“Instrumental” by Clio Em

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Tales from New Canada: Instrumental

for Jake

I’m being driven to the Engine Industry Ball in a carriage so ornate it looks like decoration, not transporation. This ride was not my idea; I was picked up as the clock struck Evening Mark. The clock inside the carriage. It is as ornate as the carriage exterior, and rather more ornate than my simple rose gown. The colour to wear this season, I’d been told.

New Canada is beautiful but it intimidates me. I just arrived onplanet last month for a yearlong residency at the New Canada Arts Centre. My mentor here, Isabel, originally comes from the Terran Canada like myself. I am already overwhelmed with my musical tasks, but I know that Isabel managed to accomplish a tremendous amount here in a little over a year – not only artistically, but also taking part in an incredibly complex set of legal proceedings, foiling a nefarious sabotage plot – and finding a life partner. She’s now the director of the New Toronto Art School. Incredible. I am barely treading water keeping up with my repertoire.

I wonder why Cecilia, New Canada’s star violist and dear friend to Isabel, didn’t come pick me up herself but sent only her carriage. I ask the driver, who says I should wait for a message. Mysterious – and annoying. Then my contact card chimes and her message comes through. Sudden illness, meaning she had to cancel. I feel a sharp pang of disappointment. She has found a violist to take her place, so my performance will go ahead.

Isabel introduced me to Cecilia the day I arrived. I have no idea how the two of them are such great friends. The violist is eccentric and a lot more dramatic than my rather reasonable mentor, but both have offered me guidance and ready friendship. I gather that it is usually harder to make friends on socially restrained New Canada, but I suppose neither Isabel nor Cecilia are typical New Canadians.

I envy Cecilia her ability to communicate with her audience when she is onstage. Compared to hers, my playing is reserved. She promised that she would design a very effective exercise for me to allow me to break out of my shell. “It’ll be a shock and come when you least expect it, Fiona, but it will let your musicality shine,” she’d said.

It’s a shame we didn’t get to that before tonight’s performance. I will be terrified without her up there with me.

I try to reason my nerves away. I am an experienced guitarist and have memorized the program. I just haven’t performed it on this planet yet, nor with this duo partner. Who’s this mysterious new violist, anyway? Whoever it is, they had better be quick-thinking; we won’t even have time to rehearse beforehand.

I am surprised that Isabel’s Partner, Serge, is the one waiting for me when my carriage arrives. He co-runs a company called New Canada Engines – this planet’s most important corporation. I’d thought he would be too busy tonight to socialize much with me, but he seems to take his Partnerly duties toward Isabel seriously.

“Fiona!” He calls, waving me over.

“Hi Serge,” I say, gamely attempting a cheerful and fearless tone. “Cecilia said my new violist would be here to meet me, but you seem to have beat him to it.”

“Actually…” Serge grins. I notice that he is holding a viola case.

“You?!” is all I can manage. He laughs. Isabel had mentioned he played the viola. Beautifully, she’d said. She told me the story of how they fell in love. His viola playing had had a lot to do with it, apparently. But how objective is her assessment? I have my doubts.

“Cecilia only told me that it’s time to try the performance exercise she was telling you about,” he says.

“She mentioned an exercise, yes…” A realization hits me. “She’s not really ill, is she?”

“She’s been known to do things like this before,” he replies, a smile quirking his lips. “When she and Isabel worked together last year….”

“Well, I hope you’ve been practicing daily for Isabel,” I retort, cutting him off. “I don’t know how you play but at least you give a lot of speeches and won’t get stage fright.” I sound too annoyed. “Sorry,” I add mitigatingly.

“Look, I know I’m in a different line of work, and we all know Cecilia is the better performer,” he says. “But this is part of the exercise, I think. I’m definitely not what you’d expect in a duo partner.”

“Definitely not,” I say, trying hard not to sound rude. I hope he can hold his own on that stage; I’ve met too many rich hobbyists who considered themselves artists and were actually dilettantes. But the exercise design here is brilliant and it’s forcing me to be flexible. As mad as I am at Cecilia, I also see exactly why she did this to me.

 

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We take our places and tune. So far, so good. My resolve intensifies. I play the opening chords. When Cecilia and I rehearsed, she was always the one leading, but now I have to assert myself. It turns out that I can do this quite well. Even more surprisingly, Serge plays with an appealing musicality. Not as techically perfect as Cecilia, but he is definitely a competent performer. I briefly wonder why he plays so well, or when he has time to practice if he’s busy co-running an engine company, but push all that out of my mind as I focus and pour everything of myself into the piece.

Cecilia is in the front row, dressed in red. So is Isabel, also dressed in red, but a darker shade. The two of them are whispering and laughing. Cecilia’s own Partner, Brigitte, joins them and begins laughing too. Her own gown is a deep magenta. They stand out in a sea of fasionable rose-coloured gowns and applaud enthusiastically at the end of every piece. I realize that their enthusiam is not only for Serge, whom they know so well, but also for me. They can see my musicality reshaping itself up here on this stage, and I can tell they are proud of us both.

This performance is both wonderful and absurd. I am at a ball, making music on a new planet, and I have been tricked into playing more expressively than I ever have before. The audience seems to be enjoying the performance immensely. And for the first time since I landed on New Canada, I feel truly, completely at ease.

The ornate clock in the hall strikes Midnight Mark.

Serge and I play on. And now Cecilia joins us onstage, improvising counterpoints to our melodies.

The ball continues.

Story © 2019 Clio Em. Image © 2018 Hali Rey.

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“meeting” by Clio Em

“meeting” by Clio Em

You mean to tell us they look down on us?

Not exactly. All eyes are on her as she tries to explain what she has written down. She clears her throat. He taps expectantly on the meeting table, making her nervous. She misses Lee. Focus. She finds her voice again.

But there are some aspects they find, well, archaic. Anachronistic, maybe. Especially the architecture. I’m merely speaking of practical concerns.

Who are they to judge?

He seems incensed, though it may just be his mannerisms.

They cannot find anything better to do with their time? They build their way, we build ours. They must know we have limited materials here. Our traffic may be comparatively slow but it is definitely efficient. And I’ve seen the vids of their cities. Hypermodern ugliness sprouting up everywhere, but all among them, buildings that look quite like ours. Not so different. I wish we had the hothouses, though. Something we can work on implementing in the next year, perhaps. For the park.

They call them conservatories.

Yes, well, that’s something to put on the list. You’re absolutely right, something like that might bring the visitors. Thank you for your report. We’ll take your recommendations into consideration.

Of course, Sir.

All right, everyone. I think this meeting’s just about finished.

People begin scattering. Finally only she and he are left in the room. He addresses her with his back turned, pouring himself an Amoral. Typical of him. Amoral is inordinately expensive. He does not offer her any. Not yet.

You’re free to take the rest of the day off. In light of your recent hard work. I found what you wrote very insightful, you know. Your recommendations are good. Very good. Helping a young city grow isn’t easy.

Thank you, Sir. She leaves before his praise can become too effusive, before the Amoral can be offered, either out of a sense of awkward obligation or from desire. Some things never change.

