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Strange Pulp 15: Pocket Full of Stars (Part 8)
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Reading Time: 36 Minutes
I stood over Lennox’s limp body. Her arms and legs twisted away from each other. Her fists were clenched. Her eyes stared dully at nothing. Falk thrashed uselessly against straps that grew tighter with every motion, trying to reach the daughter who was already gone.
The Elwood leaned against the table, smiling broadly, nosing his foot through the blue dust on the floor.
“That’s murder,” I said.
“Can’t kill what’s not alive.”
I swung the sword at him. Well, that was the idea. As soon as my wrist twitched, the hilt glowed so hot that my nostrils were seared by the stench of my own cooking flesh. The pain knocked me backwards. My vision went foggy and it took all my strength to keep from losing consciousness. Even Priscilla’s hardball hadn’t prepared me for this.
The Elwood grabbed my shoulder and dragged me to Falk. He squeezed my neck and whispered:
“You wouldn’t choose so I chose for you,” he said. “Cut this fucker or he dies too. Now.”
I tore the spit soaked gag out of Falk’s mouth. Dropped it to the floor with a little splat. He gasped:
“Is she really dead?”
“She isn’t moving. And her eyes...”
“Then kill me.”
I was tired of people telling me that.
“I’d rather not,” I said.
“You have to. Not because that dipshit said so. For me.”
I took a long breath. It tasted sweet. I wished I’d spent more of my life appreciating how nice it is to breathe.
“Because I love you, Yoshi Falk. I never stopped, not for one breath. You’re the only person I’ve ever given a shit about. The only real person I’ve ever met. The only person I’ve ever willingly told my real name. That’s what I care about. And I’m the guy with the sword.”
I was too much of a coward to listen to his response, so I whipped the sword into the Elwood’s chest. He tried to get out of the way but rage had me moving fast. I cut a neat diagonal through his torso. His top off slid off the bottom and plopped onto the floor. He looked surprised—the way you do when you’ve been cut in half.
“You asshole,” he muttered as his torso crawled around trying to locate his writhing bottom half. “All right, everybody! Come up here and rip these fuckers in half!”
“No,” I said, and raised my hands high. The hilt of the sword was absolutely white hot. My palm was barbecue. It hurt so much it was like it didn’t hurt any more. The Elwood kept screaming, but every eye in the house was on me.
Because you’re a pro.
“Don’t worry, friends,” I said, smiling like there were parts of me that weren’t in pain. “You wanted to see a person cut in half, and I realize the gentleman wiggling around at my feet doesn’t satisfy.”
That got a laugh—what a fucked crowd—which steadied me enough that it was almost easy to do what came next.
“For my final trick,” I said, and buried the sword in my own chest.
It’s hard to say how bad it hurt—let’s put it somewhere between biting your own tongue and being crushed by a meat grinder. But I knew it wasn’t enough. This crowd wasn’t promised a stabbing—they wanted a man in two, and if Falk had any shot of getting out of here, I’d have to keep cutting as long as I could.
I pulled the sword in and out, pushing it to the side of my abdomen, trying to ignore the gush of blood and the plop of entrails. I closed my eyes and kept on cutting and slowly the sword met less resistance and the pain melted away.
Good good, I thought. I’m dead now. That’s that taken care of.
But my hands were still slicing through something uncommonly soft.
Something that smelled good.
I opened my eyes. The sword was gone. In its place was a flimsy metal butter knife sawing through a stack of buttermilk pancakes.
I kept cutting. The pancakes oozed yellow butter and cheap syrup. I swapped the knife for a fork, speared a chunk of pancake, and popped it into my mouth.
It tasted like pancake.
“Well how about that,” I said, and chewed on.
I was in the corner booth of a formica-and-chrome diner, where every surface was either chipped or stained. Fans twirled sleepily on the ceiling and unintelligible chatter came from a TV on the other side of the room. There were no other customers and no staff save a woman in a black uniform working a crossword beside the cash register. Through the kitchen pass-through I saw the bob of the cook’s paper hat. The windows were frosted white.
As I reached for another bite, I noticed a cup of black tea at my elbow. I took a sip. Golden Yunnan. Tasted like toast. Superb.
There were other things on the table. A napkin dispenser. Salt and pepper shakers. A warped plastic menu. A plate of toast and a steaming cup of coffee waiting for, well, I wasn’t sure. I kept eating. One thing I’d learned about myself lately was that cheating death makes me hungry.
I’d cleared the pancakes and been treated to a refill on tea—the server was named Patricia, she was cheerful but silent—when the front door opened and I met the person I’d be dining with.
Met her for the second time.
