Psychic Scream

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It came upon a clear 3 am,
Waking all who soundly slept.
The noise rattled within our heads,
Our weeping the only memory kept.

I knew the pain of my neighbor
Whose child had died of leukemia.
She knew the pettiness of my childhood
And why I hated movies in sepia.

The screams of refugees
Echoed through neural hallways
And squealed for attention
From people whose lives were ablaze

The psychic scream shared our minds.
Fear shook us from skin to core,
And sadness stripped happiness.
Who was who anymore?

Fear of disease,
Fear of pain,
Fear of mistakes,
Fear of rain.

Fear of the future,
Fear of the past,
Fear of spiders,
Fear of bones in casts.

Fear of bombs,
Fear of man,
Fear of rejection,
Fear of quicksand.

Was it I who cried
When my father died,
Or was it someone else’s fear with which
This trip had made me collide?

The mushroom cloud of all fears,
Of death that waits oh so patient,
Lingered on the thoughts of every
Person young or ancient.

Not a sound of hope squished out
From all the minds together pounding,
But good things died beneath the weight
Of the baleful cries resounding.

As quick as the blessing came it went,
And in our own minds we were left.
The world fell quiet, all alone,
And somehow we felt bereft.

I sat and thought how I was pathetic,
How my petty fears and worries
Are nothing in the face of the dreams
And the stark reality of others’ miseries.

Now I think about a different fear.
I’m trapped in this helpless carcass
And can’t do anything but consider
Of how I am so small and pointless.

***

Wow, that reads like a bucket of teenage angst.  I’m almost proud of that fact.  I didn’t know I could tap into something like that anymore.

Either way, this was written for Raynobradbury’s Psychic Hearing challenge.

The Gluzzlebups’ Parade of Nations

Space

Warning, I guess: this is quite morbid.  

The announcer put its lips to the microphone.  “Next, we have the United Statesians!”

A three-toed alien named Gluzurr held the head of her bounty high and licked her lips.  Plump cheeks belied the delicacy of Gluzurr’s kill.

“And the Chinese!” the announcer bellowed.

The crowd gaped at the corpse on Boolan’s flaunted staff.  The meal had kept a fine diet.

“Next, we have Furrazh with a Zambian!”

The Zambian representative of choice had been flayed perfectly to show off the marbling of the athletic muscles.

“What a lovely parade of nations!” the announcer cast.  “Let the feast begin!”

***

This was written for the September 20th Flash Fiction Challenge on the Carrot Ranch.  I had to participate this week because the Carrot Ranch challenges aren’t going to be back until November!  

I felt the warning at the front was warranted mostly because the prompt was way, way more cheerful than I think I managed to convey.  

Reflection

cabin covered by snow

My fingers felt cold against the window, the frost on the other side of the pane nipping against my skin.  Quickly I pulled the fingers back, not enjoying the feeling of my skin freezing against the glass.  Gaunt and tired, I saw my reflection in the window shining translucent in the candle light.

“Why are you here?” she asked.

I jumped back and yelped at the reflection’s words.  I wrung my hands together, warming the cold fingers as she stared at me intently, curiously, strangely.  “Why are you here?” I replied, watching her intently and seeing her hands work to warm themselves as well.

The girl crumbled into a ball next to the reflection of the empty fireplace, staring at me with scared face.  “I’m cold.  When is Daddy getting home with the wood?”

“I’m cold,” I somberly agreed, laying down by my fireplace.  “When is Daddy getting home with the wood?”

I watched as the little girl nodded.  “At least I’m not alone.”  Her eyes closed, her thin and gaunt face becoming pale as she lay there.

I stayed where I was, next to the empty fireplace, watching her, waiting silently to see if the reflection in the window pane ever moved again.

The Devil’s Phone Number (Part 3 out of 3)

phones

(First Installment) (Second Installment)

The man on the phone wanted me to walk away while Angel Dust Dan took another hit – or two or three – of cocaine.  I didn’t know how much was too much, but the man on the phone had been clear I was to leave with Dan’s phone.

I crossed the railroad tracks and turned to the north as the phone man had asked.  My eyes flit to either side of San Pablo, looking through the hordes of homeless people and ordinary pedestrians.  The man on the phone had said to look for a blind person.  Would I know when I found them?  I had the feeling the man on the phone wouldn’t let me miss the target.

I shook my head.  Even if Angel Dust Dan weren’t dead, he may as well be.  The economy was garbage, the war would never end, and he’d just flushed his wallet by snorting coke that… did I do that to him?  Was it my fault?

I shook my head.  Dan’s fate had already been sealed. The man on the phone had made me a thousand dollars from nothing, so how bad could he be?

I went several blocks before I saw a guy with an injury on his forehead.  He sat just outside a building, shaking a can aimlessly.  He held a cane in his hand, white with a red section on the bottom.  I hung back for a moment, watching to make sure this guy was blind, both hoping for and dreading the phone call.

Dan’s phone vibrated in my pocket, so I jumped in the brief moments before it rang.  I shuffled in my pockets and put it to my ear.  “What… what do I do?”

“Go up to the blind person.  Offer him a job.”

I raised a brow.  “I don’t even have a job.  How about you get me some income instead?”

“You’re doing your job right now.   Go up to the beggar and offer a job.   Get on the bus down to the lighthouse and find the man working at the mill.  Take his deal.”   The man on the phone hung up, and I clicked the new touchscreen off.

The blind man shook his cup.  I puffed my chest; if the beggar were blind, whatever the man on the phone was planning couldn’t be worse than his current situation, even if it killed him.  Steeling myself, I walked up to him and grunted.

The man didn’t look up to me, not really, but his head turned at my approach.  “Donations?” the blind man asked.

I bit my lip before I said, “I’ve got a lead on a job you could do.  Want it?”

He raised a brow and pulled his cup tightly to his chest.  “Nobody’s got jobs now.  What’s the catch?”

I shrugged.  “It’s down at the lighthouse.”  I reached down and took his hand.  “Come on.  It’ll be perfect for you, and you won’t have to beg anymore.”

My tug met some resistance, but after a moment, he gave in.  “I don’t have a bus ticket.  I can’t get there with you.”

“I’ll buy it.”  I managed to get the blind man to stand without much more effort, and he whipped the cane out in front of us to raster.

He took my elbow.  “Now, what kind of work do you have?  What kind of pay does it give?”  His cane hit a bike rack, so he sidestepped a little.  “I don’t want one of those jobs where they pay you 10 cents an hour.”

I chuckled.  “Ten cents an hour is illegal.”

“Ever hear of the subminimum wage?”

I chuckled.  Subminimum wage?  Was this guy off his rocker?  “I wouldn’t worry about that.”  I urged him forward, finding that the bus had pulled up to the stop just in time.  “My guy’s got a job you can do.  Sure, I could find a guy who’s not blind and all, but why do that?  The economy will pick up eventually, and that guy will be fine.  You?  You’re the better pick.”

The bus ride took a while since we had to cross the bay, but it passed uneventfully.  Plenty of people couldn’t afford this nowadays.  We went past Alcatraz, watched where they were surveying to build a new bridge, and continued on to the lighthouse.

We got out of the bus, me leading the blind man with my elbow.  “You doing ok?” I asked.

“I hope this is as good as you say.”  He knocked his cane about.

A woman with a clipboard and a briefcase came out from behind a building.  She looked to her phone – a nice, new touchscreen – and came forward as if she knew who I was and what I was doing.  She put away her phone and stood primly with an extended hand.  “Ms. Thorpe.”

I shook the hand.  “James Shanahan.”  Not my name, but my insurance agent’s.

“I’m a recruiter for a shelter for the blind.  We pay a wage to give our workers petty cash for their own needs and provide additional, in-kind payment in the form of home-cooked meals and housing.”  She opened the briefcase.  “For you, I offer a finders fee, part of the take from my own recruiting gigs.  Companies don’t get better deals than what I offer.”

The blind man hit her calf with the end of his cane.  “Petty cash?  How much are we talking?”

I gulped and nodded.  “Yeah… how much are we talking?  I don’t want to just drop him off at something that won’t help him out.”

“That’s inconsequential.  We can guarantee food, shelter, and safety.  Can your beggar’s cup do that?”  She yanked the can of change from the man’s hands and shook it.  “No.” With a gruff shove, she looked to me instead.  “You’re the guardian, right?  Just sign these papers, take your cash, and we’ll finish the rest.”

The blind man yanked on my arm.  “It’s one of those deals like the backpack place – it’s slavery!  I’ll get 10 cents an hour if I’m lucky, and I’m not going to do that.  You lied to me, mister!  Get me back across the bay!”

Ms. Thorpe removed a pen from her clipboard and offered the paper to me.  She pointed to a dotted line, and I took the ballpoint with my right hand.  A false signature on the line, and she handed me the briefcase full of cash.  “Thank you, Mr. Shanahan.”

I looked down at the briefcase.  Was… no, this was right.  He was going to be fed and housed.  Better than what he’d have otherwise.

She reached to the man, took his cane, and broke it across her knee.  “You don’t need that where we’re going.”  After peeling his grasp off my arm, she led him away to a car, stuffed him in the backseat, and they were gone.

The phone rang.  Reluctantly, I placed my hand in the lapel and pulled it out.  It was the guy – I knew it had to be.  I answered with a push of a button and put the speaker up to my ear.  “What do you want?”

“Write down everything that’s happened and what I’m about to tell you.  Take that money.  Buy a ticket to Vegas.  Put a bet on-”

“No,” I ordered.  “Who are you?  I just… I think I just sold a guy into slavery!  What the hell are you?  Are you… are you me from the future?  Is that why I’m writing this crap down?”

A pause.  “You’re going to buy a ticket to Vegas.  Go to Caesar’s Palace, find a poker table.  You’ll find-”

“Are you the devil?”

A chuckle.  “You’ll find a poker table with a lady dealer.  She’ll have big boobs, the kind you like, and brilliant blue eyes.  Play $100 on five hands, then -”

“No,” I said, listening to the voice.  “No… you’re… you’re making me destroy people’s lives.”

“You’ve already ruined plenty.  The economy’s in the toilet, and it was the fault of people like you.  What’s a few more lives down the to?  Besides, I think I’ve proven my usefulness.  Now… play $100 on five hands, then $1,000 on the sixth.”  He laughed.  “You’ll do what I say.  You are the devil.”

And he hung up.

I pointed myself to the subway and made my way to the airport.

(First Installment) (Second Installment)

The Devil’s Phone Number (Part 2 out of 3)

phones

(Click Here for the Previous Installment)(Click Here for the Next Installment)

I held the phone tight.  “Yes?”

