Apex Magazine: Your cover for this month’s Apex Magazine, “Unraveling Fire II boy,” challenges the viewer to interpret the idea for themselves. Are you ever asked to explain your surreal pieces, and if so how do you usually answer? Do people give you different interpretations that you might not have expected?
Robert Carter: Yes, I’m asked fairly frequently to explain the meaning of various pieces. If it was a commissioned illustration, say for something like the Washington Post “Medical Mysteries” column of which I’ve done several, when not reading the accompanying report it can certainly have the viewer scratching their head. In those cases, I will usually just explain the article and what medical condition the patient had had, etc. What I like about those however is when taken out of context the viewer can apply their own interpretation, which more often than not is much more interesting than its original purpose.
AM: Many of your portrait pieces offer a surreal view of a known person, and others often are more straightforward portraits. Are those personal choices as you work, or do clients ask for something surreal when they commission you for a portrait? How do requests from the commissions affect your frame of mind or even the final piece?
RC: It varies. Sometimes the client knows exactly what they want, be it a straight forward portrait or some other concept. In those cases, I’ll certainly do what they ask but also try and offer up other ideas I feel may work better. If not only better for me as far as the way I work goes, but also a solution that my style will work with. Time is also a factor. If it’s a rush job and I only have one or two days to complete a final piece, a straight up traditional portrait is gonna be the way to go. If the piece is left solely up to me, and I have the time, I like to explore more than the typical head n’ shoulders mug shot. I enjoy adding extra layers of meaning which reflects the personality or history of the subject, or at least add a little something to give it extra interest visually. That being said, sometimes a straight up portrait can be the most beautiful or powerful.
AM: On your DeviantArt bio, you mention returning to school for computer animation, as well as expanding and exploring your work. How does that exploration affect your work over a short term, say with individual projects, versus over the length of your career so far?
RC: I always have in the back of my mind: how can I make this better, what new thing can I try or improve upon, be it the tools I’m using or the way I’m using them, explore new compositions or colour palettes, textures, lighting, or hardware and software etc. With each new project, when I have the opportunity to mix it up, even if it’s a subtle change something only I would notice or know about, I try it. Now and then however I feel I need to do something drastically different but still within the creative arts. Like when I took a year off to try my hand at computer animation. Even though I went back to illustration afterwards, it was a great experience and I’m glad I did it despite the fact it almost killed me … That course was grueling!
AM: Working on portraits of real-life personalities, especially those in the news currently, do you find your opinion or beliefs about that person change as you work? How do you approach painting someone whose ideologies differ from yours?
RC: In most cases I’m being commissioned by a magazine or paper to paint the portrait of a particular person and the story has its own take on that individual at the time. My job is to not only paint the subject’s portrait but also adhere to the opinion of the author of that person in their article with my illustration. I’ve never been asked to paint someone to whom I have complete disdain for and where the story sheds that someone in a positive light. If I were, I would have to decline. When it comes to politics, I’m not especially politically minded so generally I don’t care much. Although I haven’t been asked to paint Trump yet!
AM: You mention in your bio that you now prefer digital work, for speed and flexibility. Is your approach to digital art creation different from working with a traditional medium? Does flexibility in digital art allow you the freedom to explore, or trap you with too many possibilities?
RC: The way I paint digitally is very similar to the way I work traditionally because I deliberately limit the tools I use. It’s true, you can get lost in the myriad of digital options there are to choose from. But because I started out working in oils and developed my style painting traditionally, when I made the move to digital I wanted to maintain the look I had already developed. It took some time to teach myself not only how to paint digitally but also to imitate the look of my own work. I think I’ve got it down pretty close now.
Robert Carter has been working as a professional illustrator for more than a decade. With a background in traditional oil painting, Carter applies those skills to the digital realm, now his preferred method of working for its speed and flexibility. See more of his wonderful creations on his website, www.crackedhat.com.]]>
In Cloud Dweller by E. Catherine Tobler from Issue #199 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, set in the world of Jackson’s Unreal Circus and Mobile Marmalade, Vasily Agranovsky is a tightrope walker with the uncanny ability to walk on thin air. He sees lines no one else can see, and feels compelled to walk them, an act of faith when his logical mind tells him he should fall. Tobler offers up a circus story that is also a ghost story, among other things. She neatly draws a line between Vasily’s profession, and his past. To look down is death for a tightrope walker. For Vasily — a Russian Jew fleeing the pogroms — looking back is just as dangerous. Despite his best efforts, ghosts find Vasily. He feels vibrations in the lines as he walks, and another set of feet under his. Giving in to the temptation to look down, he discovers a man who looks just like him, a ghostly twin, surrounded by an impossible city.
Whatever the other walker represented, it was possible that no other person in this world could see him. If Vasily refused to see and did not acknowledge the other’s desperation, what would that mean?
“Cloud Dweller” explores responsibility, and the choice to act or to turn away from someone in need. One path is safety, and the other is risk, but Vasily has spent his whole life stepping out onto a wire and trusting the sky not let him fall. It’s a powerful story, wrapped in Tobler’s usual lush prose. The characters feel lived in, and there is a sense of weight and history to every one of them. Like Vasily’s ghost city, there is a whole larger world tucked inside this story, waiting to unfold.
Flightcraft by Iona Sharma from the Spring issue of Luna Station Quarterly centers on characters dealing with the fallout of war and violence. Catriona McDonald is an aircraft engineer skilled in the magical use of ink and folded paper to build better airplanes. She accepts a commission to build a plane that can fly longer distances, and ends up taking on her patron’s son, Toby, as an apprentice. Cat also befriends Talitha Cawthorne, a woman who seems to know something of flightcraft, but is vague about that knowledge and her role in the war. An accident at the warehouse causes part of Cat’s new plane to collapse, trapping Toby underneath, and forcing Cat and Talitha to push the limits of their magical abilities to save him. In the wake of the accident, both women must to come to terms with their pasts and their actions in the war. For all that “Flightcraft” is a story laced with magic, it is a story about practicality as well. Cat and Talitha make hard choices out of necessity and live with the consequences, and Sharma creating an interesting parallel between the freedom of flight and the weighty responsibility it brings.
Left the Century to Sit Unmoved by Sarah Pinsker, published by Strange Horizons, is a story about jumping rather than flying. There is a pond in the town where the narrator, Shay, lives that people have been jumping into for years. Every now and then, someone disappears. Their clothes are left behind, but their bodies are never found. There are rules for jumping that are meant to keep people safe, but like Vasily in “Cloud Dweller,” jumping into the pond is a matter of faith. Safety is not guaranteed. Shay’s older brother is one of the disappeared, but that doesn’t stop Shay from jumping. Pinsker uses the list-as-narrative structure to good effect throughout story, when it comes to the rules of the pond, and the reasons people continue jumping.
We jump because we have to.
We jump because we can.
We jump because we dare ourselves.
We jump because we’re lonely.
We jump because we want to be alone.
The pond and the act of jumping could stand in a metaphor for any number of things — falling in love, growing up, finding yourself. With an economy of words, Pinsker neatly encapsulates all these dangers that come with simply being alive, as well as the reasons why the risks are worthwhile. Jumping is a choice, falling is freedom, and sometimes you just have to take it on faith that when you launch yourself into the sky you won’t drown.
The Signal Birds by Octavia Cade from the debut issue of Liminal Stories is a story about war itself, rather than its aftermath. Here, women sprout metallic feathers from their skin, but the feathers don’t allow them to fly. The only thing they’re useful for is amplifying radio signals and catching transmissions. As such, the women are put to work as tools in the war effort, no better than pieces of equipment. It’s better than starving, but barely; the war wears them down, and the feathers constantly pushing through their skins bring pain, scars, and the risk of infection. The story is lovely and painful all at once, taking something that should be wondrous — women with wings — and making it twisted and ugly. Cade mirrors the signal birds on the Allies’ side with German women forced into a constant cycle of birthing babies who will grow up to be soldiers. “The Signal Birds” explores women’s bodies as fodder to be used and abused and ground up by the war machine, and shows the futility of war from the point of view of those on the ground-level. Like Sharma’s “Flightcraft,” Cade draws a correlation between freedom, flight, and responsibility. The women’s wings should be marvelous things lifting them up and giving them freedom, but instead, they are the very things weighing them down and tying them to their wartime duty.
The Haferbräutigam by Steve Berman from the May issue of The Dark isn’t a war story, but it is a story about the uses and abuses of bodies, and the things people choose not to see. Plüschow is a photographer recently jailed for his relationship with a young man. Now that he’s free, he travels to Germany where he encounters young man who is just his type — seemingly naive, out of place, a simple farm boy — someone no one will make too much of a fuss about if Plüschow chews him up and spits him out. The boy introduces himself as the Haferbräutigam, and seems surprised that Plüschow can see him. His manners are odd, there is something off about him, but Plüschow ignores his gut in favor of his libido. He’s determined to devour the boy, but the Haferbräutigam has appetites of his own. Berman paints the Haferbräutigam and Plüschow as two sides of a coin. The Haferbräutigam consumption is literal where Plüschow’s is metaphorical, but it is only a matter of degrees that separate them. Seeing is important to this tale, as is the choice not to see. Plüschow’s desire allows him to see the Haferbräutigam in the first place, but it also leads him to be willfully blind and turn away from the dark and unpleasant aspects of the Haferbräutigam’s nature. Similarly, the parents Plüschow pays for ‘use’ of their sons as models willfully look the other way, trading their children for money to buy food. “The Haferbräutigam” is skillfully told, wrapping up sex and food, desire and consumption, all while creating a balance that allows the reader to simultaneously sympathize with the main character and view him with contempt.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djeli Clark at Tor.com strikes somewhat of a different tone than the other pieces reviewed here. It’s a steampunk-adventure-mystery story set in an alternate Cairo in 1912 where djinn and angels live side by side with humans. Fatma el-Sha’arawi is a special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, looking into the violent death by exsanguination of a djinn. She dresses like a dandy in an Englishman’s suit and bowler hat, and carries a silver-topped cane. When pressed about her sartorial style, she smirkingly tells her partner in the investigation, Inspector Aasim Sharif, that she does it to be ‘exotic’ — the same way Englishmen with colonial attitudes made themselves ‘exotic’ by dressing in Egyptian clothing without respecting Egyptian history or traditions. Over the course of their investigation, Fatma and Aasim come up against ghuls, angels, ifrits, mechanical beasts, and inter-dimensional beings. Clark offers up a feast of visual imagery, with a side of fun, but touches on serious issues as well. Fatma is defiantly visible. She plants herself in the way of the world, letting her clothing make a bold statement about colonialist mentality and gender expectations, and daring anyone to challenge her. Whereas many of the other stories covered in this column deal with the hidden and the invisible, Fatma refuses to allow herself to be overlooked, or the sink into the background. Her dandyism has a practical element as well, as her pocket watch and silver-tipped cane do play a vital role in the story’s resolution. Consumption comes up in this story as well, but to say more would be to give too much away. “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” is the best kind of genre mash-up, bringing fresh elements to steampunk, mystery, adventure, and fantasy with the innovative way it combines them.
