The Last Day of the War, with Parrots
by James Alan Gardner
It was a sprawl-shot, and this time I was sprawling hips-down on top of a bunker, just behind a hole where something had disintegrated a corner of the roof.
When the cameras turned in my direction, I was supposed to lift on my forearms, with my shoulders high enough that every lens got an ample view down my cleavage. I wore a deep scoop-neck blouse, of course, ripped and ragged and thinner than gauze. I wondered if I should make up business cards — Lyra Dene, singer: backup and boobs. But tape wasn’t rolling at the moment, and I’d scrunched up rump-high, because if I stayed in the rehearsed cheesecake pose, the navel battery-pack for my microphone dug sharply into my stomach.
The cameras were scattered all over the battlefield, some on the ground, some hovering on chunky anti-grav platforms. Each had its ready light glowing green, but the operator who ran them all was sitting in a lawn chair beside the control console, reading a book. His hand rested on the fog machine beside the console; occasionally, he had to sweep away threads of mist that dribbled from the machine’s nozzle and trickled across his reading screen.
In front of the console loomed the remains of a giant subterranean battle-tank. The most visible part was its drill-like snout, jutting up at a 45-degree angle and reaching five or six stories above the ground. The tank must have been ambushed just as it surfaced. Enemy lasers had drilled a dozen clean-edged holes in its hull, and something had blasted its caterpillar treads off their sprockets, splaying them over the ground like black lasagna noodles.
Three people stood at the base of the drill-snout: Helena Howe, director of the video we were supposed to be shooting; our songwriter, Roland Simard; and Alex Kilgoorlie, probably the only one you care about.
Soon after I got hired as Alex’s backup vocalist, I read an article claiming that 63 percent of all human households had downloaded his debut album, Ghost of the Tattered Heart. One review said: “His songs are compelling dreams... or nightmares.” I don’t mind admitting I’d dreamed about him myself. The dreams centered on a gaunt, disquieting man walking moodily over a bleak landscape... and like on the Ghost album cover, he wore a loose white shirt that billowed in the wind.
In my dreams, the front of Alex’s shirt hung open to the waist; but it was still buttoned to the throat that day around the battle-tank. While Helena and Roland stood irritably over him, Alex crouched, making kissing sounds with his lips and holding out a cracker in his hand.
“People are waiting, Alex dear,” Helena said. I could hear her voice through the tiny receiver tucked into my ear and hidden by my hair. All of us wore such earphones; when she gave an order, she wanted everyone’s undivided attention.
“Just another sec,” Alex whispered. A concealed mike amplified his whisper clearly. He made more kissing sounds.
In front of him was an animal about the size of a mouse, part of the local wildlife. I could see the beast was brightly colored, a splash of green and crimson stripes against the drab dirt background; but it was too far away for me to make out much else. It inched toward the cracker Alex held out, its head wobbling back and forth slightly. I guessed it was sniffing, trying to make up its mind about the food and the human that held it. The animal seemed just about to nibble when a voice yelled, “Don’t!”
Every head jerked up, including the little beastie’s. Scrambling over the partly buried tank came Jerith, our archeologist and resident expert on the planet of Caproche. He’d lived on these abandoned battlefields for years, alone except for his robots, excavating dozens of sites as he tried to determine who had fought here and why.
I flattened down on the bunker roof. In the two days our group had been on Caproche, Jerith had already passed his quota for peeks down my blouse. I didn’t fuss about it — he seemed harmless, just a guy who hadn’t seen a woman in a long, long time — but I refused to give him the ogling opportunities provided by a sprawl-shot.
“What’s wrong?” Helena asked. “Is the animal dangerous?” She put a hand on Alex’s arm and tried to pull him away from the creature.
“No, no, they’re harmless,” Jerith said, scooping up the little beast with a sweep of his hand. He cradled it against his chest and began stroking it the way you’d pet a hamster. “I call them parrots.”
“It doesn’t look like a parrot,” our songwriter Roland said. “More like a lizard.”
“It’s brightly colored like a parrot,” Jerith answered. “Anyway, the point is, everyone should leave them alone.”
“I wasn’t going to hurt it,” Alex said in a wounded tone.
“You never know,” Jerith told him. “Earth food can be poisonous to aliens. The tiniest nibble might kill this little guy.”
“Polly doesn’t want a cracker,” Roland smirked to Alex.
“And even if Polly does, we have work to do,” Helena said briskly, “Come along, Alex. Recording time.”
“Can I pet the parrot for a sec?” Alex asked, reaching out his fingers. Jerith shied away and Helena grabbed Alex’s arm with both hands.
“We’re going to work now,” she said, “and I mean right now. Jerith, take that animal away. Roland, get off the set. Alex, I want the Singer, and no more putting it off. You aren’t fooling anyone with these delaying tactics; I want the Singer now.”
She turned her back on him and marched to the control console. The console operator quickly shut off his book and tried to look busy. Helena glared but said nothing.
Back in front of the tank, Jerith turned to walk away, still caressing the parrot. Roland patted Alex on the back, said, “Break a leg,” and sauntered toward the control console too.
Alone, Alex stood dejectedly for a moment, his eyes moving aimlessly around the battlefield. I smiled when he looked in my direction, but I don’t think he saw. He sighed an amplified sigh that echoed through the surrounding ruins: a litter of shattered war-machines that stretched as far as the eye could see. Then he reached up and undid the top button of his shirt.
He stood straighter.
Another button. His hands took on some flourish, like the hands of a concert keyboardist.
“Cue the fog,” Helena’s voice whispered in my earphone. The nozzle of the fog machine gushed a cataract of mist, flowing along the ground and pooling at Alex’s feet.
Another shirt button. He shook out his ringleted brown hair and flicked it off his shoulders.
“Cue the wind,” whispered Helena, and massive fans on anti-grav platforms began to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster until they were silent blurs. The anti-grav platforms banked slightly to resist the force of the wind. Alex’s hair caught the breeze and grew wild.
The final button. His head lifted. His cheeks were gaunt, his eyes feral and glittering. A dangerous face: a striking, compelling danger.
“Cue cameras,” whispered Helena.
Time for work, I said to myself. But I found I was already in my pose, sprawled and primed; roused without thinking when Alex became the Singer. Sure, I’d rehearsed this scene till it all came naturally, but there was no feeling of rehearsal — just pure reaction to the Singer’s presence. I was panting, budding with prickles of sweat.
“Cue music,” came a far-off whisper.
The ground rumbled with a heavy bass riff. Wind washed across me, whipping my hair against my shoulders; I screamed into the gale, and no rehearsal had taught me to scream with such fear and desire.
Then silence. The eye of the storm. And the Singer stepped forward through swirls of mist to whisper, You have entered my heart, milady; Now I shall enter your mind... He swiveled sharply and pointed his finger directly at me.
Betray me not, milady, For then I shall be... unkind.
I’d laughed at the lyrics in rehearsal as Alex good-naturedly waved a finger in my direction. Now the words came from the Singer, skeletal, ominous; and the threat in his voice chilled me. He blazed with danger... and I, in ripped and ragged clothes, shuddered at my vulnerability.
“Close-up on Lyra,” I heard Helena whisper.
I screamed again. On cue.
“That Kilgoorlie is a spooky guy,” Jerith said.
It was after supper and we were in a Quonset hut in Jerith’s camp. Three of us, Jerith, Roland, and I, stood at a workbench where we brushed dirt off chunks of metal that Jerith claimed were archeological artifacts. The piece I had to clean was slightly bigger than my hand, fairly solid, and heavier than it looked. It was mostly copper-rust green, but a trumpet-like mouth at one end had its interior streaked with bronze. Like most of the artifacts on Caproche, this was probably a broken weapon.
We were dusting off the past because we had become archaeologists-in-training. Technically speaking, the planet Caproche was classified SIO, Scientific Investigation Only; but seven hundred years ago, unknown alien races had warred here from tropics to tundra, and the resulting devastation fit Alex Kilgoorlie’s music like a chain mail glove. Helena had decided she must shoot Alex’s next album on Caproche. To get around the Planet Protection Agency, she paid Jerith a great deal of money to claim our party was helping him in his studies; so when we weren’t in recording sessions, we made a show of devotion to the digs. Well... most of us made such a show — Helena had yet to touch a shovel. And Alex got so enthusiastic the first time he came to the work hut, he’d somehow smashed the lens of a heavy-duty battle laser; so Jerith excused him from future duty.
“Alex isn’t spooky,” Roland said. “He’s the most normal person here.”
“Don’t give me that,” Jerith replied. “I saw him this afternoon. When he was singing... it was like he was some kind of wraith. That’s exactly the word, a wraith.”
“You’re confusing Alex with the Singer,” Roland answered calmly. “Alex is a regular guy; the Singer is something else.” He busied himself with dabbing at a clot of mud that clung to the snarl of wires he was cleaning, then added, “The Singer is spooky as hell.”
Jerith stared at Roland for a long moment. “Are you talking split personality?”
“I asked a psych-tech about that once,” Roland answered. “She laughed at me. Everyone knows split personalities only exist in low-budget grislies. These days, potential splits are detected in childhood and sewn right back up. Oh yes, that perky little psych-tech had herself a real giggle over my naпvetй.”
“Sorry,” Jerith said. From the tone in his voice, I guessed that our resident archaeologist had also been laughed at by women sometime in the past.
“I went to school with Alex,” Roland said, making a show of attention to his work. “Good guy. Everybody’s friend. Not too bright... not very bright at all...” Roland slapped his brush roughly at the dirt. “But he was everybody’s friend. Women loved him.” He looked up at me accusingly. “What do you think of Alex, Lyra? Not the Singer, but Alex. Kind of cute, kind of helpless, right? Sweet lovable guy?”
“I like Alex,” I replied, trying not to sound defensive. “What’s wrong with that?”
Both men looked at me silently. Neither one came close to Alex’s easy charm. Roland, overweight, his hair thinning though he was only twenty-five, and his lips too red and blubbery. Jerith, with his droopy face and weak chin unsuccessfully hidden by a patchy blond beard, uncombed and scraggly... no doubt he’d known people like Alex too, and...
Jerith turned quickly away from me. His hand went reflexively to his beard. I told myself I must have been staring and I felt like shit.
“There’s nothing wrong with Alex,” Roland said quietly as he went back to cleaning his artifact. “I admit, the problem was mine. I envied him like hell. Especially back when we were starting our band. Eighteen years old, both of us, playing school dances and grotty little booze bins. Me playing keyboards, writing all the songs, doing the work!” He dug the brush into the gap between two metal tubes and twisted it hard. “Alex sang my songs, my songs, every word mine, not his... but who did the women steam for? Pissed me off, pissed me right...” He stopped and calmed himself. After a moment he said, “These days I can handle it. I’m not writing to impress people, I’m not writing to get laid.” He gave me a pointed look. “I’m writing to say something and the message is what counts. If the only way to be heard is putting my words in the Singer’s mouth, so be it.”
There was a lengthy silence, a painful one. I felt guilty without knowing why, like I’d been accused of some crime... as if I were a slut waiting to fall at Alex’s feet just to spite Roland. I wished Jerith would say something, anything to ease the tension.
And he did.
“You still haven’t talked about Alex and the Singer,” Jerith said, sounding like the words came awkwardly to him, but clearly doing his best to break the silence.
“Oh, that,” said Roland. “Do you believe in possession?”
“No,” I answered, though the question was directed at Jerith.
Roland laughed without humor. “I don’t believe in it either. But I’ll tell you, when Alex and I first started performing, we stank. I have no idea why — he had a decent voice, and I knew the songs were brilliant...” He laughed again. “We just didn’t have the chemistry, that’s all. Then one night in this ratty blow-bar called Juicy’s... one night this woman came to see us backstage between sets. An older woman, maybe as old as thirty. Hey, I was eighteen, she was ancient. I thought she was a hooker and I was prime self-righteous the way only teenagers can be, so I made some cutting remarks and stomped out for some air. What you’d call a very pointed exit.