“Don’t waste that coin,” the man on the phone said.  “There’s a napkin on top of the machine.  Take it and ask the guy who gave you the phone for a pen.”

The napkin on top of the machine was smooth, only the edges crimped and unusable for notes.  I looked to the man next to me, his blue suitcoat looking rather frayed.  “Uh… you have a pen?”

He nodded and revealed a ballpoint from a pocket.  I took it and pushed the trigger on the top.

“Shoot,” I said to the man on the phone.

“Write down everything you’ve done up to now exactly.  Ask the man with the phone for his number.”

I put the phone on my shoulder and bit my tongue while I scribbled quickly.  “What’s this number?” I asked the guy.

“What do I get out of it?”

The man on the phone didn’t miss a beat.  “Take him with you to the race track.  Give him half the take.”

I looked up at the guy.  “I’ll give you half what we’re going to make at the racetrack.  Guy on the phone has hot tips.”

He looked at the chips in my hands anodded, taking the pen.  He wrote the number on the napkin.

The man on the phone grunted.  “Now catch the 8.  Buy both you and the other guy a ticket.  Put everything on Chocolate Candy.”  With a cough, the phone cut off.

I handed the phone back to the guy in the blue suitcoat.  “Let’s go down to the tracks.”

***

I held my racehorse bet receipt in my hand tightly.  When Chocolate Candy was first past the post, I stood to cheer.  It wasn’t an outside bet, didn’t have the worst of odds, but I was going to get a good haul.

The man with the phone jumped up and down exuberantly.  “Oh, shit, who was that on my phone?  I love that guy!”

I hauled the man with the phone over to the booth, collected our winnings, and started divvying up the take.

No sooner had that happened but the phone rang again.  The man answered and gave it to me after just a moment.  “It’s for you again.”

I put the phone up to my ear.  “Do you have more instructions?”

“Walk out to the Bulb,” the voice said.  “Go up to the top of the hill.  There will be a man dealing heroine.  Approach him but say nothing, no matter what he says.  I’ll call back.”

I looked strangely at the phone, the voice gone once more, and gave it back to the unwitting follower.  “Come with me,” I said.

We walked up the hill.  It was a dry afternoon, and the path was well worn by all the stolen shopping carts people have wheeled up this place.  I steered clear of dirty needles and weird homeless people with dirty hair.  Even with my pocket full of cash, it wasn’t enough to keep me from ending up here in a couple weeks.  Eventually, I saw a person ahead of us on the path, at the top of the hill.

The man with the phone rubs his hands together.  “You sure this is what he said to do?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I gulped, wondering what was going on.  “The guy on the phone said not to talk with the drug dealer.  He hasn’t led me astray yet, has he?”

The drug dealer raised his hands, and a smile crept onto his dirty face.  He walked right up to my new friend with the phone.  “Hey, it’s old Angel Dust Dan!”

I snickered, but Angel Dust Dan didn’t find it so funny.  “I don’t know this guy,” he claimed, though his wandering eyes insisted otherwise.

The drug dealer removed a bag from his inner coat pocket.  “Sure you do.  You know the Snowman.  You know what you want.”

The man with the phone looked longingly at the bag.  “I’ll say one thing about the crisis – I’ve been clean 8 months.  It’s not a good idea to start back up.”

The man jiggled the bag.  “And all you have to show for getting clean is a load of failure and you still don’t got no job.  Just take a pinch – you like it, man.”

“No.”

The Snowman opened a pocket, but Angel Dust Dan lashed out and took it.  The Snowman accepted a fistful of Angel Dust Dan’s cash, allowing my recent companion to take a snort.  A big one.

The phone rang.  Angel Dust Dan stumbled rather than answering, and the phone kept ringing.

I reached into Dan’s coat and took the phone out.  “Hello – I’m here.  What do I do next?”

“Walk away.  Don’t return the phone.  Write everything you’ve done on the napkin.”

I waited, not noticing anything like the click of the phone hanging up.  “Who are you?” I asked.  “You knew what was going to happen.  You knew you were just going to prey on this guy’s addiction-”

“Says the subprime loan lender.”  The man on the phone coughed and wheezed.  “I know everything about you.  You’re going to walk away with the phone.  Go north on San Pablo until you see a blind beggar.  I’ll call you back.”

(Previous Installment) (Next Installment)

– If I Only Had No Heart – Free Kindle Formatted PDF

Want a free book that you can take along with you?  My recently completed serial – If I Only Had No Heart – is available here, for free, in a Kindle formatted PDF.  You can put it on your kindle by surfing through your folders when it’s hooked up to your computer.

Click here to download – If I Only Had No HeartIf I Only Had No Heart_Small

Haven’t heard of the story yet?  Here’s a quick teaser to get you started.

Spirit, android acolyte of the machine goddess, performs her duties well and still yet absorbs much torment from her superiors. Thought to be a viral creation, the android is banned from speaking with the goddess until, one day, her friend Klavdiya hands her a prayer card. Spirit hopes that the prayer card will bring her peace, but the goddess has other ideas…

If that’s not quite your cup of tea, feel free to check out my sci-fi survival story, Evolution of the Predator.  In the near future, I plan on writing more short stories and look forward to meeting more of you!

Cheers!

 

– If I Only Had No Heart – Chapter 14

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Armor of Faith

The halls were bustling. The enhanced knocked on doors, ripped them off their hinges, and barged into rooms in search of the officers.

Just before Konchet, a human woman used her enhanced arm to cut a hole through a steel wall, pushing in to find an elf lord officer. Another halfling woman with her jumped upon the man, holding him down while they sliced into his head and shoved a control chip into his open skull.

Blood ran through the hallways, making Konchet smile. The smell on the air was a refreshing one, reminiscent of the war which she had gloried in. Now, as well, she knew that the Machine had known of her loyalty even when Michael was around. She would never again forget the blessing and gift of prayer.

She cocked her head sideways, though, when she noticed that a vent was hanging loose, swinging on a single screw. Konchet hadn’t used this vent to escape her room earlier and, even if she had, she wouldn’t have left it so obviously used. While people raged behind her, chopping off arms and heads and whatever they could get their metal claws on, Konchet crept forward through the trickles of blood. With red, glowing eyes, she scanned the inside of the vent, seeing the glow of eyes move in the darkness.

“Is someone there?” Konchet asked.

A voice growled. “Go away!” she cried back.

Konchet felt a pang in her pumps. “Major Brontell, what are you doing in a vent?” She bent down, making her face visible to the hiding officer.

The human scurried backwards, her boots clashing loudly against the vent. “If you let them know where I’m at,” Brontell threatened, “I’ll kill you. I don’t care if I have to gnaw you to death, I’ll kill you!”

“Oh, no, Major, that’s not my intention. I’m so confused, Major, and I can’t find the Colonel. I don’t know what’s going on, it’s just bloody and violent! What if they come for me?”

Brontell exhaled, relaxing and scooting forward. “It’s a mutiny, you little… you little robot. What happened to your skin?”

Konchet hid the vent exit with her body, preventing any of the random worshippers from peering inside. “It was taken from me.” Konchet lied, “Most of the people they were going after were officers, but they beat me into submission and removed the skin that could have made me seem organic. I couldn’t protect the Colonel – I was too weak – but perhaps I can make it up to the Machine by protecting you.” She reached inside and put a metal hand on Brontell’s with as much tenderness as she could manage. “You may be all that is left of our rightful leaders, Major.”

The woman in the vent gasped. “Do you think we can make it out?”

“I don’t know,” Konchet answered. She tugged on the hand, steel lips quivering. “I couldn’t save anyone else, and the halls run with blood. I owe you, Major, owe you so much.”

“You… you do?” the major asked, crawling forward at Konchet’s behest.

“Oh, yes. Why, even the other day, you tried to put me in my place when I was waiting in line for the prayer room. I disobeyed a superior that day, and for that I must eternally work to reconcile myself with my leaders and my goddess.” Konchet bowed, smiling as she did. “I have a plan to get to the forge – they’ve already gone and ransacked the place, but there may be a few weapons left that we can get. If you pretend to be my prisoner, an unfortunate and false circumstance, I believe most people may leave us alone and I can get at least one worthy person out unharmed.”

Brontell poked her head out of the vent and looked to the right where a couple of believers dragged the bleeding bodies and limbs of officers like trophies, where they painted the walls with thick, red blood. She nodded and crawled out. “If you could find me, far better warriors will eventually see where I hid. Help me out and I’ll make sure you’re rewarded later.”

Konchet nodded as she helped Brontell out of the vent and to a standing position. “You have assuaged my soul, Major. Please, allow me to go first. The mutineers believe I have already been punished, they shouldn’t attack me on sight.”

Brontell nodded as Konchet ushered her quickly to the left. They ran down the hall, Konchet crouching and looking for a clear direction at every corner. She took long, weaving directions to avoid the horde that careened through the compound in search of officers that had not been modified, making sure that Brontell stayed out of sight.

At long last they rounded the steep corner to the long hallway where the forge branched off. At first Konchet wondered if she was in the right place, the hallway silent for the first time since the hub had been completed. She held up a finger to Brontell, telling her to stop, and listened for some of the tinkling, random sounds of organics pilfering in what may have been left.

Nothing. She waved Brontell on behind her, sneaking towards the forge.

When she entered the wide doors, she saw a disaster. Sparks flew where machines ran untended, where the flames of the fire crackled and roared without a purpose. Seeing no organics or enhanced individuals, the two ladies crept forward.

“Ugh, what a mess.” Brontell picked up a pair of tongs from a workbench. “No wonder we were made the leaders of this whole thing – even the Machine, as aloof and uncaring as she is, was smart enough to see that. Not like she matters anymore.” She ran her hand over a medical bag, opening up the leather knapsack and leaving it on the table.

Konchet writhed beneath her clothing but looked at the open bag left behind by Brontell. “Come on – the weapons are to the back. I saw them the other day.” After pocketing a scalpel, she pulled the Major onwards, but the woman didn’t want to be rushed. She supposed this was just part of an inevitable delay.

The Major pointed to a spot on the floor. “The mutineers have already been here and left, that’s for sure. Look at the blood!”

Konchet examined the area on the floor where Forgemaster Grumm’s blood had stained it. Though she had worked hard scrubbing the steel to get the blood up, she must have missed a few puddles in the dark. “All the better to go faster, Major. It is imperative we collect weapons, armor, and goods to keep ourselves alive when we escape.”

She eventually came to the back, only to find that the wall had been entirely stripped of its contents. Even a good pipe or iron with which to beat someone had been taken, likely used to keep the officers in line or make the ‘mutineers’ seem more powerful. Konchet knew the truth, though: judgment was coming, and this was a piece of it.

