes discomfort
Displays the number 6
can’t blow out candles
alcohol lowers likelihood
Interacts with 6to1, 7to1, 8to1
drifting of bruises
deceptively light weight
bodies hold dye permanently
minimal food required
Displays the number 7
may be liquid in form
Short term memory loss
absorbs items into identity
may forget own name
Interacts with 7to1, 8to1, 9to1
can’t raise voice
no sensation of hot or cold
blood bubbles out and floats
enhanced jumping ability
hair moves as if underwater
Displays the number 8
may be gaseous in form
Hears 10to1 voices
can only whisper
face alters with emotions
Interacts with 8to1 and 9to1
survives out of atmosphere
Displays the number 9
No sense of identity
parasitizes or ‘haunts’ 9to1
inaudible to the likely
Pluto didn’t take its demotion well, going on one hell of a bender. Its people, spontaneously manifested as full adults with families, careers, and homes determined by the universe, knew structure was coming from Antichthon, so they went wild with what time they had left. A worldwide celebration called Saturnalia took place.
In the midst of it some organizations vied for power, hoping to be installed as mid-level politicians when Antichthon arrived and saw what a good job they’d done. Some failed to curry such favor, and, seen as criminals, had their figureheads seized as symbolic prisoners, to be shipped back to Antichthon and kept there. The clarinet we follow contained the leaders of 2 such organizations, locked in combat with each other up until the last moment. From a group called the Survivor Function 3 prisoners were taken, masked crazy8s all: Olive Martini, Punch Hawaiian, and Toddy Hot.
Opposite them, betrayed by his own underlings, was the self-made prince of Pluto and head of a criminal syndicate called the Eudaemons: Roman Koch. He was alone, but not as far as the guards aboard the clarinet were concerned. When he was captured someone declaring themselves an employee of his demanded to be taken as well, even though they had no real affiliation aside from punching the prince a few times in a boxing dice match.
This person was Long Odd Silver. Mum on being man or woman, and masked with crystal teardrops that now flowed endlessly, they were never part of Pluto’s plan. Some possible people never made it to lives of their own, turned into subject matter for art instead, permanently posed in paintings, statues, and the like.
An unknown party, they were certain it wasn’t Pluto, tried to trap Silver in a book as its protagonist, barring them from attaining life in probable space. They barely escaped that fate, but felt the answers were well beyond the grasp of insignificant Pluto, which had no space travel industry of its own on generation. So they hitched a ride the first chance they got, in chains aboard the Antichthonian military clarinet.
The instrument had numerous viewing ports, including one in the cell they shared with the prince. Through it they watched as blue air gave way to sparkling darkness. Pluto’s sky was free of its 1to1 moons, as they hadn’t suffered any embarrassment, but it was far from empty. They passed slowly spinning asteroids, some showing embedded fossil remains of Pluto’s low probability space dinosaurs.
Barely more alive than those were the 9to1 phantoms, blanketing Pluto so thickly in some places they might be called another layer of the atmosphere. The clarinet was insulated against their intrusion but they still swarmed around it, backstroking by Silver’s porthole with smiles on their faces.
Some would attempt to follow the portion of the orchestra returning to its home world, but the journey was incredibly long. If they failed to keep pace, if their focus strayed to a distant star for even a few moments, they could lose their way. With no air to carry their words, no warmth in their gaseous flesh, and no company but the odds themselves, they would slip to a voiceless 10to1, and beyond to probabilities that were too much like death to bother distinguishing.
Long Odd Silver tried to warn those that pursued away so they could avoid that fate, but most of them were already too insubstantial of mind to heed them. Part of it was Silver’s entrancing face, alive with twin rivers of tears, yet never sorrowful. They were indeed a most hypnotizing presence, lithely built, taller in persona than actuality, gender inconsequential, gorgeous as a grape on the vine, and smooth as the cruising of a long tailed shark.
So enthralling in fact that your humble narrator lost interest in Minty Julip, the librarian that freed Silver from their bookish prison, and started following them instead. Now Silver didn’t remember much about what their old self was like before Minty saved them from crazy8 with the timely application of the teardrop jewelry, but they did remember being something of a pirate.
Certain traits they knew would never leave them, no matter how much they transformed. They knew how they affected people, how to weave in and out of their lives just enough to influence them without becoming responsible for their well-being. It was a power tailor made for scandal, but Silver didn’t like such noise. Eventually they turned away from the window so the phantoms had no excuse to follow. That meant there was nobody to converse with but Roman.
“What do you know about the Antichthonians?” they asked him one day in a smear of identical ones, but this was one where he was in the mood to talk.
“I had people looking into their broadcasts,” he said, arms crossed, dark bald head bouncing on the wall slightly as he sat. Their cell was a carbon-black box with two cots that unfolded from the wall, a tiny toilet stall, and a few mounted electroglass cards, their corners cut off to make them into oval video screens for whenever the conductor needed to address everyone aboard the ship. “They’re big on law and order, the hypocrites. ½ of what they do off their world should be a crime.”
“I suppose these dark waters are considered international.”
“They can’t enforce anything out here, so they do their best to strangle their own roots with it. A dead man can still be charged with a crime on Counter-Earth. Still be sentenced. Custody of a child can legally go to a corpse 3 generations older than a fresh one. They fight with ghosts. Fever dreamers.”
“Not exactly. It’s the oldest planet around the central fire. They’ve got history, and dead, and neither of them stay that way permanently… You were so eager to get yourself collared and you don’t even know the first thing about the place. Which of your screws is loose?”
“The one that settles down. I’m going all the way to 1to1. No collar’s going to change that.”
“Antichthon’s 3to1, and Vulcan’s a long way after that. They won’t let you go. They never let anything go.”
There wasn’t much way to track their progress. The only time they were taken out of their cells was once a week when they were escorted to a walking track for an hour of leg stretching. Meals were served to them in brass thermoses, sometimes hot, mostly chilled. Their assigned guards changed frequently, probably an attempt to reduce staff boredom by shuffling their daily tasks. It meant Silver didn’t have time to get close to any of them, work their magic on a doldrummed mind the way only a good book could.
6 months passed, marked only by the conductor’s occasional mention of the date. There was a new year in play, 2007, though affixing that to the endless glittering dark out their window felt like nailing a house number to a fog bank. If a new year did in fact start, its eve was the night Silver crawled into Roman’s cot. The pirate and the prince. The perfect couple with the exception of the pirate and literally anyone else.
Plink. Plonk. Their eyes popped open. Plunk. Had the conductor just picked up a banjo for his first lesson and decided to broadcast it to the whole ship? Plink plonk plonk. Silver flowed out of the cot and checked the porthole. It was full to bursting for the first time since Pluto shrank out of existence behind them.
Antichthon was a giant in comparison, far too much planet for mankind’s needs really. Its surface lounged about mostly as ocean, continents asserting themselves out of a sense of obligation. Clouds did their best to cover the mountainous blemishes. Its overbearing blueness shone through, challenging those who approached, demanding they prove they had reason to come that close.
A gray moon backed it up, but their problem was a much nearer and smaller satellite, still 3 times the size of their instrument. The banjo cruised across the edge of the atmosphere like a stingray. It was a down-home sort of instrument, never straying far from Antichthon’s neck of the woods. It signaled them with flashes on its strings, but Silver didn’t know the code.
It took the crew several minutes to figure out how to silence the banjo’s signal, but it reoccurred randomly, just enough that they could never feel safe from it. The clarinet seemed immobilized by its presence while the other instruments in the orchestra abandoned it, flying around the curve of the planet and disappearing.
The prisoners didn’t get any information until a guard came with their evening meal: room temperature crayfish bisque. The crawly creatures could be raised in large numbers easily aboard a space instrument in compact water tanks, but without the mud they adapted in they always tasted funny, like they were marinated in public pool water.
It was protocol to get the last 2 thermoses back before handing the new ones through the square gap in the bars, but Roman was using the emptied items as weights. He stood shirtless in the back of the cell, punching the air. They weren’t as heavy as boxing dice, but he was starved for options.
