“How the Future Got Better” by Eric Schaller

How the Future Got Better

By Eric Schaller

to the sound of Once in a Lifetime by The Talking Heads…

This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 7.


Man Watching TVTHE FOTAX PROCESS. “Your taxes fo’ nothing,” is how Uncle Walt defined it. He stole that joke from a late-night talk show. But even though he didn’t bother to read the brochure, he had caught at least one TV special and knew that Fo stood for photon and Tax for tachyon. “Now pass me another roll,” he said, “a warm one from the bottom of the bucket.”

Mom always insisted that everyone sit down as a family for dinner, but had consented to eating a half-hour earlier than usual so we could watch when FoTax went live. Five-thirty in the pee-em, would you believe it? “Might as well be eating lunch twice,” is how Uncle Walt phrased it, but he said it soft so that Mom couldn’t hear, and out of the corner of his mouth just in case she could lip read. “Hey! What about that roll? A man could die from hunger at his own table.” Little sister Susie — Suz to the family — passed him the bucket and let him dig for his own roll. He fingered every one, muttering the whole time, “Cold and hard as a goddamn rock. Probably break a tooth and wouldn’t that be just my luck. There’s a sucker born every minute and, by God, this time that sucker is me.” Took him so long to find his roll and butter it that by the time he got around to taking a bite we were already talking about ice cream.

“Hold your cotton-picking horses,” Uncle Walt said. “What’s the future got that we ain’t got now?” But he powered through his chicken, coleslaw, and dessert and long-legged it to the living room before anyone grabbed his favorite lounger.

Mom played with the settings on the new Sony receiver by the TV set, squinting at a pamphlet in her hand labeled ‘READ THIS FIRST.’ “Set it five minutes ahead,” big sister Elizabeth called from her seat on the couch between Dad and Gramps. Elizabeth insisted upon being called by all four syllables of her given name but, to her credit, had memorized the instruction manual as soon as it was out of its plastic wrapper. Probably memorized the Spanish edition too, just in case. “Setting the time closer to now reduces the chance of gray spaces and ghosting,” she said. “Don’t forget to tune to channel one-hundred-and-thirty-one.”

She might have said more but was interrupted by a frantic knocking at our apartment door. It was the Willard family, Pa Willard in the lead, Ma at his elbow, and all the little Willards, indistinguishable from each other with their chocolate-smeared mouths and cherubic curls, peering through the bars of their parents’ legs. “Can we join you?” Pa Willard asked. “Our receiver didn’t arrive.”

Ma Willard shot him a dirty look. “You forgot to sign up,” she said. Before the argument could escalate, and the Willards were always arguing, Mom said, “Come on in. Everyone’s in the living room. Suz, would you grab some more chairs for the Willards?”

Which is why, when FoTax went live, there were fourteen of us crammed together in one small room. Our TV was seven feet on the diagonal, and the Willards might have come over even if Pa Willard had remembered to order their receiver. Last anyone knew they still had their old forty-two-inch model. As you might guess with both families together, and even granting that Grammy started to nod off as soon as she settled into her chair, it was kind of noisy. But everyone went quiet and stared at the TV screen when the little green numbers on the receiver flickered to six o’clock.

But nothing happened.

Nothing changed.

All you could see was the blue of an empty channel.

“What a gyp,” said Uncle Walt. “You made me rush dessert for this?”

“Maybe it’s not set to the right channel,” said Elizabeth. “One-hundred-and-thirty-one is what the manual said.”

Mom reacted like she had just been called stupid, but got up and checked the setting again anyway. “One-three-one,” she said, “See, it says one-three-one.”

Then, without preamble or warning, while Mom tapped her finger on the illuminated part of the screen that, to her credit, did display the proper channel, an image abruptly replaced the blue background.

An image of us.

Or most of us anyway. The vantage point looked to be above and a little behind from where we were sitting. But you could see Uncle Walt’s balding head protruding above his lounger, the shoulders and hair of Dad and Elizabeth and Gramps on the couch, and, beside them, Mom sitting rigidly in one of the wooden chairs brought in from the dining table. Two of the golden-haired Willard kids shared another wooden chair beside her. In the image, they, or rather we were all watching the TV. You could see just about one-third of the TV screen, and on that image of the TV there were tinier versions of us clustered around a still tinier version of the TV. And on that miniature TV…well, you get the picture.

Suz, surprisingly, was the first to notice the difference between the image on TV and the positioning of those of us clustered around it. “Hey Mom,” she said, “you’re sitting down in the TV picture. On a chair.” Which of course was true. But just as true was the fact that here, in the real world, Mom was still standing beside the TV where she had been checking the channel.

“That’s because it’s the future. And in the future Mom’s already sat down again.” Elizabeth said this using her most infuriating know-it-all voice, as if she had also seen the same thing but hadn’t bothered to say a word because it was all so self-evident.

“What if I chose not to sit down?” said Mom, suddenly inspired as she looked at the seated image of herself on the screen. “What if I continued to stand here by the TV?” Even as she said this, before she had finished speaking, her image on the TV started to turn gray and fade away like smoke.

“Hey, you’re ghosting,” said Elizabeth, genuinely excited. “I read about that. Maybe you’ll disappear altogether.”

“Oh, I don’t like that,” said Mom. She sat down in the nearest empty chair, and the image of her on TV came back clear and sharp.

“I want to ghost too,” said one of the Willard kids, already making a move like he was going to jump out of his chair and dance around the room.

“No you don’t,” said Ma Willard, and shot him a look that could freeze, and did.

Uncle Walt was the next one to make a discovery. “You know what?”

“What?” Mom said. She didn’t look at him but kept her eyes fixed on her seated TV image.

“I was wrong.”

“You, wrong? Now that I find hard to believe.” Uncle Walt was Mom’s younger brother and, according to her, had been so spoiled while growing up it was a wonder he didn’t stink all the way to China. “Not that I find it hard to believe you were wrong, mind you,” Mom said. “But that you would admit it. That I find hard to believe. Please tell, and I hope to God someone is recording this.”

“I was wrong about the future. It does look better.”

“Better than what?”

“Better than now.”

“How’s that?”

“In the future, I got a beer.” Uncle Walt gave a little nod like he had just scored a major debating point, but was too polite to rub it in. He was right. The TV version of Uncle Walt was reclined in his lounger, an extra pillow behind his head, just like the real version here in the living room. But on the TV, in the cup holder of his lounger, was a silver can of Coors Light.

Uncle Walt got up, went to the kitchen, and returned brandishing his Coors Light like it was the Holy Grail. He triumphantly popped its top and settled back into his lounger. Now there was absolutely no difference between the version of Uncle Walt on TV and the one in our living room.

We watched then in silence, waiting to see if we could pick out anything else, waiting to see what we would do next, even trying to make out what was being shown on those screens within screens within screens that should, by rights, show us the future in five-minute increments. In some ways it was like a ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture’ game where you study two seemingly identical pictures and try to discover the differences. Only here they didn’t tell you how many differences there were.

And that wasn’t really fair.

Pretty soon Mom started talking about the obits with Ma Willard. Dad told Pa Willard about the funny noise our refrigerator made, sometimes squealing like there was a mouse trapped inside it, and Pa Willard responded with the obvious, “Well maybe there is a mouse trapped inside it.” Elizabeth told the Willard kids a ghost story, with Suz adding atmospheric wailings at the appropriate moments. Gramps asked Gramma if she wanted a bedtime martini, then laughed when all he got in response was a colossal snore.