Thank you for joining me for the inaugural outing of Words for Thought. I look forward to discussing more short fiction in the months to come!]]>
But instead you have met me here,
and I prefer to live simply when at home.
Here is my clay jug of water;
here is my small bed and blanket.
Beside the fire I read or draw in charcoal
while thinking of distant hills.
But here — look at the mantel
and see my indulgence:
this smooth, gleaming shell with eternal spiral
and houndstooth pattern of bone and mahogany.
In life it would have held a poisonous snail.
Colt was playing cards when trouble crawled in through the door, in the shape of a dead man who didn’t yet know he was dead.
This was on old Venus, ancient and most decadent of planets. Make no mistake, as the blind poet said: man has conquered space before. Woman, too, though in fairness, Colt thought, what women had come to this planet in aeons past, they had not seemed to make it as far as Port Smith. It was a dismal Earth outpost, stranded somewhere on a solid strip of land amidst Venusian swamps. Violet clouds capped it like a forest of mushrooms, and the thick, green-leafed jungle sprouted at the edges of the swamps on all sides, enclosing the port in its relentless grip.
The Earthmen called the place Port Smith; what the Venusians called it Colt didn’t know.
Colt was playing a mixed Martian Wild Card Stud. He was in for all he was worth which, admittedly, at that precise moment wasn’t a hell of a lot. Colt was out of cash and out of luck, and he needed a boost of both if he were ever to get off this wretched planet. Neither seemed likely to materialise.
In the corner Old Ishmael, the blind musician, brought his instrument to his lips and began to haltingly play. It was a dream-flute, and as he blew, gently, into its mouthpiece ghosts rose into existence around the bar. Colt’s breath was caught in his throat, for they were Venusian dancers, from some long-vanished Atlantean temple, perhaps: bold and free, with their long flowing black hair, their eyes in which ships sailed in the infinity of space. Slowly they grew solidity and shape, gliding in a dance through the bar, amidst the tables and unoccupied chairs: and the eyes of all men in that place turned to them, in fascinated enchantment; even Colt’s. All but the musician’s blind eyes.
It was hot. The humidity wore you down, after a while. The other men sweated, though Colt kept his cool. Outside the windows of the Medusa’s Head the cloud cover stretched from horizon to horizon, covering the sky in an impenetrable dome: it was the same weather that, on Earth, heralds the coming of a hurricane. From time to time a distant explosion could be heard, as one of the ships took off into the sky. Glancing out of the window Colt was startled anew, each time, by a flash of silver as a rocket rose, disappearing beyond the clouds. He drowned his glass of local arkia, and squinted at his cards, and waited for his luck to change, for better or for worse.
There was a rumble in the distance, and the other players looked up. Colt kept his eyes on the table and his free hand on the butt of his gun. He was playing a four-hander: the others were two short, scaly Venusians, and an Earthman who called himself Carter. The sound, as of a distant explosion, sounded again, followed a moment later by a rumble that, this time, shook the ground. ‘This ain’t the sound of no rocketship,’ the other Earthman, Carter, said. The two Venusians exchanged uneasy glances but kept their own counsel. ‘All-in,’ Colt said, and pushed what remained of his money, a bag full of gold Martian ingots, into the pot. For a moment there was a silence.
‘I’m out,’ the one Venusian said, and the Earthman immediately followed suit. Colt found himself staring into the other Venusian’s eyes. The Venusian’s mouth curled in a smile Colt did not like. ‘Well?’ he demanded.
Slowly, the Venusian laid down his cards.
Colt stared at the Venusian’s cards and felt his heart sink.
He had lost.
The Venusian had the Queen of Despair, the Jack of Despair and a ten of same. On the table the community cards were the Seven of Love, the Two of Surrendered Bliss, the Nine of Love and the Shambleau: the wild card.
The Venusian had a Royal Straight. Colt had nothing – nothing but a gun.
‘Don’t,’ the Venusian said. There was the unmistakable sound of a weapon being charged.
At that moment a third explosion erupted outside. This time it was almost directly overhead. The aftershock rocked the foundations of the bar and toppled the unoccupied chairs; it smashed glasses to the floor and made the cards fly into the air. Colt’s hand closed on his bag of ingots and made it disappear. Already he was rising, the gun in front of him, aimed at the door. The blind musician put his dream-flute down. The dancing girls flickered, then faded away, and Colt felt a momentary sense of loss.
‘What –’ the Earthman, Carter, began to say. The door to the bar blew open inwards and a man came crawling into the room. He lunged forward, in one desperate, terrifying last desire to live, and fell by Colt’s feet. He was badly hurt. ‘Get down!’
A raygun blast followed the man through the open door and the Earthman, Carter, fell down, screaming as his face melted beyond recognition. Not taking his eyes off the door, Colt reached across the table and swept the man’s remaining money into a pouch by his side. The Earthman would not, now, need it – but Colt did. Mercifully, the other man’s screams shortly died, and with them, the man himself. They were now three against the unknown menace – the Two Venusians, and Colt. The blind musician had disappeared, taking his dreams with him.
‘Roog!’ one of the two Venusians – the one who had folded early – said. Looking wildly in all direction, he ran to the door and outside. Colt could hear him shouting, but whether he was pleading, or threatening, or both, he could not tell. There was a fourth rumble of an explosion, shaking the walls and the floor, and Colt could hear the man scream, outside, and then fall silent.
Colt and the one remaining Venusian were left alone in the bar: them, and the unknown men at their feet. ‘What’s your name, Earthman?’ the Venusian said.
‘Sharol. And that money belongs to me.’
‘We can fight over it later,’ Colt said. ‘When we get out of this mess.’
Amusement crinkled Sharol’s face. ‘If we get out, surely,’ he said. Colt shrugged. ‘Any idea what’s out there?’ he said.
‘What is Roog?’
‘I don’t know.’ Sharol looked uneasy. ‘My money is on something bad.’
‘It…’ it was the dying man at their feet. Colt took a close look at him, and was surprised to see it was an Earthman. He was badly scarred, and suffering from malnutrition. Burns, pussing, covered his hands. ‘It is… treasure.’
‘Treasure?’ Sharol said. He had a purplish, mottled skin and small, near-translucent ears close to his skull. They are a more delicate looking breed, on Venus, smaller than Earthmen and seemingly fragile, but never underestimate them, for it will be the last thing you ever do. ‘You have my interest, stranger.’
‘The temple lies…’ The dying man’s eyes fluttered close. In a heartbeat Colt was kneeling down, though he kept his eyes and his gun trained on the door. ‘Where?’ he said, shaking the dying man roughly. ‘Where?’
‘The Roog…’ the stranger said, ‘The Roog!’ with horror and revulsion clear in his voice; and then his breath stilled. ‘Damn you!’ Colt said. Sharol’s cold chuckle made him glance up: the Venusian was looking at him in amusement. ‘Death is not the end, Colt of Earth,’ he said. ‘But let us hope this man’s pursuers do not know that.’
‘Let them come!’ Colt said, and felt the cold, savage fury burn through him, as clean and as pure as knife. The Venusian merely gestured, silently. He and Colt separated, one to each side of the door. ‘Ready?’
‘Is this a gun?’
‘It certainly appears to be one, yes.’
‘Then I’m ready.’
They turned, together, and burst through the doors, outside.
The sun was low over the horizon, behind the clouds; it painted them fantastical shades of violet and red and oozing green. Directly ahead, Colt saw the enemy – just as the enemy saw them.
Colt rolled, firing. He preferred a projectile weapon. Beam weapons were fine for dry worlds, for the sterility of space. But on a swamp world such as Venus, Colt felt better with an honest, Earth-made gun, the sort that fired bullets. You knew where you were, with bullets. It was almost like being back home.
The bullets certainly took the attackers by surprise. Colt did not know what they were. He gleaned impressions as he rolled and fired: tall, ungainly creatures, metal-plated, skinny: two purple antennae moved sinuously above their heads. He had no doubt they were communicating silently. They moved as one: they were made for war.
But so was Colt, who had survived worse odds on a dozen rough and wild planets. To the other side of him the Venusian, Sharol, was firing steadily, his beam weapon flashing: but it merely glanced off the armour plating of the attacking, ant-like creatures. ‘Aim for their antennae!’ Colt called, and felt rather than saw the Venusian’s grin. Sharol swept his weapon high, and a terrible hissing sound emanated from the attackers as their fragile communication fronds were seared off. Colt continued to fire, his bullets snapping the attackers’ armour. He saw one, two, three drop. Clearly, whatever make or design these things were, they had not been prepared for an Earthman’s old-fashioned weapon.
But then – he saw! Rising behind the ant-like creatures, the source of the explosions that had rocked the bar, a fire burning bright in the sky, dispelling clouds, casting a deathly glow over the swamps and the spaceport itself. Within its glow Colt could dimly make out a sinuous body, a reptilian head with large diamond eyes, and thin, graceful wings… ‘What is that?’ he said – whispered – and heard Sharol’s choked reply, ‘It’s a Sun Eater.’
The attackers parted, and through the open swathe of space Colt could see the creature soaring high above, a sleek, beautiful being flying on wings of – so it seemed – pure song; and whose exact dimensions it was too difficult to make out, so brightly did it burn.
Graceful it may have been. Yet it was not free.