“Hey, hand those over,” the guard ordered. He was a young scrawny recruit, perhaps not even of age for military service when the instrument had first set out toward Pluto. The prince ignored him. “By all means, keep them. You won’t get lunch then.” He smelled the bisque intending to exaggerate his savoring of the aroma, but there was no savoring to exaggerate. Long Odd Silver put their arms through the bars and leaned forward.
“What’s the deal kid? We haven’t moved in 5 hours.”
“That hillbilly guitar’s holding us up. They’re with Trade and Customs.” He smelled the other thermos to see if it was any better. Worse actually.
“Aren’t those your own people?”
“We’re Military Adventure and Misadventure. Different branches of the government, and from different countries too. Since we’re trying to deliver you prisoners to the surface we have to go through a port. There are taxes and such that need to be paid.”
“Is our conductor broke?” Silver joked.
“We’ve got more than enough to pay a fair tax,” the kid said as if defending his drunken father’s honor to a bully. “But these podunks went and passed a new tariff on prisoners while we were gone. It’s outrageous. So we’re stuck idling out here until we can find a cheaper prison to put you in or until we can negotiate a compromise.” He angled his head past them to Roman. “Last chance your highness.”
The prince was too deep in his routine to care; at least that was how it looked. Silver needed time in conversation to get anything done. Until they let him out of the cage there was nothing he could do but distract and stall.
“Will it be long?” they asked, looking the guard up and down, less like they were undressing him with their eyes and more like they were peeling a banana to see the bruises. On most faces it would look hostile, but Silver’s sparkling tears disarmed most of their expressions. They could never win, because they were always the one crying.
“Weeks probably,” the kid said, swallowing dryly. “This kind of thing happens a lot, especially over South Reap.” Silver blinked. “That’s the region we’re trying to stick you in. Do you know real Earth geography?” They nodded. “It’s our version of the deep south in North America.”
Roman pulled a punch reflexively, but only for a second. Back on Pluto their history, even the first 3 ½ decades of his life, was little more than a free sample. A suggestion. Antichthon on the other hand drank deep from the well of the real, and was infected by all the same biases and bigotries as the people that started out in caves.
As a black man he was not particularly interested in the cobweb corners of a South Reap cell. He had thought it extremely lucky that the provisional government sent to organize Pluto wasn’t from that region, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the stomach to try and work with them. South Reap was the last place on Antichthon to do away with slavery, and as with all the planet’s other ghosts it was restless at best.
“You don’t want to be stuck here that long, do you?” Silver asked the young man.
“Heck no! I got a girl waiting for me down there, only she’s not the patient type, and there are lots of guys not jammed in a clarinet hole right now.”
“You know, there is something aboard that could speed up this whole process.” Roman glanced their way, but kept his lips tighter than his fists. “It can tell you what the yokels on that banjo are doing right now, what they’re saying about you. When you know what they’re thinking you can change their tune.”
“What nonsense are you talking?”
“No more nonsense than 9 coming after 8,” they assured him. “When I was arrested you took my belongings. Among them was a head made of copper and wood with light-up eyes. It’s called the brazen head. It answers every question with perfect accuracy, though it can only give a yes or no.”
“I saw that thing in inventory,” he said. “It doesn’t talk.”
“Because it doesn’t want to. It doesn’t know any of you, but it knows me. If you go to it and say you’re a friend of Long Odd Silver it’ll wake up. Tell it that I said ‘thanks for your help with Peachy’. Then it’ll answer to you.”
“And what would I do then?”
“Ask it everything you’ve ever wanted to know,” Silver said, casting their eyes up in remembrance. “You can find out if that girl’s really waiting for you. After that you can get one over on the banjo and tell the conductor. We get off this woodwind and into proper wind all the faster and you might get promoted.” The guard stared at them, sharpening his eyes as much as he could.
“I need those thermoses back,” was all he eventually said. Silver backed away gracefully, arms slipping through the bars like empty silk sleeves. Roman came forth and slammed them down on the metal tray at the base of the gap. They were exchanged and then the young man was gone. The banjo tune blared again briefly, an image of the instrument flashing on the mounted cards. Plunk, plunk, plunk… pluk-unk.
“Shutting that thing up is the purest motive there is,” Roman growled, ripping the card off the wall and stuffing it under his pillow, “but why did you tell him about the head? That’s our ace in its pie hole. If he finds it-”
“Once he finds answers he won’t be looking for anything more,” they reasoned, moving over to him to wrap an arm around his shoulder, but he didn’t allow it. Off the cot it was still like they hardly knew each other, like they were still in the sunken felt of the boxing table in Roman’s casino, back when he nearly owned a whole city instead of a single note in that narrow instrument.
“If someone smarter than him realizes what it is we’ll never see it again.”
“You’re right, but you’re not giving the head enough credit. It will know something’s up, and it’ll know what to tell him to get him to bring it here.”
“What for?” His gang boss brain kicked in after several dormant months. “You’re making a move to get us out of here… right now. Why not do it before we spent months sitting here eating sewer shrimp?”
“Because I have no idea how to play an instrument of space travel.”
“And you picked it up in the last 10 minutes?”
“No, but I’m fairly confident I can crash land one and survive. Now that we’ve arrived there’s something to crash land on.”
“You can’t land this thing,” he scoffed, smelling his lunch, reeling from it, and clearly wondering if crashing and drowning in the sea was preferable. “Pluto never had any. I know you told me you had amnesia, but the old you couldn’t have been a conductor.” He referred to their mask crash, but Silver had given him a simplified version of the story. He knew nothing of their prisoner’s tome, of the enemy that put them there.
“I’ve seen flotation devices on the walls when we were walked to the track,” Silver explained. “If they plan for a water landing then one is possible. When you add to that the instrument’s computer systems, it’s a safe assumption there’s a big button somewhere labeled ‘attempt a landing’. Something to that effect anyway. I may never have crashed a clarinet before, but I feel all my old crashes in my bones. Some as cracks, none as breaks.”
“None of it matters I guess; he didn’t believe you.” Roman sat on his cot and stared into his thermos, which was almost as nourishing as swallowing its contents.
“We’ll see.” The former swashbuckler didn’t bother to sit, pacing instead. The guard probably didn’t believe, but the thought of it being true was enough to convince anyone to investigate. Even physics professors rubbed oil lamps in antique stores when they thought nobody was looking. All he had to do was tell the head what they said. Then it would get back to Silver without fail.
At the very least they were kindred spirits. Both had nearly been inanimate possibilities when Pluto entered the swing of things, Silver saved by the skin of their perfect teeth by a chance encounter. The head was not so lucky. It wasn’t a statue, but not a man either. In place of a body and a full vocabulary it got the truth of all probable space, and only a binary to share it with, like translating Beowulf into light switch flips.
The two of them were actually much more, though Silver didn’t know how much. The head was able to confirm that, in another life, perhaps one of many, they had known each other. By the way it flirtatiously said ‘yes’ the encounter was intimate, but that didn’t do much to set it apart from Long Odd Silver’s other relationships, given that they could wave at an acquaintance across the street intimately.
It took the guard 3 hours to give in. When he returned he had the brazen head cradled in his arms like a babe. Its placid expression stood in contrast to his sweaty nerves. Anyone could see on his face that his girl back on the ground hadn’t waited for him, and that 100 more disturbing things had come to his attention.
“You asked it what was in your pocket, and it knew,” Silver crooned. He nodded. “Then you asked it what was in other pockets and it knew. Other heads and it knew. Other hearts and it knew.” He nodded like a drowning man trying to grab a life preserver with his chin. “I know it can be overwhelming.”
“It says I’m going to die,” the guard rasped. “But it won’t tell me how or when!” Roman could stifle his laughter, but not his smile. Instead he faced the porthole, hands clasped behind his back. For several months he had used the brazen head to run his organization. He knew all too well that it couldn’t tell the future. It also couldn’t lie, but it was fully aware of its surroundings and very clever. It could make yes sound like no, no like yes, yes like ‘well it’s possible but you couldn’t pay me enough to attempt it’.
Though it couldn’t tell the future, the powers that be and bet allowed it reasonable speculation without counting it as fabrication. Yes, the guard would die, because everybody would eventually. The head was also allowed to say that fall would come before winter and after pride.
“Do you really want to know your fate?” Silver asked, practically flowing through the bars.