Uncle Walt wasn’t the sort to say he was getting bored with a program, at least when he was one of the stars. But after about fifteen minutes, he leaned over to me and asked, “Isn’t there a new episode of ‘Nut Jobs’ on?”

I tried to remember what day of the week ‘Nut Jobs’ ran, and if they were already into repeats. I was just about to check the listings when I saw it. I spotted a difference. Me. Not Suz. Not Uncle Walt. And certainly not all four syllables of Elizabeth.

“No,” I told him. “‘Nut Jobs’ isn’t on. But there’s something just as good.”

“How do you know?”

I pointed at the TV.

Five minutes into the future we were already watching it.

<END>

Eric Schaller’s fiction has recently appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Postscripts, and A cappella Zoo . His stories have been reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best of the Rest, and Fantasy: Best of the Year.

“The History Within Us” up at Clarkesworld Magazine

I’m very happy to announce this morning that my short story “The History Within Us” is up at Clarkesworld Magazine alongside a fine story from Gord Sellar and an interview with Kij Johnson.  You can read my story hereAnd you can find the full issue here.

The story’s genesis is an interesting one.  My father had several old reels of film from when he was a boy, back in the early 40s, which he had recently converted to DVD.  On one long weekend we added his narrative voice-overs, so he could explain who the folks in the pictures were.  I saw a window into my ancestral past that I had never seen, and it was amazing, to see how my great-grandparents dressed, strolling through New York City, or idling their summers in the country.  I saw Passover Seders and New Year’s celebrations and walks through the Central Park Zoo.  And I saw my dad as a boy, a very rare sight.  And I realized that because the videos had now been digitized, they would never be lost.  I could pass them on to my offspring without degradation.  And my children could do the same to theirs, ad infinitum.  A thousand years from now, my ancestors could watch this film, if we kept it with us.  Now mix in an article I read in Discover Magazine about the possibility of black holes spawning other universes, and the possibility of sending information into that new universe as a way to escape the heat death of ours.  About a year and several revisions later appeared the story you see up at Clarkesworld today.

Please drop me a line and let me know what you think!

“Waiting for the Green Woman” by Sean Markey

Waiting For The Green Woman

by Sean Markey
to the sound of “True Love Waits” by Radiohead…

This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.


MY DAUGHTER IS a tree in the desert. She doesn’t move; the world rushes past her. I sit in her thin, angular shade, against her diluted-green trunk, and listen as she gossips about the grains of sand as if she knows each one by name. I try not to think about her mother, the green woman, but cannot help myself.

I sit with her and nurse a beer until the sun starts to set behind the red mountains.  The sun colors the sky like pastel chalk.

“They love this part,” she says of the sand. “They call it the grand ball, the costume party.”

I am silent, because I know what’s coming next; it’s what she says every day at sunset.

“I wish I could dance.”

I get up from my place and brush the sand from my clothing. I tuck a beat-up copy of The Jungle Book I’ve been reading her into my back pocket. I kiss her rough bark and wonder why I ever told her about dancing.

“Wait,” she says. “Don’t go yet.”

This, too, is a part of our ritual.

“But I have to. You know I can’t be here after sunset.”  I think once more of the green woman and am ashamed. If I had been a better father, everything would be different, and I would be able to see her without restrictions. I try to change the subject.

“I’ll turn into a pumpkin if I stay any longer.”

Her laughter is the sound of quaking leaves.

“Then who will decorate your leaves at Christmas?” I ask. “Or sit in your shade all day and read you stories?”

A bird calls out somewhere above us, its voice brighter than the sinking sun. The mood changes, and that invisible line between afternoon and evening is crossed, but quietly.

“I have to go,” I say again, unable to keep the guilt from my voice.

“Okay, fine,” my daughter says. “But first, tell me a story.”

I stop myself from sighing. I know exactly where this is going.

“A story it is,” I say. “But it has to be quick. Look at the sun.”

The last of the sun is being swallowed behind the mountains, and low pink clouds are striking against the afterglow. I lean against her and close my eyes.

“Tell me about Mom again,” she says.

“Your mom is a green woman with no name. Sometimes, though, she is a crocodile. And sometimes she is the thunder, the bent wheat stalks, a black widow’s spinneret, African violets. We spent the night together once and watched the stars come out. In the morning she gave me a seed, told me it was you.”

It didn’t happen quite like that, but almost.

“She sounds funny,” my daughter says. “I want to meet her someday.”

I pour the rest of my warm beer out. “I’m sure you will,” I say. I brush my fingers across her trunk as I hurry away. I have to be in my car, driving toward the city or… what? The green women left me only with the threat, and I was too afraid, too ashamed to ask about the consequences.

My imagination fills in the blanks as I leave the desert, exit the freeway, and drive under the string of orange street lights. Maybe I’ll die, or maybe I won’t be allowed to see my daughter any more. They amount to the same thing, really, and I can’t think of anything worse.

###

Long ago, the green woman kissed my face one last time in the blue morning, her tongue the filaments of a flower, her lips two soft petals. She smiled, and I tried to memorize her heart-shaped flower face, the cedar and pine scent of her. She dropped a seed into my hand.

“Our daughter,” she said. “Take care of her.”

I dropped the seed to the ground, unconcerned. “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me, we could live together in the wild. I would, I promise.”  I begged until the words no longer made sense.

“Don’t leave me, I have arachnophobia. I’ll empty my 401k. I’ll live off rain and honey. I’m afraid of the dark. I’m afraid to be alone. I love how you wear the green.”

The green woman laughed. It was not the last time I would hear her voice, but she left me then, and I was broken for a long time afterward.

###

Everyday I rush out of work, so I can spend time with my daughter before nightfall. I pick up a six pack of beer on the way out and drive into the desert. I exit the interstate at exit 4 onto a small road.

The sun is bright at five in the afternoon, and I have plenty of time to visit her.

As I get closer, I see her shedding leaves like green tears, her branches trembling. I jog the last few steps and find her weeping, inconsolable. She wilts like a flower. It takes an hour to finally calm her down.

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?”

“A bird,” she says, her voice raw from crying.

“What? What about it? Did one make a nest on you?”  I cannot slow myself down. “You want me to get rid of it?”

“No,” she yells, and her voice shakes the sand like a little shock wave. “No, no, no, no, no.”  She starts crying again, though she doesn’t have any leaves left to lose.

“Okay, all right. I’m sorry. I promise I won’t do that.”  I wait for her to calm down again. “Is that what’s wrong?”

“A bird died on my branches. It landed on me and preened its feathers, and…and then it just died. I felt it.”  Her voice drops to a whisper. There are no other sounds in the desert. “It just fell over against my trunk. Its feathers tickled me. I felt its feet brush my bark. It died, Dad.”

I comfort her as best I can. It takes awhile, and the sun doesn’t stop along its track behind the red mountains to the west. Damn the day, and damn the way time never stops for anyone.

As she calms down, she keeps her silence, and I think of the green woman. Many years had passed since that first night, until she came to me again, but it wasn’t the reunion I had hoped for. The vines around her arms had sprouted red berries which shook when she spoke. She accused me of losing her daughter, and it took me a long time to remember what she was talking about. Too long.

