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Challenge of the Week #62: Tell us the story of Lucifer, where Lucifer is female. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by DrSemicolon

C-Change

I used to be Lucifer, but now I'm Lux. The same thing. After all, I'm androgynous. But that doesn't tell the whole story: I am trinus. A threesome. I went to Dr. Mengele and he confirmed it. 

I am with demon.

Pol Pot puts his hand on my belly. "When's the due date?" he asks.

"There are no dates here, silly man," I reply. "But I carry my little evil baby, and it's a good thing."

"Don't be so sure," Adolf chimes in.

"Which? Evil baby or good thing."

"Both," he answers, then adds, "you think you can mold 'em and shape 'em, influence how they turn out, but the joke's on you." 

"That's right," Idi Amin chuckles. Bonnie and Clyde wave from afar. I wave back. I like the attention.

Jeffrey Dahmer looks at my baby bump. "You gonna eat that?" he asks. I am offended, so I hit the trap door which sends him tumbling to the ninth circle. Maybe his roommate will try to kill him again. Vlad the Impaler stops in front of me and grins.

"Two for the price of one," he says. "Why didn't I think of this?" I smite him. Death of the already dead--what is called oblivion.

"It's a frickin' miracle, that's what it is," says Jim Jones bombastically, holding a Bible that has only blank pages. 

"Right," agrees Robespierre. 

"A miracle," I muse to myself. "Can there be such a thing here?" 

"Nixon's not here," says Qusay...and Uday finishes, "that's a miracle!" I am conflicted. I was only partially understanding when I said trinus. Motherhood is a whole other level. 

"You're probably all wondering why I called you all here," I announce to the complete census, a swath of races, times, and characters.

"I'm wondering why I'm here at all," Mao answers from the back. Ferdinand shushes him while Isabella glares. 

"What's up?" shouts Atta. 

"Yea," adds Kaczynski. "Yea," adds Kim Jung-il. And, likewise, from J. Edgar, Benito, Ivan, and Attila.

"What's the buzz? Tell us what's a'happenin'," Judas demands.

"I have changed. The way I am and the way I look at things. A child is borne."

"Not yet," says Fidel.

"Borne, not born," chides the Shah.

"Huh?" Fidel is confused.

"Motherhood. Here!" I shout trimphantly.

"And that means what to us?" shouts Muammar. "By the way, al-Assad here yet?"

"What it means is that I've changed. My thinking's changed." I look through the fourth wall. "Hell is hereby canceled. No more Hell. Go. Find yourself someplace else."

"Well, that's not fair," yells Nero, "I've been here for thousands of years--Bin Laden only a few, and now it's cancelled?"

"Yea," hollers Stalin. "Not fair." A shoe flies at me from the crowd. It misses.

"Imelda," I warn her severely, you face a mother's wrath--worse than the wrath of God, I assure you." The other shoe flies over my shoulder. I respond. You won't be seeing her anymore, that's for sure.

"Let her speak," demands Susan Atkins. "I wanna hear about Hell being canceled."

"Yea," says McVeigh. "That sounds too good to be true. What's the catch?"

I rub my belly affectionately. 

"This changes everything. I love my baby. Motherhood. Here. Look at me! I am the Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Maternity! I am the Puerperal Trinity!" I have a certain glow about me. "I love my baby, no matter what. No matter what happens, the misdeeds, the mistakes, the pratfalls, the crimes--all is forgiven." I sweep the mute audience for affect, and say, "That's what a good parent does." 

The silence is broken. "You're not our parent," Khomeini cries.

"No," I answer, "but someone is. The advice stands. Go now. Go find a better place."

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Challenge of the Week #62: Tell us the story of Lucifer, where Lucifer is female. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by DrSemicolon
C-Change
I used to be Lucifer, but now I'm Lux. The same thing. After all, I'm androgynous. But that doesn't tell the whole story: I am trinus. A threesome. I went to Dr. Mengele and he confirmed it. 
I am with demon.
Pol Pot puts his hand on my belly. "When's the due date?" he asks.
"There are no dates here, silly man," I reply. "But I carry my little evil baby, and it's a good thing."
"Don't be so sure," Adolf chimes in.
"Which? Evil baby or good thing."
"Both," he answers, then adds, "you think you can mold 'em and shape 'em, influence how they turn out, but the joke's on you." 
"That's right," Idi Amin chuckles. Bonnie and Clyde wave from afar. I wave back. I like the attention.
Jeffrey Dahmer looks at my baby bump. "You gonna eat that?" he asks. I am offended, so I hit the trap door which sends him tumbling to the ninth circle. Maybe his roommate will try to kill him again. Vlad the Impaler stops in front of me and grins.
"Two for the price of one," he says. "Why didn't I think of this?" I smite him. Death of the already dead--what is called oblivion.
"It's a frickin' miracle, that's what it is," says Jim Jones bombastically, holding a Bible that has only blank pages. 
"Right," agrees Robespierre. 
"A miracle," I muse to myself. "Can there be such a thing here?" 
"Nixon's not here," says Qusay...and Uday finishes, "that's a miracle!" I am conflicted. I was only partially understanding when I said trinus. Motherhood is a whole other level. 

"You're probably all wondering why I called you all here," I announce to the complete census, a swath of races, times, and characters.
"I'm wondering why I'm here at all," Mao answers from the back. Ferdinand shushes him while Isabella glares. 
"What's up?" shouts Atta. 
"Yea," adds Kaczynski. "Yea," adds Kim Jung-il. And, likewise, from J. Edgar, Benito, Ivan, and Attila.
"What's the buzz? Tell us what's a'happenin'," Judas demands.
"I have changed. The way I am and the way I look at things. A child is borne."
"Not yet," says Fidel.
"Borne, not born," chides the Shah.
"Huh?" Fidel is confused.
"Motherhood. Here!" I shout trimphantly.
"And that means what to us?" shouts Muammar. "By the way, al-Assad here yet?"
"What it means is that I've changed. My thinking's changed." I look through the fourth wall. "Hell is hereby canceled. No more Hell. Go. Find yourself someplace else."
"Well, that's not fair," yells Nero, "I've been here for thousands of years--Bin Laden only a few, and now it's cancelled?"
"Yea," hollers Stalin. "Not fair." A shoe flies at me from the crowd. It misses.
"Imelda," I warn her severely, you face a mother's wrath--worse than the wrath of God, I assure you." The other shoe flies over my shoulder. I respond. You won't be seeing her anymore, that's for sure.
"Let her speak," demands Susan Atkins. "I wanna hear about Hell being canceled."
"Yea," says McVeigh. "That sounds too good to be true. What's the catch?"
I rub my belly affectionately. 

"This changes everything. I love my baby. Motherhood. Here. Look at me! I am the Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Maternity! I am the Puerperal Trinity!" I have a certain glow about me. "I love my baby, no matter what. No matter what happens, the misdeeds, the mistakes, the pratfalls, the crimes--all is forgiven." I sweep the mute audience for affect, and say, "That's what a good parent does." 
The silence is broken. "You're not our parent," Khomeini cries.
"No," I answer, "but someone is. The advice stands. Go now. Go find a better place."
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Write a poem with the beginning line....I sat down by the river Styx.
Written by DrSemicolon in portal Poetry & Free Verse

The Redo

I sat down by the River Styx.

Set aside by his mother Nix,

Charon testified 'gainst the call

For those she deemed too good to fall.

A diff'rent ferry came for me

To test me for epiphany

Of right and wrong and moral law

And outrage for the sins I saw.

One seat left for the one who could've

Spout some sense for I should've and would've;

I was angry, no self-reproach--

I saw Charon turn back, approach...

Ultimately it's left to us,

Which boat we take, which train or bus,

Which road we take for our last ride:

Hell's gates are locked from the inside.

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Write a poem with the beginning line....I sat down by the river Styx.
Written by DrSemicolon in portal Poetry & Free Verse
The Redo
I sat down by the River Styx.
Set aside by his mother Nix,
Charon testified 'gainst the call
For those she deemed too good to fall.

A diff'rent ferry came for me
To test me for epiphany
Of right and wrong and moral law
And outrage for the sins I saw.

One seat left for the one who could've
Spout some sense for I should've and would've;
I was angry, no self-reproach--
I saw Charon turn back, approach...

Ultimately it's left to us,
Which boat we take, which train or bus,
Which road we take for our last ride:
Hell's gates are locked from the inside.
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Chapter 16 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon

16

Light! There was light! Windows—with sun!

Even from the partly cloudy sky which was the aftermath of the daily scattered showers came the curative emanations of sunlight. I could almost feel the Vitamin D frosting in my bloodstream. It was wonderful, this journey through Blown Away Memorial’s window-strewn halls to Maternity. Like any large hospital, the halls snaked through the building with no logic. Alternating with the glorious windows were prints of lithographs, matted and framed and bolted to the studs in the walls they adorned. For some reason, Chaz made sure I was stopped at each one to study it, like she were leading an art tour. There was the Madonna of Port Ligat, by Dali; then Nursery Decoration, by Miro; then a few childbirth renderings from gratuitous realists. And the closer we got to Maternity the more troubling the works became: Hide and Seek, by Tchelitchew; Echo of a Scream, by Siqueiros; and Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef, by Bacon.

Chaz made me look long and hard at each one. She held me firmly in front of each one, as if I were to gain a valuable insight before being reunited with Abby. Abraham’s Test, by Mull, was a gruesome depiction of God forgetting to step in on Isaac’s behalf. Herod Wins, artist unknown, showed how Herod dealt with his infantile insecurities. Bulimic Zeus as Birthfather, by Katz, was the last one, thank goodness.

The ubiquitous music overhead the whole time was, what best I could discern, a Punk-Muzak/Rap-Opera hybrid. Or at least I thought so, my first exposure to punk and rap a layer or two before I had originally met Abby. Maybe this whole episode of bizarre bombardment of my senses wasn’t really surreal; maybe I just wasn’t dealing well with joining the real world. Maybe I was crazy.

Crazy or not, here I come.

“Can we move on?” I asked Chaz when she stopped me in front of a painting called Children Raising Children, by Samneric.

“It’s like the Stations of the Cross,” she said. “I think it’s helpful to take each in before welcoming in any new babies.” Then she struck me on the side of my head with her knuckles. “C’mon, crimp, keep moving.”

We arrived at a nurse station, nurses in red and white of course, snapping to attention with Sister Chaz’s appearance. “Where is the Bennigan woman?” Chaz asked. “Is she still where I left her?” Her voice was gravelly as ever. Bennigan: Abby (still Abby) was no longer Bentley.

The nurse whom Sister Chaz had asked was almost pretty except for all of her abuse bruises. “You need to leave that guy,” I told her, surprising her to distraction.

“But then who would nurse me when I’ve gone too far on myself?” she asked back, Sister Chaz glared in disapproval of any dialogue with me. “Sorry, Sister…just thought it important to espouse self-flagellation when I can.” She straightened up her act. “Uh, um,” she muttered, flustered, “Bennigan’s still in the Midwifery Section, Room 3, where you left her, lying in and lying out.”

“Let’s go,” Sister Chaz said to me, gesturing with a dart of her recessed eyes. I was ready. This was a big moment for me.

I thought about myself with sudden awareness. Me, a miserable heap of hopeless organism, ready to kill myself, ready to kill somebody else—sounds like ready to fit right into this world—I was going to meet my love for the first time in many ordeals. I was to welcome my baby, a child aborted innumerable times in other layers. And I knew just what that meant to me. I wasn’t crazy! I declared in my mind. I was the luckiest sane man on this Earth or on any Earth, and prepared to receive the greatest gift of all, Abby’s love and the next generation that was a result of and which sprang from that love.

I suppose there were times in that dark hole when I had felt no love, either to give it or to receive it. Now I know how ludicrous that was. And my suicide plan—how ludicrous that, too. Now I clearly understood how suicide could only be a final solution to temporary problems.

True, my problems were doozies: like just being a reasonable person in an unreasonable world; or not knowing how I was going to get back to a reasonable world with myself and now my family; or even how I would convince my laboring Abby that I’m not the shithead sleazebag scuzbucket pop-up she knows in this layer, but that it is really me.

I was decidedly a new man.

I now rolled along in compulsory cadence with my sectarian monolith to the exciting sounds of fetal heart tones heard in the distance. They were the sweetest sounds I’d ever heard, even if the amplifier made them sound like a Maytag in an unevenly loaded spin cycle. My own heart raced to match that sound, until my own and my child’s hearts beat as one. The rhythm became louder and louder as we drew nearer. The anticipation became overpowering as I braced myself for my reunion, and I began to cry with happiness.

“Be a man!” Sister Chaz thumped, and my skinny body was jolted, my bones rattling with the shock.

“You mean like you?” I said, angry with her for ruining my reverie. Another thump on the head. I got off easy for that one. By now no orderlies accompanied as they had dropped off inconspicuously along the way. Just me and Chazzy. We turned the corner into the labor room.

It was a small room, but still it had three gurneys in it, only one of them occupied. The color scheme on the white ceramic tile was due to the interior decorators who were previous patients. Hanging from the ceiling were aluminum poles with hooks, one of which held a bag of intravenous fluid, its tube—which my eyes slowly followed—leading down to the sole patient.

And there, just as I had remembered her, she lay in her beauty. Last time it was on the moving table of the big magnet; this time on the platform of a labor bed.

I had that fleeting moment to consider her beauty, albeit more buxom in physique, before she would notice me. It was her. Truly. It didn’t matter that she probably looked identical to other pop-ups who had graced this layer—I just knew. In spite of the impossibility of not noticing the entire pregnant woman, it was her face I was fixed on. Sister Chaz stomped her foot to announce our arrival. Abby turned her head from the monitor to see who had arrived. Now she reciprocated my fixation by looking me right in the eyes. Her reflexes had her shrieking before her brain could order her vocal cords via due process. She obviously didn’t have the instinctive gift of recognition that I had.

“Get him out of here! I want him gone! I didn’t even want him to know when I was having the baby!”

“Abby, it’s me,” I explained from the doorway.

“I know it’s you, you bastard! Get out! I’ll kill myself and the baby before being with you!”

Wait a minute! I thought, unnerved. I was so worried about how to convince her that I was my truly existing self that I didn’t consider that she might not be her truly existing self. I doubted my instinctive gift of recognition. Just because this was the first layer with her pregnant again, I now painfully realized, didn’t mean there weren’t several skip areas of layers with pop-ups pregnant.

“Abby?” I offered again. Sister Chaz loved it.

“Get out—I mean it,” she hissed. (I don’t know where the expression, “Did anyone ever tell you you’re beautiful when you’re angry,” came from. Indeed I loved her, but how anger can distort the image I loved!) I tried again with proof.

“Abby, I’m really me. Your me. I followed you through the big magnet. I’ve hunted you down.”

Every scorn-producing muscle in her face quivered in hesitation, then relaxed. She seemed almost blasé, but I hoped it was a transient stunned look. Next, her expression slowly turned to one of ecstatic relief, which told me, thank God, that she was my Abby. Her tears streamed, confirming my finest wish had come true. I left the Chazbeast’s side and ran to Abby. Our embrace and stroking warmly reconciled the distances we had been separated.

“Oh Rocky, Rocky,” she cooed. There was a sound of disgust heard from Chaz.

“The name’s Ralph again,” I informed her. “Has been for awhile.”

“I don’t care,” she said, kneading me. “You’re my rose by any other name.” She pulled away suddenly to study me. “Oh, Rocky—Ralph, you look awful.”

“I’ve been admitted to Psychiatry—to Psychiattritian—for observation,” I explained. Her sorrowful smile indicated that the explanation was sufficient.

“Under, uh, cleaner circumstances,” she offered, “I might like your beard.”

“Do you know it never did itch?” I said. She ignored the remark. She suddenly wore a worried look, staring right past me. I whirled around in expectation of some nemesis, but there was no one new. Just Chaz was standing there stolidly.

“Oh,” she grimaced, holding her belly. “Oh, oh, oh...” I had forgotten that she was in labor. This was the nemesis.

“What can I do?” I asked, helpless.

“Just...don’t...slide,” she responded, her words punctuated by facial contortions and panting.

“No, no, my love,” I said to her, holding her hand and squeezing it tightly, loosening it only as her own discomfort seemed to be easing. Suddenly the door to the small labor room closed shut; a bolt was thrown. Sister Chaz had left but had locked us in. That was O.K. I—we weren’t going anywhere.

We smiled at each other, digging the hell out of the fact that we were together again. Adrift but together.

Another contraction. They seemed to be about six or seven minutes apart. She continued a plan for her relief that involved her sitting up and me firmly rubbing her lower back in downward strokes at the peak of the contraction.

“They say this is still early labor and that I haven’t seen anything yet,” she said. Then she laughed. “They don’t know that I’ve seen more than I ever want to see.”

“Sorry. Thanks to me.”

“Oh, no, baby.” She would have none of the self-chastising, about as useful as the self-flagellation I met minutes earlier. “I’m glad I’ve seen all of this,” she explained. “How many people get to see themselves in all sorts of ways?”

“But you stayed the same; it’s the worlds that have changed.”

“Ralph, you can see yourself in a place that’s used to dealing with you as you were. It’s sort of backwards insight, but just as clear.”

“I suppose,” I mused, half hypnotised by the sound of my son or daughter on the monitor, “Snap out of it,” she commanded with the brusque tone a labor contraction can invoke.

“O.K., O.K., sure,” I said, jumping, responding to the curtness as if in shell-shock.

“That’s O.K., baby, really, I’m sorry,” she said, recouping her affectionate tone and rubbing her belly, hitting the monitor belt which made quite an audible racket. “You’ve been held for a long time, huh?” she asked.

“Yes. A few months,” I said. She continued to rub her belly until Chaz intervened, opening the door again, objecting to the artifacts that blurted from the speaker of the monitor.

“Leave the monitor alone!” she shouted. Abby retracted her hands with immediate obedience. I looked away from her and studied the room. “Boy, everything is so clean and bright and cheerful in here.”

“In here? Ralph, are you sure?”

“Yes, it’s really quite wonderful.”

“Ralph, it’s as shabby as you’d expect coming this way—with everything getting worse and all.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “I guess I was in the gloom for so long.”

“You poor baby,” she said, and she rubbed my head.

“Me? What about you?”

“That’s what I was explaining. I’ve had the privilege of seeing me in all those ways.”

“With backwards insight.”

“Yea. I’ve seen all of the different aspects of me, the worst facets, the most troubling hidden emotional disturbances I never knew I had. All my little faults were exaggerated—like looking into your soul with a microscope.”

“So you don’t think that you are you, and these other ones are spontaneous replacements to fill voids in distorted shadow-worlds?”

“The shadow of what? One true world? Ralph, these are all part of the one true world. I have seen all of the girls that are me, all of the cowards, the selfish ones, the bitches.”

“No good ones?” I asked.

“Of course not. Not in this direction. If I can ever go the other way, I’ll see those.” She paused. “That is why you’ve come, isn’t it? To take me the other way? I’m ready. Our baby’s ready—” Then she stopped speaking suddenly, attentive to a premonition that the next contraction was about to start building. She prepared for it silently. When it came, this one seemed a little harder. Actually, a lot harder.

“Ow!” she shouted. “Rub harder, harder! C’mon, do it,” she said tensely, seeming angry. It was almost like a pop-up had popped in while she was sliding away.

“Abby?” I asked frightfully after it was over, checking to see if it were she.

“I’m O.K.,” she reassured me. “Oh those pains are bad—make me crazy.” She was still here, thank goodness. I was a little concerned that she may ebb out on some next magnetic wave, still victim of the wake. I had to promise myself I wouldn’t assume any sliding just because of how she might sound during these pains.

I considered what she had said. She sounded a lot like Ava, with this total existence-type philosophy. And Ava? Where might she be now, I asked myself. Was my out-of-body experience real? Was she in it really, and Abby, too? I had to know.

“Abby,” I asked. Did you see me, really me, before—a while back, in a dream, or in any state?”

She thought about it. Then she had another contraction. It passed after a full minute and she answered.

“I dreamed about you a lot, baby. I had one dream in particular that involved me, but not really. Almost like I was in my dream but had an out-of-body event.”

“Yes!” I almost shouted.

“No, I mean I, while dreaming—my dream-self had an out-of-body experience in the dream. And I saw my body fighting with you. I think I was seeing what my replacement in this terrible world was like. Or—this is the scary part—what I could do to your replacement here.” She paused. “But, it was just a dream.”

“Maybe,” I said. But it was close enough for me to be reassured Ava had some perspective of things where she was, for she had left her body, too, dream or not. I couldn’t quite figure all of the pieces, but they hovered close enough together to work as a real meaningful event. And somehow that night we had all helped each other.

I helped Abby again with another contraction. It became harder and harder to get her to catch me up or to philosophize as she became consumed by this labor business. I did get out of her the state of affairs of this seeming end-layer for her: that there was still religion here, but Christ was gone, or had never come—not yet, anyway; what a thing to contemplate!

There was still justice, but usually as equal revenge—governmentally sponsored or individually enacted and then substantiated to the authorities; that there were just a few Jews left, as the Nazis, very nasty genocidal politico-cultists who I had first met several layers ago in my Survey, had just about succeeded further down the line in doing what they had set out to do. And Japan existed now only as the radiant moonscape that honored the series of World War II nuclear persuasions.

“Enough, O.K.?” she asked, irritated, panting again. “Don’t you know what’s happening here? I’m in labor, alright?” So much for philosophical ruminations. I resumed the back-rubs with loyal fervor.

“I’m sorry again, Ralph,” she said during the refractory interval between contractions, “it really hurts.”

“That’s alright,” I said. “I love you. You’re right. What’s the matter with me, anyway? We’re going to have our baby, and all I do is try to catch up on history. It’s just that I was finally able to slide to where you were still pregnant, and then bam! they snagged me and threw away the key. I’m the one who’s sorry.” I paused, and again I said happily, “we’re going to have our baby.” I smiled at her. She squeezed my hand tenderly, then tightly.

Then really tightly as her newest contraction peeked. I didn’t care. This was nothing; I was with her. We got down to business; we got into the labor. I was continually thrilled by the sound of the fetal monitor.

The private intensity we shared was suddenly broken by the door opening once again. In walked Sister Chaz with of all people, ol’ man and ol’ lady Ebe. Except they looked younger than the day I nearly gave the big-haired old coot a heart attack. They were still pretty old looking, though.

“Hello,” they said together, with cutesy waves that involved flexing only the last joint of each finger.

“Who are they?” Abby asked.

“Those are Ava’s in-laws,” I responded.

“Who’s Ava?” she further asked.

“Ava’s this woman--older woman, much older woman—that helped me look for you.” I paused nervously. “Uh, can I explain this later?” But Abby was off handling another labor pain.

“Oh, I remember when I was pregnant for you,” ol’ lady Ebe said to me teasingly.

“Me?” I said, incredulous.

“Of course, you, silly,” she laughed.

“That’s right, son,” her husband added. I turned to Abby to give her a “they’re out of their minds” look.

“Look, I’m afraid you both are going to have to leave,” I told them.

“But son,” the old woman said, hurt.

“Look—Mom, Dad?” I tried, winking at Abby. “Could you give us some privacy?” It worked. They turned to the door and dutifully went out. Sister Chaz, who had been standing just outside of the door, replaced them.

“You cold-hearted bastard,” she called me. The she snapped back around and closed us in again.

“You don’t know those people? They aren’t your parents here?” Abby asked.

“No. Forget them. Let’s have a baby.”

Another contraction. These things must have been very ugly pains indeed.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” Abby said to me, beginning to wear down.

“Shouldn’t there be a doctor or something?” I asked her.

“Midwife,” Abby replied. They only call doctors if there are complications. That’s what I could afford.”

Ride of your life or guaranteed destination.

“So where’s the midwife?” I asked her.

“She’s right outside the door. She brought those people in.”

“Sister Chaz?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied Abby.

“Yes?” Sister Chaz responded, opening the door when she thought she was being called. Abby took advantage of the misunderstanding, seizing the initiative.

“Sister Chaz, I’d like something for the pain; it’s really getting to be too much.”

“Be a woman!” she reprimanded her. Abby just sighed, but this was cut short by the next contraction. Sister Chaz left at its peak, closing the door behind her once again, and I could have sworn that I heard a snicker from her just before she was gone.

The fetal heart tones did a funny thing after the next contraction was over. They got slower. Normally it was a heart rate at about 140 a minute. It dropped to almost sixty, but then went back up. Then this started happening in between all of the contractions.

“Is that normal?” I asked Abby.

“I don’t know. It goes back up, so I guess it’s O.K.” This was the way it continued for almost an hour. I didn’t even notice it all that much because of what Abby and my hand were going through. I helped her as best I could, resuming the back-rubbing, but to no avail. She suffered pretty damn good. The contractions were almost every two minutes by then, not much time in between for her to rest. We weren’t talking to each other a whole lot by this time but were just weathering it out. Suddenly she raised her voice in alarm.

“Ralph!” she shouted. She felt between flexed knees and pulled back up a hand red with blood. I was horrified by my ignorance of its significance. She started crying loudly. “Oh no, oh no,” she cried. But the tears were abruptly stopped by the biggest contraction she had had yet. And it didn’t go away. Abby hung in there for about two minutes, but by the third minute she was hopping fitfully with the pain. The baby’s heart tones had dropped to sixty again but stayed there.

“Sister Chaz!” I hollered. The door flew open shortly. Chaz saw the situation and walked to a cardboard box. She pulled out a large plastic glove and donned it. She chased Abby’s gyrating pelvis all over the bed and then examined her roughly, her inserted hand apparently holding her in place. After her evaluation she popped off the glove down to her index fingertip, and using the elastic stretch she was able to produce, she fired it all away across the room into a trash can that was in a corner. Little blood droplets were flung onto the walls en route, adding to the decor on the white tiles. She then reported her observations to me.

“She’s not going to deliver anytime soon. The baby’s in distress. Only a C-Section can save it,” she told me.

“Do it, do it,” I snapped. I looked at Abby. The contraction was still there, and the baby’s heart was still slow. Amidst her turmoil and tossing I thought I saw a superimposed shudder, raising my worst fears.

“Don’t slide!” I ordered her. “Don’t do it!” She kept her eyes closed the remainder of the contraction which finally let up after four more minutes. As my worst torture, the heart tones remained slow for a time, but finally they rose to about a hundred but without much variability. Abby’s eyes were still shut tight, as if she were still not finished suffering.

“The baby’s still in serious trouble. Shall I prepare for the C-Section?” she asked Abby. Abby suddenly opened her blood-shot eyes—they were the same sudden eyes that confronted me during the Ava double-exposure before my escape in the Piranha. But this time I was sure they revealed a wild look of malevolence and rage—at me!

“A C-Section? For what!” she shouted. “For his kid?” Oh my God, I thought. I tried to slide to catch her quick in another layer but was immobile, trapped here with the pop-up she left behind.

“Shit!” I said to myself. “Just what is the problem?” I tried again. Nothing. “Please, Abby, save our baby. Have the Cesarean,” I pleaded, more and more alarmed by the sickly steady heart rate.

“Get him out of here,” Abby shrieked in pain and fury, as well as in victory over who would decide what for her body. I received the complimentary shoulder grasp from Chaz and was promptly tossed out, the door shutting me outside. I had grabbed for my stashed gun but had reconsidered. After all, what would I do, threaten to shoot Abby if she were to refuse the surgery?

Through the door I heard the next big contraction, longer than the last one, accompanied by this Abby’s screams which deteriorated into whimpers of exhaustion. In the background, well submerged, was the baby’s heart rhythm, slowing even more.

Slower and slower it became, until it was no more.

I slouched down the wall into a heap. I could still hear Abby’s moans but didn’t much care. Was my very own unborn child a true exister, moving on with my Abby wherever and leaving a pop-up baby in the womb of this pop-up Abby? A dead baby? And regarding this, too, I didn’t much care, because somewhere where the birds were chirping and all that jazz this baby was mine. Right here, this baby was mine...somewhere. I know that didn’t make sense, but I didn’t much care about that either. I cared that the girl in there was going to give birth to a dead baby that never had a chance—true exister or pop-up—never a chance.

And then out of my throat bellowed a most terrible noise—a roar that was a railing against hopelessness, the force of which could beat back the ill-wind itself. It was an enactment only a parent who had lost a child was capable of. From an elevator a long time ago.

I heard God-knows-what happening behind the door. It was a homogenous clamor involving patient, midwife, and processes. I stank of worthlessness crumpled in my heap. I guessed that ol’ lady and ol’ man Ebe, even here, younger, trying to be my parents—I guessed that they had lost their grandchild after all, as versions of them had told their daughter-in-law, Ava, that day.

I languished in my collapse of limbs and psyche for about another hour when I heard a different kind of screaming and shuffling of furniture that could only mean the birth of the dead child. I cried into the palms of my hands, and soon this was the only sound I could hear.

After a brief period of time, Sister Chaz opened the door to exit. She carried with her a baby-sized effect completely surrounded in a white blanket. I jumped up to follow her, for I wanted to see the child, even though I knew what she carried was lifeless. This strong desire to see the child, to meet the child, was the only thing that kept me from storming Abby’s room, taking my gun, and...well, I made the right decision, even in my unbridled anger, even in this nadir that was my grief, even in my shattered essence.

Chaz passed a nursery of crying babies with the antithesis she herself carried. Borne by Chaz, born of Abby, born still. I picked up my pace until I was right behind her. She knew it, too.

“I want to look at the baby,” I told the back of her head, keeping up with her. “I want to see my child.”

“Congratulations, it’s a boy. Your son,” she called back without interrupting that famous stride of hers. She stopped and turned around, “Your dead son. Let’s see, what did Landrick call you? A roach! That’s right, a mote-eating roach. And now you see, she should have had that abortion—it would have been like stomping on just another little roach. Now, megassinine, just look at what you have. It’s dead—stomped dead. Really, what’s the difference?”

As she resumed her walk, I lunged for her. I grabbed her shoulder. She spun around, halfway by my pull, the other half on her own, her face irked by the affront of contact. She extended her forearm abruptly to stiff-arm me with a rigid open palm to my face. My left hand was fingering the gun in my back but sprang to block her strike by chopping her arm upward.

I struck her with my hardest-hitting knuckles, and I kicked repeatedly at her shins. I gave her the beating of her life that I had been dying to give her. I jabbed her in her neck and slapped her in her head with all of my might. Then I hooked her with a right, hard, slugging her good. I pummeled her.

She just laughed.

Like the fire hydrant that she was she just stood there inert. The baby was firm in her pigskin grasp, not the slightest bit jostled. We stood face-to-face in a stand-off. This was her move, because if she decided to get as rough as I knew she could, I was prepared to blast her. Showing her teeth, with stiff, tight lips, she snarled.

“You’re in big trouble, Ebe.” She snapped around and continued walking with my son. I followed. She hung a right through swinging doors into a little fluorescent-lit room. There stood a small, cold, metal examining table with dirty crumpled paper on it. She lay my child on it, still covered in the blanket as shroud.

“He’s all yours,” she said to me scornfully and stormed out.

“You sure are right,” knowing that this poor little thing belonged to no one else in this world but me. He didn’t even belong to his mother who deserted him and couldn’t even jumpstart him with his life at the very beginning of his human race.

I had heard that one should look at one’s stillborn child—that it’s supposed to help in accepting the tragedy. I lingered. The small little package lay so bizarrely motionless on the table, completely hidden in his pall. Finally, though, I knew it was time to meet him. I reached over and gingerly lifted a crucially tucked corner of white blanket and the other three corners fell away. Even though he had this sort of baby grease all over him, I could tell he was beautiful.

He was so beautiful, my son was. There was a serenity in his little face, a calmness with which I was familiar. This little face was now reposed and beside itself, beside the turbulence from which he was cast. Where before had I seen this calmness arising from turmoil? Where before had I seen this tranquility that was the victory mask signifying the prevailing over the struggle?

Maybe in myself. Maybe in anyone who has finally come to be at peace with himself for doing his finest. Maybe in persons like Les who arise every day to the same restraints life has fettered them with, but who nonetheless go at it with the most optimistic of resolve. And all of these things in that calm little face, my son’s face, made me proud of him.

I fell in love with him in that small room and I fell in love with him somewhere else, also. Somewhere he lived, my son. And for a fleeting moment this almost made it alright about him here.

I studied him. I put my finger into the palm of his little blue, cold hand and his absent grasp nearly killed me. I picked him up and clutched him to me, crying as I did.

I did seem to cry a lot these days.

“You live, my son. Somewhere you live. Somewhere you are sucking milk from your mother’s—a loving mother’s—breast. I don’t know where, but somewhere. Somewhere a good, gentle nurse is bringing you to your lucky parents, and they are grinning at each other like fools—like the happiest fools in the world. Oh God, I love you,” I said meaning it for both this little lifeless part of me as well as for the God above, who I missed terribly. Cu

I heard the creak of the door. In came the Ebes I had chased out of Abby’s labor room earlier. And I thought I was sad. Ol’ lady Ebe hugged me with the baby between us hard enough to smother a living child. So strong was that hug of hers—strong on purpose to reach through three generations. That was a good feeling, a family feeling. It was the same feeling I felt when my pregnant Abby had hugged me high above the ill-wind, when I could feel our child moving between us. I caved in. I sobbed so hard to her. She stroked my head. Ol’ man Ebe just stood there respectfully silent. I didn’t have the heart to refuse their misguided parental identities.

“Mom,” I said, playing the part (and it felt good), “I am so sad over this.”

“I know, son, I know,” she said. I then felt a hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t the forced march grasp of Chaz, but a comforting paternal hand instead. I turned to ol’ man Ebe. He spoke as I lay my son down. My hand was on my son’s shoulder as ol’ man Ebe’s steadied mine, and he spoke as I gazed at my beautiful child.

“You know, son,” he started, “a lot of things in this life don’t make any sense. People step on each other to get ahead..or even just for convenience. Or even to be just plain mean. The government doesn’t care about us. Your fellow man doesn’t, either. When it comes right down to it, the only ones you can count on are your family. And when you lose your son I share that grief. Not so much because I’ve lost a grandson, but because my son has lost his son.” I swallowed hard.

“You two are the nicest people in this whole horrible world,” I said, stunned by the spark of compassion that perverted this entire horrible layer.

“What do you expect, son,” ol’ lady Ebe said. “We’re your parents.”

And I remembered how the pain of today had been finally eased for them after the many years by the time they, or some like them, had been visited by an older Ava but the same me, in another layer. And it was only to have Ava rip open the scar by referring to me as the other grandson. She had no idea how in that mildly unreasonable layer of many more severely unreasonable layers to come she had maybe been unreasonable. But then she herself had the blinding prospect of a sudden lost son to contend with—sudden oblivion for her son, Les, at the hands of people who felt like these two did the how many years earlier which was now.

Everyone hurting everyone—it was a God-awful mess.

“Go to your son’s mother,” ol’ lady Ebe said. “That’s where you belong. We’ll take care of these arrangements.” I kissed both of them goodbye and walked out, but before I did I turned to once more look at my still son, my serene son. I became moved all over again. I broke down again. My parents were there for me again. So hard was I heaving my sobs that even I myself did not notice my tremor that was lost in the upheaval of my sorrow. These two pushed me out of the door and into the hall. Strange, I thought, but it did get me out of there and on my way.

I felt I was stalking my prey as I retraced the journey back to the labor room. I grew angrier and angrier with “my son’s mother.” An ill wind blew past me—through me. Fuckin’ pissfuck-bastardcockfuck and other sentiments, I churned. My teeth were grinding.

A gun, I found out, is a very dangerous thing indeed: sooner or later you just feel like you want to blast somebody. Sister Chaz would do. So would Landrick or Landry or whatever the hell his name was. And so would that piece of shit that killed our baby!

“You killed our son!” I shouted at her as I burst into the labor room, pointing the gun at her from my outstretched arm. Abby shimmied up her headboard, hurting as she did so from her fresh delivery. She was terrified, her eyes doing the screaming. She prepared to die, pinned to her bed by her condition.

“Wherever you are, Ralph, I love you,” she said to me as her last words.

“Oh sweet Jesus, I thought you were the one who killed our baby,” I said, knowing I had my real Abby, meaning that I had slid too.

I ran to her and embraced her, reassuring her as quickly as I could. “It’s me. It’s me...again.”

“I thought you were the Ralph here, with that gun and all,” she cried.

“No, no, I’m yours.”

“The Ralph here refused to sign the consent for a C-Section.”

“Why didn’t you tell them to just do it? Screw me!”

“Because the consent had a promissory note in it. They said that he—that you were going to refuse to pay the bill if I had the operation—that you had to sign first. They said they wouldn’t just do it anyway, because surgery for this emergency wasn’t mandatory—that anything done for the unborn is elective. They didn’t want to get gypped out of their bill.”

“The bill! Oh, please no, not for the money.”

So I had just left a dead son by her hands back there, and now I commiserated with my real Abby over our dead son by my hands over here. We just held each other.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” I whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back as her eyes closed, and she fell off into exhaustion with no resurrection in sight at least until the next morning.

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Chapter 16 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon
16
Light! There was light! Windows—with sun!
Even from the partly cloudy sky which was the aftermath of the daily scattered showers came the curative emanations of sunlight. I could almost feel the Vitamin D frosting in my bloodstream. It was wonderful, this journey through Blown Away Memorial’s window-strewn halls to Maternity. Like any large hospital, the halls snaked through the building with no logic. Alternating with the glorious windows were prints of lithographs, matted and framed and bolted to the studs in the walls they adorned. For some reason, Chaz made sure I was stopped at each one to study it, like she were leading an art tour. There was the Madonna of Port Ligat, by Dali; then Nursery Decoration, by Miro; then a few childbirth renderings from gratuitous realists. And the closer we got to Maternity the more troubling the works became: Hide and Seek, by Tchelitchew; Echo of a Scream, by Siqueiros; and Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef, by Bacon.
Chaz made me look long and hard at each one. She held me firmly in front of each one, as if I were to gain a valuable insight before being reunited with Abby. Abraham’s Test, by Mull, was a gruesome depiction of God forgetting to step in on Isaac’s behalf. Herod Wins, artist unknown, showed how Herod dealt with his infantile insecurities. Bulimic Zeus as Birthfather, by Katz, was the last one, thank goodness.
The ubiquitous music overhead the whole time was, what best I could discern, a Punk-Muzak/Rap-Opera hybrid. Or at least I thought so, my first exposure to punk and rap a layer or two before I had originally met Abby. Maybe this whole episode of bizarre bombardment of my senses wasn’t really surreal; maybe I just wasn’t dealing well with joining the real world. Maybe I was crazy.
Crazy or not, here I come.
“Can we move on?” I asked Chaz when she stopped me in front of a painting called Children Raising Children, by Samneric.
“It’s like the Stations of the Cross,” she said. “I think it’s helpful to take each in before welcoming in any new babies.” Then she struck me on the side of my head with her knuckles. “C’mon, crimp, keep moving.”
We arrived at a nurse station, nurses in red and white of course, snapping to attention with Sister Chaz’s appearance. “Where is the Bennigan woman?” Chaz asked. “Is she still where I left her?” Her voice was gravelly as ever. Bennigan: Abby (still Abby) was no longer Bentley.
The nurse whom Sister Chaz had asked was almost pretty except for all of her abuse bruises. “You need to leave that guy,” I told her, surprising her to distraction.
“But then who would nurse me when I’ve gone too far on myself?” she asked back, Sister Chaz glared in disapproval of any dialogue with me. “Sorry, Sister…just thought it important to espouse self-flagellation when I can.” She straightened up her act. “Uh, um,” she muttered, flustered, “Bennigan’s still in the Midwifery Section, Room 3, where you left her, lying in and lying out.”
“Let’s go,” Sister Chaz said to me, gesturing with a dart of her recessed eyes. I was ready. This was a big moment for me.
I thought about myself with sudden awareness. Me, a miserable heap of hopeless organism, ready to kill myself, ready to kill somebody else—sounds like ready to fit right into this world—I was going to meet my love for the first time in many ordeals. I was to welcome my baby, a child aborted innumerable times in other layers. And I knew just what that meant to me. I wasn’t crazy! I declared in my mind. I was the luckiest sane man on this Earth or on any Earth, and prepared to receive the greatest gift of all, Abby’s love and the next generation that was a result of and which sprang from that love.
I suppose there were times in that dark hole when I had felt no love, either to give it or to receive it. Now I know how ludicrous that was. And my suicide plan—how ludicrous that, too. Now I clearly understood how suicide could only be a final solution to temporary problems.
True, my problems were doozies: like just being a reasonable person in an unreasonable world; or not knowing how I was going to get back to a reasonable world with myself and now my family; or even how I would convince my laboring Abby that I’m not the shithead sleazebag scuzbucket pop-up she knows in this layer, but that it is really me.
I was decidedly a new man.
I now rolled along in compulsory cadence with my sectarian monolith to the exciting sounds of fetal heart tones heard in the distance. They were the sweetest sounds I’d ever heard, even if the amplifier made them sound like a Maytag in an unevenly loaded spin cycle. My own heart raced to match that sound, until my own and my child’s hearts beat as one. The rhythm became louder and louder as we drew nearer. The anticipation became overpowering as I braced myself for my reunion, and I began to cry with happiness.
“Be a man!” Sister Chaz thumped, and my skinny body was jolted, my bones rattling with the shock.
“You mean like you?” I said, angry with her for ruining my reverie. Another thump on the head. I got off easy for that one. By now no orderlies accompanied as they had dropped off inconspicuously along the way. Just me and Chazzy. We turned the corner into the labor room.
It was a small room, but still it had three gurneys in it, only one of them occupied. The color scheme on the white ceramic tile was due to the interior decorators who were previous patients. Hanging from the ceiling were aluminum poles with hooks, one of which held a bag of intravenous fluid, its tube—which my eyes slowly followed—leading down to the sole patient.
And there, just as I had remembered her, she lay in her beauty. Last time it was on the moving table of the big magnet; this time on the platform of a labor bed.
I had that fleeting moment to consider her beauty, albeit more buxom in physique, before she would notice me. It was her. Truly. It didn’t matter that she probably looked identical to other pop-ups who had graced this layer—I just knew. In spite of the impossibility of not noticing the entire pregnant woman, it was her face I was fixed on. Sister Chaz stomped her foot to announce our arrival. Abby turned her head from the monitor to see who had arrived. Now she reciprocated my fixation by looking me right in the eyes. Her reflexes had her shrieking before her brain could order her vocal cords via due process. She obviously didn’t have the instinctive gift of recognition that I had.
“Get him out of here! I want him gone! I didn’t even want him to know when I was having the baby!”
“Abby, it’s me,” I explained from the doorway.
“I know it’s you, you bastard! Get out! I’ll kill myself and the baby before being with you!”
Wait a minute! I thought, unnerved. I was so worried about how to convince her that I was my truly existing self that I didn’t consider that she might not be her truly existing self. I doubted my instinctive gift of recognition. Just because this was the first layer with her pregnant again, I now painfully realized, didn’t mean there weren’t several skip areas of layers with pop-ups pregnant.
“Abby?” I offered again. Sister Chaz loved it.
“Get out—I mean it,” she hissed. (I don’t know where the expression, “Did anyone ever tell you you’re beautiful when you’re angry,” came from. Indeed I loved her, but how anger can distort the image I loved!) I tried again with proof.
“Abby, I’m really me. Your me. I followed you through the big magnet. I’ve hunted you down.”
Every scorn-producing muscle in her face quivered in hesitation, then relaxed. She seemed almost blasé, but I hoped it was a transient stunned look. Next, her expression slowly turned to one of ecstatic relief, which told me, thank God, that she was my Abby. Her tears streamed, confirming my finest wish had come true. I left the Chazbeast’s side and ran to Abby. Our embrace and stroking warmly reconciled the distances we had been separated.
“Oh Rocky, Rocky,” she cooed. There was a sound of disgust heard from Chaz.
“The name’s Ralph again,” I informed her. “Has been for awhile.”
“I don’t care,” she said, kneading me. “You’re my rose by any other name.” She pulled away suddenly to study me. “Oh, Rocky—Ralph, you look awful.”
“I’ve been admitted to Psychiatry—to Psychiattritian—for observation,” I explained. Her sorrowful smile indicated that the explanation was sufficient.
“Under, uh, cleaner circumstances,” she offered, “I might like your beard.”
“Do you know it never did itch?” I said. She ignored the remark. She suddenly wore a worried look, staring right past me. I whirled around in expectation of some nemesis, but there was no one new. Just Chaz was standing there stolidly.
“Oh,” she grimaced, holding her belly. “Oh, oh, oh...” I had forgotten that she was in labor. This was the nemesis.
“What can I do?” I asked, helpless.
“Just...don’t...slide,” she responded, her words punctuated by facial contortions and panting.
“No, no, my love,” I said to her, holding her hand and squeezing it tightly, loosening it only as her own discomfort seemed to be easing. Suddenly the door to the small labor room closed shut; a bolt was thrown. Sister Chaz had left but had locked us in. That was O.K. I—we weren’t going anywhere.
We smiled at each other, digging the hell out of the fact that we were together again. Adrift but together.
Another contraction. They seemed to be about six or seven minutes apart. She continued a plan for her relief that involved her sitting up and me firmly rubbing her lower back in downward strokes at the peak of the contraction.
“They say this is still early labor and that I haven’t seen anything yet,” she said. Then she laughed. “They don’t know that I’ve seen more than I ever want to see.”
“Sorry. Thanks to me.”
“Oh, no, baby.” She would have none of the self-chastising, about as useful as the self-flagellation I met minutes earlier. “I’m glad I’ve seen all of this,” she explained. “How many people get to see themselves in all sorts of ways?”
“But you stayed the same; it’s the worlds that have changed.”
“Ralph, you can see yourself in a place that’s used to dealing with you as you were. It’s sort of backwards insight, but just as clear.”
“I suppose,” I mused, half hypnotised by the sound of my son or daughter on the monitor, “Snap out of it,” she commanded with the brusque tone a labor contraction can invoke.
“O.K., O.K., sure,” I said, jumping, responding to the curtness as if in shell-shock.
“That’s O.K., baby, really, I’m sorry,” she said, recouping her affectionate tone and rubbing her belly, hitting the monitor belt which made quite an audible racket. “You’ve been held for a long time, huh?” she asked.
“Yes. A few months,” I said. She continued to rub her belly until Chaz intervened, opening the door again, objecting to the artifacts that blurted from the speaker of the monitor.
“Leave the monitor alone!” she shouted. Abby retracted her hands with immediate obedience. I looked away from her and studied the room. “Boy, everything is so clean and bright and cheerful in here.”
“In here? Ralph, are you sure?”
“Yes, it’s really quite wonderful.”
“Ralph, it’s as shabby as you’d expect coming this way—with everything getting worse and all.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “I guess I was in the gloom for so long.”
“You poor baby,” she said, and she rubbed my head.
“Me? What about you?”
“That’s what I was explaining. I’ve had the privilege of seeing me in all those ways.”
“With backwards insight.”
“Yea. I’ve seen all of the different aspects of me, the worst facets, the most troubling hidden emotional disturbances I never knew I had. All my little faults were exaggerated—like looking into your soul with a microscope.”
“So you don’t think that you are you, and these other ones are spontaneous replacements to fill voids in distorted shadow-worlds?”
“The shadow of what? One true world? Ralph, these are all part of the one true world. I have seen all of the girls that are me, all of the cowards, the selfish ones, the bitches.”
“No good ones?” I asked.
“Of course not. Not in this direction. If I can ever go the other way, I’ll see those.” She paused. “That is why you’ve come, isn’t it? To take me the other way? I’m ready. Our baby’s ready—” Then she stopped speaking suddenly, attentive to a premonition that the next contraction was about to start building. She prepared for it silently. When it came, this one seemed a little harder. Actually, a lot harder.
“Ow!” she shouted. “Rub harder, harder! C’mon, do it,” she said tensely, seeming angry. It was almost like a pop-up had popped in while she was sliding away.
“Abby?” I asked frightfully after it was over, checking to see if it were she.
“I’m O.K.,” she reassured me. “Oh those pains are bad—make me crazy.” She was still here, thank goodness. I was a little concerned that she may ebb out on some next magnetic wave, still victim of the wake. I had to promise myself I wouldn’t assume any sliding just because of how she might sound during these pains.
I considered what she had said. She sounded a lot like Ava, with this total existence-type philosophy. And Ava? Where might she be now, I asked myself. Was my out-of-body experience real? Was she in it really, and Abby, too? I had to know.
“Abby,” I asked. Did you see me, really me, before—a while back, in a dream, or in any state?”
She thought about it. Then she had another contraction. It passed after a full minute and she answered.
“I dreamed about you a lot, baby. I had one dream in particular that involved me, but not really. Almost like I was in my dream but had an out-of-body event.”
“Yes!” I almost shouted.
“No, I mean I, while dreaming—my dream-self had an out-of-body experience in the dream. And I saw my body fighting with you. I think I was seeing what my replacement in this terrible world was like. Or—this is the scary part—what I could do to your replacement here.” She paused. “But, it was just a dream.”
“Maybe,” I said. But it was close enough for me to be reassured Ava had some perspective of things where she was, for she had left her body, too, dream or not. I couldn’t quite figure all of the pieces, but they hovered close enough together to work as a real meaningful event. And somehow that night we had all helped each other.
I helped Abby again with another contraction. It became harder and harder to get her to catch me up or to philosophize as she became consumed by this labor business. I did get out of her the state of affairs of this seeming end-layer for her: that there was still religion here, but Christ was gone, or had never come—not yet, anyway; what a thing to contemplate!
There was still justice, but usually as equal revenge—governmentally sponsored or individually enacted and then substantiated to the authorities; that there were just a few Jews left, as the Nazis, very nasty genocidal politico-cultists who I had first met several layers ago in my Survey, had just about succeeded further down the line in doing what they had set out to do. And Japan existed now only as the radiant moonscape that honored the series of World War II nuclear persuasions.
“Enough, O.K.?” she asked, irritated, panting again. “Don’t you know what’s happening here? I’m in labor, alright?” So much for philosophical ruminations. I resumed the back-rubs with loyal fervor.
“I’m sorry again, Ralph,” she said during the refractory interval between contractions, “it really hurts.”
“That’s alright,” I said. “I love you. You’re right. What’s the matter with me, anyway? We’re going to have our baby, and all I do is try to catch up on history. It’s just that I was finally able to slide to where you were still pregnant, and then bam! they snagged me and threw away the key. I’m the one who’s sorry.” I paused, and again I said happily, “we’re going to have our baby.” I smiled at her. She squeezed my hand tenderly, then tightly.
Then really tightly as her newest contraction peeked. I didn’t care. This was nothing; I was with her. We got down to business; we got into the labor. I was continually thrilled by the sound of the fetal monitor.
The private intensity we shared was suddenly broken by the door opening once again. In walked Sister Chaz with of all people, ol’ man and ol’ lady Ebe. Except they looked younger than the day I nearly gave the big-haired old coot a heart attack. They were still pretty old looking, though.
“Hello,” they said together, with cutesy waves that involved flexing only the last joint of each finger.
“Who are they?” Abby asked.
“Those are Ava’s in-laws,” I responded.
“Who’s Ava?” she further asked.
“Ava’s this woman--older woman, much older woman—that helped me look for you.” I paused nervously. “Uh, can I explain this later?” But Abby was off handling another labor pain.
“Oh, I remember when I was pregnant for you,” ol’ lady Ebe said to me teasingly.
“Me?” I said, incredulous.
“Of course, you, silly,” she laughed.
“That’s right, son,” her husband added. I turned to Abby to give her a “they’re out of their minds” look.
“Look, I’m afraid you both are going to have to leave,” I told them.
“But son,” the old woman said, hurt.
“Look—Mom, Dad?” I tried, winking at Abby. “Could you give us some privacy?” It worked. They turned to the door and dutifully went out. Sister Chaz, who had been standing just outside of the door, replaced them.
“You cold-hearted bastard,” she called me. The she snapped back around and closed us in again.
“You don’t know those people? They aren’t your parents here?” Abby asked.
“No. Forget them. Let’s have a baby.”
Another contraction. These things must have been very ugly pains indeed.
“I don’t know how much more I can take,” Abby said to me, beginning to wear down.
“Shouldn’t there be a doctor or something?” I asked her.
“Midwife,” Abby replied. They only call doctors if there are complications. That’s what I could afford.”
Ride of your life or guaranteed destination.
“So where’s the midwife?” I asked her.
“She’s right outside the door. She brought those people in.”
“Sister Chaz?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied Abby.
“Yes?” Sister Chaz responded, opening the door when she thought she was being called. Abby took advantage of the misunderstanding, seizing the initiative.
“Sister Chaz, I’d like something for the pain; it’s really getting to be too much.”
“Be a woman!” she reprimanded her. Abby just sighed, but this was cut short by the next contraction. Sister Chaz left at its peak, closing the door behind her once again, and I could have sworn that I heard a snicker from her just before she was gone.
The fetal heart tones did a funny thing after the next contraction was over. They got slower. Normally it was a heart rate at about 140 a minute. It dropped to almost sixty, but then went back up. Then this started happening in between all of the contractions.
“Is that normal?” I asked Abby.
“I don’t know. It goes back up, so I guess it’s O.K.” This was the way it continued for almost an hour. I didn’t even notice it all that much because of what Abby and my hand were going through. I helped her as best I could, resuming the back-rubbing, but to no avail. She suffered pretty damn good. The contractions were almost every two minutes by then, not much time in between for her to rest. We weren’t talking to each other a whole lot by this time but were just weathering it out. Suddenly she raised her voice in alarm.
“Ralph!” she shouted. She felt between flexed knees and pulled back up a hand red with blood. I was horrified by my ignorance of its significance. She started crying loudly. “Oh no, oh no,” she cried. But the tears were abruptly stopped by the biggest contraction she had had yet. And it didn’t go away. Abby hung in there for about two minutes, but by the third minute she was hopping fitfully with the pain. The baby’s heart tones had dropped to sixty again but stayed there.
“Sister Chaz!” I hollered. The door flew open shortly. Chaz saw the situation and walked to a cardboard box. She pulled out a large plastic glove and donned it. She chased Abby’s gyrating pelvis all over the bed and then examined her roughly, her inserted hand apparently holding her in place. After her evaluation she popped off the glove down to her index fingertip, and using the elastic stretch she was able to produce, she fired it all away across the room into a trash can that was in a corner. Little blood droplets were flung onto the walls en route, adding to the decor on the white tiles. She then reported her observations to me.
“She’s not going to deliver anytime soon. The baby’s in distress. Only a C-Section can save it,” she told me.
“Do it, do it,” I snapped. I looked at Abby. The contraction was still there, and the baby’s heart was still slow. Amidst her turmoil and tossing I thought I saw a superimposed shudder, raising my worst fears.
“Don’t slide!” I ordered her. “Don’t do it!” She kept her eyes closed the remainder of the contraction which finally let up after four more minutes. As my worst torture, the heart tones remained slow for a time, but finally they rose to about a hundred but without much variability. Abby’s eyes were still shut tight, as if she were still not finished suffering.
“The baby’s still in serious trouble. Shall I prepare for the C-Section?” she asked Abby. Abby suddenly opened her blood-shot eyes—they were the same sudden eyes that confronted me during the Ava double-exposure before my escape in the Piranha. But this time I was sure they revealed a wild look of malevolence and rage—at me!
“A C-Section? For what!” she shouted. “For his kid?” Oh my God, I thought. I tried to slide to catch her quick in another layer but was immobile, trapped here with the pop-up she left behind.
“Shit!” I said to myself. “Just what is the problem?” I tried again. Nothing. “Please, Abby, save our baby. Have the Cesarean,” I pleaded, more and more alarmed by the sickly steady heart rate.
“Get him out of here,” Abby shrieked in pain and fury, as well as in victory over who would decide what for her body. I received the complimentary shoulder grasp from Chaz and was promptly tossed out, the door shutting me outside. I had grabbed for my stashed gun but had reconsidered. After all, what would I do, threaten to shoot Abby if she were to refuse the surgery?
Through the door I heard the next big contraction, longer than the last one, accompanied by this Abby’s screams which deteriorated into whimpers of exhaustion. In the background, well submerged, was the baby’s heart rhythm, slowing even more.
Slower and slower it became, until it was no more.
I slouched down the wall into a heap. I could still hear Abby’s moans but didn’t much care. Was my very own unborn child a true exister, moving on with my Abby wherever and leaving a pop-up baby in the womb of this pop-up Abby? A dead baby? And regarding this, too, I didn’t much care, because somewhere where the birds were chirping and all that jazz this baby was mine. Right here, this baby was mine...somewhere. I know that didn’t make sense, but I didn’t much care about that either. I cared that the girl in there was going to give birth to a dead baby that never had a chance—true exister or pop-up—never a chance.
And then out of my throat bellowed a most terrible noise—a roar that was a railing against hopelessness, the force of which could beat back the ill-wind itself. It was an enactment only a parent who had lost a child was capable of. From an elevator a long time ago.
I heard God-knows-what happening behind the door. It was a homogenous clamor involving patient, midwife, and processes. I stank of worthlessness crumpled in my heap. I guessed that ol’ lady and ol’ man Ebe, even here, younger, trying to be my parents—I guessed that they had lost their grandchild after all, as versions of them had told their daughter-in-law, Ava, that day.
I languished in my collapse of limbs and psyche for about another hour when I heard a different kind of screaming and shuffling of furniture that could only mean the birth of the dead child. I cried into the palms of my hands, and soon this was the only sound I could hear.
After a brief period of time, Sister Chaz opened the door to exit. She carried with her a baby-sized effect completely surrounded in a white blanket. I jumped up to follow her, for I wanted to see the child, even though I knew what she carried was lifeless. This strong desire to see the child, to meet the child, was the only thing that kept me from storming Abby’s room, taking my gun, and...well, I made the right decision, even in my unbridled anger, even in this nadir that was my grief, even in my shattered essence.
Chaz passed a nursery of crying babies with the antithesis she herself carried. Borne by Chaz, born of Abby, born still. I picked up my pace until I was right behind her. She knew it, too.
“I want to look at the baby,” I told the back of her head, keeping up with her. “I want to see my child.”
“Congratulations, it’s a boy. Your son,” she called back without interrupting that famous stride of hers. She stopped and turned around, “Your dead son. Let’s see, what did Landrick call you? A roach! That’s right, a mote-eating roach. And now you see, she should have had that abortion—it would have been like stomping on just another little roach. Now, megassinine, just look at what you have. It’s dead—stomped dead. Really, what’s the difference?”
As she resumed her walk, I lunged for her. I grabbed her shoulder. She spun around, halfway by my pull, the other half on her own, her face irked by the affront of contact. She extended her forearm abruptly to stiff-arm me with a rigid open palm to my face. My left hand was fingering the gun in my back but sprang to block her strike by chopping her arm upward.
I struck her with my hardest-hitting knuckles, and I kicked repeatedly at her shins. I gave her the beating of her life that I had been dying to give her. I jabbed her in her neck and slapped her in her head with all of my might. Then I hooked her with a right, hard, slugging her good. I pummeled her.
She just laughed.
Like the fire hydrant that she was she just stood there inert. The baby was firm in her pigskin grasp, not the slightest bit jostled. We stood face-to-face in a stand-off. This was her move, because if she decided to get as rough as I knew she could, I was prepared to blast her. Showing her teeth, with stiff, tight lips, she snarled.
“You’re in big trouble, Ebe.” She snapped around and continued walking with my son. I followed. She hung a right through swinging doors into a little fluorescent-lit room. There stood a small, cold, metal examining table with dirty crumpled paper on it. She lay my child on it, still covered in the blanket as shroud.
“He’s all yours,” she said to me scornfully and stormed out.
“You sure are right,” knowing that this poor little thing belonged to no one else in this world but me. He didn’t even belong to his mother who deserted him and couldn’t even jumpstart him with his life at the very beginning of his human race.
I had heard that one should look at one’s stillborn child—that it’s supposed to help in accepting the tragedy. I lingered. The small little package lay so bizarrely motionless on the table, completely hidden in his pall. Finally, though, I knew it was time to meet him. I reached over and gingerly lifted a crucially tucked corner of white blanket and the other three corners fell away. Even though he had this sort of baby grease all over him, I could tell he was beautiful.
He was so beautiful, my son was. There was a serenity in his little face, a calmness with which I was familiar. This little face was now reposed and beside itself, beside the turbulence from which he was cast. Where before had I seen this calmness arising from turmoil? Where before had I seen this tranquility that was the victory mask signifying the prevailing over the struggle?
Maybe in myself. Maybe in anyone who has finally come to be at peace with himself for doing his finest. Maybe in persons like Les who arise every day to the same restraints life has fettered them with, but who nonetheless go at it with the most optimistic of resolve. And all of these things in that calm little face, my son’s face, made me proud of him.
I fell in love with him in that small room and I fell in love with him somewhere else, also. Somewhere he lived, my son. And for a fleeting moment this almost made it alright about him here.
I studied him. I put my finger into the palm of his little blue, cold hand and his absent grasp nearly killed me. I picked him up and clutched him to me, crying as I did.
I did seem to cry a lot these days.
“You live, my son. Somewhere you live. Somewhere you are sucking milk from your mother’s—a loving mother’s—breast. I don’t know where, but somewhere. Somewhere a good, gentle nurse is bringing you to your lucky parents, and they are grinning at each other like fools—like the happiest fools in the world. Oh God, I love you,” I said meaning it for both this little lifeless part of me as well as for the God above, who I missed terribly. Cu
I heard the creak of the door. In came the Ebes I had chased out of Abby’s labor room earlier. And I thought I was sad. Ol’ lady Ebe hugged me with the baby between us hard enough to smother a living child. So strong was that hug of hers—strong on purpose to reach through three generations. That was a good feeling, a family feeling. It was the same feeling I felt when my pregnant Abby had hugged me high above the ill-wind, when I could feel our child moving between us. I caved in. I sobbed so hard to her. She stroked my head. Ol’ man Ebe just stood there respectfully silent. I didn’t have the heart to refuse their misguided parental identities.
“Mom,” I said, playing the part (and it felt good), “I am so sad over this.”
“I know, son, I know,” she said. I then felt a hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t the forced march grasp of Chaz, but a comforting paternal hand instead. I turned to ol’ man Ebe. He spoke as I lay my son down. My hand was on my son’s shoulder as ol’ man Ebe’s steadied mine, and he spoke as I gazed at my beautiful child.
“You know, son,” he started, “a lot of things in this life don’t make any sense. People step on each other to get ahead..or even just for convenience. Or even to be just plain mean. The government doesn’t care about us. Your fellow man doesn’t, either. When it comes right down to it, the only ones you can count on are your family. And when you lose your son I share that grief. Not so much because I’ve lost a grandson, but because my son has lost his son.” I swallowed hard.
“You two are the nicest people in this whole horrible world,” I said, stunned by the spark of compassion that perverted this entire horrible layer.
“What do you expect, son,” ol’ lady Ebe said. “We’re your parents.”
And I remembered how the pain of today had been finally eased for them after the many years by the time they, or some like them, had been visited by an older Ava but the same me, in another layer. And it was only to have Ava rip open the scar by referring to me as the other grandson. She had no idea how in that mildly unreasonable layer of many more severely unreasonable layers to come she had maybe been unreasonable. But then she herself had the blinding prospect of a sudden lost son to contend with—sudden oblivion for her son, Les, at the hands of people who felt like these two did the how many years earlier which was now.
Everyone hurting everyone—it was a God-awful mess.
“Go to your son’s mother,” ol’ lady Ebe said. “That’s where you belong. We’ll take care of these arrangements.” I kissed both of them goodbye and walked out, but before I did I turned to once more look at my still son, my serene son. I became moved all over again. I broke down again. My parents were there for me again. So hard was I heaving my sobs that even I myself did not notice my tremor that was lost in the upheaval of my sorrow. These two pushed me out of the door and into the hall. Strange, I thought, but it did get me out of there and on my way.
I felt I was stalking my prey as I retraced the journey back to the labor room. I grew angrier and angrier with “my son’s mother.” An ill wind blew past me—through me. Fuckin’ pissfuck-bastardcockfuck and other sentiments, I churned. My teeth were grinding.
A gun, I found out, is a very dangerous thing indeed: sooner or later you just feel like you want to blast somebody. Sister Chaz would do. So would Landrick or Landry or whatever the hell his name was. And so would that piece of shit that killed our baby!
“You killed our son!” I shouted at her as I burst into the labor room, pointing the gun at her from my outstretched arm. Abby shimmied up her headboard, hurting as she did so from her fresh delivery. She was terrified, her eyes doing the screaming. She prepared to die, pinned to her bed by her condition.
“Wherever you are, Ralph, I love you,” she said to me as her last words.
“Oh sweet Jesus, I thought you were the one who killed our baby,” I said, knowing I had my real Abby, meaning that I had slid too.
I ran to her and embraced her, reassuring her as quickly as I could. “It’s me. It’s me...again.”
“I thought you were the Ralph here, with that gun and all,” she cried.
“No, no, I’m yours.”
“The Ralph here refused to sign the consent for a C-Section.”
“Why didn’t you tell them to just do it? Screw me!”
“Because the consent had a promissory note in it. They said that he—that you were going to refuse to pay the bill if I had the operation—that you had to sign first. They said they wouldn’t just do it anyway, because surgery for this emergency wasn’t mandatory—that anything done for the unborn is elective. They didn’t want to get gypped out of their bill.”
“The bill! Oh, please no, not for the money.”
So I had just left a dead son by her hands back there, and now I commiserated with my real Abby over our dead son by my hands over here. We just held each other.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I whispered.
“I know,” she whispered back as her eyes closed, and she fell off into exhaustion with no resurrection in sight at least until the next morning.

