JOULE AND THE WEATHER GOD
Copyright © 2013 by Ronald McIsaac
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art and design by Vincent Chong
Joule hurried up the street like a white dandelion blowing in the wind. Her spirits were soaring this morning, which was unusual in such bad weather. Nothing could dampen her mood today. The last of the pack leader’s blood from the past weekend was burning away in her stomach now, elevating, untethering her from the this world. Today was the day that her eyesight would be restored. Doctor Saturday, the most renowned ophthalmologist across the worlds, had promised her.
She had weathered six weeks on the Pacific Ocean, seven months in this psychotropic drug-crazed city, and one hundred and eleven zombies—all but one of them dead by her own hand.
It was a fine morning indeed.
Joule sensed clouds of information hanging over the storefronts, and packets of lost information evaporating from the wet walkway. She blew past the replicant accessory shop and thought of Doors and his electromagnetically charged strand of angel hair, Belinda. Would she ever cross paths with them again? She certainly hoped so. The thought of gazing upon a strand with normal eyes was overwhelming. There was so much she wanted to see in the worlds.
Joule breezed through several parcels of private air space and around parcels of incorporated air space, wincing as each violation fee flared across her visual field. She would block the machines from doing so if she could, but those with tourist visas and alien registration cards weren’t permitted to walk freely in the city. Like a god, the city drained aliens of their resources. She had gotten used to the city’s electronic flyby credits. And it wasn’t like she would be staying for much longer anyway.
She would charter an airship out of the city after her eye surgery.
She stopped beneath a private awning, squeezed her eyes shut when several fees flared simultaneously, and rubbed her thigh. Something was burning. The spletter? But it couldn’t be. It was dead, wasn’t it?
She sensed another flaring fee, hurried into an alleyway, crouched under the lid of a prepaid dumpster, and pulled the crumpled-up spletter from the leg pocket of her khaki hiking pants. It was burning hot.
She peeled back the red rubber seal as she had innumerable times before and gazed at the strangely textured black paper. There were hundreds of creases in it. It was origami paper.
“Hello,” she said. “It’s Saturday. Isn’t this thing supposed to change into a butterfly or something and lead me to you?”
A replicant breezed past the mouth of the alley.
She was just about to stuff the spletter back into her pocket when it began to heat up again. Black ashes began to fall away from it, revealing a fiery sub layer. The ashes smelled like poisonous, nocturnal plants. And just when she was about to fold it, the spletter folded itself. Then again and again, until, finally, it folded itself into an origami monkey with its hands cupped over its mouth.
It’s the monkey who speaks no evil.
She was immediately aware of the other creases in the paper. It had obviously taken on many forms. She flicked its ear.
The origami monkey furrowed its paper brows and gave her the stink eye.
“S-suffering S-suckertash— You longtooth freak! If you flick my ear one more time I’ll bite your finger off!”
Joule was speechless. The only thing she could think of to say was sorry, which she did. “I’m sorry . . . spletter. I don’t know the protocols . . .”
“Doesn’t matter, longtooth. Listen up and listen good! I ain’t got all day to explain everything! Just unfold . . . and . . . blow across the surface . . .”
“Top or bottom?”
The creases in the spletter loosened.
It must have gone offline, she thought. Disconnected by the machines.
“S-suffering S-suckertash . . .”
The spletter sputtered out again. Why was it leading with the two words? Were they some sort of communications protocol? Within the six syllables the set of standard rules for data representation, the syllables essentially readying the strands for magical communication?
Joule was about to unfold the spletter and do what it had told her to do when the paper fluttered out of her hand and flattened itself out and . . .
She found herself standing at the bottom of a grassy hill, the long grass brushing against her bare legs. She had lost track of time, but strangely didn’t care. She was out of the cold rain, out of the cold city.
Joule was gazing out at a sea of summer grass, a savannah stretching as far as her natural eyes could see. She was without technology, she realized. She wasn’t glare blind. The sun was is in its zenith, slow-moving cumulus clouds casting shadows across the swaying greenery. There were butterflies everywhere, flying uphill.
So she followed them.
She followed the windy pathway up the hill, the serrated grass cutting her shins and thighs. She was panting, her chest hurt.
On the crown of the grassy hill was the largest oak tree she had ever seen. It looked like the crown of some giant woodland angel. The tree was swaying in an easterly breeze.
No, it isn’t! The tree was gesturing toward the east. But how is such a thing possible? She stared at the swaying tree and unfocused her eyes without having to click her tongue on a touch-palate. It was a liberating, deeply spiritual feeling. It was human—
It spoke, the oak tree. “Taste the yellow-long grass, Joule.”
She spun around in the long grass, swiping at the longer blades, drenching herself in sugary solutions. The smell of citrus, she thought. It smells like a lemon orchard—
She snapped a stalk in half and sucked out the fluids as though it were a melted jumbo freezie. She felt a rush of warmth sweep up from her stomach and into her head. She felt euphoric. She wanted to fly.
She turned back to the oak tree and said innocently, “Yes?”
“Joule, we don’t have much time,” said the tree, producing sounds with creaks and snaps and the rustling of leaves. “I need you to gather your thoughts and remember what is going on. You’re reading a letter written in five-sense longhand, what the leprechauns call a spletter—a spell letter.”
“I know what it is,” she said with a grown-up tone. It dawned on her. You’re not eighteen years old. Here. You’re—I’m eight and a half, thank you very much.
“Good,” said the voice, “because you have a long journey ahead of you.” The voice wavered. “I have to tell you something, something that is going to require your undivided attention. I should have contacted you earlier, but—” The voice wavered again. “You were indisposed . . .”
She wasn’t listening. She was swaying in the easterly breeze, her mind doing loop-to-loops somewhere up above. She was searching for holes in the sky, sailing away from the voice.
With four claps of thunder, the voice said, “It concerns Weer.”
Like a cherub, she descended from the gathering rain clouds and landed on her feet next to the gnarled tree trunk. She instinctively looked to the gray clouds to the northeast. They were—
She searched her future memories. They were ominous and foreboding.
She shrank back toward the tree. “Is that it, Weer, there?”
Yes, it is. And I’m afraid it sees you. For the moment, pretend it’s not there. Okay?”
“Okay,” she said, brushing away her fears. She turned around and faced the tree, cold northeasterly winds pushing and prodding her. She focused her eyes on the giant black knot of bark in front of her.
The Curl of the Burl—
Joule paused, expecting something to happen, then sniffed.
Smells like heavy metal. No—
They dissipated, her olfactory memories.
Joule leaned toward it, the black knot in the tree. She didn’t know why, but it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. But the longer she gazed at it the more she wanted it to coalescence into something else. She didn’t know what, just something more lively, which it began to do.
There soon was a man with alabaster skin sitting on a clump of black charcoal roots. His hair was the color of chlorophyll-deprived maple leaves. He reminded her of the old bearded human at the Lincoln Memorial. She tried to stop blinking, but couldn’t. Every time she blinked the more the colors fell away. And the more the colors fell away, the more the leaves did as well.
It soon felt like an inescapable nightmare, the kind she had experienced in primary school. She squeezed her eyes shut, and pressed her tongue up against the palate of her mouth. And when she opened her eyes, everything had changed. The hill was now covered in dark ash, the tree split in half, and dead black.
Weer has already been here, she thought. But—
She turned around and froze. The surrounding grasslands were covered in black soot. And then it came to her. “You’re a devil, aren’t you?” She turned around and placed her hands on her hips.
“I am,” said the redheaded devil. “I’m the oldest devil in the worlds.”
She scrunched her small cherubic nose. “Are you saying that there’s more than one devil?”
The devil wavered. “There are, in fact, two devils. The other is my son, Walvisvaarder de Groot.”
What a weird name, she thought. She suddenly realized that the old devil hadn’t made eye contact with her. The old devil had cataracts, was as blind as a bat, more than likely. Behind the cloudy cataracts blazed two golden irises. They smelled like baked sunflower seeds.
The devil uttered something in a foreign language. It sounded European. And then it came to her, like the smell of billions of dead sunflowers upwind. The devil had a Dutch accent, like her beloved butterfly primer. In fact, their voices were eerily alike. Joule wondered where it had gotten to—what her godfather used to refer to as a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.
The devil continued. “Do you know what real time means?”
She thought about it for a moment, and then said, “Yeah. It means that it’s happening now.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it means. Wonderful. This is happening right now. This is real time. Do you understand that?”
“Of course I understand it,” Joule said, flustered with all the questions. “I just said I did, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did,” said the devil. “So if this is happening now, then that means you have to get underground as soon as possible.”
“I suppose so,” she said. The wind was howling around her now. “But where’s the rabbit hole—”
A smile spread across the old devil’s face. “Your rabbit hole is down the street, Joule. I want you to go there. Okay?”
She rubbed her eyes. “But what about my eyes? Doctor Saturday promised to fix them!”
The devil looked past her and eyed the approaching storm. His gold-speckled eyes were radiant. They’re like sunrays, she thought. The longer word for them escaped her. But she knew it. She had learned the word in sailing school. What was it? And then it came to her, like the rays themselves. They’re like crepuscular rays.
“You’re blinded by the light!” she blurted.
The devil whistled a familiar tune, and the wind diverted around them. It took her like a minute to remember the words.
“Was blind but now I see,” she cried out joyously.
