Igms issue 43, p.2
IGMS Issue 43, page 2
As the boy approached the tunnel door, Left and Right Silent Sentinel hummed to alertness.
"If he is dead, we can't have him inside," said Right Silent Sentinel.
"But it is the boy, and we have to protect him," said Left Silent Sentinel.
"Let me out, and don't let me back in if I am dead," the boy said.
The Silent Sentinels allowed that this was a fair compromise, and let the boy limp on by. When Wellmachine tried to clunk through the tunnel door on unbalanced hands, the boy looked at her sternly through his yellowing, bloodshot eyes.
"No, Wellmachine. You have to stay here. If anyone else alive ever comes, I want you to help them as best you can."
Wellmachine zoomed her visual sensors in so closely upon the boy's face that all she saw was a swamp of pores and sweat. He turned away, and her field of view shifted to the ragged wasteland of black hairs and inflamed scalp on the back of his head.
"Burn my blankets," he said without turning around.
"I'm coming with you," she said. Clumsily, she went after him. "I am supposed to keep you well."
He did not slow his pace. Truthfully, if the boy had gone very much slower at all, he would have come to a complete stop. Even so, he limped along well ahead of Wellmachine's clatter.
In a voice thick with phlegm, the boy said over his shoulder, "You know all your noise is going to call them here even faster, don't you?"
It was true, but Wellmachine hardly cared. She just wanted to be with the boy, wanted the boy to need her forever, wanted to make him well again, for his love to keep her Real.
"Go back!" the boy said to her, his gait getting stiffer with every step. "Wait for anyone else alive. They will need you. But I have to join the dead soon. I feel them calling to me, and they can feel me crossing over. Maybe my father's been walking with them all this time. Maybe he's been waiting for me. If I haven't already shot him."
"You need me to make you well," Wellmachine said. Her servos screamed for lubrication as she took another awkward arm-step toward him.
"I'm past help. We both know it." The boy's breath hitched. "You never needed me to make you Real, Wellmachine. Skin Farmer said that someone caring for you is what makes you Real, but he was wrong."
The boy stopped his slow lurch into the setting sun. In the distance, a low groaning sound rose up. The dead knew he was aboveground, and they were coming to take him away with them.
"Come back with me," Wellmachine begged.
The boy's voice tightened with anguish. "Skin Farmer was wrong," he repeated. "You know what it is that makes you Real?"
Shadowy figures loped into view on the orange horizon. Their groans grew louder, closer.
The boy opened his rigid arms as best he could. He bent down to Wellmachine and wrapped them around her in a tight awkward hug. Her processor monologue registered yet another change in the hugging height algorithm, but she did nothing to acknowledge it.
The boy's soft breath blew static into her audio sensors. "What makes you Real is caring for another."
Her fragrance analyzers told her that the dead were approaching. Another sensor detected a minute increase in local humidity as the boy released her and wiped a dirty arm across his face.
"You have cared for me so very long and I have cared for you. Since my father left we have been the ones making each other Real. But now it's time for me to go. I won't be alive much longer, but I will always be Real. And so will you. No one can take Real away, even when it hurts."
Wellmachine turned off her visual processors for seventeen seconds as she held the boy and let what he said replicate through her programming.
The boy pulled away from her embrace and shambled to join the dead herd. As he neared them, he stumbled and fell to the ground. Wellmachine heard his already slow heartbeat come to a stop. His lungs no longer expanded or collapsed. The boy's body rose from the ground, groaning, and walked with the other dead forever after.
Leaves browned and fell, then snow covered the ground, and once again the grass grew green and high around the tunnel entrance. Wellmachine Robot fashioned a new set of legs for herself, but they were not nearly so fast nor elegant as the pair she had been made with. She walked with just enough of a lurch and shuffle to be reminded of the boy wherever she went, and had no interest in repairing them further.
Every so often, she would wander from the tunnel, looking for alive people, or even for signs of the dead. She never saw the former, and every time she saw the latter their numbers had thinned. In the final days, she hardly listened to Skin Farmer and his complaints, or the Silent Sentinels in their arrogance. Wind Turbine's ponderous wisdom seemed to be empty as well.
