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Fiction

Blood Wedding

The Wedding Day

“Life is the only indulgence,” was the Ames motto, and today was meant to be the latest, grandest example of that philosophy: Fecundity given breath and shadow, with the promise of ludicrous profits tomorrow.

The “I do’s” were to be held exactly at noon on the summer solstice. A thousand species of expertly crafted, first-of-their-kind foliage stood on the island’s highest hill, creating a church of pigmented cellulose, perfumes and pheromones and wet-earth stinks. The honored guests were carefully shaped and then firmed by regenerations. The style that year was for infusions of transient chloroplasts, which was why each body was green or purple or pink, the organelles dense enough and efficient enough to produce a slow feast of sugars. But the magic worked only if the flesh was free and standing in sunshine, which was why everyone was naked. No guest wanted to hide perfection inside fabric, not when the new human form was so lovely. And there was one more fine reason to remain perched on their toes, straining for the sun: Nobody wanted to miss seeing Glory.

The bride was born gorgeous. In a different century, Glory Lou Ames might have been an actress hamstrung by being too perfect for meaningful roles. But her native beauty was just the scaffolding for a series of early tailorings and recent, very temporary additions. The treasure was twenty-three years old. Like a fertility goddess carved from mammoth ivory, she was rich with hips and breasts, and of course she was nude, the abundant flesh emerald and glossy and grand. But what made her impact more remarkable was the strategic use of living flowers. Epiphytes were common embellishments among the bio-aware community, but epiphytes weren’t good enough for Devon Ames’ daughter. Glory wore tailored parasites. Roots slipped painlessly into her tissues, robbing just enough blood and sugar to maintain their splendor. The blossoms erupted from short dense stalks. Every flower produced a fragrance that merged with every other fragrance in the brilliant tropical air—a veritable community promenading down a path of mushroom-built cobblestones. At least a dozen patentable technologies were on display. Cynical tongues claimed that Devon, recognizing opportunity, was milking another fortune from this event. But what wasn’t appreciated was that his only daughter had never been shy about helping the family business, which was the same as helping herself.

Glory moved with the smooth sure gait of a dancer, and the naked London Philharmonic played from the valley below, matching her rhythms. Father was waiting at the end of the aisle, green to the brink of black, an epiphytic prairie growing in place of his hair. The altar beyond was a cube of frozen tar carved from Halley’s Comet, elegant in its simplicity. The Unitarian minister waited in front of the altar, and beside her was a groom who was as spellbound as any man could be, gazing at this mesmerizing dream.

Life was the answer to all problems. True to that creed, machines had been forbidden from the island and surrounding seas. The security cameras and public cameras were organic crystals roped to a thousand protocols and then lashed onto the backs of obedient bees. Several billion humans were watching the ceremony, marvelling at the green flesh and magnificent breasts, the blooming roses in Glory’s scalp and the grander blossoms on her wrists and down her broad back. The processional music was composed for this occasion, composed by her father, and the stirring sweet melody added just enough celebration to a scene that could not be more perfect. Every bride was lovely. It is said. But today’s intended exceeded every other young woman who has dared march down her aisle, basking in the gaze of God and her blood and the future of her world.

Then came a sequence of small popping noises, almost unnoticed.

Also unobserved was the collapse of multiple security systems, and worse, any notice about their untimely death.

The public cameras continued operating, but they didn’t bother showing the guests standing in back. Those were the first victims—little billionaires balancing on moss-covered chairs, one moment straining to see, and in the next moment, turning to steam and light.

Forty well-wishers died with that first salvo.

But in the front ranks, nothing changed. Guests grinned and teared while the security systems did nothing. Then a second salvo arrived, slaughtering the next row of billionaires, and body parts rose in the air like a fountain. That was what caught the Bakor’s attention. The groom happened to look up, and lifting a hand, he began to rub startled eyes. Which Glory noticed. The man’s wavering attentions were a bother, a problem. Of course she was insulted. After all, this was a spoiled, self-absorbed woman, just as any young person would be in her circumstances. What was Bakor thinking? What could possibly be so interesting that he would pull his eyes off her splendidness?

Then she felt intense heat washing across her flower-rich back.

The heat was like a tongue, there and then gone, and her blossoms began to wilt. But Glory wasn’t frightened. Even the possibility of fear lay out of reach. Yet her joy had been warped. She was perplexed and bothered, perhaps even a little angry. Her husband-to-be was interested in some stupid commotion far to the back, and for the next moment and the next breath, she tried push aside her anger, to regain the old perfection.

Eighty people had died. The popping noises were finished, but the disruptions rippled through the surviving crowd. Screams could be heard. Curses and inarticulate wails. Hundreds of strangers were in attendance. She assumed that company associates or low-level functionaries were already drunk. She assumed that an ordinary fight had broken out. Which seemed borderline possible, and a brawl wouldn’t be too bad, would it? That particular story won a moment of relief, and just then the Philharmonic reached the crescendo, and the bride couldn’t hear any of the pain or the terror, which was why she managed another graceful step and another quick breath, flashing white teeth for the multitudes that she would never know.

Bakor again turned his head, thankfully fixing his gaze on her.

But now Father wasn’t paying attention. That was the next insult. Devon Ames had tilted his head, one hand to his bare temple, plainly focused on whatever words were being shouted into his skull.

As it happened, Glory’s mother was first deliver the awful news.

From three rows back, Devon’s first ex-wife cried out, “Oh my fucking God!”

Against every instinct, Glory stopped. She stopped in mid-stride, staring only at Bakor as her lead foot came down, and she finally deciphered his expression—that sense of utter panic on a face that she rather loved.

That was the moment when the young groom turned to fire, to bloody steam.

Bakor exploded, and one of his collarbones, driven like shrapnel, sliced through the minister’s face, killing her as well.

The audience continued to scream, but maybe not quite as loudly as before. Everybody was suddenly dropping to their knees, their stomachs. And Father shouted something important to somebody unseen. A command that she didn’t understand, unless it was just noise. Maybe Devon was as lost and panicked as the rest of them. But at least now, at the last moment, a platoon of bodyguards emerged from their camouflaged bunkers—powerful beasts designed for one purpose, using their armored bodies to protect the most important people in the world.

Their arrival brought the hope of problems solved, order restored.

But unfortunately the attackers had waited for the guards, and instantly, every warrior but one was dead.