Once again, K wore rehearsal clothes. A gray v-neck and black sweatpants worn shiny around the knees. But the severe concentration she’d shown in the Signature Ballroom had given way to loose-limbed cheer, like someone just sinking into the rhythm of a week at the beach. The booth’s duct tape tore slightly as she sat down. She took off a wide-brimmed hat and dark octagonal sunglasses. She smiled.
“You’re late,” I said.
“You crossed I don’t know how many millions of kilometers to see me, and now you’re bitching because I wasn’t here when you touched down?”
“It doesn’t bother me. But your coffee’s gone cold.”
Before K could move, Patricia was at her elbow, swapping out the cold cup for a fresh one.
“Let me know if you need anything else, hon.”
She sped back to the register and applied herself to the crossword with renewed vigor.
“Hon,” I said.
“They like me here. I shouldn’t assume that, actually. Let’s just say I’m a steady customer and I don’t tip like an asshole. How were the pancakes? Good, right?”
“So are you going to ask the question?”
“How about, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”
“Sure. What the fuck is going on?”
She sipped her coffee and smiled.
“That’s why I dig you, Greg. You’re not too proud to follow a script.”
I grabbed the butter knife and leveled it at her throat.
“My friends are in a hell of a jam back there,” I said. “I don’t have time to fuck around.”
“Are you planning to stab me with that? Those things can barely cut toast.”
“There are worse things that can happen than getting stabbed.”
“I could put it in your coffee. It’s got little bits of butter and pancake on it. It’d be disgusting.”
“Patricia would set me up with another cup.”
At the sound of her name, Patricia looked up and smiled. K gave a cheerful wave. I pelted the knife against the floor and slumped, arms crossed, trying to sulk without looking like I was sulking. K slathered her toast with butter and grape jam, dusted it with salt and took a massive bite.
“Is Lennox really dead?” I said. “Is Falk safe?”
“What do you care?”
I took a deep breath to avoid screaming.
“When you stab yourself in the gut, you kind of want there to be a good reason.”
“I can’t say, Greg.”
“Aren’t you in control of the Elwoods?”
“The Elwoods? Oh, you mean my golems. Yes.”
“Then have them undo what they did to Lennox. Whatever they took out of her, return it. Bring her back to life.”
“She was never alive in the first place.”
I smacked the counter. Cups rattled. Patricia shook her head.
“I want Lennox up and breathing and jabbering about astrography and I want her and Falk out of there.”
“The thing you called Lennox doesn’t exist anymore. Falk...we’ll see.”
“But you made Lennox. Dropped her into his life and implanted her on his memories. He thinks they’ve been together her entire life—”
“It’s been more like six months.”
“I wanted to make sure you got here. Figured that if Falk didn’t grab you, the girl would. Was I wrong?”
I squeezed my fists, wondering if there would be anything to gain from belting her in the jaw.
“So why?” I said. “Why did you want me here?”
“That’s gonna take some explaining.”
She dropped a crumpled twenty on the table.
“We can talk here,” I said.
“We really can’t. More than twenty minutes in these booths and your back is fucked.”
I didn’t move. She looked impatient.
“Come on, Greg. You crossed half the galaxy to see me. Don’t you want to know why?”
I chewed my tongue and tried to focus on my sulking. I had a thousand questions that I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of asking. But there was one that, no matter how hard I swallowed, wouldn’t stay down.
“How do you fly?” I said.
“You wanna know? Blink. That’s all it’ll take. Close your eyes and open them again and then you will see.”
I blinked—it’s one of my many skills—and when my eyes opened I blinked again, blinked from the searing light of the sun, the flawless blue of the sky. In my lifetime—in my mothers’ mothers’ lifetimes—Earth never had such skies.
A steel weight settled across my chest. I was strapped to a red metal car. Twin rails stretched away before us, straining towards the sky. There was a thunk and the car lurched forward. I pushed against the bar with my free hand. It was locked tight. I wriggled and twisted but there was no way I was getting off this ride.
“Ooh,” said K. “I love this part. The slow climb. The anticipation. And it will give us a chance to talk. Ask me anything you want until we get to the top. After that, you’ll be too busy screaming.”
The car cleared the platform roof. I got a view of the boardwalk—stalls selling shell necklaces and flip flops, sausages and candied fruit and dubious tattoos. There were no customers but it felt like any minute they would swarm.
“Where are we?” I said.
“Batavia. The way it was when I first showed up, oh, about 130 years ago.”
A gull screamed towards the water. The beach was a long bright strip, as white as a bandage. The pier jutted past it like a middle finger.
“Why would anybody build an amusement park this far from Earth?”
“People had imagination then. They had balls, you know? They hadn’t gotten sick of the stars. Do you want some ice cream?”
