By Alethea Kontis

At first, she sang to remember. It was a way to pass the long, dark time, a way to drown out the buzz in her head when the earth shook and the bunker rattled, a way to live outside the bars of her cage, to be a woman who smoked and drank, flirted and pined, flipped her pin curls and married a man for his car. Eventually, Patsy Cline became Kerri’s reason for living. In five years, she hadn’t found a better one.

“Good morning,” said Stella. It was the only clue Kerri ever had to the time of day, or the notion that days passed at all. Stella opened the cage hatch and slid the food through. “I have a surprise for you today.” She smiled. “You’ll like it.”

Let’s see…what would she like? Kerri would have welcomed a hot poker in the eye, an asteroid hitting the earth, or the blast from that damned super volcano the world had been holding its collective breath about for the past decade. It would be ironic, Kerri mused, if all three suddenly happened at once. About as ironic as someone surviving cancer just to live out the rest of her days in a prison.

“You’re using your head-voice again,” said Stella.

“Sorry.” Kerri often forgot when she was speaking aloud, and when she wasn’t. Stella seemed to be able to carry on the conversation regardless. “Surprise?” Beside her cardboard poultry and marbleized peas was a box. Kerri mentally dumped in that box all the bitterness she tried not to heap on Stella. The Bastard never had been able to make more than cereal and burnt toast, and his AI wasn’t much better. Every time Kerri was tempted to advise Stella on how to make a palatable gravy, she asked herself why. Herself never had a decent answer.

Kerri lifted the box up to the laboratory light that slanted through the bars. “Animal crackers,” she read…aloud? Stella smiled, so she guessed she must have. Then again, Stella was understanding more and more these days, whether Kerri spoke or not.

Surprise. Once upon a time the gesture would have meant something. Now, Kerri only felt empathy for the two-dimensional zoo creatures imprisoned by the lines drawn on their own cages.

“Aren’t they wonderful? Dr. Petrakis brought them back on his last trip.”

Kerri couldn’t stop herself bursting into laughter; nor did she want to. Laughter told her she was still alive, and each guffaw brought her this much closer to insanity. Oh, blessed insanity, why hast thou forsaken me?

As if The Bastard actually gave her a second thought. “Doctor” Petrakis indeed. In this backwater life at the end of the world, you were whoever you pretended to be. There were no background checks anymore, and no point. No one begrudged another man his delusions of grandeur.

Fine. The Bastard could be a doctor; Kerri would be Patsy Cline. She put her fingers to her lips and took a long drag on an imaginary cigarette. “Wonderful,” she said. “Cra-zy,” she crooned. Perhaps insanity was closer than she’d thought. Thank God. Oops, no, wait, God left in the last exodus, too. For Mars. Or Europa. Kerri had forgotten which. Patsy was better company in the dark than God ever had been. All those Sunday vows broken on Monday. Every day was Monday now.

“They’ll make a nice treat after today’s session,” said Stella. “Did you drink enough water this morning?” It was a rhetorical question. If Kerri didn’t drink her minimum water requirement, the alarm would pierce her skull until she did. She ran her fingers down the needle tracks in her arm to the shunt in her wrist, connecting the dots into imaginary constellations, her map to a galaxy far, far away. That one could be a rose. Or a rabbit. Or a crashed airplane.

Kerri shrugged. “Sure.”

“Fantastic!” Stella slid her knuckles across the doorplate so the scanner could register the microchip in her ring. Stella’s response to anything was always followed with an imaginary “Whoopee!” Kerri couldn’t fault the programmers; one could only laugh at comments like “The toilet is broken!” and “Guess we’ll try another vein!” and “Looks like the world is ending now!”

Kerri felt the bolt pull back, a hum in her blood, before the door snapped open with a bone-scraping buzz of the same quality as her dehydration alarm, only briefer. Kerri counted down the thirteen steps to the purple chair. Sometimes she made it in seventeen. Sometimes she made it in nine. She was always walking, always after midnight.

“Let’s strap you in,” said Stella.

Whoopee!

