The Night The Stars Sang Out My Name
I should have been a runner.
Of course I’m naked. Naked and running full–on. Suit seized up three weeks back. Then captured. So now I’m naked and running under stars that steal my words and warp my sense of size in the vastness of Everything. Using a stolen charstick to burn my way out. A flash. A scream. A smell of burning meat.
I should have been a chef.
CHIB–CHILI, CHIB–PUREE, CHIB–KABOB –– That’s my jiminy. He chatters endlessly when nervous. His name is Eddie.
My stomach lurches. I haven’t eaten in days. Even chib sounds good.
Speak of the devil, one appears. I burn out its face. Chibby Chibby Burning Bright ––
I should have been a poet.
My jiminy agrees with this and launches into a litany of children’s verse. Find our way out of here, I send.
A tisket a –– WORKING ON IT, BOSSMAN –– a tasket a green and yellow––
Another chib breaks through the foliage to my west. I sweep the charstick over it. Another flash. Another scream. More meat.
Hey diddle diddle , my son John –– WEST FIVE LEAGUES, ROVING PACK SEVEN –– went to bed with his stockings ––
I adjust my course. Good work, Eddie.
DON’T MENTION IT.
`And he’s back at it with the verses. Five leagues more of Eddie’s manic sing–song. I tell myself I’m going to have him removed. Upgraded. I tell myself he’s been a real pain in the you–know–what for the past thirty years. I tell myself that he’s not my friend and I don’t need him.
But I do. I really should have been a poet. Then I wouldn’t need this extra personality piggy–backing my own, watching my six. Then all I’d need is words.
WORDS – BIRDS – TURDS – CURDS ––
A moment’s peace, is all I ask.
A teacher. I should have been a teacher. An academic, stuffy and proud and (most important of all) without a jiminy.
The whoop–whoop of a Finder goes off somewhere to my left. The moss gives way to ankle–deep swamp–water. Something slimy and soft moves over my foot. God knows what else lives on these far–flung planets. We thought the chibs were bad enough.
THE INNER C’HIBORYAL SYSTEMS ARE HOME TO THOUSANDS OF DISTINCT SPECIES OF FLORA AND FAUNA, LENDING SUPPORT TO FELORIAN’S THEORUM OF ––
Enough Eddie. You left me, you fucker.
The jiminy finally, finally shuts up. Lights squeeze past me hissing into the water. Behind me, chib–talk warbles in panting shouts. I spin–drop to one knee, the foul water splashing up into my face. I level the charstick and sweep it left and right. More screams. One of them is mine. A near passing beam opens a welt on my side.
I’m not gonna make it. I’m going back to the camp, I think. That stinking hole where’d they’d taken me. Where they’d hurt me into talking even though I knew absolutely nothing about the battleboats.
I should have been a ––
SOLDIER! SOLDIER! ON YOUR FEET, SOLDIER!
And he sounds like my Drilly back Home. Like two hundred fifteen pounds of midnight black meanness poured into a man and force–fed to a brigade of eager young bucks. Drilly’s dead, I know, but that voice. That ––
MOVE! MOVE! MOVE!
I’m up and running. Somewhere, Eddie is ticking away the long list of what’s wrong with me. Chib unbending drugs. Head injury. Dehydration. Exhaustion. All good reasons for me to falter but piss–poor excuses. Did they used to say piss–poor back in the old days?
The things you wonder.
A pop somewhere way back behind. Another Finder? Or maybe a Seeker? Something tangles around my foot. It tightens and pulls. I fall face first and the charstick hisses and sparks out when it hits the water. I lose it, scramble for it and find nothing. I’m being dragged backwards now, my fingers digging into the muck to find some kind of grip. Somewhere behind me a chib is reeling me in and I remember fishing with my father back before the bug–bombs fell. I was eight. It took six months to figure out that we were being poisoned by something other than evolution.
He held up a trout. My Dad, I mean. Held it up and grinned. “Look, Billy!”
I smile back. “Nice one, Dad.”
CHIB PATROL EIGHT CUBITS TO THE SIX, Eddie says.
I push off from the bottom. I flip myself over so that my shoulders and arms leave a wake behind me. Overhead, stars like scattered new pennies glint and shimmer in a thick field of sky punctuated by skeletal trees.