But as soon as my mouth shut, reality bent. When it straightened back out, we were in a frigid ice cream parlor where the surfaces were marble and the air was so pregnant with sugar that it stung my teeth. My hand clutched a compact scoop of mint chocolate chip. My favorite. I tried to run, but my legs didn’t seem to find the situation as urgent as my mind.
“What happened to the roller coaster?” I said.
K held two scoops of fudge ripple, peach punch and double maple, topped with candy cane bark, crumbled cookies, and peppermint dust. She pulled a fistful of something out of her pocket—sugar? More salt?—and sprinkled it all over her cone.
I took a bite of the ice cream. The mint was sharp and the chocolate clung thickly to my tongue.
“Why can I taste it?” I said. “The ice cream, the pancakes, the tea. If none of this is real, why does it taste so good?”
“Because I’ve got a knack for what I do.”
“Which is what, exactly?”
She opened her mouth for another bite, drawing open her jaw so far that the black of her throat expanded to cover the whole world. When it receded, half her cone was gone and we were sitting on a bench, watching the silent sea. I tried to play it cool.
“I was a magician, same as you,” she said.
“Katy K. I saw the posters.”
“Good likeness, aren’t they? I should take them down, but I don’t know. I can’t.”
“What was your act?”
“Hypnosis. Cold reading. Mind control. A bit of fortune telling, y’know, just to keep them on edge. I’d close shows by pulling the youngest, happiest couple out of the audience, pressing my hands to their clavicles and telling them in detail when and how they were going to die. Aw, they’d get so angry they’d spit. It was a beautiful show.”
“But you got bored.”
“Bingo. Wasn’t so bad when I was out on the road, but once I got back to Vegas, I lost the plot. My act was perfect, y’know? I could do it in my sleep. I could have coasted through the rest of life low-key miserable if it weren’t for Gwyn.”
For a few seconds, the sky dimmed. I took another bite of my ice cream and tried to enjoy the way the cold seared my tongue, tried to pretend it was real.
“Who was she?” I said.
“A lunatic. No—billionaires aren’t lunatics. They’re eccentric. She was dumping her fortune into a spot she called Wonderland. She meant it as a tribute to the boardwalks and midways she’d hung around as a child.”
“Non-union labor, outlaw mystique. And the land was free. You know billionaires—they’re cheap.”
“Why did she want you?”
“She liked my act. Old girl was petrified of dying—people like that just can’t bear to imagine the universe going on without them—and she loved hearing how she’d meet her end. I always gave her the same thing—peaceful, lying in bed, surrounded by well-wishers, blah blah blah. She offered me twenty-five million to headline, but that wasn’t why I came.”
“She said she never wanted me to do the same act twice.”
I blinked and we were in a t-shirt parlor watching a disaffected, well-muscled teen close the hood on the printing machine. The fluorescents flickered. When they came back, steam was pouring out of the t-shirt machine and K was leaning on the counter. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and tell her to shut up, that I only had a little time left, but I was frozen. It seemed this story was what I’d been brought to hear.
“She poured everything into this park. Oversaw all the details, right down to the patterns on the soles of the employees’ shoes. Did a big marketing push, too, had people almost excited to truck halfway across the galaxy to see her insane fantasy. I think she could have made it if things had worked out.”
“Old girl died.”
“In her sleep?”
“Shuttle crash. We were open for a week before her executors shut the whole mess down. The staff left. I stayed behind.”
“Because I’d lost the best job I’d ever had. Because I had no lovers, no family, no friends, no pets, no art. I didn’t own anything but my clothes and a handful of books, and none of them were any good. My life was nothing but work and my work had turned to shit. I was alone on the edge of the universe and I figured that was as good a place as any to die.”
A bell dinged. They showed me and K, grinning inside a big heart, underneath sparkling letters that said, “MAGIC 4EVR.” She put hers on over her work shirt. I took off my jacket and pulled the shirt over my head. It was a tight fit. When I’d finally squeezed my gleaming dome through the neck hole, the first thing I saw was oysters. We were on the third floor deck of an establishment named Grimy Gwyn’s Seafood Palace. The awning below us obscured the boardwalk and beach. There was nothing but the sea.
“I’ve never had an oyster before,” I said.
“Everybody should have one before they die. You’re in under the wire.”
I slurped one down. It was like drinking ocean water, but nice. I had a few more. She had two dozen while we talked, each one heaped with enough rock salt to melt a glacier.
“When the last shuttle left, I smashed open a change machine. Filled my pockets with quarters and walked into the sea.”
“But you didn’t die.”