It always surprised her how warn Stella’s hands were. Kerri looked forward to the slight shock, the mass of long, dark hair bent over the tubes and dials that was so much like hers—dark like her daughter’s might have been. Kerri closed her eyes and felt her essence flow out of those tubes like silken ribbons. It was Patsy Cline who kept her here, not Stella, not this android who might-have-sort-of-not-really resembled the daughter Kerri almost-maybe-never had. A daughter who played prison warden and stuck her like a pincushion and… She would not think about what perversions The Bastard did to Stella beyond that door at the top of those stairs.

That door at the top of the stairs squealed open. Kerri remembered the last time The Bastard had come to visit, so long ago; she still fell to pieces every time she saw him. Now, after all this time, he wanted to see how she liked her little gift. He wanted her to thank him.

Thirty-five thousand angels screamed in the hinges and cried in his shadow as he walked down, heavy step by heavy step. Kerri kept her eyes closed. She imagined seven chins, sausage fingers, a gluttonous stomach rolling over his waistband to hide his severely inadequate manhood. She saw the blackness inside him, the inkblots in his eyes that gave proof to the Elder God who had eaten his pirate soul. His cologne triggered her gag reflex. Stella squeezed her hand. Whoopee.

Ribbons, not blood. Red silk. A poor man’s roses. A ball gown and a crown on her head; all ways about here belonged to her, and off with his head. Pins and needles. The straps bit into her thighs. She had lost enough weight for Stella to tighten them a notch.

“Hello, wife,” said the voice that made her wish she had electrocuted herself a long time ago. Nanomeds be damned. Would that the cancer had taken her. “How’s my golden blood today?”

Kerri opened her eyes and denied the angel she saw: wheat-blond hair, eyes as blue as the sky was, once. That flat stomach that did not have her spear thrust through it mocked her, teased her, tortured her. She wished she could take her own share of his worthless, mortal blood and watch it spread out on the floor, seep around the bolts and through the cracks, down into the worthless soil of this wretched world that the universe had balled up and tossed in the waste bin. The Bastard and this planet deserved each other. Why are you here? Her head-voice cried. Why are you still alive? Why haven’t you crossed the wrong person or been hit by a meteor? Why haven’t you dropped dead from the evil inside you? Why hasn’t the earth opened up and swallowed you piece by dark piece? Stella looked sad. The bunker trembled as Kerri’s heart cried gold coins into her husband’s leather pockets. Aftershock. Or premonition. Or both. Nanomeds were magical things. They made the recipient slightly more than human…and any enterprising harvester slightly less so.

His eyes had cried for her once, one solitary tear, the first day he’d strapped her into that chair, the first time—she had thought—he’d sold his soul to the devil, and the first time he’d sold her superblood on the black market to those vampires. He had made her believe it was her idea, made her think that this selfless gesture was for him, for their future, made her believe he’d loved her even half as much as she’d loved him. He had played her from the beginning, even before he’d bent down on one knee and asked her the question she would always regret answering. He was all lies. He was a mosaic, made up of exotic, multicolored pieces of lies.

But that tear haunted her, that tear shed from those eyes that had looked at her in a moment of sadness. It was easier for her to live this unlife, to survive this pain, if she believed he was truly evil, that he had never had a soul, that he had never loved her. He wasn’t a good enough actor to pull off actual emotion. What then, what was that damned tear?

“Have you ever been lonely? Have you ever been blue?” Kerri sang aloud, more for Stella than for herself this time. She wished her heart really was broken beyond repair and not fertile ground for more torture. Her mind continued its escape. Ribbons, not blood, poured out of her. Garters, not straps around her thighs. The toughest decision she’d make today would be which shoes to wear. Then again, not really. Red shoes went with everything.

And then the pain stopped. The blood stopped flowing. The straps fell away, along with her fantasies, and she was naked before him. “Surprise,” he said. “Go, if you want to go. I wonder which of us will be the happier.”

This time Kerri stopped herself from laughing. Always the head games with him. Always the gifts, absolving him of all wrong-doing. Even the way he had phrased the sentence—if she left, it wouldn’t be his fault. Nothing was ever his fault. And now he gave her freedom? From underground cage to doomed planet. How magnanimous of him. Five years, blissful and blameless.

