|Wonder City Stories (wonder_city) wrote,|
@ 2010-11-01 02:37 pm UTC
|Entry tags:||hel, maelstrom, marilyn_henderson, the_equestrian|
“The next time Lady Daphne calls,” Molly said, flinging her filthy green tailcoat across the room, “tell her to handle it her own damn self. The Equestrian is on leave, as of now. I’m sick of kiting off across the River of Blood at her beck and call.” She hopped on one foot, then the other, tossing her tall riding boots off in a way that left muddy scuffs on the wall. “Lazy, lousy, good-for-nothing snob.”
Maelstrom stooped to pick up the boots, put them on the shoe rack, and sighed heavily.
“What’s come in the mail, then?” Molly said, still in her Mood. She picked up the large stack of envelopes from the basket and flipped through them while standing on one foot. “Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam, and spam.” She tossed most of them in the recycling, retaining a small stack of bills. “And what’s this? A package! A veritable package!” She examined the small brown-paper-wrapped box with a critical eye. “Did you order more naughty horse books from Medusa dot com?” she asked Maelstrom.
He rolled his eyes and stomped past her into the kitchen, his patent leather boots making unnaturally loud noises on the wide pine flooring.
Molly ripped the paper off the box and found that the box was, indeed, a reused mailing container, and scowled at the name of the person who’d received the box originally. “Wasn’t Fred Fine that publishing bloke? The one that called last year?”
An apparently affirmative snort drifted back to her from the kitchen, where Maelstrom could be heard rummaging in the refrigerator.
She pulled her Swiss Army knife from the pocket of her breeches and slit the packing tape open. Under unnecessary bubble wrap was a book and a chartreuse sticky note. The note read: “Thought you would enjoy seeing this new addition to ‘The Equestrian’ line! -- FF”
“Oh, bloody hell,” she said, looking at the cover. There was the curlicued green-and-gold Equestrian book logo, updated to look sleeker and more modern. There was a winsome blonde girl on a gigantic rearing black horse, and she was craning her neck to look over her shoulder, with an expression on her face that was probably supposed to look longing. Molly suspected that the image actually captured the moment before she went ass over teakettle off the horse’s back. Cursive print slanted across the cover: Hoofprints Across My Heart.
Maelstrom tapped his foot impatiently at the kitchen door, and Molly handed him the book as she slid past him into the room. He stared at the cover for a long moment.
“She looks a bit old,” he said in his thick brogue. “More like sixteen than thirteen.”
“How sexy is a thirteen-year-old?” Molly said, sitting down at the table and taking a large swig of Guinness from her favorite Clydesdale-bedecked stein. “Flat-chested and pimply." She thumped her own flat chest. "Sixteen is more romantical.” She eyed the depths of her beer. “Best thing you ever did, you know, stopping the acne. It’d suck to be an 80-year-old trapped as a 13-year-old with acne.”
“So you’ve told me. You want more cheese than that?” he said, pointing at the plate he’d set out with a wedge of cheese and piles of crackers.
“Nah, you go on, do your thing,” she said, waving him off. “I’m going to finish this stuff and take a bath. Maybe I’ll read that thing for laughs.”
Maelstrom raised an eyebrow, opened his mouth, then shut it, set the book down, and went out the door toward the stables. When Molly looked after him, his massive black horse butt and flying tail filled the doorway. The door swung shut after him.
The book hit the wall so hard, it left a square dent in the plaster.
Molly sloshed irritably out of the clawfoot bathtub, dripping prodigiously on the bathmat. She scowled at the trade paperback, spraddled wantonly on the far side of the room, its cover bent and askew from the violence of its impact.
She heard the clatter of Maelstrom coming upstairs and down the hall. He didn’t bother with the nicety of knocking on the door -- they’d both had too many experiences where that polite pause had nearly been the end of one or the other of them. He towered in the doorway in his filthy, tattered, mouse-gray bathrobe, eyes wide and blazing, hair crackling and standing on end.
Molly looked up at him. “I’m all right,” she said sourly. “Thanks, though.”
“Oh,” he said, almost disappointed. He subsided into his normal height (neck-craning enough for Molly) and his flame-red hair settled back down into its usual sleek queue. “What happened?”
“That... thing,” Molly said, pointing a finger quivering with rage at the offending book. The book lay meekly still, looking bruised.