At that point, the cyborgs were still better than five kilometers from the island. But the security systems were a shambles, nobody was in charge, and Devon’s sworn enemies were closing fast.

Before

What steers people is what they believe. History and polished data have their place, on occasion, but what a citizen knows to be true or as good as true matters more than what happens to be real. And that is the world as it should be. Genuine history means confusion, imprecision and guesswork. No story ends. The audience is left with zero sense of accomplishment. But an imaginary history, particularly one that is respectable and compelling, can buoy up the body and the fragile will, carrying its captives happily across the years and into the great good maw of Death.

This much was fact:

Devon Ames was the second richest entity in the solar system, while Harry Pinchit was the first. And those two men shared quite a lot more than money and gender. Both were born in the years when being an American still held some small advantage. Both were blessed with a famous scientific parent and a notorious artistic parent. Each boy lived beside the sea with his loyal dog and two lesser siblings. Labeled early as being gifted, they were fed tutors and expectations. But exospheric test scores never mean sure success, and even in their early twenties, neither male showed any sign of becoming a triumph in any important pursuit.

Biography is a story written quickly over too few facts.

In 2041, a big ugly war was waged over the course of ten days. The world was already weakened by various crises, but it was malware that delivered Hell. Weapon systems were corrupted, and a great deal of human complacency added to mayhem, and civilization was left bloodied, but at least by the end every AI and most of the Internet was thankfully as dead as dead could be.

The people who survived doomsday were hungry for salvation. Everybody was watching for the first great leaders to happen along. Devon and Harry shared that role. Their life stories were inspiringly similar. Each was in his early thirties. Each stood at the helm of a small, underfunded corporation known for novel technologies. And though they worked in very different venues, both of the young tycoons ran a stable of gifted scientists and secure devices that had never shown any inclination of madness.

Devon Ames was the younger, better-looking savior. Tall, sporting an easy smile and high cheekbones left behind by Lakota grandparents, he was a man who never wanted for female companionship. Devon certainly didn’t approve of anything that looked like self-doubt. Knowing exactly how the world could be saved, the young man made a public announcement using every old-fashioned means. Television. Radio. Sanitized tablets and direct mail. “Life,” he proclaimed. “We have to embrace life. The Mother’s endless strengths must be ours, and life is the only indulgence that we deserve, and life is how we will make this world a paradise again.”

Harry Pinchit came across as the older, more honest savior. His Cuban mother left him with a bare scalp before he turned thirty, and coupled with his stout body and plain looks, he built the illusion of wise, unsentimental middle age. Surprisingly, he also was the more effective television personality. He had an actor’s voice that soothed or boomed, depending on demands. Only Harry could tell people the machines were going to win, one way or another. And the damaged Earth was sure to grow hotter and less habitable in the near future. The obvious answer to the ongoing nightmare, according to Harry, was to do what any weak soul does when faced with diminished prospects. “We have to marry well,” said the man who would never marry. “We have to build the machines that we can embrace for the rest of our lives, and I mean for the next billion years, and I mean the machine implants that will carry your minds, our souls, from the ground where we stand today to the ends of our brilliant galaxy.”

At that point, the two young men had never met.

If asked, they couldn’t even have guessed when they became aware of one another.

Each tended his own flourishing empire. Capital flowed into both coffers, and their labor was hired from divergent fields. Devon transformed the planet’s ecosystem. Harry devised malware-free hardware that good people could wear safely and proudly. On those occasions where paths crossed, one company would beat the other for a contract or market or the goodwill of some group of happy consumers. But there was no epic bitterness. Not then, no. Every day, commerce made losers and winners, and those two corporations thrived, and when the kings finally met, it was entirely by accident.

Harry was in Washington, DC wooing defense contractors.

Devon was wearing shorts and sandals, planting a new crop of carbon-fixers in the tidal pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

No one ever claimed responsibility for putting the two men together. But the new Hilton was the location—a big ugly building standing on stilts—and the event passed without public announcement. For an hour and two minutes, the men shared a suite. As was common in those days, cameras and every kind of recorder were forbidden. But later, the aides and functioneers couldn’t recall any harsh words. Two distracted billionaires spoke about common needs and beautiful women and how the Earth and the other worlds in the solar system were big enough for both of them. Then what began with a handshake ended with a slightly longer handshake, each man wishing the other pleasant evenings and a long, prosperous life.

Yet according to the public history, that’s when the feud was born.

And every step for the next thirty years made Devon and Harry into the greatest of enemies.

Ankyl

A thousand people were trying not to die.

A few of these people had to, had to, had to be saved.

Count the remaining guards, he thought.

One.

Ankyl.

“Me,” he realized.

Ankyl was four years old, which was old. He was a prototype, a Gen Prime that had spent his days working security at the corporate office, mostly in the swimming plaza. And yes, in the purest sense, he was an overqualified lifeguard, at least until yesterday, when one of the front-line guards got into a brawl with a bonobo servant, earning three broken wrists and some deep-shit trouble for losing that stupid battle. That’s the only reason why an elderly, basically placid creature was shipped to this island. That and the fact that nothing remarkable would ever happen on the daughter’s big day.

Because he was just a lifeguard, Ankyl had been given one of the lesser guests to protect—the groom’s younger, decidedly alcoholic brother. A careful pedigree and four years of regimented training made the creature ready for this modest role. But the security systems failed utterly. And the platoon got a late jump. And then the enemy struck the hilltop with targeted blasts. Worst of all, each one of the original guards had been tagged. How else could the entire platoon die? But Ankyl was alive, meaning that the tagging happened before he joined the ranks, and here he was, scrambling to accomplish one good deed before he died.

His life had been spent fishing little kids out of deep water. Now he was sprinting, thinking about what a fucking mess this was. One moment, he was obeying orders, heading for the drunken brother—a trembling purple mess cowering on the ground. But he was also calculating how long they had before the full brunt of the attack arrived, realizing that there weren’t any minutes to burn, but he probably had quite a few seconds to make ready.

Ankyl stopped running.

His armor turned to reflective camouflage mode. Squatting, he scanned the battlefield. Assessments were made. Plans were assembled. The purple brother would live or die without Ankyl’s help. Only the critical people mattered now. Devon was the tempting target for any attacker. Devon’s other children were a little less vital, with Glory at the top of the heap today. Then came the wives—present and past—and the wives were followed by the dead groom and his tag-along family. These were dirt simple calculations: Devon was to be saved before anyone else. And because Ankyl was bred to believe in those very simple mathematics, he had no right to act any other way.

