Friday, November 28, 2014

Voyager Two



I am so far from you now.

I remember watching TV as the Voyager 2 probe sent back the first images from the planet Neptune. I was nine years old. My father told me the probe had been launched three years before my birth. I imagined it up there all through my lonely youth, toiling forward in dark and uneventful silence.

I go through routines. Alarm. Commute. Job. Takeout. TV. Sleep. Alarm. Commute. Job. Takeout. Sleep. Hurtling, as ever, through the dark. I wondered in those nights as a kid, if Voyager ever got lonely. Did it remember in its circuits or its bones what it felt like in the warmth of the sun?

Though there is nothing, really, now to observe (Neptune was the last friend it made) Voyager keeps it up, checking and rechecking, waiting for some sign, magnetic or gravitational, that it has passed some definable border, some sign of progress.

Seven years ago, the digital tape recorder failed. In 2008 the planetary radio experiment cut out. The place doesn't smell like you anymore. I found a hair on my jacket and it took me a couple of minutes to realize it was one of yours. What could I do with it? Couldn't throw it away, so I was stuck on the floor in my coat and shoes ready to go out to some stupid movie with this ridiculous blonde curl in my hands and nowhere to keep it. Some time next year, they figure, the gyroscope on Voyager 2 will give out. Another ten years or so after that, its nuclear heart will finally stop beating. It will still be moving, of course, carried forth by inertia, an echo of us in the long night, keeping its solitary vigil. Not lost, exactly, but headed nowhere in particular, its only choice to just keep moving.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Speeding Bullets



I don't know which story you've heard. They are, in fact, mostly lies, and I would know, I used to own the damn networks. He was not cooked up in some Middle-Eastern (or Kenyan, thank you, President Trump) Islamo-Fascist Genetic Cookery. He was not sent as an advance scout to breed with human women. He most certainly did not sell his soul at a crossroads like some old blues man.

The truth is he was born on the other side of the Sun. The truth is our planet once had a twin. In one of those rare candid moments he told me he thought Earth got the looks, but Krypton, well, Krypton got the brains.

That was until a rounding error or some such sent them all packing and he found himself the lone survivor, a rocket ship baby in the reeds of central Kansas. Utterly unprepared for a life on Earth. I sometimes think he would have had it easier born with green skin and antennae rather than brown skin and crinkly hair. And let me put those other rumors to rest. I actually, in hind sight, liked the guy. Who is Don Quixote without a windmill to tilt against?

That's all over, now.

The last time it happened, the last time he caught me, was right after that Brown kid got shot. I remember the news in Metropolis Precinct One's HQ. I remember the grinding of his teeth like a bridge about to collapse. Bail set at one billion dollars. I was out the next day.

"I don't know if you know," my benefactor said, an official, representing companies, interests, men with deep pockets, "how much they hate him. How much they're terrified of him." He intimated something big was on the horizon. They wanted me on the lam for deniability. Unimpressed as I am with being someone else's puppet, free is free, and this is my last shot. I've been on the run three months. Metropolis PD impounded my helitank. I've seen her on the news, mowing down protesters with rubber bullets (honest).

It's dark out. Autumn chill setting in. Three in the morning and the precinct is nearly deserted. They seized the rest of my assets too, but the tank has a Kryptonite power core. All I need. Whole place lit up orange with high sodium lamps. No point in going for the stealth approach. I'm Lex Fucking Luthor.

I'll miss him, of course. The rest of them? Bored billionaires and lapsed royalty. I'll have them sewn up in a week. It was gratifying, at first, the way they turned on him in small and subtle ways. Now I suppose it just made it easier. I hate easier. A pair of duty officers approach down the steps, guns already drawn.

"Gentlemen," I tell them. "I'm here for my ride."

The one in Gotham has a spotlight to get his attention. For Superman, there's no need. The alarms have already been raised. He probably heard them back in Missouri. I angle her up above the skyline of my city and drink it in. (And speaking of drink, thank God these knuckle-draggers never broke into the mini-bar.)
I had three months to listen to the chatter from underground. Can't have him operating like this. The super-menaces, Bizarro clones, the Atomic Skull, Metallo, Brainiac, all there to keep him busy, to keep him distracted, to keep him guessing. Me most of all. And that was all fine, but the game has changed. Men in power, men of privilege, terrified now. They built a machine under Liberty Island. My destination.
I hear him before I see him, the clap of thunder keeping pace wit me but waiting to see what I do. Could have a biological payload on this thing, or nuclear. Or chemical. Haven't tried a good nerve agent in a while. Good for a laugh. He gives me this look like I've seen a thousand times before, the "I'm disappointed in you" look, the "You should use your vast intellect to feed the hungry not build helitanks and Kryptonite death rays" look. So I put her down at the feet of Lady Liberty. I think he knows already something is up when his feet touch the soil. All that lead. I step out of the tank, regal as ever in my old battle armor and my scotch-and-soda.

"What's your game, Luthor? I'm in no mood."

"I know. I saw you on the news. Marching with the protesters. Last straw, you out there, the one black man on Earth immune to bullets.

"Get to the point."

Oh, he's all business. "I'm going to miss these little chats," I tell him. "I really am. The two of us. Outlaws. I think they've helped me grow."

"What's under Liberty Island?"

"I honestly have no idea. Shall we take a look? The Man of Steel and the Billion-Dollar Bail Jumper? I'll admit mine doesn't have the same ring. I'm sure you can find the door."

He could have made a go of it, he really could. Below there's a hum of electricity and the Geiger counter on my armor is pitching a fit. Keeping the Towers standing, Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake. Me. I don't suppose it'll ever make sense to him. The ways in which they hate him. His people ate sunlight, for Christ's sake. We get down to the base of the chamber and I recognize it. One of my own designs. A massive cyclotron. Beneath the magnetic ring, on the main floor, are thousands of munitions crates, and I finally get to see it, the moment when all that repressed chin-up carry-on melts away. I glance at one of the crates up close, confirming what I already know.

"They ship out tomorrow," I tell him. He doesn't look like he hears me but I know he can. He can hear my goddamn cells divide. "Starting tomorrow every cop in America will be carrying Kryptonite bullets."

Monday, June 30, 2014

Conveyance



In the wee small hours of the morning, before the Star Sailer made port, Ellington Webb slept soundly. Though firmly not of the superstition that his dreams--or anyone's--carried any kind of prophetic power, as he made his mad dash escape attempt later that day, Webb would feel nonetheless shortchanged at the Universe not sending him some kind of unconscious warning.

The day began as any other in the Redwood Moon. Light filtered through the Aperture, glinting off the mirrorwall and reflecting back down to the world below. From his window, Webb could see the elegant slope upward of one half of the great tree. The other half, antipodean, grew from overhead until the trees laced their branches together in spin-neutral freefall.

Morning was when the moon felt most like home, like Earth. Light streamed through at an angle that suggested a just-rising sun. The mirrors were rubbish at other parts of day, but they did morning and dusk exceedingly well. The interior of the Redwood Moon resembled the cross-section of some massive eye, with habitations along the inner surface, clustered around the roots of the ancient Earth-native tree. Exterior-wise, the asteroid resembled a large potato a hundred kilometers long. Sunlight filtered through the aperture and was reflected on mirrors at the far end of the drum. Something like sixty thousand people lived here, most of whom were born in Redwood, and had never set foot on a proper planet.

Centuries ago, the Redwood Moon was hollowed out by an army of mining drones, who extracted the metals in its core to build the first ships of the great Navy of the Human Diaspora, the first Star Sailers. When everything usable was extracted, the robots continued until the Moon was a hollow shell that could be filled with air, water, plants and human beings. Great rockets were built at cardinal points on the asteroid's exterior, spinning it in a swift twirl of centrifugal force, creating an artificial sense of gravity against the interior of the habitation shell. From his window, beyond the sweep of the great tree, Webb could see the horizon curve upward, homes and buildings on the far floor just waking up to the city's artificial dawn.

That morning, unlike most, Webb was awake early enough to see the first ships pierce the Aperture's Static Shell, sliding in slowly to nestle within Redwood's branches. One of them, clearly, was military. The silhouette, like two old-Earth battleships fused together along the keel, was unmistakable. The sight of it caused a glint of cold panic to shudder through his insides. Calm down, he told himself. It was hardly the first Star Navy ship to dock at the Redwood Moon in the last four years. No one was looking for him, They all knew--thought--he was dead. He was, of course, after a fashion. So were the rest of the Navy's drones, when it came down to it. The old scars on his arm itched for the first time since the last Star Sailer made port.