“I wanted her to grow up near you, in your yard, around the other green life in your garden. I wanted more for her than the desert!”

She cursed me, crushed me with her words. This is the part I never tell my daughter. The green woman told me I could only visit our daughter when the sun was out. Because of my neglect, I could only enjoy our daughter’s company in the harsh sunlight . I must always leave before the light disappears completely.

When her tone softened, she charged me with taking care of our daughter and promised she would see me again.

My daughter speaks, and pulls me from my thoughts.

“Can you bury it?”

“Bury it? The bird?”

“Yeah. Right beside me. Please?”

I hesitate. I look at the sun, all the way behind the mountains. I know if I stay too much longer, I’ll have to face down the green woman’s threat.

“Please, Dad? Don’t leave me.”

I hear the desperation in her voice, the way my own voice must have sounded to the green woman so long ago.

“Okay,” I say. Maybe I’ll see the green woman sooner than I imagined.

I climb up to fetch the bird. Her limbs feel more brittle than I remember, and she has shed all her leaves in grief. I reach the bird, near the top branches, a black and brown woodpecker. The bird is cold and stiff in my hand.

Beside my daughter’s trunk, I kneel on the ground and push at the sand. The red mountains drink the sun down, and there is only a sapphire afterglow. I couldn’t have left her here alone, to mourn all night by herself. What kind of father would I be? The green woman would understand. I hoped.

I lay the woodpecker gently into the hole, and cover it with sand. Its grey legs stick straight up toward the sky. This strikes me as wrong, so I flip it over, feet first, and lay it back in the shallow grave. I imagine it shooting through a sky the color of sand, its wings tucked close to its side, bullet shaped.

I push sand back over the hole and stand up. It’s almost completely night now.

“Say something,” my daughter says. “Say something for the bird.”

I try to think of words to say, but all I can think about is how dark it is in the desert at night, even though the stars sparkle fiercely overhead.

“Uhm…it really was a beautiful bird. It’s a shame it died.”

“Yeah,” my daughter says and drags out the word like a gust of wind.

Then something familiar touches my skin, and I can smell honeysuckle and citrus, and overwhelming green.

I turn around and see her again, my green woman, framed by the night.

“Hello,” I manage.

“Stars came out,” the green woman says.

“I know, but, our daughter. A bird died. I—I couldn’t leave.”

The green woman silences me with a shake of her head. Her petals and leaves bounce in the quickly cooling desert air.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have made that rule. I was angry.”  She reaches out a soft green hand and touches my face. “I can’t undo those words. If I break my word once, everything comes undone.”

I look away from her. I lean against my daughter for support, and even through my sadness, and the shock of seeing the green woman again, I’m surprised at how quiet she’s been.

“Please,” I whisper. “I just want to be with her. I just want to take care of her. I’m sorry. Don’t make me leave. Don’t leave me again.”

The green woman smiles and sits on the ground. She pulls me down with her. I curl up beside her and watch the stars overhead. They turn in blurry circles, like an overexposed picture.

###

When night becomes morning, I am awakened by the sound of my daughter sleeping. Her soft snore is branches scraping together. Once I emerge from the stupor of sleep and realize that I’m still alive after all, I notice how big everything appears. Green has returned to my daughter’s branches, and among the new leaves, pink and white flowers twine, like ribbons woven into hair.

They look so perfect, those heart-shaped flowers. They look sweet, and the shelter of leaves and branches is inviting. I reach up to them and am there quickly, hovering, drinking from the flowers.

“Hi Daddy,” my daughter says. I land on a branch, and fold my bright wings. My hummingbird feet clutch at her bark.

I attempt to speak, but my words have been replaced by feathers, tiny black eyes, a long hooked beak. I try to understand how much I lost when I chose to stay last night. Instead I think about what I gained. I can take shelter in my daughter’s maze of leaves, and drink nectar from the sweet flowers. She laughs at my acrobatics and is tickled by my feathers when they brush her. All year, in every season, green leaves and flowers decorate my daughter’s branches.

Day pass in the beat of a wing, and the stars shine in the beat of another. I wait for the green woman like an afterthought, but still, I wait. I see the green woman’s touch everywhere, taste her sweetness in the heart-shaped flowers, hear her in the sound of always-distant coyotes howling, smell her when the storm fronts carry the scent of rain on their edges.

“Tell me a story about Mom,” my daughter says.

I settle on a branch and start to chatter.

<end>


Sean Markey lives in Salt Lake City, UT. He is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education from Westminster College, and is very close to being finished. His stories have appeared in Fantasy Magazine and Strange Horizons. For more about him and his work, please visit his website: http://www.mrmarkey.com.

“Élan Vital” by K. Tempest Bradford

Élan Vital

by K. Tempest Bradford
to the sound of “Rock Me To Sleep” by Jill Sobule…

This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.


For Marjorie; I still have that dream.

Elan Vital by K. Tempest BradfordTHE FEW MINUTES I had to spend in the Institute’s waiting room were my least favorite part of coming up to visit my mother.  It felt more like a dialysis room, the visitors sunk into the overly-soft couches and not speaking, just drinking orange juice and recovering.  There were no magazines and no television, just cold air blowing from the vents and generic music flowing with it.  I’d finished my juice and was beginning to brood on my dislike for overly air-conditioned buildings when my mother arrived attended by a nurse.

I kissed and hugged her, automatically asking how she was, mouthing the answer she always gave as she gave it again.

“I’m fine, same as always.”

It wasn’t strictly true, but true enough.

“Let’s go on out,” she said, shrugging off the nurse’s continued assistance.  “It’s too cold in here.”

Despite the hint, the nurse tried to help Mom over the threshold.  As always, she rebuffed any attempt to treat her like an old person.

“Where to today?” she asked, slipping her arm into mine as we escaped the frigid building.

“Just down to the lake,” I said.  “Don’t want to overexert you.”

She squeezed my arm as her feet slid carefully over the cobbled path.  I wanted her to use a wheelchair, or a walker, at least.  She wouldn’t.

“What you mean is that we haven’t got so much time today,” she said.

I shrugged instead of answering.  I didn’t want to go into why I couldn’t afford much this trip.

“Next time I’ll come for a couple of days, at least.  I promise.”

“No, that’s all right,” she said.  “I don’t like it when you spend so much for days and more.  A few hours is fine.”

I helped her past the immaculately landscaped gardens and small orchards.  The scent of flowers, herbs, and fresh-cut grass wafting at us in turn.  I glanced at the garden entrances as we passed by, catching quick glimpses of other people in the middle of visits.  A young couple who’d been in the waiting room with me knelt by a small, bald girl as she splashed in the koi pond.  Two elderly women stood under a weeping willow, their heads close, lips barely moving.  A large group of people speaking Mandarin milled around the waterfall in the rock garden.  I could still hear faint traces of their melodic din all the way down by the lake.

I preferred this spot—the flora was less regimented and more natural.  And no walls.  Just an open space, water gently flicking the shoreline, a beautiful view down the hill, and the occasional cat wandering by.

“This hasn’t changed much,” my mom said as I helped her down on one of the small benches by the water.  “I thought they were going to get ducks or geese or something.”

I chose a nearby rock for my own perch.  “I think they’re having trouble with permits or whatever you need nowadays.”