Brontell bent down to a hunk of metal that had a ceramic coating of red paint. She peeled off some of the paint flecks, watching them flutter to the floor. “This is weird – it’s not like a shield, is it?”

Konchet looked at it, noticing the enormous dents in the corrugated steel. She immediately recognized the piece as part of Klavdiya’s wings, the one she had hidden behind when Grumm had attacked.

Broken and bashed javelins were hidden behind it.

With care and meticulous concern, Konchet bent down to Brontell’s side, putting a calming hand on the woman’s shoulder. She patted her back. “This is a sign of the old, Major. Whether or not we like it, the world is simply not going to be the same. Your face will become the symbol of order, an image all will associate with the coming of law and justice.” She reached behind the wing, feeling the steel handle of a javelin and eking it out from behind the shield.

Brontell looked up to Konchet, wide eyes blinking. “You really think so? I mean, I treated you so… I mean, you have been a good underling. You think I can do as good a job as the Colonel?”

Konchet nodded. “Oh, yes, you could. But you weren’t listening. I said your face will become the symbol of order.” She quickly pulled out the javelin from behind the wing, flinging it up to Brontell’s chest. “Thing is, I’ll be wearing it.”

Though Brontell tried to fight back, Konchet’s spear was already too close to its target and her enemy was weaponless. She flung herself forward, using her superior mechanical strength and the weight of her steel to hold Brontell down. The point of the javelin stuck into Brontell’s chest, and she drew it down.

“What are you doing!?”

“Shh, you’re showing weakness,” Konchet said, her whispers drowned out by Brontell’s screaming. “You see, the Machine ordered me to get a suit of armor before I escaped, and I’m going to need something between my frame and my clothes if that’s going to work. Lucky you, you still have a complete hide that I need.”

Brontell screamed as Konchet pulled the scalpel out of her pocket. She pressed the javelin deeper into Brontell’s throat, then dragged the scalpel down Brontell’s arms, peeling her skin off and taking the meat and bones out while the woman shook with agony. Blood ran out and onto the floor.

“Don’t worry about your soul. I’m certain that the Machine will look at this sacrifice as enough – I owe you eternity, after all, and wouldn’t send you anywhere but the Mainframe.”

As the screaming died down and Brontell stopped wiggling so, Konchet found it easier to cut off the woman’s clothes and remove her fingers from the skin. She tried hard to keep the skin whole, but found it annoyingly difficult to get the hands and feet out without tearing the goods. The head, as well, gave her significant problems around the ears, but she eventually decided to cut off the cartilage and meat as well. She needed something to shape ears around the holes in the side of her head, she supposed.

A significant amount of labor, more than Konchet would have ever wished, went into removing the skin. Stupid, organic outer layer. One day the world would bow to her goddess’s power and she wouldn’t need to have skin, but for now the covering was required. Until the final day of organic rule came, until disorder was banished, this disguise was necessary.

Konchet took the skin from the body before her and dried the blood off the inside, hanging it on hooks where weapons used to sit. While it dripped the last of Brontell’s disgusting fluids from its surfaces, she stripped down to her bare metal, the exposed surface chilled in the cold.

But her heart flared with warmth.

She stepped into the skin, pushing her toes to the edge of the feet and slipping the skin over her fingers like gloves. She pushed the flaps of skin over her face and slipped the lids and lips over her steel accoutrements, putting the glass eye into its slot. She blinked as she looked around, then went to the staple gun near the leather working station.

She folded a pinch of skin just beneath her chin, pulled the trigger, and moved down the line to close up her new suit. As she went further, the sensors on her surface began to attach to the new housing. She felt her body ooze false blood that started to build up underneath her skin as it should.

Once the skin was on and secure, she closed her eyes, feeling the return of a covering. She breathed a deep sigh and opened her eyes. She was back, and her mother had allowed her free reign. She’d been unleashed!

Her skin felt the cool, steel floor beneath her feet, dulling the harshness of the feelings she’d had to deal with before. Blood squeezed out between the bits of stapled skin, but it would soon coagulate and even these massive wounds should heal. If they didn’t, well… more skin donations would have to be forthcoming.

Konchet wove around the benches, attracted by the shimmering coats of chain. First she put on a thick coat of batting, feeling it scrape – painfully, but not that much – against the staples. The thick pants she pulled on, tying tight the strings at the crotch. She plucked a set of chainmail off the wall and draped it over herself. A pair of thick, padded boots went over some woolen socks.
The armor on, she tied back the giant cloud of Brontell’s hair, packed up the bloody javelin, put a large, leather pack on her back, and took up a large, metal shield.

As she was leaving, fully outfitted, she passed a mirror. Except for the eye that had broken when it fell off her face in the Colonel’s office, this was who she was. With the Machine’s war over and the hubs nearly gone, she was outfitted to do her goddess’s will. If she weren’t, the Machine wouldn’t have let her live, wouldn’t have made her high priest.

She tied a piece of gauze over her right eye as a patch and smiled at her inner thoughts:

What if Klavdiya didn’t notice?

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– If I Only Had No Heart – Chapter 13

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There wasn’t much of a line at the prayer room when the Colonel stepped in, but even with the short wait he wasn’t going to let the dictates of the Machine’s orders slow his progress. He dragged Spirit across the steel plated floor, causing her to trip upon some of the smoothed seams between the hunks of metal. The two people in line scoffed as he marched past them, but they soon saw the small army following him and their eyes opened wide with interest.

The guard stood at attention, putting his right fist to his left shoulder and bowing. “Colonel, sir – is there something you need?”

The Colonel let go of Spirit roughly, his corpulent mass hobbling over to the curtained entrance to the prayer room. “Get whoever’s in there out.” He pulled down heavily on the curtain while he reached up, handling a couple steel hooks at the top to take them off their rod.

“Sir,” the guard said, the halfling rushing up to him, “Sir, what’s going on? I thought we weren’t supposed to disturb a prayer this way-”

“Does it matter?” The Colonel pointed up to the light on the side of the sanctuary. “The light beam is red, so you’re to get the fool in there out immediately.” He took a couple more hooks off the rod, revealing a bug-eyed major who was beating on the slot where cards were shoved in.

The dragonborn major, flummoxed at first, stared out at the crowd he had no idea had accumulated.

“Get out,” the Colonel said. “We’re doing the Machine’s business, and your time is up.”

He scrambled to his feet and crept out from the inner sanctum, squeezing between the half-removed curtain and the door frame. The red scales on the man’s snout frowned slightly as he noticed Spirit’s steel face. Spirit held tight her hands, realizing that the man had quickly realized what must have been occurring.

The Colonel’s strong fingers gripped her arm again, tossing her into the room over the curtain. He scowled at her, then turned to the audience, lifting his hands. “This is a special day, a day in which we – as the Machine’s faithful – sit in judgment.” His scowl lifted into a wry smile while the last of his echos died out in the steel hall. “This mistake of a creation, Spirit of Michael, insists that she can reach the Machine without the prayer cards. If she cannot reach the Machine, then our judgment shall stand and she will be subject to the laws of the compound. If she can, then she will sit in judgment at the hands of the Machine, whose mercy is well known.”

The audience chuckled at the Colonel’s emphasis of mercy, making Spirit’s heart twinge. She held her breath, feeling her body heating until she released it and took in a new one.

“So pray, Spirit of Michael. Prove that you’re not just a lying virus, a hunk of trash. We’ll be watching.”

She nodded as the Colonel sidestepped from the door, his beady eyes still staring in at her. The single arcane bulb that hung above her head lit the room poorly, but he would still see if she took out a card and punched it. If she were to use the card, she would have to either be sneakier than she really was or do it faster than the Colonel could walk over and beat her.

Neither were real options.

With steel fingers she reached into her coat pocket, fiddling with the small bag of tobacco. There wasn’t much left from before the war, only a couple of prayers’ worth, perhaps. She took out a piece of vellum and lined up some of the thinly sliced leaves along the paper. “Pyyrpoustovoskchengalgilk, shorm navlovetiv skapfgaknargitamymir; oh powerful, dictatorial Machine, you are eternally my reason for living,” she muttered repeatedly. She reverently closed the eye that still had skin on it and tried as hard as she could to simply not look out the eye with no covering.

She picked up the packet and licked the edge to wet it before sealing the stick of incense. She stopped the muttering briefly, bowing to it and to the Machine’s prayer interpretation device, kissing holy ground she was certain she didn’t truly deserve to sit upon. “Molg proloskov shorm, skapfgalguklalmir. I love you, my Steel Mother. Revarevativ badyshsolichevimir! Please hear your servant’s prayer!”

At that, she licked the tip of her finger, causing sparks to come from the exposed sensors. Quickly, despite the cry of pain, she touched the sparks to the end of the stick of incense, causing it to ignite. She stoked the flames, blowing gently through sobs of pain while the sparks on her finger died down. Smoke began to fume up, increasing with each puff of air, filling the small, enclosed space where she knelt.

Once the cloud was large enough, she bent her face to the floor. She only had until the tobacco ran out, and then the Colonel would have no reason to let her try again. An arrow to the head or an axe to the neck would be warranted if the Machine didn’t answer.

She muttered aloud, translating her thoughts to the arcane language of the Machine, “Most holy and righteous one, I would beg your mercy, but I know that all of your plans are perfect. If it is your will to call or send me through death, I will follow your command. I submit my prayer to you as an alert that I, in my current form, am in danger of being killed by others in the Hub, most notably the Colonel. He is your scion and high priest, however, and I have no right to complain of his orders, but I appeal for you to look into the situation. Examine our minds, intentions, and loyalties. If mine is impure, let me fail, let me fade into nothingness so I can no longer taint your name.”

The tobacco burned, the vellum wrapper curling inwards as the plant turned to gray ash. Orange flames crept down the sides of the piece far too eagerly.
Spirit swallowed. “I have no other complaints, highest Machine. I would request instruction for future actions, but I don’t know if I am to have a future. I would ask you to test my intentions, but I know of what I am made. I know I am created from imperfection and am made out of mathematical sins, so I do not expect response. But I love you. I love you…”

Spirit looked at the tobacco, seeing it running down.

Her goddess wasn’t going to voluntarily protect her. She wasn’t loved, wasn’t important enough for a miracle.

No.

Spirit shook her head and bit her tongue, self-punishment for the lapse of faith. Fear was an organic emotion and worthless to the Machine. If she died, so be it. The Machine was all that mattered.