“Oh, I sure as hell did. Sucked half the ocean into my lungs. It was like swallowing fire, and then it was over. Body dead. But part of me—my consciousness? My soul?—lived on. Don’t bother asking why because it just doesn’t make sense. Could be something about the ocean here, the magnetism from the poles. Or maybe god just didn’t think I’d done enough to deserve to die.”
She paused, waiting for sympathy. I took a long sip of my iced tea.
“So what did you do?”
“For the first few decades, my spirit or whatever just bobbed around. Stared at stuff. Tried to move things with whatever remained of my mind. Finally, I did. Pushed one grain of sand into the other. Most exciting day of my life. After that, things got fun. You remember when you were a kid, when you were first learning your craft?”
“It was the best.”
“That feeling that every day you’re getting better, that you’ll keep getting better forever, that there’s an infinite amount of stuff out there to learn. It’s the purest thrill.”
“And then suddenly you look up and you’re thirty and you’re like, is this as good as I’m ever gonna get?”
“When those grains of sands bumped together, I realized how much I had left to learn. I practiced like I hadn’t done since I was thirteen. Learned to move things with my mind, to shape things—first close at hand and then, once I realized how easily reality bends for the dead, across space. I learned to put ideas in people’s heads, to make them see things that aren’t there. And I found ways to project myself across the galaxy. Whenever I do, it smells like peppermint. No clue why.”
“You made the golems.”
“Pretty cool, right? Originally, they were because I needed an audience. Helpers. Friends. And then I used them to get you. Sent the heckler to Fang’s. Put Jude on your trail. Planted Lennox on the 909. Everything they’ve done has been to push you into my arms.”
I took a heavy breath.
“When I saw you on Earth...” I said, trailing off because I just didn’t have the words. “Were you really there?”
“Only in spirit.”
“So how do you fly?”
“I don’t. I can’t. Nobody can.”
My mouth was dryer than ever. I felt like a kid watching Santa Claus get shot in the skull.
“I’m sorry for disappointing you,” she said. She looked like she meant it. For some reason, that made me hate her more. “But if you expect a magician to tell the truth, you’re as dumb as crowd.”
She knocked back the final oyster. As she slapped down the shell, there was a screech of metal and when it died we were back on the roller coaster, grinding around a corner, on the edge of the sky. The Boardwalk was far below us. The sea was a plastic sheet; the pier a flimsy toy. I was so hot with anger, my back could have melted right through the metal seat.
“Why did you bring me here?” I said.
“A man with your imagination should have put it together by now. You’re here, Galaxy Greg, to take my place.”
The chains dragged us over the summit. We hung there for a moment, K’s words ringing in my ears like a bell’s final toll.
And then we dropped.
My stomach leapt into my throat. My liver, intestines, and one of my kidneys surged up to join it. The car rattled against the tracks. My bones rattled too. I felt like I’d been screaming for my entire life and we had so much farther to fall.
I saw Batavia as it really was.
Metal rusted. Supports tumbled. The track warped and bent and dropped to the ground in chunks. The boardwalk flooded and collapsed into the water. The wind picked up and the rest of the park eroded into a sand-swept waste. Across the water, NHI corporate crumbled.
K slapped my shoulder, laughing between screams.
“I timed this terribly!” she said. “You must have so many more questions! We should have taken longer over the ice cream!”
“No!” I shrieked. “No, no, no.”
We slammed into the first drop. Twisted left then right then shot upwards again.
“Here’s how it’ll work,” she said. “I take your body. Your spirit stays behind. I’ll walk with your legs, sing with your voice, taste with your mouth. Don’t worry—I’ll take good care of it and it’s just for a little while.
We hit a sharp turn. My neck snapped sideways and I tasted blood in my mouth. I was tired of the taste of blood.
“What happens to me?” I said.
“You’ll have my power! Do whatever you want with it. Work on your act. Make some golems. Hell, maybe you’ll even find a way to fly.”
We whipped over a hump and into a drop even steeper than the first. Ahead of us the track twisted, split, and dissolved. No matter how fast we were going, there was simply no way we could clear that gap.
Cold wind stung my eyes. I shoved against the metal bar, putting all of my flagging strength into it. Something in its mechanism cracked. The bar shot forward. I twisted around it and was almost free when K’s hand settled on my neck.
“Magicians must remain inside the vehicle at all times,” she said. The car went into a corkscrew turn. I felt the wheels straining against the tracks, preparing to jump free. “Do we have a deal?”
She squeezed my neck. My eyes considered popping out.
“What about Lennox?” I said.
“What about her?”
“I’ll do anything you want as long as she and Falk are okay.”
K sat back in her seat, staring at nothing, gnawing on the side of her lip. We came out of the corkscrew and shot straight down towards the gap.
“Yes or no?” I shouted.
