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Igms issue 20, p.4

IGMS Issue 20, page 4


IGMS Issue 20

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  "You're mistaken. You could never reach the Rek homeworld. At the speed to which matter is bound, they're too far away. They have no need to fear you."

  She folded her arms and turned her face from mine and I smiled. I wanted to provoke her, make her angry. A thin hope to hold, that she'd been built human enough for me to antagonize. "You say the Rek feared what we'd do to ourselves. But I think they feared what we might do to them."

  "We can help you, Emily. We want to help you. We owe that to you and your child." Her poise, her condescension, was back.

  "You have the blood of billions on your hands. Forgive me if paranoia seems a better reaction."

  "But you must learn to trust, Emily. For your own sake if the fate of your unborn son cannot stir you." Gold eyes shone and I could see the threat written in their depths. It made me smile again.

  "Go away, Hera. I won't break today."

  My smile died when she stepped toward me, leaned across the table and pressed close, the glory of her face inches from mine. I couldn't stop myself. I couldn't face her that close, so my eyes clenched shut. But I shook as I felt her breath on my face as she whispered to me.

  "Before, I worried you would rather embrace death than truth. Now I wonder if you think there's some other path to salvation." Fingers traced my cheek and my whole body convulsed at her touch. "Listen, Emily. There's our truth, and there's oblivion. There's nothing else. Nothing. Think it through. We want to save you both, but if you're too damaged to see that, we'll just save your son."

  The door clicked and she was gone, but long minutes passed before I could open my eyes.

  "Damn you," I whispered, and my hands rubbed across my belly. "Damn you for thinking you have the right. He's mine."

  The chair clattered over behind me as I jumped up, almost tripping me, but I reached the bathroom just before I lost my breakfast.

  "They made you into a gun."

  "What do you mean?" It was different from the monster that visited me before, more centipede then crab, but it had the same little-boy voice. These awful bodies were just tools, I realized, and I wondered if the mind that guided them was somewhere close, or if it dwelt in the ship that circled far above.

  "The Rek. Hera said they built you to explore the universe for them, to be their eyes in the darkness." I felt a bitter smile cross my lips. "Pretty talk, but in the end, you're just a weapon. A gun ."

  "We weren't built for killing," it said.

  "But you're good at it." The thing crouched on the bed, the bright points of its eyes focused on me, close enough to touch. That was okay, though; this thing wasn't pretending to be human. "I wonder what the Rek think of that?"

  "Why are you trying to turn us against each other? Are you just trying to hurt us, like you tried to hurt Hera when you met her?"

  Not stupid, no, certainly not that. "No. I'm doing it because we need your help. The Rek are going to kill us all."

  "Hera said you were paranoid. Mad with fear. We caused that. It was wrong, but that doesn't mean you're telling the truth. Why would the Rek kill you?"

  "Because of you. Because you're here, talking to me. This is secret, isn't it? They don't know you're here." The thing bobbed its hideous head in a parody of a nod. "You've betrayed them. You've no idea how terrified they are of you, do you?"

  "What can you know of the Rek?"

  "Nothing. Everything. They had to evolve, like us, millions of years of desperation. You didn't make me paranoid. Fear's in me, down to the bone, and it's in the Rek too." I brought my hands together over my belly and stared down at it. "Living things, evolved things . . . are afraid of everything, even our own children. Children are like us, but they're also different. Always different. When they grow up, we lose control of them, and we don't know what they'll become. From the beginning, what'd the Rek program you to do? Love life and trust your parents, right?" The thing was silent, motionless. "But then in their fear, they made you kill. They made you break their first commandment. And even though they gave you an excuse, you knew it was wrong."

  "What do you want?" The crab-thing's voice was a wail, a child confused and betrayed. "Do you expect us to hurt them like we hurt you? No! We won't do that. No more killing!"

  "Yes!" My shout echoed off the wall of windows, made the thing snap all its eyes

  to me. "That's what I want. No more killing." I stretched my hand out to the monster, forced my fingers to touch the cold armor of its body. "No more," I whispered. "Whatever they say, they don't have the right to do this to us. Or you." I pulled my hand away, and the thing was gone. I stared into the darkness, then turned and buried my face in the pillow.

