Chapter 9: A Patient Darkness
Copyright © 2009 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.The Director’s apartment snapped into being, every surface — carpet, furniture, walls — a rippling, water-borne reflection of itself. Greenstick fell to his knees and puked bright yellow all over the brown leather couch.
They were in the central living area, a low-ceilinged great room flanked on either side by wide floor-to-ceiling windows. Sunlight streamed in from the east window at a low angle, spilling across simple leather and faux-wood furniture, spare and square, and into the offset kitchen area. White walls reflected the sunlight onto gold carpeting, making it glow, and deepening the color to brown in the shadows. The massive front door sat between the kitchen and an arched hallway that ostensibly went to bedrooms and piss-chambers.
Gravity pulled at Goldstein’s bones, making them ache. He set his gnarled hand on the butt of his pistol, a crude, old-school slug thrower. “Duff, get the door. Kowalski, set up TG filtering and surveillance. You two,” he indicated the Mormon twins, “sweep the house. And Greenstick,” he growled, “Check the windows and shut those fucking blinds.”
“Language.” The Director threw him an unsteady look.
“You heard the lady, get it done clean.” And if you have to kill anybody, he thought, make sure you use fake blood. Christ.
Duff moved to the door, followed by the Mormon twins; Kowalski dropped his pack onto the coffee table with a thud and zipped it open, pulling the material down to expose a dull metal decanter. Above it, the pulsing spiky ball of an INFORMATION HAZARD symbol flowered into brain-bright translucent red. “Activating the universe in five. Hang onto your heads, kids –”
Goldstein felt the tell-tale tingle at the top of his spine as the ‘un1verse’ — the technical term for it — took over all local TG traffic. All transmissions into their heads were now routed through the bottle first, and its occupant, a single hemisphere of a surgically decommissioned GI. Security queries would be bounced back with falsely benign information — no blasphemy or sedition here — and all traffic between their personal TG nodes would be outside the normal public system, encrypted, switched and otherwise handled solely by the thinking meat in the bottle. And if things got tactical… well, the un1verse would extend its influence into the TG nodes of the enemy, handling all of their traffic as well. Incoming data would be altered to hamper their ability to function tactically; outgoing messages would likewise be altered to show all clear. It truly was a separate universe, gnostically speaking, a hundred meters in diameter.
A throaty scream from the hallway. Goldstein pulled his pistol and stepped in front of the Director as he linked into the Mormon twins, dual 3D vidwindows looking down the cold end of a cracker at a terrified, heavy-set woman.
“Carmen!” The Director shouted, “Where’s Maya?”
“Stand down,” Goldstein commanded. “It’s the housekeeper.” Then, “You’re gonna scare the kid.”
Once everyone calmed down, Carmen began making lunch. The Director ordered the men to stay clear of the kid, then disappeared into the hallway.
Goldstein walked slowly to the sun-bright wall window. He stepped on a toy and it broke with a small squeak. Without looking down, he slid it under the couch with the toe of his boot.
Outside, the view of the Del Mar-Pasadena Stratum from thirty stories up: dirty skyscrapers, staggered in alternating shades of gray, a grid-work of concrete walls that pretended at calm order. The surfaces of the buildings crawling with ads. It felt, to Goldstein, not so much like a vantage point outward into the world at large, but rather like being claustrophobed in a small room with no floor or ceiling. Nothing out there but falling small.
He pulled a cig and struck it on his shoulder, sucked a good half inch of it down, and blew smoke at the window. The smoke spread across the glass surface, a vertical pool of gray luminescence in the sunlight. At the end of the city grid on the horizon stood a kilometers-high Chuck Christ, the afternoon sun His halo against a sky flecked with orbital billboards. YOUR OBEDIENCE, He was saying, IS OUR STRENGTH. Hands as big as moons, outstretched, dripping meteors of blood into the cityscape. Goldstein grunted. Just my luck, he thought, the un1verse would let through all the non-intrusive, benign crap. He grimaced. Must be Sunday.
Holding Christ’s gaze, unflinching, he spoke. “Kowalski, set the bomb.”
Kowalski looked up from the un1verse, and paused. “Uh, you think that’s a good idea? I mean, I don’t think she’d like it, with the kid around.”
Goldstein’s teeth squeaked. The halo was hurting his eyes. “And that’s why I’m in charge. I don’t give fuck-all about any of you. Set the fucking bomb.”
* * *
The Director found Maya in the master bedroom, sitting on the big bed of red fluffy covers, overshot by a bowl of night sky, stars wheeling slowly and surely along dark paths. She was wearing her favorite dress, a grubby-pink fairy princess gown. About her sat a consort of forest animals drinking brand-name soft drinks.