The car leapt off the tracks and soared through the air. My much-abused guts floated free inside my chest. My butt came off the seat.
There was a second where it looked like we might clear the jump. But that second ended and the far side of the track just got farther away and it became very clear that we were about to slam into the ground.
“Well think faster!”
“Oh, fuck it.”
The car smashed into the dirt. I heard metal crumple. I felt the shock go through my wrists, my elbow, my neck. I flipped and I flipped and, for a few meters anyway, I flew.
I never came down.
No, that’s not quite right. I came down all right, but it wasn’t onto the twisted wreckage of the roller coaster car. When my eyes opened I was back in the diner. I crashed into the banquette, whose springs whined in protest as I finally came to rest.
“What the fuck!” I shouted.
The room was dark save for the light above the register. The place stank of disinfectant. I felt an almost painful craving for another cup of tea, but Patricia was gone.
K leaned on the other side of the booth, wearing a salesman’s smile. I pelted my teacup. Porcelain and cold black tea rained across her shoulder. She didn’t flinch.
“When you’ve finished your tantrum—”
“You’re absolutely nuts.”
“Oh, we’re having fun. I am, anyway. It’s not my fault if you can’t enjoy a roller coaster. Now do we have a deal?”
“Will Lennox live?”
“Yeah, sure. I can do that. I don’t know why you care so much, but she and Falk will be just fine.”
She didn’t flinch when she said it. Her eyes were steady and her voice was smooth. But I still had the feeling she’d given this pitch before.
“How long do you want my body?” I said.
“A year. With an option to extend to two.”
“I want to go on the road.”
I was quiet. She cocked her head.
“Aren’t you gonna laugh? All the power in the universe and she wants to go on tour?”
“Nope. I get it.”
She clapped, absolute joy beaming from her face.
“I knew you’d understand! My act is bulletproof. I’ve been practicing three lifetimes. Not having anybody but those damned golems to show off to—it’s worse than torture, Greg. It’s hell.”
“So if I say yes—”
“I’ve concentrated all my power in a small object, here in the diner. Once you sign the contract, I’ll hand it over to you. Then, back in reality, Lennox wakes up. Falk is very happy, hugs her, ‘I love you baby,’ all that shit. Then your eyes flutter open, except they’re my eyes now. We get in a shuttle and I bid him goodbye at the next station, then I start my tour. When I’m done, hell, go find him. Start your whole fucked up thing all over again.”
“And if I say no?”
“You go back to your body and find out what it’s really like to die. Your friends die too, naturally, and I find another candidate to take my deal.”
I leaned back. The booth sagged. I pushed on the table and it scooted backwards slightly. For the first time in a while, I had room to breathe.
“Can you make it morning again?” I said. “I don’t like making deals in the dark.”
“Your body’s finished, Greg. You don’t have the spark left to imagine a sun.”
“Okay then. Let’s do it.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, she was beside me. A candle burned over a heap of papers covered in intimidatingly small font. A pale green pen rested in my hand. A drop of ink dangled from its nib.
“I’d have my agent look over this,” I said, “but she’s kind of dead.”
“Sign before your heart quits beating.”
“How do I know you’re not trying to trick me?”
“If I wanted to trick you, I’d trick you. I’ve been doing it for months, Greg—it’s not that hard. Sign and I’ll have my golems patch you up and we can start the consciousness transfer. Sign, Greg. Sign.”
“I know you’re lying.”
“There’s no way you’ll give my body back.”
“I don’t break promises.”
“This place is hell. You said it yourself. If you get out, you’re not coming back.”
I set down the pen. Her jaw squeezed. The light over the cash register dimmed.
“What are you doing, man?” she said.
“It’s my life in the balance.” My voice sounded far away, like I was hearing it from the bottom of a swimming pool. “But you’re the one freaking out. Why?”
“Just fucking sign.”
“There’s no other candidate. You’ve bet everything on me. If I die, you’re here forever.”
There was a distant noise like someone drawing in a massive breath.
“Hear that, Greg? That’s the your heart pulling back for its very last beat. Are you going to waste it or are you going to sign?”
I put my hands flat on the table. Even as the rest of me drifted away, they felt heavy, almost real.
“You didn’t count on me cutting myself in half,” I said. “You thought I’d kill Lennox or Falk. You don’t handle surprise well.”
“I’ve been alive for over two hundred years. There’s nothing you could throw at me that—”
I made my last move.
I slapped the table so hard that it sounded like a whip crack. She glanced at it—who wouldn’t?—and as her head turned I smacked the salt shaker off the table. Shattered glass skittered across the floor.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“That was your talisman. At least, I think so. Flavor for the woman who’s so hungry for sensation that she puts salt on her ice cream.”
