“Is it possible, in this world full of infinite possibilities, in the garden of forking paths, for a student to jot down the correct answers before reading the test?”
Imagine the House of Words built like the ultimate supervillain lair:
Black concrete drapes the eastern mountainside of a remote, volcanic island. Henchmen dressed in scaly armor push iron carts uphill, spilling horror novels and stolen teenage diaries over the tracks. Serpent women, wearing long, crimson trench coats sewn with Pacific islander skin, drag beakers filled to the brim with inspiration brewed from humanity’s smiles and dreams and nightmares. Rivers of magma flow inside, through halls and torture rooms decorated like medieval dungeons, but engineered with plentiful technology to harness the Earth’s thermal energy… and your screams.
I’m not a bad person. Truthfully, I’m not. My family knows it. My colleagues know it. Even I know it.
I’m a loving, caring, legit ray of sunshine in real life. Sometimes funny, witty, and according to some: oddly charming. I listen, share knowledge, donate to the cause, and care deeply about our world. But whenever I lunge the literary knife, the dark master takes control.
Blame nurture, not nature.
Growing up, my brother got He-man and Battle Cat. Little Alvin gazed into Skeletor’s hollow eyes and Evil-Lyn’s… yellow cleavage! Big brother played out heroic scenes inside Castle Grayskull. I practiced evil laughters with Snake Mountain’s built-in mic. When G.I. Joe came out? Jinx and Flint vs. Destro and Serpentor. And Transformers! Oh Transformers… Actually, I got Bumblebee that time, and with it: My sanity.
The following story sprouted in the lair’s secret lab, far from my minions and their obsessive exploration of the tortured soul. I created it to practice the ever-so-popular first person point of view, dream up some science fiction and exercise a new, cheery, adventurous – dare I say comedic – Alvin-voice.
The result? The beginning of a space odyssey filled with–
WIPE THE STARDUST OFF YOUR HUDS. TURN ON YOUR NAVIGATION BOTS. DON’T LEAVE THAT TORTURED OTHER-WORLDLY BAGGAGE UNATTENDED. SNEAKING THROUGH THE PORTHOLE, GREASY FINGERS ON THE GLASS. BEHIND THE EMPTY CAPTAIN’S CHAIR, THE DARKNESS HIDES ITS PROSE.
And please: Don’t forget your complementary
“Wake up, John,” her voice reignited my dormant consciousness with her unearthly tone. She sounded familiar, yet similar to nothing I had heard before. The roar of a jet engine, but one simmered in kindness, I thought.
“W-where… am I?” I said, using my vocal chords in what seemed like the first time in a hundred years.
“He’s confused, Miss Map,” said another voice, also female, but childish, like a two-year-old infant enunciates the word ‘mommy’. “It is to be expected; rebooting after all this time.”
“What’s that noise?” I asked, suffering through every damn tick and tock 100 decibels louder than it should. “Am I… am I inside a clock?” I tried to lift myself from the magnesium-alloy sarcophagus holding me captive, but my muscles disobeyed and I slipped back, hitting my head on the cold, gelatinous slab.
I opened my eyes and saw an angel.
And the angel dressed itself in human flesh infected with steel.
“Clock?” the angel said, biting her lip, and raising one thin eyebrow.
I couldn’t believe those eyes. Crystal blue, shimmering blue, as if two diamonds had been covered with ink and filled with xenon light.
“A machine designed for measuring time,” said the girlish voice.
“A time… machine?” The angel bent her head to the left, then to the right, watching me with what I interpreted to be fascination.
“In his case, more time capsule than time machine, Miss Map.”
The angel smiled.
My bony legs gave out again, and I slumped back into the cradle.
Her smile must be hot enough to melt Neptune’s oceans.
“Hello fellow human, I’m Star Map,” she said, jamming her face in front of mine. Her breath tickled my eyes. It smelled oddly like strawberries and alkaline. Bright orange hair draped her face, leading me to notice the strips of metal for the first time: two thin lines outlining her skin to the sides of the mouth, then lifting all the way to the hairline. “You can call me Star.”
I willed myself to speak, trying not to sound like an idiot.
“What kind of a name is Star Map?” I said, sounding not like an idiot, but a pompous idiot. She pulled back, still smiling, and those weird electric blue eyes made her pale skin glow. The rest of the room was dark.
“Glad you asked! Dad was a starship. Mom thought it’d be cool to name me ‘Star’.”
“My grandfather’s last name was ‘Map’,” she continued, making a quirky gesture, followed by another ten, reminding me of the Spanish-dubbed Japanese cartoons my brother and I watched Saturday mornings when we were kids.
“O-ok, little, er… girl,” I said, shaking my head and also the fogginess from my mind. “I suppose Grandpa was Google Maps?”
