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Strange Pulp 14: Pocket Full of Stars (Part 7)
On a deserted amusement planet, Greg finds answers, a glass of water, and death
In our second-to-last installment of Pocket Full of Stars, things start bad and get worse and then get worse some more. Don’t force yourself to wait for the final installment—
Content Warning (And This One’s Serious, Folks)
Reading Time: 40 Minutes
While we trudged along the boardwalk, night swallowed the island. The air went cold. Stars streaked the sky like smeared mayonnaise. Nobody had anything to say.
Steel shutters blocked the park’s front gate. Naked signposts stood like severed limbs. There was no telling what this place had been. It was over now.
I used Gimlet to slice open one of the ticket booths. Inside was dark. The air was stale. I opened the far door. A lime green street light shone through. Jude followed me into the park. We took in a barren vista of empty garbage cans and shuttered rides.
“Do you think this place got shut down,” she said, “or never launched?”
“I don’t know. It’s a very tidy ruin.”
Falk set Lennox down in the ticket clerk’s chair and twiddled the knobs on the comms unit.
“This is the island calling,” he said. “This is the island calling. Anybody on the line?”
Nobody answered, so he carried Lennox outside, where he found me and Jude inspecting a map of the park. I pointed.
“We are here,” I said.
“I know,” said Falk. “It says ‘You Are Here.’”
I ran my finger along the island’s paths. It wasn’t a big place. One roller coaster, a few kiddie rides, a stubby midway. At the far end was a small staff area and a gray square marked “Shuttle Bay.”
“Fabulous,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll walk you there.”
He stopped. Under the green street light his skin seemed to glow.
“Then what?” he said.
“I’m staying here.”
He was close to me now. Close enough that I could see the sweat on his forehead.
“Why?” he said.
Oh, plenty of reasons. Most of them stupid, of course, but that had never stopped me before. I wanted to avenge K. I wanted to find out who’d set me up for her murder and maybe slap them around a little bit, just for fun. But all of that was just window dressing for the fundamental truth, which I figured Falk deserved to hear.
I took Lennox off his shoulder and held her close. I nodded towards Jude, who was stalking back and forth across the plaza, scowling at the pavement. Her skin looked slack. Her hair was gray straw. I spoke low enough that she couldn’t hear.
“She and I are in the same boat,” I said. “Built lives out of work. Now we’ve got nothing else. If I have a chance to get to find some answers, to get back to where I was before all this started, I have to take it.”
“Well where the hell else would I go?”
He squeezed my elbow through my suit. I felt his grip right down to my toes.
“You never answered the question I asked you on the 909.”
“Don’t be an asshole. You remember. If the answer is yes—you come with us.”
“And if it’s no?”
He smirked. He knew the truth. I’d loved him since the first time I saw him and I’d never stopped, not when he broke me, not when I thought he was the biggest prick in the universe, not when—well, shit. Not ever.
And I never would.
That truth would doom him to a lifetime on the run. It would probably get him killed. Probably get Lennox killed, too.
She deserved better than that.
She needed me to lie.
“I don’t love you, Falk,” I said. “Not like I used to. You’ve got your points, yeah, but I’m not twenty-two anymore.”
“Don’t get pissy. I know it’s not the answer you wanted, but—”
He took Lennox back.
“So stay,” he said. “Get yourself killed in whatever way you find most satisfying. We’ll head to the shuttles alone.”
I was all ready to let him go when Lennox coughed. One big hack that shook her from her scalp to the soles of her feet, and which loosed a stream of dark blood across Falk’s back.
“Fuck!” I shouted. Very helpful, aren’t I?
Falk pulled her off his shoulder, saw the blood on her chin, felt it seeping through his shirt. He turned around, eyes like twin moons.
Lennox shook. More blood bubbled out of her mouth and nose. One eye opened halfway. All you could see was the white.
I didn’t wait for Falk to ask my opinion. I grabbed his wrist and dragged him across the plaza.
“The shuttles,” he said.
“She doesn’t have time for shuttles.”
“I saw it on the map. The staff area has a medbay.”
I thought he was going to keep arguing, but to my great surprise, he shut his mouth and ran. Jude was close behind. She popped open her shotgun, slapped in two shells and snapped it closed. She smiled then, lips as loose as hanging flesh.
We ran down the midway, where pink and purple lights bobbed in the air, flashing across dry packed earth and unoccupied sideshow stalls. We passed restrooms, snack stands, a haunted house, a tunnel of love. All of it was scrubbed clean and locked tight. In my road days, I’d played more than my share of colony fairs. I’d always found something soothing in the stench of beer, sweat, lust, and fried food. I’d never imagined how strange it would be to find one that smelled only of cold dirt. And it was silent, too. No calliope, no synths, no children screaming or barkers barking. No sound but our feet crunching desperately on the soil.
The roller coaster twisted above our heads. It was red and blue, its steel as thin as angel hair pasta. It traced loops and dips and impossible twists. Just looking at it made me want to vomit.
Looks like fun.
You’ve got time for a quick ride, don’t you?