“By the time I got back, she was nose-to-nose with Alex, talking about ways to improve the act. That pissed me off, this woman telling us our jobs. I grabbed Alex by the arm and dragged him off toward the stage, but she called to Alex’s back, ’And undo your shirt. Strut the flesh, for Christ’s sake. Put some groin into it. When people watch the stage, they don’t want the boy next door. They want a goddamned performer.’
“Well. We hit the stage for the next set, and Alex started trying stuff. Rolling his eyes, swiveling his hips... completely forced, and embarrassing. He wasn’t that kind of guy — not a drop of sleaze in him. When he tried it, I’m telling you, he just had no clue! I told him to smarten up, but that woman was watching from a front row table, and Alex must have figured he could get lucky if he played up to her.
“The mood of the bar shifted from bored to hostile; we’d been mediocre before, but now the act positively turned your stomach. Even Alex sensed how ugly the crowd was getting. One guy, built like a tank, dressed in leather from head to toe, this guy pulled out a switchblade and started clicking it in, out, click, click, making sure we saw him. I broke into a cold sweat, and Alex, he panicked completely. Panic was the only thing that could have made him unbutton his shirt, because believe it or not, he was shy about his body, showing it in public.
“He started unbuttoning in the middle of this long instrumental break, after the chorus of ’A Short Spell of Rain’ — first cut on our first album, you should know it. And with every button he undid, it was like something rewiring itself in his head. Like a puppy changing into a wolf. When the instrumental break was over and he started singing the next verse... God, my hands were shaking so bad I could hardly play. The room fell absolutely still — not a whisper, not a glass tinkling. The bouncer outside the front door came running in, pulling on his brass knuckles like he expected real trouble; but he stopped in the entranceway, just froze there, with the brass knucks dangling on his fingertips, and he listened to the rest of the song. And the next song. And the next. Until we’d run through our whole repertoire. We left the stage, we went to the dressing room, and I buttoned up Alex’s shirt without looking into his eyes. Then we both had terror-fits for a few hours.”
Silence. Nothing but the swish of our three brushes sweeping old grit and dirt.
“I take it the woman in the audience was Helena Howe?” Jerith asked at last.
“You got it,” Roland nodded, setting down his brush. “Our very own manager, director, and ballbreaker. And yes, Alex did get lucky that night. Or unlucky, depending on your point of view. He says they’re in love.” Roland wiped his dusty hands fiercely on a rag he picked up from the workbench. “I’ve never found out whether Helena makes him unbutton his shirt in bed. Interesting question, don’t you think? Alex is easier to control, but the Singer would be more... volcanic.”
He threw the rag down on the workbench and strode out into the gathering twilight. He didn’t look back at either of us as he let the door click shut behind him.
Jerith let his breath out slowly. “I think I need a walk,” he said. “How about you?”
My first reflex was to say no — too much potential for complications. Jerith had lived alone so long, he was ripe to get soppy about the first woman to happen by. Me, I have a policy against getting soppy. Walking with Jerith, giving him hope, would only be cruel. On the other hand, I still felt bad for making him self-conscious about his beard, and he was so desperate for company... what harm could there be in a friendly stroll, if I didn’t lead him on?
“Sure,” I said, “let’s get some air. You can show me the sights.”
The dusk was already full of stars, thousands more than you see on New Earth — Caproche is a lot closer to galactic center. A few ribbons of purpling cloud streaked the sky, but all were scudding off rapidly toward the horizon. It would soon be a clear, cool evening, with plenty of starlight to see by.
“It might turn cold,” Jerith said, looking at the sky too. “I can get you a sweater if you like.”
“I’m fine,” I said.
Jerith led me around the base of a small hill and immediately the sounds of the camp were cut off, leaving only empty stillness — the stillness of starlit hills decorated with nothing but ruined bunkers and the scars of energy blasts. A desolate silence. “Don’t you ever worry about being out here?” I asked Jerith. “All alone on a planet like this?”
“What would I worry about?” He sounded surprised at my question. “Alien ghosts?”
“Not ghosts,” I answered, trying to sound like a woman who never gets the creeps. “But with so much junk left over from the war... what if you stumbled onto an old minefield? Or some robot weapon that’s still active?”
He shook his head. “By the time humans arrived on Caproche, every battle site had been picked through a dozen times. The Myriapods surveyed the planet only two hundred years after the war, and you know how thorough they are. Even with their best sensing equipment, they didn’t find a single functional weapon, nor a working vehicle, not even a battery pack that still held its charge. No bodies either... well, nothing they recognized as bodies. Other groups came after the Myriapods — the Cashlings, the Fasskisters, five or six others — but they didn’t find anything either. The races who fought here stripped the place clean when they pulled out. Nothing left but trash.” He smiled. “That’s why Caproche only has one loony archeologist instead of a horde of prospectors looking for alien tech.”
I expected him to make one of the classic moves at that moment: casually bumping against me, or touching my shoulder to direct my attention toward something, or taking my hand to lead me across a rough patch of ground... but he kept both hands thrust firmly into the deep pockets of his work pants, and as we started walking again, he scrupulously avoided accidental contact.
That irked me.
I mean, he’d been alone and celibate on Caproche for several years. In many circles, I’m considered sexy; when I sang with the Mootikki Spiders on Trash and Thrash, the reviewer from Mind Spurs Weekly singled out “the hot brunette on the bicycle” as the high point of the album. It was insulting that this desperate man didn’t even try to...
He touched my shoulder.
I turned to look at him, relieved and preparing my “thanks but no thanks” speech.
He looked away. A moment later, he mumbled, “Over here. There’s something you might like.”
I followed him to a low wall built from fat bricks. Once upon a time those bricks might have been sandbags, but the bags had rotted and the sand left behind had hardened like concrete.
Splayed over the wall grew a mat of snarled threads, each thread porcelain-white under the stars. I could see more patches of the stuff beyond the wall, on rocks, on the grass, even streaked up the trunks of trees.
“I call it the Silk,” Jerith said.
“Some sort of fungus?” I asked.
“No, it photosynthesizes,” he answered. “It lives on UV light — I had it analyzed. Now watch this.”
He poked at a strand with his finger. A moment later, the Silk made a sharp <SPLINK> sound and shattered with a forceful eruption that sent a cloud of powder into the air. I’d been watching so closely, the dust sprayed all over my face. It had a grimy feel, a little moist and gluey. I rubbed at it vigorously, trying to wipe it off.
“Oh, God, Lyra, I’m sorry,” Jerith said. “Let me....” He reached out to help.
I ducked back from his outstretched hand. “Is this some gag?” I asked. “Like a squirting flower? Get me all gooey?” I gave my nose another rub.
“No, I just wasn’t thinking,” Jerith said. “I’m sorry. It’s, uhh... I wanted to show you the Silk because it’s my big discovery.”
“Oh, yes?” I’d got most of the gunk off my face, but now my hands were sticky. I looked around for some Silkless terrain where I could wipe them off.
“Yes, the Silk,” Jerith said. “My theory is it’s a biological weapon. From the war.”
I looked at my hands, covered with powder. Very quickly, I wiped them on my dungarees.
“You don’t have to worry,” Jerith went on hurriedly. “It’s harmless to humans. The best labs on New Earth have checked it out. Biological weapons are usually species-specific, especially in a war like this, between different alien races. This dust probably shriveled one side but left the other side untouched.” He poked another strand, <SPLINK> “It’s funny when you think about it. This is probably lethal to some mysterious aliens, but to us little old humans...” He poked again, <SPLINK>
It didn’t seem so funny to me, and I didn’t like biological weapons going off in my face even if I was the wrong species; but Jerith looked so forlorn there, going <SPLINK>, <SPLINK>, <SPLINK> with his big discovery, that I didn’t have the heart to stay mad at him. He smiled at me, I grudgingly smiled back, and in a few moments, we were both <SPLINK>ing away. You could get different pitches depending how hard you struck each thread, and I started trying to <SPLINK> out “Betray Me Not,” the song we’d recorded that afternoon. Jerith was using both hands to <SPLINK> out a background rhythm and we were having a great time until a Caprochian parrot climbed out of Jerith’s pants pocket.
I didn’t shriek, just made a choked “ungh” sound as I jumped back. When I’d watched Alex try to feed the same kind of animal at the recording session, I hadn’t been close enough to see how ugly the little beasts were. This one was small and flat, like a mouse-size Gila monster, but with a topknot of three antennae, each undulating like weeds in water. The animal didn’t scare me — it wasn’t even repulsive after I’d got over my initial shock — but it definitely wasn’t the sort of thing I’d keep in my pocket.
Jerith saw my reaction, looked down at the brightly colored creature crawling up his clothing, and immediately detached it from his waistband. He winced slightly when he touched it, but held it gently, caressing it. “It’s only my pet,” he said. “It’s very tame.”
“Why did you have it in your pocket?”
“They like warm, dark places. They just curl up and go to sleep. When it heard us popping the Silk, it must have woken up and felt hungry.”
“Hungry?” I said, uneasy with the way Jerith fondled the little beast.
“They eat the Silk,” Jerith answered, holding the animal close to a patch of strands on the wall. The parrot pushed its snout forward; gingerly it tugged loose the end of a thread and sucked up the Silk like spaghetti. “Very delicate mouths,” Jerith added. “They can gobble the stuff without popping it.”
For a while, I watched the tiny animal eat. I wouldn’t say it was cute, but its determined slurping did have an endearing quality. I put out my hand to rub its nose, but Jerith immediately jerked the parrot out of reach.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“They don’t like to be touched by strangers,” he said, backing away from me.
“Do you know how suspicious you’re acting?” I wasn’t one for melodrama, but who hasn’t seen a dozen shows where an archaeologist on some isolated planet fixates on an alien species? And nine times out of ten in those shows, someone gets her brains eaten before the closing credits.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Jerith blurted out.
“How do you know what I’m thinking?”
His face blanched. Turning away from me, he hurriedly slid the parrot back into his pocket. The animal didn’t put up any fight at all. When he turned back to face me, Jerith kept his hand in that pocket.
“Look,” he said, “I know I’ve developed some quirks out here. Being alone... knowing there isn’t another human being within seven light years... I’m a little obsessed about the parrots, I know that. But they’ve been my only company... Caproche doesn’t have any other land animals, not really, you can’t make friends with insects... and the parrots are these sweet-natured, gentle little animals....”
“I was only going to pet it,” I said.
“I know, I just... I’m possessive, it’s wrong, I know, I’ll work on it. I have to get used to dealing with people again. To tell the truth, Lyra, I’ve never been good at dealing with people, certainly not beautiful women... damn, you’re defensive again, I’m sorry.” He closed his eyes in pain. “Look,” he said at last, “you can find your way back to camp, right?”
“I really have to be alone for a while. To think. I’m sorry.” He took a few steps into the darkness, then turned back. “I know I’m odd,” he said, “but I’m harmless, you said so yourself. I won’t hurt you or embarrass you... oh, good-bye.”
He hurried away, around the Silk-covered wall and off into the night. I watched him till he disappeared behind a charred stockade fence.
Once again, I felt like shit. Maybe it was something in the Caproche air — I hadn’t done anything, I hadn’t said anything, and still I felt guilty. Angrily, I punched at a thick patch of Silk on the wall beside me. It exploded with a double-bass <SPLINK> that coated my hand with gunk. I bent to wipe off the goo on the ground and saw a small nose emerge from a hole under a stone.
“Hello,” I said softly. “You just heard the dinner bell, didn’t you?” I nudged a nearby thread, <SPLINK> The nose came out a little farther. Another <SPLINK>, and the parrot under the stone waddled into the starlight, its crimson head swaying slowly back and forth.
Hesitantly, I reached out my hand. It actually moved slightly toward me, extending its neck. “Going to bite me?” I asked. But it made no further movement, so I bent my finger and rubbed its nose.
