Across the water is a country of luxury. My family loads our keelboat with goods and drags a raft of timber behind us. Across the river we float, trickling down to the exotic city where we trade.
Our family trades logs for some silk, corn for new shoes, and furs for sugar. We sell the raft to lighten the load back upriver.
I ask Pa, “Why do they trade their riches for our poor goods?”
Pa pushes the keel. “They live in a desert. To them, we’re the rich ones, but we’re all rich once we’ve shared our treasures.”
This was written for this week’s Carrot Ranch Challenge, “Across the Water.” Rivers often serve as borders, even if they also serve as connectors between us all. Today, which is World Communion Sunday in my tradition, I wanted to look at that combination in this 99 word flash.
“And I gave the other trophy to that giant spider all over the news.” The interrogator laughed and picked up her cans once more. “I fucking ended the Chimera war. I watched Dr. Kim die. I fucking found the American Chimera who, through no fault of her own, was always destined to throw the planet into chaos, destruction, and doom. And you, you pathetic little worm, think you can make me pay for this miserable canned food?”
The woman shook her head.
“You want to know the worst part?” She tucked the pack of cans under her arm. “I’ve had genetic testing since they cut me up. I didn’t inherit the gene.”
The interrogator took her food out of the warehouse and left.
And I waited. At a time I knew only one soldier was on patrol, I left my door ajar. When he passed, not noticing anything was out of place, I exited after him. I put a Kevlar-gloved hand over his mouth and a knife to his throat. “Do as I say if you want to live.”
Of course he fought. My voice didn’t sound exactly Korean, and it sounded female – something everyone, especially the Koreans, took as a sign of weakness.
I didn’t want to get blood everywhere. I pushed the man into one of the cage doors where a man dying of starvation was kept. The man yelped with delight at the delivery, and he weakly pulled the guard’s hands in through the iron bars. “Give him to me!” he cried. “I saw you give the other man to that family. Give this guard to me, and I won’t tell anyone.”
I took him up on that offer.
I slit the guard’s throat and let the blood leak out onto the floor. Though the jacket had gotten bloody, I took it before it got worse. I removed the belt, pants, and boots, then unlocked the door and kicked the corpse inside the cell. “They’ll kill you for this, you know,” I told the man.
“But I will die with a full stomach,” he replied through flesh-filled mouth. I supposed he was at least right about that.
I took the billy club from the guard and fished around for his taser. I ordered one of my drones to show itself and serve as a distraction, then delved deeper into this cavernous horror.
That’s when I heard her. Fiendish Dr. Kim.
I knew Americans had only seen secondhand propaganda of her, unflattering clips rendered dull and taken from extremely flattering North Korean propaganda films and holos. She didn’t look so young in real life, and she wasn’t nearly as menacing.
In fact, she was as normal as they come. Normal like a certain Dallin Smith in Nevada. Normal like you, even.
She sipped some hot water and pointed to some of the cameras. “A drone? What does that mean for the facility? Please don’t put us on lockdown again – it slows the whole process. I wanted to go home on time this evening.”
The guard tapped the monitor. “It looks like a scout. It’s shown up several days in a row, so they’re probably looking for a way inside.”
“Then don’t open the doors or go after it. Don’t put us on lockdown, please-”
“There’s no reason to be alarmed yet. Tell your people not to start anything new…”
I snuck by them and pried a panel that led to the cool floor beneath their computers. I told my drone not to do anything out of the ordinary until I found my safe, quiet spot where I connected to their computers and began interpreting their security scheme. I downloaded all the research data I could, got all the proof of their governments’ treachery necessary. You’ve seen some of it during the trials, some of it during the signing of the Accords. For two days I lived off emergency rations and data collection, and then I found the controls for lockdown.
I changed the parameters. Open all the cages, close all the exit doors.
Then I called in all my drones and stormed the doors.
Lockdown was called. The ape men, always enraged, stormed out of their cages. I watched on my screen as one ripped even Dr. Kim’s stomach open, then proceeded to kill and eat everything in sight. The family upstairs I had fed the corpse to? Chimera food. The guard? Wasted.
It calmed after several hours of carnage, after most of the ape men had – with no orders and no control collars – resorted to killing each other.
And so I climbed out of the place. Dr. Kim was, somehow, still alive. Perhaps the ape men really did love her, since she hadn’t been fucked to death or eaten. A bloody hand reached up to me. “Help,” she said. “Please, help.”
“You can fucking bleed out for all I care.” I whipped out a knife to cut out her kneecaps as trophies. She didn’t even scream – the cut on her stomach hurt so much more than what I was doing, she probably didn’t even notice. I gave one of those trophies to the president.
