by Daifuku Hoyako (惰猪腹 ほや子)
Flynn curled his arm across his chest, hand tight around the strap of his bag, and shoved his way through the crowd. Behind him, Laura grabbed a handful of his shirt and held on tight. The bodies around them were fresh, newly arrived and, probably, recently showered, so the crush was merely claustrophobic, jarring, and slightly damp, but not rank. Not yet.
It cost Flynn a bruise to the ribs (paid, in turn, to whatever bastard thought it was smart to stop dead in the aisle), but he got the last two chairs on the end of a row, just right of center and close to the stage. Somewhere above their heads, air conditioning vents churned at full tilt. He swiped at the line of sweat quickly freezing on his forehead. “Well, we made it,” he said.
Next to him, Laura checked the time on her phone. She waved it at him, a crinkle of smile around the wall-to-wall black of her eyes. “And just in time, too. It’s only forty-five minutes before Opening Ceremonies start.” When she spoke, her teeth opened around darkness to match her eyes, deep enough Flynn still expected to see the blink of stars there.
Flynn gestured to the room, smacking someone with his outstretched arm as they hunted for seats better than his. “Look at where we’re sitting.” He craned around to look at the huge hall behind him, the ranks of chairs filling up with a tidal rush of people. “Would you rather be back there somewhere?” He took his tablet out of the bag.
Laura pulled it halfway onto her lap and typed one-handed. Flynn clicked open links and windows without being told. Forums and schedules and maps blossomed on the screen. The only reason they noticed the swift passage of time was because the roar of the room dropped down, quick as a door being closed, to a tense murmur.
On the stage, an emcee stood at a microphone to one side, leaving a clear view of the bank of chairs set in the middle. This close, Flynn could actually see expressions on the man’s face as he gave the crowd an indulgent smile and waited just one moment too long for a greater silence that didn’t come. When he spoke, the sound boomed out with sensation. Flynn looked back and saw the camera tower and the huge speakers arrayed around it. “Good evening, everyone. I’d like to welcome you.” The faces of the speakers pulsed. “To ApocalyptiCon 2025!”
A heavy whump filled the air as a banner, big enough to be seen in the next county, unfurled at the top of the stage. It read:
Welcome to APOCALYPTICON 2025
Apocalypse Then and Now: Celebrating 30 Years
The emcee waited until the resulting roar died away. “I’d like to introduce to you our founder, Scott Carson.” A portly man with a graying ponytail walked across the stage, waved, and sat in the first chair on the farthest side. “And Lana Clarion and Ken Jameson, our community coordinators.”
As Clarion walked on stage, half the audience broke out in cheers, while the other half booed with enthusiasm bordering on the sinister. When Jameson followed her out, the ebb and flow reversed. Flynn leaned close to Laura and still had to shout to be heard. “Good to see the politics haven’t changed in thirty years.”
The emcee pretended not to notice the warring shouts being exchanged across the hall. “We’re grateful to both of them for their services to this convention. They’ve promised some spectacular events to celebrate our thirty-year anniversary, but I’ll let them tell you all about that in a moment. First, let me also introduce this year’s special guests.”
On the screen, Laura toggled over to a window with something like a bingo card or a tic-tac-toe game laid out on it. In another window, she had the People Points site up. She typed in the first name the emcee called out. People Points spat out a list of facts and history on Gary Neilson to echo the emcee’s intro. Back on the bingo card, Flynn cycled through until the box for “Master of Ceremonies” filled in with a white top hat icon.
Neilson was followed by Ava Terrance, Film and Television Honoree (White Hat), Devon Acton, Gehenna Press Honoree (Black Hat), and Captain Timeless, Superpower Guest of Honor (White Hat, obviously). Laura’s fingers stumbled as she tried to type in the next name and Flynn looked up from the screen to see who Martin Reyes was and if he was attractive enough to distract Laura from the game.
Flynn got a glimpse of olive skin and curly black hair and slacks creased at the knees from being folded too long. Flynn thought he might be Hispanic or maybe even Jamestown Space Station Creole. Then he realized Laura wasn’t checking him out, she was foretelling. The darkness in her eyes and mouth rushed out in plumes, like deep-sea lava spouts. Flynn had to scramble the tablet back into his bag before it slid off her legs, which had gone stiff and straight out under the chair in front of her.
Flynn could hear the emcee continue introducing people, oblivious to Laura, but he could also see the wary looks being sent their way by the people seated nearby. He linked his hand with hers and she squeezed back hard, right there with him. The darkness receded and her eyes and mouth closed behind it. Her body relaxed. So Flynn got her up out of her seat and hustled her down the aisle, past an audience that, row by row, lost interest and turned to the stage once again.
By the time they made it through the vacant lot beside the convention hall and its maze of little bubble houses to their own rented bubble, Laura had started protesting that she felt fine. “It was just a little prophecy, after all,” she said. But when Flynn unlocked the door to the tiny housing module they had rented from the convention, she went straight to the right bed and collapsed on it.
Flynn knew her too well to bother asking what she had seen; Laura did not reveal the details of her prophecies. Instead, he filled a glass with water from the bathroom, meeting himself coming and going in the space, and handed it to her. Then he sat on his own bed, which was so narrow he could lean his back against the wall and still have his legs hang over the other side, and waited.
Laura leaned over the side of her bed and put her mouth over the glass. An ink jet of darkness filled it, swirling with thickness more like a tongue than liquid. When it disappeared back into her mouth, the glass was empty. “I’m sorry. Now we won’t know which side won the game.”
Flynn shrugged. “Someone will start an argument about it on the forums. We’ll find out then. Was it good or bad?”
Laura fiddled with the glass in her hands. “I’m not sure.” She set it on the floor and rolled over so she could reach the high privacy window set over the bed. “Do you mind if I go out for a while? Will you be bored?”
“Nah, I’ll watch the vid for a while.” He twisted around onto his stomach and hit the power button on the vid screen set into the wall. The local news feed came on. Flynn fiddled with the channel guide and watched Laura out of the corner of his eye.
