Stitches

0400 - StitchesJeiyiz stood in front of the looking glass in her room and surveyed her work. So far, one arm was completed, and work on her torso had begun. When the final stitch had been completed, she would be considered a woman in the eyes of her people and could leave their village and make her way in the universe.

The embroidered flowers and symbols that were sewn into her skin represented the people who had raised her, the friends who had supported her, the animals which had given themselves for her nourishment, and the Great Path that all her kind walked.

The Path was a spiritual one, that lead each of the Embroidered Ones to their personal fulfillment. For some, this resulted in marriage and children, while for others it led to a life of ministry or activism. Some found that their branches of the Path resulted in demanding careers that allowed them to give back to their communities, while others lived lives of creativity, adding to the collective Story in words, music, and visual art.

Jeiyiz was not yet certain where her journey would end, but she knew that she was anxious for it to begin. Her plan was to go to the City to the great University there, and study as broad a curriculum as possible.

After that, she wished to travel. On the newsfeeds, she’d seen the giant starships that sailed into orbit around her World and been dazzled by all the different kinds of People who came down to visit. Some were green-skinned, and some were pink. Some had horns, and some had hair. Some had art on their bodies – not thread like hers, but ink and scars.

Jeiyiz wanted to meet all these different People. She wanted to taste the diversity that existed in the universe and discover her true place in it. She’d been told she could write; maybe she would chronicle her experiences.

But first she had to complete her stitching.

She pulled her kit from the bottom drawer of her dresser, and threaded the needle with clean, white, thread. She’d filled each spool herself, first gathering the fluffy white fiber from the thread-plants, then cleaning it, carding it, stretching and spinning it until it was fine enough to be sewn into living skin.

With the first stick of the needle, blood ran down the fiber, staining it red-brown. It didn’t hurt much, but she would not have objected to a little pain. “Pain is what lets us know we are alive,” the elders said. “Pain is a signal that we are part of the Universe.”

The angle at which Jeiyiz was working was awkward, and she had not stenciled a design in chalk or marking pencil, but she was certain her imagination would lead her stitches in the correct direction.

She worked for an hour, finishing the first two of many water plants. Water was her element, and while she had heard that there are People who come from desert planets, she could not imagine living on one. The very thought left her parched.

At the end of her hour, she tied the knot, snipped the thread, washed her blood off the needle, and replaced her kit in her dresser drawer.

Standing in front of her mirror once more, Jeiyiz surveyed her work. The once-white stiches have absorbed her blood, and dried to almost the color of her skin. She runs the hand of her un-sewn arm over the earlier sewing of the opposite side, and smiles at her reflection.

Her torso was nearly half finished. By the end of the Hot Season she would be ready to claim her adult status and begin her Adventures on the Great Path.

Perhaps one day she would find a life partner and agree to a marriage. She lifted her unembroidered arm and studied the smooth flesh there. If that partner was not one of her People but another kind of Person, would they be willing to stich their story into her skin?

For the moment, Jeiyiz could only wonder.

The Camels of Mars

0398 - Camels of Mars

Their craft had finally set down on the ground that didn’t look all that different from any desert back home.

“Isn’t it supposed to be red?” Benjy asked glancing from the scenery outside to his father, who was also staring through the viewport.

Fahrid O’Reilly sympathized with his son. He’d wanted Mars to seem different, too. “That’s just because of the dust in the air when we look at Mars from Earth,” he explained. “Are you disappointed?”

“Who’s gonna believe we really came here if the dirt I send home is just… dirt?”

“Benjy, we’ve been through this before. You can’t send soil back to Earth. But you can send a photo of yourself at Curiosity Memorial.”

The ten-year-old was not impressed. “Anyone can photoshop that.”

“Well, we’ll have to figure out something else to prove to your friends where your new home is.” He was about to remind the boy that his mother had arrived on the previous lander, three months before, and that he’d get to be reunited with her shortly, but one of the officers – Morris – came to join them.