Except.

The lifeguard didn’t like Devon Ames. Not at all, not ever. His owner was an undiluted asshole, cold and vain and often impossible. Of course in public, Devon sang about the marvels of life and the biosphere, and about his own decency. But in reality, everybody was just meat to the man. Human or otherwise, it didn’t matter. According to Devon, no piece of meat was ever good at its job. Not that Ankyl had ever suffered the man’s attentions. No, the lifeguard was good about hiding in plain sight. But he had watched his owner abuse other lifeguards and adult guests, and too many times, this father to the new world had inflicted some very hard punishments on misbehaving kids.

Inside Ankyl was the urge to protect those who were drowning. Maybe they were only millionaires or five-year-olds, but he saved all of them. He wouldn’t bother dragging soggy meat off the bottom of the pool. He saved people. The instinct wasn’t something that Ankyl wanted, but he had it nonetheless. Empathy. Empathy was a distraction that had bothered him throughout his months and months of life. But then one day, as the creature patrolled the surface of blood-warm Lake Ames, an obvious and quite simple idea occurred to that old Gen Prime warrior:

Someone had to be the biggest, most impressive beast in the world.

Devon happened to be that beast today, and that man would remain so long after Ankyl was turned into compost and flowers. But the trillionaire would eventually find himself under someone else’s feet, and suddenly, with great clarity, he realized who would own the important feet.

Those feet were standing nearby.

Just thinking about them caused a new set of calculations about worth and worthiness.

Like a dancer, Ankyl turned in a tight circle. He made a swift, adrenaline-fueled assessment of options and likelihoods. The second richest creature in the world was lying behind the minister’s corpse, sobbing. A smart camouflaging fog was finally beginning to rise, but blind pulses of laser and ballistic were still flying overhead, and in this maelstrom, exactly one human being remained on her feet—a solitary, defiant creature whose rage was pushing aside all of her reasonable terrors.

The decision was made.

Ankyl’s four legs decided to run, and he was their passenger, watching the sprint toward the bride who damn well refused to give up this day without a good fight.

The Feud

Just once, Warren pressed his father about the feud.

That was several years before the wedding. Harry Pinchit never needed encouragement to insult his enemies, and just mentioning Devon’s name triggered a reliable fury from the old man. But Warren didn’t care about recent crimes and old injustices. Warren was a twenty-year-old with a few crimes and injustices in his own past, but he had been acting good of late. No lawyers, no bribes. No talk about building a special home where his urges could be contained. No, Warren had become a very reliable son, and what’s more, he finally came to appreciate his particular genius. Harry’s only child had a rare capacity to understand human needs. Warren knew exactly what to say and exactly when to smile, and when it was necessary, the young man could shape people like pliers weaving soft copper wire.

With one name, Warren ignited the tirade. That set the mood. Then the young man interrupted his father, saying, “I know, Dad. I know. The man is a prick with a pretty face, and he keeps screwing us with the AI Commission, and you’re sure he sabotaged our Tycho project, and he’s a prick with a pretty face. I know it all, thank you.”

The world’s richest man didn’t appreciate interruptions. But not long ago, when his son was in several kinds of trouble, Harry Pinchit was told that good parents listen to their children. So when this child spoke, he offered a pretend smile and a small amount of interest.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked.

“The two of you had a meeting,” said Warren.

Harry nodded, his attentions already faltering.

“The only time you were face to face, nearly thirty years ago.”

“I remember that, yes.”

“Something was said.”

“Was it?”

“That’s the legend,” said the young man.

“Legend,” the man repeated. Metacarbon fingers scratched the slick graphene scalp, and then he rubbed the bright porcelain nose that never felt ticklish and never needed to be cleaned. “Is that what it is now? A legend?”

“The world claims that you and Devon had a fight.”

“I do hate that name,” the man warned.

“Devon. Devon, Devon.”

The gray hand dropped, and Father said nothing.

“Did you say something to Devon?”

“Quite a few words. Nothing ugly.”

“So he said something ugly to you.”

“And why are you asking?”

“Because people want to know what started this war.”

“There is no war,” said the cyborg. “This is personal. I hate the man because he is a cold, manipulative monster. That’s a good enough reason, isn’t it? And because that blood-filled son-of-a-bitch is trying to destroy us at every turn.”

“That’s not what you thought then,” Warren said. “The two of you talked. You decided that the solar system was plenty big enough for both of you. Wasn’t that the verdict?”

“Offhand comments, polite and short-sighted.”

Warren responded with silence and feigned disinterest.

Father’s patience quickly failed. “So why are you pestering me about one long-ago meeting?”

“Because I know you, Dad.”

“Maybe. Or maybe you don’t know me at all.” The man laughed loudly, which was remarkable in its own right. “Explain this to me, son. Exactly what kind of person do you think I am?”

“I think you are a person, the same as everyone.”

That insight earned a weary sigh. “And that means what?”

“Devon hurt you. Inside the hotel suite, something happened, or something should have happened but didn’t.”

The man and his body shrugged, muscles of carbon and boron humming with power. “He talked about the hotel.”

“The hotel?”

“The building was broad and ugly and it stood on stilts, waiting for the next flood.”

Warren nodded.

“Then he laughed at me. He cackled like pretty men always do, full of themselves, and he told me that I looked a little like that building.”

“Squat and strong?”

“And waiting for the next flood,” said Father.

“That was the insult?”

“It sounded insulting to me, yes.”

“And that’s why you took offense?”

“I didn’t then. Not that minute. But later, thinking things over . . . I realized just what kind of person I’d been dealing with.”

The old face remained, glowering beneath the slick gray scalp. But the bulk of the emotions were inside the bright diamond eyes and the clenched fists. Harry Pinchit had always been powerfully built, but those new legs and that broad back might well hold up an entire building.

Warren cleared his throat, and he said, “No, Father.”

“No what?”

“Devon didn’t insult you. He threw a few careless words at you, and afterwards, when you needed it, you invented the feud.”

The fists clenched tighter, fingers squeaking against the palms.

“Every man needs one great enemy,” said Warren. “And for you, who else but Devon Ames could fill that role?”

