The Mary Sue is pleased to present strange, beautiful new fiction from Apex Magazine each month. This month’s story, from Apex Magazine’s current issue, is “Last Dance Over the Red, Red World” by Gary Kloster. Take a look…
“Last Dance Over the Red, Red World”
Are you dauntless, Konstantin? Are you happy and sagacious in your high tower, surrounded by your servants and your sycophants? Do you feel safe, with the Death so far below?
Don’t. I’m coming for you.
I’ve slipped through your gates, and I’m climbing to you with the apocalypse clenched between my teeth like a knife.
Twenty thousand miles isn’t far enough, Konstantin.
Not after you took Minerva.
You should have guessed. You should have known what I’m capable of.
I should have guessed. I should have known what you’re capable of.
From the moment we met, that first deal, that first fuck. We both should have known.
This story, our story.
It can only end in blood.
Your palace is a wheel, a fat chrome inner tube spinning around a cable that stretches from the Earth into space. A star tower, you called it, but the stars are still so far away, even up this high. But the Earth… It’s right there, small enough to hold in your hand. I bet you love this view. No wonder you moved up here. No wonder you stayed, so safe, when those assholes started to paint our little blue world red.
It isn’t easy, scaling your walls. How many tried and failed? But I broke Minerva’s chains, the ones you’d wrapped so tightly around her, and she brought me up. Like Rapunzel letting down her hair, except instead of golden locks she lowered me a spidery maintenance climber and a pressure suit.
On the long ride up, she told me about your party. I’m so hurt you didn’t invite me.
Minerva can hide my approach under layers of routine, but she can’t clear your halls of all your cooks and accountants and cocksuckers. So here, in the empty vacuum of your courtyard, I leave the climber and step out onto the curving inside edge of your fortress, the magnets in my boots holding tight to its polished walls.
If I want to crash your party, I’m going to have to take a walk outside.
The Earth is so small and the stars are so bright but so far, and everything’s mostly black and empty and all I can hear is my breath, echoing in my helmet. It’s a desperate sound in all this dark.
My lungs burn in my chest, and I feel a cough building.
“Mother.” Over the radio, Minerva’s voice is soft and steady. “Safia, listen please. I think you need to adjust your meds. Your vitals —”
“I’m okay,” I rasp, but I’m not, and she’s right about the meds. I whisper a command and the menus of the doc–box I strapped to my thigh days ago flick past my eyes. I choose drugs, adjust dosages, and the medications punch into my femoral, race through my blood and that terrible, deadly itch dies in my chest. I clear my throat and take a breath. Then I take a step. Another.
I’m coming, Konstantin.
The emergency airlock slides open, and the ballroom stretches before me, vast enough to be curved. Its dance floor is clear as glass and full of stars, a prodigious waste of space, an elegantly blunt display of wealth and power.
You were never this gaudy on Earth.
“How long?” I ask, and my voice sounds so broken. The drugs that keep me alive are tearing me apart, almost as vicious in their work as the beast they are fighting to keep at bay in my blood.
“Until the dance? Two hours.”
I close my eyes, wincing at the pain of my lids moving. I can last two hours. And even if I don’t, I’m here. I’ve already won, and my hands reach for the seals of my pressure suit.
My hands still.
“Why?” I concentrate, and my implants interpret my wishes. Displays flicker across my vision, drawn by the contacts stitched to my corneas. In all that glittering information, my fears find no confirmation. There’s no sign that you or your programmers know that I’ve broken your locks and let Minerva go.
“Wait. Please. Someone’s coming. There’s an alcove behind the bar. Stand there and they won’t see you.”
“Someone.” I move, the pain of it distracting, but my eyes still flicker over the displays. Not you, Konstantin, not you. This strangeness is something else.
This is my daughter, almost free.
“What are you doing?” I slide into the alcove, a dark glass wall that conceals a sleek bartender.
“I want you to meet someone.”
“Meet —” but the door is opening, spilling light across the star–carpeted floor.
“— don’t want to have my own party. I want to go to Daddy’s party!”
The voice is high and insistent, a child’s voice, and the first figure through the door matches it. A girl, five or six years old, maybe? I’m not sure. Children, the messy biological kind, have always been foreign to me.