“Oh, that,” Maelstrom said, handing her one of the fluffy bath towels. “Dry off, ye’ll freeze to death.” He caught up the book. “Is it so bad, then?”
Molly scrubbed herself vigorously with the towel. “Open it to page 96,” she said sullenly.
Maelstrom delicately flipped open the book, let his eyes slide down the page, drew breath, and began to read:
Molly gazed up into Gavin’s depthless, storm-blue eyes and gripped his arms with her tiny hands. “Oh, Gavin,” she breathed, “is there really no way we can be together?”
“You’re a daytime flower,” he said softly, smiling just enough to show the smallest points of his fangs. “And I’m a creature of the night. The sun and moon may chase each each other across the sky but never the twain shall meet.”
“I’m not just a sunlight girl!” Molly cried, firing up. “I'm not married to the day! Maelstrom can carry me through the darkest night as surely as the day. Please!”
Gavin lifted her dainty frame easily in his arms, smiling more broadly. “Let’s ride together into the night, then, love,” he whispered, lifting her onto Maelstrom’s back and swinging up behind her...
“I’d never let him do that,” Maelstrom said, huffing through his rather large nose.
“Yes, yes,” Molly said, waving a hand, “you’d buck him off and pound him to pulp under your hooves, yes, I know. The point is that it’s the most nauseating dreck I’ve ever read.”
“Of course it is,” Maelstrom said, looking surprised. “These books always have been dreck.”
“But not this bad!” Molly said, tying the belt of her blue terrycloth robe. “This revived line is horrendous.”
Maelstrom shrugged. “You sold the names.” He flipped casually through the rest of the book, then tossed it in the trash.
“Forty years ago!” she shouted, stomping past him into the hall. “Forty bloody long years ago!”
Maelstrom trailed after her, head cocked to one side. “Why are you so worked up about this particular book? The others have been just as bad.”
“Because the books written in the 60s and 70s were... were harmless,” Molly said, throwing open the door of her bedroom and opening her closet. “They were badly-written knockoffs of Nancy Drew. I even had the pseudo-sidekick, remember? And they kept my age right and things like that. This thing is... is... virginity fetishism. With vampires. We’re about five pages from ‘the turgid promise of his wee-wee.’”
Maelstrom raised an eyebrow. “Too close to home with the vampire thing?”
Molly paused to give him an exasperated look as she yanked on a pair of sweatpants. “That was long ago and far away.” She pulled a t-shirt over her head. “And besides, the bloke is dead. No, it’s not that. It just feels as... filthy as all those pustulent bleeders who keep writing me because they believe I can help them build a perfectly legal adult film empire.”
The horse shook his head. “I’ll never understand mortals.”
“No, you won’t,” Molly said tersely. “Now I need another Guinness and something mindless on the telly.”
Maelstrom paused and said, thoughtfully, “‘The turgid promise of his wee-wee’?”
Molly tossed her head and strode past him. “Bother.”
Molly flopped into the shabby luxury of the massive Control Room chair in Hel's airship and was lost in comfort. Her slender, leggy frame nearly disappeared into the red velvet cushions favored by the airship's builder, Captain Blau. The right arm of the chair, where she presently rested her steaming mug of tea, was regrettably threadbare. A tabby cat curled itself onto her lap, while another tried to find space along her narrow shoulders.
"Would you care for hors d'oeuvres?" Hel's resonant, German-accented voice said from the nearby Art Nouveau brass trumpet speaker, disturbing a calico cat that had been nesting beneath it.
"Nah," Molly said. "I'm fine with the tea, thanks."
"Now, then," Hel said, giving the impression of settling in for a cozy chat -- which they were, at least as much as one can with one of the first artificial intelligences. "What was this about a book? Have you written a tell-all or something?"
"Oh, heavens and hells, no," Molly said, laughing. "What would I tell, anyway? 'When I was 18, Ira Feldstein tried to date me, and then, like the good egg he is, he admitted he couldn't handle it and buggered off.'"
"Please," Hel said, "I know you have had more than just that old news of a relationship."
Molly leaned her head on the wing of the chair. "I suppose," she said. Then, thoughtfully, "Hel? Have you ever, you know, tried it?"
"What, sex?" Hel said, making Molly wince with her usual machine bluntness. "Oh, ja. The captain built me a remote body -- he called it my Figurehead -- but I did not use it until he was dead. I had many adjustments to make, but I could inhabit her for a time, via cabling. It was surprisingly simple to find a human male willing to take her out for her, ahem, maiden voyage."