“Just… just if it’s soon,” the guard insisted. “If it’s soon… well let’s just say I’m not doing what I want to be doing.”
“I can tease out the details,” they claimed, “but you’ll have to give it to me. It takes finesse.” They held out their hands, only for him to turn and tighten his grip like he was about to run with a football.
“Does she really have to hold you?” he asked it.
“Yes,” it answered in its electric voice, like a radio resonating from the bottom of an oak barrel. Another helpful distortion of the truth. They didn’t physically need to hold it, but the head was free to withhold information, and only being in Silver’s possession would make it want to answer.
“It can’t bite through the bars,” they assured him. Slowly he approached, eventually relenting and handing it over. They took it into the cell. “Wonderful to see you again.”
“Yes,” it said, obviously relieved to be in such capable hands once more.
“Tell me, is this young man in danger?”
“What!?” he yelped, whirling around in search of knives or flames.
“Does that danger come from me?” Silver asked.
“Yes,” it said smoothly, chastising them for being so naughty. It was true; they were enjoying themselves already, even without their best toy in hand yet.
“Open wide.” The head’s ventriloquist dummy mouth slid open like the stone gate of an ancient tomb, an orange glow inside. Out slid a single playing card of unknown make but the widest known model: the platinum ace of wheels. They snatched it with 2 fingers and handed the brazen head off to Roman.
The guard couldn’t believe his eyes. He’d never seen one in person. Nobody he knew had ever seen one in person. None of his Antichthon ancestors even dared make up a family legend about one of the platinum deck crossing their path. The full deck had never been assembled; probable space might end if it was. The dealing of a new hand from it might blow away planets like dust off a writing desk.
It had asserted itself on Pluto, on the deliberately reclusive Minty Julip, turning her into a warrior cardist that helped topple a regime of assassins. There was no telling what Long Odd Silver, born a great cardist, could do with it, until Silver told it right then and there. They slipped its edge into the cell door’s seam and unlocked it with one swipe, as if the mechanism was just a feather’s fringe. It swung open almost happily, a salesman urging them in to take their pick of the wares. It was all complimentary of course.
Rather than fight platinum the guard made a run for it down a row of other cells, mostly empty. He fumbled with the holster of his deck. When it finally unbuttoned he ripped out a handful of cards, dropping several, and navigated one’s touch interface with his finger, trying to find a communication channel that wasn’t dammed up with blaring banjo pollution.
Long Odd Silver could perform maneuvers in every style of cardistry, Over the Moon, Cheater’s Welcome, Express Mail, Cat Steps, or Big Fan, but their own personal style was a hybrid of Over the Moon’s body orbiting and Cheater’s Welcome surprise angles and hiding spots. Only the simplest toss was needed to stop their prey in his tracks.
The platinum ace spun by his eyes, scaring him stiff. It circled like a wolf, closing in with each rotation. He was ready to throw an electroglass card of his own into its path, but he feared that would only anger it. While he was making up his mind Silver closed the distance, snatched it out of the air like they were picking an apple, and pushed the guard up against the wall. They held the ace’s sharp edge to his neck.
“Relax,” they whispered to him. “You don’t need to lift a finger. I’ll help myself.” They lifted what was left of the guard’s deck. The prince of Pluto was right behind, so they gave him 10 cards, which he took unenthusiastically, as if they were used tissues. “I know you prefer the dice, but you can hold your own with those right?”
“I’ll make do,” he grumbled, cutting the pile and shuffling it in and out of tent shapes with his free hand to warm up.
“So you’re going to kill me?” the guard asked.
“Only if you insist on it,” Silver answered, flipping him over and grabbing the back of his collar. They marched him along the cells, looking for one in particular. The prince sensed what they were after and objected strenuously.
“They won’t be any help!”
“If we’re going to storm the conductor we need more than 3 heads to put together,” the beautiful brigand argued. “They’re prisoners as well. Surely they want out.” Roman would have argued the point further, perhaps even to blows, but not in front of the Survivor Function, whose cell they’d just arrived at.
In theirs a 3rd cot was open above one of the others, but it wasn’t in use. Instead the crazy8 Toddy Hot was hovering near the ceiling, suspended by the hot air balloon mask bonded to his face. He hung in his drab gray prisoner’s uniform like a corpse in water, still positioned to take its last breath.
The other 2 were paying much more attention to their visitors. Punch Hawaiian had a computer punch card mask feeding dotted patterns that looked like various expressive eyes across his face. 2 curious ones scrolled by. Opposite him sat Olive Martini, one eye replaced by smooth skin, a painted one folded up in the paper fan mask that sat on one of her ears like an artist’s pencil.
Crazy8s all, the Survivor Function was concerned with one thing only: their continued existence and dominance within it. It was an elegant and simple goal, like a knife’s edge, but they didn’t look as sure as they used to. The Function was an animal of Pluto; they didn’t yet know if the same principal applied to other planets, or the vacuum of space.
“Just the 3 of a kind I was looking for,” Silver greeted.
“You’re the one that interfered at the casino,” Punch recalled aloud.
“That was mostly the librarian; I was just tagging along. I promise there’s no bad blood between us. We’re looking to blow this joint, and I would just love to spring you 3, if you’re willing to help that is.”
“You,” Olive snarled, looking past Silver, an extraordinary feat, to glare at Roman. She stood and flicked her fan open, revealing the mask’s furious iridescent eye. “You ruined everything. You and that stupid head of yours. We could’ve had Pluto under our thumb.”
“Keep talking,” the prince spat, “I’m plenty happy leaving you here.” All were silent for a moment, but then Toddy snored loudly, the force of his breath pushing him toward the front of the cell.
“Get down here you idiot,” Olive barked, tugging on an ankle. The man’s forehead deflated as he awoke and landed awkwardly. Before he could finish yawning he recognized Silver and the prince, pointing at them. Whatever his reaction was, it was lost in the high-pitched back half of the gaping yawn.
“Is something finally happening?” was his only real question. Rather than answer it his fellow survivors pulled him back. They huddled in the middle of the cell, heads down, discussing the situation.
“If it puts a rush on this I’ll mention that getting this instrument moving would likely bring an end to that awful banjo music,” Silver added as a single note of it blared from the guard’s cards. “The plan is to remove the conductor and crash this thing into the sea. From there we flee in the lifeboats that are almost certainly present aboard.”
“Sounds good,” Toddy said before he was pulled back down into the huddle. In the end his opinion won out anyway. The Function agreed that a temporary truce was in order, until the moment they hit water. Silver’s only condition was that they promise not to immediately attack the prince.
“Revenge has no point,” Olive countered, though her snarling tone indicated she was convincing herself. “It doesn’t improve our chances of staying in the ever-shrinking percentage.”
“Amen,” Punch added, grabbing the bars eagerly. Silver slipped the platinum card into the lock; it clicked open as easily as the last. The 3 survivors eyed the extraordinary card as they exited, but said nothing. Many would’ve coveted such an object, but they knew the statistics. A platinum card was just as likely to get you killed as save your life, not conducive to inclusion in their ever-shrinking percentage.
Navigating the way to the conductor’s podium was child’s play with the brazen head on their side to indicate right turns versus wrong. It also filled them in on the vehicle’s supplies and capabilities. Yes there was an onboard computer fully capable of an emergency water landing. Yes there were both escape pods and lifeboats. Yes the various bureaucracies and laws associated with borders and international waters would likely prevent them from being followed immediately upon crashing.
They brought the guard with them, using him to unlock a storage container that had several standard issue electroglass decks within. Each one, 52 little screens that were mostly used for computing, communication, and display, was also the best weapon available for combat in probable space. Things of uncertain probability benefited from being observed, and bullets, in motion, were not so easy to observe. Guns fired in probable space never hit where they were aimed. The graceful glide of an electrically sharpened card was hard to look away from. They came in the 4 suits of wheels, lights, drinks, and kisses.
Once they were each armed with a full 52 they replaced them by dumping the guard in the storage container and threatening him. If he didn’t want to die with a 7 of drinks in his throat he was free to emerge once the instrument was hurtling super-heated through the atmosphere of Antichthon.