The ant-like creatures had, somehow, tethered the Sun Eater to ropes of a metallic hue and, like children flying a kite, were controlling it from the ground. ‘We cannot fight it!’ Sharol said, and Colt said, ‘It’s beautiful…’
‘We will die here, Earthman,’ Sharol said, sounding resigned. But inside Colt, the coldness of battle was replaced with the heat of rage. Whatever these things were, however much they wanted to kill him – these were things he understood. Yet to enslave such a creature – such a spirit! – was to sin against nature itself.
And he could not – would not! – allow it.
He threw Sharol his gun. The Venusian caught it. ‘Take care of the advance party,’ Colt said. ‘Then follow me.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Set it free,’ Colt said, and with that he was running, the rifle strapped to his back now in his hands. It was a Martian Corps. carbine, manufactured for an old war in which Colt had once been a soldier; though it was unclear, to this day, on which side.
He came upon them like a Martian dust-devil, a Fury as of some lost legend out of Lemuria or Mu, those continents of Earth now lost to the mists of time. The rifle barked, spewing fire! He watched one enemy fall, then another. Blaster fire singed the air and a pain crawled over Colt’s arm, a burning that made him cry out, but he did not drop the gun. Then he was in their midst, battering, kicking, slamming the butt of the rifle into the strange creatures’ featureless faces. They were machines, he thought, and memory returned, but he had no time for it, not now: he fired and punched, paying no heed to his own safety, watching only as the thin streaks of silver rope were let drift, one by one. Above him, slowly, the Sun Eater was rising higher into the air. It cried out then, a voice as pure as the water of a glacier. The remaining attackers came at Colt then with renewed fury, and he knew he was done for. They had surrounded him, they had beaten him down to the ground, in the Venusian mud he lay, looking up into a sky illuminated with an artificial sun. Is this how I die? he thought, not bitterly, but with a certain disappointment: he had always seen himself dying, at last, amidst the rolling green hills of Earth.
But then, as from afar, he heard the renewed sound of fire: and, turning his head so that his cheek rested against the muddy ground, saw the Venusian, Sharol, come running, firing with Colt’s own gun. Colt reached out, grabbed one of the ant-things’ legs, and pulled, unbalancing it. He would not die without a fight, he thought: and he set on the metallic creature, prying open its armour with his bare hands, until its plates parted, and inside it – he saw! A violent green and vociferous purple, like congealing blood – the inside of the creature was indeed organic, it was alive! Colt reached for the dagger strapped to his leg, raised it with the last of his power, and plunged it into the ant-thing’s gelatinous flesh. A terrible shock ran up his arm from the creature’s body as it convulsed and died. Overhead, the Sun Eater roared, finding its tethers suddenly unmanned. Colt heard the beating of wings and felt the heat of the sun blast down around him. He covered his head with his hands, his fingers slimy with the ant-creature’s blood; and waited to die.
A moment later, still alive, he opened his eyes. All about him was a ring of ash where an unbearable heat had touched down. The ant-things were charred bodies of molten metal and bubbling ichor. Colt raises his eyes to the sky. Above his head the Sun Eater hovered, its diamond eyes looking into Colt’s. Its wings beat gently, almost lazily, against the air, raising a hot dry wind. For a long moment they held each other’s gaze. Then, with a final cry, in which gratitude or triumph, Colt never knew, intermingled, the majestic being rose into the sky like the sun, dawning.
‘Colt? Colt!’ It was Sharol, kneeling beside him, one arm dangling uselessly by his side: white bone jutted out of the flesh. ‘You’re alive!’
Colt winced. ‘Your arm is broken,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing,’ Sharol said. He threw Colt his gun back. Colt caught it one-handed. His own arm was badly burnt. ‘Come on!’
‘Back to the bar. Before spaceport security or more of these creatures show up.’
‘You want a drink this badly?’
But Colt was rising, following the Venusian. His rifle was back in its place, his gun back in its holster. He felt good. It felt good to be alive, on Venus or any other world.
‘Wait,’ he said, as they approached the bar. The bodies of ant-things littered the ground here, where Colt and Sharol had killed them. He knelt besides one, examined it cautiously. ‘What are they?’ Sharol said.
‘ReplicAnts…’ Colt said. He turned one armoured foot over, squinting. Imprinted into the metal, as he had expected, was a serial number. The memory returned. He had never seen them, until now… ‘They were manufactured back in the Jovean Wars,’ he said. ‘The bodies of human conscripts, embalmed alive into machine bodies. They were meant for war in space, not on the ground. I had thought all were decommissioned and destroyed years ago.’
‘So how did they come to be here?’ Sharol said, and Colt said, ‘I have no idea.’
‘Come on,’ Sharol said, losing interest. He pushed into the dark interior of the bar and Colt followed. The bottle of arkia, miraculously, though it had fallen to the floor, remained undamaged. Sharol picked it up, took a long swig, and handed it to Colt. The drink burned pleasantly as it slid down his throat. The corpse of the man who had began all this lay on the floor. ‘Roog,’ Sharol said, thoughtfully.
‘Treasure,’ Colt said. They traded glances. ‘Well,’ Colt said, ‘I guess we’ll never know where he came from.’
Sharol laughed. It was a surprisingly deep sound, and it echoed around the silent room. ‘I told you, Earthman,’ he said. ‘Death is not the end. Here. Fetch me your knife.’
So the Venusian had noticed Colt’s concealed dagger. He had proven himself a man of action, as good as any Earthman, if not better. He was worthy of grudging respect. And so Colt drew the knife, still slimed with the ReplicAnt’s goo, its blood, and tossed it to the Venusian, who caught it easily with his goof hand. ‘What are you going to –’ Colt began, but the Venusian merely grinned cheerfully as he knelt by the dead man. Sharol applied the sharp knife to the dead man’s throat, and began to sew off the head, whistling cheerfully as he worked. Colt took another swig of arkia. In moments it was over, and Sharol straightened up, tossed Colt back the knife, and picked up the dead man’s head by the hair. The face stared sorrowfully at Colt.
‘Was that really necessary?’ Colt said. Sharol paid him no mind. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said.
‘Where are we going?’
‘We need to find some mud,’ Sharol said.
‘And we need,’ Sharol said, and grinned again as he swung the head back and forth, back and forth with his good hand, ‘to find ourselves a witch.’
The mud stank. It reeked of fetid water and decomposing plant and animal matter. Colt and Sharol were nestling in the shallow of the swamp. Their clothes lay in an untidy heap on the bank nearby, though Colt kept his gun near. The dead man’s head was in a sack drawn with a string. Overhead the sky was a violent shade of purple and lightning flashed in the distance, heralding the coming of yet another storm.
They were two days away from Port Smith, deep into the Venusian jungles. The mud itched where it covered Colt’s burns. It was healing them. Sharol, beside him, was peacefully puffing on a cigar, his arm entirely encased in thick, grey mud. Colt’s toes stuck out of the water. Beyond them he could see the reeds of the swamp and, here and there, the water predators circling, unseen. Sometimes a tentacle broke the surface, thick and veined, before dropping into the depths again. ‘If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you,’ Sharol said. His naked chest was scarred with old wounds; much like Colt’s. His nipples were small and hard. Colt looked away. When he peeled the mud off new skin was forming over the burns. ‘Remarkable.’
‘Venus,’ Sharol said, ‘has many depths.’ Colt eyed the swamp as another tentacle rose to the surface. It was immense, and he did not like the thought of the underwater creature it belonged to. ‘I’m sure,’ he said.
‘Relax!’ Sharol said. ‘Here, give me your back.’ Colt turned, and Sharol began to apply mud to Colt’s skin. The water was as warm as a bath, and Sharol’s fingers dug deep into Colt’s skin, releasing a pressure Colt hadn’t even realised was there. He sighed in satisfaction. ‘Don’t stop,’ he said.
They remained in the water for some time. When they were done, they had washed off the mud and dried themselves on the banks of the swamp. The sun was setting, the sky awash with blood-red hues. In the swamp, a majestic creature was rising to the surface, as large as a ship. Its dome-like head had a beak and red, enormous eyes. Around the creature, tentacles rose up to the surface, moving sinuously, creating waves. The beak opened and a forlorn cry sounded, piercing the night. ‘It is the cry of the Dwellers,’ Sharol said. There was a sadness, as well as love, in his voice. ‘Listen.’ Colt did, and became aware of other, distant cries rising into the air in answer. ‘They are calling to each other, as they do, each night, across the world. But each year there are fewer and fewer to answer the call.’
Colt stared ahead. The creature, this Dweller, raised its massive bulbous head towards the unseen stars, crying in a language Colt could not understand. He cleared his throat, embarrassed, perhaps, at the Venusian’s naked display of emotion. ‘Earth’s colonial policy is not my prerogative…’ he began, awkwardly.
‘I know, Earthman,’ Sharol said, and there was bitter mockery in his voice. ‘You mean well, you all do, children of Earth, reaching for the stars. So enthusiastic, so sure of yourselves. Like overgrown toddlers, you mean us well… and yet, you continue to come.’
Colt flexed his arm. His new skin tingled. There was a fortune to be made in Venusian mud, if it could be exported off-world. There were other places like Port Smith all around the continents of Venus, now. New Earth colonies on this once-grand world, existing on the sufferance of Venus’s ancient, decaying civilization. One day the swamps would be drained, their Dwellers processed into dried-up delicacies for the enjoyment of the off-world rich, their mud re-cut and sold in minute quantities for those who could afford its healing properties… He clapped Sharol on the back, for those days were not yet, and perhaps, he thought, will never come to be. ‘Believe me,’ he said, ‘I have no desire to stay on this stinking mud-ball of a planet any more than I have to. I’m light of funds, I’ve been shot at and nearly killed and I don’t even know why, and we’re carrying a dead man’s head in a pouch. Where is this damned witch?’
Sharol laughed. Overhead the sky darkened as the unseen sun sank beyond the clouds. ‘Oh, Earthman,’ he said, but not without genuine fondness. ‘Like a toddler, you look, but you do not see.’
‘See what?’ Colt said.
Sharol, wordlessly, pointed.