The devil redirected his crepuscular rays onto her. He made an odd gesture with his hands, then reached out and tapped her scalp with what looked to be a leafy index finger. “But don’t believe everything you see.”
A bumblebee appeared. It rounded her, and landed on the small of her back.
Joule screamed, thunder cracked, and she awoke to the smell of sulfur.
JOULE AND THE WEATHER GOD
Copyright © 2013 by Ronald McIsaac
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art and design by Vincent Chong
ZOMBIES AND DRAGONS
Joule planted her bruised ass on a bench in a grassy clearing across from the airship Serpent and the Rainbow. The air bag looked like a giant spiked helmet, a Pickelhaube. She hadn’t been invited into the Pickelhaube for the past couple of weeks, and she was growing concerned. Rei was many things but she wasn’t a fair-weather friend. They had weathered the worst of one another’s temperamental storms.
She gazed up at the Pickelhaube through an Aura brane. A light appeared up in the portholes, another simulated sunrise in Rei’s little Grimm world. The Pickelhaube must have been thirty feet in diameter and forty-five feet in height. Rei’s capsule was always bobbing about in simulated breezes. Rei said it kept her in tune with the weather and in sync with her ever-unfurling fairy tales.
Joule double-clicked her touch-palate and tried opening a Memory brane, but couldn’t. She sensed a power surge in her Branes. There was a popping sound, faint—sounded like birthday balloons popping in an elevator and tasted like sweetened Ether tablets. Cells raced toward a new low, like cumulus clouds in an atmospheric current. An overwhelming sense of apprehension spread through her as her branes began flickering and receding from the daylight. She was just about to pull the goggles off her head when someone appeared—a male leprechaun. He looked grumpy. The leprechaun was staring down at her from a hovering saddle, the saddle’s horn shaped like a sparrow in flight. The leprechaun was mouthing something. No, he was whistling. A spell?
She opened her hearing to include birdsong.
The leprechaun gestured with his large green hands, and a ring of light formed over his head in the form of a crown. It was a waning halo, probably smelled like charcoal. He was an old haloblazer, like her godfather.
“But I don’t understand,” she said.
The leprechaun patted the sparrow on its head. They looked like good-weathered friends until the leprechaun cursed it. The saddle’s horn flapped its wings and whistled. The leprechaun erupted in a tirade.
It was a mechanical sparrow; the silvery-black bird perched on the nub of the saddle of its own freewill, seemingly.
The sparrow is purposely interfering with his transmissions—
The leprechaun breathed in deeply, exhaled, and calmed down.
“Are you related to Doors?” she asked, preparing to duck. “Because I’ve been waiting for him for quite some time now—”
The leprechaun picked up what looked to be a stick of glowing chalk and tossed it toward the edge of her outermost brane. Something flared in her periphery. She squeezed her eyes shut and minimized the brane. It was an emotional outburst of some sort.
Moments later she opened her eyes. The leprechaun was scrawling something on a blackboard.
The Cloudhopper, this Saturday. Just you, Joule—
The brane went dead, the bacteria wiped out. She heard the windshield of an abandoned Zip-a-Dee pod shatter somewhere down the mountain road. The road was lined with hundreds of wrecks.
Her Branes rebooted; her Aura branes pressurized.
The leprechaun was now standing directly in front of her brane-enhanced eyes, the saddle ascending behind him. He stepped away, revealing another line on the blackboard. It was written in luminescent blue chalk.
In a rabbit hole, you’ll learn ‘to see’.
Joule stood at the bottom of Rainbow’s boarding ramp and observed the gang of drug-crazed zombies making their way up the long dead end road. They were a half-mile away. The zombies shattered the windshield of another pod. They looked different than the raiding crew of zombies from earlier in the summer. They would undoubtedly taste the same, though.
Joule sensed movement inside the Rainbow. “You coming to feed or what?”
The main hatch clicked open moments later, the gondola shifting slightly on its wooden cradle, and Rei appeared. “Who were you talking to on the bench?”
“No one. Just cursing those walking blood bags down there.”
Rei peered outside the hatch of the great airship in all her supernatural glory. Gone were her sun freckles and golden hue, her skin appearing pale and icy cold. Joule could almost hear the nanomachinery in her armor grinding out an impossibly complex computational algorithm. It sounded as it appeared—submerged in a pool of heavy water. In Deuterium mode, Rei was the most insanely beautiful thing Joule had ever seen.
Rei skipped down the boarding ramp and dropped a plastic bag on the warm sidewalk. The bag was full of butterfly needles and blood bags, the basic gravity-feed design.
“I’m not looking forward to the digging,” said Rei, drawing a silvery-pink blade from its spinal sheath.
Joule pulled her matching blade from her own spinal sheath. “Grave digging comes with the territory. If we don’t give them a proper burial the gods will come looking for us. Flip the great Pacific Northwest Shield upside down and it’s nothing more than a bowl of purgatorial souls. There’s nowhere to hide. Here.”
Rei shrugged, then reached down and grabbed the bag. “Whatever. Just as long as godfather doesn’t get wind of it.”
Appearing as culturally naïve Japanese language students lost in the mountains, the male zombies would drop their guard at the sight of them and shudder when the two schoolgirls opened their pouty lips. Joule knew that her looks were her second greatest weapon. Her chief weapon was her intoxicating scent. She smelled like perfume, poisons blended from the pollen of a grave-flower. She smelled like the sweetened dead.
“They’ll be drained and buried before Saturday,” said Joule, cutting a wide swath in the air with her blade.
Hand-in-hand they went skipping down the road.
Joule stood in the middle of a green lawn, on a corner lot with a fire-damaged house, staring down at the dead city of North Vancouver, hundreds of thousands of mausoleums as far as her brane-enhanced eyes could see. So many lively, elegant homes transmogrified into dank, crumbling haunted houses. There were plenty of tombstones and grave markers as well. Families had taken to burying their dead on the front lawns of their abandoned homes.
The small gods had drained the humans dry.
The mountain was reclaiming the city, one decaying manmade structure at a time. Joule was surprised how overgrown the city had become over the past century. Long gone were the bright summer paints and gleaming metals.
This place needs a lawnmower—
She scrunched her nose. The place stank of death.
In the distance, past the three drug-crazed zombies, stood Rei. They hadn’t sensed her yet, and probably wouldn’t. They never did. Rei’s weather armor had that effect on human eyes. But Joule could see her, through layers of Aura branes. Rei was flaring wildly.
The three zombies had stopped dead in their tracks and picked up whatever they could find, mostly sections of steel piping and lengths of electrical cable. The pack leader stared her down, bad intentions in his bloodshot eyes.
He was missing a sneaker.
Joule pointed her silvery-pink katana at him. “You’re trespassing!”
“Vampy bitch,” sputtered the leader. “We ain’t going anywhere without those drugs!”
“Well,” said Joule. “At least you got it half right.”
The pack leader growled. “And this ain’t Japan! You don’t own squat here!”
Joule pressurized another Aura brane and double-checked their colors. The brane, like the others, was devoid of light colors. Nothing but deep purples and blacks—the transposing and composing gods had already sucked every joule of spiritual energy from their drug-ravaged bodies.
The pack leader was communicative, at least relative to the others she had drained in Vancouver. Joule was many things, but she wasn’t unfair. Despite her gut feeling, she opened her mind to the notion of sparing his life. Maybe there was a spark of something inside that rusting mind of his.
“See the city down there and the mountain up there?”
The pack leader arched an eyebrow. Was he familiar with cognitive dissonance? “I ain’t blind, vampy bitch! What are you going on about?”
“They’re unattainable,” she said flatly. “You can’t have what’s there. You’re stuck in the middle. You exist in a state of perpetual limbo.”
Joule rolled her eyes. Maybe there wasn’t a spark after all? “If that’s Heaven down there, and that’s Hell up there, then where are we presently?”
Was the metaphor too confusing for him?
The zombie sneered. “We’re in And.”
The answer smote her. Heaven And Hell. And, the coordinating conjunction, the linking word, was literally wedged between Heaven and Hell.
She quickly scrolled down her brane menu and clicked Neuroimaging. What looked like orange cirrus clouds superimposed across her vision field. She imagined a thunderhead forming off his neurological horizon, rapid firing synaptic transmissions as lightning bolts.
The pack leader stepped toward her hesitantly. He was processing her, weighing his options. Or was he waiting for something? Were there others in the immediate area?
“You ever take Lewy meds for Dementia-9?”
“Lewy what?” The orange cirrus clouds in his head evaporated.
A pack of zombies had raided a downtown hospital earlier in the summer. With her brane-enhanced eyes, she had seen them lumber away with packs of experimental vaccines.
“Forget about it,” she said, deactivating the three Neuroimaging branes. “You had a moment of clarity, nothing more. It happens . . .”
Rei appeared like a shimmering mirage on the road behind the pack leader.
“You’re right,” she continued. “We’re in And. And I’m its Queen, which makes you a goddamn trespasser.”
“There ain’t no queen here, vampy bitch,” muttered the pack leader. “Which means I ain’t going nowhere!”
Joule was thrown back with this zombie’s intelligence. She was just about to spare his life when he decided to take hers.
The pack leader lashed at the dead grass with his electric whip and howled like the crazed bloodthirsty lunatic he apparently was. “Numbskulls, attack!”
