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Fran and Cobril were prisoners of the Memory Masters, the intelligent jellyfish otherwise known as the Kabila Yutenji. Because their memories were limited by a thirty-day decay rule, it was not easy to keep track of what was happening.
However, Fran was keeping a secret diary. Sometimes, when her duties kept her awake for two weeks at a stretch, she forgot about it - forgot almost everything, even her name at times, as the bright threads of computational pain ran recurrently through the suffering interstices of her mind.
Then she would discover the diary again, and continue her education.
Entry 9274, I don't know what day. He still remembers not to eat the red-and-white beans because of the worms, but he has forgotten how to kiss me.
That was not so. Cobril had kissed her that morning, if you could refer to the growth of grayness as morning. His kiss had tasted, most oddly, of cold metal, and for one or two horrific moments Fran had thought that he had been Replaced.
"But the Kabila Yutenji are not going to Replace anyone, ever again," wrote Fran. "The news on the crackle box is pretty clear. They've suffered the trashing of Strumpitus Pelapheng."
She was not sure how far she was from Strumpitus Pelapheng, or even what Strumpitus Pelapheng actually was (or, more accurately, had been). A military outpost? A city? A planet? An entire galaxy? She had no sense of scale - could not tell whether liberty was a fingerwidth away, or whether escape might require a thousand light years of travel.
But what she knew - what was known to all of them - was that Strumpitus Pelapheng was the mainplace of the Kabila Yutenji. That gone, the Memory Masters were doomed to lose their war to the Oitakaoi.
"It would be a bright idea to escape," said Fran.
"It was be a bright idea to eat baked beans, too," said Cobril. "You know. The ones with the little sausages mixed in. Do you have a can opener?"
That was a joke, since neither of them had seen a can for however long it had been. Sixty days? Six years? Sixty years? The entries in the diary suggested a captivity which had lasted for months, if not years ... but, if the immortality rumors could be believed, it was possible that they had served as slaved computer peripherals for millenia.
"Good idea," said Fran.
Now that he had mentioned it, she realized how much she missed baked beans, too. Baked beans were part of her bedrock memory base, the part that was not affected by the thirty day rule ... though even that was trashed and jumbled, to the point where she could no longer remember whether New York had been a planet or a starship.
Entry 9304, a day with no limes. I don't know why they are keeping the limes from us. Maybe they've run out. I hope this problem gets fixed. We can't go on living on clay and coconut forever, we'll die of scurvy. By the way, according to a datum in my base memory, coconut meat is really heavy on cholesterol. I guess maybe this isn't the time to be worried about your blood serum levels. (Blood serum. Is that a term? There's no way to check anything in this place!)
Anyway, the Kabila Yutenji are on the downhill, that's plain, and the Oitakaoi are going to be all over them before too long, which isn't good for us, since humans don't have much of a shelf life when they're heavily radioactive. We should escape. If possible. We should get through the Doors. But how can we get the control codes.
"And, anyway," said Cobril, "even if we did get through the Doors, where would we be then?"
"In Other and When," said Fran.
"That's just a phrase," said Cobril. "You don't know, do you? I think we should stay put."
That was Cobril's nature. He looked young, and maybe he was young, but it was as if he had been born as an old man. He wanted a quiet life - unplug from work, climb into the aquarium, joy together for a briefness, worm into a cocoon, sleep.
Well, maybe Fran could have endured it. She was adaptable. But there was an objective world out there, beyond the controllable realms of their emotions, a world unbearably real, its momentum indifferent to their crushable existence.
"It is real," whispered Fran.
Experiencing, as she sometimes did, the shock of the reality of the real ... the roughness of concrete, the clangorous heft of steel, the white softness of the maggot-fat worm in her liver.
"Get out," said Fran to herself, again at a whisper. "Get out. If we can."
The Angel of the Seventh Apocalypse appeared unto Fran Delilah Charles in her dreams.
"Lo," he said. "Hearken unto me, for I am Perish Englis, the Angel of the Seventh Apocalypse."
For the purposes of this communion, the angel had assumed the form of a very black golliwog mounted on a very large tiger. The very black golliwog was carrying a very blue big umbrella.