Colt squinted. In the dim light the Dweller seemed to grow more immense, rising higher, like a lotus flower opening at night. And then he saw her – a lighter shade against the monster’s own. A female figure, nude and lithe, hairless and smooth, her skin the same shade of violet as Sharol’s own. She was perched on the Dweller’s mantle, and her long, reddish-violet hair caught the rays of dying sunlight through the clouds and momentarily shone. For a moment, Colt forgot to breathe. With a graceful movement the female Venusian dove, head-first, into the water of the swamp. With strong, economical strokes she swam towards them and soon reached and climbed on shore, her body shining with droplets of water like tiny diamonds. He had expected a witch – he had not expected to be bewitched instead! The swampwoman smiled, revealing small, sharp teeth. ‘Welcome back, Sharol,’ she said. ‘You bring strange friends.’ The Venusian inched his head in reply. ‘An empty head, and a dead one,’ he said, grinning. ‘This is Colt, the Earthman. Who our companion is, I do not yet know.’
‘And so you came seeking me.’ She turned her attention away from him, abruptly, transferring her gaze to Colt’s. Her eyes were fever-bright; her scrutiny discomfited Colt. ‘I would have come to you earlier,’ she said, ‘but I was observing your proclivities in the shallows, and, well… I thought it best to wait.’
Colt found himself blushing. Sharol grinned harder. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is my sister, Yaro.’
‘A pleasure,’ Colt said. ‘Ma’am.’
But again her attention snapped away, this time to the sack in Sharol’s hand. ‘A dead man walking, who yet did not know it…’ she said. ‘Who of us, walking around, alive under the scarlet skies, can ever truly name the time of our demise?’
‘We were hoping,’ Sharol said, ‘to find out where he came from.’
‘Still hunting for treasure, brother?’
‘Sure,’ Sharol said, easily. ‘Only this time, I have a partner.’
Again, she cast that quick, mayfly glance at Colt, and away. She turned abruptly. ‘Come,’ she said. She led them through a narrow trail, away from the swamp, into the jungle.
There was nothing for them to do but follow.
The witch’s house sat deep in the woods. Beyond the forest, far in the distance, rose a range of volcanic mountains. At their base stood Earth’s last settlement on this Venusian continent, which the Earthmen had called Lucille Town, perhaps named by its founder for some long bygone sweetheart. Beyond it lay only the unknown of the primeval Venusian wildlands.
‘There is no Sunday west of Lucille Town,’ so the colonists said, ‘and no God west of Port Smith.’
Though in that, as Colt and Sharol were soon to find out, the colonists could not have been more wrong…
‘So, brother,’ Yaro said. ‘What do you have for me?’
They were in her house. It was simply but tastefully decorated, and a fire burned violet in the hearth, sending plumes of scented smoke into the air. Sharol opened the string and drew the dead man’s head from the bag. ‘It stinks,’ Colt said. The head looked bad. The Venusian weather had not been kind to it, and it was beginning to decompose. Yaro said, ‘You should have brought it to me sooner.’
Sharol shrugged. ‘Can you speak with it, still?’
‘I can try.’ She took the head from him. She was dressed now, in a plain shift that rippled around her. She held the head in both hands, staring into its dead, glassy eyes. At last, Yaro shook her head. ‘Perhaps,’ she murmured. ‘Though he is long gone down the Dark Path.’
She gestured for them to follow her. Colt moved sluggishly, the smoke made his senses dull and pleasant. Yaro opened the door to a second room. The air was colder there. A curious contraption stood in the middle of the room. It was as if it had grown out of the earth, a blunt trunk surrounded by twisting many branches that spread out and in again upon themselves like tentacles. Yaro placed the dead man’s head on the trunk. She began to bend the branches, attaching them, one by one, to the head, pushing them deep into the melting skin and reluctant bone. Colt gritted his teeth but did not look away. When it was done the head had been penetrated multiple times by the branches, and Yaro took position in a tangle of branches. This time it was as though the tree itself was responding to her. The branches moved, snaking under Yaro’s shift, attaching themselves to her. She began to murmur, words in a language Colt did not understand. Her eyes closed and a faint blue light began to glow along the branches of the tree, spreading out from Yaro to the disembodied head. Colt stared in horrified fascination as the air began to fizz and hiss with powerful discharge. Yaro began to shake, engulfed by cold fire.
The dead man blinked.
Colt stared. It could not be happening, surely.
The head blinked again. Then it opened its mouth and screamed.
Colt took an involuntary step back, and bumped into Sharol, who held him steady. Yaro made a sharp gesture and the dead man immediately fell silent. ‘There is not much there,’ Yaro said.
‘Try,’ Sharol said, gripping Colt’s arm. Yaro closed her eyes. The head opened its mouth again. It began to speak.
‘Drowned. In the swamp. Roog. Roog! See him come. The man from the stars has a whip for a heart. Heart of a star! The fire burns, he promised us wealth but made us into slaves. I alone escaped, but they follow, they follow! Untold treasure, all you desire. But the treasure is death. Do not seek your fortune! On the steps of the temple, north by northwest.’
‘Make it focus! Give us a route!’ Sharol cried, his excitement infecting Colt. Treasure! he thought. He pushed out of his mind the dead man’s warnings. Dead men could not be trusted at the best of times. Yaro was shaking, sweat pouring down her face, turning her shift damp. It clung to her body, Colt was aware of the curve of her backside, of her nipples, small and hard like her brother’s. The blue flames shot upwards, and over the dead man’s head a picture began to form, hazy at first, but gaining definition. It showed the volcanic peaks of the nearby mountain range and, beyond it, a mighty river snaking through marshland and swamps. Here and there, through the thick canopy of the trees, Colt could see smoke rising from unseen villages, Venusian settlements no Earthman had ever seen. The picture rushed forward, and suddenly he saw: an ancient temple rising out of a clearing in the jungle, on the banks of a great swamp into which the river fed as it passed. ‘There!’ Sharol said. At the sound of his voice Yaro dropped her arms. She fell to her knees, the branches making slick wet sounds as they detached from her. The image faded away, and the dismebodied head was silent once more. ‘Yaro!’
Sharol went to her, kneeling by her side. Yaro shuddered. Her eyes fluttered open, but what horrors she saw neither of them could see.
‘Roog…’ she said, and her voice was a pitiful howl of pain and rage and fear. ‘Roog…!’
There is a special monotony to travel on Venus. You who have sampled, perhaps, the volcanic isles of Earth’s South Pacific ocean, or the thick jungles of that planet’s interior, may think you understand something of its nature, but you would be wrong. There is something crushing to the soul in the ever-present cloud cover, never a release from the humidity and heat, never the sight of blue skies or the rolling green hills, of which the blind poet Rhysling famously wrote. He had not been fond of Venus, if Colt correctly recalled: writing of it as rotten, retched, foul, and filled with death.
Well, what do you expect from a drunken old poet, was Colt’s take on it. For, travelling for days through jungle and swamp, and sailing the majestic river, which the Venusian swampmen call the Mukhtar, and some worship as a god, Colt began to see Venus through his companion’s eyes.
This was not the planet that the Earthmen, God-fearing administrators and colonists, ever saw. Through Sharol’s eyes Colt saw the beauty hidden in the interaction of clouds, for which the Venusians have as many as fifty or a hundred different names; he saw the swirl of hidden currents in the river, and smelled the smoke of hidden villages, and that earthy, if unearthly, stink of the swamps, which the Venusians savour like a fine wine. Venus was a planet of secrets and hidden depths, of mysteries beyond recall. And as they travelled their affinity deepened, his and Sharol’s, and in the privacy of their small, leaf-like boat, they consummated that special bond that only men can share with other men.
Sometimes, in the dark hours, it seemed to Colt that he saw a brightness in the sky, like a false sun in the distance, followed by the inevitable sound of a distant explosion. He did not comment on it, and neither did Sharol; but he had noticed it, ever since they had left Port Smith, and it made him think of the Sun Eater he had inadvertently saved.
‘Sharol?’ Colt said. It was night, and in the distance the Dwellers called to each other across the swamps. The night was thick with humidity and the buzzing of flying insects, drawn to the boat’s dim light.
‘What is that sound?’
Sharol went very still. His small, keen ears moved in a manner no Earthman’s could. Scanning. Colt listened, too. The sound of the water had changed. It was deeper, quicker. A rumble in the distance, growing closer –
‘Rapids!’ Colt cried, just as Sharol’s smaller body hit his, sending both of them overboard. The water was surprisingly cold, sending a shudder up Colt’s spine. Sharol was a shadow beside him. ‘Hold on to me!’ Sharol called. The current took their boat away. Ahead, white foam rose into the air and a roar entered Colt’s ears. The falls were close – too close!
The current dragged them, fast. Colt began to panic when he felt Sharol’s hand tightening on his arm, pulling him with force. They had stopped! He turned and saw a thick tangle of dark roots rising out of the water, Sharol a shadow amidst them. They were the roots of a natongtong tree, which spread out underwater. The current pulled, pulled at them! Colt held fast to Sharol’s hand, then on to one of the roots. They began to drag themselves, laboriously, along the thick, slimy roots, holding on for their lives.
At last, they made the bank. They lay on the wet mud, breathing deeply and hoarsely. Colt stared out at the thundering smoke overhead. A mere hundred feet further and they would have plunged to their death. He smiled, weakly. ‘Well, that was a close call,’ he said.
Sharol said nothing.
He turned his head, but Sharol wasn’t there.
Colt pushed himself up, alarmed. The mud clung to his skin. Footprints in the ground. He scrambled up the slope from the river, hands and feet clawing for purchase. He came over the rise when a hand grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and forced him down. ‘Hush, you fool!’
Colt lay belly down in the mud, next to Sharol.
It rose out of the bank, more immense than anything Colt could have imagined. What vanished race had once possessed such advanced technology as to erect this temple complex? Vast stone pillars rose high into the sky, each the size and height of many men; giant statues were erected amidst them, of fantastical, vanished beings, the Shambleau and the Thag and the Nameless. And towering above all, a chain of vast pyramids, starkly illuminated against the violet sky, amidst which dark shapes flittered and fled, rising and soaring through the air.
‘What is this place?’ Colt whispered, awed. But Sharol’s reply never came. In its stead there came the unmistakable sound of multiple energy guns, all charging in unison. Colt glanced wildly sideways. Dark shapes rose all around them, enclosing them in a trap from which there was no escape.