We reached a T-intersection. To the left was the theater, which rose out of the ground like a tombstone. It was neo-Egyptian and ugly as death. The entrance was flanked by colossal sandstone columns topped by ravens with razor sharp wings. The doors were closed and the lights were off, but there was just enough sunlight left for me to make out the banners that dangled from the roof. They were faded and tattered and they showed a woman in an orange tux, with matching top hat and tails, lightning exploding out of her hands.
“See the splendiferous Katy K! The wonders of the galaxy are putty in her hands! Curtain rising promptly at 7 and 10 p.m. No latecomers will be admitted!”
Part of me wanted to quit running, to slip into the theater and look around for anything K might have left behind, but Lennox was more important right now. Once she was stable, once she and Falk were gone, then I could indulge my curiosity about the woman who had been Katy K.
When I caught up to Jude and Falk, they were stopped at a mint green fence marked by a sign that, polite but insistent, told us to “Please Keep Out.” Gimlet made short work of the lock. The staff area was ours.
We stepped into a shabby courtyard where weeds poked through the concrete and the only light was a glum, slowly-spinning lamp post in the center of the square. A pair of capsized picnic tables were the sole decoration. There were three buildings, three doors, three signs:
The medbay lights turned on automatically, revealing a cozy little examination room with tables, stools, and cabinets full of supplies. Everything was wrapped in plastic. The air carried the sharp tang of disinfected steel. Falk laid Lennox down on a table lined with extremely crinkly paper. I tucked my jacket under her head. The stars flickered beneath her curls. The room was cold, but not as cold as her skin.
I engaged the diagnostic unit. Gears clacked. Thin green lights flickered across her face. Falk leaned so hard on the table, I thought it might break. I pried his fingers loose and guided him into a chair.
“How long does it take?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“What do we do next?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“What should I do while we wait?”
“Worry. You’re her father; it’s your job.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Find the shuttle bay. See about getting you a ride out of here.”
I expected him to resume our argument about whether or not I was coming with, but his eyes were locked on Lennox’s quaking chest and I don’t think he noticed as I stepped away. I was making for the door when Jude’s voice rang out from deeper in the medbay.
“Actually, Greg, you’d better come here.”
It was the first time she’d told me what to do without pointing a gun at my chest. I guess you’d have to call that an improvement. I slunk past Greg and Lennox—lord she looked small on that table, so small and so pale—and followed Jude through a pair of glass doors. They slid shut behind us. My pulse picked up as I noticed the tang of peppermint in the air.
“What did you find?” I said.
“Better if you just see.”
“Always a showman, huh?”
She led me down a twisting steel staircase. At the bottom was a door whose only adornment was a small plastic sign.
L. Wood Labs.
I laughed so hard I had to lean on the wall to keep from falling down. It was the stupidest joke I’d ever heard and I hadn’t realized how badly I needed it.
“Thought you’d enjoy that,” she said, voice as antiseptic as the tile. “Got any idea what’s in there?”
Gimlet was already fluttering out of my pocket. Sparks dusted our feet at it sliced a neat circle around the deadbolt. The lock clattered to the floor. The door sagged open. It was dark inside.
“Ladies with shotguns first,” I said.
“I’m a headliner, Greg. I never go first.”
She gave my kidneys a little jab with her weapon. The question was settled. I stepped inside.
It was wet in there. The walls were as sweaty as an old man’s back; the air tasted like mold. And there was a stench of wet dirt thick enough to coat my throat. After much fumbling and cursing, I found a chain dangling from the ceiling. I pulled it. The lights flared on.
It was not a pleasant room.
Let’s start with the quotidian. It was a workshop. Steel tables, concrete floors, a ceiling low enough to scrape your scalp. And there were three large metal shelves. One held bins of rusted tools, like you’d expect at a neighborhood junk sale. Another contained jugs of chemicals. I didn’t recognize their names but the proliferation of skulls and crossbones made it very clear that they weren’t the sort of thing you’d want to get in your eye.
The third shelf held body parts.
Stumpy legs. A heap of clenched fists. Toenails. Tongues. Ears. No genitals, thankfully, but meters and meters of pale skin stretched and rolled like bolts of cloth. And eyes. Two buckets of them, black and beady.
Elwood Laabs’ eyes.
His hair, too—orange rounds stacked like grapefruit halves—and three of his torsos, two with the NHI windbreaker and one nude. This was how he’d been everywhere at once, why he’d been so difficult to kill. This was where he’d been made.
The hell should I know?
You’d think that if you were going to create life you wouldn’t make it so ugly.
I picked up one of the severed hands. Inside the wrist was a honeycomb, a grid packed with the same fat, creamy worms I’d seen inside Laabs’ neck. But this time the worms were still.
I put the hand back down.
“This is sick,” said Jude.
“We should get out of here.”
“Not until we’ve seen it all.”
A pair of smoked glass cabinets hung from the wall. I broke the lock and opened them to find fifteen clay models of Elwood Laabs. Rough early attempts gave way to larger, more detailed versions, culminating in one that was roughly one third life-size. It stood in the center of the case, hands at its sides, eyes staring lifelessly. It looked ready to pull off my head. I closed the case.