He would cancel his appointments. There was no one he needed to see today. Nothing that couldn't wait. Was that what he did the last time? Wouldn't someone get suspicious? Redwood wasn't exactly Ceres. It was a small town. People talked. Ellington Webb, the shop mechanic, really quite good at old star ship parts and oddly invisible any time one of the Diasporan Navy Star Sailers makes port. Eventually, someone would do the math. They might not have all the pieces, but by then it wouldn't matter.

Anyway, after all this time, it wouldn't be the Londinium. Couldn't be. So, best to keep up appearances. They'd be gone within a day or two.

Still his scars itched.

His shop was a modest one-room storefront above which he kept a small apartment. All the comforts of home. He'd bought the place outright from Li Chau when the old woman retired, after apprenticing to her from almost the moment he got off the boat. Four years he'd been here, after covering his tracks for two. The shop was dim and dusty, strewn about with spare parts and the discarded limbs of machines that would never work again. He could clean the place up, recycle the parts, actually dust once in a while, but he found the clutter lent a certain old-Earth authenticity to the place that drew in customers. With a wave of his hand he brought up the shades and the light streamed in. Outside, the other bodegas and store fronts were waking up: the cafe across the street, the Fog Bank, the travel agency. He looked long and hard at that last one.

Webb had money: business treated him well these past few years. And there were always new colonies developing, new moons being hollowed out, new cities. He could visit the floating palaces of Venus, or the Ice Caravans of Mars. He could buy a house on Luna and watch his old home rise in the sky each morning. Choi expressed an interest in buying his space. Webb would push outward, find somewhere new.

Along the length of Ellington Webb's left forearm were seventeen scars, tally marks recording his Conveyances.

Webb grew up on Earth, on a farm his father managed. Which was to say that robots did most of the actual farming. His father's chief duty seemed to lie in worrying. Webb was the fifth of seven children, forever lost in the shuffle, forever underfoot. There was probably a marker or something back on the farm or in town by the old church, a bodiless tombless headstone giving his particulars and the fabricated date of his death. He would never go home. Never find out if and for how long his father looked up from that long panel of robot oversight controls to soak in the news of his son's passing.

It was a cold fact never acknowledged: to be Conveyed is to die. They say your life flashes before
your eyes, and they're right, but it's more than that. The blackness comes first Then, as your body dissolves into pure energy, every synapse in your brain fires at once. Memory and mathematics and supposition and nightmare bleed into one another, and you disappear. Die. To be replaced by another, different you on the other end.

This process happened to Ellington Webb seventeen times. At first he thought little of it. After all, it couldn't work how it seemed instinctively to work, he must simply have misunderstood the process. They wouldn't knowingly kill you over and over again, that seemed ludicrous.

Somewhere along the line, however, something happened. A subtle change in his point of view, which, to his horror, he understood as this version of himself being fundamentally different from the previous version. He tried to shirk Conveyor duty whenever he could. It was easy at first. The machine was, after all, incredibly expensive and energy-consuming. It was rarely the first choice. There were times, however, when it was unavoidable, and Webb's gradual suspicion gave way to full-blown paranoia. They were killing him. Over and over. He was surrounded by the walking dead.

He began to put forth a plan. Rather, Iteration Sixteen did. It was Iteration Four who first began to suspect, Iteration Nine who started the tally, and, finally, Iteration Seventeen who hacked Londinium's systems, created a false alarm in the infracloud, and rigged an escape pod to "mistakenly" jettison and crash with him inside. He hitched passage on an Amaranthine Hermitage, bartering his skills until he found an asteroid where he could get cheap gene drifting treatment. He stayed there--couldn't recall the name anymore--for a handfull of months before moving on. Always a different alias, always a different ship, criss-crossing the solar system for two years before landing in Redwood.

That morning he kept himself busy, pointedly and self-consciously not looking out his window or thinking about the kinds of things they do to deserters.

Hours later, two Navy officers shimmered in to being on the street outside his shop and Webb's heart stopped. Choudhry. Eldridge. Older, careworn, but unmistakable. He felt at once jubilant to find them still alive--or as alive as anyone Conveyed so often and, in this case, so crassly, ostentatiously, in front of him--quickly replaced by a cold and unsubtle dread. To be the both of them here and now. They found him. Must have. After the surgeries and the gene drifting. After time spent on Titan and the Obsidian Spire. Still they found him. He was paralyzed. Six years on he couldn't have imagined this. A slow, shallow inhale of breath. They stepped through the door, the bell jingling, another of Webb's concessions to the old world.

Choudhry carried something, a case not a weapon. "Good morning," she said, her voice unchanged by the years and the repeated resurrections. "I'm told you're the man to talk to about repairing a JP38."

"Hm?"

"It's a valve. For deuterium plasma. Our own machinist was having trouble, but we heard good things about this place."

Webb took the valve on reflex, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Neither Choudhry nor Eldridge seemed anything other than mildly expectant. The latter cast an appraising look about the place. Could it be? The valve was a glossy black, pitted and scarred where plasma stresses took their toll. The grooving was subtle, the scarring faint. It was enough, however, he knew, to render the thing useless.

"Not surprised," Webb finally managed. "Your typical Navy machine shop doesn't do this kind of delicate."

"Spend time on a Navy ship?" Eldridge asked. He was moving about the shop, fiddling with cast-off pieces of machinery and items Webb had marked for sale. The question seemed casual, but it felt to Webb as barbed as anything he ever heard.

"Let's just say you're not the first Star Sailer to come through here with a busted '38 valve," Webb recovered.

"So, can you fix it?" Choudhry asked.

He held the valve up to the light. The grooves and pits were easier to make out. His sleeves slipped downward, though, and he had to bring the valve down hastily, aware that they could have seen his scars. "I have an old positron lathe that can do the job, yeah. Say tomorrow? How long are you in town?" His tone neutral.

"A few days," Eldridge said. If he noticed anything, he made no sign of it. "We're on leave. Two month tour past the Neptune frontier." Webb grunted, pretending to pay more attention to the valve joint than he actually was, hoping not to seem too much in a panic. "Anyway," Eldridge continued, having made an appraising circuit of the shop, "We'd like to get this done and fitted before the day is out. Chief is eager to get on leave, too. You understand."

"Of course. Come back at, say, eighteen hundred hours?" Could this still really be coincidence? It made a sort of sense. Why send a full fledged Sailer like Londinium for one lousy deserter? They'd send a patrol ship, surely, or contact O'Hara and the local regulars. Could he be free? Scott free even now and staring Choudhry and Eldridge (the latter of whom he always hated) straight in the face?

"Eighteen hundred is perfect," Choudhry said, and the two of them departed as informally as the left. From the door Webb watched them tour the lazy street. Not once did they ever look back.

********

He waited until lunchtime before he went out looking for Choi. The proprietor of Redwood's other major repair shop was eating lunch at the same place he usually did, a dim, homey affair with walls of simulated wood made to look as though they were, in fact, the roots of the great Redwood outside. Every booth carved into the faux-wood, little nooks and knots and whorls everywhere. The floor was festively uneven. Webb hated the place. He did not, in fact, particularly care for Choi Mu-Seon, either. In what Webb took to be his customary booth at the far end of the restaurant, Choi sat, scarcely looking up from his Ruben sandwich as Webb approached. If you could call it a Ruben. Nothing grew in Redwood in quite the same way as Earth. It took Webb ages to get used to the food on each of the moons on which he lived, to say nothing of Navy gruel. The smell of the somehow-off pickles and sauerkraut made him glad he had not yet eaten.

"What can I do for you, Webb?" Choi Mu-Seon was skirting his fifties, flecks of silver just starting to appear in his short black hair. He wore the standard lapelless olive coat tinged with gold and yellow leaves--looking nothing like the leaves of the actual redwood tree outside--favored by many in Redwood, and an expression of supreme dissatisfaction.

How to play this delicately? "Remember how last month," he soldiered forth before a lull in conversation could become pronounced. "When you offered again to buy my shop and I said no?"

"Vaguely." Not diverting attention from his sandwich. They've had this discussion a dozen times before.

"I'm amenable to reopening the negotiation."

"I'm eating."

"I can see that."

"What's the hurry?"

Webb spun out a tale half-formed from sleepless nights imagining how he would play just such a conversation as this. Dead brother back on Earth, just found out today, has a family and business of his own needing looking after, the occasional extraneous-but-grounding detail. It is the discussion of passage where Webb most needs to negotiate delicately. Choi mentioned the Hotspur. Webb countered that she wasn't due back for another six weeks.

"And the Londinium?"

Webb prayed his poker face didn't crack. "Not headed anywhere near. I just spoke to a couple of the crew, myself. Looking to repair a JP38. They're moving out past Neptune."