Kerri’s head pounded. The glasses on the table shook as another contraction seized the planet sick with ague and ready to spew forth her boiling crimson insides. She could feel the nanos already replenishing the bits of her that she’d lost. She could feel the earth around her and the pressurized chaos it yearned to release. She could feel Stella beside her, feel Stella’s love for The Bastard. But AIs couldn’t love, so the love Kerri must have been feeling was her own. It made her want to vomit. She’d been so wrong, for so long.

The Bastard pulled the shunt from her. He collected the tubing, leaving Kerri to awkwardly bandage the hole in her numb arm with a stray scrap of rag. Not that she needed it; the nanos would heal that too, soon enough. “Stella and I are leaving,” he said. “It’s not safe here. Roger Garrison’s offered us a place on his ship.”

It had never been safe on this planet. The Bastard would only be leaving if he had gotten a better offer somewhere else, on someone else’s dime. Kerri looked at the blood bag Stella held, not even half full.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said, as if she would. “I’ve been injecting Stella with your blood all this time; the nanos have finally taken hold and started to replicate. I’ll still have something to fall back on.”

Worry? Why would she let herself worry? The feelings she shared with Stella suddenly made sense. Kerri braced herself on the IV pole and stood shakily before him. His height made her feel small. He didn’t deserve a goodbye. He didn’t deserve to hear her speak. He didn’t deserve to watch her walk away. But he did deserve something.

Kerri slid the IV pole over to Stella—she didn’t even have to use her head-voice. The nanos read Kerri’s thoughts and transmitted them to the AI receptacle now pumping with her blood, her heart, her desires. With all the strength Kerri didn’t have, Stella took the pole, broke it in half, and stabbed The Bastard in the heart.

Whoopee.

My blood, my daughter. You fool. He slid to the floor. She felt taller. Now you know what heartache is. She waited for the light in the blackness of his eyes to dim, just to be sure.

Kerri made her way up the stairs without a backward glance; Stella followed. Upstairs, she changed into some of Stella’s clothes and packed a bag. She did not vomit in the drawers of Stella’s extensive lingerie. She was proud of herself for that.

It was dark outside, and the air smelled like brimstone. She waited until they had walked at least half a mile before she sent her message to the wind. The nanos released the magnetic field she had been using to keep the bunker in one piece. With a rush the earth shivered again and imploded, crushing the bunker like a tin can, cleansing the evil that had been done there with elemental fire, and burying whatever love she’d once known in a coffin of black glass.

Now that she didn’t have to hold that anymore, power flooded through her. The Bastard had never known her true potential, and before now Kerri had been too afraid to unleash it. He had only known the submissive wimp she’d been. He would never meet the woman she’d become. She was proud of that.

But while her blood could protect her, it could not save the world. Nor would it ever truly heal her. The pain would fade. Her strength would return. She would live, and she would not sail this next ship alone. That was enough. “Where is Roger Garrison’s hold?” she asked Stella. “It’s time to go.” Time to move on, just like Patsy would have.

Stella took the duffel bag from her and pointed east. “This way. Not far,” she said, her dark hair clouding around her alabaster face, making her look like an angel. There was a drop of blood on her cheek. His blood. Kerri wiped him away.

“Thank you, Mother.”

Kerri picked at the rag on her arm and pulled off the makeshift bandage. She wanted nothing on her body that reminded her of him. She was in no danger of bleeding to death; the hole where the shunt had been had already begun to scab over. It was shaped like a tear. She tossed back her hair and started walking, following her angel across Hell. Walking, always walking, today, tomorrow, and forever.


More from Alethea Kontis:

Alethea Kontis is the New York Times bestselling author of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter Companion, as well as the AlphaOops series of picture books. She has done multiple collaborations with artist Janet Lee including A is for Alice, The Umbrella of Fun, and the illustrated Twitter serial Diary of a Mad Scientist Garden Gnome. Alethea’s most recent work can be found in the Apex Publications anthologies Harlan County Horrors and Dark Faith.

For more information, visit aletheakontis.com.

2 Comments

  1. BRILLIANT.

    I’m loving doing this whole run amok amidst the back issues thing.

    • So glad you’re enjoying the oldie goldies! They deserve reading, too!

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