“The umbilical into the Habitrail will be attached any second now,” he said, gesturing to the series of interconnected domes and tunnels that provided a livable environment on the Red Planet. “Everyone’s anxious to get to their quarters and decompress from the trip, but we think it’d be best if you took the animals out first. Get them settled in their enclosure.”

Fahrid nodded, “A wise choice, Commander Morris. I’ve been checking on them and they seem to be alright, but large animals shouldn’t be cooped up for so long.”

“Do you mind if I ask… what made you pitch the idea of bringing them?”

“I was going through my father’s things after he died, an I found a picture of him with a camel, and a book about the Texas Camel Corps.”

“Is that a real thing?” Morris asked.

“Oh, very real. In the early twentieth century a rancher in Texas who’d been the camel caretaker at a zoo decided that camels would be fantastic herd animals.”

“O’Reilly, don’t you dare tell me they raised camels for food?”

“No… no they didn’t. They used them as pack animals and for transportation in the Chihuahuan Desert – there are places where it isn’t practical to use road transports, and it’s too dusty for flitters. He started doing tours for tourists, but eventually he was training camels to be used as riding beasts for ranchers throughout the southwest.”

“Wow, I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t. Anyway, I did some research, found out that he’d been experimenting with genetic mods, and his descendants had continued his work. Not only can our camels store liquid water, instead of just fat, they can actually create water out of what they eat and breathe.”

“They’re not dangerous, are they?” Morris asked.

“Benjy,” Fahrid said to his son, “why don’t you take this one?”

The ten-year-old uncurled his fingers from the rim of the viewport and pushed himself away from the bulkhead. Standing up straight, and speaking in rapid, but well-rehearsed sentences, he shared, “It’s a myth that camels are mean. Llamas have been known to spit at humans, and camels can do that too, but for the most part they’re docile creatures. Some people even describe them as giant hay-eating puppies.” He paused and grinned up at both men. “Lucy’s my favorite. She likes to give kisses.”

Morris seemed like he was about to ask a question, but there was a jolt followed by a hiss. “Sounds like the umbilical is linked. Can you two manage, or could you use a hand?”

“The more help we have, the faster we finish,” Fahrid said. He turned and led the officer down to the part of the hold where the livestock had been quartered on their long journey. “Coming, Benjy?”

“I wanna get Sophie first,” the boy said.  Part family pet, part herding animal, Sophie was their border collie.  “We’ll meet you there.”

“Okay, but don’t dawdle.”

“I won’t.”

It took the men, the boy, and the dog about an hour to offload the seven camels and five goats, and usher them into the umbilical tunnel that led into the main dome of Opportunity Village, where much of the extant community was waiting to greet the new arrivals, whether they had four feet, or only two.

From the center dome, there was another tunnel that led to a series of gates and beyond them to another dome, this one carved among pillars of stone that were part of the natural landscape. It had shaded stalls, water troughs, and pens full of hay. An older woman, dressed in a coverall, was waiting with a pitchfork, and several people using tablets to control camera drones were also gathered.

“Mr. O’Reilly! Welcome!” She greeted Fahrid first. “Benjy, it’s good to see you. And Commander Morris, welcome back. You staying, this time?”

“Looks like it,” the officer said. “Especially since Specialist Weaver finally agreed to marry me.”

“Did he! That’s wonderful. You two will have to join George and me for dinner soon.” But she turned back to the O’Reillys. “I’m Anna Meier, the governor. I’m so excited to have you and your charges with us. Join me, now, as we pitch the first hay into the feeding bins… folks back on Earth are dying for a photo op.” More softly, she added, “Penelope is waiting for you in quarters… she asked for a private reunion.”

“Penny’s always been camera shy,” Fahrid observed. He reached out to ruffle his son’s hair. “Okay Benjy, line’em up.”

And they cajoled the animals into a loose semicircle around the feeding bins and let Governor Meier toss the first loads of hay to each beast.

“I’m so excited. I know the dome won’t be their favorite place, but with rebreathers, we’ll be able to use your animals to explore the surface and hopefully find more access to the underground sea.”

Benjy and Sophie wandered away while the adults were talking, heading directly toward Lucy. The camel blinked at the boy and the dog, and then slurped the former. Benjy heard the whirr-click of the drone camera capturing his picture.