“So who made him?” said Jude.
“Maybe he made himself. Maybe there was an original Elwood Laabs who created versions of himself as a kind of, I don’t know, immortality.”
“Like the original MEL.”
“Yeah. Like MEL.” The thought of MEL made me want to throttle Jude. Like a true gentleman, I suppressed the urge.
“But how did he bring them to life?” she said.
The workshop ended at a door marked storage. It would have seemed innocuous if it weren’t made from bank vault steel, if there weren’t eight locks holding it shut from the outside. My mouth was dry and my palms were wet. Every part of my weary body was screaming for me to get the fuck out of there. But I had come too far to start making good decisions now.
“That looks like it’s closed for a reason,” said Jude. “I think maybe we shouldn’t—”
I disengaged the locks. She didn’t help and she didn’t get in my way. She just stood there, clutching her shotgun as the door went screech.
There were bodies inside.
Twenty or thirty of them. All Elwood Laabs. They were in piles on either side of the door, eyes staring at nothing, fists clenched and tongues dangling. Some wore clothes—mismatched outfits cobbled together from park uniforms and ill-fitting suits—but most were naked.
“Are these things dead?” said Jude. “Or were they never alive?”
I forced myself through the door. My leg brushed against the Laabs on top of one of the piles. It rolled forward, cracking its face on the ground with a wet, overripe thud. My stomach seized. I walked farther inside. The air grew thicker, colder, as I pressed deeper into the storage room. There was no light and it was only by the glow coming through the door that I could see what came next.
It was a dirty gray ceramic mold, about two meters tall. It was broader than my shoulders. I pried it open and discovered the outline of a man. Laabs again, naturally. Even if I weren’t an expert at identifying him, the writing on top of the ceramic—LAABS—would have given it away. The imprint of his face wasn’t any more pleasant to look at than the real thing, but he looked gentler here, and it was easier to imagine that whoever crafted this creature did so with something that might have felt like love. I closed the mold.
The ground was littered with pieces of broken ceramic, like another mold had toppled to the ground and broken.
Or been deliberately smashed.
And beyond it, there was one more mold. This one was whole. When I opened it, well, it wasn’t Laabs’ face that I saw.
Heavy feet carried me back to the entrance of the storeroom, where I found Jude staring into space. Even standing still, her breathing was labored and there was sweat streaming down her temples like wax dripping off a candle.
“Finished the tour?” she said.
“There’s something back here I need you to see.”
“I just...I want to know if it looks to you the same way it looks to me.”
She followed me past the bodies. She stopped in front of the final mold. When I opened it, her eyes narrowed. I looked at her face and back at the mold and at her face one more time.
There was no question.
They were the same.
“It’s not me,” she said.
“Of course not. It’s just some lifeless—”
“That fucking thing is not me.”
She lunged for it. I tried to hold her back but her palm connected with my chest like a wrecking ball. I smashed into the wall. I gulped air, waiting for the pain in my head to clear as Jude destroyed the mold that looked like her.
Her assault was wordless, deliberate—almost calm. She tore its ears and popped its eyes, scraped its lips off with her fingernails and punched her fist clear through its chest. I thought about stopping her but it seemed safest not to get in her way.
When her negative was obliterated, she leaned against the wall. I was searching for words of comfort when I felt the cold weight of her shotgun being pressed into my hand.
“Blow my head off,” she said.
“Did you know? Did you know that thing would be here?”
“Do I seem like a man who has any idea what’s going on?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I didn’t know.”
“You’re such a fucking asshole, Greg, I actually believe you. Now kill me before I have to spend any more time thinking about what this means.”
“I don’t think I can.”
She squeezed my hand around the gun. She threaded my finger through the trigger guard. I tried to push back but she was far too strong.
“You’re gonna do it or I’m gonna tear your head off and then do it myself,” she said. “Now.”
“I mean I literally don’t think I can kill you. If you’re...”
“If I’m one of those things.”
“I’ve had no luck killing them. The best I can do is slow them down.”
She dropped the gun and stalked out of the room.
“Where are you going?” I said.
“To get a knife.”
I sat there as she crashed through the art supplies. I nudged my foot into the mess from the broken mold. I pulled the pieces towards me. I saw the outlines of what could have been a hip, a calf, a shoulder. I was trying to fit them together when Jude returned with a small artist’s knife whose handle glinted dully in the faint light. She showed it to me as carefully as she might present a prop to the audience, then stabbed it through the palm of her left hand.
She did not scream for long.
It was like when you bump your hip on a table and let out a reflexive “Ow!”, expecting pain that does not come. By the time the knife emerged through her hand, she was silent.
“It feels like nothing,” she said. “How can it feel like nothing?”
I kept my mouth shut. When a woman’s in the grips of a nightmare, it’s polite to give her space. She twisted the knife, opening a hole the size of a dime. There was no blood. Just little scraps of flesh drifting to the ground.
“I have parents, you know,” she said.
“What else do you remember about me?”
The knife dangled out of her hand like a half-broken branch. Her eyes were on fire. I couldn’t meet them.