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Chapter 40 of ♂: The NOVEL
Written by DrSemicolon

40

Four ships at a time could dock at Lagrange 1. Even though four ships filled with soldiers would hardly be an armada, Atilano felt that the 300 troops so conveyed would be plenty enough to handle a pipsqueak like Walsh. Since Earth in its orbit had overtaken Mars and was now racing ahead of it, it was in a convenient E-lead position to launch Earth’s own counterrevolutionary force. Even so, it would still take a few months for Mars arrival, however.

Atilano was a patient man and could otherwise wait, but when he learned of armed skirmishes and executions, he decided to move quickly. It was no longer urgent, but an emergency. Through his hacked CommLink, he called his friend, Dr. Jay Kubacki. “If I remember correctly,” he told him, “we have an extra UltiCapacitor.”

“Your memory is excellent, Mr. President,” Dr. Kubacki replied. “I know what to do.”

Seven minutes later the Mars Colony ṺberCollider made the jump from the minimal maintenance strength that was keeping the first tempconciliation preserved up to the capacity of 30 teraelectronvolts. The maintenance meant Dr. Kubacki had only needed the last dozen of the 430 steps he needed to engage it a second time. In no time at all there would be no minutes at all that behaved themselves.

Temporal reconciliation had always been an experiment in progress, and because of the Go Slow policy, it has remained for the most part only a theoretical experiment in progress. The initial scientific courage it took to attempt it the first time on Mars promised inherent safety measures. First, the time epoch retrieved was from over three billion years earlier, thereby eliminating the paradoxes famous in science fiction literature, for example, going back in time to kill one’s grandfather, see one’s self, or even commit so atrocious an act as stepping on a butterfly and returning to a drastically changed world. Second, the venture involved a location 60 million kilometers away, on Mars—and even farther as the planets withdrew from opposition—a risk conveniently removed from the goings-on of Earth, goings-on being a decidedly temporal reference. These presented quite a protective segregation.

The only unknown had been the colony itself. Even though there was a three billion-year temporal buffer, it enjoyed no such spatial immunity. But there emerged a consensus of thought, the concept of Time Prime: there could only be one time for anything, and there could only be one thing for any time.

All of the vagaries of the concept were exhaustively explained by the mathematics that led the way, but they were ultimately simplified by a metaphor stated as a “shimmying” of existence, an existence of multiple realities until a path of least quantum and chronoton resistance set all into stability for one’s unique Time Prime. One was left with a temporal reality where everything found a way to fit, and when conflicting, one version won out, the other careening off into another reality for someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else. It was a blurred double vision focused into a solid sharp contour. If one were to visit himself temporally, either the previous or the later one would prevail, but not both. Which one? The mathematics of that probability formula had yet to be worked out and probably awaited a Nobel Prize, but thankfully enough was proven that there would survive no paradoxes for long. Again, “long” being a temporal reference.

Nevertheless, in case of an unexpected grand miscalculation, the initial tempconciliation had limited the zone to that within the ring of the ṺberCollider itself. The current time, with its failures in finding fossils, had been passing unacceptably. Before, caution called the shots; then destiny entered the game. Caution versus destiny. Go Slow versus Go.

Caution lost.

Thanks to enwrangled correspondence between Dr. Renée Niemann and MCPSC President Gavin Atilano, and between Atilano and Earth, and because of the infamous political upheaval of the colony, science partnered with politics, brains partnered with brawn.

Admittedly, with the Walsh disaster, Destiny had been tempted to fold its hand; but now it was dealt a royal flush. A new strategy called for temporal reconciliation within the actual time of the first tempconciliation.

The target: that day of supposed failure, although it had proved ultimately an unqualified success. A zone much bigger would be retrieved. The time retrieved and times reconciled would involve both the three billion year epoch and the time just before declaration of the first tempconciliation “failure” that justified Walsh to enact his perfidious seizure of the planet. The original tempconciliation would stand, but it would jump back to before Walsh had engaged his schemes. Everyone could be prepared for Walsh and could make him fail. Mars could have its cake and eat it, too.

A few remaining skeptics worried about the superimposition of temporal deposition onto the previous temporal rearrangement. The mathematical matrices for overlapping temporal reconciliations was unimaginable. Also, there was worry about the range—a bigger zone, but how big? The programming was to include the entire Tharsis shield area, from 240º to 270º W latitude, and from 30º S to 30º N longitude. But would it self-contain or might it extend? Might that big a zone trigger a temporal inflation? Beyond the focused area? Beyond Mars? As far as Earth? Throughout the universe, tearing the clichéd fabric of space-time?

Probably not. So said the rest of the scientists who were dying to find out. Again, Caution lost.

Emotionally supportive was the hope, albeit a slippery slope, of seeing alive again those who had recently perished in the battle at the VSD. Desperate times, disturbingly echoing Walsh, had called for desperate actions.

The dead? Back to life? Was God involved now? Now even the theologians were dying to find out. Would the newly living remember their deaths? Would they remember things that were now not to happen at all, and thereby never had happened?

The emergency UltiCapacitor at Lagrange I accepted the emergency authorization from Atilano, assembled the muscle-power input from Earth and Venus, and then broadcast its output to the ṺberCollider below. Which is where Atilano, Pasternak, and Dr. Kubacki now found themselves, blinked into existence off of Lagrange I, weeks earlier. Specifically, in the ṺberCollider’s VIP room. It was the same setting as the original tempconciliation ceremony. It fact, it was the very same Tempconciliation ceremony. Kubacki’s face went white. His mouth, which usually was slightly ajar, tightly closed and he grinded his teeth nervously. He was distraught. He turned to Atilano.

“I just saw myself,” he said blankly, his face remaining very pale. Atilano remembered his original ceremony when he thought he had seen himself.

“I know,” Atilano told Kubacki, and his face began to show his own disturbed astonishment.

Atilano looked around and saw the Mickals and Renée. He knew if he kept looking he would see others, including himself, so he closed his eyes. He couldn’t explain why, but he liked the reality of just one of himself much better and found any other arrangement intolerable. He didn’t fancy another version of him having as much say as he as to who would continue in this existence.

And being unsettled about it all had been the last thing he had remembered.

It was like coming out of anesthesia. Everything that had happened had been like a dream—the battle, The Martian Citizen, Walsh’s coup, everything else to follow. Although no one was disappointed to miss the bone-rattling shuttle from Lagrange 1 to the colony—time was a faster way to travel—all who suddenly disappeared from the large spacecraft, by simply not being there yet, were surprised to find themselves suddenly on the planet. Atilano and Pasternak sank in chairs in the ṺberCollider’s VIP room. A period of confusion weighed them down lethargically. Like everyone else, their minds struggled against this malaise to come to terms with their new temporal reality. Evan, Deniz, and Mare were dizzy, but improving. Renée was the first of them to reconstitute as her memories came drifting back. All of them were approaching wherewithal, but at different speeds.

Eventually, all caught up with their new present, which was their old past. The glass wall separating them from the outside was open and Atilano noted that the red, phony, prop button was pushed in, indicating they had been plucked from the future and jammed into this new present, moments after the tempconciliation had been engaged.

Walsh was there, too, and quickly realized what had happened. If they could do it again, I could do it again, he thought. But he was furious. A uniformed, muscly man named Lt. Lawrence felt himself from head to toe in saucer-eyed amazement.

General Llorente stood near the door of the VIP room now joined by Colonel Leeper and Dr. Jay Kubacki. His eyes caught Walsh’s eyes. Evan’s caught Renée’s. Atilano’s agenda was blossoming anew for a Mars where tempconciliation worked and Walsh was not an issue.

Where he was nothing.

Everyone remembered: just because it hadn’t happened yet didn’t mean it hadn’t happened to them. Even those who weren’t expecting this figured out what had happened. Once down a road, one knows that road.

The confusion settlement-wide stopped all colony activity when everyone realized they were repeating all they had done before. A little asshole named Taffe had an opportunity to keep his nose from being broken at PIP recess, but he proved incorrigible and young Tibbs broke it anyway.

Back at the ṺberCollider VIP room, Walsh’s fury tempered with amazement—surprised but fully cognizant. All that work—for nil. The interchange of nervous glares was busy but silent traffic. Atilano eyed Walsh, Walsh eyed Ricardo, and Evan and Mare hugged Blaise with an embrace Lazarus would have found excessive.

The eyes continued their frenzied targeting among the murmur of the stunned crowd. It was a tempconciliation standoff, all scoping each other, minds whirring. Evan and Blaise were the first to act. Each took one of Mare’s arms and pulled her out of the invitational observation room. Deniz and Chris followed them. Before out of Renée’s sight, they shot her a look easily understood. They would all meet and hunker down at the VSD. Was Walsh still a threat? The Prestige Guard was pre-nascent. More importantly, everyone knew the future that Walsh would try to repeat.

Walsh had been reduced to an army of one. He rose from his own chair carefully, Atilano and Ricardo observing him cautiously until he had slipped out. Everyone else sat as if remembering the details of a dream unfolding in memory. Déjà vu became maitenon vu—déjà now. There was some uneasy, nervous laughing among the others in the room. One man gagged into a handkerchief.

Atilano weighed the forensic considerations. Was Walsh actually guilty of anything now? He hadn’t actually done anything.

Yet.

This had been discussed by the exiled Security Command on Lagrange 1 when the second tempconciliation had been approved and the outcome of the discussions about Walsh had passed muster with the NOE. Even though Walsh had no longer illegally seized and displaced the MCPSC, imposed Martian Law, exiled his potential enemies, seditiously recruited a private army, or even ordered anyone’s execution yet; even though he could not be found guilty of any crime he hadn’t yet committed, there was always that government charge that had proven so valuable in the past when actual guilt of a crime was impossible to prove:

Conspiracy.

Atilano, Llorente, and Leeper simply let Walsh leave. Unless he could find a way onto Lagrange 1 and then back to Earth, he would never get away. Besides, even if he did so, Earth would be waiting for him.

Evan tried to remember the last time he had slept. He had been up all night with the additional crag bin barrier, which he now realized was no longer there, had been to Dr. Willner’s, been to war, and traveled back many weeks. Yet he felt refreshed. Strange. Nevertheless, he had a premonition of something coming. And it wasn’t Walsh. Some type of adjustment. Renée, Blaise, and the rest felt it, too. It was vague but looming.

Just as the sound of a supersonic aircraft would all bunch up into a sonic boom shadowing its path, so a temporal accretion—soon to be known by the plebian slang, chronic boom—would strike those externally and internally. Internally, it would strike those who dealt with the memory reconciliation of two different times, who had to reconcile two sets of recollections. Hardly devastating, it still gave one pause. It was psychologically disturbing. The more one changed their new on-going future, the more disturbing the psychological fallout. It wasn’t depression, but an overwhelming feeling of being lost in time, in identity, in purpose. Luckily, it only lasted from a few minutes to several hours, but it was filled with psychological regret. Dr. Willner would win the Parsons Prize in Medicine for elucidating it. In the future. A future he would have to wait for the usual way. The Chronarchy would ultimately be a non-stop clearinghouse for the identification, description, and understanding of hundreds of spin-off phenomena. Those who had found themselves in the VIP ṺberCollider observation room for the second time would be the first to experience them.

The external chronic boom would be something else altogether.

At this point, however, the ones who comprised the VSD family had all rendezvoused back in the VSD conference room. Mare was impatiently awaiting Tuesday’s re-arrival, as were Chris and Ricardo their own Martian comrades, all three soon to be plucked from the late Hesperian epoch.

Jeremy Pasternak was hurriedly preparing a Level-5 Interrupt of The Martian Chronicle to explain the successful tempconciliation and re-tempconciliation, which would explain to the colonists the unsettling sensations like déjà vu and the jockeying for position between two sets of memories.

At the conference room, after a brief absence, Blaise and Dr. Willner reappeared with a bottle of champagne.

“Too soon?” Blaise asked everyone.

“Gimme that,” Renée demanded, then uncorked it very slowly. Blaise had been courteous enough to insert a large bore needle into the cork first, due to the low atmospheric pressure on Mars being unkind to carbonated beverages and those foolish enough to open any of them casually.

“Yes!” Ricardo agreed enthusiastically, and he retrieved a stack of clear plastic urine collection glasses that he passed around. Even Mare got one.

Wednesday and Thursday sauntered in and sought out Chris and Ricardo, respectively.

“Where’s Tuesday?” Mare asked.

“I do not know,” answered Wednesday.

“Perhaps he will be here shortly,” Thursday added.

The VSD was as they had remembered it. The animals were back. Gone were the bullet holes, but to Renée’s disappointment, so was the second barrier of the crag bin, which she discovered when she ran down the hall to get some napkins. The crag hit the single-glazed glass with the usual ferocity.

“Damn!” she shouted. “Y’all need to rebuild it,” she called back to Evan, Blaise, and Chris in the conference room. She regrouped from being startled and considered her time slip; she recalled that she hadn’t had sex with Ricardo yet, nor he with the Sun, so she vowed sternly to prevent any rips in the space-time continuum—it was her duty to repeat some things—and then she laughed to herself.

“All that work,” Evan told her when she had returned, referring to the now absent second barrier.

“In the past,” Blaise toasted him.

“In the past,” they all chimed in.

“To the future,” Ricardo now added, winking at Renée.

“Yes,” she agreed, “what will be will be.”

“To the future,” they all agreed.

Intruder alert,” the automaton announced.

“I don’t like that alert,” Willner said.

“I bet it’s Tuesday!” Mare exclaimed excitedly. Ricardo pulled out his own gun that was hidden under his pants leg.

“Really?” Renée protested. “Again with the guns?”

“Just in case it’s Lt. Lawrence again,” Ricardo explained.

“Lawrence isn’t coming. No one’s coming. Walsh is done,” Blaise boasted.

“Lawrence was dead,” Deniz said. “Would he be able to come back?”

“I think I saw him back at the VIP room.,” Deniz said nervously.

“Did anyone tell God?” Blaise asked, savoring another sip of champagne. “Doesn’t He make those kind of decisions?”

“Wait,” Renée said, “you were dead, too, Blaise.”

“Actually, no.”

“But we heard the shot.”

“He missed,” Blaise said, and took another sip.

It was in fact Tuesday who entered, so Mare clapped happily. Closely behind him, however, walked in Walsh. In another time he had entered prodding Colonel Leeper with a gun; now he prodded Tuesday.

Fast, but not bullet-proof. At point blank range, even an unlouvered, fully arrayed Martian would fall if Walsh were to fire.

“Drop it,” Walsh commanded Ricardo, and Ricardo let his pistol fall to the ground. “I’ve always wanted to say that,” Walsh confessed with a devilish grin.

“History repeats itself,” Ricardo said.

“Except sideways,” Evan said. Walsh looked around. He saw the other two Martians.

“Are you guys winking at me?” he asked them. Ricardo whispered something to Thursday and they stopped.

“One big happy family again,” he said. “And champagne? How appropriate. Save a glass for me, will you? I have a feeling I’m going to be celebrating, myself.” Evan took a position in front of Deniz and Mare. Blaise stood in front of Renée. Ricardo and Chris stood with their respective Martians. Walsh looked around his hostage, Tuesday, for a quick glance. “All those mouths and nothing to say?”

“Now what?” Ricardo asked Walsh.

“Well, you’re gonna get in touch with Dr. Kubacki and get him to shut down the ṺberCollider.”

“Why?” asked Tuesday. Everyone was surprised, for the Martians usually minded their own business.

“Oh, does that make you nervous, green man?” Walsh answered.

“Oblivion hurts,” Tuesday said.

“What would you care? You’d be nowhere, gone. Who’d be there to hurt?”

“It hurts now,” Tuesday answered. “Perhaps, Director Walsh, you could go to oblivion.”

“Me? I’m the guy with the gun in your back, remember?”

“Either you or me,” Tuesday said, remembering a game with Mare where she went first. “We could flip a coin. If either one of us goes, what’s the difference. It’d be fair.”

“Will you listen to this guy? He wants to be fair. I didn’t come here to be fair. Maybe I was wrong before. Maybe you are stupid.”

“So it seems.”

“Yea, so it does. But if you think oblivion hurts, is it any worse than getting your face fried off? Don’t need that kind of thing happening, do we? You or me? I vote me.”

“No one’s turning off anything,” Ricardo said to Tuesday. “The loss would be incalculable. We haven’t even begun.” Walsh snickered.

“We’ll see.” Then he looked at Renée. “Your crags.”

“What about them?” Renée asked.

“Oh, you know. You know all about them. Your friends found a way to aim the little bastards.”

“That’s just crazy,” Blaise said with disgust. Walsh looked menacingly at him.

“Didn’t I already kill you once?” Then he again addressed Ricardo. “The crags. I’d like the datastrip on the protocol used.”

“I made all of that up,” Ricardo spit out.

“Liar!” Walsh said loudly, pointing his finger at him.

“You’ve got nothing,” Ricardo answered, “no Prestige Society, no death squads.”

“You’re nothing,” added Blaise.

“Remember how I never liked you, Lewis,” Walsh threatened. “Remember the last time?” Walsh circled the room with his eyes. “Tempconciliation. That’s O.K. for someone like Atilano. Don’t like how things are turning out, just change it by redoing time again. Who’s the tyrant now?”

“Who’s the tyrant again?” Ricardo countered.

“Mr. Walsh,” Willner offered, “I can start seeing you daily. I can help you with your problems.”

“I’m not the one with a problem. The guy with the gun is never the guy with the problem.” Then to Ricardo, “Llorente,” he ordered, “swap with Cthulhu here. Did I say that right? In any case, this guy—the creature from the Black Lagoon here.”

“And he didn’t know who Ray Bradbury was,” Blaise murmured quietly. Walsh motioned with the gun between Tuesday and Ricardo. “I really don’t trust him after what I saw he did to our Lt. Lawrence. Could have exploding farts for all I know.” He waited. “That’s a joke. Llorente, why are you not moving? C’mon, swap. Now. Yesterday.” As they approached each other, Walsh pulled back the hammer on his gun to emphasize any zero tolerance for attempts at reversal. Tuesday and Ricardo carefully switched places.

“Here I am, Walsh,” Ricardo announced. Walsh jabbed him hard in his back.

“We’re going for a little walk. We’re going to go visit the crag bin.

“Now that’s crazy!” Willner cried.

“This is crazy, that’s crazy—everyone’s a shrink here. The general here is gonna go in. So if you guys have found a way to control ‘em, you better get ‘em to leave your friend alone.” He smiled. “This way. Everybody. The big green goon in front. Me and the general will bring up the rear. You, too, little girl.” Deniz sandwiched Mare between herself and Evan.

The nine of them filtered out of the conference room single file, Tuesday first, Walsh and his gun last. As they passed the dog kennel and the orangutan closure, these animals began crying out, followed by the other animals. Tuesday’s ear calderas pivoted rapidly, pell-mell. An unheard 10 hertz vibrato began deep within him, and the other Martian calderas began gyrating.

“Open it,” Walsh commanded when they had reached the crag bin. A crag snapped at the glass next to Renée and she shrieked. “No, I don’t suppose you would like one of those in your head, would you? Hmm…would you like to help me with some data instead? You know what I’m interested in, all of you.” This was met with silence. “Fine,” Walsh concluded. “Open it.”

Renée was filled with terror. She knew, besides the obvious danger, that based on her walks through the hall there was always a crag that wanted her. She took a breath. She still had her thumbclip on, and she used it, instead, to open the enclosures of all of the Earth animals. There was mayhem, animals scurrying this way and that, extremely vocal in their panic, but all of them scattered out of the hallway when Walsh’s bullet ricocheted like a pinball.

“Open it!” he screamed. The second bullet was convincing. He promised Ricardo the next one, putting the gun to his temple. Ricardo frantically searched his mind for some type of martial arts escape maneuver that would not risk a third aimless bullet in this crowded space.

The crag door opened.

“Get in,” he ordered Ricardo. Ricardo had to do a bit of a dance spin around Walsh to fit past him through the opened door. He eyed the many crags moving almost unperceptively at his feet. “Now close it,” Walsh further ordered Renée. Ricardo looked at Renée furtively from inside the enclosure.

It was a tightly tandem dual action between Ricardo and Renée, his grabbing Walsh and pulling him in with him as Renée closed the automatic door. Walsh fired at Renée from behind the glass, but the crag-proof glass held and the bullet flew back to the floor and struck his own right foot. He jumped. Renée screamed. Deniz huddled Mare away and they ran back to the conference room.

Walsh was furious. He almost shot Ricardo out of his sheer spinal reaction anger, but paused. He lowered his gun. “Pretty slick, Llorente,” Walsh said, grimacing from his foot pain. “I could threaten to shoot you unless they open the door, but then they’d just leave me in here with your shot up self.” He looked at the floor. We’re in the same boat, the two of us, aren’t we? Your friends are more likely to save both of us if you’re still alive. Better save my bullets for now.” The ferropods started inching their way around both their feet and Walsh tried his best to look unfrightened, but he couldn’t maintain the façade for long. He kept looking from Llorente to those looking at them through the glass to the floor crawling with crags. A trickle of sweat beaded down his left temple.

Ricardo moved fast when Walsh reached down to hold his painful foot. In one smooth exercise of martial artistry he snatched the pistol away, flipped it into his other hand, and crimped Walsh’s fingers in a vise-like hold. The scuffle played out silently to Renée and the others from across the glass. Ricardo let the gun fall to the floor.

“Hey, easy there,” Walsh puffed, feeling the loss of his gun was minor compared to the bigger peril about them. “Aren’t you afraid you’re gonna attract them with all this commotion?”

He was afraid.

He feared the unknown. In his perfect world, commandeered and impounded, or otherwise, there would be no unknowns. Fear of the unknown—fear of being at someone else’s mercy instead of everyone being at his mercy; fear of what happens to you when you die, fear of oblivion, fear of nothingness—all of these could be averted if he could telomorph over and over and never die.

Fear of crags.

Aren’t you afraid of attracting them? His question was so revealing of his fears that, validating the observation, the thousands of crags began mooching not only the floor, but up the walls and glass and above them on the ceiling, six meters overhead, like the sword of Damocles. Walsh’s eyes were windows into his mind, through which Ricardo saw terror. Ricardo next saw these eyes locate the gun on the floor.

“C’mon, man, tell ‘em to open up and get us out of here. You don’t care if you get a crag in your head? Didn’t you see what happened to that poor bastard Hansel?” Ricardo just smiled and parted his hair hanging over his forehead.

Walsh saw it. The perfectly round, well-healed, crag-sized scar on Ricardo’s forehead.

“Too late,” Ricardo replied. “I’m already a member.” Walsh’s eyes became wild. He started banging on the glass. In the hallway, the pounding mollified into a muted thumping only; Renée realized how much harder the crags must have snapped at her to produce the sharp blows they did, because Walsh was pounding for his life.

“Please! For the love of God! Please!” he cried from within, the hallway audience hearing nothing but was able to see to the back of his throat with the bleating. “Open the fucking door!” he screamed. A crag snapped right past him and he squealed. His injured foot finally gave out, and he fell to the ground, huddling around his flexed knees.

The gun Ricardo had let fall to the floor now lay within Walsh’s reach, but Ricardo was looking out of the window at Renée. Walsh snatched it up and snapped upright and pointed it at Ricardo. “Open up or I shoot him,” he said slowly toward the window, with exaggerarated articulation so Renée could read his lips. Another crag snapped, startling him, and he emptied all the remaining rounds aimlessly at the ceilings and walls. One of the rounds ricocheted into his other foot. “Fuck!” he screamed, and he threw the empty gun at the glass.

“Please!” he pleaded. Another crag snapped but missed. He covered his head frantically with his arms.

“Shouldn’t we open it? Renée asked urgently.

“You want crags out here?” Blaise asked right back. Deniz, back in the conference room, could hear them and she enwrapped Mare even more tightly. Willner stood in rapt horror.

In the crag bin Ricardo soon collapsed and just sat in the corner furthest away from Walsh to watch. Incredibly, even with two injured feet, Walsh stood up with excruciation and began dancing as if a cowboy were shooting at him while the crags continued snapping. He cried out from the pain and from his terror—they were the same cry. Ricardo thought of popcorn: the oil must have been hot enough; crags were popping all over, a mounting of percussion. Walsh’s head jolted back suddenly.

He had finally caught a crag in his big, fat, fleshy head.

This opened a new chapter in ferropod history when this particular crag snapped into him with enough force to actually exit, never before seen in previous victims. There appeared both entrance and exit wounds. Renée gasped, continuing to distrust the glass barrier.

Ferropods, besides the Chantū, the only other natural source of ferramine and chronotons, left a trail of both along a specific path in Walsh’s sensorium, in this case a long, lost cortical island of childhood memory. In and out in an instant, but for the crag it was an instant stopped in time. In that instant, in only that amount of time it took to make the trip along this neuronal pathway between and from skull entrance to skull exit, time meant nothing.

Therein lay the answer to the vexing question of why such force and momentum had never wreaked a swath of radiant shock injury like any other penetrating projectile would. Like a bullet would. Or a heavy metal door. The brain was changed by a ferropod, but undamaged, as the instant of penetration and migration was stretched into an atraumatic epoch. Outside of time, the whole assault was tranquilly slow and the motion Brownian.

This is what the chronotons did as their part in the attack: a ferropod had all the time in the world to ease in and then grope gently along, searching for its path of least resistance. Such a yielding path was lit up for the ferropod like a grand boulevard; it was illuminated for the ferropod by guilt and misgiving.

This is what ferramine did as its part in the attack: there are patches of human neocortex with unique receptor sites for an as yet identified neurotransmitter. Happily, all humans are born with these sites amply filled. Then life happens—the maturity of hard knocks, lessons learned, and trusts betrayed. The sites lose their neurotransmitters which served as the glue for a moral compass. Unfilled or emptied, the persuasive concepts of self-reproach and culpability become incarnate in the mind’s eye, creating a vacuum of vulnerability; this vulnerability lowers the resistance for ferramine-seeding vehicles like Ferropodia conglobinans.

Without a ferropod sniffing around, one of two things happens along this open path of vulnerability. Either the mind finds a way to fill the receptor sites again with the more conventional neurotransmitter fare, a physiologic action called reconciliation and which would make the painful neuronal pathway unremarkable to a hungry crag (one might even call the whole scenario conscience); or remaining unfilled, a conflicting duality—prideful self-esteem battling a hollow conscience—invites binding arbitration by another part of the brain. A part that is underqualified. An ancient part. An antediluvian part. The amphibian part.

The part that even the caveman outclassed so long ago.

With a ferropod out and about, however, such a vacuous part of the mind, lacking such receptor-site binding, stands out, attracts attention, incites a ferropod’s predation, and invites its penetration. It becomes for the ferropod a drive to dutifully bestow neurotransmitter to those struggling receptors. It becomes a pilgrimage; it becomes a quest.

In the crag bin, the zigzag along Walsh’s neuronal pathway of a single memory was purchased easily by the creature that followed no rules of time. It had all the time it needed to cover the full pathway of an item that sat so disgracefully in his conscience. Additionally, it also covered the serpentine tracts that suppressed it. Careening this way, dodging that way, the ferropod followed the sinuous flight of thought, first along the idea of some wrong done, then along the self-indulgence that suppressed the moral law in a way that would make even a four-eyed schoolchild balk. Outside of time, the ferropod was able to pay a visit to all of the other parts of Walsh’s brain that participated directly or indirectly, all instantaneously.

One ferropod, one unconscionable deed, two paths—the one for the deed, the other for the suppression of any self-condemnation. In Walsh’s case, the crag covered the deed and the conscience before exiting.

It was a purge. Carved out without time constraints, instantly, assigning the deed forever, to eternity.

One unconscionable deed. Most people have one, some even more than one. Chris had his; Ricardo, too. Even Mare struggled with hers. But where Chris, Ricardo, and young Mare may have had an isolated, primary regret of conscience to reconcile for eternity, Walsh seemed to have a huge catalog that might even overwhelm all of the crags in the bin:

One crag for Walsh was not enough.

Whereas Chris’, Ricardo’s, and Mare’s ferropods sat comfortably in their hosts’ brains, Walsh’s first was not so content and its own innate instinct of self-survival necessitated escape. A second crag snapped into him—another first in crag attacks and duly noted by the amazed observers. Likewise, armed with time-irrelevant chronotons, it instantaneously followed the neuronal path of volitional misdeed, then altered course to follow an empty synaptic pathway normally involved in reconciliatory regret and remorse. The ferramine poured out of it, but his receptor sites were resistant and too many, until the ferropod became lost, repeatedly going off the track and seeking refuge via escape.

Instantaneously.

The third, likewise.

So much exploratory brain surgery with no overt damage; it was a testimonial to the ferropods’ timeless gentleness.

The fourth, likewise.

Walsh sat crumpled on the floor. Ricardo watched in stunned amazement as new holes on both sides of his head kept appearing, small holes opening with contralateral small holes opening diametrically to match. Entrance wound and matching exit wound, simultaneously. Each matching set with a lengthy course of visitation to the workings of his mind. Instantaneously.

The fifth. The sixth.

Walsh sat with his head bobbing violently with each surgically precise strike, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.

The twenty-fifth. The twenty-sixth. By now, the successive strikes were beginning to connect the dots in his head.

Each crag that came and went left a parting gift for him—a serial trail of chronotons and ferramine along each path of ill will, each circuit of mean-spiritedness, each route of self-serving, selfish profit, and along each road block to the moral law even a child knew intuitively.

The one-hundredth. The one-thousandth.

Even 2700 ferropods were not going to be enough. Walsh was a bottomless pit of regrettable and lamentable life decisions.

St. Peter at the gates, consulting the chapter on Denton Walsh in his pearlside reference book, would have a rough day the day he applied for passage. Charon would have to charter a private boat, express, to bypass the Elysian Fields, even commission Hades to ferry him directly to Tartarus while the Furies ripped at his fleshy, crag-pocked head. Dante missed an entire circle for him, lest he would have had to condemn the entire Italian language to a status of ineffable profanity.

Back-stabbing, extortion, deceit, misogyny, political ruin, racism, social putrefaction, family destruction, and tidy, clandestine murders made up the neuronal itinerary that was Walsh’s success story.

Now the onslaught of thousands of ferropods created a buzz about his bald head, which began rattling like a can in a paint shaker. All of the others except for Deniz and Mare watched in horror, but unable to turn away. At one point Evan had drawn Renée’s face into his chest to spare her.

If the quantity of the malevolence overwhelmed the ferropods, likewise did the quality. Even so many chronotons had questionable mass, but the amount of ferramine deposited seemed to bear down upon his ferociously vibrating head. Enough ferramine, like guilt, weighed heavy.

Time is fancied to heal all things. The ferramine left in his head attempted a purge, timeless as long as the chronotons didn’t decay. But there are those who resist purgatory, remaining unconvinced forever. A timeless purge of hurtful decisions in one who resists is no longer Purgatory. Bad persons do not do well with eternity.

They might as well be in Hell.

Renée knew this already from her investigation into Cassie Rogers and Randy Hansel. Had she fully realized the extent of what was going on inside Walsh, however, her own conscience would have troubled her.

She had loved her husband, but not unconditionally, furious over his refusal to burn his reproductive bridges. Worse, she was furious over his illness that forbad his telomorphing. The man she loved, the one with whom she had planned to spend the rest of her life, even her extended life, was also the man she hated for his indecision and its implications. Worse—and paradoxically—the love of her life was also the man she hated for ending his. Especially the way he did. Another surprise for her.

It wouldn’t have taken him long to die, but he had made sure. Earlier in the evening she had stroked his head lovingly while thinking angry thoughts and bad names for him. She had told him she would see him the next day, but by the next day he had taken his life, leaving her a mess to handle—two adolescent daughters, a financial quagmire of bad investments, a busy house to run, all while struggling to prop up a failing veterinary practice. And a grisly body—the empty shell of her life foundations. The entry and exit wounds had not been as gentle as those rendered by ferropods. The more she caught a glimpse of Walsh, the more angry she became about Jason Niemann.

How dare he!

How dare he break her heart, once while alive and again by dying. He had not only snubbed his nose at a longer life with her, he had the gall to commit the ultimate effrontery. His cancer was his fault. That can’t be often said, but it could be said by her about him. He had squandered his opportunity of refurbishment via telomorphing until the window of cancer had closed silently on him. Spurning an extended life and her, he had left life altogether.

Renée’s household began to crumble when her daughters began acting out. When bankruptcy closed her office and animal hospital altogether, she ran to the safety and reliable paychecks of academia. There she excelled, garnering a fine international reputation. She put herself as far away from a private practice mentality as she could.

Her daughters straightened out God knows how and did well, married, and gave her beautiful grandchildren. But they themselves had declined telomorphing, a painful reminder of their father’s legacy and insidious posthumous suggestion. Both her daughters were already phenotypically much older than Renée, each of them a wife and a mother. The final tragedy would be that already having out-survived her husband, she would now out-survive her own children, too. She would even present younger than her own grandchildren, should they turn down extended lives themselves.

The Telomorphing Ethics Committee orientation didn’t address these little tortures—items that after the fact had frightened Renée, hurt her, and ultimately defeated her. She was right to jump, startled, at the glass bang whenever she walked past the ferropod bin, to feel that somewhere there was a crag with her name on it. But she was not self-judgmental enough to accept the real reason. There was no way she could suspect the violent battle going on in Walsh’s head, so she was unaware of the crag hungry to splay out her own conscience.

Had Ricardo suspected what was going on inside Walsh, he would have recognized the Waterloo of his own conscience—a last stand where the outcome was uncertain.

Had Chris suspected what was going on inside of Walsh and were he able to reconcile his own anger with God, he would have labeled it a symbiosis between man and the divine, whose outcome would have determined either reconciliation or damnation. Did Chris hate God? Did he hate Him more than Healthcare “bell” panels? More than brainstem aphasia? More than the empty vessel that was Dr. Rogers?

Had Mare known of the machinations from which her Dad was shielding her, she would have recognized it as a fight—the tightly fitting puzzle pieces of remorse and forgiveness. But presents are wrapped and one doesn’t always get what one wants or expects under the wrapping, and the ungrateful make a bad thing out of a good thing. If only she would receive such a gift, such a present, she would think to herself. In another situation, she would probably giggle over the pun—that a past can be represented and gift-wrapped as a present.

Walsh was a pile of detritus, dead but alive forever in a moment, stubbornly resolute against the chronotons and ferramine buckyballs that stung him. The entire attack and escape of 2700 ferropods—the whole event—from the time of the first snap into his head until the last ferropod had come and gone, had taken only ninety seconds by the outside clock. With his chin collapsed on his chest, looking up as high as his quivering eyes could rise in their sockets, he shook pitifully. Completely around the globe of his head was a bloody mush of pulp more porous than a colander. As surprising as it was that he even survived, even more remarkable was his successfully uttering one last thing that Ricardo had to come very close to him to hear.

“Please kill me.” Wherever he was now, Walsh wanted to go there the old-fashioned way.

The VSD family was still standing at the glass, stunned, shocked, and horrified when Ricardo exited the bin. Renée seized him and took him into her arms. Deniz and Mare ventured out of the hallway, but once they went far enough for line-of-sight to the crag bin, Mare began crying and Deniz began gagging. Dr. Willner was psychologically incapacitated. Blaise would likely start gagging as well, but ground his teeth so violently that he threw his TMJs into painful spasm.

The three Martians, however, understood perfectly.

“I can’t believe he’s not dead,” Blaise finally spoke. Mare tried to break away to see better, but Evan caught her and held her fast.

“Ferropods know right where to go,” Tuesday explained.

Intruder alert!” the automaton announced suddenly—and rudely—since the old-style ceiling insert Piezos were directly overhead. Everyone jumped. Renée swore. A ferropod snapped at the glass. Renée had hardly finished yelping from the automaton when she added a second syllable.

“Where?” she yelled, her third syllable.

“RibCart courtyard,” Mr. Know-it-all replied. No one noticed the small hairline crack that appeared at the surface of the crag bin glass barrier.

“How many?” Ricardo demanded.

Hundreds,” the automaton answered.

“Who?” Evan asked.

I do not know,” it answered.

“Great,” Blaise muttered.

But,” Mr. Know-it-all added, “there are so many that they spill out of the gates and there are many behind them.

“Um,” Evan said cautiously, “how many is many?”

Unknown number of intruders.

Evan, Blaise, Ricardo, and Dr. Willner shot each other desperate looks, then bolted to the conference room to engage the perimeter cameras.

“Courtyard view,” Evan said hurriedly, then added fearfully, “align view along axis of the gate.”

There was a glare, making what looked like hordes of individuals a mere skyline silhouette of bobbing, threatening heads.

“More soldiers?” Blaise asked. No one answered; no one ventured a guess. When Renée arrived, she put on her thumbclip which read her fingerprint and pulse-ox biorhythm signature and readied itself to accept instructions.

“Mr. Know-it-all, do a white balance, f-stop at subject mid-torso, away from the sky, zoom 40%, auto-contrast, and extrapolate-fill exposure anomalies,” she ordered the automaton. It complied, leaving no doubt as to what they were seeing. The three Martians now entered with Chris, Deniz, and Mare.

“The ṺberCollider,” Renée said, “underachieved with just a colony-wide focus. We only caught three Martians that time. But this…

“Zillions of ‘em,” Mare cooed.

“Actually,” Tuesday offered, “you are mistaken, Dr. Niemann.”

“Is this going to end bad?” Blaise asked.

“This time the algorithm slipped a bit,” Tuesday said.

“And what?” Blaise asked.

“The temporal reconciliation was planetary.”

“Planet-wide,” Renée said softly, trying to digest it.

“So much for Go Slow,” Blaise said. “Looks like this time the ṺberCollider overachieved.”

“So many,” Willner said. “I guess all the Martians,” he continued, looking into the holodepiction of the perimeter. Deniz squeezed Evan’s hand while holding Mare with her other arm. Tiring, she let her slip down out of her grasp.

“The ṺberCollider,” Ricardo repeated blankly. “I’m about Ṻber’d out.”

“Yes, General,” Willner responded, “it is all about the ṺberCollider, I’m afraid.”

“It is about time,” Tuesday added.