“Hey, kid!” A blonde reporter with a friendly grin called out. “Mind looking this way?” Benjy turned and flashed her a smile that was a dimpled echo of his father’s. “Awesome,” the reporter said. “That’s the money shot.”

And it was.

All the papers and news feeds on Earth, Luna, and Mars had the image of boy, dog, and camel, with the great stone pillars behind them, as their lead story. The caption? The Camels of Mars.

 

 

 

Duet for Two Young Superheroes

0395 - Halloween Carols

“Dashing through the streets,
Meeting goblins as we go,
Wearing contour sheets,
Wishing it would snow.”

Ethan marched down the street, singing the hood piece of his Amazing Spider-man costume dangling behind him like a cape. Well, more like a deflated balloon. He couldn’t help it though. The costume was a little bit too big for him, and when he wore the mask he couldn’t see properly.

Besides, it was hot for October. Nearly ninety degrees. He would melt into a puddle of red and blue goo if he had the hood on.

He launched into the chorus of the song, his favorite of the Halloween carols they’d been learning at school all week.

“Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
Try to get the treats before the ghost takes us aw–”
Ethan trailed off, realizing he was singing alone.

“Zach, why aren’t you singing?”

“I’m Batman!” his friend answered, trying (and failing) to make his young voice sound deep and husky. “Batman doesn’t sing.”

“You wish you were Batman,” Ethan retorted. “I don’t wanna sing alone. You have to sing with me.”

“Halloween carols are lame,” Zach complained.

“You’re only saying that because people kept singing the other version of the song to you.”

“Don’t remind me,” the boy in the Batman costume groaned. This had been the day they’d all worn their Halloween costumes to school, and he’d been constantly assaulted with eight-to-ten-year-old boys – and some of the girls – singing at him: Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…. It had been funny the first time; now it made him want to puke. “Why’s it so important that we sing anyway?”

“Because,” Ethan said, his bravado and cheer fading somewhat, “we’re turning onto Willow Street when we get to the corner, and that means we have to pass that old white house, and Rebecca says it’s haunted.”

“You mean the house with the tower-thingy?” Zach hadn’t learned the word ‘turret’ yet. “It looks haunted. Like, when I’m riding my bike, I always cross the street so I’m on the other sidewalk.”

“Yeah, me, too.”

“So, if we’re singing, won’t that make it easier for the ghosts and monsters to find us?”

“No, it’s like that movie. The with the widow and the bald king and the kid who played Draco Malfoy, except this was before he was Draco?” Ethan lived with his mother and older sister, who were both into musicals. He kinda liked them too, but he didn’t really tell people that. “In the movie, if you whistle something happy when you’re scared, you stop being scared.”

“So, if we sing while we walk past the Ghost House, we won’t be afraid of ghosts?”

“Either that or the noise of happy singing will make them afraid of us.” They’d reached the corner, by then, and Ethan stopped walking. “So… will you sing with me?”

“I’m a singing Batman,” Zach answered, in the same voice he’d used before.

Ethan didn’t twit him though. Instead, he launched into the chorus, grinning as his best friend joined in.

“Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
Try to get the treats before the ghost takes us away! Hey!
Trick or treat, trick or treat, trick or treat we say!
If you don’t have treats for us we’ll never go away!”

Lachesis

0388 - Fate

They’re had been three of them, once. The Moirai Sisters. Each of them controlling one of the three branches of Destiny.

Clotho, the spinner, had gone first. She’d woven herself into her own tapestry, preferring to end her days surrounded by a portrait of hope. As beings with immortal blood, she was technically still alive, and sometimes, it seemed, her voice could still be heard: Pluck that thread, Sister. Tweak that rune. That woman deserves some luck. That man is evil, make him feel the pain he caused to others.

Atropos, the immutable one, went next. She had been in charge of clipping the threads to end lives, and it had gone to her head and bruised her heart beyond repair. Too many children, she said, haven’t been allotted adulthood. Too many rapists and murderers were given long lives. She’d cut her own thread, in the end. Lachesis never even knew where she found the scissors.