The real Laura rose up in a cloud of solid, slightly shiny black and poured out the open window. The convenient Laura lay on the bed, skin gone a little pale, eyes closed and mouth open. She did that for his sake; an empty mouth was close to normal, but empty eyes gave even Flynn the creeps. The doll clone, a human husk, would keep itself alive while she took a low-altitude stroll. It felt like being in a room with an abandoned coat that insisted on breathing.
On the vid, a newscaster announced Genefits, Inc. would be releasing a new line of cosmetic genetic modifications later in July. The line included Melatint patterns inspired by Giacomo LeVant’s fall fashion line and– Flynn switched channels. He had promised himself: no work while he was at the con. This was his vacation, damn it.
He pushed away thoughts of the gene labs in favor of wondering, again, what Laura had seen in her prophecy. He could speculate that it had something to do with the con. The Mah!rroti, Laura’s species, used a sort of neural network to communicate telepathically, but on a planet where telepathy was only found in a couple of superpowers, it had morphed into something like fortune-telling. Now and then her mind would bump up against something interesting; a combination of unconscious brain activity in a human and pattern recognition in Laura would spit out a sort of prophecy.
On the one hand, she might have looked at Martin Reyes and had a vision of a future relationship culminating in human-Mah!rrot hybrid children, all dark curls and darker eyes. On the other hand, it could just mean someone was planning to blow up the convention. There was at least one every year. On the vid, a commercial for wireless audio implants became an episode of a space soap. Flynn switched it off. With a foot, he tossed the thin pillow to himself, folded it under his head, and fell asleep in an instant.
Flynn and Laura turned down another blank hallway. “I told you,” he said. “See, this is Room 110C. We’re on the wrong side.”
Laura’s huffy sigh sounded distant and echoing behind her mask. She centered it over her face again, causing the bells woven in with the green and gold and red feathers to jingle in a cascade. “I thought this was the way to the west hall. It looked like it.”
Flynn hunched his shoulders. “We’re going to miss the Presentiment of Doom panel. We already missed the first signing session attaching your wings.”
Laura touched a self-conscious hand to her trailing feathered wings. In the low light of the unused section of hall, the acrylic scales on the face of her mask looked almost natural. Almost real. “Come on. Quetzalcoatl, Mayan calendar, 2012, the Apocalypse That Didn’t Come? You’ll see. When we get to the exhibitor hall, everyone will love this. It’s totally worth it.” She pushed the slipping mask up once again. “Besides,” she muttered, “I have no problem with missing a panel full of other basement prophets.”
“You didn’t have to come with–Oh, my lack of god, is that the signing area? We’ve walked in a circle.” Ahead of them, the hall opened up into a large and crowded room. People were lining up for the second session, which was still two hours away. Volunteers held signs with directions up out of the sea of people and shouted answers to questions heard over the rumble and the excited squeals.
“Jeez, Flynn, it’s not the end of the world.”
Flynn folded the con program open to the multicolored map. “In fact, there is little else here besides the end of the world,” he grumbled. “Now which way…?” Flynn felt something brush past him and heard it say, “Don’t mind me. Just running for cover.” He saw someone duck behind Laura.
The echo chamber of her mask magnified Laura’s stifled giggle. She spread her arms out to the sides and the strings and pulleys hidden in the costume made her wings open up. From the front, the person behind her was hidden. “So, Flynn,” she said in conversational tones. “Are my wings still attached okay?”
At the end of the hall, several people skidded around the corner. “I swear, I saw him come down here,” one of them protested.
“Shoot, Alli, we lost him.”
“Let’s try this way.”
Laura dropped her arms as they left. “You can come out now.”
The stranger stepped out behind her, rubbing the back of his neck like a little kid. “Thanks for the save.”
“First time meeting your adoring fans?” Laura asked.
Finally, Flynn recognized the half-remembered face. He was unsurprised to see another pair of slacks wrinkled at the knee. “You’re Reyes.” He snapped his fingers a couple of times. “Martin. You’re a guest appearance.”
Laura shook her head at him. “Speak from the diaphragm next time, Flynn. You’ll get better volume.”
Flynn snapped his mouth shut. “Sorry. But don’t you have, I don’t know, retainers or something? Bodyguards? Butlers?”
“I left the assistants back at the signing table. And mostly, I dress myself these days, but only if you give me lots of Velcro and snaps.” His face didn’t seem to know his mouth had just cracked a joke. Flynn caught Martin looking at him from the corner of his eye more than once though.
“Well, if you want to avoid being hounded all day, you’ll need to wear this,” Laura said, taking off her mask. If Martin felt any surprise at the gesture, or the alien face the mask revealed, he did not show it. He ducked his head and let Laura place the mask over his head. She straightened out the trailing snake tail and bent the wire core to coil around his torso. The mask fit him better than it had Laura and his extra height made it suitably imposing. “You take that and I’ll keep the wings.”
Martin touched his face and the feathered headdress with reverent hands. It took Flynn a moment to realize there were too few fingers on his right hand. Where the last two should have been, there were just conjoined stumps of lumpy pink calcification, the hallmark of Coral Plague and its survivors. Martin’s voice came out in a god’s rumble when he said, “But won’t this attract attention?” Flynn moved his gaze elsewhere, suddenly and uncomfortably aware that he could not see where Martin’s eyes were behind the mask.
Laura straightened her snake-print tunic under the fishing line attaching her wings to her wrists. “Sure, you’ll get stopped for photos. But no one will recognize Martin Reyes. Wear the wrong face and people forget they ever met you.”
“Okay, if you don’t mind. Let’s meet in the hotel bar at five so I can return this.”
Laura waved at him as he walked back down the hall and into the anonymous masses. “Have a good time.”
When Martin’s bright green head had been lost amid the many other oddities, Flynn turned to Laura with raises eyebrows. “Care to explain?” Laura had mentioned once before how she had foreseen one of her boyfriends prior to meeting him and Flynn was uncomfortably aware of the precedent that set. He felt certain her vision the night before had something to do with her new friend.
She grabbed his hand and pulled him down the hall. “Nope.” A huge cavern opened up behind her grin. “We’ve missed the doom panel, so let’s go hit the artists’ alley before Rising Stars.”