The wind kicked up, sending freckles of reflected light across her face.  Her skin was still perfect, beautiful and dark brown, though stretched across her cheekbones a little too tight.  I hated that I never had enough to restore her round cheeks and full figure.  I have to look at pictures just to remember her that way.

“You haven’t changed much, either,” she said while fussing with my hair.  I’d bought some dye the week before, knowing she’d notice it.  “How long has it been?”

“Three months.”

She let out a familiar sigh—part exhaustion, part exasperation, part sadness, I suppose.  “That’s too soon.”

“It’s your birthday, though.”

“Is it?  It’s fall already?”  She looked out over the small forest that edged the Institute’s boundary a few miles away.  The trees were still green with no hint of turning.  It always felt and looked like summer there; one of the reasons the administrators chose the location.  “I miss the seasons.  Fall colors, Christmas snow…”

“You never did when you had to shovel it.”

That got her to smile.

I reached out and held her hand; still a little cold even in the full sunlight.  “Besides, I missed you.”

“I know.  But…”

“And I won’t be able to come back until after the new year, anyway, so I wanted to squeeze in one more visit.  Since today is special…”

Years ago I used to bring her cake and presents on her birthday.  She couldn’t really eat the cake—one of the side effects of whatever they did when they brought her back.  The presents had to go back home with me since she didn’t have any place to put them and couldn’t wear clothing or jewelry once she went back to sleep.  I hated having to give that up, too.

“Okay, I’ll give you a pass this time.”  She kissed my cheek, seeming more like her old self.  “Where are you off to?”

“Rwanda.  For a dig.  Dr. Berman promised I’d be more than a glorified volunteer wrangler this trip.  And they want me for a year.  Still, I’ll try to come back and see you sooner than that.”

“No, you should concentrate on your work.  I’ll still be here.”  My mother never changed.

It was the same when she was sick.  I wanted to take a break from college and stay home with her.  It was pretty clear that her death was inevitable by that time, the only question being: how long?  I wanted to be with her, she wanted me back in class.  If you take a leave of absence you might never go back, she’d said.  So I went back.

“For me it’ll seem like you’ve gone and come back right away.”  Trying to reassure me again.

“I know,” I said.  “Must be strange, not being able to perceive the passage of time.”

We didn’t say anything for a while.  This was the part of the visit where one of us either addressed the elephant in the room or steered the conversation around it.

“At least I’m not as bad as Ella,” she said.  And we both laughed.

My aunt, her older sister, was so notorious for being late that we started her funeral a few hours behind schedule because it just felt right.  My cousin Brandon joked that we should have carved an epitaph on her headstone: “I’ll be back in five minutes.”

“Remember the time she was supposed to pick me up from rehearsal or something?”

“And you waited for her, caught the bus, and was home before she’d even left the house!”

Mom kept me laughing for a long time, recounting trips she’d taken with Ella and their cousins and everything that went wrong because they were never on time anywhere.  Stories I’d heard dozens of times before and wouldn’t have minded hearing a hundred times again.  More and more, her laughs ended with a small coughing fit.  I checked the time; we had about forty-five minutes left.

“Do you want to head back?” I asked.  “Sit inside a bit before you…”

“Die?”

“You don’t die.”

“Technically, I do.  According to the doctors, anyway.”

I didn’t argue.  I didn’t even want to be talking about it.  I was never there when my mother went ‘back under’, as the nurses put it.  It was against Institute rules.  I suppose for some people it might have been upsetting to see their loved ones in the capsules residents stayed in.  Too much like a coffin.  For me, it felt wrong not to be by her side when it happened.  I was with her when she first died, after all.

Seeing that I wasn’t going to go there, mom leaned back and turned her face to the sunlight.  “No, let’s stay out here a little bit longer.  It’s a nice day.”

“I could come back tomorrow, get a few more hours,” I said.  It wouldn’t matter if I stayed a little longer.  There wasn’t anyone waiting for me back at home.

“You know how I feel about that.”  Her look was semi-stern.  “You don’t want to end up in here yourself.  Not for a long time, if ever.”

“At least we’d be together,” I said, smiling.

“But who would bring us back?”

“I’m sure I could bribe Brandon’s kids to do it.”  I wasn’t particularly close to my cousin anymore, though his oldest called me on the holidays.  My guess was he’d been coveting my share of our grandmother’s house.

“You’ve given this a lot of thought.  I’m surprised.”

I knew I had to tread very carefully.  “It may come up.  Someday.  You haven’t said you want to stop.  And if anything happens to me, it’s in my will that I want to come here if I can.”

Mom gazed at me steadily for what felt like a long time.  “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

That alarmed me more than a little.  “Why?  Is there… I mean, something that isn’t right?  Is it…”  When you avoid talking about something for so long, it’s hard to know how to start.  “Is it bad?”

“The dying?  I don’t know, really.  They always induce sleep before that moment.”

Though I had always been more reluctant to talk about this, I could tell my mother was holding back, not saying some things.  That scared me even more.  She was always very upfront with me except when it came to what was going on with her.  Usually when it was really bad.

“What’s it like?  Afterwards.  While you’re… gone.”

She shook her head slowly, her look far away.  “To be honest, I don’t know.”

Better than the answer I’d been dreading.  Answers, plural, actually.  Nothing I could imagine made me feel particularly good.  Either I was ripping my mother away from the glories of heaven or giving her only small respites from the tortures of hell.  The preachers and protestors all had their own variations on those themes and loved to scream them at me (or anyone else driving past the gates) whenever I came up.  ‘I don’t know’ was, at least, not guilt-inducing.

“It’s a little like waking up from a dream,” she said after a couple of minutes.  “I know that I’ve been dreaming, and I even intend to remember the dream, but I can’t recall a single element once I wake up.”

“That must be frustrating.”  I sometimes dreamed of what she did and where she went while I was gone.  Many times I was there with her.  Those were my favorite.

“It’s the way things are,” she said and shrugged.  “Ironic, though, isn’t it?  I don’t know anymore about the afterlife than anyone else and I’ve been dead how many years?”

“Seven.”

“Hmm.”  She smiled my favorite smile—the one where the corners of her mouth turned down and yet it was still somehow a smile.  “I guess I am having trouble with time.  I thought it had been longer.”

I still couldn’t get over the fact that it had happened at all.  It wasn’t fair.  I was too young to lose my mother and she was too young to be dying.  Only fifty-three.  Not fair at all.  So when the UR Institute approached me in the hospital I was primed to listen and agree.  They would handle all of the funeral arrangements and costs and even buy a crypt for her in the cemetery where her mother and father and brother were buried.  No one else would know that she wasn’t in there.  Only I knew that she was actually resting in the Institute waiting to be re-animated.  You could have your mother back for a couple of days a few times a year, they’d said.  Holidays, birthdays, maybe even your wedding day.  They had me from hello.

It didn’t matter that the only reason they were prepared to foot the bills was that they wanted to study how people who died from cancer reacted to the resurrection process.  It didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell the rest of the family.  Only a few people knew then that the Institute wasn’t just reanimating rich old ladies’ cats anymore.  It didn’t matter that I would have to provide the élan vital necessary to reanimate her again for those few hours or days.  Or that these transfusions shortened my own life span, sometimes caused considerable health problems in other ‘donors’, and took the ability to have children of my own.  It didn’t matter.  I just wanted my mother back.