“Coca-ColaTM is better,” said the squirrel. The fox’s tail flashed. “Everyone knows Vibroflåv!TM beats CokeTM dead.”
The Director stopped at the foot of the bed and set her hands on her hips. “I’ve talked to you about letting the commercials in to play.” These were good ones, too; they even had reflections in the large, oblong vanity mirror.
“Mommy!” Maya sprang to her feet, scattering the animals, hopped across the bunched red fluff of the bed and fell abruptly into the Director’s arms. She pressed her face against the Director’s neck and squeezed. “Mommy…”
Holding her like this, Maya’s smell, her heft and texture — the Director felt the dam of fear and love within her almost burst. She squeezed back and absorbed as much of the experience as she could, for later. Her eyes were wet. “Oh, Baby, I’ve missed you so much.”
Maya just squeezed.
After a time they disengaged and sat together on the bed. The Director killed the adfeed and the adimals reluctantly left.
“Here,” the Director said, “I want you to smoke this for me.”
She produced a cigarette and broke it in half, lighting both ends. She handed one to Maya and stuck the other in her own mouth.
Maya winced. “Why?”
“To make sure you’re healthy.”
As Maya puffed tentatively on the cig, Kidnostic data seeped from her body, rainbow flows of biological rhythms, translucent matrices of words and pictures. She was encased in the light of truth. Maya was completely green — there was no sign of the Second Plague. She showed only slight emotional discord, a purple crown of dark sparks, but nothing physical. She was perfectly healthy. The Kidnostic completed with an ascending carillon of chimes and a final recommendation: MORE PRAYER TIME.
The Director was flooded with relief that just as briskly snapped to anger. “You’re not sick.”
Maya took the cig out of her mouth and frowned, teeth clenched. “Everybody else –”
“But not you,” the Director interrupted.
Maya looked up at her, shoulders rising through her long dark hair. “Are you gonna be mad?”
“I am mad. Do you have any idea what I had to do to get here? Do you?” Her voice was hot and tight.
Maya recoiled. “But I miss you so much!” she wailed, and began to cry.
The Director grabbed her by the arms and shook her. “You have to be strong –”
“You have to try harder! Look at you! Look at everything you have!”
Maya struggled against her grip. “Mommy! You’re hurting me!”
“You don’t need me!” The Director shook her. “You can’t need me! You have to be stronger. Why can’t you be stronger?” She released Maya suddenly; the girl fell back into the bed in a grubby-pink fairy princess heap, her mouth working as she inhaled a long and jagged breath. Tears dripped from her face.
The Director looked at her, at her own hands stiff as talons, and felt the rage boiling within her, boiling against a dark tide of despair. Which would it be? Either you fight, or you give up. There wasn’t anything else, was there?
Her hands softened. She dropped to her knees next to the bed and reached out for her shuddering, wailing daughter. “Baby, I’m so sorry.”
Maya cringed, her cries rising to screams, her face a bright, sharp beacon of agony. The Director felt it like a dagger of flame in her heart.
“Please,” the Director said. “My job is so hard. It’s so hard. It’s hard to be away from you.”
Maya crawled forward, into her arms. Presently her crying diminished to hitching breath, her face hot and wet in the Director’s neck. She pulled back slightly and looked up at her mother, her eyes big and dark. “Why — why is it so hard?”
“No,” Maya’s breath caught. “No, your — your job.”
The Director sighed and closed her eyes. Ads lit and danced, filling the darkness with meaningless noise. “A lot of people are counting on me to do it right.”
“At — the insurance company.”
The Director rubbed her back, felt the harsh texture of fairy princess. “Yes. It’s a lot of responsibility. I have to take care of the share-holders, and the well-being of those whose livelihoods depend on the solvency of the company,” she said automatically. “But most of all, I have to make sure the policy holders are covered and cared for. For the future.” This time, the lie hurt more than usual. “For the future,” she whispered.
“Mommy,” Maya asked, nuzzling her neck, “is the future gonna be okay? Will we be happy there?”
The Director nearly gasped, the pain was so acute. “Of course,” she lied. “We’ll be together and happy. Ever after.”
“Okay.” Maya squeezed her. “Then I shouldn’t be — afraid of the future.”
“No –” the Director choked. “We’ll be happy then.”
She held her daughter, the stars wheeling mindlessly above them, until sleep came.
She left the bedroom and shut the door with a soft click; she turned, pressed her back to it to keep Maya safe and separate from reality with nothing more than the weight of her will. If she could just keep her here, in this moment, forever — never to know the horrors of the past.
