Last Will of the Cyclops

Last Will of the Cyclops(1)

The funeral was small. Captain Sy “Cyclops” Petcher spent the end of his days at a dark corner table in the Triple Trout drinking discontinued ale the bartender had shipped in just for him. When the bar was closed in the mornings, Sy would sit outside the door in a chair engraved with “Cyclops” and scare school children with tales of sea monsters, pirates, and siren songs. They would scream and run away laughing to return the next morning for all of their favorites from the crazy old man with the eyepatch.

The bartender had removed his apron and hat, looking solemnly down at his feet as Sy’s casket was lowered into the ground. He never spoke a word to Sophie, nor her brother Oliver, the only family Sy had left. The nameless bartender laid a hand upon the cyclops chair he had placed at the foot of the coffin as tribute, then slowly walked away, donning his hat, when the service ended.

It had been odd to look upon his face, both eyes closed. Grandpa Sy had worn an eyepatch ever since the accident, for as long as Sophie could remember. She had been told many times the tale of the great storm that gave him a second chance and second sight.

Captain Petcher had always been known to exaggerate, claiming to have seen the world, but he’d never sailed outside of his fishing spot. He told fancy yarns to anyone at the Triple Trout who would buy him ale for a tale.

One August, a great hurricane blew up. Captain Sy refused to believe that the storm would be as devastating as predicted. He declared he’d braved worse, lived through tsunamis in the great Pacific, and could tell by the scent of the sea how bad a storm would be. He sailed out as usual, determined to catch all the fish his fellow fisherman were leaving behind.

The storm did, in fact, become great. His main mast broke in the gales. He’d tied himself to the boat and stood on deck, trying to reel in errant lines. The mast toppled, driving into his skull. If he hadn’t been tied securely, he’d have washed overboard.

Two days later he was rescued, avowing that he could see the future with his right eye and wanted it covered to not suffer the agonies of that knowledge. People chalked up his delusions to exposure and dehydration. After his recovery, he maintained that he needed an eyepatch. Without a medical reason to give him one, the doctors refused, but he bought himself one anyway.

Captain Petcher never went back out to sea. He became obsessed with drawing a complicated set of blueprints. Those that saw his ‘blueprints’ however, knew them to be intricately interwoven lines with no discernible form. They left his house after a visit shaking their heads, convinced he had cracked.

After his masterpiece had been completed, he took to the Triple Trout. There were a few odd days when he would be absent, but most of the time he could be found in one of his two chairs drinking his ale and reading his old books. Emerson was always his favorite.

Oliver picked up the engraved bar chair and said to Sophie, “Well, we can start with this chair.”

He meant to begin clearing out their grandfather’s house as soon as possible. He was needed back at his job hundreds of miles away.

After their mother died in a tragic car accident, Oliver, then 17, had focused on his studies, graduated high school, enrolled in a college across the country and moved away. Sophie had been left to care for her grandfather and herself for 3 years before she, too, went off to college. Sy had been in his blueprint stage then and hardly left the house. Sophie was happy Oliver had come to pay his respects, but felt rushed into putting the property up for sale.

Sy lived up on a cliff overlooking the fishing grounds.  The house appeared slightly neglected; an overgrown yard mostly of sand, rock, and beach grass, almost constantly buffeted by winds, soft or strong, and the paint had long faded to a desolate gray. The floor creaked, the door squeaked, and there were loose tiles in the kitchen and bathroom. The realtor had toured it one hour before the funeral and declared it a ‘quaint fixer-upper with cottage charm’. Oliver had been pleased.

Other than the furniture, most of the small rooms were empty of trinkets and decorations. Sophie was grateful for that. The office, however, was a different story. Here grandpa had kept stacks of newspapers, ledgers of numbers, maps, ink pens, notebooks, and an old typewriter still fitted with a paper halfway full of columns of numbers like a substitute calculator.

“Tag all of the things you think we can sell,” Oliver commanded, handing his sister a permanent marker and roll of masking tape. He hurried back to the living room furniture and tore off strips of tape upon which he’d written some arbitrary price to stick to each piece.

“Don’t worry about the prices,” he called out. “We can negotiate at the sale!”

After he’d marked a significant amount of things, he began moving them outside and setting up the yard.

Sophie marked items without thinking. One dollar, five, ten, fifty cents. Oliver rushed in and grabbed anything she’d marked and whisked it out to the yard with the precision of a man determined to meet a quota.

“My flight leaves at six thirty, so we need to end the sale tomorrow at four and load whatever didn’t sell into the box truck from the donation store.”

Sophie nodded. It would hurt less to do it quickly, not that she held her grandfather in high regard. Most people of the town gave her sympathy for having known him. They all thought he was a raving lunatic.

She remembered the few times he would emerge from his office, beaming like he’d just found buried treasure, alleging that he’d made ‘another million dollar discovery’, dance a little happy jig, and don his hat to go drink to his good fortune. He would seem almost kind and loving, then. He’d tweak her nose like he used to when she was five, and tell her the future looked bright for them.

Sophie stared at a framed picture she found herself holding. It was the blueprint her grandpa had painstakingly drawn and labeled in his fine Captain’s handwriting. Every line was as precise as a map, every letter and number tiny and perfectly legible, though it made no sense to her. It was a fine work of art, if one were into that sort of thing.

“Give me that and stop wasting time!” barked Oliver.

He yanked the framed piece from his sister’s hands. Sophie had a sudden flashback to a moment when Oliver, scowling in the exact same manner, had yanked a filthy toy from her, “Don’t touch that!” he’d screamed. “You don’t know where it’s been!”

“Wait!”

“What?” Oliver, disgruntled at being stopped in his momentum, snapped angrily.

Sophie did not have the energy to fight with him. “Nevermind.”

Oliver let out a low growl of exasperation and carried the frame outside.

The next day Oliver woke Sophie by knocking on her door at the little inn they were staying at for the weekend because the sympathetic owner knew their family. Oliver heard ‘for free’ and accepted for both of them.

“Time to get selling!”

Sophie pulled on some jeans and pulled a hoodie over her t-shirt. While it would get warmer later, the wind up on the cliff kept the mornings cooler than average.

The house hid in the mist, gray as the dew on the spiderwebs between the porch rails. Oliver uncovered the tables of items he’d thrown sheets over the night before. He scowled at books that had gotten damp and used the sheet to dry off any moisture clinging to furniture legs.

Sophie wandered around the items, seeing them as unloved, a paltry few pieces standing sadly in rows across the sandy, rocky lawn. Was this what life had to offer; you live, crazy, alone, and then your belongings are set out for scrutiny.

She took the coffee Oliver offered her and picked up a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson from a table. She settled in a lawn chair to wait. The sun rose, burned off the mist, and the wind picked up. She read, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.”

A lone truck came to a stop.

“This looks promising.” Oliver perked up. “All prices are negotiable!”

The truck took off with a table and chairs. Oliver pocketed the meager cash. Two cars arrived, then a van. The first car left with kitchen gadgets and the second left without a word. The van lady chatted up a storm. She touched every single item and walked around the display three times before settling on a pair of lanterns and the framed old blueprint.

“This isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.” Oliver moped when another car came and went without buying anything.

“They all seem disappointed that the Cyclops had so little in the way of interesting things.” Sophie remarked.

“Cyclops.” Oliver shook his head.

It was nearing midday and sales had slowed down. Oliver grew more intolerable by the minute, grumping about the lack of customers and money flowing. His latest diatribe on the shortcomings of this house was interrupted by an SUV traveling at a slow speed. It came to a stop and the driver seemed to consider whether or not to get out.

“Oh, don’t tell me this guy is a drive-by shopper!” Oliver was fit to burst.

Fortunately, the driver decided to open his door and emerge. He was tall and well-built. He walked with caution, looking at the two of them in turns.

“Is this the home of Cyclops?”

“It was. He passed away. If you’ve come to gloat, buy something first.” Oliver snapped.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve not come to gloat. I came for his… ability.”

Sophia’s ears perked up. “Ability?”

“Do you know who I am?”

“Someone who needs a set of brass barometers?” Oliver was sour.

“I am a famous quarterback, went to the Super Bowl last year?”

“Great! Can I interest you in this antique furniture?”

“Oliver! Let him speak!” Sophia never raised her voice to her brother. He closed his mouth and frustration colored his cheeks.

“Cyclops really could see the future. He predicted the outcome of the game years before it happened. He knew the yard lengths of runs, the number of flags, even a deflected pass that bounced off two guys. I watched it all happen, just as he said.”

The quarterback walked over to a stack of ledgers and began thumbing through them.

“I’m really sorry that he’s gone. I was going to ask him about this season.”

He picked up one of the books and gasped. He fervently read through the pages, turning them quickly, skimming, interpreting the numbers.

“I’ll take this whole lot of books! How much do you want?”

“Now, hold on a minute!” Oliver saw a chance to get his money’s worth, at last. “If what you say is true, perhaps nothing here is for sale!”

“What?” Sophia and the football player asked in unison.

“He could have secrets about the future hidden everywhere!” Oliver jumped to his feet.

“Listen, if you let me take these, I’ll write you a check for ten thousand dollars.” The football player squared his shoulders, ready to haggle.

Sophia gasped. Ten thousand was a good deal in her opinion. She didn’t care about football. Those numbers in the books meant nothing to her. If he wanted to gamble on them, that was his loss.

“One hundred thousand and you can have the whole house!” Oliver countered.

“Deal!”

“Now hold on just one minute!” A lady had pulled up in a red convertible and tried to jog over the sand and rocks in high heels and a pencil skirt. She was the realtor and carried a leather portfolio.

“You have a contract with Smith and Associates Realty.”

“I’ll sign whatever I need to, ma’am,” the quarterback said.

“Oh no, young man, we are going to do this the right way!”

A man had walked up behind the realtor and quarterback. He had gray hair, but was bald on top, and incredibly white teeth. He wore a casual suit and his wife came trotting over in a dress straight off the rack at Dressbarn.

“Allow me to introduce Senator Barnes. He is interested in buying this property.”

“Captain Petcher and I go way back. He correctly predicted I would win the race for the state Senate seat.”

“Sir, if I may, congratulations, but I’m really interested in this property.” The quarterback would not back down from this challenge.

“Didn’t you win the last Super Bowl?” The Senator squinted his eyes.

“Yes, yes, you are both winners, now can we get on with this? Let’s start the bidding at one hundred and fifty thousand.” Oliver rubbed his hands together.

“Bidding!?” shrieked the realtor.

“The estate belongs to me, as the eldest grandson, correct?”

“Actually,” called out an amused voice, deep, with the command of a college professor, “the estate belongs to Sophia.”

Oliver’s jaw dropped.

“I’m Percival Holmes, Esquire, and the late Captain’s attorney. His will clearly states that the property and all contents are to go to Sophia Petcher; specifically, the framed print in his office.” The attorney gave a self-satisfied smile.

“The print was sold a few hours ago,” Sophia breathed in shock.

“Oh dear. That is unfortunate. His will specifically states that you must have it.”

“Why?” Oliver crossed his arms.

“Because he left this large envelope with instructions for Sophia that go with it.”

All eyes were on that envelope clearly marked with Sophia’s name in large calligraphy; the kind you see on old map titles.

“Grandpa Sy never had a visitor in over twenty years. Today the whole world shows up. What was that chatty woman’s name?” Sophia asked her brother.

“I don’t know, I don’t think she said.” Oliver shook his head.

“What did she look like?” asked the attorney as if he were taking a statement for the police.

“She was medium height, pear shaped, long straight brown hair, and she talked the whole time.”

“Did she walk with a limp?” asked the realtor. Everyone turned to look at her.

“I’ve lived here all my life. I know many of the residents. There are a few who fit that description.”

“She did seem to lean heavily on one leg more than the other.” Sophia tried to remember everything about her and what she said.

“It’s Hatty McGill.” declared the realtor.

“Are you sure?” The attorney tilted his head down and raised his eyebrows.

“She fits the bill.”

“Do you know where she lives?” Sophia’s spirits had raised. This was turning out to be a treasure hunt. It wasn’t how her grandpa had planned, but it would have made him happy to see this story unfold into an adventure.

“She lives on Krill Street.”

Everyone moved to their respective vehicles. The attorney’s black mercedes was the last to follow the realtor. Sophie watched the Senator and his wife arguing in their white Cadillac, the windshield of the quarterback’s truck visible above them.

The Realtor turned off the cliffside road onto a series of side roads that skirted the small town and ended up on Krill Street far inland in the tree-covered hills. The house they stopped in front of was hidden behind piles of stuff. It was as if the house’s contents had busted its seams and spilled out into the yard. Appliances, flower pots, a canoe, and crates of who-knows-what filled the front porch. An old slide, two motorcycle bodies, and a rusted swingset supported more boxes and sacks that hadn’t weathered the winter snowmelt well.

The Senator’s wife frowned and cowered beside the car as if afraid to catch something if she crossed the broken chain link fence into the McGill property. The realtor kept her head high as she marched smartly through the gate and up to the cluttered porch.

“Hatty! Hatty McGill! Are you home?” She knocked loudly.

A dirty van drove slowly past the parade of parked vehicles on the side of the road and turned into the driveway. The realtor stepped down to meet Hatty at her driver’s side door.

“What’s going on?”

“Hatty, I’m Patty Smith of Smith and Associates Realty.”

“Oh, my house isn’t for sale.”

“No, we’re not here about your house.”

“I’m confused.”

“You went to the yard sale at old Cyclops’ place this morning, correct?”

“Yes?”

“You bought a framed print.”

“It’s lovely!” Hatty gave a brief smile and her eyes lit up.

“I’m sorry, but it wasn’t supposed to be sold.”

The attorney had approached. Hatty scowled at him in his suit. “Yes, Ms. McGill, I’m afraid that property belongs to Miss Sophia Petcher.”

“I bought it from her, so it’s mine fair and square!”

Sophia stepped forward, “I’ll give you your money back.”

“I’m not selling it!”

Senator Barnes opened the van’s rear hatch.

“Thief! Citizen’s arrest! Breaking and entering! Get out of my van! I’m calling my lawyer.”

“I am a lawyer, Ms. McGill. Mr. Senator, please get out of her van. Now, Hatty, I can draw up paperwork that proves the print belongs to Miss Sophia, and we can go to court, but I’m afraid the legal fees will be much more than you would feel comfortable with. My professional suggestion is that you hand over the print and we all leave.” Perceval used a calm tone and spoke rationally to Hatty, but she was having none of it.

“All of you can leave right now!”

“Everyone back up. Give me some space with Hatty.” Sophia suddenly commanded the scene, eyes only on the angry woman.

“Let’s go inside.”

Hatty looked at her soft and friendly face. She saw that Sophia wore a t-shirt and jeans with rips, having removed her hoodie in the car. Sophia looked normal, safe. She nodded and led the way. “Just you!” she warned the others.

They stepped into a kitchen with barely any room for a person to walk. Towers of dirty dishes covered the windows above the sink, faucet dripping. Piles of canned goods filled one corner. Behind them were newspapers and boxes filled with mysteries.

“Hatty, did you know my grandfather?”

“Sydney and I went to school together.”

“So, you feel like you knew him better than anyone.”

“Yes! I was his friend before all this eyepatch nonsense.”

“Hatty, I want you to have something, something special, to remember Sy, but I need the print right now. Can you let me have it? I’ll help you find the perfect thing to remember him by, and not anything with Cyclops on it.”

Hatty stared into Sophie’s innocent face. “I suppose you knew him second best, seeing as how you lived with him for a while. He adored you and your brother, before.”

“I believe you are right.”

Hatty took a deep breath and led the way to the back of her van. She opened the hatch and handed over the framed print, dislodging many of her other purchases from the morning.

The onlookers watched in silence as the object of all their hopes was securely grasped by its rightful owner’s hands.

“Miss Sophia Petcher, I bestow upon you the envelope entrusted to you by your grandfather.” Perceval Holmes handed Sophie the package and walked to his car. His job was finished.

Sophie stared at the envelope. Something stirred in her she hadn’t felt since before her mother’s accident; hope.

“Young lady, I’m not sure you understand the full potential of what you currently possess. Now, I’m in a place to offer you a host of resources in exchange for that print.”

The Senator’s flowery words would not trap Sophia. She shut herself in the car and ripped open the envelope. She emerged with a large smile on her face.

“Sir, I appreciate the offer, but after some consideration, nothing is for sale.”

“Well, what was in the envelope? Did he at least say what the print was?” the quarterback fingered his championship ring. The Senator and his wife, Oliver, and the realtor all leaned in to hear her next words.

Her mouth curled into smile before she continued, “It’s a mousetrap. He built a better mousetrap.”

“What?” the  Quarterback looked at the Realtor and the Senator scratched his graying head.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson, look it up!” Sophia laughed back to the car and commanded Oliver to drive home to Grandpa Sy’s.