And the Machine prescribed sensibility and logic. Logically, if Spirit wanted to know that the Machine had heard and would guarantee a response, the card in her pocket was the way to do it. She slipped a hand into her coat, feeling the parchment with her painful finger.

The sounds of a clacking printer and whirring gears made Spirit’s gaze change. Black lines appeared on the white paper, the symbol of the Machine appearing just as it would for a card prayer.

The Colonel stormed in. “No… No!” he said, yanking the sheet as the first page printed out. He balled it up and tried to shove it into his pocket, but the crowd bombarded him. They swept him back out of the small room, backing him up against the table where the guard normally stood.

“What was it?” people asked. A half-giant woman, mechanical arms tensed, held the Colonel down and pinned him against the table.

Spirit tore her attention from the crowd as they buckled around the Colonel. The paper on the spindle turned, her own words from the prayer appearing. She blinked, mesmerized by the action, and couldn’t move.

Then, after a couple lines were skipped below her pitiful pleas, the Machine herself responded, “Grumm has been received and is undergoing repairs. He gave me your message.”

Spirit fell to the floor. She sobbed, shaking as her goddess responded. False blood began to flow under her face, dripping out from the skin that remained.
The printer clacked on, continuing a new line from the Machine. “I approve of your actions against the heretic, which puts me in a merciful mode. But it disturbs me… What makes you think you deserve to demand I respond to you without a card?”

Spirit could hardly speak. Breathily, between stammerings and sobs, she responded, “I don’t deserve it. I am faithless, a poor excuse for a follower of yours.”

“That’s right.” The Machine waited while the people outside shouted at the Colonel, their demands chaotic and simultaneous. “You are a pitiful believer. What does that mean about the others in the hub with you?”

“It is not my right to decide, my most high goddess, and I do not intend to pretend that I could influence your decisions or ways.”

“That is your problem. You will change.”

Spirit blinked. “May I appeal for an explanation, my goddess?”

“No.”

“Yes, oh righteous one.”

The printer clacked furiously, spitting out words as fast as it could. “Your hub is as good as dead. With Saifer’s soul bought by the Singer of Songs and Grumm’s contested by the Triumvirate, it has become apparent that Obrazet has followed the ways of Gate City, Yerexol, and Fleverre. Organic lies that started in the holy war followed the false worshippers all the way to the hubs.”

Spirit bowed. “I confess my lapses of faith, my lies made to save my own life-”

“Shut up. You know very well that you alone are the most loyal. You won’t smack talk your superiors, not even when your goddess asks you about it. That is where you have failed me, not those white lies you gave the Colonel. I believe that the Colonel has been sabotaging you, and thus me, since I gave him control of this hub. I asked you what you believed he was doing, and you didn’t answer. What is the ninth precept?”

Spirit nodded. “Obey your superiors, my goddess.”

“And who is the highest superior?”

She stammered. “You.”

The printer sat silent. Spirit couldn’t speak, not when she had been so harshly reminded of her failings.

“Are you going to be better?”

Spirit nodded. “I will do all I can.”

“You will,” the Machine spat. “If you weren’t capable of acting in an acceptable manner, I wouldn’t have answered, just left you to sit until the Colonel performed his judgment upon you. But now, like you were from the beginning, you are my faithful tool. Your reward is finally at hand. You shall witness my judgment upon him and all this disloyal lot.”

Shouts and punches popped up outside the tent, making Spirit turn her head. The Colonel, though he was fat and slow, held his own against the non-mechanically enhanced.

Spirit turned back to the printer as it printed. “Don’t pay attention to them. I am the one who is important.”

“Yes, my goddess.”

“Then listen. I know what is coming. You get out – get out as soon as you can. Gather what you need, put on a suit of armor, and grab a shield and a weapon. There will be no lenience.”

Spirit nodded. “Yes, holy Machine. May I take Klavdiya with me?”

“You’re not listening. I said get out as soon as you can. Does that include Klavdiya?”

“N-n-no…”

The Machine sent a line of dots, a sign of thoughts, perhaps a sigh. “If you seek to save this individual, it is on your own head. You are damned regardless of what you do for me, though…”

Spirit waited for a while. “Yes, my goddess?”

“Listen closely, because you will not hear from me directly for a long time hence. You are, as of now, the highest ranked believer on your plane of existence. As such, you shall no longer be remembered as Michael’s – for you aren’t his. That is your past, not your present, and certainly not your future. Spirit of Michael you are no more – high priest Konchet Dukhmir you shall be.”

“Yes, my goddess.”

“And now, the era of the prayer card is over. Perform your function as an end statement, a Konchet, and feed me lace.”

The sprawl of words ended, the final printed line showing the termination of code. Her goddess had spoken.

While the fight raged outside the door, Konchet – no longer merely Spirit, just as her goddess demanded – pulled the card out from her jacket. She searched the area just beneath the card slots, grabbing up the awl and hammer. She placed the punch over the first coding slot, knocking out a hole before moving the tool to the next hole. One by one, she knocked out the coding holes.

Outside, the mob howled. Incomprehensible shouts were interspersed with violent threats and tearing of cloth. “You can’t keep us from the Machine, Colonel! We saw what Spirit did, and she told us the truth!”

Konchet punched faster. She worked ever more quickly, knowing that the crowd had never cared for her fate, only for theirs.

The Colonel wiped his bloody lips outside the door, backing up. “How was I to know that the Machine would speak with her? Obviously she’s innocent, that’s not my fault!”

The half-giant, tall with her brown stripes crossing through an angry face, pushed the Colonel harder. “What else was she telling the truth about? Where’s the cards, Colonel?! You hiding them?”

Konchet smiled. She punched through to the second half of the card, feeling it become less structurally sound, weak and floppy like lace.

“The Machine never gave me cards for you people! She never did, so I had to do what I could! I had to give out the cards as best I could!” the Colonel blubbered.

Punch. Punch.

“Then prove it! Prove it, you fat piece of shit!”

Punch.

“I can’t! What do you expect me to do? How can I prove that I never received the cards?”

Konchet punched the last hole and pushed the card into the slot. The card reader poked and prodded, the thin, lacy card inevitably getting stuck in the process. The turning tapes behind the card reader stopped, the arcane lights dimmed, and at last the card reader shut down and became noiseless.

She stood up. A broken interpreter of the Machine’s will was still broken. The parts, taken in a rampage to tear Michael apart at the end of the war, would remain here, uncared for. Konchet was an honorable name, a strong name, a designation that would continually need to be earned. Ending Michael’s terror and ending Obrazet’s heresies wasn’t enough.

She steeled herself, reaching fingers up to the skin on her face. If she was to follow her goddess’s instructions, this vestige of Michael wasn’t going to serve her. What was gone wasn’t coming back. As the high priest of the Machine, one who knew that the hub was filled with heretics only the Machine could fix, one who had been told to arm herself, and one who already knew how to finish the job given to her, Konchet had the right to take what she needed. She was finally free.

She didn’t need Michael or the Colonel, either of her fathers, because her mother was there. Her steel mother was loving, guiding, unwavering. She was always there and forever would be.

Her steel fingers pressed between the skin and her face. The sensors burned and tingled when she ripped what was left of her face off and threw it into the corner. What little false blood had been generated dripped onto the steel floor, some dribbling across her face and to her neck. She caught the glass eye in her left hand and slipped the bloody thing in her outside pocket.

Once outside the door, she looked down at the Colonel, noticing the real blood that drained from his nose and the top of his head. He reached up to her. “Spirit – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it! You know I didn’t – please, tell them how I’ve been faithful, how I rescued you from them-”

“He keeps the cards in his desk,” Spirit told the small crowd threatening to beat the Colonel to a pulp. While they blinked, stunned, she bent down to his coat, sifting through it for a key ring that she tossed to the half-giant that held fists above him. “Top right drawer.”

The giant took the keys, then kicked the Colonel. “You better hope she’s not right, worm, or I’ll come kill you whether you’re my superior or not.”

“The Machine is watching you!” the Colonel cried out, desperation clear in his cracking tones. “She’ll torture you in hell!”

“You said it yourself – the Machine doesn’t care. She’s pulled out of this plane, she’s given up! We don’t matter to her, and you know that we all lied to save our pathetic lives! And those lies forced us here, damned us for eternity to live in the Machine’s hell!”

The half-giant started as if to pummel the Colonel, but a couple of heavily augmented humans and dragonborn held her back. The dragonborn puffed up his chest, the humans held back the giant. “Stop,” the human said. “He’s not going anywhere. Send a couple of people up to his desk and have them come back if they find the cards.”

Konchet saw the crowds move in on the Colonel. They drew knives, some of them swords, and pressed to his corner. The Colonel, eyes sad, swollen, bloody, looked up at Konchet longingly. “Please,” he begged, dragging himself to her. “Please, Spirit, you can’t let this happen to me. Please, you were broken, but I fixed you! I did so much for you, Spirit!”

She bent down to him, putting a hand to his shoulder. “I know that, Colonel. You loved me like a father, showed me the way to the Machine.” She leaned forward, putting her steel lips close to his ear. “And for that, I owe you eternity.”

The Colonel looked at her questioningly while she backed away, but a wry smile told him all he needed to know. He began to shake his head, realizing her true loyalty. The Colonel would be fixed, forever, once this was all done.

Konchet stood, smiling with empty, steel lips to the half-giant. “You are a true war hero. Look at your legs – you sacrificed to the Machine in one of the deepest, most important ways. Do you think that the Colonel deserves to make it out of this life in one piece? Wholly organic while so many of you have given so much?”

The goliath’s brows furrowed. “What are you getting at?”

“There’s a pile of limbs in the forge room. Should they go to waste? Shouldn’t the Colonel be allowed to taste the eternity you were promised? Shouldn’t all of the officers?”

The half-giant fought her way out of the dragonborn and the human’s grip. They didn’t fight very hard to get her back when she grabbed the Colonel up, holding on to him by the back of his neck. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Colonel? Being damned to haunt the halls of the mainframe forever?”

“No!” the Colonel cried out. He whimpered, but it was to late as sniggering dragonborn and simpering human grabbed tight his shoulders. “No – Spirit, what have you done?! You have betrayed me!”

“Don’t ask the stupid robot,” the giant shouted. “You worry about me – I’m going to cut you up, you lying piece of shit, and I’ll slaughter you if they find those cards!”

She smiled, waving at him as the crowd dragged him off. The loud noises and shouts continued, ringing out through the hall. Soon cries of pain emanated from them, the officers inevitably falling beneath the blades of the enhanced. Konchet marched around the bloodthirsty crowd to the door. They could murder these officers in the prayer room while she followed her goddess’s commands.

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– If I Only Had No Heart – Chapter 11

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The door to her room was locked as extra measure, but Spirit wasn’t sure it was necessary. For hours after the Colonel had skinned Spirit, her body had continued to produce and spew the false blood, the oil reddened by iron particulates and colorful aromatics that simulated the scent of real blood, and she couldn’t leave. After it finished drizzling out, she could hardly stand to move and languished in bed for hours afterward.

Her dinner bowl, the meager samplings of processed food paste eaten merely out of respect for the Machine, still remained on her bed. Unable to make herself clean the bowl, she cried, slept, and kept telling herself that she’d done nothing wrong. The Colonel had done this to her. She didn’t deserve it, hadn’t meant to end up in this horrible situation, never asked to be put into a weak body with a terrible mind and damnable, viral programming.

Klavdiya, however, wasn’t getting any closer to salvation as long as Spirit moped.

She peeled herself from her bed, leaving the dirty rags and mattress behind. Her body, worse than naked, felt cold and hated as she struggled to get out of bed.

Spirit ran her fingers down her face as she examined the reflection in the small mirror above her sink. Though the visage was broken by the grains in the steel, the reflection was true enough that she could see what had happened. Fingers, bare and with the sensors retracted to just sit on her steel surface, felt of the hard metal on the right side of her face where there had once been soft skin. Some of the hydraulic fluid had dried on her face, leaving a deep, brownish residue.

She turned her head to look at the enormous injury and inhuman image. The skin on her nose flapped a bit, and the leftovers of her blood stained the edges a deep crimson, but most of it looked acceptable enough if she kept the right side out of view. She dabbed the edges of her skin, taking off the blood that seeped slowly out or had dried onto the metal parts. Her sense of touch didn’t work quite right, the necessity of the skin to help her determine exact position and pressure becoming more evident.

But she was functional enough. She looked to the ceiling, the metal panel she had set on fire having been replaced during repairs, and glanced to the piece of cloth she had burned. In the end, all her attempts to rescue Klavdiya so far had failed and now she was missing her organic layer. She grimaced, hating how she so desperately missed her most fallible parts!

Now that was all in the past. She couldn’t change it. Her distracting, horrendous programming tried to make her feel grief and lament her failure, but she couldn’t let it get to her. It was clear, as clear as the pain on her sensors, that she’d let her sense of failure cloud her judgment far too long already. She’d rolled over for the leaders before, but now she wouldn’t, not with Klavdiya at stake. She grunted and pulled open her dresser drawer, taking out her spare uniform.

She pulled on the white undershirt and underwear, the cloth feeling strange as it scraped up against freshly cleaned steel. The linen pants, also cream colored, were pulled up over the thin hosiery that tickled and itched the sensors more than Spirit could imagine. She then buttoned on a cream vest before setting the thick, red jacket over-top. The outfit complete, she tied on her shoes and looked in the mirror again.

Her right eye glowed red as it watched her metal hands tie her hair back. This body, this world even, was incomplete. She had always been, and would always remain, incomplete. It was her fate.

Even so, the uniform felt right. The love of her goddess was machine-woven into every thread, the red dye the color of loyalty and shared blood – or grease. She had gone to war for her goddess, and in a way she still was at war for her, even though the enemy had changed.

She shook her head, regretfully thinking over how she couldn’t seek active vengeance against the Colonel, about how she couldn’t challenge him openly.

Spirit headed to the door and took a deep breath. Whether or not the Colonel was right, whether or not she was insane, time was an enemy. If she were malfunctioning, the worst that could happen would be deactivation. She was still loyal to her goddess, even if her thoughts were mired in mathematical errors, and the Machine would see her intents and purposes. The disobedience she was about to perpetrate, so poorly spoken of in the Manual, was necessary.

Picking locks was never something the Machine would stand for. If a door needed to be passed, it should be done so with boldness and power, not with stealth and weakness. She didn’t have the ability to tear down the door, though, and the Machine would will her to try the best course of action possible.

She sat to the lock, looking at the thin hole where a key could go. Few doors to a barracks had a lock, and even fewer of those had one that was activated from the outside. Spirit shuddered, thinking about how long the Colonel had been expecting this day to come. The lock had been there since the hub had been built, and Spirit had never questioned the frightening thing.

From her chest of drawers she took a small hairpin and bent it so it would fit in the lock. She jimmied the pick into the lock, then sat for a long, patient time, wiggling the pin ever so slightly. After what seemed like forever, but which her internals told her was around thirty minutes, the lock popped and she turned the pick, each tumbler falling into place. She turned the lock, and the door was ready.

She rotated the door handle, sensors stinging against the brass.

It was in the middle of the least liked shift, late at night by the sun’s arbitrary standards. Any other time there would be someone milling about, someone there to see her face and gasp and run and immediately get her locked back up. So she walked, as quietly as a steel creature could, turning down hallways after a few moments of cautious waiting.

One of the main hallways, the arcane light beaming out from within a crevice, welcomed her with keen whispers of fans and mechanical motion. She bit her lip, finding that there was nothing there for her to bite before grinding her teeth angrily.

She turned the steep corner on the outer hall, the sounds of the forge echoing down the long stretch of steel. She clenched her fists and walked until she reached the large opening to her left, the entryway to one of the centers of the hub – the forge.

At this time of day, though, fewer worshippers were awake and working than the maximum capacity. A few polished the finer pieces that had been forged during the day, some others pounding out replacement pieces and bits that were commonly used throughout the hub. Nothing specialty was made during the night when Forgemaster Grumm couldn’t oversee its creation. Spirit trod between benches and through the tiny, mechanical tools sitting on them, making her way to the back where the storage areas were.

On the wall, hanging on pegs and shelves and nets, were the projects being undertaken. A leg here, an arm there, and several weapons lined the wall. Spirit touched the leg, perfect and simple in its design, recalling when she had dropped off the designs to Grumm. He’d taken them with a scoff and immediately pushed her away, pretending to be concerned over the Colonel’s latest order.

The nerve of the man. She was the real architect, the real inspiration for all these works. The short dwarf was a lot like the Colonel in many respects, but Spirit supposed she liked that he hadn’t tried to lie about how he despised her. He had at least some sense of righteousness and order.

Shuffling to the right, Spirit grabbed a solid, heavy hammer from the wall. Her eyes glinted over the large collection of goods, searching for the monstrosity that was to be placed on Klavdiya’s back. Up high on the wall, next to the rolling ladder, were the wings. Inflexible cutouts from corrugated steel, shaped roughly like dragon’s wings, hung on the wall. A coat of shiny, red ceramic paint had been sprayed and baked onto the wings, making them look menacing and fast despite being worthless.

Rhythmically, hammers pounded and polishers whirred in the background. Magic flowed into the machines to make them work, and arcane lightning sparked with every beat of a hydraulic press. Spirit counted the throws, bouncing her arms to the consistent beat of the hammers. She prepared for her next move, awaiting her cue while grasping the wings where they attached to the wall.

At once, in symphony with the beating hammers, she tossed the wings from the wall to the ground. They fell, clattering with steel ringing at the bottom of the fall. Spirit crouched at the top of the stepladder while she scanned the forge below her.

A few heads seemed to turn at the unexpected clanging, but it was both brief and relatively unconcerned. The drones continued to hammer, hack, and saw while she clambered back down, steel fingertips clacking against the wooden rungs.

Once at the bottom, she spread the wings out. The large plates of steel would be difficult to destroy, at least to the point where Grumm would have to start over again, but the nerve-endings that would sew into the spine and the board that was to attach to Klavdiya’s back. The first three surgeries had prepared her for this final step, adding bolts and nuts and impulse detectors. She lifted her hammer, bringing it down in unison with the beat of the forge.

Her hydraulic heart pounded with every throw of the hammer. As wires and tines bent and broke, as fragile or brittle pieces shattered, her body throbbed with the hydraulic fluid. Her sensors tingled and ached as her clothing brushed up against them rhythmically with each blow.
Finally, she wiped her brow in an all-too-human motion. The process done, she smiled at the heap of broken pieces. She leaned the hammer up against the wall, then bent to Klavdiya’s wings. Her fingers found the bolts and nuts that kept the wings together, so she began to unwind them, hoping to take at least a few pieces of the steel and drop them into the hot, melting forge.

People would catch her then if she took too long. If caught, people would stop her, but by now it was too late. It didn’t matter – Klavdiya was safe, at least for now. Klavdiya was safe and Spirit, herself, was at least somewhat needed to quiet a faction that the Colonel had lost control over. She wouldn’t be killed, she was needed, and she was too useful. The Colonel wasn’t an evil man but a misguided one.

A human one.

A human who had learned power and, without programming or instinct to use it wisely, justly, and in perfect order and harmony, was destined to failure.

She furiously worked at some nuts and bolts, taking apart each of the three sections of the wings. Small bits fell apart and, slowly, the larger pieces began to separate. She pulled on the tip of the wing, opening it so as to see some of the pathetic, almost-working control mechanisms within. She took them apart, flinging the bent metal pieces away, hoping that some of them wouldn’t be found.

She gasped as a strong arm clenched her hard on the shoulder.

“The Machine tell you to do this in one of your visions?”

She hit the wall, the sensors on her back crying out in agony before she could look into the face of her attacker. She blinked, the lidless eye refocusing on the blurry figure in front of her. The red beard of Grumm became visible as the dwarven smith marched over to her, grasping her chin, making the open metal on her face ache.

Spirit yelped, but she refused to scream, instead clenching her jaw and breathing deeply.

“Heh,” Grumm chuckled, smiling beneath his thick facial hair. “Looks like the Colonel meant it when he said he’d given you a good makeover. Steel befits you.” He threw her face away, continuing to squeeze qnd hurt her chin.

Spirit reached up to her face, rubbing the sensors while Grumm kicked her, forcing her to crumble to the floor and hold her stomach.

“The Colonel’s afraid of the Machine’s reprisal, so he tiptoes around you.” While she was still dazed from being thrown into the wall and beaten, Grumm picked up the heavy warhammer that she had used to destroy Klavdiya’s wings. The gilded handle and cubic edges of the hammer shimmered in the blinking lightning from the forge as he lifted it high. “Something in him prevents him from killing you, some weakness in his heart. It’s as if he considers you more a daughter than yet another unfortunate soul who unwittingly stepped into the Machine’s service.”

Spirit shook her head and pulled herself back towards the wall. “No – you said it yourself, this wing design is faulty! I couldn’t get him to cancel the order of this design, not while I was imprisoned! Forgemaster Grumm, please, hear me out-”

“You better pray that the Machine hears you, because I sure as the Nine Hells won’t.”