‘What is this place?’ It was a voice with the twang of Earth in it, a rich and melodious voice, in which amusement and contempt intermingled. A small, round shape stepped forward, revealing itself as a small, rotund man with round glasses and a soft, not unpleasant face. ‘It is mine.’
Beside Colt, Sharol was reaching desperately for a gun. Colt grabbed his hand, stopped him. They were outnumbered, and outgunned.
The small man laughed. There was something familiar about him, about his face and voice, his mannerism… Colt’s eyes opened wide as realisation dawned, old memory returned. ‘Van Huisen…’ he said.
He knew that name – that face! The mining magnate, the rich playboy son of an Earth dynasty who had become the worst despot and warlord the solar system had ever seen. The Warlord of Jupiter, they had called him, and The Butcher of Europa. No wonder those ReplicAnt soldiers had seemed familiar – it was Van Huisen who had employed them, in his insane war to become the emperor of the Jovean moons!
But surely the man was dead? He had been indicted for countless crimes, including for xenocide (against the peaceful ocean-dwellers of Europa), post-mortem, his army scattered, his ReplicAnt soldiers destroyed. Of his Five Year Reign nothing remained, no statue, no memorial. The most evil man in the solar system, they had called him. Surely, surely he was dead?
‘Van Huisen? Yes, yes… I remember that name,’ the man in the round glasses said, thoughtfully. ‘And who might you be?’
‘Kill him, Colt! Kill him!’ Sharol was shaking, sweat poured down his face: Colt had never seen him this way. He restrained his friend as best he could, afraid for his life. ‘Ah,’ Van Huisen said, smiling pleasantly. ‘You have heard of me?’ He turned back to Colt, shaking his head. ‘Venusians,’ he said. ‘Such an emotional race, don’t you think? They are like children, they need the firm hand of an adult to guide them. I could use you, yes. One does not waste labour. Bring them,’ he ordered his ReplicAnt, sharply. Colt and Sharol were pulled up to their feet. They were led away, deep into the temple complex, into the shadows of the pyramids.
In that war Colt was but a young soldier. He still remembered landing on Europa, after the massacre. Remembered the corpses of the gentle, whale-like creatures, stranded on the ice, their enormous eyes unseeing. Once Europa had sang with the mind-song of its peaceful, telepathic inhabitants.
But the war had turned that icy moon into a wasteland.
A hatred he had thought forgotten, buried deep, frozen, had erupted in him. Captive, helpless, he and Sharol were led into the complex. From within, all signs of grandeur were gone, and he could see the place for what it truly was: a ruin.
Make no mistake: man has conquered space before. And out of what strange vanished race did this place come? Atlantis, Mu, of which only hints and myths remain?
Now the jungle encroached freely into the complex; the trees sent roots to break the stones, upend the statues. Once it must have sat on a raised plateau, but the ground had eroded and the river had come in, swamping the once-grand courtyard, turning the earth into fetid pools of stagnant water. They trudged through, and around the main pyramid.
Beyond, an enormous part-lake, part-swamp spread out as far as the eye could see. The water reached up to the lowest level of the pyramids, leaving a black line along the ancient stone. All around the shore, amidst the pyramids, stood Venusian swampmen and women. Colt heard Sharol’s indrawn breath, the hiss of his anger and disgust.
They were slaves.
Chains linked the Venusians’ legs, binding them together. Scattered among them were armed ReplicAnts, keeping order. The linked chains of slaves were sent into the water, wading, deeper and deeper. Lights hovered over the surface, and Colt saw a massive, floating platform, on which a giant crane stood, extending far over the water. Divers came and went from the platform.
It was a salvage operation.
‘What is under there?’ Colt said. Van Huisen smiled in evident satisfaction. ‘Treasure, boy!’ he said. ‘Treasure the likes of which the solar system has not seen in aeons! And you, boys, will help me recover it.’
‘What was that?’
For a moment Van Huisen looked uncomfortable, confused. Then the glint returned to his eyes, and Colt realised, with a cold sickening feeling, that the man was quite, quite insane.
‘Now get to work!’ Van Huisen roared. The ReplicAnts dragged Colt and Sharol towards the nearest chain gang. Chains were fastened to their feet. A ReplicAnt overseer flicked an energy whip over them with casual contempt, and Sharol screamed as a strip of skin was burned clean off his back. Colt shuffled along with the Venusians. Into the shallows of the water, then deeper. What were they searching for, he didn’t know. He knew, only, that they must find it – or die trying.
How long they had been there Colt didn’t know. He had lost track of the passage of time. The voices were the worst, after a while. The incessant murmuring of the mad voice in the lake, calling, always calling to them to bring it out. Roog. Roog!
It was need and demand, hunger and hate, loathing and desire. It was a command, and they could do nothing but obey. They slept fitfully and rarely, were fed a thin gruel. Van Huisen and his ReplicAnt soldiers had enslaved the swampmen of the nearby villages and now ranged farther and farther, returning each day with new captives. Roog! It was a weapon, it was a prayer: in time, it almost became Colt’s sole reason to live.
Almost. But not quite. For he was not alone. Sharol was with him, Sharol of the warm skin and the easy laugh, Sharol of the quick draw: they were partners. And the treasure would be theirs, and revenge with it. They just had to bide their time.
Colt was not the only Earthman in the salvage site. There were others there, and Martians, and the men of half a dozen other moons and planets. How they had come to be there, he did not know. They were the dregs of the solar system, easily missed, easily lost. And every day he watched them give their lives to the swamp, and with each agonised death, each beating or drowning, he could feel the thing in the swamp grow stronger, hungrier, and heard its call echoing louder in his mind: Roog!
‘It is near,’ he heard Sharol say, as though from far away. They were standing on the floating platform, illuminated by the harsh glare of floodlights. ‘It is rising.’
‘Yes,’ Colt said, and, ‘Yes.’
A numbness had spread through him. For three days and three nights they had dived from the platform, into the depths of the swamp. Dredging, searching, knowing they were getting close. It had been easy to be promoted to the platform. No one survived up there long.
They were unchained, up here. They had to be, to dive and return. Colt had never been so tired. There was no escape from the platform, in the glare of floodlights and the shadows of the ancient pyramids. There was only one way out. Perhaps he had always known that.
He adjusted the mask on his face and dove head first into the water; and felt Sharol, a bullet-shape beside him. Together they dove deep, their torches illuminating the murky depths. There were others down there, little mechanical submersibles and naked Venusian divers, nets and hooks and rope. And then there were the dead.
They were everywhere. They floated in a thick glow of decomposition and decay, staring at Colt with white, milky eyes. Venusians and Earthmen and Martians, sacrificed each day for the crazed god at the bottom of the swamp, this Roog, and with each death it had grown stronger and more insane.
It was close.
He could feel it now, feel its relentless, hungry pull. How had it taken so long for them to find it, when it was so obviously there, a beacon calling out, warping minds, infecting their dreams? He dove, deeper and deeper, Sharol’s muscular body moving beside him with fluid, economic grace. A rising shoal of divers, converging on this one place.
In the mud, half-buried, ghostly in the half-light of their lamps. It was an enormous stone statue: a savage face like a ritual mask, eyes gouged deep into the stone, shining with bioluminescence. There was both savagery and beauty etched into that stone idol, a hunger, a desire. It was a thing out of Atlantis or Lemuria, the last remnant of its race, found here in the last place on or off Earth. A little lost god. The divers converged on the idol. Nets engulfed it. Ropes wrapped over it, carefully. Colt watched the first of the divers, a small Venusian woman, reach the idol. Perhaps curious, perhaps, in her tiredness and despair, lacking caution, she reached out a hand and touched it. For a moment a dreamy look entered her face, palely visible through her mask. Then she simply burst open, like fungal spores or dust, a coalescence of blood and brains, intestines and ovaries. The idol seemed to glow, it sucked in the cloud as if the Venusian had never existed; and it exulted, screaming out in savage joy across all of their minds: I… am… Roog!
Still they heaved and secured, and overhead the giant crane began to pull, and slowly, slowly, the idol was pulled free of the mud. It rose through the water, an inhuman figure and yet, somehow, carved by humans long-gone, whose science had become myth and superstition. Colt stared at it in horrified awe and disgust: this was the treasure they had come to find.
And now they were its captives.
He turned his head and saw Sharol looking at him, and a shared thought passed through their minds, and they began to rise, swimming to the surface. On the platform, Van Huisen himself, surrounded by his ReplicAnts, was standing, ‘Well?’ he demanded, ‘Well, is it here? Is it here?’
He reminded Colt at that moment of an ill-tempered, spoiled child, one who had received too many presents and yet still bullied away those of others. To Van Huisen, the idol was just another toy.
Colt emerged fully out of the water and caught his breath, shuddering with cold and tension. A moment later Sharol, too, rose. He looked ill in the floodlights. Overhead the crane strained against the weight of the idol. Slowly, the line rose. The divers emerged like a dark cloud in the water.
The idol rose. Its great domed head broke the surface of the water. There was a silence all across the swamp and the old ruined temple. Roog. Roog was rising again.
And no one was paying attention to Colt and Sharol.
Again, they exchanged glances. They knew each other’s mind. Quietly, they rose. The idol, pulled entirely out of the water, hung suspended in the air above the swamp. It was magnificent — magnificent and grotesque! The mud and water sluiced off it, hissing from some immense heat emanating from within the stone. The idol whispered of blood sacrifice and dark rituals, of death-magic and the science of pain. Van Huisen’s eyes were shining, he seemed enraptured as a child.
Colt and Sharol made their way unobtrusively behind the control unit of the crane. On the deck Van Huisen stood with his arms wide open, the waves lapping at his feet. The idol was being lowered towards him. It must have been a weapon, once, Colt thought, the ancient remnants of the wars that had torn Lemuria and Atlantis apart and left their children stranded on this and other planets. What could Van Huisen do, being in control of it?
He raised his face to the sky. He missed the stars badly, at that moment. Then, far in the distance, but coming closer – something like dawn, like the sun. He heard a distant explosion. Sharol turned to him, a swift glance. ‘I’ve been hearing that sound ever since we left Port Smith,’ he said. Colt shook his head, pointed: a ReplicAnt had wandered a short way away from the others, was just turning towards them, its gun beginning to rise.