The front doors to the house swung open and two male zombies came stumbling out—guttural sounds and putrid smells, which she perceived as crosshairs in one of her superimposed branes.
Joule’s reaction was instantaneous—instinctual.
Joule spun around counterclockwise and cut the kneecaps off the quickest. She twirled around and bitch-slapped the other zombie with her free hand, and then spun around clockwise and cut his head off with an upward stroke.
She crouched low to the ground and gathered her wind.
The slower of the two stopped dead in his tracks.
She clicked her touch-palate.
“Vampy bitch!” The pack leader sprinted toward her and slipped on the grass, the others, following him like a herd of buffalo, trampled him.
Joule leapt toward the pack leader at full speed and twirled like a scythe-wielding cutter in a field of hardened sugar cane. The herd-of-two pirouetted to the sides like heavyset ballerinas and were cut down at their brittle shins. She rolled toward the road as a length of frayed electrical cable came swinging down at her. She spread his knees apart, stopped in mid-roll, and sprang upwards, a reverse tornado—cleaving the leader’s arm off at the forearm. She then spun back around in a downward spiral with gravity’s pull and splintering his femur bone.
Joule stood up feeling lightheaded.
Another male zombie swung just wide of her head with a long section of galvanized steel piping. He was the straggler from the house. Joule dropped to the ground and cut grass, mowing clean through his ankle. As he fell forward howling, Joule leapt into the air and came down hard. The zombie’s head hit the grass like a ten-pound medicine ball.
Joule laughed and pounced on the pack leader, whose eyes were now wild with fear. Swinging down with her upper body weight, she crushed his nose with the hilt of her sword and rolled back onto the ground. She crouched for a moment, then leapt and swung furiously at his thick neck.
It was a hard slapping sound and an evil laugh that brought Joule back to her senses. Joule turned around to see Rei performing the Four-Dragons on the surviving zombie. A male. The zombie’s head hit the hard summer grass with a thud moments later. It was a bloody mess. Rei was a fine samurai.
Rei wiped a splattering of blood from her lips. “Did you catch your Four-Dragons?”
“In sequence—no. You?”
Rei cackled. “Yep! But it helps when they’re writhing around half dead!”
“Who are we draining first?”
Joule grabbed the head of the pack leader. “Lewy.”
JOULE AND THE WEATHER GOD
Copyright © 2013 by Ronald McIsaac
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art and design by Vincent Chong
Joule stood on the northernmost edge of the seawall and gazed at rock sculptures. Someone had spent a lot of time stacking the rocks. There was no way a replicant could do such things. Rock sculpting required the dexterity only a young human body was capable of. Even the high-end models were incapable of keeping such steady hands. Replicants came with telltale lip tremors and mannequin switches embedded in their brainstems. One karate chop to the back of the neck and they would reboot like old TRS-80s. Joule almost pitied them for not having a brand name Branestem.
Joule sensed the weather machines drawing electricity from the air around her and winced. There were hundreds of layers of specialized membranes in her aviator goggles, the machines incapable of destroying the bacteria. But it didn’t stop them from trying. She doubted whether the weather machine could wrap their processors around such high technology—such magic.
The machines zapped her moments later.
The machines receded like a passing sun shower.
She squatted down in the cold chemically treated salt water and rinsed the insides of the goggles out. She liked to think that her Branes gave her the upper hand. She wiped mud away from the graphite bridge, and made a mock gesture of acquiescence to the real gods just in case the god-friendly hummingbird was lurking about in the trees behind her. She suspected that it was.
The hummingbird had been spying on her for the past few months. Her Spotting Scope branes had recorded thirty-seven hours of it. She would kill it if it came within striking distance.
Joule pulled the wet goggles back down over her head, pressed her tongue up on her touch-palate, and opened a file labeled Birdbrain. She scrolled down to the second chirping hypertext construct, and waited for the red bacteria to maximize, as designed. A superorganism formed.
It stung her bloodshot eyes.
Joule pressurized an anti-inflammatory mist with a complicated series of swirls and pirouettes. Her swollen tongue moved with the grace of a hippopotamus in a tight-fitting ballerina tutu. She took solace in the fact that the superorganism’s poisons were soluble. She patiently waited for her tongue to return to its original highly dexterous shape before daring the superorganism again.
I mean you no harm, she thought, not sure whether the organism was piggybacking her thoughts yet. It more than likely was. I’m aware of our symbiotic mutualism now. Are you? We can’t survive in worlds overpopulated with temperamental gods without one another. Go ahead. Feed on my aura energies. But open my perceptions in return. Equivalent retaliation. The worlds can’t appear infinite without you, Blake.
She cursed her glare blindness.
Joule tried manning controls of the superorganism. A maelstrom formed in the outermost lenses moments later and the glaring sunlight receded. Distilled sunlight gave way to the smell of processed seawater, and shapelessness to a gathering wind. Synesthesia. She was both smelling and listening to myriad light waves interacting with her senses. Moments later she was feeling, tasting, and seeing things from miles outside her visual field. The hummingbird was here, perched in a cedar tree flashing godcode to what appeared to be a sun glare—a transposing god cloaked in atomic armor. She wondered why the hummingbird had summoned the god. The thought smelled like wild blueberries. She opened her fields to include broadcast stream of consciousness, blocked everything else, and sighed as a deep darkness washed over her in the form of ultrasonic sound waves. A replicant was broadcasting to the northeast.
Rei’s replicant arrived in a leased Zip-a-Dee pod and hurried toward her. The replicant looked genuinely delighted to see Joule. Joule, by contrast, pretended to be delighted.
It’s a game of make-believe. Make-believe that she’s really here—
Rei patted the pod’s nose. The pod’s antigravity generators dropped into sleep mode. It was fine machinery. Rei, the elusive Japanese schoolgirl interfacing with this decked-out mannequin, must have been a distant heir to some multinational conglomerate. Rei came from old money, like herself.
“Does that thing float?” asked Joule, forcing a smile.
Joule squeezed Rei’s kneecap and pointed to the great solar sails of a sailing ship billowing in the wind just beyond the breakers. “But the level of detail is extraordinary.”
“Just take them off!” Rei splashed her small perfectly manicured feet in the cold seawater again. “They’re making my eyes all buggy as usual. Why do you bother anyway?”
“Blake sees things better,” said Joule matter-of-factly. She depressurized her Branes with what sounded like high-pitched dolphin sound. “And he loves looking at you, too.”
Rei sighed. “Who names their goggles after a dead poet anyway?”
“They came with that name,” said Joule deadpanned. “My godfather programmed them with William Blake in mind. They’re supposed to make me see the worlds the way Blake did back in the early eighteen hundreds. Give me perspective.”
Rei eyed her suspiciously. “Yeah. Right.”
“I’m serious,” Joule said. “My godfather designed the perception software for the new Branes series. It’s pretty user-friendly. Just upload an author’s canon to your Branes and boom—you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Awe-inspiring, aviator goggles and spectacles perceiving the worlds in disparate manners. My godfather has two pairs: Hawking and Verne.”
Rei looked genuinely intrigued, but tried to mask it.
They were perched on either side of the open pod like eagles. Joule had already gone flying with her ornithopter wings. Her golden wings were now draped over her shoulders like an angelic cape.
I must look like a fallen angel—
Rei claimed to own a pair of Branes. Joule thought she was lying. Rei wasn’t born glare bind. But it wasn’t like Joule could come right out and say it.
I was born glare blind because of my halo, thought Joule. Mine flared in utero and caused permanent damage. All excess spiritual energy flows up and out of an angel’s head, like magma. I’m a half-angel, on my mother’s side, so mind my circle of light.
Sometimes, one’s story is stranger than any fairy tale—
I was made to believe that I had inherited a condition called Hemeralopia, a Latin word meaning Day Blindness. I used to think that I was from the small island of Pingelap in the western Pacific and, like many other descendants, was part of an ever-decreasing gene pool that suffered from extreme light and glare sensitivity. The Pingelapese call the disorder maskun, translated literally as ‘not see.’
My godfather spun that story. My— wait. Can you see me, Rei?
Rei bit down on her lower lip and almost drew artificial blood. The tension in the air was palpable now, so Joule set about lightening the mood. She drew in a deep breath and weighed her options. She didn’t have any. Rei was testing her. Here—a mile offshore. To most everyone else in the worlds her Branes appeared as fashionable cyberpunk aviator goggles, a Japanese fad from way back when. Joule pulled her aviator goggles off and handed them to Rei. Joule couldn’t see Rei’s expression because of the darkness that had swept across her visual field.
Joule tried to appear normal. Superimposed images of great white sharks were sweeping across her vision now. If she fell into the water, she would drown.
But would they let me die, the gods?
Joule’s hearing heightened. Rei was pulling the goggles down over her head. She wouldn’t see anything. Rei the Japanese schoolgirl, maybe; Rei the replicant, never. Branes needed a power source, and replicants were soulless.
But what if this is Rei Aiwa? What if she’s masquerading as a replicant? Be real— It’s not her.
“How do you turn these things on?” Rei asked.
“But you were just wearing them.”
“I just depressurized them—”
“No, you didn’t. I know what those clicking sounds are. Why don’t you ever let me use them?”
“I have bad eyes. I told you that. You wouldn’t be able to see through them anyway.”
“Yeah. Coke bottles. Whatever.”