“Do I get to heckle said rising stars?” Flynn asked as he hurried to keep up with her. “I feel that I’m owed a little heckling, since I’m taking it on faith that you haven’t gone crazy.” Hearing her brightly sinister laughter, he added, “Er. I meant crazier.”
Flynn waited just inside the door to the exhibitor hall while the security guard checked Laura’s badge. His partner on the other side of the doorway waved through human after human. Laura pulled the slip of paper, “Laura” handwritten in bold letters, out from the front of her badge. Underneath, her legal name looked a bit like Laura, if he let his eyes skim over the extra vowels and the exclamation point in the middle, the currently accepted representation of a click used in the Mah!rroti’s language.
The guard tapped his foot while Laura got out her ID card to prove the badge belonged to her. Like she was wasting his time. When she had produced said proof, the guard waved her on without a word, probably disappointed he couldn’t kick her out. “Bigot,” Flynn spat once they were walking down a row of superpower memorabilia.
Laura tucked the slip of paper back into the badge holder. “That’s fine. He can give me shit, but I still got to come in. You want to check out some booths, or shall we brave the lunch line first?”
Flynn grimaced. Con food was not to be trusted. “Booths, definitely. I want to look out for anyone selling the collected works of Catalyst Measure. The fan site said the reprint would be available in time for the con.”
Somewhere between the Doom Kitten t-shirts (Laura bought four) and the Manic Press ebook download shop (special discount, all titles 50% off, this weekend only), Flynn saw a familiar green face being swept along by the currents of people moving past the booths. Martin jostled his way out of the crowd toward them. Halfway there, he reluctantly stepped over to the wall so a woman, wearing snake-eye iris mods and a t-shirt saying “serpents do it for the knowledge,” could take his picture. Flynn tugged Laura’s sleeve and bullied his way crosswise through the flow of traffic.
After the woman left, Martin flipped up the mask long enough to wipe the sleeve of his t-shirt across his sweaty face. “Hey, you were right. I can’t walk more than three feet at a time, but everyone just takes a picture and goes away.”
“Glad it’s working out for you,” Laura said.
“I didn’t get your names.” Martin held out his hand. “Martin Reyes.”
“Laura. And this is Flynn. He’s not usually this quiet. Look grateful.”
“Oh, ha ha.” The coral scars on Martin’s hand were cool and stood out against the faintly sun-burnt brown of his skin. “I’m still trying to figure out how a Post-Traumatic Hero ended up a special guest. I thought the whole point was that you avoided celebrity. That’s superpower territory.”
“You looked him up?” Laura asked. “When did you have time?” She had made a point of keeping his tablet otherwise occupied during most of the downtime before panels that day. His suspicions about the content of her vision, centering as it seemed to on Martin, were confirmed.
“I’m not the one who spent thirty minutes talking to one of the artists about how she incorporated working vid screens into her mixed media sculpture. I had to amuse myself somehow.”
Behind the mask, Martin’s voice was soft and neutral. “Now that they’ve found the cure and people aren’t dying by the city, Coral Plague is just another chapter in the history books. Plus, I’m pretty,” he added in a complete deadpan. Flynn had seen so little of Martin’s real face, he was in no position to argue that last bit. And when the whole theme of ApocalyptiCon was the paradox of history in a world that should have ended several times, even the fresh horrors of a five-year plague were fair game.
“I suppose I should be grateful to get you instead of Miss Duplicity.” One of the more public heroes of the plague years, Miss Duplicity’s wraith-thin homunculi had helped administer the cure to whole communities at once. She was also, if her television interviews were any indication, a sanctimonious glory hound and an idiot to boot.
Something in the tilt of Martin’s head suggested amusement, though the distortion of his voice behind the mask hid any inflection. “The lesser of many goods, huh?”
Flynn had to admire any white hat who still had sense enough to laugh at himself. Plus, Laura really did seem to like him. “We were just going to experience the horrors of the concession stands. Want to join us?”
“Thanks, but I’m supposed to be somewhere in an hour. It’s going to take me that long to get out of here,” he said. A couple dressed as Thor and Loki walked up, brandishing a camera. “But tonight at the bar, for sure.”
At five, they found Martin in the bar. He wore a black cap and cheap aviators, hotel gift shop fare, and ate peanuts. Laura’s mask was draped across his lap. Up close, Flynn could see that the cap had some sort of embroidered logo, which had been blacked out with pen or marker. Martin crumbled the peanut shells into fiber and dust over a cocktail napkin. The vid screen in the corner showed a podium in a press room, empty but for the forest of microphones arrayed around it. A lonely flashbulb went off somewhere in the audience. At a table at the back of the bar, two punisher kids in Inteletextile jackets and LED-studded jack boots sulked over beers.
Flynn hovered at his shoulder, unsure if inviting himself to sit at the bar was too forward or if standing in readiness to leave was too distant. “You couldn’t stand out more if you painted ‘Will Blow Up Buildings For Money’ on your back.” He circled a hand to take in the cap, the glasses, the general look of ill-repute.
Martin shrugged and crunched a peanut. He tipped his chin at the vid. “Something’s up on Mah!rro.” Flynn knew Martin watched the whip-flick look he gave to Laura. She just sat on the nearest stool and stared up at the screen. She leaned forward so she almost met Martin’s shoulder and Flynn closed them off into a little triangle. Behind the counter, the bartender absently twisted a towel in a glass, wiping and smearing and wiping again, his eyes on the screen.
Someone approached the podium. The bartender touched the console and pushed the volume up, up, up. The other patrons looked over at the static rustle of papers being shuffled. At the bottom of the screen, the captions spewed garbled characters that resolved mid word into, “–prepared statement from the office of the ambassador then I’ll take your questions.” The speaker had the combination of exhaustion and edge in her voice of the terminally harried.
“At 6:28 pm, Earth Eastern Time–” Flynn translated that to local: 3:28, an hour and a half ago. “–an unidentified Mah!rrot shot Ambassador Eloise Parks as she walked out of the embassy in Rralok then took its own life.” The speaker produced the needed clicks of the city’s name like they stuck in her throat. An inset in the corner of the screen showed a smiling portrait of Ambassador Parks before cycling to a posed photograph of the Ambassador shaking hands with a Mah!rrot wearing a false body, while several more amorphous black Mah!rroti floated behind them. She had been the first ambassador sent beyond this solar system, an interstellar tall tale in the making.