They took it front and back, Sharol grabbing the cyborg’s gun as Colt kicked its legs out from under it and broke its neck, cleanly, with a twist. He lowered the ReplicAnt gently to the ground, leaning it against the control booth’s metal wall. No one had noticed. Their chance of escape was now. Colt liberated a beam pistol from the creature’s armour. They were armed and, for the moment, they were free. Again, they exchanged looks. The water was near… all they had to do was swim for it.
Colt grinned. Sharol, after a moment, grinned back and hefted his gun. It felt good, Colt thought, to have a gun again. You always knew where you were, with a gun.
‘Welcome, Roog of Lemuria, risen again after millennia!’ They stepped around the control unit. The idol had been lowered onto the deck. Its eyes had not lost their weird, ethereal glow. In the distance, a false sun, growing closer. Van Huisen spread open his arms. ‘You who were worshipped as a god,’ he said, ‘will now meet one who had lived as one!’ and, so saying, he stepped forward, and embraced the monstrous stone statue, placing his lips on the idol’s on in a lustful, obscene kiss!
‘Now?’ Sharol said.
‘Now!’ Colt said.
They stepped in unison and began to fire.
The ReplicAnts were taken by surprise, if such creatures can be said to be capable of surprise. The beams hissed through the air, agitating water molecules as they passed. The air filled with steam. ReplicAnts dropped. Others turned, firing. Colt knew they could not win, that this was suicide, yet a savage joy sang through him as he fired, rolled, grabbed a weapon from the hands of a downed cyborg and continued to mow down Van Huisen’s guard. This was revenge, and revenge was a dish best served with guns.
Van Huisen still had his arms wrapped around the statue. Now he turned his head back, to look at them, an irritated frown crossing his face. That was what Colt always remembered, afterwards: that petulant look on the Butcher of Europa’s face, a moment before it changed forever. At first it was simple confusion, and then a nameless terror entered the man’s eyes, and milky clouds began to pour into his retina. His body shuddered, spasming uncontrollably, and he began to scream.
Colt was cornered by two ReplicAnts, his arm and face bleeding and burned: he faced them, ready to die.
But no shot came. Colt stared at the ReplicAnts, but they were unmoving. Just ahead Van Huisen was still screaming, fused into the rock. Colt said, ‘Sharol?’
‘Yes?’ came the reply, from the other side of the platform.
‘Are you still alive?’
‘Yes.’ There was a short silence. ‘You?’
Colt shrugged. He grabbed the beam gun from the nearest ReplicAnt, smashed in the creature’s face, then fired in a long beam, low and wide, turning, leaving around him a circle of corpses.
‘I’m pretty sure!’ he said.
In the distance, there was the sound of an explosion, like thunder, but it was not thunder. Colt thought he could see the sun, but that was impossible, on Venus. In the water the Venusian swampmen and women stared up at the two of them, mutely. ‘Sharol?’
Sharol came and joined him, cutting a swathe of dead and broken ReplicAnts in his wake. ‘You!’ he said, addressing the Venusians in the water. They looked up at him in mute incomprehension. ‘Shoo!’ Colt said. ‘Shoo!’
‘Get out of here!’ Sharol said. Still they did not move. He sighed, adjusted the setting on his gun, and began to fire into the water. ‘Go away! Get back to your villages! Hurry!’
A panic broke in the water, and the Venusians, as one, began to swim to shore. Colt and Sharol, standing side by side in the glare of the one remaining floodlight, watched them rise ashore like a dark tide. Soon they were gone amidst the pyramids.
The sudden silence was broken by a human laugh, the sound of hands, clapping. ‘Bravo,’ the voice said. Colt turned, slowly. Van Huisen was standing beside the idol, but the idol’s eyes no longer shone, and there was something indescribably alien and disgusting in Van Huisen’s face: something that used to be his eyes. ‘Bravo!’
‘It’s still here?’ Sharol said.
‘Shoot it,’ Colt said.
The face that had belonged to Van Huisen smiled. Colt and Sharol opened fire. Van Huisen staggered back, still smiling. Then he stopped and breathed deep. His chest inflated. He seemed to grow bigger and meaner in that time.
He took a step forward.
He was unharmed.
‘Roog…’ he said, softly. His tongue snaked out, red and fleshy like a Martian cactus. He licked his lips. His teeth were like stone, and there was mud leaking from his eyes and ears. He opened his mouth wide. ‘Roog!’ he roared. His tongue snaked out and continued to emerge, a vast red snake. It looped around Sharol and pulled him to the ground. Colt fired, but the beams bounced harmlessly off of the monster. ‘Sharol!’
‘Run! Save yourself!’
There was the sound of an explosion, closer this time. Waves lashed the platform, almost upending Colt. Van Huisen grew bigger, and bigger still. His tongue, a red pulsating tentacle, tightened over Sharol’s helpless body. Van Huisen’s weight was making the platform lean-to, the crane was tilting alarmingly, swinging as the platform rocked. Colt fired, helplessly, sweat pouring down his face. He threw down the gun and ran to his friend.
‘Roog! Roog! Roog!’
‘Go…’ Sharol whispered. He reached out a hand, stroked Colt’s cheek. ‘Colt… go.’
‘I’m not leaving you.’
Colt shook his head. There was sweat in his eyes. He blinked. The Roog was by now enormous. Van Huisen’s body bloated outwards, muscles and skin and blood vessels stretched. It towered over them, as tall as the crane now. ‘I am Roog!’ it cried, ‘Lemuria shall rise again!’ Red tongues lashed out of its enormous mouth, tentacles reaching out for Colt, sinking into the lake, questing, hungering… Colt was going to get taken, the ancient god was going to devour them both. He squeezed Sharol’s hand. ‘At least we found it,’ he said, trying to smile. ‘The treasure.’
‘Fool,’ Sharol said. The breath was leaving him. The monster’s tongue wrapped itself around Colt. There was no escape. It was slimy and wet and hot. He felt its pull, tried to fight against it. Overhead the giant risen god’s laugh boomed across the sky.
No, Colt realised. It was a different sound, intruding on his consciousness. It was the sound of explosions, and the air felt hot and dry. The Roog stopped laughing, its head turned this way and that. It looked annoyed.
‘Who dares disturb the mighty Roog?’ it said. Its voice had the petulance of Van Huisen still in it. Its tentacle eased the pressure on Colt; just a little. He looked up.
The sun burned in the purple Venusian sky. It dispelled clouds and illuminated the night, casting shadows and reflections on the water. It was the sun which the blind poet Rhysling had spoken of when he described feeling its warmth on his skin, and knowing he was back home, amidst the green hills of Earth.
And it cried. It cried out in song. It was not the sun, but…
‘Sun Eater…’ Sharol whispered. Colt’s eyes filled with tears as he stared into the glare, saw, amidst the flames, the lizardine body, the leathery wings of the Sun Eater. It turned enormous diamond eyes on Colt, as though it could see every part of him; which perhaps it could. Then it gave a cry of anger and rushed at the bloated god.
The tentacles eased off Colt and Sharol as the Roog turned to his attacker, his mouth opening in rage. Tentacles whipped through the air, trying to wrap around the Sun Eater, but the heat from the flying creature burned them clean off and the Roog cried with anger and pain. Chunks of tongue fell down to the water, red and pussing. The Sun Eater flew at the Roog, gouging deep chunks of meat out of its grotesque human shape, which splashed down into the water, as large as pyramid blocks. Colt grabbed Sharol’s shoulders. The Roog’s attention was off them. Sharol had lost consciousness. Colt began to drag him to the edge of the platform.
Overhead the Sun Eater was a ball of flame, but the Roog had stretched its massive lips into a nasty smile, and a new tongue appeared and licked his red flesh. His giant hands reached for the crane and tore it free. The Sun Eater, turning in a graceful swirl, was coming back at the Roog. The Roog screamed incoherent laughter and rage and swung the giant crane like a bat.
Colt could only watch, in horrified incomprehension, as the crane connected with the Sun Eater’s body with a sickening crunch. For a moment, there was silence; and the sun seemed suspended in the air. Then it fell, like dusk, slowly and inexorably, and hit the deck. The platform shook and the water rose and fell on Colt and Sharol. The swamp water found the Sun Eater and extinguished it. It was dying. Without its light it was just a beast, one no longer even capable of flight. It turned its diamond eyes on Colt and blinked, once. Colt crawled towards it. Above his head the Roog was laughing, laughing, growing bigger and bigger into the sky. Soon its head was level with the clouds, its legs extended down into the swamp floor. It had forgotten them.
‘I’m sorry,’ Colt whispered. He reached out, stroked the Sun Eater’s reptilian head. It felt warm, but no longer burning. He withdrew his hand.
Then the Sun Eater imploded.
It was a silent thing. The creature’s entire mass compressed inwardly, eyes and scales and wings broken up and shrank, inwards.
Colt stared at the death of the Sun Eater.
Where it had been, there remained a softly glowing egg.
He carried Sharol on his back, swimming to the shore. Sharol had recovered enough to walk, by then. They leaned on each other as they walked away from the temple complex. Behind them the giant Roog was smashing up the ancient pyramids. It was like a child, playing with its toys. Soon, if it weren’t stopped, it would take over the world.
‘What… happened back there?’ Sharol said.
‘I saw a god rising,’ Colt said. ‘And a Sun Eater die. Come. We must hurry.’
Sharol did not ask why. They walked away from the ancient temple, along the river bank, before departing from it into the jungle.
‘I can’t… go any farther,’ Sharol said.
‘You have to. Just over the next hill.’
And Sharol would comply, and Colt would make him go over just one more hill. They were not like the green hills of earth, but they were hills, all the same, and hard to climb. Hills often are.
‘You need medical help,’ Colt said. ‘Lucille Town is three days away, by my estimate.’
‘What difference does it make,’ Sharol said. ‘We lost.’
Colt shrugged. ‘We are still alive,’ he said.
At the top of the next hill they stopped, and rested. They had a view over the jungle and the river, and in the distance they could see the swamp and the ruined temple. The Roog’s head was lost in the clouds now. Soon it would be visible from space.
‘No wonder the Atlanteans died out,’ Sharol said.