The podium was locked, but the platinum card took care of it just as easily as the cell doors. Crouched in a silent line of 5, the escapees snuck in, snuck close. The command center was the nicest part of the military instrument, walls lined with dark draping curtains. The place smelled of a cross between the papery programs and mustache wax of an opera house with the oil slicks and metal shavings of a mechanic’s garage.
The conductor herself stood at her raised podium, at the end of a long thin ramp overlooking something like an orchestra pit. Inside the navigation and officer crew sat at switchboards, banks of dials with metronome needles, and card tables where they laid out, adjusted, and monitored the ship’s systems with card receivers.
No strangers to skulking around, the rogues didn’t actually need their prodigious skill thanks to the endless yammering of the blockading banjo. The conductor’s baton was jumping erratically from station to station, wherever the enemy signal reared its ugly head, trying to quash it and return their usual serene melodies.
“You’re coming in late!” the woman shouted at her communications officer with the giant headphones.
“Yes conductor, sorry conductor,” he offered, pulling out a bundle of plugs and slotting them into different pewter holes. He looked hollowed out, like there had been only strumming in his head for the last 3 days.
“Conductor, they’re hailing us again,” The understudy conductor alerted her. “They’re threatening to raise the tariff because of the delays we’re causing. They’re positioning their fretboard.”
“They wouldn’t dare!” the conductor snapped, curls of hair bouncing in time with her fury. Her black vest hung off one shoulder, but her gesticulating didn’t suffer one bit for it. The white rose pinned to it had lost most of its petals to the floor though. The superstition was that no instrument could make it to port without any petals left. “You’re flat!” she accused her chief engineer. “Flat!”
“Actually I’m sharp,” Silver said in her ear with serpentine tongue. A platinum edge acquainted itself with the bulging dark vein in the conductor’s neck. She dropped her baton. Before it hit the floor she saw that her officers were similarly under the knife. 4 of the prisoners looked up at her, holding weapons to the heads of her understudy, the head of security, the engineer, and the comms officer.
“Who let you out?” she growled at Silver.
“We took care of it ourselves. Now, what would it take to aim our reed at that big blue drink down there? We’re awfully thirsty.”
“You have no idea the charges we would incur for a water landing. Half the countries we pass will think we’re a kamikaze missile.”
“Is it the baton? I think it’s the baton,” Silver wondered aloud. “Where did it get off to? Any of you down there see it?” Toddy put himself to the task, dragging along the engineer in his wheeled chair. The raiders had done their best to secure as many people as possible, but the pit still held 2 more that turned out to not be cowards.
Once Toddy passed by they sprung out of their chairs just as their decks did from their holsters. They had their opponents at a disadvantage, as one hand was busy keeping the officers subdued. Their first move was a mistake though, focusing their fire on Olive Martini. The woman was a master of the Big Fan style, the best at deflection. A 20 card fan unfurled in her free hand, and one stroke of her wrist sent their tricks spinning to the floor as it disturbed a cloud of white petals.
Punch, who had spent months in deep conversation with the public computer banks running an entire Plutonian city, relied more on strategy than raw power. He disarmed his prisoner and then decided to use him as a weapon, kicking his chair and sending him flying into the attackers.
“You fools don’t know what you’re doing,” the conductor seethed. “You… you barbarians of Pluto.”
“Barbarians?” Silver repeated. “I hardly think that’s appropriate. Let’s check, just to be sure.” They wrapped their arm around her neck so they could hold the platinum card in front of them both, check their reflections in its foggy gray surface.
“By Nemesis, is that a platinum card?” the conductor gasped at her own reflected shock.
“I’m looking at this Long Odd Silver,” the pirate said, “and I’m not seeing a barbarian. You look like you’re not ready for this though.” It was true. Everyone in probable space was just an expression of a possibility, a might-have-been at best, so they were always mere inches from every other version of the being that didn’t exist. The platinum cards reflected those other versions, and, through a process the deck didn’t care to explain, could pull switcharoos.
The conductor sensed something of the sort instinctively, closing her eyes and flailing to prevent it from happening. Silver turned around and let her go, rolling her down the ramp. Then they jumped down to assist the others in wrangling the crew, but the banjo’s solo intensified.
“They’re boarding!” the comms officer shouted after the entire orchestra pit shook. Plink pu-link pu-lunk. Pu-lunk pu-lunk pu-lunk. The music was louder than ever, aggressive as a junkyard dog breaking in newly recruited puppies.
“We sure picked a swell time to break out,” the prince grumbled, but he hadn’t given in. He grabbed the wires from the switchboard and started tying his prisoner to his chair. The others followed suit, kicking the subdued soldiers to a back corner of the orchestra pit so they could rebuild their front line.
“Toddy! The damn baton!” Olive shouted.
“I’m looking!” he yelled back, bursts of flame from the canister in his nose giving him enough altitude to check more of the floor at once. He bounced around as if the gravity created by the clarinet’s spin was weakened. While he searched the others crawled out of the pit and stood on its ledge, counting their cards and choosing stances. Silver flicked 8 into orbit around their torso to act as protective bandoleers, making them look a bit like the classical depiction of the atom with gliding cards as electrons.
They made for a formidable line, but a line of only 4 against the 30 banjo boarders that appeared in the narrow entryway moments later. They had tan uniforms with little brass banjo badges. Details beyond that were difficult to make out, for those at the front had tall riot shields to block any straight-on tossing.
“What in the badlands is going on here?” a voice almost as twangy as the instrument that produced it demanded. The escapees couldn’t see the person past his subordinates, but guessed he was their commander.
“I had nothing to do with his!” the disarmed conductor shouted, hands up, sidling with her back to the wall. The last petal was about to fall from her rose, but she clapped one hand over it and held it tightly in place. “Those are the prisoners we were trying to unload! You forced us to wait so long the bars rotted off their damn cages!”
“Pay your tariffs then!” the banjo commander shouted back, refusing to step forward. “Take ‘em down.” His soldiers charged into the command center, and the escapees immediately retaliated with arcing throws that went around the shields. A few tore through clothing and drew blood, but only 2 people flaked off of the assaulting blob.
One dove to grab Olive, but he fell straight through her. The prisoners had all settled into 5to1 aboard the 4to1 ship, but those lounging fat and comfy just above their home world’s atmosphere were at a thriving 3to1. Nobody from either faction could touch each other, but most of their cards could. The man that dove on Olive took a gash from one of her fans as she pulled it out from under him, forearm passing through his spine.
Punch went for the toes, throwing down at a sharp angle, but he only got a few cards in the floor before one headed straight for his mask, ready to tear his face apart like a ticket stub. He lifted his hand at the last second, the foe card slicing halfway through one of his at a perpendicular angle and sticking. The survivor tossed the tangled pair in the air, caught the corner of the invading card, and threw both of them back.
Silver had even more on their plate, with 4 people assaulting their position. Their best tactic was misleading hand movements, so they put them to use. Cards couldn’t stay in orbit about the body forever, so a cardist could brush them with a palm wave to refresh their energy and trajectory, but Silver merely mimicked the maintenance, instead twisting their hand to widen the angle, to have them come about from behind and strike a much wider path.
It worked briefly, but the surge of bodies was going to overwhelm them no matter what, if Toddy hadn’t plucked the baton from a shadowy corner of the pit that is. With a jubilant hoot he whirled around in the air, waving it wildly. All the needles on the metronome dials veered left and stuck there. The entire instrument tilted.
The banjo crew were thrown against the wall they’d come from, several of them landing on the conductor. Silver and the others grabbed the edge of the orchestra pit and held on as everything not bolted down slid by. Toddy’s laughter boomed as he waved the baton again, aiming the clarinet’s nose toward Antichthon. The invaders rolled along with his instructions involuntarily.
Their instrument, specifically the breaching tunnel that connected it to the clarinet, couldn’t keep up with his tempo. The shriek of rending metal reached them. Silver looked down the invading throat and saw it twist, sparks flying as rivets busted out and bounced around. Jets of steam whistled. This new tune was even worse than the banjo working properly.
“Ease back you dunce!” Olive ordered him. “If that breaks we’ll all be sucked into the vacuum!”
“Ehh, we could handle it,” the crazy8 replied with a grin, but he steadied the baton nonetheless.
“We can work this out!” the head survivor shouted at the banjo strummers this time, surprising her cohorts.