(Dreaming, Fran corrected an imaginary student. Not a blue big umbrella but a big blue umbrella. Adjective order. Secret rules. The inner coding of English. In all Indo-European languages, these secret rules of order, imperatives not to be accounted for by communicative logic).
"Are you listening to me?" said the golliwog, waving its umbrella at her reprovingly.
"You are politically incorrect," said Fran. "You will leave my dream immediately. I've already called the Thought Police, you could lose your tenure for this."
"Listen to him!" snarled the tiger. "You have copulated with seven men. You are no longer a virgin. You have eloped from the sanctuary for the sake of your own polluted lusts. It was your choice, you must live with it."
Huge rank gust of unwashed cat's breath. Dead meat in the blast. The glistening teeth. Its mounting strength potent, waiting. A patriarchal archetype. That didn't seem fair - to be, at one and the same time, a prisoner of the Memory Masters and a victim of her own cultural programming.
"Are you listening?" said the angel. "You had better be listening. Your neck would break if I shook it, and I am speaking to you. Are you listening? YI YAM YSPEAKING TO YOU!"
"Then speak," said Fran, "but confine yourself to lower case letters, please."
She found herself without arms, without eyes. Her throat blistered, and all her flowers polluted. But, even though earless, she could still hear the Angel of the Seventh Apocalypse perfectly.
"We define ourselves by limiting ourselves," said Perish Englis, sounding like a poorly-amplified viorlaretto. "Does that make sense?"
"Plato never had to bake scones," said Fran.
"What is that supposed to mean?" said Perish Englis, puzzled.
Then he vanished, and Fran woke.
And, waking, found she knew the codes that would unlock the Door so they could make their escape to the realms of Other and When.
"An angel?" scoffed Cobril. "An angel gave you the codes? What else did he give you? Are you suddenly pregnant?"
"I would be," said Fran bitterly, "if you were more cooperative with my calendar."
"Get real," said Cobril. "Your calendar's one part fragment, nine parts fantasy. Anyway, how could be possibly bring up a baby when we're wired into twenty-hour shifts?"
"An average shift is only nine hours," said Fran. "It's been computed."
"You believe in statistics?" said Cobril. "In a place like this? Here, you can't even believe in arithmetic."
Well, one thing was for certain - Fran couldn't believe that right now, right when she had the codes, had the key, they were once again fighting their way through the worn terrain of the Baby Decision. The Baby Decision was part of their bedrock memories, though, because of the different ways in which their memories had frayed and fractured, they had different ideas as to what constituted Objective Recollection.
"Anyway, let's try it," said Fran.
Cobril said no. But eight hours later, Fran being unrelenting, his willpower finally cracked, and he agreed.
"No go," said Fran, after the twentieth attempt. "The codes don't work."
"Of course not," said Cobril. "The angel was just your hallucination, after all."
The Doors to Other and When stood before them, huge, shimmering, pleated with bars of flexible energy, alive with veins of superheated plasma. They fluxed from green to blue into white-gold incandescence. To stand anywhere near them was both intoxicating and terrifying at one and the same time.
"It's my memory," said Fran, desperately. "If I could only get a booster ...."
She needed to believe, needed to think that her angel was real.
"Ivan Eco tried that, and look what happened to him," said Cobril. "I think he was glad when the Blue Men finally finished playing and started skinning him alive."
"I was trying to forget that," said Fran, shuddering.
But Ivan's fate was unforgettable. Only, in this world of slavery, everything was forgotten, and swiftly, unless it was part of your baseline bedrock, or unless someone was programming you to remember. The Kabila Yutenji must have been keeping the communal memory of Ivan Eco alive, deliberately - and there were no prizes for guessing why.
"Let's go home," said Cobril.
"Home?" said Fran. "Is that what you call it?"
"Well, you could call it the Slime Pit," said Cobril. "Or, equally, Cockroach One. But why make things worse than they have to be?"
There it was again, his maddening capacity to build normality out of a fundamentally demented situation. There were plenty of precedents for this - prisons, combat zones, lunatic asylums, concentation camps, hospitals and universities, they all come to seem normal to their inmates. But, even so, his oh-so-determined sanity was slowly driving Fran crazy. It probably would have done so already, if not for the nagging erosions of her enforced forgetfulness.