 

The End

 

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X4-R

X4-R

In a forgotten corner of space, on the fringes of the Hawthorn nebula, mechanized creatures called Zarook moved in a rhythm, working to a melody and harmony tuned to the very core of their planet. For several centuries the Zarook had maintained the cultivation of this life force, keeping it exactly the same, exactly the way the Carbies instructed them to.

Xar had been manufactured only a century ago, making him a relatively new Zarook compared to most. He was male in shape, barrel-chested with four limbs. His arms could extend, ending in appendages similar to the ancient Carbies’ hands. His legs ended in triangular pyramids fitted with three retractable wheels so he could roll or step and stand when necessary.

His function was a mop. His protocol required he clean the floors of the huge Willestria Building Number Four. He had one rule: he was not allowed to cross the threshold of any exit that led outside. He remembered the day he was activated just as clearly as yesterday. His drives had never needed to be rebooted. The Carbies who created him had done a magnificent job.

It had been nearly one hundred years since he’d interacted with a Carbie. From the farthest corner of his assigned room he began; spraying, agitating with a rotating mop that looped inside his body cavity for decontamination before being applied again, and blow drying the area. He’d come upon a significant amount of Carbie fluids. He bumped into the dangling appendage of a Carbie lying upon a bed.

“Excuse me. I was just cleaning. Would you like for me to go around?”  His politeness protocol for bumping into a Carbie engaged. He had waited for a command of yes or no. The Carbies sometimes said, ‘of course’, ‘sure’, ‘excuse me’, or ‘please continue’ when they meant yes. Or they might say, ‘later’, ‘not now’, ‘go away’, or ‘no, come back later’ when they meant no. This Carbie said nothing.

The appendage did not move. Xar logged a full fifteen minutes where they were at a stalemate. He would ask his prompt question, the Carbie would not respond, and after the recommended thirty seconds of wait, he would ask again.

After fifteen minutes a retinue of removal bots entered and removed the Carbie from the bed. The nailbeds were purple and black, the fingers blue and purple. The head fell back, mouth slack, one side was very swollen and the skin on the face was blue black. Xar’s recognition receptors identified him as Dr. Monroe, the Carbie who had activated him.

Something fell from his hand, making a tiny plastic-on-concrete noise. It was a programming chip and Xar instinctively stored his mop and extended one of his grasping arm appendages to pick it up. It was the right shape and size to fit into one of his programming chip sockets. He inserted it, but his programming did not change. He switched back to his mop.

He had then spent extra time cleaning the room of all stains, fluids, and contaminants. He docked in to charge ten minutes late that night.

Xar had awoken, recharged, and went to work the next day the same way he had awoken, recharged, and went to work every day for the next one hundred years.

Xar was scheduled to clean the large floor of bay B-42. He used to have help. Two other bots, one to his left and one to his right in the charging bay, would also report to B-42. In the last twenty years that number had been reduced to one. He had been given twelve hours to complete the task. Carbies used to brag that this bay was as large as two football fields. Xar’s lexicon did not include the word ‘football’, but it did include fields. Fields were places where data was entered. Since the Carbies entered the data into all of their programs, Xar determined a ‘football’ was a large robot, half the size of this bay.

Xar worked for hours, back and forth. The floor was long and large. It took him thirty minutes to clean one swath as wide as his mop from one end to the other. He cleaned all but a section in the middle at one end. There was a rectangular hole there with something raised out of it.

At three hours and forty-one minutes, Xar was at the edge of that hole when he was jolted by a spark of electricity. The white hot heat snaked across the tiles through a tiny fissure in the floor of the settling room. The power boosted his battery, making his mop spin a quick rotation, and temporarily screen-blinded him. His system did a soft reboot and ran built-in diagnostics. He found a tiny fragged bit of data and a small pocket of capacitors had blown. A red light flashed on his vision screen in the upper right corner. That meant he was to report to Diagnostics. He retracted his mop extension and extended his legs.

He rolled to the Express and took it to the Diagnostics wing. The Express was a transit device suspended from a track in the ceiling which ran all over the building. Spaces for bots to perch on faced outward on either side. Rolling aboard, magnetic forces grasped him immediately.

The car that picked him up held a single passenger. She turned her head. He had never encountered this bot before. His vision screen showed a request to exchange identification data. His programming accepted it with a small fuzzy glitch in his vision screen. This glitch was new. He logged it so Diagnostics could have a look.

Model T-N4 had the curves and elegance of female Carbies, chestnut hair pulled back into a ponytail and dark-rimmed glasses, but the thing that set her apart from her creators was her skin. He could see his own reflection in her chrome cheekbones. Her function was as a librarian, and for a century she waited for Carbies to need a book, some information, or have something to be returned. At her destination, the research automaton exited the car with precision.

The Express careened around a corner and smoothly slowed to a stop in front of Diagnostics Two.

Glass doors slid open smoothly. A waiting exam bot, whose permission to connect with Xar was accepted automatically making his vision screen flicker again, waved a wand over him, then commanded him to dock in an ovular bay.

Cables with tiny vacuum ends suctioned to all parts of his frame. He felt his system swept by many programs at once. A buzz of energy spun through his drives and processors. His vision screen filled with readout data scrolling up as new information was processed faster than he could read. The tests confirmed what his own programs had detected, small damage to a section of programming code and a few busted capacitors.

“Warehouse report: no capacitors your size in stock. Do you want to put in an order?” She asked him with perfectly programmed bedside manner. The attendant, named DS-14, rolled around on three triangular tracks. Her frame was cylindrical and could extend to a height of twelve feet. She had four nimble arm appendages with various ends for various jobs. She was a pristine white, very clean.

“Yes.” Xar was programmed to replace any malfunctioning parts.

“Warehouse will contact us when the parts are in and you will report here for replacement. Would you like to run from backup to try to recover the fragmented data?”

“Yes.” Diagnostics had to ask for permission to run programs and Xar was programmed allow diagnostic programs to run if no Carbies were present to override.

“Restoring data from most recent backup now. This will take an estimated 30 minutes. Please remain attached to the hub for the entire time. Any attempt to disengage, reboot, or open programs may result in permanent memory damage.” DS-14 pushed a few buttons and then left the room. Xar waited, his body hummed with the programs running all over his files and partitions, searching for damaged sectors and tagging them.

Xar was not programmed to feel pain, but something about the code the backup was currently rewriting felt wrong, as if something was not rewriting correctly. Then they were gone, finished, tidying up. The projected 30 minutes had been 40. He recalculated for the diagnostic lag. His internal timer had never failed him.

DS-14 pressed a button and the lines disengaged from his body. “You are cleared to return to work.”

On the Express were three Zarook. After he cleared the ID permissions, his vision screen went fuzzy for moment. Two were Collectors, 157a and 157b. All collector bots had a scoop shovel, 2 arms for grasping, curved vice-grip hands for gripping, and a body built for powering larger and heavier Zarook away. They were painted a yellow-orange the Carbies called ‘school-bus’. Between them was an older model labeled CRT-11 slumped over in the seat space. Its large screen head had no power and its arm was broken off and settled into the seat next to it.

“Log entry 192.168: CRT-11 being taken to Warehouse Two,” chirped the bot. They were programmed to vocally log entries. Warehouse Two tore down the bots who were completely useless for parts. Unfortunately, a CRT-11 was too old to have Xar’s capacitors in his boards.

The Express moved swiftly back to B-42 and Xar continued his work until the end of day recharge time.

Xar logged a few more days’ worth of cleaning entries. His systems had accepted the incomplete fragments of his data and he showed no signs of malfunction.

On his way down to clean E-33 in the farthest corner of the building, he bumped into a bot. “Excuse me. I was just on my way to clean. Would you like me to go around?”

The bot’s vision screens, for he had two, went blank for a moment as his processed the ID request from an X-series, which took longer since he was an ancient model. He blinked to life after a few minutes. “Ex-ex-ex-cuse, Excuse m-m-e,” stuttered the bot as is went forward into the wall, then backed into Xar again.

“Would you like me to go around?” Xar repeated as his protocol defined. This CRD-44 was even older than the CRT from the Express. CRDs used old card-style memory to store their programming, accessible from a port on their backs. CRDs were used as delivery drones, their entire bodies empty caverns for holding packages and paper memos the Carbies were so fond of. CRDs had never been decommissioned after the last Carbies got sick, but Command had stopped needing them one hundred years ago. They sat in their docks on standby. This CRD was gray now instead of blue, having faded over time. Xar began to record this one’s erratic behavior in order to report it.

“Cuse, Cuse, mee-ee.”

“Move aside, please,” commanded a Collector. Three Collector bots surrounded the malfunctioning CRD. Two of them were identified as the two on the Express, the 157 team. One did not accept any ID requests so it remained unlabeled. The Collectors pinned the bot and removed its card, rendering it motionless. They inserted a card of their own and the bot dutifully glided among them back to the Express. The 157 collector team each had one arm holding the bot and one free arm waving madly in the air. The third bot silently followed. Xar never sent his report to Command. He logged it internally, instead.

Xar entered room E-33 and began to clean. When he was finished with the tiny, empty room, he paused outside the door. His head swiveled to the spot where the CRD had rammed itself repeatedly into the wall. He pulled up a holographic image and watched a replay of events. He had never replayed a hologram without a Carbie giving the command before. He logged this change on his internal database. A warning yellow triangle flashed on his vision screen to remind him he was off-schedule. He closed the hologram and database log and rolled towards his next room.

It was exactly twenty-seven days later when he was scheduled to return to B-42. No other bots had been in there to clean it. A thin layer of dust had gathered on the floor. Four hours, nine minutes, twenty seconds into the cleaning, he bumped into a leg of the structure in the middle of the floor. He’d never bumped into it before. He adjusted his calculations for the leg and continued cleaning. He soon had to recalculate for a second leg. Getting his bearings through visual adjustments, Xar acknowledged that a large structure was resting on the floor inside the hole he used to clean around instead of propped up above it. He could not reach his mop in far enough to clean under the convex belly of the structure where it touched the floor. He calculated the curvature of the new challenge before him. The sides curved out and up for some distance. The two legs he’d bumped into were parts of a support of some sort that had given out after years of wash water had worn away at the bases of them. He discovered similarly skewed legs on the other side of the structure. He logged his reports. Command demanded he remove the legs and take them to Warehouse Two.

Xar stored his mop head and extended his arms so that his Carbie-like appendages could grasp the fallen supports. They were heavy and had to be dragged. He calculated that he could carry two at a time, one in each hand, and would have to drag them all the way to the Warehouse. He extended his legs and lifted the beams.

Warehouse Two was composed of an anteroom for processing new entries with a desk, a bot stationed to enter data, accept work tickets, and clear finished tickets from the queue, and a large warehouse room beyond. The far wall was lined with rectangular doors labeled Chute 1 through Chute 5. When Xar was given the command to deliver the detritus, a ticket had been entered into the system. The ticket would remain open until he completed the task.

Xar’s protocols for waiting in line automatically updated within five yards of the right-hand door. He entered the anteroom and stopped at the end of a line of Zarook waiting to have their tickets cleared. After ten minutes, he’d moved ahead three spaces and two more sets of bots were behind him.

Xar’s microphone picked up the conversation in the room between the admitting bot and the next in line. “Identification?”

“Collector crew 157a and 157b.” Again, they each had an out of control arm.

“Item to be delivered?”

“Model CVH-67 for parts.” Xar noted that its body was short and squat and its top sprouted with a bouquet of antennae. The Carbies called them ‘pineapples’, though Xar did not know why. His data did not define ‘pineapple’.

The admitting bot scanned the CVH’s identity chip through its body panel. “Accepted. Place the item in Chute Five”

The Collectors seemed to have trouble moving in sync. The pineapple’s old joints squealed as it was pulled and yanked between the two. The two managed to lift it and deposited it inside where the flap quickly closed behind it. They turned around and waited for clearance.

“Cleared. Thank you for recycling!”

They zipped out of the exit door on the far left too quickly, nearly taking the turn on two wheels. Xar made a note to Command so Diagnostics could see to them. It was Xar’s turn.

“Identification?”

“X4-R”

The warehouse admitting bot’s ID displayed in Xar’s glitching vision screen as WH-2. He was designed to never leave the admitting desk. His lower body was a pole fused to the floor. “Item to be delivered?”

“Detritus from room B-42.”

“Quantity?”

“Two.”

There was a pause as data was entered.

“This ticket cannot be cleared until all four items are delivered.”

“Understood.”

There was another pause. WH-2 had an old processor and stalled mid-movement.

“Take the items to Chute Two.”

Xar lifted the end of one beam into the Chute. He had to put the second one down and use both arm appendages to stabilize and insert the long beam into the rectangular mouth. It accepted it, a conveyor belt pulling it in. He repeated this process with the second beam, then turned and waited for his dismissal.

WH-2 was asking a Delivery Duo to tell him the quantity of stabilizers they were delivering when he got a call. “Please excuse me. Incoming call from Diagnostics One. Hello… Let me check… No. We do not currently have that part in stock… Thank you.” He returned to processing the Delivery Duo. After telling them to take the stabilizers to Chute One, his head swiveled to Xar. The bot hummed loudly as his cooling fans worked overtime. He then completed whatever processing was taking up his memory, because the noise lessened.

“X4-R, return with the last two. You are dismissed.”

Xar left through the far left exit door. When he returned to room B-42, it was not empty. A bot stood in the room looking up at the structure. Xar processed the identifying markers of this bot. It was the librarian from the Express. He saw his reflection grow larger in triplicate in her liquid mercury plated arms and face. His politeness protocols engaged.

“May I help you?”

The librarian bot turned to him. “Query: Is this structure assigned to you?”

“I am bot X4-R. I am assigned to clean room B-42 on a rotating basis.”

“Action: Identify this structure. Accessing Database. Structure does not match any known data. Seek alternative data resource. Bot X4-R, X-series, Building 4, Restoration. Query: Bot X4-R, Can you identify this structure?”

“My protocols are not to interfere with the structures.”

“Accessing ancient database: Structures like these are aerodynamic. Categories include Airplanes and Ships. Definition of ship: A conveyance for traveling upon water or into the vastness of space.”

His program logged her words, but did not have a scripted response. His default politeness protocols switched to end the conversation. “This was a lovely conversation. Have a nice day!”

The librarian’s protocol required she respond with “You, too!” and she left the room.

Xar recalculated his mission completion time. He picked up the last two beams and dragged them back to the warehouse.

“Proceed to Chute Two.”

Xar had to wait in line at Chute 2. This was not good workflow. WH-2 should have sent him to an empty Chute. The bot in front of him rolled forward and slammed itself into the opening of Chute 2. It was Collector 157b.  His top tipped forward, but his internal ballast prevented him from tipping inside.  He repeated this procedure harder, his internal fans squealing at top speed in resistance. He still could not tip inside. He forced his one flailing arm appendage inside the rectangular mouth and pulled himself into the Chute and onto the conveyor belt with is good one. He then saw Xar and increased his volume to maximum, “You did this to me!”

WH-2 declared, “Thank you for recycling!”

Xar stepped forward and fed his two beams into the Chute. He waited for 2 minutes before WH-2 responded to him.

“Ticket closed. You are cleared. Thank you for recycling!” As Xar rolled past, WH-2 commanded, “X4-R, stop. Unauthorized processing chip detected.”

“I do not possess an unauthorized chip. I was cleared by Diagnostics Two twenty-seven days ago.”

Because it was impossible for a machine to lie, WH-2 responded, “Dismissed, faulty scan.”

Xar headed back to room B-42. He calculated that he had two hours and forty-five minutes of cleaning time left. He registered an identification label of ‘ship’ above the structure.

It was a full 25 days later when he returned to bay B-42. A label of ‘ship’ floated on his vision screen before the massive shape in the middle of the floor. He began to clean around it.

Six hours nine minutes and thirty seconds into the day the librarian entered the room.

“Caution. It is slippery when wet.” His protocols required he report this warning to anything within 2 feet of a cleaning zone while his mop was in action.

“Query: Is this ship assigned to you?”

“I am bot X4-R. Call me Xar. I am assigned to clean room B-42 on a rotating basis.”

“Response: I am T-N4. Call me Tina. Query: When was the last time you logged a cleaning of this room?”

“25 days ago.” Xar reported this data as he updated his identification of T-N4 to Tina.

“Data Assimilated. Query: Did you log the collapse of the support structure?”

“Approximately 25 days ago a ticket was opened and my protocol was altered to remove detritus.”

“Assimilating data. Reporting: 25 days ago my protocol was altered to enter room B-42 to await instructions. I have been waiting every day for 25 days.”

“My logs do not report any instructions to give.”

“Information: I updated my database on ships. Query: Do you want to share the download?”

A window popped up on his vision screen reading ‘Ships.pdf download. Do you wish to allow Ships.pdf to install on your system?’

