Plugs

Towering colonnades, thickets of spires, mountainesque domes, quarter-mile-high statues — the best way to see the city of Eavoa was from the air. And the best person to show it to you was Zaglevall Nunnin.

That was the gist of the posters Captain Nunnin had posted all over the dock district. He was behind the broadsheets that documented the troops of zombie macaques in the city’s upper reaches. Argive Flell — who ran the observation towers which Nunnin’s broadsheets happened to mention were not entirely secure against zombie monkeys — distributed his own broadsheets pointing out the sharpness of the beaks of pterodactyls and puncturability of zeppelins of Captain Nunnin’s fleet.

They tolerated each other’s excursions into the popular press, and wrote off their competing staffs of writers, typesetters and printers as the cost of doing business until a particularly lurid etching of a woman trying to wrest her baby from a foaming-mouthed macaque had tourists shuddering at the thought of the observation towers.

“This is outrageous!” bellowed Flell, after he’d burst into Nunnin’s office. “You know the zombie virus suppresses symptoms of all other diseases! A rabid zombie monkey is a medical impossibility!”

Nunnin shrugged. “The engraver’s hand slipped — cramps from all that atmospheric cross-hatching.”

“Irresponsible!” shouted Flell, still winded after the ladder climb up to the aerostat that housed his rival’s office. “Libelous!”

“Your viewing platforms are still open-air?” said the captain.

“So? No monkey’s going to scale a thousand meters of electrified fencing to reach them.”

“But — theoretically — they could,” said Nunnin, tilting his chair back.

“And — theoretically — flocks of giant Quetzalcoatlus could start migrating from the plains,” said Argive. “A pterosaur bigger than one of your balloons — that’ll make a lovely illustration…”

Nunnin was out of his seat. “They’d snap their wings in the outer colonnades! Anyway, our engines would scare them off, just like the small ones…”

Outside the window, a pterodactyl flew by with a macaque on its back. The monkey prodded the flying reptile with a gnawed shinbone.

“Isn’t one of your towers in that direction?” said Nunnin.

Argive nodded. “Did you see that monkey steer that ‘dactyl right over the engine end of one of your zeps?”

Nunnin was busy emptying his safe. “Need a lift out of town?”

“I believe I do,” said Argive.

Another pterodactyl flapped by with another macaque.

“I believe I do.”

“Message coming in.” The communications officer looked toward Captain Nels Okkerstrom. “They’re transmitting the images now.”

Not for the first time, Nels wished he were down on the planet instead of heading Earth’s first interstellar skipship. “Transfer them to the AI,” he said.

Nels had been twelve when scientists at CERN had sent their first experimental tachyon message. A millisecond later they had been inundated with responses nobody had been able to translate. Now, thirty years later, here was The Prometheus and her crew orbiting one of the sources of those messages.

Everyone on the bridge watched as images from below flitted across the computer’s screen. Everyone on earth who was tuned in could see them, too, via quantum ansible. Cylindrical alien buildings, signs, scrolls, all the extant imagery of a dead civilization still transmitting to the stars.

Nels tore his gaze away from the screen. “Katya? How is the translation going?”

The computer expert glanced up from her own screen monitoring the AI’s progress and spread her hands. With visual as well as digital information, the computer stood a good chance of being able to decode the signals. If not, computers all over Earth were viewing the same data. With luck, they’d soon know why this culture was extinct.

Nels ordered the ground team to return to the ship. He didn’t want them spending the night just yet. There was no reason yet to brave whatever might lurk below. He paced the bridge.

Two hours later Katya Malinov leaned toward her monitor. “Got it, sir,” she murmured.

“Put it up,” he said, gesturing to the public address speakers. “We’ve all waited long enough.” The communications officer flipped a switch.

“Extend the life of your sun.”

Nels cocked his head. So this was the alien message, a warning. Was there some previously unknown danger to their solar system?

“You have won the extrasolar lottery!”

Captain and computer officer exchanged glances. Nels said, “Is that–?” and she said, “Um.”

“Big sale on black holes!”

“Good god,” said Nels. “It’s spam.” He drew his hand across his throat. “Cut it off.”

“Sir,” said an officer at the helm. “The Bohr is requesting permission to dock.”

“Granted,” said Nels. “Tell them we’re–” The huge ship shuddered. The lights dimmed. “What the hell?”

“We lost power,” said one officer and, “No, it was diverted,” said another. The artificial gravity switched off. “It’s still being diverted,” said the computer officer. “To our communications array.”