But, just as her sisters had never blamed her for doing her job as the allotter, Lach (their father had given her the nickname) had never resented them for leaving her alone.

She’d had to change her methods, though. Doing the work of three with the skills of one necessitated the alteration. Where the Sisters had spun threads, woven lives, and snipped the ends as the colors faded, Lachesis had conjured a sort of runic tickertape machine.

Rolls of paper, made from Potential, inked with Hopes and Plans and Dreams, gave her updates on every life that came into being. She was no longer allotting, but allowing. She read the scrolling symbols and made decisions: this person would have a long life, with many meters of paper, and this one would have their scroll ripped off mid-word.

It was hard work. It was constant. It would never end, until she chose to let the ink of her own life run dry.

But for now, Lachesis let meter after meter of ink and paper run through her calloused fingers, and sent a prayer to the gods in memory of her sisters.

Lydia

0394 - BrideShe’d told them – the doctor, his wife, the sad creature they’d meant her to marry – she’d told them that she didn’t want this life.

“But we saved you,” they said. “You were in a box, in the ground, and we saved you.”

She remembered that, she thought.

Not the box. But… the before-time.

She remembered drunken nights with eager lovers. She remembered the pricking of the needles as the ink was injected into her skin, making her body into a living scrapbook. She remembered all the times she and her friends had left their dorms to hang out with the townies at the amusement pier.

And she remembered the calliope playing and the carousel spinning.

It hadn’t been an ordinary carousel.

No painted ponies and prancing unicorns. No pretty swan boats for those who weren’t interested in catching the brass ring.

That carousel had been populated by grotesques. Leering goblin faces, twisted features of nightmare horses.

She remembers the night the carousel spun out of control.

She remembers the faces whirling around and the screams that filled her ears.

Her own screams.

And then nothing.

And then a storm.

And then the doctor, and his wife, and that poor miserable creature.

It took her a while to regain herself. A lot of screaming in the mirror. Even more screaming at Them.

Her speech returned slowly, like her faculties.

But she was able, finally, to articulate her feelings.

“You brought me back without consent,” she said. “You gave me a new life I never wanted. But that doesn’t make me yours.”

Her arguments fell on deaf ears, so she resorted to the methods she’d used as a kid. She watched  – learned the codes for the doors, learned the pin for the atm card, learned the floorplan of the castle. (Why did these types always have a fetish for castles?)

And one night – during another storm – she went to the creature’s chamber. She was just going to give him the standard line – It’s not you; it’s me – but he was so lonely, and so sad, and she felt it as viscerally as if she were generating the emotions herself.

She hadn’t realized he was a projectile empath.

She’d slept with worse for less worthy causes.

So she gave him her body for one night, and corrected him when he tried to twist his tongue to shape her name.

“Eve is the name They gave me,” she told him. “My name is Lydia. Like the song.”

A tilt of his head, a stroke of his hand moving her hair back from her face – she’d washed out the fright-wig perm during her first shower, though the white streak remained. Maybe she’d dye it pink – curiosity flooded from his eyes.

She knew he responded to music.

So, she sang the words the calliope was playing the day she… she had to think it, if she couldn’t say it… the day she died.

Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia
Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady

Then she dressed again. She’d kept the gown they gave her but cut several feet off the bottom, so it skimmed her knees. She’d stolen a pair of boots from Them.

“I have to go,” she told the Creature. “Find your voice. Make them let you go. You’re not as scary as people tell you. And if you need me… find me at the carousel.”

She didn’t tell him which carousel.

She wasn’t even sure if her carousel still existed.

She practically danced out of the castle. She took maximum cash from five ATMs in town before she muffed the PIN intentionally, and let the card be taken.

Then she hopped the train out of town.

Years passed. She’d convinced the authorities it hadn’t been her in that grave. Told them the carousel accident had left her disoriented and she’d gone away with friends. Flashed them cleavage and cash, and presto-change-o, her new life and her old one had been reconnected.

She joined a band, went on tour, stopped at every carousel, checked every newsfeed for word of her Creature. (He’d become Hers, in her head, over the years.)