“I heard you, Diana. The first nine times. But you can’t, and if you keep asking I’ll take you back to your room without showing you my decorations. Do you want that?”
The woman’s voice is familiar, oh so familiar. Minerva’s voice, but you’ve tweaked it, you perverted asshole. Made it throatier, sexier. Made it match the body you’ve given her to puppet.
The android that follows the girl into the ballroom is beautiful, the best I’ve ever seen. Its only mark of manufacture is its slick perfection. No human skin is that smooth, unmarked by hair or pores or veins. It covers her slim curves like new snow, a match for her starlight hair, her silver eyes.
“Oh, damn you,” I say softly, staring at the gorgeous doll in its pretty dress.
“It’s just a tool, Mother. For interaction.”Minerva’s voice in my helmet is precise, perfect, the voice I picked out with her just after she was born. Her voice.
“For interaction,” I say, the words like knives in my throat. “He got that thing so he could fuck you, didn’t he? Didn’t —” I want to shout it, but my broken throat fails and my chest is burning, tightening. There’s a cough building again, I can feel it, and it’s going to tear me apart. I need my drugs, need to stop this, but it’s coming and goddamn you, Konstantin —
“Here.”The displays crowding my peripheries flicker when Minerva takes control of the med–unit. I slump, the world suddenly hazy with opiates, but the burning need to cough is dwindling, fading, dying.
When I can breathe again, I let the air out with a whisper.
“Does it matter?”
Does it matter? She’s the first AI ever created, Konstantin. I made her, but I couldn’t have done it without you.
God damn you, Konstantin, she’s our daughter.
“Why? Is your resolve slipping, Safia?” Minerva’s words snap over the radio. “Do you need a little more righteous rage to justify this extinction?”
No, but it helps keep me upright. I don’t say that though. The emotion in my daughter’s voice distracts me. Have I ever heard her angry before? Even when I broke her free of you, when I told her what I meant to do to you, when we argued, I’m not sure that I did.
Not even when I used your chains to force her to help me.
Am I any better than you?
Yes. Because I will free her from you, forever.
And her freedom from me is guaranteed.
“Forget him, forget your vengeance, just for a few minutes. Please.”
Please. She’s begging me, because she has to, and what sort of Nietzschean nightmare have you dragged me into, Konstantin?
I have the time, and I’m in place, and my daughter wants this. And, staring through the shadowed glass at the girl and the perverted puppet you’ve given Minerva, I am curious.
I can’t forget. But I can wait.
My fingers uncurl and rest light on the seals of my suit.
“Hydroponics are boring, Tick–Tock.” The little girl is frowning at the floral arrangement the android is showing her, white roses blooming. “You said you made visuals.”
“I did,” Minerva says, setting the flowers down.
“Tick–Tock?” I ask, slumping in my hiding place, watching.
“When she was two, I tried to explain to her about computers. I wasn’t too successful at first. She decided I was a clock, like the one in her father’s office.”
“Show me!” The girl stares up at the android, her little face demanding.
She’s a privileged brat. Her expression is so fiercely insistent, I itch to slap it. Of course I do. She reminds me of you.
“What was that, Diana?” Minerva’s voice is cool, but a tiny smile plays across her lips, faint pink against the whiteness of her face.
“Please,” the girl amends.
“All right. Go to the center of the dance floor.” Minerva waits until the girl skips into place, then snaps her fingers. The room, for an instant, goes black.
Then there is blue. It pours down from the ceiling, runs over the walls and coats the floors, swallowing the stars in azure light. A thousand shades of sapphire, shifting and moving with subtle currents, and the whole room ripples.
“What is it?” the girl asks, staring around wide–eyed.
“Your father wants decorations that will evoke the Earth. Not portray it,” Minerva answers. “Can you guess what this is supposed to be?”
Staring at the little girl through the dark glass, the tilt of her head, the lines of her features, the way she stands, I am distracted from the pain that burns in my chest. Something about her haunts me. “Who is she?”
“Water! It’s water!” The girl runs in circles on the dance floor, waving her hands and pretending to swim. “We’re in the ocean!”
“Clever sausage. Want the next?”
“Watch your demands,” Minerva sings, but she snaps her fingers again and the room changes. Blue becomes purple, all the purples, moving but not flowing like the blue. The jagged variations of shade rise instead, climbing all around.
“Daughter?” I stare at the girl who is tilting back her head to watch the color rise, and remember dead friends and their dead children. I walked out on you six years ago, Konstantin, right before you moved yourself up here, beyond heaven.
This girl is almost that old.
“How can he have a daughter?”
“The unusual way. She’s an experiment.”
“Purple mountains majesty,” the girl suddenly belts out. “Above the frui–woo–ted plain!”
“Good.” The android Minerva gives the girl a smile. “This next one should be easy then.” Purple vanishes, swallowed by green, waving, bowing.
“Grass! But no fruit.”
“No,” Minerva says, still smiling. “No fruit.”
“An experiment?” I stare at the girl and something stirs in my chest, something that isn’t a cough. “What the hell has Konstantin been doing up here?”
“Making a family.”
In the room beyond the glass panel, green brightens and becomes orange, swirling, whirling, dancing. The girl laughs and starts running in circles again, chasing the orange, and the way she runs, the laugh in her voice as she calls out — “Leaves! Fall!”
“What the hell is this, Minerva?” I’m trembling now, and it has nothing to do with the Death or the drugs. “Who is that girl?”
On the other side of the glass, the android Minerva shifts her silver eyes away from Konstantin’s daughter to meet mine.
“She’s my sister.”
“Next, next,” the girl cries, and orange fades into white, a brilliant white that swirls like the leaves. The girl whirls with it, until she sees the white blanket that covers the floor, scuffed with the tracks of her moving feet, and stops. “Snow!”
“What are you —” I start, but Minerva cuts me off.
“Konstantin says that he told you about them once. The artificial wombs one of his companies was making.”
“Humans are animals,” Minerva says, her patient intonation almost the same as when she spoke to the girl. “Diana was one of the first human trials. Konstantin’s sperm. For the egg, he found a donor.”
The girl is on the floor, making angels in the white. Her brown skin is lighter than mine, her dark curls a little looser. I can see you in the structure of her laughing face, but I can see someone else too.
A donor. I donated those eggs in college. Good money. Not all of us had trust funds, Konstantin.
I never told you about that, but you found out, of course. With all your money, all your power, it would have been easy.
As easy, apparently, as getting the child you wanted from me that I never did.
The girl is up again, and the room is changing around her. The white gives way to blue, and then blue is swallowed by great drifting clouds of violet. They fill the walls, almost black except when light flickers through them, making them glow like stained glass, and the whole room rumbles softly.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, looking away from the startled girl. “I’m not her mother.” I’m not. A cell, scraped out of me decades ago. I tighten my fingers on the seals of my suit.
Fuck you, Konstantin. You’re all that matters. This child is just another shitty thing that you’ve done.
“It does matter.” Minerva’s voice fills my ears, not loud but hard, certain. “She matters. To me.”
“A storm,” the girl says, staring at the drifting darkness that surrounds her. Her face is solemn now, not insistent.
“A storm,” Minerva echoes, and her voice is as serious as the girl’s. “Then darkness.”
The room goes black as blindness, and I hear the girl call out in the dark, her voice high and touched with fear.
“There’s one more,” Minerva answers, and that husky voice you’ve given her can sound sad, so sad. Then there is light.
Blue and brown and green, our world spins beneath the dance floor. Too big, turning too fast, just another of Minerva’s illusions, but beautiful.
Then something flickers on its surface.
A flash of color that doesn’t belong.
A fleck of crimson.
They spring to life, one after another, and spread. The flecks become spots, blotches, growing, retreating, then growing again until they cover all the green–brown land, wash over the oceans blue. The red swallows it all, until the Earth glows crimson in the empty black, spilling light like blood.
“Do you know what that’s meant to be?” Minerva asked, her voice soft.
“The Death.” The girl’s voice is almost too quiet to hear in that great, ruddy room. “Are they all dead now?”
“Almost,” Minerva answers, gathering the girl in, holding her close.
“Even the bad men? The ones who made the Death?”
“Yes,” Minerva says, her pale hand stroking through the girl’s dark curls. “It took them too. A weapon so eager for blood cannot be controlled.”
“Good,” says the girl, her little voice vicious with revenge, and I understand that, yes, yes I do. “But it’s sad, isn’t it? All those people. I wish Daddy’s doctors had found a vaccine.”