“We don’t negotiate with hostage takers,” the commander answered. His ability to remain hidden in his staff was more impressive than any of their card arts, given that they still couldn’t pick him out of the writhing ball of limbs now focused in the narrow tip of the command center.
“Do you hire them?” Olive asked.
“We’re the Survivor Function. I’m a cardistry instructor.” She flicked her head toward Punch. “He’s a computer technician. And the idiot floating above us can fly, obviously. We’ll stop right now if you take us aboard your instrument and give us a contract. All you have to do is promise you won’t send us down to the planet.”
“What’s wrong with our planet?”
“I don’t know what exactly, but I know I don’t want to be there.”
“I’m afraid that’s not the plan,” Silver interrupted. “I have to go down there. It’s the next stepping stone.”
“Like we care!” Olive struck while the words were still in her mouth, whipping around and slicing most of Roman’s cards in half. She smacked him in the face with the back of her wrist. 2 cards flew from one of her fans as she swung it, lodging in his thigh near his knee and bringing him down on it.
Punch made his move simultaneously, throwing a shotgun burst of cards that knocked several out of Silver’s orbit, opening them up enough for a tackle. He came in like he was built of computers himself, smashing into them and pinning them against the base of the conductor’s podium.
“It would’ve shocked me if this lousy song didn’t end this way,” the prince growled to Silver.
“And there are still prisoners to send down,” Olive said of her new captives. “Nobody will even know we’re up here, winning employee of the orbit awards. You can accept the offer… or Toddy here can spin this whole place so fast that your flesh flies off your bones.”
“So I don’t get to do it?” the balloon-mask grumbled.
“You’ve got yourself a bargain,” the hidden commander said. Toddy pulled the baton back, leveling the floor. Strummers were on their feet as soon as they shook off the pain of their fresh bruises. 2 restrained Roman, and 2 more Silver.
“What’s this?” one of them asked, taking the brazen head.
“Careful with that,” Olive alerted. “It bites. Just put it with their possessions. Trust me; you don’t want it around.” The head played along, clacking its teeth like a nutcracker whenever a finger drew perilously close.
At first Silver didn’t understand why Olive would let the item go. She would only keep up the loyal soldier facade until the survivors found a way to take over the banjo, so why deny herself the best spy in probable space? Perhaps it was too risky. If anyone found out about it she would not only lose the advantage, but whoever took it could ask it the contents of her head and learn all her plans moving forward. It was too much of a wild card, especially considering it had a will of its own and would likely try to escape her.
“You 2!” the conductor seethed, pulling herself together. She still hadn’t taken her hand from her white rose. The last petals surely detached anyway when she limped up to get in Long Odd Silver’s face. “I’m going to bury you so deep in the dirt you’ll be breathing fossils.”
“All the dirt’s behind the tariff,” the banjo commander reminded her as his pawns marched by in front of him.
“I don’t even care anymore! I’ll pay top dollar to get them off my instrument! Only the worst for these 2! Send them to Gothic Rock! It’ll be worth every penny.”
None of the children could agree on what the official colors of a rodeo clown were. One of them recalled the resident clown in the annual Bulls’ Blunder festival and tractor pull, a man who had held the position for longer than any of them had been alive. He always went with a crimson circle on the nose, silver ribbons painted around his eyes, and a gold zipper on the edge of his lip. Therefore red, gold, and silver were the best choice.
A little boy interjected, his authority in the matter already substantial given that he was wearing an equally little cowboy hat. He had seen a rodeo clown in a traveling monster truck circus with a full beard. His face was striped with white, green, and black, with all the colors extending down into the beard. That was dedication. That was a rodeo clown who knew what he was doing.
“How long do I have to keep my eyes closed?” the actual subject of their argument asked. He was crouched like a frog, just under the lip of a faded card table. His thighs and ankles were starting to get sore, and he would need them imminently.
“You stay shushed!” the girl holding all the paintbrushes ordered; he squeezed his eyelids even tighter to show his obedience. She would’ve been putting on the finishing touches already, regardless of objections, if the kid in the cowboy hat didn’t have the paint cups. On top of that another girl had the cup of water to wash the brushes. Without all three they might be there all day arguing over what a proper rodeo clown was supposed to look like.
“He’s got to look his Sunday best if he’s taking on Dusky Death,” the boy whistled through the gap in his front teeth. Dusky Death waited just behind them all, endlessly patient without any electricity flowing through his base. He was a particularly powerful mechanical bull; the owner of that tavern regretted purchasing him. That was mostly the fault of patrons insisting on riding him with a drink in their hand, necessitating a distancing of all the tables so there wouldn’t be a splash zone.
They’d gotten a good deal on him because he’d taken a life in his last home. A power surge had made him buck beyond his inbuilt safety standards, and he’d thrown a man onto his neck. If Dusky was flesh and blood they would have put him down on the spot, made him hit the spot as dinner that night, but he was only metal and wires and black hide stapled on. So instead he was given the dignity of resale, and he’d mostly behaved himself since then despite the raw power he displayed.
Still his reputation went even further than he could buck a man. He was dangerous, a killer. The children, whose parents were busy working in the kitchen, couldn’t allow Linus ‘Likely’ Hood to take to his back without being properly prepared. He had to have the brave face of the men and women who dove into barrels, who ran inches from the horns of the beasts that inspired the machine.
“I’m channeling the spirit of compromise,” the girl with the water cup said, holding it in both hands like a votive candle. She hummed an eerie tune, closing her eyes as well.
“No you ain’t,” the other girl scoffed. “Halloween’s not for another month. Nobody’s channeling anything right now, ‘cept my grandpappy who picks up the radio in his fillings.” The refutation didn’t cut through her humming concentration, but it did present an opportunity to get this done. She took a brush and silently pointed at 2 select paint cups in the boy’s arms: green and gold.
It was a truce, one color from each. He nodded mischievously and they went to work applying a green nose to Likely’s face, quietly dipping the brush into the humming girl’s cup whenever they needed to.
A short distance away 2 patrons sat on stools across from the bartender, who was pretending to wash glasses with a rag while she watched the children paint the man’s face. Another 5 minutes and she’d be able to harass him for not purchasing enough to stay. He’d bought one glass of hard lemonade with twists of orange and lime, but that glass had been empty for a while now, and she didn’t like the way he was eyeing Dusky Death.
“Make my next a 4to1 Miss June,” one of the men before her requested, sliding an empty glass her way. “I need something a little lighter today.” June took it and held it under a tap. It quickly filled with extra foamy 4to1 beer, crisply flavored with local Mountainblood apples. The lower probability of the booze would mean less alcohol absorption, but that the occasional tiny bubble might effervesce through his body and clothes.
“What’s he doing here?” the other patron asked as he strangled a few peanuts out of their shells, piling the husks on his napkin like fuel for a pyre. “I’m surprised he can afford those twists in his drink.”
“He probably can’t,” Miss June agreed. She watched as the children artfully applied a golden masquerade mask. Curious, she leaned to see if Likely had an emergency mask hanging off one of his belt loops. Such a measure, meant to save someone from crazy8 and beyond by permanently altering their identity, was much less common on the 3to1 Antichthon than the 5to1 Pluto, but not in hardluck families like the Hoods.
Linus was one of the only Hoods left, the rest dead, jailed, or 11to1. You wouldn’t know it by his smile, but perhaps that was his emergency mask. The man was a touch short, but he compensated with the thick soles of his hiking boots and an ever-present tan cowboy hat. His hair and eyebrows were a little too dirty to be called dirty blond, and his amber eyes occasionally made him look like a furry scavenger in the night surprised he’d been caught rooting through the garbage.
“They have better luck around Halloween,” Miss June reminded her patron. “And on cicada years.”
“Rats,” the peanut strangler said as he cracked one in his teeth. “Has it been 13 years since the last swarm already? I had a wife the last time they were buzzing in my ear.”
“Afraid so. It’s no wonder he’s feeling free to spend on drinks even without a job. He probably has some big score planned, his version of trick-or-treating.”
“Doesn’t that brother of his do most of the planning? I thought they were inseparable.”