One rainy night, in a town between here and there, she stood outside the wrought iron gate of a carousel – this one also lacked the painted ponies and genteel swans – and watched the children riding the ostriches and elephants and giraffes, she felt him.

Not the same sadness and loneliness as before.

Contentment. And hope.

His presence loomed behind her.

His voice  – made of gravel, but musical even so – sang her song.

Their song.

Lydia, oh! Lydia, say have you met Lydia
Oh! Lydia, the tattooed lady

By the Shore

0393 - By the Shore

Eleanor sprawled on the warm sand and popped open her parasol in order to keep her face from burning in the bright sun. “A creamy complexion is a sign of good breeding,” her mother would have reminded her. “As well, good grooming habits are a sign of a strong character.”

Well, her mother was right about one thing: she was a strong character. While the other girls were perfecting their skills with ink or learning the best way to serve crabs, she was typically off exploring.

She had the treasure-trove to prove it, too. A veritable hoard of pretty shells, wave-worn sea glass, and the occasional found object – her current favorite was a mirror set into a wooden frame so water-logged it had darkened to near-ebony in color.

And of course, there was her parasol. She’d found it in the remains of a ship-wreck, and it was perfectly intact, if slightly green on the fringe. No matter; she liked green.

She also liked solitude.

Here on the sand, she didn’t have to listen to the other girls gossiping about the boys they liked – oooh, Brian’s tentacles are so much thicker than Michael’s. And Benjamin does amazing things with ink.

Well, they had a point. Benjamin had skills with ink that were mind-blowing, but even so, squealing and swooning was not Eleanor’s style.

The sun continued its ascension and the temperature grew warmer. Recognizing the need to hydrate, Eleanor closed her parasol and staked it into the sand. Then she rolled down into the waiting ocean, where her strong arms and graceful tentacles propelled her into swimmable depths. For over an hour – maybe two or three –  she frolicked in the waves, giggling when the foamy crest tickled her nose, and diving deep to play chase with a pod of dolphins.

When she reached the point of being pleasantly tired, she emerged from the water and moved to collect her things.

“Come here often?” a voice asked.

Benjamin. Here. Did that mean the others were coming, too? Eleanor sincerely hoped not.

“When I can sneak away,” she answered. “Are you alone?” He nodded an affirmative, and she smiled. “Then you may stay.”

“Why thank you, gracious Lady.” He was teasing her, but it held no malice only… was that affection?

“I have some prawns here, if you’re hungry,” she offered, settling onto the warm sand once more.

“Thanks!”

They ate without talking until Eleanor had to know. “I thought Priscilla had her tentacles wrapped around you, these days.”

“She decided Ronald had more powerful propulsion.”

“She would,” Eleanor’s tone was hardly complimentary.

“Besides, I heard you knew about a shipwreck… is that where you found the parasol and jacket?”

Eleanor glanced down at herself. The school uniform she’d also found in the wreck had become sun-bleached during her time out of the water. “I could show you where it is, if you want.”

“I’d like that,” he said. “My family isn’t generations old, like yours. I’m only first-generation hybrid. My mother – she was fully human. Dad said she used to believe that mermaids had fish tails instead of being part squid. Can you believe that?”

“Fish are food,” Eleanor said. It was one of the first things they’d been taught in school.

“Exactly.”

The breeze changed directions and Eleanor shivered slightly. “It’s getting cold.”

“May I sit closer? Dad says I run warm because I’m closer to human. Did you know that if they stay in the water too long, their body temperatures can drop dangerously low? It’s amazing they’ve taken over the surface of the planet!”

“As long as they stay on the surface, it’s fine,” Eleanor said, shifting her position so Benjamin could sit right against her. He was right; he was noticeably warmer than she was – than anyone was. It was… nice. Comforting.

“But they don’t,” Benjamin said. “You’ve seen it. Out in the Middle. That swamp of used things. They call it ‘plastic.’ And you’ve seen the turtles and the sea-birds that get choked on those weird Circles of Six.