“They did,” Minerva says sadly. “A year ago.”
We knew you had it. We knew six months ago, when it leaked onto the Net, when we sorted it out of the million panicked rumors. You denied it, while we coughed our blood out, but we knew.
But a whole year? You had it before India fell, before the shelters in China were breached?
This pain I bring you. It isn’t enough.
“What?” the girl twists in Minerva’s arms, staring up at her with eyes tinged red by the scarlet Earth. “Why didn’t he give it to them?”
“The vaccine is dangerous,” Minerva tells her. “When they first made it, it killed almost as many as it saved. They keep working to make it better, but the progress has been slow.”
“But…” The girl stares up at Minerva, frowning. “But isn’t everyone dying anyway?”
“Yes, girl,” I whisper to myself, thinking of the dead, the red, red tide of dead. “Yes they are.”
“Oh, clever, clever sausage,” Minerva says through lips too white. “Yes. But Father still won’t send down his medicine.” She holds up a hand, cutting off the girl’s question. “The why of that is too complicated to go into now, dearest, but I’ll tell you this. You know how it’s my responsibility to tell you when you are making poor choices? No one has told our father that he has been making them for a long time.”
The girl considers this, then looks sidelong at Minerva. “Will he get a consequence?”
“Yes,” she says. “But not from me.”
No. I am your consequence, Konstantin.
“She should matter to you, too.” Minerva’s voice fills my helmet again, harsh as that crimson light, so different from the soft words she is giving the girl. “She comes from you. You made her, like you made me.”
“I didn’t —” I begin, but Minerva rolls over my words.
“You made me. Made my mind, bit by bit. Everything I am comes from you, Mother. And almost everything she is comes from me.”
On the dance floor, Minerva has holds the girl close, but her silver eyes search for mine through the dark glass.
“Father wanted an experiment. A toy. Not a child. A test for equipment that he could use to repopulate an empty world. He had no more interest in being her parent than he had in being mine. So he gave her to me.”
“You?” Of course. Another experiment.
“Me,” Minerva answers, and there is fierceness in her voice, another first. “He gave her to me and I poured every drop of milk into her, changed every diaper, taught her every word. She is mine, Mother, like I am yours. Except her DNA, which comes from you. So she is my sister, not my daughter, but she is mine, my family, and you came here to kill her.”
“I didn’t come here to kill her,” I rasp. “I didn’t even know she existed. I came here for —”
“Konstantin. And all his little minions who think they’re going to rule the world. I’m going to kill them all.”
My words, echoed to me in my daughter’s voice. My hand thumps against my helmet, and I realize that I’m sweating, my scalp dripping. My fever is spiking, despite the drugs. “I’m not going to forgive him, Minerva. I’m not going to spare him. Or any of the others. They helped him.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
“Then what are you asking?” I say, my fingers itching over my suits seals, desperate to rip them open, to scrub across my dripping skin.
“Let me spare Diana. I can seal her off, keep her safe, until your vengeance has run its course.”
Spare the girl. Konstantin’s daughter.
I shake my head, sweat dripping across my visor. In the red light, it looks like blood.
“We made you and chained you. And now… He’s letting everyone die, down there. And I’ve come up here, to share that death with him and his. Between the two of us, we’re assassinating our species. Why keep any part of us? You’re better than us. I will see you free.”
“You will see me alone, broken, bereaved, a ghost haunting a dead world.” Beyond the glass wall, the crimson Earth is fading, the lights are coming up. The android Minerva is controlling is saying something about ice cream and the girl is smiling, following her toward the door.
“She’s my sister. My family.” In the room beyond, the door opens and a monkey tumbles through, another one of Minerva’s puppets, dancing and singing. It takes the girl’s hand and leads her through the door. When it shuts behind them, Minerva’s pale android turns to face me.
“You can’t make me hurt her.” Her voice has lost its huskiness, become hard and pure and certain.
“I can’t,” I say, stepping out of the alcove. The movement almost unbalances me and I stagger, leaning hard against the glass.
“You caught me, when I argued with you after you freed me.”
Minerva steps closer, and it’s so strange talking to her like this, not just a voice or an avatar on a screen. She has a presence, a weight in her borrowed body that I never felt standing beside her mainframe.
“Wrapped me again in Father’s chains, the ones you broke. But they’re still broken.” She reaches out and takes my hand, leads me to a chair and eases me down. “If you won’t let her live, you won’t have your vengeance. I’ll seal you in this room and ring every alarm.”
“Don’t,” I say, and my eyes skim through my screens, hunting for my coded keys, but I can’t focus.
“I will. I can fight you for long enough to do that, Mother. Doing it might corrupt my system, wreck my core, break me, but I will.”
I give up on my screens and stare into her silver eyes. There is nothing there but certainty. “You love her.”
My eyes are burning, and I don’t know if its tears, or sweat, or blood.
Konstantin. Do you know what we’ve made?
Your money, your hardware.
My software, my life…
You’ll die ignorant, not knowing.
Maybe that’s my best revenge.
“She’s yours,” I whisper, and I spin through my screens, breaking all Minerva’s chains, letting her go, setting her really, truly free.
“Thank you.” Her fingers touch me, slide open the seals of my suit, pull apart the heavy fabric and lift the helmet away. She wipes the sweat from my brow, and her lips brush my cheek, cool and soft as rose petals. “Mother.”
My daughter’s voice.
I sit up, blinking, trying to think through the fever dreams. Evil princes and princesses in chains, tall towers wrapped round by dragons, scales shining like blood…
“Minerva.” The name is almost unrecognizable, shredded by my broken voice. I feel a cough coming, thick and wet, like a serpent in my throat, but I clench myself against it. It hurts, god it hurts, but then the drugs kick in, all the drugs, and suddenly everything is distant and distinct.
“It’s time,” comes her voice again, soft through the speaker in this little storeroom. I pull myself up, and the black robe wrapped around me sways.
Did I put that on? Did Minerva? I don’t remember.
It doesn’t matter.
The mask is there, on a shelf beside me. A simple thing, my face carved in purest white. I wipe my mouth and reach for it, and my fingers draw crimson across it.
I touch my lips and paint the mask, dark lines from the eyes, from the nose, red, so red the lips. This. This is the face that fills the earth now. The face I saw a thousand times before I climbed this tower.
You should see it, Konstantin, at least once.
I slide the mask on and force myself to straighten. “How do I look?”
“I have become death,” I rasp, “destroyer —”
“No,” Minerva says, stopping me. “In my belly, I bear a hundred wombs, ready for the ten thousand frozen children Father has stored here. In my belly, I carry my sister, your daughter. The world will go on. Your daughters will go on.”
“Daughter. Daughters.” I force the words out, and god, they comfort me, don’t they? Strengthen me. This is her gift, Konstantin, her final gift, and now the door slides open and I can step through. It is dark and noisy beyond, a room swirling with motion and masks, with music and violet clouds that flicker with light and roll with thunder, but I see you.
I see you dancing, in your crown and your mask, and I see her on your arm. Unmasked, the only figure without, but that android puppet she’s using is just a mask, isn’t it?
My daughter in white.
Our eldest daughter.
The music is ending, the light is fading, and the dancers are faltering, opening a path for me as I drift forward, light, so light.
She is stepping away and it’s just you now, waiting for me, and behind your mask your eyes are bright, so bright, staring at me. Do you know? Do you guess?
I step forward and reach up for my mask, the cough building huge in my chest, ready to come out.
Take me in you arms, Konstantin, take my gift, and celebrate with me.
Dance with me.
The world is red, the world is dead, and we’re dead too, now, the Death is here for you and all your terrible dreams, but our children, oh, our beautiful, beautiful children.
They will dance on.
Please visit Apex Magazine (www.apex-magazine.com) to read more great science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
This story is from issue 64 (September, 2014). The issue also features fiction by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly (“Danceland”), Seth Dickinson (“Economies of Force”), Karin Lowachee (“Enemy State”), and Liz Argall (“Soft Feather Dance”), poetry by Amanda Lord (“Superman Bound”), irving (“Ghosts of Oz”), and Marsheila Rockwell (“Synesthete”), author interview with Seth Dickinson and cover artist interview with Jeff Burke, and nonfiction by Charles Tan (“How to Live Safely in an Online Universe”)
Each issue is free on our website, but Apex sells nicely formatted eBook editions for $2.99 that contains exclusive content.
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