Or the coming horrors of the future.
I know both, she thought heavily. I know the certitude of both. Having survived the one, I am the architect of the other.
She slid slowly to the floor. Simmons and his damn loss of life problems, Cassaday and her damn reprisals. They’re both right, damn them. Operation Freefall could plunge the whole world into war, billions could die, and Skinny could decide to pull the plug on the human experiment. And out of those billions, what if just one was Maya? The only thing that meant anything. Would it be worth it? Is an intangible future worth the sacrifice of a tangible person?
Even if she survived, wouldn’t there be other mothers who felt the kick of life grow into love within them, only to be left with nothing but ashes and pain?
Can I truly live with that?
She dropped her face to her cold hands.
Have I learned nothing?
A single fact made her childhood horrible: she remembered supermarkets. Huge buildings of shelves heavy with stacks of food in boxes, food in cans, fresh fruit and vegetables aromatic and sparkling with dew.
She was a child when Skinny came; she saw the excitement, the fear, the destruction of the world… the hunger. She never, ever forgot the hunger. It killed her father first, then her mother. She lived because they fed her everything. But she never forgot the hunger. “Just lie still, honey.” They wouldn’t let her run and play, kept her down to conserve what little food they had.
Night would come, more swiftly now that it was unhindered by electric lights, and her father would kiss her and her mother. Then his scent would slip from the room, his footfalls fading softly into the hallway. Her mother would go to the window and quietly curse the sky. Her voice was low and soft, yet hard with anger, a cold hammer wrapped in velvet. When her father returned it was always with meat. He always gave her liver, sour and pungent. It made her cry sometimes — she could still remember store-bought cookies — and her tears made her father’s hands shake.
One night he never came back.
The true horror was that she could not remember him completely; he was a collection of disjointed stimuli: he was a scent, he was footfalls in darkness, he was trembling hands. Strangely, he had no voice, as if he never spoke. And she couldn’t see his face. Her father was void absence, a haunted darkness. Hunger and longing. Hunger, even now.
Other images, her mother leaving with men, briefly, returning with scraps of food. (Proof that somehow something like chivalry still existed. They could have taken whatever they wanted.) Eventually the tears stopped, replaced by a dry, deep void behind her mother’s eyes. And that was life. It was all she knew. Until the day it all changed.
Another image, her mother on her knees, kissing a shining gold cross held by stern, filthy men with rifles. Their boots shed scabs where they walked.
She went to the window and her mother screamed, pulled her back inside, held her close so there was nothing to hear but her mother’s frenzied heartbeat and sobbing breath.
Outside, she had glimpsed a truck parked in the playground, a truck with a tower in the back. A crowd of crying people.
She couldn’t hear the crying anymore, held to her mother’s scrawny breast. But she could see out the window, to the dead power lines. Rows of patient crows, watching, waiting their turn. With a strange regularity they would all startle in a tangle of black wings and spread beaks. She listened to her mother’s heartbeat, lulled into a hypnotic stupor, large, glassy eyes on the crows until the Earth turned its face from the sun and the birds and the sky were one in darkness.
“I need you to remember something, mija, about all of this. I know, to you, it must seem like we did this all to ourselves. That it’s all our fault, that we wrecked the world. And maybe, maybe that’s what they want us to think. But that’s a lie. Never forget, mija, they did this to us.” She pointed out the window, at the sky, her arm jerking taut. “They opened our hearts to the madness that lives in all of us.”
I’ll never forget, Mama. She felt her eyes grow hot in her hands. I — will — not — cry. Something broke in her then, and the pain of that breaking was the pain of building it, and the pain it contained. The pain she, herself, contained. It flooded her, as fresh and sharp as it had been in childhood — it flooded her and she became rigid and for the first time in a very long time she felt like nothing but a mother.
* * *
The Xers lounged in the smoky living area, draped across easy chairs, lying on the floor, each absorbed into TG shows, or games, or the odd simbook. Goldstein had the couch, boots up on one end, head supported in his folded hands on the other, smoking, and watching nothing more than the curling tendrils rise slowly and diffuse toward the blank ceiling. The periphery crawled with commercials.
In the background, barely audible, the soft sounds of sobbing.
Greenstick sat forward in his easy chair suddenly, making the leather squeak, and listened. “The Director –” he whispered, hesitant. “She’s — crying.”
“Yeah,” said Goldstein around his cig, “they do that.”
As the pitch and intensity of the sound rose, Goldstein closed his eyes and held his breath.
Yeah. They do that to you.