Annoyance played across Choi's face in less subtle notes than usual, at the mention of the Londinium crew. They clearly hadn't asked him. Still. No way to go but through. "Look," Webb continued. "I know I'm not supposed to know this and I know you probably can't tell me directly, but I also know there's a ship berthed at the outer shell. One of the old June Bugs. I know she's yours and you use her to ferry supplies to the Sundered Moon. She's, what? Twenty years old? Power core out of date I'd guess, alignment's probably shot. You're due for an upgrade, my friend. I'll take the old Bug off your hands and you can get yourself a new one of those Silver Darts I saw on download."

"Where would I get that?" Choi said in a tone that demonstrated how much Webb had worn out hsi welcome. "They open a shuttle dealership since this morning?"

"I don't know, you'll find a way!" Frustration barreled into Webb's own voice. "You found a way to buy my business!"

"You found a way to sell it." A pause. "Must have been some guy, your brother."

"Huh? Oh, yes. Mechanic, like me. Owns--owned--a shop out in New Connecticut.

Another pause, this one longer and somehow more pointed, as Choi finished his sandwich and took a long drag off his perspiring root beer. "Bug seas two, You're in luck because we are moving product. I'll take your shop, and your inventory, and your customers. Priya will see that you get a first-class berth from Sundered back to Earth. Little out of your way, but it's better than nothin'. You'll be seeing that family of yours in a month, tops."

"A month?" It was the closest thing to latch to to protest. Already Webb knew he'd be taking the deal. He'd known coming in. Still. He hadn't quite imagined the depth to which he'd be screwed.

"Priya leaves tonight. Take it or leave it."

"Fine. I'll be back at seven with the keys to the shop." Webb rose to go.

"Great." Choi replied. He hastily scribbled something on a napkin. "Directions to the shell point where you'll find Priya and the Bug. And Webb?" he added mock solemnly. "Keep out of trouble."

********

Webb polished through the valve and called his assistant Jane to look after the shop. Londinium would get its JP38; hopefully that would assuage them. He was alone in the back, looking a little wistfully through his inventory when the old-fashioned bell announced someone entering. Jane? Too early. The clock read 16:30. He moved cautiously from the lathe to the front of the shop.

She stood in the doorway alone, still in her short-sleeve gray uniform, close cropped hair and clipped, precise posture. His heart skipped. Even as his mind raced, it was still good to see her, or this iteration, at least.

"You're in luck," he said, even-toned, moving quickly, business-like to cover up his slack-jawedness the moment before. "I was just finishing up your valve. I was going to leave it with my assistant, I have some business...I wasn't expecting you until--"

"I saw the scars on your arm this morning."

"I'm sorry?" The floor fell out from him, as though the moon stopped its spin.

"I knew a man once, had scars like that."

"Boring. Got my arm caught in a thresher, doing farm work on Ceres. I have your piece in the back, let me get it."

"It's actually more common than you think," Choudhry spoke up, her tone didactic. "People with teleportation psychosis. They need some way to keep track of their Conveyances. Still. You'd think they'd just keep a diary or something."

"I'm afraid you're not making much sense, er...Lieutenant."

"I knew a fella who got tattooed every time. Not because he thought he died or anything stupid like that, he just wanted to mark his passage."

Webb winced--inwardly he hoped--at the mention of Santhiago, the laughing big man who they'd both fought alongside in the Adrastean uprising. "And how many tattoos was that?" he asked, finally joining in Choudhry's dance.

"Oh, I don't remember. Does it matter? Moore?"

His birth name traveled through him like a bolt of lightning. She had him. How did she have him?
"Matter more than what?" he tried facilely. still certain he could salvage this. What did they have on him? Really? "I...I'll get you that '38."

The back of the shop was more of a jumble than the front, a narrow cramped nook of shelves and parts. He passed through it blindly and shot through the door in the far back. Only when he reached the air outside did Webb realize how quickly and shallowly he'd been breathing.

Run.

Down the cluttered alleyway, past Market Street and its oblivious bustle of afternoon shoppers--how many of them did he know? How many might he call friends? All lost--under the monorail pass, across two more streets until he found the manhole cover. She'd be on him by now, surely. Down into the sewers. Choi drew him a map, It was back in the shop. He would have to go from memory.

Splashing through ankle-deep waste water, past pipes and grates and checkpoints and sleeping monitor robots, limned faintly by light from above the sewer grates. Down to a raised platform and another cover, this one into the deeper levels. Past electrics and the dim hum of recycling machines, the oxygen reclimators, all the viscera of Redwood's life-sustaining machinery. The airlock was small an unassuming; he might have tripped over it in his dash across these dim and featureless corridors. A round hatch in the floor, a keypad dead center.

5. 6. 7. 9. Buzz. Red light. Nothing. Had Choi screwed him after all? Did Choudhry and the others get to him? Webb knelt there, his breath ragged with panic. After all this? He tried again. 5. 9. 7. 6. Red. 5-6-9-7. Red. 5! 7! 9! 6! Green! he was through the hatch. A lone spacesuit in the locker below. Webb slithered in to it as the airlock above closed automatically. Twenty seconds in and the lock depressurized, almost before he had his helmet on.

Moore. Six years since he heard that name and Choudhry had him pegged instantly. If he got out of this alive, he'd kill that gene drifter.

The light went out above, the airlock was fully depressurized. There was no code to the other hatch. A few turns and he was outside.

Another tunnel.This one twisting downward along the mining robots' ancient path. Webb lowered himself through the hatch. Closed it behind. His earlier panic was replaced by a calm resolve. Choi hadn't screwed him. Another quarter mile of tunnel and he would be out. They couldn't Convey him through all this rock; he would have only a narrow window between when he emerged and when he found the June Bug where he'd be vulnerable. Down he went through twisting passages of rough-hewn rock, claustrophobic bends where he almost didn't fit, his breath the only sound for company, his helmet lamp the only light. He braced himself against the wall as he scrambled down. Centrifugal force kept pushing him outward toward the skin of the Redwood Moon. If he slipped, if he lost his grip he would be tossed free into open space.

The tunnel angled around to starlight with little warning and Webb gingerly lowered himself face first down the last few feet. It was like coming into some unimaginably vast basement cavern. Outside the fissure there was a series of rungs through which Webb laced his feet before turning on the spacesuit's magnetic boots. For the briefest of moments, he allowed himself awe at the vista. Four years since he last saw stars. Cold and shining and brilliant. Unfettered by atmosphere, unbound by windows and walls. The same stars that called out to him all those lifetimes ago.

The June Bug lay clasped to the outer shell of the moo, its gangplank extended upward to Redwood's surface. Webb moved slowly, deliberately toward the Bug, a pitted ancient gray flyer in the general style of an old airplane, but boxier. It grew as he approached: the horizon of Redwood wasn't exactly far away. Around and above him the sky spun. He risked a few seconds of radio.

"June Bug, this is Webb. Can you see me?"

There was a crackle of static and another voice, one he should have expected. Choudhry's.

"Ellington Webb. You are wanted under suspicion of desertion. Please stand by to surrender to the proper authorities."

Webb turned, frantic but impeded by the slow lock of his magnetic boots. It was like moving through a dream. Back to the fissure, can't Convey through rock, back down. He'd hide in the city. He still had friends there. Jane. People who would understand, who would get him off Redwood and on to somewhere else in the Belt.

As he turned he saw it rise up against the far starlit horizon of the Redwood Moon. The spin of the moon was drawing him away--there was still time. Frantic, Webb spun back to the Bug. "I don't know what you're talking about!" he shouted into the radio. "I'm a private citizen! Leave me alone!"

"Come on, Crispin," her voice crackled. "Time to come in from the cold."

"How many Madeline Choudhrys have there been?" he demanded, desperate. "Coming and going like mayflies? Do you even remember what she was like?"

The cabin lights were on in the Bug. They could outrun a Star Sailer. Surely. He just needed a few more seconds. Just a few mor--











Monday, June 16, 2014

Billy and the Robots

Another rock through his window. Third one this week. By now they must know he'll just regrow the glass. Of course they do. He reaches for the rock. On the dingy carpet of his Government-paid house, shards and flecks of glass vibrate and hum, drawing themselves together and rolling toward the window. he holds the rock absentmindedly. Are they outside, watching the show? Still in his robe, he's too timid to find out. A fitting irony, after all he's witnessed. The window clatters and shrieks together. Still holding the rock, he moves through to the rear of the house, past the spartan kitchen and out the sliding glass doors to the cool wet lawn beyond. Seventeen. He stacks the latest addition to his makeshift pyramid. Waits a moment to be sure it doesn't topple over.

The lawn is small and uneventful, a bare patch of grass overlooking long farm fields that stretch almost to the horizon. Near his pyramid, the beginnings of a small ant hill. He watches them move back and forth deliberately in their carefully regulated tasks. Slowly, thoughtfully, he crushes the ant hill with his bare foot, sending them scurrying for cover. It shouldn't be as satisfying as it is. What, he supposes, do they think when his foot comes crushing down? Do they see the face of God?