“Yeah,” Eleanor said. “Mother says we used to Take humans to keep our species alive. We can only interbreed for so long… But I keep thinking, maybe we should Take a few and show them what their wastefulness is doing to us. They won’t listen to the whales or the sharks or the turtles – ”

He cut her off. “Some of them try, but they don’t speak the same language. Literally.”

“… but we can speak like they do. So maybe if….”

“Maybe,” but Benjamin’s tone was dark. “Or maybe they’ll Take us and put us in their glass cages for people to point to and gawk at. Maybe it’s better if they think we’re part fish, or just mythical creatures.”

“Maybe they’ll change,” Eleanor said.

“We’ll figure something out. We both need a senior project. Want to be partners?”

“Meet here day after tomorrow to exchange ideas?” She suggested.

“Seal it with a kiss?” He wasn’t teasing… not exactly.

A conch shell rolled up to them just as their lips met. As they twined their longest tentacles together, it began to speak. “Eleanor and Benjamin, you are truant. Please return to school immediately, or your parents will be notified.”

Reluctantly, the pair broke apart. “We should go,” Benjamin said. “They’re going to give us a ton of demerits.”

Eleanor folded her parasol and collected the rest of her belongings. “Race you back!”

Both youngsters leapt for the water, but Benjamin changed the rules by grabbing her hand. “Together,” he said.

He was right: they did get a ton of demerits. But, Eleanor reflected, it was worth it for a day by the shore.

Like Clockwork

0392 - Ticking“It’s good to see you again,” he tells me. “I’m glad you’re home.” He leans close to give me a welcoming kiss – and I can’t deny I’ve missed his kisses – but something skitters up his arm to perch on his shoulder.

A spider. But not the typical kind. One of his creations.

“You’ve been tinkering again,” I observe, and back away.

“A bit,” he hedges. “More than a bit,” he amends, off my accusing glare. “A lot, actually. You were on tour for six months, love. I had to fill the nights somehow. Besides, it was a distraction from the pain.”

Before I’d left him to go on tour, he’d been diagnosed with the wasting disease that had decimated the human population of Earth. (The aliens and the hybrids, like me, were immune.) I’d offered to stay, but it had been my farewell tour – my last chance to dance the lead roles I’d loved so well – Giselle, of course, Aurora, and – somewhat appropriately – my very last performance had been Coppelia.

“Did you have to build spiders, though?” I’d always feared the creatures. They had too many legs, and too many eyes, and tended to appear in places where I was wearing too little clothing – the shower, the deck of the hot tub, our bed.

“I didn’t build him,” my partner said.

“But I can see the clockwork.”

“I enhanced him. Come, let me draw you a bath, and I’ll explain.”

I let him lead me through the bedroom, into the luxurious master bathroom that had been the selling feature for our house. He’d made sure the bed was freshly made for my arrival, and I smiled at that detail. I undressed as he lit candles and filled the tub with hot water and scented bubbles.

“Join me?” I invited.

“Not tonight,” he said. “Would you like wine or tea while you soak?”

“Not tonight,” I echoed his words, as I stepped into the tub I sighed as I sunk into the water. My forty-five-year-old body was pretty battered after six months of performances and travel, and I’d danced five years longer than many of the women I’d started with, ten years longer than some. I could easily have closed my eyes and fallen asleep, but the bubbles tickled my skin and reminded me… “So, the spider?”

“Ah, yes. The first month you were gone, I was a bit sore, but I managed, but as the disease worsened, I knew that there would be no medical marvel for me unless I created one. I started with spiders because – gods forgive me – I didn’t care so much if they didn’t survive the process. Then I moved to small mammals; don’t worry, they all survived.”

“So, what, you were making clockwork prosthetics?”

“At first, yes, but I learned to recreate entire joints, even organs. It was as if someone was directing my ideas, guiding my hands. When I woke one morning and couldn’t walk, I called Sam.”

Sam was my partner’s oldest friend, a fellow tinkerer, and a specialist in robotics. “There was a Doctor Who marathon, and we spent the weekend watching it.” He chuckled ruefully, “I’m afraid it only gave us more ideas. In any case, we needed to test our creations on humans, and Sam’s wife is a surgeon, so…”

He rolled up his sleeve and displayed his elbow, then pressed inside the joint, causing the skin to open and reveal more clockwork.