Outside, she pulls down her hat further to ward off the cold, though it is a cloche hat and it is brim is already cupped downwards like an inverted tulip. This place is indeed archaic. Those are her own thoughts. Airships. Goodness. She admits their suitability to the situation but can’t help wonder at their continued use despite the challenge of the winds. She watches them when she can. Most steer safely into port. Inevitably, though, there are accidents. Not always fatal ones, but nerve-shattering. Each time a storm front comes in, her heart stops. The fronts are growing.

Think of other things. The books are archaic, too, though she loves those. Beautifully historical. The paper feels so wonderful whenever she gets to open them and feel the naked fibers under her bare skin. Too often she was stuck with the task of carrying the books unopened, though this promotion should help her access their innards more often. No more work in private salons, but in boardrooms. Trust in her abilities.

And she is meeting him tomorrow. Lee. Her heart spins.

Tonight she will go back to Sal’s apartment. They will drink black tea from dainty filigree teacups which she will handle nervously. She won’t break anything, but she might spill some tea; her hands want to shake themselves to distraction like brittle leaves. Sal likely expects her to show up dressed all in brown again, salary spent on futile little nothings that nevertheless infuse her day with meaning. And she will be dressed in brown tonight. Honestly, there isn’t that much salary. But yesterday she found out about the promotion. She took a risk and bought the dainty gray dress, cut like an inverted tulip. But pretty. Pretty on her.

An airship drones out of port overhead. She’s growing used to their sounds, their shapes, their billows and fits and flights and fouettés.

Tomorrow for their meeting she will wear gray. Where did you get that dress? he will ask. I bought it, she will reply. I earned a promotion. He will be proud of her.

Tomorrow she will watch the airship he is on steer safely into port, before the winter storms. Before the long winter, when airships lie deflated and dormant in the fields as the air swoops over them, screaming the names of those it has taken.

END

Clio Em is a mezzo-soprano, a composer, musician and creator of sci-fi worlds. She is also an Irregular Dreams writer.

“Where Flesh and Steel Mesh” by Mark Anthony Brennan

Turner naturally avoided the main streets. Too many potential encounters. So he stuck to the filthy alleyways with their rusted dumpsters and stacks of sodden cardboard. Beneath a grandiose jumble of telephone poles rivers of rain streamed along the centre of the asphalt.

His hood was intended to keep out the rain but it was crude. Human made. Rain still spattered his face and somehow found its way down the back of his neck. That was little more than a nuisance, however, given that he had his mechanics cranked up for scanning purposes.

Motion detected ahead. Perhaps human. Turner immediately dialled down mechanics to a minimum, with his human responses elevating accordingly. The chill of the damp air hit him, causing his body to jerk involuntarily. His nose was wet and freezing. Fatigue swept over him like a smothering blanket, attempting to drag him down. But it didn’t work thanks to that one human trait he was counting on. Fear.

So far he’d only passed a couple of heroin addicts who hadn’t even noticed him. This could be different. Any interaction with a human was potentially dangerous. The back alleys of Vancouver were treacherous in these troubled times, but Turner wasn’t concerned about his personal safety. He was more than a match for most humans, even if they were armed. No, his only concern was detection.

His heart pounded with fear. Distracting, but the adrenalin was useful. It sparked his organic thought processes. He needed them. In order to appear human he had to think, feel and respond as a human. Without mechanics his senses were dulled (all he could hear now was the rain pounding on his hood) but his human instincts were on high alert.

The approaching figure stepped into the light of the naked lightbulb dangling from the overhead poles. It shuffled stiffly, awkwardly. A droid. A human droid, of course. Designed for police work only, therefore not particularly intended to pass for an organic. They were humanoid in appearance merely to make the human population feel more comfortable. And they were necessary — the war-torn city back-streets were riddled with drugs, criminals and undesirables. Cop droids were on the look-out for scum. Unfortunately, Turner’s kind fit that bill.

Turner’s stomach heaved. He was nervous. But he realized that was normal. A human would naturally be nervous if a cop approached them in a dark alley. Besides, he calculated that this conversation should go smoothly. Like all police droid this one would be highly sensitive in detecting invasives — those clever human-like units sent in as spies by the AIs. Convincingly real, but machines nevertheless. Machines that human droids could detect in an instant. But they were not so attuned to detecting hybrids. Although humans held no love for Turner’s kind, they didn’t consider them a major threat. With his mechanics virtually turned off Turner should easily pass for human in a routine engagement like this.

Unless the droid unit was informed, of course. Unless Turner had been betrayed.

Had Adachi raised the alarm? Meeting him had been a big risk, of course, but it was a risk that Turner had taken into account. This deal had to take place.

They’d met in one of those hole-in-the-wall diners on the Downtown East Side. The kind that have gone from respectable to sketchy, and then from gentrified back to sketchy. Rickety booths lined a wall of peeling paint, some in darkness, others lit up in a panicked neon glow.

Turner had just been blowing on his coffee to cool it down when Adachi came in the front door, slamming it loudly behind him. He looked around the room with a grimace, clearly disgusted to be in such a place. Turner beckoned him over with a wave.

“So you’re Turner, obviously,” said Adachi, sliding onto the bench. He frowned as his pants got caught on the multitude of rips in the fabric.

“Yeah, thanks for coming.” Turner held out his hand across the table.

Adachi looked into Turner’s eyes as they shook hands. His hand went limp and slipped out of Turner’s grip. The problem was obvious. The tell-tale glimmer of digital read-outs in the back of a hybrid’s eye was still perceptible. Something Turner’s kind needed to work on.

“Shit, you’re a Mix.”

“Yes. Is that going to stop us from doing business?”

Adachi peered at Turner’s face intently, then took a deep sigh. “Depends.”

“Look,” said Turner. “We’re not your enemy. We have an enemy in common — the AI’s. They want us dead as much as they want you humans wiped out. We can help you.”

“Fuck off. Get to the point, what do you want?”

Turner smiled. He knew it was irritating but his human side couldn’t resist. “It’s not what I want, it’s what I can get for you.”

“What would that be?” asked Adachi flatly.

“An entire shipment of medical supplies. That includes pharmaceuticals and equipment.”

Adachi hunched over the table. “Are you serious? That’s impossible. How?”

It was almost impossible to anything through to Vancouver. AIs occupied much of the territory surrounding it. The city was dependent on goods brought in by ship from Asia, but shipping was sporadic and unreliable. Without communication the people of Vancouver had no idea what was going to arrive or when.

“Never mind how,” said Turner. “This is an entire cargo container. Imagine how much that is worth on these streets?”

Adachi sat in silence, his eyes narrowed. Finally he said, “Let’s say we do this, how do you get paid? I’m guessing local currency isn’t going to cut it.”

“Correct. All we need is a small favour in return.”

“Oh, here it comes,” said Adachi with a sneer. “Of course you can’t trust a fucking Mix. Look, what’s stopping me from just turning you in? We need to get rid of you all. They pay a nice little bounty for turning in a hybrid.”

“You’re not going to do that. First of all, you’re too sharp of a businessman to let a deal like this slide. Besides, you know fine well we’re not a threat to you. Ever since the War started there’s only been one enemy — the machines. The AIs will kill us all.”

“The War is over.”

“Of course, it isn’t. It hasn’t even started. The AIs aren’t in retreat. You didn’t defeat them. They’re simply in hiding, strategizing, planning. When they re-emerge they’ll have technology you cannot stop.”

“Well, we’ll see about that,” said Adachi. “We won’t be the same people they turned against.”