“Going to bite me, to bite me, bite me?” I heard my own voice say.
I pulled back from the parrot and looked sharply around. Had someone recorded me, putting my voice through an echo synth? It wouldn’t be the first time a smartass roadie targeted me for a practical joke. But when I thought about it, the sound wasn’t my recorded voice, the one I heard on playbacks and barely recognized as my own. It was my head voice, the one I heard when I talked — fuller than my recorded voice, less shrill.
It was me.
Oh, shit, I thought, and reached out to touch the parrot again.
“Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit...”
Except I hadn’t said anything this time. I just thought it.
“Thought it, thought it, thought...”
“Parrots, parrots, parrots...”
I lifted my finger and the sound stopped instantly. I touched the little animal lightly and the sound kicked in again... but I knew it wasn’t a sound, not a real one.
I tried to think things through; and as I did, every chance thought, every tiny notion echoed back to me a fraction of a second after passing through my mind... disorienting at first, but I was used to singing in concert halls with a tiny delay between hitting a note and hearing it over your headphones. I could handle the telepathic equivalent.
First question: did the parrot only echo the thoughts of the person touching it? Or did the parrot echo every thought nearby?
I remembered how Jerith had responded to my thoughts all evening, like touching me when I was annoyed that he hadn’t tried anything yet. His hand had been in his pocket most of the night, the pocket that held the parrot.
The parrot must echo everyone’s thoughts. And not just the unspoken words; I could sense it broadcasting my emotions too, the outrage growing in me as I realized how Jerith had eavesdropped on my mind. I felt violated. He’d seen me more naked than naked. Hell, who cared about being naked anymore? I’d bared my all three times on Trash and Thrash; by now, half the galaxy had had the chance to count my freckles.
But this... I tried to remember all the thoughts I’d had in Jerith’s company. I tried to recall what shameful things might have passed through my mind...
Jerith had said, “That Kilgoorlie is a spooky guy.”
I wondered what thoughts the Singer had. About me.
I wondered what thoughts Alex had. About me.
And Roland. And Helena. And the roadies and everyone.
But of course it was wrong to eavesdrop on them.
The parrot didn’t resist as I picked it up and stroked its nose. The little animal seemed perfectly content to be held. It nestled into my palm and gave a tiny yawn.
I told myself I would take it back to camp, to prove to the others what the animals could do. Telepathic parrots that echoed people’s thoughts — no one would believe that without proof. Well, Alex probably would; but that was a mean thing to say. The parrot repeated the thought over and over, “Alex would believe it” ...and under that phrase other thoughts chorused like backup singers, copies of my own voice whispering things I hadn’t put into words: Alex is gullible, Alex is a child, I want to know what he thinks, I want to know what he thinks of me.
I barely recognized I’d had those thoughts, but they echoed back clearly.
“I won’t use the parrot,” I said aloud. “I’m just taking it to camp as proof.”
The backup singers in my brain said, I’m lying to myself, I’ll probably eavesdrop, I don’t know what I’ll do.
I stuffed the parrot into the pocket of my dungarees and hastily pulled out my hand. The voices cut off instantly and the silence of the night flooded in. I breathed a sigh of relief and began walking back to the camp, trying to fill my heart with good intentions.
I touched the parrot several times as I walked, just to see that it was still working. The parrot didn’t react. It seemed to be asleep, but it still broadcast my thoughts loud and clear. Some creatures give off body temperatures; others give off mental echoes.
What did I hear from the parrot? Excitement mostly, the feeling of power. Qualms too — using the parrot to spy on others was wrong, but could I resist? And a memory of facing a similar conflict when I discovered masturbation at the age of thirteen: an exciting power, an irresistible compulsion, yet an act I’d been told was dirty. Secret vice. Is that a parrot in your pocket or are you just glad to see me? “How far do I have to dig this damned hole?”
I jerked my head around. That last thought wasn’t mine.
There was no one in sight... but I stood on barren ground between two flat-topped hills. Someone could be on one of the hills, within range of the parrot’s hearing, whatever that range was. I took a few steps toward the hill on my left, then stopped and touched the parrot: nothing but my own thoughts, racing, trying to figure out whose voice it had been. Male. Alex? Roland? I hadn’t paid enough attention.
I wanted it to be Alex. The thought of eavesdropping on Alex was so tantalizing...
As quietly as I could, I moved back toward the other hill, stopped, and listened again. “Damned stone. Why are there so many damned stones?”
Taking a deep breath, I pulled my hand from my pocket. I would resist. I would be good.
One last touch. The echoes of my thoughts told me I was only delaying the moment of eavesdropping on Alex. I was intent on doing it, and simply holding off a few seconds to excite myself more, the way you sometimes hold off on a kiss: you know it’s going to happen, but you wait an extra second to make it sweeter.
The hill was too steep to climb with my hand in my pocket.
Alex stood a short distance away, stabbing a shovel into the ground and wrestling up a load of dirt. His body was soft with starlight. He still wore the billowing white shirt and tight leather pants from the recording session, but his shirt was buttoned to the throat. With each thrust of the shovel, he grunted. At his feet lay a knapsack and a growing pile of dirt.
I walked quickly up to him before I could be tempted to reach for the parrot. When he heard my footsteps and turned around, I asked, “Digging a grave? Or just robbing one?”
Alex laughed. “I’m excavating an archaeological site,” he said. “We’re an archaeological expedition, you know.”
“And this excavation couldn’t wait till morning?”
“I’m not in Jerith’s good books right now,” Alex said. “I broke something — something glass, I don’t know what it was. It could have happened to anyone, but Jerith told me I wasn’t careful enough to be an archaeologist.” Alex plunged the shovel into the hole with all his strength. “So I decided to head out when no one was looking and find something so important Jerith would have to let me help again.”
“Why here?” I asked, looking around. The top of the hill showed almost no signs of the war, except for a rain-filled bomb crater twenty meters away. The area had none of the markers Jerith usually set up at sites he planned to excavate. “Is there some reason to dig here, or did you just pick a place at random?”
Alex looked sly. “Can you keep a secret?” He picked up the knapsack that lay on the ground beside him. When he lifted the flap, I saw some kind of electronic apparatus topped by a cylindrical holo-tank. “Metal detector,” Alex said in a stage whisper. “Absolute state of the art. I can afford it, Jerith can’t.” Immediately, he looked guilty. “I’m going to give it to Jerith before we go. As a token of appreciation for how he’s helped us. But first, I’m going to find something important.”
“Down this hole?”
“If I’m lucky. There’s something big down here; and deep enough that Jerith’s cheap detectors don’t pick it up.”
“Do you want help digging?” I asked.
“I only have the one shovel. But if you stick around, I may need a hand lifting out whatever I find.”
I stuck around — found a stone that wasn’t quite as damp as the ground and sat on it. Now and then, I offered to dig for a while to let Alex rest. He turned me down each time, and speared his shovel in harder to prove he wasn’t tired. I just sat there and inhaled the damp smell of freshly turned soil.
Rather than mope in silence we told each other stories, the kind of stories that people in the industry share when they get together: disastrous concerts, botched bookings, fans from hell. Many, many stories. We laughed, we talked, I put my hand in my pocket.
“I wish she were wearing a tighter shirt,” he said in his thoughts. “She’s got such a body... Helena’s crazy to say she’s fat.”
I didn’t react. Well, yes, of course I reacted and the noise of my thoughts screaming, “I’ll kill her!” drowned whatever Alex thought next. But outwardly I didn’t move. I tried to force myself to calm down, but that just turned out to be my brain shrieking at my body, “Get calm! Relax! Loosen up, loosen up!”
Too bad I’d never studied meditation.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to relax for real instead of just going through the motions. It would have been easier if I could take my hand out of my pocket and shake myself loose; but that hand was staying put.
By the time my thoughts stilled enough to hear Alex again, he was fantasizing about kissing me. No technical details, not even a feeling of passion, just lips touching. In his mind my lips were very soft. And I responded, in my own imagination and in the dream Alex dreamed. My arousal doubled itself in a feedback loop, as I felt the desire, responded to the desire, felt my response echoing back and succumbed more deeply, desire feeding on its own echoes...
“What’s this?” a voice whispered. A chill voice with a sharp edge that stabbed through all the fantasies.
Alex was still digging, glancing over at me from time to time. No one else was in sight.
“Have we got a visitor then?” the thready voice went on. “Someone peeking through the basement window?”
My own thoughts asked who is it, who? I could hear the chatter of my questions, even though other voices in my brain pleaded for silence, not to draw attention to myself.
“Ah, one of Alex’s friends come to call,” the voice whispered. “But he hasn’t thought your name yet....”
Reflexively, I thought “Lyra.” Horrified copies of my voice screamed, “No!”
“Lyra,” whispered the voice. “I saw you this afternoon, milady. We sang together. Yes. Your beauty entices me. You have entered my heart, milady. Now I have entered your mind.”
That’s just a song, I thought wildly.
“There’s no such thing as ’just a song,’ milady. Song is a realm unto itself, separated from your world by the tiny thickness of an eighth note. Strange things live in this realm, milady. Wraiths. Ghosts with tattered hearts.” The voice laughed, a laugh with claws of ice. “It’s dangerous to enter this realm, milady. Once a song gets into your head, sometimes it’s impossible to get out.”
The thing’s laugh gushed over me like glacier spill water. Blackness pooled in front of my eyes; the real world began to dissolve. Beneath the laughter, I could just make out a tiny voice, my own voice, murmuring, “Let go of the parrot, let go, let go.” But my body was freezing up, heavy with ice. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to move. Try to move, think of moving, focus on motion, any motion, the spasming dance I did for that cut on Trash and Thrash, sing the song: “Damn it, slam it, break it; don’t give me your repercussions...”
Forcing myself against the stony cold, I moved my hand a hairsbreadth. I let go of the parrot.
My eyes snapped into focus: the hilltop, the stars, the silence. Shivering, shuddering, the memory of ice.
Then Alex touched my shoulder and pointed to the hole. “I’ve found something,” he said.
I could barely keep my teeth from chattering. I wanted to scramble away screaming but could barely move — I felt divorced from my body, like waking up from a nightmare. Alex’s grin melted to a frown. “Are you all right?”
“Uhh. Hmm.” My mouth wouldn’t work. “I just, uhh... I must have drifted off. Weird dream.” I eyed Alex closely, searching for any sign of the Singer; but this was good old amiable Alex, sweet, even innocent. Maybe I had just been dreaming.
“Come see what I found,” Alex said, holding out his hand. I took it without thinking. He pulled me up to my feet and didn’t let go as he led me to the hole. I didn’t let go either — I was grateful for human contact. I considered sliding closer to him and stealing a hug, but didn’t know what he’d think of it. (I could use the parrot to find out... but no, I couldn’t do that again. Never. Never. Not yet.)
At the bottom of the hole lay a rusty expanse of sheet metal, about a meter square. One edge showed a set of hinges and the opposite edge had a handle. “I think it’s a lid,” Alex said eagerly.
“I think so too.” I leaned against him. His body was warm and solid.
“Can we open it?” he asked.
“We probably shouldn’t,” I told him. “Jerith would want to document everything first. The position of this thing in the hole, the depth, all that. And we don’t want to damage whatever’s inside. Didn’t most of those Egyptian mummies crumble to dust when people opened the sarcophagus?”
Alex’s face fell. “You mean I make a major discovery and I can’t even see what it is?”
“It’s up to you,” I answered. “You wanted to impress Jerith, right? For that, you have to be meticulous.” I squeezed his waist tightly. Very tightly. But I tried to make my voice sound playful. “If you open it, I won’t tell anyone.”
