Page the Second


A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi. (In front of you, a precipice. Behind you, wolves.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

AND THEN YOU AREN'T--Sci Fi Short Story

This is a short story I wrote yesterday. It came up out of my dreams like from a baptism, whole and complete. It's sort of cathartic thinking about something so final, such a juggernaut that you can't do a single thing to fix it. You know exactly where you're headed and why. You're just there, observing, like watching a roller coaster ride until it's your turn and you can't get off. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Or not.

by Indigo Chase

They absorbed Grandma like a blue-tinged dream. One minute she was regular old cantankerous grandma from whom I got my “sight” and the next, a copy. She sat there in that ratty old chair on the porch with a dorky smile pasted on the pleats of her face. Like Grandma, but completely not. As soon as I opened my mouth to tell Dad, the words IF YOU TELL ANYONE, THEY GO AWAY formed on the age-spotted skin of her hands. The words skittered so quickly away into the cracks in my vision, I doubted I’d seen anything. I hadn’t, had I? A trick of the light? Just the right bend in the spectrum?
I had to know.
Well I wasn’t going to test the theory on anyone I liked. What if they were bluffing—those words? How did I know I wasn’t going stark bonkers?
So I told my terminally grumpy Econ teacher, Mr. Axtell. Before my eyes his skin turned the teensiest tint more blue, so slight the average person would never have noticed. A millisecond of kicking, jerking, contorting, drowning. His face smoothed out. He smiled at me, winked even. Then I knew. That thing with his lips barely tilted up at me was not my Econ teacher any more.
At first they were subtle. Benign. Things went missing, then reappeared, fixed. Whole. Who wouldn’t like that? “Where are my old broken glasses?” you’d ask. “Oh look! Someone replaced them with brand new glasses. Love that.” Only then they’d fix your eyesight and you wouldn’t need those glasses anymore.
Everywhere I saw the flicker of blue as the little monsters ate my world. Coach Tunstall who never gave out Attaboys told me my hurdle times were finally improving. That girl on the cheer squad who always made fun of my clothes—replaced. A shrill of alarm, a tiny choke, their eyes went wide, then that sunny face—that smiley-faced sign that said, “There. We’ve made your life better. You’re welcome.”
And they had. Patchy lawns suddenly grew lush and green, with nary a weed to poke up its unwanted head. Dishes did themselves to a sparkling shine, just like in the ads. Like the sea coming in, the tiny creepy beings washed over everything, making it better, more vibrant, like new.
Somebody finally learned their name. Then it was Lingons are doing this for us. Lingons are taking care of that. All hale the Lingons. They’ve begun to absorb the trash from the oceans. Yay! We’ve made a deal with the Lingons to absorb all our waste. Aren’t they magnificent? They’ve solved the peace problem in the Middle East. No more global warming. They’ll take care of strengthening your house for that hurricane coming up. Wait! Suddenly no more hurricanes to worry about. And the Lingons will take care of that dirty diaper for you. In fact, they’ll replace diapers and clean up your baby so you don’t have to.
They didn’t tell you they would also replace your baby. But that’s what happened. You’d just wake up one morning and your baby, instead of screaming to be picked up, greeted you with a cheerful chirrup and a wave of her little arms and legs.
What’s not to like about that?
Pretty soon everyone loved those crazy little Lingons. “Best thing since buttered bread,” Mom said as she kicked back on the couch and turned on the TV. No more advertisements. Lingons just washed up and took care of all your problems. They congregated around your car exhaust and cleaned the air while their friends washed your windows and repaired that window spider you got from following a truck too closely. Then they replaced your paint job with the one you actually wanted, pulled out all the dents, and juiced up your engine to like new. Wait. It was a new engine. And a new car.
When you drove up to a fast food place, the nutritious food tasted fantastic. You didn’t have to pay for it. You lost weight. And your new Lingon-produced clothes fit well, felt great, and looked fabulous on you.
Every now and then someone I knew winked out. Ceased to be. Plowed under by the conquering wave of happy little Lingons. What popped up like a bobber on a fishing line was a new, improved version, not so untidy with weirdness sticking out all over. So what? Everybody liked them better. Everyone got along so much easier. No one wanted that old, broken person back. They never even knew what hit them.
The thing was, I knew. And I couldn’t say anything. When would my time come to disappear beneath a nearly invisible wave of blueish Lingons? And where did those messy people go? Dead? Taken apart down to the molecules and absorbed into the wave? Why hadn’t they taken me under once they noticed the worry lines I saw on my face when I looked in a mirror? Why hadn’t someone noticed how quiet I’d gotten, and how I retreated into my room so often. That should have been a clear tip-off to those things. Who would rat me out? Or had they tried? What if the Lingons couldn’t replace me?
I tried to school my face each time someone flashed me a new smile and I knew it wasn’t them anymore. I tried not to clench my fists and tense my core when one by one the people in my life betrayed themselves and Lingons took them under.