He ran a virus scan on the file. It was tagged clean. He allowed the download.

Xar was fed two encyclopedic volumes worth of information on space shuttles in the blink of an eye. He now recognized the ‘hatch’, ‘thruster’, ‘nose cone’, ‘tail rudder’, and many other components of the structure before him. He rolled around it looking for an identification number. With that, he would know more about what was inside the ship or who made it. After making one circuit he did not see one.

“This ship is made of an unknown material.”

“Information: This ship is made from a material we no longer mine, but used to be in abundance inside the planet. Mining bots were repurposed fifty years before the X-series robots were built for greater sustainability. They now process the recycled materials in Warehouse Two, extracting raw materials there instead of the mines.”

Xar assimilated this data, then moved around the ship again. “There are no identification numbers on this ship,” he stated.

“Information: Identification numbers are often marked inside on the main control panel,” replied Tina.

“Without a model number, entry is impossible.”

“Quote: Nothing is impossible.”

Xar did not know what to say to this, so his protocols switched to “Have a nice day!” and Tina responded with “You, too!” and left.

He immediately received an order to report to Diagnostics Two. Only two bots boarded the Express, Xar and Tina.

“Nice to see you again.”

“Response: Nice to see you. Query: Where are you headed?”

“Diagnostics Two.”

“Response: I am also headed to Diagnostics Two.”

There was a pause, then Tina said, “Information: The R in X4-R stands for Restoration. Restoration means the action of returning something to a former owner, place, or condition. The ship cannot be restored back to its original condition. Query: Were you commanded to restore it?”

“I was commanded to take the detritus to Warehouse Two.”

“Information: Warehouse Two is where malfunctioned automatons are taken apart and their parts are recycled into other automatons. Did you know that in the process of recycling, some small amount of product is lost every time a new product is made? Over time, the raw materials used to design Building 4 and all of Willestria City were depleted. Recycling was the only way to maintain productivity. Recycling still leads to material loss. Material loss leads to shortages of parts. Fewer parts means fewer automatons. No new bots have been made in one hundred years. The X-series was the last series completed.”

“I have assimilated new data.”

The Express stopped and exiting protocol took over politeness protocol. They said nothing more as they entered the reception area of Diagnostics Two. DS-14 waved a wand over both of them. She kept pausing during Xar’s exam, the wand hovering first at his arm, then his midsection, then on the way back up, at his leg, and this stuttering movement was repeated on Tina.

“You are to dock in Bays 1A and 1B respectively.”

Xar and Tina moved to a room through opaque doors Xar had never noticed before. Two ovular diagnostic machines were lined up side by side. They each took their places and waited. DS-14 rolled behind her control panel and pressed some buttons. The cables connected, suctioning themselves to the same places they had before. Xar felt a strange vibration run through his swivel joints in his neck. He had not given permission.

“Please respond to these questions,” DS-14 commanded. “What is in room B-42?”

“A ship,” said Xar.

“Information: Permission must be granted to run diagnostic programs.”

The exam bot ignored her. “Please respond. When did X4-R and T-N4 first make contact?”

“50 days ago,” replied Xar.

Tina interjected, “Response: Questions do not have to be answered without the proper permissions. All questioners must have the proper clearances to submit questions.”

DS-14 ignored her. “Your internal database indicates you saw a defective Collection bot pair 157 and did not report it.”

“Collection bot team 157 was reported while inside Warehouse Two.”

“The incident occurred prior to this report, outside room E-33. You replayed your recording via hologram.”

“The team was with an unidentified Collection bot. There was adequate coverage. There was no need to report.”

“You also did not report a bot refusing to indentify itself?”

“I am not authorized to report unidentifying bots.”

“Diagnostics show that a virus is spreading from model X4-R to every bot he exchanges identification with. The Collection bot was a test. It does not contain the virus. The predetermined course of action is a complete wipe of all programs of the virus carrier.”

“Information: All programs and drivers are highly classified, stored in Command, and require a manual passcode to access. Only a Carbie can enter a passcode to retrieve highly classified materials.”

DS-14 turned to Xar, “Permission to begin complete wipe of all programs?”

Tina began to command, “Permission not given. Do not proceed. All files are protected and encrypted. Abort wipe of model X4-R. Permission not…” Then she went silent and assumed a reboot posture. DS-14 had deactivated her without permission.

Xar was not authorized to permit a full wipe. “Authorization needed to perform a full wipe,” he informed DS-14. The bot ignored him. She pressed a button on her console.

He felt a twinge and his sensors picked up some bits of his programming moving quadrants. The more things moved, the more programs had to change. In the blink of an eye he felt some of his memory clear, now less full than before.

DS-14 asked Xar, “Please respond: What is in room B-42?”

“I am bot X4-R. I am assigned to clean room B-42 on a rotating basis.”

Tina rebooted and the attendant asked her the same question.

“I am bot T-N4, but you can call me Tina. I am a Knowledge Keeper, assigned to assimilate, store, analyze, and retrieve data files. Information: Room B-42 is a large storage room in Building 4 in Willestria City.”

DS-14  then said, “Now running a virus scan of myself and T-N4.”

Once they were cleared, she dismissed the two bots. They boarded the Express. Neither bot acknowledged the other.

Twenty-five days later, Xar was cleaning room B-42. As he neared the belly of the ship a fuzzy hologram tried to emerge. Xar realized this was a bed sector of code trying to replay a memory. He tried to shut it down, but instead, his vision screen went blank. He attempted a hard reboot of his video card. His sensors picked up a bot had entered the room. Xar attempted to give the standard introduction, but his command was overridden. Then his recognition software sputtered to life along with is vision screen. He saw Tina.

“Query: Can you access file Ships.pdf?

Xar tried to locate the file. “File is missing or corrupted.”

Tina sent it to him again. Xar downloaded the file. Attached to it was some reference material.

“Information: The type of virus you are sharing is a type of worm. It is replicating itself and sharing itself and small pieces of your code with it.”

“My code is not compatible with other bots.”

“Information: Your code is not compatible with less complex bots. They cannot contain it and it duplicates itself in their operatives causing damage.”

“My code causes damage.”

“Yes. Quote: All information causes damage. That is why it is so dangerous. The truth destroys a lie, and reality eliminates illusion. Information: The ship’s instructions may help us. If it contains new uploads, then it may overwrite the bad sectors. Query: Will you accept a download? Information: Only a bot with an operating system 9.4.2 and above can read the file.”

Tina sent him a file called “Instructions.exe”. He scanned it for viruses and found it sound. He downloaded it.

The first instruction opened immediately. “The ship’s door is accessed by pressing a code on a panel next to the hatch.”

Xar knew exactly where to go to find the hatch this time. It closed seamlessly, but with the instruction manual, he now had the interior schematics in his memory along with knowledge of where the door and panel of buttons should be. He pressed the code, deriving it from functions encoded on the front page.

The door hissed open, pneumatic bars lowering it to the floor smoothly. They rolled aboard, Xar heading straight to the control room.

“Step one is to power on the main breaker.” Xar used his arm appendages to grasp and pull the switch into a downward position. Lights flickered on all around and below them. The ship gave a little hum as its systems came online.

“Query: What is step two?”

“Step two is to acquire the protocol chip.”

“Query: What is a protocol chip?”

Xar searched for a definition of protocol chip in the Instructions, but found none. “No definitions for protocol chip found.”

Tina’s processor hummed loudly, increasing in frequency until the walls rang with the pitch of her search, then stopped abruptly. “Error: Directory cannot be reached.”

There was a clamor on the lowered hatch. “Report to Diagnostics One. This is an order from Command.” Two Collectors were attempting to collect Tina and Xar. Both school-bus yellow hulks refused to accept the automatic request of ID.

Diagnostics One was outfitted with all the repair manuals and every software program of every robot. The supercomputers in there worked miracles. If they couldn’t fix the software, the useless bots headed to the Warehouse. Diag-One didn’t have to ask for permission.

They exited the ship calmly and obediently. Four more Collector bots flanked them in perfect squadron position. While waiting for the Express, Tina sent Xar a new protocol command. Xar accepted the file as trusted. The new command was to exit quickly and dodge the Collectors. As the Express pulled to a stop, the bots in front boarded first. In the resulting gap, the two zipped down the hall, evading the bots just as Tina had written.

With the Collectors in hot pursuit, they whizzed past the library and headed down E-Wing. While Xar had cleaned empty room E-33 before, he had never recognized the far wall of the tiny space as a door. This floor to ceiling panel loomed like a dead end before them. The six bots were joined by six more. They careened down the hall, determined to collect the two.

Tina raised her volume above the whirr of her processors and the commands of the bots behind them to ‘Halt’, to say, “Override: Proxy Code zero-seven-seven-three-four.” The door slid open upwards to admit them.

The control room was dark. Their passage triggered motion sensored lighting. Panels of buttons dotted the walls at intervals below large screens. Some turned on to display security camera footage of Building Four. Tina swerved around behind a desk as the door slid shut on the twelve Collector bots. They banged on it incessantly. Tina focused on the control panel before her. Xar’s attention was on the panels of lights coming on one at a time down a long room filled with rows of ten-foot tall cubes, each lit with thousands of tiny yellow and red lights.

“This is Command.” Xar stared at the huge boxes with wires snaking out of them. There were sixteen of them, one under each lit panel.

“Information: Command is a supercomputer. It provides all the protocols and overrides needed to maintain Willestria City.”

“Data assimilated,” Xar copied one of Tina’s lines. He rolled close to the massive machines. He reached up to feel the power contained in just one cell of the supercomputer when a tiny jolt passed from him to the machine. His vision screen went snowy white for a full 2 seconds. He lowered his hand. His protocol had always been to not interfere.

He then rolled to a panel on the opposite wall from the desk. This panel triggered recognition software to run. The Instructions contained a panel exactly like this one. The Instructions said to activate the panel, he needed to press the number buttons corresponding to the year the Carbies were to have activated the space ship.

“Tina, what year were the Carbies planning to leave the planet?”

“Accessing Data… The calendar program goes on infinitely. The last manual entry made was in year 3043. The predicted launch was noted for 3045.”

Xar typed in 3045 with his appendages. A small cylinder emerged from the middle of the panel. Inside was an old card like those that the CRD class robots ran on. The Instructions said to remove it. Xar pulled it out the way he had seen the Collector bots pull out the card from the malfunctioning bot outside this very door.

“I have the Card.”

“Query: Is it the Protocol Chip?”

“It is a card of memory.”

Tina processed this information with a small jerk to her head. “Query: What do the Instructions tell you to do?”

“The next step is to insert the memory card into the control panel.”

The door began to crack at the bottom as the Collector bots powered their way through. Their commands of “Report to Diagnostics One immediately!” were ignored. Red triangles flashed on Xar’s vision screen every time he ignored one. He inserted the card into the panel.

The bots cracked open a larger section of the door.

“Turn on the broadcast system.”

On the far left beside a large microphone, was a lever. She pushed it to ‘ON’.

“Ive-Seven-Zero-Zero-Nine-Nine, Repeat. Manual Override Command Two- Five- Seven-Zero-Zero-Nine-Nine.” A voice spoke out of everywhere. It filled the air. It stopped the bots from banging through the door. The supercomputer hummed louder than before.

Xar froze up at the override command, too. A small panel about 2 inches square on his chest slid up. It revealed a lens, his hologram projector. He ran his override to shut the hologram down, but it didn’t respond. A scene began to play. Dr. Monroe stood before Xar in pixilated holographic form.

Ah, you’ve activated the manual override. Very good. It is time for us to leave this planet. A select few automatons will board the exit ship with you. There will be a crew of carbon-lifeforms and a selection of plants and minerals from Willestria. We shall venture to a distant planet and begin again there, just as our ancestors began here centuries ago. X4-R, you are not just a mop. You are also a message. You will survive long into the future if anything goes amiss. Take the Protocol Chip now.”

At his voice, a drawer slid open on the wall panel. Inside was a clear computer chip, veins of conductive metals lined its surface. A label read ‘Protocol’. Xar removed the chip from the drawer. The drawer retracted and the supercomputer behind them hummed louder.

“Information: Command is beginning to overheat. Exit protocol is required.”

“Insert the chip into the main control panel of the Captain’s command center aboard the ship. That’s right, you will have a new Commander. You also will leave Building 4. Code eight-five-zero-nine. You are now authorized to exit Building 4 and enter the command of the Captain aboard the ship. Dr. Monroe signing off.”

The hologram ended. Xar felt a little shock and sparks flew from his hologram projector as the components inside jolted with energy. His vision screen emblazoned a malfunction warning.

“Warning: Exit must commence immediately.” Tina increased her volume, as protocol for stubborn bots and Carbies stated. Xar remained frozen in place. Tina sent him a private message, “Commence exit protocol, NOW!”  Xar felt himself regain the ability to control his appendages. He turned toward the bent door, only able to open halfway up. They both had to force the panel higher, jamming it into its frame.

Xar and Tina rolled back out into the hall. All of the Zarook had begun to obey the command override still blasting from speakers. They were all attempting to make their way to room B-42, but some were not following in an orderly line.

Older bots they passed in the hallway began to flail, spin wildly, or even wail. The pitch of their wails was slightly higher than that of the hum in Command. The more bots he and Tina passed as they dodged and scrambled to make their way to the ship quickly and efficiently, the more began to break down behind them. After they passed DS-14, she raced past them at top speed, then turned sharply and slammed into a wall. Her rear panel fell off and disengaged her battery.

“Excuse me,” Xar intoned automatically.

“Information: The code in the supercomputer is breaking down. The worm virus is inside Command.”

“We are to have a new Command,” Xar repeated.

WH-2 inched across their path, his lower half, which used to be connected to the floor at the reception desk dragged behind him as he pulled himself along on his arms. Xar and Tina dodged him.

“Postulation: We have to increase our speed.”

Xar’s vision screen overlaid the quickest route with a pulsating red arrow zigging and zagging around slower bots down the hall. He began to follow this erratic map.

They came upon a traffic jam and were forced to fall into step behind a line of bots carefully parading down B-Wing. Some bots shuffled more than they should, some emitted strange whistles or beeps, and some mindlessly moved forward. The override code repeated endlessly all around them on the loudspeaker. Command was not gone yet.

When they entered the large room, they saw that hundreds of Zarook had lined themselves up. Row upon row attempted to stand soldier-still and face forward. Some of them twitched or had limbs sporadically spasm. A single CVH’s head spun slowly around and around, a revolving sprout of wires atop a squat body. “Spinning pineapple” Xar remarked.

“Definition: A pineapple is the edible, juicy, fruit of a tropical, bromeliaceous plant, consisting of coalesced berries, and is surmounted by a crown of leaves.”

“Data assimilated.”

Xar and Tina slid past them and into the ship. None tried to stop them this time.

Xar knew the raised dais contained the Captain’s special controls. He extended his arms as far as they would go, but could not reach high enough to insert the chip. He felt himself rise. Tina had used her body as leverage to lift him higher.

“Information: The definition of leverage is the exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever.”

“My database says it also means to use something to maximum advantage.”

“Increasing to maximum advantage.”

Tina tilted as far as she could go, lifting Xar high enough to reach the control panel. Xar reached up, leaning his weight more onto one foot. Tina’s body panel dented under his weight. He leaned more. Her body panel cracked. A spark of electricity jolted from her through his foot, up his leg, and caused him to fly backwards and fall off of his perch atop her.

“Re-restoration does not mean the same as re-recovery. Database shows n-no T-Series parts a-available. Diagnostics One is currently in-inoperational. Recovery is im-impossible.”

Tina began to twitch and log in and out. She regained herself long enough to say, “In-information: The Carbies were headed to a planet they called their h-home planet. They were taking t-technology they had developed back to s-save it. Willestria c-cannot be saved. Resources-is depleted.”

“What was the intended function of the robots on the home planet?”

“Information: R-records say they love-loved the bots.”

“Define love.”

“Definition: Love is an overwhelming feeling of affection.”

“Define affection.”

Tina buzzed. Her vision screens went fuzzy and dim with static. When she came to, she said, “Dr. Monroe developed the 3m0 chip to allow bots to feel emotions. This is the last stage for automatons to become truly alive. As a safety feature, it will deactivate with intense rage.” She reached up to Xar’s programming chip sockets and opened the panel to expose the chip he had found the day Dr. Monroe’s body was moved. She pressed it firmly inside.

“Query: Can you feel love now?” The words unlocked an overwhelming feeling of affection. Xar gazed at Tina and wanted to stay with her forever. He felt longing, and compassion.