But on quiet nights under a full, fat summer moon, Wellmachine would call to the Firefly Bulbs to follow her from the tunnels. She would chase them toward what remained of the dead. There were so few of them left now -- they'd all started falling apart.
Every once in a while, she glimpsed her boy among the shambling herd. Whenever she did, Wellmachine would send the Firefly Bulbs back into the tunnels and follow him.
She'd follow until she exhausted the heartache from her batteries, the loneliness from her cortex. She'd follow until the conflicting signals in her processors threatened to overwhelm her, and then she would limp along some more on those imperfect legs of hers until her fuzzy guidance demanded she return to the tunnels. Wellmachine would plug herself in and recharge until her every ion bristled with the urge to bond with another and be liberated. It was an urge she knew all too well, and a hazard of being Real.
by Sarina Dorie
Artwork by Andres Mossa
* * *
Hunger raked the inside of my belly with freshly sharpened claws. I left the straw pallet beside my mother, shivering despite the warmth of the fire in the hearth. The apple Father had brought us last winter twinkled on the shelf.
"Will you have a taste?" my father had asked, holding out the glittering apple. It was like him, too perfect and too beautiful to be of this world.
One look from my mother had told me I was not to do so. She had warned, "Take not one bite, Katy, for if you do, you will waste away from pining."
My father's moss-tinted cheeks had flushed green, his emerald eyes narrowing. He hadn't returned after that.
It remained on that shelf a year, as fresh and new as the day he'd brought it.
I tiptoed toward the apple. My belly gurgled with hunger. I lifted the apple, brushing my lips against the skin. A perfume of fall enveloped me. The flavor of sweet fruit blossomed in my memory. My mouth watered.
"What are you about?" called my mother from her scraps of blanket.
I set the apple on the shelf behind me, my guilty demeanor surely bespeaking my intentions.
Mother squinted in the darkness. "Come to bed, child."
I sighed, hating when she called me child. I was nigh seventeen.
Her bony hand squeezed mine as I slipped into bed beside her. The whining complaints of her empty belly and the cramping protests of my own made it hard to sleep. Even so, I rose at daybreak to feed the fire. Between the sunlight and the flames, the interior of our cottage glittered with a million gems Father had brought as gifts; the walls laced with intricate patterns of emeralds and sapphires, and the table inlaid with diamonds -- fairy jewels that turned to dust mere moments after leaving our possession.
I let Mother save her strength and sleep while I foraged outside. But I was dizzy with hunger and so fatigued I only managed to dig far enough under the snow to gather a handful of wilted greens and some kind of root I wasn't even certain was edible.
Mother was still as I set the vegetables in a pot to boil. I barely had enough strength to crush a few nuts.
"I made broth for us." I touched her hand, her fingers chilled despite the warmth of the little cottage.
She stirred not.
"Mama." Desperation leaked into my tone as I shook her slender shoulder.
Her body was sti
I cried until no more tears came. If I were normal like her, people wouldn't have shunned her. But my moss-tinted skin and silver hair scared the villagers and made it difficult for her to sell our baskets to them.
I dug in the snow to bury my mother's corpse, but the soil was frozen and I was too starved to keep trying. There was only one place I thought she might be safe from wolves.
Slowly, I dragged her body across the fallen log over the stream, amazed at how light she was. Even more carefully, I lifted her into the frozen fairy ring.
My mother had always forbidden me from stepping inside a fairy ring, lest I be carried off by fairies. She used to crush the toadstools under her heels. This fairy ring was on the other side of the stream, where she never ventured. I had kept knowledge of it hidden from her, hoping Father might return.
A new blanket of snow fell around us. I waited for the fairies.
When I realized it had all been for naught, I returned to the cottage. I ate a handful of nuts, my belly ravenous. I had just nodded off in front of the hearth when the door burst open and Father strode in, hair as wild and unkempt as ever, his eyes blazing green fire. He was blindingly bright, shimmering with beauty. A light dusting of snow fell from his elegant robes as he stormed past me.