“The Ambassador died at the scene. Emergency cryonics could not be administered as the,” and here the speaker visibly choked, “the Ambassador’s brain was too badly damaged in the attack.” Laura’s hand found Flynn’s and gripped tightly. The speaker turned the page of her notes, the vid picking up the detail of handwriting in the margins of the typed page. “Both Earth and Mah!rro agencies are investigating the attack. The Ambassador’s family and staff ask for your patience and support in this time of tragedy.” She set her notes down. “I’ll take your questions now.”
A reporter somewhere to the speaker’s right asked, “Is the M.X.U. claiming responsibility for this attack?” On cue, the inset in the corner showed a snapshot of massed Mah!rroti and a line of soldiers in body armor hemming them in.
“No one has done so at this time,” the speaker said. “And the shooter remains unidentified, except that it was a Mah!rrot and it was wearing a false skin.”
Another reporter started talking before the speaker’s eyes moved to him. “Will diplomatic relations with Mah!rro continue? Are there plans to recall the embassy staff?”
Martin turned from the screen and Flynn noticed he had put his hand on Martin’s shoulder at some point to steady himself. Turning made his hand slide across Martin’s back from one shoulder to the other. Martin didn’t seem to notice. “First round’s on me,” he said and flicked a hand at the bartender. “You got family out there?”
Laura nodded but said, “No one I know.” She accepted the shot placed in front of her without question, but turned her head away from them while she sucked it up. Flynn knocked his back and hissed. His hand drifted back to Martin’s shoulder. He never managed to move onto a seat of his own.
Flynn tossed shirts from his suitcase onto the bed, trying to decide on something to put on over the khakis he wore, and said, “Why can’t you just wear the Quetzal costume again today?”
“We agreed before, today is the no costume day,” Laura said. She shimmied into a silk blouse, sleeves belling out around her. She had never really internalized the human (well, Flynn thought, American, at least) body shyness. “We’re seeing panels all day. There won’t be much chance for anyone to see me and I don’t want to fight over end seats so I have room for my wings.”
Flynn held up a long-sleeved button down and a short-sleeved polo shirt. The summer heat had made the night in the little bubble house, which lacked any environmental controls more sophisticated than a swivel fan, too warm to sleep. But somewhere before dawn, a cold summer wind had started up and now the house felt like an icebox. “So, what about the other costume?”
“I’m saving it for Saturday. Cosplay finals are then and I want to show off with the big kids,” she said from the bathroom.
Flynn pulled on the polo shirt and started folding the shirts he had thrown out. “Laura, you heard the news last night. There’s already a memorial in front of her home in Maine. They’re rioting in Rralok.” Laura made an open-mouthed noise of understanding that made him think she was applying make-up. “And this morning, there’s noise about the government there being sympathetic with M.X.U. Do you understand what that means? Washington is looking for a way to start a war.” He could say it if he didn’t look at her. It could stay an unbelievable nightmare, something born out of a late-night movie and a bad night’s sleep.
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child,” Laura said. “It’s Whitby Station all over again. And the Towers and Pearl Harbor before that. I get it.” She stepped out of the bathroom. Irradiated blue and Mars red and star nursery gold pin wheeled around her eyes. Her lips were dark; when she smiled, her mouth looked huge, a cave that could swallow the world.
“For god’s sake,” Flynn said and flung his hands up.
“I’m not afraid,” Laura said.
Flynn sat down on the edge of his bed. “Well, I am.” A metallic clang vibrated through the walls of the house. It took Flynn a moment to realize it was a knock at the door. He looked between Laura and the door. What if…? He motioned for her to go in the bathroom and close the door.
“Oh, for! Look, would you stop that?” She opened the door before Flynn could stop her. “Hey, Martin, you slumming with the amateurs today?”
Martin still had on the aviators, but he had, thankfully, ditched the cap. He pushed them up into his tightly curled hair. “Nice colors,” he said. “I’ve got another favor to ask.” He looked at a nowhere point somewhere between the two of them, talking to both or neither at once.
“You want to borrow the costume again? You can wear the wings this time too, if you want.”
Martin shook his head. “There’s a dinner tonight for the special guests. I can take a date. It should be deadly dull, but misery loves company.” Flynn couldn’t decide how he felt about that idea. Nothing would happen to Laura while she was out with Martin and a slew of other white hats. He should be happy, shouldn’t he?
“Yes, please, get him out of my hair for an evening,” Laura said and Flynn had to bring his brain to screeching halt. “I hope they don’t expect him to dress up, though.”
“I won’t look any fancier,” Martin said.
“Wait, what?” Flynn said. “Why am I going with him?” They both looked at him with pity. Oh. Flynn kicked himself for his truly abysmal skills in reading social cues. Martin was, in fact, pretty good-looking when he wasn’t trying to make himself disappear and had shown something resembling a sense of humor. So the prospect of going to dinner with him did not suck. That thought made Flynn reassess his ideas about Laura’s vision. Hybrid children were out, but now he had the uncomfortable sensation that he was reading lines from a script.
Martin shrugged. “You don’t have to.”
Laura raised her eyebrows, making the stars around her eyes go supernova. Flynn spread his hands in surrender. “What time should I be ready?”
On the slightly raised platform, a director, a writer, and two actors from the new vid serial, Brushfire, held a spirited debate over the relationship between the new leadership that rose out of apocalypse-class events and the general population that survived those events. They were all firmly established black hats. It was supposed to be Flynn’s “bond with my own kind for an hour and get a promotional postcard” panel.
One of the actors, who was not so much attractive as trendy, spoke in a hyper-relaxed mumble, saying, “I think, really, the regular people, and you can disagree with me about this, they owe their leaders some trust because they’ve seen, you know, they understand the changes that have to be made.”
In the last row, Flynn typed furiously on his tablet, spitting out line after line of plain text. “Do they jack him up on Pixie Dust before they film a shot?” He actually heard people in the audience murmur in appreciation at what the actor was saying. Someone in front of him nodded continuously, a perpetual motion machine of agreement.