“See, we don’t disagree. Humans need to evolve. It’s the only way for us to survive.”

“Is there any service in here?” asked Adachi abruptly.

“Um. You have to go the counter.”

“Ah, fuck it then.” Adachi squinted at Turner. “Becoming a hybrid isn’t evolving. You’re losing your humanity. You’re becoming more like them.”

“We’re not like them. We are still human.”

“Hardly. You know why we can’t trust you? Because you can turn it on or off. Turn off your feelings.”

“That’s our advantage. Don’t you see? Clouded with baggage like emotions you non-hybrids will never get anywhere.”

Adachi snorted. “We’ve already developed intelligence off the charts. We can also communicate. Locally right now, but soon distance won’t be an issue.”

“Telepathy, you mean?”

“We don’t call it that, but yes I suppose so.”

“And do you have any of that? Superior intelligence? Can you talk to me with your brain?”

“Well, no.” Adachi blushed. “I’m three generations old.”

“And you don’t qualify for an upgrade, right?”

“Fuck you. Look, what’s the favour?”

Turner leaned back folding his arms. “The Fraser Valley is blockaded to the east. It’s the only way out. For us. All we need is a little … gap in the wall. Just enough to get our people out.”

Adachi laughed nastily. “Who do you think I am? The fucking First Consul? I’m just a small businessman. How the hell am I gonna get you through?”

“Let’s cut the crap. You’re a black marketeer in a city ripe for exploitation. You do well for yourself. Very well. That kind of business naturally means having the right kind of people in your back pocket. We know you have the connections. We know you can do this.”

Adachi frowned in silence for several seconds before scrambling out of the booth. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll be in touch.”

With that Adachi left the diner without a sound.

Turner had been certain Adachi was hooked, giving him absolutely no reason to squeal. But now, in a wet and miserable back alley with his human responses on full, uncertainty squirmed in Turner’s stomach like an evil worm.

“Good evening, sir,” said the cop as he approached Turner.

Despite the stiffness in his walk the droid looked passable. The uniform hung naturally from his body, which was not athletically perfect, in fact rather pudgy. But the face gave it away. Little effort was put into detail so it was no better than a hideous talking mask.

“Hey,” said Turner, allowing his voice to quaver with cold.

“You should be careful out here, sir,” said the pink plastic face. “Very dangerous. Do you live around here?”

“Yeah. Just over on Abbott. This is just a short cut I always take.”

“Ah. Well, maybe consider sticking to the main streets. It’s safer. Have a good night.”

“Thanks, officer. ‘Night.”

Turner breathed a sigh of relief as the cop trundled on. That was nothing but the simplest of human interaction organic tests. Turner passed easily.

And of course the droid hadn’t been informed. How could he be? All human technology was stand-alone with no communication. The first things humans did when the War broke out was to shut down the internet. Not entirely successfully, leaving entire cities and regions under AI control. But humans could no longer use it. Nor could they use any other form of communication because AI satellites had the ability to detect anything.

As he dialed down his human responses Turner’s rationality came flooding back. Such a relief. He could get back to clearer thinking.

He headed off more briskly. There were things to do. Arrangements to make. Adachi was clearly ready to do business so they had to get ready.

He faintly remembered feeling somewhat sorry for Adachi. He had that noble pride in truly believing that humans would prevail. That by engineering themselves they could win the desperate race they were in with the machines. Human evolution over technological innovation.

They were doomed. Having rooms full of specially bred children to act as biological computers wasn’t the answer. Nor was having the military breed instant soldiers or allowing research labs to harvest extra organs from human hosts.

Integration was the only answer. Turner and his kind carried with them everything that was human but in a body that was technologically advanced. And they had the ability to replicate themselves, passing down both biological and technical data.

Humans were frankly right not to trust hybrids. They could turn down their emotions, making terms like “double-crossing” and “back-stabbing” lose all their meaning. Turner needed the hole in the blockade all right, but it wasn’t to get anyone out, it was to bring more soldiers, arms and supplies in.

Adachi had been right about one thing. Humans would prevail. And they certainly wouldn’t be the same humans the AIs rebelled against.

“Duosentience” by Clio Em

 

TALES FROM NEW CANADA: “Duosentience”

For Laura

 

“The scan will be next,” the voice in my mind informed me. My own voice; not my own thoughts. Rather disconcerting.

Duosentience is defined as the coexistence of two consciousnesses operating as one. In practice this means pairing one mechanical and one organic being in a single human body. This is done by implanting a nanobot.

The nanobot in my arm, the source of that disquieting voice, did confuse the scanners and we made it through. My circuit tattoo was disabled in a puff of circuit smoke by stern looking and very tall New Canadian officials. Under the cover of this procedure, the nanobot shut down and entered my vein, where it was disguised by the flow of blood. The cube I carry around – the main source of the nanobot’s intelligence – was disguised as a decorative accessory. It was certainly pretty enough, and when you pressed a button it displayed wildly changing constellations. One of the officials turned it on and admired the patterns, then switched it back off and placed it carefully back in its case. I hoped that my heart rate hadn’t spiked. But then I remembered that it could not spike – I had taken a quieting agent, administered by my fully legal medical implant.

As far as I know, I’m the only person on New Canada carrying a nanobot inside me. I don’t want it in there, either. But it was a requirement from my employers when I was sent here on this assignment.

“Corporate espionage?” I asked, when I was told what I would be doing on New Canada.

“Nonsense!”  retorted Vanos. “This is an information-gathering mission.” This of course meant exactly the same thing and I was momentarily angry at her, but then she pushed her thick glasses up further on her nose, a gesture I found both endearing and attractive, and my rage dissipated. Lately In the last while she had been distant and strange. And she seemed to be relieved that she was finally sending me away. But in moments of tenderness, I was able to forgive everything.

It was easiest on New Victoria to part ways, where relationships such as ours were heavily disapproved of. Even though it was precisely our mutual desire that had worked so very much in her favour before, it was inconvenient to her now. I thought wistfully of how it would be here on New Canada. We could be together. But Vanos? She was still Vanos to me, not Stella. Last name, after all this time. They didn’t use last names here on New Canada, or at least, not very often. I wondered if that would have affected our relationship, rendered it kinder.

My cover identity, or rather cover profession, was that of a holoprojection artist. Preparing for this mission had taken years and had involved artistic training. This was the real reason I had taken on the job – I could never have afforded art school on New Victoria on my own. I did not qualify for scholarships because my parents hadn’t agreed to the full set of neuroenhancements when I had been born. In fact, that was how Vanos and her team had found me. Stubborn to the last, I had applied and passed all the phases but the physical at the end. Someone in a dark suit had been waiting outside the exam room: Stella Vanos herself. Could she have known I would be so attracted to her? Yes, she must have. She’d had access to my psychological profile. Though these things weren’t openly discussed on New Victoria, it must have been obvious in every scan.

But my lack of neuroenhancements – my weakness – turned out to be an advantage for the organization I now worked for. I would pass through every interplanetary scan undetected. I would not be subjected to the same waiting lists as most New Victorians. If I wished, I could blend into other populations on other planets.

As visiting artist, I would be collaborating on a commission for a company called New Canada Engines. Vanos and her people wanted to know about their technology very much – NCE built the most advanced engines on all the colonies. And since I was to represent New Canada Engines to the New Victorian public, I would be given access to lower-level design specifications. This would be enough for Vanos and her team to extrapolate the key to the engines’ design – at least, she seemed to think so. I thought she was either being naive or intentionally deceiving me, because I felt I would have to do some more active spying at some point, something that terrified me.

I had signed a mountain of nondisclosure agreements and had undergone countless psychological tests.

The New Canadians were convinced that I was trustworthy.  And I trusted them. As soon as I arrived here, I felt at home.

This would definitely be a problem. It was so tempting. No more restrictions, no more hiding. I even courted a woman for a while, trying to forget Vanos. Unfortunately, this woman’s name was also Stella. Maybe I had sought her out intentionally. I don’t know.

I actually lived far more luxuriously here than I had on New Victoria. That in itself was a shock. Back home, we’d been told that we had the highest standard of living on all the colonies. True enough for the richest of families; not true for everyone else. Wealth disparity was tremendous.

Here there were differences, too. But somehow, people enjoyed a high quality of life overall. New Canada was always mocked in our media. It seemed that the truth lay somewhat removed from what was being said.

“New Victoria has a clearer social structure and more benefits available to its citizens,” insisted the nanobot, cutting irritatingly into my thoughts. I had not realized it was listening to everything that passed through my mind.

“Look around yourself and see how well we could live here,” I retorted, fighting hard to make my raging thoughts calm. But it saw my distress anyway and administered a dose of quieting agent. How disturbing that it could control my dosage.

Over the following months the nanobot’s thoughts would find its way more and more often to my mouth. Was it controlling what I said, or was I just subconsciously mirroring what it was saying because I heard it so often?

I tried leaving its cube behind in my apartment whenever I went out but it made no difference.  Its range must be tremendous. It could probably reach me anywhere on the planet, I thought morosely.

“Yes,” it chirped cheerfully at this. “I am programmed to interface between my units at great distances.”

I was sure the nanobot had compelled me to go down to the library and read for hours about the wonders of New Victoria, that it had been the one that hat convinced me I was homesick. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it couldn’t possibly have the ability to alter my thoughts…

Could it?

I lay awake for hours every night, trying to stop my mind from barreling down the tracks of suspicion. I always failed. And every night, the nanobot soothed me. It sang me songs, all of which would only make me more uneasy. After many songs, it would inevitably pump out a dose of quieting agent and I would drift off, relieved in spite of everything that I could finally rest.

 

And one day, it crossed another line.

I remember the moment. I was in a cafe, a type of establishment popular here. It is so cold here that this white frosty precipitation called snow covers the ground, and hot drinks are very much in demand. As I sipped something delightful, a brew they call hot chocolate, the nanobot protested.

“This is not healthy for your body,” it scolded me. “Your mission requires proper nutrition and this is your third such drink today.”

“Please leave me alone,” I replied. “I am having this, whether you like it or not.”

As I reached for the drink, my muscles seemed to freeze. Then my arm started shaking. I managed to pick up the hot chocolate, but my wrist twisted, and I was now spilling hot liquid all over the table. And my dress. And the floor.

I apologized profusely to the staff, tipped heavily, and escaped. I was hyperventilating and crying. What a violation.

“Overt displays of emotion are undesirable in the context of your mission,” chided the nanobot. “Drawing attention to yourself in a transit car would be unwelcome.”

So I walked home. It was a very long walk and I kept thinking of a wonderful heated transit car, but I also thought of all the stares and the judgment, something this planet did not lack, and here I agreed with the nanobot that this walk would do me good. It was so happy at my compliance, it almost seemed to purr.

“You have not yet done your exercises today,” the voice reminded me when we had reached my apartment.

“I walked home. I’ll do them tomorrow,” I grumbled back.

“You are aware that these two activities are not equivalent.”

“I’ll do them tomorrow,” I repeated firmly.

“You must exercise.” This time, it did not then force my muscles into action. But the threat was there – I now knew that it could make me carry out any physical action it wished. The nanobot simply didn’t consider it necessary yet.

What if it made me hurt someone? The thought chilled me. Usually the nanobot would say something whenever I was distressed, but on this point it was eerily silent.

“Well?” I asked it outright. “Would you?”

“That is not within mission parameters,” it answered me. Hardly comforting, somehow.

That night, I called Vanos and told her what had happened. Rather than shock and sympathy, she offered me coldness, mirrored by unsympathetic words in my mind piped there by the nanobot.

“It stays,” she told me. “It is necessary, especially with your psychological profile.” She meant my rebelliousness, my independence. Those things she had claimed to love about me, but had only ever intended to exploit.

The next day I asked the New Canadians for asylum. It was surprisingly easy, and no one asked me any difficult questions. I was terribly nervous –  I could not admit that I had this insidious machinery inside me. That would most definitely result in a Trial, something to be avoided at all costs on this planet.

I could not destroy the nanobot inside me; at least, not right away. So I destroyed its home.

The cube that once housed its mind is now at the bottom of the New Bow River, doubtless flooded and frozen. Water resistance can only last so long, and at these temperatures, no delicate New Victorian robotics could survive down there.

I heard it clearly for a few more days. Then its messages became simple and emotionless, unrefined. It had no more control – I could now oppose it. I hadn’t realized its intelligence was housed in the cube. Probably less expensive that way. Maybe less risky – it seemed the nanobot in my arm was simply a rudimentary model. That was likely why the New Canadian scanners hadn’t picked it up. My advantage – usually nanobots are far more complex and intelligent.

As soon as its fading words flickered out for the last time, I went to a doctor who worked with neuroenhancements. She was not New Canadian, obviously. But there was demand for her services from offworlders with all sorts of malfunctioning tech.

Please remove this circuit tattoo, I asked her. I do not wish to be reminded of my time on New Victoria. It was difficult for me. I think one of its components may have floated into my vein.

She knew. No components float away from a circuit tattoo. But she nodded understanding, and she removed the tattoo, and the nanobot. Wordlessly, she showed me my sentient parasite, now lifeless, under high magnification. Then she incinerated it. No record of it appeared on my file.

New Canadian administration is slow. My asylum application is still being processed, but in the meantime I am being treated very well. I told them the truth about who I worked for. I said there had been an abuse of power. Vanos is persona non grata here now. I suspect this will make her very upset – she had been slated to take a diplomatic trip here next month. It was to have been our contact time for a large data transfer. I had hoped it would also be a defining moment in what I had naively perceived as our relationship.

Surprisingly, they let me continue my artistic work for New Canada Engines, a detail that gives me so much joy I can hardly breathe. I haven’t taken my quieting agent in… well, since I got rid of that nanobot, actually. I find I am calm on my own these days.

I will never speak to it again. I will never speak to her again, either.

Late at night when I drift between dream and wakefulness, I hear the nanobot singing to me, only now it is the voice of Stella Vanos, taunting me, romancing me and then betraying me.

I do not miss being duosentient.

 

END

 

Clio Em is a mezzo-soprano, a composer, musician and creator of sci-fi worlds.  She is also an Irregular Dreams writer.

Artwork:  Hali Rey

 

“Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go” by Mark Anthony Brennan

“Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go”        by Mark Anthony Brennan

MONDAY

“Good morning. Is Mr. Johnson there, please?”

“I’m sorry, no” said the woman on the other end. “Who’s calling?”

“Am I speaking to Mrs. Johnson?” asked Malotte, eyeing the read-out on his screen: ‘Irene Johnson (Mrs.) Divorced’

“Yes.”

“Well, Mrs. Johnson, this is Jason Malotte of RMS Securities. Your husband asked me to call the minute an opportunity like this came along. Is he around?”

“No. You see he doesn’t live here anymore. We’re not…together.”

“Oh, I see, that’s too bad,” said Malotte, tapping his desk with his pencil. Irene Johnson sounded friendly, trusting. He had a real shot here. “I had this great investment opportunity that just came up. I was dying to tell him. Perhaps you’d like to hear about it?”

“Well…,” said Mrs. Johnson hesitantly. “I don’t know much about these things.”

“It’s nothing complicated. Don’t worry. When I was speaking to, um…” Malotte quickly checked the information on his computer screen. “…Bill, he wanted something simple. Now this is _ “

“Bill? Did you say ‘Bill’?”

“Yes, ma’am, your husband, Bill.”

“No, no, he goes by William. No one’s ever called him Bill. Bill is our son’s name.”

“Oh, your son.” Malotte scoured the page looking for her age. There it was: 63. “Yes, of course, I remember now, Bill is your son. OK, well, when he and I spoke we _ “

“Wait,” stated Mrs. Johnson. “Just wait, Mr. …er…”

“Malotte, ma’am. Jason Malotte.”

“Mr. Malotte.” Her voice had turned to ice. “You never spoke to my son. Bill has been dead for 14 years. Really, do you people have no shame?”

The line went dead.

Malotte ripped off his head-set and flung it down on the desk in disgust.

“Jerry!” he yelled.

“He’s off shift,” came a voice from the other side of the office.

Malotte took a deep breath. That god-damned Jerry. Worst fucking fact-checker in history.

He could have tried tweaking with Mrs. Johnson. But how? Change her husband’s name to Bill? Bring her son back to life? No way. Too drastic. Tweaks like that could do him in.

He spotted Hanson, the Shift Supervisor, over top of the cubicles. Hanson raised his hands with the silent question: ‘Why aren’t you on the phone?’ Malotte gave him a sarcastic smile and wave.

Hanson could go fuck himself. Malotte was the best closer on the floor, and everyone knew it.

He pulled his head-set back on and glanced at the time. 9:13, was that all? The thought of another three hours until lunch was unbearable. A simple tweak should do the trick.

He closed his eyes and selected a point in his brain. A pin-point, centre-front. He clenched his fists, willing the point to grow. Ow, ow, ow. Sharp, stinging pain. As the point grew the pain grew. Don’t forget the time. The time, yes, nudge it just a bit. And…let it go…

He let his body go limp, his fists relaxing. The pain in his head became diffused and weak. It was ebbing away. He opened his eyes. 12:01. Perfect.

He rubbed his forehead with three fingers, but there was less than a dull throb now. More of a memory of pain. His stomach suddenly lurched, then slowly, slowly subsided. He sighed. He was fine. As usual, he was fine.

But he never got used to it. Even after all these years the pain was still nasty. Migraines. At least, that’s what people called them. Flashes of real unpleasantness. But, so long as he brought them on, so long as he controlled them, they were tolerable. Not like those involuntary ones he used to get when he was a kid. Those were killers. He hadn’t had those kind in years. Not until last night, that is.

It had struck him in the middle of the night like a bolt of pure pain. A lightning strike out of nowhere. Searing white-hot agony. He had no idea how long it lasted. During the white torment there is no time.

“Shaky start,” said Hanson as Malotte walked by him, “but a good morning for you after all.”

“Yeah,” sneered Malotte, “well some of us have to actually earn money around here, you know what I mean?” He turned back before opening the door to the elevator. “Hey, what’s with the smell in here today anyway?”

Hanson shrugged. “What smell?”

“I dunno,” Malotte called back as he passed through the door. “Like someone lighting matches or something. Friends of yours?”

A good morning? Just ‘good’? It was supposed to be better than that. He had to work on that tweak.

In the coffee shop they were playing Dire Straits – their first song, his favourite.

‘…and the vultures, yes, the vultures wait eons…’

Wait, wasn’t that where they sing, ‘…and the Sultans play creole…’? He’d never noticed anything about vultures before.

‘…they are the vultures, they are the vultures of Spring…’

Malotte gave a short laugh. The young guy behind the counter looked at him, puzzled.

“It’s just the song,” explained Malotte, pointing upwards. “It’s funny how they do remixes. You know, alternate versions.”

The barista cocked his head. “I dunno, man. Pretty sure it’s the original.”

Malotte smiled. The song was even before his time. But this kid? No, he clearly had no idea. “This song is called ‘Sultans of Swing’, not ‘Vultures of Spring’.”

“No, you’re wrong, dude. My dad is like the biggest Mark Knopfler fan there is. This is ‘Vultures of Spring’. I should know.”

“Huh,” said Malotte, holding his hand out for his change.

Okay. Well, that was weird.

TUESDAY

“Aaaah!”

Malotte sat bolt upright in his seat. He hated falling asleep on the train. It was even worse when you woke up screaming in pain.

Several people in the compartment were looking over at him. One or two seemed genuinely concerned, but most of them were just annoyed.

“Holy shit,” muttered Malotte to himself. He’d had many a bad headaches, but this was something else. Like someone had split his head open with an axe. The scorching hot blade was still in there. There was even a metallic taste at the back of his throat.

His head throbbed, but the pain was billowing, getting lighter. His stomach heaved. He felt nauseous enough to vomit but he didn’t. It was getting better. Almost back to normal.

He rolled his head to the side and looked at the fields sliding by. They were close to the city centre, but the commuter train was passing through one of the green belts. Most of the fields were brown, with rows of vegetables, but there was the odd green patch. These grassed areas were dotted with stacks of hay, cows, and…

What was that? Malotte twisted his head around, trying in vain to look back at what he’d just seen. It had been an animal, taller than cow. It was pink, and he could have sworn it had the head of a pig. He straightened back up in his seat. It was probably just the after-effects of that horrible migraine.

By the time he reached his stop downtown he felt much better. Physically, anyway. He was still out of sorts. The station looked the same as ever but it was unfamiliar somehow.

It was no better when he reached the street. Same storefronts, same buildings, same everything, but it just wasn’t right. When you are driving through somewhere headed in one direction it seems different from when you drive through it in the other direction. Same place, just different. That’s how Malotte felt as he walked to work – he was heading outward but he had the inbound view.

And it reeked. Like burning garbage. He had thought it was just a funky smell on the train, but it was everywhere. What could make that smell?

When he reached his office, or at least where his office was supposed to be, he dropped his briefcase in astonishment. His building was gone. The entire block was gone. In its place was an old apartment building. Old, not new. He recognized it. This building was here when he was a kid. It had been torn down decades ago.

He looked around nervously. New cars, new stores, new signs. No, he hadn’t travelled back in time. But, what the hell…?

His stomach churned. He wasn’t sure that he could keep it down. He had to sit before his legs gave out under him.

Plunking himself down on a city bench he fumbled in his pocket before pulling out his cell phone. With trembling fingers he dialed a number.

“Hello.”

“Marcie? Marcie, don’t hang up. It’s me, Jason.”

“Jay?” Marcie snorted. “I’ll give you one minute, that’s it.”

“Don’t be like that. Please. I’m having a real bad day.”

“Okay. What is it? What’s wrong?”

“It’s the tweaking, it’s out of control. It’s out of my control. Things are happening that _ “

“Jay!” Marcie snapped. “Are you still talking about that stuff? You still think you can change the future?”

“I never said I could change the future,” said Malotte defensively. “I just…change the option. Time is on a…a track. But there are others, other tracks. Like in parallel. I just…you know, switch.”

“Are you off your meds?” Marcie sounded disappointed.

“I don’t need medication.”

“Oh god, Jay, you’re off your medication?”

“They don’t do anything. They don’t change anything. Those doctors are wrong.”

“This is so like you, isn’t it? Everyone else is wrong, and you are right. You know what Dr. Chang said.”

“I know what he said, Marcie, but Dr. Chang doesn’t understand. The migraines aren’t having an effect on me, it’s the other way around. I bring them on. I tweak them. I use the migraines to shift things.”

“Your minute is up.”

“No, wait, please. Can we meet? I need to talk.”

“Don’t do this, okay? It’s not fair. I can’t deal with it. You know I can’t. Get help, Jay, please. I gotta go.”

Malotte stared at his phone in disbelief. ‘Call ended’. She’d hung up. How could she hang up on him?

He looked around despondently. What was he going to do now? 

WEDNESDAY

Suddenly the guy in front of him turned around and faced Malotte, placing his arm on the back of his seat. “This is the one.”

Malotte groaned inwardly. What now? He was in no mood for some clown talking to him on the commuter train.

He hadn’t slept well the night before. He kept imagining there was a dark, sinister figure approaching his bed and he was paralyzed. Then he would jerk himself awake. It was one of those disturbing, but really annoying, ‘waking’ dreams. He’d lay back and there he was again, but this time, no, he really was unable to move and the figure drew near. Then he’d wake up again. It went on and on. Finally he gave up and got out of bed.

Now he was exhausted. He shook his head to keep himself from drifting off. He didn’t want a repeat of yesterday.

“What?” he said irritably.

“This is the one, Jason,” said the guy. He was obviously heading for the business district – his suit was expensive. A power suit, similar to the ones Malotte normally wore. “This is the one where a man on the train turns around and talks to you.”

“What…what do you mean ‘the one’?”

“The reality, Jason.” The ‘suit’ had a stupid smile hung on his face. It was out of place – there was nothing funny or pleasant going on. It was aggravating. “This is the reality. One of an infinite number, right?”

“Look, I don’t know you. Why don’t you just _ “

The ‘suit’ held up a finger. “Wait, just wait. Let me finish. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Of course you do. But you’ve got it wrong, you know that?”

“Wrong?” Malotte wasn’t sure why he was talking to this guy. He should just change seats, but he was too tired to bother.

“You think too linear, Jay my friend. It’s not like a bunch of tracks. This reality, the one we’re in, it’s like a sheet of fabric. Okay? Every point on that sheet represents a place in time and in space. With me so far, buddy? Now that is just one sheet. This old universe has no bounds, has it? How could it? Everything that exists, everything that has existed, everything that could possibly ever exist, the universe has it all. That’s right, Jay, there is an infinite number of sheets. But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

Yes, he did. Malotte had never thought of it in those terms, but the ‘suit’ was right. Undeniably.

“Now, here comes the kicker, my friend. Those sheets are discrete – they exist unto themselves. No touching, no interconnecting. They remain intact, and never the twain shall meet. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But sometimes there’s holes.”

Malotte’s heart sank. He didn’t want to hear this. “Holes?”

“Yeah, like perforations in the fabric. Then things trickle through. They slip from one sheet to the other. You’ve been a bad boy, Jay Jay. You shouldn’t have done it. You knew you shouldn’t have. But you couldn’t help it, could you? Over and over again, you couldn’t help yourself.”

Malotte blinked. This was getting scary. “Look, whoever you are, this is bullshit. I mean _ “

“Bullshit?” said the ‘suit’. “Really? Really, Jay, you think so? You know what happens when you put too many holes in a fabric? It gets weak. It begins to rip. It’s torn, you moron. It’s torn because of you.”

“OK, enough,” said Malotte. “Just who the hell are you?”

“You know, Jason. You know who I am. Asshole.”

Still wearing his silly smile, the ‘suit’ turn away from Jason and faced the front of the train.

“Hey,” said Malotte, lunging forward. He grabbed the guy by the shoulder. “Who are you? Tell me.”

The guy turned to Malotte with a look of surprise. It was as if he’d never seen Malotte in his life.

“What is this?” said the ‘suit’. “What do you want?”

“Those things you just said, how did you know all that?”

The ‘suit’ grabbed Malotte’s hand and wrenched it off his shoulder. He frowned. “Buddy, I’ve never talked to you, ever. You’ve got the wrong man.”

Malotte searched the guy’s face for a second. He finally slunk back into his seat.

Yeah, I know. I know who you are. Asshole.

 

It wasn’t until he reached the station that he realized he had nowhere to go. He was acting out of habit. It was lack of sleep – he wasn’t thinking straight. What was the point of being downtown? He had no job to go to. None that he was aware of anyway.

It rarely rained, even in winter. This was summer, so it was always sunny. Not today, however. As Malotte left the station he looked up at the heavy clouds that filled the sky. They looked about ready to burst at any second.

He wandered aimlessly down 33rd Avenue, hoping that something, anything would provide some guidance. He didn’t know where to turn — he was at a loss.

Finally he stopped at a street corner. He had to call his Dad. His Dad always knew what to do. Of course, that was when Malotte was a kid. So what? There was no one else he could talk to.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mom.”

“Jason! How are you?”

“Yeah, well…you know, been better. How about you, Mom?”

“Oh, the hips are still acting up. The left one especially. Dr. MacDonald, he says I should get braces. I don’t know. He’s awfully young. I don’t think he really knows what he’s talking about, you know?”

“Mom, you should listen to the doctor, okay? Um, I really wanted to talk to Dad. Is he there?”

“Jason, don’t do that.”

“Don’t do what?”

“It’s not funny, that’s what. It’s bad enough I have to live here on my own. You don’t have to be cruel. You know, since your father died I haven’t had _ “

Malotte dropped the phone in shock. Dad? His father was dead? When? How?

“Ah, Christ!”

A searing hot sword pierced his skull, his brain exploding in excruciating pain. His very being became the pain. There was nothing else, just the burning flame of agony.

The white torment. White. White…

 

Malotte was confused. He wasn’t sure of anything. All he knew was the pounding in his head.

Oh yes, a migraine. He’d had a migraine, and it was fading. Where was he? On the ground?

The side of his face was wet. Puke. He was lying in a pool of vomit. His chest heaved and he coughed up a few more chunks.

“Haka, moof, add kee noo?”

Malotte didn’t want to get up. He wanted to relax and enjoy the bliss of having the pain seep away. What was this guy saying anyway? He sat up, wiping away the vomit from his face.

“What did you say?” asked Malotte, blinking. Why was the sky so bright?

“Add kee,” said the man standing over him. He looked more scared than concerned. He pointed at the top of Malotte’s head, agitated.

Malotte felt the top of his head. Hair? The guy was pointing at his hair?

The man was much shorter than Malotte. He wore an odd, one-piece outfit with a rope for a belt. He was completely bald.

Malotte rose shakily to his feet, rubbing his eyes. He glanced around as he dusted himself off. Where the fuck was he? It looked like downtown, but it was no street that he recognized.

The other people on the street were dressed in the same, one-piece outfit. And they were all bald. Some stared over at him nervously, but they kept moving.

“Talla kwag, moof,” said the man next to Malotte, shaking his head. With that he turned on his heel and scurried off.

Malotte tried to wipe the puke off his shoulder with his hand. It was then that he noticed the cars, if you could call them that. Trundling along in silence, the vehicles were boxy and flimsy. Electric-powered, no doubt. They all had the same colour scheme – pale green, beige and cream. Those three colours were everywhere – on people’s clothes, on storefronts, on signs.

The signs. They weren’t in English. In fact, they weren’t in any language that Malotte had ever seen. Just crazy squiggles.

People continue to stare, making Malotte uncomfortable. It was time to go. He ducked into an alley, hoping it would lead him to a street he knew. He batted at the air – it was teeming with insects, so many that he kept breathing them in.

Malotte was dismayed to find that the next street over was no more recognizable than the last. He stood surveying the street for a while, so at first he didn’t pay much attention to the chattering behind him. Finally, someone tugged at the back of his jacket. He spun around, surprised to find that a small crowd had gathered. There were about seven or eight of them. Happy and excited they pointed at him and then pointed at themselves. In horror, Malotte realized why.

They all had his face. He stared out at eight miniature, bald clones of himself. The vision of them swam before him and started to recede. He almost fainted, but he caught himself.

Malotte staggered off, bewildered. He was going insane, he had to be. He needed rest, that was it. He had to go home and get some sleep.

He just hoped that ‘home’ was where he left it.

THURSDAY

Malotte moaned as he woke up. He really felt like shit. As a young man he’d often woken up after a beery night with serious jungle mouth. That was nothing. Right now the inside of his mouth was as rough and dry as sandpaper, and it tasted vile.

He’d had an episode during the night. Another white flash of blinding pain. He was so tired, though, that he just fell back asleep.

His nostrils twitched. There was an acrid tang in the air. It was hard to breathe.

He threw off his blanket with a crackling noise. Static. Lots of it. So much that he’d felt the discharges on his skin like thousands of tiny pinpricks.

The curtains were drawn, so the room was still quite dark. In the gloom he peered down at his hand. Minute points of light danced all over the surface of his skin. He was alive with electricity. In despair he brought his hand up to his brow. The air hummed. It got louder as his hand approached his face. He pulled his hand away. Sure enough, the sound went away.

Malotte rose up out of bed, emitting twinkling ripples in the air. He gulped hard, and then headed for the window, sparks snapping at his feet with every step.

The diffused light around the edge of the curtains was unsettling. Surely that was the wrong colour.

Miniscule bolts of lightning shot from his fingertips as he reached for the drapery. He paused, taking a deep breath. Finally, he drew back the curtain.

“Oh, holy Jesus Christ! No!”

END

“Thursday’s Child Has Far To Go” originally appeared in Tales of the Talisman

“Sleep” by Clio Em

Sleep

by Clio Em

 

I watched you as you observed me in your sleeplessness all night.

You see that my muscles are more toned, my heart beats more evenly. My eyes are even bigger than yours. My skin is a richer brown, my hair a deeper black. My mouth wraps itself around words more easily, as my fingers do around objects. Both move tremendously fast. The neurons in my brain interconnect far more densely, so that the network they form outstrips your own.

I am sorry.

The reason I am sorry is that I am slated to replace you. You know it. This gives me great pain, but it cannot be helped. If you did not know it, it would be easier. Yet you must know it. I must learn from you. At first you resisted, like nearly everyone else.

The ones who shock me are those who do not resist, who go along with the impositions. Perhaps it is you, especially, who had to fight, because I cannot offer you anything in return for my betrayal.

The rehabilitation centre is meant for those who have not yet accepted their fate. But is it meant for you or for me? I am not sure.

They told neither of us what was going to happen when we came in here. I just know that one mech and one organic are on each team of two. Team is somewhat of a misnomer, though. Our real purpose is to fight one another.

In the morning I will run the obstacle course, and I will outperform you. I will calculate and weigh and measure and swim and run. I will do all these things well. And I will be selected from our team of two. I suspect that the mech will be the one selected from all of the teams of two. This test is a sham. It challenges me. Yet I cannot resist rising to the challenge in such a way that I still play by the rules.

I am sorry.

****

I watched you as you observed me in your sleeplessness all night.

You see that my muscles are less toned but more natural, my heart expresses my emotions. My eyes may not have 20/20 vision but they can see visions. I look a lot like you, but there is something off about the way your physique imitates mine. Your vocabulary is stunning, I’ll give you that. But mine is more apt. The neurons in my brain make spontaneous and organic connections. My brain is more flexible that either of us can imagine.

I am sorry.

The reason I am sorry is that you are slated to replace me. You know it. This gives me great pain, but it cannot be helped. If you did not know it, it would be easier. Yet you must know it. I must learn from you. At first you resisted, like nearly everyone else. But because you didn’t resist until the end, something has to happen, and it will not be good.

The ones who shock me are those who do not resist, who go along with the impositions. Perhaps it is you, especially, who had to fight, because I cannot offer you anything in return for my betrayal.

I don’t know why they make all of you look like clones of us, only better and more beautiful. I always thought I was good-looking enough on my own. Yet you don’t seem to wear your sexuality very well. From the way you talk, I wouldn’t guess that you want to be carrying a female identity. And perhaps you don’t. Did they choose it for you? Probably. Now I’m even more sorry.

You don’t deserve any of this. All you ever offered me was friendship. At least, I call it friendship because you offered everything of yourself, within parameters. I’m not sure where those parameters end, but I know they began in a place where we could find common ground. Now, not so much.

Tomorrow I will add that chemical to your breakfast that I know your internal structure cannot tolerate. That chemical will cross your plasma-brain barrier and start doing damage. It’s an extremely common chemical, you know. Not even illegal. I was a scientist before they took me off the job to do these tests and run these rat mazes with you. Funny, because you have all sorts of knowledge crammed into that brain of yours, but you can’t see the applications. Or at least, you won’t see the applications until it’s too late.

I need to make sure I carve out a niche for myself. A raison d’être, a reason to be, and to live. Tomorrow I will kill you.

I am sorry.

 

 

End

 

Clio Em is a mezzo-soprano, a composer, musician and creator of sci-fi worlds.  She is also an Irregular Dreams writer.

“Home” by Jackie Stanley

Home

By Jackie Stanley

“I need to go home.” I turned and looked at Fox. “Can you take us home?”

He tensed his lips and turned them down. “We can, but we should go back into the meeting first. It’s really important that we do this, honey. They need us. They need our energy.”

I bit my lips, alternating between the top and bottom one every second or so. “I understand that, but I feel like I’ve been travelling through hell on Earth to find you. I need to see our home, and know that everything’s going to be OK. Please. Please?”

Fox shook his head and looked out the driver’s side window.

“You’re scared, aren’t you? What will happen if we don’t go back to that meeting?”

He turned to me, and grabbed my hand. “We need to go back. It won’t take long, I promise.”

Anger simmered beneath an equivalent relief to be by my husband’s side once again. I trusted him. We opened our doors and got out of the car, walking across the overcast raised parking garage and back over to the stair well. We descended the concrete grey steps without a word until we found ourselves back on solid ground. Fox lead me over to the entryway of the large nondescript building, which I now recognized as a former department store. The Target had gone out of business several years ago, but remnants of its red painted store signage remained, faded yet unmistakable. Once we re-entered the building, we had to climb back up several half-flights of stairs to reach the upper level where we had left Carol and the others.

We noticed that the bright fluorescent light that had flooded the stairwell earlier had been replaced by a more concentrated halogen glow. Emergency lights.

“Why is the power out?”

Fox’s skin looked ashen, although it might have been the lighting. “I’m sure it’s fine upstairs.”

We climbed the few dozen stairs to the second floor. As we approached the door which would lead us back into the meeting room, I noticed for the first time that the door had a window in it. Whatever lay beyond the window was dark. Fox leaned forward and peered into the glass. Over his shoulder I could see that a smattering of safety lights were lit: nothing like the overwhelmingly white fluorescent tube brightness in which we had found ourselves earlier. Overall, it looked like a very dark room. Fox hesitated slightly before he opened the door. I told him that I was afraid, and he put his arm around my waist. A rare feeling of physical security overtook me and I walked confidently beside him into the partially-lit room.

We couldn’t hear anything at first.

“Hello?” Fox announced our presence. His word jarred with its hasty echo.

A scrambling sound above us alerted all of my senses. I looked up, but the security lights a few metres ahead of us momentarily blinded me. I recalled from my earlier visit to this room that there were long stretches of industrial ventilation pipes suspended from its high ceilings. I guessed that the sound had come from those pipes, located about twenty feet above our heads.

Fox squinted upwards as well, but I could tell that he saw nothing but the glare of the lights. There didn’t seem to be anyone in our vicinity. Presumably the meeting had ended abruptly and everyone had fled in light of whatever had triggered the emergency lights. A power outage? Before either of us had a chance to speak, we heard the scrambling sound again. This time it was louder – more of a screechy clank accompanied by something akin to a sharp object scraping across a metal surface. Both of us jolted instinctively and craned our necks to look back up at the ceiling.  My right eye closed reflexively, stinging as a large drop of warm liquid engulfed its surface.

Instinctively, I wiped whatever it was out of my eye. It was a thick, syrupy liquid. I thought it smelled faintly of minerals. Blood. Fox seemed to be frozen in fear, until I felt his hand slowly make contact with my own. His reach meant that he wanted to flee. There was no mistaking it. I gripped his hand and glanced behind us at the door through which we had entered, but found it had seemingly been erased. The EXIT signs and markings around the doorway, which I had noticed subconsciously during the daytime, were still there. But beneath the glowing red EXIT sign stood only a concrete wall. I blinked and turned my head around in various directions but knew without a doubt that that had been where we’d entered the room. Behind that wall had stood the stairwell.

We heard a clatter from the other end of the long, virtually empty room. More metal, it seemed. I wanted to call out but thought better of it. Confused and panicked as a caged feral cat, my breath quickened to a pant. I caught myself about to hyperventilate and slowed my breathing by staring at the single blazing halogen light bulb. I let its solitary illumination burn into my mind, obliterating all else until I noticed Fox’s hand slip out of my own. I leaned in to him.

“Are you OK?” They were the first words I had whispered since we’d arrived.

“I need to sit down,” he said, just as the bulb extinguished itself with a dreadful pop.

I need to sit down was such a mundane sentence, but I hadn’t heard Fox say those words since his grand mal seizure by the river years before. Had it been years? I was uncertain of everything.

“Okay, honey” I said, as I had that day in the riverside woods. This time, though, we were in a raven black room, and we most certainly were not alone. But we’re together, I reminded myself. He is with me. We had recently been apart for what felt like days, and what might have been years or an unquantifiable amount of time and distance. I needed to keep him safe; to keep him by my side. Just as I realized how much I yearned to feel his strength, he grabbed my hand tightly. His grip was not without panic, but I knew he was still with me for the moment. We heard a dramatic scuffling above us once again. Whatever made the sound was alive. It was an organic shifting of the weight of some large and impatient creature.

What was it waiting for?

“I think we need to run-” As I spoke, the Thing hiss-screeched. The sound was mortifying. I felt undressed and bent over. Our vulnerability seated on the hard laminate covered floor was too risky. This realm in which we found ourselves – a bankrupt department store turned a propos meeting room turned lair of a hellish creature – was not our home. We must have stumbled into this place in error. Opened the wrong door. We needed to move.

Fox jumped up from his seat and mercifully lead the way as we began to run. Instantly I felt a flood of relief as I felt his vital body rushing, moving: staying alive. We ran towards the door I remembered turning into a concrete wall but found nothing in our way as we continued to move. The creature traveled with us. The darkness was that of an underground crawl space with the trap door sealed shut. There was no respite and our eyes did not adjust, so we clung to each other hand in hand and we ran.

The Thing screeched again, and through the blackness I caught a mental image of its position. It clung upside down from the pipework which hung from the ceiling. It seemed to be a bald, humanoid thing. It gave me a shiver of recognition as one feels when one looks into the eyes of a soulful pet dog. There’s a person in there, I thought, as we ran, and ran. The darkness suffocated me. I began to pant and gasp for breath again, but the clattering of the thing up on the ceiling was so threatening that I couldn’t stop running. Neither of us could.

Fox seemed to be alright, but what did I know? We gripped one another’s hands like they were attached to lifeboats. In fact, it was quickly beginning to feel like we were adrift in a blackened sea. I could imagine powerful winds and waves hurling us underwater at any moment. We might die a painful death. I didn’t imagine drowning to be pleasant. Alternately, we might end up living out another lifetime together deep within the ocean. We might live as Mother and Father of God. Keepers of waves, makers of thunder. We could survive on waving strands of kelp and reproduce like genderless, asexual sea creatures. As I pictured us, transformed physically into jellyfish-snail hybrids thousands of metres below sea level, I was awash in bliss. The euphoria lasted a few seconds longer as I drifted formlessly through the blackness until my foot caught something on the ground and I abruptly found myself face-down on a hard surface.

I heard a creaking scraping crack.

Floor.

Back on Earth.

The Thing and Fox were with me.

“Honey are you OK?” Fox said, and then hissed “COME ON!” Then I knew that the Thing had gained on us.

I stood up, seemingly unhurt, and the lights went on.

My eyes narrowed, pained by the brightness, and I caught a glimpse of Fox’s silhouette. Behind him, high up on the ceiling, the Thing crawled quickly towards us. I wanted to stop running. I squinted at the thing and it appeared angry, russet-coloured, sinewy, and shiny.

“Let’s just stop.”

Fox said nothing.

I looked at the Thing as it approached us with confidence. I saw its lips pulled back to reveal its fangs. I felt no fear. It reached us in what must have been mere seconds.

We seemed to meld with the ceiling as the creature rushed unabated toward us. Flooring entwined with steel pipes and bewildering fluorescent light as the Thing entered both of our bodies simultaneously.

End

 

Jackie is a member of Cursed Arrows and lives in a haunted house in Muskoka, ON. She is also an Irregular Dreams writer.