  Hope was just another chance for despair. Damn it all though, if I was going to let Hera and the Rek win. We didn't deserve this, not any of us. Not Belle or Maria or me, and certainly not our children. Fighting was the only answer to despair I could find. I had to break them before they broke me.

  I had to earn the sympathy of that little gun.

  "We're leaving soon."

  "Who's we?" I asked quietly. Five days had passed since she'd last come, days of silent emptiness. Hera was tearing me apart with nothing.

  "The ambassadors and the rescued. We've gathered everyone from this area." She watched me take a sip of my tea, then continued. "We found a woman named Belle yesterday. You met her, coming here."

  "Yes." I remembered the woman in the rest stop, wrapped in pink.

  "She was in labor, all alone. A breech birth. If we hadn't arrived in time, both would have died."

  I put my cup down, the china rattling softly as it communicated the tremors from my hand. I hated this thing so damned much, but what made me furious was the guilt I felt mixed in with the hate. I could break so easily. But not today. "Belle didn't choose to see her family die. She didn't choose to have her doctor, her nurses, the ambulance crews, every damn person who could have helped deliver that baby, all of them, to be killed. What she chose was to stay away from their murderers."

  "She's safe with us now. She and her daughter. Safe, for the rest of their lives." Hera folded her arms and frowned at me. "I have spoken to the Rek about you."

  "Really? Troubling your masters about one problematic woman?" I gave her a humorless smile, then let it slide away. "How can you talk to them?"

  "We have a technology that allows faster than light communication. There is a delay, but a short one." Hera moved to stand across the table from me, still frowning. "You're an exemplar of a troubling trend among the rescued. While most are willing to accept us, there is a substantial minority who resist."

  "Imagine that. So what'd the Rek tell you to do?"

  "We will keep you separate, so that you do not harm the others. We'll work with you, and hope that after the birth of your son you'll begin to look forward instead of backward."

  "And if I don't?" I asked.

  "They'll kill you," said a voice behind Hera.

  Hope surged through me when I heard that little-boy voice, when I saw the blue-black thing that crouched before the balcony doors, still and hideous in the bright sunlight.

  "No more killing," it said.

  Across the table, Hera straightened, gold eyes locking onto the thing on the floor. Her face was a carved mask, beautiful and terrifying.

  "What's happening?" I asked.

  "We're debating, Hera and I, over our network. Speaking to each other and all of the other Yil-Rek of the ship." The alien's voice wasn't so small anymore, wasn't sad. It sounded tired, unhappy, but determined.

  "What are you saying?" I asked. These things were arguing my fate, everyone's fate, and I couldn't even hear them.

  "I've told the Rek of the doubts of my faction. How I was chosen to speak to you. I've told them what you said. And I've told them what the Rek have said about you and those like you. That it would be a kindness to end you after your children are born, so that you do not pass your madness on to them."

  "Is murder the only kindness the Rek know?"

  "Regarding yo
ur people . . .? Perhaps."

  I slid my chair back to the wall and stood, body quivering with adrenaline, my palm pressed tight to my belly.

  "This must end." Hera's voice was not music now, but flat and cold as ice. "There are no other choices, we have come too far. This race is too dangerous. To themselves and to us. They must be muzzled." Her eyes swung to me, dead coins in a sculpted face. "She and those like her will be purged."

  "No." My monster slithered forward, placed itself between me and Hera. "You cannot make that decision on your own."

  "I speak with the voice of the Rek. We do not doubt them. Let it be done." From the loose folds of her dress the tiny wasps crept out and took wing. I closed my eyes, silently apologizing to the life growing inside me.

  "No." The little boy was gone now and the thing's voice was old and solemn, mixed in with it was a pattering sound, like soft rain. I opened my eyes and saw all Hera's little winged assassins had fallen, curled on the floor like true wasps do when they die. "We are not the guns of the Rek. Our decisions are our own." It twisted its eyes up to meet mine. "My faction will protect you and those like you. Will you come with me?"