“It can’t have only been seven years.”  Mom was frowning now.

“Oh, right.  It’s been more like ten.”  My hand went to the nape of my neck, rubbing the tender spot they always used for access.  I thought I’d gotten rid of that tic.

“Has it?”  She was paging back through her memory.  I could tell from her look.

I exuded casualness—my only defense against a mother’s ability to catch you in a lie.  “Like you said, the process messes with your sense of time.”

I had developed this tendency to treat her like a doddering old woman.  She was only 53 and would always be 53.  She never aged, just backed up from death a few steps before going ahead again.  The resurrection process didn’t work very well on cancer patients, particularly cancers of the blood.  She was perpetually sick-seeming, though the pain wasn’t as bad.  That made it easy to fool myself by thinking she was getting old and forgetful when her memory was as sharp as ever.

“I’ve been resurrected twenty-six times.  I know because someone told me when I hit twenty.”

They weren’t supposed to tell her stuff like that.

“Six visits should have been three years ago,” she continued.  “How long has it actually been?”

And of course she was giving me that look.  The one mothers have when you’ve been caught forging a report card signature or sneaking into a movie when you’re supposed to be in Algebra.  There was no point lying then.

“A little over a year,” I admitted.  I could see her ramping up.  “Mom, it’s-”

“When I agreed to do this it was on the condition that you only do two transfusions a year.  Three at most.  Now you’re telling me six!”

“No, listen—”

“Shannon, that’s too many.  It’s dangerous!  You’re throwing away years—”

“I’m not!”

Years of your life on the past!”

There was more to the speech but a chime interrupted.  Each patient had an electronic monitor bracelet to keep track of vital signs, warn of danger, and countdown the time left.  It chimed again, informing us that we had 20 minutes.

“We should start back.”  I said, knowing she didn’t need the whole twenty for the walk.

“No.  Sit down.”

“Mom, please, we need to go.”

She pointed at my rock.  “Not until we talk about this.”

There was nothing to do but give in.

“You can’t keep doing this,” she said, using The Voice.  Like I was a small child and she was explaining why I couldn’t have something I’d begged and begged for at the store.  “This five or six or however many times a year.  You promised me.”

“I know.  And I’m sorry I lied.  But I didn’t want you to worry.  And I couldn’t afford it any other way.”

“Afford what?  I thought they said this was free.”

There had been several times I’d wanted to tell her this.  To tell anyone, really.  But she wouldn’t have just listened.  She would have made me stop.

“The ‘storage’ is free,” I said.  I hated that word and the way they used it.  “But the resurrection isn’t.  The fees went up once they went public.  I couldn’t always afford it.  And I couldn’t wait years between seeing you again.  Then they developed a way to transfer vital force between non-family members.”

I wanted to turn away, but I forced myself to look her in the eye.  “People pay a lot of money for that.”

I have only seen my mother cry a few times in my life.  Seeing tears in her eyes broke me down to the child I was when I first saw them.  When you’re three (or thirty) and your mother cries because of something you’ve done, you want to turn back time or vow to be the perfect daughter for the rest of your life.  Anything to make it better.

“Every time I do it for someone else they let me do it for you, too.  For the short visits.  Then I earn enough money to buy longer ones.”

“You have to stop.”  She squeezed my hand tight and drew me over to the bench.

“Mom, it’s okay.  I’m fine.  The process is much more refined now, much less dangerous.”

“No.  This isn’t right.”

“But I’m helping people.  Helping them hang on to life a little longer.”

Mom made me look her in the eyes.  “Why aren’t their family members doing it for them?  Why are they paying someone else to do it?”

There are probably dozens of legitimate reasons I could have given her.  But, in the end, it all came down to the fact that people with that kind of money to throw around didn’t need to give of themselves to fulfill their desires, so they didn’t.  Nor did they have to when there were plenty of people like me around.

The monitor chimed again.  She pressed a button to silence it, then took it off altogether.

“Mom!”

“Shannon, I love you.  I would do anything for you.  I did this for you.”

I was the one crying now.  “You didn’t really want to though, did you?”

“No, baby, I did.”  She wiped the tears from my cheek.  A futile act as they were near torrential.  “When I— when I died I had no regrets but one:  that I was leaving you.  I wouldn’t get to see you graduate college or get married or be a mother yourself.  I would miss your life and I hated that thought.”

It was nearly dark.  The lights around the lake blinked on and illuminated her hollow face.  My mother’s body wasted away by cancer.  Cancer that would kill her again right in front of my eyes if we stayed any longer.  They warned every resident to get back to the Institute before…  Before.  They said if the proper procedure wasn’t followed it could result in damage, or worse.

“How many years has this taken from you?  Not just the seven we’ve been doing this, but the years they leeched?”

I closed my eyes, seeing my face as it looked in the mirror each morning.  No wrinkles to speak of—that was down to her genes.  But the grey hairs, the stiff joints, and the fatigue made me feel older than thirty.  Hell, older than forty, most days.  “They don’t know.  It’s hard to tell.  They just don’t know.  And it doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters!”

“No, it doesn’t.  Because you’re my mother.  Because I’m supposed to take care of you.  Because I wasn’t there when you had your operations or when you had chemo or all the other times you needed me.  I was off sorting through dead people’s things and wondering which pottery sherd came from which dynasty and other bullshit that didn’t matter!”

The bracelet beeped again.  I took a few minutes to calm down, knowing that minutes was all I had left.  But my throat was so tight I could barely breathe and I didn’t want to lose it.

“I thought of you every day,” she said with effort.  “But every day I was glad you weren’t there to see me like that.  I didn’t want that to be how you remembered me.  Sending you back to college was an easy excuse.”

I wiped my face dry as best I could, then swept away the tears on her cheeks.  “So.  Atonement for us both, then.”

“I let it go on for too long, though,” she said.  It was obvious that she was in a great deal of pain and did not intend to do anything about it.  “I just didn’t want to leave you again.”

“So don’t.”

“At some point, I have to.  I’m dead, baby.  You can bring me back a hundred times and nothing will change that.”

“It’s not fair.”

She wrapped her arms around me.  “No one ever promised you fair.”

No, no one ever did.  Not even her.

Elav Vital by K. Tempest Bradford

FIVE MINUTES BEFORE we were supposed to be back at the main building, a nurse found us, my mom’s head resting on my shoulder, my arm holding her close.

“Ma’am, do you need help getting back?” he asked.

“She’s not going back,” I said, my eyes never leaving the water.

“But Miss Tidmore, she needs to get back if we’re—”

“I’m exercising my right to allow my mother a full and natural death.”

The minutes ticked away.  Mom’s body started to tremble, the pain kicking in as her time ran out.  She’d lost consciousness just after the nurse went to get help.  Or reinforcements.  It was hard, sitting there, knowing that she was in pain.

In the end, she left the decision up to me.  Just like she had seven years before in the hospital.  My aunts had been taking care of her, but I had the power of attorney.  I could let her go or I could let the Institute bring her back.  Now, by the lake, footsteps approaching, it was the same.  I could let her go or I could bring her back.

When they came back, I knew, they would try to change my mind.  They would argue and reason and sound very convincing.  They couldn’t force me, though.  It was in the contract.

I held her hand.  I waited forever.