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Chapter 40 of ♂: The NOVEL
Written by DrSemicolon
40
Four ships at a time could dock at Lagrange 1. Even though four ships filled with soldiers would hardly be an armada, Atilano felt that the 300 troops so conveyed would be plenty enough to handle a pipsqueak like Walsh. Since Earth in its orbit had overtaken Mars and was now racing ahead of it, it was in a convenient E-lead position to launch Earth’s own counterrevolutionary force. Even so, it would still take a few months for Mars arrival, however.
Atilano was a patient man and could otherwise wait, but when he learned of armed skirmishes and executions, he decided to move quickly. It was no longer urgent, but an emergency. Through his hacked CommLink, he called his friend, Dr. Jay Kubacki. “If I remember correctly,” he told him, “we have an extra UltiCapacitor.”
“Your memory is excellent, Mr. President,” Dr. Kubacki replied. “I know what to do.”
Seven minutes later the Mars Colony ṺberCollider made the jump from the minimal maintenance strength that was keeping the first tempconciliation preserved up to the capacity of 30 teraelectronvolts. The maintenance meant Dr. Kubacki had only needed the last dozen of the 430 steps he needed to engage it a second time. In no time at all there would be no minutes at all that behaved themselves.
Temporal reconciliation had always been an experiment in progress, and because of the Go Slow policy, it has remained for the most part only a theoretical experiment in progress. The initial scientific courage it took to attempt it the first time on Mars promised inherent safety measures. First, the time epoch retrieved was from over three billion years earlier, thereby eliminating the paradoxes famous in science fiction literature, for example, going back in time to kill one’s grandfather, see one’s self, or even commit so atrocious an act as stepping on a butterfly and returning to a drastically changed world. Second, the venture involved a location 60 million kilometers away, on Mars—and even farther as the planets withdrew from opposition—a risk conveniently removed from the goings-on of Earth, goings-on being a decidedly temporal reference. These presented quite a protective segregation.
The only unknown had been the colony itself. Even though there was a three billion-year temporal buffer, it enjoyed no such spatial immunity. But there emerged a consensus of thought, the concept of Time Prime: there could only be one time for anything, and there could only be one thing for any time.
All of the vagaries of the concept were exhaustively explained by the mathematics that led the way, but they were ultimately simplified by a metaphor stated as a “shimmying” of existence, an existence of multiple realities until a path of least quantum and chronoton resistance set all into stability for one’s unique Time Prime. One was left with a temporal reality where everything found a way to fit, and when conflicting, one version won out, the other careening off into another reality for someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else. It was a blurred double vision focused into a solid sharp contour. If one were to visit himself temporally, either the previous or the later one would prevail, but not both. Which one? The mathematics of that probability formula had yet to be worked out and probably awaited a Nobel Prize, but thankfully enough was proven that there would survive no paradoxes for long. Again, “long” being a temporal reference.
Nevertheless, in case of an unexpected grand miscalculation, the initial tempconciliation had limited the zone to that within the ring of the ṺberCollider itself. The current time, with its failures in finding fossils, had been passing unacceptably. Before, caution called the shots; then destiny entered the game. Caution versus destiny. Go Slow versus Go.
Caution lost.
Thanks to enwrangled correspondence between Dr. Renée Niemann and MCPSC President Gavin Atilano, and between Atilano and Earth, and because of the infamous political upheaval of the colony, science partnered with politics, brains partnered with brawn.
Admittedly, with the Walsh disaster, Destiny had been tempted to fold its hand; but now it was dealt a royal flush. A new strategy called for temporal reconciliation within the actual time of the first tempconciliation.
The target: that day of supposed failure, although it had proved ultimately an unqualified success. A zone much bigger would be retrieved. The time retrieved and times reconciled would involve both the three billion year epoch and the time just before declaration of the first tempconciliation “failure” that justified Walsh to enact his perfidious seizure of the planet. The original tempconciliation would stand, but it would jump back to before Walsh had engaged his schemes. Everyone could be prepared for Walsh and could make him fail. Mars could have its cake and eat it, too.
A few remaining skeptics worried about the superimposition of temporal deposition onto the previous temporal rearrangement. The mathematical matrices for overlapping temporal reconciliations was unimaginable. Also, there was worry about the range—a bigger zone, but how big? The programming was to include the entire Tharsis shield area, from 240º to 270º W latitude, and from 30º S to 30º N longitude. But would it self-contain or might it extend? Might that big a zone trigger a temporal inflation? Beyond the focused area? Beyond Mars? As far as Earth? Throughout the universe, tearing the clichéd fabric of space-time?
Probably not. So said the rest of the scientists who were dying to find out. Again, Caution lost.
Emotionally supportive was the hope, albeit a slippery slope, of seeing alive again those who had recently perished in the battle at the VSD. Desperate times, disturbingly echoing Walsh, had called for desperate actions.
The dead? Back to life? Was God involved now? Now even the theologians were dying to find out. Would the newly living remember their deaths? Would they remember things that were now not to happen at all, and thereby never had happened?
The emergency UltiCapacitor at Lagrange I accepted the emergency authorization from Atilano, assembled the muscle-power input from Earth and Venus, and then broadcast its output to the ṺberCollider below. Which is where Atilano, Pasternak, and Dr. Kubacki now found themselves, blinked into existence off of Lagrange I, weeks earlier. Specifically, in the ṺberCollider’s VIP room. It was the same setting as the original tempconciliation ceremony. It fact, it was the very same Tempconciliation ceremony. Kubacki’s face went white. His mouth, which usually was slightly ajar, tightly closed and he grinded his teeth nervously. He was distraught. He turned to Atilano.
“I just saw myself,” he said blankly, his face remaining very pale. Atilano remembered his original ceremony when he thought he had seen himself.
“I know,” Atilano told Kubacki, and his face began to show his own disturbed astonishment.
Atilano looked around and saw the Mickals and Renée. He knew if he kept looking he would see others, including himself, so he closed his eyes. He couldn’t explain why, but he liked the reality of just one of himself much better and found any other arrangement intolerable. He didn’t fancy another version of him having as much say as he as to who would continue in this existence.
And being unsettled about it all had been the last thing he had remembered.
It was like coming out of anesthesia. Everything that had happened had been like a dream—the battle, The Martian Citizen, Walsh’s coup, everything else to follow. Although no one was disappointed to miss the bone-rattling shuttle from Lagrange 1 to the colony—time was a faster way to travel—all who suddenly disappeared from the large spacecraft, by simply not being there yet, were surprised to find themselves suddenly on the planet. Atilano and Pasternak sank in chairs in the ṺberCollider’s VIP room. A period of confusion weighed them down lethargically. Like everyone else, their minds struggled against this malaise to come to terms with their new temporal reality. Evan, Deniz, and Mare were dizzy, but improving. Renée was the first of them to reconstitute as her memories came drifting back. All of them were approaching wherewithal, but at different speeds.
Eventually, all caught up with their new present, which was their old past. The glass wall separating them from the outside was open and Atilano noted that the red, phony, prop button was pushed in, indicating they had been plucked from the future and jammed into this new present, moments after the tempconciliation had been engaged.
Walsh was there, too, and quickly realized what had happened. If they could do it again, I could do it again, he thought. But he was furious. A uniformed, muscly man named Lt. Lawrence felt himself from head to toe in saucer-eyed amazement.
General Llorente stood near the door of the VIP room now joined by Colonel Leeper and Dr. Jay Kubacki. His eyes caught Walsh’s eyes. Evan’s caught Renée’s. Atilano’s agenda was blossoming anew for a Mars where tempconciliation worked and Walsh was not an issue.
Where he was nothing.
Everyone remembered: just because it hadn’t happened yet didn’t mean it hadn’t happened to them. Even those who weren’t expecting this figured out what had happened. Once down a road, one knows that road.
The confusion settlement-wide stopped all colony activity when everyone realized they were repeating all they had done before. A little asshole named Taffe had an opportunity to keep his nose from being broken at PIP recess, but he proved incorrigible and young Tibbs broke it anyway.
Back at the ṺberCollider VIP room, Walsh’s fury tempered with amazement—surprised but fully cognizant. All that work—for nil. The interchange of nervous glares was busy but silent traffic. Atilano eyed Walsh, Walsh eyed Ricardo, and Evan and Mare hugged Blaise with an embrace Lazarus would have found excessive.
The eyes continued their frenzied targeting among the murmur of the stunned crowd. It was a tempconciliation standoff, all scoping each other, minds whirring. Evan and Blaise were the first to act. Each took one of Mare’s arms and pulled her out of the invitational observation room. Deniz and Chris followed them. Before out of Renée’s sight, they shot her a look easily understood. They would all meet and hunker down at the VSD. Was Walsh still a threat? The Prestige Guard was pre-nascent. More importantly, everyone knew the future that Walsh would try to repeat.
Walsh had been reduced to an army of one. He rose from his own chair carefully, Atilano and Ricardo observing him cautiously until he had slipped out. Everyone else sat as if remembering the details of a dream unfolding in memory. Déjà vu became maitenon vu—déjà now. There was some uneasy, nervous laughing among the others in the room. One man gagged into a handkerchief.
Atilano weighed the forensic considerations. Was Walsh actually guilty of anything now? He hadn’t actually done anything.
Yet.
This had been discussed by the exiled Security Command on Lagrange 1 when the second tempconciliation had been approved and the outcome of the discussions about Walsh had passed muster with the NOE. Even though Walsh had no longer illegally seized and displaced the MCPSC, imposed Martian Law, exiled his potential enemies, seditiously recruited a private army, or even ordered anyone’s execution yet; even though he could not be found guilty of any crime he hadn’t yet committed, there was always that government charge that had proven so valuable in the past when actual guilt of a crime was impossible to prove:
Conspiracy.
Atilano, Llorente, and Leeper simply let Walsh leave. Unless he could find a way onto Lagrange 1 and then back to Earth, he would never get away. Besides, even if he did so, Earth would be waiting for him.
Evan tried to remember the last time he had slept. He had been up all night with the additional crag bin barrier, which he now realized was no longer there, had been to Dr. Willner’s, been to war, and traveled back many weeks. Yet he felt refreshed. Strange. Nevertheless, he had a premonition of something coming. And it wasn’t Walsh. Some type of adjustment. Renée, Blaise, and the rest felt it, too. It was vague but looming.
Just as the sound of a supersonic aircraft would all bunch up into a sonic boom shadowing its path, so a temporal accretion—soon to be known by the plebian slang, chronic boom—would strike those externally and internally. Internally, it would strike those who dealt with the memory reconciliation of two different times, who had to reconcile two sets of recollections. Hardly devastating, it still gave one pause. It was psychologically disturbing. The more one changed their new on-going future, the more disturbing the psychological fallout. It wasn’t depression, but an overwhelming feeling of being lost in time, in identity, in purpose. Luckily, it only lasted from a few minutes to several hours, but it was filled with psychological regret. Dr. Willner would win the Parsons Prize in Medicine for elucidating it. In the future. A future he would have to wait for the usual way. The Chronarchy would ultimately be a non-stop clearinghouse for the identification, description, and understanding of hundreds of spin-off phenomena. Those who had found themselves in the VIP ṺberCollider observation room for the second time would be the first to experience them.
The external chronic boom would be something else altogether.
At this point, however, the ones who comprised the VSD family had all rendezvoused back in the VSD conference room. Mare was impatiently awaiting Tuesday’s re-arrival, as were Chris and Ricardo their own Martian comrades, all three soon to be plucked from the late Hesperian epoch.
Jeremy Pasternak was hurriedly preparing a Level-5 Interrupt of The Martian Chronicle to explain the successful tempconciliation and re-tempconciliation, which would explain to the colonists the unsettling sensations like déjà vu and the jockeying for position between two sets of memories.
At the conference room, after a brief absence, Blaise and Dr. Willner reappeared with a bottle of champagne.
“Too soon?” Blaise asked everyone.
“Gimme that,” Renée demanded, then uncorked it very slowly. Blaise had been courteous enough to insert a large bore needle into the cork first, due to the low atmospheric pressure on Mars being unkind to carbonated beverages and those foolish enough to open any of them casually.
“Yes!” Ricardo agreed enthusiastically, and he retrieved a stack of clear plastic urine collection glasses that he passed around. Even Mare got one.
Wednesday and Thursday sauntered in and sought out Chris and Ricardo, respectively.
“Where’s Tuesday?” Mare asked.
“I do not know,” answered Wednesday.
“Perhaps he will be here shortly,” Thursday added.
The VSD was as they had remembered it. The animals were back. Gone were the bullet holes, but to Renée’s disappointment, so was the second barrier of the crag bin, which she discovered when she ran down the hall to get some napkins. The crag hit the single-glazed glass with the usual ferocity.
“Damn!” she shouted. “Y’all need to rebuild it,” she called back to Evan, Blaise, and Chris in the conference room. She regrouped from being startled and considered her time slip; she recalled that she hadn’t had sex with Ricardo yet, nor he with the Sun, so she vowed sternly to prevent any rips in the space-time continuum—it was her duty to repeat some things—and then she laughed to herself.
“All that work,” Evan told her when she had returned, referring to the now absent second barrier.
“In the past,” Blaise toasted him.
“In the past,” they all chimed in.
“To the future,” Ricardo now added, winking at Renée.
“Yes,” she agreed, “what will be will be.”
“To the future,” they all agreed.
Intruder alert,” the automaton announced.
“I don’t like that alert,” Willner said.
“I bet it’s Tuesday!” Mare exclaimed excitedly. Ricardo pulled out his own gun that was hidden under his pants leg.
“Really?” Renée protested. “Again with the guns?”
“Just in case it’s Lt. Lawrence again,” Ricardo explained.
“Lawrence isn’t coming. No one’s coming. Walsh is done,” Blaise boasted.
“Lawrence was dead,” Deniz said. “Would he be able to come back?”
“I think I saw him back at the VIP room.,” Deniz said nervously.
“Did anyone tell God?” Blaise asked, savoring another sip of champagne. “Doesn’t He make those kind of decisions?”
“Wait,” Renée said, “you were dead, too, Blaise.”
“Actually, no.”
“But we heard the shot.”
“He missed,” Blaise said, and took another sip.
It was in fact Tuesday who entered, so Mare clapped happily. Closely behind him, however, walked in Walsh. In another time he had entered prodding Colonel Leeper with a gun; now he prodded Tuesday.
Fast, but not bullet-proof. At point blank range, even an unlouvered, fully arrayed Martian would fall if Walsh were to fire.
“Drop it,” Walsh commanded Ricardo, and Ricardo let his pistol fall to the ground. “I’ve always wanted to say that,” Walsh confessed with a devilish grin.
“History repeats itself,” Ricardo said.
“Except sideways,” Evan said. Walsh looked around. He saw the other two Martians.
“Are you guys winking at me?” he asked them. Ricardo whispered something to Thursday and they stopped.
“One big happy family again,” he said. “And champagne? How appropriate. Save a glass for me, will you? I have a feeling I’m going to be celebrating, myself.” Evan took a position in front of Deniz and Mare. Blaise stood in front of Renée. Ricardo and Chris stood with their respective Martians. Walsh looked around his hostage, Tuesday, for a quick glance. “All those mouths and nothing to say?”
“Now what?” Ricardo asked Walsh.
“Well, you’re gonna get in touch with Dr. Kubacki and get him to shut down the ṺberCollider.”
“Why?” asked Tuesday. Everyone was surprised, for the Martians usually minded their own business.
“Oh, does that make you nervous, green man?” Walsh answered.
“Oblivion hurts,” Tuesday said.
“What would you care? You’d be nowhere, gone. Who’d be there to hurt?”
“It hurts now,” Tuesday answered. “Perhaps, Director Walsh, you could go to oblivion.”
“Me? I’m the guy with the gun in your back, remember?”
“Either you or me,” Tuesday said, remembering a game with Mare where she went first. “We could flip a coin. If either one of us goes, what’s the difference. It’d be fair.”
“Will you listen to this guy? He wants to be fair. I didn’t come here to be fair. Maybe I was wrong before. Maybe you are stupid.”
“So it seems.”
“Yea, so it does. But if you think oblivion hurts, is it any worse than getting your face fried off? Don’t need that kind of thing happening, do we? You or me? I vote me.”
“No one’s turning off anything,” Ricardo said to Tuesday. “The loss would be incalculable. We haven’t even begun.” Walsh snickered.
“We’ll see.” Then he looked at Renée. “Your crags.”
“What about them?” Renée asked.
“Oh, you know. You know all about them. Your friends found a way to aim the little bastards.”
“That’s just crazy,” Blaise said with disgust. Walsh looked menacingly at him.
“Didn’t I already kill you once?” Then he again addressed Ricardo. “The crags. I’d like the datastrip on the protocol used.”
“I made all of that up,” Ricardo spit out.
“Liar!” Walsh said loudly, pointing his finger at him.
“You’ve got nothing,” Ricardo answered, “no Prestige Society, no death squads.”
“You’re nothing,” added Blaise.
“Remember how I never liked you, Lewis,” Walsh threatened. “Remember the last time?” Walsh circled the room with his eyes. “Tempconciliation. That’s O.K. for someone like Atilano. Don’t like how things are turning out, just change it by redoing time again. Who’s the tyrant now?”
“Who’s the tyrant again?” Ricardo countered.
“Mr. Walsh,” Willner offered, “I can start seeing you daily. I can help you with your problems.”
“I’m not the one with a problem. The guy with the gun is never the guy with the problem.” Then to Ricardo, “Llorente,” he ordered, “swap with Cthulhu here. Did I say that right? In any case, this guy—the creature from the Black Lagoon here.”
“And he didn’t know who Ray Bradbury was,” Blaise murmured quietly. Walsh motioned with the gun between Tuesday and Ricardo. “I really don’t trust him after what I saw he did to our Lt. Lawrence. Could have exploding farts for all I know.” He waited. “That’s a joke. Llorente, why are you not moving? C’mon, swap. Now. Yesterday.” As they approached each other, Walsh pulled back the hammer on his gun to emphasize any zero tolerance for attempts at reversal. Tuesday and Ricardo carefully switched places.
“Here I am, Walsh,” Ricardo announced. Walsh jabbed him hard in his back.
“We’re going for a little walk. We’re going to go visit the crag bin.
“Now that’s crazy!” Willner cried.
“This is crazy, that’s crazy—everyone’s a shrink here. The general here is gonna go in. So if you guys have found a way to control ‘em, you better get ‘em to leave your friend alone.” He smiled. “This way. Everybody. The big green goon in front. Me and the general will bring up the rear. You, too, little girl.” Deniz sandwiched Mare between herself and Evan.
The nine of them filtered out of the conference room single file, Tuesday first, Walsh and his gun last. As they passed the dog kennel and the orangutan closure, these animals began crying out, followed by the other animals. Tuesday’s ear calderas pivoted rapidly, pell-mell. An unheard 10 hertz vibrato began deep within him, and the other Martian calderas began gyrating.
“Open it,” Walsh commanded when they had reached the crag bin. A crag snapped at the glass next to Renée and she shrieked. “No, I don’t suppose you would like one of those in your head, would you? Hmm…would you like to help me with some data instead? You know what I’m interested in, all of you.” This was met with silence. “Fine,” Walsh concluded. “Open it.”
Renée was filled with terror. She knew, besides the obvious danger, that based on her walks through the hall there was always a crag that wanted her. She took a breath. She still had her thumbclip on, and she used it, instead, to open the enclosures of all of the Earth animals. There was mayhem, animals scurrying this way and that, extremely vocal in their panic, but all of them scattered out of the hallway when Walsh’s bullet ricocheted like a pinball.
“Open it!” he screamed. The second bullet was convincing. He promised Ricardo the next one, putting the gun to his temple. Ricardo frantically searched his mind for some type of martial arts escape maneuver that would not risk a third aimless bullet in this crowded space.
The crag door opened.
“Get in,” he ordered Ricardo. Ricardo had to do a bit of a dance spin around Walsh to fit past him through the opened door. He eyed the many crags moving almost unperceptively at his feet. “Now close it,” Walsh further ordered Renée. Ricardo looked at Renée furtively from inside the enclosure.
It was a tightly tandem dual action between Ricardo and Renée, his grabbing Walsh and pulling him in with him as Renée closed the automatic door. Walsh fired at Renée from behind the glass, but the crag-proof glass held and the bullet flew back to the floor and struck his own right foot. He jumped. Renée screamed. Deniz huddled Mare away and they ran back to the conference room.
Walsh was furious. He almost shot Ricardo out of his sheer spinal reaction anger, but paused. He lowered his gun. “Pretty slick, Llorente,” Walsh said, grimacing from his foot pain. “I could threaten to shoot you unless they open the door, but then they’d just leave me in here with your shot up self.” He looked at the floor. We’re in the same boat, the two of us, aren’t we? Your friends are more likely to save both of us if you’re still alive. Better save my bullets for now.” The ferropods started inching their way around both their feet and Walsh tried his best to look unfrightened, but he couldn’t maintain the façade for long. He kept looking from Llorente to those looking at them through the glass to the floor crawling with crags. A trickle of sweat beaded down his left temple.
Ricardo moved fast when Walsh reached down to hold his painful foot. In one smooth exercise of martial artistry he snatched the pistol away, flipped it into his other hand, and crimped Walsh’s fingers in a vise-like hold. The scuffle played out silently to Renée and the others from across the glass. Ricardo let the gun fall to the floor.
“Hey, easy there,” Walsh puffed, feeling the loss of his gun was minor compared to the bigger peril about them. “Aren’t you afraid you’re gonna attract them with all this commotion?”
He was afraid.
He feared the unknown. In his perfect world, commandeered and impounded, or otherwise, there would be no unknowns. Fear of the unknown—fear of being at someone else’s mercy instead of everyone being at his mercy; fear of what happens to you when you die, fear of oblivion, fear of nothingness—all of these could be averted if he could telomorph over and over and never die.
Fear of crags.
Aren’t you afraid of attracting them? His question was so revealing of his fears that, validating the observation, the thousands of crags began mooching not only the floor, but up the walls and glass and above them on the ceiling, six meters overhead, like the sword of Damocles. Walsh’s eyes were windows into his mind, through which Ricardo saw terror. Ricardo next saw these eyes locate the gun on the floor.
“C’mon, man, tell ‘em to open up and get us out of here. You don’t care if you get a crag in your head? Didn’t you see what happened to that poor bastard Hansel?” Ricardo just smiled and parted his hair hanging over his forehead.
Walsh saw it. The perfectly round, well-healed, crag-sized scar on Ricardo’s forehead.
“Too late,” Ricardo replied. “I’m already a member.” Walsh’s eyes became wild. He started banging on the glass. In the hallway, the pounding mollified into a muted thumping only; Renée realized how much harder the crags must have snapped at her to produce the sharp blows they did, because Walsh was pounding for his life.
“Please! For the love of God! Please!” he cried from within, the hallway audience hearing nothing but was able to see to the back of his throat with the bleating. “Open the fucking door!” he screamed. A crag snapped right past him and he squealed. His injured foot finally gave out, and he fell to the ground, huddling around his flexed knees.
The gun Ricardo had let fall to the floor now lay within Walsh’s reach, but Ricardo was looking out of the window at Renée. Walsh snatched it up and snapped upright and pointed it at Ricardo. “Open up or I shoot him,” he said slowly toward the window, with exaggerarated articulation so Renée could read his lips. Another crag snapped, startling him, and he emptied all the remaining rounds aimlessly at the ceilings and walls. One of the rounds ricocheted into his other foot. “Fuck!” he screamed, and he threw the empty gun at the glass.
“Please!” he pleaded. Another crag snapped but missed. He covered his head frantically with his arms.
“Shouldn’t we open it? Renée asked urgently.
“You want crags out here?” Blaise asked right back. Deniz, back in the conference room, could hear them and she enwrapped Mare even more tightly. Willner stood in rapt horror.
In the crag bin Ricardo soon collapsed and just sat in the corner furthest away from Walsh to watch. Incredibly, even with two injured feet, Walsh stood up with excruciation and began dancing as if a cowboy were shooting at him while the crags continued snapping. He cried out from the pain and from his terror—they were the same cry. Ricardo thought of popcorn: the oil must have been hot enough; crags were popping all over, a mounting of percussion. Walsh’s head jolted back suddenly.
He had finally caught a crag in his big, fat, fleshy head.
This opened a new chapter in ferropod history when this particular crag snapped into him with enough force to actually exit, never before seen in previous victims. There appeared both entrance and exit wounds. Renée gasped, continuing to distrust the glass barrier.
Ferropods, besides the Chantū, the only other natural source of ferramine and chronotons, left a trail of both along a specific path in Walsh’s sensorium, in this case a long, lost cortical island of childhood memory. In and out in an instant, but for the crag it was an instant stopped in time. In that instant, in only that amount of time it took to make the trip along this neuronal pathway between and from skull entrance to skull exit, time meant nothing.
Therein lay the answer to the vexing question of why such force and momentum had never wreaked a swath of radiant shock injury like any other penetrating projectile would. Like a bullet would. Or a heavy metal door. The brain was changed by a ferropod, but undamaged, as the instant of penetration and migration was stretched into an atraumatic epoch. Outside of time, the whole assault was tranquilly slow and the motion Brownian.
This is what the chronotons did as their part in the attack: a ferropod had all the time in the world to ease in and then grope gently along, searching for its path of least resistance. Such a yielding path was lit up for the ferropod like a grand boulevard; it was illuminated for the ferropod by guilt and misgiving.
This is what ferramine did as its part in the attack: there are patches of human neocortex with unique receptor sites for an as yet identified neurotransmitter. Happily, all humans are born with these sites amply filled. Then life happens—the maturity of hard knocks, lessons learned, and trusts betrayed. The sites lose their neurotransmitters which served as the glue for a moral compass. Unfilled or emptied, the persuasive concepts of self-reproach and culpability become incarnate in the mind’s eye, creating a vacuum of vulnerability; this vulnerability lowers the resistance for ferramine-seeding vehicles like Ferropodia conglobinans.
Without a ferropod sniffing around, one of two things happens along this open path of vulnerability. Either the mind finds a way to fill the receptor sites again with the more conventional neurotransmitter fare, a physiologic action called reconciliation and which would make the painful neuronal pathway unremarkable to a hungry crag (one might even call the whole scenario conscience); or remaining unfilled, a conflicting duality—prideful self-esteem battling a hollow conscience—invites binding arbitration by another part of the brain. A part that is underqualified. An ancient part. An antediluvian part. The amphibian part.
The part that even the caveman outclassed so long ago.
With a ferropod out and about, however, such a vacuous part of the mind, lacking such receptor-site binding, stands out, attracts attention, incites a ferropod’s predation, and invites its penetration. It becomes for the ferropod a drive to dutifully bestow neurotransmitter to those struggling receptors. It becomes a pilgrimage; it becomes a quest.
In the crag bin, the zigzag along Walsh’s neuronal pathway of a single memory was purchased easily by the creature that followed no rules of time. It had all the time it needed to cover the full pathway of an item that sat so disgracefully in his conscience. Additionally, it also covered the serpentine tracts that suppressed it. Careening this way, dodging that way, the ferropod followed the sinuous flight of thought, first along the idea of some wrong done, then along the self-indulgence that suppressed the moral law in a way that would make even a four-eyed schoolchild balk. Outside of time, the ferropod was able to pay a visit to all of the other parts of Walsh’s brain that participated directly or indirectly, all instantaneously.
One ferropod, one unconscionable deed, two paths—the one for the deed, the other for the suppression of any self-condemnation. In Walsh’s case, the crag covered the deed and the conscience before exiting.
It was a purge. Carved out without time constraints, instantly, assigning the deed forever, to eternity.
One unconscionable deed. Most people have one, some even more than one. Chris had his; Ricardo, too. Even Mare struggled with hers. But where Chris, Ricardo, and young Mare may have had an isolated, primary regret of conscience to reconcile for eternity, Walsh seemed to have a huge catalog that might even overwhelm all of the crags in the bin:
One crag for Walsh was not enough.
Whereas Chris’, Ricardo’s, and Mare’s ferropods sat comfortably in their hosts’ brains, Walsh’s first was not so content and its own innate instinct of self-survival necessitated escape. A second crag snapped into him—another first in crag attacks and duly noted by the amazed observers. Likewise, armed with time-irrelevant chronotons, it instantaneously followed the neuronal path of volitional misdeed, then altered course to follow an empty synaptic pathway normally involved in reconciliatory regret and remorse. The ferramine poured out of it, but his receptor sites were resistant and too many, until the ferropod became lost, repeatedly going off the track and seeking refuge via escape.
Instantaneously.
The third, likewise.
So much exploratory brain surgery with no overt damage; it was a testimonial to the ferropods’ timeless gentleness.
The fourth, likewise.
Walsh sat crumpled on the floor. Ricardo watched in stunned amazement as new holes on both sides of his head kept appearing, small holes opening with contralateral small holes opening diametrically to match. Entrance wound and matching exit wound, simultaneously. Each matching set with a lengthy course of visitation to the workings of his mind. Instantaneously.
The fifth. The sixth.
Walsh sat with his head bobbing violently with each surgically precise strike, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.
The twenty-fifth. The twenty-sixth. By now, the successive strikes were beginning to connect the dots in his head.
Each crag that came and went left a parting gift for him—a serial trail of chronotons and ferramine along each path of ill will, each circuit of mean-spiritedness, each route of self-serving, selfish profit, and along each road block to the moral law even a child knew intuitively.
The one-hundredth. The one-thousandth.
Even 2700 ferropods were not going to be enough. Walsh was a bottomless pit of regrettable and lamentable life decisions.
St. Peter at the gates, consulting the chapter on Denton Walsh in his pearlside reference book, would have a rough day the day he applied for passage. Charon would have to charter a private boat, express, to bypass the Elysian Fields, even commission Hades to ferry him directly to Tartarus while the Furies ripped at his fleshy, crag-pocked head. Dante missed an entire circle for him, lest he would have had to condemn the entire Italian language to a status of ineffable profanity.
Back-stabbing, extortion, deceit, misogyny, political ruin, racism, social putrefaction, family destruction, and tidy, clandestine murders made up the neuronal itinerary that was Walsh’s success story.
Now the onslaught of thousands of ferropods created a buzz about his bald head, which began rattling like a can in a paint shaker. All of the others except for Deniz and Mare watched in horror, but unable to turn away. At one point Evan had drawn Renée’s face into his chest to spare her.
If the quantity of the malevolence overwhelmed the ferropods, likewise did the quality. Even so many chronotons had questionable mass, but the amount of ferramine deposited seemed to bear down upon his ferociously vibrating head. Enough ferramine, like guilt, weighed heavy.
Time is fancied to heal all things. The ferramine left in his head attempted a purge, timeless as long as the chronotons didn’t decay. But there are those who resist purgatory, remaining unconvinced forever. A timeless purge of hurtful decisions in one who resists is no longer Purgatory. Bad persons do not do well with eternity.
They might as well be in Hell.
Renée knew this already from her investigation into Cassie Rogers and Randy Hansel. Had she fully realized the extent of what was going on inside Walsh, however, her own conscience would have troubled her.
She had loved her husband, but not unconditionally, furious over his refusal to burn his reproductive bridges. Worse, she was furious over his illness that forbad his telomorphing. The man she loved, the one with whom she had planned to spend the rest of her life, even her extended life, was also the man she hated for his indecision and its implications. Worse—and paradoxically—the love of her life was also the man she hated for ending his. Especially the way he did. Another surprise for her.
It wouldn’t have taken him long to die, but he had made sure. Earlier in the evening she had stroked his head lovingly while thinking angry thoughts and bad names for him. She had told him she would see him the next day, but by the next day he had taken his life, leaving her a mess to handle—two adolescent daughters, a financial quagmire of bad investments, a busy house to run, all while struggling to prop up a failing veterinary practice. And a grisly body—the empty shell of her life foundations. The entry and exit wounds had not been as gentle as those rendered by ferropods. The more she caught a glimpse of Walsh, the more angry she became about Jason Niemann.
How dare he!
How dare he break her heart, once while alive and again by dying. He had not only snubbed his nose at a longer life with her, he had the gall to commit the ultimate effrontery. His cancer was his fault. That can’t be often said, but it could be said by her about him. He had squandered his opportunity of refurbishment via telomorphing until the window of cancer had closed silently on him. Spurning an extended life and her, he had left life altogether.
Renée’s household began to crumble when her daughters began acting out. When bankruptcy closed her office and animal hospital altogether, she ran to the safety and reliable paychecks of academia. There she excelled, garnering a fine international reputation. She put herself as far away from a private practice mentality as she could.
Her daughters straightened out God knows how and did well, married, and gave her beautiful grandchildren. But they themselves had declined telomorphing, a painful reminder of their father’s legacy and insidious posthumous suggestion. Both her daughters were already phenotypically much older than Renée, each of them a wife and a mother. The final tragedy would be that already having out-survived her husband, she would now out-survive her own children, too. She would even present younger than her own grandchildren, should they turn down extended lives themselves.
The Telomorphing Ethics Committee orientation didn’t address these little tortures—items that after the fact had frightened Renée, hurt her, and ultimately defeated her. She was right to jump, startled, at the glass bang whenever she walked past the ferropod bin, to feel that somewhere there was a crag with her name on it. But she was not self-judgmental enough to accept the real reason. There was no way she could suspect the violent battle going on in Walsh’s head, so she was unaware of the crag hungry to splay out her own conscience.
Had Ricardo suspected what was going on inside Walsh, he would have recognized the Waterloo of his own conscience—a last stand where the outcome was uncertain.
Had Chris suspected what was going on inside of Walsh and were he able to reconcile his own anger with God, he would have labeled it a symbiosis between man and the divine, whose outcome would have determined either reconciliation or damnation. Did Chris hate God? Did he hate Him more than Healthcare “bell” panels? More than brainstem aphasia? More than the empty vessel that was Dr. Rogers?
Had Mare known of the machinations from which her Dad was shielding her, she would have recognized it as a fight—the tightly fitting puzzle pieces of remorse and forgiveness. But presents are wrapped and one doesn’t always get what one wants or expects under the wrapping, and the ungrateful make a bad thing out of a good thing. If only she would receive such a gift, such a present, she would think to herself. In another situation, she would probably giggle over the pun—that a past can be represented and gift-wrapped as a present.
Walsh was a pile of detritus, dead but alive forever in a moment, stubbornly resolute against the chronotons and ferramine buckyballs that stung him. The entire attack and escape of 2700 ferropods—the whole event—from the time of the first snap into his head until the last ferropod had come and gone, had taken only ninety seconds by the outside clock. With his chin collapsed on his chest, looking up as high as his quivering eyes could rise in their sockets, he shook pitifully. Completely around the globe of his head was a bloody mush of pulp more porous than a colander. As surprising as it was that he even survived, even more remarkable was his successfully uttering one last thing that Ricardo had to come very close to him to hear.
“Please kill me.” Wherever he was now, Walsh wanted to go there the old-fashioned way.
The VSD family was still standing at the glass, stunned, shocked, and horrified when Ricardo exited the bin. Renée seized him and took him into her arms. Deniz and Mare ventured out of the hallway, but once they went far enough for line-of-sight to the crag bin, Mare began crying and Deniz began gagging. Dr. Willner was psychologically incapacitated. Blaise would likely start gagging as well, but ground his teeth so violently that he threw his TMJs into painful spasm.
The three Martians, however, understood perfectly.
“I can’t believe he’s not dead,” Blaise finally spoke. Mare tried to break away to see better, but Evan caught her and held her fast.
“Ferropods know right where to go,” Tuesday explained.
Intruder alert!” the automaton announced suddenly—and rudely—since the old-style ceiling insert Piezos were directly overhead. Everyone jumped. Renée swore. A ferropod snapped at the glass. Renée had hardly finished yelping from the automaton when she added a second syllable.
“Where?” she yelled, her third syllable.
“RibCart courtyard,” Mr. Know-it-all replied. No one noticed the small hairline crack that appeared at the surface of the crag bin glass barrier.
“How many?” Ricardo demanded.
Hundreds,” the automaton answered.
“Who?” Evan asked.
I do not know,” it answered.
“Great,” Blaise muttered.
But,” Mr. Know-it-all added, “there are so many that they spill out of the gates and there are many behind them.
“Um,” Evan said cautiously, “how many is many?”
Unknown number of intruders.
Evan, Blaise, Ricardo, and Dr. Willner shot each other desperate looks, then bolted to the conference room to engage the perimeter cameras.
“Courtyard view,” Evan said hurriedly, then added fearfully, “align view along axis of the gate.”
There was a glare, making what looked like hordes of individuals a mere skyline silhouette of bobbing, threatening heads.
“More soldiers?” Blaise asked. No one answered; no one ventured a guess. When Renée arrived, she put on her thumbclip which read her fingerprint and pulse-ox biorhythm signature and readied itself to accept instructions.
“Mr. Know-it-all, do a white balance, f-stop at subject mid-torso, away from the sky, zoom 40%, auto-contrast, and extrapolate-fill exposure anomalies,” she ordered the automaton. It complied, leaving no doubt as to what they were seeing. The three Martians now entered with Chris, Deniz, and Mare.
“The ṺberCollider,” Renée said, “underachieved with just a colony-wide focus. We only caught three Martians that time. But this…
“Zillions of ‘em,” Mare cooed.
“Actually,” Tuesday offered, “you are mistaken, Dr. Niemann.”
“Is this going to end bad?” Blaise asked.
“This time the algorithm slipped a bit,” Tuesday said.
“And what?” Blaise asked.
“The temporal reconciliation was planetary.”
“Planet-wide,” Renée said softly, trying to digest it.
“So much for Go Slow,” Blaise said. “Looks like this time the ṺberCollider overachieved.”
“So many,” Willner said. “I guess all the Martians,” he continued, looking into the holodepiction of the perimeter. Deniz squeezed Evan’s hand while holding Mare with her other arm. Tiring, she let her slip down out of her grasp.
“The ṺberCollider,” Ricardo repeated blankly. “I’m about Ṻber’d out.”
“Yes, General,” Willner responded, “it is all about the ṺberCollider, I’m afraid.”
“It is about time,” Tuesday added.

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Chapter 15 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon

15

A roommate never arrived, and my concern over this diminished the longer I went without double occupancy. I have to admit, though, that every time I got my sandwich, often accompanied by a little water bottle, I thought it just might be a new inductee and my heart would be in my throat. As the heavy metal door opened, my sandwich was jettisoned from the outside world into mine. The heart in my throat would soon be replaced by the sandwich, stuck there as well.

The days passed more quickly than I would have ever thought. I would learn later that this was because my limited starvation from one crummy sandwich a day kept my chemistry in a sleepy mode. I passed from one day to the next, the only tick of a clock being the arrival of my cheese on rye.

So I knew the number of days, but not much else. I slept when I felt like it, sat when I felt like it, and slept again when I couldn’t do anything else I felt like doing. Options are limited in a dark furniture-less room.

Luckily I had found a trap door for bodily functions that first day before my new urges had forced repeat indiscretions. It was flush with the floor and could only be opened by fingering a ringed pull-handle. The mechanism, unfortunately, was not a mere shaft but a removable tray of some kind, apparently exchangeable from below. I wondered who was the lucky one to have that job, which was probably my only out-loud laugh the whole time.

It was too small for me to fit through, but I did try to use it to dump the gun. That didn’t work; my disposal was noticed, and my firearm—the very one which had shared an exit with my excrement, I was disgusted to learn—was returned to me in my sandwich bag.

After what had seemed like a month, I had tried it again to the same dutiful return. And then, about a week after that, someone screwed up big. Someone got confused and I got a second gun with a sandwich. (Could that have been dumped by someone else via his tray? I almost didn’t eat my sandwich that day. Almost.)

So, a second gun. That was almost as good as a second sandwich. This, I thought, might prove fortuitous.

All of this time I used for thinking. Life can be re-defined very drastically when you’re hopelessly incarcerated. I had wondered what had happened to my Abby, pregnant in this very same world I was in and not even knowing this. Oh, she probably knew there was a me of some sort here, but that guy was such a shit she’d have no inclination for a visit.

I wondered if she was still pregnant, or had the pressures of this senseless world finally convinced her that she make the unilateral choice to not raise a child in this world. And could one raise a normal child with real human ethics here, shielded from the blight of the senseless carryings-on around him? Or would the child ultimately, in spite of the best efforts of isolation, still be just like one of the “regular guys” here? That would be tragic to Abby. Could even she come to a different way of thinking about pregnancy termination here?

If she were pregnant, she should be due in just a couple of months or so, I figured, before a feeling welled up inside of me: her due date! Wasn’t that a thought! My child, our child. And us here. I suddenly cried out loud and cried hard until my sinuses took revenge on me.

Near the end of a month’s worth of depression I started fantasizing about suicide, not really intending, you understand; just imagining as a fictional exercise. I wondered if my pop-ups down the line were considering it or had even done it.

At first I tried to make the standard suicide fantasy sound useful—you know, really showing-everyone-and-then-they’d-be-sorry-type stuff—but that just wouldn’t work here. In fact, I’d be doing everyone a favor. They’d collect on the census while hiding my non-existence and not even supporting me, not that the daily piece of a cheese on rye and a squeeze bottle of water was crippling their economy. And of course the climate control of my cubicle certainly wasn’t expensive. You know, all of this complaining can certainly whip me up, I thought. It kind of made me want to go and kill somebody. Maybe myself for lack of a better victim.

To rest, to finally rest from all of this.

Surrender is the final self-indulgence, and the ill wind reached from its distant desolate point of origin to this layer. But it was beginning to make sense this far away from reason, from civilization, from people with human frailties and concerns. This far from the protective counter-wind of God’s life-giving breath—the raison d’être—there really seemed no reason to be at all anymore. Options are limited in a dark, armed, unfurnished room where there is no hope of ever getting out. Hopelessness hurts.

A lot of good I did with my life, what with my privileged “true existence.” My final output was zero. In this dark womb which was Observation my miserable gestation was over, and I was ready to be delivered stillborn into the world outside. To hell with everything, I thought, as I automatically lifted the gun toward my face. There seemed to be more rain in the world outside, for the drainpipes sounded slippery in the wall. I imagined it to be the blood of Blown Away, as much a cheap and inevitable run-off as funneled rainwater. Even here, I thought, God would never even notice—in my dark womb, in my moist tomb. I pulled the hammer back on the gun and then placed its barrel in my mouth. With it cocked in position, my finger tightening, I offered a chance for any last thoughts.

Wait one more minute, I considered. Could there be one shred of worthwhile meaning enough for me to call the whole thing off? No, I answered. Even if there were, it was just too much trouble to evaluate it now. And with the flimsiest of resolve, for that’s all it took, I pulled the trigger.

Click.

Nothing. Nothing except the drainpipes and the subliminal whistle from overhead. I screwed up. This was the accidental spare gun. Do you know never once did I check the number of bullets in it? I did so at this point. There were only three. This angered me to no end. I started cursing myself and my new world. I stood, I shouted. Damn if I wasn’t going to get noticed before I went! And damn if I wasn’t going to take an orderly or two with me!

“Hey,” I shouted, “I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna shoot myself, do you hear? Come on down you miserable soulless bastards! Come see the show! Come on! Projectile brains for you!”

My back rested against the door as I slid down, ignored, which didn’t exactly lift my suicidal spirits. I listened, but there was only silence from the corridor. Like the newspapers amassing on the driveway of the family out of town, I could envision sandwiches piling up after my death.

“What the hell,” I said out loud. “Let’s go again.” I lifted both guns, one to each side of my head, and once again I prepared to die. I ran through all of the preliminary misgivings of existence here that had prepared me so well just minutes earlier. The mood was right again.

That’s when I heard footsteps coming. Footsteps with keys. And it wasn’t even mealtime—I didn’t think, anyway. Had I eaten yet today? I wasn’t sure.

The keys addressed the lock on my door. Company! I readied to start firing, but then came the realization that I would be a killer, and I panicked in cowardice—not because of the consequences, but because of the suffering to come from my own self-evaluation. Suddenly no amount of evaluation of life and death was too much trouble. Company brought to me sobriety, and murder of my company would put me back online with reason, a conscience, and unbearable remorse.

Quickly I stuffed one of the guns—I didn’t know which—into my belt at my back, my soiled and by now rotting shirt hanging over it, covering it. If I were to regret my pacifist decision, I knew I could always murder later. Either someone else or myself.

The door swung glaringly wide, feeling like someone was ramming all of Alpha Centauri down my throat. I know my eyelids must have nearly healed shut right then and there, the light piercing my vision like nails. Before I could think, there were hands around my throat.

“Give me the gun before we go,” she said. That was Sister Chaz’s voice. I easily remembered it.

“Sure, sure, sure—” I gurgled, waiving my hand into open space with the gun in it. My forearm was karate chopped, forcing the gun to fall to the floor. She loosened her grip from around my neck, allowing in air. I never thought I’d say this, but I welcomed the famous shoulder grasp at the hands of Sister Chaz, since it replaced her throat grip. I was yanked out of my prison into the outside world, like a newborn being pulled rudely out of its mother by some forceful, abusive doctor.

Through squinted eye-lashed diffractions which streaked any images, I could see there were two or three males with her. I moved along, light on my feet thanks to the Chazhooks.

I was blind and daffy, my legs buckling flimsily under me, in spite of the fact that I was considerably lighter due to my miracle diet. The only vision I had was navigational, seeing only blurred objects in my path. The muscles in my legs were emaciated and poorly responsive to the messages delivered to them from my brain. It was as if these muscles had never been delivered a good thought from those nerves. I thought of Mr. Rubens.

I thought of Ava’s Les.

The good Sister had no difficulty bouncing my wispy, handicapped frame along by my shoulders, or when she did have difficulty she’d merely right my balance by a quick grasp of my clumped beard.

My escort ended when I was thrown into an office. I landed on a chair I had felt before. This was Landrum’s office. The air was so fresh I could smell myself in contrast. Sister Chaz stood at my side, one hand still on my left shoulder, my chair facing Landrum’s desk. The brightness of this normal light was still brilliant and painful. I continued to squint.

“What’s going on?” I asked, reminded of the second gun I still had because of its pressing in my back from the force with which Chaz held me against the chair.

“Quiet, murk,” she chided. Murk? I heard a man’s footsteps, then a desk chair seat being squashed by a behind that belonged to...

“Dr. Landrick,” Sister Chaz announced.

“Where is her chart?” Landrick asked me.

“Whose chart?” I asked back.

“Abby’s,” he answered. “Your bitch’s.”

“Yea,” agreed Chaz, “the bitch’s.”

“I know you have ripped it off, you mote-eating roach,” Landrick continued.

Sure, I thought, a long time ago, many layers ago when I was with Ava. Before I was a mote-eating roach. But just what was the big deal here? Just what the hell did my pop-up do here regarding that chart? Had he blown the whistle on the fraud of census card-shuffling?

“Is that why I was brought here?” I asked angrily. I got a pop in the back of my head from the good Sister.

“Cinch up, murk, you have no voice,” she said with scorn.

“That’s alright, Sister Chaz, I think he’s entitled to some answers to add to his dust.” And then to me, “Answers? Is that why you were admitted to Blown Away, or why you were invited to my office,” he offered, the choice being mine.

“Both,” I said. He was lucky he was being so conciliatory, because I was ready to start brandishing my gun. He looked at me, expressionless. I could tell, even with my squinting eyes.

“You were brought to Blown Away Memorial for observation. It was felt that you were the catalyst for Abby’s illness. This is well catalogued from her first admission from her aunt’s house.”

“Her first admission? You mean she’s had more admissions?”

“Oh,” he said, smiling mischievously, “just the one today.”

“Today!” I was stunned.

“Yes, that’s why you’ve been brought to my office, drib. She snivelled to us you had ripped off her chart.”

How could she have known that? I asked myself. “The chart’s at Ava’s house,” I offered, knowing this was no help.

“Who’s she, drib?” he asked. I became irritated with the strange name-calling, derogatory parlance here.

“A friend,” I answered sarcastically. There was silence, as if he were in thought, a silence I ultimately broke. “Well, well, Dr. Landrick,” I asked, “what were the results of your observation of me? Did you get a lot of good information? Did you diagnose my problem? Are you able to help roaches, murks, and dribs? Did you help me?”

“Actually,” he said non-apologetically, “we hadn’t really gotten around to you yet.”

I went for his throat, acting with such impulsive rage that I didn’t think to use my gun. Sister Chaz acted immediately to cock my neck and head against my frail body.

“Break your neck or sit you down, take your pick,” she commanded.

“I pick sitting down,” I gasped in my struggle against her grip. She was a woman of many grips and grasps. And she had great big muscles to apply them with. At least she wasn’t naked and on the make. I sank back into my chair, happy with my choice. The gun? No, not yet, I thought. I dared to speak again.

“Where’s Abby now?” I asked, wondering what psychiatric ward she was holed up in.

“In labor, Mr. Ebe,” Landrick responded. “She’s going to have your baby. Even though she’s single, thanks to you, and broke, thanks to you, and mentally ill, thanks to you. And she’s going through with it, thanks to you, even though she’s six weeks early.”

It sure is hard to let crazy people bawl you out for being crazy. I sat. I took it. I waited. All like the drib I was.

“I’d like to see her, please,” I said.

“Oh, she doesn’t want to see you,” he reported. “You’ve done some pretty nasty things to her, I understand.” Now he was talking about my pop-up, I thought to myself. “But I’m going to bring you to see her anyway,” he claimed. “She needs to see the man of her life. Maybe you can coach her through her Lamaze. Maybe she’ll have a little roach like you.”

I was ready to see her. I was ready to welcome my child, no matter how anyone else would consider him or her. Roach, indeed! This was the indictment of Landrick’s society: a drib’s child is an insect; abortion of a drib’s child is insecticide; insecticide is useful when there’s a pest problem.

I had everything to live for. I thought I had been out of my mind to want to kill myself. (Was that myself? I’d have to think about that later. No time for that now. I was ready.) Sister Chaz gave me the thump signal to leave. I arose and left with her.

“Er, Mr. Ebe, remember, you’re still under arrest until that chart business gets straightened out,” Dr. Landrick said with a hint of blackmail.

“Yes, sir,” I said back, my back to him as I exited. Then he threw a heavy glass ashtray at me. It hurt bad; it fell to shatter into a million pieces.

I rubbed the small of my back the whole way to Maternity, being careful not to dislodge the gun from my belt.

