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Winter 2009 [Issue No. 15]

FICTION

 

 

Escape to Bird Island ▪► David J. Schwartz

[Final Issue]  ▪  [Download PDF*]

 

I wake up in a field, surrounded by tall green and gold. Grass like untouched prairie, home of Henslow's Sparrows and White-eyed Vireos. An Eastern Towhee sings at me to "Drink your tea-ee-ee!"

I can't see the birds, but they are loud and all around me. I don't want to move. Not because I'm afraid of disturbing the birds, but because I hurt. I hurt all over: my head, my back, my insides.

I blink a couple of times to make sure I'm not dreaming, and then I ease myself up to sit in the grass. The birds get louder. "Shut up, birds," I say, and they do.

"I wouldn't have done that," says a voice. It's an effort to turn my head, so I twist my upper body to look back. I don't do it in a hurry. I'd rather die than move quickly, right now.

I don't recognize the woman at first, but I recognize the clothes. She's wearing the camouflage pillbox hat that I made for a costume party a few years back, and a pair of stained khakis that I used to wear when I was in the field, and a white sleeveless tee (I do not approve of the term "wife-beater") that I don't remember under a blue leather jacket with a yellow lightning bolt that I do. The jacket used to be big on her, but now it's tight across the shoulders and hopeless at the middle. Her hair is gray and her skin is sun-creased, and she's not looking at me but peering through the long grass. She's crouching, with a backpack at her side and a rifle across her knees.

"Microwave?"

"Nobody calls me that anymore, you know."

Anymore. Since Rex died, I guess she means. Rex was punctilious about code names, except with me. Thinking about him I get angry.

"What the fuck are you doing here, Henrietta?" Microwave dropped out of the game during the Reagan years, and no one's talked to her since. I think Rex--Golden Lion, I mean--had a thing for her, but then as a teenager I was jealous of every woman who came near him. As far as I know Microwave never returned the interest. Truth is she always struck me a little dyke-y.

"I'm saving your ass, Kitten," she says to me. "And call me Hank. Turn the birds back on."

I make a mental note to yell at her for wearing my clothes, but I need to prioritize. "What?"

"The birds are simulated. The spiders aren't."

I don't know what to ask first, so I lean over and puke into the grass and the dirt. There are little bugs on the ground there. I hope none of them are drowning in the chunks of pepperoni and schnapps and stomach acid.

"Nice try," says Hank, "but that only works with cats." She slings the pack over her shoulders, picks up the rifle, and yanks me to my feet. "Let's move."

We run. I take two steps for every one of hers, and I'm still barely avoiding a fall. There's something behind us, I think. The grass is dancing like a speeded-up metronome, and it's almost the color of a lion.

I remember this now. I remember stumbling into Rex's office, loaded on peppermint schnapps--for some reason I never developed a taste for anything else--and opening the secret door in the bookshelves. I remember leaning against the wall as I stumbled down the secret spiral staircase. I remember standing where the weight machines were supposed to be and only seeing a field of tall grass. I remember calling for the computer and getting no answer, and I remember getting so lost in the field that the only thing that made sense was to lie down and pass out.

Lions live in grass like this, but when I look back I see a spider the size of eight elephants. Three spiders, actually. They are galloping towards us with little men on their backs. Do spiders gallop? One foot or more is on the ground at all times, so I think gallop is the wrong word. At least they don't jump.

I hope they don't jump.

It would make sense if the sight of giant spiders made me run even faster, maybe pass Hank on our flight, but this is not what happens. She is still dragging me, and I am still inclined to lie down and play dead. Maybe the spiders are friendly, despite being forty feet tall. I never kill spiders if I can help it. I read once that they were good luck for houses or something. Plus they eat other bugs, so I figure that pays the rent even if I wasn't a little bit superstitious.

Hank keeps dragging me, though, and as the spiders get closer I decide I'm glad. They have a lot of eyes. Something with that many eyes probably doesn't have much empathy for creatures with just two. The spiders are probably revolted. While they snacked on our cocooned bodies they'd probably make faces at each other and say, "It's not even looking at me."

"Open the door," Hank says.

"What door?"

"It's voice-activated," she says. "We're running out of room."

Something is wrong with the grass before us. At some point the angles become wrong, the colors just slightly off true. A video wall, creating the illusion of endless grassland.

"Door open!" I shout, and from ground level to high above, higher than the blue, a crack opens in this world. There's another world beyond, green where this one is gold and hilly where this one is flat. The crack keeps widening, and the spiders keep gaining.

"Door stop," I say, and the mountainous gap freezes. Hank is nodding, and as we near the opening she shouts "Now!"

I order the door closed, and we slip through it an instant before it shuts.

The rush of air knocks us over, but I roll back to my feet like Rex taught me and snatch up the rifle. "What's happening?" I ask, but there's no breath behind it. It's just a faint rasping, and she doesn't even look at me. I take a breath and say it again.

"Where do I start?" she asks.

"Are you really Microwave, or are you a simulation?"

She tsks me like she used to when she thought I was being unladylike. "Why don't you ask the computer? It's the one that runs the simulations, right?"

"Computer, end simulation."

There's a sound like--like a sledgehammer falling on a slab of thick iron, a dull sort of clank, only it's much louder and it comes with a feeling like I'm holding my breath, or maybe like it's been knocked out of me completely, just for an instant. The sound, and a sort of watery blink. I take a deep breath. I smell paint.

"Are we still in the Lion's Den?" I ask.

"In a way," says Hank. "The landscape changes are by design, I believe, but there are side effects."

"Side effects of what?"

"You don't know?" I shake my head. "The Lion's Den has been taking performance-enhancing drugs." 

If I'm honest, I'd have to say that I was in love with Rex from the first time I met him, when I was twelve and he was thirty-six. That was before I knew he was the Golden Lion, even. I just knew that my parents were dead, and this friend of my father's was going to be my guardian and he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen.

He never did anything improper. I don't expect anyone to believe that, but it's true. He didn't recruit me as his sidekick; I found the Lion's Den while I was snooping around the mansion, and I insisted that he teach me. He didn't allow me to go on my first mission until I was eighteen. He was meticulous about my privacy. We never even kissed. The truth is that if he hadn't been so decent and respectful I might have fallen out of love and he might not have ruined me for every other man.

I thought about our wedding all the time. I imagined just how it would be, with the costumes, and all the heroes there--the villains too, though they were of course not invited and would require us all to team up to defeat them. It was important that all of them be there, especially the women, so they could see that he was mine and not theirs, never theirs.