“You were always the smartest kid in school,” I said. “Worked your ass off. Good at everything you tried. You weren’t funny; you didn’t have friends. But you were the best.”
“Your act is good. Technically perfect, a little dry for my taste, but good. There’s a reason my mother loved you.”
“Fuck my act. What about me?”
“You’re an all right neighbor, I guess? Except for the cat. There was the thing with the cat.”
A sickening smile spread across her face.
“Yeah,” she said. “I remember that too. Its little spine under my heel. The way it yowled. Its blood on my face.”
She yanked the knife out of her hand and plunged it into her leg, then pulled it out and stabbed again.
“So where did those memories come from?” she shouted. “Who put them in my head? Who put them in yours?”
“Does it matter? If your past feels real to you, does it matter where it came from?”
She grabbed me by the neck. Her hands were as cold and damp as the ceiling.
“The coin you threw me,” she said.
“There was nothing special about it, was there?”
“Tell me the fucking truth!”
I took a deep breath. I hate the truth.
“It was an ordinary one buck silver. The same coin you threw to me.”
“Nobody hexed me. My hands didn’t lose their magic. They never had it at all.”
I didn’t want her to see that I agreed with her. But something in my face betrayed me. What was left of Jude’s spirit crumpled.
“You need to kill me right fucking now,” she said.
“I told you—I don’t think I can.”
For a few long breaths, she stared into me, chest heaving, palm sweating against my throat. Her grip grew tighter. Rather quickly, I couldn’t breathe anymore. I tried to speak and produced a wholly unpersuasive gurgling sound. My vision was beginning to dim when her eyes went wide and her mouth dropped open.
“Oh, hell no,” she said, and threw me to the floor.
I slid across the concrete and came to rest among a heap of broken ceramic. My eyes opened and I saw something that made my head spin and my heart throb, something that was simply too massive for me to process at the moment. So I jammed it into the messy basement of my brain and rolled onto my elbows to try to understand why Jude was freaking out.
“Fuck you,” shouted Jude. “Fuck you!”
She stood astride that narrow store room, tearing at her thigh to free the knife from her leg. It wouldn’t be enough. Shuffling figures blocked the doorway. The air was wet with their breath.
The Elwoods were coming alive.
Sounds that were not language tumbled from their mouths. Their eyes focused on nothing. Their fists clenched and unclenched, strangling empty air.
Jude freed the knife from her leg. She lunged at the nearest Elwood. I caught her elbow and dragged her back.
“I don’t think they can see us yet,” I said.
“So let’s be quiet.”
She gulped and stared forlornly towards the exit, where the Elwoods were shifting back and forth like slow-dancing teens. We pressed our backs against the wall and headed for it—first Jude, then me.
One step, another, another. We’d gone a meter when the first Elwood stopped moving. He sniffed the air, his bulbous nose bulging like a blooming flower. His hand skittered across the wall and came to rest on Jude’s chest. It crept upwards, unkempt fingers pressing deep into her flesh, prodding and testing and finally deciding that she was part of the team.
And then it reached for me. Its hand shot out like a lizard’s tongue, so close that I could see the ribbons of excess flesh that the mold had left behind on its fingertips. Just before it touched my skin, my legs went out from under me. I hit the ground and rolled forward and I’d like to say that I did it quietly or gracefully but I’m a magician, remember, not an acrobat, so instead I bashed into the legs of every one of those fuckers and they all started screaming and they all locked eyes on me.
“Hello boys,” I said. “Remember me?”
They stretched out their arms.
“The gun, asshole,” shouted Jude. “Throw me the gun!”
I looked between my legs and discovered I was sitting on her shotgun. I grabbed it and glanced around for her but the Elwoods were comprehensively in the way. As a group, they took another step.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“Just throw it up,” she said. “Straight up. One—”
I tossed the shotgun. Jude vaulted off the wall and caught it in mid-air. The Elwoods didn’t even glance as she tumbled through, as she twisted, as she aimed the gun through her legs—
As she fired.
The blast tore through four of the Elwoods, turning their faces to pulp and splattering wet muck across the walls. Screams poured from the holes in their throats. Their bodies swayed but they kept reaching for me. Jude grabbed me by the neck and hurled me through the store room door. I tumbled across the concrete and got to my feet just as she slammed the door—
With herself on the wrong side.
I jammed my foot into the gap. The door closed on it, which hurt quite a bit, but I kept it there.
“Move your foot or I take off your head,” she said.
“Don’t be fucking stupid!”
“This has got nothing to do with you, dipshit. Either I’m killing these bastards or they’re killing me. I’m cool either way.”
Jude pointed the shotgun at my face. It was hard to argue with that. I removed my foot from the frame. The door slammed shut. Her voice came, muffled by the steel:
I was done arguing. I slammed home the bolt and backed away. For a long time—was it really a long time? It felt like a long time—there was silence.
And then another shotgun blast.
More groaning, screaming.
And Jude laughing like I’d never heard.
Through the door came the dry snap of her shotgun snapping closed once again. There was another blast and more laughter and then her own choking scream.
I got out of there. As I threw my quivering body across the threshold, I caught a glimpse of the buckets of eyes. They were all watching me. Every single one.