“You’re a fucking fool.”
“But I’m right. I mean, I am. Uh...right?”
There was an awkward pause. From outside came a gust of wind—the conclusion of my heart’s final beat.
K shook her head with a sadness that was truly pitiful.
I was beginning to fear that I’d guessed wrong when green light poured from the broken salt shaker, dripping up from the floor like floating blood.
K got her hands around my throat and squeezed.
Magician’s hands. Awfully strong. I squirmed but could not get away.
The world melted.
The walls hung in tatters from what remained of the ceiling. Beyond I saw the whole swirl of the cosmos—pinprick stars and cottonball nebulas, bulbous red giants and compact blue dwarfs, and the distant smudges that I recognized as other galaxies, comfortingly far away. Iridescent sludge poured upwards from the shattered salt shaker, splattering across the remaining chrome, formica, and steel. Strange light smeared across the kitchen. At first I thought the griddle had caught fire, but no—it was the outer edge of a black hole.
K’s face was as flat as a death mask. A true pro—she was wholly focused on her work. She squeezed harder. Things in my neck went pop. The light of the universe faded away.
A menu whipped past my head, followed by the napkin dispenser and a fistful of spilled French fries. Metal tore. The table collapsed, smashing my legs and sending K tumbling to the floor. She pulled me down, her grip faltering just long enough for me to whip my hand around. She expected another trick, but I was through being clever. It was much more satisfying to poke her in the eye.
“You fucker!” she shouted.
Nobody likes getting poked in the eye.
I crawled along the floor, mangled legs singing a brand new song of pain. The door was gone and so was the boardwalk. I had no idea where I was going. I just didn’t want K to win. What can I say—I’m a petty guy.
K’s hand closed on my ankle. I kicked her in the face. She held on. I writhed, trying to escape her grip, and she punched my knee into the cracking tile.
“Fuck!” I shouted. “That hurt!”
She flipped me onto my back. She didn’t look quite so calm any more. She punched me for a while—mostly in the face, sometimes in the chest, once right on my pinkie finger, which I think was purely out of spite. I tried to tell myself that this wasn’t real, that it was a dying man’s final dream and in dreams nothing really hurts. That was a nice thought, but the ice cream had been sweet and the air had smelled like salt and the pain seemed just as real.
K yelled at me in between blows.
“Of course I was trying to trick you, asshole,” she shouted. “My power is fading. This was my last shot and you. Fucked. It. Up.”
On those last four words, she banged my head into the floor. I was basically a rag doll at that point. When she picked me up, I offered no resistance save for a pathetic little groan. The back wall had been swallowed by the growing void. Matter and light twisted like braided taffy and disappeared. K raised me above her head and threw me into the black hole.
I rolled as she threw me and reached out for the counter’s chipped metal lip. I caught it by my fingertips, swung around the other arm, and grabbed tight. Everything in the universe pulled me the other way, but I held on. I’ve always had strong hands.
K raised her fists, preparing to smash my hands loose. I flipped myself over the counter, bounced off a bar stool and landed with characteristic gracelessness on the yellowed floor. K’s boot flew towards my face. I rolled under the counter. A piece of the broken salt shaker sliced my calf.
She kicked me again. I twisted to escape the blow, putting my whole weight on my left leg. The chunk of glass slid deep, salt searing the fresh wound. Something hot and wet poured from my leg. I looked down, expecting blood, but what I saw was green.
A living emerald spread up my legs. It looked half-liquid, half-solid, alive and dead. Everything it touched became first pleasantly warm then almost unbearably hot. Its light cast out the darkness of space, and in it I saw K’s face. She wasn’t fighting any more
The green reached my heart, my neck, my face. It poured into my mouth and up my nostrils, and I felt it massaging every cell inside my ruined body. It was a bit like getting salt water up your nose, except instead of salt water it was the essence of magic—the only pure magic the universe had ever known.
It hit my brain. The lights went on. I opened my eyes—I felt like it was the first time they’d ever really been open—and saw that we’d left the cosmos behind. Sun streamed through the windows of K’s diner. A fly crawled across the blackboard advertising the day’s specials—Manhattan clam chowder and pot roast—and a ceiling fan spun sluggishly, completely failing to move the air.
“Am I still dying?” I said.
“How should I know?” said K. “Whatever power’s left, it’s yours now.”
She offered a hand. I didn’t take it. I pushed very lightly on the tile and drifted towards the ceiling. I kept going until my head bumped into the pressed tin. It wasn’t flying, but it was a start.
K grabbed a coffee cup and filled it from the pot. She leaned on the counter and took a short sip, wincing appreciatively at the heat.
“You look like an asshole up there,” she said.
“Can I help you?”