Laura reached over his hands and typed back, “Post-postmodern looks. Future=beautiful people running governments.”
The actor leaned forward, swept his hand through his hair, and leaned back again. The director next to him pushed the microphone closer. “That’s basically what my character is having to deal with. He’s got this knowledge of how people have to live now. And he’s got to convince everyone else to follow him.”
Flynn flailed his hands silently. Laura had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. “Point of apocalypse =/= rediscover blind devotion to government. Is he actually saying this? Am I hallucinating?”
Laura gestured with her head to indicate that all around them, people were eating this up. “You’re Revisionist. Thought you believed apocalyptic paradigm shift + replace leaders = new world order.”
Flynn glared. Laura didn’t usually make a fuss about Flynn identifying as a black hat, even though she stubbornly refused to pick an alignment, which wasn’t unusual with basement prophets anyway. “Career politicians with special visions of the future? DO NOT WANT.”
“It’s the really core struggle of all leaders,” the director cut in to say. “To, to get power and to keep power.”
Flynn stared, gape-mouthed. The other actor blurted out, as though aware of just how wrong the whole conversation was, “Enlightened leaders. So they can help people,” which Flynn thought was a lame comeback, not even worthy of his gratitude for having thought to say it. The room, however, had burst into applause, as though the whole panel had just spontaneously recited Locke’s Second Treatise.
Laura looked sympathetic. “Just a vid. No one’s going to vote them into office.”
Feeling betrayed by a room full of what were supposed to be his philosophical kinsmen, Flynn typed back, “This is California. Long tradition of that. We’re doomed.”
Flynn hadn’t been sure what to expect that evening, still feeling like that morning’s invitation had taken all three of them to a deeply uncomfortable place. But Martin showed up at the door of their bubble house early enough that Flynn had only spent a couple of minutes endlessly straightening the cuffs of his shirt. He didn’t act like he was on a date; he just hooked a thumb over his shoulder and said, “Let’s go.”
In the huge open lot of at-con housing, an irregular trickle of people moved back and forth. Each house looked identical when empty, but now, in the twilight break between when the exhibitor floor closed and the hotel dance rooms opened, people lingered at the doors. In front of one, two girls sat on the scraggly grass, smoking and leaning over a vid screen in their laps. At another, three guys who could have been brothers compared books, one of them flipping to a page and pointing something out with aggressive enthusiasm. A Cthulhu cosplayer stood in the doorway of his and tried to cool off, his tentacle-trailing helmet tucked under one arm.
In the city’s Old Town quarter, they went into an Indian restaurant and were shown to a table upstairs, where the half floor overlooked the marble entrance with its unused hookahs and statues of many-armed gods. Several people were seated at the table; Flynn tried to remember if any of them had been announced before he and Laura left the first night. A man named Denver introduced himself. The name tag pinned to his lapel said Denver was all the name he had and he was the guest coordinator.
The woman they seated Flynn next to had engaged the man on her right, her date, maybe, if the poor bastard was really unlucky, in a breathless monologue about…Flynn listened for a second. Space ports? He gratefully turned away to order an iced tea from the waitress behind him. She wore a grim expression mixed in with the professional smile, like she was consoling herself about the large group she had to serve by calculating the size of tip she was likely to get out of it.
“So do you and Martin work together?” Denver asked.
Flynn recoiled at the idea of working with a white hat. The black hats earlier might have been a huge disappointment, but he still had some pride. “No. No, I work in cosmetic gene therapies.” His voice came out in an awkward yelp.
“That must be a fascinating field to be in right now,” Denver said and Flynn started to understand that this was just small talk. He felt like a child accidentally seated at the grown-ups’ table. “Kelsie was just saying–” Denver and Flynn were equally glad to let the conversation drift away from him.
Under the table, something bumped his knee. He scooted away. It bumped him again. He looked up from studying his glass of tea. Martin met his eyes and bumped their knees together a third time. “Relax,” he mouthed.
Sometime after the appetizer trays of allo tikki and various pakora had been cleared away, the conversation shifted. Flynn realized the woman next to him was now talking about immigration in relation to the much-maligned space ports. And the other people at her end of the table, apart from her date, had actually started joining in. “Do you know that anyone wanting to travel here only has to get approved at the embassy there? Once they’re issued citizen IDs, no one here gives them a second look,” she said and settled back in her chair like she had proven her point.
A fine-boned man with a beaky face said, “That’s not strictly true. Once they become citizens, they are subject to all the same laws as the rest of us. Police. FBCO. Secure-system data tracking.” Flynn had picked up that this was the superpower known as Heron. He understood why news coverage always showed him in-flight and at a distance.
The port woman said, conspiratorially, “You can’t know that. I mean, how can you tell which one of them is in a body? They could just switch. Hide their activity.”
Flynn rewound the conversation in his head. When had they started talking about Mah!rroti? “Actually, swapping active bodies is almost impossible for Mah!rroti. There’s a complex mapping procedure needed to let them interface with the inactive higher brain regions in a doll clone.” At their blank looks, he added, “They don’t all have keys to each other’s houses, in other words.”
Someone from the other end of the table broke in to say, “History shows what a disaster mass detention is.” Flynn opened his mouth to agree that, yes, detention, goddamn internment camps, horrible idea. “If they’re smart, they’ll go straight for deportation. Send ’em back home.”
The woman right across from Flynn nodded. A series of fiber optic cables snaked from the back of her head, around her neck, and disappeared down the front of her shirt. “At least until we can restore normal diplomatic relations. It would be for their own protection. They would feel safer at home, anyway.”
“Home?” Flynn said in a strangled bark. “What about the ones who were born here?” He didn’t hear who, but someone muttered “extruded.” Flynn slashed his hand through the air to silence them. “Budding. They reproduce by budding. They grew up–They’re–” He could see he was getting nowhere. They looked at him with patient, faintly amused expressions.
He shoved back his chair and tossed his napkin on the table. A cup of dipping sauce started to soak into a corner of it. He wanted to say something dramatic and final. He could feel a wall of silence pressing in on him. Even the other tables had stopped to look at him.