It wasn’t until I was halfway up the stairs that the true horror came back to me. The thing I’d seen on the floor of the storeroom, the message written there, waiting amongst the mess of shattered ceramic.
The first mold said LAABS.
The second PRITCHARD.
So naturally the third mold, the broken mold, had been labeled too.
It said FALK.
It’s the kind of news that makes a person want to sit down for a year or two. With the way the headless beasties I’d left back in the store room were battering on the door, though, I didn’t think I had that kind of time. I limped up the stairs as quick as I could. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t plan. It was all I could do just to breathe.
So Falk was one of the monsters.
This was, naturally, impossible.
But Jude had been one and that was impossible too.
She was living wax, the same as Elwood Laabs. The lifetime of memories that I had with her—the memories that she had!—had been planted in my head.
Everything I remembered about Falk—
They could have planted that, too. No wonder he was the only man I’d ever loved, the only person who ever made any damn sense to me. He’d been tailor made.
I don’t know. Probably some asshole. I couldn’t imagine their angle. I had no skills, no wealth, no secrets, no power, no future, no friends. There was no fucking reason to pick on Galaxy Greg.
And yet, here we are.
I found Falk in the med bay, kneeling beside the diagnostic unit with his hand on Lennox’s slowly-rising chest. He didn’t look at me when I came in. He was as still, as frozen as—
So what do I do about it?
Kill the fucker.
You always say that.
And you haven’t been listening and look where that’s gotten you.
I opened cabinets until I found a scalpel and a bone saw. They were wrapped in sterile paper and gleamed like fresh coins. The paper came off easily. The saw felt light in my hand. I didn’t have to test the blade to know that it was as sharp as metal gets.
This planet’s monsters were fabulously strong and almost impossible to kill, but they decapitated easily enough. I could sidle up behind Falk and sweep the saw through his neck in one easy swoop. I could tear Lennox out of the machine, clutch her to my chest, sprint for the shuttle bay, all before his body figured out what was going on.
Yeah. That’d probably work.
And what then?
You live. Take care of the girl—or find her a more appropriate guardian. Bop around. See the stars.
Either he kills you or you kill him. Do you want to die, Greg?
I saw Jude’s bloodshot eyes. Her lips, cracked and red and wet with spit as she formed the words there’s no coming back from—
“You need to kill me right fucking now.”
She’d had a lightness about her. Like a woman who’d lost everything and knew that’s as close as we get to being free.
My fist squeezed the bone saw’s plastic handle. Before I knew it, I was behind Falk. Close enough to hear him breathing over the humming of the diagnostic machine. Close enough to see something I’d never noticed before. Right on the crown of his head—
Skin was showing through.
Nights on the Miranda, I often caught him hunched in front of the mirror, scrutinizing his hairline.
“It’s definitely higher than last year,” he said. “Like a centimeter higher. Definitely. Don’t you think?”
He usually smiled, embarrassed by his vanity but also wholly unable to let it go. Every time I reassured him—no erosion was taking place. He’d nod, smile bigger—”You’re right, you’re right,”—and then go right back to staring at his forehead.
“It’s a bargain I made with HRT,” he said once. “Someday it’s gonna fuck my hair.”
“You’ll still be cute.”
“I know that. But I want to be cute with all my hair.”
He’d gotten close to 40 before his prediction came true. I wouldn’t call him balding, but things were definitely getting a little thin on top.
Or he’d been made that way, three or four months prior, and everything I remembered was a pointless lie.
My entire life had been defined by magic and loving Yoshi Falk. The former had always been bullshit. I couldn’t handle it if the latter was, too.
I didn’t drop the bone saw. But I also didn’t cut off his head, which I thought was a pretty good compromise.
All of this took place in less than a minute, in the kind of rapid-fire reverie that I guess smart people are subject to all the time. It was cut short by a crash from the workshop that echoed up the stairs and down my spine. The Elwoods had broken through the door.
“What was that?” said Falk, not turning around.
“Get Lennox. We need to go.”
“The machine isn’t finished.”
I smacked the big red button on the diagnostic unit’s control panel. Its whirring stopped. The green light dimmed.
“Well that was very fucking unhelpful,” he said. “What is going on?”
“If I explain in a hurry, it’s gonna sound stupid.”
“Do it anyway.”
“There’s a pack of mostly headless monsters in the basement who want us dead. We need to leave before they get up the stairs.”
A smile spread across his face. Before he could laugh at me, footsteps thudded in the stairwell and a heavy weight crashed against the medbay door. Falk’s smile switched off.
He pulled Lennox free. She slumped like a sack of dirt, but her breathing was steadier than before. Falk lurched toward the door.
“Where’s your friend?” he asked as he pushed it open.
“They killed her.”
“It’s how she wanted it to be.”
He took two steps through the threshold and stopped.
“Damn it,” he said. “God fucking dammit.”
I was busy locking the door, so it took me a second to figure out why he was so annoyed. And then I noticed that the sky was gone. I smelled sweat and tar, felt dust in my throat and wet paint on my tongue. Even before I turned around, I knew where we were.