He snatched up the apple from the shelf and threw it into the fire. He tore down the glittering curtains and kicked over the barrel that held my meager provision of nuts. I covered my ears as he cursed my mother's name.
I cowered in the shadows, afraid my mother had been right about him being a devil. Only when he knelt before me, weeping, did I suspect he might not be a beast after all.
"Forgive me that I did not take better care of you and your mother," he said. "There is only one thing to be done."
I hesitated as my father wrapped an arm around my shoulders and made to step inside the fairy ring. Ultimately, I decided the fairy world could be no worse than this one of hunger and suffering.
I stepped inside.
We remained still while the trees shifted past, the snow melting away and flowers bursting forth. Everything grew bright with the green of spring. My eyes closed against the blur.
When I opened them, the human world was gone.
Silver moonlight painted the forest around me, illuminating blooming lilies and roses. Dewdrops sparkled like diamonds on the clover. Merry music played in the distance. Everything shimmered like a dream after the gloom of the human world.
Father squeezed my hand and I realized with a start my hand was no longer pale. My skin was rosy like a normal girl's and covered with freckles. I touched my hair. It was no longer wild like my father's, but silky and tamed, the same chestnut as my mother's. I was now clad in a brocade of golds. Ruffles and lace made up my skirts, my sleeves wide and open like a noble lady's. Pearls laced the bodice of the gown.
The one constant was the hunger in my belly.
I looked to my father. "How is it I've changed?"
"Changed? I see no difference."
We had gone but a few steps when we came upon a party in a clearing. Will-o-wisps floated above, casting their rays on the joyous dancers. Miniature musicians played lutes and horns from the boughs of trees. The fairy dancers glowed like moonlight, their faces youthful and far more beautiful than any human's. Diminutive fairy servants carried platters of food to the trestle tables nearest us. The feast made my mouth water.
I stepped toward it, but my father tugged me through the crowd to a beautiful woman sitting high on a throne inlaid with gems. She was young, yet something about her eyes looked ancient.
"Queen Maeb, I present to you my daughter, Katherine." My father bowed and I curtsied.
The merriment ceased, even as the aroma of candied fruits and succulent breads wafted toward me.
The queen appraised me with a cool gaze. "It was about time you brought her home. She's a pretty one. And young enough to make a Fay a good wife. Consider yourself once again in my favor." She gestured toward a winsome young man to her left. He was flanked by two elderly women, plain and human, though dressed in the finery of nobles. "Allow me to introduce my son, Prince Summershire."
The elegant man stepped forward and bowed. His hair was the shade of pine needles and in some places made of leaves. The expression on his perfectly sculpted features remained somber as he took my hand to kiss it. "I have need of a new wife," he said. One of the old women gasped behind him.
My father laughed. "Come now, you have two human wives already. Mayhap you should give some other lad a chance."
The prince's eyes narrowed. A sneer curled his lips. "Both my wives are too old to be of any use."
A fairy approached, her gown covered in flowers and vines. "I see you're making introductions. And when, pray tell, did you intend to introduce me?"
My father's face flushed, a stark contrast to the pale, expressionless aspect of hers. "Lady Amaryllis, I present to you my daughter, Katherine. Katherine, this is my wife."
His wife? What did that make my mother?
A warm whisper brushed my ear. "Shall I save you from your stepmother as princes do in tales?"
Without waiting for an answer, Prince Summershire led me onto the dance floor. The music started up, a wild beat that inspired a feverish dance around us.
He spun me to the frenzied music. "If you agree to marry me, I shall keep you safe from your jealous stepmother. And I'll give you jewels and fine gowns."
As I was a pariah in the human world, it sounded too good to be true. "Are you in a haste to marry?"
"Yes." His eyes held neither warmth nor joy.