“Whatever I’ve got in me now, is it enough to save us both?”
She shook her head.
“It’s not even enough to save you. That thing in your leg’s gonna kill you, Greg. Maybe in five minutes, maybe an hour. You can’t handle it and you are going to die.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry for dragging you into this. I was desperate, you know, and I’ve been alone for a very long time.”
“You know, I think you almost do.”
“So what do we do now?”
She took another sip of her coffee.
“I’d like to finish this cup of coffee and then I want to die.”
I pushed on the ceiling and shot back down to the floor, landing awkwardly and managing, I’m sure, to look even more like a dope. I wanted to put a hand on K’s, but she didn’t look like the kind of person who liked to be reassured.
“No talking me out of it,” she said. “I’ve been alive long enough. I’d rather go out all at once than fade away. I’ll need your help.”
The pit in my stomach grew larger.
“How do I do it?”
“You’re the one holding everything together. Just let go of me and I will be gone.”
“Just like that?”
“I want to say—god this is stupid—but your show at the Signature really was the best I’ve ever seen.”
“I guess that doesn’t mean much now.”
“It’s always nice to hear from a fan.”
She took a final swig of her coffee. She nestled the cup into the saucer and then set them both into the bus bin beneath the counter. She took a deep breath and nodded her head.
I closed my eyes. I felt her presence on the other side of the counter. Some part of me clutched her like a child holding her mother’s hand. I released the hand.
When my eyes opened, she was gone.
I poured my own coffee. I lingered for what felt like a respectable amount of time. Once it was gone, I put the cup beside hers in the bus bin.
It was time to fly.
I pushed open the door and was greeted by clear skies and a sharp breeze. Gulls soared high above me, their cries faintly audible over the hum of the surf. I squeezed my fists, tensed my legs, and threw myself into the sky.
You know how dreams are, though. They always end before you get what you want.
My eyes snapped open and I was back in the theater, sword in my hand and guts all over my feet. The pain was an electric shock pulsing from every part of my body. It took a moment before I realized that the agony wasn’t coming from my disemboweled stomach, but from the shard of glass jammed in my leg.
“Greg?” said Falk.
I heard his voice but I couldn’t see him. The house lights were off and my eyes were fogged by crystalline green.
I tore the sword out of my gut and sent it skittering across the stage. My hands danced along my torso, trailing emerald light across everything they touched. Spilled entrails spun back into my abdomen. Shredded skin stitched back together. Cracked bones healed. It was pretty nifty, but with every breath, the pain in my leg screamed louder. I rubbed my magic hands all over it, but the wound only opened wider.
“I am on fire,” I said.
My voice boomed out of my chest, echoing off every surface in that huge, dead theater. The acoustics were lovely.
The lights flared on. One thousand Elwoods slumped in their seats. The one that had been tormenting me on stage tumbled over backwards. Its body looked wet, like it was already reverting to mud. Falk hunched on the floor, Lennox’s body clutched to his chest. He stared at me with a mixture of wonder and fear. I looked down and noticed that I was floating two meters off the ground.
“I am having a very unusual day,” I said.
Something happened inside my leg—it was like having an artillery shell explode just beneath the skin. I hit the stage so hard that I split the boards. I reached for Falk and that tore my wound a little more.
“What’s happening to you?” he said. Even in my present state, I enjoyed the concern in his voice.
“My leg,” I said. “There’s something nasty in my leg.”
“I’ll get it out.”
I crawled limply across the boards. I burned so hot that I swear to the stars, my blood was boiling. I touched Lennox’s elbow. When my fingertips grazed her cold skin, her flesh bubbled. I pulled my hand away.
“Flip her over,” I said. There was not much left of my voice.
Falk rolled Lennox onto her back. I hiked up the tattered leg of my trousers, dug into my oozing wound, and got as good a grip on the glass as the gore allowed. With one savage motion, I ripped the shard out of my leg. It was hot enough to burn straight through my hand, but I didn’t hold onto it very long. I jammed it into Lennox’s kneecap, smeared her skin closed, and slumped to her side. As my eyes slid shut, I felt the warmth spreading across her body and allowed myself a little smile.
“That’s good, Greg,” I said. “You did good. Now you can die.”
Weirdly, I didn’t.
I was ushered back into consciousness by the gentle hum of a ship’s engines. My eyes opened sluggishly, slowed by the exquisite array of painkillers dripping through my veins. The first thing I saw was a hand-printed sign taped to the ceiling above my head.
“You are alive!”
“That’s good,” I said.
The room was an antiseptic turquoise. A medbay. Most of my body was tightly wrapped in bandages. My back itched and I had chills all down my left side, but other than that, I didn’t feel too bad.