I’m afraid now. My nose is in the wash of rotten water. I escaped once, I tell myself. I could do it again.
NOW THEY KNOW ABOUT ME. YOU’LL BE ON YOUR OWN THIS TIME.
I snarl. Like before.
TEMPORARY DISASSOCIATIVE MALFUNCTION.
I know he’s right. He came back when he could. Came back and got me the hell out of there.
I see them now. They huddle, hunched over, piles of stinking meat on too many legs with too many arms. One of them works the Seeker and reminds me of my Dad and that trout again. My bladder’s dry or I’d have cut loose right then. My body is remembering those arms, those long fingers, the weird tools and needles that made me scream and talk and sob.
PREPARE FOR COGNITIVE OVERRIDE.
I’ve heard of it happening before. I’ve also heard of it going very wrong. There’s a reason why the AI’s aren’t allowed to drive. Unhinged minds. Atrocities.
No, Eddie, I send. Terminate override.
The chib pain was nothing compared to this. Head squeezed in a vice and popping. Fire underneath the skin spreading. But I do not scream. Roar of water rushing by.
And somehow, I am on my feet. Every limb is lashing out and I spin and spin like those gypsies in Mom’s shake and whirl dervish glass.
I should have been a dancer.
I yank the reel from the fisher–chib’s hands and beat him with it. My foot caves in a soft chib jaw. My other hand finds well–hidden but unprotected genitalia and squeezes out the howls. It’s not me. It’s Eddie. My jiminy. Raging.
In moments, they are all down. Eddie has another charstick now. He thumbs it to life and burns them into the bloody, boiling swamp–water. Chib–stew. Now I’m the rider in the backseat watching him do something I’ve done a hundred times on twenty worlds.
LET’S GO, I say.
He doesn’t answer. He turns in the direction of Roving Pack Seven and we set out. No more chibs find us and somewhere in the mesh–cap beneath my own scalp I go to sleep.
When I wake up, it’s my world again and I think for a moment that I am alone for the first time since I woke up in the chib camp. Before that terrible day, I’d spent thirty years with a voice inside my head keeping me safe, alive.
But I am not alone. Hulking suits move sluggishly around me, patrolling the fringe of my vision. I hear the hum of their biomechs. I hear each tiny pebble beneath their feet as it crushes to powder.
“Eddie?” It took a second to realize I’d said it aloud.
One of the suits stops, turns, moves toward me. There is a hiss as the voicemitter engages. “Sorry, Sarge. We’ve uploaded your jiminy for evaluation. It was pinging pretty high on the stress–check.” The PFC pauses, probably wondering where my face went. I want to tell him that it’s slid off me and into the dirt of this chib world hell. “I’m sure they’ll get him back to you soon.”
I swallow back a lump. I try to fight tears. Something breaks in me like one of those pebbles underneath massive metal boots. I am naked and alone in this place.
And I hear my name and look up. Overhead, the stars are moving in a dance like Eddie’s dance. Overhead, deep space pushes down on me like a warm blanket. Overhead, a solitary speck of light moves at a different pace than all the others. A transport, full–up, off to find another chib world and punish it for the near extinction of the human race.
I miss the voice inside my head.
I should have been a ––
No. I am a soldier.
I miss my friend.
Ken Scholes’ quirky, speculative short fiction has been showing up over the last eight years in publications like Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Clarkesworld Magazine, Best New Fantasy 2, Polyphony 6, and L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume XXI.
His five-book series, The Psalms of Isaak, is forthcoming from Tor Books with the first volume, Lamentation, debuting in Februrary 2009 and the second volume, Canticle, following in October 2009. His first short story collection, Long Walks, Last Flights and Other Journeys, is forthcoming from Fairwood Press in November 2008.
Ken is a 2004 winner of the Writers of the Future contest and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He has a degree in History from Western Washington University.
Ken lives near Portland, Oregon, with his amazing wonder-wife Jen West Scholes, two suspicious-looking cats and more books than you would ever want to help him move. He invites folks to look him up through his website, kenscholes.com.
Editorial © 2008 Ken Scholes. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish