Back | Next

6. Safronesco

“When the clock tick-tocks, toys come out to play,

“And as children gather ’round, we like to say:

“Welcome to our world! Welcome to our world!

“Welcome to our WORLD—of TOYS!”

Billy Lane paused at the foot of the escalator, his eyes drawn to the animated figures clustered around and peeking out through doors in the giant clock tower. Each one of them—the strutting toy soldiers, the singing mice, the dancing red shoes, and the rolling eyes of the smiling clock face itself—all moved in time to the music of the song. Billy stared long enough to confirm this notion for himself: that what seemed like separate little stories and bits of action were really all just part of one big, cranked-up machine. Like some ingenious … clockworks! Cool!

Billy climbed the escalator steps two at a time, so that he went up faster than the people around him. The first floor of the store was all girl things—stuffed animals, doll houses, and Barbie accessories—and he wanted to get away from that world as quick as possible. The second floor was for babies—or the things that adults thought babies wanted—brightly colored blocks, jigsaw puzzles with pieces as big as Billy’s hand, and animal-shaped music boxes. He raced around the end of the escalator and kept on climbing.

Halfway up the next flight he saw three very odd children—two boys and a girl—riding the opposite escalator. They were standing straight rather than walking down the steps, as Billy or any other child would. All three looked the same: straight, dark hair and solemn, pale faces with deep-set, green eyes. The three were dressed in dark suits, like Billy’s mom wanted him to wear at Sunday service, except that the girl wore a pleated skirt instead of trousers. It took Billy just a second to figure out that the boys were actually twins and the girl had to be their sister. She stood in front, on a lower step, with her arms folded across her stomach. Billy could see she was clutching a bundle of folded cloth with something round and hard hanging from her fingertips. He recognized it as a Power Rangers suit—the girl’s kind, in pink and white satin—and a matching helmet with black, almond-shaped eye lenses. The boys each held what looked like pieces of a large kite made of shiny black mylar.

When they caught him staring, their three faces turned as one to stare back.

He ducked his head and raced on up the steps.

The store’s third floor was Billy’s special place, full of robots and action figures, construction sets, and remote-controlled cars—things that worked, that did stuff, that made sense. He stopped first at the Lego display. Billy’s set at home was big, almost a thousand pieces, but he could never make the castles and rocket ships and other fantastic shapes that the store people always built. He tried to count the number blocks in the battleship they had made this time, all out of gray blocks. And who had a set of nothing but gray, anyway? He stopped counting at two hundred, and he was not even halfway down the ship’s side. He wondered if the thing was hollow, or if there were decks and rooms inside. That would be really neat! But there was no way to tell, because the battleship was hanging by wires from the ceiling. No playing with it allowed.

Billy ran on to the display of robots. There was a wide space in the floor here, between the toy shelves, where the store people had unwrapped the robots and let you play with them, for a little while, as long as you agreed to share. Billy picked up the remote box for a Mech Monster. It wasn’t actually a remote, he saw, because a gray wire went from the box to the robot’s heel. That wasn’t as good as radio control, but maybe it meant the robot could do more things. Billy pushed the buttons and saw the robot swivel its head and swing its arms. Now, if only it could fire some weapons …

A girl was watching him. Billy stopped and stared back at her. Girls didn’t play with robots. Girls weren’t actually supposed to be in this area, if you asked Billy’s opinion. After a minute, she dropped her eyes and went back to playing with her robot—or the store’s robot, which she was just using.

Billy squinted at her robot. He had never seen anything like it before. It was twice as big as a Mech Master, more like a Mech Walker. As a toy lover, Billy knew all about the different kinds of plastics: the soft kind you could bend, the hard kind that broke with a snap, and the kind with the silvery surface that was supposed to look like metal but wasn’t, not really. Most of this robot was made out of real metal, not as shiny as the plastic stuff, more like a dull gray. And the clear parts were much clearer than plastic, more like glass. And the toy didn’t have any wheels, not even concealed in its feet. Billy walked over to where the girl was sitting. And hey, where was the control box?

As he came up, the robot rose from its crouch. It stood on two legs, balanced forward, and swayed slightly, like a basketball player guarding his man. Cool! Billy had seen something like that in movies, where you could do anything with computers, but never in real life. And not in any kind of toy he could remember.