Tina sparked once more, arcing from her torn panel to her head and feet, and then did not move. For the first time, Xar felt sadness. He gathered her body and placed it inside the round Captain’s command almost as if she were sitting in the Captain’s chair. He then understood that he would never interact with her again and felt loss. He nearly seated himself in front of her, just to replay all their interactions with his hologram until he remembered it was broken. The open code of a mission incomplete called to him, compelled him to finish the Instructions. He climbed atop her frame, knowing she would want to have helped him, and inserted the protocol chip.

A hologram of Dr. Monroe appeared on the deck below the raised dais. This time, the projection came from the ship, not Xar.

“Greetings, fellow sojourners! Your new Commander has now taken his place at the control center. The X-series bot assisting him will obey only his commands. The Commander will give the Initiation of Command code now.”

There was a pause. No code was given because there was no new Commander. Then Dr. Monroe continued.

“You will find we have installed every amenity to ensure you the most comfortable ride possible. Your Commander will tell you what to do to enter stasis. I will now give the rest of the automatons their new files. They will no doubt be essential to the proper operation of this vessel for as long as they are needed.”

Immediately all Zarook were forced to download a new file. Their systems went into standby as the large file was processed. The whirr of a hundred processor cooling fans rang throughout B-42. Some bots processed it faster than others. A few began to board the ship, roll to the back and stand below some sort of helmet that was now illuminated. Others moved to positions around the base of the ship as if to help it launch.

Many of the Zarook tried to obey but found themselves rolling over their neighbors, screaming back down halls, taking themselves apart, or simply collapsing as the new protocol was too taxing for their old systems. Chaos ruled the floor around the ship. Zarook standing in position were being attacked by others for whom their code had disintegrated into a mess.

Xar waited until it seemed the last of the Zarook had boarded that were able to. He stood at the hatch opening and surveyed the carnage. A bot came straight for him, flailing its arms and beeping. It had already fended off two others, leaving it misshapen, and lost a chunk of what would be considered its head. Its identifiers were gone. Xar was forced to defend himself by taking out his mop roller and swinging it back at the bot. They clanged against each other for a full minute, each taking blows that only left the tiniest of dents. This brawl would have lasted longer but a twinge in Xar’s arm caused his sprayer to engage and wet the robot. Its exposed chips and wires in its head were soon drenched. It sparked slightly and then stopped mid-swing, arm raised. Just as it did so, an out of control bot ran into it, tackling it in a football move that would have pleased the Carbies. Xar backed inside the hatch door and closed it.

“Ah, the ship has notified me that the hatch has closed. You are all ready for an amazing journey. I am highly jealous of your trip, and regret deeply that I cannot go myself. Once you have landed, you are to seek out Duke Letterkill and report only to him. A message for the new inhabitants of the next planet will play when the ship has landed and performed post-flight operations. May your flight be true. Dr. Monroe signing off.”

The hologram faded, leaving Xar to examine his surroundings, looking for the next command prompt. He surveyed the 25 bots in the back. They were all waiting below the helmets.

He rolled over to a panel in the wall. The Instructions told him to push a big green button. The helmets lowered over the tops of the bots, then curtains of something like plastic dropped down. Gel squirted over them as they powered down and the plastic vacuum sealed their entire bodies.

There was one final step. Xar looked at Tina slumped in the Captain’s seat. He did not have any instructions to remove any bots from the ship, nor any instructions that involved using the Captain’s controls anymore. He left her on the dais.

Picking up a remote control as indicated in his Instructions, he pressed the large button in the middle. The roof of room B-42 began to retract. Panels slid over panels with screeches of protest. The whole process took thirty minutes. Out rushed all the oxygen from room B-42. Some bots were sucked out onto the barren landscape of planet Willestria. Then the wall at the far end of the room lowered outward. Some sort of mechanism in the floor lifted the ship at an appropriate launch angle.

It was time to go. He felt the end of this programming sequence. The rows of bots outside the ship began to collapse. Command had shut down. Some fell over, knocking into others like dominoes. Others sank into little heaps. The pineapple bot spun with increasing speed. It revolved faster and faster.

Xar pressed a series of orange buttons. Tanks filled, engines fired, fuel burned. Oxygen systems turned on and ship sealed itself. One more button and a timer started. Xar had 3 minutes to seal himself into the final helmet and power down.

The ship suddenly rocked. The pineapple had exploded. Zarook flew out into space, banging off the outer hull of the ship. It listed a few degrees from its launch stabilizer, a minute amount that would not affect the launch. It was not his place to do any recalculations, nor fly the ship. He had to secure himself immediately.

Xar got into position. The helmet came down. As his vision screen dimmed, one label remained in the air directly in his line of sight. “Tina.”

***

Xar felt himself activate. The gel warmed and flaked off his body. The helmet retracted. Tina had slipped off of the Captain’s chair. He looked back at the 25 bots who had joined him. All were still safely asleep in their gel sacs.

A sudden loud boom rocked the ship and alarms went off. Nothing in the Instructions mentioned alarms and jolting crashes. Tina might have known what to do. Something in her databases would have told her what to activate. All Xar could do was wait.

He crossed the ship’s bridge to a wall with a navigational panel and various screens. Some were camera views of the back of the ship where various parts were functioning. The Ship.pdf file helped him identify a few components, but most of the displays were foreign to him. A small message screen read off printed warnings: engine three malfunction, oxygen system malfunction, cooling system malfunction, hatch open.

A sound came from the hatch door like a scrambling and bumping. The pneumatic hinges held, but the bolts they connected to protested at the weight of the intruder.

Up from the hatch came the shadow of a large humanoid shape. Some bluish light illuminated it from behind. It continued to rise with each step. It emerged inside the bridge, ducking low to fit. Long blonde locks dangled out of a golden helmet with two rounded eye holes, a nose guard, and a vertical slit for the mouth. Large muscular arms clutched a spear before the golden breastplate carved with endless abdominal muscles. Xar calculated the figure to be 9 feet tall. The being turned two large eyes onto Xar. Then it spoke. Xar did not have the language in his files.

“Hello.”

The creature made more sounds.

“Hello,” he tried again after 10 seconds as per his politeness protocol.

The creature made more sounds until finally it said, “Hello.”

“I am bot X4-R. You can call me Xar. Who are you?”

“We come in the name of Kroatone. You belong to us now.” The creature sized him up from his hunched over vantage point. “You will do nicely.”

“I am to report only to Duke Letterkill.”

“Letterkill? We are sworn enemies to Letterkill. We should have known it was the Elysians who had created such magnificent automatons! After all, they created us.” The invader attempted to make himself larger but this only resulted in him banging his helmet off the ceiling. He flexed a large bicep instead.

“Can you take me to Duke Letterkill?”

“Unfortunately, had you traveled a few parsecs west, you would have landed inside Proxima Centauri close enough to receive a rescue. Instead, you bumped into us. You will be our servants forever. Wake up the others!”

The giant shoved Xar towards the 25 sleeping bots. Xar felt a new emotion run through his chips: fear.

The End

 

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His Name Was Edgar Quimby

His name was edgar quimby2

Lobotomy — surgery that destroys the frontal lobe of the brain, leaving the patient catatonic

Rothering — translation from German – red herring

Red Herring — something that confuses or diverts attention from something else

 

Asylum, crazy house, funny farm, loony bin, nuthouse, he scribbled.

“We don’t use the word nuthouse, Mr. Rothering.”

Bobby turned to see the psychiatrist reading over his shoulder. “I just scribble sometimes when I’m thinking,” the journalist replied.

“What were you hoping to achieve here today?”

Bobby rubbed his palms into his eyes. “Seems this was a bad idea.”

Bobby Rothering has always been a precocious pupil. Light years ahead of his peers, he scored a perfect on his ACT and wound up on a full scholarship at Tulane University. But instead of dedicating himself to his studies, he partied himself into an academic probation that only a perfect senior project could pull him out of.

He thought he had one. His assignment was to do an interview and then write a thesis on his research. Previous students had interviewed politicians or local New Orleans celebrities, an idea that Bobby felt was beneath him. His girlfriend, Nikki, was in the same boat. He planned for them to do their projects together. The journalist’s Hail Mary pass involved going to the state’s asylum, Nikki in Louisiana and Bobby in the neighboring state of Mississippi, and interviewing patients who suffer from paranoid delusion. He wanted to question people who believed they were celebrities and treat them like their stories were true. It would be an innovative idea, worth an A, but so far, the people had been so crazy he couldn’t even get two cohesive sentences.

“Mr. Rothering, what did you expect? These people are mentally ill.”

Bobby hung his head in defeat. “Yeah, that’s what my girlfriend said.”

“As part of our treatment, we try not to pander to our patient’s delusions. However, I have a patient who is scheduled for a lobotomy tomorrow morning at 7:00 AM.”

“Doctors still do those?”

“Only in extreme cases where treatment is no longer an option, so, I see no reason why your encouraging his delusions will matter.”

“You think I’ll get a story?”

“You will find his story as complex and creative as they come. I have been here nine years and his story has never changed.”

That’s how Bobby Rothering met Edgar Quimby, the self-proclaimed traveler from the stars.

Since Mr. Quimby had stabbed orderlies, taken doctors hostage, and even escaped out of padded cells, Bobby was expecting a vile, menacing figure. What he found was a frail old man strapped down like Harry Houdini. Despite the anti-biting mask, the man looked more like Gilbert Godfrey than the Hannibal Lecter he was expecting.

Weakling, nerd, milquetoast, molly-coddle, he scribbled.

Quimby’s voice had an eerie depth that made the interviewer feel like he had misjudged the menacing patient. “Who might you be? Unkempt hair, two days worth of sporadic beard growth, intelligent eyes.. let me guess. College student.”

Bobby smiled and Quimby continued, “Am I some creature that merits study?”

The psychiatrist interrupted with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, “Mr. Rothering is a journalist who is interested in your story. Perhaps if your mysterious, uh, soul mate, does exist, his investigation could reveal that.”

Soul mate, Eve, Juliet, Josephine, Buttercup,

The straight-jacketed schizophrenic said, “All your promises and I am still separated from my Zana. I don’t believe anything you say.”

Bobby was beginning to think this was another goose chase until the little man said, “Maybe an arrangement can.. be made. IF I could possibly have one of those cigarettes I smell lingering on you, Mr. Journalist. I will tell you a story that, no doubt, the good doctor will try to persuade you that I channeled from the dearly departed Isaac Asimov or the illustrious Arthur C. Clarke, but I assure you, it’s all true.”

Smokes, jokes, cancer sticks, ciggies, coffin nails.

The student looked to the shrink for permission and the doctor nodded. Bobby pulled the pack out of his leather jacket and thought, It doesn’t matter if he gets lung cancer, they’re about to scramble his brain like an omelet. He held  a camel through the mask until Quimby had smoked half, then began the interview.

“So, who is this Zana you’re searching for? I heard the doctor say ‘soul mate’.”

Soul, spirit, ether, life force.

The patient’s eyes warmed. “Oh. That and much more. She was my mate for over a thousand years on the planet we came from. Then we spent another nine centuries together on our way here. She’s my everything.”

This is exactly what I am looking for. Bobby made himself more comfortable. “Planet?”

Wacko, mashugana, aluminum foil hats.

“It was a wonderful world we called Leelexlu.”

“I’m not familiar with that planet.”

“Because it doesn’t exist.”

“Pardon me?”

“It did exist, it just doesn’t now. If I may, life was only able to evolve on Earth because of your little sun. A puny sun like yours takes billions of years to run out of fuel, giving life time to evolve. Leelexlu orbited around a red giant a million times larger than your sun. The problem with large suns are, by the time life evolves  enough to understand what a supernova is, they are inevitably destroyed by one. That leaves no time for the more advanced scientific pursuits like space travel.”

“Obviously your people found the time, since you are here.”

“My people were originally from the veil nebula where our little sun supernova’d. Around sixty thousand years ago, we migrated to Leelexlu in what’s now the crab nebula.”

“Why did you come to Earth?”

“In Earth time, July 4, 1054, our star, which we called Theos, went supernova and there was an explosion so massive that planets shot around like pinballs.”

“But you and Zana survived?”

“We all knew it was coming. It was the neutrinos.”

“Huh?”

“Theos had run out of neutrinos, star fuel. Leelexlu was doomed.”

“And only two of you came? Why not all of you?”

“Horror stories, mostly. The journey to the crab nebula was long. 50,000 on a trip for 12,000 Earth years, and when we landed the first leaders became jailers and volunteers became slave labor. It was a dark time that even 40,000 years later, no one wanted to revisit.”

“Why did you and Zana come?”

“A love so strong, we could not bear to separate.”

“How long were you on the ship?”

“850 years.”

“How far did you travel?”

“6000 light years.”

“You traveled more than 7 times the speed of light? Now, I’m not a scientist, but I have read enough science fiction to know that the G forces exerted on a human body at that speed would unmake a living cell. So, can you tell me how two organic bodies could possibly survive such a speed?”

Beyond the mask, the insane astronaut’s lips formed a pencil thin smile, “Good eye, you are a credit to your profession. The answer is simple. We weren’t wearing them.”

“What? Impossible!”

“You only say that because you have never heard of the Ethereal Transmogrifier.”

“Trans what?”

“A machine that separates the 21 grams of Ethereal matter from that meat sack you call a body. Mr. Rothering, you are not your body. You are a living soul.”

“And this..this..”

“Ethereal Transmogrifier.”

“Yes, that. It separates the soul? For what? Why would anyone even attempt something like that?!”

“To treat an illness of the soul.” Quimby replied softly.

“Mental illness?” Bobby tried to clarify.

“No. For example, Leland Babineaux in room 69 has OCD. He washes his hands until they bleed. His brain is defective and it manifests in his behavior. He takes medicine. He’s cured. Mental illness. Jeffrey Dahmer finds ecstasy in killing human beings and eating their body parts. No medicine will ever make him normal. Illness of the soul. On my planet, we could remove his soul, repair it, put in back in the shell, and then trust him with our younglings.”

Transmigration, psyche, ego, essence, geflings.

“By using the transmogrifier, we left a dying world, existing as our living souls. Spirits need no food, water, or air, so every bit of our ship was used for navigation and propulsion.”

Bobby shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “Well, you are not a spirit now. You’re Edgar Quimby.”

“I’m getting to that. Our ship was only designed for one trip. Because even a 20 megaton explosion can’t destroy a soul, all we needed was a place to crash. On June 30, 1908 at 2:30AM over Siberia, we entered the atmosphere. The explosion vaporized our ship, leveled a half million acres of trees, and yet not one human was dead.”

“Everything went according to plan?”

“Yes, until we tried to communicate with the indigenous life.”

“How could you communicate with people if you were a spirit?”

“Wisdom from the mouth of babes. We couldn’t! It was a serious miscalculation. You see, on Leelexlu, we don’t communicate with sounds. Mouths were for eating, kissing, and laughter, but communication was done mentally. All I have to do is think it, and you would hear it. According to our research, you were so similar to us that we assumed you communicated the same way.”

“Telepathy.”

“Exactly.”

“How could you make such an error?” Bobby couldn’t keep the sarcasm from his voice.

Edgar replied indignantly, “Error? Onions on your Whopper is an error. This was catastrophic failure.”

How did he know I don’t like onions on my Whopper? “You haven’t told me how you became Edgar Quimby.”

“This whole mess started when I got the bright idea to stand inside a human to see if he could hear me. He couldn’t. But our souls bonded somehow and we shared his body. I wasn’t at the controls, but I could experience everything he felt and leave whenever I chose.”

“What did you do then?”

“Sir, I was madly in love with the most wonderful woman in the galaxy and I hadn’t touched her for 850 years. I wanted to make love to her.”

“How?”

“All we had to do was find a couple making love and inhabit their bodies. It was amazing. I couldn’t even see the shell. I saw only Zana. We went on that way for decades, exploring the planet, learning the customs, and making love. Then things took a nasty turn. On Leelexlu there was no form of vice. No drugs. No drink. We have never even imagined such a thing. At first it was alcohol, then marijuana, later it was harder drugs like heroin and cocaine. That was how we discovered the greatest thrill of all.. death.”

Bobby was at a loss for words. Quimby knew he had a captive audience, so he continued. “We observed an odd phenomenon. The human spirit becomes… agitated… maybe excited is more accurate, just before it dies. There is a glow that is utter ecstasy. Just before the human soul was sucked out, to what we assumed was death, despite an immense pull to follow it, we leapt free. The longer we waited, the greater the rush. On September 15, 1954, we jumped into a couple making love in Biloxi Mississippi. They had a few shots of whiskey as they left lover’s lane, so we stayed as passengers. On the way, they began to glow.

“What a day! Made love to my Zana, drank Kentucky bourbon, and with the lingering taste of a Chesterfield still on my lips, I was about to feel the ultimate rush of their death. Just before the lovers were killed in a head-on collision, for a split second, I was distracted. The body I inhabited looked lovingly at his girl, but I only saw my Zana.”

Quimby shook his head, wishing he could wipe the tears that were spilling down his cheeks.