The new eyes were unhappy, guarded and dismissive. But Harry had the good sense to attack the deeper issue.

“You came here to tell me something, son. What is it?”

“This world and the solar system are divided. Two opposing camps, yours and theirs. And that’s because you decided to make a war based on the most offhand words available.”

“There is no war,” Harry repeated.

“Not yet,” said Warren.

“I don’t like this topic,” his father said. Then for the first time in a long while, the bright eyes blinked. “‘Yours and theirs,’” he quoted.

“Yes.”

“Why not ‘ours and theirs’? Don’t you belong to my cause?”

That was a sharp observation, an excellent question, and the young man spent the next several years preparing his response.

Glory

Many people were smarter than Glory. She was told that when she was little, and she was never so stupid as to deny the verdict of others. Long before her wedding day, Devon’s daughter had mapped her limits as well as her strengths, and better than most, she accepted what she wasn’t. The Ames clan and the family business spent an inordinate amount of time worshipping genius. But being a cognitive giant didn’t appeal to Glory, and there was a blessing here: Nobody expected her to generate a single great thought. That’s why she could sleep through the night every night, and that’s why she happily spent her days working on a body that would never be perfect. But at least the flesh gave her pleasure. Plus she had security and a place at the family table. Siblings and stepmothers and particularly her poor father never stopped conjuring. Fierce brains ruled their lives. She could sit and do nothing and do it very well, but the others never had a moment free from contemplations and deadlines, and each mind was always full of itself, pinched busy and mostly unhappy faces hostage to all that clever electricity.

Glory was free to be exceptional in her own realm.

“Goddess of the New Earth.”

That was intended as a joke. A few offhand words spouted by her older brother, taking a moment from his busy-busy work. His little sister needed to be teased, and maybe he meant to injure her. But Glory liked the image. She loved the consequences. Considering all the possibilities, wasn’t being the goddess of anything better than being anything else?

The young woman never hid behind made-up kindnesses. Like any respectable god, she had a clear sense about what truly mattered. The wedding was for the Goddess of the New Earth, and all of the pageantry was meant to be hers. The pinnacle of her life, at least until now, was staged on the crest of a beautiful island. The world was watching her and only her, and there was a rocket yacht moored in the bay below, and her father had claimed and terraformed an asteroid just for her honeymoon. What mattered was her husband-to-be and the long luxurious life. That was quite a lot to think about, particularly for someone who was a genius at keeping her mind empty of distractions and nagging doubts.

Then Death arrived, carrying along Panic and Misery.

Yet Glory refused to drop to the ground. Stubbornness. Strength. A deep failure of imagination. All good reasons left her standing tall, staring down at her father. The man was sprawled across the earth, and the dead minister lay front of Father, and the groom’s remains were still scattering. A fierce pulse of light roared past her ear, but she did not flinch. Alone among the wedding party, Glory could not accept the possibility of being turned to steam and cooked blood. She had enough composure to turn in a majestic circle. Every other head was down, or the heads were missing, yet the Goddess of the New Earth absorbed the chaos with unblinking eyes.

Only at the last instant did she notice the one running body—the one burly guard who managed to survive the onslaught.

Guards were simple creatures. Glory knew that, and that’s why she liked them, and that’s why she believed that she understood and appreciated this brute. He was following his instincts, doubtlessly charging toward Father, intent to save him.

An idea passed through Glory’s head:

“I should step out of his way. I don’t want him hitting me by mistake.”

But the creature was following the wrong line. For no obvious reason, he was ignoring Devon, aiming instead for the Goddess in her full grandeur.

Too late, she said, “No.”

Ankyl struck her with his scales and his muscles and one stone-dense shoulder.

The collision destroyed her perfection.

Then the ground rose up and slapped her. She was roughly thrown flat on her back, parasitic flowers crushed and this ugly creature stretched out across her emerald body. The guard had the face of a hawk and the voice of an opera singer. “Stay the fuck down,” he sang at her. Then from a pocket cut into his living flesh, he withdrew a gun, and he stood up without standing tall, grabbing her by a forest of parasitic dahlias.

Glory was lifted.

She tried to shout, struggling against the pull. But he was powerful and terrified, carrying her toward a bunker hole where he probably hoped to find safety.

In her entire life, Glory had never made any fist worth swinging.

But that’s what she did now.

She tried to break the guard’s concentration. A defiant blow was delivered to that hawk-like face. But nothing was broken and nothing seemed to be noticed.

Ankyl threw her into the abandoned bunker.

“Stay!” he sang.

It was a wonderful voice. But quite a lot more than a voice was necessary to make the Goddess fall in love.

Making Due

Four years of constant training was remarkable, almost unheard of. But the greater blessing was that Ankyl had never experienced combat. Beyond small personal battles, he had suffered nothing worse than bruised flesh and a battered ego. Every morning brought physical preparation, strength and endurance exercises before the marksmanship test taken while exhausted. Then after a four-hour stint watching boringly happy children, he returned to his training, enduring simulations and tactical discussions with his superiors, mastering contingencies that would never happen to him.

Perhaps no other creature had invested a greater portion of his life becoming a warrior.

That preparation was what dragged him through the next moments.

The protective fog continued to grow, turning the air to milk. The milk was made from mirrored particles and disruptive mucus, plus a stew of bacteria floating inside the mucus—infinite soldiers carrying the ingredients needed to subvert the enemy’s mechanical parts.

But the fog should be much thicker than it was.

And there never should have been so many casualties. Not this quickly, and not with every other soldier left cooked and dead.

The hilltop had to be defended, but by what?

He had no clue.

With time and the freedom to sit, Ankyl could have remembered every training exercise. But there wouldn’t have been any answers in those lessons. Nothing this awful could ever happen, and in a peculiar way, impossibility offered relief. It promised salvation. He was a creature in a hopeless corner, and without hope, there were no wrong moves. Nobody would live long enough to question his methods. And because he was sure to die, Ankyl was free to do nothing. If he wished. Or he could wage any kind of hopeless defense of a hilltop that wouldn’t be held for another ten minutes.

A soldier always needs more soldiers.

And weapons.

And a plan.

The fog was starved, compromised by unknown means. But Glory was locked inside a bunker, safe as Ankyl could make her. And the oncoming fire had slowed and grown blind, apparently. The wedding guests weren’t sobbing quite so loudly anymore, and a few of them even managed to sit up, nervously watching the milky air and their trembling, empty hands.