The words wouldn’t come. There was no word that could pack in enough meanings, enough arguments to convey what he felt. How a table full of white hats were supposed to be bleeding hearts out to make grand gestures about peace and harmony, not tiny, self-serving men and women running through the same paces their great-grandparents made eighty years ago. How the whole point of the future was supposed to be that people became better, smarter, less provincial. How a Mah!rrot had been family to him forever.
At the counter downstairs, Flynn swiped his pay card through the machine. The man working the console said, “For both of you?” and Flynn looked up to see Martin standing beside him, face blank and posture relaxed enough to make up for Flynn’s brittle, crackling tension.
On the street, walking through the cloud of live music coming from an Irish pub, Martin asked, “Will Laura expect you home tonight?”
“She’ll probably be mad if I am,” Flynn said. “Sorry about dinner.”
Martin shrugged. “It’s not the end of the world.”
The bedroom of Martin’s hotel suite could have held the bubble house with room to spare. When the knock came at the door, Flynn was still staring at the huge bed with more pillows than any one person could need and the sliver of bathroom he could see from where he stood, which seemed to contain a small pool. One of the hotel staff slid a tray of covered dishes onto the desk and wheeled out his cart.
Martin took the covers off the burgers and fries he had phoned for on their way back and popped the caps off the beers. “Eat. The convention is paying to have me here. We might as well get my lack of money’s worth.”
They sat on the floor, propped against the foot of the bed, and watched cartoons on the vid while they ate. A dingo painted the illusion of a tunnel onto Ayers Rock. His ostrich prey ran through the tunnel and disappeared. The dingo chased after and ran into a solid wall. Flynn drank beer and burned his fingers on fries. “So, this is the glamorous life Post-Traumas enjoy these days, huh?” The dingo carefully wired dynamite to a bridge. “You’ll be recruited by Earth Defense Emergency Network next.”
Martin wrinkled his nose, the first genuine expression he had shown since they got to the restaurant. “E.D.E.N. does not accept mundane humans. Also, no amount of free burgers and beer makes this worthwhile. At the signing table next to mine, I watched Captain Timeless autograph a woman’s right ass cheek.” The dingo’s dynamite only exploded once he stood in the middle of the bridge.
Flynn choked on his beer. “Um. E.D.E.N. has the Platinum Titan. No superpowers.”
“He’s got a bio-enhancer suit. And last week, he purchased Fiji. He could buy a radioactive spider to bite him, if it means so much.”
Flynn picked at the label on his beer. He took a deep breath and blew up his own bridge behind him. “Why do you do it? P.T. gets Fiji and Captain Timeless is signing asses. What the hell are you getting out of this?”
Martin rolled up to his feet and away from Flynn. Flynn could see his face closing off again. He could see Martin turning the movement into something casual and meaningless. Flynn shoved aside the tray in a clatter of overturned bottles so he could stumble on his knees after Martin. Flynn grabbed at his wrist and his trailing shirt tails to stop him because he had been human for a minute there. He had made faces and cracked jokes.
Martin could almost certainly overpower Flynn, but he was caught off-guard and it was just easier to drop to one knee while he got his balance. Except Flynn didn’t plan to let him and used his dead weight to drag Martin all the way down to his level. When they were both on their knees in the middle of the room, though, Flynn lost his momentum, no longer sure of what they were really doing.
Martin rescued him with a sloppy kiss. Flynn imagined Martin didn’t kiss people very often because it completely blew his cool guy cover. He kissed with all the bald-faced intensity he lacked in public. He sucked Flynn’s tongue, both hands in his hair behind his ears, and Flynn just held on against the onslaught, knees aching, and slung an arm around Martin’s shoulders.
Getting out of their clothes meant either standing up or lying down, but when Flynn tried to move up onto the bed, it was Martin’s turn to wordlessly pull them down to the floor. The carpet, thick and dark, scraped Flynn’s shoulders as he writhed and humped out of his shirt and pants with help from Martin, already naked save for the unbuttoned shirt hanging off his shoulders. Something rattled and they both looked past Martin to where he had kicked the tray and beer was spilling onto the luxury carpet.
This struck Flynn as suddenly, impossibly funny, the two of them groping and making out on the floor of the hotel room and destroying the place as they went, and when he laughed, Martin laughed too. Flynn tried to commit to memory every detail of the face under the mask: his high cheekbones crowding his eyes; his thin lips parted in a real smile; the way his olive skin held the memory of lines across his forehead and the bridge of his nose for a moment after he stopped laughing.
Martin’s eyes closed when Flynn wrapped a hand around his cock, jerking him off with a loose, teasing grip the way Flynn liked. He braced himself above Flynn with both arms, on his knees between Flynn’s legs. The fall of his open shirt framed his cock like curtains on a stage. His knees creaked when he rocked forward, working himself into Flynn’s hand until it tightened. Then he was coming in a rush of muttered pleas and quivering muscles that left him stretched out on top of Flynn and breathing hard.
It was so easy for Flynn to turn his head and kiss that open face, catching at mouth and cheeks and chin, feeling Martin hold and release puffs of breath. Then Martin pulled away and Flynn grabbed at him, still unwilling to let go, but all Martin did was tuck himself up against Flynn’s side so his right arm curled under Flynn’s shoulder.
The position put him at chest level so he mouthed Flynn’s nipple, lips and tongue and teeth in turn, like he had never seen one before and couldn’t decide what he wanted to do most. With his left hand, he pinched and soothed the other. Flynn arched into the twin sensations and rubbed his head back into the carpet. Martin’s hand closed around the back of his neck, thumb pressed up behind his ear. Flynn could feel both their pulses thudding there.
Martin played with him for one second short of too long before reaching down to slide the damp palm of his hand along the underside of Flynn’s erection and cup it around the flushed head. Now his mouth nipped and sucked at the muscle of Flynn’s chest. He liked to play, to experiment, seeing what Flynn really enjoyed then moving on to something new. Finally, he rolled Flynn, who felt like he would need to collect his brain cells one by one from the room if this went on much longer, pressed up behind him, and jerked him off in earnest. Flynn came with a shout and Martin’s mouth pressed to the side of his face.