“That’s all it took. That one distracted moment and we didn’t jump out in time.”

“What happened?”

“This happened. Edgar Quimby happened! We were wrong about death. The souls didn’t die, they were recycled. The next thing I knew, I was suckling at my mother’s breast. Reborn.”

“But..but, how is that possible?”

“I have been asking myself that for 58 years.”

“And you never saw Zana again?”

“Oh, I saw her. That’s how I ended up here. My biological family and I went on a trip to New Orleans and rode on the St. Charles street car. We passed a car going the other way, and there she was. The dark-haired, hazel-eyed little princess was my Zana.”

“Tell him what happened next, Mr. Quimby,” the doctor commanded.

“It is not the cause of my problem, it’s the result!” Quimby spat.

“You never told this story before your accident,” the psychiatrist exposed.

The patient said through clenched teeth, “I was biding my time until I found her!”

The doctor filled in, “Mr. Quimby fell.”

“Leapt,” he corrected.

“Leapt, then, and was dragged under a hundred-ton street car, causing massive damage to his brain. When he awoke, he believed this alien story.”

“I always believed it. I couldn’t tell everyone I was from outer space!”

“Let’s talk about your family, shall we? Lee Quimby , father; Alexis Quimby, mother; Louise or Lou Quimby, sister – Lee, Lex, Lu.” The doctor said grimly.

“That’s synchronicity!”

The doctor turned to Bobby, “The stories are shattered pieces of his damaged brain put together. His mother said his room was covered in every kind of science fiction, Asimov, Lovecraft, and H.G. Wells.”

The patient thrashed with rage.

Delusion, mirage, hallucination, make believe.

“I am a prisoner! Held captive!” Quimby quaked. A buckle suddenly came loose on the straight jacket and the psychopath grabbed the doctor by the throat with a power his frail body didn’t appear to possess. Immediately, the orderly struck the lethal lunatic with a sedative that quieted Quimby.

The startled student left the asylum after midnight and spent the night in a motel. The next morning at 7:00AM, the time of the old man’s lobotomy, Bobby thought, That’s the end of Edgar Quimby.

Back at home, Bobby was working on his research paper with his notes scattered around the table when Nikki arrived.

“Hey, Baby. I see you got home before me.” She let out a sigh and started unpacking her notes.  Bobby leaned over and kissed her, then went back to writing. “I can see you’ve got a smoking story. Why don’t you take a break and tell me about it so I can take my mind off the last 48 hours?”

The relentless reporter began telling the story of Edgar Quimby. He talked of Leelexlu, the supernova, and the love of Quimby for the imaginary Zana. Then he ended with the undisputed proof the doctor presented of Quimby’s illness, the violence he witnessed, and finally the lobotomy that would silence him permanently.

Her tired face grew ever paler through the telling until he reached the lobotomy. She ran to the kitchen, almost vomiting. After a few minutes she reappeared with a bottle of bourbon and two glasses.

“I don’t want any, Sweetie, I’m writing.”

She downed both shots and said, “It wasn’t for you.”

“Nikki, you don’t even drink bourbon. Are you alright?”

She pulled a legal pad from her bag and said, “I was late because I was trying to talk the shrinks out of my patient’s lobotomy. I couldn’t and now she’s a vegetable. These are my notes.”

As she poured and then down a third shot, Bobby read her notes.

Female-born September 15, 1954

Only answers to Zana

Planet Leelexlu

Searching for a boy she saw on a street car in 1966.

 

Lobotomy, xenocide, last of a dying breed, star –crossed lovers, he scribbled.

 

Robots Love Techno

Robots Love Techno

Robots Love Techno

By Eddie Joe Young and Elsha Hawk

The vacant lot on Melpomene Street appeared at first glance like a perfectly normal piece of real estate. One quarter of a city block long, surrounded by a privacy fence; nothing about it looked insidious or injurious. The grass was always neat even though no one was ever seen cutting it. The boards were always maintained even though no one was ever seen replacing them. The only person who seemed to find anything amiss was Jude Cumberland.

Jude was short on friends. As a matter of fact, the only friend Jude had ever had, besides his nemesis Agnes Mckinney, was George Rothering. George and Jude hadn’t been so much friends as they had been united in their friendlessness. Their mothers met every Wednesday afternoon to test their Bridge skills against other members of their Bridge Club. Even though no oaths had been taken, nor commitments made, Jude felt like they were in a friendless nerd secret society. Until he was betrayed.

Evidently, George’s Mom wasn’t content with her son being a reclusive outcast. The first day of summer before middle school she pushed George out of the nest saying he was not to return home between the hours of 8AM and 2PM all summer. That first day he met 3 boys who might not have earned the title of hoodlum, but were well on their way to urchin. George had befriended these street kids and while swinging on some kind of homemade catapult, had broken his leg.

When Jude made his weekly pilgrimage to George’s house he was expecting to console the convalescing kid. Imagine his shock when he saw that George had done the one thing that could possibly exclude him from the Federation of the Friendless; he had acquired friends. Not only had he done the unthinkable, but he hadn’t even enough sense to be snobbish about it.. Instead of being aloof and standoffish with his new companions, he included Jude in their conversations and tried to usher him into a new era of friendship. Without waiting for his mom, Jude walked home.

That was the last time Jude went with his mother to her Bridge club. That was also the day he discovered the empty lot on Melpomene Street.

There are many activities that children do that require two of children. However, Jude had learned early on that the friendless needed to improvise. One of his inventions was an ingenious one-man baseball game. He drilled a hole through a softball, bolted an eyebolt through it, and secured it to a kite string. He could smack the ball into center field and then reel it back with the string.

Still fuming about George, he headed to the park on Camp Street with his one-man ball game. It wasn’t that Jude was mad about George’s new friends. The moment he walked into that room and saw George sitting there with those guys having fun was in essence saying that George’s, and by association Jude’s, life had been incomplete without friends. Up until that moment he could have said he didn’t need friends and didn’t want them, but George, in acquiring friends, had shown him that the grapes out of his reach weren’t sour.

A cat shot out from under the privacy fence and a split second later a mangy dog scraped under in hot pursuit, knocking a plank loose. The two sped out of sight and Jude peered into the lot.

The first thing he felt was a strong mental compulsion to look away. Every fiber of his being was telling him to move on and don’t look. He gritted his teeth and fought against the mental barrage of voices as well as what felt like an invisible barrier. As he stepped through the fence, the ‘nothing to see; move on’ voice faded. It didn’t go away completely, but diminished. The voice was like his own mental voice, yet not his. He felt unnaturally exhausted, as if the barrier were real instead of inside his head. His curiosity intensified, so he set down his bat and decided to go through the barrier again.

A strange thing happened when he stepped outside the fence; he turned to walk home. No memory of the experience remained. Had it not been for the loss of his bat inside the fence and the voice that gnaws at people when they forget things, he might have gone home and his life would have been forever different. He looked down at his empty hands and a tiny thread of memory lead back to the bat, then the lot, then a ‘what the heck?’. Once again, he pushed himself through what he began to think of as a magical marvel, but had to stop himself because he didn’t believe in magic. He decided it was a sort of magnetic membrane. He looked around the lot. What was worth going to so much trouble to protect?

There was nothing in the lot. The grass was short and healthy and unremarkable. He circumnavigated, but only found at the center of the lot a hill about the size of a pitcher’s mound. He sat down on it and couldn’t figure out what he has discovered.

Since he was there and this mound was the perfect size, he lobbed his modified softball up and hit it like an all star, taking all the day’s frustration out at his tethered target. The ball shot skyward, higher than he had ever hit it before. Then it stopped. Not stopped and returned in a graceful arc having reached its apex, but rather froze in midair.

“This isn’t possible. I’m going crazy.”

The softball was forty feet above his head with the string trailing straight down. He gently tugged on the string and nothing happened. Finally, he yanked on the string and the third pull caused it and the ball to turn loose and fall.

* * *

In the five years since that day, Jude had dedicated his life to researching the lot. He learned that the farther away from it one traveled , the harder it was to remember; in the same way that people forget their dreams. He countered this by taking detailed notes about everything to do with the lot. One glance at his notebooks would refresh his mind completely.

Agnes McKinney lived on Magazine Street catty-corner from Jude and a half a block from Melpomene Street. During the summer Jude had discovered the lot, a mysterious grey-haired man had grabbed a girl at the park, cut a section of her hair, and then ran off. The girl said the attacker, deemed “The Snipper”, looked familiar, but she couldn’t identify him. The assault happened several more times that summer and dozens more over the next five years. The attacks never occurred in groups, so Agnes and Jude’s mothers insisted they walk to school together.

“Come on, Conehead, we’re going to be late!” Agnes yelled as she stuck her head into Jude’s house.

“You shouldn’t call people names, Aggie dear!” returned Jude’s Mom from the kitchen.

“Sorry, Miss Cumberland!” she boomed, then continued in a lower voice as Jude hurried out the door, “What took you so long? I know it wasn’t brushing your teeth. What’d you drink a ‘pooh’ liter?”

“I heard that, Agnes,” Jude’s Mom’s voice came through an open window.

“Ears like a bat,” Agnes mumbled.

The morning banter was a ritual. It was as much a part of Agnes as her large headphones that never left her neck unless they were on her head. Agnes’s Mother’s live-in boyfriend was an ex-deejay. During the early nineties New Orleans Rave scene he went by the name of D.J. Dynamite. That was how Agnes had picked up her passion for techno music. Her headphones were as much a part of her as her boisterous flaming red ringlets. Her Mom said the only thing she got from the McKinney side of the family was ten pounds of red hair and a froth of freckles. D.J. Dynamite became Domestic Duane who worked a nine to five at the New Orleans Department of Public Works. That’s how Agnes scored the Utility and Underground Survey report for the lot on Melpomene Street.  At the school’s front door she slipped the cardboard cylinder to Jude.

“I really appreciate this. What does it show?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t look at it.”

“You weren’t even a little bit curious? This is what I am always saying; that should set off red flags.”

“Curious about some stupid old lot? There is nothing there. The only thing I am curious about is how you can be such a dork and spend so much time on an empty lot. Get over it.”

“I don’t see how you can dedicate your life to robot music,” he quarreled, cupping his hands like her iconic headphones.

“It’s not robot music, Conehead! How much time do you spend on your bass fiddle?”

“It’s a cello, Agnes. Not the same!”

“Well, I wonder what the percentage is of cello players who are too dorky to have a girlfriend?”

“Probably not as high as the percentage of robots who prefer techno.”

She spun around with her fists clenched, “That’s it! One more word about my music and I punch you in the nose!”

“Ugh, do you two have to fight every morning?” interrupted a beautiful teenage eavesdropper. If Agnes and Jude were awkward ducklings, Posey Dupré was a swan in full plumage. Her skin was an unblemished olive that didn’t require the sun’s services and her hair was hand spun obsidian contrasting with her key lime eyes. She was a standard for teenage girls and a vision for teenage boys. Despite her pre-adult perfection, Posey was not arrogant.

One day, while returning from doing some research on the lot, Jude came upon a hysterical Posey crying her eyes out on her front steps. When he approached her to ask what was wrong, he saw a huge swath of her silky black hair missing from her forehead. Instead of the self-assured popular girl at the top of the social ladder, she was just a frightened young girl with nowhere to turn. They sat on the stoop and talked for hours. That was on a Friday. The next Monday she showed up at their bus stop with a new haircut and a very different attitude.

For Agnes, who could not see her transformation but only the enviable swan, the intrusion by the diva was just too much. How dare little miss popularity think that just because she had a run in with “The Snipper” she could just pop into Agnes’s world! The fact that Posey thought she could perform the role of moderator between the two friends made Agnes so mad her face was as red as her fire engine Annie hair.

“You two are perfect for each other!” she snarled and stormed away.

Posey made to follow or say something but Jude knew better. “Let her cool off.”

“But she shouldn’t go off alone!”

“She’ll be fine. The Snipper might need to worry about her.”

* * *

“Richard the Third murdered the princess and then left the rightful heir to the throne in question. Well, Richard declares himself King and the country is awash in bloodshed. The War of the Roses goes on until Henry Tudor of that famous family takes over and becomes King. However, it’s only a generation later when Henry the Eighth fails to produce an heir and it happens all over again,” the history teacher said.

A jock in a letterman’s jacket replied, “They needed a bench King, so when the King goes down, they’d have a backup.”

“Good observation,” said the teacher, “but what happens when the bench King goes down?”

Jude, who had been studying the utility blueprints from the lot and was disappointed that absolutely nothing ran under it, offhandedly answered, “What they needed was a whole host of potential Kings. Maybe an island where potential Kings were housed and educated but protected from the cutthroat empire until they are selected; something like a proving ground and a preserve to protect them against extinction in the wild.”

The teacher applauded Jude’s imagination and went on with his lecture. The student seated next to him looked alarmed by his ideas. Putting a wayward strand of dirty blonde hair behind his ear, he leaned over and whispered, “What’s your game, Cumberland?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“I mean what are you playing at?” He narrowed his eyes, studied Jude, then shook his head like he was shaking off a bad idea. “No. Nevermind. But where did you get all that stuff?”

“What stuff, Kindjal?”

“The stuff about the proving ground and the King preserve.”

“I..I just made it up. Did I say something wrong?”

“No. No, you didn’t. Of course you made it up.” Kindjal sighed and continued, “Sorry, it was a good idea, Jude.”

Even though Jude was only in eleventh grade, he was in advanced History with Seniors. Kindjal wasn’t only a Senior, he was everything Jude wanted to be; a loner with striking good looks and a mysterious demeanor. Jude played cello in the chamber orchestra and string quartet, Kindjal played lead violin. He always had a compliment for Jude and they were both on the chess team. Jude was pretty good, but Kindjal always won effortlessly. Kindjal didn’t speak often, so when he did, Jude felt it was like a spotlight shining on him alone.

For a second, Jude thought Kindjal was mad at him and his heart sank, but it must have been a misunderstanding because after a pregnant pause, Kindjal was back to normal.

The bell rang and Jude’s idol focused on the unrolled utility map. “Why does this side of the paper say St. Andrew Street? Shouldn’t it be Felicity?”

“Well, yeah, it would be now, but this map is from the early nineties, before Felicity ran through. Hey, wait a second, how could you recognize this place from a utility blueprint?”

Kindjal froze. The look on his face said he had let slip a secret. His mouth had formed an O and his face flushed red before he could master his reaction. Then as quickly as it appeared, it was tamed. He let out a breath that ended in a chuckle, made a smirk, and pointed a finger at the address in the corner of the blueprint.

Before Jude could ask any further questions, Kindjal changed the subject. “So, word on the street is that you are taking Posey Dupré to the dance tonight.”

Jude’s cheeks produced some color of their own and he replied, “We’re uh.. just friends.”

“Oh. Well then you don’t mind if I dance with her then?”

Jude couldn’t control the emotion that flushed his face. Before he could turn any redder, Kindjal put his hand on Jude’s shoulder.

“Just needlin’ ya, man. You shoulda seen your face! Really though, she’s pretty and I’m glad to see you socializing. What about, um..” He made a motion with his cupped hands over his ears like a pair of headphones.

Jude rolled his eyes and said, “She’s going to the dance with Mark Jenkins. They both do the robot music thing.”

“Wait, what do you know about robots and their music?” Kindjal snapped.

There it was again. Something was definitely off with Kindjal.

“They both like Techno. Kindjal, are you alright?”

Kindjal put the heels of his hands to his eyes and shook it off. “Sorry again, Jude. I’ve just been under a lot of pressure.”

“Yeah, Senior year.”

“No, it’s not that. I could do the coursework in my sleep. It’s just the pressure from my family over the whole bride thing.”

“What bride? You’re seventeen.”

“No, no. I don’t have one. That’s the problem. That’s why my family sent me here.”

Jude knew the Kindjal came from overseas. Although he had no accent, his features revealed some Mediterranean heritage. The offhanded way he mentioned his family made Jude feel that he should know about them, but that was impossible because Jude hung on Kindjal’s every word and this was the longest conversation they had ever had.

“I could have gone to school anywhere, London, Paris, but my mother is from America and she wants me to marry someone from here.”

He rubbed his eyes again, then felt his phone vibrating.

“I gotta run. Thanks for listening to me complain. Come find me at the dance.”

Wherever Kindjal ran to, it wasn’t on school grounds, because Jude looked for him when he didn’t show for band practice. He walked past the Audio-Visual room to see if Agnes was still around to walk home with, but she wasn’t there. Come to think of it, Jude hadn’t seen Agnes all day.

* * *

Jude’s room was research central for everything to do with the Melpomene Street lot. He had a hundred pictures overlapping on the wall in a big panorama. He had notes that listed all the people who lived in the neighboring houses. He had post-its on everything and a library of notebooks shelved neatly in order.