That’s why I went to North Korea before the war even started. It’s how I nearly starved while I waited for opportunity to move in. I was the one who eventually found Dr. Kim’s labs near Pyongyang, and I was there during the failed assault. I stayed after, waiting and watching with all the patience I could.
Then, after living off garbage, emergency rations from myself and off corpses, and stolen vegetables for two weeks, some poor Korean sot tried to escape the gulags.
I remember his face, because I watched it through one of my drones. I could zoom in on the gaunt and boney skeleton. Despite his youth he clearly had no teeth.
Instead of shooting him, they released an ape-man chimera. I’d seen plenty of them before – killed my fair share, too – so I knew what was coming. I watched, helpless through the lens of my drone, as he ripped the head off the man, fucked the corpse, and started eating his entrails.
And, lucky me, the ape man wouldn’t respond to calls to stop. It wouldn’t return to base.
A soldier, one of the well-fed humans in the DPRK, approached with a gun and a billy club. He hit the ape man on the back and shouted, “Get back inside, you stupid animal!”
The ape men rarely talked. This time, the creature wrapped its hand around the soldier’s little head, and he squished it. Blood popped out between the chimera’s fingers, and it laughed at the feeling before tearing off arms and legs.
Other soldiers who had been keeping watch took out their guns and rushed the ape man. They shouted for it to go back inside, but it was enraged and filled with bloodlust. One man shot it, but this just got the animal further upset.
I didn’t wait. While the door was open behind them, I snuck inside. My drones had already pointed out where the cameras were, so I crept beneath its field of view and remained out of sight.
The hallway inside was covered with rubble from the last attack. Cages on either side held humans, some already dead, some trying to reach into the dead’s cage so they could get a bite of something to eat. Only a couple even looked up at me, and their faces and eyes were so empty that I wonder if they registered what was going on.
The shooting outside stopped, so I took my lockpicking set from my bag and opened the door to a cell with a dead man inside. I stripped off his clothes, placed my bag under the cot, and pushed the bloated corpse to the bars of the cell next to me where a small family of prisoners started ripping him to shreds and eating his raw flesh.
“Blessings to you,” they said. “Thank you so much! May the eternal ruler smile upon you!”
I curled up on the floor and hid my black face when the guards came by. They saw nothing out of the ordinary, probably felt like the corpse I’d fed to the starving family was at least going to some use. I calmed myself with breathing exercises and counted the seconds, minutes, and hours between the shifts and patrols. I obviously wasn’t going to have to worry about getting caught at feeding time.
“I don’t see why that’s important,” the woman said. “Everyone suffered back in the 60’s and 70’s while they were doing all the first sterilizations. Now let me go – I’ll call the cops to come get you if you don’t just put down your items and get out!”
The interrogator clutched the old woman’s collar. “You don’t think I’d sacrificed enough, do you?” She shoved her against the wall. “You’re working in a warehouse, doing a job they could probably get machines to do. I’d be surprised if you have and viable offspring. But you’re ok with that – and you know why? Because at least others like you, other whites, didn’t go under the knife. At least you weren’t like my people, of whom only the luckiest and healthiest few made it through unscathed.”
“I wasn’t trying to be racist! What the hell are you doing!?”
“I’m making you understand, because you’re the last person who’s ever going to care about what I’m saying. So pay attention, ’cause no one else knows what I’m going to tell you next.”
I graduated college in ’67, near the top of my class. I knew judo, aikido, and Brazilian jiu jitsu. I could speak Spanish, French, Korean, and Russian. I joined special forces after that, trained hard, worked hard. I was one of the first soldiers to train with the M3 drone setup, and one of the few able to work through the pain and upgrade to the Mel76. So don’t discount me. Don’t look at this broken old body and think I couldn’t have been the type of person to take out Dr. Kim, that I couldn’t have been the unnamed soldier who found and destroyed the Pyongyang labs.
Because I did, see. I ended the war, even if you didn’t know it was me.
In 2073, I got a mysterious summons I couldn’t ignore. It was from the government, and it seemed urgent but odd. I remember meeting my first boss, in a sitting room in Seattle. It was cold, damp, unhooked from any electronic surveillance. He went through my records – the secret, paper ones, not the electronic stuff everyone has access to. “You know why you’re here, don’t you?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir. My country needs me, sir.”
He opened the manilla folder and drew out a picture. “We have a problem, though.” He dropped the printed photo on the ground.
Moisture from the damp room soaked into the shiny paper, but I could make out the image of my sister on it. She was in bed, happy but tired. It was the picture from when she’d almost had a stroke caused by her sickle cell disease. I held my breath.
“You didn’t report this on your paperwork.”
I clenched my hands tight. My nails bit into my palms, and I bled.
“Regardless of what you choose to do after we leave this room, I can’t overlook your sister’s disease. Your former superior officer couldn’t overlook this. You lied.”
“Because I don’t carry the gene,” I said. “I don’t have the symptoms associated with being a carrier.”
“Then why didn’t you just get a genetic test and prove it?”
“I can’t afford an NIH verification. Not on a soldier’s stipend, sir.” I held myself still, straight. “I am one of the most fit individuals to come through my class. My scores prove it – I have a 3. A high, unchallengeable 3.”
The man picked up the picture and waved it in the air to dry it. “But you have a sister with sickle cell anemia. That puts you on the do not breed list, you understand?”
“I understand,” I said, “But I do not agree. I’m saving the money for NIH Gene Approval and gamete cleansing, and I’ve refrained from reproducing while I focus on my work. My genes are superior, and I should be allowed to reproduce for the future of our nation.”
The man sighed. “The problem isn’t that your genes are good or not, not anymore. The problem is you lied on all your applications for the past decade, and we can’t just let that go.” He handed me a slip of paper and a lighter with precious flammable fluid in it.
I read the preamble, gasped when I saw it was from the CIA. I’m not supposed to let that slip – not now, not ever – but the world is falling to crap now. As it damn well deserves.
I sparked the lighter’s flame and burned the sheet as it instructed. “I’m not going to let you cut out my ovaries.”
“If you don’t accept the position,” the man said, “You will lose your food rations and spend all your savings on paying for the rations you’ve already cheated from the government. This is a bad situation to be in.”
The ashes fell to the damp floor, and I handed the lighter back, empty. I scratched the place where my M3 drone connectivity suite interfaced with my brain. “The Mel76 isn’t well tested.”
“Look,” the man said, “Everyone’s seen your record. You’re fantastic, unbeatable. But you lied, and we can’t just sweep that under the rug. The CIA stepped in because we can’t afford to lose you.” He held out a hand to shake, to seal the deal. I wasn’t aware at the time, but a lot of deals with the shadowy side of governments aren’t made on paper. “Take the Mel76 and hormone therapy. A job like this isn’t given to just anyone, and you don’t have a better option.”
I nodded and took his hand. “I want some of my eggs frozen. I will have children later, you understand?”
“Yes. We can do that for you.”
And so I accepted. They took a part of my body, a part of me, and replaced it with injections of chemicals and hormones. It took a while to get used to, but in the end I can’t complain about my performance. I can complain that they never froze my eggs, but what the hell – I never married. I never had time.
And, now, the world is going to end. I won’t have to die with the knowledge I created someone just to watch them suffer.
The interrogator put a six pack of canned beans-and-rice and a gallon of water on the checkout counter. The warehouse was nearly empty, mostly operated by machines packing goods for shipping to other retailers and point-of-service delivery, but a couple locals wandered the shelves of reusable boxes, looking for something to buy. The shop’s robot maintenance workers sat around, waiting for a hydraulic valve to pop or a wire to short.
On a large TV in the break room, the BBC interview played. The ticker scrolled horrible news on the bottom of the screen: details about crashing stocks, American war mobilization, and nuclear holocaust survival tips. “Nuclear apocalypse…hmph. Kids stuff,” the interrogator puffed. She pulled a magazine chip from the grimy rack and tossed it onto the checkout. “Ready, computer.”
The computer scanned the checkout lane. “Your total comes to $57.41. I am sorry, but I am currently unable to connect to purchasing software at this time. Reconnecting.”
The interrogator’s head turned back to the TV. The sound from the set didn’t penetrate the glass walls, but she didn’t think it had to. The DOW had dropped several thousand points in the past hour, the dollar was weakening fast, and the British pound was surprisingly the strongest currency available.
The interrogator lifted a hand to the back of her neck. She scratched at something just above the hairline.
“I’m sorry,” the computer interrupted. “I am unable to connect to purchasing software at this time. I currently accept cash only.”
The interrogator picked up her goods. “When was the last time you saw cash?”
The computer didn’t understand. “Would you like to pay with cash? Ok. Please insert cash into slot.” The machine rumbled, ready to accept input.
The interrogator picked up the beans and water, leaving the magazine behind on the checkout counter She went toward the exit, goods in hand.
As she crossed the threshold out the door,, an elderly woman sitting on a ratty stool asked, “Are you going to pay for that?” She adjusted the way her fluorescent safety vest sat around her waist, loosened the band.