Devon Ames had found his feet and a pair of weak legs. Too numb to speak, the great man stepped over the dead minister, and once that obstacle had been conquered, he looked at the final warrior.

Every one of these dead soldiers had been armed.

That simple fact felt like revelation. Ankyl immediately set to work, yanking wedge-rifles from their scabbards and gear-breakers out of their protective pockets. His colleagues had died close together, which was another blessing, and in a matter of moment, he had a good start on building an armory.

Devon watched.

Arrogance had a life, a spine and its own urgent needs. The rich man’s arrogance caused him to step over the dead soldiers, and it gave him the voice to ask, “What the hell are you doing?”

Ankyl said nothing.

“How many guns can you carry?” the man demanded to know.

Ankyl threw a pair of gear-breakers at Devon.

The warrior yelled, “Catch.”

Explosives craftier than most people fell to the ground. The great man jumped backward, startled and then embarrassed, which made him even angrier.

With four heavy armfuls of rifles, Ankyl ran. Any face brave enough to look at him deserved a weapon, and in another few moments he returned to the beginning point, hands empty.

Using a tight low voice, Devon asked, “Where’s my daughter?”

“Underground,” Ankyl said.

Devon was puzzled, offended. He was wondering why he wasn’t inside an armored hole.

“Pick up your bombs,” Ankyl said.

The man looked at his bare feet.

Then they heard a thin, almost musical blare of rockets. The cyborgs were descending. Time was scarce or exhausted, and the soldier who had planned for every battle but this one had no choice. Calling to his little army, Ankyl said, “The rifles know how to fight. Hide and wait. Let the guns point themselves, and they’ll fire when the time comes. These monsters think we’re helpless, which is good. They don’t know that your general is alive.”

“Who’s the general?” Devon asked.wasn’t as happy as she was

“Me,” said Ankyl.

But his army acted tentative, fearful. That’s the way they might have died. But then the groom’s drunken brother delivered the next surprise. The naked and very purple man suddenly stood tall, and with a furious voice, he called to the bride’s father.

“Pick up the damned bombs, Devon. Or I’ll goddamn shoot you myself!”

The Suitor

A lot of passion had gone into the question of “self.” The debate began long before this century, but as soon as people began wearing machinery and tailoring their own genetics, it was impossible to escape the issue. When was the flesh too diluted, too weak or hot, to keep the soul alive?

In this argument, biology had the advantage of confusion. Human cells and dandelion cells were remarkably similar to each other, while the most contrived bundle of invented proteins was still just a bag of busy water. But the machines were unliving material clad in blatant, inescapable numbers. The cyborg body could carry a five-percent infiltration rate, which didn’t seem like much. Plenty of people were cyborgs and tailored, too. But there were groups where forty percent infiltration was the norm, and as it happened, that halfway mark was where the public usually grew ill at ease with mechanical men and women.

Harry Pinchit had pushed past those barriers. As the public champion for cyborgs, he whittled away what had been a stocky, unlovely body, leaving just twenty percent of its original state. But Harry’s son had proven even less sentimental about the tissues he brought from the womb. Only nine percent of Warren’s original body remained, and the young man was proud of every one of his choices. He didn’t miss anything that had ended up in the trash. What remained was thriving inside the shiny capsule, and it was happy, and if people were strong enough to be honest—strong in their souls—then Warren’s new body was exactly as natural as any other complicated mixture of molecules and energy and passion and need.

Of course the wet brain remained, but safe inside a ceramic neurocomplex. There was a mammalian heart, a cloned stand-in implanted when the original heart suffered a bad reaction to the first-generation armor. And among the other wet pieces was Warren’s original sex organ, tucked inside its specially designed underwear.

Harry was uncomfortable with his son’s transformation. That was another blessing of standing on the cusp of this new age. Yet the man who wanted to clad the world in machinery would never give his boy more than the occasional tease or the thinnest threats to maybe, maybe restrict his access to R&D.

One morning, father and son were basking in a UV bath, and, with a casual tone, one said to the other, “You know, his daughter is getting married.”

Father recognized the subject, and that’s why he said nothing. For a long while, he managed not to let the boy bait him into another tirade.

“Glory and the summer solstice,” Warren said.

Nothing.

“Three days from now.”

The old, ageless man showed a slight nod, and then a word finally leaked out. He couldn’t stop himself. He asked, “So?”

“We’re not invited,” said Warren.

Using every type of eye, Father stared at the machine body lying beside him. Then with care, he said, “I know you.”

“You do?”

“You have a scheme.”

“I might, yes.”

“For the wedding . . .”

“I want us to be there.”

That led to a very human snort. “Well, I don’t want to be anywhere near that goddamn garden show.”

“But isn’t this an opportunity, Father?”

“What kind of opportunity?”

“Your enemy and every one of his allies will be on that island,” said Warren. “Besides Devon’s death, nothing will bring so many of those important meat-bags together again.”

Suspicion lifted the glass eyes. “What are you suggesting?”

“I’m proposing.” Warren paused to laugh at his joke. “What I’m saying is that my father shouldn’t ask too many questions about what his child might or might not have been doing with the Secrets Department of his military wing.”

Sometimes the old man forgot how dangerous the boy used to be. He cursed softly, and then he carelessly laughed at his son. “You think I don’t know what you’re planning? Of course I know. The weapons, the mercenaries? All those high-end viruses ready to cripple every Ames’ security system? You truly think you could hide that activity from me?”

His son said nothing.

Then after a moment, very quietly, Warren said, “So you do know about my work.”

“Of course I know about these hobbies. I’m not an idiot, son.”

“You’ve been watching me, have you?”

“From the first day. I even let you put my name on the work. I don’t approve of your methods, but these are good tools, good capacities. Should that pretty boy ever give me any reason to go to war.”

Warren waited for a moment. Then he said again, “His daughter is getting married.”

“Tits dancing down the aisle, and who cares?”

“I care.”

“You?”

“She’s a goddess,” the young man said.

Harry threw out another curse, adding, “That is madness.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“But you don’t know what I want. Do you?”

“Besides spreading chaos? Well no, maybe I don’t fully know your intentions. But still—”

“Father,” Warren said, a new voice booming from inside his chest. “Father, you know nothing. Nothing.”