I gasped. I couldn’t help it.

My partner knelt by the side of my tub and began to unbutton his shirt. He didn’t speak, but the seam in his chest told me all I needed to know.

“Maybe don’t open that just now,” I said, managing to infuse my words with a tiny bit of humor. “Is that why you didn’t want to join me in the bath?”

“You mean, will I rust? No. Totally waterproof, or, as much as I ever was. I just wanted you to have room to stretch.”

“How much?” I asked. “How much of you is… still you?”

“My knees, elbows, and heart are clockwork. The rest… the rest of me is still very much organic. I haven’t cured myself, love. Just arrested the progression of the disease.” He lowered his head a bit, the way he always did when he was sheepish. “The patents made us a lot of money… if you ever want – ”

“NO! – ” I cut him off. “I mean… I’m sorry, but… no. It’s not for me. I’m glad you’re not in pain, though.”

“Not in pain,” he said, and then, waggling his eyebrows, he added, “and no longer impotent.”

I’d been gone for six months, but we hadn’t had sex for at least as long before my tour. “Prove it,” I challenged.

* * * * *

Later, sated and sleepy, I rested with my head on my lover’s chest, and listened to the ticking that came from deep within his chest. “Well, I said… that still works.”

“It does,” he agreed, “like clockwork.”

Etiquette

0361 - Medusa

The hissing of her serpents echoed in the stone chamber. He’d followed all the clues: the puzzle games on the open internet, the more difficult tests that came first through the dark web, and then, later, through the mail.

 

The mail! Seriously! Who even used the postal service anymore? Well, other than Amazon and politicians, anyway.

 

But after months – years – of Facebook friendship, Discord chats, and late-night text marathons, he’d worn her down.

 

“I want to meet you,” he’d said for the seventy-millionth time.

 

“Find me if you can,” she’d challenged.

 

And he had.

 

The legends said people froze because she was hideous. But she wasn’t. She was power embodied: sinuous beauty, with eyes that could penetrate your soul, legs that were long, toned, and tanned, and a voice that coiled itself around you almost as tangibly as a warm scarf.

 

He couldn’t help but stare.

 

“What, forgotten how to use your words?” she teased.

 

He could only nod dumbly.

 

She rolled her eyes. All of them. Not just those on her face. “It’s not polite to stare,” she said, a note of sadness coloring her tone. “Didn’t your grandmother ever warn you that your face would freeze that way?”

 

A drop of drool pooled in the corner of his mouth.

 

“She was right.”

TSR: For Your Health. For Your Future

TSR For Your HealthThe presenter is a woman in her late forties. Old enough to convey gravitas and command respect. Youthful-looking enough that appearance-oriented audience members will not read her as “old,” and tune out.

 

Her dark brown hair is pulled into a loose bun. Her make-up is subtle. Her pearl necklace and diamond-stud earrings are the epitome of taste

 

She is wearing a red sheath dress with a lab coat – a perfectly tailored lab coat – over it. Her black pumps have a conservative heel.

 

When she speaks, it is in a low-pitched soothing voice, halfway between a flight attendant and a psychotherapist.

 

The projected images on the screens to either side of her change to mirror her topic.

 

“TSR – Total Spine Replacement. For decades our orthopedists and neurologists have been working together to refine this process.”

 

“As so many projects did, it began with a spark. Our chief of R&D nearly lost his son in a car accident – that was before ground-cars were banned and replaced by CTG flitters. Cloud-to-ground vehicles are one life-saving mechanism.“

 

“TSR is another. “

 

“No longer will survivors of devastating accidents be relegated to years of pain management, rehab, braces, and mobility devices. No more will children born with severe spinal defects have to live with diminished capabilities and physical therapy.”

 

“With TSR we can replace the entire human spinal column, first replacing the main neural connections with retractable synthetics, which allow us to remove the spine as one unit.”

 

She continues, walking her audience through a procedure that looks awfully realistic for a computer model. (It is a computer model, right?)