“Cut off the AI,” yelled Nels, floating impotently in midair.

The gravity switched on, then off, then on. Air whistled out the vents.

“Satisfy your loved one,” bellowed The Prometheus to the galaxy. “Debt consolidation is easy!”

In Monday’s story, Susannah brought us a cutting from Goodwife Python’s Bestiary of Wonderful Flowers that contained the line, “Do not give [the devil] back his hat.”
I second this exhortation because, from firsthand experience, I know how true it is.
A few years ago, I worked as coat check clerk at a Nephelim bar in the theater district, back when it was still more of a semi-abandoned warehouse district. We had a list of rules, written by the owner in red Sharpie on pizza box cardboard, and not giving the devil his hat was number 5.
It was like a practical joke or a running gag between the boss and the fallen one. We had a whole lead-lined room in the basement full of hats, each on its own Styrofoam head, all under a continual mist of holy water. Each — cowboy hat, bowler, knit black watch cap, velvet beret — had two little holes for the horns, but even without that, you would have known. The heaviness in the pit of your stomach would have told you.
The thing about the hats is that they concealed something even more powerfully troubling: the devil’s haircut. That’s right, like the Beck song — where other cultures have proverbs, we distill wisdom for future generations in pop culture. It was different every time, sculpted hair-by-hair with some infernal product, each ‘do an unforgettable, mind-burning sigil, like crop circles or mandalas whose meaning you never wanted to know. But I digress.
It all went well enough until the day the devil didn’t just roll his eyes at the excuse du jour.
“Yeah. Fine. Never mind about the hat,” he said. “I know better than to wear anything decent here. But,” he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial pitch Eve might have recognized, “there’s a feather in the brim, and I’d like that back.”
There wasn’t anything on the cardboard about feathers, and the boss said to treat him like anyone else (except the hat thing), so I headed downstairs. The foam heads howled; the sprinklers misted what looked and smelled like blood. The only hat with a feather was the fedora I grabbed.
“Thanks,” said the devil. “Last one.” He twitched his shoulders. “Souvenir of the wings that were.”
A tip smoldered on the counter, generous enough — once the gold congealed again — but I quit. When the devil starts noticing you, however positively, it’s time to look for more anonymous work. Please, forget you heard any of this. Just remember the hats.

Between densely gnarled groves, the ruins of Castle Noland rose on Spindle Mountain against the late sun like a needle one cannot spot in the carpet unless the light catches it or he steps on it.  The mountain, though short, was steep and crumbled in Yul’s hands–a miracle it had lasted so long.  It would not bar him from his lost father.

Castle Noland lacked drawbridges and doors, so Yul made one, knocking down bricks, some of which decomposed to powder.  Sunlight streamed through the roof and holes in the mortar, illuminating dust motes.  One beam shone on a white-bearded, white-robed old man stooped atop his throne:  like God after the sixth day.  The beam moved, and the old man regressed into shadow.

Was this the same man who sent the child Yul on quests:  Track the Amethyst of Memory to the caves of Kaldan, wrestle the Ruby of No Regrets from the King of Cobramen, hunt down the Cape of No Tomorrows through the thorny jungles of Afterwine?

Yul had never put his mind to quests.  He’d set out but–heavy-hearted–stopped to rest on a stump.  Days passed like a clock’s pendulum.  Soon hunger roused his head, and he’d slink home.

Yet Yul fetched the Ruby of No Regrets by trading plastic beads he’d dubbed the Necklace of Deathless Hours:  “Hours slipped without a death if you gripped the necklace righteously.”  True, it’d fail, but had they held it right?

The Ruby had never given Yul the confidence he needed to start his own life.  Instead, Yul had worried over quests his father shipped him on.  Late in his third decade, he, questing, paused at a village, where a gangly girl drew water.  When he asked for a drink, she gave without reservation.

Twelve decades later, he’s returned, to bring Father to a new home among sheep and grapevines.  Yul stood beside the old man:  his white contrasting with the gleaming ruby ring lolling on the right, wrinkled hand.

“Hello?”  The old man leaned forward, milky white eyes scanning the room.  “That you, Spot?  I’ve a doggy biscuit.”

Yul grit his teeth.

“I shouldn’t have let you go.”  The last word was a sob.

Yul wanted to shake the man, ask if a lost dog was all he regretted.

The old man’s body shook violently.  His ribs rippled beneath the robes, coming and going.  “I loved you like a son.”

Yul wrapped his arms around his father, shushing and humming a lullaby.

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