I felt so helpless.
What would happen when they’d cleaned up all the messes?
Why were they here?
What did they want?
And then I saw him. Another imperfect person. He watched me from across the hall at school, he and his black haystack hair and his glasses and Holey Cheese, that zit on his chin. It had been so long since I’d seen a real pimple that it called to me like a fat red siren. I couldn’t look away from it for anything.
It’s not like I didn’t try. I didn’t want to be in charge of another person getting replaced by a spiffed up, flavorless copy. I kind of liked messy. It seemed real and truthful. And human.
He ducked around the corner and I had to follow, like my head and his shared the same stretchy rubber band.
“You know,” he said in my mind. Even his mental voice lacked that terrible perfection.
Yes? How are we doing this? I shook my head, but couldn’t free myself from his grip. Maybe I didn’t want to. Maybe I stared straight at my answer.
Maybe you’ve The Sight like I do. Anyway, you need to say something and walk away or it’ll be obvious.
“You’re in my first hour, aren’t you?” It was all I could think to say out loud.
“If it’s Econ, yes. Did you do the homework?”
“I don’t see why we need to anymore, thanks to the Lingons.” Is that good?
You didn’t walk away. “You’ve got a point. See you in class.”
“Bye.” I jerked my chin, tore my stare from that thing on his chin, and lurched down the hall. How had he noticed me? Who was I kidding. I knew. I never had good hair days. And though I ran hurdles in track, I ran dead last in every practice due to a few extra pounds of unwanted chub. Last especially because the Lingons had come and ‘fixed’ everybody else.
Why hadn’t they fixed me? No clue. Just like I had no idea why they hadn’t just bulldozed me under and gotten a new version all set up in my place.
Actually, I love you. I love that you aren’t a replica. I love all those things about you that you just complained about in your head. And thanks for stressing the zit. That’s a mental picture that won’t stop.”
So we had range, at least while at school. I grinned at his complaint, but squashed it so people wouldn’t think I had another flaw to point out to the Lingons. Any time. I aim to please, Volcano Face. Wait. Did I just say that so you could hear me? Crap. I’m sorry. Not thinking about that elephant in my head. La la la la la la la. What’s your name, anyway?
His voice almost sounded a little hurt. “Stop worrying about my zit. I’m over it. And I’m not telling you my real name. Make one up.” A laugh in my mind to show me he really was over it.
Still, I wasn’t that girl. I wished I could unthink it, so I concentrated on his name. That terrible? What, Elmer? Floyd? Boyd? Aethelmerk? I had to stop and stare at a funny poster on the wall to keep people from seeing me laugh to myself.
“Keep it up, Eunice. I never tell anyone. Just nicknames. And don’t try and ask at the front desk. They don’t know either.”
I snorted, then turned into my fourth hour class. So glad I could entertain you, Kurgan.
“Call me that. Just not out loud.”
Okay, Kurgan. I hope it’s nothing to do with your namesake—that there can be only one, ‘cause I’d be that one, and I’d go back to being really lonely. Anyway, I’ve got to do this fast because there’s a Spanish test. Questions. Why can you hear me? Why aren’t you perfect, like I’m not? Why do you know about ‘them’? What can we do about it all? And why are we still alive? There. You can call me Flame. It’s their opposite on the color wheel. I got out a pencil and started marking boxes. Silly, when you came to think about it. Why did we need Spanish in this new Lingon-infested world? We would probably all speak the same language any day now.
“Ha. Highlander references. I knew I’d like you. Anyway, I think we’re both psychic. I don’t know why they’ve left us alone while they’ve killed most of the people I know. I know about the murdering Lingons because they said something to me about how ‘it wouldn’t hurt much.’ When they started to re-do me, they spat me back out, like a bad taste. Same with you?”
Nope. I’d have noticed. I caught them replicating my granny. I couldn’t even tell anyone until you. So I’m not sure how to get rid of them. I sighed and went on to another test question. So far I could do them in my sleep. Tengo albondigas. I have meatballs. Id definitely use that information in my anti-world-wrecker scheme. Not.
Kurgan laughed.
Weird having someone that far inside my head. It wouldn’t have worked except I’d been so lonely since the dang Lingons took over, that I’d welcome any non-replicant, deep inside my head or not. Were there curtains you could pull over the embarrassing bits you didn’t want him to see/hear/read?
“Don’t worry. I won’t look. Anyway, your thoughts aren’t anything spectacularly bad or abnormal. For a real person, that is. I’ve seen it all, you might say.”
How come I’ve never met you before? When did you come here? I would have spotted you coming if you went here before. Now the exam questions were getting harder. Essay vs. multiple guess.
“You ask a lot of questions, Heather Flame.”
And you said you wouldn’t look. No fair you know my real name and I don’t know yours.
His laughter echoed through my head.
Now I know there’s no real hiding place and you are at least a little bit mean. You’ve probably already rummaged through the entire contents of my mental underwear drawer.
More ghostly laughter. “I’ll talk later. And I was serious. I do love you. You’re my island of sanity in this freaking ocean of madness. Don’t stop talking to me. And don’t learn to shut me out. I’ll behave. Really. I promise. I need you more than you can possibly know.