“What’s that?”

“I let you watch me. That was my plan from the first day. And I knew that you wouldn’t understand my intentions, which was why everything else has been so easy.”

Rare curses followed—words normally reserved for the man’s sworn enemy.

Then Warren dropped a hand on his father’s knee, and he said, “Shut up.”

“No.”

“Or keep talking. I don’t care. But I want you to stand up, Dad. I want you to stand up now.”

Harry tried to rise. But to his horror, he discovered that he couldn’t move his legs or his feet, and even his fingertips were frozen in place.

“What’s wrong here?” the old man asked.

“I found a new malware.”

Alarmed. “What’s that?”

“Malware that takes control over one Pinchit-designed cyborg.”

Years ago, when his son was being bad, Harry grew fearful. But most of that fear was about his good name being ruined. This was a different sensation, a deeper and richer terror than anything felt before. Yet even as the adrenaline flowed, his electronic alert systems remained calm. Panic was making his flesh tremble, but the shell outside was as calm as could be.

“Why can’t I stand up, Warren?”

“Because I want you to stay where you are, Father. Just like I wanted you to believe that you were in charge of me. But while you watched one project, the most important work was being done out of sight.”

More curses ended with a despairing voice asking, “What do you want?”

And the young man laughed, saying, “What I want. What I want. The most beautiful woman the world is set to be married, and what do you think I want?”

“This is sick,” said Harry Pinchit.

“This is love,” his son said.

“You’ll take her by force?”

And Warren laughed, saying, “You still don’t see it. Plain as can be, and you aren’t anything but blind.”

The Onslaught

The purple brother was never as drunk as he acted. That put him in fine company. Many of the great drinkers in history were pretenders. His name was Lugon, and because he was secretly shy, rum was a useful prop at social events. Not that he was ever perfectly sober either. Far from it. But this morning’s intake wasn’t nearly enough to give him extra courage/carelessness. Just enough rum and whiskey with a couple beers, and he was put in a place where he could steer his emotions wherever they needed to be.

After some determined cowering on the ground, Lugon realized that being pissed was the only solution.

People were dead. Guards had been cooked. Lugon’s smug, endlessly sober brother—the lucky groom—could not be more obliterated. But at some point the purple man discovered a rifle cradled in his hands, and the surviving bodyguard was shouting instructions. Which was almost funny: The big pillbug giving the troops marching orders. What the creature said was probably smart, and useful, and timely. But Christ, the beast didn’t realize just how messed up everyone was. These were rich people, and they were naked people, and nobody listened worse than a bunch of naked rich boys and girls thrown into a nightmare.

That’s why Lugon shouted, saying, “Pick up the damned bombs, Devon. Or I’ll goddamn shoot you myself.”

Which the big man did, which actually seemed to turn the mood around.

Suddenly cyborgs began dropping through the fog, close enough that the air shivered. And then the ground shook, too. Yet odd as it seemed, the worse the world shook, the bigger and braver Lugon began to feel.

Everything nuts, but Devon couldn’t stop talking.

“It’s that goddamn Pinchit,” he shouted. As if it mattered. But the old man at least was holding a rifle now. Only he wasn’t aiming it like he should. He was pointing at flowers, as if petals were the problem, and unnoticed by him, the keratin barrel twisted like a snout on a mosquito, trying its desperate best to aim at a genuine enemy.

“I can’t fucking believe it,” Devon kept complaining. “Pinchit is attacking my girl’s wedding—”

“We don’t know who,” Ankyl began. Then quick as can be, the pillbug aimed at something only his eyes could resolve, punching a hole in the fog with the first round, explosive shells lining up before slicing one after the next into a hard, armored shell.

Something high overhead exploded.

And Lugon sent up a few rounds, too, just to be neighborly. Just to belong. Which helped coax his adjacent soldiers into a state where they sent up their own rounds.

Waving three arms, Ankyl gave more orders.

The non-drunk man translated military speak into terms that spoiled nude and cowardly souls would understand.

“Spread out. Lie down. Shoot.”

People did all that, and they didn’t do that. Every reaction was case-by-case. For all of his brave talk, the purple boy struggled to lie back, and he had to concentrate just to throw a few gear-eaters at the sky. And when those bombs exploded, far closer to him than he intended, he was suddenly spraying the air with his own golden urine, for no reason but sheer panic.

“It is Pinchit,” the old idiot insisted. “Who else?”

“None of the hardware is known,” the bodyguard insisted.

“So everything was invented for today,” Devon said, wasting breath and brain on the problem. “That’s what the bastard did. That’s what I would do.”

Meanwhile, the purple man was undergoing his own brief, tumultuous career as a soldier. Fearless and then cowering, he crawled backwards, trying to hide inside the useless space between two cooked guards. Nothing smart was happening inside his head. But then a honeybee appeared in front of his nose, pointing the public camera at something interesting. Which happened to be his face. Then the bee fled or was killed, replaced overhead by long silver aircraft. Lugon half-aimed the rifle, and the rifle did the rest. This time his shells tore the bastard apart. Unless somebody else’s gun made the shot. But it didn’t matter. The victory felt like his, and that gave Lugon enough confidence for another burst of fire and some determined running, and after the acquisition of a new hole, deep and soothing, his courage felt like it would last for a hundred years.

More aircraft appeared, hovering low, long rotors turning hard to blow away the bothersome white fog.

Lugon battered one machine until it fell, and several more guests managed to drop more of their enemies. Then came a moment, and maybe it was longer than a moment, when it wasn’t insane to believe that this battle could be won, or at least some kind of ugly stalemate might grab hold for the next little while.

Which was when a giant war machine appeared, blotting out the noon sun.

The machine released a breath of carefully sculpted plasma. Every tall tree ignited in the high branches, and the sudden heat made for difficult breathing, and every blast from the little guns did nothing to a behemoth that drifted lower by the moment, bringing a famous voice that caused the island to shiver as it roared.

“Surrender or be dead,” was the threat.

The little army couldn’t have folded faster. Guns were tossed from hiding places. Sobbing bodies begged for mercy. Even Devon dropped the last gear-breakers, investing his final hopes by muttering into a dead microphone, ordering the offline security system to come back to life and fight for him.

Where was the pillbug?

Nowhere visible, that’s for sure.