My head rolled to the side. Another sign:
“Everything is fine!”
“Even better,” I said, and drifted back to sleep.
I woke to find an unfamiliar weight at the foot of my bed. Falk. Flight jacket around his shoulders. Sunglasses perched on his head. He looked ashen, drawn, but still pretty cute.
“Where are we?” I said. My voice was sandpaper. He raised a cup of water to my mouth, guided the straw between my lips, and let me indulge in a few long sips.
“The ship’s the Le Grand, a long haul luxury yacht that used to belong to someone named Gwyn Vicaris. Smooth leather, clear glass, real wood, and enough canned food to get us all the way back to Earth if that’s the way we choose to go. Plus a fully outfitted medbay. I asked the autodoc to clear that glass out of your leg. You’re not dead so I guess it worked.”
His voice got tighter, his eyes redder. He put on an unconvincing smile.
“She’s alive, but she won’t wake up.”
He nodded at the little lump of blankets that occupied the next bed. I pushed myself up and saw Lennox’s head sticking out of the top. Her mouth hung open. Her forehead was sprinkled with sweat.
“Put her in the autodoc as soon as we got on board,” he said. “Same thing as the diagnostic unit down on Batavia—the little hourglass just ran and ran and ran. Didn’t even recognize her as human.”
“She’s not, exactly.”
“Then what is she?”
My heart pounded. Before I could explain, an alarm pinged.
“That’s the autopilot,” said Falk. “We’re coming up on the E-Gate. I’ll have to guide us in.”
I reached for his hand. He let me take it. His callouses were stiff and his palm was warm.
“I got you this,” he said.
He pulled a black storage disk from his jacket pocket. It was labeled MEL.
“Just a trial version. I pulled it from the network. I don’t know what your plans are but I figured an agent would help.”
He moved toward the door.
“Lennox is going to be fine,” I said.
“You don’t know that.”
My cheeks felt hot. Wet, too. When I’d finished wiping away the tears, Falk was gone.
I spent a while watching Lennox breathe. When that became unbearable I rolled onto my side and popped the disk into the bedside console. The familiar blue haze filtered up from the display. MEL’s face appeared. She lit her first cigarette.
“Hello entertainer,” she said in a voice like steel wool. “My name is MEL, that’s short for Mel Emulating Lifeform but for fuck’s sake never call me that, and I’m gonna be your representation. State your stage name, your true name, and your talent—if you have one.”
“Galaxy Greg. Gregor Radzikowski. Magician.”
“Are you married to that name? Alliteration is very last century.”
“I’m pretty attached, yeah.”
“What kind of magic you do?”
“I have a nightclub act. Sleight of hand, close up work.”
“I used to know how to fly.”
She laughed at me. I’d never thought I’d miss that bitter, nasty laugh.
“You’re hopeless, kid, but I’ve worked with worse. You up for a tour?”
“I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Starlight Circuit ain’t what it used to be but there’s some opportunities past the Redline. Let me talk to my contacts and—”
“I just made a decision.” I took a deep breath. “I’m gonna retire.”
“Must be the shortest career on record. How come?”
“I don’t want it anymore.”
“Then it’s probably the right call. This kind of work’s gotta be an addiction. If you can quit, you should, y’know?”
I nodded. I reached for the OFF switch.
“Before you go, MEL, I gotta tell you—”
“Fuck that, kid. We haven’t known each other long enough to get sentimental. Goodbye.”
She turned herself off. Since nobody was listening, I got sentimental anyway.
“It was nice to hear your voice.”
I popped out the disk and was setting it on the console when it slipped out of my fingers and landed, clack, between my bed and the table. I reached for it but there was no way I was grabbing it without falling out of bed.
And so I did something dumb.
I spread my hand wide and willed the disk to leap into my palm.
It didn’t move.
“Come on, you fucker,” I said. “Into my hand. Come on.”
It didn’t move.
But deep in my left leg, something started to itch. A little piece of glass, of K’s power, so small even the autodoc missed it. I felt it getting hot and I knew it was there.
“Up. Up you fucker. Up.”
It didn’t move.
The itching spread across my calf, hotter and hotter. I tensed every muscle in my hand, held my eyes open until tears welled in their corners.
It didn’t move.
My calf felt like it was going to explode.
It didn’t move.
My whole lower half was burning now.
It didn’t leap into my hand, but it jerked a good twenty centimeters into the air before clattering back to the floor. I flopped onto my pillow, sweat streaming down my face, laughing harder than I’d ever laughed.
A new talent. Something to work on. Something to perfect.
Something no one in the universe had ever seen.
And then there was a little cough on the other side of the room.
Lennox woke up.
Magic could wait.