The twilight air is clear and cool. He remembers, fondly and far away that feeling of dusk in summer, impossibly late, still warm, with a labyrinth of possibilities all stretching out in front of him. On the horizon he can see the coalescing spires of New Chicago. It's as if, he thinks every time he's out here, they chose the house that would never let him forget.

No one much talks about them anymore. They haunt the periphery of the American psyche, tall as buildings, taller in our nightmares. Especially in Illinois.

Billy was fifteen when they landed, the answer to every awkward gangly, pimply fifteen-year-old's prayers. Robots from Outer Space. He befriended them, or thought he did Gave them names, the kind of names a comic book geek thinks of. What goes on in their heads is complex, to say the least. He spoke to them on behalf of the United States of America. Appeared on every magazine cover and news site in the world, pimples helpfully airbrushed. Fifteen years old and his best friend was a sixty-foot alien robot. What kid wouldn't want that? he would repeat later to interviewers, to harassers, to himself. Then the Death Bringers came, and the war, and the smoldering ruin of Chicago and everything changed. Evil was what Ultivox called them and Billy believed it then. That long great adventure, sailing into battle against the Death Bringers, the fate of the world in his hands.

Across the lawn, in a high oak branch, he sees a mockingbird. He'd heard the thing for weeks now, had been trying to catch sight of it with his binoculars for ages. Birding is an excellent hobby for those with no job and a growing terror of leaving one's house. Billy backed slowly toward the glass doors, his eyes still on the bird. Where did he put the binoculars last? Back on the--

A chill ran down his spine. He was not alone. Billy reached out with his othersense, his inheritance from Ultivox. A familiar buzzing of the electronics around him. Second-floor window. They came in while he was out just now. Two men, one woman. Inside the kitchen there is a gun. Nonchalantly, quietly, he moves back in to the house, conscious in the back of his mind that the mockingbird is still singing.

Only once before did someone make an attempt on his life. Spectrix was there to stop them. Russians, that time. The US played up its relationship with the robot,s especially before Chicago. Back through the kitchen. The Russian hit team was a four-man crew posing as tourists. Spectrix destroyed---not just killed, anihilated--them casually as if swatting flies and asked Billy afterward, in a tone which the young man took to be simply curiosity, why bioforms should want to kill other bioforms. Bad guys, Billy explained then. Still, Spectrix didn't get it. These were  the days before the war. Billy and Spectrix were on tour, showing off the robots' facility at rebuilding American infrastructure (as well as a none-too-subtle "Hey look at our best-friends' destructive capability").

"You know, evil." Billy said. It would be another year or two before the Death Bringers and Ultivox using that word in a way Billy, upon reflection all these years later, thinks the robot has no specific understanding of. It's just a word he used, an incantation, almost.

In the kitchen Billy reaches for the gun, tucked away in the flatware drawer. He gets there almost in time before everything goes black.

********

He comes to with a bag over his head and a ringing in his ears. He's in a vehicle. Acoustics suggest a minivan, an older model.

"He's coming around," a man next to him says.

"Don't even think of Reaching into the engine." A woman's voice, familiar. "This van so much as hiccups and you're brains go out the side window."

"Kendra?"

Of course it would be Kendra Stephenson. Love of his life. "Where are you taking me?"

"Quiet!" The driver.

"Look: whatever it is, I can get it for you. Just give me a phone."

"General Hayes isn't taking your calls, Chief." The driver again.

"Great. So you're going to execute me? Drive me out into the woods and put one in the back of my head? IF that's the plan at least take the damn bag off my head. It's two miles on surface streets and a guy all hooded and zip-tied might attract you some unwanted attention."
A brief, merciless pause before the hood comes off, something not nearly as reassuring as he thought it was going to be. There she is, front seat ahead of him, Kendra Stephenson. "You look great." is all he thinks of to say.

The war brought them together. The tough-as-nails Army corporal with the seen-it-all smile and the Most Famous Teenager On Earth. They were happy, for a while. Weren't they? Ten years gone. "Did you ever have kids?" he asks and she stares at him blankly. "What? I'm probably going to die soon, anyway. I'd like to know. You always wanted kids."

"What would have been the point?" She retorts. "The world doesn't belong to us anymore."

The fight between the Shapers and the Death Bringers consumed the city of Chicago. Pulped it. The robots fought without even an absentminded regard for life or property. Ultivox tried to explain to Billy the complex sectarian motives that pitted deadly sixty-foot tall metal men against one another, but it was obscure and algebraic and in the end he simplified it all to say this was a battle between good and evil. When it was over and the Death Bringers were all gone, Ultivox and his Shapers set to rebuilding the city.

"YOU HAVE DONE A GREAT THING TODAY," Ultivox said in that voice of his so loud Billy felt it in his chest. "HUMANITY IS SAFE BECAUSE OF YOU." It was the last thing the Shaper King said to him before leaving him at the outskirts of the ruin and beginning, wordlessly, to rebuild. Much later it would become apparent what they were building was not, in fact, strictly a repair job, but something altogether stranger, a twisting metal-and-glass pyramid, stretching to the sky.

"They say people are shorter now." Second guy. The gunman. Billy probably wouldn't live long enough to actually learn these schmucks' names. "That we walk all hunched over and afraid, now. "Average height in the US is, what, six feet?"

"Five-ten," Billy, who was five-nine, corrected.

"Anyway, by 2100 they say we'll be all five-eight or something. From cowering.

"Look, what do you want from me? Any other kid in that field on that night, he'd have done hte same thing."

"Then it'd be him with a gun to his head," Kendra replied.

"So, Hayes sent you, then? Or are you freelance. Is this all it is? Revenge, after ten years it comes down to sorry you were there when the aliens landed?"

They reach a stop light and Billy swears he sees the mockingbird alight on a street sign. "Not revenge," the driver says.

"You talk to machines," Kendra now, elaborating. "We're going to help you send a message."
It was his inheritance. A result of Ultivox bringing him back to life at the Battle of Chicago. The robot seemed vaguely disgusted by the whole thing, by having to touch Billy's profane organic flesh. Though maybe Billy was reading into it, then as well as now. Maybe they didn't think of it that way at all.

Red.

Red.'

Green.

Before they can see it, he can feel it, and has time to brace himself for the impact. Another car sideswipes the van, burning through the light, sending the van careening into the shoulder, spinning and toppling. Someone shouts Kendra's name. It's Billy. The impact whips Gun Man's head against the window. It shatters and he's unconscious. Through the maze of cracked glass, Billy sees the car that hit them and knows its nature before it begins to judder and shift. Heave and collapse. Implode and rise in a violent sickening dance as what was once a car (or animitation of one, an off-model number you wouldn't look twice at until you did and realized it wasn't like any car you'd ever seen, but rather a generalization of a car, like a kid's drawing) into a bipedal robot. Doors and side mirrors and tail lights vestigial, hanging off it like the collected carapace of an assassin bug. It lumbers close and tears the van's sliding door from its hinges. There are other cars around, they're all speeding away in haste. Hiding. Cowering. Kendra, still belted in the forward passenger seat, has her pistol out and is shooting, though she isn't shooting Billy, which is what he'd be doing. He can see she's bleeding from her head.

Wheelox. One of the Infiltrators. If it notices the bullets, the robot gives no indication. It reaches in, grasps the bench seat holding Billy and the gunman, casually crushing the unconscious man's legs in the process, and tearing the bench free of the van.

"IS THE BILLY HURT?"

"No," Billy finally gasps. More shots now, but Wheelox shields Billy with his sedan-door arm.

"EVIL?"

"No, no! just...let's go home."

Gingerly, particularly for his size, Wheelox undoes Billy's seat belt and casts the bench aside. It clatters and cracks and he's pretty sure the gunman is dead if he wasn't already. Kendra and the driver are still firing shots. Wheelox makes a space for Billy in his chest and lumbers toward the growing spire of New Chicago. There is a long silence, hours really, as the robot stalks toward its home. Its Tower of Babel, but then they don't know that story, wouldn't understand the moral behind it, would only ask him obscure questions, neither side really understanding the other.

"ULTIVOX SENT ME," it says. "WE HAVE BEEN WATCHING. THERE IS A PLACE FOR YOU IN  HEAVEN." As they pass through the edge of the city, Billy thinks he sees familiar forms tossed into the charnel pits.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Echo Cygnet



Even after the swans found him, the ugly duckling was never truly happy. Even as he matured into a lithe, majestic swan, he knew in his heart he was still a pale, lanky, awkward duck. His adoptive parents--his duck parents, the ones he thought of automatically when the phrase "my parents" came to be used--were diligent and zealous in their instruction. They named him "Echo" because he was the only one who did.