The interrogator stopped at the door, looked at the 6-pack of rice-and-beans in one hand, a gallon of distilled water in the other. She lifted her head, then looked to the person who’d stopped her. “What’s the point?”
“I mean, you can’t just steal that, ma’am-”
“Money’s going to be worthless in about three hours. Maybe less. Your identity’s probably already stolen, and the modern industrial complex is about to collapse. You’re stupid if you don’t just run back in there and take everything you can for yourself. Haven’t you seen the news?”
The woman nodded. “The chimera, you mean?”
“Well,” the lady said, “You still can’t just steal it. It doesn’t belong to you.”
The interrogator’s brows furrowed. She stood, loomed, over the older white lady and her curly gray hair. His lips trembled with anger. “I deserve what I want. Do you even know what I’ve done for this country? What I’ve sacrificed?”
The woman shook her head fearfully.
“Wrong. You do know what I’ve done, and you owe me more than you could have ever repaid. You just didn’t realize it was me who made it happen.” She dropped the case of beans onto a nearby table. “Let me put things right for you.”
Janie, still at the bottom of the stairs, tapped the interrogator’s shoulders. “Well, I reckon Dani’s right you did free us. I still don’t know why, though. Ain’t nothin’ in this for you, and neither of us would’ve made it out if you hadn’t decided to do the jailbreak.” A tear welled in her eye, then ran down her cheek. “You think you could get Brett out? Get him to Britain with us?”
The interrogator swallowed. “I liked Brett better than you. The only reason you’re here and he’s not is because you had the know how to get out. He didn’t.”
Janie’s expression softened. “So he’s not getting out, is he? They’re going to kill him, aren’t they?”
“Just get on the plane,” the interrogator ordered. “I gave you what I could. Be thankful for that instead.”
Janie’s face turned into a scowl. “Don’t expect thanks from me. You don’t get credit for solving problems I know you helped make in the first place.” She turned to the plane, entered the door, and walked with Dani into the back.
The engines got a little lowder, and Rebecca looked at her watch. “This is your last chance, you know,” she said. “Regulations gave us a tiny window to takeoff, so I can’t hold the plane any longer.”
“I know,” the interrogator said. She shook Crowe’s hand. “You just prepare your bank account for that billion dollar annuity, ok?”
Crowe bit her lip and wrung her hand from the interrogator’s grasp. She hustled up a couple steps and into the plane. Tarmac workers pushed the staircase away from the door, but Crowe turned to look back. “You’ve been a real sport with this, you know – so I thought it only fair to tell you not to try too hard with the blackmail, ok?”
The interrogator’s hair rustled in the engines’ wind. “What? Why?”
“Look, the timing of this flight isn’t an accident.” Crowe bit her lip, then sighed, though the sound was lost behind the roar of the engines. “What’s the point of an annuity that big? Easier for your agents to just come in and kill everyone involved. No, I took the lump sum from the BBC and Al Jazeera. We’ll be flying toward Asia, and when this plane’s out of range of the American missile defense system, that interview airs worldwide.”
The interrogator rushed to the plane. “What!? That wasn’t the deal!” She jumped, her fingers finding hold on the bottom of the plane door.
Rebecca closed the door a bit, clamping it on the interrogator’s fingers and forcing her to let go. “You could have come with us – but dear, what did you expect? The existence of that video made me, you, and everyone on this plane and in this building a liability. Your crazy government thought it was acceptable to abduct thousands of people in order to keep this under wraps – they’re willing to do anything.”
“You’ll start a war! A war no one can win!”
She opened the door slightly to yell out, “This war was started as soon as your crazy scientists made your chimera. Whether I broke the story or someone else did, it was destined to happen. Now I suggest you back up – this plane’s going to take off, and it won’t care if you’re in the way or not.”
Rebecca Crowe slammed the door to the plane shut.
The interrogator, holding her bleeding fingers, looked longingly at the revving engines, felt the air being sucked into the jets, the heat from the burning fuel. She ran out of the line of fire to where a man with lamps waved the pilot to a safe takeoff. She put a bleeding hand up to the place on her arm where a needlestick drive sat under her skin, irritating and raw.
“So this is it?” the interrogator asked. She stuck the needle into her arm and injected the needlestick drive next to an older drive she’d taken from Dr. Worthington’s body, overtop a row of at least a dozen old needlestick scars. The drive sat beneath the skin, the area raw and red from the injection. She dabbed at the wound with a bandage. “This is all the video footage you’ve made?”