Lugon expected that he would surrender, too. But then the victor jumped from the monster ship, jumped and landed hard in front of him and then jumped again, ending up straddling the top of the black altar that was beginning to melt and bubble, and on its corners, burn.

The cyborg named Harry Pinchit looked at the horrors, the face behind the battle mask apparently stunned by the destruction.

But his voice wasn’t stunned. Loudly and with relish, the voice said, “Now tell me. Where is the bride?”

One More Death

The bunker was locked, and then it was unlocked.

Glory was inside, blind and barely safe and still enraged by what had happened and what she imagined happening. And then some cyborg brute dragged her into the smoky, ruined air, allowing her the chance to kick it once, breaking a few of her toes but earning a little satisfaction with the pain.

She crumbled.

A voice she recognized said, “Someone pick her up.”

“I will,” said Glory’s father.

“Yes,” said Harry Pinchit’s voice. “The rest of you back away. Let the man help his daughter, yes.”

Father was beside her. He smelled of smoke and crushed blossoms and piss and eviscerated guts. He also smelled just like her father, and she was so pleased to have his trembling hand holding hers, pleased enough to find tears on top of the rage that continued to grow worse and worse and worse.

The young woman began arguing with herself, trying to gain control over her vivid, dangerous emotions.

Then for the first time in Glory’s life, and maybe the first time ever, Devon Ames said the words, “I am sorry.”

He was whispering into her ear.

Harry Pinchit leaped down from the burning altar. That famous ugly face was protected behind a transparent nanoweave faceplate, and it wasn’t smiling. But the voice was joyous. A second mouth buried inside the chest said to the hilltop and to the world, “Hello, Devon. Isn’t this the most beautiful day?”

“What are you doing?” Father asked.

“What am I doing, Devon?”

“Starting a war,” Father said.

Glory stared at the stiff face and felt her father’s hand leave her hand, and then the cyborg laughed loudly. “What I’m doing is ending a war before it can begin. And believe me, the world will come to understand, understand and appreciate, what this means.”

At that point, the cyborg lifted his right hand, a giant barrel of diamond and caged light finding its target.

Father instantly put his hand over his daughter’s eyes, as if he could shield her from one last horror.

“Always the ugly shit,” Father shouted.

Glory knocked the hand away, and she stepped forward. Then she shouted at her attacker. With a voice that sounded tiny, what with the blazing fires and rumbling machines and the pounding of her own heart, she called out to him.

“You won’t shoot me,” she said.

Harry’s visible mouth opened and then closed.

The other voice asked, “And why won’t I?”

“Because people hate people who kill pretty things. And the entire world is watching. And I am the prettiest thing that has ever been.”

The cyborg seemed to hesitate.

Which was when the bodyguard burst from hiding, flinging the last handful of gear-breakers before launching his own powerful body.

Harry Pinchit wheeled, incinerating one bothersome bomb after the next.

But Ankyl was tucked tight, round and dense as a cannonball with his best armor leading. Another moment and he would have collided with the enemy’s face. Any other cyborg would have been too slow to react. But Harry’s body was laced with superconducting neurons, the reflexes ready for anything. That second hand had already aimed its weapon, and a kinetic round punched its way through the guard’s carapace, lifting the body into a useless trajectory, and missing the heart by very little, cutting a wide fissure through the creature’s belly.

Ankyl was cast aside.

While Glory continued walking forwards, fearless with rage.

Then Harry Pinchit turned to look at the bride, ready to kill her and her father and every other pretty thing in the world.

Which was when the sky spoke.

Justice

The guard was an unanticipated problem. Somehow he was left untagged and far more competent than any scenario had allowed for. Yet every problem has ten solutions, or a thousand. Every attack is a mass of decision and lost opportunities, and Warren handled everything well enough or even better than that. Success was in reach, and there was every reason to dance with his pride.

At the final instant, as the world and the solar system watched spellbound, Warren came to the rescue. He was riding inside a small vehicle that only looked like an ordinary sportscraft. Jets screamed, dropping him out of supersonic flight, and at the perfect moment he bailed out. Just him. On cue, his father’s mechanical shell flinched as if startled. On command, Warren forced the helpless living face to look skyward. Then with bare feet leading the way, he struck the smoldering altar, shattering ice and tar before his momentum buried him to his knees in the good red tropical soil.

According to the script, Father’s voice would ask, “What are you doing here?”

But on the fly, his son rewrote the line. It was obvious why Warren was here. So instead of empty dialogue, he began by shouting, “Don’t harm anymore of these people. Father. Stand down and power down your weapons.”

“But this doesn’t concern you,” said the false voice. “Leave me alone, son. This is my day.”

Warren wasn’t carrying weapons. He looked like a cyborg scrubbed fresh by his UV bath. But bending low, he moved his various toes underground, and he fed energy to his legs, making ready.

His father’s face stared at him in horror, knowing what would come. But the body remained bold and arrogant and idiotic. And the voice roared one last time, saying, “I will not be insulted by this man. Not ever again—!”

Warren leapt at him.

Even the swift arms couldn’t lift fast enough. The guns were powering up to murder Harry’s only heir, but the impact was perfect, driving the world’s richest man off his feet. And in the end it was very simple and very quick, visible to an audience that watched through the surviving bees: A heroic young man having no choice but to drive his fist through the nanoweave mask, making a mess of the face that was still too much of a face to survive this kind of justice.

One Good Man

The hero was floating in a blood-warm pool.

The hero was dying.

Eight days had passed. Countless investigations were underway, and the chain of evidence was not yet clear. But despite rumors and some paranoid notions, it was becoming apparent that Harry Pinchit had been involved with every part of the planning and execution of this blood wedding.

For eight days, Ankyl was dying inside a pool built especially for him. A dozen great doctors were focused only on his wellbeing. That was Glory’s doing. An entire hospital was obeying her commands, and when her father made his reasonable points about spending a fortune on a creature that would never recover, she was the force that kept resources focused on her hero.

For the first seven mornings, Glory came to visit the patient.

Each time, she looked different.

The parasitic flowers were gone, and one day her flesh was turned brown and ordinary, and the wounds from the battle and the ripped-out roots were healing a little at a time. She had no hair yet, but on the last day a little stubble was warily emerging from her scalp, and she had a good pretty smile when she looked into Ankyl’s hawk face, telling him and herself, “I won’t ever forget you.”