Joule splashed her feet in the cold water and laughed as convincingly as she could. The sparkling water looked pixelated, reminding her of DOS. Her visual field had morphed into a blinking computer screen that stretch to the horizons.
“Lend me your wings then,” said Rei.
Rei wouldn’t dare damage such a fine genetically engineered body.
Joule laughed. “Can you even fly?”
Rei dropped back into the bucket seat of the pod with a thump. “I can fly. I can fall, too.”
“Like the devils in my nightmares. They’re always dropping from the heavens like hailstones.”
Joule leaned forward. “You dream about devils?”
“Yyep. They smell, too.”
Rei nodded and dropped the goggles back into Joule’s lap. “They smell like dead trees.”
Joule pulled the goggles over her head. “I heard that before. Devils have an earthy smell, like compost. They smell like decomposing plant food.”
“Is that what it is? Ugh—”
Joule pressurized her Aura branes and turned around. Barbie dolls wouldn’t fare well around devils anyway. Not enough detail—even with her fancy moon-dappled skin. Rei’s replicant tended to flicker out here at the soft spot of the shield like the flame of a carbide lamp. She wondered what color her prime’s aura energies were.
The color of cloud-to-cloud lightning—
“I can’t imagine you ever crossing paths with a devil.”
Rei shrugged. “You smell fishy.”
“Do you want to go swimming?”
Rei blushed. “Anything to see your tattoos underwater again.”
Joule smiled. She loved gazing at her tattoos with her brane-enhanced eyes as well, the multicolored smart inks coiling around her body like a serpent in a flowery blend of yakuza and traditional Japanese style. Joule’s favorite was a streaming image of her beloved Kenjutsu exercise.
The Glorious Slap
The Dancing Vampire Twirl
The Laughing Immortal Pounce
The Evil Grasshopper Beheader
Copyright © 2013 by Ronald McIsaac
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art and design by Vincent Chong
THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW
The Serpent and the Rainbow simply looked out of place, otherworldly, the last building on the last of the old logging roads on Cypress Mountain. The Serpent and the Rainbow wasn’t so much as a building as it was a balloon airship, complete with an antigravity ether bag.
The airship was moored to a cedar tree.
The Serpent and the Rainbow was the only capsule hotel that offered four-season cross-sensory experiences—the most expensive highs. Joule had been defying gravity inside the ether bag long enough to know that the Neurological Safaris generated by the Rainbow’s Synesthete Systems were sinfully addictive.
As her best friend forever, Rei Aiwa, would attest.
“We’ll make a day of it,” said Joule, climbing up into the enormous antigravity ether bag, what Rei lovingly called the Pickelhaube, and closing the hatch behind her. Rei was riding some programmed thermal overhead, her floral summer dress billowing like a constellation. Joule adored Japanese replicants, thought they looked like genetically engineered idoru. Rei’s replicant had trace amounts of soul residue in its hair, which Joule appreciated, the residue appearing as pink lice and tasting like dragon fruit.
There were two capsules in the antigravity ether bag, and they were tethered to one of the hundreds of colorful rock climbing hooks.
I know you’re in one of them, Rei—
It was a game they played, the game of make-believe.
“There are too many zombies and gods out there,” said the replicant. “It’s safer in here.”
Joule wanted to open the capsule and gaze at Rei with her brane-enhanced eyes, but she never did. In the game of make-believe, there were rules.
“But we’re always in here,” said Joule.
“We’re always in here together,” corrected the replicant.
Two butterflies fluttered in Joule’s stomach. “We can be together outside the Rainbow. The gods are mostly harmless.”
“Perhaps,” said the replicant, pirouetting along a breeze. “But the zombies aren’t. They’re nasty bastards.”
“And they’re easy to kill.”
The replicant grabbed hold of a silvery-red hook. “And we always get bloody.”
Joule leaned back on an imaginary cloud. “And we love it.”
“Yeah,” said the replicant. “Until the gods come.”
Joule acquiesced. “Fine—”
The replicant pushed itself from the side of the antigravity ether bag and clapped its soft hands. “Good. We can fool around in zero gravity tomorrow night, pull each other around on gravitational leashes.”
Joule was pressed for time. She had to lure Rei out of her Synesthete capsule—had to see her. “Later in the week then?”
The replicant pretended to lay back on an imaginary cumulus cloud. “Maybe—”
“Maybe? Maybe you should ease up on the psychotropic drugs, Rei. You’ve been chasing the Mad Hatter around for months now.”
“I almost caught a glimpse of him the other day.”
Joule leaned forward on her cumulus cloud. “I’ll help you catch him, if—”
“If you go flying with me.”
The replicant went quiet.
Joule glanced at the chalkboard hanging on the wall behind the counter. In an array of colored chalks, the psychotropic drugs had been listed in vertical columns, in both English and Japanese, the sweeping arcs designed to appear like a rainbow set on a vertical horizon. Though she had tried all twelve of the concoctions, three had made an indelible impression in her mind.
Blue-coded concoction guaranteed to make you see gods
Yellow-coded concoction guaranteed to make you see lightning
Red-coded concoction guaranteed to make you see devils
Joule would recognize Rei’s flowery Kanji-influenced handwriting in any language.
“I’ve been cooped up for too long,” Joule said. “I need to spread my wings.” She paused for dramatic effect. “I lose perspective on things if I stay under too long. I assume you’re the same way. A flight will do us both some good.”
You can’t stay in that capsule forever, Rei? You can’t stay under from one season to the next. You’re wasting away—
Joule soared high into the antigravity chamber and imagined what it would be like to travel between the parallel worlds—to strand. Her thoughts, as they often did, drifting toward Doors. Was he okay? For the past six months, she had loitered around the door the strand-faring leprechaun had passed through. But nothing ever changed, including the spletter, which appeared to be dead.
But you have Rei now—
Joule was wiping away dried agrichemicals from around her eyes when Rei’s replicant appeared to reboot.
Joule rolled her eyes. “The machines are programming a beautiful sunset. We’ll have the skies to ourselves.”
“I said maybe.”
Joule softened her tone. “I just want to experience more with you. Out there in the real world—”
The replicant’s bottom lip trembled. “But it’s not safe traveling around in pairs out there. It’s safer being alone. The gods can’t be bothered chasing down one miniscule soul.”
There’s nothing small about my soul, Rei. Maybe if you weren’t hallucinating around the clock, you could better cope in this god-fearing world.
Joule slipped from the cloud and fluttered her imaginary wings. Rei was now syncing with her replicant—mirroring.
The replicant looked dead.
Joule scrolled down, clicked her touch-palate, and released her imagination. Through an Anime brane, Rei appeared as an old steampunk gypsy spinning half-truths around a fire, her mobile home moored to whatever tree she slept under, her pinkish energy emoting through closed eyelids. Rei was an old soul, deceptively naïve in appearance—her replicant now floating listlessly on an information cloud.
Joule fell back onto another cloud and drifted over the bridge.
The replicant leaned forward on a whitening cloud. Only high-end models could customize their environs like that. “Besides which, the mud packs aren’t producing enough electricity nowadays. I almost flickered last time.”
“They’re fine,” insisted Joule. “They just need to regenerate in direct sunlight.”
“I’m not going outside.”
“Use the portholes below deck.”
The replicant smiled. “Fine.”
“You worry too much.”
“And you don’t worry enough.”
If the Japanese weren’t hoarding every piece of technology, Joule wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. If the Japanese were producing technology, Joule would be loaded with gadgets, including bags of hermetically sealed mud with enough bacteria to power a Rainbow.
You’re stuck with what you have until the weather god is dead.
Rei disconnected from her replicant again, but Joule knew that she was still looking down on her from her capsule. Joule opened her best smile and laughed like a human teenager. It was feminine with a flicker of masculinity. Rei Aiwa gravitated toward such blends, toward tomboys.
“They just need a little tender loving care, your mud packs.”
I know more about bacteria than you know—
Rei grinned. “Like me.”
Joule stacked an array of programmed smiles in the innermost branes, then reached out and kissed the replicant’s small cherubic nose.
Rei Aiwa’s replicant continued along on her simulating breeze, and Joule couldn’t help but appreciate her synthetic beauty. They were into one another.
Joule recalled the spell letter and its messenger, and wondered why Saturday never came around.
Copyright © 2013 by Ronald McIsaac
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art and design by Vincent Chong
Joule Suzuki was mindful of the weather and those who manipulated it. In the tangles of the parallel worlds, if you were born with a halo, you needed weather armor. It was a simple truth; one that grounded her, and one that released her to the winds, like an interdimensional seed.
Joule pressurized the membrane-enhanced vision functions in her aviator goggles and waited a moment for her glare blindness to pass before scrolling down and double-clicking on Torpor. She sighed. Blake, the sentient guide nested in her goggles’ operating system, was suspended in animation, locked in Writing mode. He didn’t want to be disturbed.
Fine—dream of electric sheep if you want. I didn’t want to talk to you anyway, she thought. Not really.
Joule scrolled down to Artificial Lighting and double-clicked on Low-Pressure Sodium Lamps.
Waves of monochromatic orange light washed across Joule’s optic nerves. It was refracted light. A ROYGBV brane autonomously searched for distortions in her programmed color perception. A red-green indicator light flashed.