A ghost light burned like a tiny sun at center stage. Its rays poured into the wings, where we stood amongst splintered wood and mismatched scenery and costumes ravaged by moths and damp.
I turned back to the door. The wall had swallowed it. It was smooth brick now, painted chipped hospital blue. I ran my hand across it.
“It’s warm,” I said.
The ghost light snapped off. The footlights flared on. Chimes sounded in the lobby. The air filled with the gentle clamor of an orchestra warming up. The stench of dirt wafted in from the house. A familiar tightness spread across my chest.
“This is insane,” muttered Falk.
“Yeah. But in a way that I’m starting to understand.”
His hand settled on my wrist. He squeezed tight. A cataract of applause burst across the stage. It was pulsing, rhythmic, everyone in the audience clapping on the exact same beat.
“When we were on the Miranda,” I said, “you used to come backstage with me. You remember?”
“You really remember?”
“Those back stage areas—what were they like?”
“They were all just like this.”
I wrested my hand out of his grip. I cupped my hand around his cheek.
“There’s an exit on the far side of the stage,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“It’s a theater. It’s the only thing I really understand. Sneak behind the flats. Follow the signs for the stage door. Get Lennox to the shuttle bay and get her away from here.”
“What about you?”
“I’m late for my show.”
He shifted Lennox to his other arm. With his free hand he grabbed the back of my head tight and pulled me in for a kiss so fierce it hurt. He bit my lip and tugged on my hair and only let me go when he remembered that he needed to breathe.
He felt pretty real to me.
It would have been a good time to say certain words. But those words would have only given him reason to stay, so I swallowed them for the thousandth time and said:
He went. I watched until he disappeared behind the scenery. I strained to hear his footsteps over the hammering applause but they were already gone.
I breathed deep. Smoothed the lapels of my suit and ran my hand over my head. The stubble was coming in around the sides. It wouldn’t show under the stage lights but I still wished I had time for a quick shave. When it’s time for his final show, a fella wants to look good.
I sprinted onto the stage. There was nothing there but a stool and a glass of water. The instant I crossed the threshold, a spotlight fell on me. Its heat was soothing. I could just make out the first few rows in the orchestra. The seats were filled with Elwoods—Elwoods upon Elwoods, eyes dead and muscles bulging and all clapping perfectly in time. I stopped dead center and opened my arms wide. A smile spread across my face. My shoulders pulled back. I wondered what in hell I was going to do.
An Elwood’s voice boomed out from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
“Welcome to the show!”
The applause got louder. Each clap felt strong enough to bring the building down. I smiled bigger. My face was starting to hurt.
“Tonight we are proud to present a special guest, a Vegas headliner, an entertainer of the truest stripe. To you, our beloveds, we give Galaxy Greg.”
I had nothing to worry about any more. All I had to do was occupy the house full of killers until my friends escaped, and that meant doing the only thing I knew how to do.
I tried to forget myself, to let my body take over. It wasn’t easy. The lights were too hot; the dirt and blood I’d accumulated on my lunatic adventure felt like crust spreading across my neck.
But then the applause stopped. The room went crypt quiet and I remembered that I was not crowd. I was entertainment. I was in control. They had no right to my terror, to know the anguish I felt at watching Falk vanish into the darkness. This was my show and I could do whatever I wanted with it. I decided to start with a few outrageous lies.
“I am so happy to be here tonight! You’re a beautiful audience—really some of the best looking people I’ve ever seen—or rather, the best looking person repeated a few hundred times.”
A chuckle spread throughout the crowd.
“Is anybody here from Batavia?”
They roared loud enough to rattle boards of the stage. Good, I thought. They’re idiots. Maybe I’ll get out of here alive.
I scanned the stage, looking for anything useful. I reached for the glass of water.
“For my first trick, I shall make this water disappear!”
I drained it in one go. I got a decent laugh out of it, slaked my thirst and, most importantly, gave myself time to plan. I came up with something stupid enough to keep these rubes entertained—something for which I’d need no gear at all.
“And now I require a volunteer.”
One thousand hands shot into the air. I adopted a thoughtful expression, glancing from face to face as though they offered any difference at all. Finally I pointed at one of the lumpier specimens in the front row. Light flickered into his dead eyes.
“You there! Yes you, the naked man with arms like tree trunks and a forehead that could knock down a brick wall. Get up here.”
He clomped onto the stage. As with every stooge who’d ever been dragged out of an audience, his bravery wilted beneath the spotlight. I gave him a brotherly slap on the back. It was like smacking wet cement.
“What’s your name, big fella?” I said.
“I don’t...I don’t have one yet.”
His voice didn’t match his frame. It was reed thin, delicate as spun sugar, and cracked on every other word.
“Then I shall induct you into one of the holiest mysteries of the entertainers, my good friend. It is time for you to get your stage name.”
He shuffled, looking as sheepish as a gigantic naked man-thing can. I put on my thinking face and, after great deliberation, settled on something that seemed to fit.
“We’ll call you Brad,” I said. “Brad the Brick. How’s that suit you?”
“Brad the Brick.”