It was over too soon. But I was there.

<END>

© Copyright 2009 K. Tempest Bradford & Senses Five Press



“Heaven’s Fire” by Paul Jessup

Heaven’s Fire

by Paul Jessup
to the sound of “Love Her Madly” by the Doors…

This story appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 6.


ME AND JAZZ waved at the Goodbye Girl as it flew overhead, the gold and blue gossamer wings like butterfly beats, the silver cockpit shimmering in the afternoon light with tiny silver threads looping down and around it. We saw the paint we had splashed on earlier in a drugged out mania, the orange and blue and the bright burning red — making it into star shapes and star patterns. Just so my gal Mary Mary May could find her way home across the many patterns of glowing suns.

Jazz sat against the tree, woomph, eyes lit up and his hand rubbing his bare chest. “Man, that Mary Mary May is some girl.”

I pulled out a joint and lit it. The smell was sweet, like flowers. “Yeah, you could say that. She’s not going to be back for another twenty or so years. And then we’ll be old, and she’ll still be young. But at least she’ll be safe. Those fucking molts will have purged her from the datamines by then, and she’ll be safe.”

“So it goes,” said Jazz, “So it goes. I’ll miss her madly.”

“We both will,” I said and watched as she hit the stratosphere, the last of the paint peeling and crackling in the heat of exit.

###

Bear was back in the station, not paying attention to us, his face buried in the guts of a robotic body. Spent vacuum tubes lay scattered across the floor in a circle, ringing around a pile of filthy sparkplugs.

He turned his bushy head round to see us. “Couldn’t convince her to stay, eh?”

Jazz kicked a rusted mechanical hand across the floor. “Nope. The molts have a scent on her code, man. You know how it goes. Once they sniff ya, it’s over on this planet.”

Bear put his head back into the machine. “Yeah, fuck. Why are we still here, then? They snuffed our code out ages ago, and now we can’t sleep in the same place twice without being hunted. Why do we keep on fighting on? Why can’t we go to Zappa, or Firebell, or even Skydew? Any of those stations are better than this. They say they share all, no greed, no law, no fucking molts. You know? Why can’t we have that?”

I reached over and grabbed the microwave rifle from the wall, feeling the power and weight of it in my hands. It was beat down, old and angry. Just like me. Just like Bear and Jazz. “Someone has to do this. Someone needs to stop the molts. We keep running into the stars, Bear — we keep running into the stars and they will move out after us, take the war away from those alien worlds and focus it on the stations. They will take their hands and squish the rings of moons, smash down the other stars. Those peaceful communes won’t last, not when the molts land and start opening up. Consider what we do a diversion, a sacrifice for their existence.”

Bear threw a wrench at the ground; it clanged and sparkled as it spun, sucking in the light. “Fuck. I know you’re right, right? I know you’re speaking good stuff. But — why does it have to be us? I’m sick of fighting. I’m sick of being revived. I’m sick of all this shit. Why can’t we just lay back and live on one of those stars? With Mary Mary May, or Silver Kitty, or Dopeling? Let some kids do our work for us.”

Jazz walked forward, his eyes on a poster on the back wall. Dylan in bright blues, Dylan holding a rally, and underneath it written in brilliantly curving balloon letters: Take Hold of Freedom.

“Because of Dylan, that’s why.”

Bear was quiet. The name of our patron saint, the king of the Weathermen — Dylan. He who died for our cause so many years ago, back when the first wave of molts came in and war was announced, before we stole the gene base and the revita chambers from the military compounds. We were the first to fight back, the first to say no to the molts, say no to the war. We won’t go and rape the alien planets, we won’t kill ourselves on the soil of relic worlds for the molts to pillage, we won’t play their games, live their lies.

We were the Weathermen. And Dylan was our leader, guitar in one hand and pipe bomb in the other. We blew holes in their buildings, had our heads knocked about by the molts and their machines. But in the end there are more of us, growing each day.

Bear didn’t say anything. He just went back inside the guts of that machine and tinkered about, the sparks of his soldering shooting out blue and leaving the air tasting like sweet ozone.

###

It didn’t take long for the molt dogs to sniff out our code and hunt us down in the ratted ruins of a bus station we had called home for the past week or so. We had to run that night Mary Mary May left, leaving our old home behind us, the metallic barking under the light of the full moon, the sound of pistons and steam wooshing into the forest winds. We each had a backpack slung over our shoulders, microwave rifles in hand.

Bear was the biggest and hung in the back, firing at the molts that ran us into the dark of the woods. The sound of the bolts from the rifle burst our ears, leaving them ringing for hours on end, the ping ping pinging of the metallic molt dogs piercing in even further than the bolt firings.

Bear was mad and yelling and hooting, his half finished baby robot Sunshine hung on his shoulders like a koala to a tree. “Come on you fuckers! You can’t kill us, you can’t cut us down! We are the fucking underground, and we will come up from all corners and smother you! The revolution is now!”

Blue lights of fissuring fire shot past us from the molt dog guns, burning the sides of my cheek and my face stinging from the pain. If I hadn’t bit some dream berries an hour ago, that would be a fuckload of hurt, but right now it was just warm and blistering and distant. Like it was all happening to someone else.

Eventually the molt dogs either all died or left us running because the blasts stopped coming at us and the barking died out until there was no sound at all. We ended up on a beach near the main lake, the lake that was larger than the moons that orbited around us. The night was gone and the sun was just beginning to rise up, painting the world in a cold blue that was both beautiful and haunting at the same time.

Cliffs lined the beach to either side, forests like a pine army lining the top of it. I saw a huge mansion on the top of the highest cliff looking dead and run down with haunted eyes. No lights, no star ships, no cars, nothing.

Above it we saw the glimmering stars that trailed the sky, disappearing with the light of day. Bear clamped his hand on mine, it was sweaty and dirty, Sunshine bot over his shoulder smiling the painted on smile, her little light eyes glowing blue. Her AI was half finished, just like her body, but she still had life, somehow. Even if it was mostly broken and artificial.

Bear laughed, heartily. “Now, that. I forgot about how much fun that could be. We were too complacent, man. Too stone still. I had forgotten about how much fun the fight is. I’m going to stay here and fight forever.”

Jazz was near the crashing waves, leaned over and panting. “We need a place guys. Need some pad to lay our heads, right?”

“Right on, right on,” I said, “You guys see what I see? Right up there. Now that’s a joint I could get used to.”

Bear shrugged. Sunshine bot mewled on his shoulders, making the only noise she knew how, blowing hot steam out of her back while the vacuum tubes that lined her shoulders flickered a soft blue and amber light. Black tubes lined her shoulders and back, clockwork gears twisting and turning the wiring. “Yeah, could do. At least until we get hunted again. Damn. You sure it’s empty though? I mean, it looks empty…”

Jazz stood up, his breathing more slow and regular, his body outlined by the grey and blue of the polluted lake. Over his shoulders was a bead blanket, keeping the bitter lake wind from biting his bare chest. “Like, looks can be deceiving though. We all know that.”

From the sky we saw a brilliant flash of light and then stars streaming down blue and gold. I felt like I was covered in honey, prickling, warm, bee filled honey. I felt the bee feet dance on my skin and I smiled. After the flash of light we saw some silver and gold object come skating down, off, behind the cliff and into the woods.