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Chapter 15 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon
15
A roommate never arrived, and my concern over this diminished the longer I went without double occupancy. I have to admit, though, that every time I got my sandwich, often accompanied by a little water bottle, I thought it just might be a new inductee and my heart would be in my throat. As the heavy metal door opened, my sandwich was jettisoned from the outside world into mine. The heart in my throat would soon be replaced by the sandwich, stuck there as well.
The days passed more quickly than I would have ever thought. I would learn later that this was because my limited starvation from one crummy sandwich a day kept my chemistry in a sleepy mode. I passed from one day to the next, the only tick of a clock being the arrival of my cheese on rye.
So I knew the number of days, but not much else. I slept when I felt like it, sat when I felt like it, and slept again when I couldn’t do anything else I felt like doing. Options are limited in a dark furniture-less room.
Luckily I had found a trap door for bodily functions that first day before my new urges had forced repeat indiscretions. It was flush with the floor and could only be opened by fingering a ringed pull-handle. The mechanism, unfortunately, was not a mere shaft but a removable tray of some kind, apparently exchangeable from below. I wondered who was the lucky one to have that job, which was probably my only out-loud laugh the whole time.
It was too small for me to fit through, but I did try to use it to dump the gun. That didn’t work; my disposal was noticed, and my firearm—the very one which had shared an exit with my excrement, I was disgusted to learn—was returned to me in my sandwich bag.
After what had seemed like a month, I had tried it again to the same dutiful return. And then, about a week after that, someone screwed up big. Someone got confused and I got a second gun with a sandwich. (Could that have been dumped by someone else via his tray? I almost didn’t eat my sandwich that day. Almost.)
So, a second gun. That was almost as good as a second sandwich. This, I thought, might prove fortuitous.
All of this time I used for thinking. Life can be re-defined very drastically when you’re hopelessly incarcerated. I had wondered what had happened to my Abby, pregnant in this very same world I was in and not even knowing this. Oh, she probably knew there was a me of some sort here, but that guy was such a shit she’d have no inclination for a visit.
I wondered if she was still pregnant, or had the pressures of this senseless world finally convinced her that she make the unilateral choice to not raise a child in this world. And could one raise a normal child with real human ethics here, shielded from the blight of the senseless carryings-on around him? Or would the child ultimately, in spite of the best efforts of isolation, still be just like one of the “regular guys” here? That would be tragic to Abby. Could even she come to a different way of thinking about pregnancy termination here?
If she were pregnant, she should be due in just a couple of months or so, I figured, before a feeling welled up inside of me: her due date! Wasn’t that a thought! My child, our child. And us here. I suddenly cried out loud and cried hard until my sinuses took revenge on me.
Near the end of a month’s worth of depression I started fantasizing about suicide, not really intending, you understand; just imagining as a fictional exercise. I wondered if my pop-ups down the line were considering it or had even done it.
At first I tried to make the standard suicide fantasy sound useful—you know, really showing-everyone-and-then-they’d-be-sorry-type stuff—but that just wouldn’t work here. In fact, I’d be doing everyone a favor. They’d collect on the census while hiding my non-existence and not even supporting me, not that the daily piece of a cheese on rye and a squeeze bottle of water was crippling their economy. And of course the climate control of my cubicle certainly wasn’t expensive. You know, all of this complaining can certainly whip me up, I thought. It kind of made me want to go and kill somebody. Maybe myself for lack of a better victim.
To rest, to finally rest from all of this.
Surrender is the final self-indulgence, and the ill wind reached from its distant desolate point of origin to this layer. But it was beginning to make sense this far away from reason, from civilization, from people with human frailties and concerns. This far from the protective counter-wind of God’s life-giving breath—the raison d’être—there really seemed no reason to be at all anymore. Options are limited in a dark, armed, unfurnished room where there is no hope of ever getting out. Hopelessness hurts.
A lot of good I did with my life, what with my privileged “true existence.” My final output was zero. In this dark womb which was Observation my miserable gestation was over, and I was ready to be delivered stillborn into the world outside. To hell with everything, I thought, as I automatically lifted the gun toward my face. There seemed to be more rain in the world outside, for the drainpipes sounded slippery in the wall. I imagined it to be the blood of Blown Away, as much a cheap and inevitable run-off as funneled rainwater. Even here, I thought, God would never even notice—in my dark womb, in my moist tomb. I pulled the hammer back on the gun and then placed its barrel in my mouth. With it cocked in position, my finger tightening, I offered a chance for any last thoughts.
Wait one more minute, I considered. Could there be one shred of worthwhile meaning enough for me to call the whole thing off? No, I answered. Even if there were, it was just too much trouble to evaluate it now. And with the flimsiest of resolve, for that’s all it took, I pulled the trigger.
Click.
Nothing. Nothing except the drainpipes and the subliminal whistle from overhead. I screwed up. This was the accidental spare gun. Do you know never once did I check the number of bullets in it? I did so at this point. There were only three. This angered me to no end. I started cursing myself and my new world. I stood, I shouted. Damn if I wasn’t going to get noticed before I went! And damn if I wasn’t going to take an orderly or two with me!
“Hey,” I shouted, “I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna shoot myself, do you hear? Come on down you miserable soulless bastards! Come see the show! Come on! Projectile brains for you!”
My back rested against the door as I slid down, ignored, which didn’t exactly lift my suicidal spirits. I listened, but there was only silence from the corridor. Like the newspapers amassing on the driveway of the family out of town, I could envision sandwiches piling up after my death.
“What the hell,” I said out loud. “Let’s go again.” I lifted both guns, one to each side of my head, and once again I prepared to die. I ran through all of the preliminary misgivings of existence here that had prepared me so well just minutes earlier. The mood was right again.
That’s when I heard footsteps coming. Footsteps with keys. And it wasn’t even mealtime—I didn’t think, anyway. Had I eaten yet today? I wasn’t sure.
The keys addressed the lock on my door. Company! I readied to start firing, but then came the realization that I would be a killer, and I panicked in cowardice—not because of the consequences, but because of the suffering to come from my own self-evaluation. Suddenly no amount of evaluation of life and death was too much trouble. Company brought to me sobriety, and murder of my company would put me back online with reason, a conscience, and unbearable remorse.
Quickly I stuffed one of the guns—I didn’t know which—into my belt at my back, my soiled and by now rotting shirt hanging over it, covering it. If I were to regret my pacifist decision, I knew I could always murder later. Either someone else or myself.
The door swung glaringly wide, feeling like someone was ramming all of Alpha Centauri down my throat. I know my eyelids must have nearly healed shut right then and there, the light piercing my vision like nails. Before I could think, there were hands around my throat.
“Give me the gun before we go,” she said. That was Sister Chaz’s voice. I easily remembered it.
“Sure, sure, sure—” I gurgled, waiving my hand into open space with the gun in it. My forearm was karate chopped, forcing the gun to fall to the floor. She loosened her grip from around my neck, allowing in air. I never thought I’d say this, but I welcomed the famous shoulder grasp at the hands of Sister Chaz, since it replaced her throat grip. I was yanked out of my prison into the outside world, like a newborn being pulled rudely out of its mother by some forceful, abusive doctor.
Through squinted eye-lashed diffractions which streaked any images, I could see there were two or three males with her. I moved along, light on my feet thanks to the Chazhooks.
I was blind and daffy, my legs buckling flimsily under me, in spite of the fact that I was considerably lighter due to my miracle diet. The only vision I had was navigational, seeing only blurred objects in my path. The muscles in my legs were emaciated and poorly responsive to the messages delivered to them from my brain. It was as if these muscles had never been delivered a good thought from those nerves. I thought of Mr. Rubens.
I thought of Ava’s Les.
The good Sister had no difficulty bouncing my wispy, handicapped frame along by my shoulders, or when she did have difficulty she’d merely right my balance by a quick grasp of my clumped beard.
My escort ended when I was thrown into an office. I landed on a chair I had felt before. This was Landrum’s office. The air was so fresh I could smell myself in contrast. Sister Chaz stood at my side, one hand still on my left shoulder, my chair facing Landrum’s desk. The brightness of this normal light was still brilliant and painful. I continued to squint.
“What’s going on?” I asked, reminded of the second gun I still had because of its pressing in my back from the force with which Chaz held me against the chair.
“Quiet, murk,” she chided. Murk? I heard a man’s footsteps, then a desk chair seat being squashed by a behind that belonged to...
“Dr. Landrick,” Sister Chaz announced.
“Where is her chart?” Landrick asked me.
“Whose chart?” I asked back.
“Abby’s,” he answered. “Your bitch’s.”
“Yea,” agreed Chaz, “the bitch’s.”
“I know you have ripped it off, you mote-eating roach,” Landrick continued.
Sure, I thought, a long time ago, many layers ago when I was with Ava. Before I was a mote-eating roach. But just what was the big deal here? Just what the hell did my pop-up do here regarding that chart? Had he blown the whistle on the fraud of census card-shuffling?
“Is that why I was brought here?” I asked angrily. I got a pop in the back of my head from the good Sister.
“Cinch up, murk, you have no voice,” she said with scorn.
“That’s alright, Sister Chaz, I think he’s entitled to some answers to add to his dust.” And then to me, “Answers? Is that why you were admitted to Blown Away, or why you were invited to my office,” he offered, the choice being mine.
“Both,” I said. He was lucky he was being so conciliatory, because I was ready to start brandishing my gun. He looked at me, expressionless. I could tell, even with my squinting eyes.
“You were brought to Blown Away Memorial for observation. It was felt that you were the catalyst for Abby’s illness. This is well catalogued from her first admission from her aunt’s house.”
“Her first admission? You mean she’s had more admissions?”
“Oh,” he said, smiling mischievously, “just the one today.”
“Today!” I was stunned.
“Yes, that’s why you’ve been brought to my office, drib. She snivelled to us you had ripped off her chart.”
How could she have known that? I asked myself. “The chart’s at Ava’s house,” I offered, knowing this was no help.
“Who’s she, drib?” he asked. I became irritated with the strange name-calling, derogatory parlance here.
“A friend,” I answered sarcastically. There was silence, as if he were in thought, a silence I ultimately broke. “Well, well, Dr. Landrick,” I asked, “what were the results of your observation of me? Did you get a lot of good information? Did you diagnose my problem? Are you able to help roaches, murks, and dribs? Did you help me?”
“Actually,” he said non-apologetically, “we hadn’t really gotten around to you yet.”
I went for his throat, acting with such impulsive rage that I didn’t think to use my gun. Sister Chaz acted immediately to cock my neck and head against my frail body.
“Break your neck or sit you down, take your pick,” she commanded.
“I pick sitting down,” I gasped in my struggle against her grip. She was a woman of many grips and grasps. And she had great big muscles to apply them with. At least she wasn’t naked and on the make. I sank back into my chair, happy with my choice. The gun? No, not yet, I thought. I dared to speak again.
“Where’s Abby now?” I asked, wondering what psychiatric ward she was holed up in.
“In labor, Mr. Ebe,” Landrick responded. “She’s going to have your baby. Even though she’s single, thanks to you, and broke, thanks to you, and mentally ill, thanks to you. And she’s going through with it, thanks to you, even though she’s six weeks early.”
It sure is hard to let crazy people bawl you out for being crazy. I sat. I took it. I waited. All like the drib I was.
“I’d like to see her, please,” I said.
“Oh, she doesn’t want to see you,” he reported. “You’ve done some pretty nasty things to her, I understand.” Now he was talking about my pop-up, I thought to myself. “But I’m going to bring you to see her anyway,” he claimed. “She needs to see the man of her life. Maybe you can coach her through her Lamaze. Maybe she’ll have a little roach like you.”
I was ready to see her. I was ready to welcome my child, no matter how anyone else would consider him or her. Roach, indeed! This was the indictment of Landrick’s society: a drib’s child is an insect; abortion of a drib’s child is insecticide; insecticide is useful when there’s a pest problem.
I had everything to live for. I thought I had been out of my mind to want to kill myself. (Was that myself? I’d have to think about that later. No time for that now. I was ready.) Sister Chaz gave me the thump signal to leave. I arose and left with her.
“Er, Mr. Ebe, remember, you’re still under arrest until that chart business gets straightened out,” Dr. Landrick said with a hint of blackmail.
“Yes, sir,” I said back, my back to him as I exited. Then he threw a heavy glass ashtray at me. It hurt bad; it fell to shatter into a million pieces.
I rubbed the small of my back the whole way to Maternity, being careful not to dislodge the gun from my belt.

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Chapter 39 of ♂: The NOVEL
Written by DrSemicolon

39

Mare and Dr. Marcus Willner sat chatting about dreams and Mars. Willner realized that what he had seen and heard on the enhanced holoclip, and what Mare had experienced, were not the random misfiring of a child’s neurons in a child’s dream. This seemed a tableau, a presentation, a privileged peek at an extinct, magnificent race from eons past. What a gift! To witness what he witnessed through Mare. There was more to her crag, Willner realized, than just an inert foreign body lodged in her brain.

“I might kidnap you, Mare, to make you my lifelong work,” he teased.

“My Dad would beat you up.”

“That’s why you’re safe with me,” he said. “Don’t want that.”

“Dr. Willner?” his automaton paged.

“Yes?”

“Mare Mickal’s parents are here…with a guest.”

“Who’s the guest?”

“I don’t know,” replied the automaton.

“Curious,” he mumbled. Her parents were the only ones designated for any privileged medical information. He looked at Mare, who extended her hands in puzzled resignation. “Please, then, let them in,” he instructed. The door opened. Deniz moved through slowly as if hiding something. Evan followed.

Tuesday was behind Evan.

Dr. Willner dropped his thumbclip. His mouth was open. He started to talk but only stammered. Finally he croaked, “Please clear my schedule. Forever.”

“You have a schedule?” Mare asked. Willner’s eyes slowly moved from what he recognized as a Martian to Mare.

“That’s an old doctor joke, the schedule, clearing it,” he explained softly, returning his gaze to what he recognized from Mare’s dream. “It means I’m going to be busy. For a long time.”

“Hello, Dr. Willner,” Tuesday greeted him. The doctor laughed a nervous laugh.

Back at the VSD, Renée, Blaise, Chris, and Ricardo listened in earnest as Deniz’s datastrip interview transcript was presented by the automaton.

Datastrip Privileged Conversation, continued.

D: What if one of the m’rang is gay?

T: Sexuality in humans is presented by the brain. Sexuality in Martians is determined by gender alone—by the reproductive organs.

D: In your chest?

T: Yes. The gender is the genitals alone. In our chests. There is no hetero- or homosexuality. Each member of the trinus chooses one of the other two into which to interlock; and the other; and the other. We are a serial circle.

D: A three-part ourobos.

T: I do not know that word.

D: Like you said, a serial circle, but end-to-beginning and beginning-to-end, connected.

T: Oh. Like crags.

D: Exactly. I should know that word, but I’m—”

D: Don’t say it. [PAUSE]. What about genetic exchange?

T: When our Chantū find us—”

D: Chantū?

T: We await our Chantū. Each trinus has one, and successful reproduction relies on a specifically attracted Chantū entering the circle for the exchange. It goes from A to B, from B to C, and from C to A, as mediated by the Chantū. Once the A, B, and C are determined, it never goes retrograde or in any other different order until after gestation and birth. Thus genetic mixing yields variation, and can be mixed further with a shuffling of the three with next m’rang. All three siblings are created at once—three—one for each member of the trinus.

D: The Chantū. I had no idea. What an extraordinary synergy—across species lines.

T: Not really, Dr. Mickal. Think of bees pollenating flowers.

D: And the Chantū for the trinus, that specific one—is that a special relationship, too?

T: Very. It’s the bond that connects two ends of Mother Mars. Flora and fauna, as you call it.

D: Have you found your other members of your trinus? Have you seen your special Chantū?

T: That’s personal.

D: Oh, sorry. Um, you don’t remember the last time this happened with you, or if it even happened ever?

T: My long term memory is not very powerful, I’m afraid.

D: Do your remember what you had for supper with me?

T: My short term memory is not very powerful, also, I’m afraid.

D: Don’t say it.

T: What? That I’m stupid? No. I really don’t have to, do I?

At this point they underwent the Level-5 Interrupt intrusion from Lagrange 1 and “Ray Bradbury.” They listened in disbelief. Blaise was the first to comment.

“It looks like there’s trouble in paradise.”

Renée noticed a signal imprint on the running floater, notifying her there was a visitor to the VSD.

“Wednesday, Thursday, go with Chris to the back kitchen.” Chris nodded and led them off. “Allow him in,” Renée instructed the automaton, which although censored from the usual goings-on, still had servile functionality. The hiss of the automatic front door preceded the arrival of a very severe man.

“Hullo,” he barked. “My name is Lt. Lawrence. I am your Prestige Society Welcome Wagon volunteer.” Renée noticed a sidearm.

“You’re armed,” Renée gasped. Ricardo leaned in close to her.

“Part of the uniform, ma’am,” he said.

“The volunteer uniform?” Blaise asked.

“Forget the gun,” he said, “that’s not why I’m here.”

“Thank God,” said Renée.

He was a black man, so chiseled and muscly as to strain the seams of his shirt at the sleeves and neck. He appeared very anabolic and was the ilk that more than likely devoted the majority of his waking physical and mental activity to the construction and maintenance of his muscles he so contractingly and willingly presented. His eyes were white and bulging and seldom blinking. In between fierce chews of gum he spoke in blurts as if he were firing off phrases to a spotter on the final exertion of a run of pumps.

His physique, which his mirror called perfect, was in fact a self-parody, an unintended caricature, of what he aspired to be. He seemed stupid.

At least the Martians had the integrity to admit it.

“Have a seat, Lt. Lawrence,” Renée offered icily. He had trouble bending but ultimately seated himself. All three expected a ripping sound but were surprised.

“Must be flextile you’re wearing on your ‘Extra Medium’ shirt,” Blaise said. Lawrence regarded the material he wore.

“Wouldn’t wear anything else,” Lawrence said, missing the joke.

“What can we do for you?” Renée asked. She was seated at the conference room table across from Lawrence, Ricardo standing by her side. Lawrence appeared nonplussed about the uniform Ricardo himself was wearing.

“I’ve come to welcome you to the Prestige Society.” There was a stunned silence.

“Lt. Lawrence,” Renée began, “did you by any chance see the Level-5 interrupt we just saw?” Lawrence looked puzzled.

“Yes.”

“And you still come to welcome us?” Renée laughed.

“Yes. That’s what I’m here for.” Blaise and Ricardo exchanged a glance. “We at the Prestige society want to know why you haven’t joined yet.” His eyes bulged in anticipation of the answer.

“Who is ‘we at the Prestige Society’?” Ricardo asked.

“Me. And some others,” he answered uncomfortably.

“What others?” Ricardo pressed.

“Everyone.”

“Not us.”

“No, not yet. That’s why I’m here.”

“Well,” Ricardo said, “my message to ‘we at the Prestige Society’ is—and I remind you that I am technically the military head of the Prestige Guard—my message is…not us!” Ricardo walked over to the chair where Lawrence sat. Lawrence now seemed to notice Llorente’s outfit, puzzled that Ricardo wore a Prestige uniform, too.

“What if we’re undecided?” Ricardo asked with a menacing tone. “Again, from the military head of the Prestige Guard.” Lawrence rested his right hand on the top of his holstered gun.

“Again,” Lawrence repeated, “that’s what I’m here for. He petted the holstered gun as a clear gesture.

“That’s a joke?” Ricardo asked in no joking tone. Lawrence stood suddenly, his fingers fumbling to unsnap the holster. His chair fell backward onto the floor.

“I’ve been instructed,” Lawrence announced, “to—”

The special forces experience in Ricardo unsnapped his own holster of sorts, and he pinched the web space between Lawrence’s thumb and index finger with his own thumb and index finger.

Lawrence’s web space, one of those silent but cowardly pressure points that surrender immediately under attack, lost quickly and totally. He was on his knees, and in an instant Ricardo had Lawrence’s right arm bent very unnaturally behind his muscular trapezoid of a back. Ricardo easily led him whimpering out of the door and down the hall. He triggered one of the animal containment doors and pushed him in while simultaneously and deftly removing his gun which dangled as a limp, useless appendage in his denervated hand.

“Don’t worry,” Ricardo told him, “these, um…” he strained to identify the occupants through the smoked window, “monkeys are nice monkeys. I think.” The containment door hissed shut as Ricardo heard the first primate shrieks fade with the hermetic closure. Through the window Lawrence sat crouching and inert, his exophthalmic eyes bulging at the orangutan that regarded him suspiciously. Chris peeked from the rear room off the hallway to see what the door hiss meant. Ricardo waved him toward him. Although Lawrence no longer had his pistol, he was able to retrieve his thumbclip from his shirt pocket with his good hand; he moved stealthily and slowly, lest he further goad his orange-haired territorial host. He opened and then whispered into the CommLink.

“He’s behind the glass,” he told Chris. “Damn lucky I didn’t throw him in with the crags,” he added as they returned to the conference room.” He stopped when he saw Renée and altered his direction abruptly to hover over her. She didn’t, it was clear, wear well through the experience.

“He was going to shoot us!” she blurted. Her face was ashen, her eyes panicky. Ricardo cupped her damp face in his hands. In his most effective testosterone reassurance he could dispense, he said, “No one shoots anyone on Mars. That’s crazy.” She didn’t seem to buy it. He repeated it, drilling into her eyes. “No one’s going to shoot anybody. That. Is. Crazy.” She drew a long breath, her cheeks still cupped by him.

“What enclosure did you put him in?” she asked.

“One of the monkey ones. The big ones. Orangutans I think.”

“I hope they throw all their shit at him,” she said angrily. Ricardo relaxed his hands and when the trial seemed successful, removed them from her cheeks.

“All those muscles,” Blaise said in wonder, “and he went down with just a pinch. I am impressed.”

“No one’s going to shoot anyone,” Ricardo repeated once more, circling his glare at each of them.

“You’ve got to teach me that pinch,” Blaise said.

“CommLink, Colonel Leeper to General Llorente,” the automaton announced. “Communique, unfortunately, cannot pass the Weirjam. Sorry, but there is nothing to present.”

“Do you think Walsh is going to come?” Renée asked, the scared little girl within escaping, as hard as she tried to stifle it. “Or more like him?” She pointed toward the animal enclosures.

“The Martian Chronicle,” Blaise said, shaking his head.

“I think with the Martian Chronicle out and viral,” Ricardo said with a wink Blaise’s way, “and Lawrence and the Welcome Wagon derailed and detained, we should expect a lot more company. The VSD was the last holdout of scientists, the last ones to be working. Only because of these crags. And ferramine. I think Walsh believes we can synth it for whatever he thinks he can do with it.”

“Ferramine,” Blaise admitted, “pretty good stuff.” They looked at him. “You know, of course, in the right hands.”

“I wasn’t going to be able to milk the crag potential much longer,” Ricardo continued. “I’m surprised I held Walsh off as long as I did. Team, we’re about to be boarded and closed down. Real soon. Probably be a raid with troops. I know recently all your research has been off the automata, so if you have data you want, I would suggest putting it on a datastrip, put it through the Quanzer enwrangler, and stuff it in a good hiding place.”

Chris had waited patiently, then asked, “What about the animals?”

“Chris,” Ricardo answered, “We have a lot more pressing things to deal with, all of a sudden. Like, what about the Martians?” He was not dismissive. It was a tone of a seasoned veteran who accepted the reality that people come first, which included Martians. Especially in war. He was surprisingly gentle and had an apologetic tone, as if he were speaking with Mare, and if he knew crags, he was: himself to Thursday to Tuesday to Mare.

Renée gulped a swallow of water from a cup. “What now?”

“Leeper was trying to warn me about something,” Ricardo said, “but it was Weirjammed.”

“He was probably trying to warn you about everything,” Blaise surmised.

The servile automaton announced the arrival of Evan, Deniz, Mare, and Tuesday. “With a guest,” it added, “Dr. Marcus Willner.”

“He insisted,” Evan explained as he walked in.

Following him in, Willner pointed to Tuesday. “If you think I’m going to let this guy out of my site, then you’re crazy.”

“Is that a psychiatry joke, Marcus?” Blaise asked, approaching to hug him hello.

“Um, no, actually,” Willner answered.

“Evan and company,” Blaise offered, “you know Marcus. Everyone else, this is Dr. Willner. And I speak for the group here, Marcus, when I say that it’s good to have a psych doctor here, because crazy stuff is about to happen. Goon squads and guns.”

“Guns?” Willner asked. “Are there even guns on Mars?”

“Not exactly a whole squad of goons,” Ricardo explained. “Just one goon. And only one gun so far and the goon’s already in the dog house and the gun’s out of his reach.” He reconsidered. “More like the monkey house.”

“More like the ape house,” Renée corrected him absently, her attention still on goons and guns.

Deniz darted her eyes all around in alarm. “Mare! Where is she? Where is Mare?” she cried.

The maternal desperation overwhelmed the room. Ricardo bolted out of the door toward the orangutan enclosure, but it was too late. Everyone had followed him and were stopped short by what they saw. Lawrence held Mare by her collar and had his gun again, unsteady in his wobbly but uninjured, non-dominant, left hand.

“Daddy!” Mare shouted in terror. “He smiled at me and asked me to please let him out and I knew it had to be a mistake him being in with the orangutans and he said please, so I did and—” she ran out of breath. Dr. Willner, who had been following her for the psychological trauma she had sustained long before her crag attack, concluded this was the last thing her trust in adults needed.

Blaise looked at Ricardo in expectation, while Ricardo’s mind raced through acrobatic flow sheets of options.

“How’d he get his gun again?” shouted Renée. Mare started crying and Lawrence held her collar more tightly, even though it was his previously injured hand. Deniz whimpered.

“When he was behind the glass, I guess I laid the gun on the windowsill out here in the hall,” Ricardo said, more to himself. Then to Renée, “I didn’t want to go back to you with it. Didn’t want you to see it. I figured, you know—”

“You figured wrong,” Lawrence said abruptly. He was furious, his white, bulging eyes nervously darting back and forth. He wore several gashes on his left arm, indicating there had been some interaction in the bin.

Martians joined the crowd in the hall. The abruptly stopped press of VSD colleagues was followed by the gentle Martians, still hidden behind them. Tuesday was the tallest of them all and he interpreted the situation correctly form behind his human blind:

Mare was in danger.

The one of his mouths that had the deepest and thickest vocal cords channeled out a subsonic vibrato; the animals began jumping, shrieking, crying, and barking in agitation. The subsonic synchronized the messaging in his nervous system and ferramine buckyballs virtually rolled the appropriate virtual amino acids into appropriate virtual receptor sites. At the speed of light. The physiologic response inverted his intraocular lenses and fired the erectile muscles among his millions of louvered feathered scales. He grew by a meter, towering over the humans. The hallway was wide enough for four of the humans abreast, but all six of them fell back behind Tuesday as he charged forward with two colossal steps. The Martian had never seen a gun, but he knew how they were upsetting to Renée. And from Mare’s hologames, he knew that they were designed to put extra holes in a person—unwelcome holes. Dangerous holes. He knew humans were all born with just the right amount of holes and he didn’t want Mare to have any extra ones. Besides this cogent rationale, Lawrence was putting Mare in danger, which evoked a cogent irrationale. His scalp fiberoptics waved angrily above him, glowing red.

The tails from the ferramine buckyballs filled more receptor sites and the subsonic vibrato matured into a roar. More mouths were involved, showing menacing dark teeth. Photonic energies summated and filled his light basket. He began flailing his akimbo arms. By now, all the mouths were involved in projecting a dissonance of lower registers, several octaves lower than the usual Martian elocution.

He outstretched his arms, Martian fists slamming hall wall to hall wall, cutting off the rest of them, now hunkered behind him.

“Tuesday!” Deniz shouted hysterically.

“Tuesday!” shouted Mare, but it was a different type of shout. It was a communal shout, and next Mare matched Tuesday’s roar. Lawrence trembled in disbelief. He had no idea what he was seeing or hearing.

“What kinda animals you got here!” he screamed. He cocked the hammer back on his pistol. This gave Mare an opportunity to struggle, but Lawrence tightened his hold on her collar until she began choking.

Tuesday suddenly grew an additional half meter. His girth, likewise, expanded. All of his soft scales, previously louvered so compactly, now were unlouvered fully and threateningly. Unquestionably threatening. Their previous overlapping edges were now interlocked in a Leviathan exoskeleton.

Wednesday and Thursday now made their way to the front to join Tuesday; likewise, they arrayed.

“Shappoff,” Tuesday’s primary mouth seethed ominously.

“Uh-oh,” Deniz intoned. She knew Shappoff.

Suddenly, all six of Tuesday’s auxiliary mouths, each skewed by microseconds, screamed terribly, each easily over 110 dB.

“Shappoff!

   Shappoff!

    Shappoff!

     Shappoff!

      Shappoff!

        Shappoff!” followed by “Gah-Ree-Shappoff!

                                              Gah-Ree-Shappoff!

                                               Gah-Ree-Shappoff!

                                                Gah-Ree-Shappoff!

                                                 Gah-Ree-Shappoff!

Gah-Ree-Shappoff!” this time non-syncopated, but even louder.

All three Martians joined in, eighteen mouths, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from Hell, a chorale of Furies in a small room, singing for vengeance. It was thunderous. It was alien and terrifying. It was fear and terror. It was Phobos and Deimos.

Deniz and Renée held their ears. Deniz knew Shappoff, but could only tremble at what the Gah-Ree prefix might mean.

Mare broke free and Lawrence fired toward the Martians; Mare froze with the sound of the shot within the hallway. Tuesday whipped out one of his auxiliary chest arms and caught the bullet in a fantastic maneuver of blurred speed. He opened his central arm’s palm and considered the bullet lying next to the rust-bloodied palmar proboscis, obviously damaged somewhat by the feat.

Evan knew; so did Deniz. And Mare, for that matter: Lawrence had just shot Tuesday in his genitals. It is a universal truism that such an action invites a universal response.

Tuesday next amply demonstrated for the group what adding the prefix to the Martian expletive for anger did. A final combination of neuroreceptors filled and his light basket distorted to reflect back the collected light in a retrograde direction along his optic neurotubes to his eyes. He winked at Lawrence, which confused him over and beyond his already astounded mind that he winked back, hoping that would be what the Martian wanted. Tuesday’s eyes glowed faintly, then an intense beam leapt out in a tight column at Lt. Lawrence from one of them. Then it shut off and the other eye resumed in an uninterrupted hand-off. It went back and forth this way. At first Lawrence’s skin sizzled, then undulated on the surface like bacon in a pan, then began popping. First the epidermis, then the dermis. He screamed. Next, all of his hard-earned muscles began to denature.

Lt. Lawrence was frying.

Tuesday began tracking out third degree burns in slashing strips crisscrossing his face. Lawrence shut his eyes to lock them tightly and screamed louder when they seemed to pop from under them, a burst of liquid from under his eyes plopping down his shirt. No one had noticed at what point he had dropped his gun. Smoke came off of him and hovered. He had his own dirty cloud.

Everyone smelled it.

The burned man collapsed in a heap on the floor. Tuesday collapsed into himself again and Mare ran tearfully to her mother.

“I’m sorry

I’m sorry

sorry,” three of Tuesday’s mouths said.

Mars 1, Earth nothing, Blaise thought to himself, the sarcasm underscoring his anger. Mare broke from Deniz and ran to Tuesday and hugged him, even though she only came up to his thighs. Deniz jumped in, too, hugging both.

“Damn!” Ricardo said incredulously.

“Yea,” agreed Evan.

Dr. Willner let escape his nervous laugh. “I need professional help,” he said in a breaking voice.

“So does this guy,” Evan said of Lawrence, still heaped on the floor, smoking but moaning pitifully. Renée used her thumbclips to summon paramedics. All of the animals, who after their initial alarm had become strangely silent during Tuesday’s retaliation, now began acting up again, barking, screeching, whistling, snorting, and jumping. Hearing the cacophony, Lawrence started, then cried out in terror, splitting his charred lips.

“Intruder alert,” the automaton announced.

“Who?” Renée asked. They all ran back to the conference room.

“Over 200 persons,” it replied.

“And?” Renée asked.

“I cannot tell you more. I am servile, only.” Renée used her thumbclip to arm her automaton with its higher functionalities. “Thank you,” it said. “They come wearing combat-ready attire and are armed, if what I’ve assimilated from review of my appraisascan of Mr. Lawrence translates accurately.”

“Shappoff,” Deniz said quietly to herself, which said it all.

“More guns!” Renée cried. She trembled. Ricardo came close again.

“No one is shooting anybody,” he repeated yet again, sternly. That is when they heard the first shots.

“Shit!” Renée exclaimed.

“Shit,” repeated her automaton.

“Shit,” even Ricardo mumbled. “I thought you had Mr. Know-it-all fixed,” he whispered to Renée in an effort to smolder the firestorm within her. He was unsuccessful.

“Way down the list of priorities,” she snapped back. “Who are they shooting at? At us? At our building? At each other? What the hell, Ricardo?”

Evan went to check on Lawrence back in the hall and Mare followed him to check on the animals which were very upset by the loud turmoil, the burning flesh smell, and now the gunfire outside. And they were all very hungry. They hadn’t eaten since the day before due to the rations cut-off and the tumultuous goings-on at the VSD. There was more food crated near the garage area, but no one had gotten to it today before all the drama had started.

In the conference room Renée instructed her automaton to display the outside perimeter. From the gunfire they expected something unusual, but none of them expected they would ever see this on Mars—an armed skirmish. Two opposing forces. An actual battle.

Renée had assumed an armed contingent would come for them, but now she was surprised—although hardly comforted—by a second force trying to thwart the first.

Gunplay. Casualties falling. The worst that Earth had to offer a brand new and shiny place like Mars. It was offensive on a planetary scale. What was being portrayed was the very first Battle of Mars.

War had been imported successfully.

The first force, it was reasonable to assume, had been sent by Walsh. The second? Ray Bradbury, figuratively; Colonel Leeper actually. Ricardo squinted, then used his own thumbclip to pan, scan, zoom, and confirm this. A round broke a high-perched transom window. Deniz and Renée screamed.

“Evan, you have Mare?” Deniz called out.

While Ricardo and now Chris leaned into the real time holoclip, Blaise stood in a corner next to Tuesday.

“Those middle hands are pretty fast, it seems,” he said.

“It seems so,” agreed the Martian.

“Really fast.”

“They have to be.”

“Fast enough to catch a bullet,” Blaise added. “I figure, about Mach 2.”

Another round reported with a ricochet sound, but by now Renée realized the angles were all wrong. None of the shots could make a line-of-sight trajectory directly to the inner part of the room.

Evan bolted in with a very concerned face.

“What?” Renée asked. Evan studied the holoclip.

“Yep. It looks exactly like what it sounds like,” he said to himself. Then to Renée, “Nothing, nothing new. Just all this.” To Deniz, “Mare’s in with the dogs—she’s safe. It’s the most internal place of the whole building. No windows toward the outside.” He waved at the holodepiction of the ongoing battle. “I guess Mr. Lawrence’s medical help won’t be coming anytime soon.”

“I’m a real doctor, not just a Ph.D.,” Willner said. “Oh, sorry, doctors, I didn’t mean it like that. But I should go tend to him.”

“No,” Blaise objected, pushing Tuesday his way. “Look at this guy first.” Tuesday hesitated at first, but then let Willner retrieve his center arm to hold out the palm, showing his injury.

“May I?” Willner asked.

“Yes,” Tuesday replied. Tuesday liked him. He trusted him. Wednesday and Thursday, who were standing nearby, turned away out of a sense of respect and propriety.

“I’ll get the first aid cart,” Renée offered. She went out to the hallway toward the lab. She avoided the sight of Lawrence, but she could still smell him. She saw Mare in the canine enclosure and waved to check on her. Mare waved back that all was well. There were no transoms in the enclosure, so there would be no ricochets to worry about. Renée marveled at the child’s resiliency after what had happened, seeing her comforted by all the wagging tails.

She retrieved the cart and returned to the conference room. Dr. Willner proceeded and Tuesday’s palm and proboscis wounds were cleaned and dressed in dry flextile bandaging. Only then did the other two Martians turn back again toward Tuesday.

“Y’know,” Blaise said, “if the good guys don’t beat the bad guys, we still have these three big boys on our side.”

“Colonel Leeper will prevail,” Ricardo insisted.

“You said no one was getting shot, too,” Renée said, but sadly.

“I trained him. I know him. He knows what’s at stake, and he knows I’m in here with you.” Another bullet struck the other transom window, and all but Ricardo and the three Martians flinched.

“I’m not bulletproof,” Tuesday abruptly declared.

“But—” Blaise started.

“Catching a bullet is one thing. It takes one’s speed to do it, and the retrieval causes buffering of the angular momentum to reduce the impact.” He held out his bandaged inner hand as proof. The other Martians turned away again for a moment, then turned back.

“And we thought you were stupid,” Blaise teased.

“We have our moments

                      moments

                      moments,” Thursday said.

Tuesday tried to smile with several mouths, one or two almost succeeding. “Don’t do that, please,” Blaise said. “I know what you’re trying to do—the cultural overture and all, really, we all appreciate it, but it’s just creepy, and—” The automaton alarm sounded.

“Security breach,” it announced amid the sudden warbling of sirens.

“Shit?” Renée asked.

“Very shit,” Mr. Know-it-all confirmed.

“The good guys or the bad guys,” Ricardo asked it.

“I’m sorry,” it said, “I wasn’t discretionary enough to tell based on your audience reactions I logged, based on my appraisascan.”

No one noticed that Mare had been gone too long. Mare with puppies and dogs and no windows had meant no worries, and worries occupied all the attention.

All of the animals were famished, having missed their last three meals. There had been no new deliveries and even though there were enough rations to fill a two-story palate, no one at the VSD had had a chance to devise a plan to spread them out over any type of rationing schedule. That would have likely been this day had it turned out to be a typically non-violent day.

Mare knew very well how to program a RibCar, or in this case the huge RibCart. It was as simple as laying in the Point A to Point B and then assigning the RibCart’s mobile signature to the ribbon route. Point A could easily be Mare and her animals; Point B could easily be the Hydrome. She used the autofork, another working robot with a simple instruction set, to load the large palate to the cart loader. Next, she used a wristlaser to cut a swath of spilling food and seed from the packaged rations onto the open cargo bed. She knew from her visits here the code for the doors, long overdue for its reset but never done. The RibCart garage door opened for her on the first try.

She engaged the ribbon route, which silently lifted and rolled the cart vehicle to the courtyard with the high walls. She paused the cart. She now could hear the gunfire, but she remained undeterred. After all, this was for the animals. She had apparently given this a lot of thought. Perhaps not all on her own.

She pulled out a coiled hose and flipped the release lever on the nozzle, and the water flowed forcefully enough to douse the rations and food stuffs on the cargo bed of the RibCart. Even she could now smell it all, so she knew the animals would be rapt.

“Good!” she exclaimed, shut off the hose, which recoiled itself, and started the RibCart again with a thumbclip that was tethered to the open garage door. It was a simple thumbinstruction, just an unpause, and the RibCart resumed its journey. The Hydrome lay ahead and as the RibCart automatically invited the large courtyard gates to open, it departed the VSD, its odoriferous baitstream trailing behind. She had a vague idea of the speeds of all of the different animals to sight-gauge a guess for an appropriate speed for the departing RibCart.

She ran back into the VSD and used the touch screen on all of the animal enclosures except the crags. The animals lumbered out of their opened enclosures with some uncertainty initially, but then began running amok.

The lure worked. It didn’t take long for the hungry animals to pick up the scent and begin following.

Mare knew it was no Noah’s Ark and that it wasn’t foolproof; she wondered whether the Hydrome gates would even open for it. They probably would, recognizing a laden RibCart. But she wanted to at least try to save as many animals as she could. As precocious and clever as she was, however, she was not insightful enough to prevent the parade of cart and animals from passing right through the battle line. If these soldiers, she thought, had no trouble shooting each other, they would have no trouble shooting all the animals now or even after all the fighting was over.

It was the external gate opening that triggered the intruder alert that had set the sirens off. The gate didn’t know the difference between invasion and escape, and Mare’s parents and the others in the conference room assumed a coming drama: one or the other of an armed force would soon pounce, either to save them or to arrest them. Or worse.

The automaton sensed an approaching presence. “Ten meters away,” it reported. Then, “five meters…two meters…” Then, “Prepare for intruder entrance.”

Ricardo had Lawrence’s pistol on him and was dedicated to it since his colossal mistake with it before. It would work for him, since it was one of those paramilitary versions that didn’t have the palm print recog safety on it. But even armed so, he knew he was kidding himself.

The door nudged open and Ricardo raised the gun. In walked Mare who, when seeing the gun, promptly screamed. Tuesday flared into full stature array for a second time. His pieces quickly snapped together and erect.

“Down, boy,” Blaise told him. He collapsed back to regular height, Ricardo tucked the gun behind his back, out of sight, and Mare was once again in Deniz’s arms.

“Listen,” said Ricardo. All noticed that the gunfire had stopped. When they huddled to look at the monitored perimeter, they were stunned to see that the quiet was not due to any one side’s victory, but to a truce of indecision while a parade of dogs, cats, apes, ferrets, rabbits, and monkeys passed between the opposing forces, a cloud of birds aflutter about the whole movement. The RibCart, like Moses, led them onward to the Promised Land. Evan snapped around toward Mare.

“Brilliant!” shouted Ricardo. He quoted Sun Tzu’s Art of War. “Book Six: Strength and Wellness. ‘Throw something unexpected into the equation. Even if it is nonsensical, it will make the enemy wonder and fret.’”

“Don’t be so brilliant ever again,” Mare’s father scolded her, but her grin was ear to ear. Tuesday practiced his own grins.

“Where are they going, Mare?” Renée asked.

“Duh!” Mare mocked her.

“Where, Mare?” Evan pressed.

“To the Hydrome,” she answered proudly and confidently.

“Did you hear us talking about this before?” Blaise asked.

“No,” she replied.

“Well, then, how did you know where to send them?”

“Uncle Blaise! Duh!” she repeated.

“Stop doing that, Mare,” Deniz reprimanded.

“Where else would I send them? They certainly couldn’t stay here.”

“Like us,” Dr. Willner commented soberly, which refocused everything.

“Why’d they stop the shooting?” Renée asked.

“Why’d they start?” Willner asked right back, his voice up an octave.

“They didn’t stop to make it safe for a bunch of monkeys,” Blaise said.

“Ten meters,” the automaton announced again. “Five meters…two meters.” Everyone was accounted for, so everyone drew a deep, nervous breath.

Colonel Leeper walked through. Before Ricardo could let his breath out in a sigh of relief, however, Denton Walsh followed closely behind with a gun in Leeper’s back. Behind them were about ten armed Prestige Guard members brandishing automatic rifles. The three Martians had fallen back to a wall, with Evan, Willner, Blaise, and Chris standing in front of them, concealing them as best they could. The Martians louvered down further, shrinking them to just under one and half meters. 

“Sorry, sir,” Prisoner Leeper said to his general, Ricardo Llorente. The ever-growing armed entourage peaked and stopped when no one else could fit into the conference room without retracting their arms and hands that brandished their weapons.

Ricardo winked at Leeper because he understood. He didn’t have to outwardly thank him for his loyalty to a friend, to Mars, to Earth, to a mature sense of righteous history.

“There’s a man down out in the hallway,” Walsh said angrily to Ricardo. “How did that happen?” He snatched away his sunglasses from his face.

“He needs medical attention,” Willner said. “Will you allow in paramedics?”

“Paramedics? Are you joking! Have you even looked outside?” Ricardo and the rest let that sink in. “Besides,” Walsh added, “he’s dead.”

“Dead?” Renée asked guiltily.

“Call it friendly fire,” Walsh explained. “He couldn’t survive, right? Did you see him? He was a cinder. Couldn’t leave him like that.” He was suddenly struck with a thought. “Euthanized,” he said. “I mean, this is a vet clinic, right?” He walked over toward Ricardo and approximated him face-to-face within a couple of centimeters. He fingered a hand-written note out of his shirt pocket. He began reading names. “Eggleton, Moore, Dillon, Payne, Shank, Gansey, Greene, Taffe, Thomas, Atkins, Brown, Stanley, Batts, Liles, Cromer, Comer, Potters—two of them, Viechek, Sjuve…Guess what?” He came even closer to Ricardo’s face. “They’re dead, too, that’s what. “Griffin—what a mess he is—you should see him! Poor bastard, even if he had paid attention, he’d still be dead, with a shot to the front of his head instead of the back. The Ramseys—two of them, too.”

“What about Nelson, Medina, Santiago, and—” Leeper tried to impose his own dead—the good guys dead. Walsh cut him short.

“Silence!” he screamed, not veering a millimeter from his face lock on Ricardo. “Well, Mr. Historian,” he meant entirely for Ricardo, and taking a step back, “my Mexican French-loving historian.”

“I’m Cuban,” Ricardo corrected him.

“And it’s Francophile,” Blaise now added. Walsh only grinned sinisterly.

“Whatever! So worried about corrupting this heavenly Eden with the dark side,” Walsh continued. “What would Napoleon say? What would Gandhi say?” He paused. “Or…Atilano? What would Mr. Diplomat of Peace Atilano say?” He widened his tight smile and snapped fully away from Ricardo. “A first for Mars. Its first murder,” he said, pointing toward the hallway.

“You did that,” Renée objected.

“No! You did that. I just put him out of his misery.” He snapped back around to Ricardo. “You’ve broken the seal, General. Cain and Abel have arrived. Well, maybe just Cain. Abel’s out there smoking in the hallway.

Ricardo hated this imbecile for being even partially right.

“What’s with the animals?” Walsh continued. Deniz clutched Mare closer to her. Walsh caught it. “Are they the little girl’s animals?” He looked again at Ricardo. “Your colonel ceased fire because of the animals. We were able to move in. So, thank you.”

“Why did you cease fire?” Ricardo asked Leeper.

“Shut up!” shouted Walsh, spit flying like an actor on stage spraying the front row. “I ask the questions.” He considered for a moment, then turned to Leeper himself. “Why did you cease fire, Colonel Idiot?” Leeper looked at Ricardo for approval, then answered Walsh.

“We thought it might be a VSD surrender,” Leeper answered, so there might be no reason to fight. No enemy if your mission surrenders. I was just thinking of any way to cap the body count.”

“Animals first. Woman and children second?” Walsh laughed. “That’s rich!”

“No,” answered Leeper. “Everybody first. It was a sea change in the scenario,” Leeper explained, himself quoting The Art of War. Ricardo smirked. “In a battle moving too quickly, a sea change requires pause and appraisal. A change can be made beneficial or unfavorable to—”

“More unfavorable than capture?” Walsh roared.

“Sometimes it is,” Ricardo interrupted, which was a private ‘well done’ to Leeper, “when there’s a lot less dead soldiers.”

“And more prisoners,” Walsh smiled. He put his sunglasses back on. “So everybody’s happy, I guess. I know I am.” He faced Ricardo again. “How ‘bout you, General? Happy?” Ricardo remained silent. Walsh turned and offered another hitchhiking thumb to indicate Lt. Lawrence, the dead man, in the hallway. “Think he’s happy?” He turned back to his room of prisoners. “How the hell did that happen, by the way? Out there, in the hallway?”

The conference room was divided in its middle by a floor pad that completed an interface with a ceiling pad, used for holoclip display when aerogel was liquesced between them. At this point it was Walsh who stood between the two pads, center stage, allowing him to pace triumphantly to and fro to address his captive audience.

It was a tyrant’s dream: center stage with I-TOLD-YOU-SOs, GOTCHAS, and WORSHIP-MEs for the fallen who had opposed him.

“Come on, now, there’s a question on the floor. How’d that guy burn?”

In the front of the room, Walsh’s armed phalanx crowded together in readiness and blocked the door. At the back of the room behind a large rectangular desk stood Renée, Evan, Blaise, Dr. Willner, Ricardo, Deniz, Mare, and Chris. The men continued to stand on their tiptoes to block the view to the wall the three Martians stood against.

Blaise wondered why none of them hadn’t fluffed out and flamed on yet, but then he considered this solitary, crowded, confined room filled with searing Martians, itchy soldiers, and automatic weapons. If it all exploded it would be like overcooking a bowl of chili in the microwave, except it would be blood that was all over. No, he agreed with the status quo—best not to ratchet up the melodrama.

“Why here, Walsh?” Ricardo asked, to get him to turn to him, away from the crowd and the wall behind them. “Why make the VSD the battle for Mars?”

“To get you,” Walsh answered. “Couldn’t have you running around. And all the data,” he added, turning to Renée. “You kept it off the datacloud, but I know it’s here somewhere. In fact, we’re getting ready to play a little game. It’s called ‘Who do I kill first to get you to give me the data?’ A fun game.”

“There’s nothing here,” Renée informed him angrily.

“That’s not what I heard,” he said, looking at Ricardo. “Hmm…maybe I’ll start with my Prestige Coordinator,” he offered now, turning to Colonel Leeper, then turned back to Ricardo. “Tsk, tsk, never thought I’d have to fight my own men to get to you, General Llorente.”

“I was never your man,” Leeper said defiantly, mutinously.

The ruse of hidden Martians couldn’t last. At some point there was just enough of a clear visual between Evan’s and Blaise’s heads for Walsh to take pause. He strained to see better through the sunglasses, then lifted them and parked them above on his bald head.

The jig was up. Blaise fretted microwave ovens anew.

“What’s this?” he asked, feeling very clever. “I saw movement back there. Who’s behind you? Now!” The men checked their clips with a palm strike. It all sounded ballistic enough for an effective imminent threat. “Now! I said! Who is there? Fall out!”

Evan and his fellow tiptoers relaxed their gastrocs and Achilles tendons. They shrank. The Martians were taller now in contrast.

“Not who…” Walsh whispered to himself, “but what?”

“Your Martian welcome committee,” Blaise announced. Walsh kept his eyes fixed on the three Martians. He stood with his mouth agape, then closed it after a pregnant, stunned pause. He spoke to Blaise without taking his fixed gaze off of the Martians.

“I don’t like you, Lewis,” Walsh said quietly. “Never did.” Blaise remained silent and wondered why everyone seemed to have a Martian behind him but himself. “So,” Walsh said angrily, thinking of Atilano, “temporal reconciliation worked, after all.”

Walsh’s self-serving, defensive mentality struggled for advantage. First, The Martian Chronicle. Now, successful tempconciliation. And Martians, for God’s sake! Tempconciliation! Martians! Now he realized Earth would never let go of Mars.

The room watched Walsh pace back and forth, thinking ferociously. He was screwed. For all he knew, E-Lead supply ships to Lagrange 1 were being loaded with an armada of soldiers to re-take the planet.

His planet.

He needed a play. Taking the VSD was a shitty little victory. Even with crags he could aim, it meant nothing, he thought. Nothing! And he would never allow himself to, ever again, be nothing.

These were the thoughts that a selfish, foolish, out-bullied bully spent his epiphany on, instead of a new dawn of alien races, time manipulation, human milestones, and cosmic implications.

His prisoners stared ahead blankly. These Martians—his Martians—stood inert, in no way appearing threatening, until Walsh again considered the burned, dead man heaped in the hallway.

“They did it,” he surmised out loud, looking at the three Martians. Mare looked at Tuesday and began crying. “Shut that kid up!” shouted Walsh toward his men.

“Don’t you dare!” snapped Deniz.

“Oh, Mrs. Mickal,” he said. “I’ve heard all about you. The bitch, right, Ricardo?” She shared a confused look with Evan. Suddenly Tuesday regained his combat height and his eyes began to glow. One of his eyes blinked.

“Or you winking at me, Godzilla?” Walsh asked. “That is so cute!” Another check of the magazine clips sounded.

“Tuesday!” Evan said sternly. “No.” Tuesday collapsed, understanding the risks Evan implied.

“Well,” Walsh chuckled, “one thing’s for certain. They’re obviously not stupid.” Blaise thought nothing about any of this was humorous, but he couldn’t help the smirk of irony. Walsh caught it.

“Something funny, Lewis?”

Blaise instantly neutralized his injudicious grin. Walsh approached him. He studied his face, very close, as he had with Ricardo before. “What’s so funny?” Walsh repeated. “You laughing at me?”

“No,” Blaise answered curtly. Walsh turned to his men again. He walked over to one of them, lifted his ID, and read.

“Mosely.”

“Yes, sir,” a middle-aged, serious looking man responded.

“Take this scientist,” he said derisively.

“Where, sir?”

“Out back.”

“And then what?” Walsh couldn’t believe his ears. He became angry and in his customary style, got right into Mosely’s face.

“Take him out and shoot him.”

Mosely stood for a moment while Blaise’s fellow prisoners gasped. He looked at Blaise and Blaise looked at him. Walsh, growing impatient, bellowed. “Now! ASAP-ly! Right away, immediately, yesterday!”

Walsh pounded his hand on Blaise’s chest to seize him and then he flung him at Mosely. Mosely had a maelstrom of conflict in his own head but dutifully motioned to Blaise, who obeyed and allowed escort out of the room. Walsh turned back to look at the Martians.

“Really?” fumed Evan. “Murder? Is that the new Mars?”

Walsh answered quickly. “Funny, wasn’t that my exact question a few minutes ago?” He swallowed, then held up a finger. “No, not murder like the guy in the hall. I call it something else. Justice. Time to nip this in the bud.”

This, sadly, Evan grieved, was the new Mars. He felt the pain of a stifled gasp, swallowed a bolus of breath that seemed to scratch his throat all the way down.

Dr. Willner usually thought things out with two levels of brain: first, for what was happening and second, for what it means. How far was too far? the psychiatric thinking went, and Dr. Willner was thinking it. Had Walsh gone too far when he had dissolved the Security Command? Had he gone too far when he had bribed a new armed force and exiled those who had refused? Had he gone too far when he assumed Divine Right dictatorship? When he had one set of soldiers attack another? When he had just ordered an execution?

The answer, as Willner saw it for all of these questions, was yes.

None of these questions could be answered with “almost too far.” Too far was an absolute, an all-or-none. Willner ran through his list of questions as a graduated political assessment of human outrage. At execution it reached the inhumane. Now, he diagnosed, they were all at the capricious mercy of someone who was that inhumane. Such a thing would require a whole lot of therapy; weeks, months, and for Walsh, probably years. Such unaddressed pathology was as painful to Willner as a patient bleeding to death would be to a helpless surgeon who had no instruments, a hemorrhaging reality Blaise would be suffering in a moment.