* * *
Goldstein was nearly asleep on the couch when Chuck came to him and shook him gently awake for bedtime prayers. His initial urge was to throw the blanket over Him, take Him down and put the bat to Him… Goldstein had asked the Director to allow them to use the un1verse to block out the mandatory prayer time, but she had refused; it was necessary, she said, to minimize all anomalous TG activity. Only mission critical intrusions — such as random thought inventories — would be turned aside by the un1verse. Everything else — ads, propaganda, and prayer time — they would have to suffer.
Goldstein grunted and opened his eyes.
Chuck looked good. Damn good for a messiah who’d had his limbs torn off by a tractor. Soft brown hair, plenty of body with just a hint of curl, fell in downy waves to His shoulders, framing His heart-shaped, yet masculine, face. Smooth white skin stretched taut across high cheekbones and strong brow; his unauthentic nose was a little on the small side, though. His lips stood out conspicuous and clean from His neatly trimmed beard; a Lucky Seven, the kind with the gold filter, dangled from his mouth. Thin streamers of smoke rose like shades of the mournful dead to writhe before His eyes. Those eyes — big, limpid and cow-brown, the eyes that looked through you, a thousand meters behind you. His simple robes shone with a kind of supernatural clean that just plain could not be achieved on Earth, unless, of course, you looked closely and long enough until the folds swelled large and you were pulled into the neat square spaces between individual threads, big as marble pillars, to the place where the detergent commercials lurked. YOU SAY SUPERNATURAL, WE SAY SUPERCLEAN! Cherubim in puffy white diapers that had never known so much as a skidmark flapped and hovered, holding banners of shine-smiling housewives and pink babies.
“Do angels even have assholes?” Goldstein asked.
“What would you hope to gain from the answer?” As Chuck spoke, his voice soft and warm in Goldstein’s belly, the adspace fell away with the ground-rush of defenestration. Goldstein almost fell off the couch.
“Well,” Goldstein said, recovering, “they were wearing diapers, for chrissakes.”
“Yes.” Chuck blinked with languid tolerance.
“Diapers are for catching shit. So either angels shit, or they’re covering up their little cocks so no one gets embarrassed.”
“You got another one of those?” Goldstein interrupted, indicating the cig.
Chuck smiled, took a drag and blew smoke. “Of course.” He fumbled about in his robes for a moment, then pulled the cig from his mouth, made a snapping motion with his hand, like a magician would, and there were two burning Lucky Sevens.
Goldstein licked his lips and took one. “Thanks,” he mumbled, sucking it down. He held his breath. Lucky Sevens were good, especially the fake ones. They made the memory of every other cig he’d ever had taste like crap.
Chuck took a synchronous drag, then exhaled a flock of gossamer skulls and doves. “Brother, do you have anything you wish to tell me? I can make you whole and clean in the Father’s eyes again.”
“We’ve had this conversation before. It’s boring.” Goldstein coughed. “I know you’re fake, you know you’re fake. So quit fakin’.”
“Fake?” asked Chuck, “I am a construct, this is true, yet am I not, in both form and action, the likeness of the Lord? Built of human hands — hands themselves that are cast in the very form of God the Father. I represent, in very real terms, the Holy Spirit within you. I give the Spirit voice; are you talking to yourself, or God?” He smiled softly. “You,” he said, raising His cigarette, “are communing with God.”
“Whatever. Just stay out of my way. You do your job, I’ll do mine.”
“And what,” Chuck asked, cocking his head to one side, “pray tell, is my job?”
Goldstein pulled the cig to his mouth, squinting, and took a long drag. “Keepin’ the flock from runnin’ with the wolves,” he exhaled.
“I’ll accept that interpretation.”
Goldstein chuckled. “Will you.”
Chuck nodded. “I will. And what is it that you do?”
“Me?” Goldstein smiled a fake, chill smile, all mouth, but the eyes were dead set. “I’m a wolf-killer.”
Chuck nodded again, impassive.
“Are you finished, Lord?”
“Nearly. What is it that you are in such a terrible hurry to do?”
“Go to sleep.” Goldstein flicked his Lucky Seven onto the rug.
“Naturally. You may sleep now. I will watch over you.”
The darkness came rushing, a fast forward nightfall; to Goldstein it was not so much falling into sleep as sleep falling into him. And so he slept and dreamed awful dreams.
* * *
She dreamt of horror.
She dreamt of great, other-worldly beings whose footfalls were the entirety and span of a human life. A birth was their heel settling gingerly into virgin space/time, adulthood a shift to full weight, old-age the push-off. And finally death, their mode of locomotion pulling free and swinging away into the aether to settle again elsewhere. Who were they, really; what were they like? And where were they going?