“Where’d you get that?” he asked, pointing.

The girl looked at him, then at the robot. “Around here.”

“Can I play with it.”

She shrugged. “Sit down.”

Before Billy could move, the robot dropped back into its crouch.

“Not you,” the girl said to the robot. “Go and play.”

Swiveling its blunt head, which had two red diode eyes and what looked like radar antennas for ears, the robot looked at her. “Won’t you introduce me to your friend?” it asked in a voice that wasn’t as … cute? cuddly? at least not as babyish as all the talking toys Billy had heard before. This one spoke more like … her kid brother.

She nodded at Billy. “He doesn’t want to meet you yet. Go and play.”

The robot stood up, looked Billy up and down, pivoted on the balls of its feet, and walked off. Billy followed the thing with his eyes. The robot immediately found another boy, who was playing with a remote-controlled police car, and squatted to watch him intently.

“How’d you do that?” Billy asked the girl.

“Voice control.” She looked at him with a pale gray stare, as if daring him to call her a liar.

“I … uh … didn’t know they understood English,” was all Billy could say.

“It’s a newer model.” She patted the floor beside her, and he sat down. “So … are you here with your mother or somebody?” she asked.

“Yeah, Mom’s downstairs with my little sister. They’re looking at doll houses.”

The girl made a face, as if she thought such things were as stupid as Billy himself did. “How old are you?” she asked. Not his name, his age.

“I’m ten. And you?”

“I’m ten, too.”

“What’s your name?” Billy asked.

“Mer—Mary … Jane. Do you live around here?”

“No, in Walnut Creek. But I was born here.”

“In the city?” The gray eyes brightened.

“From the time Mom and Dad lived in an apartment out on Hayes Street, before Shelly was born. But I don’t remember it too much, because … Ouch!”

The pain in his forearm was intense, like something cold and sharp. Billy looked down and saw a needle embedded deep in the muscle. Instead of a plunger, like the needles a doctor used, this one had a tiny glass bulb. It was turning red, and Billy guessed that was his blood. The girl leaned over and plucked it out of his arm. Her fingers twitched, and the needle disappeared … maybe into her pocket. Billy couldn’t follow her movements.

“Why did you do that?” he asked, rubbing the spot. It was sore, but there wasn’t any blood coming out.

“It’s kind of a game,” the girl said.

“It’s a really bad game,” Billy said. “I’m going to tell—”

“Don’t be a baby! It didn’t hurt that much, did it?”

At that moment, the metal robot walked back over to where they were sitting. It tugged the hem of her jumper with a clawed hand. “We are not alone, Merola,” it said quietly.

“Where?” the girl asked.

“Circuits on all sides.” The robot waved a claw around the store. “Just lit up in the last eight seconds.”

“Right.” The girl stood up and pulled Billy up, too. “Get out of here,” she said. “Take your mother and sister, if you can find them. But get out—” She gave him a push toward the escalator. “—now!”

*   *   *

When Berzher said “not alone,” Merola knew he wasn’t talking about store detectives, local police, or any kind of trouble that the humans inside the store could detect—or understand. He meant the Flüchtlinge. Perhaps even Möglichen. Either would be a deadly threat to Merola and her kind.

They both had been expecting some kind of interruption all morning. You really could not operate in the clear, among people like this, for very long. On a Search, everyone was watching. But she had done well: four marrow samples with a geographic range that might be as wide as ten thousand miles and forty thousand years, given that one of the children matched the phenotype Rydin called “Chinois”—or perhaps even one of the fabled wild-type Nipponiers. The last specimen had been as blonde as Merola’s own wig. Rydin would have called him a “Euro,” maybe of Scandian stock, or possibly a Roos. Good diversity. A good spread. And the samples were now stabilized in the environment of her special pocket.

As the boy Billy ran for the escalator, Merola turned to Berzher. “Stand and fight?” she suggested.

“Not unless you want to leave streaks,” her lieutenant replied. “Besides, I need this chassis.”