Martin hauled the coverlet down from the bed and stretched out. Flynn heaved himself over the impossibly long distance to the tray and wiped himself off with a cloth napkin. Then he flopped back over to Martin and sprawled across coverlet and carpet alike. He set his head on Martin’s heart and let the rise and fall of his chest lull him into restfulness. “What’s your answer?”
Martin didn’t pretend to not understand him. “I get the kids in the village, full of coral statue corpses, who ask me to play a game of pickup with them and the families who let me spend the night on their floor. I get them instead of the news crews and front pages and E.D.E.N. memberships.” He stroked a hand over Flynn’s hair. He used his maimed right hand. “Let someone else catch the rockets in midair. I’d rather help clear the rubble. I’m stupid like that.”
Laura met Flynn outside the room where Martin had a panel and they took two seats in the back and set up the tablet. Even before the panel started, it was just easier to type to each other. Laura only had to type “?” to get Flynn going about the previous night. For her, he kissed and told. “Politics at dinner. Stormed out. Burgers at his place. Sex. My god, the sex. He snores. Also, sings in shower.”
Point for point, she typed out responses, while at the front of the room, Martin posed for photographs with Miss Duplicity times four, Captain Timeless, and a freestanding hologram of Dr. Marrow via satellite phone. “Noise here too. He must not have minded much –> Hotel? Strong and silent type? Or wild behind closed doors? So do you. So do I.”
Flynn rolled a string of beads on her costume between his fingers. She was dressed as the LED-bedecked avatar last used by the AI virus that caused the Great Power-down of 2013. A sinister beauty in sherbet colors, it had slipped into the realm of the mythic even before it had been wiped out, appearing in comics and films and music, all their data streamed across internet back roads to detour around its blockades. The beads pulsed like holiday lights on overdrive. “Talk about internment, deportation, WTF? Re: type – he smiles.”
He could feel Laura look at him, though she didn’t turn her head and of course, her eyes never looked any different. Below a half mask, her orange crème lips quirked up at him. “Smitten.”
At the table, the panelists sat through a rambling introduction by the moderator. Flynn didn’t bother trying to disagree with Laura. “How can they deport citizens? And internment – bad joke.”
Laura waggled her head. “Treason? Enemy combatant?” She pointed up at the table, where Martin was just starting to answer a question from the moderator that Flynn hadn’t heard.
“I had just come out of quarantine after being in Trail, Oregon for three weeks. The town pretty much dried up and died. Anyone who could get cleared moved on to Medford or Ashland.” Martin spoke calmly and didn’t fidget, even when one of Miss Duplicity’s three-inch copies started log-rolling across the table on a water bottle. He might as well have been talking about someone else’s life. “They found out later that one of the interns working in testing was taking bribes in exchange for clean results and a bus ride out of town.”
“You were one of the first to go into quarantined Ashland after that, when the riots started. And you stayed there until agents with the cure arrived. Did you consider leaving after the fighting stopped?”
Martin held up his right hand, remaining fingers spread so you could see the price he had paid for his work. “Full body scans were required before anyone could even come into the field clinic for blood checks. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Visibly uncomfortable, the moderator leaned farther forward to address Miss Duplicity. “You had a similar experience when they brought down the bubble over Los Angeles. In your autobiography, you state you spread yourself so thin, there were as many as one hundred segments of you in the city at any one time, administering the cure. Did you have to inoculate all those segments as you made them? Did you know for sure if the vaccine or the cure was compatible with your power?”
Flynn watched Martin lean back and tune out of the conversation. He had expected to be able to see anger or resentment or even just boredom, now that he had seen Martin’s real face. But the mask was back in place. Martin looked like a computer on standby, not even engaged enough to be bored. Just waiting.
That night, they gave out the Yggdrasil Awards in a ceremony that served as the unofficial closing of the con, even though regular programming continued through Sunday evening. The awards were open to everyone and they mostly made it worth people’s time, breaking up the award-giving with performances, both live and recorded. Plus, Martin was presenting one of the awards.
So at seven, after dinner out on the town for the three of them, Flynn and Laura joined the shuffling crowds pouring into the same hall as the opening ceremonies, with Flynn once again running point with his sharp elbows. Their seats weren’t as good as last time, but they could still see the stage at least. They propped their feet up on the legs of the chairs in front of them and booted up the tablet.
When the ceremony started, Flynn caught himself watching Laura nervously, feeling the echo of that first night and expecting her to foresee again. Laura noticed it too and made a questioning face. Flynn typed, “That first night.” At her prompting, he continued. “What did you foresee?” He hadn’t bothered to ask before, knowing she didn’t talk about it, but now he had to know. How much of the past weekend had been predestined: the encounter in the hall; his suspicion of Martin; the night in the bar (and had she seen, as part of that, the assassination?); the dinner and the night together?
Laura hesitated a long time before she typed anything back. In the interim, the director of a movie about the Great Power-down received an award for his sensitivity and subtlety and possibly just for his attractive accent. While the act that followed, a dance routine set to a medley of music from the film, took over the stage, Laura typed back on a screen that shone like a beacon in the darkened hall. “I saw myself loaning Martin my mask.”
“That’s all?” Dancers whirled up and down an animated forest of props.
“So all the rest, that was our own doing?”
“It’s always your own doing.” The lights came back up.
The rumblings started as soon as they announced the recipient of the Ygg for Scientific Consultant in Media and Entertainment. The doctor’s name had at least three clicks to it, plus that weird trill that Laura insisted was an incredibly common name element (“No, really, it’s like naming someone John Smith.”) When he walked on stage, the contrast between his pale skin and the dark of his eyes must have been visible miles away. No one in the hall wondered what species he was.
People started shouting, first one voice, then a handful, then it seemed like the whole room was swarming with them. Tar pit, they said. Space blob. Body-snatcher. Murderer. The doctor was a small, sort of mousey person and the shouted curses seemed to physically hit him. He shrank and curled in on himself until it was a wonder he was still on the stage at all.