Good. You’re in the visible spectrum. You’re seeing fine. Now go—
Joule’s mood softened with the earthy smell of pastel colors. Synesthesia. She squeezed her eyes shut and rebooted her branes, and then darted after a flickering light in the distance. It was her navigational beacon, and it was maneuvering through raindrops, burning a speed trail of white-hot light across her outermost membranes.
The light swung wide around a slow-moving Zip-a-Dee pod and darted back toward her. It took on a fisheye-distorted shape, and finally that of a silvery-yellow mechanical dragonfly. A fluttery voice spoke inside her ear, the dragonfly transmitting spatial information from the perspective of a seeing-eye bug. Its anthropomorphic personality was designed to guide the visually impaired around pockets of bad weather. And it did, for the most part.
The bug came with her alien registration card.
The transmission was a recurring passage. Its preliminary survey of the outlying streets was mostly positive; it detected nothing but an emaciated zombie going through withdrawals and an electrocuted crow. Without brand name weather armor the zombie probably wouldn’t make it through the storm.
Joule dropped the zombie into her Junk Food folder and pointed toward a capsule hotel up the street—her feeding grounds. “Is there any clean blood up there tonight?”
“Synesthete junkies mostly,” transmitted the dragonfly. “But there are several demons milling about the—”
There was a flash of electricity, then the smell of burning chrome. She spun around just in time to see the wings of her navigational beacon burst into flames. The dragonfly was charred black by the time it hit the streaming sidewalk.
The second flash struck the bridge of her goggles, her branes redirecting most of the energy, as designed. But the initial impact of ten thousand volts of electricity smacking her dead between the eyes was enough to make her eyes water and her knees wobble, and so she went stumbling back into the glass-ceramic door of a replicant regeneration salon.
Joule steadied herself then pulled the goggles from her matted skull. Her adhesive timepiece read a quarter after eight. The machines wouldn’t begin winding up the voltage for another forty-five minutes. Thankfully her goggles weren’t smoldering. They appeared to be perfectly wearable. The machines had probably fried the outermost branes, but that was fine. They would regenerate in the morning light.
Joule rinsed the goggles in the chemically treated rain before stepping back beneath the awning. The branes stunk of beached whales. She brushed her fingertips along the movable braille code on the surrounding frame. The code indicated that the goggles were fine. She breathed a sigh of relief then brushed her fingertips along the embossed lettering on the graphite bridge. This always comforted her, reminded her of home. It was her favorite brand name across the worlds—Branes.
She was hopelessly glare blind without them.
Joule pulled the goggles back down over her head and adjusted her vision. A fast-moving bitstream of memories, or what her mind perceived as past experiences, whizzed into her primary mind-space by way of her olfactory senses. The intoxicating packets were out of sync with her past timelines, Joule was quite certain of that. It wasn’t until the hairs on the nape of her neck tingled that she sensed a passing static cloud. The electrical charges were messing with her augments, as they undoubtedly had been programmed to do.
The machines were poking around with her settings again.
Joule was about to reset her default settings, when she felt a dull sense of shock, then intense heat, in her lower back. She stumbled forward into the rain and collapsed. When the pain receded, she slipped out of her pack and rolled onto her stomach—disorientation wafted past her like déjà vu. For a moment, her mind was clouded, her innermost branes having taken on the viscosity of swamp water. She squeezed her eyes shut to give her goggles a chance to reboot, and when she opened her eyes, a large green hand was reaching for her throat. She lurched forward awkwardly and cracked her goggles on the wet pavement.
I must have disconnected again—
She rolled onto her back and gazed through layers of Petri dish-like branes, instinctively double-clicking on the touch-palate grafted to the roof of her mouth and waiting for her sanity to sweep in like the tide. Branes weren’t good for playbacks, so she settled on the present, clicking through an array of translucent membranes—or branes. The colorful bacteria on the edges were transforming into an array of preprogrammed branes, and they were maximizing. It was a kaleidoscopic battle, thousands of colonial organisms battling like feudal lords. A superorganism formed, opaque and spotted with what looked to be distant stars. And then it burst inwards, releasing a surge of electrical charges into her puffy eyes.
She yanked her goggles off and stared into the expanding darkness.
Joule lay motionless on the walkway, clutching her goggles at her side, absorbing the environmental stimuli around her one sensory packet at a time. She gazed up at the weather shield a mile overhead with her defective human eyes. It appeared as swaths of cyan, magenta and yellow. She was glare blind again, the world appearing as negative images, like it had been processed onto a 35mm filmstrip.
A moving image appeared in the periphery of her left eye. It was bright magenta, which meant that it was really green. It took her a moment to process it. When she did, she screamed.
The figure jumped backward and hyper-gesticulated something with its large green hands. “Relax— I was only reaching out, helping you up!”
Joule pulled her goggles down over her eyes and sat up. “I’m fine—”
The figure shifted the weight of what looked to be an ordinary mountaineering pack, and turned toward the capsule hotel up the street. “Well— fine.”
Joule stood up.
The figure appeared to be nothing more than an emaciated teenager, probably a psychotropic drug junkie. There were telltale signs. The figure looked male, for the most part, with heavy swelling around his eyes. His dilated pupils were reflecting luminescent greens behind dozens of specialized membranes. Like most born glare blind, his irises were caught in a perpetual state of flowering. Through seas of semi-transparent branes, and around a double-feather mask seal, she processed the large bull’s-eye tattooed on his shaved scalp. It was symmetrical and charcoal in color—inked with sweetened flower dyes.
And honey bees—
She inhaled deeply. He was kind of cute, for a half-blood leprechaun.
Can you see me, you seaweed-colored seafarer you?
Joule wiped some of the stinky agrochemicals from her raingear. “Are those Sea Branes?”
The leprechaun adjusted the straps of his oversized diving mask and shuffled his feet. He was barefoot, his feet as disproportionately large as his hands. Joule didn’t see the point of wearing an anti-radiation flight suit if you were barefoot.
“Yep,” he said proudly. “Made in Japan, before the marching of the thunderheads.” He made some clicking sounds with his tongue. He was probably sizing her up through a stacking queue of Recon branes. “I like your Sky Branes. Looks like they’ve seen a lot of bad weather.”
Marching of the thunderheads? How poetic. You got me all thinking about Mastodon’s March of the Fire Ants now—
Joule closed her swollen eyes. “They’re tempered, like yours, probably. Beryllium copper, forged in Japan as well.”
They were all handmade in Japan, the seeing-eye diving masks, aviator goggles, and spectacles, before the weather gods leveled my family’s factories in Miyazaki.
Joule zeroed in on the decorative metal alloys over the nose pocket. It was the same metal used in her samurai sword, but different than the ion-charged metals in the bridge of her aviator goggles. There, impressed in the rusty green patina, under the Suzuki Air logo, was the number 13. He had spent a lot of time in the clouds, this wild-eyed kid.
“Well,” he said, taping his nose pocket. “Limited Edition Sky Branes. Aren’t we special.”
Who’s embedded in your Branes? Some dead deep sea explorer? Some dead explorer? And then it came to her. Some dead poet? Something doesn’t smell right about you, kid. She opened a few more Olfactory branes and superimposed them onto her maximizing human template. His scent was of a whole different color palate than everything else around him. Just where have you’ve been, seafarer? And how did you come by the last of the Sea Branes? They’re a limited edition, only thirteen in existence. I know. I have a pair. The first model off the line, in fact, still in the packaging—the sea trunk, actually. Jacques Cousteau embedded—
She suddenly feared for him. The machines would sense such otherworldliness.
The leprechaun nodded and snapped his fingers. “I’m Doors by the way. You’re probably wondering why I’m here.”
“The thought kind of crossed my mind. Yes.”
“I have a letter for you.”
Joule’s heart rate quickened. “Really? As in strandmail?”
“Spletter, actually. You’re familiar with them, right?”
“Of course.” She drew in a deep breath. “I absolutely adore spell letters.”
Doors’s expression changed. “Really? Most folks hate them. Refuse to accept the damn things.” He laughed. “I actually spend most of my time returning them to sender.”
“So you’re a spletter messenger then?” Doors was her first. “But why are you delivering it in such bad weather? You know how temperamental these machines are. They abhor our kind.”
“They hate strand-faring leprechauns,” he said matter-of-factly. “That said, I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
“They hate all supernaturals.” His olfaction changed color slightly when she said that. “But they hate us half-blood humans more.”
“Yeah, right. That,” he said. His green skin lightened four nanometers, the wavelengths indicating an elevation in his mood. He was less anxious—now. “There’s no hiding from those branes of yours.”
“Likewise.” Her skin tones must have lightened as well. “Aren’t you afraid of the weather machines?”
“They’re nothing compared to the gods out there.” He motioned toward easternmost edge of the shield. “At least they’re predictable—the machines.”
“Superstitious, too. I mean, software upgrades during the witching hour? Like really?”
Doors grinned. “They’re creepy bastards, eh?”
Joule smiled back at him, which she regretted immediately.
Doors grew tense. “Er, let me pass this thing along to you and—”
Doors was nervous around vampires, Joule realized. Even half-blood humans. She shouldn’t have flashed her long incisors. She pursed her lips and waited patiently as he searched through a multitude of pockets in his loose flight suit.
Doors, you need to wind down—
His name comforted her, which she appreciated.
