Our Lady of the Streets

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

The city’s rectangular eyes towered over me. Banks and offices whispered to each other forecasts of my movements. They knew I was lost and trying to escape them. Where the city wanted me to end up was anybody’s guess. Probably the same place where everyone ended up, and where my family, transformed beyond all recognition, would be hungrily awaiting my arrival.

I kept my movements erratic, preferring the small-aired sidestreets and alleyways. Stores leered at me. A sewer drain gurgled a recognizable melody, something sweet and sad, trying to lure me.

Then the alleyway ended in a brick wall.

I yelped and fell over myself trying to run. But it was too late: between me and the streetmouth was a little girl in a frock, with a rose in her hair.

If she was a real child, the streets would literally eat her alive—unless they killed her first. Not my problem though. I pocketed my hands and hurried past with my eyes averted.

But her fingers like five steel cables closed around my elbow.

I had no choice but to turn and look.

She was incredibly old, with a scrunched face and a single tooth. She had small confused eyes and seemed to have already forgotten what she wanted to ask.

Then her face lifted off from her skull and smoothed out like a photo of a teenage girl uncrumpling, with eyes like tiny red lightbulbs. Then her entire head collapsed and reformed as a glossy black vortex grinding inward. I watched my own frightened reflection sucked in.

She spoke, and her voice was like rusted machinery.

“You waaaaant to fuuuuck meeeeeeeeeee?”

I did not.

At her place she kept the lights off and played porn on her face. Was she trying to make it easier for me? Could something like her feel pity? Her bed was wide and cold as a bay, and she was gently trying to push me down onto it. I thought that if I co-operated she might stay gentle, so I lay down for her, but the mattress was sandy and wet and strewn with trash, and pebbles and loose screws dug into my back. I winced and tried to adjust myself, but she was already climbing onto me, and she was heavy as a building. I felt crushed into place by concrete and steel, with the mattress foaming and swirling around my head. Slowly she winched her architecture down over me. Her face had split into a city square with flashing billboards. By now bridges lashed together my knees, and my sagging jaw was filling up with high-rises. Skyscrapers crawled all over my body and trains ran straight through me, carrying sleepy commuters that stared out from my torso bored, as if she weren’t out there bearing down on me like an infrastructural sky, all her vast cabled machinery bouncing hard and heavy on my radio tower. Up through the tower pulsed a painful red sun; inside its sphere was my screaming face. Then the sun burst, and a mushroom cloud as thick and brown as gravy rolled over her harbors and meatpacking plants.

I was going to be a father.

The Insemination (Old Version)

[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A drastically different form appears in my book Unearthlily. I leave this here because I like certain elements of the old version.]

With her right claw Genu46 grips the child and tugs her beak from its ribs. She dribbles softener on its forehead, then cuts from combed hair to snub nose and tenderly peels back the floppy bone, exposing lobes packed with eggs as round and white as pearls.

She gapes briefly but catches herself quick and tunes down her mood engine until she’s calm enough to tweeze out the eggs.

Afterward she darts up into the pea-green sky over the human village and cuts off east toward her roost, skimming over winged trees fluffy with spring feathers. On the horizon her roost, a glossy black pillar, slopes up hairlike into clustered stratocumuli.

Inside, Genu46 skips her usual friendly beak-rubbing and slips off to the chapel, where she discovers Genu85 perched in front, his eyeball cocked at the gauges set into the altar. In the altar’s testing chamber he has placed an entire brain—eggless, of course, like every day.

Normally 46 tries to be patient with 85—they all do—but today she shoulders him aside, plucks out his junk specimen, unseals her eye canal and lets one egg roll into the altar.

All sixteen gauges bong in unison.

46 and 85 glance at each other. 85 begins to twitter in happy hack-brained excitement, and even 46 permits herself some joy in the instant before her mind is overridden by an incoming command:

DELIVER THE EGGS.

Her personality dissolves like sugar into water. Only the smallest grains of self still blink on and off, sparking through the depths of an ocean of nonbeing.

Her beak siphons the egg back into her eye pouch. Her body turns to leave.

The chapel is crammed with her roostmates—they line the pews and are stacked along the walls up to the dome, tiers of glassy eyeballs arranged so that everyone can stare at her.

But her legs carry her past them, through deserted maintenance halls, and into a bright corridor to mountains and plains and oceanic sky.