People started to move as well, shifting in their chairs, standing to hurl more insults. Laura gripped Flynn’s hand tight enough to grind the bones together. Flynn could feel them building up to a riot. Then the people running the awards did what all people in charge do: they shut it down and smoothed it over. The presenter hustled the doctor off the stage and before he was even out of sight, the vid screen at the back of the stage flicked on. Something vapid showed on it, something with a laugh track and bright colors. It was half over before anyone dared lower the lights on the restless crowd.
The first thing Laura typed was, “I lied, back in the house. I am afraid.” Flynn didn’t have to say anything. They were both afraid. They were all afraid.
When they returned to the bubble house, they found Martin sitting in the doorway, hands dangling between his bent knees and head tipped back against the door. While unlocking the door, Flynn saw Martin touch a hand to Laura’s shoulder. She covered his hand with her own. Inside, they could barely all stand at the same time.
Laura leaned in to whisper in Flynn’s ear, “I’ll go out for a while.”
Flynn watched Martin respectfully not looking at them. “You don’t have to.”
She shook her head. “I want to go up, where no one will see me. There might be others out right now. I need,” and she spread her hands. She needed the familiar face of a stranger. She lay down on her bed and rose out of her body. She hovered for a second and Flynn got the impression she and Martin were communicating somewhere behind the blank facades they both wore. Then she was gone.
Martin pushed Flynn’s suitcase off the end of the bed and sat down. Flynn stood between his knees and traced the features of his face with one finger. “Did you read his book?” Flynn asked. The award Martin had presented was for a historian who wrote a book about the Coral Plague years.
Martin nodded, making Flynn’s finger trace up and down his cheek. “A little. He makes heroes out of a lot of people who probably weren’t. Mostly he talked to survivors, so that’s something.”
“I always thought black hats were the ones who understood about sacrifice. The big picture.” Flynn held Martin’s jaw in his hands for a long moment before bending to kiss him. “And that white hats were sentimental and sanctimonious, even when they were getting things right.”
Martin lifted his hips off the bed while Flynn pulled his pants and boxers down. Then Flynn had the warm, secure sensation of a hand in his hair as he worked Martin up to hardness. “And now?” Martin asked.
Martin’s thigh clenched and relaxed under Flynn’s palm. Soft, short hair covered it and prickled his hand as he rubbed it against the grain and smoothed it down again. “The bigger anyone thinks their ideals are, the smaller and more afraid they turn out to be.”
Flynn had been informed, by reliable witnesses, that he did not give spectacular head. But Martin’s cock filled his mouth and Martin’s hands cupped his head and Flynn shuddered and moaned and knew he could come just from those feelings. He thought of Martin’s kisses, reckless, and lacking in finesse, and fun, and thought maybe he’d just never found the right person before this.
So he sucked and licked and pulled off to use his hands again. It didn’t matter if sometimes the rhythm flagged when he did something that didn’t feel as great as the last thing. There would be something else in a minute. And Flynn was right: he came first, his own cock untouched, as he stroked Martin with one hand, mouth closed over the head, and pulled him closer with the other arm. Martin’s orgasm was just an aftershock of Flynn’s.
They cleaned up and stripped down to boxers. They had to lie back to front to both fit on the bed, so Flynn took the wall side and wrapped an arm around Martin and hoped he didn’t fall off the bed. The wall of the bubble home pressed cold against his shoulders. He thought he would never get to sleep like that. But after an hour, Laura came home and smiled at him as he watched her past Martin’s ear. Flynn was asleep before she finished changing clothes.
By unspoken agreement, the three of them spent Sunday in the Cult Classics vid room, watching retro-futuristic movies and episodes of ancient serials and talking over the tablet. They camped out in a corner, where no one would need to pass by them to get better chairs, and they turned the backlight on the screen down low.
The lights never went up in the vid rooms and the track list never stopped. People came and went as they pleased and they didn’t talk. They just sat in the cool dark and let the orchestra soundtracks and Technicolor shadows wash over them. If they wanted interactivity, they went somewhere else.
Flynn passed the tablet to Laura, who typed, “Martin: where will you go after this?”
Martin tried to take the tablet to answer, but Flynn held on to it long enough to add, “And can we go with you?” Laura’s hand touched his knee, lost with the rest of the room out in the dark. Only their faces and typing hands were visible in the light of the screen.
Martin typed, “Depends on how long it takes to declare war.”
Laura’s fingers were fast and angry on the touch screen. “Detention?”
“If we’ve thought of it, Washington already has,” Martin answered.
“Relocation?” Flynn asked. “Canada’s nice, I hear.”
Laura leaned into him and said, amid an explosion of impossible noise in space from the vid, “We shouldn’t have to be invisible. We shouldn’t have to hide.” Some things were too big to type. Some things had to be said aloud.
“There’s a big community around Cape Canaveral. Might go there, see what people want to do. Work citrus harvest in the meantime.” There was never any question that Martin would remain on Earth; Mah!rro would be the scene of the political battle and Martin would have no part in politics.
Laura smiled grimly, most of her face reduced to shadows. “You’ll need help. You need someone who speaks the language. Someone with a face they can trust.” Flynn thought Martin’s face could be trusted more than just about anyone else’s, but Laura was right; fear of a different face would go both ways soon. “I never liked working in advertising, anyway,” she added. On the vid, the movie’s climactic battle, seen from a ship’s bridge full of cheering spacers watching their own screen erupt in the confetti of destroyed enemies, dissolved into the credits.
They walked out into the hard light of the hallway. The ceiling was all glass and let in simple yellow light, unadorned by environmental controls or holograms of soda advertisements. Flynn stopped in the middle of the hall and turned his face up into it. The con had emptied out and the few people passing by had no interest in him. He could feel Martin and Laura standing near him. Martin asked, “What about you? Don’t you have a job? Don’t you have to go back to it?”
Flynn shook his head and looked away from the light. Spots danced in his field of vision, adding stars to Laura’s eyes. “I’ll quit. I’ll pay off my lease and leave that too.” Laura nodded once and he knew she was with him in this.
“No one will ever understand or respect your decision,” Martin said. “Even if they’re willing to foot the bills while you talk about it. Everyone will think you threw your life away.”
Flynn shrugged. That was everyone except the three of them. “It’s not the end of the world.”