I wonder if this is why I'm so angry at Hank, because the idea that she could have had Rex and didn't want him is infuriating to me.

"Secret bases don't use drugs," I say to her.

"It's not a biological drug," she says. "But there's an artificial intelligence running this place, and it's been at what you might call mind-expanding software. Given that the computer regulates everything down here, it's not surprising that there would be some physical changes as well."

"Not surprising?" I look out over the hills, at the stream running down from the wall-cliff beside us and disappearing into a green valley. "This is impossible."

"Nothing is impossible where dimensional stacking is at play." Hank stands up and takes the rifle from me; I let her. "The software allows him to create space by piling up chunks of neighboring dimensions. That's why the side effects; where different vibrational frequencies are juxtaposed, discord results."

"Him?"

"I meant it."

"Can you get me out of here?" I ask.

"That's the plan, Kitten." She takes a long drink from her canteen, fills from the stream and offers it to me. I drink the whole thing and go back for more. Hank starts walking, and I have to hurry to keep up.

We pass between the hills, following the stream as it feeds from smaller trickles and then empties into a lake. The lake is easily a mile across, and there's not hardwood under my feet but clay, sparsely populated with weeds.

Stranger things than this have happened to me, but not recently. Once the Teen-forcers were sent to Limbo by the Flat Ghost, and once Rex and I stumbled into the Toadwife's Mushroom Garden, where physical laws didn't seem to apply. But this is a lot to take.

"What about the spiders?"

"He can't follow us through the door."

"Who's 'He,' now?"

"The Arachnerd."

My stomach clenches involuntarily. The Arachnerd was Rex's worst enemy. Nearly killed him twice. Nearly killed the entire city. He had an army of spiders engineered with special poisons, mostly mind-control stuff. But . . .

"His spiders were small."

Hank shrugs.

"Did we get smaller, or did everything else get a lot bigger?"

"Yeah." She says it as if the question is an old friend who keeps getting into trouble. "Might be a little of both."

The ground gets marshier as we approach the far end of the lake. Cattails and stunted trees sprout from the still water, but they look plastic to me. Sunlight shines out of an endless white sky.

"Is he behind this, then? The Arachnerd?"

"No. He's just taking advantage of the situation, using that Brainwash Venom on everyone he gets his mandibles on."

"Is it Hatman? The Toad's Wife? Doctor Uncommon?"

"Harmless, missing, and dead. We're at the mercy of the computer, all trapped in the Lion's Den. Since you and the Golden Lion were the only ones with the voice controls, most of them will want to control you, make you open doors and turn the lights on and off, that sort of thing."

"Most of them?"

"The rest will probably just kill you."

I have nothing to say to that. "It's too quiet in here."

"You could turn the birds back on," says Hank.

"Birds on," I say.

I'm thinking the sounds will start up mid-chirp, like a paused CD, but instead they come back gradually, as if the marsh is waking up. Coots and rails and grebes and cormorants and stilts and geese and godwits and gulls call across the water--first one at a time, like attendance being taken, then all at once, trills and squawks and warnings and invitations like a sudden break for lunch. Not just birds, either, but frogs and toads and crickets and the motor-like buzz of dragonflies. It's like an auditory flashback. I'm no longer trapped in my guardian's secret base; I'm out doing counts, making recordings, taking down observations.

"That should help with our cover," says Hank. "Come on."

I tell myself that the birds and the trees and the mile-high sky aren't real, and I follow Hank to the crest of a hill thick with violets. Over the hill an amusement park hunkers on the plain. Strings of lights chase the curves of a wooden roller coaster and the ring of a Ferris wheel; calliope music clanks over to us from a two-story carousel. The smell of popcorn covers everything. It reminds me of Rex, and I imagine that this ground is his body, that under this thin layer of grass and dirt he is sleeping in his costume, at any moment I will hear his roar and he will take me up in his tawny gloves and rescue me.

There's about a half mile of open ground between us and the amusement park, and Hank is nearly a quarter of the way there before I catch up.

"Are you a simulation?" I ask. "You disappeared twenty years ago. This is a training program, isn't it? R--the Golden Lion wanted me to be prepared to take care of myself now that he's gone."

Hank punches me in the arm.

"Ow!"

"You felt that, so I'm real. You're real, the Arachnerd's real, the Midway is real."

As we approach the park smaller buildings detach from the mass: ticket booths, vendors, an arcade.

"Who built it?"

"Just another side effect," says Hank.

A teenaged girl with a pin through the bridge of her nose sits at a ring-toss game, surrounded by stuffed presidents, red plastic donkeys and blue elephants in various stages of deflation. The girl is sipping something thick and brown from a straw and reading a copy of Breakfast of Champions that I think used to be mine.

Behind us the simulated birds fade away. A finch calls out one last time before being drowned out by the calliope.

"Hi Zak," says Hank. "Your dad in his booth?"

Zak grunts a sort of half-"yeah" without looking up from the book.

Hank thanks the girl and leads me past the ring toss and a shooting gallery to a pastel-colored ticket booth: banana yellow letters on a bubblegum pink background with a sky blue frame. Inside it a skinny man in a denim shirt dress is snoring. He wears it unbuttoned down to the bottom of his ribcage. A fuzzy layer of black-and-white hair covers his chest.

Hank knocks on the outside of the booth, and the reverberation clangs the man awake. He stands up, blinking and straightening his dress. My dress, I realize, though I haven't worn it since I was in high school.

"Hey, Phil," says Hank.

Phil looks at her, then at me, with the slack frown of not-awake. Clotheslines circle the inside of the booth, bearing giant paperclips, used t-shirts, and copies of what looks like a one-sheet newspaper. Midway Times.

"We need two tickets for the Express," says Hank. She gives Phil a tangle of bras, and Phil hands over two gigantic paper clips. Hank thanks him and drags me away.

"He looked familiar," I say.

Hank buys cotton candy from an elderly lady with a half-inch of chin stubble. The woman winks as she hands over my sugar on a stick.

"Eat it," says Hank, and because I'm hungry I do. It tastes more like bacon than cotton candy.

"That was the Hatman," she says. I start to turn but she grips my arm hard. "You've probably never seen him bare-headed. Do you know why the Hatman started robbing banks?"

My mouth is full of cotton candy. My stomach is filling up fast, but I can't stop eating it.

"His daughter, Zak. She was born with a hole in her heart, and insurance didn't cover the surgeries. He's not a bad man, really."

"He's a criminal," I say. The cotton candy is all gone, and as I throw away the paper cone I realize that so is my hangover.