He whooped with elation and leapt, sliding down the loose dirt to the bottom of the hole. I knew Jerith would be appalled at what Alex was up to, but it certainly wouldn’t be a serious blow to science. You couldn’t walk thirty seconds in a straight line without tripping over debris from Caproche’s war — the entire surface of the planet was heaped with the stuff. Given so much material to draw upon, Jerith’s investigation would scarcely suffer if one artifact wasn’t dug up with full pomp and circumstance. Besides, after my recent experience, my dream, whatever it was, I loved Alex’s high spirits and didn’t want to dampen them.
The box’s handle was set too tightly against the lid, at least by human standards — it must have been built for an alien race with thinner hands, or tentacles — but Alex eventually wiggled his fingers under the bar. Down at the bottom of the hole, standing on loose dirt, he wasn’t in a good position for lifting, so I got the shovel and slid down to help, jamming the shovel blade under the lip of the lid and levering upward. Together, we managed to break the grip of the rust holding the lid shut, and with protests from the hinges, the lid groaned open.
There was nothing inside: just an empty canister, divided into two compartments by a metal partition down the middle. Whatever the box once held, it was long gone.
I started to laugh — a bit too hysterically, but still, all that work for an empty box. Alex started to laugh too, and suddenly we were kissing, twining together. The kisses were hungry; I’d never felt so desperate. I’d been terrified by the Singer and now I was plunging for safety into the same arms... but they were Alex’s arms, and Alex seemed like the only comfort on the planet.
Soon we were out on level ground again, stretched body to body beside the hole. For the flicker of an instant, I considered reaching for the parrot, to see what was going through Alex’s mind. But I didn’t want to let go of him; and I realized I didn’t want to know what he was thinking. I wanted to kiss him, I wanted to hold him. Everything else could wait.
We agreed we shouldn’t go back to camp together. Cool reason had replaced heat, and second thoughts were piling up in my mind. Helena. The complications of working side by side. Doubts and apprehension.
“You go on ahead,” I told Alex. “I’ll wait out here a while longer. Go on.”
We kissed awkwardly. He gave me a smile, a sweet confused smile, and said good night. As he vanished down the side of the hill, he began whistling.
I laughed in disbelief. Was he happy, was he sad, was he just whistling because men get the urge to whistle? It was tempting to reach for the parrot. So I did.
“Do I confront her? Talk to her, woman to woman? Threaten her? Or just ignore everything?”
The voice I heard didn’t belong to Alex. It was Helena, and she was close by. Close enough for her thoughts to drown out whatever Alex was thinking as he walked back to camp. Close enough that she must have seen whatever there’d been to see.
Shit. The whole damned planet was practically empty, and everyone wanted to crowd up on my little hill.
“I could fire her,” Helena’s thoughts went on. “Slit her throat. No, there isn’t another decent backup singer within a dozen parsecs. Not with perfect tits. Damned perfect tits. Alex, there’s more to life than tits, isn’t there? After everything I’ve... but it isn’t Alex’s fault. He’s just this big simple...” The next thought wasn’t a single word, but a montage: man, child, baby, bumpkin, son, lover. And there were images too — Alex grinning, with spaghetti sauce dribbling down his chin; Alex looking up as Helena’s hand brushed hair from his eyes, Alex’s face looming close in a darkened room. Underneath was Helena’s soft fear that she was losing him, that she couldn’t compete with younger women, that she was growing old.
Suddenly, like Silk going <SPLINK>, her thoughts grew sharp and hard. “It’s Lyra who should know better,” she thought. “Hateful bitch.” And then Helena was walking toward me, planning how to browbeat and sweet-talk me into giving Alex up.
She’d taken a flashlight with her when she’d set out to look for Alex. Now she waited till the last moment to turn it on, hoping the sudden light would startle me. I stared up calmly as she shone it into my eyes.
I nodded. “Helena.”
“Doing some impromptu excavation?” she asked, making a show of looking at the freshly turned dirt.
“The search for knowledge never sleeps,” I answered.
She shone the light into the hole. It lit the unearthed box more distinctly than the starlight. I could see that one of the compartments was completely lined with sticky white powder from exploding Silk. The other compartment wasn’t as empty as I’d thought. Tiny bones littered the floor, with one skeleton intact enough to recognize as the remains of a Caprochian parrot.
“Looks like an important artifact,” Helena said. “A trash bin.”
“The search for knowledge sometimes craps out.” I shrugged.
“What about you and Alex?” she asked. “Was that a search for knowledge too?”
She wanted me to be surprised by the question. Thanks to the parrot, I wasn’t. “I don’t know what it was with Alex,” I answered honestly. “Just one of those things. I was feeling pretty needy at the time.”
Her thoughts shouted, “Selfish bitch!” but aloud she said, “Your needs aren’t Alex’s needs.”
“I didn’t hear him protesting,” I replied. But my background chorus told me I knew that was no excuse.
“Alex is a sixteen-year-old in a twenty-five-year-old’s body,” Helena said. “He’s not going to fight off any woman. He may even initiate the... festivities. He may have initiated things with you, I don’t know — the starlight wasn’t quite bright enough for me to see.”
“I don’t know who initiated what,” I told her.
“The point is, Alex is a little boy who never grew up.” She faked a laugh. “Do you realize that he proposed to me after our first night together? He thought it was required, the only gentlemanly thing to do after ravishing me. He has this terribly constricted background... I bet he was too shy to take off his shirt, right?”
“True.” And I was glad he didn’t. If unbuttoning his shirt released the Singer...
“He’s so unsophisticated,” Helena said, nodding, “and that’s why there’s a problem. I’m a broad-minded woman, I don’t own him...” Her thoughts yelled, “He’s mine!” and added softly, “Why can’t he just be mine?” She put on a brittle smile and said, “Alex can’t handle the complications of dealing with both of us. Someone like Roland...” I picked up a snap memory of Helena in bed with Roland. Well, well. “Roland wouldn’t get hung up about an idle one-night stand. He’s not one to confuse sex with loyalty. But Alex... he confuses easily. You see?”
“That someone is going to get hurt. Certainly Alex, and maybe you. Not me,” she added airily. “I don’t get hurt. I just have to pick up the pieces.”
“Noble me.” Internally she debated whether to threaten me. She could fire me, and could probably arrange that the major recording labels wouldn’t let me into their studios; but backing me into a corner held too many risks. Especially when she believed I could steal Alex with one nudge of my nipples. So keep it cool, keep it sophisticated, woman to woman, one tuck-and-tumble doesn’t have to mean anything.
“If I were you,” she said, “I’d tell him this was just a brief... weakness on your part. You could say you were under the influence of some fiendish psychological weapon still at work on the battlefield. A lust gun. Makes you rut like a mink in heat no matter how ridiculous you look. No matter how damaging it might be for your career. Lust grenades. Lust lasers. Alex would believe that.”
“You don’t give Alex enough credit.”
“I give Alex all the credit,” she replied. “I do the work, he gets the credit. If you want to start a tug-of-war, Lyra, you may pull Alex away from me. But without me, he’s no star. He’s just a not-too-bright guy with a so-so voice. Not a great catch, believe me.”
“What about the Singer?” I asked.
Her thoughts shriveled. Fear. Cold fear so sharp and similar to mine I jerked my hand away from the parrot. “You can have the Singer,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. “If you can catch the Singer, he’s yours.”
She turned abruptly away and started walking toward the edge of the hill. Without turning, she called back, “I’m sure you’ll do the right thing, Lyra. The smart thing.”
I watched till she was gone. At the last second, I brushed my finger across the parrot. On the surface, Helena fretted about me watching her walk away — she was sure I was laughing at her, at her hips and ass thickening with middle age. But deeper down ran a current of terror: wordless, imageless fear of the Singer.
Her thoughts echoed my own.
When she was gone, I made my way in the same direction, keeping my hands off the parrot. Even so, the parrot dominated my attention... like when you meet someone who’s completely wrong for you and you know he’ll screw up your life, but every minute of the day you find yourself thinking about him. Not love, not lust, and you know you’re too sensible for obsession; but you still keep turning it over and over in your mind. I could laugh at how I was getting in so deep with the parrot, I could tell myself it would only take a tiny effort of will to set my parrot free...
But I didn’t do it. Fixations can be sweet.
Following Helena’s footsteps through the dew soon brought me back to camp. Music played in the main Quonset hut, the timeworn feel-good classic “Orange Puppy,” recorded by “Vivaldi’s Love-Child.” That meant the hut had been taken over by roadies — only they were old enough to play such a rusty dusty nostalgia number. I could imagine them sitting around, wearing sloppy T-shirts from old groups like “Madrigal Canyon” or “Freckles on a Green-Eyed Girl,” and saying spiteful things about the music scene today.
I considered joining them, but didn’t think I’d be up to eavesdropping on a crowd. Besides, what could the parrot tell me that I couldn’t guess myself? The roadies all said exactly what they thought the moment it crossed their minds... except for the wet-dream fantasies a few of the guys had when they looked in my direction, and who needed telepathy to pick up those?
Instead, I turned toward the huts that served as sleeping quarters. The nearest belonged to Alex and Helena, but I didn’t want to see either of them again tonight. A few meters farther was the hut that songwriter Roland shared with our equipment manager. The equipment manager would surely be keeping company with the rest of the roadies, and Roland would be alone.
I knocked on the door.
“What?” The question sounded angry, but Roland always sounded angry.
“It’s Lyra,” I said. “Are you busy?”
“Yes.” The door opened and there was Roland, a towel draped over one hand but still fully dressed in his usual black. “I was just going to take a shower.” He snorted an unpleasant laugh. “Unless you’d care to join me?”
“I have a shower in my own hut,” I answered.
“Once you’ve had the best, don’t settle for the rest,” he muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I wanted to reach for my parrot, but he was staring at me so intently there was no way I could make the gesture look natural.
“Alex doesn’t keep secrets,” Roland said, still blocking the doorway. “Even if he doesn’t blurt it right out, it’s written all over his face. I guarantee Helena will know about you and Alex within the hour.”
“She knows already.”
“No ’and,’ “ I told him. “We’re both being civilized. Sophisticated women of the world. Although it would obviously be best for all concerned if I dropped Alex immediately.”
“She’s right,” Roland said. “Not that I expect common sense to prevail. You still haven’t mentioned why you’re here.”
“Just to chat,” I replied, stretching as if my shoulders were stiff and casually reaching toward my pocket. “I thought maybe I could talk to you about Alex and...”
His hand snapped out and grabbed my wrist. He pulled it tight to his chest and dragged me closer, eye to eye. “No games, Lyra,” he said, his breath hot on my face. “No casual little chats. I know.”
He held up his other hand, the one that had been covered with the towel. The towel slid down his arm to reveal a parrot squeezed between his fingers.
“I wondered why Jerith was so possessive of his damned parrots,” Roland said. “I found out. And if you ever try to eavesdrop on me, I’ll know it. If you can hear my thoughts, I can hear yours. Toy with me, and I won’t act civilized like Helena.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but he interrupted. “You think I’m bluffing? That I don’t have the balls to play vicious?” He put his fist against my face and roughly dragged the parrot’s snout along my cheek. The moment the parrot touched me, Roland’s fury screamed in my ears like a howl of feedback from an amplifier; then he pulled back the parrot and the noise cut off. “Now you know it’s no bluff,” he said. “No one gets into my head but me.”
“The same goes for me.” I tried to snatch the parrot from his hand, but he swung it back out of my reach. His grip on my wrist tightened.
“I don’t need a parrot to get into your head,” he snapped. “I know exactly what women like you think. ’Creepy Roland, ugly Roland,’ that’s always the attitude. With a pinch of pity thrown in, just to make it hurt more.”
“I’m not — ”
He twisted my arm and jerked it down hard. “Shut up!” he screamed. “I can hear you. I can hear you trying to decide which lie will pacify me. I can hear you wonder if you should come on to me, if you can stomach giving Roland a press of the flesh, ugly Roland will be so overcome... God damn you!”