He cursed a passing Zip-a-Dee pod. Was it messing with his spider-brain augments, as it undoubtedly was with hers, triggering synaptic storms of grapheme-color synesthesia? Her deadly nature was unnerving him on multiple levels. And, like him, she assumed, she waited until the pod proceeded through the next intersection before physiologically cross-referencing her senses. Surprisingly, she felt relatively normal.
“I don’t bite,” she said gently. “I’m really just a girl.”
Doors shifted the weight on his back again. “It’s not that. It’s that . . . I don’t fare so well under these electromagnetic shields. They make me . . . nauseous.”
A half-truth, but she didn’t mind.
“I can’t imagine that heavy strandpack helping matters much.” Joule stood up on her tiptoes and looked for her family’s logo. And there it was—Suzuki Air—cross-stitched into the heavy fabric. “These machines hate Japanese-made gear.”
“Yeah, well—” Doors pulled out what she recognized as a planisphere and turned a few winding pins. “Cross-referencing my position in the parallel worlds helps. Have you seen one of these?”
Doors handed her the planisphere. Joule held the device in the air and gazed at the glowing runes. She shook her head. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen before. She feigned interest then handed it back. She was more interested in his strandpack.
“So there’s a strand of angel hair in there?”
Doors pointed a thumb over his shoulder toward the shimmering door. “No, back there. Ariel is untangling her.”
“A sylph—” said Doors. “A Friend. Ariel looks after the strand, for the most part.”
“So the strand belonged to a female angel then?”
Doors nodded. “Belinda.”
And ‘midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name. Joule adored the poem.
“So you have a strand of angel hair attached to your back?”
“Moored is more like it.”
Joule brightened as the nautical term teased around with her childhood memories. “I’m Joule Suzuki, of Suzuki Air Industries . . .”
His puffy eyes almost exploded inside his goggles. “W-what? You’re kidding, right?”
Joule laughed. “I’m afraid not. I’m part of the machine—born with an S on my chest.”
Doors straightened his back. “So Captain Aeolus Azinogi is your godfather?”
“You know him?”
“Azinogi?” Doors exclaimed. “Who doesn’t? He’s . . . like . . . epically sound!”
Joule beamed, then politely tried to change the subject. Her godfather had telepathic peepers stationed across the parallel worlds, and she didn’t want them eavesdropping, at least not yet. “It must be nice to have a portable time machine on your back.”
We don’t even manufacture them anymore—
“It’s a burden more than anything,” he said, steadying himself. “I spend most of my time looking for her.”
“Strands tend to gravitate toward the WSPs—”
The West Poles—
Doors shrugged. “Well, your godfather seems to think so.”
A shadow crept into her mind. In her best carefree tone, she asked, “Does he know about the spletter?”
Doors looked genuinely perplexed. “Er, no—”
Joule flushed, stirring embers in her near-translucent skin. She crouched down and whispered. “Good. Because he doesn’t know I’m here. It’s complicated.”
Joule was about to elaborate on the matter when the unimaginable happened, right before her brane-enhanced eyes. Doors went hurtling backward into the glass door. But he didn’t bounce off of the window as he should have. Instead, he was absorbed, seemingly, by the glass—one molecule at a time. He was being yanked from the world, her world. He was being pulled into a glaring light.
Joule jammed her eyes shut as the door around Doors fell away. A bright light, brighter than the any simulated sunlight she had ever seen, blasted past her. But she could still see his silhouette, a midnight green void in a pink-white light. His arms were outstretched, his large hands gripping the metal frame.
“Spletter!” He hollered.
His eyes searched his side pockets.
Something exploded in the distance, sounded like thunder.
Something moved in one of his thigh pockets. Joule lunged forward, instinctively shoved her weaker hand into the pocket, and pulled out a waxy envelope. Its incandescent red wax seal seared her brane-enhanced eyes.
She squinted and hollered. “What should I do?”
Doors’s fingers were slipping from the metal doorframe. “Do nothing until Saturday comes around. It’s written in encrypted five-sense longhand. Just unfold and . . .”
Before she could grab him by the straps of his strandpack, Doors fell backwards into a bale of golden hay, hollering something about the weather.
She blinked, but nothing changed. There was nothing but the door.
Copyright © 2013 by Ronald McIsaac
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art and design by Vincent Chong
If it weren’t for the crickets in his head, Doors could have fared better in the worlds as a spletter messenger. They came with the severe headaches, the crickets did.
Doors reached into a side pocket in his strandpack and pulled out an empty blood bag. He couldn’t find the butterfly needle. He gazed at it, looked back. It was his keepsake now, the empty bag of blood. A Japanese schoolgirl had dropped it, during an exchange with a psychotropic drug addict outside a capsule hotel in Vancouver, Canada. The exchange was over before his brane-enhanced eyes could process what had happened.
He had been following the schoolgirl around for the better part of a week, patiently waiting to deliver a spell letter at its predetermined delivery time. He had seen her do unimaginable things, acts that would make demons cringe. Her name was Joule, and she was the most unlikely of apex predators in the post-apocalyptic worlds.
Doors stuffed the blood bag back into the side pocket, reached into another, pulled out a powdery acorn, and swallowed it whole. He uttered a Cricket Cropper spell, rubbed his stomach when the acorn cracked, and waited for the pain meds to spread through him like lukewarm tea—
He pulled the spletter from another pocket and began fiddling with it.
It’s waterproof, he thought. You’ll just have to fish it out again—
He had named this spletter Daffy, partly because of its intrinsic ability to float and mostly because of its despicable nature. From the moment the spletter was thrust into his hands, Doors knew he was in trouble. Doors had already broken about every regulation in the book with this one, folding it every which way imaginable, trying to shut the damn thing up.
Grin and bear it. The flying fish folding was a fiasco. Don’t empower the lunatic—
The Japanese had been using origami for centuries to silence voices in letters, dead loved ones, mostly. Doors had learned this at the academy, seven weeks before being expelled. The art of paper folding was lost sometime in the nineteenth century, the giant steamship carrying the original papers struck by a barrage of cloud-to-sea lightning and sunk off the east coast of Japan. The Dollar Steamship Company spent decades looking for the wreckage, halting only for the apocalypse, briefly, before continuing on in the post-apocalyptic worlds. Origami was one of the lighter subjects, and always followed deep sea diving.
They said that the art of folding paper would help spletter messengers with their spatial visualization; they said that spletter messengers would inevitably find themselves in a bind and have to fold spacetime into particular geometric shapes; they said origami was the bridge between natural and supernatural dimensions—
They spoke in folds, his early instructors.
The spletter bit his right thumb. “Suffering Suckertash— No good peeping tomcat!”
Doors squeezed his throbbing thumb into a fist. “No, I’m not.”
The spletter flapped its wings and took flight again.
“I mean,” continued Doors, unsure of himself now. “Who stays under for that long?”
Daffy landed on a cork lifejacket. “Suffering Suckertash— Joule does, obviously.”
I should have just stuffed you in the mailbox and went on my way; six days with a crumpled-up personality, a paper demon with foul breath. I should have tossed your ass in the fire when I had the chance—
“I know what you’re th-thinking,” said the spletter with the chalkboard-scraping tone of an Inquisitor.
Doors stared incredulously at the crumpled-up butterfly. How could it be sentient? How could it perceive from a world away?
Are you tuned into my thoughts, you supernatural marionette, you stammering, stuttering lunatic? Doors looked distractedly to the blue sky. “Enlighten me—”
The spletter furrowed a crinkled brow. “You’re th-thinking about her again . . . that bloody vampire, Joule.”
The gods must have pounded your skull with hailstones—
Doors pulled a planisphere from a sternum pocket and eyed it cautiously. “Halloween is still a ways away. You’d do best to conserve your energies.”
The spletter fluttered its wings, agitatedly. It appeared to relax moments later, like a madman succumbing to the morphine drip. “Suffering Suckertash— You lovesick leprechaun.”
The spletter folded its paper wings, appeared to be pleased with itself.
Doors imagined burying the spletter in a pumpkin patch, leaving it to the garden gnomes. But he knew enough about spletters to know that it wasn’t what it appeared to be. There was a demon in the folds of the origami paper. It was manipulating the spell letter through a network of tangled strands of angel hair with the most basic of Transposing spells.
The stammer wasn’t what it appeared to be as well.
Doors inhaled deeply. It probably daydreams of its paper-folding master being demolished by the weather god, hammered with hailstones the size of Volkswagen Beetles. Engel versus the weather god, Weer—
He exhaled. Don’t anthropomorphize the gods—
The spletter started babbling on about something, a splettering of stinky old words, but Doors heard only the sound of crickets.
Sometime later, Doors snatched the spletter from the air and quickly folded it into a turtle. He then folded its head back into its shell and fashioned a metal door out of a paperclip. Daffy wouldn’t be sticking its nose into his business anymore, at least anytime soon.
He slipped into reverie moments later.
Doors awoke sometime later, someone tugging at his tailbone, gently.
He had fallen asleep with his diving mask on again. He had been taught that it was always better to look at spletters through brane-enhanced eyes, something about the distillation of magic. He looked back around through what appeared to be fisheye lenses, the membranes in his mask slowly reverting back to their default settings.
What is there to see out here anyway—
Ariel had obviously anchored him to something, a length of hemp rope and a metal-organic loop with a spring-loaded gate, more than likely. It was probably silvery-green and smelled like tree leaves after a rainfall. The metal loop was similar to that of the carabiner used in rock climbing.
Waves of disorientation washed over him. He needed to find his bearings. “Ariel?”
“Over here,” hollered Ariel. Doors turned his gaze into the wind and squinted. He spotted her fluttering over the masthead moments later, a winged female, as ethereal as the luminiferous ether, casting invisible stranding lines upwind.
“You have our bearings?”
Ariel fluttered down to the bow of the sailing ship and whispered something into the—
It’s a mermaid, the masthead, thought Doors. Lying on the bowsprit—
Doors closed his eyes when he thought he saw a longitudinal line and what appeared to be flying seahorses pulling it.
He opened his eyes, clicked his tongue, and turned around. Where there were transposing gods, there were composing gods.
Puppets and puppeteers—
In the lower atmosphere, he spotted what appeared to be an atmospheric anomaly. His heart rate quickened at the sight of it. It was a composing god in guise of a sundog, and it was manipulating the weather with Ether spells.
Goddammit! You might as well shine crepuscular rays down on our heads, Ariel. Lead the weather god straight to us—
Doors searched his pockets and pulled out a space-timepiece. He found comfort in it. It was a one-of-kind navigational masterpiece—a planisphere. He had seen planispheres with hairs plucked from the nape of a sleeping cherub, and planispheres with fine hairs pulled from the scruff of a gnome’s head. He had seen a few with seeds and roots and some with magical flower petals and nectar. But he preferred his piece, his fashioned from a golden wind-up pocket watch. He gazed at raindrops cascading over what looked to be an impossibly scaled down rice plantation, arrows of time sprouting up out of the terraces like midsummer rice. His planisphere was terraformed in Japan.
Doors stuffed it back into a pocket. The planisphere was standard issue for spletter messengers, a means of figuring out where they were in spacetime. He sniffed his fingers and scrunched his small cherubic nose. He reeked of the luminiferous ether, of the ocean of uncharted spacetime that connected the known worlds.
It was then that he realized that his feet were cold. “Where the heck are my boots?”
Ariel disappeared and reappeared at the stern of the schooner, a hop downwind. “Huh?”
“My boots? Where are they?” He repeated.
“You took them off a while ago.” Ariel looked almost concerned.
He did take them off earlier in the day, before his midday nap. Doors glared at the mermaid. “Her suitors took them. Probably.” He hated mermen as much as they hated leprechauns.
Ariel bit down on her lower lip. “I’ll cast a line for them later.”
Doors kicked the schooner’s railing. “Goddammit!” He looked up at the sun. They were running out of daylight. There was no way in hell he was going to spend the night in the middle of this ocean. “How long before we’re out of here?”
“A few hours,” she said, her voice modulating with the wind. “Three at the most.”
She put on a show of confidence, which only made him madder. No matter where they were in the worlds, Ariel always appeared grounded. Fly anglers were like that, though. She was the one with the stranding rod and reel. He longed for the earthy smells of the Sierra Mountains.
Ariel disappeared, then reappeared ahead of the mermaid. They were laughing about something. Him, probably. He stamped his bare feet on the deck and padded back to the stern of the ship. If he saw a merman, he would cast an Arctic spell on its scaly ass.
Doors leaned over the railing and fingered a passing wave, then turned to the mermaid. She reminded him of Starbucks, which in turn, reminded him of Joule—
Only in a city like Vancouver, with tens of thousands of androgynous beings trudging through the streaming sidewalks like trick-or-treating children caught in temporal causality loops, could such a girl walk around unnoticed. Most passersby assumed that Joule was nothing more than a psychotropic drug junkie, like most everyone else in the domed city.
In some ways, they were perceptually blessed, these tuned out humans, hardwired for superficiality. They knew nothing of vampires and tempestuous gods. In many ways, especially during the stormy seasons, Doors longed for such ignorance.
They were addicted to psychotropic drugs, the surviving humans—the drugs coloring their worlds in pastels, like a child’s drawing.
Before it crash-landed on the windward side of a coastal mountain, the airship The Serpent and the Rainbow had undoubtedly been the strangest place in the worlds to do psychotropic drugs—intravenous hallucinogens. The Rainbow used to have six flight specials, written in colored chalks on a rainbow-shaped blackboard behind a dented aluminum counter. He had never gotten around to the last three concoctions: Luminous Blue, Electric Yellow, and Red Devil, but he had tried—
Green-coded concoction guaranteed to make you see the Mad Hatter
Mary Jane Green and Bud Brown
Olive-coded concoction guaranteed to make you see Cowboys and Indians
Cotton Candy Pink
Pink-coded concoction guaranteed to make you see Cupid
during three of the longest balloon rides of his life. It was a damn shame the weather machines had lit the Rainbow up like a Chinese sky lantern.
Well, at least it crash-landed in an old growth forest, away from steel skyscrapers downtown, he thought. At least the spirits are resting in the wood—
Doors shook the thoughts from his head and peered over the side of the schooner. He recognized the ship immediately. It was one of the few ships to have traveled through the Strands, to have been ballooned across the three parallel worlds of Paradiso, Inferno, and Purgatorio.
He jumped back, terrified. It smote him, a realization. “We’re too exposed to the elements out here.”
He suddenly felt seasick. Pulling his mask from his head, he stumbled and vomited overboard. The world stopped spinning round and round minutes later and he found himself gazing down at an upside-down word, the christened name of the ship, Amsterdam, which made him dry heave.
“We’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” said Ariel calmly. “Between Vancouver and Miyazaki. We’re quite fine.”
“But this is no ordinary spletter! It’s a damn lunatic.”
“But how is it different than the others?”
Doors had to think about that for a second. They had delivered a handful of such spletters in the past few months.
Ariel, you’re too damn nice—
“It’s different than the rest,” said Doors, grabbing the wooden railing with both hands. “Spletters aren’t usually this manipulative this far away from the Strands. There should be more lag time.”
“True,” she said, lowering her voice. “We don’t get many of these types—”
“Many? This is the first.”
She looked to the skies. “You sure the origami turtle is a smart move? It’s a spell letter. Maybe all those creases are mucking up its splettering code.”
“What about the other one?”
Doors looked down at a long pocket in his strand-faring suit. In it was an origami cherub, purple perfumery paper. “Hasn’t said a peep.”
The last thing they needed was another stillborn spletter.
“It’s from a half-blood angel, what do you expect—”
“You think it’s conserving its energy, like the others?”
Doors thought about the two spletters. Angel and devil spletters were about as different as numbers on a Beaufort wind force scale.
“Ever heard of anyone resuscitating a spletter before?”
“It’s fine,” she said, convincingly. “We should focus our energies on this devil spletter.”
“Agreed.” Doors looked to the heavens and shuddered. “You feel something?”
“Your overactive imagination is getting the better of you,” said Ariel, turning her supernatural eyes toward Miyazaki, Japan. “Again—”
Doors couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. “Engel is omnipresent.”
“Not during metamorphosis.”
“Walvisvaarder de Groot then.”
“He’s storm chasing, as usual.”
“Well, maybe his father caught wind of our tangled timelines.”
“He hasn’t,” assured Ariel. “Engel de Groot is in the midst of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. He’s in a cocoon.”
“Well, his spletter certainly isn’t.”
“The spletter is playing you—” Ariel disappeared, then reappeared. “We’re golden, nothing but downtime in our future. Our timelines aren’t as tangled as they appear. I just crosschecked them. There is a good hour between deliveries tomorrow. Plenty of time to deliver the second spletter to Doctor Saturday—”
She flickered like sunlight in the shallows, then disappeared again.
Water cycles? Oceans to cumulus clouds to—
Doors closed his eyes and pulled off his diving mask. He turned into the southerly breeze and slowly opened his eyes. The ocean was perceived as sunflower yellow, the sky the color of angel hair. The wind was soothing on his glare blind eyes. He tapped the outermost seeing-eye brane, one of hundreds of membranes stacked on the chemical-tempered lens of the diving mask, and pulled them back down over his wind-dried eyes.
Ariel is usually more stable than this—
He pressurized an array of Sun branes, waited, and then glared up at the one-eyed peeper in the sky.
Sylphs have an aversion to you, Sun. Go hide behind a cloud—
Doors waited for her to reappear.
Doctor Saturday has his brane-enhanced eyes on you. Just stay in his sights—
We had some downtime in Phuket, Thailand, last time. Low season, good surf. Kata Beach, the best sandy waves in Purgatorio. Maybe she’s right. There’s more downtime on the horizon—
A cumulus cloud passed overhead, providing shade.
Just don’t lose your bearings again. He’s as temperamental as wildflower gnome, on a fair day. Doctor Saturday—
Doors winced, then pressurized Unison, the operating system embedded in the metal-organic framework of his mask.
“We good, Joyce?” He asked.
An Irish voice answered. “She’s multi-worlding again, lad.”
Doors winced hard.
“You should really see your chemist about your headaches,” said James Joyce. “They’re worsening. Those psychotropic drugs aren’t doing you any good—”
Doors depressurized Unison. The last thing he needed was medical advice from an overly superstitious writer—three hundred years dead.
Ariel reappeared. “I’m not faring well here.”
“Isn’t your mermaid friend supposed to be navigating us toward a storm?”
“She is,” said Ariel. “But we’re caught in doldrums.”
“Jeez.” Doors poked around his bag and produced a black T-shirt, the words Airy Fairy emblazoned across the chest in sunray yellow. He took off his beloved Suzuki Air T-shirt and threw it overboard. He would let it soak for a while in saltwater.
He then reached deep into a side pocket and produced another acorn, cracked it opened, and produced a tablet of compressed powder. The tablet consisted of the petrified bones of a transposing god, poison from a black widow spider, and—
He didn’t care what else. They alleviated pain, end stop.
Ariel rolled her cerulean blue eyes.
“Leave it, Ariel,” he said. “They’re— Er, medicinal.”
“They’re messing around with your timelines, Doors. They’re warping your arrows. You’re slipping. There are other ways of treating . . . your condition.”
“The pills are fine, for the time being.”
“If the gods ever get wind of this—”
Doors shushed her. “They won’t.”
And if they ever do, they’ll go after the chemist. Not me—
He turned away.
His arrows of time were fine. As long as he didn’t lose count of the pills, he was fine. Ariel hated the fact that he always cross-referenced his location in the worlds in relation to where his drugs were stashed. It was a junky thing—a tell. He had had a bull’s-eye tattooed on his scalp after the twelfth strike, a still-ticking gesture to the weather god. The thirteenth should have killed him, would have sent a grizzly bear to its grave, but it didn’t. Neither did the others.
You should have changed your name to Bullseye—
Doors cleared his head. “I haven’t lost count. Er, I know exactly where my mind is.”
He could trace his waypoints back through the powdery pills. Whenever he lost his bearings, he would count backwards—when the headaches subsided, when the crickets stopped driving him nuts.
Cricket Croppers came in batches of thirty. If he wanted another batch, he would have to return to the leprechaun settlements, to the damn spell letters.
You’re running low on meds. And time—
The last batch was delivered earlier in the week by an old leprechaun with chalky fingers—along with the two spletters. No words were exchanged, as usual.
Maybe Ariel is right. Maybe there are other ways—
His thoughts fell back to the devil spletter, and it struck him, like a bolt of lightning. He said, “Perhaps the steel paperclip is a bad move.”
“Aren’t paperclips magnetic?”
“Er, the old ones,” said Doors.
It was rusty, the paperclip—
Ariel eyed him suspiciously. “What happened to the pinchers?”
He held his tongue.
Ariel swooped down and landed on the wooden railing. “Well—?”
“I don’t remember.”
You fashioned a dozen pinchers out of kiawe thorns. It’s common practice—
“You don’t remember?” Ariel looked bewildered.
Doors searched the grays of his memories—found nothing. “You were away, angling. I wanted to shut the damn lunatic up. The pinchers, I couldn’t find. And I found the paperclip in one of my side pockets—”
It must have been put there—
“Throw it overboard,” cried Ariel, flaring wildly. “Now!”
Doors reached into a pocket, pulled out the devil spletter, and unclipped it. He tossed the steel paperclip overboard.
“There,” he said, wiping his hands. “It’s gone.”
He could smell it now, the heavy metal. It was a tracker, the paperclip. But where did it come from? It came to him—
The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Ariel simmered down, appeared to have read his mind. “You’ve got to be kidding me. That place is going to be the death of you—of the both of us!”
They shared complimentary colors, at least in the spring and summer months. They were in it together, literally, for better or worse.
Doors rubbed his temples. “Someone must have planted it—”
“By someone you mean gnome, right?”
“Are there others?”
This world is rusting—
“You’ve got to stop salvaging the Rainbow for keepsakes,” said Ariel, eyeing him closely. “The ship is haunted. It reeks of dead fairies now.”
It reeks mostly of garden gnomes, wildflowers—
Ariel’s eyes widened, her pupils dilated like fiery blue suns. “Check your acorn spells. Now.”
What happened to you last autumn, Ariel? Just what did you see in the Serpent—
He reached into his strandpack, pulled out a small hemp bag with drawstring, and sniffed the three remaining acorns. “They’re fine.”
They can smell their gardens from a world away, and trespassers—
He sniffed them again. “Really, they’re fine.”
Ariel appeared to believe him, and fluttered away.
The cumulus cloud passed, more unfiltered sunlight. He went glare blind, momentarily.
Doors spotted what appeared to be an atmospheric anomaly to the southwest. “There’s a loose strand ten miles upwind.”
With his brane-enhanced eyes, he perceived it as infrasound. He cast his olfactory senses toward it. He sneezed—pollen allergies. “Smells like a Mesozoic ginkgo, a flowering Maidenhair tree.”
He wasn’t named Doors for nothing. He had a nose for pollen-saturated strands, doorways to the other worlds.
“Sounds like her. Ten miles?” Like an experienced kite fisherman, Ariel cast an invisible fishing line out into the blue sky. “Give me a couple of minutes—”
He loved watching her fish for strands, even more than he loved watching her paint her toenails with flower dyes. She was about the prettiest thing in the worlds.
The winds picked up moments later and the sails billowed. Doors crouched down on the deck.
“They pray to him, the transposing gods do.” He hated saying the old devil’s name aloud because each of the four syllables tasted like scorched earth, especially the fourth syllable, which tasted like old flower compost.
She cast out another invisible fishing line. “And the composing gods can’t be bothered to transliterate them.”
Doors lost sight of her line a hundred yards out. “Well, they’re still around. The prayers are blowing in the wind.”
Ariel overcast, began reeling in. “And maybe he answers them on occasion.”
“He’s too busy, like way too—”
“You’re probably right.”
He whistled a Transposing prayer. “He’d probably answer your prayers, though.” His prayer went unanswered, as always.
Ariel stopped reeling.
Engel de Groot had a particular warm spot for sylphs. “You like being fawned over by the old devil, don’t you?”
“Kind of—” Ariel jerked the line, and continued reeling. “Engel has one of the most beautiful soul in the worlds.”
Here we go, he thought.
Ariel fluttered her ethereal wings. “You’ve seen how lovely Watt is. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
It’s a ginkgo tree, dear. It doesn’t bear fruit—
“Walvisvaarder de Groot is as ruggedly handsome as they come in the worlds.”
“He looks like a bat out of hell,” said Doors. He cleared his throat. “And he’s a god-craver.”
“He craves her—” Ariel recast her strand line. “Not it.” She absorbed sunlight and beamed. “I’m telling you this as your dearest friend. There’s a plank in your eye—”
Jeez. Drawing from the New Testament—
Ariel fluttered wildly. “You’d best remove it. God-craver? He hunts, lays waste to them.”
Doors acquiesced. “I know, but—”
Doors steadied himself on the deck of the schooner and crossed his arms
“You’re seeing the broad strokes, not the fine details,” Ariel performed an aerial maneuver, reminded him of Disney’s Tinker Bell—in TECHNICOLOR. “This is more than a devil playing fair-weather friend with the gods. I intuit a love story beneath the subsurface of this unfurling play, a coral reef, beneath the waves. There are two halo-blazing teenagers in their summer solstice, and billions of gods in the midst of a never-ending winter solstice; gods who perceive their halos as bull’s-eyes, as fair game.” Ariel appeared as a sundog now, a halo of sunlight. “And so he’s doing what any devil would do. He’s petrifying them.” Ariel’s energies wavered. “This, unfolding before your brane-enhanced eyes, is a supernatural love story.”
You’re projecting again, he thought. So there—
Doors uncrossed his arms. “Cupid is dead, Ariel.”
“It’s beyond Cupid,” said Ariel, descending to his eye level. “Now. And dead he is certainly most not.”
“Well,” said Doors, giving cherubs a wide berth, as always, and changing the subject. “At least I didn’t lose Belinda.”
And that was that.
“I misjudged the line weight,” she admitted. “You lost sight of her.”
“Joyce did,” said Doors, displacing the blame. “Er, braneware updates.”
“Out here? You’re fibbing. Be honest. The crickets distracted you.”
He went to say something, but she lovingly shushed him. Like sugarplums, crickets danced in his head. And so he did what he always did. He attempted to synchronize his meds with his memories—
Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven . . .
Some time later, Ariel gave her stranding rod a quick jerk over her shoulder and began reeling in the catch of the day.
He turned away from his acorn count, and the Cricket Croppers inside. “You hook our starfish?”
“Maybe,” she said, standing on her tippy toes. “It sure feels like her.”
There were few loose strands in the parallel worlds like Belinda. Like most angels on the supercontinent Pangaea, she must have walked the earth with her head in the low-lying clouds and, over time, must have been blinded by lightening and deafened by thunder. He wondered if there were weather gods back then. Belinda’s golden strands afforded them the means to starfish from one world to the next unfettered. They were stable bridges, didn’t fray or break midway. And they were spacious in more strange ways than one. He didn’t feel like a crumpled-up spletter on the other side. It took no stretch of the imagination to see why cherubs and leprechauns made for good stranders. They were genetically engineered to fit inside strands of angel hair, like cells in a bloodstream.
Doors’s thoughts made their way to Joule. “You really think devils are beautiful?”
Ariel turned to him, materialized, and pecked him on the cheek. “I gave my heart to a glare blind fairy.”
Doors flared like a magnesium flower, then went glare blind again.
It was a time of bad weather
And tempestuous gods—
A time of interdimensional travel.
It was a time of halos
And glare blind vampires—
A time of bloody butterflies.
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