Outside in the courtyard where Mare had released the RibCart through the gate and the animals had followed, Mosely stood Blaise up straight with a firm grasp of his shirt with one hand, a pistol prodding him in his ribs with the other.

Mosely was indeed conflicted.

“Do you have children?” Blaise asked nervously, pleadingly. Mosely shuddered.

“Yea. A boy and a girl,” he answered so unprofessionally for a soldier under orders. “Do you have any children?” he asked Blaise right back, a spinal reaction that slipped out before his soldier’s neocortex could stifle it.

“No, not yet,” answered Blaise.

Perhaps this man, his executioner, was looking for a reason—any reason—to not kill him, and Blaise had hoped his question would be an initial chess move of conscience that would effect a series of refutations along Mosely’s military connections. Blaise hoped he had twanged Mosely’s own sense of the hearth. He wanted Mosely’s children to be looking at him as he killed a man he didn’t know for a reason he didn’t understand. Willner would be proud, Blaise thought, if I could just stay alive to tell him. Then, what a stupid plan. Children would not have softened Mosely’s order, he thought, as the horror of the reality began to gel. There were no options included in the capital order. It was simply a matter of following the order or disobeying it. Blaise so hoped Mosely was a bad soldier.

Mosely thought about his children. Mosely the soldier, Mosely the father. Mundane family life.

He thought about a particular episode. It was right after his wife, he, and the children had moved into their new, spacious, Tier II housing. He had just joined the Prestige Society and had come home with the datastrip that was a manual of the perks and responsibilities of being a Prestige member. He had joined for the good of his family, so he knew that however the manual read, he would find a way to make it work. He would wear the “P” for them.

The new accommodations had a study/library, which was a real luxury by Mars Colony standards. If Tier II was payback, he was already enjoying his investment of loyalty. His son, Tibbs, sat at a table with a holopad, sketching with ambidextrous thumbclips an assignment due over the LearnLink by the next day. But he struggled; he was distracted, troubled.

Mosely sat in an overstuffed armchair and he held his own 3-D H-pad in his lap, ready to begin his Prestige Society indoctrination. He hadn’t yet engaged his floater but instead was still looking at the holoplane title page in his lap. He did a quick paternal check on his son before diving into the material, and his parental intuition proved prudent.

“What’s up, Tibbs?” he asked his son. Tibbs took off his two thumbclips and rested them on his H-pad where they magnetically locked into their docks on the frame. The H-pad faded to black. Tibbs didn’t answer. “Tibbs?” his father asked again.

Tibbs Mosely was ten years old. The Moselys had been on Mars all of his life, five m’ears. He had been born here. With the reduced gravity and therefore the reduced resistance to germinal migration of the three embryonic germ layers—endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm—gestation on Mars usually came to term by seven months instead of nine. This presented some untoward but not insurmountable side effects:

All babies were born jaundiced and required photogesic bilirubin stack-conjugation. All babies required Panfactant/Surfactant, Lecithin/Sphingomyelin, and Phospatidyl Hyperglyph therapies for their lungs. An embryonic blood vessel, the ductus arteriosus, remained stubbornly open and required chemical closure. A whole subspecialty of Martian pediatrics had grown out of the outcropping of the newest colonists.

But the babies did just fine.

One persistent and noticeable result of the abbreviated gestation was the one-in-three risk of retinal hyperplasia, a retinopathy of prematurity, in spite of the stereotactic and quadratactic tocopheration pulse therapy. Such therapy actually succeeded in preventing blindness but in some unlucky children there was enough subtle lifting of the retina by hypertrophied blood vessels to require Nuvostatin injections, the thick eyeglasses early on, laminocontacts in pre-adolescents, followed by neoretinophakoplasty for the permanent fix at age eighteen.

Tibbs Mosely was one of the unlucky ones, but even unluckier in that he didn’t tolerate the contacts well, preferring to wear the thick glasses. In schools of yore, such a look would invite derision, being called “4-eyes,” and physical cheap shots in hallways such as being tripped or having one’s books knocked to the floor.

In the age of post-terraformed Mars, there were no conventional schools, schoolyards, or school hallways, yet there were gathering areas where children could play, engage in GravPad competitive sports, and socialize. “Hanging out” was considered psychologically important, and Tibbs, like all Colony children, had such a “recess” schedule interposed between his learning modules, LearnLink sessions, and home schooling. Officially, they were called Psychosocial Interaction Periods, “PIPs,” but most just called it recess.

Mosely had correctly read Tibbs’ awkward refusal to answer. “Something happen at PIP today?” Tibbs just put his head on the study table, defeated. “Not again, Tibbs.” Tibbs lifted his head and straightened his glasses centrally on the bridge of his nose. He looked at his father through them with eyes that appeared larger than they were.

“I got into a fight today. I got in trouble.”

“Oh?” Mosely now sat up in his chair, his posture begging exposition, and Tibbs read it right.

“Well,” Tibbs began, looking down, searching for the right words. “You know that girl, Susie Mars?”

“Mars? Really? Her name is actually Mars?” Mosely didn’t know her.

“Dad! Lemme finish.”

“Sorry—but the name, Mars. Really?”

“Yea,” Tibbs relented, “she gets a lot of that.” Then his smile dissolved. “She’s got glasses, too.”

“I see,” Mosely said, appreciating the comradeship in such a connection.

“That Taffe kid, y’know—that asshole!” Mosely frowned.

“Is that necessary?”

“Yes, Dad, it is.”

“If you say so,” Mosely said with that fatherly advice tone that cautioned such names should be reserved for very special cases.

In the present with Blaise, Mosely recognized the name, Taffe, one of his fallen comrades. His son would find out today he had no father.

“Well, that asshole Taffe—” Tibbs said, again evoking a frown of disapproval from his father.

“I get it,” Mosely said to Tibbs sternly.

“Well, that Taffe…kid,” Tibbs said, ratcheting down. “I heard him talking to another kid, Griffin, and…”

Another son without a father. In fact, a father who had suffered a most grizzly and painful death in the skirmish.

“And they were planning on taking Susie’s H-pad and throw it in the water.”

“With all her work on it?”

Such a pad really didn’t have all of her work on it, but served as a key for access to her datacloud. It was tantamount to the same thing.

“They didn’t care, Dad. She had a whole year’s bunch of work on it. She told me. She used to show me all the time.” He paused. “Except for her diary—she didn’t show me that. But her art and stuff. And she didn’t have the dehydrator cover on it and Taffe and Griffin knew it.”

“Alright,” Mosely agreed, “asshole.” Suddenly there was a motherly call from the kitchen area.

“I don’t like all this ‘ass-H-O-L-E’ talk,” she hollered. Mosely waved his flattened palm down repeatedly: the guys would have to tone it down if they were to continue to talk about assholes.

“So when she was walking toward where they were, they started whispering. Couldn’t hear that, but I knew it was on, y’know. And I thought about how I would feel if a year’s worth of my stuff got trashed in the water, y’know, on purpose, just to be mean. And they were laughing about it.

“So what happened?”

“I walked up to them, cut ‘em off, and told ‘em not to do it, or else.”

“And?”

“And they dared me to stop them.”

“Did you?”

“I shoved that—” he then whispered, “—asshole. Down to the ground. Real hard. Griffin punched me. I didn’t know he was gonna do that, and when I fell, he just laughed and said, “Pay attention.” Well I jumped up and grabbed Griffin around his waist and we both fell down, fighting. And then,” again he reverted to a whisper, “asshole Taffe runs off.” Tibbs picked up his volume again. “So me and this Griffin guy are still fighting and—”

“So this Griffin guy and I,” his father corrected him.

“So this asshole and I are still fighting and then guess what?”

“What?”

“Susie yells at both of us, ‘I’m telling,’ and she runs away to tell the PIP prefect and…” he trailed off. He looked down. “…and now I’m in trouble.”

“You hit Taffe first, right?”

“I guess so.”

“You guess…or you did?”

“I did,” Tibbs replied. “I broke his nose.” It was not the end of Tibbs’ story certainly, with the implied finale of disciplinary repercussions to follow, but it was enough of the end of the story for Mosely who in the present was considering Blaise. Father regarded son, a son who wasn’t so afraid of his father that he wouldn’t volunteer a tale of misconduct. A man would dismiss the whole incident with just, “Don’t get in trouble”; but a father’s role was to consider another message: there was a moral law afoot which said it is wrong to fight, but it is wrong to allow harm to befall others. It was right to follow the rules; it is wrong to follow them no matter what. There were no rules that were so absolute that moral law couldn’t wrinkle them with nuance. If rules were absolute, there would be no moral law to offer other options.

But there was a moral law. It isn’t codified, because it changes for every person, situation, and moment. We are all aware of it intuitively, without the necessity of a flow sheet or officially established paradigm. It is an instantaneous conduction that is a birthright. We’re all born with it. It is the insidious soft wiring which cajoles the hard wiring. Even children get it. Children like Tibbs, fully human. And Mosely stood proud.

Instantaneous conclusion. Such a thought at the speed of light, following relativistic tradition, slows space-time down to zero and lasts—is—forever. What is morally right is outside of time. Eternal.

Had the whole story of Mosely, Tibbs, and assholes been a story told in real time, it would have been of a noticeable duration. But it took no time in the tense scene between Blaise and Mosely. Mosely didn’t care that Blaise had no children; but he himself did. And a Mom and a Dad back on Earth. And his son’s little crises and morality plays. And his love for his son and daughter and wife. And how love seemed to point out the really important things in life, like moral law, which was intuitive—instantaneous.

He instantly knew this: Walsh had gone too far.

“Yes, a boy and a girl,” Mosely answered Blaise so unprofessionally for a soldier.

Blaise closed his eyes and was making peace with God, so he didn’t watch when Mosely fired into the air.

Susie Mars unscathed, Blaise Lewis alive, and moral law at the speed of light. Even faster. At the speed of is.

Blaise cried out with the shot, but then opened one eye in disbelief.

He’s gone too far,” Mosely said. “Now go on, get out of here.” Then he smiled wryly at Blaise. “Now, ASAP-ly, immediately, yesterday.”

“What about the rest?” Blaise asked, pointing back to the VSD interior.

“I’m thinking! But don’t go back in. There aren’t any more Mosely’s in there. Now go!”

Inside, everyone heard the shot outside. “I’ll be damned,” Walsh said to himself, the irony lost on him as he realized he could probably get anyone to do anything. His men heard the shot as well. Charging a mob with guns blazing was one thing; the single pistol shot was so much more personal. Everyone heard it. This broke a seal of sorts. It would be easy now to command someone to shoot another person. The Martians’ acoustic calderas pivoted on the sides of their heads.

“Oh, no,” Renée cried. Deniz and Mare were sobbing. Evan, Chris, and Ricardo stood stoically, stifling their trembling lips. Leeper had already been through his own phase with his casualties outside.

The Martian calderas had funneled the acoustics of Mosely’s pistol into the interpretive prowess of six hexaspheres and, alone, knew the sound they had heard was of bullet meeting no target. If they had thought otherwise, there would have been no holding back their unbridled incendiary fury.

Everyone else thought otherwise.

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Chapter 39 of ♂: The NOVEL
Written by DrSemicolon
39
Mare and Dr. Marcus Willner sat chatting about dreams and Mars. Willner realized that what he had seen and heard on the enhanced holoclip, and what Mare had experienced, were not the random misfiring of a child’s neurons in a child’s dream. This seemed a tableau, a presentation, a privileged peek at an extinct, magnificent race from eons past. What a gift! To witness what he witnessed through Mare. There was more to her crag, Willner realized, than just an inert foreign body lodged in her brain.
“I might kidnap you, Mare, to make you my lifelong work,” he teased.
“My Dad would beat you up.”
“That’s why you’re safe with me,” he said. “Don’t want that.”
“Dr. Willner?” his automaton paged.
“Yes?”
“Mare Mickal’s parents are here…with a guest.”
“Who’s the guest?”
“I don’t know,” replied the automaton.
“Curious,” he mumbled. Her parents were the only ones designated for any privileged medical information. He looked at Mare, who extended her hands in puzzled resignation. “Please, then, let them in,” he instructed. The door opened. Deniz moved through slowly as if hiding something. Evan followed.
Tuesday was behind Evan.
Dr. Willner dropped his thumbclip. His mouth was open. He started to talk but only stammered. Finally he croaked, “Please clear my schedule. Forever.”
“You have a schedule?” Mare asked. Willner’s eyes slowly moved from what he recognized as a Martian to Mare.
“That’s an old doctor joke, the schedule, clearing it,” he explained softly, returning his gaze to what he recognized from Mare’s dream. “It means I’m going to be busy. For a long time.”
“Hello, Dr. Willner,” Tuesday greeted him. The doctor laughed a nervous laugh.

Back at the VSD, Renée, Blaise, Chris, and Ricardo listened in earnest as Deniz’s datastrip interview transcript was presented by the automaton.

Datastrip Privileged Conversation, continued.
D: What if one of the m’rang is gay?
T: Sexuality in humans is presented by the brain. Sexuality in Martians is determined by gender alone—by the reproductive organs.
D: In your chest?
T: Yes. The gender is the genitals alone. In our chests. There is no hetero- or homosexuality. Each member of the trinus chooses one of the other two into which to interlock; and the other; and the other. We are a serial circle.
D: A three-part ourobos.
T: I do not know that word.
D: Like you said, a serial circle, but end-to-beginning and beginning-to-end, connected.
T: Oh. Like crags.
D: Exactly. I should know that word, but I’m—”
D: Don’t say it. [PAUSE]. What about genetic exchange?
T: When our Chantū find us—”
D: Chantū?
T: We await our Chantū. Each trinus has one, and successful reproduction relies on a specifically attracted Chantū entering the circle for the exchange. It goes from A to B, from B to C, and from C to A, as mediated by the Chantū. Once the A, B, and C are determined, it never goes retrograde or in any other different order until after gestation and birth. Thus genetic mixing yields variation, and can be mixed further with a shuffling of the three with next m’rang. All three siblings are created at once—three—one for each member of the trinus.
D: The Chantū. I had no idea. What an extraordinary synergy—across species lines.
T: Not really, Dr. Mickal. Think of bees pollenating flowers.
D: And the Chantū for the trinus, that specific one—is that a special relationship, too?
T: Very. It’s the bond that connects two ends of Mother Mars. Flora and fauna, as you call it.
D: Have you found your other members of your trinus? Have you seen your special Chantū?
T: That’s personal.
D: Oh, sorry. Um, you don’t remember the last time this happened with you, or if it even happened ever?
T: My long term memory is not very powerful, I’m afraid.
D: Do your remember what you had for supper with me?
T: My short term memory is not very powerful, also, I’m afraid.
D: Don’t say it.
T: What? That I’m stupid? No. I really don’t have to, do I?

At this point they underwent the Level-5 Interrupt intrusion from Lagrange 1 and “Ray Bradbury.” They listened in disbelief. Blaise was the first to comment.
“It looks like there’s trouble in paradise.”
Renée noticed a signal imprint on the running floater, notifying her there was a visitor to the VSD.
“Wednesday, Thursday, go with Chris to the back kitchen.” Chris nodded and led them off. “Allow him in,” Renée instructed the automaton, which although censored from the usual goings-on, still had servile functionality. The hiss of the automatic front door preceded the arrival of a very severe man.
“Hullo,” he barked. “My name is Lt. Lawrence. I am your Prestige Society Welcome Wagon volunteer.” Renée noticed a sidearm.
“You’re armed,” Renée gasped. Ricardo leaned in close to her.
“Part of the uniform, ma’am,” he said.
“The volunteer uniform?” Blaise asked.
“Forget the gun,” he said, “that’s not why I’m here.”
“Thank God,” said Renée.
He was a black man, so chiseled and muscly as to strain the seams of his shirt at the sleeves and neck. He appeared very anabolic and was the ilk that more than likely devoted the majority of his waking physical and mental activity to the construction and maintenance of his muscles he so contractingly and willingly presented. His eyes were white and bulging and seldom blinking. In between fierce chews of gum he spoke in blurts as if he were firing off phrases to a spotter on the final exertion of a run of pumps.
His physique, which his mirror called perfect, was in fact a self-parody, an unintended caricature, of what he aspired to be. He seemed stupid.
At least the Martians had the integrity to admit it.
“Have a seat, Lt. Lawrence,” Renée offered icily. He had trouble bending but ultimately seated himself. All three expected a ripping sound but were surprised.
“Must be flextile you’re wearing on your ‘Extra Medium’ shirt,” Blaise said. Lawrence regarded the material he wore.
“Wouldn’t wear anything else,” Lawrence said, missing the joke.
“What can we do for you?” Renée asked. She was seated at the conference room table across from Lawrence, Ricardo standing by her side. Lawrence appeared nonplussed about the uniform Ricardo himself was wearing.
“I’ve come to welcome you to the Prestige Society.” There was a stunned silence.
“Lt. Lawrence,” Renée began, “did you by any chance see the Level-5 interrupt we just saw?” Lawrence looked puzzled.
“Yes.”
“And you still come to welcome us?” Renée laughed.
“Yes. That’s what I’m here for.” Blaise and Ricardo exchanged a glance. “We at the Prestige society want to know why you haven’t joined yet.” His eyes bulged in anticipation of the answer.
“Who is ‘we at the Prestige Society’?” Ricardo asked.
“Me. And some others,” he answered uncomfortably.
“What others?” Ricardo pressed.
“Everyone.”
“Not us.”
“No, not yet. That’s why I’m here.”
“Well,” Ricardo said, “my message to ‘we at the Prestige Society’ is—and I remind you that I am technically the military head of the Prestige Guard—my message is…not us!” Ricardo walked over to the chair where Lawrence sat. Lawrence now seemed to notice Llorente’s outfit, puzzled that Ricardo wore a Prestige uniform, too.
“What if we’re undecided?” Ricardo asked with a menacing tone. “Again, from the military head of the Prestige Guard.” Lawrence rested his right hand on the top of his holstered gun.
“Again,” Lawrence repeated, “that’s what I’m here for. He petted the holstered gun as a clear gesture.
“That’s a joke?” Ricardo asked in no joking tone. Lawrence stood suddenly, his fingers fumbling to unsnap the holster. His chair fell backward onto the floor.
“I’ve been instructed,” Lawrence announced, “to—”
The special forces experience in Ricardo unsnapped his own holster of sorts, and he pinched the web space between Lawrence’s thumb and index finger with his own thumb and index finger.
Lawrence’s web space, one of those silent but cowardly pressure points that surrender immediately under attack, lost quickly and totally. He was on his knees, and in an instant Ricardo had Lawrence’s right arm bent very unnaturally behind his muscular trapezoid of a back. Ricardo easily led him whimpering out of the door and down the hall. He triggered one of the animal containment doors and pushed him in while simultaneously and deftly removing his gun which dangled as a limp, useless appendage in his denervated hand.
“Don’t worry,” Ricardo told him, “these, um…” he strained to identify the occupants through the smoked window, “monkeys are nice monkeys. I think.” The containment door hissed shut as Ricardo heard the first primate shrieks fade with the hermetic closure. Through the window Lawrence sat crouching and inert, his exophthalmic eyes bulging at the orangutan that regarded him suspiciously. Chris peeked from the rear room off the hallway to see what the door hiss meant. Ricardo waved him toward him. Although Lawrence no longer had his pistol, he was able to retrieve his thumbclip from his shirt pocket with his good hand; he moved stealthily and slowly, lest he further goad his orange-haired territorial host. He opened and then whispered into the CommLink.
“He’s behind the glass,” he told Chris. “Damn lucky I didn’t throw him in with the crags,” he added as they returned to the conference room.” He stopped when he saw Renée and altered his direction abruptly to hover over her. She didn’t, it was clear, wear well through the experience.
“He was going to shoot us!” she blurted. Her face was ashen, her eyes panicky. Ricardo cupped her damp face in his hands. In his most effective testosterone reassurance he could dispense, he said, “No one shoots anyone on Mars. That’s crazy.” She didn’t seem to buy it. He repeated it, drilling into her eyes. “No one’s going to shoot anybody. That. Is. Crazy.” She drew a long breath, her cheeks still cupped by him.
“What enclosure did you put him in?” she asked.
“One of the monkey ones. The big ones. Orangutans I think.”
“I hope they throw all their shit at him,” she said angrily. Ricardo relaxed his hands and when the trial seemed successful, removed them from her cheeks.
“All those muscles,” Blaise said in wonder, “and he went down with just a pinch. I am impressed.”
“No one’s going to shoot anyone,” Ricardo repeated once more, circling his glare at each of them.
“You’ve got to teach me that pinch,” Blaise said.
“CommLink, Colonel Leeper to General Llorente,” the automaton announced. “Communique, unfortunately, cannot pass the Weirjam. Sorry, but there is nothing to present.”
“Do you think Walsh is going to come?” Renée asked, the scared little girl within escaping, as hard as she tried to stifle it. “Or more like him?” She pointed toward the animal enclosures.
“The Martian Chronicle,” Blaise said, shaking his head.
“I think with the Martian Chronicle out and viral,” Ricardo said with a wink Blaise’s way, “and Lawrence and the Welcome Wagon derailed and detained, we should expect a lot more company. The VSD was the last holdout of scientists, the last ones to be working. Only because of these crags. And ferramine. I think Walsh believes we can synth it for whatever he thinks he can do with it.”
“Ferramine,” Blaise admitted, “pretty good stuff.” They looked at him. “You know, of course, in the right hands.”
“I wasn’t going to be able to milk the crag potential much longer,” Ricardo continued. “I’m surprised I held Walsh off as long as I did. Team, we’re about to be boarded and closed down. Real soon. Probably be a raid with troops. I know recently all your research has been off the automata, so if you have data you want, I would suggest putting it on a datastrip, put it through the Quanzer enwrangler, and stuff it in a good hiding place.”
Chris had waited patiently, then asked, “What about the animals?”
“Chris,” Ricardo answered, “We have a lot more pressing things to deal with, all of a sudden. Like, what about the Martians?” He was not dismissive. It was a tone of a seasoned veteran who accepted the reality that people come first, which included Martians. Especially in war. He was surprisingly gentle and had an apologetic tone, as if he were speaking with Mare, and if he knew crags, he was: himself to Thursday to Tuesday to Mare.
Renée gulped a swallow of water from a cup. “What now?”
“Leeper was trying to warn me about something,” Ricardo said, “but it was Weirjammed.”
“He was probably trying to warn you about everything,” Blaise surmised.
The servile automaton announced the arrival of Evan, Deniz, Mare, and Tuesday. “With a guest,” it added, “Dr. Marcus Willner.”
“He insisted,” Evan explained as he walked in.
Following him in, Willner pointed to Tuesday. “If you think I’m going to let this guy out of my site, then you’re crazy.”
“Is that a psychiatry joke, Marcus?” Blaise asked, approaching to hug him hello.
“Um, no, actually,” Willner answered.
“Evan and company,” Blaise offered, “you know Marcus. Everyone else, this is Dr. Willner. And I speak for the group here, Marcus, when I say that it’s good to have a psych doctor here, because crazy stuff is about to happen. Goon squads and guns.”
“Guns?” Willner asked. “Are there even guns on Mars?”
“Not exactly a whole squad of goons,” Ricardo explained. “Just one goon. And only one gun so far and the goon’s already in the dog house and the gun’s out of his reach.” He reconsidered. “More like the monkey house.”
“More like the ape house,” Renée corrected him absently, her attention still on goons and guns.
Deniz darted her eyes all around in alarm. “Mare! Where is she? Where is Mare?” she cried.
The maternal desperation overwhelmed the room. Ricardo bolted out of the door toward the orangutan enclosure, but it was too late. Everyone had followed him and were stopped short by what they saw. Lawrence held Mare by her collar and had his gun again, unsteady in his wobbly but uninjured, non-dominant, left hand.
“Daddy!” Mare shouted in terror. “He smiled at me and asked me to please let him out and I knew it had to be a mistake him being in with the orangutans and he said please, so I did and—” she ran out of breath. Dr. Willner, who had been following her for the psychological trauma she had sustained long before her crag attack, concluded this was the last thing her trust in adults needed.
Blaise looked at Ricardo in expectation, while Ricardo’s mind raced through acrobatic flow sheets of options.
“How’d he get his gun again?” shouted Renée. Mare started crying and Lawrence held her collar more tightly, even though it was his previously injured hand. Deniz whimpered.
“When he was behind the glass, I guess I laid the gun on the windowsill out here in the hall,” Ricardo said, more to himself. Then to Renée, “I didn’t want to go back to you with it. Didn’t want you to see it. I figured, you know—”
“You figured wrong,” Lawrence said abruptly. He was furious, his white, bulging eyes nervously darting back and forth. He wore several gashes on his left arm, indicating there had been some interaction in the bin.
Martians joined the crowd in the hall. The abruptly stopped press of VSD colleagues was followed by the gentle Martians, still hidden behind them. Tuesday was the tallest of them all and he interpreted the situation correctly form behind his human blind:
Mare was in danger.
The one of his mouths that had the deepest and thickest vocal cords channeled out a subsonic vibrato; the animals began jumping, shrieking, crying, and barking in agitation. The subsonic synchronized the messaging in his nervous system and ferramine buckyballs virtually rolled the appropriate virtual amino acids into appropriate virtual receptor sites. At the speed of light. The physiologic response inverted his intraocular lenses and fired the erectile muscles among his millions of louvered feathered scales. He grew by a meter, towering over the humans. The hallway was wide enough for four of the humans abreast, but all six of them fell back behind Tuesday as he charged forward with two colossal steps. The Martian had never seen a gun, but he knew how they were upsetting to Renée. And from Mare’s hologames, he knew that they were designed to put extra holes in a person—unwelcome holes. Dangerous holes. He knew humans were all born with just the right amount of holes and he didn’t want Mare to have any extra ones. Besides this cogent rationale, Lawrence was putting Mare in danger, which evoked a cogent irrationale. His scalp fiberoptics waved angrily above him, glowing red.
The tails from the ferramine buckyballs filled more receptor sites and the subsonic vibrato matured into a roar. More mouths were involved, showing menacing dark teeth. Photonic energies summated and filled his light basket. He began flailing his akimbo arms. By now, all the mouths were involved in projecting a dissonance of lower registers, several octaves lower than the usual Martian elocution.
He outstretched his arms, Martian fists slamming hall wall to hall wall, cutting off the rest of them, now hunkered behind him.
“Tuesday!” Deniz shouted hysterically.
“Tuesday!” shouted Mare, but it was a different type of shout. It was a communal shout, and next Mare matched Tuesday’s roar. Lawrence trembled in disbelief. He had no idea what he was seeing or hearing.
“What kinda animals you got here!” he screamed. He cocked the hammer back on his pistol. This gave Mare an opportunity to struggle, but Lawrence tightened his hold on her collar until she began choking.
Tuesday suddenly grew an additional half meter. His girth, likewise, expanded. All of his soft scales, previously louvered so compactly, now were unlouvered fully and threateningly. Unquestionably threatening. Their previous overlapping edges were now interlocked in a Leviathan exoskeleton.
Wednesday and Thursday now made their way to the front to join Tuesday; likewise, they arrayed.
“Shappoff,” Tuesday’s primary mouth seethed ominously.
“Uh-oh,” Deniz intoned. She knew Shappoff.
Suddenly, all six of Tuesday’s auxiliary mouths, each skewed by microseconds, screamed terribly, each easily over 110 dB.
“Shappoff!
   Shappoff!
    Shappoff!
     Shappoff!
      Shappoff!
        Shappoff!” followed by “Gah-Ree-Shappoff!
                                              Gah-Ree-Shappoff!
                                               Gah-Ree-Shappoff!
                                                Gah-Ree-Shappoff!
                                                 Gah-Ree-Shappoff!
Gah-Ree-Shappoff!” this time non-syncopated, but even louder.
All three Martians joined in, eighteen mouths, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from Hell, a chorale of Furies in a small room, singing for vengeance. It was thunderous. It was alien and terrifying. It was fear and terror. It was Phobos and Deimos.
Deniz and Renée held their ears. Deniz knew Shappoff, but could only tremble at what the Gah-Ree prefix might mean.
Mare broke free and Lawrence fired toward the Martians; Mare froze with the sound of the shot within the hallway. Tuesday whipped out one of his auxiliary chest arms and caught the bullet in a fantastic maneuver of blurred speed. He opened his central arm’s palm and considered the bullet lying next to the rust-bloodied palmar proboscis, obviously damaged somewhat by the feat.
Evan knew; so did Deniz. And Mare, for that matter: Lawrence had just shot Tuesday in his genitals. It is a universal truism that such an action invites a universal response.
Tuesday next amply demonstrated for the group what adding the prefix to the Martian expletive for anger did. A final combination of neuroreceptors filled and his light basket distorted to reflect back the collected light in a retrograde direction along his optic neurotubes to his eyes. He winked at Lawrence, which confused him over and beyond his already astounded mind that he winked back, hoping that would be what the Martian wanted. Tuesday’s eyes glowed faintly, then an intense beam leapt out in a tight column at Lt. Lawrence from one of them. Then it shut off and the other eye resumed in an uninterrupted hand-off. It went back and forth this way. At first Lawrence’s skin sizzled, then undulated on the surface like bacon in a pan, then began popping. First the epidermis, then the dermis. He screamed. Next, all of his hard-earned muscles began to denature.
Lt. Lawrence was frying.
Tuesday began tracking out third degree burns in slashing strips crisscrossing his face. Lawrence shut his eyes to lock them tightly and screamed louder when they seemed to pop from under them, a burst of liquid from under his eyes plopping down his shirt. No one had noticed at what point he had dropped his gun. Smoke came off of him and hovered. He had his own dirty cloud.
Everyone smelled it.
The burned man collapsed in a heap on the floor. Tuesday collapsed into himself again and Mare ran tearfully to her mother.
“I’m sorry
I’m sorry
sorry,” three of Tuesday’s mouths said.
Mars 1, Earth nothing, Blaise thought to himself, the sarcasm underscoring his anger. Mare broke from Deniz and ran to Tuesday and hugged him, even though she only came up to his thighs. Deniz jumped in, too, hugging both.
“Damn!” Ricardo said incredulously.
“Yea,” agreed Evan.
Dr. Willner let escape his nervous laugh. “I need professional help,” he said in a breaking voice.
“So does this guy,” Evan said of Lawrence, still heaped on the floor, smoking but moaning pitifully. Renée used her thumbclips to summon paramedics. All of the animals, who after their initial alarm had become strangely silent during Tuesday’s retaliation, now began acting up again, barking, screeching, whistling, snorting, and jumping. Hearing the cacophony, Lawrence started, then cried out in terror, splitting his charred lips.
“Intruder alert,” the automaton announced.
“Who?” Renée asked. They all ran back to the conference room.
“Over 200 persons,” it replied.
“And?” Renée asked.
“I cannot tell you more. I am servile, only.” Renée used her thumbclip to arm her automaton with its higher functionalities. “Thank you,” it said. “They come wearing combat-ready attire and are armed, if what I’ve assimilated from review of my appraisascan of Mr. Lawrence translates accurately.”
“Shappoff,” Deniz said quietly to herself, which said it all.
“More guns!” Renée cried. She trembled. Ricardo came close again.
“No one is shooting anybody,” he repeated yet again, sternly. That is when they heard the first shots.
“Shit!” Renée exclaimed.
“Shit,” repeated her automaton.
“Shit,” even Ricardo mumbled. “I thought you had Mr. Know-it-all fixed,” he whispered to Renée in an effort to smolder the firestorm within her. He was unsuccessful.
“Way down the list of priorities,” she snapped back. “Who are they shooting at? At us? At our building? At each other? What the hell, Ricardo?”
Evan went to check on Lawrence back in the hall and Mare followed him to check on the animals which were very upset by the loud turmoil, the burning flesh smell, and now the gunfire outside. And they were all very hungry. They hadn’t eaten since the day before due to the rations cut-off and the tumultuous goings-on at the VSD. There was more food crated near the garage area, but no one had gotten to it today before all the drama had started.
In the conference room Renée instructed her automaton to display the outside perimeter. From the gunfire they expected something unusual, but none of them expected they would ever see this on Mars—an armed skirmish. Two opposing forces. An actual battle.
Renée had assumed an armed contingent would come for them, but now she was surprised—although hardly comforted—by a second force trying to thwart the first.
Gunplay. Casualties falling. The worst that Earth had to offer a brand new and shiny place like Mars. It was offensive on a planetary scale. What was being portrayed was the very first Battle of Mars.
War had been imported successfully.
The first force, it was reasonable to assume, had been sent by Walsh. The second? Ray Bradbury, figuratively; Colonel Leeper actually. Ricardo squinted, then used his own thumbclip to pan, scan, zoom, and confirm this. A round broke a high-perched transom window. Deniz and Renée screamed.
“Evan, you have Mare?” Deniz called out.
While Ricardo and now Chris leaned into the real time holoclip, Blaise stood in a corner next to Tuesday.
“Those middle hands are pretty fast, it seems,” he said.
“It seems so,” agreed the Martian.
“Really fast.”
“They have to be.”
“Fast enough to catch a bullet,” Blaise added. “I figure, about Mach 2.”
Another round reported with a ricochet sound, but by now Renée realized the angles were all wrong. None of the shots could make a line-of-sight trajectory directly to the inner part of the room.
Evan bolted in with a very concerned face.
“What?” Renée asked. Evan studied the holoclip.
“Yep. It looks exactly like what it sounds like,” he said to himself. Then to Renée, “Nothing, nothing new. Just all this.” To Deniz, “Mare’s in with the dogs—she’s safe. It’s the most internal place of the whole building. No windows toward the outside.” He waved at the holodepiction of the ongoing battle. “I guess Mr. Lawrence’s medical help won’t be coming anytime soon.”
“I’m a real doctor, not just a Ph.D.,” Willner said. “Oh, sorry, doctors, I didn’t mean it like that. But I should go tend to him.”
“No,” Blaise objected, pushing Tuesday his way. “Look at this guy first.” Tuesday hesitated at first, but then let Willner retrieve his center arm to hold out the palm, showing his injury.
“May I?” Willner asked.
“Yes,” Tuesday replied. Tuesday liked him. He trusted him. Wednesday and Thursday, who were standing nearby, turned away out of a sense of respect and propriety.
“I’ll get the first aid cart,” Renée offered. She went out to the hallway toward the lab. She avoided the sight of Lawrence, but she could still smell him. She saw Mare in the canine enclosure and waved to check on her. Mare waved back that all was well. There were no transoms in the enclosure, so there would be no ricochets to worry about. Renée marveled at the child’s resiliency after what had happened, seeing her comforted by all the wagging tails.
She retrieved the cart and returned to the conference room. Dr. Willner proceeded and Tuesday’s palm and proboscis wounds were cleaned and dressed in dry flextile bandaging. Only then did the other two Martians turn back again toward Tuesday.
“Y’know,” Blaise said, “if the good guys don’t beat the bad guys, we still have these three big boys on our side.”
“Colonel Leeper will prevail,” Ricardo insisted.
“You said no one was getting shot, too,” Renée said, but sadly.
“I trained him. I know him. He knows what’s at stake, and he knows I’m in here with you.” Another bullet struck the other transom window, and all but Ricardo and the three Martians flinched.
“I’m not bulletproof,” Tuesday abruptly declared.
“But—” Blaise started.
“Catching a bullet is one thing. It takes one’s speed to do it, and the retrieval causes buffering of the angular momentum to reduce the impact.” He held out his bandaged inner hand as proof. The other Martians turned away again for a moment, then turned back.
“And we thought you were stupid,” Blaise teased.
“We have our moments
                      moments
                      moments,” Thursday said.
Tuesday tried to smile with several mouths, one or two almost succeeding. “Don’t do that, please,” Blaise said. “I know what you’re trying to do—the cultural overture and all, really, we all appreciate it, but it’s just creepy, and—” The automaton alarm sounded.
“Security breach,” it announced amid the sudden warbling of sirens.
“Shit?” Renée asked.
“Very shit,” Mr. Know-it-all confirmed.
“The good guys or the bad guys,” Ricardo asked it.
“I’m sorry,” it said, “I wasn’t discretionary enough to tell based on your audience reactions I logged, based on my appraisascan.”
No one noticed that Mare had been gone too long. Mare with puppies and dogs and no windows had meant no worries, and worries occupied all the attention.
All of the animals were famished, having missed their last three meals. There had been no new deliveries and even though there were enough rations to fill a two-story palate, no one at the VSD had had a chance to devise a plan to spread them out over any type of rationing schedule. That would have likely been this day had it turned out to be a typically non-violent day.
Mare knew very well how to program a RibCar, or in this case the huge RibCart. It was as simple as laying in the Point A to Point B and then assigning the RibCart’s mobile signature to the ribbon route. Point A could easily be Mare and her animals; Point B could easily be the Hydrome. She used the autofork, another working robot with a simple instruction set, to load the large palate to the cart loader. Next, she used a wristlaser to cut a swath of spilling food and seed from the packaged rations onto the open cargo bed. She knew from her visits here the code for the doors, long overdue for its reset but never done. The RibCart garage door opened for her on the first try.
She engaged the ribbon route, which silently lifted and rolled the cart vehicle to the courtyard with the high walls. She paused the cart. She now could hear the gunfire, but she remained undeterred. After all, this was for the animals. She had apparently given this a lot of thought. Perhaps not all on her own.
She pulled out a coiled hose and flipped the release lever on the nozzle, and the water flowed forcefully enough to douse the rations and food stuffs on the cargo bed of the RibCart. Even she could now smell it all, so she knew the animals would be rapt.
“Good!” she exclaimed, shut off the hose, which recoiled itself, and started the RibCart again with a thumbclip that was tethered to the open garage door. It was a simple thumbinstruction, just an unpause, and the RibCart resumed its journey. The Hydrome lay ahead and as the RibCart automatically invited the large courtyard gates to open, it departed the VSD, its odoriferous baitstream trailing behind. She had a vague idea of the speeds of all of the different animals to sight-gauge a guess for an appropriate speed for the departing RibCart.
She ran back into the VSD and used the touch screen on all of the animal enclosures except the crags. The animals lumbered out of their opened enclosures with some uncertainty initially, but then began running amok.
The lure worked. It didn’t take long for the hungry animals to pick up the scent and begin following.
Mare knew it was no Noah’s Ark and that it wasn’t foolproof; she wondered whether the Hydrome gates would even open for it. They probably would, recognizing a laden RibCart. But she wanted to at least try to save as many animals as she could. As precocious and clever as she was, however, she was not insightful enough to prevent the parade of cart and animals from passing right through the battle line. If these soldiers, she thought, had no trouble shooting each other, they would have no trouble shooting all the animals now or even after all the fighting was over.
It was the external gate opening that triggered the intruder alert that had set the sirens off. The gate didn’t know the difference between invasion and escape, and Mare’s parents and the others in the conference room assumed a coming drama: one or the other of an armed force would soon pounce, either to save them or to arrest them. Or worse.
The automaton sensed an approaching presence. “Ten meters away,” it reported. Then, “five meters…two meters…” Then, “Prepare for intruder entrance.”
Ricardo had Lawrence’s pistol on him and was dedicated to it since his colossal mistake with it before. It would work for him, since it was one of those paramilitary versions that didn’t have the palm print recog safety on it. But even armed so, he knew he was kidding himself.
The door nudged open and Ricardo raised the gun. In walked Mare who, when seeing the gun, promptly screamed. Tuesday flared into full stature array for a second time. His pieces quickly snapped together and erect.
“Down, boy,” Blaise told him. He collapsed back to regular height, Ricardo tucked the gun behind his back, out of sight, and Mare was once again in Deniz’s arms.
“Listen,” said Ricardo. All noticed that the gunfire had stopped. When they huddled to look at the monitored perimeter, they were stunned to see that the quiet was not due to any one side’s victory, but to a truce of indecision while a parade of dogs, cats, apes, ferrets, rabbits, and monkeys passed between the opposing forces, a cloud of birds aflutter about the whole movement. The RibCart, like Moses, led them onward to the Promised Land. Evan snapped around toward Mare.
“Brilliant!” shouted Ricardo. He quoted Sun Tzu’s Art of War. “Book Six: Strength and Wellness. ‘Throw something unexpected into the equation. Even if it is nonsensical, it will make the enemy wonder and fret.’”
“Don’t be so brilliant ever again,” Mare’s father scolded her, but her grin was ear to ear. Tuesday practiced his own grins.
“Where are they going, Mare?” Renée asked.
“Duh!” Mare mocked her.
“Where, Mare?” Evan pressed.
“To the Hydrome,” she answered proudly and confidently.
“Did you hear us talking about this before?” Blaise asked.
“No,” she replied.
“Well, then, how did you know where to send them?”
“Uncle Blaise! Duh!” she repeated.
“Stop doing that, Mare,” Deniz reprimanded.
“Where else would I send them? They certainly couldn’t stay here.”
“Like us,” Dr. Willner commented soberly, which refocused everything.
“Why’d they stop the shooting?” Renée asked.
“Why’d they start?” Willner asked right back, his voice up an octave.
“They didn’t stop to make it safe for a bunch of monkeys,” Blaise said.
“Ten meters,” the automaton announced again. “Five meters…two meters.” Everyone was accounted for, so everyone drew a deep, nervous breath.
Colonel Leeper walked through. Before Ricardo could let his breath out in a sigh of relief, however, Denton Walsh followed closely behind with a gun in Leeper’s back. Behind them were about ten armed Prestige Guard members brandishing automatic rifles. The three Martians had fallen back to a wall, with Evan, Willner, Blaise, and Chris standing in front of them, concealing them as best they could. The Martians louvered down further, shrinking them to just under one and half meters. 
“Sorry, sir,” Prisoner Leeper said to his general, Ricardo Llorente. The ever-growing armed entourage peaked and stopped when no one else could fit into the conference room without retracting their arms and hands that brandished their weapons.
Ricardo winked at Leeper because he understood. He didn’t have to outwardly thank him for his loyalty to a friend, to Mars, to Earth, to a mature sense of righteous history.
“There’s a man down out in the hallway,” Walsh said angrily to Ricardo. “How did that happen?” He snatched away his sunglasses from his face.
“He needs medical attention,” Willner said. “Will you allow in paramedics?”
“Paramedics? Are you joking! Have you even looked outside?” Ricardo and the rest let that sink in. “Besides,” Walsh added, “he’s dead.”
“Dead?” Renée asked guiltily.
“Call it friendly fire,” Walsh explained. “He couldn’t survive, right? Did you see him? He was a cinder. Couldn’t leave him like that.” He was suddenly struck with a thought. “Euthanized,” he said. “I mean, this is a vet clinic, right?” He walked over toward Ricardo and approximated him face-to-face within a couple of centimeters. He fingered a hand-written note out of his shirt pocket. He began reading names. “Eggleton, Moore, Dillon, Payne, Shank, Gansey, Greene, Taffe, Thomas, Atkins, Brown, Stanley, Batts, Liles, Cromer, Comer, Potters—two of them, Viechek, Sjuve…Guess what?” He came even closer to Ricardo’s face. “They’re dead, too, that’s what. “Griffin—what a mess he is—you should see him! Poor bastard, even if he had paid attention, he’d still be dead, with a shot to the front of his head instead of the back. The Ramseys—two of them, too.”
“What about Nelson, Medina, Santiago, and—” Leeper tried to impose his own dead—the good guys dead. Walsh cut him short.
“Silence!” he screamed, not veering a millimeter from his face lock on Ricardo. “Well, Mr. Historian,” he meant entirely for Ricardo, and taking a step back, “my Mexican French-loving historian.”
“I’m Cuban,” Ricardo corrected him.
“And it’s Francophile,” Blaise now added. Walsh only grinned sinisterly.
“Whatever! So worried about corrupting this heavenly Eden with the dark side,” Walsh continued. “What would Napoleon say? What would Gandhi say?” He paused. “Or…Atilano? What would Mr. Diplomat of Peace Atilano say?” He widened his tight smile and snapped fully away from Ricardo. “A first for Mars. Its first murder,” he said, pointing toward the hallway.
“You did that,” Renée objected.
“No! You did that. I just put him out of his misery.” He snapped back around to Ricardo. “You’ve broken the seal, General. Cain and Abel have arrived. Well, maybe just Cain. Abel’s out there smoking in the hallway.
Ricardo hated this imbecile for being even partially right.
“What’s with the animals?” Walsh continued. Deniz clutched Mare closer to her. Walsh caught it. “Are they the little girl’s animals?” He looked again at Ricardo. “Your colonel ceased fire because of the animals. We were able to move in. So, thank you.”
“Why did you cease fire?” Ricardo asked Leeper.
“Shut up!” shouted Walsh, spit flying like an actor on stage spraying the front row. “I ask the questions.” He considered for a moment, then turned to Leeper himself. “Why did you cease fire, Colonel Idiot?” Leeper looked at Ricardo for approval, then answered Walsh.
“We thought it might be a VSD surrender,” Leeper answered, so there might be no reason to fight. No enemy if your mission surrenders. I was just thinking of any way to cap the body count.”
“Animals first. Woman and children second?” Walsh laughed. “That’s rich!”
“No,” answered Leeper. “Everybody first. It was a sea change in the scenario,” Leeper explained, himself quoting The Art of War. Ricardo smirked. “In a battle moving too quickly, a sea change requires pause and appraisal. A change can be made beneficial or unfavorable to—”
“More unfavorable than capture?” Walsh roared.
“Sometimes it is,” Ricardo interrupted, which was a private ‘well done’ to Leeper, “when there’s a lot less dead soldiers.”
“And more prisoners,” Walsh smiled. He put his sunglasses back on. “So everybody’s happy, I guess. I know I am.” He faced Ricardo again. “How ‘bout you, General? Happy?” Ricardo remained silent. Walsh turned and offered another hitchhiking thumb to indicate Lt. Lawrence, the dead man, in the hallway. “Think he’s happy?” He turned back to his room of prisoners. “How the hell did that happen, by the way? Out there, in the hallway?”
The conference room was divided in its middle by a floor pad that completed an interface with a ceiling pad, used for holoclip display when aerogel was liquesced between them. At this point it was Walsh who stood between the two pads, center stage, allowing him to pace triumphantly to and fro to address his captive audience.
It was a tyrant’s dream: center stage with I-TOLD-YOU-SOs, GOTCHAS, and WORSHIP-MEs for the fallen who had opposed him.
“Come on, now, there’s a question on the floor. How’d that guy burn?”
In the front of the room, Walsh’s armed phalanx crowded together in readiness and blocked the door. At the back of the room behind a large rectangular desk stood Renée, Evan, Blaise, Dr. Willner, Ricardo, Deniz, Mare, and Chris. The men continued to stand on their tiptoes to block the view to the wall the three Martians stood against.
Blaise wondered why none of them hadn’t fluffed out and flamed on yet, but then he considered this solitary, crowded, confined room filled with searing Martians, itchy soldiers, and automatic weapons. If it all exploded it would be like overcooking a bowl of chili in the microwave, except it would be blood that was all over. No, he agreed with the status quo—best not to ratchet up the melodrama.
“Why here, Walsh?” Ricardo asked, to get him to turn to him, away from the crowd and the wall behind them. “Why make the VSD the battle for Mars?”
“To get you,” Walsh answered. “Couldn’t have you running around. And all the data,” he added, turning to Renée. “You kept it off the datacloud, but I know it’s here somewhere. In fact, we’re getting ready to play a little game. It’s called ‘Who do I kill first to get you to give me the data?’ A fun game.”
“There’s nothing here,” Renée informed him angrily.
“That’s not what I heard,” he said, looking at Ricardo. “Hmm…maybe I’ll start with my Prestige Coordinator,” he offered now, turning to Colonel Leeper, then turned back to Ricardo. “Tsk, tsk, never thought I’d have to fight my own men to get to you, General Llorente.”
“I was never your man,” Leeper said defiantly, mutinously.
The ruse of hidden Martians couldn’t last. At some point there was just enough of a clear visual between Evan’s and Blaise’s heads for Walsh to take pause. He strained to see better through the sunglasses, then lifted them and parked them above on his bald head.
The jig was up. Blaise fretted microwave ovens anew.
“What’s this?” he asked, feeling very clever. “I saw movement back there. Who’s behind you? Now!” The men checked their clips with a palm strike. It all sounded ballistic enough for an effective imminent threat. “Now! I said! Who is there? Fall out!”
Evan and his fellow tiptoers relaxed their gastrocs and Achilles tendons. They shrank. The Martians were taller now in contrast.
“Not who…” Walsh whispered to himself, “but what?”
“Your Martian welcome committee,” Blaise announced. Walsh kept his eyes fixed on the three Martians. He stood with his mouth agape, then closed it after a pregnant, stunned pause. He spoke to Blaise without taking his fixed gaze off of the Martians.
“I don’t like you, Lewis,” Walsh said quietly. “Never did.” Blaise remained silent and wondered why everyone seemed to have a Martian behind him but himself. “So,” Walsh said angrily, thinking of Atilano, “temporal reconciliation worked, after all.”
Walsh’s self-serving, defensive mentality struggled for advantage. First, The Martian Chronicle. Now, successful tempconciliation. And Martians, for God’s sake! Tempconciliation! Martians! Now he realized Earth would never let go of Mars.
The room watched Walsh pace back and forth, thinking ferociously. He was screwed. For all he knew, E-Lead supply ships to Lagrange 1 were being loaded with an armada of soldiers to re-take the planet.
His planet.
He needed a play. Taking the VSD was a shitty little victory. Even with crags he could aim, it meant nothing, he thought. Nothing! And he would never allow himself to, ever again, be nothing.
These were the thoughts that a selfish, foolish, out-bullied bully spent his epiphany on, instead of a new dawn of alien races, time manipulation, human milestones, and cosmic implications.
His prisoners stared ahead blankly. These Martians—his Martians—stood inert, in no way appearing threatening, until Walsh again considered the burned, dead man heaped in the hallway.
“They did it,” he surmised out loud, looking at the three Martians. Mare looked at Tuesday and began crying. “Shut that kid up!” shouted Walsh toward his men.
“Don’t you dare!” snapped Deniz.
“Oh, Mrs. Mickal,” he said. “I’ve heard all about you. The bitch, right, Ricardo?” She shared a confused look with Evan. Suddenly Tuesday regained his combat height and his eyes began to glow. One of his eyes blinked.
“Or you winking at me, Godzilla?” Walsh asked. “That is so cute!” Another check of the magazine clips sounded.
“Tuesday!” Evan said sternly. “No.” Tuesday collapsed, understanding the risks Evan implied.
“Well,” Walsh chuckled, “one thing’s for certain. They’re obviously not stupid.” Blaise thought nothing about any of this was humorous, but he couldn’t help the smirk of irony. Walsh caught it.
“Something funny, Lewis?”
Blaise instantly neutralized his injudicious grin. Walsh approached him. He studied his face, very close, as he had with Ricardo before. “What’s so funny?” Walsh repeated. “You laughing at me?”
“No,” Blaise answered curtly. Walsh turned to his men again. He walked over to one of them, lifted his ID, and read.
“Mosely.”
“Yes, sir,” a middle-aged, serious looking man responded.
“Take this scientist,” he said derisively.
“Where, sir?”
“Out back.”
“And then what?” Walsh couldn’t believe his ears. He became angry and in his customary style, got right into Mosely’s face.
“Take him out and shoot him.”
Mosely stood for a moment while Blaise’s fellow prisoners gasped. He looked at Blaise and Blaise looked at him. Walsh, growing impatient, bellowed. “Now! ASAP-ly! Right away, immediately, yesterday!”
Walsh pounded his hand on Blaise’s chest to seize him and then he flung him at Mosely. Mosely had a maelstrom of conflict in his own head but dutifully motioned to Blaise, who obeyed and allowed escort out of the room. Walsh turned back to look at the Martians.
“Really?” fumed Evan. “Murder? Is that the new Mars?”
Walsh answered quickly. “Funny, wasn’t that my exact question a few minutes ago?” He swallowed, then held up a finger. “No, not murder like the guy in the hall. I call it something else. Justice. Time to nip this in the bud.”
This, sadly, Evan grieved, was the new Mars. He felt the pain of a stifled gasp, swallowed a bolus of breath that seemed to scratch his throat all the way down.
Dr. Willner usually thought things out with two levels of brain: first, for what was happening and second, for what it means. How far was too far? the psychiatric thinking went, and Dr. Willner was thinking it. Had Walsh gone too far when he had dissolved the Security Command? Had he gone too far when he had bribed a new armed force and exiled those who had refused? Had he gone too far when he assumed Divine Right dictatorship? When he had one set of soldiers attack another? When he had just ordered an execution?
The answer, as Willner saw it for all of these questions, was yes.
None of these questions could be answered with “almost too far.” Too far was an absolute, an all-or-none. Willner ran through his list of questions as a graduated political assessment of human outrage. At execution it reached the inhumane. Now, he diagnosed, they were all at the capricious mercy of someone who was that inhumane. Such a thing would require a whole lot of therapy; weeks, months, and for Walsh, probably years. Such unaddressed pathology was as painful to Willner as a patient bleeding to death would be to a helpless surgeon who had no instruments, a hemorrhaging reality Blaise would be suffering in a moment.
Outside in the courtyard where Mare had released the RibCart through the gate and the animals had followed, Mosely stood Blaise up straight with a firm grasp of his shirt with one hand, a pistol prodding him in his ribs with the other.
Mosely was indeed conflicted.
“Do you have children?” Blaise asked nervously, pleadingly. Mosely shuddered.
“Yea. A boy and a girl,” he answered so unprofessionally for a soldier under orders. “Do you have any children?” he asked Blaise right back, a spinal reaction that slipped out before his soldier’s neocortex could stifle it.
“No, not yet,” answered Blaise.
Perhaps this man, his executioner, was looking for a reason—any reason—to not kill him, and Blaise had hoped his question would be an initial chess move of conscience that would effect a series of refutations along Mosely’s military connections. Blaise hoped he had twanged Mosely’s own sense of the hearth. He wanted Mosely’s children to be looking at him as he killed a man he didn’t know for a reason he didn’t understand. Willner would be proud, Blaise thought, if I could just stay alive to tell him. Then, what a stupid plan. Children would not have softened Mosely’s order, he thought, as the horror of the reality began to gel. There were no options included in the capital order. It was simply a matter of following the order or disobeying it. Blaise so hoped Mosely was a bad soldier.