In blind rage, he swung his fist at my jaw. I managed to block with my free arm and took the blow above my elbow. The crunching impact hurt like hell, his knuckles hammering into me deep as the bone. Then he whispered, “Oh, shit,” and his grip on my other arm went slack.
I writhed away from him. He fell over facedown and stopped moving.
For several seconds, I kept my distance, panting and rubbing my arm. He still didn’t move. Had he fainted? Or was he just faking? But why? I thought of reaching for my parrot to see what was in his mind; but if he was just faking, that would infuriate him.
I stretched out my foot and nudged him. No response.
Harder. Still nothing.
At last I bent beside his body and rolled him over. The exertion hurt my bruised arm but I gritted my teeth. Roland’s breathing was very shallow. There was an odd smell in the air too, a thin, metallic smell. I sniffed more closely, his body, his clothes, trying to find the source of the odor.
It came from his fist — still clenched tightly around the parrot.
The parrot had been crushed like a handful of grapes when Roland’s punch landed on my arm. Bits of its flesh bulged out between Roland’s fingers and a dark fluid spilled over his knuckles.
I pried his fist open, using a stick to lever the fingers so I wouldn’t have to touch the blood. The smell grew stronger. The parrot looked like a squeezed rag. Indentations shaped like Roland’s fingers had crushed into its body.
The parrot had died and Roland collapsed. I wondered what he’d heard in the moment of the parrot’s death.
I dragged the roadies away from “Orange Puppy” and told them to hoist Roland into his bed while I got Jerith’s medical robot out of storage. The bot was decades old, scratched in places, and tarnished around the sampling mouths, but it moved easily over the rough terrain and its voice was free of static as it asked me to describe the nature of Roland’s problem. Jerith obviously maintained the bot with great care... which only made sense when the closest doctor was seven light-years away.
I considered keeping mum on the circumstances of Roland’s collapse, then decided to tell the bot everything. Medi-bots are programmed for confidentiality. Besides, no matter how furious I was that Roland hit me, I didn’t want him to die.
By the time the bot and I got back to Roland’s hut, a crowd of people had gathered around the bed. Teary-eyed Alex knelt on the floor, holding Roland’s hands in his. Helena stood behind him, her hand patting Alex’s shoulder over and over again. I was reaching for my parrot to see what was going through their minds when a roadie spotted the bot and me. He raised a fuss, making such a show of dragging us over to the bed that I didn’t have a chance to touch the parrot. A moment later, Helena drove the roadies and me out of the hut, saying the “doctor” needed room to work. Yeah, right.
I headed off to my own hut. I shared it with Violette who did makeup, but she and the other roadies went back to the main hut, so I had the place to myself. Good — peace and quiet. I took the parrot out of my pocket and set it down on the dressing table. The others weren’t close enough for me to hear their thoughts distinctly. When I touched the parrot, I only picked up myself and a background mumble from everyone else in camp.
The parrot yawned itself awake, stretched, and decided to walk around the table a bit, sniffing at the powders and perfumes Violette and I left lying about. I wondered if the little animal was hungry. I got out some bean sprouts I keep for snacking, but the parrot just snuffled at the sprouts, then lay down on top of them.
“Probably bad for you anyway,” I said. I went outside for a moment, pulled a few blades of the local grass, and laid them down under the parrot’s nose. One of its antennae waved above the grass briefly, but then the parrot pointedly turned away.
“Not good enough for you?” I asked. “Won’t eat anything but Silk?”
The parrot stared at me without blinking.
“There must be something else you’ll eat. If the Silk came here as a weapon in the war, that was only seven hundred years ago. What did your species eat before then?”
The parrot closed its eyes and went to sleep.
I laughed softly. “You don’t care what kind of garbage your barbarian ancestors chucked down their gullets. Only modern cuisine for you. I don’t blame you — I probably couldn’t stomach what my ancestors ate either.”
The door opened without warning and for a few fearful moments I thought it was the Singer. No. The shirt was buttoned and it was only Alex, but Alex looking grim and worried. “Roland wants to speak to you,” he said. He didn’t look me in the eye.
“Roland is awake?” I asked.
“He’s awake, but he’s not...” Alex’s voice trailed off and he looked down at his hands. One palm had a brown stain on it. “He’s not very good, Lyra. Maybe seeing you will calm him down.”
“I don’t know,” I said, wondering how obvious it would be if I just picked up my parrot from the dressing table and put it into my pocket, “Seeing me might only upset him.”
“He’s asking for you,” Alex replied. “He says it’s important. Roland, he’s... Women affect him strongly, you know? That’s why he writes such good songs. Women affect him. Sometimes they make him mad and sometimes he just burns himself up wanting them. Most guys... this is hard to say, Lyra, but for most guys, being with a woman is nice and all, but it’s not everything. Not to live and die for. But with Roland, it is. And whatever happened between you and him before he got all keyed up... I don’t know. It’s just, the only thing that calms him down when he’s upset is attention from a woman. Talk, I just mean talk. But you have to go see him.”
Sighing, I stood and reached toward the dressing table.
“Don’t take the parrot,” he said. “That will only complicate things.”
He took me gently by the arm and guided me away from the parrot on the table, toward the door. I tried not to wince — he’d taken the arm that Roland punched and it throbbed with pain when Alex touched me.
Alex immediately switched his grip to my other arm. I thought, Oh, shit, but he said, “Shhh, shhh.”
As we crossed the compound I tried not to think of anything. In my head I sang that Trash and Thrash song, “Damn it, slam it, break it; I don’t want your repercussions.” I sang it over and over again, hoping it would fill my thoughts, drown out everything.
At the door to Roland’s hut, Alex whispered, “Songs make flimsy shields, milady. I live in songs.” He closed the door between us. I was left alone in the hut with Roland, and I was trembling in cold, cold terror.
Roland groaned, “Lyra?” I didn’t answer. I desperately hoped I would faint, shut down my mind... but I wasn’t the fainting type. Had it been Alex? Or was it the Singer? His shirt was buttoned. And back in my hut he’d talked like Alex, fumbling for words, shying away from unpleasantness. But he’d told me not to take the parrot, and he’d known about my sore arm, about singing that song in my head.
“Lyra!” Roland’s voice was louder. The medi-bot whirred briefly but did nothing. “Lyra!”
“What?” My voice was hoarse.
“Yes. What do you want?”
I stirred myself and approached the bed. Roland’s face was pale but with flushes of pink on both cheeks. “I look worse than usual, don’t I?” he said with a weak smile. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“I thought your parrot died.”
“Oh, yeah. It died.”
“Looked like a traumatic experience for both of you.”
He gave a small snort of a laugh. “You know that phrase ’My life flashed before my eyes’? Not a completely accurate description, but it will do. I think my entire subconscious uploaded into my consciousness for a second.”
“Instant self-knowledge,” I said. “If word gets out, Caproche will be crawling with mystics.”
“I think not,” he replied, closing his eyes with a shudder. “It’s not an entertaining experience. I’ll probably kill myself soon.”
The medi-bot whirred through a long silence.
“You think I’m bluffing,” Roland said after a while, his eyes still closed. “Pleading for attention from a beautiful woman. No. Suicide is definitely an attractive proposition.”
“Because of instant self-knowledge?”
“Because I have the parrot’s blood on my hands.”
“Come on, Roland,” I said, “it’s a shame you killed the poor little thing, but it was only one small animal. It’s not worth — ”
“Lyra,” he interrupted me. “I have the parrot’s blood on my hands.”
He held up his palm for me to see, the hand he’d punched me with, the hand that had crushed the parrot. It was streaked with rusty brown stains reaching down as far as his wrist. He turned the hand slowly and stared at his palm. I could see more stains on the back of his hand, where blood had squirted between his fingers.
“It’s in their blood,” he said calmly. “Whatever it is. The telepathy. And now it’s in me. The bot tried to wash the blood off, but my hand won’t come clean. I wish I could remember that passage from Macbeth.”
Out, out, damned spot, I thought.
“Yes, that’s the one,” he agreed as if I’d spoken aloud. “I’ll wait a few days to see if it wears off. But I’m not optimistic.” He lifted his head and looked straight into my eyes. “Instant self-knowledge conveys a certain amount of wisdom, Lyra. Wisdom says I can’t handle knowing what other people think. Let alone myself. You saw it — two minutes talking to you while I was holding the parrot, and I went berserk. Ugly. Very ugly.
“No,” he said loudly, interrupting what I was going to say. “Don’t, please. You were about to forgive me for hitting you. I’m in bad shape, and you feel guilty. Don’t. Just don’t. It’s stupid. If you want to do something, stop using the parrot. That’s why I asked you here. To warn you. Just stop.”
“Okay, I’ll stop.”
He shook his head sadly. “You don’t mean that. Deep down, you think I’m an unstable asshole. You think I can’t handle telepathy, but you can. Well, you’re half right. I can’t handle it. It’s too bleak. A while ago, when Alex and Helena were hovering over me, wondering if I’d had a heart attack or something... they’re supposedly my two best friends in the world, and you know what they were thinking? Helena was going over names of other songwriters, trying to choose a replacement for me if I died. And Alex, he was scarcely there. I don’t know where his mind was, but I couldn’t pick it up. Stupid me, I expected some kind of sympathy...”
“You can’t tell me Alex didn’t care,” I said. “I saw him, Roland. He was crying... he was truly worried.”
“That’s not what the parrot was broadcasting.”
“Then maybe parrots don’t broadcast everything. I saw Alex right there beside you while you were unconscious, and he was crying, holding your hands...”
I stopped suddenly.
“He was holding my hands?” Roland asked. “While they were still bloody?”
I remembered the brown stain I’d seen on Alex’s hand when he’d come to get me in my hut.
“God, no,” Roland murmured. “Not Alex.” I shivered. “No. It’s not Alex.”
Outside, hurrying across the compound, I asked myself, So what? Alex or the Singer, he was just a person who recorded songs. He might come across like a lunatic, but so did half the other acts in the music industry. And even if he was dangerous, I was no delicate flower. Back when I was getting started, I’d sung in bars filled with street scum and run by organized crime. If the going got rough, I could handle myself.
So why was I terrified?
No time for terror — I had to tell Helena what was going on. How she dealt with the Singer I didn’t know, but she’d kept him on a leash for years. If anyone could control the situation, she could.
Before I knocked on the door of her hut, I took a deep breath. It wouldn’t be fun to confess I’d eavesdropped on her thoughts back earlier.
“Hello,” I called. “Helena?”
“Come in...” Her voice sounded soft and uncertain. I opened the door slowly.
She was alone, sitting on the edge of the bed and looking at her hands. They dripped with brown blood.
“Alex was just in here,” she said quietly. “He had one of those little animals, you know, the parrots? Only it was dead. Crushed. Someone had stepped on it; I could see boot treads on its body. The poor thing was all broken bones and blood, and Alex... he smeared it on my hands. Just wiped it all over...”
Her voice trailed off.
She looked up at me sharply. “Did you say something?”
“Clean the blood off,” I said quickly, grabbing her by the elbow and moving her toward the sink. Our camp was supposed to ration water, but I turned the hot tap on full and pushed her hands into the flow, keeping myself clear of the splash. Stringy bits of parrot meat washed down the drain, and the basin turned brown, with the blood rinsing off her fingers. Even so, her palms stayed discolored with dark stains. I poured soap onto her hands and said, “Scrub. Scrub.”
“How can you be saying two things at once?” She made no effort to use the soap. “You’re saying scrub but you’re also afraid I’m going to hear...” She looked at my face, and her eyes focused on my mouth. “You aren’t talking,” she said in surprise.
I stared back at her for a moment, then turned off the water and quietly walked out of the hut. I really couldn’t say what I was thinking or feeling at that moment; but I was sure Helena knew.
The parrot was no longer on the dressing table in my hut, but there was an ugly wet smear on the floor. I could guess where the Singer found the parrot that he’d used on Helena. He must have come back after taking me to Roland, then ground the poor beast under his heel.