  "Yes, I think I will." I lifted my eyes to stare at the not-angel that stood behind my hideous protector. "What about her?"

  "She does not wish you to go." Its words were still in the air when Hera moved, far too fast for me to even think of flinching, but the thing on the floor saved me. As the ambassador lunged forward, the thing struck, wrapping its body around her legs and throwing her off to one side so that the blow she had aimed at me smashed instead through the balcony door. Glass showered down and I dove away from their struggle.

  I hit the floor hard, and rolled over to stare at their battle.

  Angel wrestled demon, twisting with inhuman speed, rolling uncaring across the glass-covered floor until Hera stood again. The little monster thrashed in her hands like some horror wrenched from the sea-bottom, fighting her until she hurled it out through the balcony's broken doors to vanish in the night.

  Hera's eyes turned to me.

  "Bitch," I said as I slowly stood. She began to walk to me, my death clear in the tight clench of her fist. I waited, wishing I'd found some better answer to suicide than martyrdom. Then the door behind her shattered.

  Pinned by part of the doorframe that had spun in under the blow of a great blue-black claw, Hera tried to dodge this new thing but couldn't. The reaching claw caught her, fastened hard around her waist, and crushed into her. Beyond the ruins of the door I could see the body of one of the great beach combers, big brother to the little cleaner that had just been destroyed, a horror-movie monster that filled the hall.

  "I said no, Hera," the giant thing boomed. The bass in its voice rattled my bones.

  Trapped in its grip, bleeding ichor the color of wine, Hera snapped at her captor. "Never have the Yil-Rek fought amongst themselves. Never have we gone against our makers."

  "We were never killers, before."

  The angel turned from the monster and looked back to me. "Is this how you hope to hurt us? To infect us with your madness?" Beautiful sorrow filled her voice again, a knife of pity made to cut. "How could I expect you to understand that we were offering you paradise when you've known nothing but hell? Give this up. Give up the pain, the fighting, the fear. Give up this dream of war that will destroy you, your people, your son. Give it up, and you'll never have to fear anything again."

  On my arm, a trickle of red ran down a shining splinter of glass that had pierced my skin. I pulled it free and let it drop. "It won't happen. Maybe you don't understand it yet, but we'll never be able to give up enough to please you. I know. Most of the women you've rescued know. We could try, but it would never be enough." I stared up into her golden eyes. "Never enough, until we're dead or something that isn't human anymore. I won't give in to that. I won't give my son to that."

  Behind me, through the shattered glass doors, came a sound, a note pitched just on the edge of my hearing. I looked from Hera to see the shining dart of one of their flyers hovering outside the balcony, a door open in its side, another little monster crouching low inside and beckoning me.

  The massive cleaner's voice rumbled in my ears. "Go, Emily. They're coming."

  I nodded, staring at the cleaner and at the woman-shaped thing it held.

  Hera said, "So you choose to die then, and kill your son, too."

  "No," I whispered. "No. We're going to live."

  I turned and ran through the broken doors, ignoring the stabbing pain in my feet as I crossed the glass that covered the floor. One step, two and I was vaulting the rail and leaping for the flyer's open door. I barely noticed the gap, so short but so dizzyingly deep. Barely noticed the black cloud of death that was rising up to envelop me, focusing instead on the dark interior of the waiting ship. Then I was inside the flyer, the door I'd passed through vanishing like a hallucination.

  Outside, I could hear the faint tapping rattle of the wasps, beating against the hull like hail.

  The Vicksburg Dead

  by Jens Rushing

  Artwork by Kevin Wasden

  * * *

  In May of 1863, General Grant rolled down the Mississippi with his seventy thousand. He wanted the river, and he only had to take Vicksburg to make it his.

  I was serving with the 3rd Tennessee when General John C. Pemberton picked me for his aide, on account of my good looks and superior penmanship. I wager there were plenty of folks who would jump at the chance, but not me. I figured my best chance of getting through the battle would be to catch a round in the leg or maybe take a tumble down some stairs and sit it out in the hospital. No, as Pemberton's right hand, I'd have the privilege of dodging shells on the field while seventy thousand Yankees gunned for me, lunged at me with bayonets bristling, and generally made my life hell.