Mosely thought about his children. Mosely the soldier, Mosely the father. Mundane family life.
He thought about a particular episode. It was right after his wife, he, and the children had moved into their new, spacious, Tier II housing. He had just joined the Prestige Society and had come home with the datastrip that was a manual of the perks and responsibilities of being a Prestige member. He had joined for the good of his family, so he knew that however the manual read, he would find a way to make it work. He would wear the “P” for them.
The new accommodations had a study/library, which was a real luxury by Mars Colony standards. If Tier II was payback, he was already enjoying his investment of loyalty. His son, Tibbs, sat at a table with a holopad, sketching with ambidextrous thumbclips an assignment due over the LearnLink by the next day. But he struggled; he was distracted, troubled.
Mosely sat in an overstuffed armchair and he held his own 3-D H-pad in his lap, ready to begin his Prestige Society indoctrination. He hadn’t yet engaged his floater but instead was still looking at the holoplane title page in his lap. He did a quick paternal check on his son before diving into the material, and his parental intuition proved prudent.
“What’s up, Tibbs?” he asked his son. Tibbs took off his two thumbclips and rested them on his H-pad where they magnetically locked into their docks on the frame. The H-pad faded to black. Tibbs didn’t answer. “Tibbs?” his father asked again.
Tibbs Mosely was ten years old. The Moselys had been on Mars all of his life, five m’ears. He had been born here. With the reduced gravity and therefore the reduced resistance to germinal migration of the three embryonic germ layers—endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm—gestation on Mars usually came to term by seven months instead of nine. This presented some untoward but not insurmountable side effects:
All babies were born jaundiced and required photogesic bilirubin stack-conjugation. All babies required Panfactant/Surfactant, Lecithin/Sphingomyelin, and Phospatidyl Hyperglyph therapies for their lungs. An embryonic blood vessel, the ductus arteriosus, remained stubbornly open and required chemical closure. A whole subspecialty of Martian pediatrics had grown out of the outcropping of the newest colonists.
But the babies did just fine.
One persistent and noticeable result of the abbreviated gestation was the one-in-three risk of retinal hyperplasia, a retinopathy of prematurity, in spite of the stereotactic and quadratactic tocopheration pulse therapy. Such therapy actually succeeded in preventing blindness but in some unlucky children there was enough subtle lifting of the retina by hypertrophied blood vessels to require Nuvostatin injections, the thick eyeglasses early on, laminocontacts in pre-adolescents, followed by neoretinophakoplasty for the permanent fix at age eighteen.
Tibbs Mosely was one of the unlucky ones, but even unluckier in that he didn’t tolerate the contacts well, preferring to wear the thick glasses. In schools of yore, such a look would invite derision, being called “4-eyes,” and physical cheap shots in hallways such as being tripped or having one’s books knocked to the floor.
In the age of post-terraformed Mars, there were no conventional schools, schoolyards, or school hallways, yet there were gathering areas where children could play, engage in GravPad competitive sports, and socialize. “Hanging out” was considered psychologically important, and Tibbs, like all Colony children, had such a “recess” schedule interposed between his learning modules, LearnLink sessions, and home schooling. Officially, they were called Psychosocial Interaction Periods, “PIPs,” but most just called it recess.
Mosely had correctly read Tibbs’ awkward refusal to answer. “Something happen at PIP today?” Tibbs just put his head on the study table, defeated. “Not again, Tibbs.” Tibbs lifted his head and straightened his glasses centrally on the bridge of his nose. He looked at his father through them with eyes that appeared larger than they were.
“I got into a fight today. I got in trouble.”
“Oh?” Mosely now sat up in his chair, his posture begging exposition, and Tibbs read it right.
“Well,” Tibbs began, looking down, searching for the right words. “You know that girl, Susie Mars?”
“Mars? Really? Her name is actually Mars?” Mosely didn’t know her.
“Dad! Lemme finish.”
“Sorry—but the name, Mars. Really?”
“Yea,” Tibbs relented, “she gets a lot of that.” Then his smile dissolved. “She’s got glasses, too.”
“I see,” Mosely said, appreciating the comradeship in such a connection.
“That Taffe kid, y’know—that asshole!” Mosely frowned.
“Is that necessary?”
“Yes, Dad, it is.”
“If you say so,” Mosely said with that fatherly advice tone that cautioned such names should be reserved for very special cases.
In the present with Blaise, Mosely recognized the name, Taffe, one of his fallen comrades. His son would find out today he had no father.
“Well, that asshole Taffe—” Tibbs said, again evoking a frown of disapproval from his father.
“I get it,” Mosely said to Tibbs sternly.
“Well, that Taffe…kid,” Tibbs said, ratcheting down. “I heard him talking to another kid, Griffin, and…”
Another son without a father. In fact, a father who had suffered a most grizzly and painful death in the skirmish.
“And they were planning on taking Susie’s H-pad and throw it in the water.”
“With all her work on it?”
Such a pad really didn’t have all of her work on it, but served as a key for access to her datacloud. It was tantamount to the same thing.
“They didn’t care, Dad. She had a whole year’s bunch of work on it. She told me. She used to show me all the time.” He paused. “Except for her diary—she didn’t show me that. But her art and stuff. And she didn’t have the dehydrator cover on it and Taffe and Griffin knew it.”
“Alright,” Mosely agreed, “asshole.” Suddenly there was a motherly call from the kitchen area.
“I don’t like all this ‘ass-H-O-L-E’ talk,” she hollered. Mosely waved his flattened palm down repeatedly: the guys would have to tone it down if they were to continue to talk about assholes.
“So when she was walking toward where they were, they started whispering. Couldn’t hear that, but I knew it was on, y’know. And I thought about how I would feel if a year’s worth of my stuff got trashed in the water, y’know, on purpose, just to be mean. And they were laughing about it.
“So what happened?”
“I walked up to them, cut ‘em off, and told ‘em not to do it, or else.”
“And?”
“And they dared me to stop them.”
“Did you?”
“I shoved that—” he then whispered, “—asshole. Down to the ground. Real hard. Griffin punched me. I didn’t know he was gonna do that, and when I fell, he just laughed and said, “Pay attention.” Well I jumped up and grabbed Griffin around his waist and we both fell down, fighting. And then,” again he reverted to a whisper, “asshole Taffe runs off.” Tibbs picked up his volume again. “So me and this Griffin guy are still fighting and—”
“So this Griffin guy and I,” his father corrected him.
“So this asshole and I are still fighting and then guess what?”
“What?”
“Susie yells at both of us, ‘I’m telling,’ and she runs away to tell the PIP prefect and…” he trailed off. He looked down. “…and now I’m in trouble.”
“You hit Taffe first, right?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess…or you did?”
“I did,” Tibbs replied. “I broke his nose.” It was not the end of Tibbs’ story certainly, with the implied finale of disciplinary repercussions to follow, but it was enough of the end of the story for Mosely who in the present was considering Blaise. Father regarded son, a son who wasn’t so afraid of his father that he wouldn’t volunteer a tale of misconduct. A man would dismiss the whole incident with just, “Don’t get in trouble”; but a father’s role was to consider another message: there was a moral law afoot which said it is wrong to fight, but it is wrong to allow harm to befall others. It was right to follow the rules; it is wrong to follow them no matter what. There were no rules that were so absolute that moral law couldn’t wrinkle them with nuance. If rules were absolute, there would be no moral law to offer other options.
But there was a moral law. It isn’t codified, because it changes for every person, situation, and moment. We are all aware of it intuitively, without the necessity of a flow sheet or officially established paradigm. It is an instantaneous conduction that is a birthright. We’re all born with it. It is the insidious soft wiring which cajoles the hard wiring. Even children get it. Children like Tibbs, fully human. And Mosely stood proud.
Instantaneous conclusion. Such a thought at the speed of light, following relativistic tradition, slows space-time down to zero and lasts—is—forever. What is morally right is outside of time. Eternal.
Had the whole story of Mosely, Tibbs, and assholes been a story told in real time, it would have been of a noticeable duration. But it took no time in the tense scene between Blaise and Mosely. Mosely didn’t care that Blaise had no children; but he himself did. And a Mom and a Dad back on Earth. And his son’s little crises and morality plays. And his love for his son and daughter and wife. And how love seemed to point out the really important things in life, like moral law, which was intuitive—instantaneous.
He instantly knew this: Walsh had gone too far.

“Yes, a boy and a girl,” Mosely answered Blaise so unprofessionally for a soldier.
Blaise closed his eyes and was making peace with God, so he didn’t watch when Mosely fired into the air.
Susie Mars unscathed, Blaise Lewis alive, and moral law at the speed of light. Even faster. At the speed of is.
Blaise cried out with the shot, but then opened one eye in disbelief.
He’s gone too far,” Mosely said. “Now go on, get out of here.” Then he smiled wryly at Blaise. “Now, ASAP-ly, immediately, yesterday.”
“What about the rest?” Blaise asked, pointing back to the VSD interior.
“I’m thinking! But don’t go back in. There aren’t any more Mosely’s in there. Now go!”
Inside, everyone heard the shot outside. “I’ll be damned,” Walsh said to himself, the irony lost on him as he realized he could probably get anyone to do anything. His men heard the shot as well. Charging a mob with guns blazing was one thing; the single pistol shot was so much more personal. Everyone heard it. This broke a seal of sorts. It would be easy now to command someone to shoot another person. The Martians’ acoustic calderas pivoted on the sides of their heads.
“Oh, no,” Renée cried. Deniz and Mare were sobbing. Evan, Chris, and Ricardo stood stoically, stifling their trembling lips. Leeper had already been through his own phase with his casualties outside.
The Martian calderas had funneled the acoustics of Mosely’s pistol into the interpretive prowess of six hexaspheres and, alone, knew the sound they had heard was of bullet meeting no target. If they had thought otherwise, there would have been no holding back their unbridled incendiary fury.
Everyone else thought otherwise.

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Chapter 14 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon

14

The next few hours were restful for me; I finally found myself easing awake, feeling refreshed on many different levels. Luckily, I awoke before the Ava lying in bed next to me had. This was a safe outcome, for I knew she was the pop-up of the truly existing Ava. It was raining outside, and distant thunder answered flickers of light from the clouds outside, which may have been what had woken me up. The bedroom was not totally dark; there was enough reflected light for me to see her sleeping right next to me. At first I thought that there was sleep in my eyes, because she was a bit of a blur. I rubbed my eyes hard to clear them and looked again. She was still blurry. Inspecting her closely, I was able to determine that the blurring effect was a slight shifting of her face, over and over, back and forth. I watched her chest, and to my amazement I saw it rise simultaneously with another image of it collapsing. I was watching inspiration and expiration at the same time. I was watching two different Avas in the same space!

I snapped my head back to a supine position, my eyes fixed on the ceiling, unblinking. I was caught in mid-slide, and I didn’t know what the hell to do. You can burn a lot of calories when you panic without moving. You can feel them melting away. I sweated.

Slowly and smoothly, certainly so as not to jostle the bed, I turned my head back toward her, toward them. The phenomenon persisted, and I continued to lose weight. The weird presentation was most pronounced in her chest, where the most movement was. A flash of lightning made the double exposure crystal clear to me, and I noticed that there was a narrowing in the chase of the thunder’s timing. I slowly rolled my eyes over to look her in her face again, which was tilted on her pillow my way. Still the blur. I studied her closely and could finally make out the two Avas distinctly.

Suddenly one of them opened her eyes wide at me! That look that screamed at me was either rage or fear, I couldn’t tell; so I couldn’t really tell which Ava was awake. These wild eyes burned into my own retinas as a particularly bright flash of lightning lit them up like burning coals. The thunder crashed almost simultaneously as I jumped right out of the bed, making much too much noise myself. I quickly sat upright by the side of the bed and looked again. There she was, sleeping soundly, in the crisp focus of singular identity.

It seemed I had solidly landed, no longer in the nether-world of that eerie phantom zone. I just didn’t know which Ava I was dealt. At least those big eyes was safely tucked away in the history of former layers. I surely couldn’t withstand their mixed message again. And even though I realized that I still probably had the pretty nasty one right here—that the closed, resting eyes were a false assurance—still I was relieved that, friend or foe, she was also safely tucked in, right in her own bed, fast asleep. I prayed for a pause in the weather.

I sat still for a moment, my knees flexed, my ankles digging into my behind. My hands were clasped together on my belly. My nose was running and I sniffed into myself to try to dry it. My nightshirt felt wet. I lifted my hand to my nose to smell, to gain a clue as to the source of the moisture. At first I thought that I was just that sweaty with all of the recent frights. Then I became disgusted at the prospect that I might have urinated on myself during the mêlée that I had experienced before coming back down into my body. The odor was not of urea, though; it was nevertheless unmistakable. There was something terribly wrong here, and I did not feel secure in this dampness.

There was the dim light from the bathroom that gave enough illumination into the bedroom for me to see, to my horror, that I was covered in blood, actively coming from my nose and from my knuckles and limbs. I snuck away from the bed, the soles of my feet also wet and slightly sticky, leaving red footprints as I walked. I went into the bathroom and closed the door, leaving that Ava-type person sleeping in the resulting darkness. After short consideration, I locked the door by clicking in the brass doorknob. Alone in this bathroom, behind the closed door, I slowly pivoted around, using the thrust of my hand against the locked doorknob to do so. Turning around, facing the mirror, I suddenly went limp with helplessness when the next flash of lightning coincided exactly with the thunderclap. This is when I saw the monster.

It was a ghoulish apparition staring right back at me. I felt disarmed and vulnerable. I exhaled a burst of silent horror as the fiend looked back at me, giving the same open-mouthed expression to me that I was giving to it. Almost immediately I realized that it was me looking like hell, black and blue, bloody and swollen, in the reflection. This mirror was part of the mounted medicine cabinet that had drifted partially open to face any intruder, my reflection thereby hitting me broadside.

It was the moment of terror everyone has after having been spooked by a scary movie—seeing something in a mirror other than what is expected. So strange it is that the mirror is such a feared object after we get spooked by a frightening book or film or other medium. It always has been for me, and I don’t know why.

It is as if the thing we fear the most is what would be seen the unrecognizable that comes from ourselves.

I turned on the faucet and washed the fresh blood off of my face, as well as the crusted, flaking blood from my arms and chest. The rain seemed to be pouring even more heavily now. I turned off the light so as not to streak the bedroom with a shaft of brightness when I opened the door. My heart jumped in my throat when the opening door tried to announce me with a loud creak. I stopped its swing and peaked to see this Ava, fortunately, unstirred. After all, I reassured myself, she was sleeping fairly well through all of this thunder.

I squeezed out through the limited space the partly opened door afforded and entered a walk-in closet and closed its door silently behind me. I could still taste blood, but this was dripping from my nose down to my throat, and so my face remained dry for now.

I dressed with fresh clothing. My selections clashed, but so what? Within moments I had successfully negotiated my way to the table in the kitchen without violating any more night stillness. The rain continued, but now the lightning and thunder were once again distantly separated events, gently accenting the background of the downpour. I read the chart.

Still unchanged; at least in the crucial parts regarding my Abby. I sat and concentrated.

And then I slid.

I don’t know if the out-of-body experience is what gave me the impetus or what, but this time I noticed a difference in the chart! There were some subtle changes in diction, the syntax was jumbled at times—I had slid successfully! I was once again moving by my own power, and no longer only at the whim of magnets and out-of-body fist fights. I slid over and over until the chart finally read what I had wanted:

“Patient pregnant, being seen as out-patient; living at Roe vs. Wade Home for Unwed Mothers.”

I considered the paradox of her residence with befuddled amusement as I confiscated the car keys that hung so approachably in the cupboard.

I darted for the door. As often as I had dreamt of tearing off in Ava’s Piranha, I had realized that I’d know just when that time would be—and this was definitely the time. I popped out of the side door of the house that opened into the carport where the red and brown sports car sat, hopefully the battery still at the ready. Four doors in a “sports car,” I thought; some racy. It was pretty ugly, actually, but did look fast. And heavy. It was perfect for the predatory streets of this layer, but would sink like an anvil in the Amazon where its namesake inspired its verve. Its front grille was an expected design for a car so named. Its vertical chrome shafting did look like long, slender, sharp teeth. The hood release was through this dentition, which was bound to make any serviceman a little nervous when sticking his hand into the mouth of this beast.

The rain was heavy enough to spray in through the sides of the carport. I got my back wet as I entered the car at the driver’s door. The engine began turning over so loudly I almost expected the Ava here to come running out to stop the rip-off. It strained as stale batteries often cause an engine to do, and I began to sweat when my doubts started, but luckily my frequent trips to the carport paid off as there was enough juice to finally get it started. I prudently buckled up and then pulled backward down the wet driveway. The rolling water raced me down the gentle incline toward the curb. I reversed the car into the street, and when I was in the drive straightaway I took off, occasionally spraying a curtain of water to the left or to the right as I plowed large street puddles that had been collecting for the last few hours.

My Abby awaited me; she would get her surprise tonight at the Roe vs. Wade Home for Unwed Mothers. I couldn’t wait and my driving showed it.

During my time at Ava’s, I was grateful I had at least looked around outside once in a while. And with the occasional excursion to fountain or domed stadium, I had noted vehicular protocol. I knew which side of the street to drive on from my attention to this detail, as it had been months since I had last been at the helm in traffic. In addition, there was no traffic here in which to flow this late at night, so this knowledge proved crucial.

I knew the way to the Roe vs Wade Home, because I had seen the TV commercials for it so often. It was on Esplanade Avenue, a once lovely street in bygone layers when stately mansions, the same as were characteristic of the Garden District, stood proudly, defining the street’s milieu. Now the thoroughfare was dotted with gas stations where the ghosts of the homes were, a few bars languishing among them at points. The surviving houses needed work, no longer kept up so meticulously as in nicer worlds ago. The oaks, with their draping moss, seemed their only protection now.

In the few runs out to my apartment to get things, I’d return home by asking the cab driver to take the scenic route past this street, which I had once liked even more than St. Charles Avenue. I would direct the driver to go the full distance of my former favorite until it dumped us into City Park at the Delgado Museum. From there, we’d drive down the mid-city atmosphere of City Park Avenue until we could jump on the Expressway at the foot of Canal. The Expressway of New Orleans was terrifying enough even where I had graduated summa cum laude, and for this part of the ride I just always closed my eyes. This time, I was driving, I would have to take the Expressway in full view, in pouring rain, taking that exact route backwards until Esplanade presented itself as my destination instead of my starting point.

It’s funny that as many times as I had been down the street, I had never noticed the home for unwed mothers. From the pictures on the commercials on television, which was how I was familiar with it, it had an unusual front that involved a lot of burglar bars.

It was an easy drive to the Expressway for the car but not for my mind. The mist that inundated the torrents cloaked me away from what I knew was outside. As the Piranha sliced dreamily through the inclement night air, lulled by the distant sirens of this world, it only seemed to protect me. The reality was that it announced me—made me stand out as an invader into the alien realities and machinations here. The false sense of serenity of the closed-in climate-controlled cabin was claustrophobic.

Only an occasional car was encountered, typically gaining on me rapidly from behind and then firing past me. When I was able, I tried to identify the model. One car had lettering shaped like flames along its side that said Aghasteroid. Beneath these letters it boasted “electronic cruel-injected.” Another one that flew past me quickly had a customized license plate with too many letters crammed together that read, DYING ANYWAY. I was glad to see that one go, for I knew he had nothing to lose. I never did see a posted speed limit, but felt safer breaking the minimum rather than the maximum. I went fifty-five.

An evil-looking vehicle came up on my left and then used its brakes to match my speed. It was black and had fins and spikes all over it and wore at least five differently sized antennas. I nervously looked over repeatedly but couldn’t see because all of the windows were darkened. This guy must have taken his car out of gear or played with his clutch in such a way as to rev up next to me while moving alongside. I declined the challenge by slowing down further. This was obviously annoying, for he swerved in front of me, making me hit my brakes hard to avoid a collision. He began to slow more, drawing me provocatively into his harassment. I was very panicky by this point and searched the console for a button that would signal my emergency flasher. Maybe that would work, I thought. There was still no letup in the rain, and I strained to be watchful for his brake lights ahead of me. Unable to readily identify the flasher button, I fumbled open a panel of shellacked hardwood and saw a set of hidden controls. One of them was a button labeled, AUTODIGESTION.

What did I have to lose? I figured it was only a matter of time before I got myself PincerLocked or worse, so I punched the button. It must have been important, because to do this I had to flip up a little hinged rod that lay over it, obviously designed to prevent accidental use. It was time to see what a Piranha could do. If mainstream America could afford cars with PincerLock or whatever, then I was curious to see what a car like this could muster—a car that a rich guy like the late Ralph Ebe could afford.

The message on the dashboard screen read, ARE YOU SURE? I hit it again, quite sure. By this time we were crawling on the Interstate, occasional cars whizzing past, saluting our imminent confrontation with horns. I patiently waited for autodigestion, whatever that was.

All at once I heard a grinding creak, a straining of metal against metal. Then, as I was least expecting anything like dislodging, I was stunned when the entire passenger compartment snapped upwards. My head hit the roof when this happened.

This thing was opening its jaws!

The car lurched forward on its own. I couldn’t see a thing, the top of the hood angled upward as it was. The digital tachometer faded away and a diagram of my victim appeared in the soft glow of the green monochrome screen. A schematic of the vehicle, actually depicted as moving in real time, was labeled PHASE B HADEAN AVATAR, ALUMINUM/TITANIUM: CAN BE DAMAGED, CAN BE SORRY.

Even the steering wheel went rigid as it was locked on target. I rechecked the firmness of the connections of my seat belt. Abruptly the whole front of the car clamped down. It felt like a collision, and with the hood down again I could finally see. My car was taking a bite out of his car! It must have been something for him to see, my car opening its “jaws” and then chomping down.

So, O.K., how do I disengage? I wondered. Enough was enough, and I didn’t want to miss my exit. The Piranha had other plans. Up I went again, down crashed the hood again. I was bouncing wildly as my car chattered its grille on its prey. I could hear the clanging of loose pieces of tailpipe and bumper knocking under my car as I rode over them. Up and down I repeatedly was jolted by the couple of tons of machinery that so valiantly defended me. The rumination ended as the car seemed to punch its delicacy away with a final blow not unlike spitting it out. The controls, that is, the steering and speed, were once again returned to my control. I saw the other car, the Hadean Avatar, run like hell, its tail end unable to be placed between its legs, because it was a horrible twisted mess of both shredded metal and dangling naked bulbs.

I pulled my car over to the shoulder and got out. I got soaked, but this wasn’t bothersome. I was surprised, and yes, proud to see that the ol’ Piranha had only lost a couple of teeth. I paused to reflect that it felt good, for once, to be the one doling out the beatings. I had left the motor running, because I didn’t want to take a chance on the car not re-starting. The Piranha seemed to share my pride, its running motor idling at varying speeds which gave it a growling sound.

I was back at fifty-five in no time, and a mile or so after the biting attack I took my exit. I passed the old cemeteries now—the really old ones. All of those little white houses sat unsinking on the reclaimed marsh that was New Orleans, because something as narrow as a buried casket had no chance of avoiding the eventual bobbing back up. They surrounded me as I slipped onward, now rolling down City Park Avenue toward my eventual destination of Esplanade. The rain was finally letting up enough to put my windshield wipers on an intermittent setting. I thrilled at the chance to hold my Abby again.

About a mile or so later I was deep into City Park itself, knowing I must be crazy to be there by myself at such an hour. I pressed on. There were no boogeymen, or if there were they respected my hungry vehicle. I was finally on Esplanade, moving slowly toward the river, the French Quarter coming up on my right, the lower French Quarter approaching on my left. The Roe vs Wade Home for Unwed Mothers would be soon, I hoped. It was late and I was rattled, my eyes shifting right and left to catch a glimpse of that austere building’s facade of mail that enwombed its unwed mothers. As it turned out, I didn’t need such a keen eye, because the riot pointed the place out splendidly. It was on the other side of the street. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was wild. There were hundreds of people, mostly women it seemed, jostling about with each other. There were police cars authenticating the incident, even paddy wagons. I made a U-turn at the end of the avenue, where Elysian Fields met it, crossed around the neutral ground, and approached the site by creeping along the street until the fighting got in my way. The Piranha lay perched at an angle determined by the crowd, not in any way subscribing properly to the correctly designated parking spaces.

I jumped out of the car to tell a non-pregnant woman that that was no way to treat someone who was. She was handling her rather roughly, and I hated to see it. I painfully remembered my own bruises and injuries from my fresh out-of-body experience as I saw the blows these two were dishing out. I guess any suffering I had, sufficiently hiding under my enthusiasm to scoop up my Abby, resurfaced and made me flinch over the fight in front of me. And this brawl was not the only one. There were dozens going on. But this was the one that I could stop or so I thought.

“Ladies! Ladies! Stop! C’mon, break it up,” I shouted as I made the mistake of getting between them. They both grabbed me and threw me right into the on-coming policeman.

“Oomph!” he blurted at the time of my impact. “Hey, watch it, fellah,” he said. I kept myself from falling by catching on to him. He helped me and then eased away as I caught my balance. I was somewhat beaten up myself from my rape at Ava’s, and the policeman assumed my swelling and lumps were from the issues being entertained here. “Look, you gotta stay out of it. These women’ll kill you.”

“Trouble here?” I asked.

The cop looked curiously at me. “Yea, well,” the policeman explained in good faith, “the union’s at it again.”

“Excuse me?” I asked. We both backed up a little when the mob extended for a moment toward us, then retreated back like some hostile amoeba. The policeman was in black, with one of those bullet-proof vests on his chest. He wore a helmet that hosted several skulls on it to indicate how many times he had done something apparently extreme in the line of duty in this terrible place.

“The union,” he repeated. “The abortionists’ union.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” I admitted, only half-way paying attention as I spied every pregnancy I could for signs of Abby, all the while praying she was not in this free-for-all.

“The abortionists’ union,” he said again. Just then a pop bottle flew past both of us at head level. We ducked. “See this clinic right here next to the home?” he asked, pointing to the green single-story facility where we stood curbside.

“Yes,” I answered, still searching the faces.

“Well, that’s the abortion clinic here.”

“Right here?” I asked, temporarily halting my search. “They put it right here, right next to a home for unwed mothers? That’s a bit tacky, isn’t it?”

“Actually, Mister, you’ve got it backwards. They put the home right next to the clinic, and not the other way around.”

“Who did?” I asked him, as I was still confused. Another projectile went past. We ducked again.

“The abortionists’ union did,” he answered me.

“The abortionists’ union put up a home for unwed mothers?” Now I was really baffled.

“This is a movement of the last wave of ‘em who went on strike about a year ago. You know, the abortion workers wanted more benefits, went on strike; the corporation fired them, hired scabs; you know the story. Typical union fare.”

“And?”

“And their plight became a national concern, then a shit-in-the-fan movement, and now if they all ain’t getting themselves pregnant just to make a statement.”

“Abortionists? Getting pregnant just to make a protest?” I was astounded.

“Oh, sure,” said the cop. “Right-to-lifers all the way. They know the clinics hate that shit with a passion.” He paused to regard the fighting, and then he spoke again. “It’s kind of beautiful in a way. If it weren’t for abortion, these babies that’re gonna be born of these ladies here would have never been.”

Somewhere, maybe even here, this might have made sense. Thomas Greally would have been proud.

“So what’s all the fighting about? I’m looking for someone who’s pregnant.”

“Then you came to the right place. This here’s the Roe vs Wade Home for Unwed Mothers. It was put up by the national chain owned by the sympathizers for the abortionists’ union. It’s the place they put you, right here next to the clinic, when you’re protesting. Of course, you gotta be knocked up. And ya gotta need to protest.”

“And that’s why the hostilities,” I surmised.

“Sure,” he agreed. “It’s great. We break up one of these things two or three times a month.”

“But it’s almost dawn. What time did they start this?”

“Are you kidding? This’s been going on for a couple days now. It’s a good one. What’s really great is when sometimes a couple of the abortionists’ll hijack one of the knocked-ups outside on the sidewalk and drag her fightin’ and screamin’ into the clinic. And they’ll say, ‘Whoops, accidentally aborted another one.’ It’s hilarious if ya stop to think about it.” A bullet shattered the picture window of the clinic, the putty around the edges of the window still not having been razored away properly from the last installation. The policeman reflexly hit the dirt with the sound.

“Look out,” he warned as he stood back up, “it’s gettin’ pretty serious.” He stopped talking for a moment while he seemed to be looking for anyone with a gun. “And then sometimes,” he finally continued, “one of the clinic hopefuls’ll get kidnapped by the home and you never hear from her again.” He chuckled. “Not until you hear her in the beauty of natural childbirth. From up there.” He pointed up to the top of the home, three stories up, where towels were hanging out from an attic window to dry. The pregnant girl in the fight closest to us finally retreated away from her opponent and toward us. She was bleeding on her knees from where she had been pushed down. In our protection, she sat on the cement, cursing the clinic in front of her.

“Excuse me,” I said to her.

“What!” she yelled.

“Uh, I’m looking for a pregnant lady named Abby.”

“Who are you calling a lady, you life support system for a scrotum.”

“Not you, that’s for sure,” I answered angrily.

“Oh, and I suppose we, as ‘ladies,’ have to live our lives as defined by you, huh?” I could tell she was still a little upset by her fight. The policeman loved it. She continued her diatribe. “You worthless gun barrel for that ‘contribution’ fired out of you. Look at me!” she sneered, referring to her enlarged abdomen. “This is true existence—that I can do this. Not you. You’re a ghost, mere fertilizer!” She seemed satisfied that she had made everything clear to me. I considered her “true existence.”

“Ah, yes,” I taunted, “but you still can’t do that without me.”

“Oh yes I can,” she beamed.

“Well, perhaps so,” I conceded, “but you can’t have this ‘true existence’ without something from me. So you see, you need me for ‘total existence.’ There really isn’t any true existence without total existence.” And that’s when she stood up to slap me hard.

I reacted before I could think; I pushed her. “You want to be autodigested?” I threatened. Then the policeman slapped her back.

“Answer the man,” he commanded her. “Who’s that you’re looking for?” he asked me.

“Abby. Abby Bentley or Bartley or Brinkley or something like that. Or maybe even Ava or Ana.” I sure sounded stupid, and they both knew it. What name was on her chart? I asked myself.

“Yea,” she said as the cop held her elbow in that hurting way taught at police academies. “We have someone like that. She wasn’t even union, just a knock-up. She went to stay at her boyfriend’s apartment just this morning. She said she’d come back to us if the sonuvabitch ever showed up there again.” The pregnant girl eyed me up and down. “You’re him, aren’t you?” she asked, with some newly found respect. “You’re the sonuvabitch she hated.”

“Uh-oh,” murmured the officer. He feared the mob that was moving our way. We backed up farther and farther until it was obvious they were stopping to encircle Ava’s Piranha. They began rocking it back and forth attempting to roll it into the front of the clinic. The clinic supporters, the scabs, considered protecting the building with themselves, to be ready to catch the car and rock it back. They reconsidered, however, and dismissed this plan, but not all at the same time, as several got themselves pinned by the vehicle. From under the car, lying on its side on bricks and glass and them, could be heard their shouts for help.

“Forget it!” shouted one of the pregnant women. “We just aborted you!”

“I love it,” shouted the policeman. And then to me, jab in my ribs included, “Women, who can figure ‘em?”

It would be a twenty minute jog to my apartment, to my Abby who was still carrying my child. I was thrilled, which distracted me from this whole insane episode. My movement was in leaps, in spite of how sore I was from my fight while out-of-body as well as between the women. I couldn’t believe I pushed that woman, I thought, as I rushed on. It was just a shove, but still I couldn’t believe I did it. Men hurting women—was I at home here? I cried.

Demoted to pedestrian status by the riot, I ran to my building. I sprinted down Decatur, crossed Canal Street, and was nearing Riverscape. I thought of the real Ava. She had been on her own, I figured, in her own mission to find her Ralph. I could feel her wishing me luck the way I wished her the same.

I continued my run. I ran faster than I’d have ever thought possible. Injured as I was from my hovering knock-down drag-out in my out-of-body experience earlier, my bruises haunted my jaunt. Before too long I had developed a definite limp, but I pressed ahead, driven by my desire for Abby, although I could have had some help from the internal combustion engine of a Piranha. Finally...finally I reached my penthouse turned condo turned apartment turned tenement turned slum. The elevators, well...forget it. Although exhausted, I ran up the stairs flight after flight. On a particular landing was a heap of human wretchedness that at one point in my travels had been Mr. Robinson, my neighbor. Father of a banker way back when, I last saw him as the homeless Mr. Robbins. Now he lay crumpled in handicaps, one-legged, apparently blind, speaking nonsense out loud to no one.

“Mr. Robbins,” I called to him, leaning over him with a hand on his shoulder. His beard was matted. His skin was more yellow than Eddie’s at the Burger Nirvana so long ago.

“Rubens. The name is Rubens,” he corrected.

“Of course. Mr. Rubens, you’re sick. Isn’t there anyone who can help you?” He smiled with his whiskered cheeks, seemingly enjoying the onset of a lucid interval.

“Just you, my boy, whoever you are,” he said, not joyful for a possible rescue, but panhandling. I felt like someone who had run over a dog in the street while late for an important appointment. Should I stop and find the owner? Should I scoop up the poor thing and carry him to the vet? Should I just run him over again so he doesn’t suffer?

But this was deterring me on my mission. Why should this be my problem? Why should his impairments be my concern? I wasn’t the one with handicaps; I had my own life to live and my own problems to deal with.

I kept going.

Guilt? That was almost completely gone by the time I had reached my apartment. I tried the key, but it didn’t fit. I tried the knob and to my relief it turned, the door easing open. The slow creak was an unwelcome announcement. As soon as I had enough of an opening, I stuck my head in as if it were the most unimportant part of my body.

It was my place, alright, even though it was different, as expected. I wondered about me, though, because the place didn’t look half bad. The plastic covers on the lamps were gone. The whole place had an art deco motif that could be considered either hideous or stylish, depending on this layer’s most recent Southern Living issue. There were no lights on, but the dawn light filtered through windows throughout the layout.

“Abby,” I called softly. There was silence. I was still standing cautiously at the doorway, halfway in, halfway out—only my head entirely poking in to look around the corners of the felt-papered foyer. I called again. Still nothing. I opened the door more, and the creaking made me very uneasy. I entered with all of me and looked around.

The foyer and den were misleading, because they presented a false first impression. The other rooms told a different story. What kind of an animal lived here? But although there were all of the signs of the beast, there wasn’t a trace of the beauty. After checking out the whole place and then checking it again, I took to the stairs, leaping over Mr. Rubens, still vegetating in his debilitation. The rest of the flights flew under me. The stair landing adverts had become even more bizarre. On one landing, the second floor I think, I just had to stop. Our favorite psychiatrist was once again well represented. He had his face in the framed ad this time. He looked like hell in the picture, sporting a five o’clock shadow and little scars at the corner of each eye—the kind drunks have from falls.

CODEPENDENCY IS AN ADDICTION, the message read. IT IS AN ADDICTION TO RELATIONSHIPS. WITHOUT HELP, THE VICTIM FACES A LIFETIME OF CRISES. IF YOU’RE IN LOVE AND YOU DON’T LIKE IT, SEE ME. IF YOU’RE IN LOVE AND YOU DO LIKE IT, WE GOTTA WONDER IF IT’S THE RIGHT LOVE FOR YOU. LEAVE THE WONDERING TO US—DEPT. OF PSYCHIATTRITION, BLOWN AWAY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL.

I was in love myself, but I’d already seen the good doctor; and now I hoped to get to see my love. I kept going, out of the stairwell and into the lobby. I didn’t even know where I was going, but I wanted to get there fast. My body ached, now stiffening up a little. Within a moment I was out of the main entrance of the building and running aimlessly out of the door. In just the few hours since the mild temperatures at Popp’s Fountain, the weather had snapped much more nippy. The frigid, stinging spray—because that is what the New Orleans winter drizzle does—pricked my entire face, erasing the musty warmth I had felt from inside my building just moments ago. Miserable weather. What really stopped me cold, though, were the four meanest Sisters in red and white I’ve ever seen.

Boy, were they pissed!

Now I don’t have to tell you what the red and the white stood for. What I didn’t understand was what they stood in my way for. After all, with Abby alive and well and pregnant, Sister Chaz and Landrum (names?) weren’t framed for Abby’s murder like yesterlayer. I had to figure that this world’s version of that scene probably hadn’t pleased them either, because they were obviously here for me. Or maybe Mr. Rubens?

“Uh, hello, Sisters,” I said nonchalantly. Not Mr. Rubens. It was me. As was their obvious talent, I was grasped by the big knuckles on these mountains of women and silently carted off to the waiting hospital ambulance. This time, as the name read, it was Blown Away Memorial Hospital for the Deprived and Depraved.

“Back to B.A.M.,” the Sister Chaz said.

“Right, Sister Chaz,” the driver responded, her name apparently sticking. So off we rolled, the driver in the front by himself, me sitting on the mounted stretcher with the four members of the Butch League around me.

“Mind if I drum up some business, Sister Chaz?” the driver asked.

“Census is low, chum,” she answered gravely.

“Arrrright,” he beamed. I dreaded what they might mean, but his purposeful swerve proved me right.

The jogger must have popped ten feet into the air, landing on his ass. The driver screeched to a halt and then burnt rubber in reverse to reach his doomed victim.

“Oh, I think it’s broke, asshole,” the runner said to the driver, supporting his right leg, puffing in pain. “What the hell? Who did this to me?” In the turmoil of being struck, tires screeching, and EMS-personnel uncertainty, he didn’t realize his rescuer was the culprit.

“Ambulances have the right of way,” the driver said to Chaz.

“First rule of filling a hospital,” Chaz said back. Then he tossed his head toward the other Sisters. “He said, ‘It’s broke, asshole.’ He thinks his asshole’s broke,” he called to them, laughing. Then he said back to his jogger, as his only apology, “Life’s tough in the big city. C’mon, I’ll help you in.”

“If I ever find the guy that clipped me, I’ll kill ‘im,” said the jogger. All but Chaz snickered, and I guess it was pretty funny in a demented, sick, depraved sort of way—in a Blown Away sort of way. The driver opened the rear door of the ambulance and threw him in. He landed on his back. I knew why he was going to Blown Away; I just didn’t know why I was.

“Howdoyalike that?” said the driver, “you open the door for people and they breeze on in without so much as a thank you, like I’m a goddamn doorman.”

“Oh, here, let me help you,” I offered to the jogger. There was no similar help offered from my kidnappers.

“Oh, wow,” the jogger said, experiencing his pain out loud and using my support for mobility. “Umph.” He lifted himself onto the mounted stretcher on the other side of the ambulance.

“Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ooh, shit!” he further expounded.

“Hurts, huh?” I asked, only to get a disapproving look from my captors which made me regret my question.

“No,” he said, puffing more, “it feels good, ass-breath.”

With this, Sister Chaz popped him in the mouth. “Be a man,” she commanded.

“Room for more?” the driver asked.

“No,” answered Sister Chaz. The driver sulked but kept driving. He had a very greasy, dark-haired head. There was a plastic partition between his driver’s seat and the rest of the vehicle. This partition behind him, elsewhere clear, was opaque in a round splotchy shape of grease that was from his head resting back upon it. He rested it back now; he was a well-oiled, relaxed driver.

What a sport, I thought of Sister Chaz, who denied him any more targets: her knowing when to say when. I dared not speak another word, because I had no wish to be slapped; my life’s had more than enough slaps. Yet I wanted desperately to know just what was going on. Why did they come for me? Had she been following me ever since The Greality Tour of this layer? What was going to happen at Blown Away Memorial? Why wasn’t this broken leg patient aware that the culprit of his victimization had been this ambulance terrorist? Didn’t he see us coming? Where was Abby? And what were the mole women doing at my apartment building? A stake out?

As the jogger and I bounced along in the back of the ambulance, I became frightened. What if Ava back there was still the true exister I’d been travelling with? I surely ditched her in a hurry based on my out-of-body experience. What if she really hadn’t slid or left behind this world’s version? There were two back there, one asleep and one with crazy eyes aimed right at me. Who was who back there? And what if the out-of-body experience had been just a dream? My old famous fears again. I closed my eyes to the siren of the ambulance and to the moans of the jogger and to the stares of the good Sisters. I swayed back and forth to the turns of my transportation. The Sisters, owing to their bulk planted solidly, didn’t rock at all, even with their hands hanging loosely at their sides.

The ambulance eventually swerved with a screech into its designated space at the hospital with a perfect sudden deceleration. It was up a ramp, and the jogger and I fell back against the rear exit. The Sisterhood exited through a sliding side door, but orderlies popped open the rear door meant for me and my jogger, whereupon we tumbled out.

“Hey!” the jogger shouted. “Watch it, will ya?”

As I had expected, neither of us were treated smoothly. In fact, we were handled like airport luggage—like New Orleans International Airport luggage—all of the way to an apparent waiting area which was a six-by-six cubicle with no furniture. It’s only decoration the Blown Away plaque, its Mission Statement, the pliable credo which had changed with the slides:

GIVE US YOUR POOR SOMETIMES, YOUR RICH ALWAYS, AND YOUR EXCUSES NEVER. GIVE US YOUR UP TIGHT, OUT OF SIGHT, AND IN THE GROOVE—WE’LL TAKE CARE OF THEM, ALRIGHT

We both slumped to the floor, he because his bad leg yielded, I from a little sigh that snowballed into a sudden depressive hopelessness. For the longest time we just looked at each other. Finally, I tried to break the ice.

“Gee, I hope it’s not hurt too bad.”

“Fuck you!” he said back. This was very thick ice. This was solid nitrogen.

“Oh, yea?” I said back, “well fuck you, too, O.K.?”

“You’re looking to start some trouble?” he asked, mindless of his own trouble.

“I guess,” I surmised, “that you’re just going to walk on over to me and show me what for.”

“You bastard!” he said and started chasing me around the small square footage of yellowed linoleum by dragging his rear end after me. The wear on the tiles impressed me. How many other rear ends had buffed this floor? His was certainly doing a good job, that part of his anatomy in hot pursuit of me. If it hadn’t involved me, this would’ve made for great comedy, I felt, realizing that some asshole was chasing me. Still, it wouldn’t be funny if he caught me—he might try to bite my thigh or something.

“Aw, c’mon, guy, you should be mad at the driver, not me.”

“I’m just mad,” he said, “and you’re here. And I’m hurting,” he puffed, “and as long as I’m hurting and you’re here, and I’m mad…” he puffed some more.

“...then you’re going to trounce me. Bravo,” I said, still prancing evasively. Suddenly, he stopped to catch his breath.

“Do you know that the ambulance driver was the guy—that he swerved out of his way to get you?” I asked him.

“I’m not surprised,” he answered.

Not surprised? I hoped to get a glimpse of the psyche of this layer, which could only help me in my present and soon-to-be predicaments. This insight would depend on his answer to my next question.

“Why are you not surprised?”

This guy is out there minding his own business, jogging to be healthy, for God’s sake, and this ambulance driver is given sanction by his hospital to maliciously take aim and fire at him with his vehicle. Like a reptile zaps a bug in mid-air with its tongue.

“Yea, well,” he said, grimacing, no doubt a pain surge from his asscapade. “I guess,” he continued, “I was just in the wrong place at the right time.” He pause to groan, but continued immediately after. “I was there, he was there; I could get hit, he could do it; he could benefit by it. He owed me nothing, so he did it.”

And the imagery of a reptile or some sticky-tongued amphibian still stuck in my mind, that long tongue whipping out and snagging a nameless flying or jogging prey. And a like creature comes across the aggressor and fights with it—just for the hell of it—a result of distrust, and co-existing with distrust can be insulting to one’s stability. And one lizard fights with another. And one man drags his ass all over linoleum to fight with another man.

Of course these worlds were making less and less sense. There was no sense! No sense meant no right or wrong. No right or wrong meant no screw-ups, no excuses, and no bullshit! I was truly in a reptilian world where the highest species was dominated by one of the oldest parts of his brain. I was in a place where evolution donated no barrier to these parts, but in fact embraced them. Where frontal lobes need not apply. Where conscience meant remorse and excuses and bullshit.

I became startled at the breakthrough of understanding for me here. Although I had hoped to dissect the psyche of this layer with my inquisition, I was surprised to actually come to quite an important realization about myself:

It might be remembered that I had once described sliding as flexing the cerebral buffer that passively suppressed the more primitive areas of my brain. That mystical barrier that surrounded Homo amphibia, the barrier taken for granted by everyone but me, I likened to a very fat man who, by mere sitting, passively suppressed this area’s rearing its ugly head. I, of course, could make the fat man, 700 pounds I think was the number I used, jump up and down on this primeval area and, in so doing, further foster its dormancy. In this way, I went on to explain, my sensorium out-distanced itself even farther from the savage thoughts that are in us all; made my brain look even further down its nose at this crude remnant from the past.

And here I was being chased by this struggling victim who would fight to the end, even with anybody. Driven by the amphibian that was his only emotion, I turned to him to understand his world. In doing so I realized that all of the slides had to go into a deteriorating direction. The more I enhanced the suppression of that censored part of my brain, that is to say, the more I slid, the more my perspective demonstrated distance from it; the more I could look at my new environment with contempt for its lack of sense and its further separation from both God and soulful volition.

And so it occurred to me that I may not be travelling the worsening road at all, but I may be just seeing a static world with gradual increments of my contempt for its imperfections. I really didn’t know which was worse.

And in this more deteriorated world, or alternately, with my more contemptuous perspective in a place I had never really left, my gluteal gladiator had non-directed rage. He suffered no real indignation. He merely reacted. I wondered how reptilian thought would react to the advanced concept of compassion. I offered him my hand.

He spat on it.

Man, I hate spit. I don’t much care if I get slapped or pushed, but please don’t spit on me. I rubbed my hand on my pants leg along with I’m sure a few cell layers of skin. This joker was on his own. Now I knew that this was a different place than where I had originally begun. This was no static world.

I was still the constant.

Suddenly, the only door opened. There stood Sister Chaz directing an entourage of orderlies. “This one to Orthopedics,” she said of the jogger. “And that one,” she said of me, pointing, “he needs to be in Observation...in Psychiattrician.” And off I went, dragged by three big orderlies, although they were smaller than any of the Sisters.

I’d seen this dark corridor before. This was the psychiatric area named “Psychiattrition,” and these were the collection of rooms which were “Observation.” We passed door after door until we came to one with only a small vertical slit in it. The door was opened and I was tossed in silently, the silence broken by the metal thud of the arcing door. The keys insured my incarceration with their jingling as the deadbolt was thrown and tumblers scrambled. I sat motionless on the floor, one as clean as any movie theater’s after a weekend. I listened intently. All I could hear was running water, apparently collected rain through drain pipes coursing through the cement block walls.

“Anyone here?” I whispered. There was no answer. There was no rustling of the debris on the floor. I was alone.

The next hour was anxiety-laden, as I expected at any moment, and over and over at each subsequent moment, to hear the door fly open as a prelude to my being snatched out and off to somewhere unpleasant, like “Negative Reinforcement.”

The hour after that was better. The one after that I slept.

Unknown hours later I awoke. My eyes were finally adjusted to the darkness, and I was finally sure I was alone. It was so quiet where I was, almost like someone had pushed the pause button, stopping time altogether. Except, of course, for the muffled sound of rain somewhere. And there was also the high-pitch whistle of a vent overhead—like the ultrasonic whine from an old tube television. It was a great torture device, even if no one here had thought of it themselves. I arose and began to pace, if for anything, to make some more sound; the darkness was deprivation enough, but the silence was suffocating and dumbfounding. The water I heard was like white noise that amplified the effect. The high-pitch whistle could only be noticed consciously when the vent would come back on after having been off awhile.

I thought about the apparent groupthink of this world, revealed to me by the jogger: juxtaposition is the only ethic; one’s opportunity slithers up to another’s weakness. I figured the only opportunity I had was for discontent, and no one would take it personally if I complained a little.

“I want a lawyer!” I shouted as best as could be done through a slit. “I demand a lawyer! I demand my rights. Don’t I get my phone call? Don’t I get my gun?”

I got a headache is what I got. And I got hungry, too. And then I had a full bladder, not that anybody cared. I really did hold out as long as I possibly could but then did what any good reptile would do: I found myself a respectable corner in which to relieve myself. So strong was my aversion to doing this that at first I was caught in sphincter-lock. Sickeningly, I finally came through and hoped that my cell was not on a slant.

Of the twelve to eighteen hours that I’d been there with all of the privacy I could hope to ever have, it was unsettling to be visited during the very act of my relief. Of course! What better time! With my bladder only mostly empty I clammed up with the sound of keys. The door opened a crack just big enough to have an arm wave in a package drop, then it shut solidly again.

My pupils constricted from what seemed to be a blinding shaft of light from the twilit hall outside. When they finally rebounded to their murk-vision readiness, I identified the package where it had landed. It was one of those zip-lock plastic storage bags. In it were two items, one slightly edible, the other ballistic.

I examined the sandwich first—two pieces of stale rye comforting a dry slice of yellow cheese. My bon vivant days were definitely over. I declined any careful inspection of the cheese but just wolfed down the whole thing. And I thought I didn’t like rye!

The gun was a cheap affair loaded with six rounds. Six rounds? Now why would they give more than one round to someone they had hoped would do himself in? Not unless...

A roommate? These cubicles were used for more than one! I know—I’d been here before. More than one patient but with only one gun. Murder, suicide, both—all a big load off of a hospital service that could still get reimbursement for census.

This was a good guess. It made Sister Chaz’s census remark make sense in its senseless way. So now there was a new dread for me, worse than my unidentifiable predicament—that the door would open again and that the low-lux light behind it would stream in to introduce the arrival of a co-detainee who would probably know who had the gun. The dread worsened. Could I sleep with company? Probably not. If I were to sleep, would he take the gun and shoot me? Probably so. Could I reason with him and strike up a deal? Probably not. Could I shoot him first to avoid the whole senseless crisis?