Her body launches itself out and her wings lock into hummingbird mode and carry her straight up.

The landscape rapidly contracts, rivers and forests pulling together into a mottled, blossoming flesh. Her roost tapers and curves down into a shiny black spiral.

Other colossal spirals appear in the far distance, dozens tangling on pale plains that curve off to the end of the world, where red waterfalls cascade sparkling into astral darkness.

Her wings slow, three nozzles emerge from her tail feathers, and then she blasts up out of the atmosphere, a cyclopean magpie rising on triplet jets of white flame, a speck departing her planet, which looks like a reclining human wreathed in clouds, with a red umbilical ocean, ribs made of mountain chains, and a bald head with closed eyes and a serene smile.

Three eye-moons orbit its torso, sweeping their gazes across its length.

And near its left knee, the thin black hair of her roost.

In the back of her mind a half-crushed feeling rears up and she plunges after it, chasing the pain into herself, shrinking, as she falls inward, to a dot of mind snowing toward an electric island of fragmented emotions.

With time other human planets spin past, vast sleepers clothed in clouds and feather-forests, their transcendental smiles reflected in the glassy dome of her deserted eye.

Meanwhile, 46, deep inside herself, glitchy and incomplete, views and reviews the footage of her roostmates filling the chapel. Again and again they stare at her, the Finder of the Eggs, the One, with all the camaraderie gone from their ancient faces, replaced by disappointment and an awful distance.

As her body passes the sun, a gargantuan glass orb containing an irradiant organism with feathery membranes swirling around its blinding core, she’s composing a speech for her return in which she reassures everyone, and especially poor deluded 85, that she found the eggs only because of their work ethic, their determination, the unbreakable unity of all their people everywhere—they who had searched so long and so bravely for the eggs.

The sun fades behind her. The stars drop from view. Her body ascends through silent darkness toward a matte-black ceiling and angles into a short tunnel to a metal room.

She’ll say she was only ever the insignificant emissary of a noble, superior, and devoted race.

A mechanical pincer drops down, seizes her eye, and yanks her into the air. A green laser hums in sideways and halves her skull. Her body and most of her brain drop.

Her eyeball is scoured by microlasers until it shines and turns translucent—revealing the clutch of eggs stored behind its pupil—and then the pincer pushes the eye into a slot in the roof.

Her eye, wedged in place, looks out from a submicroscopic gap in a smooth pale surface that extends beyond all horizons, curving around 46’s entire universe—

All her reality contained in a round, glowing shell, a cosmic pearl that fills all space.

I press one final button.

Her pupil squirts the eggs. They spray out, glittering in a light that is not light, travel up your gaze and through your eyes and thud into your brain.

Your figments wriggle toward the eggs…

Solitude of the Employee

At the specified hour the employee strode into the national HQ and presented his summons. After a brief interrogation, he was pushed into an amphitheater. On its semi-circular tiers, behind executive desks, dozens of bosses conferred, muttered into phones, or glared down at him with hands buckled across paunches.

The employee’s personal boss—young and crisp, stiff as a soldier—rapped on his desk.

“We’ve ordered you here because your colleagues have testified that you often stare at nothing in particular, lost in private thought.

“In other words, you have been stealing the time that we purchased from you.

“Personally, I believe that such behavior deserves swift exile—with prejudice.

“However, here at Corp Inc. we subscribe to compassion, and the directors will settle for removing the part of you that stares into space and imagines other ways of existing.

“It will be stored safely, in isolation. You won’t feel that different, but there are a few side effects…”

“Okay,” said the employee, and stood up. “I’ll make this as easy as possible for both of us.”

And he bolted.

He hurtled through the generic hallways, skidded into a stairwell, and fled down concrete steps, past bare pipes, toward the coolness of fresh air.

But the corridor led to a catwalk forking off through windy darkness.

Eying a distant EXIT sign, he edged out onto the open…

And found himself high over an immense cavern split by an agitated river.

The rocky walls and ceiling, the wet boulders of the riverbanks, were webbed with thick white strands that sagged everywhere with bulky cocoons.

Inside each cocoon, just barely visible, was a junior boss in suit and tie, knees curled to chest.

The employee crept across the catwalk through echoing river-roar until he reached an iron staircase that spiraled down toward daylight. He had descended several flights when the thin stairs began to reverberate with someone’s ascent.