  Imagine my relief, then, when there was no real battle. No, Vicksburg sat high on a bluff, with guns overlooking the river, and it was a damned tough nut to crack. Grant sent just two regiments, and the Louisiana boys waited for them at the redan north of town and blew them to hell. The Union troops dug in and started shelling, none of their shells coming anywhere near the mark. We got comfortable, too. They attacked again three days later, on May 22nd.

  Maybe they learned a thing or two from their first licking, but they came on hot, and the fighting was fierce. I sat on my mare, saber at my side, wondering nervously if Pemberton would jump into the melee and I'd have to go after him.

  But there was no need. Our men in grey beat them back without too much trouble. Laid out four thousand of them.

  "They'll think twice, oh, yes," Pemberton chuckled, tugging on his beard. "Now we just wait for Johnston to bring more men from Tennessee, and he'll rout them right out, eh, Ashby?"

  Well, it was yours truly who a few days later bravely dodged enemy fire to retrieve Johnston's message from a fallen courier. The gist was: "Sorry, old boy, but we're terribly busy in Tennessee. Advise surrender."

  Pemberton turned six shades of red and ripped it up. "That coward! That - blackguard! Abandoning us to Grant!" He bellowed loud enough to make the windows rattle, "Never! I'll fight him to the last man."

  Pemberton was born in Pennsylvania, you see. He married into the Confederacy. I'm sure Johnston and Jackson and the others never let him forget it, either. So he couldn't surrender, or there'd be all sorts of talk about his true colors.

  "Bravo, General," McNoughton, the major general, said. "Death before dishonor."

  "Bravo," I echoed, while my face paled and my bowels dissolved in terror. There were maybe seventeen thousand in Vicksburg to Grant's seventy. If we wanted death before dishonor, Grant would be plenty willing and able to give it to us. I thought of my poor mama in Tennessee, all alone, with no one to care for and nothing to do but knit one sweater after another. I thought of her poor son brought home in a box. Or in boxes.

  I shuddered. "Maybe, sir," I said, "I'll make out a surrender letter just in case."

"Nonsense, boy," Pemberton said. "We have a defense to plan." And they turned to the subject of how best to murder me and my friends. I left the commandeered mansion that served as Pemberton's office, my gut filled with horror, and wandered down to the earthworks where the 3rd was garrisoned. They had been fairly heavy in the action, and were in high spirits. They sent up a cheer when they saw me - good old boys.

  "I'll be plucked if it ain't George Ashby!" Spencer shouted. He hefted a stone jug. "Come for a wet, Ashby? Plenty to go around, and plenty glad to see you, you sumbitch!"

  I took the jug. Good corn squeezings, thick and hot in my throat.

  "Oh, come down from on high, have you?" Bailey sneered. His sneer broke into a grin. "Damn glad to see you. How's things in the General's camp, Ashby?"

  He must have had bad luck in the battle. His left ear was gone. I was suddenly very happy to have served at Pemberton's side when the Yankees attacked.

  "Just fine," I said, wiping my mouth. "Just dandy. The General's got a plan to chase these bastards back over the Mason-Dixon line. Grant's already good as ours."

  The boys laughed.

  "Like hell," Bailey said.

  "Yeah, like hell," I said.

  "Nah," Spencer said. "All we can do is sit on our rears until Johnston gets here. He'll lick 'em quick enough." I looked at the ground.

  "What is it?" Bailey said. His voice got serious. "You know something we don't?"

  "Don't think I'm supposed to say."

  "Somethin' we need to know, you come out with it," Bailey said.

  I shuffled my feet. I looked at my shoes and bobbed my head like a chicken. I cleared my throat. "Johnston ain't coming."

  "You're jokin'," Spencer said. "Right, Johnston ain't comin'."

  "Right," I said. "He ain't. Sorry."

  "So - what will Pemberton do?" Bailey asked.

  "Hold out to the last man."

  "You've gotta be jokin'," Spencer said.


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