That just ain’t right.
“Look at this thing!” the kid said, hoisting it over his head like some kinda prize.
“Aw, I think it’s purring!” he says.
It weren’t. “Kid. Bots don’t purr.”
“They do if they’re programmed for it,” he says, all Scotch and burr-y and rollin’ his r’s. And then he pets the damn thing.
Some days, I think this kid needs a little sister. “Kid…”
“No, look, watch! I can get it to do tricks,” he says. “Then we can name it and make it a house and keep it forever.” He waggles the thing back and forth, making it do a little dance.
Yeah, and that crooked little smile means he’s messin’ with me. I know his tells. “Quit it.”
The little shit laughs. “Sorry, sorry.” He puts it down.
Bug-like, it scurries away on six arched metal legs, freakin’ me out more’n I ought to admit.
“It’s probably reporting to somebody.” The kid’s smile fades as he stands, brushing off his jeans and staring off like he’s seeing past where that metal bug-thing went.
“So we should’a smashed it, is what you’re sayin’.” I go to stand beside him, watching the orange sunset and the rough, red rocks, which don’t look like no kinda tech ought to be here, but I guess that’s just how it is in this place.
“Naw. I’m sure it’s already sent images of us to wherever,” he says, and suddenly goes from too-old back to a fidgety fourteen-year-old boy. “Come on. Let’s follow it.”
I sigh. “Kid. Just hug a rock, let the earth tell you where to go, and get this over with.”
“You don’t want to see what’s here? See this year, this place, that we’ll never see again?” He leans in and waggles his eyebrows, and I tell you what…
I ain’t prey to this kid’s accidental appeal. I know he’s pretty, and I know the power in him makes people want to just hand over their firstborn and do whatever he says.
He don’t mean none of it to happen. And I ain’t prey. But that second there, with that big a grin, with that level of play and wonder in his head, makes me let go of my better senses.
“Eh,” I say.
“Yes!” he goes, and trots off after the damn robo-bug.
Some days, Steven, you are too damned liberal with this boy.
I guess I don’t know what I was expectin’.
The bug runs right down a freaky old cave at the bottom of a cliff, and the shadow that cliff cast take us out of burning-orange sunset and right into night. And in that night, the kid jogs without even hesitatin’.
Well. Gotta follow him. I got a job to do.
The metal bug runs at a big old metal door, which whisks open to let it in and shuts again, automatic.
Of course, the kid walks up and knocks like it was some dumb neighbor’s.
“I dunno about this,” I say, coming up behind him. “Looks fishy.”
“Suspicious? Absolutely. Unappealing in every way? Without a doubt. Our only option? You bet.” He knocks again, giving me a big, sunny smile that damn near lights up the shadows.
Me, I just take the safety off my gun. I hate this part.
“Come on, ya blathers, I know you’re in there,” the kid says, using slang I don’t know but can pretty much pick out by context, and of course, the worst happens.
He knows it first. Changes. Stiffens, dropping the casual slump teenagers have, turns to me with a look on his face that’s about ten thousand years old, and his eyes…
His eyes have changed, done that thing where the irises ain’t round no more but spread out with wavy octopus-arms, and before the bullets even start coming, he moves.
His shirt flies in all kinds’a directions, exploded to pieces as he slams me against the cave wall, and four wings – bigger’n they should be, brighter’n they could be, like feathers made of light and glory – come wrapping around me like my mama’s own soft hands.
The kid can’t control his Peace yet, so for a second I forget to care that there’s bullets bouncing around the dirt at our feet and the rock all around.
Nothin’ touches us, of course. The kid’s wings do their job, their magical field repellin’ anything that comes too close, and the kid’s instinct knows when the threat’s gonna stop, so until then, we just… kinda stand there.
Takes me a minute. I shake my head, gettin’ out the cobwebs. “We gonna dance, or what?”
Alex looks up at me. Sees me, but don’t see me, and there’s nothing warm or funny in there. Takes him a second, too, to shake outta this; that other side of him can’t help what it is, but I’ll be damned if I let that other side swallow up the good stuff that makes him human.
He blinks at me. Blinks again, and both times, the wavy-pointy bits of his irises shrink until he’s looking more and more normal. “Ah,” he says, shaking his head.
“You’re okay, kid,” I say ‘cause he needs to hear it, and I pat his shoulder.
He shakes his head again and steps back, then glares over his own shoulder at the door.
The wings are still out. I bet somebody in there’s getting an eyeful’a them things. “Maybe put the feathers away?”
“Yeah.” And he does. They just go, slidin’ back into him like he’s yanked them into his lungs, but there’s just no way. They’re too big. I dunno where they hell they go.
“Hey!” Alex shouts, stomping back toward the door with a good, healthy anger on while I fish a new t-shirt outta my backpack. “What the hell was that for?” He bangs his fist on the door. “We’re not your enemy, even though you have something of mine!” Bang bang.
Something of mine, eh, kid? Gettin’ bold to go with your big-boy pants.
The door jerks, shudders, and slides open just a bit, like it’s not opened in a long time. “Wh-what do you want?” says somebody who smells like old body odor and a whole lotta fear.
“The rimestone,” says the kid. “I know you have one.”
The guy must’a turned off all the lights before he came to the door. I got an impression of curly hair and big glasses and a dumb mustache to go with ‘em. “I don’t know what you’re talking abo-” And he tries to close the door. Bad move.
Alex stops it with one hand, just holds it open, and whatever mechanism is still trying to close makes a damned awful grinding sound.
The door don’t move. That’s my boy.
“The rimestone, please,” says Alex, as serious as a headache, and he don’t sound fourteen just now.
“Blasted meteorite,” says the guy, stomping away from the still-open door, and lights flicker on to show some boring hall made of more metal and no seams or anything natural. “More trouble than it’s… look, you’re going to take this away? Are you from the Congress? Is that who sent you?”
Kid looks back at me, kind of a spooked look.
He’s a rotten liar. Me, on the other hand… “Yeah, we are. Who the hell else could find your smelly ass out here?”
The guy keeps muttering, banging something – sounds like he’s banging metal bowls or something – and finally comes out carrying a recycled cardboard box that looks like it played chair for a while.
Alex takes it, holding the door open with his foot now. Thing’s still groaning. Box opens. Green light spills out, and if it was anybody but this kid, it’d make ‘em look sick. “This looks right,” he says, just as pretty as some kinda green angel.
“Ung,” says the guy in the hall.
Can’t help a laugh. Poor guy’s never met the like of this kid before, and he never will again.
Alex smiles at the guy. “Thanks. Have a nice day!” and he pulls his foot back. If this was a movie, the door would slam shut, but he sure as hell broke something in there. It grinds shut, groaning the whole time, while the guy in there mutters and rubs the space above his glasses like his brain’s the one makin’ those sounds.
The kid lets out a breath like a deflating balloon and turns to me, holding up the box. “On to the next one, eh?”
“Yeah.” I kick at a pebble, sendin’ it skittering down the box canyon and makin’ all kinds of racket. “Don’t like this place too much.”
“Yeah, it’s… sort of dead,” he says, mimicking my kick. He don’t got the practice, though, so his rock don’t roll so far. “Post-apocalyptic, or sommat.”
“Some-at, yeah,” I repeat, shaking my head. “Draw the line in the sky, kid. We’re outta here.”
“He’ll record it.” Kid points at the wall.
“He’ll try. Pretty sure it won’t work too good.” Sometimes I think I know the kid’s powers better’n he does.
Time’ll tell if that’s a good thing or not.
“Hold on.” He arches back and the wings just… come, exploding in light and size, way too big to have been in his body and just so damn beautiful. He shudders once, and the edges of his wings sorta get solid as his bone-blades slide out, neat as retractin’ claws.
Only I’d be willing to touch cat-claws. Them bone-blades, that’s a whole other matter.
“Here we go,” he says, and his two right wings swipe at the air.
Air just parts, like a piece of flannel torn in half, but before we can use it, the bane of my life steps through.
He just looks at us all serious while we both jump. “Well done,” says Òrìṣà, resonant and elegant and freaky.
Alex startles. Then he frowns. Good boy.
“Let me see,” says Òrìṣà, and holds out one dark hand.
Alex gives him the rimestone.
In Òrìṣà’s palm, the light changes, starts pulling back into the damn box like a video going backwards. “This is good,” he says. “Thank you, child of both worlds.”
Alex tries a sorta teenaged thing, shifts from foot to foot, shrugs, but he can’t take this less than serious. “How many more are there?”
“Too many. I need you to keep trying. I’ll find you again soon.” Òrìṣà steps back through the hole in the sky, disappearing like a expert stagehand.
I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. “I don’t like how that guy makes me feel.”
Kid’s glance has a little pity. “I know. I don’t think he can help it. He’s of the Dream.”
“I know he’s of the Dream, kid.”
“I mean… he’s not part of the world. I guess he’s not going to feel right no matter what as long as we’re awake.”
He’s trying, but he don’t understand. He don’t understand the way that thing makes a man feel mortal, off his game, like… well, like he’s dreaming instead of awake. And I don’t sleep so good when he’s gone, neither. “Never mind, kid. Let’s get to the next place. This one went too easy, to my mind.”
“Yeah.” Crooked grin again. “We haven’t had a real ruckus in a few days. Shall we hope the next one’s messy?”
“Don’t you dare. I’ll spin you over my knee.”
“Ha!” he says, and leaps through.
Better not be messy. I done enough messy for the rest of my life, and the sooner we get that damn meteor back together, the better.
I done worse things than follow some half-human kid toward the beginning of a new world. I take a deep breath – never know when you’re gonna end up in water, or something worse – and jump after him.