By this time the warehouse was overgrown with moss and filled with chittering, scampering, slithering, hissing, and buzzing life. I had beavers as big as football mascots, flowers that ate small lizards, and hornets the size of grapefruits. What I really needed, though, was a way to make the magic extend beyond the dirty concrete walls of the warehouse, to spill out into the greasy alley and burst forth into the city, to turn the streets into green, algae-choked rivers and the skyscrapers into trellises for brilliantberry and humweed vines. And I was pretty sure that feeding the live, virginal body of Rapid Man’s girlfriend Grace Angeline to the sorcerer plant would do it.
“Holy damn,” whispered Grace Angeline. “What is this place?”
“It’s the world as it was intended to be,” I told her. “A world that hasn’t been plowed under and burned and beaten back and poisoned by mankind. It’s humanity’s cradle … and soon it will be humanity’s grave.”
“You’re insane,” she said. “… and yet, I understand where you’re coming from.”
Then there was a shrieking sound, like the noise a bomb makes as it splits the sky, and the next moment Rapid Man was standing in front of me, all white and silver in his costume, his hand out in his trademark Rapid Strike pose.
“Put her down, Chancey Gardener,” he said.
“Wait … then you favor global warming?” I said. “Even now, colonies of emperor penguins in Antarctic are dying–entire colonies–because of melting ice cover. You’re all right with that?”
“What’s that got to do with …”
“Biomass, Rapid Man. For god’s sake, study your science! More plant life in the context of a balanced ecosystem of plants, animals, and microorganisms means less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and less global warming. If you intervene, it will be your fault that these plants can’t expand into what should have been their natural sphere, your fault that those penguins die.”
“But …” said Rapid Man, stymied for a moment. It was exactly as I had expected: no superhero can be seen as a penguin-hater. I pitched Grace Angeline toward the sorcerer plant and hummed a command to my hornets, who converged on Rapid Man like rain converging on a puddle.
He recovered quickly. Before the hornets had even reached him, he had run in a great loop and stripped off the wings of each, letting the poor insects plummet to the ground. He caught Ms. Angeline in mid-air, whisked her away so quickly I couldn’t even note his direction, and was back to snatch me up by the front of my shirt before I could sneeze.
Well, it had been worth a try, but obviously there was only one way to defeat Rapid Man. I wished my plants a silent farewell and detonated the nuclear device.
The town of Antrin Corners sat in hot summer darkness, from Hank’s Auto to Fred’s Coffin Refurbishment. Down at the Clothes Check (“No More Burst Buttons! No More Teeth Marks!”), Sandrine had just finished mending young Jim Seely’s shirt, placing it in the cubby with the rest of his things, when Officer Smarandescu stopped in.
“Coffee?” she offered, hoping her voice didn’t shake.
“No, thank you; I’m almost ready for the coffin,” he replied, carefully looking into her eyes.
“All quiet tonight?”
“Well, yes, though it’s damned close to full out there.”
She pointed at her mending pile.
“Don’t I know it,” she smiled.
“It’s mostly the newcomers who can’t keep it together in the afterlife. You’re human, and anyway you grew up here. But the new people… Sometimes I think of going to a quieter beat, like New York. I hear there are some—sympathetic—folks in the force there.”
“Dumitru! Even you were new here, a couple of centuries ago. Be nice.”
“True: but that means I know the families. I know who’s carrying a grudge against whom. At least it’s all quiet on the feuding front tonight,” he joked shyly.
He hoped his voice didn’t shake, either. Her coffee might be appalling but her countenance was superb. The way she had looked at him lately, he had begun to hope she might risk the bite. It was a lonely coffin every dawn. Fred would widen it practically at cost, for an old friend. Too old?
“It’s never all quiet. You know that, Dumitru. Some cub is always falling in love with some young vamp—or worse, fighting over a human—and then the moon goes full and all hell breaks loose. It’s like that Twilight,” she went on, smiling apologetically when he flinched.
“We don’t glow,” he grumbled.
“You do to me,” she replied before she could stop herself. He stared at her.
“Perhaps,” he ventured at last, “You might come for a flight at bat time, some night? If it doesn’t scare you. You’ve always been brave, for a human.”
She smiled at him.
Lem stepped off the elevator and realized he didn’t have any change. He slapped his pockets, looking for something smaller than a 10. Margie would kill him if he blew $10 on an elevator ride. She didn’t believe in propitiating the gods anyway. “They wouldn’t have given us this technology if they didn’t want us to use it,” she always said. This attitude was why he hadn’t been promoted beyond second-grade, he was sure, but try telling her that!
Someone nudged his arm. It was Jenelle, the new IT specialist whose office was still being painted. Someone had forgotten to propitiate the God of something or other and the painters had refused to work until it was taken care of. Jenelle was holding a nickel.
“Oh thanks,” Lem said. He dropped it in the brass dish, muttering “Thank you for this lift.”
“How is your office coming?”
She frowned. “I’m still camped in the coffee room.”
“Share my office,” he said. That evening on his way home, Lem put $10 in a streetside kiosk dedicated to Libidos, patron of deceivers.
Margie was not affectionate, even downright cold. Could she read his mind?
Lem helped Jenelle carry the old wooden desk into his office. He moved his desk over so hers could fit in front of the window too. He emptied one drawer in his file cabinet for her. He couldn’t help staring at her whenever he thought she wouldn’t notice. As the days passed, her attire seemed skimpier and more transparent. All he could think about was her flesh moving under her blouse and skirt. In his fantasies, she wore nothing underneath.
One day they both stayed late. The floor was deserted. He closed the door, leaned on her desk. He looked her in the eye. “You know what I’m thinking,” he said.
“I’ll draw the curtains,” she replied, and did.
“This was a high-dollar job,” the inspector said. “The blood has been completely drained. Not the work of your standard succubus. He moved the extra desk into his office about three weeks ago?”
The office manager shrugged. “No one else wanted it. More room in the lounge. No idea why he wanted it in here.”
The inspector rubbed his chin. “Any change in his behavior? Apart from the desk.”
The office manager shook his head. “Nothing beyond staying late alone almost every night.”
The office manager reached out to catch the inspector’s sleeve as he turned to leave. “Who called the succubus?”
“It’s usually the wife. That’s where my money is.”
A swordswoman hiking up a ravine toward the besieged city of M. heard a bird’s song. Not even the whole song, just a string of notes, falling quickly down then rising slowly up. It stuck in her head the whole march, through the silence when they couldn’t even whisper, and then she found herself singing it under her breath to the beat of the battle’s parry and lunge. When they’d won and the city was free and the wine was plentiful, she sang it until she was hoarse, and her comrades sang with her.
By the next time they were hired into battle, the song had found words and an air of bravado. A song of attack and a song of victory. Twenty years later, when her war-band had become an army and then an empire, the tune slowed to an anthem, gathering about itself trumpet-glints and timpani-shadows, on the morning of her coronation.
In the border-expanding years of the second empress’s reign, it was sung by schoolchildren and marched to in parades that seemed to happen twice a week or more.
When rebellion years sent the fourth empress into hiding, it was sung softly, almost prayer-like, behind drawn curtains late at night.
When the twin empresses eleven and twelve commissioned fleets of exploration, the song was transcribed for hundreds of foreign instruments in a score of unfamiliar scales.
When twenty-third empress abdicated by disappearing into the noonday crowd on the grand plaza, it attained a melancholy grandeur, sung in snatches as a kind of password — until the fifth regent banned it in the course of an anti-royalist purge.
And when, several tens of thousands years later, an explorer from shores more distant than the empire’s furthest borders picked up a music box that had just enough twist left in its springs to play the song (nearly as much of it as the barbarian swordswoman had heard that distant afternoon), it tingled in the explorer’s tentacles and lingered in her peripheral brain’s deeper nodes all the way back up to the comfort of the limit ship. With the rest of her planetside experiences, she loaded it into the memory pool. Next time they slipped through a particle/wave inversion, the ship loaded it to the wider aether. Then the song quavered to life in trillions of minds on a thousand worlds and, this time, it would not be forgotten.