His childhood was a river of petty jibes, taunts, and insults, broken up only by those times they played at leaving him, a favorite game in those days he was slow to learn how to fly. The last time, that fateful final time he was abandoned, he imagined it to be just another of his father's games.
The Ugly Duckling grew up, got a respectable job, married a swan woman, and, though the prospect filled him with dread, raised children of his own.

Now and then he would wind up in bars in the seedier parts of town trying to pick up duck girls and generally making a fool of himself. On one of these excursions, he found out the old mallard had died. He stared at the obituary, the text rendered blurry and obscure by the same combination of scotch and soda the old mallard preferred. Apparently, the old duck flew too high on scotch-and-sodas and was sucked into a jet engine like some boozy Icarus. The paper had little to say about the duck's life beyond a wry where-are-they-now tone regarding the years-old custody dispute Echo barely remembered.

There would be a funeral. Family Echo hadn't seen in years gathered round to sing the praises of the old mallard. What a righteous, upstanding duck. He thought about going, about showing them all. I'm a swan, you motherfuckers! I was a swan the WHOLE. TIME. But of course they knew. There had been a fight, all those years ago, more out of stubborn pride, he suspected, than any actual love for him. Sometimes across a crowded stream he thought he saw one of his brothers. They never acknowledged him.

Why should it matter so much? He was miserable there every day of his young life. Why couldn't he just move on? Growing up back among the swans he was craven for affection then distrustful when it was given, whipsawing through relationships trying to find that magical answer to the hole in things. A key to solve the riddle of his life.

Alone, the death notice discarded, he took to the sky.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Doctor Who and the Skies of Ixion



1) Heavy Metal, Raining Down

"It's a cupboard," Clara pronounced.

"What?" The Doctor angled his head out of the TARDIS doors. "That can't be right." He disappeared again. They were quite clearly in a narrow metal storage area, just barely large enough for the TARDIS herself to berth. Dimly lit and an uninspiring shade of gray. At the opposite end of the TARDIS, there was a small hatchway, like one finds on a submarine. Were they in another submarine?

"And it's..." Clara, more to herself now than anything, woozy, sleepy, heavy. "That is, I feel funny."

"That would be the gravity!" The Doctor shouted from within the Ship, stepping out quickly before closing the doors. So they were staying, then. Lovely. "Ah." he said. "We're in a cupboard."

"What happened this time?"

"Are you implying we got lost?" Chagrined.

"No, of course not, Doctor. Heaven forbid."

"Good. Because we only did a little bit. Just a few hundred kilometers. But this!" He turned the metal hatch wheel and they stepped out of the cupboard. "This is better."

"We're in a corridor," Clara said, looking out. "And what's with the gravity, then?"

The Doctor seemed to weigh his options, right or left down the corridor, testing the nonexistent wind with his finger before deciding, surely arbitrarily, to go left. "The planet's mass is twice that of Earth, so, well, now you know what it'd be like if you gained nine stone, Clara."

"Nine stone!?" The corridor lurched, suddenly and sickeningly, and the pair were tossed against near wall. "Ow!" Clara said as she made contact. "The walls are scorching!"

"Yes, that's right," the Doctor said in that air of practiced nonchalance that meant he was trying to sweep something very big under a very small rug. "Let's get topside."

"Topside of what?" At the end of the plain gray corridor was another plain gray hatch, which the Doctor opened with characteristic bravado, revealing a staircase beyond. A normal old helical staircase. Not an elevator. Bother.

There was another sickening lurch followed this time by the shrieking of metal collapsing from above. "Come on!" The Doctor shouted and bounded up the stairs.

Clara followed. They were in the middle of it now, whatever it was, wherever it was going to lead them. At the top of the stairway another hatch, and the Doctor was already through it. Clara struggled with the new found carriage of her body, catching her breath at the top of the stairs, only to have it taken right away.

On the deck above, there were machines in the shape of men. They tended controls that were half futuristic computer scape, half nautical nostalgia tour, complete with a giant metal steering wheel of the like seen on old ships. Clara had met the Cybermen before, and took the golden-armored figures as more of that lot.But it was more than that. At the end of the deck, beyond a series of tall flat windows, was the deck of a ship with what looked like gossamer metal sails. The sky outside was a boiling inferno, half-overtaken by a single glaring yellow sun. The sea the ship sailed wasn't water at all, it was boiling lava, stretching from horizon to horizon.

"Right! I'm the Doctor. How can I help!"

The two of them were promptly locked up as intruders.

********

"Really, are the chains necessary?" The Doctor protested. The brig was another squat gray cupboard, this time with manacles. "Far be it from me to question maritime tradition--"

"Two humans." It wasn't a robot. It was a human being in a metal suit. He introduced himself as Captain Liu. His helmet, retracted, hung down at the nape of his neck. "Unarmored, appearing out of nowhere in the lower hold. You mentioned old maritime traditions, Mister...?"

"Doctor."

"Doctor...?"

"Yes, that's right."

The Captain was clearly irritated. "You mentioned maritime tradition. Are you familiar with the penalty for stowaways?"

"Ah. Yes. Well. Now--"

"How did you get on this ship?"

"Transmat malfunction. Sent me, my associate Miss Oswald here, and our steamer trunk quite a bit off course, I must say. We were trying to get to the public library if you can believe it."

"Transmats are illegal in the Ifrit system."

"Yes, which is why you should bring us back to port with you so we can point out the real culprits. Dont' want people transmatting about the refinery, do we?"

"You're quick enough to change your tune, Doctor."

"Well, it's that or walk the plank, isn't it? Now: that shrieking sound from before? To a layman's ears it sounded like a coolant shield breach, but of course that's not possible ship like this, pride of the Third Empire?"

"What do you know about our coolant systems?"

"Oh, nothing, just what I see on the Documentary Channel in the hotel. I do have some gear in my steamer trunk which MIGHT be of help..."

There was another shriek of metal-on-,metal and another deep lurch as the TARDIS crew were thrown against the wall. "Because that's not getting old," Clara muttered under her breath. The robot man before them barely moved.

"I can help you," the Doctor beseeched. "This ship is--" SHRIEK! LURCH!

"No time for that, Doctor," and the robot was gone.

"So...not a Cyberman, then?" Clara whispered.

"No," came the Doctor's reply, absentminded as his mind began to work furiously. Clara had seen this expression on him before. The pinched brow of nervous mathematics, calculating their odds for survival. "The protective suits keep them from dying outside the confines of the sailship." The screwdriver out, and aimed, and the manacles slipped open. Nothing fancy, the ship must use all its power on the coolant system.

"What kind of ship sails on molten lava seas?"

"It's a mining ship," still absentminded, still far away, still doing math. Outside the brig, he turned right. "The sails collect atomised metallic particles. Ixion is so close to its parent star that metal on its surface is literally vaporised, raining back to the surface as particulate matter." Another door. They appeared not to be marked; Clara had no idea how he was making his way. Inside was an alcove of computers. "The sails are built to collect hafnium breezes and molybdenum blizzards. Then the ship makes port at the refinery on the night side. Neat and tidy." He busied himself with a panel of controls.

"Except there's something wrong with this ship and now it's going to explode."

"I wouldn't say explode, exactly. More like melt for a bit, then evaporate."

"Wonderful."

"Yes..." the Doctor flipped a series of switches.

Clara looked about herself. "Nothing happened"

"Good. The alternative was a fair bit worse. Now, then. Some one's bound to be along any minute."

Clara slumped against the wall, and immediately regretted it. "I don't feel all that well," she said, reeling form the heat and the heaviness in her limbs and thoughts.

"Gravity sickness," the Time Lord pronounced, fishing in his pocket for something. "Here," he produced two tablets, bright green, looking for all the world like antacids. "Take these. Doctor's orders."

Eventually someone came from above decks to retrieve them. The Doctor did his best to explain, but they were placed in manacles again.The ship limped back to Ixion's night side, where a full armored security detail was there to meet them.

"Tell me this, Doctor," the ship's captain demanded. "How did you fix my ship?"

"Would you believe I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow?"

"Not even remotely."

"Well. There we are, then. He turned to his companion. "Clara, welcome to the Sandstorm Refinery. Sorry about the manacles."

********

The Sandstorm Refinery stretched for miles at the apex of the planet's midnight side, lit up by the lights of the surrounding city and the red glow of still molten lava. It was, even from the prison car, a beautiful sight. Despite the shackles and despite the fact that neither of them had seen the TARDIS since their first hour aboard the lava ship (the Brigantine Gemini, according to the Doctor) Clara felt oddly well, if only because now she no longer felt so blasted heavy.

"It is lovely," she remarked at the sight."