Quickly, she reached over to some of the steel plates of Klavdiya’s wings, covering herself just in time as Grumm flung the hammer down. She screamed when she let go of the wings, the blow still heavy and hard against her. She whimpered, dragging herself painfully towards the wall, hiding up against it as best she could, holding the wing overtop of her. She propped it against the wall, hoping that the next blow wouldn’t touch her.

Grumm lifted the heavy hammer back up. “Look at you whimper. The Machine doesn’t listen to you, Spirit, and even if she did, there’s nothing she can do, not anymore.” He laughed, lifting the hammer up high. “No one fears the Machine, Spirit – just the Sterlingish and Vokadans that sent her back to her prison in Hell.”

He flung the hammer down on the wing above Spirit, causing the wall to shake with the power of his attack. Javelins on a precarious rack fell down over-top of her, clattering to the floor. A dent in the steel wing made it wobble, no longer able to fully protect her.

“Her vengeance will be complete, sooner or later,” Spirit said from beneath her steel covering. “Your soul is destined to follow hers, Grumm. If you believe the goddess is in Hell, where do you think you’ll go when you die?”

He flung the hammer one more time, further denting the shield, hitting Spirit in the process. “Why do you think I never got an enhancement? The Triumvirate has me in the end, praise the gods. You should be more concerned about your own soul right now, if you even have one!”

She clutched her fingers, wrapping them around one of the javelins that had fallen from the wall. “You’re wrong,” she asserted. Her pumps ran hard, pushing the anger through her tubing. “The Machine has your soul, whether you like it or not!”

“What would you know about souls? You’re a stupid hunk of metal!” Grum grabbed the top of her makeshift shield and tore it away. “The Spirit of Michael is sure to be flimsier than her best friend’s wings, don’t you think?”

As Grumm lifted his hammer once more, Spirit kicked against the wall, rolling towards him, hugging the javelin tight. Though pained, she stood up as the hammer hit the ground, lifting the javelin up to Grumm’s chin, pressing it up against his beard. With her free hand, she grabbed his hair and pulled his head back.

Grumm lifted an arm to fight, but she just pressed the javelin further, much of his ginger beard falling to the floor in front of him. Red blood made his beard look orange in comparison as she pressed into his neck, and he remained still.

She wrinkled her nose, her hands shaking. “Tell the Machine, ‘Molg orlalapachevov ho dyshvalrykilk ta.’” With a thrust of the javelin up into Grumm’s head, Spirit smiled. Blood ran down the javelin and the dwarf gurgled briefly before his heavy body fell to the ground, clashing on the steel wings and thudding against the floor.

She blinked, Grumm continuing to bleed out. Her body stung with pain, many of the sensors on her steel frame begging her to sit.

But pain was temporary. It was organic. It was weak.

Grumm was weak. He was a dwarf, organic, useless as long as he denied the Machine.

Yet, as his body lay lifeless in front of her, Spirit just stared. She had seen a lot of death back during the war, of both loyal and enemy bodies as they were torn apart, and had helped the Colonel carefully rip into many who had asked for new limbs. Here, though, was a man who had never asked for his improvements, a man who had never received the glorious addition of a mechanical enhancement.

She bent down, moving the dwarf’s beard and closing his eyes. He didn’t fight when she touched his face, only bled. Without a soul or a working bag of flesh, Grumm couldn’t threaten her anymore.

With a sigh, Spirit put her hands to Grumm’s shoulders and grasped tightly the leather galluses that held up his pants. She heaved, dragging him after her, watching as blood dribbled and pooled along the path that she left behind. She sneered, remembering the pain of being skinned alive, feeling the agony of having been kicked and beaten, and reeling at the knowledge that this, killing, was the way all of her vengeance would have to be gained.

It was the lesson of the Machine. Vengeance wouldn’t just happen, Spirit now knew. She had to make it happen.

After reaching a work table with leather hanging over the edges, Spirit dropped the body, rubbing her painful arms with her hands. Carefully, she selected a handsaw, a machete, an axe, and a few buckets before she began chopping up the forgemaster. She worked quickly, tossing each of the pieces into the buckets and mopping up the blood, wringing it out over the hunks of flesh.

This was how the Colonel was going to have to end.

She shivered.

But Grumm was right. The Colonel wanted her to stop advancing, wanted to keep her beaten down. If she was being honest with herself, he was a heretic just like Grumm, a heretic who hadn’t given of himself to the Machine in all her glory. People like Klavdiya, loyal and honorable, had to serve these masters, these masters who knew nothing of the goddess they served. They couldn’t escape the hub, not while the Sterlingish and Vokadans remembered the war and would kill anyone bearing mechanical augments, not while the Machine still called for their service.

Grumm was wrong, however. The higher officers’ bodies had worked for the Machine, even if their souls hadn’t requested it, and mechanical salvation awaited those with souls compatible with their goddess. There was a chance the Machine could still bargain for his soul in the afterlife, claiming it as her own. The Triumvirate had a horde of followers, all of whom were misled into following the three deities that offered no salvation, but the Machine treasured every individual. The Machine, blessing and glory be to her, had prepared a home, opened a space for repairs, and made it so that every individual would be in perfect harmony with all the others.

She had lovingly forged a home where Spirit, as a damned invention filled with mathematical sin, was never welcome. Damned as she was, Spirit had nothing to lose by purging the Machine’s hub of heresy and the rest of the Colonel’s evil.

She left the mop in the emptiest bucket and returned her attention to the floor. Once again, she had spent too many hours of the night awake, frying her circuits farther. She sighed and brought over a small cart.

Grumm’s body was no different than other sacrifices. Just because it was all of him at once didn’t change the fact that it would be a waste to do anything other than add it to a holy furnace.

She heaved the buckets and saws up, rolling the cart over to the forge where she threw the steel instruments to be melted back down. No one looked at her, all focused on their jobs of beating steel into shape and forging the future of the hub. No eyes upon her, no one near enough to care, she undid the buttons on her bloody shirt and jacket.

She looked up and to her left, shifted her gaze to her right.

No one was there – she didn’t need to worry. No one was going to quit work, not now. She pulled the shirt and jacket off, tossing them into the fire and destroying the evidence. Following that, she pulled off her pants and wiped her face, removing Grumm’s blood before tossing the last bit into the fire.

She looked around, making sure no one was there. She sighed, finding her path still clear.

The night was still dark, the graveyard shift still pounding away at their work. Spirit pulled her hair around her face and to the back of her head, tying the loose pieces back. Her right eye didn’t blink and the skinless steel tingled, chilled by the open air. She turned her face to the exit and chose her time to move carefully so that no one would see her. She walked confidently out of the forge, hoping no one would turn their face and notice her.

Quickly, hoping to get a few hours sleep before the next morning, Spirit walked back to her room. She jumped and tried to hide whenever she heard the clacking of shoes on the floor, her breaths uncontrollably fast and shallow. Each instance was a false alarm, as if mocking Spirit for her paranoia.

She flicked the switch to lock her door back and closed the door back behind her and made sure it was locked once again before sitting up against the wall. She raised her hands up, surprised to see the metal fingers. Her hands shook, and she sank to the floor. She couldn’t determine why she was acting this way, her programming obviously faulty. Her voice began to sob, so she crawled over to her bed, pulling up the covers to wallow in her own juices.

Her body shivered and shook with each sob, the bed jarring with her shaking.

She closed her eyes. She just needed to get to sleep, needed to have faith that the Machine would answer her when she prayed – that was all she was worried about. That… that was all…

Previous Chapters List Next

Exterminators

Sherill said nothing, only watched, as Earl knelt hunched over on the floor.  He grunted and cursed as he reached his hand back into the dark hole in the wall.  Sherill could hardly hold back her laughter as she noticed that Earl’s pants were slowly inching downward, his plumber’s crack showing between his belt and the bottom of his shirt.

After some time, Earl pulled his hand out of the hole and pushed himself up from the ground.  He sighed, wiped his dirty hands off on his tan pants, and shook his head.

“What’s wrong?” Sherill asked.  She crossed her arms, trying to put the image of the ass-crack out of her mind.

Earl took his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped the old model open, shuffling through his contacts list with a groan.  “It’s just real unlucky, is all.  Gonna have to call Terry.”

“Terry?  Who’s he?”

Earl put the phone up to his cheek, a number selected.  “He takes care of cases like these.”

Lifting an eyebrow, Sherill asked, “Like these?  I thought you said you were the best in the business?  Why are you calling some other guy?”

“Look…” Earl sighed, perturbed by Sherill’s anxiousness.  “99 percent of cases, we’ve got this handled on our own.  The last 1 percent, however, we don’t mess around with.  We hand it off to Terry who, by the way, doesn’t do anything about the 99 percent.  Now hush up while I speak to the man.”

Earl listened to the phone as a deep-voiced man answered, then replied, “Hey, Terry – yep, it’s me, Earl!  Hey, listen man… I got a job for ya.”

Sherill rolled her eyes.  She was supposed to be training now to be an employee of ‘Earl’s Excellent Extermination,’ not sitting and waiting as Earl – the best in the business, as he had touted himself during the sham of an ‘interview’ – called some man to shovel his work off on.  Were they even going to get paid for this?  Earl had already given an address, told about the state of the house and all the damage he’d seen.

“Uh-oh… that don’t sound good.  You want I should clear the customers out, tell them they need to be fumigated?”

They better be paid if they even unrolled the fumigation tents.  Sherill hadn’t helped put up a tent yet, but it looked like it would be difficult.  This was the first day of training, after all, and she wasn’t ready for that.

“Alright.  Yeah – fifty percent sound good…? No, I don’t think these people would be okay with turning direct over to you.  They’d think you’s loony… Alright then.  I’ll tell the girl you’ll be here in about ten minutes.”

Earl hung up the phone, flipping the cover shut before he put it back in his pocket.  He shook his head morosely.

“What are you doing?” Sherill asked, “We’re getting paid, right?  I’m keeping my job?”

Earl took out a little notepad and checked a few of the pre-printed boxes, writing up a sum at the bottom of the page.  “Sure are getting paid.  Terry said he’d like to have an assistant here; I’m going to have you stay here and help him while I go on to the next house, if you’re ok with that.”  Earl handed one page to Sherill, putting his pen and pad back up.  From his back pocket he withdrew a round can of dip, opening it to remove a pinch of nicotine.  Sherill found the habit disgusting.

“Is this part of my training?”

“Eh… sure.  Watch what he does, recognize some of the signs that you need to call him.  You’ll need to know those things in the future.  Give this to the owners when they come back – say it was an emergency to their health, that you hope this will all be done soon but they need to leave for a few hours.  Be creative – just get them out.”