You’ve made my day. Make that year. And it’s the same for me, Kurgan-there-can-be-only-one-more.
“I know.”
That’s how I got my End-of-the-world buddy. Together we watched as, except for us, the Lingons ate the last of the imperfections. The skies cleared up, the water ran sparkling clean. Even the dirt seemed less dirty. Then we watched as they stopped pretending to be the replicants. They’d split apart into their devilish little demon selves and eat up everything the replicant had left behind—their car, their house, clothes, pets, paperwork, everything. Gone in the time it took to say “Holy Erasers, Batman.” I say that like it was kind of funny, but it wasn’t. At all.
Terrifying to watch Mrs. Kagel from down the street, who I knew had become a replicant weeks previous, simply disappear. Her yappy little chihuahua went first. Then her prized begonias. Then her Datsun. Next the Cape Cod house with the yellow trim. Then, in a stunning display right in front of my eyes, the woman herself. Gone beneath a wave of blue, each tiny bit of her dispersing to other places, other tasks. Every building block another Lingon pretending to have been Mrs. Kagel’s thumb cell or something. Flaunting the Lingon power over my inability to stop them.
The worst night was when I lost my parents. The second time. Mom sat there on the couch eating an artichoke popper, then suddenly collapsed into a wash of blue, as if she’d fallen into a vat of extremely volatile acid. Dad and Moxie, our lovely mutt went next. Like that. Like I’d only dreamed them, once. Like TV characters after you changed the channel and then broken the TV. It almost felt worse than when I first noticed they’d fallen to the Lingons. At least then I could close my eyes and pretend my parents still lived and loved me. Now? Gone.
Only the house remained.
Kurgan lurked there in my head, taking me in his arms, patting me on the mental back. I even felt a feathery light kiss to my hair, a couple of times. He was there as each replicant fell, domino-like, until nothing remained of the things they’d owned or been. The school? Gone. All our old hang-outs? Gone, along with the rest of the buildings. All except my house and Kurgan’s, apparently.
Hey, I said two futile hours later. I don’t think we need to stay apart anymore. I think I need your real arms around me now.
“Yeah. Meet where the school used to be?”
Unless we’re closer. My house is on Elm. It would have been easier to navigate had any buildings remained. Or any landmarks.
Mine’s across town on Pierce. So meet where that fifties diner used to be on Main.
I turned, then, and watched as my house dissolved in a sea of blue. No going back now. It was all starting to be too real. I had no ground to retreat to. Nothing to clench on to when it all winked out.
Nothing but Kurgan.
It was a long walk, made longer by that horrible flood of blue entities that watched, and waited, hungry for more. Always more. And for what? What were the dang things waiting for?
I finally spotted him clear down by where the First National Bank used to be. Now? Just an empty field full of brilliant green grass punctuated with tiny pink flowers and butterflies all the colors of the rainbow. How gorgeous it all would be if the saffron brick walls hadn’t just disappeared beneath a blanket of nearly-clear blue. I ran to Kurgan, collapsing into his arms—arms not quite strong enough to be perfectly muscled, but strong enough for me. He smelled of fear sweat. I probably did too.
“Come on,” he said, out in the real world where the Lingons could hear him. His illusions had died fiery deaths like mine had. “Let’s find a good place to watch it all go down.”
So we did.
“What’s your real name?” I asked. You have to know the guy’s name if you’re the only two left on Earth. That’s a given.
He took my hand and swung it while we climbed to the top of a brand new nearby hill. “Walter. But apparently I can choose whatever name I want, now that it’s a moot point.”
“I guess.” We sat on the bluff overlooking what used to be our town. Now it featured rolling hills and a new river chuckling through the grass. A soft breeze picked up and ran its fingers through the lank strands of my hair. The sunshine warmed our heads. The silence almost complete. “Don’t let go of me. Please. If we go, we go together.”
He nodded and pulled me tighter to his side. “Maybe you should give me a name.”
“Depends on what happens next, I guess. Same with me. Only not some stupid name like Ethel.”
“I like how we’re here at the end of the world and you’re worried over what I’m going to call you.”
And it was the end of the world. One minute an amazing new Eden, the next, bits of bright new ‘paint’ flaked away, leaving dead brown rock beneath. The Lingons left their lives as camouflage and streamed into the sky, slowly at first, then in a mass migration that lasted until they’d scoured the Earth of all color and life, except the two of us, standing there at the end.
“I like how there’s still someone to call me something.” I hid my face in his chest. He found my lips.
I loved that last glorious kiss.

(Alternate Ending:) !$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!$!
“Heather. Step forward. You’re holding up the line. Hey, Heather. Snap out of it. Swallow your pills. Come on. Lift your tongue up so I know they’re gone.” Miss Smith, the charge nurse, smiled at me. A great big shiny plastic smile.
That’s how those blasted little Lingons took me down.
©2020 by H. Linn Murphy

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