But the bodyguard was still holding to life on the eighth day, and the woman didn’t arrive at the usual time or any time after that. He lay inside the hot nourishing bath, on his back, letting the liquids do the breathing for him. Then he slept and it was afternoon suddenly, and Ankyl felt something go wrong with his heart, and he died once and then a second time, brought back through the marvelous hands of surgeons who were ignoring far more important patients.

There wouldn’t be a ninth day of near-death. Ankyl sensed it and accepted it, and he was astonished by how long he had lingered.

This was not a warrior’s death.

Eventually it grew late in the day, and he was alive again, asking no one in particular about Glory’s whereabouts.

A crafted nurse was present. Nobody else. She was part gibbon and all comfort—a breasty beast ready to feed any patient with mammary glands that could on a whim produce any of a million medicines.

No medicine would help anymore, and the tits were tucked out of sight.

“Oh, Glory is coming tomorrow,” the nurse said cheerfully. “The girl has a big date today. Everybody is hopeful.”

For no good reason, Ankyl thought about the purple man—the silly brother that he was supposed to protect during the wedding.

But hearing the name “Lugon” just made the nurse laugh.

“Oh, no. Not that boy, no,” said this pathologically cheerful creature. “It’s the bastard’s bastard son. It’s Warren. He invited the girl to join him for dinner. ‘Peace talks,’ he calls them. But everybody knows. It’s really just a first date.”

That was when everything became obvious.

“Give me someone to talk to,” Ankyl said.

“I’m talking,” the nurse pointed.

He named useful names, beginning with his superiors and ending with that purple man who fought like a tiger and hid like a tiger, too.

“I’ll see who I can find,” the nurse promised.

She left.

And Ankyl died two minutes later, for the last time.

The Walk of a God

Twenty months later, Lugon was a guest at the Ames headquarters—not an uncommon honor for someone who earned considerable fame because of several lucky shots and that now famous threat:

“Pick up those damned bombs, Devon. Or I’ll goddamn shoot you myself.”

Devon preferred to ignore the man who had embarrassed him in front of billions. Glory was responsible for making Lugon an honored guest, and though he rarely saw the appreciative woman, she had left standing orders allowing him unlimited access to every facility as well as the privilege of one drink every hour, but never any more. The indoor lake was a favorite diversion, though he didn’t like the swimming as much as the sitting, and he had several favorite tables where he nursed his drinks and the time while thinking about very little. And twenty months later, he found himself present on the day when Glory and her new fiancé arrived unannounced.

Lugon considered slipping away unseen.

But a new glass of rum had arrived, and he stayed, discovering that he was just as invisible this way.

The cyborg had changed dramatically over the last few months. Machine parts had been peeled away, replaced with his cultivated flesh as well as Ames’ new-generation tissues. But he was still sixty percent mechanical beast, and because of that he sank to the lake bottom. Happy as any six-year-old, Warren began to run laps, and the children above him tried to swim against the current, and then he accelerated, the entire body of water becoming a sloshing whirlpool.

To afford herself a clear view and to be seen better by others, Glory climbed the lifeguard’s stand, filling a chair meant for an entirely different kind of creature.

She was wearing clothes, which was the day’s fashion, but not so many clothes that her new golden flesh was obscured, or the bright beads of sweat that rolled back and forth across a skin that was alive only in the broadest sense.

Glory was making little steps, slowly embracing cyborg technologies.

Her father was angry about quite a lot, of course. Even someone as far removed as Lugon heard stories about battles between Devon and his daughter, threats issued and temporary surrenders offered. But her gold flesh remained—an infusion of nanobots and reaction chambers that ate every stray photon that tried to pass through their timeless beauty.

Light and heat and radio waves were all food, yes. But the flesh also acted as giant lidless eye, the entire spectrum visible always, and of course the woman noticed Lugon’s slow, half-drunken approach.

His plan was charmingly simple. He intended to tell her “thank you” for the usual and the obvious. But a feeling took hold somewhere in those final steps . . . a sensation not unlike the bold madness that made him a great soldier, if only for a moment.

Glory turned to him, wrapping his name in a smile. Then with her original eyes, she continued watching her fiancé and the increasingly rapid water. She wasn’t as happy as she was on her wedding day. Nobody ever would be that happy again, not in the history of the world. But she looked regal and competent. She was a lifeguard studying a wild boy’s shenanigans, ready to leap into the lake whenever the fun went sour.

That was the moment when Lugon blurted what he thought.

What he knew.

Maybe he had always known the truth. It occurred to him then, listening to his own quick, sensible voice, that he had always been thinking about these matters. Sitting at that table and the other tables, sipping drinks, was when he had been going over the problems with the accepted history. And now this would be the second moment in his life when he would rise up as a hero.

He said it all, in a few sharp sentences.

And Glory thought enough of the words to turn and look only at him, at least with those old-fashioned eyes.

Lugon repeated the heart of his message.

“The attack was theatre. We were fooled, all of us, and he got everything in the end. Including you.”

Glory did not look pleased. But in that less-than-happy expression was far more than the young man bargained for, and he couldn’t process what he saw, and he certainly didn’t anticipate what she would say next.

“You know,” she said. “I’m not an idiot.”

He hadn’t intended to say she was.

“I know quite a lot more than you can imagine,” she said.

“But if your fiancé—” Lugon began.

Glory interrupted him with the one word, “Think.”

Think about what? He didn’t understand.

She asked, “If the world had gone on as it was, what would have happened? What was as inevitable as the next breath?”

“I don’t know,” Lugon said.

“I do,” she said.

He pointed at the swirling, angry lake. “He’s a monster.”

And for the last time, she looked away from him, telling the water, “Being a god is far harder than it appears. Which of course is why there are so few of us.”

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Robert Reed

Robert Reed

Robert Reed is the author of more than 200 short stories, which have been published in magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Postscripts, Daily SF, and Tor.com. Much of his short work has been collected in three volumes: The Dragons of Springplace, The Cuckoo’s Boys, and Eater-of-Bone and Other Novellas. Reed is a Hugo Award winner (and an eight-time nominee), and he has also been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, and John W. Campbell awards. Reed’s latest includes Memory of Sky, a GreatShip novel, as well as a four-part novel entitled The Trials of Quentin Maurus, available only from Kindle for e-readers.