No child had ever looked as happy with a present as Brad the Brick did with his new name. He said it four times. By the end he was shouting it. The audience was shouting it, too.
This is going awfully well, I thought. I wonder how long before it turns to shit.
I quieted the crowd and led Brad to the front of the stage, where the footlights were scalding.
“You’ll have to pardon my naivete, Brad, but I’ve never played a crowd full of identical, uh, people before. What’s the story there?”
“I mean where do you good folks come from? How is it that you all look the same?”
“We are of the mud. Cast in the first mold.”
“And who was it who cast you?” I said. An uncomfortable silence filled the house. Brad’s brow furrowed with thought. It looked like it hurt.
“Was it someone who looked like you?” I said.
“Everyone looks like me.”
“Yes, yes. I’d noticed that. What about the other molds—”
“Pritchard and Falk.”
“Precisely! Pritchard and Falk. What can you tell me about them?”
“Their molds were used but once, before I was cast.”
“Are there any other molds?”
He stared at me with wet, red eyes, panting like a dog out of breath. Finally he said, “I do not know.”
“And why did you Elwoods want K dead?”
He stared blankly. In the balcony, someone screamed: “Do the show!” Murmurs of assent rippled across the room. I clapped and smiled like I was on their side.
“You are absolutely right!” I called. “We have dawdled long enough. You came for magic and magic you shall have. Now Brad—if you’re made from mud, that must mean you can’t feel pain—is that right?”
“No pain. No death.”
“Amazing, simply amazing. So if you don’t feel pain, Brad the Brick, you won’t mind if I ask for a few of your fingers? Don’t worry, I promise I’ll give them—”
Before I could finish my pitch, Brad gripped his left hand and tore off four fingers as casually as a teenager ripping open a bag of chips. He presented them to me in an open palm. They twitched. I hoped I wouldn’t vomit.
“Sublime!” I said. “Let’s all give Brad the Brick a big hand—since he’s suddenly missing most of his!”
As they clapped, I forced myself to pick up the severed fingers. They were cold. When I opened my hands, the fingers were gone.
Brad’s eyes went wide. I matched his shock.
“Oh dear,” I said. “Oh dearie me. A fellow loans me his fingers and I lose them straightaway. Terrible, simply terrible, only...what’s this? I think I have one right here.”
I flicked my wrist and a finger appeared between two of my fingers like a stubby little cigar. Brad grinned. I shook my wrist and another finger appeared, then another, then the fourth. Then I snapped my fingers and they were gone again.
We went on like that for a while. I tossed the fingers, caught them, and dyed them every color of the rainbow. I pulled them out of his ears, ate them, and made them reappear in the wrong order on the wrong hand. It was simple stuff, fundamental sleight of hand, but it worked as well as it has for centuries. The crowd was enraptured.
I dragged it out too long. I could have run at any time—the stage door was right there, and I don’t think Brad was smart enough to chase me—but I’d pulled a routine out of nothing and that’s the kind of luck you don’t throw away. Every laugh I got, every spasm of applause, smoothed over another of my wounds. I’d missed this, I realized. Even if it was all a lie, what a sweet lie to hear.
I was trying to figure out what I could do with a set of Brad’s toes when the house went dark. A human audience would have panicked. My Elwoods stayed still. They gave off no heat, no breath. I stood frozen, unable to think anything besides—
This is how death must feel.
I didn’t like it at all.
When the lights came back, Brad was gone. There was no telling where he’d vanished to—down an unseen trap? Behind some cunningly concealed mirror?—and frankly, it didn’t matter. Despite his desertion, I was not alone.
A table, carved by hand and painted with intricate spirals of yellow and red, dangled from the ceiling on heavy gold rope. It was as big as a king bed but not quite as plush. There were two people on it. Their elbows, wrists, ankles and knees were secured by thick leather straps. Their waists were bound with chains.
One was Lennox, looking impossibly small and frail. The other, Falk. He gave me a little smile, like we were strangers making eye contact across a crowded room. There was no blame there. Just simple, primal rage.
An Elwood stood over theme, as serene as a guardian angel. His hands were like hubcaps. His eyes shone with something approaching true human intelligence. He wore an NHI windbreaker. It could have been the first Elwood I ever met. It could have been an impostor.
I didn’t particularly care.
The PA chimed in.
“And now our esteemed guest will perform one of the most dangerous feats known to magic!”
“I will?” I asked.
“You will cut one of your friends in half.”
The silence was broken by Falk’s ragged scream:
“Let me go, you fuckers, let me go!”
The Elwood stuffed a rag into Falk’s mouth. I felt an unfamiliar weight in my hand. I was holding a scimitar whose blade was shining copper and whose hilt was encrusted with about a pound of costume jewels. I tried to drop it but it was like it was glued to my hand.
“This isn’t fair,” I said.
“So fucking what?” said the Elwood.
“Is this why I was led here?” I said. “For one stupid trick?”
“You chose to come here, dipshit. That part’s important.”
“We’re like magicians. We like to have volunteers.”
“Volunteers for what?”