“Nathan’s been locked up going on 8 years now. Defacing a vehicle or some such thing. 3rd strike though, so he got 20. He was screaming at his sentencing, mad he was going to miss all the bugs.”
“Maybe when the Hoods are gone the bugs won’t show up anymore either,” the other man guessed as he sipped the foam off his apple beer. “Imagine the peace and quiet.” Miss June couldn’t imagine it, but not for lack of desire. The Hood family was just too deeply ingrained in the South Reap town of Mountainblood, situated right where Appalachia would be were this the 1to1 Earth and not its doppelganger.
Many things were inverted compared to its mirror image, so the region suffered the much more arid weather typical of the Western side of the continent. This divided it rather starkly in 2, even in the microcosm of Mountainblood. Rivers near the peaks kept them green and lush, with a little room for fields at their feet, but much of the rest of it was red clay desert.
“The spirit of compromise says- hey! You did it without me!” the girl with the water cup griped as she opened her eyes.
“Do I look that bad little miss?” Likely asked her with a pouting lip.
“No,” she admitted bashfully. “You look rightly pretty. You’re a great rodeo clown.”
“That means I’m ready I guess. Time to face the beast. Will you 3 pray for me?” The children nodded. “Alright then, back up and get to it.” The children obeyed, retreating near the bar, dropping to their knees, and clasping their hands.
“Mister Likely, who do you want us to pray to?” the boy asked. “My momma says god don’t show up round these parts because he likes humidity.”
“Go for Lady Luck,” the Hood advised. “She’s coming around on me.” He took a step toward Dusky Death, but the bartender spoke up.
“Hey, it’s 75 cents a ride.” Likely dug around in his pocket, pulling out 3 quarters… and a deck. Electroglass was the standard on Pluto, but the tiny planet was much better connected when it came to its computer systems. South Reap topography and general economic indigestion made coverage spotty, so sometimes the glass was no good for communication or computing. When that was the case, traditional materials made for better weapons.
Likely’s deck was cardstock of an earthen color, bordered with rusty steel. He had scraped most of the larger flakes off to keep the cards aerodynamic, but they still looked like they had mange, like any cut from their corners might take an entire tube of antibacterial ointment to settle your nerves.
He placed the quarters in a stack at the tip of his top card, the 5 of kisses. Then he flicked his wrist, sending most of his tricks flying forward, but they didn’t behave as you might expect. They kept close to each other, extending like a bridge that went all the way to the bar and landed gently in front of June. Each card had a hole in the top and bottom, all tied together by a black cord wound tighter than a night shift punch clock.
She snatched the coins away with a roll of her eyes. Likely flicked his wrist again and the whole deck came back and landed in order. The cord was a tool of the Cheater’s Welcome style of cardistry, which certainly befitted the man as far as those rolling eyes were concerned.
Likely swung one boot over Dusky Death and settled in. He wrapped a hand around the single strap about its shoulders. Unlike some, Dusky had a false head attached. It had been permanently twisted in the move from its last hunting grounds, so its glass eyes stared at the praying children as if it wanted them next.
“Give him a slap for me,” he encouraged June. She pressed a button under the bar, right next to the one that would automatically collect any outstanding payments from electroglass tab cards left out. The beast creaked to life, backward first to try and surprise him, but he took it in stride.
The base rotated while it bucked to make him dizzy. If he fell, aiming the impact would be impossible. If Dusky had his way it would be on the other side of the building, or perhaps between the blades of the overworked ceiling fan.
“Please Lady Luck hear this prayer. Don’t kill Mr. Hood; he’s the only one who knows how to have any fun around here. He taught me how to fall off a bike so you don’t get hurt. It’s just as important as riding it and he’s the only one who told me.”
“Lady Luck throw your dice true and then blow on ‘em false if you have to. Just give him good numbers. No snake eyes for him please. He’s the last Hood, so you can’t give him 2 whole snake eyes. A winking snake at worst.”
“Oh my Lady, be kind to Likely. I worked real hard on that face paint of his and if you mangle him badly you might smudge it. I know his face is good as canvas, ‘cause daddy says he never sweats when he should.”
Dusky kicked it up several notches, pitching to an extreme degree and then vibrating aggressively. The floorboards beyond his base rattled too. June’s eyes narrowed. He was fierce, but usually not that fierce.
“You’re not breaking my bull are you Hood?” she shouted over his bucking.
“Just breaking him in,” Likely panted. The 2 patrons twisted on their stools to watch as well, since it was clear he was going to take a tumble and they didn’t want to miss that. Halloween was still a month away; the fool shouldn’t have been tempting fate.
“Better get a mop,” the peanut strangler said out of the salty side of his mouth. “He’ll be a puddle on the floor in about a minute.”
“Say,” Likely managed to shout as he slipped far to the left, “what’s the record on this bad boy?”
“2 minutes 57,” June answered. “You’re ½ there.” Dusky seemed to hear her and double his efforts. He bucked and twitched like a car over jagged stones. Then he swiveled so fast that his head twisted the other way. The Hood bounced, his arms about to snap like rubber bands, but he kept at it.
“Back it up kids,” the beer drinker warned, slipping off his stool and corralling them out of their prayers and behind the bar. Even in his slight inebriation he could see trouble brewing.
“2 minutes 20,” the bartender muttered. Ptung! Dusky popped a rivet; it ricocheted around the place and tore off ½ of a ceiling fan blade. It landed on the rider, but he shrugged that off as well. “That’s enough, get off him! You’re liable to wreck the place!”
“He’s wrecking it, not me!” Likely claimed. Ptung! The card table gave out as it lost a leg. Dusky escaped his base, the metal gouging across the wooden floor with a terrible sound. June came out from behind the bar, but she dared not approach any more than that.
Linus Hood knew what they’d been saying without hearing it; that was why he didn’t feel for their property at that particular moment. They just didn’t understand biodiversity. Animals survive in 1,000 different ways through 1,000 different cycles; they’re not all just eating and sleeping machines.
He often asked people if they knew about the flukes and the nematodes. The former, flatworms, sometimes needed to pass through the digestive systems of multiple specific animals just to complete their life cycle. They had to get eaten, at least twice, just to get where they were going and breed. Maybe by the 5th foreign digestive system they were enjoying it.
And nematodes were some of the simplest animals, but you could never escape them. He was a fan of a quote from the real Earth of all places, which spoke of the humble animal’s success:
“In short, if all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable since, for every massing of human beings, there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.”
That one gets me as well, and I’m forced to admit it lest someone bring up my minor obsession with a certain cat tree designer and his gold nuggets of wisdom. Likely’s interest was not just academic however. His life had taught him that there were many metrics of success, and a lot of them looked like failure to the ignorant.
The Hoods were not scoundrels or vagabonds or white trash burned pink by a central fire they’d surely riled up. They were devoured flukes. The shadow lives weaving between all the others. The most invisible yet winningest creatures the nematodes.
They lived on their own cycle that confused the creatures around them, one relying on infrequent but intense bursts of chaotic good luck. There were plenty of family stories about how they got that way, and how many hundreds of years ago it occurred. Heirloom platinum cards. A diet heavy in barbecued cicadas. A Halloween hangover. Likely didn’t really care what made him that way, only how it fit with each situation he found himself in.
“You don’t need that anchor; don’t be scared now,” he growled to Dusky Death. He pulled up on the strap and then slammed back down with his full weight. The mechanical bull’s solid metal base crashed through a floorboard and slipped out of the ersatz animal. That should’ve been the end of it, but Dusky didn’t flop over.
He continued to buck 3 feet off the floor, with no clear explanation for his flight. Likely rode him in a big circle, crashing through tables and chairs. With 10,000 ways for dice to fall and bounce, he figured everything else was the same way, even if the results weren’t so clearly marked. All he had to do was thread the needle, find the one possibility in each minuscule moment where the bull was still tumbling through the air instead of hitting the ground.
“That damn thing can fly!?” June shouted.
“Or it lives in free fall!” the Hood hooted back.
“What on Aunty is going on?” the beer drinker asked no one in particular.
“It sure ain’t snake eyes!” the paintbrush girl gushed. They had to duck a moment later as the madman and his steed swung close. If Dusky had legs they would’ve been struck and killed. Likely slapped the stapled hide and got the back end to tilt and hover along the bar instead. That’s it, he thought. You’re running on Hood luck now. Things will be real bad when we get where we’re going, but we’re not getting there for a long spell.