A nasty Way to kill the little animal... but a safe one too. The Singer’s boot protected him from the brain-flash that stunned Roland when the other parrot died. Even the Singer must fear instant self-knowledge.
But why kill the parrot at all? And why wipe the blood on Helena? A prank? Or an attack? Roland said the onslaught of voices made him want to commit suicide. Did the Singer want to drive Helena mad too?
And what about the other people in the camp?
Out into the night again — I rushed across the compound toward the main hut. I found myself trying to move quietly, hoping the Singer wouldn’t hear me... as if the sound of my footsteps mattered when my thoughts were howling with fear. Bright girl, Lyra; but it was still a comfort to be stealthy.
The main hut was lit brightly and I could see in through the windows. Music still played, but not “Orange Puppy” — something much softer, the volume so low I couldn’t identify the tune from outside the building.
The roadies had gathered in a circle to watch something in their midst, the way onlookers might surround two people arm-wrestling at a table. A few nights ago I’d seen the same thing, when our stage manager and my roommate Violette had challenged each other to a drinking contest: rum for rum, gin for gin, beer for beer, then back to rum again. We’d all crowded around, cheering and applauding. No one cheered tonight, but it was still comforting to see them together, up to their usual antics, and I was eager to join them... until I recognized the music.
“Ghost of the Tattered Heart.” The title track.
I stopped cold, just outside the door. No roadie on the crew would ever admit to playing Alex’s music for pleasure. Call it roadie pride — playing the boss’s music is sucking up. Unprofessional. Not cool.
As I stood there, frozen with my hand stretched toward the door latch, every head in the hut turned in my direction. All of them, like puppets in a show. Each had a smear of brown parrot blood on the forehead.
The Singer stepped out from the middle of the group. He held up his hand and waved to me. A teardrop of brown trickled down his palm and dripped off his wrist.
I ran through the night, wondering if they would chase me. Ugly images danced through my mind, all the roadies possessed by demons who were exactly like the Singer, howling after me in pursuit. “Lyra, you’ve been watching too many late-night broadcasts,” I muttered, and kept running.
In time I had to slow to a hard-breathing trot. No one was following me, not the roadies, not the Singer. If the Singer wanted to blood me like the roadies, he didn’t have to track me in the dark; he could just wait for me to return to camp. I’d go back eventually. I had no choice — Jerith’s protein synthesizers made the only human-edible food on the planet.
And when I went back, the Singer would hear my thoughts coming.
Maybe it didn’t matter, I tried to tell myself. If I got smeared with blood and started to hear people’s thoughts, was that so bad?
Yes... when the thoughts belonged to the Singer. If his voice invaded my mind again, I truly might kill myself to get away.
Passing through a narrow gully between two hills, I heard a voice call, “Lyra?”
I looked up to the hill on my left and saw Jerith. Sweet, unintimidating man. “Jerith!” I cried. “Jerith!” I scrambled up the hillside and wrapped my arms around his neck. Awkwardly he put one arm around me. The other was thrust deep into his pocket.
A moment later he took his hand out of the pocket and pushed me away. “You know about the parrots.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I was mad at you for a while, but I got over it.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
I took his hand and pushed it back into his pocket. Then I put my arms around his neck again, stared him straight in the eye, and said, “Jerith, I am really, truly glad to see you. Okay?”
He looked away. “You’re annoyed I don’t believe you. That’s all I hear.”
“Then your goddamned parrot is broken, Jerith! The stupid thing broadcasts a tiny bit of annoyance and completely ignores the relief I feel...”
I stopped shouting, started thinking.
“Whoa, slow down,” Jerith said. “Your thoughts are all jumbling together — ”
I interrupted him. “After Roland collapsed, Alex felt sorry for him, but Roland couldn’t hear it. And you can’t hear how glad I am to see you. They don’t broadcast good thoughts, Jerith! Little irritations come through loud and clear, but not the positive stuff.”
“Lyra, that doesn’t make sense,” he replied, shaking his head. “It’s hard enough to believe parrots evolved the ability to broadcast thoughts. I mean, there’s no evolutionary advantage to their kind of telepathy, is there? Caproche’s animal life is so primitive, other species scarcely have thoughts. So don’t ask me to make another leap of faith and believe parrot telepathy is selective. Evolution is strained to the breaking point as it is.”
“Then screw evolution,” I said. “The little buggers didn’t evolve. They were summoned from hell.”
“Don’t dismiss me! The things only eat Silk, right? Silk is a weapon, Jerith, you said so yourself. Eating Silk is like dining on dynamite. If they were normal animals, they’d eat grass or something.”
Jerith sighed. “Yes, it’s unusual they only eat alien plant matter. But that scarcely means they’re demons.”
“Okay, they’re aliens then,” I said. “They’re aliens brought in during the war, the same time as the Silk. Come to think of it, Alex and I found a carrying crate for them earlier in the evening. One side for Silk, the other side for the parrots. A one-two punch: a biological weapon and a psychological one.”
“What do you mean, a carrying crate?”
I described the box Alex and I had found: one compartment lined with Silk dust, the other littered with parrot bones. It was easy to imagine the box being parachuted in and crashing down harder than expected, killing a few parrots, <SPLINK>ing a little Silk, then getting buried later in some artillery barrage. Who knew how many other boxes were still out there?
Of course Jerith wanted to see the box immediately, but after my flight from camp I wasn’t sure where I was now, let alone how to get back to where Alex had dug up the box. “You can find it eventually,” I told Jerith. “If we get out of this with our brains in one piece, I’ll help you look.”
“You really think we’re in danger?”
“Remember how I worried that some weapons from the war might still be active? Well, they are. The parrots.”
“Other races studied the debris of the war before humans got to Caproche,” Jerith pointed out. “If parrots are weapons, why didn’t the other survey teams notice?”
“Maybe telepathy has different wavelengths, I don’t know. The other races didn’t pick up anything from the parrots, but humans just happen to match the wavelength of the original targets.”
“Maybe,” Jerith admitted. “Telepathic races like the Laysens say they can read some species but not others. Still, the idea that parrots might be weapons...”
I grabbed his arm and said, “Think about it. They’re all over the place, they’re brightly colored, they’re happy to be picked up and kept in your pocket... I bet they even looked cute to whatever species fought here. They were bioengineered to attract attention and be adopted as pets. So the troops picked them up, and suddenly they could hear what their fellow soldiers were thinking: all the angry stuff, all the bland stuff, but nothing good. Can you imagine what that would do to morale?”
Slowly, Jerith nodded. “If they heard all the bad stuff... the anger without the friendship, the lust without the affection... in a day or two, the soldiers would forget the enemy and start shooting each other.”
“Damned right they would,” I said.
With a thoughtful expression on his face, Jerith pulled his hand from his pocket. For almost a minute he stared off into the darkness. Finally he turned back to me. “Want to coauthor a paper?”
“I want to live to a ripe old age,” I said.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
I gave him a quick summary of what had happened back in the camp... no, to be honest, I started a quick summary, a quick clinical summary, but somehow it got away from me. The stress, the terror, everything began blubbering out in half-sentences and tears, until he was holding me in that gingerly awkward way men have when they don’t know what to do, while I was apologizing for getting emotional and wishing he were taller so I could bury my face in his shirt. “I shouldn’t be crying,” I said over and over again. “This is really stupid.” And watching myself, angry with myself, I started crying again.
In time, the force of my outburst drained away. I pulled out of his arms, turned my back on him, and desperately wished for something to wipe my nose. Jerith offered me a handkerchief. I whirled to face him, expecting to see his hand in his pocket, using the parrot to read my thoughts; but no, he was just volunteering the handkerchief because I needed it. I smiled with chagrin, then turned away again to give my nose a good blow.
“Sounds to me like the Singer is just being a shit,” Jerith said to my back. Maybe he was trying to comfort me, maybe he was only talking to avoid an embarrassing silence. “This ’come into my realm’ stuff,” Jerith went on, “that’s pure stage show. Popular music often dresses up in demon clothes. I mean, Paganini in the 1800s, he encouraged the public to think he’d sold his soul to the devil. And farther back, in almost every shamanistic tradition, music was associated with otherworldly — ”
“Stop being an archaeologist.”
“Sorry.” He was quiet for five seconds at most, then hurtled on. “My point is, you talk about the Singer as if he’s some malevolent supernatural force. As if he’s got some sinister master plan. I think you’re overdramatizing. This stuff back at the camp... toying with people is just what the Singer always does. That’s his act, isn’t it, when he’s onstage. He spooks people. He gets under your skin.”
I had to admit Jerith was right.
“So what he’s doing with the parrots is more of the same,” Jerith went on. “Smearing people with blood... it’s all theatrics. Harassing people, making them sweat.”
“If the effects of the blood are permanent — ”
“I’m not denying he’s dangerous,” Jerith interrupted. “I don’t want him smearing blood on me; I don’t want to hear everyone being hateful for the rest of my life. I’m just saying he’s not some demonic evil — the Singer is an ordinary punk getting his kicks by making a mess. A petty vandal, nothing more.”
My only reply was a shrug. If Jerith wanted to believe the Singer was an ordinary punk, I wouldn’t waste breath arguing. I knew better. Nothing about the Singer was ordinary.
“The immediate question,” I said, “is what do we do now?”
“Sooner or later, we have to go back to camp,” Jerith replied. “You knew that, right? But we can wait till morning if you like. It’s not raining, and it won’t get too cold; spending the night outside won’t kill us.”
The longer I went without facing the Singer, the happier I’d be. And sunlight would give me courage... a little bit, anyway. “All right,” I told Jerith. “A night in the great outdoors, huddled together for warmth. But I doubt if I’ll get much sleep.”
He looked at me, obviously trying to figure out if I had intended any sexual overtones. I liked that look of uncertainty. It was refreshing that someone didn’t know exactly what was on my mind.
Sleep. Not comfortable sleep — the patch of grass Jerith led me to wasn’t as soft as advertised — but I did sleep, deeply and with ugly dreams.
The dreams were broken by a voice: “Are you awake? Are you awake?” whispered over and over again, until I surfaced from confusion and opened my eyes. I closed them again immediately, appalled by the brightness around me. Even with the light red-filtered through my eyelids, it was bright enough to be painful. I tried to scrunch my eyes shut more tightly.
“I take it the damned sun has risen,” I growled. “Top of the morning to you, Jerith, but if you don’t want a punch in the nose, you’ll let me go back to sleep.”
“Ah, milady,” whispered a voice in my ear, “yond light is not daylight; I know it, I. It is some meteor that the sun exhales to be to thee this night a torchbearer and light thee on thy way to... well, let thy destination remain unspoken.”
Chilled, I opened my eyes again. The Singer was there, kneeling beside me. “A passage from Romeo and Juliet,” he said. “Their last scene together. Or more precisely, the last scene with both of them alive.” He smiled.
The sky above his head was still black, flecked with stars. Off to one side, several anti-grav platforms floated in the air, holding the huge beam-lamps we had brought for recording at night. The lights all aimed at me, as if I were a surgery patient on an operating table.
I jerked up to a sitting position and looked around for Jerith. He was gone. The grass he’d slept on still showed the imprint of his body.
“What did you do with him?” I asked.
“I anointed him,” the Singer said, “rather forcibly. Specifically, I tucked a pretty little parrot under his hand while he slept, then crushed hand and parrot under my heel. The pain woke him briefly, but with the lovely jumble of thoughts that rose in his mind as the parrot died... ah, well, he passed out again. I kindly instructed one of Jerith’s robots to carry his body back to camp. Very cooperative machines, those robots.”
Another robot picked its way through the grass toward us, the blue lights from its eyes sweeping the ground for safe places to plant its feet. “Grab this man!” I shouted to the bot. “He wants to hurt me.”
The bot’s attention remained fixed on the ground.