"He never killed anyone," says Hank.

I follow her along the Midway, past the Tilt-a-Whirl and the video arcade and the Ferris wheel. There's no one here, I realize, except the operators and proprietors. We pass the bumper cars; the operator lies curled up behind a steering wheel.

"Are they all villains?"

"No. Some of them are heroes. Some are innocent bystanders. Some were born here."

"That's impossible."

"That word's a bad habit for you." She leads me towards a cave in the side of a hill, painted with a sad clown face. "You need to give it up." 

▲ 

The cave is deep but low, and the ceiling hangs just over our heads like a saggy gray sky. There are no birds here. If I were claustrophobic I would be freaking out, but I've always had the opposite problem. I wonder for a moment if this could all be some sort of aggressive systematic desensitization therapy that I don't remember signing up for. I didn't panic out under the open sky, but is that because I'm not really outside?

After a half hour we come out into a row of trees and hedges. The trees are leafless, and it is dark, like autumn just before it turns cold.

Hank brushes leaves and a fallen branch from a wood-and-black-iron bench, and sits. "Bus might be a while," she says. "May as well rest."

It's twilight-dark here. The remaining light doesn't slant so much as hang, like patches of fog. There is a cobblestoned lane in front of us, and more trees on the other side of that. Beyond the trees is a gray cliff.

I walk out to the middle of the lane and look both ways. The trees and the cliffs behind them extend as far as I can see in either direction.

I know this place. Except for the cliffs, it could be the lane that runs from the gate to the McMasters estate. The first time I came here Rex asked me if I wanted to walk to the house, and we got out and strolled between the trees while the driver followed us in the big black car. The leaves were red and gold and Rex held my hand like he wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. My hand was sweaty, but I held on to him and every time he spoke in his deep voice my body shook.

I'm starting to cry, and I bend down to hide it, fussing with my shoelaces. When I look up there's a robin on the path in front of me. His beak slightly open, he jerks his head about in that questioning way, as if he's waiting for me to explain myself. I know it's a he because of the bright red of his stomach.

"Hello," I manage to say. There's a sound in my ears like an approaching waterfall and I'm afraid I'm going to pass out before the robin can answer. For some reason I'm sure he's going to answer. But instead he takes off into the trees, and when I turn there's a bus about a foot from my face.

The driver, wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, leans out the window. "You getting on?" he asks.

"We have tickets," says Hank, and holds up the giant paper clips. She steers me out of the way by the arm and waits for the driver to open the luggage compartments underneath. The bus is silver, with no logo on the side. Shades of blue peer out the tinted windows.

Hank stashes her pack in the compartment, next to a set of black drum cases. They are either that, or boxes for very big hats.

There are only six people on the bus, not counting the driver. A boy of about ten and a girl that's not much older sit near the front. The boy is sleeping on the girl's shoulder--his sister, I think she must be. She watches us walk past. The scowl she's wearing looks permanent.

Farther back, a man with a sailor's cap sprawls across one of the seats, snoring. Behind him two elderly women sit clutching their handbags. One has blue hair, the other pink. In the back someone is lying down in the shadows.

I sit in a seat two-thirds of the way back, and Hank squeezes in next to me. The seat is not really wide enough for both of us, and I think about telling her to move to one of the empty seats. But I am tired. I lay my head against the window and close my eyes.

When I wake up Hank's right hand is up under my shirt, on top of my bra; her left arm is wrapped around my waist. It takes me a while to process this. Hank is asleep, her head butting into my shoulder, her feet pressed against the armrest. I reach up under my shirt to move her hand away, but I can't figure out where to put it, so I lay it over my knee. I pull my shirt back down and cross my arms over it. Hank's other hand is still behind me, pressing into my lower back. If I weren't so dopey from sleep I think I'd be yelling at her.

The bus might have just started to move; outside it's the same bare trees and high gray cliffs. As we blur past the cliffs, I realize that there's some regularity to them. Vertical cracks at consistent intervals, odd grids of colored stone. Here and there lights flash.

Next to me, Hank stirs. She lifts her head and coughs and pulls her arm from around my waist so quickly that my skin is warmed by the friction.

"I need to use the bathroom." I stand and move past her without meeting her eyes.

The aisle is dark except for the plastic-covered footlights and the dim fluorescents lining the luggage racks. On the back seat, next to the bathroom, someone lies sprawled beneath a fringed leather jacket.

The stink of the bathroom is comforting. It makes everything that's happened since I woke up in the tall grass a little less alien and wrong. There's no water, but I use the hand cleanser on my face and my neck and my armpits. The smell of strawberry-flavored bubblegum lingers in my nostrils.

As I'm leaving the bathroom a man's voice asks me if I have any food.

The lump on the back seat is sitting up. His dark hair lies flat on his scalp, except for a few tufts near the part. They stand up at weird angles, like broken straw.

"I don't," I tell him. I'm hungry myself, but not as much as I should be, considering all the walking I did yesterday (has it been a full day yet?) on nothing but cotton candy.

"The driver has food," says the man. "But I don't have any money."

"That sucks," I say. I might have some cash in my pocket, but I'm not sure I can even spend that here, where bras buy paper clip bus tickets.

"What's your name?" he asks. His voice, now that he's awake, is male more in texture than in pitch. I wonder for some reason whether he can sing.

"Kit," I say without thinking.

"I'm Robin," he says.

"Oh. OK. I mean, it's nice to meet you."

"Kit. That's kind of a funny name. What do you do?"

"I'm an ornithologist," I say, trying to rebuild the secret identity. "I study birds."

Robin nods and yawns at the same time. He's young, I realize; the age of some of my students.

"Where are you coming from?" I ask him.

"The lakes," he says as if I should know what that means. I decide not to reveal that I don't. "I like the water, but I never stay for long." He cocks his head in a funny way.

"Do I know you?" I ask.

"Not really," he says. "You're pretty."

"Um, thanks. I should get back to my seat, I think. It was nice to meet you."

"You already said that."

"Yeah. Bye."

I walk towards the front of the bus again and sit in the seat opposite Hank. She glances across the aisle at me, but I don't look back.

"Sometimes," she says, "in my sleep, I--"

"Don't. Look, I don't want to talk about it, but I'm not interested, all right?"

"Fine." She sounds pissed, which is completely backwards, but I meant it when I said I didn't want to talk about it.

"These cliffs," I say. "There's something weird about them."

"That's the mainframe," says Hank. "It's holding this patchwork universe together. The framework of this place has to be regulated somehow."

"Please don't explain it to me."