It was a muscular, clean-cut boss in a white dress shirt tucked into chinos.

As they passed each other, he realized that the other man had his face, but harder, and perfected.

He emerged into noon dazzle on a lush hill over a strange city.

A city he’d seen in dreams.

A fractal city that shifted under his gaze, its streets opening at impossible angles on ever more castles, skyscrapers and pavilions, circuses in ancient forests, ziggurats and temples and hypermodern black cubes. There were carved stone dwellings teeming with monkeys. There were single-acre farmsteads sailing down canals, past floating nightclubs lit by throbbing holograms. There were mammoth trees, growing out of abandoned churches, whose boughs supported colonies of eccentric treehouses.

But though he often called out, no one ever answered.

He was alone.

The Rainy Library

In the rainy library, anyone can find a book about herself.

I’d felt for some time that I was largely invisible to my own eyes. That how other people experienced me was so different from my own ideas as to be unimaginable.

So I needed that book. I had to see myself, even if it broke me.

But reaching the library wasn’t easy. First I saved up for years for the black-market maps—only to find out that the library was halfway across the world. Well. Swallowing my anger, I saved for another year, then took a long-haul flight to a remote plateau, and with map in hand backpacked over an icy mountain range to a hidden valley filled with dense jungle. In the depths of that steaming jungle was a waterfall so chilly it spit icicles, and I had to grope through plummeting ice for a doorknob embedded in rock.

I stepped through into warm drizzle, into a large atrium with clouds rumbling and bumping under its glass ceiling. Above me rose eight stories of sagging shelves and waterlogged stacks of books.  When I called out, nobody responded… and my echo seemed to mock me.

I was starting to worry that I’d been scammed.

But that atrium turned out to be one of hundreds, and the library itself was larger than a city. My map took me through muddy side corridors that forked and star-split constantly, each new hallway decorated like a different culture or era. I rode horizontal elevators and crossed catwalks over book vaults. I gazed out windows at a mirrory lake, then a living city, then a sky filled by the glossy black wing of a planet-sized bird.

Finally I pushed open the heavy stone door to the final room, where an orb-headed mannequin posed by an enormous rose-window.

This part was in the instructions too.

I joined the mannequin at the glass, and we gazed out at darkness as flat as if reality ended just beyond the pane. Soon this darkness softened—not becoming light so much as giving way to a whiteness that wasn’t really white, but a color I’d never seen before. This color grew nested curves and crosshatched shadows, spiraling open into the furled layers of an antimatter rose.

Unwhite petals swirled out, larger than the sky.

And in the rose? At its center?

An eye, tracking from side to side.

Reading me.

The mannequin shifted and gasped.

Now she looked exactly like me.

She turned in my direction.

We spoke at the same time.

We stopped.

We leaned toward each other.

I gazed deep into my own apprehensive eyes.

I began to read.

Birds 2.0

As the songbirds began to die off, the park services, having in mind only customer satisfaction, hired an innovative and award-winning start-up to troubleshoot.

The start-up’s A-team of hotrodding, tattoed, handsomely bearded data scientists recorded millions of hours of birdsong, used machine learning to sort the recordings by species, age, gender, health, and mood, and finally wrapped speakers resembling vines around high branches and began to supplement the organic birdsong with a play cycle that simulated the movements of real birds.

Later they added the droning of bees, and the sound of feral paws padding across mulch.

But then an up-and-coming young manager drank a certain specialty coffee and stayed up all night innovating, and the next morning he presented the park management with a game-changing proposal: during the day, at damn decent prices, they would sell airtime on the branch speakers, though the ads should be soothing, serene, kid-safe, and preferably for natural products; and at night, visitors could dance, chat, flirt, purchase drinks, and otherwise enjoy themselves under trees blasting the freshest hits, with a live DJ on weekends.

None of this lasted, of course, because then the war came, and no one had any time for leisure, and anyway it wasn’t long before the park, along with the rest of civilization, was incinerated during a single night of retaliatory nuclear strikes—a night that was never named, for there was no one left to write history.

But there’s good news: after a relatively brief span of geological time, living things—though not ones we would easily recognize—recolonized the wasteland: hairy, oddly coloured foliage rose in misshapen domes, the birdish creatures laid more eggs to compensate for the deformed chicks, and meanwhile their threatening, desperate songs provided a charming backdrop against which nature could finally breed and murder in peace.