"Yes, well, Ixion's one of the great obscure wonders of the galaxy." His tone was confidential, almost conspiratorial, though whoever was driving the prison car had to know all this. "Not exactly on the main tourist routes. Humans have lived her a little over five hundred years. It's been good for them, the ones that live here, milling about with the high-gravity races: the Penyaxi, the Hoothi, the Silkworm Architects. Culture comes out of places like this."

"And here we are, seeing culture from a police van."

"Oy! Some of my best cultural experiences involved police vans. The march on Moscow, Woodstock..."

"What's going to happen to us?" Clara tried to cut through the conversational riptide.

"Simple. It's a misunderstanding. I'll clear it up."

"A misunderstanding. That we did not actually transmaterialize, that we're time travelers from the year two thousand and thirteen."

"Like I said. I'll think of something."

They were assigned an advocate, a squat human compressed, Clara figured, by years in a high-gravity environment. The advocate looked over their file with the passive weariness of a court-sponsored attorney. They had been fingerprinted and gene-scanned (Clara: human--non-augmented; the Doctor: alien--miscellaneous, a classification which irked him more than he hoped was showing). In the old days of shuffling papers, the advocate would have had a soundtrack appropriate to his apparent apathy. Now it was all holographic floating screens.

"Transmat fraud," he sighed at the screens. "Minimum one thousand cycles inside a refinery facility."

"One thousand cycles?!" Clara exclaimed.

"Don't worry," the Doctor explained. "A year on Ixion is about nine days."

"So," a beat while she did the math. "Twenty-four years!?"

"I'd like to represent myself, if that's no bother," the Doctor turned his attention back to their advocate. "You're clearly overworked here."

"The gene scan indicates neither of you is from Ixion. How do you expect to speak to the Court if you have no concept of our laws?"

"We knew the Transmat thing was illegal. That's a start!"

"Request denied. Tomorrow you will be tried."

********

"Captain Liu," Boswain O'Niell snapped the captain out of his reverie. "We still have the stowaway's crate on board."

"How long until repairs are complete?"

"Another fourteen hours, sir."

"We sail out immediately, Mister O'Niell. Once we're in the gold, jettison the Doctor's steamer trunk."

2) Fire and Brimstone

They spent the night (or what passed for night in a city where it was technically always night) in the same cell, though Clara had the distinct suspicion the Doctor did not sleep. In the morning, back in manacles and back into the police van, the pair were taken from the outskirts of the city to a palatial collection of buildings at the heart of the City of Night. Outside it was a cold and airless dark. The planet was tidally locked, the Doctor explained, so the thin atmosphere of vaporised metal fell off before the dark side's apex, leaving the area around Night a cold void. The buildings were all connected or laced through by magnetic glass tubeways. Outside the protective barrier of the city walls and glass domes was a cold and airless dark. They passed though neighborhoods where oxygen breathers were not allowed, where strange aliens passed Clara by without a second glance. The Doctor, sensing Clara's disquiet, reined in his natural desire to point out every magnificent thing they passed along the way.

The Courthouse was tall and stately and familiar looking, dimly lit from the lava rivers, and not completely off-model from the Old Bailey, Clara thought, a fact she found comforting. At the foot of the marble stairs, their advocate waited. Released from their manacles, Clara and the Doctor were led up the stairs and through the doors to an airy domed atrium where Clara's sense of familiarity utterly evaporated. The atrium was several stories high, criss-crossed at random by dozens of narrow metal beams. On each beam were dozens more tiny birds, chirping in a riotous cacophony.

"Welcome," their advocate said. "You may now enter your plea before the Court of Sparrows."

"It's a disembodied hive intelligence," the Doctor whispered, elated, clearly divorced again from the gravity of the situation. "Each bird represents a set of connections within the broader neural network. Bit slower than your average brain, but capable of much, much more storage. Plus, it's mobile! And independent! And they're birds!"

"So not a Parliament of Rooks, then?" Clara queried dryly.

He looked at her as though she just coughed something up. "Nonsense. Corvids don't inherit the Earth for another million years."

"Ah."

"Ah. HEM." The advocate.

"Right!" The Doctor strode forth to the center of the atrium, hands on the lapels of his jacket.

"Just enter the plea," the advocate muttered under his breath.

"May it please the Court!" his voice raised now, the Doctor stood from the center looking up. "I bring a matter of grave intelligence. Your ships, including the Schooner Electra and the Brigantine Gemini, have been attacked." A crescendo of birdsong, then quiet as ten thousand sparrows held their breath. "Gemini only escaped because of a neutron resonance built up in its cold-front shielding, but mark my words: your ships on the fire sea are not safe. Someone is out there, hunting mining ships. My companion and I--" A theatrical sweep of his arm, "were piloting a small teleport pod--I don't suppose anybody knows what happened to it? No Well, look it to it, please. Our capsule was picked up by Gemini just moments before the attack."

A deafening chitter from the assembly. Moments passed in which the atrium danced with the argument of the hive brain. At last, a single brown sparrow descended on the advocate's shoulder and seemed to whisper in his ear. He turned to his two charges.

"You are to be executed tomorrow."

"Brilliant," the Doctor sighed.

********

On the deck of the Brigantine Gemini, Midshipman Elmo O'Niell struggled with the large blue box that was the stowaways' so-called "steamer trunk" (though it said "Police" on the side). The thing was spooky. It looked for all the world as though it was made of wood, but stood there, only singed. They were heading into a mercury spincloud; he had barely ten minutes before the heat shielding in his armour was utterly wasted. His hydraulics strained against the weight of the trunk. That was when he saw it. Rising from the lava like some monstrous creature.

********

"So that's it. Clara Oswald. Born 1989, Planet Earth, died..."

"Ninety-two Twenty-seven," the Doctor quietly offered.

"Ninety-two Twenty-seven, planet Ixion, executed by birds."

"It won't be the birds that--" Clara's expression shot him down. "Brave heart, Clara," he changed tack. "We're not finished yet."

In the morning they were led to the outer gates of the city. The transparent walls looked out to a desolate landscape. Without the haze of an atmosphere, Clara could see for miles. Of course, all she could see were craters and the odd frozen corpse, so it wasn't exactly an inspiring vista. Transmat fraud constituted thousands of years in service, but the Court had deemed them liars, and liars got exiled. Their executioners were tall spidery aliens, apparently wearing masks. The Doctor could surely list every salient thing about them, but Clara wasn't in the mood. Something about impending suffocation.

"Isn't anyone going to ask me for some last words?" The Doctor stalled. "Mine usually go something like 'oh no, not again' but Napoleon, he had some lovely things to say. Or Shakespeare? We could do Shakespeare."

As the spider-men led them to the airlock, all at once there appeared a flock of sparrows. Advocate Montes followed shortly after. "The Brigantine Gemini has come under attack," he explained. "You have been conscripted by the Court of Sparrows."

********

Some time later they stood in a glass chamber overlooking the Windjammer Serenade, another mining ship and their ride to Brig Gemini.

"I'm going with you," Clara declared, felt she had to, really.

"It'll be dangerous," the Doctor replied, not turning to face her, instead watching men and women load the last components on board the mining ship, its sails retracted, berthed in a lava floe.

"That box is my ticket home. Without it--without you, I'm stuck in--what do you even do for a job in the ninety-third century? I don't mean to be shallow, but the guys? The guys are all five-foot nothing and I don't know how long those gravity pills of yours are meant to last."

"It might not have been the experience I promised."

"That could well be your theme song."

"The lava seas of Ixion, then?" Against the perpetual twilight, they set out.

3) Planet Hell

They were off-worlders. That was for certain. The man, in particular, was a full six inches taller than the standard coldsuit, so Windjammer Serenade had to import one from a Draconian frigate, and now it was Raj's turn to calibrate it to Serenade's on board personality. He felt the compulsion to paint the thing, though there wouldn't be time. The two of them were in the machine shop. All around them hung spare limbs and carapace parts. A few still had paintscapes on them, those that hadn't been outside.

The man claimed to be a physician of some kind, though she'd spent almost the whole time here in the cramped gray machine chop coincidentally alongside Raj while cobbling something from Tango's castoff electronics. The young woman, suited already, had gone to the bridge with Captain Mbane. Raj's mind was a palace of disquiet. Ships had plowed the seas of Ixion for five hundred years, and not since the early days had one sailer attacked another.

"Doctor?" Raj prompted, and the man looked up. "Your carapace awaits." This one was undecorated.

"Brilliant. Love a good carapace." He was off the work bench and on his feet, letting Raj help him back-step into the cold-suit carapace. He stepped back into the cerametal shoes as the legs, chest and arms slowly closed around him. Like Raj and most of the crew of Windjammer Serenade, the Doctor kept the helmet off, hanging connected to the nape of his neck. Raj did his best to explain the basic features in the way a layperson might understand. Though he did look quizzically at the vibra-sword.