"I don't understand it well enough to do that. What's important to know is that things here are shifting all the time. Things appear and disappear. People . . . fall through."

"Through what?"

"Maybe fall ­out is a better way to say it. They're just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then they're gone."

I don't like hearing this. Panic cramps my chest.

"How long is this road?"

Hank shrugs. "Depends on how stable things are. Twenty miles, or two hundred. The bus'll take us all the way, unless something gets in the way."

What gets in the way, not long after Hank says this, is a massive clock tower thrust up in the middle of the lane. Ronald Reagan swears over the hiss of the air brakes. Over the intercom he says, "End of the line. Return trips, half price."

The two older ladies stay on the bus, whispering to each other; the rest of us stand out in the gray light and wait for our luggage. The boy and girl are holding hands, rigid and close. The sailor hasn't stopped yawning.

The clock tower is four stories of stone, its sides scraping the naked trees. Its face has--I have to count--seventeen characters. Not numbers, at least not any that I've ever seen. They are more like the tracks of birds which have never touched ground, thin and knotted impressions left upon the air by curled talons, traced with magic ink.

"Where are we headed?" I ask Hank as she straps her pack on again. The driver is struggling to turn the bus around in the narrow lane. The sailor is directing him. Separately, their swearing would be shocking. Together, it's almost musical, a percussive duet: sibilant snares, explosions on the beat, entangled meters of bodily and spiritual blasphemies.

"Out of here," Hank says. "I told you that."

"OK, but where are we now? Have we passed the galley already?"

"No. We won't go through the galley if we can avoid it. But we'll have to see which ways are open to us."

The boy and girl set out ahead of us. The boy drags a small wheeled suitcase behind him; his sister carries one of the drum/hat boxes. She watches us as they pass around the clock tower.

"Shouldn't we help them?" I ask Hank.

It takes her a while to answer. "I don't think they want our help."

"They're kids," I say. "I'm more concerned about what they need than what they want."

She looks like she's going to argue, so I start after the kids without waiting for her answer. The space between the stone tower and the dark tree trunks, under the crooked lattice of branches, is shadowed and close. There are no birds here, and no bird sounds, only a faint hum from the computer cliffs. 

▲ 

When I first discovered the Lion's Den it was such a lonely, sterile place. Rex only allowed me inside there after school and before dinner, but I knew he was in there all night long sometimes. He didn't sleep well. I worked on the birds for months, conspiring with the computer, and inadvertently learning the calls of hundreds of different species. Rex said that I had sound-memory. He said I could have been Mozart if he hadn't ruined me by teaching me to fight crime.

When we finished, the computer and I agreed that we would start the birds after I was already in bed. At first I had wanted to be there, to see his smile--he so rarely smiled--but I decided the gift would mean more if it was given during those long hours of solitude.

The next morning Rex told me I was skipping school, and we flew to a private wetlands preserve in Louisiana to see the birds. I think, if not for that trip, I might have forgotten about birds, become a cop or a lawyer instead of an ornithologist.

"Computer," I say. "Computer, let me go. Rex is gone."

"It's not the same computer," says Hank. "It's Domidius now."

"Domidius?"

"A Roman god of marriage." Her voice has gone flat and distant. "He was responsible for keeping wives in the homes of their husbands."

There's a wood on the other side of the tower--a forest, really. The gray doze of autumn tumbles away behind me, replaced by sunny, noisy bloom. Maples and elms and oaks and birches crowd together, their tangled canopy sown with rustling green.

Now I hear the birds. I stand still and let their voices wash over me. Thrushes and quails, jays and nuthatches. A chorus of warblers, backed by woodpecker rhythm. The buzzing call of a pine siskin reaches me from nearby. I am nearly in tears.

"Who's the wife, then?" I am afraid I already know.

"The Lion's Den loves you," Hank says, and puts a hand on my shoulder. "You know that, don't you?"

"Stop that." I shrug off her hand and step away. I don't see the kids anywhere. "That suitcase must have left a trail," I say, but I don't see one.

"I'm trying to tell you," says Hank, "that the kids are from Domidius. He wants you to stay."

"Shut up, will you? You're freaking me out." I walk backwards into the forest, keeping an eye on Hank as I go.

"Why do you think the apartment took drugs? For you. To make you happy again. It'll use any means to win you, Kit. Even children."

"Oh my god. What's it going to do?"

Hank looks old. She used to be strong and impeccably kept, and no one ever looked better in a pair of tights. But now her hair lies in clumps against her head, and floats away from it at the edges. The sun--or whatever is giving off all this new light--shines through it, turning it into a silver fan.

"I'm saying that the kids could be a trap," she says. "You can't go wandering off without a guide."

"You're my guide, right?"

"Yes."

"Then guide me. Help me find the kids and make sure they're OK. They can come with us until we find someone else to help them."

"That's not--"

"I can't stand here arguing with you. There were giant spiders on the plain; there could be, I don't know, giant ticks in this forest. Or wolves." I turn and run into the trees. Hank calls after me, but her voice is soon lost amid the calls of the birds. Quickly, though, the trees and the underbrush become too thick for me to move through quickly. I stumble through waist-high weeds. The birdcalls don't even pause, and I am reminded that they are not real.

"She's right, you know." Robin stands against a wide oak. This forest would have to have been here for eighty years to grow a tree like that.

"Have you seen those kids?"

"This way." He moves so easily, it's more like the path is clearing for him than that he is picking it out. He's shorter than me. This is not that unusual.

"Right about what?"

"About Domidius using any means." Robin's fingers are long and slender and callused. I wonder if he can play the guitar.

"The children are probably a trap," he continues. "But then, I think your friend back there may be one as well."

"So you're the only one I can trust, is that it?"

"Not the only one. Just the nearest one."

"But if it's a trap, why are you leading me to them?"

"Do you believe me when I say it's a trap?"

"No." Yes.

"There you go." 

▲ 

The birds are even louder now. I start to pick out calls I haven't heard in years--a Kirtland's Warbler, a Hume's pheasant. I say the names aloud, and my voice breaks.

"You know a lot about birds, don't you?" Robin asks.

"Yes. Not like you, though."

"What do you mean?"

"You are a bird, aren't you?"

"Only sometimes," he says. "But you are an ornithologist."

So I was right. Considering what else has been going on, this barely registers on my weird-meter. "I'm a professor of ornithology. It's not exactly the same thing."

"You were once a field ornithologist. Did you change your shape?"

I've put on some weight, but that's not what he means. We walk on past a fallen oak, its insides hollowed out by rot, its bark coated with moss. I keep watching for birds, but I don't see any.