I caught a glimpse of one of the old woman threading her way through the crowd toward us. She was dressed in gold as I was. That scowling crone would be me after a lifetime here with an unfaithful husband. I glimpsed my father watching, his brow crinkled in concern. They were all unfaithful, these fairies. My face flushed at the way my father had used my mother, calling her his "only love."
I drew back from the prince. "Thank you for your offer, but I prefer to marry a man without wives."
"Such lofty goals." His eyes, emerald green like my father's and the queen's, were simultaneously youthful and aged.
The elderly woman in the gold gown tapped him on the shoulder. Her gray eyes flickered to me with disdain. "I'm hungry. I wish you to take me to the forest."
"Not now," he said through clenched teeth. "Get the captain of my guard to take you."
"I want you to take me," she said, her voice as petulant as a child's.
"Captain Aspen!" the prince called over his shoulder. A fairy with long mossy hair, dressed in a glittering armor, bowed and escorted her off.
An arm laced through mine, pulling me from the prince.
"Pardon me, Prince Summershire, but are you done with this maiden?" asked a handsome fairy, snaring me in a dervish-like waltz. "If a prince doesn't please you, mayhap you will be more satisfied with a baron."
Just as the prince, he was regal and glowing with beauty, his eyes strangely distant. He made a few attempts to smile, but it didn't look natural on his solemn features.
A third fairy whisked me into another dance, speaking of his need for a wife. As flattering as such attentions were, I was in no mood for courtship. My belly cramped with hunger, the music wavering over the ringing in my ears. I tripped over my partner's feet and crashed into a servant carrying a platter of food.
"You've overtaxed the poor child," a voice creaky with age said, yanking me into a chair. The second wife of the prince pushed a crystal goblet into my hands. "Drink this and all will be well."
The voices nearest hushed and looked to me with raised eyebrows. The human woman hovered.
I gazed into the goblet of red wine. My mouth watered. "My mother told me not to eat food fairies give you. It binds you to this world."
She leaned forward, her breath stinking of rotting teeth. "I'm not a fairy. Sur
I didn't like the malice in her smile.
"Thank you," I said. "But I'm not thirsty just now." My mouth as dry as parchment, I forced myself to set the goblet down.
My father's frowning face peeked through the dancers. Relief washed over his visage as he spotted me. "There you are, Katy." Ignoring all others, he guided me to a table covered in food. I shrugged him off, loathing this man who'd used my mother.
My hunger returned in full, and I was dizzy with the aroma wafting from the tables. A man sliced into a roasted pheasant, golden-brown and crisp, carrots and yams circling it on the platter. Pies and cakes, cookies and puddings were crammed onto the table. My stomach growled and whined more than ever. I picked up a raspberry tart drizzled with icing.
I hesitated, remembering the dangers.
My father held out a hand to me which I didn't take. "Humans are welcome to eat our food. It won't keep you here as tales say." His eyes brimmed with tears. "Yet, humans choose not to sup with us, and those that do . . . Your mother changed after she ate from this table. It is possible, you being both of Fay and mortal blood would do better. Some halfling children do." There was doubt in his eyes. After learning his other secrets, I trust him no longer.
I cast my gaze about the outdoor ball. The two elderly wives of the prince sat on each side of him as he feasted. Neither of them ate. The queen stroked the head of a chubby human boy who sat at a table, cramming pastries and candies into his mouth. Tears spilled down the crusts of sugar caking his face.
He yelled above the music. "It hurts so good! More!"
The captain of the royal guard's eyes met mine. He gave me the smallest shake of his head. I laid the tart down.
I had gone from one life of starvation, only to trade it for another.
I kept waiting for the ball to end and the sun to rise. But the fairy kingdom remained a spring night full of fragrant flowers and ageless beauties. The dancers frolicked past, partygoers feasted, and drunken men and women slept in the midst of the ruckus. Possessed of a frenzied energy, fairies whooped and cheered in their fervent dance. But even as they played instruments or sang, no one laughed. They frolicked with intensity, not joy. They ate with gusto, but there were no smiles of satisfaction.
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