"Come on, let's go home," said Cobril.
And that was when the ground shook, when the Doors screamed, when the sky split and yellow oil uncoiled from it, falling in thick sausages which splattered destruction where they fell. Fran and Cobril were at the remotest fringes of one of the splash zones, far enough removed from the impact center to escape almost unscathed. Cobril in fact had no more than a flecked scar on the surface of one thumbnail, but Fran got an ugly burn on her thigh, where the tiniest spash made a hole the size of a pea. Not serious enough to be disabling, but it hurt ... really serious hurt, flesh-damage pain.
"I'm off," said Fran.
Cobril did not ask where she was going. He guessed, and had the guts to follow.
In the Hollow Quarters, there were many of the Blue Men, all dead, but for one, pinned beneath rubble, gasping like a fish. An hour's search, and Fran found what she was looking for: a vial of Cognition One, otherwise known as the Igniter. Everyone knew about this product, which the Blue Men used to prepare their victims for interrogation. (There was, after all, no point in torturing someone who was incapable of remembering.)
"But you don't know the dosage," objected Cobril.
"I don't know the day I'll die, either," said Fran.
That didn't make sense, but it shut Cobril up for a couple of seconds, long enough for her to cold-gulp three tablets, all that there were.
The ground shook again, and both Fran and Cobril fell. Thanks to that, they were flat on their faces when the sky went white, and neither was blinded by the blast.
Home. Well, call it the Slime Pit, or call it Cockroach One. Whatever you called it, it was still the most familiar place in their universe, and it was difficult to contemplate leaving.
"We've become institutionalized," said Fran.
"What?" said Cobril, groggy with sleep.
"Nothing," said Fran.
Ordinarily, they should have been captured by now in the customary fashion, and wired into their ports for their next grueling shift. But, though the attacks seemed to have ended for the time being, there was no sign that the Kabila Yutenji were capable of organizing anything, at least for the moment.
Both Fran and Cobril had been so systematically overworked that, released from the demands of the system, they found overwhelming sleep coming upon them. They were both wrecked by weeks, months, years of cumulative fatigue, not to mention the stresses of the day. And so, yielding, they slept.
Fran endured dreams. The drug was doing its work. In the grip of the Igniter, she endured nightmares which were part recovery and part fanciful apocalypse.
The artist Vostala Sleth was the presiding genius of those nightmares. Vostala Sleth, who had always been the favorite pet of the dictator Obro Yelsan, until the dictator's moods had changed and Vostala Sleth had been injected with netazool, the drug which melts bones.
As in Vostala Sleth's canvases, a woman with garish television sets for eyes. A fat man with lobster claws and a moon-faced watch, a wriggling sardine sprouting from his navel. In dream, the lobster man cried out to her:
"Help me! Help me!"
Fran waved at him and blew him a kiss. Rose petals descended as a music box tinkled. And already the scene had changed. The chained slaves of Delakan Voy, heads bowed by the clamping boards, sliding past in white-hot chariots. Whips glimmering with music, the bright blood flicked upwards to the photography flash clouds where it transmuted and changed, falling as white pearls and as black.
The first oozing pearl ....
And, having woken, she remembered. The garden. A path flanked by the overpowering height of huge sunflowers. An outdoor intercom chiming urgently, demanding attention. Black ants hot and quick and quick and hot in the scorpion sun. Obro Yelsan. His hands on her shoulders. Hands and knees, hands and knees. Her mouth wet. Her tongue in her mouth. A tongue is flesh. It is wet. It is oozing. Saliva generating. A bottle of saliva, venting. The intimate pain.
"You will," said Obro Yelsan. "You will. Or I will sell you as a slave to the Kabila Yutenji."
But she had not. Oh, she had complied with each and every one of his demands, because she had no wish to be skinned alive. But ... love him? Surrender her soul to him? The things he was asking were not within her capacity to give. And so he had sold her to the Kabila Yutenji.
"But I will always be with you," said Obro Yelsan. "I will be your master in your slavery, your extra master when the other ones are done with you."