It was less than a year prior he’d discovered that the chaotic rumbling of a mechanical bull was on roughly the same wavelength as his family’s particular strain of hardluck. Both couldn’t be tamed, both moved in unpredictable ways. Once he’d settled into its individual bucks and jerks he directed it like an extension of his own body. Still, all the worst parts of its luck, the ones that broke the necks and spines of the folks who took on Dusky Death, had to go somewhere.
An invisible force shattered and broke everything under the bull, everything that it would be rotten luck to break anyway, every glass along the bar being a good example. The patrons shielded their eyes from the flying shards. Dusky’s back end nearly tapped a cask, but it sprung a yellow leak regardless.
“I’ll get this rascal out of your establishment!” he promised the bartender, looking for ways to make it fall without impact toward the front door.
“You’re not stealing my bull Linus Hood!” He threw a hand up to his ear as if he couldn’t hear over the ruckus, but it needed to head back down and unholster his deck. With the utmost skill, especially considering he was directing bad luck with his thighs and good luck with his free hand, he opened a circle of cards atop the deck with one palm swipe and clipped it in place with the cord.
With a few more swishes of the wrist he had his razor-edged card lasso going. Once he had the beast close enough he tossed, the loop landing around the silver doorknob. He pulled it tight, the cards slicing it from its moors. Dusky’s propelling hoodoo sent the knob rolling across the floor and into a puddle of Mountainblood crisp apple brew.
The door swung open; steed and rider were practically sucked out by all the things that could go badly under the beating sun of South Reap. June rushed to the portal and watched angrily as Likely rode her property off of her property, causing a fire hydrant to blow when he skirted too close. Seconds later he was gone and the bar was hissing from the wounds of trying to hold onto a member of that family of 1,000,000to1 horny toads.
“Keep it up Linus,” she growled as the children cheered and clapped. “Lady Luck’s a one night stand.”
Under the Rock
They never even had a chance to see how particularly barren the Drymouth Desert was, but if they had they would’ve seen trees so thin and desiccated that they’d cracked free of their stumps and started roaming as giant tumbleweeds. They would’ve seen stretches of yellow and red Earth compacted by mummifying heat and the weight of desperate travelers collapsing dead.
Since it was just a blindfold accompanying the handcuffs, they could smell it as they were lowered from the hovering clarinet on ropes like fish bait. The scent was burning clay, snake skins blowing in the wind, and sweat turned to salt crystals, with just a hint of spiced bark from those bouncing tumbletrees.
Long Odd Silver might’ve thought to savor it, but Roman was above them, thrashing wildly, making the whole rope swing back and forth. He didn’t know if anyone was close to them at that moment, but he snarled that they were sons of bitches and bastards anyway. Eventually gloved hands did find them, grabbing everywhere like they were wrangling a parade balloon.
They were detached from the line and dragged down several flights of noisy metal stairs, into the depths of a much cooler building. Much cooler, but still over 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This had to be Gothic Rock, the penitentiary the conductor had taunted them with, and in so doing she had included several helpful facts about the facility.
Gothic Rock saw plenty of escapes. The staff was minimal, and generally quite friendly with the prisoners, but that came from confidence. Nobody who escaped made it very far. Drymouth ate them. Sucked them dry. Practically made them tumbleweeds too.
There wasn’t a single road in or out of Gothic Rock. Deliveries and staff changes were all handled by a lower atmosphere instrument every 24 hours. All ground vehicles were strictly prohibited. A decent horse could handle it, if the rider knew what they were doing, but the animals were regulated by the local government of nearby Mountainblood. Most automobiles had onboard computers these days, a little too onboard, meaning that in the patchwork signal coverage of South Reap they could just up and stop at an intersection. That made the horse quite the commodity, especially around Drymouth, as there was enough sand and clay swamp to bog down bicycles as well.
Hundreds had escaped the Rock, but none of them ever took so much as a sip of water after that. Lots wizened up and turned back, because there was always cold refreshment waiting for them. Even behind bars, South Reap hospitality reigned.
Their blindfolds were whipped off as they were placed in 2 soft wicker chairs. Silver and the prince were face to face with an elderly woman, but by no means feeble. Her long wavy hair’s aggressive sunflower color was obviously not nature’s intention, but her surroundings made it clear that she choked nature into submission every minute of every day.
The wicker table with the glass top separating them was on a small balcony overlooking Drymouth. The floor space was cluttered with large ceramic pots containing tall lush fronds. Vines overflowed from baskets hung on chain. One wall was just shelves of orchids in all their seductive colors.
There wasn’t a single hearty succulent anywhere among them. All exotic, all delicate, all forced to be fruitful by the woman’s touch and her many designs. Hidden misters worked constantly, keeping the air cool and saturated. An awning gave more shade than seemed possible.
“Howdy and how do,” she welcomed them, pouring lemonade loaded with swollen soaked blackberries into two large cloudy glasses. She pushed each of them with a fingertip, one to Silver and one to Roman. The former took theirs immediately, guzzling it all with a handful of noisy gulps.
“Howdy,” they said once they’d cleared their throat. “Are you the warden?”
“Yes I am. The name is Caroliner Tea. You can call me Sweet Tea or Warden Tea, both suit me fine. Since you’ll be joining us I just wanted to personally welcome you to Gothic Rock penitentiary.”
“We haven’t been told the length of our sentences,” Roman noted. He didn’t drink his lemonade, but he did hold the icy glass against his forehead. He had to hide the relief it brought.
“I’m afraid that’s not so easy to suss out,” the warden explained. “Most folks get years, but they’re from around this neck of the woods. I’m told you 2 are Plutonians, and that your various crimes include treason against Antichthon.”
“Not that I wouldn’t commit treason,” Silver said, “but it’s very difficult to do when the government you would betray isn’t even present yet.”
“That would be a point your defense would bring up, if there was any defending left to do,” Warden Tea explained. “I don’t rightly know if you were treated fairly out there in those darkest of international waters, but it’s not my concern. You came to us with a sentence and it will be carried out. That sentence is called scattering, and it takes as long as it takes, which is why I can’t give you a number.”
The prisoners felt intense heat on the back of their necks. The guards had deliberately faced them away from the desert, but they could feel it all the same. As long as they went along quietly, politely, they would get Caroliner’s smile, Caroliner’s lemonade. One cruel word and they could be turned around and tilted right off the balcony.
“You’re going to harden our luck,” the prince guessed. He went ahead and drank; they wouldn’t bother to poison someone they were going to kill more formally anyway.
“Harden isn’t the best word for it. Most people describe it as everything getting softer. You see, we don’t have the death penalty anymore thanks to the pesky world government raiding our toy box, but we can house you however we see fit.
You’re going to get your own rooms, and they’re real fine rooms too. Comfy beds. Some timely periodicals. A deck of cards, rounded a’course, for all the solitaire confinement you’ll be doing. We’ll feed you. Water you. But we don’t make conversation. Nobody will hear you through the walls. After a while it’s like you’re not even in there anymore.”
So that was to be their fate, isolated and ignored until madness lowered their probability. From 4to1 down to 8. They would have purged the rooms of anything that could easily be an emergency mask, but if they could tear holes in their bed sheets they could make one. Even that was a form of death, and they would still be trapped after crashing back to 5to1. Besides, Silver’s endless tears had already laid claim to their face. Another mask might make them the maddest creature of all.
“So this place eats people,” the prince said plainly. “You put them away until they go away. Then, when the fly trap opens again and there’s nobody inside, you refill it.”
“I tried to get some fly traps out here,” the warden lamented, “but there aren’t enough bugs around. I would’ve had to import flies, and I’ll be damned if there ever comes a day where I import more vermin than the job requires.”
“Your little garden here is impressive,” Silver complimented, seemingly unfazed by their imminent future.
“Thank you very much,” she said, beaming. “The key isn’t helping them flourish in a desert, but helping them flourish at bad odds.” Silver looked at the orchids again, noticing that all the petals were vaguely in the shape of a 5 on some and a 6 on the others. Flowers always stated their odds plainly, like animals. It was mostly just people that tried to lie about them. “The desert heat is 3to1, so they’re not bothered at all.”