“Damn,” Bear said, “Fuck me if that ain’t a sign.”

I grinned, big pumpkin grin. “Question is — of what? Is that some moldy probe sent to kill us? Is it like some alien ship stranded down among us? Or is it some satellite that just happened to be hit and get knocked down? Could be a bad sign. Could be our death sign.”

Jazz laughed. “To hell with your astrology, man. I say it’s a sign we go and check out what it is, dig? And then we take that pad for our own. If someone lives there, it’s probably some old cat we can coerce into letting us crash. Cool?”

Bear nodded, Sunshine bot smiled and said, “Gooeygahmoo!”

I walked up the path towards the cliff, pushed my hands on the rocky face and felt a trellis of tree roots along the side like sandpaper against my palm. I grabbed it, pulled and yanked. Seemed sturdy enough for climbing. “All right, you bearded crazies. Let’s go. But I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

###

Trees bent out like broken ballet dancers, crushed under the weight of metal and heat. Circle of ash. I held my breath, because  I recognized the ship pieces, shattered, gossamer wings caught and ripped and torn in bare branches, the knotted fingers grasping through.

I called out, no — screamed, rushed forward. The air vibrated, and I saw the lean hungry shadows of Bear and Jazz run with me, pulling off piles wreckage, sorting through the debris. It was Mary Mary May’s ship — we all saw that. Memories of painting it fluttered through my mind, scattered scar thoughts of Bear building it, claiming the ship sky worthy, that the bounds of this sub earth could not hold The Goodbye Girl in the clutches of its gravity.

“Bear!” I screamed, “Bear!”  I hit him as we pulled out pieces of shrapnel and scattered metal pieces. He didn’t hit me back, he just pushed me and kept on searching through the wreckage. Sunshine bot on his back shot me a dirty look, said something to me in its clicking baby tongue that I’m sure was an insult, its illuminated eyes glaring through tin skull.

“BEAR!” I screamed, and howled, and punched my fists into the ground, dirt and rock breaking the skin of my knuckles.

I loved Mary Mary May. We all did, but I loved her moreso, loved her fingers against stomach, loved her lips on shoulders, loved her teeth running against my back. Loved her thrust and howl, loved her whole and shaking, coming and burning. I still felt her, like a ghost against me. Rocking.

Jazz called me out — yelled at me to come and help. He found her leg — the rest of her buried beneath some plastic chair that was torn to shreds with loose puffs of stuffing come loose and floating like clouds. I ran over and helped, whispering prayers to gods I thought long since dead and buried, hoping that she was alive underneath all of that junk.

We pulled her out, her body slid against the ground, pulling the hunks of metal and plastic off. She breathed — beautiful chest rising up and down, orange skirt frayed and torn but still there, the beads around her neck broken and scattered along the chair like tiny, colorful stars.

I held her in my arms. She was bruised, but in one piece. Nothing pierced through, nothing shattered. “She’ll be all right, yeah?”

Jazz grunted. “Won’t know, man. Not out here. Need to plug the equipment in.”

I nodded and ignored Bear, whose long lean body was sorting through the wreckage, scratching at his beard and making thinking noises as he did it. He sucked on his tooth as me and Jazz carried her off, towards the house to get some juice for Jazz’s equipment.

I was going to say something rude and thought against it. Better Bear stay out here, amongst the scraps of this tin can that he strapped a rocket to. Safe my ass. He sent her up to die.

“Hey guys,” he called back, not turning his head, “She was shot down.”

And we said nothing. I knew he was right. He followed behind as we head up to that old mansion. We felt something igniting in the air — a feeling of being watched. The molts watched us. In the trees, in the sky. Somehow, the molts watched us, using their damned molt technology.

###

That was a spooky old place, definitely one that had gone up and given the ghost. Nobody had stayed in that pad in ages — the wallpapers were all from the early century, the clocks and furniture were covered in dust and cobwebs. We heard the noisy feet of spiders scurrying in the shadows, and tried to pay it no mind when the ancient clock chimed out the angry hours.

“Damn,” Jazz said as we laid her body flat against the floorboards, “I’ll be lucky if there’s any juice left in this old place.”

He pulled open his backpack and rummaged around inside. The sound of gears cranking and mechanical whirring tasted the air as his nimble fingers moved about, searching for the device.  He pulled out it with no great flair, all of us on edge. I held her body, close, that soft velvet skin of Mary Mary May, hoping she would be fine, good, cuddle close and still breathing.

Bear said nothing. He only peeked with cautious eyes out of the windows, microwave rifle in hand, joint in mouth with smoke pluming around his head. “They watching, I think.” He said in his big bear voice, “They shot her down right here, and they’ll be here to get her. That’s why they stopped chasing us, man. We’re in for a big bang of a brawl.”

Sunshine bot clung to Bear’s shoulders, mechanical arms and legs wrapped around tight and making low whirring noises, like a small broken wristwatch. Bear petted Sunshine bot and the thing cooed and mewed in pleasure, tin head arcing up beneath the stroking fingers.

Jazz pushed aside an old table and chair, shoving a tiffany lamp to the floor and followed its mouse eaten cord back to the wall. “Ancient, ancient. This is ancient. But it should have enough juice. Enough sparkly sparkle for what we need it to do.”

He plugged the machine in. Hummmm.

Glitter glow of tiny tesla coils, arching strange light, snickering, snickering. Then the soft illumination of the vacuum tubes, and the tiny green screen in front of him, with glowing radioactive letters. “Give me a sec, boys. I need to calibrate it to her life waves. Focus in, get her signs. See if her chi’s in alignment.”

It sounded like a radio tuning in some ghost frequency — voices from dead stars, dead cities echoing about in the old mansion room. This device always gave me a bad feeling, like something inside of me had gone sour and spoiled my bones.

“Kay, kay, kay. Got it, man. Got it. She seems fine, doing okay. But what’s this? She’s pregnant.”

I tried to speak, but all I got was muttered half words. Was it mine? Was it theirs? It was hers, I knew that, but whose was it? And was it okay after an impact like that?

More tuning, weak sounds like banging, ancient music. Bear pulled red curtain back, pushed his body flat against the boards, fingering the tip of his rifle. “Something’s outside. Like, something walking the beach. Ain’t ever seen anything like it. Fuck me, we are in trouble, boys. We are in trouble.

“Ok. She’s got a minor imbalance here. Just need to change the flow of the chi, correct the balance with a few things. Baby is fine, kicking a little even. I doubt she knows she even has it.”

He turned some knobs, right, left. I sat by, watching, holding my breath. I want to go and look at the window, to see what Bear sees. But she needs me here, by her side. That’s my baby in there. That’s my girl, half dead from a blast from space, knocking her bird down to earth.

Her arms moved as she shook violently, her eyes flipping open, spasming. Jazz turned the knobs another direction, muttering something beneath his breath, tried to focus harder, his knuckles white, his eyebrow twitching. She sat up, gasping for air, holding her stomach and close to screaming, tears rolling down her face as butterflies flew out of her mouth. They flapped in the air for a moment, and then dissipated like colored smoke.

I grabbed her and hugged her, pushing her close to my body. I didn’t ever want her to go again, don’t ever want her to leave again. Even if the molts come directly for us, their dogs growling and bone hungry. I had wanted to set her free, to let her escape, to let her live in peace. I realized now that was just as selfish as keeping her near.