“Yes,” Crowe responded. Her hair whipped about in the wind generated by the airplane’s propellers. “The interviews are there. I’ll send you a video of Dani playing volleyball, if we make it to Britain and you give me an email address.”
“Hmph.” The interrogator dropped the needlestick into a hard box to be autoclaved. “I have your address. I’m sure I can get additional video if I want it. The government will, at least.” She shook out her arm.
A door opened at the terminal. Dani and Janie walked out, each with no luggage, just the ramshackle blanket-dress and prison garb on their persons. They ran over the tarmac to where the interrogator and Crowe stood.
“So this is it?” Janie asked. “We’re going out of the country?”
Rebecca nodded. “What the American government did to you was an atrocity. Britain will give you asylum.” She reached out to Janie and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you so much, for being so brave. What you did today will ensure Dani has a life she can be proud of, one lived outside the four walls of a jail cell.” She turned to Dani. “And thank you, for also being brave. What you went through couldn’t have been easy.”
“It wasn’t,” Dani said. “But I didn’t come up with the plan or break myself out. It was her.” She nodded to the interrogator. “You know, I still don’t know your name.”
The interrogator pat Dani on the head, very lightly, before hopping back. “No point in remembering it now. If I fail at my objective, I’ll definitely be killed. Better you don’t have a name to remember me by.” She reached to her neck, removed a necklace, and handed it to the little spider. “But here. Take this – if anything can prove you’ve met me, this will be it.”
Dani held the thing in a claw, let the ivory-white pendant dangle. The piece was about the size of a silver dollar and amorphously shaped. She swung it back and forth, examined the quality of the material, then asked, “What is it?”
“One of Fiendish Dr. Kim’s kneecaps.”
Dani dropped it. “What!?”
The interrogator cleared her throat, then pointed to the round pendant on the ground. “That’s valuable, you know. If you don’t believe me, you can get it checked. Her genes are on file, I guarantee it.” She shuffled a bit.
Rebecca lifted a brow. “Are you certain you don’t want to just come with us? You seem to be a rare specimen yourself, full of Chimera War relics. I’m sure your stories would be fit for history books.”
“But it’s classified?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Shame, that.” Crowe turned and walked toward the plane. “If you get the opportunity, call me up and ask for an interview. I’m sure your story needs to be told, especially in the west where people with your skin tone are dying out.”
The interrogator’s smile disappeared. “Of course. I’ll let you know.”
“But don’t hold my breath, am I right?” Rebecca walked up to the stairs and motioned for Dani and Janie to go up them and enter the plane. “It’s time for us to leave, my friend, if you don’t want to come with us.”
“No. My duty is here. I stuck with my country through harder times in the past, and I’ll stick with her now.” She looked to Dani, and offered a nervous hand. “I’m sorry I was scared of chimeras. I still am. But you understand – the war and all.”
Dani didn’t take the hand, but she acknowledged it with a small tap. “Oh, I get it. Antigen is totally scared of me, even if she never wants to say it. You didn’t get as fu-” she looked at her mother, then changed course “-You didn’t get as screwed up as her, but there’s a few bolts loose in that head of yours.”
“Well, thank you for helping me screw a few of them back into place. I couldn’t have asked for a better chimera to get to know.”
“Aww, you’re just saying that ’cause I’m the only one.” Dani scrambled up a couple stairs. “Come visit us if you can. I owe you everything, you know. Literally everything.”
“The males aren’t smart, though,” Dani said. “They’re smarter than dogs, but prob’ly not as smart as monkeys. It wasn’t his fault, and I didn’t have to kill him – but I didn’t know what I was doing.” She hid her eyes behind her claws. “I don’t quite get how, but I can control the males. When I escaped the desert facility, I did it by controlling a bunch of the males and making them run interference. They do what I want and give me updates I can understand, kind of like what I reckon the drones do for human soldiers. We’re bulletproof, have poisonous fangs, and are scary.”
“But then why make it easy for you to make friends? Why give you such a positive personality?”
“I don’t know,” Dani answered. “I ain’t sure they knew who I’d be. Far as I know, I’m the only female spider chimera ever created.”
“How many males do they have?”
“Alive right now? I dunno. But I was specimen 803, so at least 802 males had been created at some point.” She leaned forward. “Miss Crowe, I hate to be such a bother, but that jail was terrible. I’d love to tell you ’bout volleyball, maybe play some with you or the crew. It’s been a while since I got to stretch my legs.”
Rebecca Crowe laughed. “My! That is something to consider. When we get you to Britain, we’ll take you to a court right away. That sound good?”