"Agoraphobia," I say finally.

"That's not a bird," he says.

"No. A condition. I had a therapist tell me it was a feminist disease." He doesn't laugh. "I started to panic at the thought of going out. My heart rate would elevate and I'd have trouble breathing."

"You seem fine now."

"Yes. I can't really explain that. Except . . . it was never the woods, really. The grounds, here, I never had any trouble being out there. But everything between the woods and the front door, the meetings, and car rides, and working lunches . . . it was just too much to deal with. When it was just me and the birds, it was fine. When Rex was here, it was fine. After he got sick, it got harder. And now . . . ." The words stick there; to get them out I'd have to vomit, or scream.

Robin is about to tell me something, but we come up over a rise and he stops. I catch up and stand next to him. It takes me a while to process what I'm seeing.

The boy is kneeling with his hands over his face; the girl lies on the ground beside him. Her clothes are stained with a spreading red, amoeba-like.

I shed my pack as I run to them. The girl is not moving, not breathing. There is so much blood that I can't tell where it's coming from.

"It was wolves," the boy says, too loudly. He must be in shock.

"Are they gone?"

"I think so." He squints up at the sunlight falling through the trees. His eyes are bright, but there are no tears. He is hiding something between his knees.

Above the boy's shallow sighs but below the endless looping of bird calls I hear something else, a low sound like a refrigerator's hum, rising and falling in a constant rhythm. The boy's sobs, I realize, are keeping time with the hum. A chill runs up my arms, and I stand.

"It wasn't really wolves, was it?"

The boy stares. There is a smell of rot here, as if the girl's body has already begun to decay.

"Take me with you," says the boy. "Keep me safe."

"What do you have there?" I ask him, and take a step back.

The boy reaches between his knees and pulls out a knife. Its blade and handle are slick with blood.

"She wasn't afraid," he says. "She knew I had to, so we could go to heaven."

"Who told you that?" I can barely hear the words myself. I am shivering as I say them.

"God." He smiles at me then, a beautiful smile. "You should have loved me; but it doesn't matter. All ways lead to him."

The boy raises the knife and slices open his own throat. He doesn't fall so much as he crumples, like a deflated punching bag. Air whistles through him, a brief, high-pitched sound that blends with the bird calls and then fades. 

▲ 

I step towards the boy, but Hank's voice stops me.

"Leave him," she says. "They failed, so this is easier."

She's aiming her rifle at me. I look around for Robin, but he's gone.

"So you're part of the trap, too."

"Love is not a trap."

I point to the dead children, and I start to cry. Even now, amidst all this blood and insanity, there's a voice in my head telling me not to get hysterical. But I'm not, really. I am angry and afraid, but very, very calm. "Do you call that love?" I ask.

"Don't turn this around," Hank says. "You were supposed to love the boy and take him as your own. He would have led you to the deeper love, shown you that you belong here." She relaxes her aim just a bit, and the sadness of her expression makes me cringe. "Maybe you're not very good at love," she says. "But you can be taught."

"I could never learn to love a place where things like this happen."

"Things like this happen everywhere," she says. "But they won't happen to you, not here."

I can see that she believes what she is saying, but I am not sure I believe she is who she says she is.

"What happened to your powers?" I ask. "When I knew Microwave she had no need for weapons. She could cook bad guys with rays from her hands."

"Power fades," she says. "Love is forever."

"Lights off," I say, and we are in the dark. 

 

This is not an ordinary dark. Not the dark of a bedroom at night, with an alarm clock glowing beside the bed; not even the dark of a moonless night far away from city lights. This is basement dark, cave dark, grave dark.

A loud crack cuts through the bird calls, and a shell whistles past me. I turn around--not an easy thing to do when all you can see is inscrutable black--and start to run. But there is no way to run in the black. I hold my hands out in front, groping for trees, and instead I trip over something. It could be a body, but I tell myself it's a root. I crawl along on the ground a short ways, in case Hank decides to shoot again, but she talks instead.

"You won't make it alone," she calls out. She's out of breath, and I can hear twigs snapping and leaves rustling as she moves off to my right. I find a tree trunk and huddle up against it, waiting for her to pass. The air is humid with dirt and decay.

"There are people who will kill you," she says. "People like the Arachnerd, people who don't respect Domidius or view you as his consort."

Consort. I start to shiver. This dark is seeping into me, in through my pores. Maybe she's right, and even the people that don't want to hand me over to the computer will just kill me for sport.

Maybe; but I'm not going to just hand myself over. I reach around on the ground, looking for a weapon. The birds sound so damn cheerful, and I decide to go with them. I find a nice stout branch, just big enough to close my fingers around. I clutch it to my body and stand. Keep on talking, I think, hoping that Hank will listen.

"You're looking at this the wrong way," she says on cue. She's somewhere ahead of me and to the right, talking about fields of flowers and an idyllic town by the river and tributes from every corner of the Lion's Den. She seems to be stumbling around at random; I move slowly, testing every step, trying to aim for a point somewhere along her ragged curving path. Her words take on the rhythm of the hum, like the boys' sobs."Domidius will rage," she says as I near her, and then she stops, as if she's heard me. Before she can react I shut my eyes and start my swing.

"Lights on," I say.

I hear her cry out, and then I feel my improvised club strike her. I don't dare open my eyes in the sudden light; even the pink glow through my eyelids is shockingly bright. Rex trained me to fight even in a blindfold, and I imagine that he's here watching me, that afterwards he'll tell me what I've done well and what I need to work on.

I swing again, and I hear Hank fall. I swing down. I hit her until I can't hear her moving or crying out. Then I back away and shade my eyes with one hand, holding out the branch with the other. The coos and chirps of the birds blend together into a string of almost-words that sound like, "So much blood. So much blood."

When my eyes adjust I see Hank lying folded up on her side, knees tucked towards elbows, one arm draped across the side of her head. There isn't much blood, despite what the birds say. I move Hank's rifle out of reach and check her pulse. The skin at her wrist is soft and warm, and she smells like bread and dusty carpet.

She still has a pulse. I'm so relieved I could faint. I can't just start killing people, no matter what they're trying to do to me.

I put on Hank's pack, and take her rifle, too. The first thing I want to do is find those kids, but I'm lost. I don't know how far we went in the dark, or which direction we came from. I'd run, but I don't even know which way is away.

"Follow him," say the birds. "Follow him, follow him." Robin--the bird, not the man--is perched in the birch above Hank. He looks at me sideways, his beak open, and then takes off, looping past me and then around, receding in a direction that I can't put a name to.

The birds keep talking to me as I follow. I used to do this in the field, sometimes, when my mind began to wander. I'd pretend the birds were giving me advice, but despite my best efforts I never really learned to speak Bird. Dragon's blood worked for Sigurd, but the only blood available to me is blood I don't want to think about.

Somewhere behind me the clock tower tolls some avian hour. I ignore it and keep walking towards the point where Robin vanished into the distance.

I walk and I listen to the birds, and sometimes I talk back to them. I try to do knock-knock jokes with the woodpeckers. Pretty soon I'm carrying on both sides of the conversation.

"How are you?" I ask. "Not that good," I answer. "I fell in love with the man who raised me. Now he's dead and his secret base is the size of a planet, and it's killing people to impress me." I wonder for the first time whether the computer--Domidius--could have killed Rex too. The thought is too terrible to spend more than a few seconds on.

I start to notice a new sound, sort of like the hum of the apartment, but different. The ground is sloping upwards. Actually, I think it has been for some time, but I've just noticed it. At the same time I realize that my feet are throbbing. I haven't walked like this in years.

The trees thin abruptly, and I'm at the top of a bluff, looking down a hundred feet or more at a wide river. Like Mississippi wide. The geography of this is defeating me. Am I in the women's locker room now, or one of the suites? Where is the galley? Hank said something about trying to avoid the galley. I wonder if that's because it's infested with giant ants or something, or if its inhabitants aren't friendly to Domidius, or whatever the apartment calls itself.

There's no clear way down to the river. I have to double back along the bluff and look for a gentler slope. At least the lights aren't as warm as they are bright. There must be a captive sun up there somewhere; these trees aren't living off of seventy-watt bulbs. The idea that I've got the power to shut off a star with a couple of words is a pretty heady one.

I'm sweating by the time I find a path down to the river. It's as much stream as path, and the sides and soles of my shoes are caked with clay by the time I reach the banks.

This is wilderness like I've rarely seen. No bike trails along the banks, no docks or pilings, no bridges in sight. I start to wonder about population density and how that impacts the bird population here. Except of course that there aren't any birds, not really. Just the sounds.

The water is clean and cool. I find a spot overhung by a huge willow; my clothes peel off like worn-out skin. I scrub myself carefully with sand, and dunk my head under to squeeze a layer of dirt out of my hair. It doesn't feel all that clean, but it smells better. The first chance I get, I'm going to cut it off and go back to the cropped cut I used to have. "Less for the bad guys to grab onto," Rex used to say. "Anyway, I like to see your face." In his mind I'm sure it was an innocent remark, but I still replay it in my fantasies.

After washing myself I wash my clothes, then lay down on a flat rock with the wet shirt over me. The sun feels hotter, now. I tell myself I'm not going to fall asleep.

When I wake up I can feel the sunburn on my face. The shirt is dry except for the end of one sleeve, which has been dangling in the river this entire time. I scratch at my armpits--the stubble there is itchy--and put the shirt on. Then I realize that Robin is standing in the shallows with a fishing pole. His pants are rolled up above his knees, and his shirt is unbuttoned. There is no hair on his chest, which I find a little disappointing.

"Catch anything?" My jeans are still wet, but I pull them on anyway. I'm nervous, which is stupid, but I can't tell my heart to stop hammering.

He motions over his shoulder. Near the bank is a steel bucket full of water and fish. My mouth starts to water.

"Hungry?" he asks.

I am so hungry that I can't believe that all I can think about is kissing him. No, not just kissing him; throwing him down in the shallows and fucking him. Food can wait.

"Kit?"

"Yes," I say, and I know I'm not going to kiss him. Not now and probably not ever. "I'm starving."

There's a knife in Hank's pack, and I use it to clean and gut the fish. It helps a little with the frustration. While I'm doing that Robin collects some wood and makes a fire. He also finds some mushrooms and some berries that he assures me are safe. There's a pan in Hank's pack, and a steel container of cooking oil. I do my best not to think about her while I'm sautéing the mushrooms and frying the fish and squirting berry juice over the finished filets.

I ask him where the way out is, and he points downriver. "You'll pass through the city," he says. "It will be dangerous."

"Lucky I have you to protect me."

Robin smiles but doesn't say anything. He eats two filets, pronounces them excellent, and then lies down for a nap. I don't suppose he eats fish all that often--mostly worms and berries. I can't believe I wanted to have sex with a bird.

There's a sound like a cat struck by a car with bad brakes, and then that dead clanking comes again, and everything blinks out. When it comes back, Robin is gone.

I remember what Hank said about people falling out. Falling through. I'm trying to get my breath back, to call out for Robin, when Teen-forcers Island comes floating around the bend. I can see the treehouse from here, and the windows of a newer, unfamiliar building--our bases were always being destroyed--glint from the side of the hill. Other than that, and the fact that the island is drifting like some ungainly barge, everything is just the same.

I don't even think before I dive into the river. 

▲ 

Joining the Teen-forcers--an ironic name, given that we were all in our twenties when we started the group--was my first serious attempt to fall out of love with Rex McMasters. High school boys were no competition for him, and college was somehow worse.

The team didn't get me over Rex, although I did have a brief fling with Stoney, Rock Lord's son. For a while we were all close friends. I've never met the current team, but I'm confident they'll be happy to help a founding member.

The island travels slowly, and I'm a strong swimmer. There's an Olympic-sized pool in the mansion, and I've spent a lot of time in it since taking my leave from the university. I don't bother to dry myself, just head inland to the clearing where the helipad used to be. It's overgrown now, and the new building stands opposite it now. It's a two-story earthship fronted with plates of stained glass. The patterns seems abstract at first, but with every step I see another winged shape.

I find a door at one side and knock once before entering. It takes a second for my eyes to adjust.

"You're all wet!" someone says. "Don't come any closer, you'll short out the entire place."

I stay where I am, waiting for my vision to clear. When it does I see half a dozen people at computer workstations, all wearing full costumes: masks, capes, spandex. Most of them are noticeably overweight. One of them stands, and the green-and-white insignia on his chest is stained with Cheetos dust.

"Welcome to Teen-forcers Data Processing," he says. "Who are--"

"It's Kit!" A young woman in a powder blue jumpsuit leaps up. She pulls a helmet that's clearly too big for her on over her red hair and flips the visor down. "Cannon-Girl at your service!" she says, and makes a pathetic attempt at the secret salute.

I return the salute correctly. I notice several of them imitating me as if they've never seen it before.

"How can we help you?" asks Cheetos Boy.

"I'm trying to find the way out. I understand it's downriver."

"Most everything is," says Cannon-Girl. "The river keeps going around and around, you know? Like an Escher print."

"How far is it?"

Cheetos Boy and Cannon-Girl exchange looks. "Just a couple of days to where you're headed," he says. "Cannon-Girl, would you like to show Kit to the showers, maybe find her some clean clothes? The rest of us can get to know her later."

I decide I don't like him, but Cannon-Girl is thrilled. She brings me upstairs and stands outside the bathroom while I shower. "I've read all the reports from when you were on the team," she says. "I even figured out your secret identity--I hope you don't mind! I can't believe you lived with Rex McMasters. He was a serious hottie, wasn't he?"

I don't say much. She brings me iced tea, and it makes me tired. I don't think about this until I try to put on the pajamas she brings me. As I'm struggling into the bottoms the world tilts and I'm looking up at her head orbiting me.

"You drugged me," I say.

"Oh." She looks sad for a moment, then claps her hands. "You'll see! Domidius will be so happy! You don't know how lucky you are . . . ."

But I don't want to hear how lucky I am, so I stop struggling and let myself fall asleep.

When I wake up later Robin is there. I am not sure that he isn't a dream. He sits on the bed where they have put me to sleep off the drug and looks beautiful.

"Are you here to rescue me?" I ask him. In my head the words are clear and bright, sly and knowing. On my paralyzed tongue they are like the moans of the madwoman in the attic.

"Domidius knows you're here," he says. "You need to get up."

"I can't," I tell him, but even a hard C is beyond me. He shakes his head, and I decide this is not a dream. If this were a dream he would understand me.

I take several deep breaths and manage to raise a hand to the back of his head and pull him down for the sloppiest, most disgusting kiss in history. I can't feel my lips or my tongue but I can feel saliva dribbling down my chin. It occurs to me that he eats worms. It's strange, this man-to-bird, bird-to-man. Man-to-chimp would make more sense, genetically, or bird-to-dinosaur. Kissing a sinosauropteryx wouldn't be nearly as much fun, though.

After we break Robin sits up and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. "That doesn't change anything," he says.

"It was nice, though." It comes out all vowels, but he smiles.

"Yes," he says. "It was." He speaks so softly that the words blend in with the voices of the ghost-birds at the edges of my hearing.

"Are you a figment of my imagination?" I ask.

"I'm as real as anyone you've met here," he says. "As real as Nancy Arch and her little brother Frederick."

His words are like a slap. I've been trying to forget the children, but now that they have names I'll never be able to.

He's shaking his head. "It's too late, now."

Then he is gone and Hank is there instead. The camouflage pillbox hat is gone and the blue leather jacket is muddy and torn. The entire left side of her face is swollen and discolored.

"I'd like to wake up now," I say.

"Your wish is my command," says Hank.

The others, the Teen-forcers, are behind her, all around the bed. I sit up and see that Hank's left leg is splinted with stout branches.

"Go ahead and kill me, then."

"I'm not here for revenge." She lifts a drum/hatbox very like the one Nancy Arch was carrying, and sets it on the bed. "I'm here to take you to the one that loves you."

"I think I'd rather you killed me."

"Too bad." She opens the box, and inside is one of my old costumes--the ears, the tail, everything but the claws. "Put it on," she says, and I see no point in refusing.

When I am dressed Cheetos-Boy ties my hands together with telephone wire. His face is like congealed Cream of Wheat, and his fingers are soft and thick. He smells like patchouli.

Hank drags me out of the room and downstairs and out, towards the east side of the island. The Teen-forcers follow. No one says a word; there are only the birds, chirping and chattering without any concern.

We walk to the old dock and find it tied to the pier of a gray-and-green city climbing up into hills. The island has come into port.

"Few things are impossible for Domidius," says Hank as we cross into the city. There are boats here, and warehouses, and a fish market, but no people.

"Except for, what . . . compassion?"

"He provides us with sustenance and love. All he asks in return is you."

"Is that a threat, then? If I leave, he'll make more people suffer?"

"Who can say? He is merciful, and slow to anger. But he really wishes you would give him a chance. He only wants to keep you safe. He would never endanger you the way Rex did."

"Don't you dare," I say. "Rex never endangered me. He was the finest man I ever knew."

"And yet, only a man," says Hank. "Domidius is so much more."

She drags me through narrow streets to a wide boulevard that climbs into the hills. The costume doesn't fit right, anymore. The boots are pinching my feet.

"The thing is, I'm already seeing someone." Periodically. When no one else is around. It's like having a crush on Snuffleupagus. "So maybe you could just tell Domidius that I'm not on the market just at the moment."

"You can tell him yourself," says Hank. Behind us the Teen-forcers are--aside from the marching of boots in time--silent.

"You better not be staring at my ass," I call back.

"Who is this boyfriend, anyway?" Hank asks. I think she's trying to sound unconcerned.

My guess is that Robin would rather I not mention him, but I'm still annoyed with him for all the disappearing. "He plays guitar," I say, "and he sings, and sometimes he's a bird. He can kill a man with a guitar pick, and he lives on a place called Bird Island that Domidius doesn't even know about."

Hank snorts. "We know about Bird Island." Which is surprising, considering I just made it up. "It fell out years ago. Robin's army is gone; no one is going to rescue you."

I can't imagine Robin with an army. Or when I do, it's an army of buffleheads, silent and duck-like. He walks along playing a guitar, and where he sets his feet an ocean spreads, ranks of little black-and-white sea birds paddling in ranks in his wake.

"Rome was built on seven hills," Hank says. "Domidius based his seat of power on a similar model."

We pass between villas and apartment towers, carved stone overgrown with what might be ivy. The noise of a crowd tumbles down the slope.

"The needs of his citizens are all met here. Food, and refreshment, and entertainment."

We walk along narrow, brick-paved lanes, uneven with age. Hank begins to hum. She drags me through an open plaza with a well and an outdoor café. The tables stand empty of all but flower vases, tidily abandoned.

Then we are through to the rim of a massive coliseum. In truth it is a valley ringed by hills, but all along its edges stand rows of seats, every one of them filled. There are thousands of spectators lined up behind a low stone rail which extends for miles around the valley. The faces are all different, but the expressions are the same: vacant rapture.

On the floor of the coliseum a Golden Lion is destroying a spider.

They are both giants. The lion is two hundred feet high, or two thousand. An elephant could fall into its mane and disappear. Buses could drive upon its tail.