Merola hesitated for a fraction of a second longer. But then … the others would have all the time in the world. They would know everything about her party: its composition, deployment, weapons, and time on mark. They would be coming in force sufficient to guarantee the outcome of any engagement. “Best to fly,” she agreed.

They ran to the back of the store—moving closer, of course, to the building periphery, the enemy’s indicated arrival point, but closer still to her ship. They had left it in a storage room that was crowded with boxed and baled merchandise for sale: legions of toy robots, electric wheeled vehicles, some sized to fit a child, gaudy boxes of puzzles and games, dress-up costumes representing a variety of currently admired mythical characters, and a collection of wind-powered flying machines called “kites.” While Berzher attended to ship preparation, Merola retrieved her biosuit.

She had left it on an upper shelf, folded with a stack of pink and yellow costumes for females that were labeled “Power Rangers.” From the dust in the creases of these garments, Merola had guessed that no one would disturb the pile during her brief time on mark. Now she dug through it, feeling for the peculiar weight of her suit’s laminated fabric. It wasn’t there! She found plenty of thin nylon garments, some that might even fit her, but none that would sustain her life under the extreme conditions presented by her intended journey. Even her helmet was missing from the line of pink-and-white plastic shells with lozenge-shaped lenses. Someone—some near-sighted clerk with remarkably insensitive fingers—must have sold her biosuit in place of a make-believe superhero outfit.

“One minute, Merola,” Berzher warned. From a bin of folded kites—twenty-first century toys made of sticks, paper or plastic film, and string—he had extracted four of the panels of their liteship, unfurled their laminar plies of molecule-thin energy branes, rigged the retaining wires, and released the selvaged singularity that was the liteship’s heart.

His carapace froze. “Two panels are missing!”

“I know,” she said. “My suit’s gone, too.”

Berzher gave the mechanical equivalent of a shrug and leapt to his position on the starboard support rod. He clung there with three of his robot claws and jacked his sensorium into the control station. The top and bottom panels were already glowing with charge. “We can make it off planet on four panels,” he said.

“My suit’s gone!” she repeated, more loudly. “I can’t fly!”

“Well—then—you could—I could—”

“No choice. You fly out of here. I stay behind.”

“And do what? Fight the Möglichen? Bargain with them?”

“You can get a message through. Tell Rydin I messed up. Have a relay team deposit another suit for me. Or leave a note, upstream of our departure, warning me not to be so careless.”

Berzher detached himself from the liteship. “Maybe I can find your suit.”

“There’s no time!” she exclaimed.

And then, from deep in her mind, a cadence began. It welled up, took the shape of words. She closed her eyes, visualized, and whispered aloud: “I am whole. … I am full of light. … I am perfect. … I am full of light. … The light surges into and through my blood, making of it a fountain of purity, vitality, youth, and beauty.” Followed by the ritual pause for reflection … “The universe and I are One.”

From down near her hip, Berzher asked, “What are you doing?”

“Preparing my mind for the ultimate translation.”

“Good idea. … It’s already started.”

The back wall of the room bulged inward and exploded in a shower of bits: dust, plaster flakes, cement fragments, and steel needles torn from the wall’s reinforcing bars. The liteship disintegrated. Its tiny singularity dissipated with a buzz and a snap! even before the shock wave fully engulfed it. Berzher’s chassis flipped sideways into the opposite wall. The robot’s carapace split open, and the glass sphere that was his entity rolled out on the floor.

In reciting the “Prayer to Light,” Merola had also been preparing her body, loosening her spine and limbs, to ride the wave wherever it took her. But now the sight of Berzher, naked and helpless, galvanized her. She launched herself ahead of the rippling wall of fire that followed the first shock wave, scooped up Berzher, curled around him to protect the nested glass-and-foil layers against her stomach, and still managed with toes, knees, and elbows to steer her trajectory out through the storeroom door.

The blast threw her across the store’s main sales floor, over the heads of people caught in the act of turning toward the still-evolving explosion. She flew past one of the building’s structural columns as it, too, disintegrated. She struck a display of brightly colored objects—hollow plastic toys boxed in crushable polystyrene and cardboard—and drove it through a window high in the west wall of the building that faced outward, onto Stockton Street. That saved her life.

Back | Next