Her face lit up.
“Well, not the Google Maps. That code could hardly be considered sentient. But the Cartographer bots, long after they stopped calling themselves by their human-given names? Those were Grandpa’s tribes: the Neo Tracers, the Borg Plotting Company, the Voltron Equation… bots were big on twentieth century American fiction back then.”
I opened my mouth… then closed it.
Star pressed a finger to her lips, as if organizing her thoughts. “You seem smart, John. I didn’t expect smart,” she said, turning to her companion. “How intelligent do you think he is, Doc?”
“Purebred homo sapiens reached levels between 80 and 90 INT.”
Doc spoke matter-of-factly, her girlish voice filtered through what sounded like a 1950s intercom. She was a bulky, tall thing built like an aircraft carrier – I estimated 8 feet. My brain struggled pinning the infantile tone to that hunk of an Amazonian woman. She wore her black hair tied in a knot and her mouth hid behind a metal mask which trembled when she spoke.
“Some recorded cases declare as high as the low hundreds.”
I looked at her trying to parse, or categorize – at least make sense of her attire. The fabric’s texture reminded me of killer whale skin or perhaps rubber: dark grey, hardened rubber. It puffed in the shape of an umbrella around her hips and then cascaded over her legs. It was the futurist spandex version of an eighteen-century European dress, designed not for fashion but for function.
“You speak about me like I’m not here,” I blurted out. “It’s not polite, you know.”
Doc’s gaze intensified, swallowing me up and down with those red bicycle reflector eyes. I felt cold and alone, and incredibly hungry. My arms instinctively hugged my body, scratching against the unkempt, time-worn brown overalls.
How thin I had become!
“I estimate this one in the low sixties, Miss Map,” Doc said, tapping a device on her arm with gloved fingers. A whir and a beep interrupted the dark chamber’s silence, and the flicker of halogen found asylum around us, allowing me to absorb the scene.
Dozens of pods similar to mine lay across the open floor plan, organized in rows depicted with different colored consoles. The room was like a hangar, rafters and hanging walkways and all; no ships though. I squinted to better see.
My stomach churned.
“Coffins… not pods,” the words escaped my lips.
The stains of blood and other human viscera smeared these death beds; the floor too. Bits of decaying flesh stuck to broken glass and metal, dried up like beef jerky – or in this case: human jerky.
Star seemed to take a long breath, tightening the white plastic covering her ample bosom – a man always notices these things – and then let out one prolonged and somber sigh.
“The others… your crew,” came that sweet voice I suddenly realized I already missed. “They had… passed before we docked.” Star lowered her face. “All twelve except you. You are number 13, John.” She looked at me with lonesome kindness in her eyes. “And number 13 is alive!”
It all came back to me then: Nasa’s plans for the Ark, the journey to the other end of the Solar System, the launch of the Children of Science and our pact. Then, the explosions and sabotage… the visage of the saboteur, her murderous hands, and the decision to go to sleep.
How long had I been asleep?
“What year is it!?” I said, bolting to my feet. This time, my bones and muscles decided to comply. I felt the rush of blood pump out of my chest and rediscover every nook and cranny of my 32-year-old flesh.
“It is the year 2143 CET,” said Star.
Doc saw right into the confusion in my eyes. “Classic Earth Time,” she said, taking a few carefully placed steps in my direction. Her feet stomped on the ground with a resounding clang, as if weighing a ton of metal each.
“Human, do you remember your name?” Doc said, pointing at me the transparent headpiece of a gadget she pulled from the puffy, bendy, metal-looking skirt.
I nodded, cursing the green flashlight blinding me.
“The vitals are stable, Miss Map. There’s also no contamination.”
“Contamination?” I said, wondering why learning one hundred and thirteen years had passed, or more specifically, the word ‘contamination’, hadn’t given me a heart attack.
Star turned to me and grabbed my hands.
The chances of heart attack in today’s weather forecast increased 50%.
“I don’t have the time to explain, but John…” She bit her lip, and not in a cute way – the whole lower lip disappeared inside her mouth – exhaled and said, “Our women are dying. Something, or someone, is eradicating them. Purebred homo sapiens women, like my mom.” One of her hands was cold and metallic; the other was warm and sculpted with the softest skin I had ever touched.
My body reminded me I was conceived a man and my ears turned red. I supposed waking from 100 years of sleep would gift any man the boner of the century. I took a step back, releasing her and retreating against the open pod to hide my indecency.
“What about the men?” I said, clearing my throat. “Are they, are they not affected too?” The United Nations didn’t assign me to the Children of Science for my expertise in the field of Biology, let alone Virology. They hired John Santos a lowly aeronautical engineer, but every bit had to help, right? I did get straight A’s in college. Never enrolled in Biology though. The Humanities Department housed the best-looking girls.
“No more men,” Doc said. “All the men are dead.”
Goodbye morning wood, old friend.
The finality of Doc’s words, and the lack of emotion behind them, pierced my sanity like a million screaming children locked inside my head. I sensed my eyes open bigger than my oval shaped head, and fear’s cold claw tickle behind my heart with its yellow nails.
“Always the tactful one, aren’t you Doc?” Star gave her companion a reproachful look.
“Listen to me John. What I am about to tell you is important. I want you to listen.” Star planted her feet more firmly, flexing her legs into a fighting stance. I couldn’t help but notice how the hard plastic uniform accentuated her athletic figure. “Are you ready to listen, John?” I wanted to press her tight into my arms and kiss her. How could I be thinking of companionship at a time like this? Freud, you bastard, I can hear your cackling all the way from the grave!
“The Cybrid Council suspects the epidemic isn’t natural.”
“Cybrid… Council? Epidemic?” I said, repeating Star’s urgent and intellectual-sounding phrases like a simian imitating its superior human caretakers.
“It’s a biological weapon, John. A weapon for which you may be the shield. Council scientists theorize your blood could help us synthesize a cure – or at least slow the spread of disease.” Star grabbed my hands again. “I always believed the Children of Science a fairy tale, passed from mother to daughter above the stars. An ark containing the last men to leave Earth I?”
“Lies to keep young girls dreaming,” said Doc.
“But we found you, John!” said Star, tightening her grip.
Fire in my ears. Fire in chest…
I cleared my throat again.
“And you two are a part of this… Cybrid Council?” I asked.
“We’re definitely Cybrid, second generation Cybrid to be precise, but no, not Council. Unconfirmed evidence suggests the perpetrator, mastermind to this new genocide, lurks inside.” She released me from her impossibly seductive grip – Mom always said I was a bit dramatic – and stepped back. “We are bounty hunters, John. Let’s say, the Council’s strong arm. The cloak and daggers division, for when matters need to be kept from the public eye.”
Bounty hunters, I thought, turning to my deceased companions from a century long forgotten. Our lifelong dream of conquering the Solar System, scrapped and pilfered through bounty hunter hands?
God must be a funny man – or woman – because all the men are dead.
“The bounty is you, John.” Star bent over me again, smiled and tapped my nose with the index finger of her bionic hand.
An alarm blared in the distance.
“Miss Map, they are here,” said Doc. “I detect one ship entering orbit.”
“They are moon-shooting around Europa now. Two minutes.”
“Hostiles?” I said, remembering my military training: All 12 weeks of basic training. I hadn’t fired a rifle since I was 19… well, unless you count playing Halo.
Star looked at Doc.
“Yes, Miss Map: Lord Nukes.”
My heart sank.
“He is a nuke as in – ahem – nuclear warhead?”
“He is a she, and she is a hothead,” said Star.
I scrambled to my feet, running to the weapons locker nearest me. Good thing we moved the pods to the hangar bay. Not many weapons to find in a medical bay, but the hangar bay – I threw the metal cage open, almost pulling it out of its hinges – the hangar bay was always fully stock–
“It’s empty!” I turned to Star, who had somehow sneaked up behind me.
Something bumped, not so gently, into the Children of Science, shaking the entire room, and sending cracked human pods, as well as cracked humans, flying all around us. I fell on my knees and hit my nose on Star’s behind.
“W-what the hell are you made of!?” I cursed, loudly, then cursed again.
“Dad gave me the ships, but mom gave me the hips!” she said, slapping herself right on the curves.
Not the time, I told myself, but man, Star left me breathless.
Doc bolted over to our location, or more like rolled over with her fat, metallic ass. She turned her magical wheel of gadgets and pulled out a cannon: a red, lustrous, menacing cannon, about the size of an arm.
Star screwed off her right hand – I gasped – proceeded to bolt on the rocket-looking thing, and a hum like someone had turned on a gigantic microwave filled the air. The cylindrical weapon pulsed, brimming with energy and overflowing crimson light.
The hair behind my neck lifted to the air, offering the Lord a hallelujah. I didn’t mind offering one myself. “Hallelu–“
A loud blast invaded the room, creating a vacuum sucking everything in sight. Star grabbed me, or hugged me, but definitely pulled me tight and whispered in breath tainted with jet fuel. “Get ready for the ride of your life.”
“RIDE!?” I screamed over the chaos, fearing my antiquated life would soon be slurped out into the abyss. “DO WE EVEN HAVE A SHIP!?”
She looked back with those beautiful crystal blues and winked.
“I am the ship.”
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Those pesky mice tumbled a stack of books inside my head, and in the top one Lord Byron said, “Love will find the way through paths where wolves fear to prey.”
Let’s peek inside the House of Words.
The following short discovered its prose after a riveting, frightening chat with a woman; an ambitious, elegant, won’t-allow-me-a-single-word-in-the-conversation spunky señora. I did not obtain what I sought – at least not right away – but the discussion did gift a seed.
I planted the fat, furry nut beneath the keyboard and let my fingertips reap the story. A story an estranged wife appropriated in THE CHROME TRIALS, BOOK 2 of my young adult dark fantasy series CONCEPTION, to craft a letter to her husband:
The tale of her great-grandmother, Joy.
Joy lived in mid-twentieth century Japan. My great-great-grandfather raised her alone: His ‘skinny, awkward girl, beautiful in her own goofy way’. They followed a peaceful, frugal life, sustained by his modest earnings in the radio repair business. It would be ironically over a broken military radio, sixteen-year-old Joy first loved.
He was a soldier no more than seventeen. He came into their wooden electronics shop on orders from his captain, searching for replacement parts for a Type 94-6 transceiver. Joy tended to the counter that humid afternoon. He said “konnichi wa,” and smiled. She said “irasshaimase,” and melted. They conversed alone for fifteen minutes, a short time to fall in love, except in the teenage world, where fifteen lasts a lifetime.
The boy’s departure left Joy drained, saddened, and thirsty. Her days passed wistfully looking out the translucent paper windows, hoping to one day meet the nameless boy again; smile softly at his vivid stories and look into his eyes whenever he looked at hers.
While the boy never returned, his correspondence greeted her one evening. Imagine Joy’s surprise: Military life didn’t allow free time in excess, even less for pen and paper, and in his limited supply, Hiroki had chosen to write her!
In the letter, he spoke to her respectfully, yet with the passion of a man. He talked about teaching her the art of kirigami. About taking long walks across the city’s gardens and napping under the shade of the giant cherry blossom. Joy studied his calligraphy, obsessing over kanji characters, brush strokes and often pausing to inhale the remaining essence of ink and sweat. The girl read that letter over a hundred times a day until her spirit succumbed to the need.
Armed with his name, military address and a water canteen, Joy stole her father’s bicycle and ventured to the city. Forty kilometers separated her rural village from the densely-populated destination, and while the Empire had paved plentiful roads, the majority offered only dirt. Joy didn’t care. She was exultant, energized, and her young body committed every ounce of strength.
Upon arriving at the military outpost, she found a metal bus parked outside the gates. Excitement seized the scene as a dozen families disembarked, bags of rice and chocolate boxes in tow. Joy stopped and smiled. One day, this would be her: Wife to Hiroki; mother of his children. They would conceive twice: Hiroki Jr. and Hiro, both boys named after their father. Together, they would celebrate elaborate picnics in the city’s gardens; lay on the grass and try to guess the curious shapes sculpted in the stratosphere. Their bumbling sons would later sneak away and play while she and Hiroki held hands. Every now and then, he would look at her and smile, then she would smile, and their hands would embrace more firmly.
So vast was her elation when Hiroki walked through the gate that seeing the red-haired woman and child run into his arms threw Joy off her bike.
“Kore wa… nan desu ka?” She asked, confused, as the woman pressed her lips to her man and the little boy climbed his uniformed pants. “Kuso… kuso!” she said cursing, sobbing, hating an energetic Hiroki shower his wife and child with kisses. Joy felt the earth disappear. She tried to stand, shaking, but fell. She tried again, harder, and with a foggy head managed to escape. She mounted the bike and looked back once.
Then, she rode.
She rode on the dirt. She rode on the pavement. She rode over grass, in heat and in rain. For hours she pedaled until the oxygen impaled her chest, numbing the pain.
When the race came to its end, the girl had travelled over eighty kilometers. She bent over, delirious, and heaved, expunging the yellow disease from her stomach. She turned around, realizing she didn’t recognize the landscape, so she dragged her bicycle to the top of a nearby hill covered in hay.
A blinding flash lit the sky. An angry wind buffeted her face. Joy dropped to the ground as the loud rumble of crumbling concrete deafened her ears. Dust and smoke engulfed everything in darkness. The girl scrambled to her knees and crawled to the edge, empty of breath.
The city of Hiroshima burned, and behind a greasy veil of black hair, so did Great-Grandmother’s laughter, empty as well.
When Zelda’s wise man in a cave asks you to ‘Take any one you want’: Pause. Remember Joy and her courage to flee from love. Remember how in that single moment of lucid madness, she saved herself and the lives of her unborn children… so one could fill a bookshelf in my House of Words.