None of this is possible, of course, but there is a deeper wrongness at work. The features of its muzzle are square, and light reflects from them. Metal clanks when it stomps on the spider's abdomen. It opens its mouth to clamp down on one of the spider's legs, and its teeth are like steel cut into jagged shapes. It roars in triumph as the spider falls, and feedback whines through the valley and is echoed back by the sky. The sun flickers.

"Domidius," I say, because I know this is him. I can barely hear myself over the ringing in my ears. The lion's head cranes upward to look towards me.

"The Arachnerd is no more," says Hank. "He is ready for you now."

Then the crowd gasps, and a winged shape rises over them and drops into the coliseum. "Cheerily, cheer up, cheer up," it whistles, and I laugh because I know it is Robin. But I stop laughing right away, because he is so very small.

Domidius the lion leaves the smoking steel spider and paws at the ground in challenge. Robin circles the lion's head, and it snaps at him, but Robin is too quick. He flies to the other end of the coliseum and lands. I lean forward to better see. The cord binding my hands gives, and I begin to work at it with my fingers.

The lion grunts and charges. For a second I think Robin is moving, but then I realize he is growing as quickly as the lion is running. He is the size of a dog, and then a man, and then a house. His black bowl cut becomes a reddish-brown Mohawk as his feathers change to scaly ridges, new bones to support his new mouth as his beak grows and flattens and fills with sharp teeth. His tail extends until it twitches against the ground, and his wings swell and bend to become short but powerful arms.

When the lion reaches him, Robin lifts one of those arms and swings it at Domidius's head. Claws draw blood black as oil, and send the big cat sprawling. Robin is still growing.

He growls, and it is the shriek of a hunting hawk, the cry of a songbird lamenting her stolen eggs. The stone buildings behind us tremble, and the people cling to the rail and gasp.

The cords are tight on my wrists, and I wonder if I will lose sensation in my fingers before I can free myself.

Domidius is on his feet before the crowd can worry; their shocked silence becomes a tide of sound. "Kill it!" Hank screams, and the crowd begins to chant. The rhythm matches the rasp of Domidius's breath. I can't even hear the birds anymore, over all these voices.

Robin is half again as tall as the lion, but when Domidius pounces on his chest I imagine I can hear hollow bones breaking. Robin claws at the lion's head, and comes away with a hank of mane. He rakes a hind leg along Domidius's belly and the lion backs away, howling.

I have my hands free now, but I don't dare give myself away yet. I'm on the edge of panic. I need to hear friendly voices.

"Birds louder," I say, but I don't hear any difference.

Robin stands, bleeding. Claw marks on his chest flow red, like the patterns of ritual scars. He screams like a vulture defending its kill, and lunges forward. Domidius rears up to meet him, and the two of them clash together like wrestlers, grappling shoulders and necks and arms.

"Birds louder," I say again. The noises are a cloud in my ears. Domidius roars and I hear static.

Robin gets one stubby arm free, and claws at the lion's mane. Frizzy shreds rain on the coliseum floor, and then the entire mass of curls falls away like a wig. Beneath it is the skull of a nightmare, titanium and steel and wires and springs and pneumatics.

"Birds louder." I turn and strike Cheetos Boy two-handed across his pasty face. I'm not the master of the martial arts I was a few years ago, but the Teen-forcers are not what they used to be either. I'm watching and waiting for one of them to use some power--an energy bolt or something would take me out if it hit--but nothing happens. They barely attempt to dodge the kicks and punches I throw at them.

"Birds louder," I say again, and my own voice is a warbling call, the words lost in a miasma of sound.

Cannon-Girl is the last Teen-forcer standing. I tear off her helmet and punch her square in the nose. I shove the helmet into Hank's belly and walk to the coliseum's edge.

Domidius has its metal teeth clamped on Robin's shoulder. The lion's skin is torn down the seams now, dangling from one shoulder like a parody of Hercules, plastic-covered vertebrae showing on its back.

Robin stumbles, gasping for breath, and the lion stays with him. Domidius's claws rend at my dinosaur boyfriend's sides and snout.

He'll die trying to save me.

"Birds louder," I say again. "Birds louder! Birds maximum!" Only the scraping in my throat reassures me that I am still speaking. The people in the seats are screaming too, if appearances can be trusted. Then they stand, and the entire mob charges the rail, and--

--a dead chunk, a smell of ozone, a blink as the entire world goes out--

--the air is filled with birds and their songs. Gusts of wings blow me back from the edge. I trip over the helmet and fall. Hank and the Teen-forcers are gone.

I crawl through the carpet of feathers to look over the rail. The static has given way to the cacophony of thousands of species, Tinamous and Garganeys and Petrels and Frigatebirds and Marsh Harriers moving in stacked phalanxes so tight I cannot tell who they are attacking in the coliseum below.

I feel a pinch in my shoulders, and for a moment I think it is a pair of my own wings, years late in arriving. But it is not that, or not precisely that, because when I look up I see a golden eagle clutching at me with its talons, wings spread wider than I am tall. It cannot lift me, and yet it does. Others grasp at my legs, my arms, and the waistband of my jeans. Dozens of them, large and small, carry me over the rail and down. Flying, I think to myself, tastes like terror.

Domidius falls out of the shroud of wings, stripped to the skeleton, silent except for the creak and sputter of his internals. As we descend the bones become girders, become landscape. They topple amid the remains of the Arachnerd's delicate beast, and I catch a glimpse of the spider-man himself, harnessed behind his levers and his buttons.

He looks so much like Rex. I never thought this before, and maybe it is just the age of him, the sagging of his features like sails unfurled on a windless day. This was my world, I am thinking. I was never afraid to fail when I was with Rex, because I knew he would never let me be hurt.

The birds disperse as we near the coliseum floor. Opposite the god in the machine lies Robin, shrinking and changing as I come closer. The birds are clearly not used to passengers; I bang my knee and skin my elbows on the landing. I crawl to Robin's side. He is bleeding everywhere, it seems like. But his eyes are open, and he smiles when he sees me.

Is this different? I don't know if I've rescued him or he's rescued me. But I'm not afraid.

The humming of Domidius's processors falters, begins to fade. The light above flickers, and the mecha-lion smells like burnt rubber. The ground begins to shake.

I run my hand over Robin's bowl-cut hair. "Is this the end of the world?" I ask him.

"This one, maybe," he says. "But there are others."

He takes my hand, and I cradle his head, and soon we fall through. Fall out. Fall in.

◄▪►

 

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