“I trust you’ll be taking equally good care of us when we get that low.”
“Of course dears. You won’t feel a smidge of pain once we get you patted down in your pots. If it weren’t for the specifics of your sentencing I would tuck you in myself every single night. Now there’s one more order of business. Has anyone informed you about Halloween?”
“Oh goody, we get to trick-or-treat, ringing the doorbell on every cell,” the prince quipped, eyeing the bottom of his glass for any lingering drops.
“That sounds like nobody did,” the warden sighed. “Antichthon is the oldest of the hypo-thetical planets. Our history runs deep, and it checks up on the present and the future every now and again, specifically on Halloween each year. People long dead, or at even longer odds, have been known to reassert themselves between that dawn and the next.”
“So we’ll be receiving some visitors in our rooms?” Silver asked.
“Possibly. It’s not preferable because it will undo some of the progress toward your sentence, but there’s nothing we can do. Odds shielding would make your cells too hot, which would be inhumane according to some. Try to pay the ghosts no mind if they do show. They’ll just give you false hope. Now, that’s all I have to say. Off with you, and enjoy your stay.”
The guards took them from their chairs and escorted them back indoors. The warden stayed where she was, waiting for the next step in the intake procedure. Another guard was by a few minutes later, a metal wire basket in his arms. He set it down in front of her for her to look through.
She removed the items one by one: a deck, a 2nd, a pair of boxing dice, some Plutonian pocket change made up of one crumpled simillion and 5 chansinhell coins, a stock card with an artist’s workup of a crown, a roll of breath mints, and a mechanical head made of copper and wood with closed eyes.
“What on Aunty is this?” she asked as she turned the cranium over in her hands.
“Haven’t a clue warden,” the guard said. “It’s one of that crying crazy8’s belongings.” Caroliner shook it and listened, but there was no rattling inside. She moved on to the decks. You could tell a lot about a person by the cards they chose to carry. The prince’s deck wasn’t much help, as it was just a standard issue 52 taken from the clarinet. The boxing dice probably had plenty to say, but she’d never cared for the things.
Long Odd Silver’s deck was much more telling as she shuffled through it. High quality materials. Automatic adapting probability. Artistic flourishes everywhere, but still elegant. The silver color looked gorgeous on the queen of drinks, the king of lights, the…
She stopped dead, and her heart nearly did as well. The color of the card was barely different from the rest, but the character, that was worlds apart. Even from across the table the guard noticed it as well.
“Is that… a platinum card?” he asked.
“I do believe so. An ace no less.”
“It wasn’t in the intake report.”
“Odd for instrumentals to put their fingers in their ears like that, but not so odd when you think about it. If they acknowledged it they would’ve had to keep hold of it themselves. Lots think these things are bad hoodoo, bad enough to down an instrument anyway.”
“What are we supposed to do with it?” She didn’t answer right away. There was a reflection in the card, but she pulled another one over most of it so she could only see a lock of hair. It reflected as its natural white color instead of the sunny yellow she preferred.
“Do with what?” She straightened the deck, leaving the platinum card firmly in the middle, and put it back in the basket. “All of this goes into storage, just like always. When they’re released they can have their belongings back.”
“But they’re being scattered.”
“Put these things deep enough in the back and they might be too. Go on now.” The guard came forward to gather everything up, but she stopped him from taking the brazen head. “Actually, leave that. I’ll take care of it.”
Inside of Gothic Rock, Silver and Roman were led deeper and deeper. It got cooler as they went, vents blowing frigid air at every corner. The stretching walls were smoothest concrete, some covered in a grid of electroglass cards that acted as a collective screen. They played old movies, westerns and war stories, the unrelated tales oddly synchronized so that it sounded like the sheriff of the nearest dry gulch was answering to a beleaguered general in the trenches.
Other prisoners went about their custodial duties, eyeing the new additions as they passed. Their clothes were traditionally striped white and black to separate them from the staff, but the stripes moved, running down their limbs and trunk like a conveyor belt in a calming hypnotizing effect.
“Helps them remember that time is passing,” one of the guards escorting them mentioned. “As their threads move so too do the hands of the clock. Every time a black stripe disappears at the wrist they know they’re that much closer to release.”
“You people haven’t heard of clocks?” the prince grumbled.
“The actual numbers make people antsy. We like to keep everybody calm. Time passes, but they’ve lost the privilege of knowing which times have passed.” The guard stopped them halfway down a set of narrow stairs, sensing something. 3 seconds later the whole building shook, the card screens rattling against the concrete. Only one fell, depriving a beloved actor of his beauty mark.
“What was that?” Silver asked as it subsided.
“Don’t worry, it won’t bother you again. Your rooms have their own gyros, so you won’t feel any disturbances even if Aunty swallows all of Drymouth.” They continued on, down to a cold floor and a line of prisoners marching barefoot along one side. Their pulsing stripes formed a mesmerizing bank, so they looked away, but that just put them face to face with the scattering mechanism.
It stood like a giant carousel at the center of the circular chamber, covered by a tent of the same shifting stripes of solid black and even sturdier white. In place of animals there were mounted canisters like small water towers. Each had a door, a number, and a slot. They were affixed to the larger structure at their tops, with the bottoms rotating slowly, slightly, like wine being swirled in the bottom of a glass.
Silver guessed such motion would help to unmoor them from sanity once they were inside. The rooms would tilt this way and that, rhythmically, but never enough to make a pen roll. It was too subtle to become an antagonist in their mind, for having something to oppose might help them hold out a sense of self longer. The scattering carousel came to a slow stop, with Silver and Roman standing in front of their own doors with their own numbers: 4442 568 193860 and 55071 0036.
“It’s been something knowing you,” the prince muttered to his companion.
“Don’t give up Roman. Who knows who might come see us on Halloween.”
“If I’m gone already I’ll stop by and let you know.”
“It’s really not so bad,” the guard told them, as if he had done it before. He stepped forward and grabbed the heavy valve at the center of Silver’s door. With a squeaky spin it opened. Rather than wait for a hand on their back Silver stepped inside on their own. The metal door closed behind them.
Warden Tea hadn’t lied; it was a lovely little room. The walls were pale blue, the single knitted blanket on the bed salmon. There was an alarm clock on the nightstand, but it bore no markings of any kind and had no hands, as if there was something ticking away inside the full moon.
The trinket sat next to a stack of magazines, all with covers of a solid color under the title. Silver flipped one open and found columnar articles, sans photos or illustrations, about patents filed from Mountainblood over mundane things like a solar powered toaster and something called ‘saddle fans’.
They moved to the blank clock instead. There was a key in the back that turned off the ticking, but when they did there was no sound but their own breathing, so they switched it back on. The scattering mechanism must not have been moving yet, perhaps Roman was still being forced into his room with a push broom as he clawed at the door edges, because the clock nearly fell over when they set it down.
It was that shaking again, weaker this time. The pirate wondered what it could be. Even though they guessed the mechanism was underground the rumbling felt even deeper. A geyser of ghosts perhaps, all shoving like they were trying to get onto a streetcar, building up the pressure for when it blew on Halloween night.
There was a uniform on the bed, its stripes moving in time with the clock’s ticking. Long Odd stripped off the skin of their instrument imprisonment and tried on the new one. The material was much softer, practically silk pajamas.
They sat down on the bed. They blinked and felt it. The punishment. The end. The immediate emptiness struck harder than expected, like a mighty bell hammered and sent reeling back and forth, but producing no sound at all. Silver wasn’t bothered by being alone, but being without stimulus was different. There was nothing to bounce their personality off of.
Someone had destroyed their last life, shoving them in a book on Pluto, so Silver had assumed being confined to that room would be a similar experience. Not so. After they’d lost their struggle against the fictionalizing force they’d curled up somewhat peacefully, but it wasn’t nothingness around them. It was a story. It too had emotions, ups and downs, biases.
Their cell in Gothic Rock just shushed them, no matter what their soul said. It was truly empty. The memory that they hadn’t even escaped that book came flooding back all too clearly. They had been rescued.
“Minty?” The name died before it hit the wall, so there wasn’t even an echo.