‘Yes,’ Colt said.
He smiled, a private smile. ‘Look,’ he said.
They saw it before they heard it. The sound travelled slower than the light, so that, when they saw it, it was in total silence.
It was hard to say, afterwards, exactly what it was they saw.
Certainly, there was a flash of terrible brightness.
The Roog’s legs seemed to give way under it, suddenly.
It was the brightness of the sun, turning everything white. And then the Roog was no longer there. Sound followed, a rolling thunder, travelling for miles. The light dimmed, only slightly. The flames rose upwards, smoke erupting in a vast towering mushroom cloud. Make no mistake, humanity has conquered space before: and out of pre-history there come to us the ancient myths as the phoenix, resurrected in fire and ash, for such a creature could never have evolved on Earth.
It seemed to Colt, afterwards, that before the cloud dispersed he saw a brightness, as beautiful as a bird, born out of the flames and take off, into the air.
They sat on the hilltop and watched the sun rise over the Venusian skies.
In the distance, faint and fading, a final whisper in their minds.
Colt was playing Venusian Hi-Lo and winning when Sharol came into the bar. He was limping, holding on to a crutch, but he was smiling all the same. Colt smiled back.
They had travelled through swampland and jungle to Lucille Town, under the shadow of the volcanoes. Neither was in good shape when they finally made it. But they had made it. That was the important thing.
The city prospered. A lumber yard was operating at one end of the town, and the men were busy clearing away the trees. The houses were slowly being converted into permanent structures, surrounded by clean white picket fences. A new road was being built, linking the settlement to Port Smith. Everything seemed orderly, prosperous, and safe.
One day, Colt thought, all of Venus would be like this. The colonists would drain the swamps, chop down the forests, build roads and towns all over the planet. Such a world would have no room in it for Dwellers or Sun Eaters; the old temples would become roadside attractions, the old gods would die; and such a world would have no place in it for a man like Colt.
One day, Colt thought. But not today.
‘Got room for one more?’ Sharol said. Colt moved his chair and the man beside him, a gruff marine, did the same. Sharol pulled over a chair and sat down. He put his hand, briefly, on Colt’s.
‘Deal me in,’ he said.
This novelette originally appeared in Old Venus edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (Bantam, March 2016)]]>
It was even larger than we realized, half-buried in the cove’s sandy beach. Scales the size of cars covered its sides; the smokestacks running from nose to dorsal fin towered above the seawall ringing the cove. Its cavernous mouth moaned as the sea breeze passed through. Rigging and fishing nets dangled from its teeth; shredded block and tackle dripped and shivered in the wind. The great megaphone, perched atop its nose like a human-sized conch shell, crackled, but was otherwise voiceless.
The whole town was present. Some stood ankle-deep in the sand; some peered from the seawall. The behemoth lay tilted on its side, the exposed hull covered with barnacles and seaweed.
Beside me, my neighbor Dan stepped forward and pressed his hand against it. “The wood’s soft,” he called back to us. “Rotted through.”
We clenched our fists.
When the behemoth first came, it spoke such comforting words. Our cove was already nearly barren of fish, our need for sustenance overwhelming the sea’s local resources.
“If I don’t help you, everyone will starve,” the beast said, its cheerful voice crackling through the megaphone. “In a year, there will be no fish left at all. For a small price, however, I will guard your cove and ensure that you have enough fish when you need them.”
We paid in oil: twenty barrels, which the beast sucked dry with a metal proboscis before sinking back beneath the waves and stationing itself at the center of the cove.
The wooden belly gave way beneath our axes and fish cleavers. The sodden, porous planks oozed water and slime, and shredded when we tore at them with our bare hands.
The great behemoth’s megaphone groaned and crackled. Its voice was weak and reedy. “Please,” the beast begged. “Please. I need help. Where is your gratitude? When you needed me, I helped you.”
It was my cousin Lenora’s ax that broke through the belly first. She gasped and scrambled back from the hole the instant the wood crumbled inward. Dan, myself, and several others moved in to continue what she started, but a wretched stench assailed us through the splintered gash. Pungent and warm, it was strong enough to make us gag and choke as we hacked and pried at the disintegrating wood.
Others rushed to join us, and together we opened a great, gaping hole in the behemoth’s belly. The megaphone crackled again, and the beast cried out as if in pain, “You only hurt yourselves! Who will help you now?”
The behemoth began by designating special fishing days. “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, you will be allowed to fish,” it announced across the waves. “Fishing on any other days will be considered poaching, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
So we fished on those days, and those days alone, and if anyone went out to fish at any other time, the great behemoth attacked them, its jaws frothing the sea, its teeth shattering boat and bone. Whenever a neighbor’s body washed ashore, we buried it quietly in the churchyard, saddened but confident that the same would not happen to us. The behemoth was clear: Tuesdays and Wednesdays we could fish. All other fishing would be considered poaching.
With so few fish in our cove, we had to be careful.
With a final pull, the belly’s contents spilled forth, slopping across our shins and onto the sand in a great rush of liquefied, rotten fish meat. The stink made some dash up the beach and collapse, retching into the dry seaweed at the base of the seawall. The rest of us pressed our hands over our noses and mouths, eyes stinging and watering, our skin damp with the stench.
As meager light seeped into the cavernous belly, it revealed heaps of spoiled fish, enough to feed our town for months, maybe even years. The fisheyes stared up at us, mirroring our gaping glares.
“It would all have come back to you,” the behemoth moaned, its voice breaking over the megaphone. “You might have had it all.”
Beside me, Dan’s ax handle squeaked as he tightened his grip. The stench fueled something deep within us. When one of the scales creaked and lifted, we all looked up.
After another month, the behemoth required another payment of oil. The fish population had improved. When we hauled in our nets, more often than not they strained with our catch. Pleased, we paid thirty barrels of oil when the beast requested it.
“But now there must be limits,” the behemoth announced, its voice echoing against the seawall and the buildings facing the cove. “Although most only fish on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, some boats take too much. From now on, each boat may only take what it needs to feed the families of its crew and no more. Anyone who disregards this limit will be considered poaching, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
So we estimated our needs and pulled what we considered adequate to sustain us from the cove, but the behemoth found several boats still took too much. Its gnashing teeth missed no one it wanted to catch, and by the end of the second month, six more boats and their crews had been consumed.
Again, we buried those who washed ashore, and at night, listened to their starving families wail with grief. But still we obeyed, taking home only what the behemoth had instructed, confident that the same would not happen to us.
The fish grew plentiful.
The scale lifted on metal hinges, and from within, a face peered out at us. Someone pointed and shouted, “There’s someone inside!”
At the sound, the face disappeared, and the scale slapped shut.
The stench alone could not hold us at bay. Surging forward, we clambered up the pitted sides to the hinged scale. With crowbars and hammers, we pried it open. A cry rang out within, but Dan snagged the man before he could scramble away and dragged him from the porthole.
He was a small man, a bony man, with wide eyes and a gaunt face. He wailed as we pulled him down, hauled him through the rotten fish, and threw him to the sand. His feet were bare, wrinkled, and peeling, as if they’d soaked in salt water for weeks. His clothes clung to his wiry frame. He whimpered, clutching his hands to his face to block out the sun and the staring crowd.
I thought of my nephews huddling in my mother’s arms late at night, crying for my sister and brother-in-law, whose mangled bones lay buried with six others in a composite grave. How many of us had the behemoth devoured?
Beth hit him first, and when the little man squealed with pain, we realized he could be hurt, even killed, and we fell upon him like gulls, tearing him to pieces as he screamed and screamed.
When he was dead, we stood with bloodied hands, our rage inflamed. In the stillness following his final cry, two dozen other scales clattered shut. We looked up at the behemoth’s mighty side, crowbars in hand.
“Sixty barrels of oil,” the behemoth declared upon the next month. “Too many of you have been caught poaching, and it requires more work than I initially estimated to keep your cove full of fish.”
We did not have sixty barrels. The government’s oil moths came only once every three months to deliver our town’s seasonal allotment of fuel, laying ten-barrel drums like eggs along the outskirts of town while their wings stirred up towers of dust that blanketed everything in a film of grit. Sixty barrels was more than a third of our entire fuel allotment, and it would be weeks before the moths returned with more.
When we told the behemoth we could not pay the increased fee, the behemoth’s megaphone crackled and said, “Then I will have to limit you further. On Tuesdays, you may only fish an hour after dawn, and an hour before dusk. On Wednesday mornings, you may fish from seven to nine, and at no other times.”
Such constraints would have made it impossible to feed our families, but when we protested, the behemoth replied, “Any caught fishing beyond those times will be considered poaching, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
At first, some tried to circumvent the limits, but after three boats fell, crushed and chummed by the behemoth, we did not resist.
We pried up each scale and pulled out the frail people within, tossing them to our neighbors despite their pleas. They were weak, breakable: the behemoth’s blood and bones.
“Please!” one skeletal woman cried. “I have children to feed!”
“No, I beg you!” a withered young man wailed. “This was all I could do!”
“I don’t know anything else,” an elderly man said quietly before our neighbors killed him.
When every scale stood open and empty, we climbed inside the ruins of the beast. But the spaces beyond the scales were not what we imagined: narrow benches lined narrow, wet rooms filled with rows upon rows of metal pedals. The muggy air stank of sweat and piss, blood and spoiled fish. Our footsteps echoed in the behemoth’s shell.
From within, we heard its voice over the megaphone, “Fools! You don’t know what you’ve done. There are far, far worse things than me beneath the waves.”
We did not listen as we wandered through the beast’s bare innards, but although we searched and searched, we found no one else. Just a cramped and hopeless space.
When the behemoth requested sixty barrels of oil again the next month, we still could not pay. This time, over the megaphone, it declared, “Then I will limit you further. You may fish only at certain times on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but I will change the times every week. It will be your responsibility to learn the new times and abide by them. Any caught fishing outside these limits will be considered poaching and will be dealt with accordingly.”
We tried, but the times shifted too sporadically. When week after week the behemoth ate more ships, scattering their shattered hulls and what remained of the crews across the beach, we all became poachers. Under the cover of night, we slipped out to net what we could, always with an eye toward the behemoth’s glowing smokestacks to warn us if it surged to life.