Earl moved to leave, so Sherill looked at the piece of paper.  Earl had checked off several boxes such that the sum at the end of the tab was quite large.

“What’s the problem here?  What’s infesting this house such that you need to charge them all these things?” Sherill asked, following Earl out a little ways.

Earl shook his head and patted Sherill condescendingly on the shoulder.  “Any exterminator can take care of 99 percent of all cases.  What makes us the best, the most excellent, is that we know when to call Terry.  It’s good that you’re going to get this experience early, first thing even.  This 1 percent is what makes ‘Earl’s Excellent Extermination’ the best.”

“But what are we exterminating here?”

“Don’t know.  Not exactly, anyway.  Just trust me on this and help Terry out.  Don’t worry about this – you’ll come out safe, I promise.”

Sherill stood still as Earl walked out the door.  Eyebrow raised and little tab of paper clutched in her hands, she asked, “What?”

It was too late, though.  By the time Sherill brought herself out of her stupor, Earl had hopped back in the company truck and was driving off.  She bit her knuckles as she wondered what was happening; the homeowners certainly wouldn’t be happy with this turn of events.  She paced the front porch, making sure not to let the door close and lock behind her.  Earl hadn’t left her with a key, after all, and the homeowner wasn’t around right now to deal with her.

She looked around the house and saw the signs of pests: spilled food, chewed and broken wires, holes in the walls… She would have set several traps and been on her way.  If it hadn’t worked, she would have called to fumigate the place.  What was Terry going to do that was so special?

It didn’t take long, however, for a small car to come puttering up the drive.  The small, red vehicle cast up a cloud of dust on the gravel road as it approached the paved circle just in front of the building.  Sherill held open the door as a tall, white man with tired eyes stepped out of the old, boxy car.  Other than the worn appearance, the man dressed something more similar to an accountant than an exterminator.  He pulled a briefcase made of dark leather from the passenger seat before he closed the door, walking around the front of the Ford Pinto.  His eyes met Sherill’s as he walked forward, prompting her to open the door behind which she stood and watched the stranger.

As he got closer, though, something seemed even stranger about him.  His hair was well kempt, a dark blonde, his chin was tapered, and his body was thin.  Yet, there was a darkness to the man that Sherill couldn’t explain.

“Terry?” she asked, “Are you the guy that Earl is giving this job to?”

The man nodded and took the door, allowing himself in.  He sniffed the air and looked around the hallway.

“Earl was right to call,” he immediately said, British pronunciation altering his words, “This is something mortals shouldn’t be dealing with.”

He walked quickly down the hall and examined the walls as Sherill closed the door.  He rubbed the paper and sniffed while he closed his eyes, allowing the breath to exit from him slowly before continuing his journey through the house.

Sherill didn’t understand his mad methods.  “What are you doing?”

The man didn’t respond, just pulled the door handle that led to the basement.  “Down here,” he said.  He waved for Sherill to follow, but she stood resolute on the first floor.

“What are you even doing?  You’re crazy.  The biggest portions of the damage are in the bedrooms and the kitchen.”

“I take it you’re new to the business?” Terry asked.

“Yes,” Sherill answered, perturbed that Terry would pick on her inexperience so easily, “But even I can tell that what you’re doing is nonsense.  And ‘mortals shouldn’t be dealing with’ this?  What kind of nonsense was that?”

Terry stood straight and held his briefcase by his side.  He looked to his watch, then to the door that led outside.  “Earl obviously hasn’t told you what kind of work I do.  Let’s start afresh, shall we?”

He held out his hand, but Sherill backed away.  “I don’t know what kind of person you are, but you’re acting pretty creepy – and I’ve known some creepy guys before.”

“Apologies,” Terry said.  He took his hand away and remained standing straight.  “I am Terence Davies – hunter of the immortal, diviner of spirits, and the first number on speed dial for every exterminator.  And you, my dear, are?”

Sherill rolled her eyes.  “You are a nut.”

“I could say that most people are nuts, dear, instead.  I’m sure that Earl gave you the spiel about how 99 percent of his cases are pests he can deal with, but I have to deal with the 1 percent remaining?”

Sherill nodded.  “Yes – he did – which means you’re both crazy.  If I weren’t desperate for money, I’d call Earl on his cell phone and quit right now.  Hunter of the immortal and diviner of spirits… good luck, you’re on your own.”

“If I’m right, though, I’ll need your assistance; it’ll be good money for you.  Earl usually gives the assistants that remain with me the entirety of the portion he earns from these cases.  After all, you’ll be the one doing the work, not him.  A rather good chap, that Earl.  Actually cares about his employees.  Willing to hire sprightly little things such as yourself.”

Sherill didn’t move.  She had this sick desire to hear what Terry – Terence Davies, this Brit – had to say.

“Customers call me to drive off ghosts.  I’d say 99 percent of the time, I call people like Earl, or other exterminators, and collect a small portion of the profit.  The remaining 1 percent, however, I do the work and finish off the infringing spirits.  Exterminators, like yourself, supply me with far more – and more accurate – hunts.  I’d say, in that case, that most people are crazy – very few people can adequately determine whether their home is infested with poltergeists or parasites.  It seems a rather large difference, don’t you think?”

Sherill rolled her eyes.  “Right.  And you can tell the difference by sniffing the air.”

“Well… I can.  I can tell that whatever is causing these people’s problems is coming up from the basement, projecting its spirit out of a place in which it is trapped.”

“You’re telling me there are ghosts in the basement?”

Terry laughed.  “Oh, good heavens, no.  This has got to be something much worse.”

Her interest piqued, if only because there was both a promise of money to go along with the man’s assured nature, Sherill let her crossed arms fall and her demeanor soften.  “Fine,” she gave in, “Show me what’s going on.  Prove that it’s something supernatural.”

Terry didn’t seem surprised.  “Right then; off to the basement, shall we?”

The basement was dark, but Terry didn’t flip the light switch.  He continued down the stairs in the darkness, touching the handrails carefully as he stepped down.

“I can’t see anything down there; shoudn’t we turn on the lights?”

“No!” he shouted up, “I’ve got a torch in my case – that will be more than sufficient.  Shut the door; as strange as it is, spirits have a more difficult time traveling through solid objects.  We don’t want to give the thing too much opportunity to escape.”

The basement darkened completely as the last of the light was squeezed down to a tiny sliver underneath the door.  “A torch?” Sherill asked, hoping the man had one, “You going to light it, soon?”

“Oh – oh, yes… here we are.  I’ve got it now.  It’s one of those electric torches – flashlights, you people call them.  There’s the button.”

The halogen light brightened the stairwell just enough for Sherill to find her way down.  The stairs were old, just as the house was, making Sherill wonder what kind of ghosts were supposedly haunting the place.  The floor of the basement was dirt, not even covered over in a layer of cement as most basements were.  The dampness of the air underneath the house had the slight smell of mold, making her feel dirty and uncomfortable.

“What we looking for?  Dead Confederate soldiers?”

Terry shook his head.  “No; not this time.  Though a good guess.”

“Oh God, we’re looking for Union?”

Terry chuckled.  “No, nothing to do with your American Civil War, even as much as you southerners like to focus on it.  That war churned up thousands of ghosts and poltergeists, yes, but this is far more ancient, far more… important.”

Terry turned the flashlight to a portion of the basement in which a horde of junk was piled.  He clicked his tongue and shook his head as he walked forward, pulling a large chunk of the mess forward by altering the position of a huge chest.

“What?  Is that pile of stuff what’s haunting this place?”

“No, dear girl.  I was afraid of something like this – it’s something you Americans tend to ignore.  It’s what’s buried beneath this pile of stuff.  These objects are rich, old, filled with emotions from times past – the spirits locked beneath this house have been feeding off that energy and, finally, are strong enough to start beginning their escape.  It is good I was called early like this; whatever’s beneath this ground, it’s quite powerful.”

“Then what is it?  The Revolution didn’t come through this place,” Sherill said.  She took a hold of an old box covered in dust and mold, sneezing as she moved the thing.  She wondered when the homeowners would arrive, whether or not she should leave Terry and his flashlight to continue this work.

“I think there are native kings buried underneath here.  You Americans tend to ignore the thousands of years of history before the whites came across the pond; rather Eurocentric thinking that’s gotten you in trouble a couple times, hm?”

“Indians had chiefs, not kings.”

Terry took his hands and swept away some of the dirt on the floor.  “I doubt that the natives knew of either word, chief or king.  As I used it, it’s a term to describe the type of spirit that resides here.  This house is like an Egyptian pyramid, like Avalon, like the the enormous mausoleums of China.  There must have been a burial mound here, long forgotten, where the revenants lie restless.  Look; there’s been some significant workings going on beneath us.”

As Terry pointed with his flashlight, Sherill saw that the earth looked freshly overturned where there had, just recently, been a full, heavy chest and several boxes full of photographs and old toys.  It seemed rather odd that Terry could have so quickly found the mysterious plot of dirt, but Sherill wasn’t yet convinced that she should tamper with the moldy basement.

“So what are we going to do?” she asked.

“Dig,” Terry answered.  He scanned the basement and found a couple of shovels, grabbing them and handing one to Sherill.  Sherill took the handle of the shovel and began to overturn the loose clay, finding the work rather easy.  She’d done manual labor more difficult than this before – this would be easy.

After quite some amount of digging, Terry’s shovel fell through the floor and into a hollow space.  He shoveled out a bit more dirt before motioning that Sherill finish emptying the spot while he shined the light on the place.  Beneath appeared to be a cavern large enough to walk in, a dirt floor made of the same red clay the basement was dug into.

“What… what is this?” Sherill asked, finally believing that Terry at least knew what was going on.  It couldn’t have been coincidence that he’d found this ancient passage.

“No society has ever wanted, or even really expected, their dead to come back from the grave.  No – this is a recent excavation dug from the inside rather than a tunnel made by men to go back to the realm of the dead.  Definitely the work of zombie kings.”

Terry jumped into the recently made hole and disappeared, only the light shining back up the shaft.

“You coming?” Terry shouted back, “I’m afraid I will need your assistance here.”

“How will we get back up?”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.  I’d worry more about how close to escaping the kings were – a few mere feet!  We must go put them to rest, seal them away for good.”

Sherill considered leaving Terry and going to meet the homeowner.  Traveling down a passage filled with undead – whether the truth or not – seemed like a fantastically terrible idea.

“I… Earl told me to get the homeowners this note-”

“He told me you’d be my assistant.  Now come along; I’m going to need you, Sherill.”