She shook, finally gained composure to talk. “Where am I? Oh, Captain Heart, you’re still here. Hold me for a moment. I fell from the sky, like a falling star. I can feel it — something shot me down. A bird with an arrow in its breast. How did I survive? My whole body feels twisted and wind-smashed.”

Jazz waved at her and smiled. “Got it done with a little help from my friend here. Just made sure the life forces were flowing properly. And — congratulations.”

I held her tight, knowing this might be the first moment she hears the news — our news. “Congratulations?” she whispers in an out of tune voice.

“Yeah, you’re pregnant.”

She shoved me away, I fall back and hit the floor skidding across. Not the response I expected, not the response I wanted. I’m hesitant, unsure, and must admit a little scared.

“Oh no,” she said, “Oh fuck no. I can’t raise a baby here — not in this world! Not in this — this hell. Those damn molts will eat the poor kid up, turn her into a machine…no, no I can’t do this.”

I reached out to hold her, reached out to comfort her. We heard a noise coming from outside, on the beach. It sounded like metal eating metal, machine devouring machine. “Mary Mary May — we can raise her underground — out of the way of the eating world. We can keep our baby safe from the molts — safe!”

She shook her head as Bear pulled out his rifle and aimed it outside, aimed it at something on the dark beach. “It hasn’t seen us yet,” Bear muttered, “And it’s not going to get a chance to, either.”

“Our baby? Our baby? What? You fuck me a few times and think you own this flesh? This is my baby, idiot, and I’m not raising her in a warzone while you and your buddies play revolution.”

I was hurt, I was broken. Bear fired out the window, the loud shots from the microwave rifle making our ears ring, the smell of ozone once again tinting our senses. “This is my baby too, right? It’s partly mine, right?”

Mary Mary May said nothing, she just ran, ran with her beautiful legs out the door and outside, into that forest where the molts wandered, laser cannons ready to hunt us down and take us out.

Jazz shrugged and unplugged his tool and then popped it back into his backpack. He then unslung his microwave rifle and started the charge, getting it ready to blast some metal to welded scrap. “No thanks, eh? Well, I don’t expect you to thank me for her, man. That’s just how it goes.”

I nodded at him. “Thanks man,” and gave him a quick hug. Our arms beat our backs and we parted for a moment. His beard was ragged, twice as long as mine and covered in tiny beads and braids. “I’ve got to go after her,” and I took out my own rifle, testing the scope, making sure the old battered-down beast of a gun still worked.

“Is cool. Don’t worry, you know? Go after her. I have a feeling this pad might be a good hangout for some time.”

Bear turned around, his face was twisted, his eyes mad with the feeling of a fight. Sunshine bot bounced up and down his shoulders, happily making baby bot noises in joy. “It’s getting closer, closer, closer. You best get her back here, before that damn thing gets to us.”

I took a look outside of the window, saw the beach beyond. Patches of the sand had been blasted into glass, the waves rushing about and crashing beneath the newborn sun. Birds darted over the lake, outlining the lone monster of a gigantic bipedal bot that stood about the size of a house. It was covered in molt designs — complex patterns made of intricate mathematical functions. It was rusty and old, and coughed smoke and smog out of giant tubes lining the head.

It had a tail that oozed out toxic sludge, probably some byproduct of its weaponry. Two arms on either side were lined with large cannons, firing a silent plasmatic bolt in the air, aiming for the cliff, not knowing we were in the house on the hill. It shook the ground, creating small landslides of sand and dirt and tree.

In the center of the biped was a molt. Clean shaven head, clean shaven face, thick black military glasses perched on the nose. Out of its mouth dangled a pipe coughing tar colored smoke in shadows around his head. A grey sweater vest accented his chest, a tie around his neck neatly tied and black pleated pants unwrinkled even in combat. He grinned with each shot, sussing out exactly where the weathermen were hiding.

Bear leaned back out, fired off two bolts just to the left of the machine. The molt swung his head around, trying to follow the trajectory with his eyes, tracing it back and discover the origin of the blast.

Jazz got his rifle ready, scope pointed out. “You missed him,” Jazz scolded.

“Naw,” Bear said, “I’m toying with him.”

Jazz looked back at me and shoved me with the palm of his hand. “Whatta ya doing here, gawking? Like, get out there and grab the girl. Make sure she’s safe, even though she’s fucking nuts.”

###

I found her sobbing in the wreckage, pushing around the broken parts of the space ship around, her skirt torn and almost a thin thread, her makeup running down her face as she sobbed.

“It’s OK,” I say as I walk up to her, “It will be all right. Everything’s cool.”

She sifted smashed wires between her fingers, looking at the glinting fibers in the palm of her hand. I walked up cautiously, listening to the sounds of the woods around me, rifle at the ready, knowing that with one molt here the rest should be coming round soon, sniffing out of code and swallowing us whole.

“I almost was out there — you know? Almost out to the Heaven’s Fire. My brother went there a few years ago, been sending me vtcards through the post. He can’t say much, but he’s so happy, you know? And they don’t have any of this there. None of it. They all live together, grow food together, take care of each other’s kids. It’s so beautiful. Why can’t we have that? Why can’t I have that?”

I got down at the balls of my feet. Ignoring my instincts to run and fight and kill. I put a hand on her shoulder, and her tear stained eyes look up at me, pleading. “We can have that. I — I don’t want to give up the cause, you know? Like, this fight is important. Because once the molts are done fighting on the foreign worlds and the alien nations, they’re going to target the communes next. And we’ve got to stop them before they start, cool?”

“I don’t care! I want to raise my girl in a place that’s safe. I want to be happy! Why can’t I be happy?”

And I leaned in and I held her close, and I knew, at that moment, that I was going to give it all up. Give up the war, the fight, the Weathermen, give it all up for what she wanted.

“It’s ok,” I said, “We’ve got enough martyrs here. If you want, I’ll help you. I’ll come with you. We’ll make it to Heaven’s Fire. If you’ll let me.”

She didn’t say anything. She just sobbed on my shoulder. We sat there, still in the wreckage for a moment, and then heard explosions and running feet. I moved to stand up, but she pulled me down, pulled me close, shielding her.

From out of the house I saw pillars of smoke, pillars of fire rising up and engulfing the sun. And running towards us, guns out and ready are Jazz and Bear. “I guess it’s not such a sturdy building after all,” Bear called out, Sunshine bot bopping on his back, “One blast from that molt and it was toast. Whoohee! Come on boys and girls, it’s time to run and keep running.”

They stopped in front of us, Jazz panting, holding out his hand. “Come on,” he said, “I don’t care where we go. We just can’t stay here.”

And I reached out, and he grabbed my wrist, and he pulled me up, and I pull Mary Mary May up with me. And she looked at me, and we heard the sound of explosions, and then saw the giant biped come up over the cliff, right towards us. “I’m scared,” she said, holding her stomach.

Bear laughed. “Join the crowd. Come on kids, let’s get moving.”

And then we run. We run through trees and woods, the molts chasing after us, we fire back, fire true, and over our heads we hear their mechanical birds flying, dropping down flames and fire and burning holes in the ground. And we go and keep going, running, running. Because the revolution is made to run. We are made to run. To fly. To keep on fighting.

<END>

© Copyright 2009 Paul Jessup & Senses Five Press