Molly groaned and pinched the bridge of her nose. "That was a terrible joke, Hel."
"I know," Hel said, sounding extremely pleased.
"How was it?" Molly said.
"Interesting," Hel said, "but it created more questions than it answered. Perhaps I simply did not have the correct inputs."
"Maybe," Molly said, reflecting idly on how odd it was that she had never discussed sex with Hel before this. Or, perhaps, how odd it was to be discussing sex with an AI at all.
"What about you?" Hel said, inevitably.
Molly grimaced. "I discovered, in my twenties and thirties, that there is a certain subset of men who will say some variation on, 'I can really see the grown woman in you, and that's who I want.' And, actually, they're all perverts who want to schtup a 13-year-old legally."
"Oh, dear," Hel said.
"Yeah," Molly said.
"All of them? Really?" Hel said.
Molly shrugged. "All the really decent chaps couldn't cope with it, like Ira."
"How cynical-making," Hel said. "So what about Mystikai?"
Molly sighed. "The thing about Mystikai is that either they're so damned mystical, they don't have any interest in sex, or they're ex-humans in adult bodies, and things get weird."
"But didn't I hear something about you and Mikhail Alexandrov?" Hel said, and Molly could hear the distant clicks of Hel flipping through her memory cards.
Molly sipped her tea. A cat door swung and two lanky adolescent cats burst into the room. It was unclear after a moment who was chasing whom, because they raced around the room, trading roles as they overtook each other. "There was something," she admitted after a long moment.
"Something?" Hel prodded.
"All right, we kept having flings," Molly said, petting one of the other ubiquitous cats that appeared on her chair. "For years. One of the damnable things about this body is that I still have the hormones of a 13-year-old. So no matter how much older and smarter I got..." She sighed. "I haven't seen him in at least a decade though. The other vampires don't like him much; it's sort of a community taboo to turn someone under 15 or 16. They mostly expect him to be crazy."
"Is he?" Hel said.
"Wellllllllll," Molly said, "yeah, pretty much bugfuck."
"I think the technical term for vampires is 'batshit'," Hel said brightly.
"HEL!" Molly said, covering her face. "I don't think he could turn into a bat anyway."
"What a shame," Hel said.
Molly thought Hel was probably talking more about her own pun than Mikhail's lack of battitude.
"Do they expect you to be crazy? Because you were prevented from aging?" Hel said. The brass speaker horn rotated toward Molly, a sure sign of the AI's concentrated interest.
"Most people expect me to be crazy," Molly said, wishing that there was something stronger in her tea. "It's funny, when we were all younger, everyone pitied the hell out of me. 'Oh, poor thing, she'll never grow up.' You know."
"I heard that sometimes, yes," Hel said.
"But now..." Molly paused, thinking about the last time she had seen Ira -- dazed from his son's death and so heartwrenchingly old and sad and exhausted. "Now, they sometimes envy me. Sometimes, they just can't... grasp the concept of me, I think. And I can't begin to understand what they're going through."
"But you are still 82," Hel said.
"Yes, that's the bugger of it," Molly said, finishing her tea and scratching a random cat ear. "I'm still 82. I've lived through all the same years they have, all the same alien invasions and demonic spillovers and would-be dictators and betrayals and victories and secret wars. I've seen things and gone places some people can't even imagine. But I've never been married. I never had children. I never got old. Everyone I've ever really loved has died, or is dying. And I'm not. Maybe I never will. I'll certainly never have the long, slow decrepitude. If I die, it will be something devastating and quick, or Maelstrom will finally get tired of toting me around and kill me."
"He wouldn't do that," Hel said.
"Oh, sure he would," Molly said. "His folk do that sort of thing all the time."
"But your pact," Hel said.
"He's broken pacts before," Molly said. "He's told me about it. Other people have told me about it. There's always a loophole in there somewhere he can invoke. I've never been able to puzzle out the one in mine, but I'm sure it's there."
"That is... distressing news," Hel said.
Molly shrugged, startling a cat, which rocketed out of the room. "I... faced it and came to terms with it a long time ago."
"I would not be able to exist if I could not trust my crew," Hel said.
"But even you've had mutinies and sabotage, Hel," Molly said. "I remember that little bastard Lombardi, back in '46..."