"Is there a compartment?" he asked. "If I might like to store something? A key, or whatever?"

"You can store it in the vibra-sword housing, if you like. But whatever you bring outside, Doctor, it won't survive."

"Fantastic. No need for the blasted thing anyway." The Doctor removed the vibra-sword's hilt from his thigh-clasp, and stored in a small, antique-looking key. "Did you paint all of these?" He gestured at Raj's suit, and the spare limbs that still had designs. Raj's own painting was this time a pointillist rendering of a Mjolniran glacier. The snows Raj had seen his whole life were never made of ice.

"What? No, sir. Each man paints his armor before venturing out. Ship tradition."

"You're whom I came to see, in fact. The whole crew, really, but you in particular, before things went a bit...pear shaped."

Raj still didn't follow, and his expression stood as mute testament to this fact.

"See, I've been everywhere," the Doctor explained. "The World's Fair, 1939, the Eye of Orion, the Cleveland Olympics. After a while, after you've seen all the big stuff, you start looking for the little stuff. Everyone on the Windjammer Serenade paints their carapaces. Every day before you go out. The paint is burned away instantly, of course, once you're outside the ship. There's a passing reference to the Serenade's crew in a traveler's diary I bought years ago. She said you create masterpieces and then they're burned away. Just that, that's all. A passing footnote in a diary long left behind."

For some reason this only strengthened Raj's disquiet. He imagined this wasn't what the Doctor had in mind by telling him about this, but civilians weren't allowed on mining ships. These two were the first.

"Raj. Doctor," it was Captain Mbane. "You'd better get up here.

**********

The tall windows on the bridge looked out on the Windjammer Serenade's foredeck. Without her sails deployed, the ship looked skeletal. Beyond the deck, and in Ifrit's blinding light, at the edge of the lava sea, they could make out a shape.

"That's impossible!" Raj gasped. "She should have melted straight away!" At the edge of the horizon, half-suspended in lava, was the Brigantine Gemini. At the top of the crashed ship's aft deck, impervious it seemed to the sun's inferno, sat a blue wooden box.

This was when all hell broke loose.

Serenade shook as something smashed in to her. Raj was nearly thrown as the deck pitched. Ludovic shouted that there'd been a breach, and Raj raced to his console, helmet deploying. The captain shouted orders over the alarm klaxons to shut emergency bulkheads but it would be of little use if the coolant veins were too far gone. Raj's hands worked furiously at the controls, trying to steer coolant through the ship's capillaries to hold off the rising heat. He felt panic rise like the tide. They would sink, there would be nothing left of them, nothing left...

"There are people out there!" The woman--Clara--shouted.

The Doctor stepped forward, closer to the observation windows. "The TARDIS is keeping her afloat. She wouldn't let them go. They must have minutes of oxygen left. Captain Mbane, you have to turn this ship toward Gemini.

"Negative, Doctor. The hull on my ship is compromised. We are in no condition."

"There are people out there, Captain!"

The ship shook again with a terrible force, and men burst into the bridge with vibra-swords drawn.

"What is the meaning of this?!" Mbane demanded.

"Who is the master of this vessel?!" They were all in black, even in this day and age managing to look quite menacing.

"I am!" The Doctor shouted, preempting Mbane. He turned to Clara and muttered something Raj could not hear before the men in black overtook him. In a moment, they were gone, the shock of it lasting only moments. They were still sinking.

3) Black Sabbath

"You'll have minutes," the Doctor told her. "Once you're outside." The TARDIS was shifting between seconds, protecting the remains of Brigantine Gemini within a transduction barrier, a stolen moment. Serenade rammed against Gemini, her windows shattering. Air rushed out and ignited, and the inferno rushed in. Clara was on her feet in seconds, TARDIS key in her hand. The others followed, more out of desperation than anything else. The suit she wore fought its hardest against the blistering heat but it was a losing struggle. She could feel her own temperature spiraling upward. Whatever the key was made of, the TARDIS recognized it and let them through the barrier. The Gemini survivors were clustered around the police box as though it were an idol, or a life raft. Lucky for them it was the latter.

*******

Deep beneath the molten surface of Ixion, the the Breacher Narwhal drove, its engines turned to deadly purpose. Stripped of his heat suit, the Doctor knelt exhausted and in pain at the center of a dim, grey-walled room. Circling him, helmet less and in black armour--and, really, the Doctor though to himself, wasn't black the hallmark of the unoriginal ne'er-do-wells? Add some color to your life; you look like a waiter, like Iron Man's waiter, was there a restaurant like that? Did he visit there or just dream it? He had this coat once, brilliant thing. Where was he? Oh, right.

"Six hundred and twenty-nine."

"What?" The young man, fair haired and fair skinned stopped what he was doing with the electrowhip.

"I figure I've been in this sort of position six hundred and twenty-nine times in my lives. And you know? After a while, it really gets old."

"You will tell me the magnetic entry code for Sandstorm harbor."

"Tell me who you are first. Tell me what all this is about."  Hopefully his captor would relish the chance to monologue. He still needed time to process the scene.

"Hostile takeover, Doctor. This planet, and its wares, will soon be the property of the Organization."

"Just that? Just 'The Organization'? Not 'The Trickster's Brigade' or 'The Apostles of the Poison Shower Head?' That's not very fun, is it?"

"Fun? This planet is the richest in the galaxy. And we will snatch it. We will bring down the heat shielding and the city will die. Then, the Organization will claim this world."

"I won't help you murder millions of people."

"In that case..." his antagonist raised the whip.

"Wait!" The Doctor raised his arms. "Wait."

********

Hostile Action Displacement System. It was one of the first things he taught her about the TARDIS. When threatened, the ship could make a short hop out of danger. Without hesitating, Clara brought her palm down on the displacement switch and the wheeze-groan of travel began. All around her, metal men stood in wonderment at the police box's interior.

"Right, then," Clara said, removing her helmet. "Explanations are in order."

********

The bridge was cramped and dim and hot as Collier Black (That was his name! Even his name was "Black"! Classic.) sat the Doctor down at the radio transceiver station. The whole mechanism was rather fascinating, really, a concentrated radio beam in place of sonar, allowing the Breacher ships to navigate blind under thousands of feet of molten rock. His task now, with Black still under the impression he, the Doctor, was captain of the Serenade, was to reverse-engineer a signalling device that let Clara know where to find him, assuming the HADS had not brought her backward or forward some random assembly of years or to another planet entirely. What's a good planet around here? Calufrax? Tedious, and cold. Clara could probably do with a bit of cold after this. Eating shaved ice on the glacier beaches of Calufrax. Divine.
The interface system was rather simplistic. The real challenge was doing all this with Black looming over him like a noisy shadow.

********

No one believed Clara when she opened the door, but there they were, parked on an airy portico somewhere in the city. The surviving crew of Serenade and Gemini stepped out in disbelief into the glittering twilight. As she tuned back to the console room, Clara found Captain Liu, his helmet off and his vibrasword drawn.

"Steamer trunk? This is a god ship, in the hands of a doddering fool and a girl."

"Oy!" said Clara, as the TARDIS doors closed behind her. They were alone in the console room. "Do you know how to use that thing?"

"What?"

"That sword thing. Do you know how to use it?" Her own gloved hand was reaching, discreetly as she could, toward the vibrasword hilt at her side. "Did you turn sixteen one year and develop an unhealthy obsession with fencing, to where your Dad drove you every weekend to lessons at the community center? Did it take up your whole life? Did they call you the weird girl, make pirate jokes, and did it all cease to mean anything once you brought home that first trophy?" She drew the vibrasword with effortless motion and flicked it on. "Just asking."

********

"That's it," the Doctor said, with an air of weary finality. "Done."

Collier Black leaned over the Doctor's shoulder and pressed 'COMMIT'.

Everything went dark. There was a wheezing groan, the sound like keys dragged across piano wire, the sound of the Universe opening up. In the pitch-black darkness, a light began to glimmer.

*******

Collier Black and the crew of the Breacher Narwhal were delivered to the Court of Sparrows. The  Breacher ran itself aground on the shores of the city, its computer system gone briefly mad. The evidence contained within was easily enough for a conviction. The Doctor and Clara did not bother to wait around for the verdict. They had an appointment with a series of glaciers. The mention of Ixion on the news piqued the curiosity of Agatha Takahashi, a travel writer, who visited the planet and the painters of the Windjammer Serenade some years later. Centuries after that, and lifetimes before he would actually visit Ixion, the Doctor picked up a print copy of Takahashi's book in a crowded marketplace on Zandremos Beta. Rajaput Mukherjee's works were never properly exhibited, nor were those of anyone on the Windjammer Serenade. He died of natural causes in 9350.