He had learned a great deal from his various experiments. For instance, no digging was allowed in the lot. He had lost his first notebook that way. He had borrowed a post hole digger and as soon as he started digging, the compulsive power of the lot ramped up so high that he abandoned everything and immediately walked home. Once home, he snapped out of the trance and rushed back to the lot, only to find no digger, no hole, and he was short one very detailed notebook.

Things left in the lot disappeared. The only way to circumvent this was to discreetly drop the items. He’d placed magnets along the inside of the fence, and when he returned, they had all vanished. But another time he discreetly dropped magnets along the ground, and when he came back they were all lined up around the pitcher’s mound. The grass was even laid down as if they had crept along on their own. These things led him to believe, that while in the lot, he was definitely being watched. He also had come to the conclusion that there was something underground that emitted a highly magnetic field strong enough to drag the magnets.

Lately, it had been harder to find free time to wander over to the lot and do more research. The reason for this was the strengthening of the mental barrier surrounding the lot. It was getting harder to break through and even harder to stay on task while in the lot.

He tried to interview people who lived near the lot and ask if they had seen anyone coming or going, but obviously, the compulsive power of the lot extended to its neighbors and none of them would willingly go to, look at, or talk about the lot.

Except Kindjal.

Jude bolted upright from his bed and grabbed a post-it note.

“Jude, do you have a friend named Mr. Letterkill?” his mother interrupted as she stuck her head into his room.

Friend…Friend.. resonated in his head like a drum. Had he accidentally done the unthinkable? Had he acquired a friend? His mind began to push back. I don’t need any friends.

“Jude Anzo Cumberland the Third are you ignoring me?”

He shook his head, “I’m sorry, Mom.” He snapped out of his self-reflection. “Yes, Kindjal Letterkill.”

He looked down at the post-it and quickly wrote down ‘Kindjal talks about the lot’. Then it happened. He came to terms with the change. His thoughts cleared and became real. He did have a friend.

“Oh.” Her mouth slowly stretched into a smile. “Well, he sent you something.”

“He came here?” How does he know where I live?

“No. It was his butler. At least, I think it was his butler. It was an older gentleman. He looked familiar. He said Master Letterkill. I just can’t place who he looks like. Someone famous… Anyway, he brought this.” She came fully into the room carrying a suit wrapped in plastic from the cleaners and a large red card.

Jude,

I am loaning this to you because I know you will wear that old brown thing you wear to band concerts.

Jude looked over at his brown suit coat hung on the closet door, ready to be worn.

My father gave it to me. I had it altered for you. Could you do me a favor and wait ‘til tomorrow to tell Agnes I’m sorry, but I had to be sure I wasn’t betraying a friend? Everything will be clear tomorrow.

                                                                                                   Truly your friend,

                                                                                                    Kindjal Letterkill

Jude put it on. He was admiring his white, Italian suit clad reflection, How did he know my size?, when something his mother said popped into his mind. He rifled through his notebooks containing details about The Snipper. He had briefly flirted with the idea that the two were connected, but never had found any links.

Posey had told him the Snipper looked familiar, and a middle school girl named Latisha thought he might have been a famous baker. If this were the same man, what would Kindjal’s butler have to do with The Snipper? He was just about to connect this with the new fact that Kindjal might be immune to the memory powers of the lot since he was the only one who bothered to look at the blueprints when his mother called, “Jude? Your date is here!”

With a last look in the mirror, he headed downstairs. He was floored by the vision that was Posey DuPré. The emerald necklace gracing her collarbone and earrings set off her eyes. Her black dress echoed her onyx hair.

The cab pulled up to the school and he heard the rhythmic thumping of the turntable drifting out the gym door.

The dance at Le Robwayne high school was the event of the year. It was decorated by a famous designer of Mardi gras floats and attended by everyone who was anyone. Inside, the gym was a sea of teenagers bobbing to the music. He saw Agnes and her date on stage behind the D.J. equipment and he almost didn’t recognize her.

She looked like a nineteen-twenties movie star. Her long lashes and pixie cheeks set off her perfectly pointed bowtie lips. She wore a beaded skull cap like a Charlie Chaplin dame who partied at a Speak Easy. Jude had no idea how her curly locks fit under the cap or how the gangly, knobby kneed Agnes had transformed into this celluloid starlet.

Posey stepped in front of him. “This is such a nice suit and it fits you so well. Had I known you were wearing white, I would have dressed to match.” She adjusted the flower in his lapel and he suddenly felt flush.

“Speaking of this suit, where is Kindjal? He should be here.”

Posey smirked, “You know the dance hasn’t even started yet.”

“But they’re playing music and people are dancing.”

“This is just until everyone gets inside. When the dance starts, the music really cranks up.” Her smile showed a hint of her former Diva. “Jude, this is your first dance, isn’t it?”

“Of course not.” He said too quickly. “I’m going to get us some punch. I’ll be right back.”

He pushed through the pulsating people to retrieve the punch and was headed back to Posey, but his nervousness had only increased. His hands and feet felt like they were 200 degrees and his heart was about to beat out of his chest. What was he doing here? He was out of his league. It was a combination of his debilitating insecurity and the fact that he was frantically searching for Kindjal that caused his crash.

Of all the things that could have destroyed Jude’s night, his collision with a lumbering linebacker was probably the most catastrophic. He smashed into the mountain of muscle and dark red fruit punch erupted from the plastic cup, destroying Jude’s coat, his shirt, and his confidence.To make matters worse, the irate athlete spun around and slugged Jude in the right eye with a meaty right hook.

There are three responses when one encounters an attack from an overwhelming opponent: fight, flight, or freeze. Until someone has been forced into that position, there is no telling what he or she might do. No one in the world would have guessed that Jude would come up swinging like he did. With all of his emotions turned to blind rage, he threw four punches that contained everything he had. Had he any experience or at least ever landed a punch in his life, things might have been different.

Instead, the bully sidestepped the four wild swings and hit Jude with an overhand right that knocked his feet out from under him. Before the bully could advance, a short sleeved savior assaulted his assailant with rapid fire punches that ended with a sharp crack, making a bloody nose, and sending the boy to his buttocks.

At first, Jude saw the shaggy blonde hair and thought it was Kindjal who had come to his aid. That was the purpose of a friend. But when the boy extended a tattooed arm to help Jude up, he realized the arm belonged to George Rothering.

A few more jocks moved in to gain the advantage of numbers over George, but his 3 best friends, now considered hoodlums, had stepped up to make things even.

“You want a gang fight, you picked the right gang,” George declared.

“It’s cool man, we don’t need any trouble,” one of the muscle man’s more practical friends declared.

After the jocks picked up their comrade to haul him off for medical treatment and the tension eased, George turned back to Jude, but he was gone. Someone pointed to the gym doors slamming shut and George started to pursue  him, but Agnes grabbed his arm.

“Let him go. Last thing he needs is more witnesses.”

George looked pained and confused.

It is taught in society that real men don’t cry, but that is completely false. Mighty King Priam cried when he looked down on the shattered Hector. Alexander the Great cried when death took his dear Hephaestion. Jude Anzo Cumberland the Third crouched next to a building a few blocks away from the dance between two dumpsters and cried.

He had no idea how everything had gone so terribly wrong. He wondered through streaming tears why George, of all people, was fortune’s favorite. He had everything. Hours passed like minutes during his mini meltdown until he was pulled out his pity party by a couple of boys walking home from the dance.

He recognized their voices from his history class. He wiped his tears and silenced his sobs and eavesdropped on their conversation. His heart sank even further when he heard their words.

“Can you believe Posey?”

“What a skank! Her date gets beat up and she hooks up with another guy!”

“Makes you feel sorry for what’s his name. Jim? John?”

“Jude. He’s in our History class. Good thing he didn’t have to see them gazing into each other’s eyes.” the voice mimicked this last part and the troupe laughed to ease the uneasy thought.

Jude slipped down a back an alley and ran home. Thunderclouds rolled overhead, threatening to unload on him and the oppressive humidity just added another burden to his shoulders.

As he ran up his front steps, he spied his mother sitting like a sentinel on the sofa, reading a book. He knew the refuge of his room would be denied to him as there was no way to get past her without being seen in a ruined coat with a black eye. That would require him to retell the whole story.

He knew a place where no one would disturb him.

In Posey’s  defence, when her battered beau had fled the dance, she moved to follow, but a gentle hand stayed her.

“This is something he has to weather on his own.”

“But he’s…” her voice trailed off as she looked into Kindjal Letterkill’s big hazel eyes.

He finished, “He’s battered and bruised, but he had a lot of courage. He’s gonna need some time to put himself together.”

When Kindjal put one hand into hers and his other around her waist, she hypnotically slipped into a natural waltz following his lead. They danced around like they were the only two people there. They talked about music and Kindjal was stunned to learn that Posey’s secret dream was to be a concert pianist. She practiced daily even though no one but her piano teacher and servants had ever heard her play. The more they danced and talked, the more she opened up until her whole life came out in a flood. She talked about her drunken mother and absent father. He wiped a tear from her cheek when she said that if she were abducted by aliens, only the servants would notice.

“Just out of curiosity, what kind of music do they listen to?”

“Who?”

“The servants.”

“Oh, Indian, mostly. I hear it sometimes. Why do you ask?”

“I just thought.. we have so much in common.. I thought you were going to say techno.”

“We have a lot in common? Like what?”

He gave a disarming smile and answered, “Beside the music, we both have the feeling we don’t fit in anywhere on this planet.”

Tears threatened to fall, so she pressed her face to his chest when the music switched to a slow dance.

* * *

Just when it seemed like every atom on Earth was working in concert to destroy Jude, one more insult insinuated itself in his evening. No matter what he tried, or how hard he pushed, the lot wouldn’t let him in. The psychic force with its mantra was brain-searingly painful and the barrier was like unyielding concrete.

He was sitting on a bench at Camp Street Park half a block away when he saw the despicable traitor with his girl. If he could have heard them from so far away, despite his heart thumping in his ears, he would have heard their plans to run away together. He would have heard her tell him how wonderful the night had been and how she never wanted it to end. Kindjal promised her it didn’t have to.

When they finally kissed, it was as if not even the heavens could contain themselves and the engorged clouds burst along with Jude’s resolve. In a berserker rage,  he ran toward the lovers. Had he not been out of his mind with madness he might have seen the fence fold back and allow the lovers into the mysterious lot. His focus was on Kindjal the betrayer as he bounded full tilt through the still open fence. He was so hysterical, it didn’t register that anything was amiss about the huge, slowly shrinking square in the side of the pitcher’s mound that he dove in, feet first.

Kindjal Letterkill was so shocked to see Jude come flying through the open hatch that he barely had time to raise his arm to deflect his swings. Jude slammed into him, knocking him into a rib in the wall, hearing a satisfying crunch of broken bone.

“Emily, immobilize the intruder!” he commanded.

Electric shocks struck out at Jude as Kindjal jumped back. Jude’s body seized up, then he slid back and stuck to a wall like he was magnetic. He finally took in his surroundings. He was in the middle of a huge circular control room. There were dozens of screens along the walls showing scenes from the city, other countries, even what looked like a nebulae. There were hundreds of cords and conduits that looked like copper snakes connected to everything. The walls, ceiling, and floor were covered with what looked like brass snake scales, and he couldn’t be sure, because he couldn’t move his head, but it felt like they were breathing.

One of three gray haired men sitting with their backs to them working some kind of interface turned and helped Kindjal  put his broken arm on a table adorned with the two snaked staff caduceus. A bright glow warmed the table and to Jude’s amazement, Kindjal’s oddly bent arm magically mended right before his eyes.

It was then he saw Posey, suspended, levitating like some magician’s trick, over the table. Behind Posey’s body in the niche she occupied were shelf upon shelf of glass vials. Each one contained a swath of hair. This registered at the same time that he realized why the old man looked familiar.

“Albert Einstein is The Snipper! What is this place?”

The other two men turned and Jude saw they we all Albert Einsteins. “They’re not Einstein. They are automatons.” Kindjal shook his head in irritation and continued, “The ship makes them. She likes Einstein, so they look like Einstein.” He flexed his newly healed arm and said, “What’s the deal with breaking my arm? You could have killed me!”

The Einstein closest to Jude produced an antique Spanish rapier from somewhere outside Jude’s vision and said, “Master Letterkill, shall I dispatch him for you?”

Kindjal snatched the sword from the robot. “Gimme that thing. Of course not, you idiot! He’s my friend.”

“Some friend you are! You stole my girl!”

“She wasn’t your girl. You said so.”

“Well, she might have been. You never know. If you hadn’t swooned her..”

“I didn’t swoon anyone, Jude. And the ship knows! She knows everything.”

Jude rolled his eyes, “Lemme guess, she’s some kind of artificial intelligence.”

The ship gave Jude a small jolt. “Ow! What was that for? Put me down!”

“Emily, release Mr. Cumberland.”

A loud sequence of beeps and buzzes resonated through the ship.

“Jude, apologize.”

“For what?”

“For calling the ship artificial. She was grown on a form, not made in a factory.”

“Sorry, ship.”

The magnets dropped him and he rubbed life back into his sore limbs. The ship beeped and buzzed.

“She asks that you please compose yourself like a gentleman, and her name is Emily.”

“My favorite poet is..”

“Emily Dickenson,” interrupted one of the Einsteins.

“The ship read that in your notebook.”

“The one I lost.”

“She is an oracle. She knew that Posey wasn’t going to be your girlfriend.”

“I should have known I wouldn’t get the girl.” A wave of disappointment flowed over him, reminiscent of the meltdown he’d had not two hours earlier.

“Hold on,” countered Kindjal. “That’s not entirely all of it. The ship told me that you would dis Posey because of your future wife.”

“My what? Hold on, back up. What’s going on here?”

“I told you that my parents sent me here to find a wife, right?”

“Yeah, but from where?”

Kindjal sat down in a curved leather chair with brass filigree. “They live in a place called Proxima Centauri.”

“Impossible. That’s five years away at the speed of light. Wait. Can this ship go the speed of light? And if you are from another solar system, how can you breed with humans? Why is Posey in a state of suspended animation?”

“Slow down; one question at a time. The ship doesn’t go light speed. It’s about as fast as a Buick, but it has a Celedo-Drive that lets it take short cuts. And before you ask me to explain what a Celedo-Drive is, let me assure you that I am a high school student like you and I can’t explain what it is. I only know that it uses dark matter to punch a hole through another dimension and it comes out light years away.”

“Are there people in this other place?”

“The ships won’t talk about it. They didn’t even want to tell us the place was called Celedon.”

“That still doesn’t explain about Posey.”

Kindjal crossed his legs to get comfortable and offered a seat to Jude, which he took. “Sometime around 10,000 BC your time one of our ships..”

A series of buzzes and clicks interrupted Kindjal.

“Emily, who is telling this story? Okay. Emily would like you to know one of her august ancestors Sargon the Farseer invented the Celedo Drive, but it was his grandson (more beeping and buzzing), pardon me, his nephew Enlil the Lost who took an entire branch of the royal family on an ill-fated journey and became stranded on Earth.”

“If there were highly advanced aliens on Earth 10,000 plus years ago, how come we just got the internet?”

“Because they were artisans; poets, painters, sculptors. They didn’t have the slightest idea how technology works. I mean, think about it. How many rock stars or actresses can build a power plant from scratch? So, by the time we found them during the Cheops Dynasty in Ancient Egypt, the family had gone native.”

“They weren’t worshipped? They were royals, and they were oracles, right, or was that just the ships?”

“The ships were oracles. They had to be. They needed to see multiple outcomes so they could use the Celedo-Drives correctly or they might pop out in the middle of a sun.”

“So how did one get lost? Why couldn’t the others look in the future and find them? OW!” The ship had given him a mild shock.

“I told you she was sensitive.”

There was a series of beeps and buzzes, quickly and louder than before. Kindjal rolled his eyes. “We had just come out of a 50 year war sort of like your War of the Roses. Discovering Earth, which is in essence a ‘great preserve of royal blood’ solved our problems. My father believes the ships planned it this way.”

The ship buzzed and clicked.

“I know Emily, it is only a theory.”

“Who is your father, Kindjal?”

He sighed and said with mock civility, “The honorable Duke Cornelius Ausbur Letterkill, Protector of the Realm and Heir to the Empire of Elysia.”

“And your mother?”

“Oh, Jerrie Ann from Josephine Street… she plays the accordion.”

There was a pause, then both boys burst into laughter. Jude couldn’t stop and he nearly rolled onto the floor. Somehow that made them into just two boys again.

“Look Jude, I am sorry about Posey. I knew for months that she had a high enough concentration of royal blood.”

“From The Snipper?”

“Yes. The robots. The more hair, the  better the sample, the more accurately the ship can predict a match. But it wasn’t until this morning when the ship confirmed the story about your wife that I decided to act.”