"We do not speak of him here," Hel said repressively.
"Right," Molly said, leaning on the more velvety arm of the chair. She hid a smile at the little bout of Teutonic denial. "Hel, you know, I think you're more human than I am."
"I don't understand," Hel said, a little plaintive.
"Think about it," Molly said, finally displacing the cat in her lap and getting up to pace, her hands clasped behind her back. "Your crew is always aging, and in many ways, they're parts of your body. Meanwhile, your body, the chassis of the airship, is always aging too. You and the crew have to maintain it, replace worn-out bits, update it. Your vacuum tubes always need replacing..."
"I can do that myself, you know," Hel said quickly. As if to demonstrate, one of her shiny brass arms -- with black leather gloves over the articulated hands -- deployed in order to remove a kitten from a speaker, settle it on a cushion, and pet it.
"... I know. But you can understand how humans age, and deal with their aging bodies. If someone complained to you about... about their eyes going bad, you could understand because your optics do break, or fail to focus, or whatever."
"But then I replace them, and they are fine," Hel said.
"And some humans do it too," Molly said, pausing to admire the floral swirls on the other speaker tube in the room. "That's what cataract surgery is, after all. Or, say, the people of Cybernation, who can actually do the same sort of plug-and-play."
"This argument assumes a limit to my ability to replace and rebuild," Hel said. "I'm not certain I like this conversational trend."
"Sorry," Molly said. "But like a human, you don't like to contemplate the possibility of your mortality."
"No," Hel said slowly. "No, I don't. But I will think about this, Molly."
Molly shrugged, running her fingers over the smooth lacquered wood of the bannister of the stairs that led up to the captain's old chambers, never disturbed since he was carried out boots-first. "You don't need to," she said. "I was thinking out loud, and it was rude. I'm sorry, Hel."
"You are human, Molly," Hel said, her tone oddly gentle. "You possess all the human senses, something I never can. You have been raised among humans, and have a human brain that thinks in human ways. You may not age and die like a human, but you breathe and walk beneath the sun and eat and live." She paused. "It is hard to lose the ones you love because they are destined to go sooner than you are. I know that too."
"I'd hug you if you had a body I could get my arms around," Molly said, scrubbing fiercely at her eyes with the heel of one hand, "and if I did that sort of sentimental crap."
"Hug one of the cats," Hel said. "I find it soothing, myself."
After they resolved the sentimental crap, one of Hel's crewmembers brought in a fresh cup of tea and some biscuits for Molly.
"Hey, Jacques," Molly said. "How's life treating you?"
The man -- who Molly had seen first as a very tiny infant -- gave her a gap-toothed grin. "Gettin' a little old to climb around inside of Her --" Molly could hear the capital "H" "-- but havin' a grand time tellin' my granddaughter and grandson what to do. They're shaping up into good kids."
"They have graduated from college," Hel said, a little stiffly. "They are hardly 'kids', Jacques."
"Yes'm, yes'm," he said good-naturedly, and winked at Molly. "See you around, Miss."
There was a pause after he went out the door.
"How old is he?" Molly said.
"Now, Molly, don't fret," Hel said soothingly. "We just got over all that."
Molly bit her tongue and let her friend, the giant artificial brain, have her illusions.
"So you did mention a book in your phone call," Hel said.
"Oh, yes, I did," Molly said, munching a biscuit. "I've got a problem."
"I am all ears," Hel said, and the two trumpets in the room waggled.
"I hope not," Molly said, sniggering into her tea, "or I'll have a long fall."
"Pfah, you know what I mean," Hel said, her brass arm making a slapping motion in Molly's direction.
"Well, you remember how I sold the publishing rights for my name and Maelstrom's back in the 60s?"
"Oh, yes!" Hel said enthusiastically. "I read all of those books. I particularly enjoyed The Mystery of the Swamp Lantern and The Green Mansion Mystery! They involved quite clever devices and escapes."
"I would've thought you'd prefer The Tick-tock Mystery," Molly said around a mouthful of biscuit.
"It was all right," Hel said, the hand tapping the nearest speaker thoughtfully. "The anti-AI sentiment was clear, though."
"Couldn't help it," Molly said. "That was the early 70s, and you remember..."
"Yes, yes, I know," Hel said, flapping her hand dismissively. "The times, my dear, the times. Anyway. I do remember the books."