The Doctor and Clara Oswald are still at large.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel, Man of Heart



Full Disclosure

'Man of Steel' premiered this weekend, and the verdicts are in: second-largest opening this year (behind Iron Man 3), largest opening in June. In the eyes of movie executives and people who like to see shit blow up good, it is an unqualified success. For those of us who grew up with the character, however, its approach is...somewhat problematic.

Full disclosure: I grew up with Superman, particularly the Christopher Reeve films. There was a movie-rental place near our home (Video Kingdom, remember when those things existed?) and when my Mom would take me, I'd always want to rent 'Superman: The Movie', to the point where my Mother, probably driven half-mad by hearing Lex Luthor's master scheme for the hundredth time, tried to gently suggest to me I might want to maybe watch a different film. We probably ended up renting 'Superman II'. This did not stop her, however, from sewing me a Superman cape which you better believe I wore to school, damn it. I also, since we're just revealing everything here, wore glasses from a young age. And there weren't any 'Biclops' comics when I was a kid...


True to Life

According to legend or rumor or what-have-you, the word "verisimilitude" was put on a banner above the art department for 1978's 'Superman: The Movie'. This has, to a large degree, informed how comic books are translated to television or film. Only Batman '66 seemed to say "fuck it", though that program approached comic book lunacy with an eye on camp and winking innuendo, but the intrusion of the real has been a constant pull against the four-color weirdness of the best comics. This makes a certain amount of sense, sure. There are things, particularly visually, that simply do not translate from comics to movies. At one end you have game attempts to, say, get Captain America's cowl right and at the other you have Batman and the X-Men done up as leather fetishists and the Man of Steel himself as some kind of cross between a rubber gimp and a giant toy.

What this also does is create an atmosphere where Clark Kent's whole glasses-and-nebbishness shtick is confined to less than thirty seconds of set-up for the sequel and a shot of an utterly unfooled Lois. Look, movie. I get why you're doing this. And it's by far not my biggest complaint about this picture. What it is, however, is endemic to the approach that results in Clark straight-up killing General Zod. But we'll get back to that. For now, let's stick with those glasses.

Spectacle

Asking someone to believe in real life that someone can just muss up his hair a bit, put on a pair of horn-rims, and pass as a totally different dude is patently ludicrous. I know this. Everybody older than about nine knows this. But Superman, a character invented for children and dragged kicking and screaming into the logic and rationalization of a grown-up movie (I typed "adult movie" at first, which: no thanks.) has to contend with the tug-of-war between this childhood dream-logic and the demands of adults who demand realism in their movies about flying space aliens with laser eyes.

Superman doesn't exist in the real world. He exists in the world of symbols. Key to the character's appeal, to my mind, is that transformation. Superman is the only character who wears a mask in his civilian life. Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, they all put on their masks to go out and derring-do. Superman works on a different level. The point of Superman is that bright, garish, embarrassing part of ourselves we keep under our clothes, that's the part that's going to get us through this, that's the part of us that's going to save everyone. You're born naked, as the man says. And the rest is drag. Superman is in human-drag. He's hiding out in the world, just like the rest of us.

For most of his publication history, Superman and his alter ego have existed in a love-triangle with Lois Lane. It is perhaps his most famous aspect, beyond the whole flight-and-strength gig. Clark loves Lois, Lois loves Superman. OF COURSE in the real world a respected journalist, or anyone who isn't legally blind, really, would put two and two together. This is not the point. The point is what it represents, and Hollywood seems to have a problem with symbols and representation versus a ham-fisted attempt at verisimilitude. We all have our secret aspects, our lurid underselves. Especially growing up, when comic books typically sink their claws in to our psyches. The glasses represent that hiding in the world, and if you can't roll with it with a straight face, then maybe this isn't the film for you.

Snap!

Superman devotees like myself, we all had a problem with the final fight, the one that culminated in the death of General Zod at the hands of the eponymous Man of Steel. Translated to film, most superheroes have a far more cavalier attitude about dispensing death and judgment, and even Superman hasn't been immune. I don't even have a problem with him exing out Zod, considering the circumstances (dude straight-up tried to genocide the human race and leveled half of Manhattan New Troy. He patently said he was going to keep it up until one of them was dead. So, okay. But we're not idiots out here. We know how plot mechanics work.

I can understand the Last Son of Krypton being put in this impossible position and choosing between the human race, a member of which he's been raised since birth, and this last remnant of his old home, I can get that. But the mechanics of the story built to that point are faulty and hackneyed. Superman makes very few decisions, weighs no real moral options. Zod is straight up going to build a new Krypton on the ruins of Earth. There isn't a lot of decision making involved in "do I stop Zod or what"? To use a recent filmic example, Zod's death here is the opposite of the boat scene in 'The Dark Knight' where Batman essentially wins not by beating up the Joker (which isn't the point of the Joker anyway) but by proving him wrong. Zod doesn't represent any kind of opposition to Superman's general thesis (which isn't ever really developed in the film to begin with) rather he is a force of nature that simply must be shut down.

This is after the aforementioned forty-minute fight, first in Kansas between Superman, Faora, and Unnamed Guy Who Might As Well Be Non, then between the army and the Kryptonians, then between Superman and Zod. It's a brillaint thing to watch, especially before the twenty-minute mark. After then, apocalypse fatigue sets in. For plot mechanics reasons, in fact, Superman is dispatched to the other side of the world to deal with another alien death machine, while the greatest city on Earth crumbles and people die by the thousands, the preventing of which you'd think would be a job for Superman.

Miracle Monday

Zod and his cronies show up on Earth looking for a supermcguffin in Clark's blood (sigh), which they will use to build New Krypton on the ashes of the human race. Absolutely no reason is given for why their massive post-singularity technology can't just relocate one planet next door to either Mars or Venus and just go to town on that. No, Zod seems almost churlish in his desire to erase the human species. As I said above, this presents Superman with a non-choice, which means those things he is meant to represent (Truth, Justice, All That Stuff) are in no way tested against Zod's philosophy. At their best, cape comic characters are philosophical concepts (justice, revenge, patriotism, utopian feminism, ostracized-teen angst) boiled down and given lurid four-color face-lifts. But if Zod is merely a force of nature, a tornado played by Michael Shannon (who is great, but is in Michael Shannon-as-villain mode, and therefore largely wasted) then there is no challenge to Superman's philosophy. As Chris Sims pointed out over at ComicsAlliance, Zod is proved right. Superman is forced to kill him. Take a look, for contrast, at the Superman story 'Miracle Monday', a tie-in novel written way back in the 1980's, about Superman fighting against, well, the Devil.


He wins that fight. He wins it by simply by saying that the purpose of good is to stand up to evil. He wins it not through force of arms (though being invincible sure helps when mixing it up with the Devil) but because he isn't going to back down against a bully. That's the character who is lost in 'Man of Steel'. I hope next time we get him back.


Faster than Speeding Bullet-Points

In brief, what I did like about the film:

  • The Casting: Cavill largely works as Superman, and Costner and Lane nail the roles of Clark's parents. Amy Adams makes a great Lois Lane. Really, the only casting decision I question is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and that's down to him not being irascible enough. Also, I'm not sure I'm ready for a Perry White who wears an earring. 
  • Krypton: Kal-El's birth planet goes through a radical change compared to the Donner movies, becoming an almost primordial place teeming with (somewhat toyetic) life, a believably ancient culture, and a technology seemingly based on those novelty things you'd get with the pins in 'em where you stick your hand in one side and there's an imprint of your hand. What the hell are those called? There's a bit of exposition that is almost entirely animated with this graphic, and it's marvelous, makes the whole speech worth it.
  • The first scene when he flies: Traditionally in Superman narratives, flight is the last ability he gains, and there's an obvious reason for that. X-ray vision, super-hearing, these are properly treated as nerve-wracking and creepy, but flight? That is probably the key aspect of Superman as a fantasy figure, and the joy he takes in it is something we can all identify with. Who wouldn't want that?
Elastic Man

In the end, I think, 'Man of Steel' was not made for me. Much like the new Star Trek films, and most comic book films, in fact, it was made to cash in on a general interest in superhero films by the general public, and the general public is probably going to like this film. Is it worth it to me to see the Big Blue Boy Scout succeed in the cinema, even if he isn't very Boy Scoutly? I'm not sure. What I am sure of, however, is that a mildly shitty disaster-porn movie in which Superman straight-up snaps a dude's neck is not going to undo seventy-five years of the character, who has proven elastic to change. He'll keep going, on past a hundred, because he works. The best parts of 'Man of Steel' understand what works about his character. It's a shame the worst parts so effectively drag down the best, but the great thing about these big budget franchise things is they have another chance to get it right. I live in hope. And I remind myself not to take this shit too seriously.

Keep flying.