She saw that corpses were but footprints obliterated by the winds of time.
The Director woke choking on a scream that would not come out. She sat up and clasped her trembling hands, held them together to get them to stop. There was nothing but darkness and understanding. Maya lay sleeping next to her. It was too dark to see anything but vague shapes, but she could smell her, hear her gentle breath, regular and reassuring.
She understood the dream. What seemed the weight of the universe keeping Maya pressed into the mold of her life was really feather-light and tenuously mutable. A breeze as light as a whim could tear her daughter away from her.
Please, she entreated the darkness, please stay where you are.
The darkness did not offer answer or solace, it was as always, patiently waiting its turn.
* * *
None of the Xers had slept well; between swapping watches and the light, fitful, fevered dream-sleep that was the hallmark of nights on Earth no one was rested. They looked, and felt, like wrung-out shit. They sat around the dinner table in the kitchen, the table too small for all the elbows and guns. Carmen cooked furiously, dumping hot skillets of fried eggs and sausage and bacon and ham onto their plates to order, pouring pots of steaming coffee into their big mugs. No words hung in the air, no messages of any kind passed between them; there was nothing but the tink, rattle and din of forks shoveling food into wet mouths.
Presently, one of the Mormon kids, Thomas, spoke up. “I had a really weird dream last night.”
The forks stopped.
“Yeah?” asked Kowalski.
“Yeah. There was this gretch –”
“Was she naked?”
Thomas sat back and looked at his eggs, frowning. “Yeah, she was naked.”
“Did you fuck her?”
Duff pointed his fork at Kowalski and swallowed. “Of course he didn’t fuck her.”
No one laughed.
“She was — beautiful,” Thomas continued, poking at his food. “Like an angel. And she was burning Skinnies with her hands. Her hands were like, like flaming swords. And she was in the beachhead — in it — like she was the beachhead. And –”
“And, and, and?” Kowalski scooted forward on his chair in mock anticipation.
“And –” Thomas stopped, self-conscious, then continued in a whisper, “the Devil was with her. The Devil — was her lover. And there was a rod with a big wooden cross.”
“You mean Chuck?” Kowalski shoveled another forkful into his face.
“No,” Thomas replied, “it was just some random rod. Wet heavy, a real loser. He was hauling it around on his back.”
“That,” said Kowalski around the mouthful of eggs, “is a fucked up dream.”
“That’s it.” Goldstein clenched his fists, cracking his knuckles loudly. “That’s enough.”
“What?” Kowalski turned, puzzled. “We’re just bullshitting, is all –”
Duff cleared his throat. “You remember your dreams, Kowalski?”
“So don’t go talkin’ shit ’bout shit you know shit about. Everybody who remembers their dream saw her — am I right?” Duff looked around the table. “Greenstick?”
Greenstick started as if slapped. Color drained from around the black X of his face. “Wha –” he swallowed. “What’s it mean?”
“It means,” Goldstein grated, “this is a fucked up country.”
Goldstein had seen her, too. Only it had been Amy, bright and beautiful, terrible with power doing what he himself could not do. Her vengence was heartbreaking, and thousand-fold. Every Skinny fell before her, the very marrow of their bones lit with flame. She was finally a goddess, in every sense of the word.
On his plate, underwear models danced, climbing yellow-fluffy hills of eggs, hopping off bacon diving boards into pools of grease. LOVE, breathed the ad, rose-petal soft, IS THE UNDERWEAR FAIRY.
“Get that damn thing to kill the commercials,” he snarled at Kowalski. “Now!”
Later, after they had cleaned up and the three women had traded incessant hugs and kisses and admonitions while Goldstein tapped his boot on the kitchen tile, they awaited the artifact’s evac.
As they steeled themselves for transposition, Kowalski spoke up.
“What about Greensick? Second time’s always worse than the first. Looks like he’s worked up to blow.”
Greenstick blushed. “I’m okay — I got it handled.” His blush faded rapidly to pale white.
One of the Mormon twins laughed. “Greensick — hah!”
“Low G barf — it’s not just unpleasant, it’s a killa!”
Goldstein flicked his cig at Kowalski. “Shut it.”
Kowalski dodged. “Just quotin’ the manual is all.”
“Awright,” Goldstein grated, “Somebody get Greensick — Greenstick — a bag.”
Goldstein showed teeth. Maybe I’m gonna kill somebody on this op after all.
Back on the Moon, after the Director left the airlock, Goldstein punched Kowalski in the solar plexus so he could barf, too; he made the Mormon twins clean it up for laughing.