"Well, the company that owned the rights got bought out," Molly said. "And the new idiots decided to 'rejuvenate' the imprint."
Hel said, "And by the tone of your voice, you are displeased with it." A cat arrived -- mostly black with a white patch over one eye -- and set itself in the most advantageous position to be petted by the brass arm. Hel obliged.
"Well, it's closer to Anita Blake than Trixie Belden, I'll tell you that."
"Not what you expected?"
"Not a whiff of a warning."
Hel went silent for a moment. All Molly could hear was the rhythmic ticking of the arm as it stroked the cat. Then Hel said, "You could always sue."
"What's the odds of winning?" Molly said, throwing her hands in the air.
"Oh, Molly," Hel said, and if she had had a face, she would have been beaming, "you are in the United States! You are not only a venerable old lady and war hero, but an innocent and vulnerable little girl. I think," Hel continued, her voice dropping into cheerful menace, "the publishing company does not stand a chance."
Molly managed to extricate Maelstrom from the pile of cats that had occupied him after he'd had a nice run around on the launch deck.
"This place is terrifying," Maelstrom said to her in a low voice as they headed for the exit doors. "Do you know how many cats followed me into the loo when I went for a piss? They all stared at me while I was doing it too."
Molly patted him absently on the arm. "Poor old horseboy. I'm surprised you didn't have micturitus interruptus with all that staring."
"Is that even a word?" Maelstrom said, scowling.
"Probably not," Molly said, bracing her feet and hauling open the door to the exit pod.
"Oh, Molly?" Hel's voice echoed through the nearly-empty launch deck.
"Yeah?" Molly said, shooing Maelstrom through the door and shrugging into her heavy shearling coat.
"I've got that name you wanted," Hel said. "Marilyn Henderson, 430J Broadway."
"Hel, you're a dream," Molly said. "Thanks."
As Maelstrom launched himself into the air behind the airship, Molly astride the broad horse back with one hand tangled in his mane, he said, "What was that about?"
"Just let's go to 430J Broadway," Molly said.
"Wonder City?" he asked in a nasty tone. "Or New York? Or Boston?"
She slapped his rump hard. "Wonder City, of course, you brat."
"Who's this Henderson woman then?" he said as they broke through the clouds to come into view of the Trylon and Perisphere, gleaming atop Helicine Hill in the wan winter sunlight.
"A lawyer," Molly said, with more than a little satisfaction. "She specializes in literary properties."
Some time later...
Molly, neatly dressed in her Equestrian uniform of green tailcoat, white blouse, buff breeches, and riding boots shined to a mirror finish, trotted down the steps of the courthouse. She paused on the tenth step and turned to shake the hand of the tall, blue-suited black woman at her side. Marilyn Henderson bent stiffly to take her hand and said, in her low but carrying voice, "Are you still planning to leave me to the media wolves all by my lonesome?"
Molly smiled. "I'm afraid so, Marilyn. I don't think I could be polite to any of them after the stalking I've had for the last month. Thank you ever so for all your hard work on this case."
"It was very simple, really," Marilyn said, smiling broadly. "You made it very easy. You're a masterful actress, my dear."
Molly blinked up at her, face going blank and innocent, her blue eyes seeming larger than ever. "What do you mean, Ms. Henderson? I'm just a little girl, led astray by big business."
Marilyn laughed and turned to descend the steps toward the mob of cameras and photographers at the foot of the stair. "You take care now, Molly."
Molly took off at a run, diagonally down the stairs, leapt onto the decorative wall that lined the steps, and to the gasps of the crowd, bounded out into space.
She landed on Maelstrom's back, of course, and he immediately struck out at a gallop, his shod hooves ringing on the pavement.
"Where to?" he asked.
"Get us back to the Far Green Land, dammit," Molly said. "I would rather do Lady Daphne's washing than see one more cluster of paparazzi."
"Be careful what you wish for," Maelstrom said, and his next hoofbeats came down on thick grass.
From the author:
Alas, I missed Hallowe'en, but the time of year is still appropriate for this particular partnership.
I have had the preponderance of crazy cat ladies in my stories pointed out to me. I will remedy soon with crazy dog ladies, I promise, and perhaps a little more focused horse-madness.
Thank you, everyone who has donated and/or reviewed/recommended Wonder City Stories in the past few weeks!
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