 

“Finally, we complete the procedure with our Bio-Orthopedic Reintegration Geometrics machine. How many of you are Star Trek fans? Well, we are, too, but we promise: this BORG has nothing to do with assimilation.”

 

She holds for the expected laughter. “Clinical trials – human trials – are set to begin in two weeks, on rigorously vetted volunteer subjects. Thanks to TSR our patients will be walking, running, climbing – or just picking up their children – by Christmas.”

 

The lights come up. She favors the audience with a pleasant smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Thank you for coming today. I’ll take your questions now.”

 

Later, behind the curtains, she faces her superior. “It went well,” she says. “I think we’ll see increased numbers of volunteers. This group of physicians specializes in severe spinal trauma.”

 

“Excellent,” her superior responds. “I require nourishment. Join me for dinner; we will discuss the launch of phase two.”

 

The woman in red gives a nod, but her neck locks and she must lift her hands to straighten her head.

 

Her superior stares at her through slitted eyes. “Get that servo checked out. We can’t have you glitching during a presentation.”

 

The presenter’s eyes widen ever so slightly. But she gives the appropriate response: “By your command.”

 

Porte

0345 - Porte - via flash promptThe initial meeting had gone well. True, it had been set up by their families, two of the most noble houses of their country, but despite that, they found, she and he, that they genuinely liked each other.

That first meeting was little more than dinner and a chaperoned walk through the perfumed gardens of her family’s estate. No, not a walk. A stroll. Of course, he’d been clad in formal attire, and her skirts had been ridiculously voluminous, especially in the August heat, but they’d shared a real moment of connection under the rose arbor.

A marriage to this man might not be horrible, after all, Elisabeth thought. He was funny, he was courteous, he was well-read, he was an excellent dancer, he didn’t mind that she was slightly mad, and while they didn’t speak all the same languages, they shared at least three common tongues. Communication would never be an issue.

Their second meeting, a trip to the opera, had also been pleasant enough. They’d both appreciated the talent of the singers while mocking the absurdity of the story. Their quiet laughter had become a trilled counterpoint that only those sharing their private box could discern.

On their third meeting, though, the moon had been high in the sky after the official festivities of the ball had ended, and she’d been edgy and cross all evening, for no apparent reason. He’d tried to break through her prickly mood with romantic advances – advances she would have welcomed on any other night – but instead, she’d let her dark emotions dictate her response, rather than letting her level head or empathetic heart take control.

He’d known… he’d seen the stains on her hands when the gloves came off, and that had provided all the information he’d needed. She’d barely had time to kiss his screaming mouth into silence before the portal had been opened, and he’d been pushed inside.

Of course, no one blamed her. It was an accident, they said. She couldn’t be expected to control her power. No one in her country had used that sort of magic for years – centuries even.

“Put your gloves back on, dearest,” her mother chided. “He won’t be missed for hours, and by then, we’ll have brought him back.” Unspoken were the next two words: we hope.

She turned her eyes to her mother’s face and nodded, silent tears wetting her cheeks.

The power to rip a hole in the universe had been dormant in her family for generations, until, with her birth, it woke. The consequences – the bloodstained hands, the screams of the universe echoing constantly inside her head – had been mitigated with extensive therapy: hypnosis, meditation, an herbal remedy from time to time.

But sometimes, when the moon was full, and her emotions were riding high – even if they were positive emotions – she slipped.

Well, witty and wise as he’d seemed Henri would not be so difficult to replace. There was always another suitor looking for a rich wife. And as her mother had said, they’d likely be able to fish him out – whatever was left of him – before too long.

Elisabeth smoothed her black satin gloves over her hands and up her arms. No more stains were visible. Her dainty fingers were once again hidden from view.

She wondered, though, if they could see – her parents, her friends, the endless line of Henri’s and Jean-Michel’s and Edouard’s – the stains on her heart and mind. The way every glance in the mirror reflected back a fractured soul.

She adjusted her hat and flashed a brittle smile at her shattered reflection in the window glass, and decided that if she had to be mad, at least she could be mad with style.