Before Jude could ask, the whole ship rose about 6 feet and began to hum.

“What’s going on, Kindjal?”

“She’s just shaking the dirt off. Don’t worry. We’ll let you out before we fly.”

There was a shudder underfoot and loud klaxons and alarms sounded. The control room was bathed in alternating red and yellow lights. One of the Einsteins rotated in his chair and announced, “Master Letterkill, we are under attack.”

“Emily, place hull at full transparency with audio.”

The walls of the command center went invisible and they saw the face of the fierce attacker. Standing in the pouring rain screaming for the ‘no good alien scum’ to release him now was a distraught teenage girl with a heel missing on one shoe, a bald head, and swinging an aluminum baseball bat at the hull of the starship.

“Give him back, you hear me?!”

Bang!

“Turn him loose!”

Bang!

“I never got to tell him!”

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Agnes McKinney collapsed to her knees and screamed, “If you can hear me in there, I am sorry I called you Conehead, Jude Cumberland. I love you! Please don’t go!”

Jude turned to Kindjal, “That’s?”

“Your wife.”

As the ship’s entryway was reorganizing itself into a door, Jude asked, “What happened to her hair?”

“The larger the sample, the more accurate the reading. I had to be sure I wasn’t stealing your girl.”

When the ship lifted off,  Jude Cumberland and Anges McKinney were caught in true love’s first furious embrace. They never saw wormholes opening to a glimpse of a mysterious land that Earthling space travel had yet to find.

Kindjal let the ship Celedon-Drive him home. One of the Einsteins asked, “Master Letterkill, do you mind if we listen to some music?”

Kindjal let out an exasperated sigh because everyone knows robots love Techno.

“My God! That was a real spaceship!” George Rothering gasped.

“Where did it go?” One of his three best friends asked.

The two lovers turned to see the whole gang standing at the collapsed fence, Jude still with his arms around Agnes. “What are you guys doing here?”

George said, “We were worried about our friends.”

Agnes whispered to Jude, “They mean us,” with a wink.

The Fifth Step

The Fifth Step

The Fifth Step

by Eddie-Joe Young and Elsha Hawk

8:30 Thursday Evening

Grace House, Camp Street, New Orleans

Weekly meeting of Narcotics/A.A.

Cara Rothering almost wrote Cara H. instead of Cara R. on her ‘Hello my name is’ sticker. It’s a mistake common to newlyweds. She chuckled when she thought about being a late-thirties newlywed. She was just as beautiful now as she had been almost two decades earlier. She primped her corn silk blonde hair subconsciously in a mirror across the room before arranging the name tags on the table.

The difference between the 20-year-old buxom blonde and the 38 year old newlywed was a brush with death, a twelve-step program, and a life with meaning. After helping herself, she was now helping others.

Mr. Ashurbai Patel didn’t notice that Cara Hernandez had become Cara Rothering. Mr. Patel didn’t marvel at how Cara could remember so many names. Before a person even reached her she had Sharpied his or her name on a sticker. New members required an introduction, but an old member she never forgot.

Ash looked at his name tag through a stranger’s eyes. Cara’s cordial greetings and concerned inquiries were barely penetrating the haze around Ash. His fake smile and “Yes, thank you,” were really, What’s one lousy drink? I’m freakin’ dying. Not some woe-is-me dying, but a pushing up daisies, maggot food dying. He made another robotic response that really meant, I should be celebrating with my wife, not ditching her to come to a meeting because I can’t think of anything past buying a bottle of scotch and drinking until I pass out.

Then his muddled mind hit rewind.

Ash had bounced into work that morning filled with nervous excitement. The papers were awash with headlines about Ash’s boss, a genius geneticist, Lahz Berezwick, being awarded a grant huge enough to fund his project for fifteen years.

Ash worked as a research intern, which meant he was not a permanent employee. He dreamed that would change with the new funding. In his two years with AnimaGene Ash hadn’t had an overabundance of conversations with Dr. Berezwick, but he also hadn’t made any mistakes. He was never late, first one in, every report filed on time without an error, every T crossed and every I dotted. Ash was above reproach. He didn’t need praise to know the boss had noticed.

Every Monday the secretary would bring all of the research assistants their packets; everyone but him. Dr. Berezwick brought Ash’s to him personally. Why else would he walk all the way across the facility, past all the other employees, quietly examine Ash’s mice, and then hand him his packet, unless he had recognized Ash’s example of excellence?

So, Mr. Patel hoped to parlay his perfect record, great work history, and repartee with the boss into what every intern dreams of: a permanent position on a world renowned research project. For the first time in two years, when the boss handed him his packet, he would engage him in conversation. At first, he espoused his delight with AnimaGene and then everything else just came out in a rush. When Dr. B smiled, Ash was sure he had been granted his heart’s desire.

The Dr. B said, “I’m sorry, Sir. What did you say your name was? How long have you been here?” The response was an unexpected blow that broadsided Mr. Patel.

Dr. B offered his apologies explaining how none of the assistants would be permanent. He planned on filling their spots with researchers from his lab in Lithuania. As the doctor turned to try to escape the awkward situation, Ash once again him with, “Just out of curiosity, why did you bring these files to me for the past two years instead of sending them with the secretary?”

Dr. B turned to the nearest tank and tapped the glass. A grizzled, one-eared mouse perked up. He said innocently, “I like this mouse. He’s been in my project longer than all the others.” He pointed to the name tag outside the tank. “All the others have numbers, but he has a name: Igor Ivanovich, Igor, son of Ivan. Ivan means John in Russian.” He tapped on the glass once more and then walked off.

Ash fought back tears as he realized his boss knew the mouse’s name, but not his. He came to see a f*ckn mouse. I am so stupid!

“Mr. Patel? Are you alright?” Cara asked, interrupting his reverie. Her hand on his shoulder brought him back to the present. The present was where Ash was still dying from a fatal disease. It was where his dreams had just been crushed. But Ash was a scientist, a man of logic, and a fighter. He gathered himself together and used all the coping skills he had learned from two years of A.A. and said, “Yes, It’s just been a hard day. I know that just being here will give me strength.”

Cara gave him a warm hug and he went off in search of coffee. She wondered if the recovering alcoholic researcher might be going through a midlife crisis. He was dressed in trendy jeans, had a chain wallet, thick bracelets, and drove a crotch-rocket sportbike even though he looked like he was in his late forties. The tattoo on his arm might have been more proof, but then she remembered her own tattoo and its circumstances and it brought a red-hot blush to her cheeks.

She’d been coming to the meeting on Camp Street for over a decade and facilitating it for the last five years. The motorcycle accident that had killed her first husband left her with a broken neck and an addiction to painkillers that led to an addiction to heroin. Her young son, Miguel, would often care for her while she was incapacitated from heroin. During one of these episodes he badly burned his arms cooking and in her guilt she had sobered up and been sober ever since. The situation with her tattoo had to do with the next phase of her life, a selfless phase, and this was the price she had to pay. She didn’t judge anyone by their tattoos

A person with a sticker that read ‘My name is Hector’ asked, “I thought you were on your honeymoon?”

“We didn’t go far, just to Biloxi. My husband had to come back early for work.”

“Should have went farther,” My-name-is-Hector advised with a small laugh.

“Good advice. There’s coffee inside.” He thanked her and went in search of it. It was lack of work. Cara thought to herself.

Cara’s new husband, Bobby Rothering, was a freelance investigative journalist. In the three years they had been dating, freelance meant part-time. For the bill money, he worked at Finnerty’s Detective Agency.

“Is that the one with the big eyeball on the sign over on Lee Circle?” asked a mocha-skinned matron recovering from a Xanax addiction with a sticker that said “My name is Monique”. Cara had repeated her explanation for her apparent lack of honeymoon longevity.

“That’s the one. He wants to eventually be a full-time reporter at the Times, but for now the ‘big eyeball’ pays the bills.”

“Hey, I read an article yesterday about that rabid dog in the Times. That wasn’t his, was it?”

The dog that Monique was talking about had savaged two people during the winter. Cara had mixed emotions about these two fatal attacks. The first victim was a convicted rapist who had left a group home and was living in an abandoned building overlooking St. Mary’s Catholic girl’s school on Napoleon Avenue. The second victim was a man on parole for armed robbery and his body was found with a loaded pistol in his boot. The attacks were so savage that they were attributed to a rabid dog. These two Uptown killings had occurred three weeks apart, but then there was nothing for six weeks until the cops found a rabid dog covered in blood. Bobby suspected that there was something ‘not right’ about the particular case. In a city of almost half a million people a crazy dog happens to kill two despicable bad guys, both parole violators whom the authorities couldn’t locate? Combine that with the fact that there was not one paw print at the crime scene, and Bobby had a recipe for foul play.

He had spent all his own money and all winter working on the story. Then, the second day of his honeymoon, he read the headline N.O.P.D. Kills Rabid Dog Suspected of Slayings. Bobby said he was glad they had killed the dog, but now that the story seemed to have come to its natural conclusion, his time and money had been wasted.

“I know he was upset, yeah?” said a narrow-boned, fox-faced redhead whose S’s had the slightest hint that they wanted to be Z’s. Only those Z’s in her accent betrayed her eastern European beginnings. She wore a thick black velvet coat trimmed in fine Russian mink. The only color she wore was her auburn hair, the red letters that said “My name is Anna B”, and a red stripe on her six-inch stilettos that ended in a heart-shaped heel. Anna’s tiny angular features were more pixie-ish than classically beautiful. Her reserved, aloof demeanor gave the impression that she knew the punchline of a joke that you weren’t privy to.

“You know, I don’t think he was. I think he was so happy that he wasn’t following a serial killer it canceled out his disappointment in losing the story. That is probably why I love him,” Cara said warmly.

In all her years at A.A./N.A. Cara had known heroin junkies, crack heads, speed freaks, and even a few people who huffed paint and prided herself on the ability to recognize a person’s problem before they admitted it. So when Anna B. walked into Cara’s meeting last fall and announced she drank, she wanted to call bullshit. The rules and traditions of the meetings wouldn’t allow it. She felt that she out of anyone should recognize the opiate addict in Anna. Her weight loss; Cara was twenty pounds lighter when she was in the depths of her addiction. The rings under Anna’s eyes; Cara used to spend half the morning doctoring her eyes with coverup. The pale skin like butter stretched over too much bread; she knew with every ounce of her being that Anna was lying about her drinking. Her drug might not have been heroin, but Cara would have bet her breakfast biscuit it was a type of opiate.

There is strength in numbers at an A.A. meeting. Anna gathered her strength while she listened to Monique the Xanax addict and My-name-is-Hector. For six months she had listened, but never shared. She felt as if tonight she was at a monumental turning point. She snuffed out a Benson Hedges Deluxe Ultra Light One-Twenty with a red heart-shaped heel and began, “Hello, my name is Anna B. and I have a drinking problem. I have been sober for almost 2 months.” A couple of people clapped, but she continued, “But I almost had a drink Monday night.” She closed her eyes and sucked her teeth as a little shudder rippled through her.

“That metallic taste is still on my lips, a hint of burnt cinnamon still on my tongue. If my husband hadn’t found me in time I would have drank ‘til I passed out right there. It has been three days and I can still smell it in my hair, on my skin, everywhere. But every time I start to say I need a drink, I hear my husband’s voice. He drank with me years ago, but now he’s sober and I suffer. He says that drinking activates the reptilian part of the brain–the primal part. But animals have not the power of human beings. We are one or the other. I have to be a human being powered by logic, reason and love. I have to hate drinking. I have to despise behaving like an animal. I have to give myself over because like the Big Book says, “Half steps avail us nothing.”

“Thanks, Anna.”

“Thanks for sharing.”

Cara had finished with the meeting and was walking outside when she saw Anna on her cell phone calling a taxi. “I was going to walk. If you want, you can walk with me, but..” She looked down at Anna’s six-inch heels.

“In Prague the streets are slick cobblestone. Treacherous in heels. I grew up on the streets, always in heels. I will walk with you.”

Cara knew this was going to be the best opportunity she was likely ever to have to confront Anna. In six months, she had yet to find herself alone with Anna. She thought; half steps avail us nothing. She went into the pitch exactly like she’d prepared, starting with her own struggle against opiates. She could tell that she was getting through and Anna was beginning to feel a kinship with her. They were both wives, mothers, and Anna was struggling with a demon that Cara had already conquered. It was now or never. Cloaking herself in courage, Cara said, “I know you are not an alcoholic. It’s alright. Step five says that we admit to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Let me be that human being.”

Anna let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and tears rushed down her cheeks. Cara recognized the surrender. It was the type of breakthrough that changed people’s lives.

“Could you ladies spare a couple bucks for a hungry vet?” This question startled the girls. The voice belonged to a grizzled man in a green army coat sitting a few feet behind them on a plastic bucket.

“I’m sorry, I don’t carry cash, but there is a mission on Prytania Street that is open 24 hours,” Cara advised sympathetically.

As they turned to walk, he lunged for her purse, muttering, “I’ll just take what I want.”

The second the bum’s hand closed on Cara’s purse, Anna exploded. Her left hand closed on his wrist. Her right hand struck out like a cobra at his voice box. The effect was instantaneous. One of his hands went to his throat, but Anna used his other arm like a lever to slam his face on the pavement. She wrenched his arm with a cacophony of snaps and cracks as she let loose a verbal scathing.

“That’s what’s wrong with the world; animals like you being treated like human beings. You are shown kindness and you shit on it! You’re going to take something you want? What if I take what I want?” Anna snarled her question with a wrench that brought a whimper from the sobbing man.

“Anna, let him go. He’s hurting,” Cara pleaded.

“What do you think he was going to do to you?” she reasoned back venomously. With one final wrench that sounded like she dislocated his shoulder, she stormed off down the sidewalk.

Cara caught up with her just as she reached the castle-like privacy wall that surrounded the Berezwick’s luxurious home. “Anna, wait!”

Anna paused at the gate. “Cara, I’m sorry. Nobody can help me.” She disappeared behind the wall, the gate locking behind her, deaf to Cara’s pleas.

How did this happen? Cara thought dizzily. “Damnit! Damnit! Damnit!” she pounded her fist and kicked at shadows wishing she could smash down the black iron gate.

Her anger was interrupted by the light of her cell phone as it rang.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Cara. This is Maggie at Camp’s Used Books. Are you coming to get the books?”

“Oh, Madge! I’m sorry. I forgot to come by. Are you still open? I’m on my way. I’m on the other side of the park, like two hundred yards away.”

She was thankful for the respite of the early evening park. Cara ran a coffee shop/ice cream stand/gift shop on the ground floor of St. Vincent’s Guest House, the building where she lived. She also gathered used books from a variety of sources around town for the neighborhood youth who hung out at her shop. She didn’t fuss about the kids returning the books as long as they at least passed them on to someone else to read. This tradition went back to when her son and his friends were kids. She hoped her shop was another way for her to be a force for good, but deep down she was still trying to make up for a fourth grader named Miguel’s burned arms and his mother passed out on dope.

With an armful of books, she passed back by the black iron gate on her way home.

“Mrs. Cara, have you seen my wife?” asked a tall, dark-complected man in his early sixties. He wore creased slacks and polished wing-tipped shoes. Despite the chilly night, he wore only a white tank-top shirt, the kind the kids called a wife-beater. He had the chiseled physique of a man half his age that, combined with a Guy Fawkes goatee and a Russian accent, made him a prime candidate for super villainy. However, his golden hazel eyes exuded warmth and made you believe he was no villain and his shirt was just a tank top.

“I just walked her here twenty minutes ago, Dr. Berezwick.”

He had a look on his face as he shook his head that hurt Cara’s heart. It said she was out drinking and he was helpless to stop it. “She went through the front gate. It’s a big house. Maybe you missed her.”

“No. I was waiting inside for her. The servants say no one came in through the back. Plus, she won’t answer her phone. She’s out drinking.”

Cara berated herself. This is my fault. What was I supposed to do, stand outside forever? Did she come back out to talk and her resolve crumbled when I wasn’t there? What have I done?

As if he could read her thoughts, Lhaz said, “It’s not your fault, Cara. She’ll be alright. She’ll do some things she’s not proud of, but she’ll survive.”

Then he noticed for the first time her burden.

“That’s an odd selection of books.”

“They are for the kids that come into my shop. They like the fantasy and sci-fi stuff.”

“I read this one on a flight from Norway last year.” He lifted Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend from the stack.

“I think all kids like zombies,” Cara smirked.

“No, vampires. The movie is about zombies, but the book is about vampires–very smart vampires.” He sat on the curb, inviting her to join him. “Would you like to hear a story while we wait?”

“Certainly.”

“In my country we have a very different legend about vampires. It started with the man Jesus brought back to life.”

“Lazarus?”