In the daylight hours, it was impossible. The instant a ship set out into the cove, confident in its timing, the behemoth would crash down upon it and devour it. Its teeth churned the cove into a bloody froth.
Some said we should fight it, but most were too afraid of the consequences if we failed. So, instead, we stood at the seawall and watched it tear our neighbors apart. In the end, some would swear they heard it laughing.
We stood beneath the behemoth’s ruins, staring at the cold smokestacks and silent megaphone. We could not meet each other’s eyes, or the eyes of the corpses at our feet. The cove’s waves hissed, cursing us, and someone was crying. Perhaps it was me. The sunset cast a hot orange glow across the beach and the backs of our necks. In that all-encompassing light, we saw the battered fins and the great gouges cut into its side by something bigger, something stronger, from the deep.
The incoming tide washed away the rotten fish and the dead, but the stink lingered long after the light faded and we shuffled back to our homes. It clung to our skin even after we washed and changed our clothes, as if we had absorbed it.
In the weeks that followed, we pretended that life had returned to normal, that we were not changed, not marked. We pretended that our night terrors of the behemoth’s gnashing teeth had not been replaced by the faces of our own neighbors, of our own hands rending flesh and bone. We pretended not to hear the megaphone’s crackle at the edges of our own voices.
Whenever we fished thereafter, although we watched for a breeching fin or a smokestack plowing through the waves, what we feared most was meeting that look. The behemoth’s bones sank into the sand, lodged so deep it would never wash away in the tides of time, a reminder to us that it would never leave us. Perhaps that was its intention. Perhaps its display of weakness was only a ruse to draw us in, to trick us into taking its cruelty into ourselves. Perhaps there were no other monsters in the seas, only us, waiting with blood-ready hands on the shore.]]>
No story works for everyone. Critical dissection and discussion go hand in hand with award lists, but Rachel’s story became a rallying cry for changing the dynamics of the Hugo Awards due to its perceived flaws. Some unsavory types became involved and here we are three years later, and Rachel is still being harassed and insulted.
Every few days, I have to moderate comments left on “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Over the last 3 years, I’ve removed/deleted comments that are anti-semitic, queer bashing, transphobic, fatphobic, and sexist. It sickens me to think of the bullshit she probably deals with in her inbox and on social media.
In response to the harassment, Rachel is looking to turn the hate into something positive. Read about it below.
Posteriors for Posterity: An update on my fundraiser for LGBTQ health
She is donating via Patreon to the Lyon-Martin health services. Lyon-Martin is one of the only providers that focuses on caring for the Quiltbag community, especially low-income lesbian, bisexual, and trans people. They provide services regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.
You can support her fundraising for as little as $1. To all who donate, she will send a copy of her parody story “If You Were a Butt, My Butt,” written specifically for this campaign.
The Earth is icing over and no one knows how to shut the Shade off. Every attempt in the last thirty years has failed and humanity is nearly out of options if they want to regain a world that isn’t covered in snow and ice. Gabe Alfil may be the only person alive with enough expertise in quantum computing to solve the problem, but a hiking accident a decade earlier has left him paralyzed, and the key to saving the world requires a dangerous trek across a frozen wasteland.
Between chases across the icy landscape, kidnapping attempts, and computer hijacking, Gabe quickly realizes that not everyone wants to save the world.
Can anybody be trusted?
Available now from Apex Publications–Order today!
A few more minutes passed, and I started passing a set of residential stacks, the scents of cooking and sweat wafted by. There were a few people out on the streets, though no one paid much attention to me. I kept my head down and tried to look like I knew where I was going. Another email arrived from Bretton, this one containing an external diagnostics package. I looked at the attachment and the instructions that came with it. It wanted me to plug into my charging station in the truck, create a restore point, then run the package. I sighed. A truck that was basically guaranteed to have someone in it who hated me. If I was lucky, it’d be one of the people who were discreet about it. “Fuck it,” I said, accepting the download. I created my own restore point and waited for the download to finish. I’m enjoying my time away from the truck, thanks. I opened the package.
And fell forward on my face.
“No, no, no, no, fuck no, fuck,” I hissed into the muddy snow. My suit was completely dead. “Please start, please start, please start.” I took a deep breath, inhaling no small amount of filthy snow as I did so, and fought back the panic. There was a reboot procedure. They’d made me practice it. This was just the suit’s system that had gone down; the neural jack should still have power. I concentrated, trying to remember the feeling, eventually feeling something click. Little green lights flickered on the edge of my vision. It’d take a few minutes, but I was going to be ok.
Crunching snow behind me. Oh shit. “You ok?” someone asked me. A kid.
“I’m fine,” I said, spitting snow out of the way. “Just … I’ll be fine.”
“What happened?” another kid asked. How many of them were there?
“What’d you do to him, Mike?”
“Nothing! I found him like this.”
“You’re going to be in trouble.”
“I’m fine, guys,” I said. “Honestly.” I watched the green lights resolve into letters, watching the boot sequence start. It was not a quick process.
“What’d he say?”
More crunching snow. My face rose off the ground as someone rolled me onto my back. “Thanks,” I said, hoping I sounded cool and also casually menacing. I was peering into the face of a young man, maybe seventeen or so. The two kids were standing behind him, looking at me curiously.
“You ok?” the young man asked.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Just slipped.” I licked my lips, considered a couple things. “Can you find my friends? Big guys. White jackets.”
“Yeah.” He looked over his shoulder. “Mike, Rick. Keep a look out. Tell me if anyone’s coming.”
“What?” Oh. That. Shit.
He started opening my pockets, inside my jacket and out. I didn’t have anything of value on me, other than the extremely expensive military exoskeleton. I started to scream, but he was ready for that and clamped a hand over my mouth. He twisted his hand out of his glove as he did so, shoving the glove deeper into my maw. It tasted of dirt and grease and the more I fought against it the more I tasted it. “What the hell is this?” he said, returning his free hand back under my armpits, feeling the suit’s structure. He reached up to my neck and undid my jacket, then tugged up my shirt, revealing my sloppy body and the suit frame wrapped around it. “What the fuck are you? Some kind of robot?”
That’s not what a robot is, fuckwit. The boot sequence seemed to have stalled, choking on the idiotic software that cretin Bretton had sent me.
“Someone’s coming!” one of the kids said. The guy straddling my chest turned around. More crunching footsteps in the snow, coming quickly now. “Oh shi..” my new friend said, before he flew off me, tackled by a white blur. From somewhere behind me two wet thuds, and the distinct sound of something cracking. A moan.
“You ok, Luggage?” Kat said, kneeling down beside me, upside down from my perspective. She looked around. “Can you move?”
I blinked, then remembered to check the HUD. The boot sequence had gotten past whatever it had been hung up on and was almost done. “Yeah,” I said, stalling. I tried my arm, causing it to flop around. Back to square one.
She looked at the arm suspiciously. “Is that it?”
I grimaced. “Nope. Just … hang on.” I flopped the other arm, then ordered both legs to do the same.
She leaned away from me into a kneeling position. “What happened?” she asked, almost hissing through clenched teeth. She worked her jaw up and down a couple times.
I wondered how much I should tell her. “They tripped me,” I said. My limbs began moving a little more fluidly, and I slowly sat up to face her. She smiled and blinked. She was blinking a lot actually.
“We gotta go,” she said, looking past me. I turned to look, seeing a few people down the street watching us. She abruptly lunged at me, slinging one of my arms over her shoulder. Before I knew what was happening, she’d hoisted me to my feet. We began making our way back to the truck like that, my arm over her shoulder, though I soon found I didn’t really need it. “Bad, bad, bad idea going there, Gabe,” she said. “Ziggy let you off the truck? Bad, bad, bad.”
“There was a mixup,” I said. “I was with Mitchell and Jorda and we got separated. Jesus. Where are the cops in this place?”
She laughed. “I’m the cop, Luggage.” She leaned into me then, steering me around a corner. Ahead of us were the bright lights of the charging station. “You don’t fucking get how anything works out here.” We reached the concrete apron and were greeted by the unexpectedly calming sight of Ziggy shrieking at a different station attendant.
“Kat?” I asked, as we set off across the apron. I took my arm off of her shoulders and stopped.
“What?” she said, turning to look at me. In the brighter lights, I could see her eyes better now, pupils flared incredibly wide. She blinked.
“I’m ok now, yeah?” I said.
“What?” She shook her head. “What?” she asked again.
“I mean, I’m moving again. On my own.” I swallowed. “Can you maybe not tell Ziggy about this?”
A beat, then a grin spread across her face. “Yeah. Sure. I get it.” She licked her lips and nodded. “I’m cool.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m not sure what to s …”
She held a finger up. “Be cool.” And with that she turned around and set off across the pad.
I gaped at Kat for what must have been a seriously uncool amount of time before eventually following her back to the truck.
Available now from Apex Publications
It is nothing personal.
We have no quarrel with you.
There are no demands, no tribute.
We do not need a symbiosis
With your feeble bodies, nor any place
Of our own
In the constituent steps of your
Precious, convoluted, and apparently
We do not need your world’s minerals.
There is no dark, dreary, ulterior motive
Wherein we are somehow re-establishing our own
Bio-diversity by surreptitiously borrowing
What is left of yours.
We do not need to supplant
Your crops, feed on your farm
Animals, or feed on you. No,
Ours is a simple quest:
We want to be one world larger.
So kindly deposit your weapons
In the convenient, and quite elastic, black holes
That have appeared suddenly in your neighborhood
For just such pacifying use;
And have your many legislatures
Add a brief sentence or two
About fealty and sovereignty,
Allegiance and territorial acclamation,
About bowing rhetorically to our star system,
To your existing national constitutions.
There is very little we expect.
We really do not get out this way all that often.
Our plan is to leave you mostly alone:
A limited, no frills system like yours,
To be honest, does not even fare well with our
Lately flourishing exobiology tourist trade.
But, if you need us, just press the button
Marked ‘Overlords’ on the executive desk
In any of your now uselessly differing capitols.
The connection might take a while, but, trust me,
The interstellar recorder will eventually pick up.
You can, when recording memory finally engages,
Leave a brief, specific message:
Then wait in distant wonder, and,
In a rotation or two,
We might get back to you.