Probably so. In spite of any assurance, pleading, or promises from him.

And so a most primitive part of my brain began to beat up on the higher lobes so as to emerge with a voice to be heard—an outranked lone senator, misunderstood on the cerebral floor, with the power of filibuster.

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Chapter 14 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon
14
The next few hours were restful for me; I finally found myself easing awake, feeling refreshed on many different levels. Luckily, I awoke before the Ava lying in bed next to me had. This was a safe outcome, for I knew she was the pop-up of the truly existing Ava. It was raining outside, and distant thunder answered flickers of light from the clouds outside, which may have been what had woken me up. The bedroom was not totally dark; there was enough reflected light for me to see her sleeping right next to me. At first I thought that there was sleep in my eyes, because she was a bit of a blur. I rubbed my eyes hard to clear them and looked again. She was still blurry. Inspecting her closely, I was able to determine that the blurring effect was a slight shifting of her face, over and over, back and forth. I watched her chest, and to my amazement I saw it rise simultaneously with another image of it collapsing. I was watching inspiration and expiration at the same time. I was watching two different Avas in the same space!
I snapped my head back to a supine position, my eyes fixed on the ceiling, unblinking. I was caught in mid-slide, and I didn’t know what the hell to do. You can burn a lot of calories when you panic without moving. You can feel them melting away. I sweated.
Slowly and smoothly, certainly so as not to jostle the bed, I turned my head back toward her, toward them. The phenomenon persisted, and I continued to lose weight. The weird presentation was most pronounced in her chest, where the most movement was. A flash of lightning made the double exposure crystal clear to me, and I noticed that there was a narrowing in the chase of the thunder’s timing. I slowly rolled my eyes over to look her in her face again, which was tilted on her pillow my way. Still the blur. I studied her closely and could finally make out the two Avas distinctly.
Suddenly one of them opened her eyes wide at me! That look that screamed at me was either rage or fear, I couldn’t tell; so I couldn’t really tell which Ava was awake. These wild eyes burned into my own retinas as a particularly bright flash of lightning lit them up like burning coals. The thunder crashed almost simultaneously as I jumped right out of the bed, making much too much noise myself. I quickly sat upright by the side of the bed and looked again. There she was, sleeping soundly, in the crisp focus of singular identity.
It seemed I had solidly landed, no longer in the nether-world of that eerie phantom zone. I just didn’t know which Ava I was dealt. At least those big eyes was safely tucked away in the history of former layers. I surely couldn’t withstand their mixed message again. And even though I realized that I still probably had the pretty nasty one right here—that the closed, resting eyes were a false assurance—still I was relieved that, friend or foe, she was also safely tucked in, right in her own bed, fast asleep. I prayed for a pause in the weather.
I sat still for a moment, my knees flexed, my ankles digging into my behind. My hands were clasped together on my belly. My nose was running and I sniffed into myself to try to dry it. My nightshirt felt wet. I lifted my hand to my nose to smell, to gain a clue as to the source of the moisture. At first I thought that I was just that sweaty with all of the recent frights. Then I became disgusted at the prospect that I might have urinated on myself during the mêlée that I had experienced before coming back down into my body. The odor was not of urea, though; it was nevertheless unmistakable. There was something terribly wrong here, and I did not feel secure in this dampness.
There was the dim light from the bathroom that gave enough illumination into the bedroom for me to see, to my horror, that I was covered in blood, actively coming from my nose and from my knuckles and limbs. I snuck away from the bed, the soles of my feet also wet and slightly sticky, leaving red footprints as I walked. I went into the bathroom and closed the door, leaving that Ava-type person sleeping in the resulting darkness. After short consideration, I locked the door by clicking in the brass doorknob. Alone in this bathroom, behind the closed door, I slowly pivoted around, using the thrust of my hand against the locked doorknob to do so. Turning around, facing the mirror, I suddenly went limp with helplessness when the next flash of lightning coincided exactly with the thunderclap. This is when I saw the monster.
It was a ghoulish apparition staring right back at me. I felt disarmed and vulnerable. I exhaled a burst of silent horror as the fiend looked back at me, giving the same open-mouthed expression to me that I was giving to it. Almost immediately I realized that it was me looking like hell, black and blue, bloody and swollen, in the reflection. This mirror was part of the mounted medicine cabinet that had drifted partially open to face any intruder, my reflection thereby hitting me broadside.
It was the moment of terror everyone has after having been spooked by a scary movie—seeing something in a mirror other than what is expected. So strange it is that the mirror is such a feared object after we get spooked by a frightening book or film or other medium. It always has been for me, and I don’t know why.
It is as if the thing we fear the most is what would be seen the unrecognizable that comes from ourselves.
I turned on the faucet and washed the fresh blood off of my face, as well as the crusted, flaking blood from my arms and chest. The rain seemed to be pouring even more heavily now. I turned off the light so as not to streak the bedroom with a shaft of brightness when I opened the door. My heart jumped in my throat when the opening door tried to announce me with a loud creak. I stopped its swing and peaked to see this Ava, fortunately, unstirred. After all, I reassured myself, she was sleeping fairly well through all of this thunder.
I squeezed out through the limited space the partly opened door afforded and entered a walk-in closet and closed its door silently behind me. I could still taste blood, but this was dripping from my nose down to my throat, and so my face remained dry for now.
I dressed with fresh clothing. My selections clashed, but so what? Within moments I had successfully negotiated my way to the table in the kitchen without violating any more night stillness. The rain continued, but now the lightning and thunder were once again distantly separated events, gently accenting the background of the downpour. I read the chart.
Still unchanged; at least in the crucial parts regarding my Abby. I sat and concentrated.
And then I slid.
I don’t know if the out-of-body experience is what gave me the impetus or what, but this time I noticed a difference in the chart! There were some subtle changes in diction, the syntax was jumbled at times—I had slid successfully! I was once again moving by my own power, and no longer only at the whim of magnets and out-of-body fist fights. I slid over and over until the chart finally read what I had wanted:
“Patient pregnant, being seen as out-patient; living at Roe vs. Wade Home for Unwed Mothers.”
I considered the paradox of her residence with befuddled amusement as I confiscated the car keys that hung so approachably in the cupboard.
I darted for the door. As often as I had dreamt of tearing off in Ava’s Piranha, I had realized that I’d know just when that time would be—and this was definitely the time. I popped out of the side door of the house that opened into the carport where the red and brown sports car sat, hopefully the battery still at the ready. Four doors in a “sports car,” I thought; some racy. It was pretty ugly, actually, but did look fast. And heavy. It was perfect for the predatory streets of this layer, but would sink like an anvil in the Amazon where its namesake inspired its verve. Its front grille was an expected design for a car so named. Its vertical chrome shafting did look like long, slender, sharp teeth. The hood release was through this dentition, which was bound to make any serviceman a little nervous when sticking his hand into the mouth of this beast.
The rain was heavy enough to spray in through the sides of the carport. I got my back wet as I entered the car at the driver’s door. The engine began turning over so loudly I almost expected the Ava here to come running out to stop the rip-off. It strained as stale batteries often cause an engine to do, and I began to sweat when my doubts started, but luckily my frequent trips to the carport paid off as there was enough juice to finally get it started. I prudently buckled up and then pulled backward down the wet driveway. The rolling water raced me down the gentle incline toward the curb. I reversed the car into the street, and when I was in the drive straightaway I took off, occasionally spraying a curtain of water to the left or to the right as I plowed large street puddles that had been collecting for the last few hours.
My Abby awaited me; she would get her surprise tonight at the Roe vs. Wade Home for Unwed Mothers. I couldn’t wait and my driving showed it.
During my time at Ava’s, I was grateful I had at least looked around outside once in a while. And with the occasional excursion to fountain or domed stadium, I had noted vehicular protocol. I knew which side of the street to drive on from my attention to this detail, as it had been months since I had last been at the helm in traffic. In addition, there was no traffic here in which to flow this late at night, so this knowledge proved crucial.
I knew the way to the Roe vs Wade Home, because I had seen the TV commercials for it so often. It was on Esplanade Avenue, a once lovely street in bygone layers when stately mansions, the same as were characteristic of the Garden District, stood proudly, defining the street’s milieu. Now the thoroughfare was dotted with gas stations where the ghosts of the homes were, a few bars languishing among them at points. The surviving houses needed work, no longer kept up so meticulously as in nicer worlds ago. The oaks, with their draping moss, seemed their only protection now.
In the few runs out to my apartment to get things, I’d return home by asking the cab driver to take the scenic route past this street, which I had once liked even more than St. Charles Avenue. I would direct the driver to go the full distance of my former favorite until it dumped us into City Park at the Delgado Museum. From there, we’d drive down the mid-city atmosphere of City Park Avenue until we could jump on the Expressway at the foot of Canal. The Expressway of New Orleans was terrifying enough even where I had graduated summa cum laude, and for this part of the ride I just always closed my eyes. This time, I was driving, I would have to take the Expressway in full view, in pouring rain, taking that exact route backwards until Esplanade presented itself as my destination instead of my starting point.
It’s funny that as many times as I had been down the street, I had never noticed the home for unwed mothers. From the pictures on the commercials on television, which was how I was familiar with it, it had an unusual front that involved a lot of burglar bars.
It was an easy drive to the Expressway for the car but not for my mind. The mist that inundated the torrents cloaked me away from what I knew was outside. As the Piranha sliced dreamily through the inclement night air, lulled by the distant sirens of this world, it only seemed to protect me. The reality was that it announced me—made me stand out as an invader into the alien realities and machinations here. The false sense of serenity of the closed-in climate-controlled cabin was claustrophobic.
Only an occasional car was encountered, typically gaining on me rapidly from behind and then firing past me. When I was able, I tried to identify the model. One car had lettering shaped like flames along its side that said Aghasteroid. Beneath these letters it boasted “electronic cruel-injected.” Another one that flew past me quickly had a customized license plate with too many letters crammed together that read, DYING ANYWAY. I was glad to see that one go, for I knew he had nothing to lose. I never did see a posted speed limit, but felt safer breaking the minimum rather than the maximum. I went fifty-five.
An evil-looking vehicle came up on my left and then used its brakes to match my speed. It was black and had fins and spikes all over it and wore at least five differently sized antennas. I nervously looked over repeatedly but couldn’t see because all of the windows were darkened. This guy must have taken his car out of gear or played with his clutch in such a way as to rev up next to me while moving alongside. I declined the challenge by slowing down further. This was obviously annoying, for he swerved in front of me, making me hit my brakes hard to avoid a collision. He began to slow more, drawing me provocatively into his harassment. I was very panicky by this point and searched the console for a button that would signal my emergency flasher. Maybe that would work, I thought. There was still no letup in the rain, and I strained to be watchful for his brake lights ahead of me. Unable to readily identify the flasher button, I fumbled open a panel of shellacked hardwood and saw a set of hidden controls. One of them was a button labeled, AUTODIGESTION.
What did I have to lose? I figured it was only a matter of time before I got myself PincerLocked or worse, so I punched the button. It must have been important, because to do this I had to flip up a little hinged rod that lay over it, obviously designed to prevent accidental use. It was time to see what a Piranha could do. If mainstream America could afford cars with PincerLock or whatever, then I was curious to see what a car like this could muster—a car that a rich guy like the late Ralph Ebe could afford.
The message on the dashboard screen read, ARE YOU SURE? I hit it again, quite sure. By this time we were crawling on the Interstate, occasional cars whizzing past, saluting our imminent confrontation with horns. I patiently waited for autodigestion, whatever that was.
All at once I heard a grinding creak, a straining of metal against metal. Then, as I was least expecting anything like dislodging, I was stunned when the entire passenger compartment snapped upwards. My head hit the roof when this happened.
This thing was opening its jaws!
The car lurched forward on its own. I couldn’t see a thing, the top of the hood angled upward as it was. The digital tachometer faded away and a diagram of my victim appeared in the soft glow of the green monochrome screen. A schematic of the vehicle, actually depicted as moving in real time, was labeled PHASE B HADEAN AVATAR, ALUMINUM/TITANIUM: CAN BE DAMAGED, CAN BE SORRY.
Even the steering wheel went rigid as it was locked on target. I rechecked the firmness of the connections of my seat belt. Abruptly the whole front of the car clamped down. It felt like a collision, and with the hood down again I could finally see. My car was taking a bite out of his car! It must have been something for him to see, my car opening its “jaws” and then chomping down.
So, O.K., how do I disengage? I wondered. Enough was enough, and I didn’t want to miss my exit. The Piranha had other plans. Up I went again, down crashed the hood again. I was bouncing wildly as my car chattered its grille on its prey. I could hear the clanging of loose pieces of tailpipe and bumper knocking under my car as I rode over them. Up and down I repeatedly was jolted by the couple of tons of machinery that so valiantly defended me. The rumination ended as the car seemed to punch its delicacy away with a final blow not unlike spitting it out. The controls, that is, the steering and speed, were once again returned to my control. I saw the other car, the Hadean Avatar, run like hell, its tail end unable to be placed between its legs, because it was a horrible twisted mess of both shredded metal and dangling naked bulbs.
I pulled my car over to the shoulder and got out. I got soaked, but this wasn’t bothersome. I was surprised, and yes, proud to see that the ol’ Piranha had only lost a couple of teeth. I paused to reflect that it felt good, for once, to be the one doling out the beatings. I had left the motor running, because I didn’t want to take a chance on the car not re-starting. The Piranha seemed to share my pride, its running motor idling at varying speeds which gave it a growling sound.
I was back at fifty-five in no time, and a mile or so after the biting attack I took my exit. I passed the old cemeteries now—the really old ones. All of those little white houses sat unsinking on the reclaimed marsh that was New Orleans, because something as narrow as a buried casket had no chance of avoiding the eventual bobbing back up. They surrounded me as I slipped onward, now rolling down City Park Avenue toward my eventual destination of Esplanade. The rain was finally letting up enough to put my windshield wipers on an intermittent setting. I thrilled at the chance to hold my Abby again.
About a mile or so later I was deep into City Park itself, knowing I must be crazy to be there by myself at such an hour. I pressed on. There were no boogeymen, or if there were they respected my hungry vehicle. I was finally on Esplanade, moving slowly toward the river, the French Quarter coming up on my right, the lower French Quarter approaching on my left. The Roe vs Wade Home for Unwed Mothers would be soon, I hoped. It was late and I was rattled, my eyes shifting right and left to catch a glimpse of that austere building’s facade of mail that enwombed its unwed mothers. As it turned out, I didn’t need such a keen eye, because the riot pointed the place out splendidly. It was on the other side of the street. I didn’t know what was going on, but it was wild. There were hundreds of people, mostly women it seemed, jostling about with each other. There were police cars authenticating the incident, even paddy wagons. I made a U-turn at the end of the avenue, where Elysian Fields met it, crossed around the neutral ground, and approached the site by creeping along the street until the fighting got in my way. The Piranha lay perched at an angle determined by the crowd, not in any way subscribing properly to the correctly designated parking spaces.
I jumped out of the car to tell a non-pregnant woman that that was no way to treat someone who was. She was handling her rather roughly, and I hated to see it. I painfully remembered my own bruises and injuries from my fresh out-of-body experience as I saw the blows these two were dishing out. I guess any suffering I had, sufficiently hiding under my enthusiasm to scoop up my Abby, resurfaced and made me flinch over the fight in front of me. And this brawl was not the only one. There were dozens going on. But this was the one that I could stop or so I thought.
“Ladies! Ladies! Stop! C’mon, break it up,” I shouted as I made the mistake of getting between them. They both grabbed me and threw me right into the on-coming policeman.
“Oomph!” he blurted at the time of my impact. “Hey, watch it, fellah,” he said. I kept myself from falling by catching on to him. He helped me and then eased away as I caught my balance. I was somewhat beaten up myself from my rape at Ava’s, and the policeman assumed my swelling and lumps were from the issues being entertained here. “Look, you gotta stay out of it. These women’ll kill you.”
“Trouble here?” I asked.
The cop looked curiously at me. “Yea, well,” the policeman explained in good faith, “the union’s at it again.”
“Excuse me?” I asked. We both backed up a little when the mob extended for a moment toward us, then retreated back like some hostile amoeba. The policeman was in black, with one of those bullet-proof vests on his chest. He wore a helmet that hosted several skulls on it to indicate how many times he had done something apparently extreme in the line of duty in this terrible place.
“The union,” he repeated. “The abortionists’ union.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” I admitted, only half-way paying attention as I spied every pregnancy I could for signs of Abby, all the while praying she was not in this free-for-all.
“The abortionists’ union,” he said again. Just then a pop bottle flew past both of us at head level. We ducked. “See this clinic right here next to the home?” he asked, pointing to the green single-story facility where we stood curbside.
“Yes,” I answered, still searching the faces.
“Well, that’s the abortion clinic here.”
“Right here?” I asked, temporarily halting my search. “They put it right here, right next to a home for unwed mothers? That’s a bit tacky, isn’t it?”
“Actually, Mister, you’ve got it backwards. They put the home right next to the clinic, and not the other way around.”
“Who did?” I asked him, as I was still confused. Another projectile went past. We ducked again.
“The abortionists’ union did,” he answered me.
“The abortionists’ union put up a home for unwed mothers?” Now I was really baffled.
“This is a movement of the last wave of ‘em who went on strike about a year ago. You know, the abortion workers wanted more benefits, went on strike; the corporation fired them, hired scabs; you know the story. Typical union fare.”
“And?”
“And their plight became a national concern, then a shit-in-the-fan movement, and now if they all ain’t getting themselves pregnant just to make a statement.”
“Abortionists? Getting pregnant just to make a protest?” I was astounded.
“Oh, sure,” said the cop. “Right-to-lifers all the way. They know the clinics hate that shit with a passion.” He paused to regard the fighting, and then he spoke again. “It’s kind of beautiful in a way. If it weren’t for abortion, these babies that’re gonna be born of these ladies here would have never been.”
Somewhere, maybe even here, this might have made sense. Thomas Greally would have been proud.
“So what’s all the fighting about? I’m looking for someone who’s pregnant.”
“Then you came to the right place. This here’s the Roe vs Wade Home for Unwed Mothers. It was put up by the national chain owned by the sympathizers for the abortionists’ union. It’s the place they put you, right here next to the clinic, when you’re protesting. Of course, you gotta be knocked up. And ya gotta need to protest.”
“And that’s why the hostilities,” I surmised.
“Sure,” he agreed. “It’s great. We break up one of these things two or three times a month.”
“But it’s almost dawn. What time did they start this?”
“Are you kidding? This’s been going on for a couple days now. It’s a good one. What’s really great is when sometimes a couple of the abortionists’ll hijack one of the knocked-ups outside on the sidewalk and drag her fightin’ and screamin’ into the clinic. And they’ll say, ‘Whoops, accidentally aborted another one.’ It’s hilarious if ya stop to think about it.” A bullet shattered the picture window of the clinic, the putty around the edges of the window still not having been razored away properly from the last installation. The policeman reflexly hit the dirt with the sound.
“Look out,” he warned as he stood back up, “it’s gettin’ pretty serious.” He stopped talking for a moment while he seemed to be looking for anyone with a gun. “And then sometimes,” he finally continued, “one of the clinic hopefuls’ll get kidnapped by the home and you never hear from her again.” He chuckled. “Not until you hear her in the beauty of natural childbirth. From up there.” He pointed up to the top of the home, three stories up, where towels were hanging out from an attic window to dry. The pregnant girl in the fight closest to us finally retreated away from her opponent and toward us. She was bleeding on her knees from where she had been pushed down. In our protection, she sat on the cement, cursing the clinic in front of her.
“Excuse me,” I said to her.
“What!” she yelled.
“Uh, I’m looking for a pregnant lady named Abby.”
“Who are you calling a lady, you life support system for a scrotum.”
“Not you, that’s for sure,” I answered angrily.
“Oh, and I suppose we, as ‘ladies,’ have to live our lives as defined by you, huh?” I could tell she was still a little upset by her fight. The policeman loved it. She continued her diatribe. “You worthless gun barrel for that ‘contribution’ fired out of you. Look at me!” she sneered, referring to her enlarged abdomen. “This is true existence—that I can do this. Not you. You’re a ghost, mere fertilizer!” She seemed satisfied that she had made everything clear to me. I considered her “true existence.”
“Ah, yes,” I taunted, “but you still can’t do that without me.”
“Oh yes I can,” she beamed.
“Well, perhaps so,” I conceded, “but you can’t have this ‘true existence’ without something from me. So you see, you need me for ‘total existence.’ There really isn’t any true existence without total existence.” And that’s when she stood up to slap me hard.
I reacted before I could think; I pushed her. “You want to be autodigested?” I threatened. Then the policeman slapped her back.
“Answer the man,” he commanded her. “Who’s that you’re looking for?” he asked me.
“Abby. Abby Bentley or Bartley or Brinkley or something like that. Or maybe even Ava or Ana.” I sure sounded stupid, and they both knew it. What name was on her chart? I asked myself.
“Yea,” she said as the cop held her elbow in that hurting way taught at police academies. “We have someone like that. She wasn’t even union, just a knock-up. She went to stay at her boyfriend’s apartment just this morning. She said she’d come back to us if the sonuvabitch ever showed up there again.” The pregnant girl eyed me up and down. “You’re him, aren’t you?” she asked, with some newly found respect. “You’re the sonuvabitch she hated.”
“Uh-oh,” murmured the officer. He feared the mob that was moving our way. We backed up farther and farther until it was obvious they were stopping to encircle Ava’s Piranha. They began rocking it back and forth attempting to roll it into the front of the clinic. The clinic supporters, the scabs, considered protecting the building with themselves, to be ready to catch the car and rock it back. They reconsidered, however, and dismissed this plan, but not all at the same time, as several got themselves pinned by the vehicle. From under the car, lying on its side on bricks and glass and them, could be heard their shouts for help.
“Forget it!” shouted one of the pregnant women. “We just aborted you!”
“I love it,” shouted the policeman. And then to me, jab in my ribs included, “Women, who can figure ‘em?”
It would be a twenty minute jog to my apartment, to my Abby who was still carrying my child. I was thrilled, which distracted me from this whole insane episode. My movement was in leaps, in spite of how sore I was from my fight while out-of-body as well as between the women. I couldn’t believe I pushed that woman, I thought, as I rushed on. It was just a shove, but still I couldn’t believe I did it. Men hurting women—was I at home here? I cried.
Demoted to pedestrian status by the riot, I ran to my building. I sprinted down Decatur, crossed Canal Street, and was nearing Riverscape. I thought of the real Ava. She had been on her own, I figured, in her own mission to find her Ralph. I could feel her wishing me luck the way I wished her the same.
I continued my run. I ran faster than I’d have ever thought possible. Injured as I was from my hovering knock-down drag-out in my out-of-body experience earlier, my bruises haunted my jaunt. Before too long I had developed a definite limp, but I pressed ahead, driven by my desire for Abby, although I could have had some help from the internal combustion engine of a Piranha. Finally...finally I reached my penthouse turned condo turned apartment turned tenement turned slum. The elevators, well...forget it. Although exhausted, I ran up the stairs flight after flight. On a particular landing was a heap of human wretchedness that at one point in my travels had been Mr. Robinson, my neighbor. Father of a banker way back when, I last saw him as the homeless Mr. Robbins. Now he lay crumpled in handicaps, one-legged, apparently blind, speaking nonsense out loud to no one.
“Mr. Robbins,” I called to him, leaning over him with a hand on his shoulder. His beard was matted. His skin was more yellow than Eddie’s at the Burger Nirvana so long ago.
“Rubens. The name is Rubens,” he corrected.
“Of course. Mr. Rubens, you’re sick. Isn’t there anyone who can help you?” He smiled with his whiskered cheeks, seemingly enjoying the onset of a lucid interval.
“Just you, my boy, whoever you are,” he said, not joyful for a possible rescue, but panhandling. I felt like someone who had run over a dog in the street while late for an important appointment. Should I stop and find the owner? Should I scoop up the poor thing and carry him to the vet? Should I just run him over again so he doesn’t suffer?
But this was deterring me on my mission. Why should this be my problem? Why should his impairments be my concern? I wasn’t the one with handicaps; I had my own life to live and my own problems to deal with.
I kept going.
Guilt? That was almost completely gone by the time I had reached my apartment. I tried the key, but it didn’t fit. I tried the knob and to my relief it turned, the door easing open. The slow creak was an unwelcome announcement. As soon as I had enough of an opening, I stuck my head in as if it were the most unimportant part of my body.
It was my place, alright, even though it was different, as expected. I wondered about me, though, because the place didn’t look half bad. The plastic covers on the lamps were gone. The whole place had an art deco motif that could be considered either hideous or stylish, depending on this layer’s most recent Southern Living issue. There were no lights on, but the dawn light filtered through windows throughout the layout.
“Abby,” I called softly. There was silence. I was still standing cautiously at the doorway, halfway in, halfway out—only my head entirely poking in to look around the corners of the felt-papered foyer. I called again. Still nothing. I opened the door more, and the creaking made me very uneasy. I entered with all of me and looked around.
The foyer and den were misleading, because they presented a false first impression. The other rooms told a different story. What kind of an animal lived here? But although there were all of the signs of the beast, there wasn’t a trace of the beauty. After checking out the whole place and then checking it again, I took to the stairs, leaping over Mr. Rubens, still vegetating in his debilitation. The rest of the flights flew under me. The stair landing adverts had become even more bizarre. On one landing, the second floor I think, I just had to stop. Our favorite psychiatrist was once again well represented. He had his face in the framed ad this time. He looked like hell in the picture, sporting a five o’clock shadow and little scars at the corner of each eye—the kind drunks have from falls.
CODEPENDENCY IS AN ADDICTION, the message read. IT IS AN ADDICTION TO RELATIONSHIPS. WITHOUT HELP, THE VICTIM FACES A LIFETIME OF CRISES. IF YOU’RE IN LOVE AND YOU DON’T LIKE IT, SEE ME. IF YOU’RE IN LOVE AND YOU DO LIKE IT, WE GOTTA WONDER IF IT’S THE RIGHT LOVE FOR YOU. LEAVE THE WONDERING TO US—DEPT. OF PSYCHIATTRITION, BLOWN AWAY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL.
I was in love myself, but I’d already seen the good doctor; and now I hoped to get to see my love. I kept going, out of the stairwell and into the lobby. I didn’t even know where I was going, but I wanted to get there fast. My body ached, now stiffening up a little. Within a moment I was out of the main entrance of the building and running aimlessly out of the door. In just the few hours since the mild temperatures at Popp’s Fountain, the weather had snapped much more nippy. The frigid, stinging spray—because that is what the New Orleans winter drizzle does—pricked my entire face, erasing the musty warmth I had felt from inside my building just moments ago. Miserable weather. What really stopped me cold, though, were the four meanest Sisters in red and white I’ve ever seen.
Boy, were they pissed!
Now I don’t have to tell you what the red and the white stood for. What I didn’t understand was what they stood in my way for. After all, with Abby alive and well and pregnant, Sister Chaz and Landrum (names?) weren’t framed for Abby’s murder like yesterlayer. I had to figure that this world’s version of that scene probably hadn’t pleased them either, because they were obviously here for me. Or maybe Mr. Rubens?
“Uh, hello, Sisters,” I said nonchalantly. Not Mr. Rubens. It was me. As was their obvious talent, I was grasped by the big knuckles on these mountains of women and silently carted off to the waiting hospital ambulance. This time, as the name read, it was Blown Away Memorial Hospital for the Deprived and Depraved.
“Back to B.A.M.,” the Sister Chaz said.
“Right, Sister Chaz,” the driver responded, her name apparently sticking. So off we rolled, the driver in the front by himself, me sitting on the mounted stretcher with the four members of the Butch League around me.
“Mind if I drum up some business, Sister Chaz?” the driver asked.
“Census is low, chum,” she answered gravely.
“Arrrright,” he beamed. I dreaded what they might mean, but his purposeful swerve proved me right.
The jogger must have popped ten feet into the air, landing on his ass. The driver screeched to a halt and then burnt rubber in reverse to reach his doomed victim.
“Oh, I think it’s broke, asshole,” the runner said to the driver, supporting his right leg, puffing in pain. “What the hell? Who did this to me?” In the turmoil of being struck, tires screeching, and EMS-personnel uncertainty, he didn’t realize his rescuer was the culprit.
“Ambulances have the right of way,” the driver said to Chaz.
“First rule of filling a hospital,” Chaz said back. Then he tossed his head toward the other Sisters. “He said, ‘It’s broke, asshole.’ He thinks his asshole’s broke,” he called to them, laughing. Then he said back to his jogger, as his only apology, “Life’s tough in the big city. C’mon, I’ll help you in.”
“If I ever find the guy that clipped me, I’ll kill ‘im,” said the jogger. All but Chaz snickered, and I guess it was pretty funny in a demented, sick, depraved sort of way—in a Blown Away sort of way. The driver opened the rear door of the ambulance and threw him in. He landed on his back. I knew why he was going to Blown Away; I just didn’t know why I was.
“Howdoyalike that?” said the driver, “you open the door for people and they breeze on in without so much as a thank you, like I’m a goddamn doorman.”
“Oh, here, let me help you,” I offered to the jogger. There was no similar help offered from my kidnappers.
“Oh, wow,” the jogger said, experiencing his pain out loud and using my support for mobility. “Umph.” He lifted himself onto the mounted stretcher on the other side of the ambulance.
“Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ooh, shit!” he further expounded.
“Hurts, huh?” I asked, only to get a disapproving look from my captors which made me regret my question.
“No,” he said, puffing more, “it feels good, ass-breath.”
With this, Sister Chaz popped him in the mouth. “Be a man,” she commanded.
“Room for more?” the driver asked.
“No,” answered Sister Chaz. The driver sulked but kept driving. He had a very greasy, dark-haired head. There was a plastic partition between his driver’s seat and the rest of the vehicle. This partition behind him, elsewhere clear, was opaque in a round splotchy shape of grease that was from his head resting back upon it. He rested it back now; he was a well-oiled, relaxed driver.
What a sport, I thought of Sister Chaz, who denied him any more targets: her knowing when to say when. I dared not speak another word, because I had no wish to be slapped; my life’s had more than enough slaps. Yet I wanted desperately to know just what was going on. Why did they come for me? Had she been following me ever since The Greality Tour of this layer? What was going to happen at Blown Away Memorial? Why wasn’t this broken leg patient aware that the culprit of his victimization had been this ambulance terrorist? Didn’t he see us coming? Where was Abby? And what were the mole women doing at my apartment building? A stake out?
As the jogger and I bounced along in the back of the ambulance, I became frightened. What if Ava back there was still the true exister I’d been travelling with? I surely ditched her in a hurry based on my out-of-body experience. What if she really hadn’t slid or left behind this world’s version? There were two back there, one asleep and one with crazy eyes aimed right at me. Who was who back there? And what if the out-of-body experience had been just a dream? My old famous fears again. I closed my eyes to the siren of the ambulance and to the moans of the jogger and to the stares of the good Sisters. I swayed back and forth to the turns of my transportation. The Sisters, owing to their bulk planted solidly, didn’t rock at all, even with their hands hanging loosely at their sides.
The ambulance eventually swerved with a screech into its designated space at the hospital with a perfect sudden deceleration. It was up a ramp, and the jogger and I fell back against the rear exit. The Sisterhood exited through a sliding side door, but orderlies popped open the rear door meant for me and my jogger, whereupon we tumbled out.
“Hey!” the jogger shouted. “Watch it, will ya?”
As I had expected, neither of us were treated smoothly. In fact, we were handled like airport luggage—like New Orleans International Airport luggage—all of the way to an apparent waiting area which was a six-by-six cubicle with no furniture. It’s only decoration the Blown Away plaque, its Mission Statement, the pliable credo which had changed with the slides:
GIVE US YOUR POOR SOMETIMES, YOUR RICH ALWAYS, AND YOUR EXCUSES NEVER. GIVE US YOUR UP TIGHT, OUT OF SIGHT, AND IN THE GROOVE—WE’LL TAKE CARE OF THEM, ALRIGHT
We both slumped to the floor, he because his bad leg yielded, I from a little sigh that snowballed into a sudden depressive hopelessness. For the longest time we just looked at each other. Finally, I tried to break the ice.
“Gee, I hope it’s not hurt too bad.”
“Fuck you!” he said back. This was very thick ice. This was solid nitrogen.
“Oh, yea?” I said back, “well fuck you, too, O.K.?”
“You’re looking to start some trouble?” he asked, mindless of his own trouble.
“I guess,” I surmised, “that you’re just going to walk on over to me and show me what for.”
“You bastard!” he said and started chasing me around the small square footage of yellowed linoleum by dragging his rear end after me. The wear on the tiles impressed me. How many other rear ends had buffed this floor? His was certainly doing a good job, that part of his anatomy in hot pursuit of me. If it hadn’t involved me, this would’ve made for great comedy, I felt, realizing that some asshole was chasing me. Still, it wouldn’t be funny if he caught me—he might try to bite my thigh or something.
“Aw, c’mon, guy, you should be mad at the driver, not me.”
“I’m just mad,” he said, “and you’re here. And I’m hurting,” he puffed, “and as long as I’m hurting and you’re here, and I’m mad…” he puffed some more.
“...then you’re going to trounce me. Bravo,” I said, still prancing evasively. Suddenly, he stopped to catch his breath.
“Do you know that the ambulance driver was the guy—that he swerved out of his way to get you?” I asked him.
“I’m not surprised,” he answered.
Not surprised? I hoped to get a glimpse of the psyche of this layer, which could only help me in my present and soon-to-be predicaments. This insight would depend on his answer to my next question.
“Why are you not surprised?”
This guy is out there minding his own business, jogging to be healthy, for God’s sake, and this ambulance driver is given sanction by his hospital to maliciously take aim and fire at him with his vehicle. Like a reptile zaps a bug in mid-air with its tongue.
“Yea, well,” he said, grimacing, no doubt a pain surge from his asscapade. “I guess,” he continued, “I was just in the wrong place at the right time.” He pause to groan, but continued immediately after. “I was there, he was there; I could get hit, he could do it; he could benefit by it. He owed me nothing, so he did it.”
And the imagery of a reptile or some sticky-tongued amphibian still stuck in my mind, that long tongue whipping out and snagging a nameless flying or jogging prey. And a like creature comes across the aggressor and fights with it—just for the hell of it—a result of distrust, and co-existing with distrust can be insulting to one’s stability. And one lizard fights with another. And one man drags his ass all over linoleum to fight with another man.
Of course these worlds were making less and less sense. There was no sense! No sense meant no right or wrong. No right or wrong meant no screw-ups, no excuses, and no bullshit! I was truly in a reptilian world where the highest species was dominated by one of the oldest parts of his brain. I was in a place where evolution donated no barrier to these parts, but in fact embraced them. Where frontal lobes need not apply. Where conscience meant remorse and excuses and bullshit.
I became startled at the breakthrough of understanding for me here. Although I had hoped to dissect the psyche of this layer with my inquisition, I was surprised to actually come to quite an important realization about myself:
It might be remembered that I had once described sliding as flexing the cerebral buffer that passively suppressed the more primitive areas of my brain. That mystical barrier that surrounded Homo amphibia, the barrier taken for granted by everyone but me, I likened to a very fat man who, by mere sitting, passively suppressed this area’s rearing its ugly head. I, of course, could make the fat man, 700 pounds I think was the number I used, jump up and down on this primeval area and, in so doing, further foster its dormancy. In this way, I went on to explain, my sensorium out-distanced itself even farther from the savage thoughts that are in us all; made my brain look even further down its nose at this crude remnant from the past.
And here I was being chased by this struggling victim who would fight to the end, even with anybody. Driven by the amphibian that was his only emotion, I turned to him to understand his world. In doing so I realized that all of the slides had to go into a deteriorating direction. The more I enhanced the suppression of that censored part of my brain, that is to say, the more I slid, the more my perspective demonstrated distance from it; the more I could look at my new environment with contempt for its lack of sense and its further separation from both God and soulful volition.
And so it occurred to me that I may not be travelling the worsening road at all, but I may be just seeing a static world with gradual increments of my contempt for its imperfections. I really didn’t know which was worse.
And in this more deteriorated world, or alternately, with my more contemptuous perspective in a place I had never really left, my gluteal gladiator had non-directed rage. He suffered no real indignation. He merely reacted. I wondered how reptilian thought would react to the advanced concept of compassion. I offered him my hand.
He spat on it.
Man, I hate spit. I don’t much care if I get slapped or pushed, but please don’t spit on me. I rubbed my hand on my pants leg along with I’m sure a few cell layers of skin. This joker was on his own. Now I knew that this was a different place than where I had originally begun. This was no static world.
I was still the constant.
Suddenly, the only door opened. There stood Sister Chaz directing an entourage of orderlies. “This one to Orthopedics,” she said of the jogger. “And that one,” she said of me, pointing, “he needs to be in Observation...in Psychiattrician.” And off I went, dragged by three big orderlies, although they were smaller than any of the Sisters.
I’d seen this dark corridor before. This was the psychiatric area named “Psychiattrition,” and these were the collection of rooms which were “Observation.” We passed door after door until we came to one with only a small vertical slit in it. The door was opened and I was tossed in silently, the silence broken by the metal thud of the arcing door. The keys insured my incarceration with their jingling as the deadbolt was thrown and tumblers scrambled. I sat motionless on the floor, one as clean as any movie theater’s after a weekend. I listened intently. All I could hear was running water, apparently collected rain through drain pipes coursing through the cement block walls.
“Anyone here?” I whispered. There was no answer. There was no rustling of the debris on the floor. I was alone.
The next hour was anxiety-laden, as I expected at any moment, and over and over at each subsequent moment, to hear the door fly open as a prelude to my being snatched out and off to somewhere unpleasant, like “Negative Reinforcement.”
The hour after that was better. The one after that I slept.
Unknown hours later I awoke. My eyes were finally adjusted to the darkness, and I was finally sure I was alone. It was so quiet where I was, almost like someone had pushed the pause button, stopping time altogether. Except, of course, for the muffled sound of rain somewhere. And there was also the high-pitch whistle of a vent overhead—like the ultrasonic whine from an old tube television. It was a great torture device, even if no one here had thought of it themselves. I arose and began to pace, if for anything, to make some more sound; the darkness was deprivation enough, but the silence was suffocating and dumbfounding. The water I heard was like white noise that amplified the effect. The high-pitch whistle could only be noticed consciously when the vent would come back on after having been off awhile.
I thought about the apparent groupthink of this world, revealed to me by the jogger: juxtaposition is the only ethic; one’s opportunity slithers up to another’s weakness. I figured the only opportunity I had was for discontent, and no one would take it personally if I complained a little.
“I want a lawyer!” I shouted as best as could be done through a slit. “I demand a lawyer! I demand my rights. Don’t I get my phone call? Don’t I get my gun?”
I got a headache is what I got. And I got hungry, too. And then I had a full bladder, not that anybody cared. I really did hold out as long as I possibly could but then did what any good reptile would do: I found myself a respectable corner in which to relieve myself. So strong was my aversion to doing this that at first I was caught in sphincter-lock. Sickeningly, I finally came through and hoped that my cell was not on a slant.
Of the twelve to eighteen hours that I’d been there with all of the privacy I could hope to ever have, it was unsettling to be visited during the very act of my relief. Of course! What better time! With my bladder only mostly empty I clammed up with the sound of keys. The door opened a crack just big enough to have an arm wave in a package drop, then it shut solidly again.
My pupils constricted from what seemed to be a blinding shaft of light from the twilit hall outside. When they finally rebounded to their murk-vision readiness, I identified the package where it had landed. It was one of those zip-lock plastic storage bags. In it were two items, one slightly edible, the other ballistic.
I examined the sandwich first—two pieces of stale rye comforting a dry slice of yellow cheese. My bon vivant days were definitely over. I declined any careful inspection of the cheese but just wolfed down the whole thing. And I thought I didn’t like rye!
The gun was a cheap affair loaded with six rounds. Six rounds? Now why would they give more than one round to someone they had hoped would do himself in? Not unless...
A roommate? These cubicles were used for more than one! I know—I’d been here before. More than one patient but with only one gun. Murder, suicide, both—all a big load off of a hospital service that could still get reimbursement for census.
This was a good guess. It made Sister Chaz’s census remark make sense in its senseless way. So now there was a new dread for me, worse than my unidentifiable predicament—that the door would open again and that the low-lux light behind it would stream in to introduce the arrival of a co-detainee who would probably know who had the gun. The dread worsened. Could I sleep with company? Probably not. If I were to sleep, would he take the gun and shoot me? Probably so. Could I reason with him and strike up a deal? Probably not. Could I shoot him first to avoid the whole senseless crisis?
Probably so. In spite of any assurance, pleading, or promises from him.
And so a most primitive part of my brain began to beat up on the higher lobes so as to emerge with a voice to be heard—an outranked lone senator, misunderstood on the cerebral floor, with the power of filibuster.

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Challenge of the Week #61: Write a piece of flash fiction about rejection. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by DrSemicolon

Sum Greater Than the Addition of the Parts

     I guess it's my fault. It was just a short ride from parking lot to parking lot, across the highway, so I didn't bother to buckle my belt. The hit-and-run hit and ran. Hit my head, hit my left side, hit my right side, hit my left wrist, hit my right knee. After four hours in the ER and then seven hours in surgery, they fixed my wrist, knee, and drilled a few little holes in my skull to release the pressure of the blood. They also found it necessary to remove my kidneys. Five days later I was on dialysis and put on the list for a donor kidney. 

     "We have a kidney for you, Mr. Thompson," the doctor said. 

     "Wow, that didn't take long," I exclaimed, the machinery recycling my blood with some filters in between. "What about these stories of waiting years--or even never? Are they exaggerations?"

     "No, sir, they're not. Your kidney is a special request from an anonymous donor. But you need it and it's not wise to question a source who's apparently an angel for you."

     Three days later I spent two hours in the OR getting my new kidney. Re-operating over the same site would double my pain, I feared, but it sure beat spending six hours a day three days a week in a contour chair. On post-op day three, the nurse came in.

     "You have a visitor, Mr. Thompson," she said.

     "Who?" I asked. I wondered, since all my family lived in Canada--I had just been on the phone rounds with them that morning. I was new in town with hardly any exposure here to have any friends or even acquaintances.

     "It's a Jesus Torres," the nurse replied. 

     "Send him in," I offered. "Can't turn away anyone named Jesus, right? By the way, how were my labs this morning? You see all my pee?"

     "Yes, sir, nice and deep amber, and a lot of it. That kidney's working fine. And your blood work came back great. You've really taken to this new kidney."

     Jesus walked in slowly, seemingly in pain. "Hello, Mr. Thompson," he said. There was a heavy accent. He had in his arms a bouquet of flowers, which I thought was pretty ridiculous. 

     "I'm sorry, Mr., er, Torres, right?"

     "Yes, Torres."

     "Um, do I know you, Mr. Torres?" Jesus hesitated, then sauntered over to a chair and eased himself into it, stifling his pain.

     "We met last week, Mr. Thompson. At the Esplanade Mall."

     "Excuse me?"

     "Actually, it was the intersection. I'm so sorry I left, but I can't involve any police in my life right now." 

     I seethed. Here he was, the man who hit me and ran. The felon, the scum, the criminal. And as he was quick to point out, my kidney donor.

     "It was the least I could do."

     I had him thrown out. Least he could do was right! Bastard. I didn't want anything to do with him. 

     A week later my kidney failed.

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Challenge of the Week #61: Write a piece of flash fiction about rejection. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by DrSemicolon
Sum Greater Than the Addition of the Parts
     I guess it's my fault. It was just a short ride from parking lot to parking lot, across the highway, so I didn't bother to buckle my belt. The hit-and-run hit and ran. Hit my head, hit my left side, hit my right side, hit my left wrist, hit my right knee. After four hours in the ER and then seven hours in surgery, they fixed my wrist, knee, and drilled a few little holes in my skull to release the pressure of the blood. They also found it necessary to remove my kidneys. Five days later I was on dialysis and put on the list for a donor kidney. 
     "We have a kidney for you, Mr. Thompson," the doctor said. 
     "Wow, that didn't take long," I exclaimed, the machinery recycling my blood with some filters in between. "What about these stories of waiting years--or even never? Are they exaggerations?"
     "No, sir, they're not. Your kidney is a special request from an anonymous donor. But you need it and it's not wise to question a source who's apparently an angel for you."
     Three days later I spent two hours in the OR getting my new kidney. Re-operating over the same site would double my pain, I feared, but it sure beat spending six hours a day three days a week in a contour chair. On post-op day three, the nurse came in.
     "You have a visitor, Mr. Thompson," she said.
     "Who?" I asked. I wondered, since all my family lived in Canada--I had just been on the phone rounds with them that morning. I was new in town with hardly any exposure here to have any friends or even acquaintances.
     "It's a Jesus Torres," the nurse replied. 
     "Send him in," I offered. "Can't turn away anyone named Jesus, right? By the way, how were my labs this morning? You see all my pee?"
     "Yes, sir, nice and deep amber, and a lot of it. That kidney's working fine. And your blood work came back great. You've really taken to this new kidney."
     Jesus walked in slowly, seemingly in pain. "Hello, Mr. Thompson," he said. There was a heavy accent. He had in his arms a bouquet of flowers, which I thought was pretty ridiculous. 
     "I'm sorry, Mr., er, Torres, right?"
     "Yes, Torres."
     "Um, do I know you, Mr. Torres?" Jesus hesitated, then sauntered over to a chair and eased himself into it, stifling his pain.
     "We met last week, Mr. Thompson. At the Esplanade Mall."
     "Excuse me?"
     "Actually, it was the intersection. I'm so sorry I left, but I can't involve any police in my life right now." 
     I seethed. Here he was, the man who hit me and ran. The felon, the scum, the criminal. And as he was quick to point out, my kidney donor.
     "It was the least I could do."
     I had him thrown out. Least he could do was right! Bastard. I didn't want anything to do with him. 
     A week later my kidney failed.
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Challenge of the Week #60: You have just discovered a new lifeform. Write a story of 200 words or more. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by DrSemicolon

Native Martian Anatomy and Physiology

Botany and Biology Consortium Précis

Submission for consideration, addendum to the subchapter, “Native Martian Anatomy and Physiology.”

Submitter, Evan Mickal, Ph.D., VSD investigator.

Methodology: Magnetic Resonance Physiology at the Quark-focus Level

Date: Sol 28, 942

Focus of addendum: Locomotion in the absence of an endoskeleton and the Central Nervous System (CNS)

• Locomotion in the absence of an endoskeleton

Very much analogous to octopi, other cephalopods, and numerous non-skeletonized animals on Earth, the Martian’s posture and stance, erect stature, and functions of ambulation and usage of appendages depend on elastofluidics. Their bodies contain innumerable patterns of muscular tubes which are fiber-reinforced elastomeric enclosures that contain a pressurized fluid. The fibers surrounding them have angles of orientation that can be changed at will, which determines the direction in which the limbs/appendages move when the fluid within is pressurized of depressurized. The external plates (“feathered scales”)finalize the maintenance of a particular position or stance, and when in motion, louver and “unlouver” sequentially to effect smoothness of motion. Therefore, there is no endoskeleton nor one needed.

• Central Nervous System (CNS)

The shape of the Martian head is governed by the necessity of design that accommodates the complexity of the multi-oropharynx and the brain structures that innervate them and a tripartite trachea. Thus it has an elongated face—or a “long” face—reminiscent of a horse, that likeness furthered by a remarkably coincidental aspect of pigmentation: down the face is a vertical patch or pattern of depigmentation, creating a long irregular splash of white, which on a horse is called a blaze. Such a blaze, individualized for each Martian, could represent a way of telling each apart, although recognition may involve many factors other than merely how the Martian appears. The blaze seems to have embedded in it innumerable olfactory cells, making this an organ for smell.

To appreciate the Martian CNS it is first important to understand aspects of breathing and ingestion that also impact the shape of the head.

There are six bilateral sets of mouths and throats that funnel together such that they can effect a steady single intake of ingestion along a single esophagus no matter how many mouths are ingesting. This coalescing requires distance and is a major determinant of the distinctively long face. (The main mouth goes its separate way—SEE BELOW.)

Each throat has two posterior openings:

1. One leading into a separate esophagus that distally fuses with the other esophagi into a central one; and

2. the other leading into a “reverse” trachea [SEE BELOW] that is the source of the blasted air from the central air bladder used in vocalization.

These two posterior pharyngeal openings at the back of each throat are separated from each other by a glottis—an opening guarded by a septation that can flap closed against the reverse trachea so that food can be diverted properly downward into the central alimentary tract and not into the central air sac [SEE BELOW]. In this way, choking is prevented.

The esophagus related to the primary mouth and pharynx does not lead to the location where the six ancillary esophagi fuse, but instead enter the distal alimentary tract farther caudad. Although the primary mouth appears externally as two joined together at the midline, this is misleading, as it is single-chambered just beyond the lips. What was initially thought of as two separate tongues, one on each side, is in fact a single tongue for the single chamber, but with its terminal portion forked.

There are smaller but completely functional tongues for each of the separate ancillary mouths. There also appear to be taste buds for different discriminations among the numerous ancillary tongues, prompting the Martian to use specific mouths for specific tastes and textures of food and liquids ingested. Each mouth has teeth, clear but in the shadows appearing dark. Each tooth has a single fiberoptic tract.

The external proboscis-like cetaceous “blowhole” (main air intake) and its tract does not cohabitate with any of the pharyngeal area. Its trachea is a dedicated one-way route for air from the blowhole that distally trifurcates into the one central and two bilateral air sacs. The bilateral air sacs also exhale back out toward the blowhole, whereas the central air bladder has a valve such that it only exhales through its separate reverse tracheae when speech occurs.

The blowhole entrance that trifurcates distally into three separate tracheae ultimately end in two bilateral primary bronchi and one secondary central bronchus, the bilateral ones ending in multilobular air sacs on either side of the large central unilobular air bladder the central bronchus supplies. The bilateral air sacs provide oxygen by passive diffusion into venous lakes surrounding them, much like the placental systems in Earth mammals.

While the bilateral air sacs are for oxygenation, the central bladder, alternately, provides two functions:

1. It serves as a storage depot of breathable air that, through spillover (passive diffusion)seeps through its semipermeable membrane into the adjacent primary multilobular air sacs [SEE ABOVE]; and

2. there is a collection of hundreds of sphinctered tubules emerging from its posterior that coalesce into seven separate “reverse” tracheae [SEE ABOVE] that provide the expulsive impetus for speech through each of the seven mouths. The seven reverse tracheae each house a set of vocal cords at varying distances from their eventual target mouths, the variation of distance contributing to a wide variation of different tonal qualities (pitch, timbre, resonance). The Martian, linguistically, uses these variations in conjunction with the number of mouths speaking or singing to express nuance and/or emphasis. Whereas in the human the glottis is relative to the vocal cords, in the Martian the sets of vocal cords and glottises are separate from each other for each of the reverse trachea (“air routes”); each glottis is at its junction to its respective pharynx, to preclude food aspiration, using a valve for closure in lieu of the cords themselves as in humans. Even though the sets of vocal cords are at varying distances for effecting unique phonation qualities, each glottis is at the same position, i.e., the glottopharyngeal junction.

In summary, the blowhole feeds air to two bilateral air sacs and one central air bladder. The bilateral air sacs exhale their breaths the way they came in, through the primary tracheae; the central air bladder eliminates excess air by diffusing into the adjacent air sacs, but its main function is to blow air through a set of unrelated “reverse” tracheae through vocal cords. The only possible site for choking would be between the pharynx of each mouth and the termination of each reverse trachea, but this is precluded by the flap of tissue over each glottis.

NOTE: THE ABOVE EXPOSITION IS ONLY INCLUDED HERE BECAUSE OF ITS INTERRELATIONSHIP WITH THE CNS TO PRODUCE SPEECH. FOR FURTHER DETAIL OF THE RESPIRATORY SYSTEM AND THE OTHER SYSTEMS, PLEASE REFER TO THEIR RESPECTIVE SUBCHAPTERS IN THE FULL BOTANY AND BIOLOGY CONSORTIUM PRÉCIS, SUBSECTION, “MARTIAN ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOGY,” BY KEITH MILLS AND MARK ADRIAN.