Later, she had come to think that an empty threat. But here he was. She was wide awake, but he was with her, somehow. She was a citizen of two worlds at once. One, the familiar everyday disaster in which she lived. The other, a deep oubliette of insanity, where something was shaping, huge and slovenly. An ooze of muscles, of glistening excretions. Of pumped stuff as wet as spiderweb. Inflations of cascading steel. Steel massaged to fluid suppleness. Self-propagating, self-perpetuating. Feeding, converting. Becoming itself.
"Freedom," whispered Fran, fearfully.
It was the quest for freedom which had awakened the latent powers of Obro Yelsan.
"The act of ego," confirmed Obro Yelsan, speaking to her plainly. "The act of becoming. What is waking? Let me name it. Gorth Grotus. Thus is this monster named. This thing, this Gorth Grotus, is your monster. You are making it. You, Alolica Kenzai. And, when it is done, you will unleash it on yourself."
The threat was perfect, but for one dissonant element. Alolica Kenzai. Fran knew no person so named. That tiny flaw, a fracture in the perfection of her terror, broke the paralysis of her submission and gave her the chance to decide. Give in? Or fight?
"Alolica Kenzai," said Fran, fiercely.
Meaning: you, too, are less than perfect. You, too, make mistakes. Mistakes have been made.
The garden again. Once again she was remembering, with hallucinatory force, the sunflower sun and the black ants and Obro Yelsan's fleshy tongue and the genetic insistence of his hands ... but the memory had less force the second time round. She had heard of this kind of torture device. If it functioned perfectly, it would cycle forever. But this particular mental implant was flawed, failing already, and she could count on it burning itself out after fifty repetitions ... or maybe a hundred and fifty, or a thousand and fifty repetitions ....
"Or when it does," said Fran, impatiently.
Not all that terribly far away, she could see a sluggish tongue of something red and turgid flowing slowly in her direction. Unless she was badly mistaken, this river-sized ingress was no hallucination. And, unless she was totally misperceiving things, that oncoming ooze of red was molten. Some weapon of war used by the Oitakaoi had melted a substantial fraction of this stronghold of the Kabila Yutenji. It was time to be gone. Now where was Cobril? Oh, there.
"Cobril!" yelled Fran. "Cobril! Wake up! Now!"
"I'm not asleep," said Cobril, grumbling out of his siesta posture.
The words came clearly to Fran, and, as she spoke them, the failing images of Obro Yelsan spindled into smoke and were gone. The Doors opened and they stepped through, escaping the domain of the Kabila Yutenji just five and a half steps ahead of absolute disaster. Escaping, and entering the realms of Other and When.
So there they were. Fran Charles and Cobril Guru. Sheltering in the virtual world of Sunfish, one of the worlds Fran had created when she had been not Fran Delilah Charles but Alolica Kenzi, a citizen of Omnia Petris. Omnia Petris: Selyon's domain. Omnia Petris: a master world which had controlled many lesser worlds. So many that Alolica Kenzi had been able to use as many as she wished for pure play.
Well: Omnia Petris had gone down to disaster. Selyon had been brought to ruin and defeat. But the world of Sunfish still existed. As, as far as Fran knew, its existence was unknown to their enemy, Obro Yelsan. So they were safe here. At least for the moment. Safe from those who hunted them.
But there were problems.
"Open the yadder safe?" said Cobril. "No! I mean, who knows what could be in it?"
"A billion people could be in it," said Fran. "A billion, ten billion. Half of those whom we lost."
"Yes," said Cobril, sceptically, "or something radioactive with teeth."
Then he turned back to the book he was reading, which was a maintenance manual for the D76 rock crusher. He had apparently convinced himself that the study of this manual was useful activity, despite the fact that they possessed no suck rock crusher and, in any case, they had no rocks to crush.
Cobril! Always playing the old man, though he had not yet reached middle age! Never mind. Fran would wake him up - she hadn't totally mastered the trick of it, but she got through to him often enough to make their relationship viable. For the moment, though, she left him with his manual, and settled down at her hacking board again, focusing on the task of breaking the lock-codes to the yadder safe.
This story, "The Angel of the Seventh Apocalypse" was first posted on the internet by Hugh Cook on 2003 July 05. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved. THE ANGEL OF THE SEVENTH APOCALYPSE - prisoners of aliens sf story sci-fi si fi science fiction story.
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