A single unified “Boo!” erupted from the audience, low enough to rattle the bones in my chest. Falk’s face strained. Fire danced across his eyes. Beside him, Lennox began to stir.
“Pick one and start cutting,” said the Elwood.
“What if I say no?”
“Oh, jeez, I don’t know. How bout I crush their heads with my hands?”
The crowd spewed hoots and gasps and manic laughter. They were not pleasant sounds. The sword’s handle warmed my palm. I pointed its tip at Falk’s chest.
“Will it kill him?” I said.
“Why wouldn’t it?”
“I keep tearing pieces off you fuckers and it hardly seems to slow you down. If I plunge this into his midriff will it even hurt?”
The Elwood produced a kind of wet laugh.
“How do you know he’s one of us?”
“The mold said Falk.”
Even as the words tumbled out of my mouth, as the Elwood roared with cruel laughter, I saw my mistake.
They were both named Falk. One of them was fake—hell, maybe both of them—but I loved them both too much to guess who it was.
I squeezed the sword a little tighter. Its hilt was rapidly becoming too hot to touch, which was inconvenient because I couldn’t stop touching it.
Another wave of boos swept down from the audience. I didn’t blame them—if you’ve been told you’re going to see someone cut in half, you want to see someone cut in half.
I walked away from Falk. I raised the sword over Lennox’s little chest. Her eyes rolled towards me and she gave a sleepy smile.
“Hi Greg,” she said. “What’s going on?”
My mouth was too dry to form words. Falk thrashed against his bonds. He choked out a scream. The Elwood smacked him again but Falk didn’t stop.
The crowd chanted—
“Cut! Cut! Cut!”
I raised the sword a little higher.
I brought it down hard—
Right on the corner of the table. There was a dull thunk. The crowd screamed for blood.
They were going to be disappointed. I’m not the gentlest entertainer in the universe, but I draw the line at cutting little kids in half. Trouble was, this was not the kind of crowd you could afford to let down.
The Elwood’s fingers closed around my neck like hungry leeches. I held up my left hand. I was proud to see it didn’t shake.
“How about something different?” I said, voice steady enough to reach the back row, the lobby, and beyond.
“No way. You’re not changing the program.”
“Sure I am. It’s my show. Anyway, cutting folks in half went out centuries ago. I think the people of the first mold deserve something fresh.”
A little buzz went through the crowd. I had them. Didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with them, but it was a start.
“Come on, Batavia!” I milked the planet’s name. Got another nice roar out of it. “Don’t you want to see something new?”
“Shut the fuck up,” said the Elwood. “You haven’t come up with anything new in a decade.”
“Well I’ve got something now.”
“I can fly.”
That made him blink. The crowd was seething—they’d heard what I said and they wanted to see it. They wanted to know if it was possible.
So did I.
After a long pause, the Elwood blinked again. Finally he delivered his verdict.
“Nobody can fly.”
“Yeah. Except me.”
I primed myself for a running jump. Beyond the footlights was an ocean of black. The crowd was invisible, but I felt their need thudding in my veins. K had found real magic here. Maybe I could too. Maybe if I stepped off the stage I’d keep rising until my head brushed the gold leaf. Or maybe I’d fall to the floor and they’d tear me apart. Either way, it was worth a try.
The crowd chanted—
“Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”
I took the first step.
And that was as far as I got. The Elwood grabbed my entire head in his palm and spun me around. Falk was choking himself trying to spit out the gag. Lennox, awake enough now to see things had gotten seriously fucked, was crying silent tears.
“Change the program and both your friends die,” said the Elwood.
“The crowd wants me to fly.”
The Elwood held up a hand. A thousand jaws snapped shut. The chant died.
“Okay, let’s make this simpler,” he said. “You wanted to know which one was real?”
He stepped towards the table. I tried to get in his way. I should have known by then that it wasn’t going to work—he gave me the same hip bump he’d done back at Fang’s. I went sprawling. The audience howled and I knew I was fully screwed.
He placed a hand on Lennox’s stomach. It covered her entire torso. As she moaned—“Stop! Please, it hurts! Stop!”—he pressed two fingers against her knee. Falk kept screaming, but his voice was gone and no one was paying attention to him anyway. All eyes were on Elwood Laabs. He pushed harder. Lennox’s kneecap shattered like dry clay.
Lennox’s eyes went wide. Her screams stopped. She wore a look of surprise, as if she couldn’t understand why it didn’t hurt anymore.
Elwood twisted his fingers, searching for something. Lennox screamed, more in protest than in pain. She twisted, trying to evict him from her leg, but he kept his other hand clamped down on her chest. His tongue stuck out; his eyes closed.
“That’s my leg!” shouted Lennox. “That’s not your leg! Get out get out get—”
And then Elwood found what he was looking for. With a little grunt of satisfaction, he pulled a glimmering green ball out of the kid’s knee. He dropped it to the floor and crushed it under his boot.
Lennox slumped. She didn’t twitch, didn’t moan. She was just gone. The crowd absolutely lost it. There was laughter, great sickening peals of it, and screaming and applause and tears. It was the biggest pop I’d ever gotten from an audience. They were so happy she was dead.