“Alas, milady,” said the Singer, “some petty vandal damaged its direct audio input with a laser drill. Now it can only respond to radio instructions.” He drew a tiny radio transmitter from his pocket and spoke into it. “Please carry the lovely Lyra to that bunker over there.” His finger pointed to a squat concrete building set into a nearby hill. Turning back to me, he said, “Worry not, milady. This machine is programmed for transporting archaeological artifacts, so it will bear you quite gently... unless you force it to exert its strength.”
I didn’t have time to get away. Before I could twitch a muscle, the bot had snared my ankle with one of its steel cable tentacles. I tried one desperate yank with my leg, hoping to catch it off balance and topple it forward to the grass; but the bot was firmly planted and far too heavy for me to dislodge. Patiently, it stretched out more tentacles and I couldn’t avoid them all. In a matter of seconds, I was well and truly webbed in.
“A pity we had no tape rolling,” the Singer said, gazing down on my trussed-up body. “Your struggles would have made good footage.”
“Footage for what?”
“A song we’ll be recording in just a few minutes. A ballad named “Parrot Blood Baptism.” And you have a starring role.”
I assume he wanted to scare me; but I was lying wrapped in steel cable, with a robot whirring above me as it calculated how to heave me about like a sack of potatoes, and suddenly my fear hardened into anger. I met the Singer’s stare and asked, “What kind of melodramatic bullshit are you trying to pull?”
His eyes narrowed. He lifted the radio transmitter and told the robot, “Please hold for a moment.” The robot whirred as the Singer turned back to me.
“We’re going to record a song,” he said. “Just you and I, milady. I’m afraid our colleagues back at camp are indisposed — it seems they took poorly to telepathy. Fights broke out, a number of people locked themselves in their huts, others were grabbed by robots... suffice it to say, no one is in any condition to help us or disturb us.”
“What are we going to record?” I asked.
“A song, milady, a real song. I cannot tell you how tired I’ve grown of the juvenile pap that passes for music these days. All the world adores my album... but what is that album but shallow artifice? Fog from machines. Women screaming on cue. I am reduced to a puppet, prancing amidst hackneyed symbolism, to portray a dangerous man. A sanitized danger. A packaged little danger to delight complacent adolescents who fancy themselves rebels.
“Well... not tonight, milady. Tonight we shall have no special effects or stunt doubles. Tonight the script calls for unflinching reality.”
I snorted in derision. “So you’re going to baptize me with parrot blood? Yeah, sure, that’s a brilliant departure from hackneyed symbolism. I haven’t seen a blood baptism since... oh, that one Lew Jackell did on ’Bad Night for a Burning.’ And the Black Sabbath sequence from the latest album by Chocolate Oracle. And Oiled Heat did a blood baptism too, if I recall correctly, in that terrible little number they recorded on those mud flats... what was its name? ’Sweet Soulless Machine’?”
The Singer put a single finger under my chin and pressed it sharply into the softness of my throat. “Milady,” he said, “remember that I can hear your thoughts. You are simply trying to make me angry.”
“I’m trying to tell you, you’re not as smart as you think you are,” I replied. “Alex only trots you out for concerts and recording sessions; you can’t know dick about the industry at large or how things really come together. You’ve never been to a rehearsal or a sound check... and as for creating songs, you do nothing. Roland writes the tunes and lyrics, Helena storyboards the visuals, Alex walks through it all and helps refine things till they click. Oh, sure, when the tape starts rolling you’re the spark that adds the magic, there’s no question you’re the spark... but a spark isn’t worth squat if someone doesn’t chop the firewood first. And now you’re going to show us how to cut a real song? I can’t wait to see it.”
Half my outburst was genuine anger, half was trying to pierce him, deflate him any way I could. But he simply removed his finger from my chin and patted my cheek gently. “Through long afternoons in Roland’s basement, while Alex lay on the couch and read comic books, I listened to Roland poke at his piano and I learned how songs were born. Late nights in hotel rooms, as Helena muttered to herself about camera angles and lighting effects, Alex may have slept but I didn’t. And at rehearsals, who kept Alex working when he was bored and hated the thought of one more run-through? Who’s held him together all these years? Who grew up while Alex stayed a child?
“When Alex and I were young, milady, we were two souls in one body. Ah” — he smiled thinly — “your mind says, ’Split personality.’ A number of psych-techs reached the same conclusion many years ago and salivated at the chance to handle such an exotic condition. They plied us with drugs, hypnotherapy, symlinks, and eventually announced Alex cured. As if I were an appendix they could casually snip off. Their efforts only drove me into hiding, down to the depths of our shared unconscious, and I grew up there, wary and sly.
“Let me tell you,” he went on, “Alex does not ’trot me out.’ I come when I’m needed. The hero arriving in the nick of time. I believe Roland told you about that night at Juicy’s? Alex playing the fool to impress Helena, angering the rest of the audience... until suddenly he realized he was in desperate trouble, that people could actually hate him enough to hurt him. It’s hard to say which frightened him more, the physical threat or the hatred. Alex had never been hated before. He fell to pieces... and I came to the rescue. Helena had nothing to do with my emergence, you understand? Nothing. Alex got into a scrape he couldn’t handle and my presence was required.
“The same thing happened earlier tonight, when the blood on his hands assailed him with strange unsettling voices; Alex retreated in confusion, and lo, I was there. I’m always backstage, milady, waiting in the wings. Biding my time for the show.
“And now it’s showtime again.”
He held the radio transmitter to his lips and murmured, “Resume. Take her to the bunker.” Immediately the robot hoisted me off the ground... not roughly, but it clearly hadn’t been programmed to maintain a woman’s dignity. Its gripping arms didn’t care where they gripped, and it held me on a slight downward angle — I could feel my blood draining into my head. When it started to walk, each step was spring-loaded: not jarring, but a big upward movement, then a sudden dip down as the bot shifted its weight to the next leg. Up, down, up, down, very smoothly, and if I’d been an archeological artifact, I wouldn’t have felt jostled a bit. Being human, however, I got seasick after the first three steps.
The Singer walked beside the bot for a few moments, watching me surge up and down with the bot’s motion. Then he tossed something light onto my pinioned body. “That is your costume for the song,” he said. “Please do me the honor of donning the outfit when you reach the bunker.”
I craned my neck to get a better look at the clothes. Scanty and gossamer, of course. “Are you going to tell me what I do in this song?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I prefer it to be a surprise.”
“No rehearsal, no direction, a brand-new song and I don’t know the words or the tune...”
He caressed my hair with his long, cold fingers. “You’ll be superb, milady. I have faith in your professionalism.”
The bunker smelled of mildew and cement; its only illumination was a gun slit that let in a strip of light from the beam-lamps outside. The robot lowered me carefully to the floor, withdrew the cable tentacles wrapped around me, and took up a position blocking the exit.
Queasily, I got to my feet. “Let me leave,” I ordered the bot, and stepped toward the door. It couldn’t hurt me, could it? Robots are programmed not to injure humans. But the moment I moved, the bot spread its cables wide, closing off the doorway like a spiderweb, with a big bot spider in the middle. I wasted a minute trying to pry free enough cables to give me room to escape; but steel is stronger than fingernails, and at last I gave up. I wasn’t getting through that door till the Singer ordered the bot to let me out.
Sighing, I turned away and looked over the rest of the bunker’s interior. It would cheer me no end to discover some functional weapon left from the war, a snare rifle, a jelly pistol, or whatever alien armament once fired through the gun slit; but the bunker had been emptied as meticulously as the rest of the planet. All I could make out in the shadows were cobwebs, dirt, and weeds sprouting from cracks in the concrete.
I began to pace, idly fingering the flimsy costume I was supposed to put on. One strong pull could rip the fabric to swatches, but that wouldn’t help — the Singer would just drag me out naked. Angry at the thought, I gave the wall a good solid kick.
“That damned Silk sure gets around,” I grumbled. But if it really was a biological weapon, I shouldn’t be surprised it could take root in enemy strongholds. During the day, enough light would come through the bunker’s doorway for the Silk to keep growing.
I tapped the wall with my foot.
Tiny feet scuttled across the floor toward the sound.
“Hello,” I said. “Rotten little beasts.”
A few minutes later, I was dressed in sheer see-through and making final adjustments on the sash about my waist. The sash wasn’t part of the original costume — I’d made it from folding and twisting the blouse I’d been wearing — but I needed the sash to hide my hitchhikers: two parrots that had come scurrying at the sound of popping Silk. I’d slung them at my hips like six-guns, tucked under the sash and sleeping placidly after a full meal. Their small bodies pressed lightly against me, just inside the ridges of my pelvis, on either side of the flat of my stomach. Even under the bright beam-lamps outside, they’d be completely hidden.
The parrots weren’t touching my skin — with stockings wrapped around my hands, I’d picked up the parrots and nestled them between my costume and the outer sash. It was hard to resist touching the little beasts just once, just the brush of a finger to hear if other minds were nearby. But now was not the time for pointless voyeurism; I had a different plan.
Once before I’d tried to close my mind to the Singer, trying to drown out all thought with the Trash and Thrash song. It didn’t work. As the Singer said, he lived in songs, especially songs that were hard-edged and troubled... not to mention that the parrots were designed to broadcast trouble loud and clear. To hide, I had to lose myself in gentleness, restrict my thoughts to the kind of caring and concern where the parrots were mute.
I had to fall in love.
Concentrate on Alex: his face, his smile. I’d made love with him on the hill, clumsily, tenderly. No, to be honest it wasn’t making love, it was just running away from my fear of the Singer, and the jangle of emotions aroused by using the parrots; but it could turn into love, couldn’t it? Alex, beautiful, gentle child. In need of protection from himself and the world. Alex, who had tears in his eyes as he held unconscious Roland’s hand. And Alex, coming to me in my own hut, stumbling over his words as he talked about his concern for Roland... if that really was Alex, and not just the Singer pretending to be Alex. No, it was Alex, it was Alex, even if he was feeling the Singer creep up inside his mind as the parrot blood took effect. It was appalling to imagine that: Alex hearing an icy other voice lurking beneath the surface of his thoughts, a second personality slowly gripping...
Damn. Concentrate, Lyra.
Deep breath. Falling in love with Alex. Who was kind and eager and vulnerable. A handsome prince held prisoner by his evil twin and now desperately yearning for a loving minstrel-girl to save him.
Alex’s smile. His eyes. His need.
When it flows, it flows.
The lights bake the stage, the beat is driving hard, the music stabs you like a grimy finger. Your heart pounds, and if you don’t kiss the first face you see, you’ll grab the throat and squeeze. You feel hot style. You want to put on a show.
And if you’re in love, the flow is creamy juicy lightning.
The music starts and you’re on. Cue the backup singer. Showtime.
THUNK THUNK THUNK-AH THUNK. THUNK THUNK THUNK-AH THUNK... a heavy tenor drum, stomped full force, began pounding the night outside the bunker. I recognized the beat as the intro for “Moth Metamorphism,” a cut that we’d scheduled to record later in the week. I should have known. All on his own, the Singer couldn’t lay down instrumental tracks; for his new song, he must have written new lyrics to existing music.
The flow inside me clicked a notch higher. I knew this music, knew the through-line, the harmonies. I could kick the hell out of it.
When it flows, it flows.
The robot in the doorway began to whir, receiving radio orders from the Singer. I didn’t resist as it wrapped a tentacle around my wrist and led me from the bunker; the bot could barely keep up with me as I strode out into the night, up to the plateau where the beam-lamps shone. A second bot appeared, carrying a microphone. I grabbed the mike, no time to wait, the music still booming. One slap to stick on the throat patch, a second slap for the battery pack, check the adhesive on both, and then I was surging forward, into the heat of the lights.
I stepped onto a green expanse of meadow, showing only one sign of the war: a glistening patch where the soil had been seared to black glass by some energy weapon. In the middle of the glassy surface stood a stone altar, a prop made for the recording of “Dead Man’s Prayer"; and just back from the altar lurked the fog machine, hooked up with an extra hopper of dry ice.