The Martian brain is made up of six lobes, or hexaspheres. Functional Magnetic Resonance Physiology has determined that each lobe (hexasphere) directs independent conversational thinking that results in vocalization from one (or more, simultaneously versus serially) of the six ancillary mouths. All six hexaspheres appear to contribute cogitation for conversing with the primary mouth, when articulating a “main message.” Although they can act separately, all of the hexaspheres also are interconnected by an infrastructure analogous to the human corpus callosum, which I theorize allows a consortium of unified awareness, thinking, and volition among the set of hexaspheres.

Hearing is via an acoustic apparatus that begins with four independently aimed calderas on each side of the head, all eight each contributing a neurotubule that terminates at a central ganglion in each hexasphere. Thereby, each hexasphere’s acoustic ganglion receives a bundle of eight neurotubules representing the gamut of the collective caldera perception of sound. The central acoustic ganglia appear on functional scans, at the electron level, to deal with filtering pitch and sonolocation.

Each caldera is associated with its own ganglion that surrounds its sound transport tubule (STT), more specifically, surrounds that portion of the SST that houses small osseous structures shaped like varying tiny tuning forks, 18-20 nm in size; each of these caldera ganglia have afferents from all of the hexasphere acoustic ganglia and efferents to the small muscles that comprise and aim the caldera rims. Consortium thinking of what is being heard focuses the directional pivots of the individual calderas. Externally, the calderas, which hold a small amount of fluid each, are each covered by a parabolic tympanic membrane.

For each eye there is a laminated neurotubule that is a coalescence of thousands of neuromusculotubular fibers that seem to both convey collected visual stimuli and move the globes.

The bilateral laminate optic neurotubules meet interiorly in the midline, as a “light basket,” positioned equidistant from the hexaspheres of the brain; this light basket appears to be a tightly spiraling structure that follows the Fibonacci path of the “golden rectangle,” i.e., the spiraling neurotubules are shaped like a nautilus. This nautilus-shaped light basket is surrounded by an iron-rich magnetic encasement, itself dynamic in that it can magnetically focus free electrons as an undulator, along the spiral. The neurotubules are highly reflective and at the central termination (innermost part of the nautilus) an escape channel allows egress of a potentiated lasered pulse that feeds all hexasphres as well as returns some light back to the eyes (for unknown reasons).

Essentially, the light basket is a free-electron laser that distributes, arboreally, synchrotron radiation to all hexaspheres and the eyes at the speed of light. Theoretically, because the undulator encasement can vary the parameters of the magnetic field, the intensity and wavelength of the radiation can be adjusted on the fly, i.e., are tunable from microwave through ultraviolet and even X-Ray spectra as well.

The eyes themselves are not sufficient to contribute enough light to power the light basket’s ultimate output. Besides the laminar afferent optic nerves, the light basket also receives another afferent trunk of laminated neurotubules from the lux-cap, the area on the external head analogous to the scalp portion of the human head.

The lux-cap is very much like a scalp in that fiberoptic projections emerge from it in a hair-like fashion. These are sparse, otherwise they would pose interfering shadows for the miraculous nature of this head covering. Louvered parabolas, layered down to a depth of approximately one centimeter, collect light and an entire subscalp cranium receives coalescing bundles of phototubules that ultimately end intracranially at the light basket. Thus, the light basket has a dual source of light—from the eyes secondarily but from the lux-cap primarily.

The fiberoptic, sparse “hair” appears to be efferent only, varying colors and intensity, possibly indicating mood as a fiberoptic, lighted version of “body language.” I can discern a reverse polarization along these “efferents only,” indicating they should be able to receive input as well, like the lux-cap.

Light collected by the lux-cap, defying current wave physics until a logical explanation ensues, experiences no loss of photon energy. When the electromagnetic spectrum was applied to the lux-cap, it was evident that, besides the visible human spectra, IR and UV were collected without loss as well.

The light basket is quite large, about five centimeters in diameter, and with its iron-rich magnetic encasement, almost ten. Below it is a five-cm ventricle, but unlike human brain ventricles that have circulatory cerebrospinal fluid, it is filled with an unknown gas, the spectroscopic identification of which failed due to the interference from the overlying light basket magnetic encasement.

From the center egress of light and radiation of the light basket, branching of neurotubules swirl in complexity to become the actual six hexaspheres. It appears the light basket is the innermost origination of the entire Martian central nervous system.

The hexaspheres also accommodate the afferents and efferents that appear to either receive information from or innervate, respectively, the rest of the body.

There is no analogue to the human or mammalian cerebellum, all autonomic processes, i.e., breathing, pulsatile cardiovascular system, proprioception, distributed along a decentralized scheme among the respective organs or joints.

There is no spine, per se. Bundles of tracts find their way along two main lateral bands at the Martian’s sides, distributing from or coalescing toward them.

Crucial to the evaluation of the CNS is the nature of the neurotubules and larger neurotubes, themselves.

(There have been observed similar, although rudimentary, structures in the few humans with indwelling ferropods, suggesting divergent evolution of species as distantly related as Martians and ferropods, from a common ancestor. In humans harboring ferropods, the interaction of two xenospecies will no doubt prove informative, but to date the chapter on this interaction remains unwritten. This will undoubtedly cross-reference with the official findings yet to be written as a subchapter of the Cultural Psychology Committee Précis.)

The arboreal cascade of the CNS from hexasphere to neurotubes to neurotubules and vice versa demonstrates a consistency of structure. Whether such structures effect muscular, glandular, or neuroinformative processes, it is clear that they constitute a fiberoptic system.

Although a simplification, it is also a truism that light plays an important part in Martian cognition. Its complete absence renders a Martian not only unconscious, but barely alive, its light basket engaging in a secondary backup system of phosphorescing to maintain at least a baseline level of minimal survivability. It is unknown how long the light basket backup can last, but it is apparent that once exhausted, death would be imminent.

The neurotubes and neurotubules are multichambered along their neurotubular lengths by septations. Each septated chamber is able to polarize the as-of-yet unidentified rarefied gas within, which can then propagate an electrical potential across subsequent septa, propagating subsequent polarizations en route. This appears analogous to action potentials causing propagations of neurosignaling along dendritic/axonic paths in the human brain. The result of these propagations, whether Martian or human is the same:

Thought.

Cognition, intention, autonomic and voluntary actions; viable function; volition; self-awareness and sentience; perhaps a conscience.

A soul?

 

At quark focus, the MRP showed Cooper pairs, entangled photons on either side of each septum. Such Cooper pairs, seen in superconductivity across membranes, the phenomenon in physics—called a Josephson effect—was a thing of beauty. And it was in each Martian head.

It was fast. The simple reality is this: Martians think at the speed of light!

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Challenge of the Week #60: You have just discovered a new lifeform. Write a story of 200 words or more. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by DrSemicolon
Native Martian Anatomy and Physiology
Botany and Biology Consortium Précis
Submission for consideration, addendum to the subchapter, “Native Martian Anatomy and Physiology.”
Submitter, Evan Mickal, Ph.D., VSD investigator.
Methodology: Magnetic Resonance Physiology at the Quark-focus Level
Date: Sol 28, 942

Focus of addendum: Locomotion in the absence of an endoskeleton and the Central Nervous System (CNS)

• Locomotion in the absence of an endoskeleton

Very much analogous to octopi, other cephalopods, and numerous non-skeletonized animals on Earth, the Martian’s posture and stance, erect stature, and functions of ambulation and usage of appendages depend on elastofluidics. Their bodies contain innumerable patterns of muscular tubes which are fiber-reinforced elastomeric enclosures that contain a pressurized fluid. The fibers surrounding them have angles of orientation that can be changed at will, which determines the direction in which the limbs/appendages move when the fluid within is pressurized of depressurized. The external plates (“feathered scales”)finalize the maintenance of a particular position or stance, and when in motion, louver and “unlouver” sequentially to effect smoothness of motion. Therefore, there is no endoskeleton nor one needed.

• Central Nervous System (CNS)

The shape of the Martian head is governed by the necessity of design that accommodates the complexity of the multi-oropharynx and the brain structures that innervate them and a tripartite trachea. Thus it has an elongated face—or a “long” face—reminiscent of a horse, that likeness furthered by a remarkably coincidental aspect of pigmentation: down the face is a vertical patch or pattern of depigmentation, creating a long irregular splash of white, which on a horse is called a blaze. Such a blaze, individualized for each Martian, could represent a way of telling each apart, although recognition may involve many factors other than merely how the Martian appears. The blaze seems to have embedded in it innumerable olfactory cells, making this an organ for smell.

To appreciate the Martian CNS it is first important to understand aspects of breathing and ingestion that also impact the shape of the head.

There are six bilateral sets of mouths and throats that funnel together such that they can effect a steady single intake of ingestion along a single esophagus no matter how many mouths are ingesting. This coalescing requires distance and is a major determinant of the distinctively long face. (The main mouth goes its separate way—SEE BELOW.)
Each throat has two posterior openings:

1. One leading into a separate esophagus that distally fuses with the other esophagi into a central one; and

2. the other leading into a “reverse” trachea [SEE BELOW] that is the source of the blasted air from the central air bladder used in vocalization.

These two posterior pharyngeal openings at the back of each throat are separated from each other by a glottis—an opening guarded by a septation that can flap closed against the reverse trachea so that food can be diverted properly downward into the central alimentary tract and not into the central air sac [SEE BELOW]. In this way, choking is prevented.

The esophagus related to the primary mouth and pharynx does not lead to the location where the six ancillary esophagi fuse, but instead enter the distal alimentary tract farther caudad. Although the primary mouth appears externally as two joined together at the midline, this is misleading, as it is single-chambered just beyond the lips. What was initially thought of as two separate tongues, one on each side, is in fact a single tongue for the single chamber, but with its terminal portion forked.

There are smaller but completely functional tongues for each of the separate ancillary mouths. There also appear to be taste buds for different discriminations among the numerous ancillary tongues, prompting the Martian to use specific mouths for specific tastes and textures of food and liquids ingested. Each mouth has teeth, clear but in the shadows appearing dark. Each tooth has a single fiberoptic tract.

The external proboscis-like cetaceous “blowhole” (main air intake) and its tract does not cohabitate with any of the pharyngeal area. Its trachea is a dedicated one-way route for air from the blowhole that distally trifurcates into the one central and two bilateral air sacs. The bilateral air sacs also exhale back out toward the blowhole, whereas the central air bladder has a valve such that it only exhales through its separate reverse tracheae when speech occurs.

The blowhole entrance that trifurcates distally into three separate tracheae ultimately end in two bilateral primary bronchi and one secondary central bronchus, the bilateral ones ending in multilobular air sacs on either side of the large central unilobular air bladder the central bronchus supplies. The bilateral air sacs provide oxygen by passive diffusion into venous lakes surrounding them, much like the placental systems in Earth mammals.
While the bilateral air sacs are for oxygenation, the central bladder, alternately, provides two functions:

1. It serves as a storage depot of breathable air that, through spillover (passive diffusion)seeps through its semipermeable membrane into the adjacent primary multilobular air sacs [SEE ABOVE]; and

2. there is a collection of hundreds of sphinctered tubules emerging from its posterior that coalesce into seven separate “reverse” tracheae [SEE ABOVE] that provide the expulsive impetus for speech through each of the seven mouths. The seven reverse tracheae each house a set of vocal cords at varying distances from their eventual target mouths, the variation of distance contributing to a wide variation of different tonal qualities (pitch, timbre, resonance). The Martian, linguistically, uses these variations in conjunction with the number of mouths speaking or singing to express nuance and/or emphasis. Whereas in the human the glottis is relative to the vocal cords, in the Martian the sets of vocal cords and glottises are separate from each other for each of the reverse trachea (“air routes”); each glottis is at its junction to its respective pharynx, to preclude food aspiration, using a valve for closure in lieu of the cords themselves as in humans. Even though the sets of vocal cords are at varying distances for effecting unique phonation qualities, each glottis is at the same position, i.e., the glottopharyngeal junction.

In summary, the blowhole feeds air to two bilateral air sacs and one central air bladder. The bilateral air sacs exhale their breaths the way they came in, through the primary tracheae; the central air bladder eliminates excess air by diffusing into the adjacent air sacs, but its main function is to blow air through a set of unrelated “reverse” tracheae through vocal cords. The only possible site for choking would be between the pharynx of each mouth and the termination of each reverse trachea, but this is precluded by the flap of tissue over each glottis.

NOTE: THE ABOVE EXPOSITION IS ONLY INCLUDED HERE BECAUSE OF ITS INTERRELATIONSHIP WITH THE CNS TO PRODUCE SPEECH. FOR FURTHER DETAIL OF THE RESPIRATORY SYSTEM AND THE OTHER SYSTEMS, PLEASE REFER TO THEIR RESPECTIVE SUBCHAPTERS IN THE FULL BOTANY AND BIOLOGY CONSORTIUM PRÉCIS, SUBSECTION, “MARTIAN ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOGY,” BY KEITH MILLS AND MARK ADRIAN.

The Martian brain is made up of six lobes, or hexaspheres. Functional Magnetic Resonance Physiology has determined that each lobe (hexasphere) directs independent conversational thinking that results in vocalization from one (or more, simultaneously versus serially) of the six ancillary mouths. All six hexaspheres appear to contribute cogitation for conversing with the primary mouth, when articulating a “main message.” Although they can act separately, all of the hexaspheres also are interconnected by an infrastructure analogous to the human corpus callosum, which I theorize allows a consortium of unified awareness, thinking, and volition among the set of hexaspheres.

Hearing is via an acoustic apparatus that begins with four independently aimed calderas on each side of the head, all eight each contributing a neurotubule that terminates at a central ganglion in each hexasphere. Thereby, each hexasphere’s acoustic ganglion receives a bundle of eight neurotubules representing the gamut of the collective caldera perception of sound. The central acoustic ganglia appear on functional scans, at the electron level, to deal with filtering pitch and sonolocation.

Each caldera is associated with its own ganglion that surrounds its sound transport tubule (STT), more specifically, surrounds that portion of the SST that houses small osseous structures shaped like varying tiny tuning forks, 18-20 nm in size; each of these caldera ganglia have afferents from all of the hexasphere acoustic ganglia and efferents to the small muscles that comprise and aim the caldera rims. Consortium thinking of what is being heard focuses the directional pivots of the individual calderas. Externally, the calderas, which hold a small amount of fluid each, are each covered by a parabolic tympanic membrane.

For each eye there is a laminated neurotubule that is a coalescence of thousands of neuromusculotubular fibers that seem to both convey collected visual stimuli and move the globes.

The bilateral laminate optic neurotubules meet interiorly in the midline, as a “light basket,” positioned equidistant from the hexaspheres of the brain; this light basket appears to be a tightly spiraling structure that follows the Fibonacci path of the “golden rectangle,” i.e., the spiraling neurotubules are shaped like a nautilus. This nautilus-shaped light basket is surrounded by an iron-rich magnetic encasement, itself dynamic in that it can magnetically focus free electrons as an undulator, along the spiral. The neurotubules are highly reflective and at the central termination (innermost part of the nautilus) an escape channel allows egress of a potentiated lasered pulse that feeds all hexasphres as well as returns some light back to the eyes (for unknown reasons).

Essentially, the light basket is a free-electron laser that distributes, arboreally, synchrotron radiation to all hexaspheres and the eyes at the speed of light. Theoretically, because the undulator encasement can vary the parameters of the magnetic field, the intensity and wavelength of the radiation can be adjusted on the fly, i.e., are tunable from microwave through ultraviolet and even X-Ray spectra as well.

The eyes themselves are not sufficient to contribute enough light to power the light basket’s ultimate output. Besides the laminar afferent optic nerves, the light basket also receives another afferent trunk of laminated neurotubules from the lux-cap, the area on the external head analogous to the scalp portion of the human head.

The lux-cap is very much like a scalp in that fiberoptic projections emerge from it in a hair-like fashion. These are sparse, otherwise they would pose interfering shadows for the miraculous nature of this head covering. Louvered parabolas, layered down to a depth of approximately one centimeter, collect light and an entire subscalp cranium receives coalescing bundles of phototubules that ultimately end intracranially at the light basket. Thus, the light basket has a dual source of light—from the eyes secondarily but from the lux-cap primarily.

The fiberoptic, sparse “hair” appears to be efferent only, varying colors and intensity, possibly indicating mood as a fiberoptic, lighted version of “body language.” I can discern a reverse polarization along these “efferents only,” indicating they should be able to receive input as well, like the lux-cap.

Light collected by the lux-cap, defying current wave physics until a logical explanation ensues, experiences no loss of photon energy. When the electromagnetic spectrum was applied to the lux-cap, it was evident that, besides the visible human spectra, IR and UV were collected without loss as well.

The light basket is quite large, about five centimeters in diameter, and with its iron-rich magnetic encasement, almost ten. Below it is a five-cm ventricle, but unlike human brain ventricles that have circulatory cerebrospinal fluid, it is filled with an unknown gas, the spectroscopic identification of which failed due to the interference from the overlying light basket magnetic encasement.

From the center egress of light and radiation of the light basket, branching of neurotubules swirl in complexity to become the actual six hexaspheres. It appears the light basket is the innermost origination of the entire Martian central nervous system.
The hexaspheres also accommodate the afferents and efferents that appear to either receive information from or innervate, respectively, the rest of the body.

There is no analogue to the human or mammalian cerebellum, all autonomic processes, i.e., breathing, pulsatile cardiovascular system, proprioception, distributed along a decentralized scheme among the respective organs or joints.

There is no spine, per se. Bundles of tracts find their way along two main lateral bands at the Martian’s sides, distributing from or coalescing toward them.

Crucial to the evaluation of the CNS is the nature of the neurotubules and larger neurotubes, themselves.

(There have been observed similar, although rudimentary, structures in the few humans with indwelling ferropods, suggesting divergent evolution of species as distantly related as Martians and ferropods, from a common ancestor. In humans harboring ferropods, the interaction of two xenospecies will no doubt prove informative, but to date the chapter on this interaction remains unwritten. This will undoubtedly cross-reference with the official findings yet to be written as a subchapter of the Cultural Psychology Committee Précis.)

The arboreal cascade of the CNS from hexasphere to neurotubes to neurotubules and vice versa demonstrates a consistency of structure. Whether such structures effect muscular, glandular, or neuroinformative processes, it is clear that they constitute a fiberoptic system.

Although a simplification, it is also a truism that light plays an important part in Martian cognition. Its complete absence renders a Martian not only unconscious, but barely alive, its light basket engaging in a secondary backup system of phosphorescing to maintain at least a baseline level of minimal survivability. It is unknown how long the light basket backup can last, but it is apparent that once exhausted, death would be imminent.
The neurotubes and neurotubules are multichambered along their neurotubular lengths by septations. Each septated chamber is able to polarize the as-of-yet unidentified rarefied gas within, which can then propagate an electrical potential across subsequent septa, propagating subsequent polarizations en route. This appears analogous to action potentials causing propagations of neurosignaling along dendritic/axonic paths in the human brain. The result of these propagations, whether Martian or human is the same:
Thought.

Cognition, intention, autonomic and voluntary actions; viable function; volition; self-awareness and sentience; perhaps a conscience.

A soul?
 
At quark focus, the MRP showed Cooper pairs, entangled photons on either side of each septum. Such Cooper pairs, seen in superconductivity across membranes, the phenomenon in physics—called a Josephson effect—was a thing of beauty. And it was in each Martian head.

It was fast. The simple reality is this: Martians think at the speed of light!

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Chapter 13 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon

13

Besides being merciful to me for allowing me to end my day without pressing any issues about the rally, Ava was still personable, even though I didn’t deserve it—even though I unilaterally turned off because I chose to escape any explanations—any reliving—of the incidents at the Dome. I didn’t want to worry her about Chaz on the prowl, either.

I found my tattered shirt in the garbage container in the kitchen. Looking at it I rubbed my bruised chest again, which was blossoming black and yellow. I respected Ava for not even wondering out loud how something like that could have happened to my shirt. She saw it and didn’t even want to imagine.

Actually, she was always very good to me. Very patient, too. Even during some very grumpy times that were to come. I’d cook the meals and homemake, while she worked a do-nothing librarian job for a few dollars.

“It’s just temporary,” she had said, “until I can find a better world. And no, I don’t usually read anything. It’s hard enough just stomaching some of the titles.” Nevertheless, she would regularly regale me with stories from the front counter, laugh-out-loud funny had they not been about pathologic fetishes or animal “husbandry.”

The schmuck she had been married to in this layer had had no life insurance, so we had to get by on her minimum wage. The house was paid for, which made it possible. She got around mainly by her suburban bicycling, ever watchful for killer taxis and PincerLock neighbors. All of this time she had still spurned the use of her car, now a late model Piranha, but I would fire it up every few days anyway, just to keep its battery at the ready should the need ever arise or our courage ever become foolhardy. Nevertheless, I often dreamt of the time we’d have to resort to taking off in it, but I couldn’t say whether the dream was a nightmare or not.

The bicycle, however, was just fine for her, helping her get from home to her job and back, interspersed with small-time grocery hauls. The library where she worked wasn’t much of one; it wasn’t anything I expected. I went there once to surprise her, even though I knew she wouldn’t like the idea. The whole set up took away any enjoyment a library could give. A person could only have access to the card files and then could request a book by giving the number to Ava behind the counter. No browsing through aisles, no paging through magazines. The only chair one could curl up in, to read a little bit of a book, was at home. I knew Ava did some browsing herself, as she was the only one who could; I knew she was learning about this layer, for she often came home depressed. And that was just from reading the titles.

Constantly I warned her about Chaz, to keep her vigilance up always. After she finally heard about my Superdome experience that evening, she was sure to heed my admonitions. In fact, she came home the next day with some Radio Shack wireless burglar alarm system we spent the afternoon installing.

The library was on Bonnabel Boulevard, which wasn’t very far away from her neighborhood—maybe a couple of miles at most. But she had to cross Veterans Boulevard at some point, and since this was a main thoroughfare, I hated to have her exposed like that with Chaz on the trail. Luckily, Dr. Landrum or Chaz didn’t even know her last name, so the only hope lay in spotting her. Or me.

My admiration for Ava, the working woman, was especially strong as she had been a self-unemployed housewife prior to her husband’s death. She had never seemed disquieted by the transition. We seldom strayed outside together, so there was plenty of time for indoor conversation, philosophic as well as mundane, silly, and nostalgic. One evening when I was feeling particularly pent in, I talked her into going with me to one of my favorite places in City Park. We had been engaged in one of the philosophical variations of indoor conversation when a particularly troubling episode of Lifestyles of the Glib and Self-indulgent started on the T.V.

“Come on,” I beseeched her, “we’ve got to get out of her. I’ve got to get out of her. Come with me.” She was all for it, getting the chance to get out with me for a change, instead of alone.

We both rode bikes out to the park, I borrowing the late Ralph Ebe’s ten-speed. Ava rode her thick-tired girl’s bike and kept up with me easily, biking as she did every day. It took us only about twenty minutes before we reached Marconi on the west side of the park.

“Where is this place?” she asked me. I beckoned her to follow me. We darted down this lane and that path, twisted our way around and behind a levee that protected the park from the I-610 which cut right through it, and then we arrived at my spot.

“Oh, Ralph, this is wonderful,” she said as she stood on one leg, balancing on her bicycle. The place was called Popp’s fountain. It was a Romanesque arrangement of concentric rows of columns around a circular pool. Wood straddled across the circular path of the columns in a connect-the-dots fashion to give it a Stonehenge-like feeling. This had been the first time I had seen it after numerous layers, and the fountain wasn’t working. Some of the columns had damage, too, from the elements and vandals. But the unruly vines that grew along the structure more than made up for the disrepair, creating a verdant oasis. Ava and I sat on the rim of the pool. It was a particularly mild evening in late November, but we wore wind-breakers and that had turned out to be a good idea. It was dusk and, even though we wouldn’t be able to stay there for very long, we still enjoyed the rewarding setting. The philosophical flavor of our conversation was what had inspired me to woo her to this place. She was both smart and a good listener. She readily continued in the spirit of the discussion.

I described to her my honest impression of my life—of life itself—with the sliding, out-of-body experiences, and the like. We both knew that there were at least two progressions, one good and one bad, and that we were on the bad cruise. After listening, she explained her version of things.

“Your scheme of things is very simplistic compared to mine,” she said. “Whereas you look at the whole sliding affair as linearly traversing one spot to another, replacing the exister du jour with yourself, a true exister, my whole take on it is more circumspective.”

“Circumspective? Am I not circumspective enough?”

“You’re linear. You’re on a number line, heading in one particular direction on it. You’re so one-dimensional.”

“Ouch.”

“No, you know what I mean. All of these layered me’s or you’s, simultaneously existing, make up the whole being, the whole existence. True existers are only the occasional pin-point beings of the whole, beings with some organic capability of awareness of perspective.”

“Perspective. Hmm. Don’t you have to rise above it all to have a perspective? Doesn’t portend well for a number line and being one-dimensional, does it?” I smiled, feigning hurt, but she knew she was convincing me.

“Perspective is the key,” she emphasized. “Remember before when I told you I thought that we were travelling in this worse direction because we had originally made some selfish slides way back when,” referring to our hatted cafe conversation right after our push through the magnet.

“Yes,” I answered.

“We’re only going this way because we have pushed ourselves. The magnet helped, certainly, but we set up the direction. We made these ancient selfish slides, only to see the effects of our selfishness on an innocent world—the real victim. And the more we did it, the worse the world would be, with our perspective of the difference which our selfishness had caused around us.”

“And true existers who would slide for good, wholesome reasons would get sent into ‘the nice’ direction?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “They would see the world better for their goodness”; she smiled, adding, “for their wholesomeness.” I considered her points. “Like Mother Teresa,” she added, on a roll.

“Who?” I asked her.

“Mother Teresa. The nun in India. Come on, you know.”

“No, really. She wasn’t in my Survey.”

“This nun that lived for the poor. Did everything her whole life for the poor. She was this really good person.”

“I guess where I’ve come from there were a lot of people like that.” I laughed sarcastically. “I guess not so many anymore.”

“Well, take her, anyway,” Ava continued. “If she’s a true exister, and if she would slide around, I’d bet she’d be one to go the other way. Doing good and seeing better and better places.”

“It sure sounds a lot to me like good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell,” I deduced. “Hardly an original concept.” She flipped out both palms in conclusion to having made her point. “Well, Ava, I guess that’s a way to look at it,” I agreed. “I wonder if this Mother Teresa would get to such wonderful places by all of her slidin’ good deeds that the poor would eventually not be poor. She’d be out of a job.”

“That wouldn’t matter,” she said. “All of these worlds co-exist as total existence; that all of these Avas, and Johns, and Mothers Teresa, for that matter, co-exist in the prismatic worlds that add up to not just true existing, but total existing. Deja vu is nothing more than a spill-over of awareness from one version of someone to another version of that someone.” She stopped to consider where her own words were taking her. “There is a very small piece of your own Abby that killed herself when the Abby here did herself in.”

“There’s a thought,” I said uncomfortably.

“Sorry,” she offered.

“I’ll give you the reason I have real trouble with that,” I argued. “If it were true what you say, then it really doesn’t matter at all what you and I, even as true existers, do. It all gets averaged out in this total existence you talk about.”

“It does matter,” she said to me. “Goodness is its own reward. The total existence does not average out to zero. It can be better with better things in it. The sum of the parts can have a vector force of improvement. And the whole is greater than the mere addition of the parts; that difference, that vector force for improvement, being the soul.”

Soul! Somewhere there had to be a soul. Not a static boxed-in entity on my naïve number line, but a dynamic, timeless identity of the total self.

“You mean,” I asked, “a vector force of improvement by us?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“Ava,” I said to her with an expression not unlike ridicule, “if we true existers are the difference, then we are mere specks among thousands, millions of layers of me’s shimmying in each’s layer doing what that layer expects. Being mean if that’s the layer. Being magnanimous, if that’s the layer. The difference we’d make to this total existence would be like that couple of degrees warmer than absolute zero that’s left over in the universe from the Big Bang.”

“Ralph, sometimes you depress me.” She stood up and by pulling at my hand motioned for me to stand.

“Ava, we are the reality,” I said, resisting her tug. “Don’t be depressed by all of this that is not truly existing.”

“Ralph,” she said half-jokingly, “I’m so depressed I’m ready to call it a night. Let’s go.”

“C’mon,” I offered, rising with her lead. We mounted our bicycles again and rode off. Upon arriving back at her house, she told me she was turning in. I told her I’d join her, meaning nothing more than intending to fall asleep with her. That was by now well established.

And yet another day came to a close while we waited for a magnetic push.

“Laying here with you,” she said to me in bed after we had finished all of our retiring procedures, “reminds me a lot of when I used to lie in bed with my Ralph—before he had died.”

“Ava,” I said, beginning with a tone of remorse.

“No, please don’t feel bad. I’m just talking.”

“O.K.,” I said, relaxing again.

“Anyway,” she continued, “he used to have this saying. After sex, he used to say, ‘I get to have sex with the most beautiful girl in the whole world.’ Or when he sneaked a feel of me in some public place, he used to whisper, ‘I get to fondle the most beautiful girl in the whole world.’ Even when he was just lying next to me in bed, he used to say, ‘I get to sleep with the most beautiful girl in the whole world.’ I mean it was his favorite compliment—he used to say it all of the time. And of course, I never got tired of hearing it.”

“Of course,” I agreed.

“But what I used to say back each time,” she continued, “was, ‘I bet you say that in all your worlds.’“

“Good come-back.”

“I guess. And he would laugh each time, no matter how many times we’d go through our little routine.” Ava paused a moment to readjust the pillow under her head, which naturally dislodged the perfectly positioned pillow under my own, and then she continued. “But I guess it was also a way for me to say that all of the me’s were the same, because we all made up the same whole person. That it really didn’t matter who he was intimate with, as long as it was with a me, of course...”

“Of course,” I said again.

And now she laughed, and being a part of this humor made me feel like I was spying on their intimacy through a keyhole. It had been four months since our Oedipal rendezvous, and “getting lucky” with her was the furthest thing in my mind since.

This is why, all of a sudden, off guard, she surprised me.

It was one of those rare and magical times for me when I had felt the lift-off, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, that had signaled the beginning of an out-of-body experience. This experience had been a long time coming, and I grew exhilarated at the prospect of spotting my real Abby again, even if just to see her in a very terrible world.

I arose, my head skimming the ceiling. It finally melted through it, and I reached heights that staggered me even in this state. Positioned high above the parish line in my underwear and nightshirt, floating in the cold air with a layer of room-temperature buffer around me, I could see the nighttime Jefferson Parish on my right and the glittering New Orleans to my left. I went higher and higher until I could follow the curves of the Mississippi which cradled them both. The only thing sifting this high up to me from down there was faint atonal music, like the tuning of a symphony orchestra. It wasn’t the actual sound waves, but the essence of the music that easily reached me, the soulful identifications from the beings in this city that blew into horns, dragged hair across strings, or interdigitated with ivory. Making pure harmonic and melodic sense in each of their pockets of attention, here they blended into a sublime celestial arrhythmia that made even greater sense.

I closed my eyelids so that I could focus through them—real seeing. I once again saw all of the layers spread out in the different directions, so far down the line that they seemed to blend into a continuum. And now I once again felt the ill wind from the direction into which my Abby had gone. And as unbelievable as it seemed to me, I went even higher. I looked for her, but I was now so high that I could not resolve any of the individual layers.

Ultimately, straight down into my own layer, I saw a tiny something rising my way. I focused with all of my strength and saw that the tiny something was becoming larger and larger, until I could see that it was a someone, someone who was getting clearer and clearer. For one frightening instant I thought it might be Chaz. She was possessed, I swear, and she would chase me even into my out-of-body experiences.

Whoever it was got closer and I became more fearful. But no, I was relieved to see, it wasn’t Chaz. Already palpitating remarkably, now my heart began to pound away at what I felt to be a dangerous intensity when it had dawned on me this might be my Abby. It was, I thought—it had to be. She got closer, floating up so gracefully.

I was so high that she still had quite some distance before she would reach me. I saw her grimace as she passed through that stratified layer which was the ill wind. Thankfully, I saw the complacency return as she arose ever so high above it.

But this was not my Abby.

It was Ava! When I saw who it was and who it wasn’t, my despair—that deflation of the human spirit—caused me to plummet at a breath-taking speed. I saw Ava’s hurt expression over the face I made as I whizzed past her with my obvious disappointment. She herself must have felt a negative reaction to what she had sensed in me, for she plummeted also.

Miraculously, we slowed our fall to a stop, bobbing still above the ill wind, protected by an altitude of some substantial difference. Realizing my cruelty, I now made a face to her that was more than any apology could mean, and her face she made to me was more than forgiveness could mean.

Now truly happy with one another, we looked through the ill wind at our sleeping bodies—so peaceful, resting in the flesh. We watched lovingly as parents would steal a glimpse of their slumbering children. I saw her body give a little shudder in the bed below us, obviously catching itself in its sleep.

This is when she surprised me by grabbing my hand and yanking me hard to her. Contact while in an out-of-body experience was unsettling, almost an invasion.

We slammed together, and she tore sexually at me. It was an invasion, but I gave in. We went at each other hard, encompassing each other, conquering each other. My quintessence was swimming, overwhelmed by the torrent of physical, energy not confined by physical shells, exertion not spent via balanced caloric conversions. It was maddeningly precipitous, limbs flailing, secretions sublimating directly into aether. She kissed me hard, this contact making our mouths one organ in spasm, almost in seizure. The other parts of our bodies also became furiously matted together.

It got rougher.

It became uncaring and frightening. We were raping each other! Her kiss was no kiss. Like Chaz at the stadium, it didn’t taste right. This was not Ava, this was a stranger. That had been no sleeping body having had a mere muscle spasm; that had been Ava sliding, leaving this ugly world’s replica for me—all during her own out-of-body experience, an outing she had been lulled into by whatever vacuum I had produced while bouncing around above the ill wind.

I was off the number line with an imaginary number doing unimaginable things to me. The rape became more ferocious in its assault, and now the flailing limbs were striking me. To my shock, we were hovering right in the jet stream of the ill wind. The more vehemently we attacked each other, the wilder the wind blew us—or could it have been the other way around?

My God! I wanted to kill her, and this was her apparent sentiment, also.

I flailed back valiantly, but also with a determined purpose of rising above the ill wind. No way. She kicked me in my out-of-body ribs and she struck me in my out-of-body nose, drops of my out-of-body blood falling, falling, to the bed below. I was losing.

Suddenly my hair got pulled and the puller was not letting go. As it would turn out, the puller was not Ava but yet someone else! This pull became stronger, inspiring whatever resistance I had left while being beaten all about my out-of-body by this new anti-Ava. But my resistance was to no avail.

Unexpectedly, a final jerk of a hand bolted me out of the ill wind. I saw the Ava I had fought fall all of the way back down and land hard into her sleeping body. I pivoted around to identify my champion.

My Abby, as welcome as any angel, embraced me with her floating warm pregnant body, soothing my injuries and my hopelessness and my life. Stunned, I held her at arm’s length and gazed at her. She was older than she had been when we had been separated by the magnet, but she was younger than Ava. She tugged me back toward her, reeling me in. We coupled again, and I could feel our child moving under her skin that she pressed into mine. That was a good feeling, a family feeling. And I felt physically protected by her as our child must have.

“We’re both here for you,” she said to me lovingly. “Sleep, my love, your search is over.” Then, as if her mission were complete, she pulled away, my longing face the only protest. As if the attraction of two bodies were what constituted gravity, her distancing herself from me vaporized the buoyancy I felt which had hung me up so high. I descended ever so slowly, ever so impervious to the ill wind I passed through on the way back down. I slipped back into my body and went on to sleep like a baby—like Abby’s baby.

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Chapter 13 of Slider
Written by DrSemicolon
13
Besides being merciful to me for allowing me to end my day without pressing any issues about the rally, Ava was still personable, even though I didn’t deserve it—even though I unilaterally turned off because I chose to escape any explanations—any reliving—of the incidents at the Dome. I didn’t want to worry her about Chaz on the prowl, either.
I found my tattered shirt in the garbage container in the kitchen. Looking at it I rubbed my bruised chest again, which was blossoming black and yellow. I respected Ava for not even wondering out loud how something like that could have happened to my shirt. She saw it and didn’t even want to imagine.
Actually, she was always very good to me. Very patient, too. Even during some very grumpy times that were to come. I’d cook the meals and homemake, while she worked a do-nothing librarian job for a few dollars.
“It’s just temporary,” she had said, “until I can find a better world. And no, I don’t usually read anything. It’s hard enough just stomaching some of the titles.” Nevertheless, she would regularly regale me with stories from the front counter, laugh-out-loud funny had they not been about pathologic fetishes or animal “husbandry.”
The schmuck she had been married to in this layer had had no life insurance, so we had to get by on her minimum wage. The house was paid for, which made it possible. She got around mainly by her suburban bicycling, ever watchful for killer taxis and PincerLock neighbors. All of this time she had still spurned the use of her car, now a late model Piranha, but I would fire it up every few days anyway, just to keep its battery at the ready should the need ever arise or our courage ever become foolhardy. Nevertheless, I often dreamt of the time we’d have to resort to taking off in it, but I couldn’t say whether the dream was a nightmare or not.
The bicycle, however, was just fine for her, helping her get from home to her job and back, interspersed with small-time grocery hauls. The library where she worked wasn’t much of one; it wasn’t anything I expected. I went there once to surprise her, even though I knew she wouldn’t like the idea. The whole set up took away any enjoyment a library could give. A person could only have access to the card files and then could request a book by giving the number to Ava behind the counter. No browsing through aisles, no paging through magazines. The only chair one could curl up in, to read a little bit of a book, was at home. I knew Ava did some browsing herself, as she was the only one who could; I knew she was learning about this layer, for she often came home depressed. And that was just from reading the titles.
Constantly I warned her about Chaz, to keep her vigilance up always. After she finally heard about my Superdome experience that evening, she was sure to heed my admonitions. In fact, she came home the next day with some Radio Shack wireless burglar alarm system we spent the afternoon installing.
The library was on Bonnabel Boulevard, which wasn’t very far away from her neighborhood—maybe a couple of miles at most. But she had to cross Veterans Boulevard at some point, and since this was a main thoroughfare, I hated to have her exposed like that with Chaz on the trail. Luckily, Dr. Landrum or Chaz didn’t even know her last name, so the only hope lay in spotting her. Or me.
My admiration for Ava, the working woman, was especially strong as she had been a self-unemployed housewife prior to her husband’s death. She had never seemed disquieted by the transition. We seldom strayed outside together, so there was plenty of time for indoor conversation, philosophic as well as mundane, silly, and nostalgic. One evening when I was feeling particularly pent in, I talked her into going with me to one of my favorite places in City Park. We had been engaged in one of the philosophical variations of indoor conversation when a particularly troubling episode of Lifestyles of the Glib and Self-indulgent started on the T.V.
“Come on,” I beseeched her, “we’ve got to get out of her. I’ve got to get out of her. Come with me.” She was all for it, getting the chance to get out with me for a change, instead of alone.
We both rode bikes out to the park, I borrowing the late Ralph Ebe’s ten-speed. Ava rode her thick-tired girl’s bike and kept up with me easily, biking as she did every day. It took us only about twenty minutes before we reached Marconi on the west side of the park.
“Where is this place?” she asked me. I beckoned her to follow me. We darted down this lane and that path, twisted our way around and behind a levee that protected the park from the I-610 which cut right through it, and then we arrived at my spot.
“Oh, Ralph, this is wonderful,” she said as she stood on one leg, balancing on her bicycle. The place was called Popp’s fountain. It was a Romanesque arrangement of concentric rows of columns around a circular pool. Wood straddled across the circular path of the columns in a connect-the-dots fashion to give it a Stonehenge-like feeling. This had been the first time I had seen it after numerous layers, and the fountain wasn’t working. Some of the columns had damage, too, from the elements and vandals. But the unruly vines that grew along the structure more than made up for the disrepair, creating a verdant oasis. Ava and I sat on the rim of the pool. It was a particularly mild evening in late November, but we wore wind-breakers and that had turned out to be a good idea. It was dusk and, even though we wouldn’t be able to stay there for very long, we still enjoyed the rewarding setting. The philosophical flavor of our conversation was what had inspired me to woo her to this place. She was both smart and a good listener. She readily continued in the spirit of the discussion.
I described to her my honest impression of my life—of life itself—with the sliding, out-of-body experiences, and the like. We both knew that there were at least two progressions, one good and one bad, and that we were on the bad cruise. After listening, she explained her version of things.
“Your scheme of things is very simplistic compared to mine,” she said. “Whereas you look at the whole sliding affair as linearly traversing one spot to another, replacing the exister du jour with yourself, a true exister, my whole take on it is more circumspective.”
“Circumspective? Am I not circumspective enough?”
“You’re linear. You’re on a number line, heading in one particular direction on it. You’re so one-dimensional.”
“Ouch.”
“No, you know what I mean. All of these layered me’s or you’s, simultaneously existing, make up the whole being, the whole existence. True existers are only the occasional pin-point beings of the whole, beings with some organic capability of awareness of perspective.”
“Perspective. Hmm. Don’t you have to rise above it all to have a perspective? Doesn’t portend well for a number line and being one-dimensional, does it?” I smiled, feigning hurt, but she knew she was convincing me.
“Perspective is the key,” she emphasized. “Remember before when I told you I thought that we were travelling in this worse direction because we had originally made some selfish slides way back when,” referring to our hatted cafe conversation right after our push through the magnet.
“Yes,” I answered.
“We’re only going this way because we have pushed ourselves. The magnet helped, certainly, but we set up the direction. We made these ancient selfish slides, only to see the effects of our selfishness on an innocent world—the real victim. And the more we did it, the worse the world would be, with our perspective of the difference which our selfishness had caused around us.”
“And true existers who would slide for good, wholesome reasons would get sent into ‘the nice’ direction?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “They would see the world better for their goodness”; she smiled, adding, “for their wholesomeness.” I considered her points. “Like Mother Teresa,” she added, on a roll.
“Who?” I asked her.
“Mother Teresa. The nun in India. Come on, you know.”
“No, really. She wasn’t in my Survey.”
“This nun that lived for the poor. Did everything her whole life for the poor. She was this really good person.”
“I guess where I’ve come from there were a lot of people like that.” I laughed sarcastically. “I guess not so many anymore.”
“Well, take her, anyway,” Ava continued. “If she’s a true exister, and if she would slide around, I’d bet she’d be one to go the other way. Doing good and seeing better and better places.”
“It sure sounds a lot to me like good people go to Heaven and bad people go to Hell,” I deduced. “Hardly an original concept.” She flipped out both palms in conclusion to having made her point. “Well, Ava, I guess that’s a way to look at it,” I agreed. “I wonder if this Mother Teresa would get to such wonderful places by all of her slidin’ good deeds that the poor would eventually not be poor. She’d be out of a job.”
“That wouldn’t matter,” she said. “All of these worlds co-exist as total existence; that all of these Avas, and Johns, and Mothers Teresa, for that matter, co-exist in the prismatic worlds that add up to not just true existing, but total existing. Deja vu is nothing more than a spill-over of awareness from one version of someone to another version of that someone.” She stopped to consider where her own words were taking her. “There is a very small piece of your own Abby that killed herself when the Abby here did herself in.”
“There’s a thought,” I said uncomfortably.
“Sorry,” she offered.
“I’ll give you the reason I have real trouble with that,” I argued. “If it were true what you say, then it really doesn’t matter at all what you and I, even as true existers, do. It all gets averaged out in this total existence you talk about.”
“It does matter,” she said to me. “Goodness is its own reward. The total existence does not average out to zero. It can be better with better things in it. The sum of the parts can have a vector force of improvement. And the whole is greater than the mere addition of the parts; that difference, that vector force for improvement, being the soul.”
Soul! Somewhere there had to be a soul. Not a static boxed-in entity on my naïve number line, but a dynamic, timeless identity of the total self.
“You mean,” I asked, “a vector force of improvement by us?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Ava,” I said to her with an expression not unlike ridicule, “if we true existers are the difference, then we are mere specks among thousands, millions of layers of me’s shimmying in each’s layer doing what that layer expects. Being mean if that’s the layer. Being magnanimous, if that’s the layer. The difference we’d make to this total existence would be like that couple of degrees warmer than absolute zero that’s left over in the universe from the Big Bang.”
“Ralph, sometimes you depress me.” She stood up and by pulling at my hand motioned for me to stand.
“Ava, we are the reality,” I said, resisting her tug. “Don’t be depressed by all of this that is not truly existing.”
“Ralph,” she said half-jokingly, “I’m so depressed I’m ready to call it a night. Let’s go.”
“C’mon,” I offered, rising with her lead. We mounted our bicycles again and rode off. Upon arriving back at her house, she told me she was turning in. I told her I’d join her, meaning nothing more than intending to fall asleep with her. That was by now well established.
And yet another day came to a close while we waited for a magnetic push.
“Laying here with you,” she said to me in bed after we had finished all of our retiring procedures, “reminds me a lot of when I used to lie in bed with my Ralph—before he had died.”
“Ava,” I said, beginning with a tone of remorse.
“No, please don’t feel bad. I’m just talking.”
“O.K.,” I said, relaxing again.
“Anyway,” she continued, “he used to have this saying. After sex, he used to say, ‘I get to have sex with the most beautiful girl in the whole world.’ Or when he sneaked a feel of me in some public place, he used to whisper, ‘I get to fondle the most beautiful girl in the whole world.’ Even when he was just lying next to me in bed, he used to say, ‘I get to sleep with the most beautiful girl in the whole world.’ I mean it was his favorite compliment—he used to say it all of the time. And of course, I never got tired of hearing it.”
“Of course,” I agreed.
“But what I used to say back each time,” she continued, “was, ‘I bet you say that in all your worlds.’“
“Good come-back.”
“I guess. And he would laugh each time, no matter how many times we’d go through our little routine.” Ava paused a moment to readjust the pillow under her head, which naturally dislodged the perfectly positioned pillow under my own, and then she continued. “But I guess it was also a way for me to say that all of the me’s were the same, because we all made up the same whole person. That it really didn’t matter who he was intimate with, as long as it was with a me, of course...”
“Of course,” I said again.
And now she laughed, and being a part of this humor made me feel like I was spying on their intimacy through a keyhole. It had been four months since our Oedipal rendezvous, and “getting lucky” with her was the furthest thing in my mind since.
This is why, all of a sudden, off guard, she surprised me.
It was one of those rare and magical times for me when I had felt the lift-off, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, that had signaled the beginning of an out-of-body experience. This experience had been a long time coming, and I grew exhilarated at the prospect of spotting my real Abby again, even if just to see her in a very terrible world.
I arose, my head skimming the ceiling. It finally melted through it, and I reached heights that staggered me even in this state. Positioned high above the parish line in my underwear and nightshirt, floating in the cold air with a layer of room-temperature buffer around me, I could see the nighttime Jefferson Parish on my right and the glittering New Orleans to my left. I went higher and higher until I could follow the curves of the Mississippi which cradled them both. The only thing sifting this high up to me from down there was faint atonal music, like the tuning of a symphony orchestra. It wasn’t the actual sound waves, but the essence of the music that easily reached me, the soulful identifications from the beings in this city that blew into horns, dragged hair across strings, or interdigitated with ivory. Making pure harmonic and melodic sense in each of their pockets of attention, here they blended into a sublime celestial arrhythmia that made even greater sense.
I closed my eyelids so that I could focus through them—real seeing. I once again saw all of the layers spread out in the different directions, so far down the line that they seemed to blend into a continuum. And now I once again felt the ill wind from the direction into which my Abby had gone. And as unbelievable as it seemed to me, I went even higher. I looked for her, but I was now so high that I could not resolve any of the individual layers.
Ultimately, straight down into my own layer, I saw a tiny something rising my way. I focused with all of my strength and saw that the tiny something was becoming larger and larger, until I could see that it was a someone, someone who was getting clearer and clearer. For one frightening instant I thought it might be Chaz. She was possessed, I swear, and she would chase me even into my out-of-body experiences.
Whoever it was got closer and I became more fearful. But no, I was relieved to see, it wasn’t Chaz. Already palpitating remarkably, now my heart began to pound away at what I felt to be a dangerous intensity when it had dawned on me this might be my Abby. It was, I thought—it had to be. She got closer, floating up so gracefully.
I was so high that she still had quite some distance before she would reach me. I saw her grimace as she passed through that stratified layer which was the ill wind. Thankfully, I saw the complacency return as she arose ever so high above it.
But this was not my Abby.
It was Ava! When I saw who it was and who it wasn’t, my despair—that deflation of the human spirit—caused me to plummet at a breath-taking speed. I saw Ava’s hurt expression over the face I made as I whizzed past her with my obvious disappointment. She herself must have felt a negative reaction to what she had sensed in me, for she plummeted also.
Miraculously, we slowed our fall to a stop, bobbing still above the ill wind, protected by an altitude of some substantial difference. Realizing my cruelty, I now made a face to her that was more than any apology could mean, and her face she made to me was more than forgiveness could mean.
Now truly happy with one another, we looked through the ill wind at our sleeping bodies—so peaceful, resting in the flesh. We watched lovingly as parents would steal a glimpse of their slumbering children. I saw her body give a little shudder in the bed below us, obviously catching itself in its sleep.
This is when she surprised me by grabbing my hand and yanking me hard to her. Contact while in an out-of-body experience was unsettling, almost an invasion.
We slammed together, and she tore sexually at me. It was an invasion, but I gave in. We went at each other hard, encompassing each other, conquering each other. My quintessence was swimming, overwhelmed by the torrent of physical, energy not confined by physical shells, exertion not spent via balanced caloric conversions. It was maddeningly precipitous, limbs flailing, secretions sublimating directly into aether. She kissed me hard, this contact making our mouths one organ in spasm, almost in seizure. The other parts of our bodies also became furiously matted together.
It got rougher.
It became uncaring and frightening. We were raping each other! Her kiss was no kiss. Like Chaz at the stadium, it didn’t taste right. This was not Ava, this was a stranger. That had been no sleeping body having had a mere muscle spasm; that had been Ava sliding, leaving this ugly world’s replica for me—all during her own out-of-body experience, an outing she had been lulled into by whatever vacuum I had produced while bouncing around above the ill wind.
I was off the number line with an imaginary number doing unimaginable things to me. The rape became more ferocious in its assault, and now the flailing limbs were striking me. To my shock, we were hovering right in the jet stream of the ill wind. The more vehemently we attacked each other, the wilder the wind blew us—or could it have been the other way around?
My God! I wanted to kill her, and this was her apparent sentiment, also.
I flailed back valiantly, but also with a determined purpose of rising above the ill wind. No way. She kicked me in my out-of-body ribs and she struck me in my out-of-body nose, drops of my out-of-body blood falling, falling, to the bed below. I was losing.
Suddenly my hair got pulled and the puller was not letting go. As it would turn out, the puller was not Ava but yet someone else! This pull became stronger, inspiring whatever resistance I had left while being beaten all about my out-of-body by this new anti-Ava. But my resistance was to no avail.
Unexpectedly, a final jerk of a hand bolted me out of the ill wind. I saw the Ava I had fought fall all of the way back down and land hard into her sleeping body. I pivoted around to identify my champion.
My Abby, as welcome as any angel, embraced me with her floating warm pregnant body, soothing my injuries and my hopelessness and my life. Stunned, I held her at arm’s length and gazed at her. She was older than she had been when we had been separated by the magnet, but she was younger than Ava. She tugged me back toward her, reeling me in. We coupled again, and I could feel our child moving under her skin that she pressed into mine. That was a good feeling, a family feeling. And I felt physically protected by her as our child must have.
“We’re both here for you,” she said to me lovingly. “Sleep, my love, your search is over.” Then, as if her mission were complete, she pulled away, my longing face the only protest. As if the attraction of two bodies were what constituted gravity, her distancing herself from me vaporized the buoyancy I felt which had hung me up so high. I descended ever so slowly, ever so impervious to the ill wind I passed through on the way back down. I slipped back into my body and went on to sleep like a baby—like Abby’s baby.

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