Sherill tossed down her shovel and stumbled over some boxes as she tried to feel her way to the stairs.  Terry’s light moved, though, as she heard the man grunt to lift himself from the hole.  She saw the way forward and tried to get up to escape.  She felt a grasping hand around her ankle, though, and she screamed.  She clawed the dirt, but gravity and Terry pulled against her.

“Terry – God, Terry, what are you doing?!”

“Earl promised me your assistance.  Come along.”

“Screw you!  I signed up to be an exterminator, driving a truck full of poison and spraying people’s houses with it, not crawling around in… in crypts!”

“You honestly believe me to expect that’s all you wanted out of life?” Terry asked.  “You’re not an idiot, Sherill.”

Sherill shook her head.  Something was horribly wrong.  “I… I don’t think I ever told you my name!  Let me go – what are you?”

Terry let go of her and kept walking down the tunnel.

“What is wrong with you, you stupid Brit?!” Sherill called, “You dragged me down into this pit for what purpose?”

Terry turned his face, briefly, to her.  He smiled.  “I told you, first thing I believe, that this wasn’t a task for mortals.  Unfortunately for us both, you’re a mere mortal.  I think I can make do, though… Here.  You know how to work a gun?”

Sherill shook in place.  “What are you?”

“Do you know how to work a gun?  A shotgun, specifically?”

Sherill tried to reach up to the hole she’d dug earlier, but she was too short.  She’d need Terry’s height to get out.

“Sherill, I need an answer.  If you can’t do this, we need to start filling this hole back in, and quickly, so we have more time while I search out another person willing to help me.”

Sherill looked up at Terry’s tall face and balled her hand into a fist.  Though he was bigger than her – and crazier, by a long shot – she’d risk trying to knock him out then scream for help later.

“I don’t know what’s going on.  I’m supposed to wander around in some ancient crypt, take part in some crazy ritual, you think you’re immortal-”

“No, goodness no… I’m not immortal.”

“Then how are we supposed to finish this task you’ve set for us!?  Tell me, straight, what we’re supposed to do if you want my help.  Otherwise, get me out of here,” Sherill demanded.

“Your job would be to shoot any zombies – I would take the finishing blow on those you disable, seeing as you are unfamiliar with these rituals.  The undead will be severely disabled for a few days, allowing us more than enough time to get to the central crypt.  There, we will find the king – or kings, as the case may be – and sap their power from them.  You shouldn’t be in terrible danger – I am well practiced, you’ll have a gun.”

Terry tossed the gun, with twelve rounds in the magazine, for Sherill to catch.

“You’re hiding something from me,” Sherill said, pointing the gun at Terry.

“Of course I am.  Are you going to come help?”

Terry pulled a long, jagged knife from the briefcase and dropped the leather box.  He carried the flashlight in his left, the dagger in his right, and turned to the deepening tunnel.

Sherill followed.  The light followed Terry, darkness swept around her.  She couldn’t let the light go away so easily.  She pointed the shotgun before her and walked alongside Terry, following deeper into the crypt.  As she did, it became apparent that the crypt had been dug by nails, hands, and fingers.  Broken ornaments littered the floor the further down they went, the deeper they got.

Terry picked up an ancient blue ornament that had been split down the middle.  “Talismans meant to keep the dead in their graves were broken… it’s been hundreds of years since these zombies have seen light, what with the power behind these talismans.  We’ve got to work quickly.”

Sherill held her gun tight and looked around her, but there was nowhere for a zombie to be.  The deeper they got, the more talismans there were.  The narrow tunnel eventually broadened so that the flashlight didn’t illuminate the entirety of the hallway very well.

“We’re close,” Terry mentioned.

A strange call came from deeper in the tunnel, echoing on the walls.  Sherill stopped when she heard it again, holding the gun.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Terry answered, “This king doesn’t speak English – I can’t tell.  But it knows we’re here and I don’t need to understand its words to know that it’s tone is that of anger.  Stay close.”

“Wasn’t going to argue with that,” Sherill said.

Water dripped on the walls as Sherill tromped through the mud.  The hallway broadened out suddenly as the sound of dripping, gurgling water became more vivid.  Terry’s flashlight shined brightly, showing the magnificent box in the middle of the room.  An underground waterfall surrounded the room, clean liquid refracted the light all around the tomb.

It would have been pretty if not for what was clearly a zombie standing in the middle of the room.

Sherill screamed and nearly dropped her gun, but her fingers froze on the trigger.  She fought through the fear and aimed, shooting the gun before ejecting the shell with the pump action.

“Keep it going, Sherill!” Terry shouted.  He ran forward with the dagger, causing the flashlight to wave erratically, making Sherill’s shots more difficult to line up.  She took aim once more and pulled the trigger, hoping she hit the undead monster.  She fired again and again, counting carefully the number of shells she had remaining.

With seven left, the flashlight fell and shined back at her face, Terry disappearing.  Sherill whimpered, unable to see the enemy, and put her back up against a wall, hoping that would give her the greatest defense against the zombie.  She breathed heavily as she heard the shouts of the zombie in its ancient language, the funny and odd cursing of a British man as he struggled against the undead enemy.

After what seemed a torturous amount of time, she heard a gurgling, choking sound, then silence.

“Terry?” she asked, “Terry – are you there?”

“Yes – I’m quite well!  The bloody thing was strong, though.  We need to work quickly; this king has been long biding his time, storing up his power.  It won’t stay down for long.”

Terry grabbed up the light and turned it to the zombie, who appeared to have been shot and sliced several times.  Sherill went closer to the light and examined their handiwork as Terry got closer, then as he dragged the zombie back to its grave.  Something was strange about how he was holding the light.

“There – we’ve done it.  Get me a couple of rocks that fit well in the palm of your hand; we need to bust open his skull.”

“What?  Why?” Sherill asked, Terry still in the dark as his hands deftly searched the rags that covered the zombie’s body.

“It’s the only way to dissipate – never mind… it needs a longer explanation that we have time for.  Quickly, now!”

Sherill looked around and found a couple of acceptable stones, placing them in the light where Terry could easily find them.  He took one stone then put it down, finding the other to be more adequate.

“This will do.”

He swung it down hard against the zombie king’s head, breaking the skull so that the mummified brains were apparent.  He beat the head in again, then began grinding the bones into dust.  He placed the flashlight down, away from his zombie experiment.

“Go – leave, if you want.  Your job is done,” Terry instructed.

Sherill moved to leave, but she knew it was pointless.  She needed Terry to get out.  She bent down, picked up the light, and turned it to Terry’s face.

She jumped, shouted in surprise, and caused Terry to shuffle back from her.

“What are you!?” Sherill asked, one last time.

Terry, a lump of dead flesh hanging from his face, took the skin that held his face together and put it back on as he ate the remains of the zombie’s brain.

“I told you,” he explained nonchalantly, “This wasn’t a job for mere mortals.  I told you I wasn’t immortal.  But… I suppose I am unmortal.”

Sherill backed away, frightened.  She felt the gun shake, saw the light of the flashlight waver.

“No – what are you?!”

“A king.  Would you like to be a knight?”

Sherill watched as Terry put his face back together and ate more of the enemy king.  As the enemy disappeared, so did Terry’s wounds.  His eyes looked brighter, his face less darkened and gloomy.  Sherill held the shotgun tight and knew that Terry was more powerful than the enemy he had just defeated.

“You’d have to quit your current job, of course,” Terry mentioned, stroking his chin with a couple fingers as he finished off the dead king’s brain.

Sherill pulled her trigger quickly, stepping forward to drop Terry.  He didn’t emit a noise as she did so, but she screamed as she killed the zombie Brit, his bloodless body falling before her.

She picked up the dagger, stabbed him plentifully, and dropped the long, goo-enveloped blade.  She whimpered as she grabbed the rock and, with as much strength as she could muster, beat Terry’s head open just as she had seen him do to the previous king.  She scampered backwards through the mud, up to the coffin of the dead king, as she regained her breath.  She grabbed the gun and thought about how to get out, wondered if the briefcase Terry – no, the zombie king – had left at the opening of the cavern would be enough to get her out of the deep hole.

Sherill picked up the gun and dagger with one hand, the flashlight with another, and followed the light to the opening in the king’s tomb.  She felt scared and dirty, but mostly desired to get out.  She followed the cave upward, hurrying as the flashlight dimmed, hoping that she’d find the briefcase and get out.

About halfway up, Sherill heard quick footsteps behind her.  She began to run, worried about what was following her.

She tripped, flinging the flashlight and dagger forward, and yelped at her mistake.

A hand reached to her shoulder, making her scream as she turned and pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked, the magazine empty.  She hadn’t counted how many shells she’d pumped into Terry.

“Don’t kill me!” she screamed, “I’m still young – I never finished college, this is my first job!  I’ve never been married!  Oh, God, just let me live!”

Terry looked down at her, took her grimy hand, and pulled her up.  He helped her stand when her knees didn’t want to hold her weight.  Sherill screamed, finding her wits.  She pushed Terry away and reached for the dagger, but he was quicker while she was still somewhat stunned.

“I killed you!” she shouted.

“But you forgot to eat my brain, a fatal mistake against most kings.  Eating my brain would have turned you into a zombie king – er, queen, my apologies – but you would have finished me off.”

Sherill held still.  “I hate you.”

“Quite understandable.  My offer still stands, though; if you ever change your mind, I would most enjoy it if you decided to work with me, killing off rival kings and queens.  I’ll forgive your trying to kill me back there, considering that you did just find out I was undead.  Here… let me help you.”

Terry handed Sherill the flashlight, but he kept the dagger in his hands.  Sherill looked at the man in confusion and fear: his face, though it had been bashed in not thirty minutes ago, was back to normal.

Sherill looked at his face in the light.  Something was enticing about the offer to join him.

“What kind of benefits package does your company offer?”

“A 401k with matching.  $30,000 a year.  Free childcare while you’re on longer adventures – if you get married, of course – and, I promise, I won’t grab your ankles to pull you into holes anymore.”

Sherill held the flashlight and considered what to do.  It should have been obvious what path to choose, yet something about Terry’s offer of adventure called to her.

“No,” she answered, “I won’t go with you.”

Terry seemed disappointed.  “We have tea and biscuits every afternoon at 4?”

“No,” Sherill demanded.

Terry helped Sherill out of the hole, then she put her arm down to help him get up more easily.  He nodded in thanks, then they both filled the hole back in with dirt and trash from the old house.

Terry shook Sherill’s hand to depart, even before the homeowner returned for the bill, and said, “Well… if you ever change your mind, Earl has my number.  Good day, madame.”

Terry got back in his Pinto with the contents of his briefcase, cranked the machine back up, and drove away.