The mist would really roll tonight.
All right, all right, keep going. The Singer wasn’t here, but keep going. Set up for a sprawl-shot on the altar. What else could the Singer want? I slid up on top, sprawling, waiting, shaking, THUNK THUNK THUNK-AH THUNK.
And Alex appeared.
He came over a rise, just a silhouette, sharply backlit with sprays of yellow sparks — nothing more than a black outline against a fountain of fire, but I knew it was Alex. The Singer moved more gracefully, more intentionally, like he was trying to prove a point; Alex just moved. I lifted myself higher, hands and knees, truly believing I could simmer Alex’s blood just by staring.
THUNK THUNK THUNK-AH THUNK.
Alex picked his way down to the plateau, trying to hurry but slowed by clumps of weeds on the hillside. Once he lifted his head and maybe he called to me, but the drumbeat drowned that out.
THUNK THUNK THUNK-AH THUNK.
Now Alex hurried into the light of the beam-lamps. His shirt was buttoned and he was shouting, “Get out of here, Lyra! Get out!”
I simply shook my head.
“I pushed him down for a minute,” Alex said as he ran to me, panting. “He’d been outside for a long time, he was tired. But he’ll be back, he will, and you can’t...” Alex held out his hands, showing the brown bloodstains. “This will drive you crazy, it really will. The noise gets so loud, it deafens you. And it’s all so angry. I never knew people were so angry. Back at camp it was like a chain reaction, a little hostility, people getting angry in return, then everyone going furious... in five minutes, they were honestly trying to kill each other. And him, the Singer — he was in the middle of it, egging them on...”
I took Alex’s hand. The blood on his skin was dry, textured like satin. “It will be all right,” I said. “Don’t worry, it will be all right.”
“It won’t, it won’t. He loves the anger, he thrives on it, but it’ll rip you apart. He wants to see it rip you apart. He wants to see you snarl like an animal.”
“Alex,” I said again, threading my fingers through his, “it will be all right.” I squeezed his hand tightly, wanting to squeeze my strength into him.
“You don’t...” He pulled his hand from my grip and pressed it against his forehead. “You aren’t...” His head snapped down, then up again, and he roared, “Where are you, milady?”
The Singer emerged in gentle Alex’s face like ice crystallizing in water. His eyes narrowed; his mouth grew hard. “Damn the fool!” he screamed, and with both hands, he grabbed the collar of his shirt and ripped downward, tearing fabric and scattering buttons onto the ground. Gasping, he lunged forward to support himself unsteadily on the altar. “He caught me by surprise. What has he done with milady? Milady! Milady!”
The man was staring straight at me, blind to my presence. All the rehearsal I’d done before, trying to make myself love Alex — that was pure nonsense, just priming myself to put on a good show. But in the moment of transition, when simple well-meaning Alex was crushed away by the Singer’s rage, something sparked in my heart and made the love real. The love didn’t feel like Romeo and Juliet or Trash and Thrash. It probably wasn’t woman/man love... mother/son maybe, or big sister/kid brother. So what? My heart and brain filled with compassion, and to the Singer, I was invisible.
I rocked back onto my knees and thrust both hands into my sash. Two parrots, the last weapons to be drawn in Caproche’s long war. As I touched them, the blare of the Singer’s thoughts struck my brain like thunder, hate mixed with fear mixed with anger; but I was moving and mere noise couldn’t stop me.
At the last instant, the Singer’s head jerked up and his eyes met mine.
With all my strength, I clapped the parrots against his temples, slam, both sides of his head. The parrots burst in my hands like rupturing bags of blood, gushing across the Singer’s face in brown spatters. For a split second, I could hear the echoes of fragmented thoughts outside me: the roadies, Helena, Roland, screeching far away. Then a jagged ripping sound split inside my head and my brain shattered.
Two parrots had died in my bare hands.
Imagine reliving your life through a black filter.
You get to remember that first kiss: two hours of standing in front of the house on a cold winter night as your boyfriend worked up the courage to go through with it. You can remember how you shifted back and forth from one leg to the other, shivering because you were only wearing a short skirt and stockings, and you can remember how many times you almost gave up hope, how you hated him for being so stupid, how you hated yourself for being too scared to grab him and kiss him before you died of frostbite. But do you remember the elation when it finally happened? Do you remember how you lay awake for hours with a huge smile on your face, as you counted the ways your life had changed? No — your memory is too busy skipping ahead eight months, when suddenly you and your boyfriend can’t agree on anything, you know he makes up excuses to avoid seeing you, and when the two of you do get together it’s only because you’re hooked on those hour-long petting sessions on that couch in your basement. You get clean, clear memories of all the people you hated or feared, but the people you loved? Only the times they annoyed you.
Imagine reliving your life through a black filter.
Then imagine doing the same thing with two men watching.
One of the men is a lunatic. The other is so innocent you can’t bear him to see your life, the many petty ugly things you’ve done.
But that’s not the end. Imagine reliving someone else’s life while you’re reliving yours. A life with two strands, lunacy and naпvetй. Oh, yes, relive a childhood so tormented that your personality crumbles to fragments, then a dozen harsh psychological treatments intended to heal you, then the blood-red fury of the Singer suppressed but not extinguished. Every memory from infancy to adulthood seen through two sets of eyes that never agree, every tenderness seen as weakness, every love dismissed as infatuation.
Reliving everything through a black filter.
Imagine doing all that in the time it takes a parrot to die.
My eyes met the Singer’s at the moment I smashed the parrots against his head. We shared the parrots’ deaths. We shared our own lives.
Then white noise. Static. The Singer screeched and reeled blindly away from me, staggering backward toward the fog machine. He collided with the nozzle and grabbed at it, seizing it with both hands. Maybe he was just catching his balance, maybe he was trying to break something, I don’t know; but he gave another scream and wrenched the nozzle loose from the machine, setting free a bloom of fog that had built up inside. Berserk, he began to smash the broken nozzle down on the machine, over and over, howling all the while.
The Singer wrapped in fog — a gaunt silhouette in the night, backlit by beam-lamps. THUNK THUNK THUNK-AH THUNK.
Then the noise changed, the sound of his howls. I had parrot blood on my hands and maybe the sound I heard was only in my mind, but the explosive fury was overlaid with louder moans of pain: not from the Singer, but from Alex.
All this time I hadn’t moved. My head was swimming, and like Roland after the parrot died in his hands, I was on the verge of passing out. But when I heard Alex’s cries, his pain and terror, I forced back the edge of my dizziness and clumsily crawled off the altar. Fog was billowing everywhere, spreading fluidly over the grass. I staggered into it, the cold, dusty-smelling CO2 fog, trying to stay on my feet long enough to reach Alex.
I found him in the heart of the fog bank, sprawled across something my muddled mind didn’t recognize at first — a box, some kind of open box, like the one Alex and I had found on the hill. But as I stumbled closer, I saw it was the hopper for the fog machine, its lid smashed off in the Singer’s rage. Steam boiled off the dry ice inside, curling and churning around Alex’s prone body. He lay flat across the exposed ice, his bare chest pressed against it.
He screamed as the intense cold burned him like fire.
I grabbed his ankles and pulled weakly, trying to drag him off the ice pile. He didn’t budge; I wondered if he’d actually frozen in place, like flesh bonding to sticky-cold metal. Then his legs kicked feebly out of my grip and I heard the voice of the Singer in my mind. “No, milady. I have sought the cold and found it. Cold, true cold, bright cold.”
“You’re killing yourself,” I shouted to the Singer. “You can’t survive in there. God only knows what it’s doing to your heart.”
The Singer just laughed.
“Lyra?” Alex whispered. A real voice, forced through his lips by lungs that could scarcely breathe.
“Yes, it’s me.” I fumbled around to the other side of the hopper, only managing to stay on my feet by clinging to the edge of the bin. “Yes, Alex, I’m here.”
His hand moved slightly, but his palm seemed stuck to the ice. I could feel him steeling himself, Alex’s voice in my mind muttering, Do it, do it. Then he heaved the hand upward, ripping off most of the skin as he freed it from the ice’s grip. Bleeding, he held it out to me. “Lyra.”
I took his hand, holding it high above the ice. My fingers still dripped with parrot blood; Alex’s blood mingled with it, in the fog and the cold.
The Singer’s thoughts crooned with the cold, but I could hear nothing from Alex. Whatever went through his mind was too gentle for parrot blood to transmit.
“Alex,” I said. Then a fresh surge of dizziness washed over me and I sank into its blackness.
I woke groggily, roused by burning pain. When I had fainted, my arms slumped across the dry ice, still holding Alex’s hand.
His hand was as cold as the ice. Fog filled the hopper and dribbled out over the sides.
I looked down at my hands, still lying against the ice. Their skin was white and puckered, and they didn’t ache much; the serious pain was higher up, near my elbows. I knew that was a bad sign — so much nerve damage in my hands, I couldn’t feel how badly I was hurt.
That was when I realized the night was silent — no sound of thoughts. Not Alex’s, not the Singer’s, not mine. Parrot blood glistened on my fingers, parrot blood crystallized to ice; but my hands were too injured for the blood to work.
Pulling my hands off the ice left strips of skin behind. I scarcely felt it. For a moment, I considered pulling Alex’s body out of the hopper, but I couldn’t move my fingers. I couldn’t grab him, I couldn’t hold him; and it wouldn’t make a difference if I could. It was far too late for anything to make a difference.
I took one last look at him lying there, burned and blue, silent on a bed of fog. Then I began plodding back to camp.
My hands will never move again. Jerith’s medi-bot works on them daily to stave off gangrene, but repair is out of the question; that has to wait till I get to a populated planet. The bot says a good med center might be able to cut off my arms at the elbows and put me in a tank till they grow back.
No one knows what to do with the others in our party, still marked by parrot blood. A week has passed, and the telepathy shows no signs of wearing off. One of the roadies tried to cut away his bloodstained skin with a knife, but he passed out before finishing the job. Now the medi-bot keeps him under sedation.
Sedatives are handed out freely these days — the bot can synthesize enough to keep everyone subdued until the rescue ship arrives. The ship is scheduled to land an hour after sunset tonight, and the Planet Protection Agency has a good record for punctuality.
They’ve reclassified Caproche as TPI: Total Permanent Interdiction. Jerith will have to start over, another dig, another planet. He says he doesn’t mind.
Jerith spends a few minutes with me every day... but with blood on his hands like everyone else, he mostly stays out in the wilds — a long way out, where he can’t hear anyone else’s thoughts.
I stay in camp, close to the medi-bot. It watches me and feeds me.
From time to time I catch sight of parrots, bright green and crimson, waddling across the dirt of the camp compound. I like to stroke their noses with my bandaged hands. When I do, the medi-bot stands beside me and whirs in disapproval.
It’s decided the parrots are dangerous.
A story from a woman’s point of view. People ask why I use female narrators so much. My answer is (a) I don’t use them any more often than I use male narrators, and (b) why shouldn’t I use female narrators, provided I’m not a jerk about it? To be sure, men often do lousy jobs of portraying women — but I have to believe that’s just sloppiness and inattention, not an inevitable fact of gender. I don’t accept that the only type of character I can legitimately write about is someone very much like myself... because frankly, I’m bored with middle-aged middle-class white men, and there are far too many of those guys in science fiction already.
Therefore, I resolved long ago that whenever I wrote about the future, I would show it containing just as many women as men, not to mention people of diverse cultural backgrounds, old, young, straight, gay, rich, poor, and every other variation I could make fit within the story’s logic. That’s the sort of future world I wouldn’t mind living to see.
One more thing about this story. It takes place in the League of Peoples universe, and readers who know about the League might be wondering how two groups of aliens could descend upon a planet and start waging war against each other. Isn’t that against the fundamental law of the League? Yes, it is; and someday, at the proper time, I may tell the story of what really happened on Caproche.