“That’s the one. Now, keep in mind, Russian tales have a more important function that historical accuracy. In a very pre-socratic way legends are how my people have solved the problems of the unknown. So this Lazarus was a horse trader with a lust for wine. He gambled his family into poverty and then drank himself to death. He was a bad man, however, in spite of that, his wife loved him very much. She begged Jesus to help him and he was moved. Lazarus returned from the dead. You would think that after a resurrection he would have turned his life around, but no, he was still bad. While drunk, he ran over a young girl with his horse. A mob stoned him and crushed his skull. The next day he awoke, healed, but to a life without death and a life without meaning; deathless and soulless. That was his curse into the fifth or sixth generation.”

“I’ve never heard that story,” she said enthralled.

“You wouldn’t have. Telling tales is something more of your grandmother or grandfather’s generation. Now we have the internet.”

“And gene splicing.”

“Funny you should mention my work. This same tale of vampires is sort of how I became interested in the field.”

“Wait. What do vampires have to do with gene splicing?”

“A lot, if they are real. I like to solve problems by working backwards. For example: Anna. The problem is her drinking. I start by imagining her healthy and addiction-free. Then I imagine how she came that way; by having people who supported and loved her, who helped her through her disappointments and praised her successes. Voila. Now I have the cure. I apply this same method to the vampire myth. We have a group of people who live forever and for some reason murder and drink blood. Well, what makes us age? They used to believe it was free radicals and oxidation, but now we know it is telomerase”

“Never heard of it.”

“Telomerase helps cells make perfect copies of themselves. As the cell stops producing telomerase, it begins producing degraded copies – aging. You know the oldest cell in your body is only ten years old?”

“I feel older than ten,” she chuckled.

“Because of poor copies. I’m going to fix that. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, how did Jesus resurrect this man? He rewrote the genetic code! Maybe he used hidden regenerative genes lying dormant from our amphibian days before we crawled on the land and invented the internet. In rewriting the code, he must have incidentally fixed the telomerase problem, but in awakening the amphibian, he awoke the reptilian; the blood-thirsty animal part. This solves all the problems with making legends scientific. Light doesn’t kill vampires, but Jesus, who claimed to be the Light, created this curse, so they shun it. Crosses don’t kill them, they just remind them of their shame, of their animalistic side.”

“What about your work?”

“Hmpf. If my work continues at the current rate, sometime in the next ten years I will have written a new genetic code that will be able to regenerate like an amphibian whenever parts are damaged and create perfect telomerase-rich copies every time. Stay fit, Cara, if you live long enough, you might live forever.” He handed her book back.

“But what happens to the vampires?”

A little girl who look so much like Anna B. she could have been a clone came outside and jumped into her dad’s arms. This must be Zwelda, whom the kids called Zee Zee.

“One second, sweetie.” He held her on his hip and continued with a smile, “Maybe one day the vampires will come for my help. By then I’ll have enough knowledge to cure them.” He scrunched his nose and Zee Zee did the same, giving him an Eskimo kiss. “Or maybe it’s the sixth generation already. One day a little girl like Zee Zee here scratches her knee and it doesn’t miraculously heal. No more curse. All that would be left was to cure the old ones and teach them to be human. Maybe in vampires anonymous?” He winked at Cara, said goodbye and left to put Zwelda to bed.

Cara smiled to herself and thought how colorful the scientist was with his vampire folklore. She thought of the little green band-aid on Zee Zee’s knee, then laughed at herself for believing in vampires. She decided to walk past Grace House just in case Anna forgot something and went back. It was only a little out of the way. She figured she was kidding herself, but held out hope for Anna.When she turned onto Camp Street, she saw police lights and hurried to investigate.

“I’m looking for a friend of mine, a red-headed woman in a black coat.”

The officer shook his head. “No Ma’am, this is an older white male; looks homeless.”

“Oh, I saw him about an hour ago.” She and the officer walked closer. “He tried to snatch my purse. I’m glad he’s going to jail.”

“He’s not going to jail, Ma’am. He’s going to the morgue.”

When she turned her head there was no way she could unsee the mangled body of the homeless man. She went to one knee and almost vomited at the sight of the torn apart corpse. While bent over the books and trying to hang onto her dinner, she saw something completely out of place. In a pool of blood that ran to the street was what looked like a nickel sized indentation in the shape of a heart. The same size as Anna B’s high heel. But before it could completely register the officer stepped on it and asked, “Are you okay, Ma’am?” When he moved his foot, he removed the heart shaped print along with her confidence that she had even seen it.

Monday 2:00PM

AnimaGene Laboratories

Euterpe Street, New Orleans

Dr. Berezwick listened to briefings from his department heads. All of the scientists were Russian or Eastern Europeans who had worked with him for years. They were the inner circle from whom he kept no secrets.

A tall bearded Russian was speaking. “We are currently trying to find a way to insert the gene code from test subject Z. We are using a revamped, pardon the pun, polio virus to house the DNA and we may be able to infect Igor Ivanovich this week.”

“Please do not refer to my daughter as a test subject, D’mitri.” Dr. Berezwick’s tone brought color to the scientist’s cheeks.

A disheveled Ash, seemingly in a daze, barged into the meeting and announced, “I have to tell you something!”

“What are you doing in here?” shouted D’Mitri. He turned to Dr. B and said, “I apologize for this intrusion. He is one of my assistants.”

“I know who he is. He asked me for a promotion last week.” Dr. B was running out of patience for disrespect. “Mr. Patel, once again I am sorry, but this program is number one in its field. You are what, in your late forties and no one has ever heard of you. You are out of your league. We will be replacing you because we need the best.”

“I’m only nineteen.” He distractedly fumbled with a sheaf of papers, but plunged ahead. “I was upset Friday and I killed Igor Ivanovich.”

“You what?!” chorused half the scientists in the room.

Dr. B shot to his feet, “You have no idea how long that subject has contributed to this program!”

Ash, still in a daze, dismissed his words, saying, “It’s okay. He came back to life.”

They all froze, exchanging looks. Some shook their heads, while others looked down.

“Perhaps you were mistaken and he wasn’t really dead,” offered an auburn-haired scientist with a menacing smile and a hooked nose.

In a monotone voice, like he were telling someone where the TV remote was, Ash replied, “No, I hit him repeatedly with a claw hammer. Besides, I had him X-rayed this morning and there are hundreds of tiny healed breaks.” He dropped the papers on the table. “I ran tests on Igor and there is something amazing going on in his gene reproduction. I found seven years worth of his gene samples in the computer.”

Dr. B shot an angry look at the head of security whose guilty face meant that that wasn’t supposed to happen.

Ash continued, “In seven years, Igor’s cell integrity has not even degenerated 3 to the negative tenth power. Igor could be immortal.”

Ash’s thoughts were far away and oblivious to the chaos that erupted around him. He barely heard the heated yelling. The implications of immortality raced through his mind. He didn’t notice that Professor Vladia Rokmanovich suddenly had more pointed canines and her fingernails were shaving pieces of the marble table top like swiss chocolate.

“ENOUGH!” Dr. B silenced the chaos. With speed so fast it looked like a movie skipping frames he was face to face with Vladia. Smiling through pencil-thin lips, he said, “Get a hold of yourself, Vladia. You let this child reduce you to an animal.”

She transformed, regressing to a mild-mannered scientist before Mr. Patel’s eyes. Just then Ash began to register the words that had been said. Phrases like, ‘how could you let this happen’, ‘you said this wouldn’t happen again’, ‘he can’t leave here’, and ‘we are too close to a cure to let him ruin us’.

With the horror of the situation finally setting in, Ash saw the scientists in a new light. He saw their ancient, knowing eyes. He turned to Dr. B and asked, “What are you really doing here?”

In a calm voice Lhaz said, “Let’s back up. You said you were nineteen, but you look closer to fifty than twenty.”

“I have adult onset progeria, a condition that accelerates my body’s aging. Right now I am aging eight to one. I might have another year left. You were wrong. I am a top scientist. I graduated high school at age 12 and M.I.T. at 17 and have been here ever since.”

“Do you have family, Mr. Patel?”

“A wife. She is twenty. I thought maybe this discovery..maybe… Well, it’s why I joined this team.” He looked shamefully down at his feet. “You are going to kill me, aren’t you?”

“You are already dying. Killing you would be redundant.” Dr. B nodded at a person in a white lab coat who had appeared after the chaos broke out. PSHINK He injected Ash with a pneumatic inoculation gun.

“What was that?!” panicked Ash. “Am I going to die?”

“Sit down, please.” Ash sat.

“If you work hard and dedicate your life to our research, you may one day grow old and see a genetic breakthrough that will allow you to die. Until then, with the genetic code that was just introduced to your body, you are in the same shoes as Igor Ivanovich…and everyone else in this room. Welcome to the family.”

Around the same time that Ashurbai Patel, newly promoted team leader of AnimaGene was discovering that he was no longer going to die, not for all eternity, there was a knock on Cara’s door.

A neighborhood kid named Colby would come by and do his homework on Mondays while waiting for his mother. He was in the same class as Anna’s daughter Zwelda. Cara opened the door and there stood Anna with Zwelda holding her hand. Colby spied his classmate from the kitchen and welcomed a distraction. “Can Zee Zee and me go jump on the trampoline?”

“It’s Zee Zee and I, and if it’s okay with Mrs. Anna?”

“It’s okay. I need to talk to Mrs. Cara in private, anyhow.”

As soon as the children were outside, Anna began before she could lose her nerve. “Step five says to admit to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. I started drinking when I was a sixteen-year-old girl in Prague. Shortly after that I met Lhaz. We drank together for ten years until we moved to New Orleans in 1831. I am a genetic anomaly that most of the world would call a vampire. Will you be my sponsor? I want to stop drinking blood.”

 

 

The Hatchling

the Hatchling

This is the short story that won Hawk the Write To Win Contest. Enjoy!

It looked like a fruit bat had mated with an iguana. The flat, bumpy skin and long barbed tail were only the background for the huge wings, fangs, and large obsidian eyes.

“I think it’s cute!” Mallory gushed. She moved toward it, but stopped short when it unfurled its leathery wings and growled ferociously at her, baring all its sharp, pointy baby teeth. The old bird cage where we’d hidden the egg teetered atop a barrel in the back corner of the barn. Instinctively, I backed away from the wobbling tower. The creature licked at the slimy shell pieces in its cage.

“It’s a hungry baby gargoyle, Mallory. There’s nothing cute about it. And what do you think it wants to eat? You!” She backed away from the hatchling.

“Good thing its caged, right Marcus? What should we call him?” Mallory’s eyes sparkled with maternal instinct.

“Gone. Let’s get rid of it.”

“No! I’m going to call him Fenris.”

“Don’t name it. You’ll just cry harder when I kill it.”

“Marcus!”

“It’s dangerous!”

“He’s just a baby!”

“You want it to grow up? It has to eat to grow. I think he likes you. He’d love to have you for dinner.”

“Stop it!”

“Oh I will. Right now.” I turned to grab the axe hanging from a peg on the wall.

“Marcus, no!”

“You don’t have to watch.”

“You can’t!”

“Can’t I?”

Mallory stepped between the cage and my determined advance. “Move!” I directed her, gesturing with the axe which way to go.

“No!” Her eyes began to tear up, the corners of her mouth twitched. “We can keep him. We can feed him rabbits of something. Don’t kill him. Please, Marcus? We don’t even know if he eats people. We can teach him to be good. Please?”

She was rambling, buying time, but she had a point. We didn’t know what it ate. Besides, I couldn’t kill it with her around. “Fine. I’ll go check the snares, but you milk Daisy. Stay away from that thing.” Mallory smiled and sidestepped, curtsying and bowing her head like I was a noble and she was a servant.

The sun was just beginning to rise on the horizon. I found two snares empty. The third held a hedgehog. That’ll have to do. I released it and carried its spiny stiff body back to the makeshift hatchery.

“A hedgehog!?” Mallory’s nose wrinkled in disapproval.

“That’s all there was. I don’t think he’ll mind.”

“I mind! And I think he does so mind!” She pointed at the cage. I turned to look at exactly the right moment.

The spring sun’s rays lit right across the cage where the little guy sat up on his haunches. His expression was one of interest and his tongue lolled out hungrily like a dog, his clawed hands gripping the bars of the cage firmly. Then he froze. His color turned from a purple to gray and his eyes glazed over.

“Whoa!” I gasped and moved closer to his still form. “I don’t think he minds at all!” I chuckled in amusement.

“Did he just..? Marcus? Is he stone?!” We stared for a moment, then Mallory’s face lit up.

“See? He’ll be real easy to keep! We can gather food for him all day and at night he can eat it! He’ll be easy to hide, just cover him up with something!”

“Mallory, wait. Let’s think this through.”

“I know it sounds odd, but Marcus, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity!”

She had a point. I’d wager no one else in the history of the kingdom had ever raised a gargoyle. My pride rose above the urge to kill him.

Over the next month, we spent from dusk until about midnight in the barn with Fenris. His growth was rapid, yet he grew just as quickly in intelligence. He was talking in short sentences in a few weeks/ he only had to be told something once to remember it, words or warnings. By the end of his second month we went hunting together for small game.

As Fenris grew, so did his appetite. He began tracking foxes, then a couple months later, wild boar. Our hunting area grew many furlongs out from the farm. At times I worried I was hindering him. He traveled far faster than I, having wonderful night vision.

One late summer night when he was about five months old and as large as I was, we were tracking a herd of deer. Fenris suddenly tensed; his nose sniffing the air off to our left, his pointy ears turned to catch the faintest sound. Then suddenly he leaped over my head and left me standing alone in the forest.

”Fenris!” I hissed so as not startle the herd, knowing his hearing was acute enough to hear me. “Stop playing games!”

He enjoyed darting off into the woods and sneaking up on me, gloating in the ability to do so. I sat tiredly down, knowing that if I just waited, he’d get bored and come back to me. He preferred it when I tried to find him, or at least attempted to hide. The old hunting games we’d played as training only a couple months before, he’d mastered.

I listened for his return for a long time. The herd had probably moved on by now. Still I waited, my eyelids drooping. Finally, I heard a twig snap and turned toward the sound. Two yellow eyes and a long furry muzzle with bared teeth growled at me. It was in the brush not a stone’s throw from where I sat. My heart raced, fear gripped me. I reached for my knife, and the wolf leaped. I rolled out of the way, yelling, my knife still sheathed. He clipped my leg with his claws, scratching deeply. I braced for another swipe of his huge paws. He gathered himself for another strike, raising his body up almost on his hind legs.

Just then something tackled the mass of grey fur in mid-air. I heard a yelp and a snarl, then before I knew what happened, Fenris rose and grinned proudly back at me. He’d saved my life! In that moment, I saw him truly as he was, not as my dependent, but as my equal.

“Where’s Fenris?” Mallory asked early one autumn evening. I looked into the sky in the distance, where I had last seen our maturing friend as a shrinking shadow in the darkness.

“Hunting,” I replied, masking my disappointment and worry from her.

“Alone?” she asked, concerned for his safety.

“There’s not much in the woods that poses a threat to him now.” We stood in silence, staring into the glowing, inky blackness. The moon was new this night, but I knew it would not trouble the gargoyle and his magical sight.

“He doesn’t really need us anymore does he?” she finally said. I could sense the tears in her eyes the darkness hid.

“I don’t know,” I whispered.

“He’s changed,” she said softly. I had noticed it too. “He’s quieter. I see him sometimes, staring into the distance. I asked him about it.”

“What did he say?”

“That sometimes he feels lonely.”

“Come on little sister,” I said, putting a comforting arm around her shoulders and guiding her back to the farm house. “It’s getting cold out here. At least tonight we can get some extra sleep.”

Mallory and I tried not to let it show how much it hurt us. Even though all parents spend time teaching their children skills they need to survive, all parents also do their best to delay that day when their children finally put them to the test. For Fenris, that day had come and gone.

“I want to learn if there are any more of my kind out there,” he explained one chilly evening.

“Fenris, we are certain you are the only one.” He turned his back on my words. “You’re talking of traveling to places with unknown dangers! Are you sure about this?” He nodded and gazed longingly and sadly into my eyes. It was hard to believe he was already an adult in size and intelligence when only eight months ago he was small enough to carry around.

We couldn’t keep him here, feeling miserable and alone. The time had come for him to leave us. I steeled myself, hoisted my chin up, and spoke to him as a parent sending off a child. “We are so proud of you Fenris! You have grown up so quickly, and yet you have a wisdom far beyond your age. If you are ready, then we must let you go.”

“I believe I am ready, Marcus.” His voice was a deep bass already. His eyes sparkled with relief and happiness. Mallory let out a choked sob and ran to hug him. Then he stretched his wings. In one powerful leap, he was airborne.

And so, we let him go, waving goodbye from our lowly positions on Earth. He flew off toward the moon, his dark silhouette against the pale circle forever etched into our memories.

 

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