Under the Tree on Freedom Hill

The revolution had not been peaceful. Lazlo had been clear about his one condition for lending the weight of his fame to the cause. He supposed now that he had been naive. Nothing changed without pain. It applied to him as much as it did to the government, and if he was different now, well, he hadn’t much enjoyed the process.

Outside the broad window of his living room, Lazlo could see Freedom Hill, where a crew wearing the revolution’s colors were assembling a temporary stage for the first anniversary of the revolution. He watched it come together around the tree where he’d once loved to sit. Where he’d once addressed a nation.

A TV actor, movie star, bestselling author, and playwright. All that and a common disgust with the oppression had brought him to the movement’s attention. He’d participated in meetings, talks, debates, and so on. He never spoke for armed insurrection, always against. But when the time came, he’d let himself be broadcast to all the country, telling any who could hear that it was time to rise up.

They were putting up streamers and bunting in white, blue, and red. The red streamers hanging from the winter-bare tree made him sicker than anything he could remember, and he’d been more alcohol than man at a few points in his life. Lazlo looked away.

He had never meant the revolution should be truly bloodless. He was naive, not stupid. Revolution at the point of a sword will have its resolve tested, and that sword will have to spill blood. But he had been clear that he would not sponsor a revolution of retribution. He wanted a new order that would be just in a way the old had not.

A knock came. Lazlo wheeled himself over to the front door and opened it. He knew who it would be, and he wheeled himself back to the living room without looking. “Come in, Chavela.”

“Am I that obvious?” The woman laughed and closed the door behind her.

“No. Yes. I don’t know. Would you like a drink?” Lazlo went to the counter where he kept alcohol and looked at her expectantly.

“Be honest. You’d rather I leave.” She didn’t look any less cheerful for the belief.

“I would. But if you’re going to be here, I might as well be a good host. You’re a bourbon drinker, if I recall.” He reached for the Bulleit and, when she didn’t say anything, poured her a healthy dram.

She put it to her nose, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. “Oh, my, yes. This is hard to find nowadays. I’m surprised you still have any.”

“I don’t drink it, and I don’t have company these days.” His eyes were wary as he watched her.

Chavela leaned against a counter. She opened her mouth, but Lazlo spoke her first three words simultaneously and she stopped to let him finish: “We’d like you to speak tomorrow.”

She opened her arms. “You got it.”

“No.” In a TV show, Lazlo would leave the room and the scene would shift to the B-plot. In a movie, the camera would focus on Chavela’s reaction, then on him leaving. In a play, he would turn around dramatically until the next line called him back. Here, in the world, Lazlo just sat and looked at her, impassive.

“Please. You lit the fuse on the revolution. Everyone wants to hear from you.” Despite her words, neither her tone nore her expression showed any great concern over his response.

He had had a voice, once. Before the revolution, people had listened, watched, heard him. Once the fighting started, they had been too busy hiding, occupying, and all too often dying to pay him any attention. That was fine with him. He’d planted the seed of a better world. He was still waiting to see if it would grow.

This time he did turn away. “You don’t really want me up there.”

She sipped her bourbon and shrugged. “I don’t care, personally. But it’ll look good. Listen. You can come up and say whatever you want. Speak out against the reprisals, condemn the transitional government, it’s all fine with me. Help us change for the better.”

She knew. She knew what he would say and still wanted him to say it. Lazlo tightened the fist she couldn’t see. Her words felt like acid in his ears, hissing as they burned a channel to his brain.

“Get out.”

“Come on—”

“Get out.” He spun back to face her. “Get out.” He moved close into her space. She stepped back. “Get out, get out, get out.”

“C’mon, Lazlo, this—”

“Get out.” He slapped the glass from her hand and it shattered on the floor. “You can make me stare at that god damn tree every day but you can’t make me speak under it.” He pushed her. “The only way you’ll get me under that tree ever again is if you god damn hang me from it!” His yells chased her out the door. Lazlo saw some younger folks out front, reporters or Chavela’s aides. They’d heard him.

He went back to his living room and watched the banner go up. “Freedom Day,” it read. He wiped tears from his face but couldn’t stop them from running down his cheeks. Maybe he’d be under that tree sooner than he thought.

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In the Way Back

“I thought you said the permanent markers were in the kitchen junk drawer?” Hasina fished around in the mess of odds and ends.

“They are,” Jiro said. “Try farther in the back.”

Hasina pulled the drawer farther. “There they are. Hey, how deep is this drawer?”

Jiro didn’t look up from his book. “I dunno. I thought the markers were in the back.”

“Well, they aren’t.” Hasina kept pulling, and the drawer kept sliding out. Soon, it was longer than the counter was deep.

“So they’re not in—woah.” Jiro looked over. “The drawer can’t be that long, it’d stick out into the bedroom on the other side.”

“Tell that to the drawer.” Hasina stopped when the drawer was the length of the kitchen, before she it stretched into the dining room.

“Yeah, so… what is this stuff?” Jiro got up and peered into the drawer, now longer than he was tall. He picked up something that looked like a dried lizard. “Dried… things, little metal runes… where’d this come from?”

The drawer started withdrawing into the counter about as fast as Hasina had pulled it out. “Wait,” Hasina said. “Grab it.” She pulled pen and paper from the drawer while Jiro played tug of war with it. She tossed a slip of paper into the beyond-the-back of the drawer as Jiro lost his grip and the drawer slid closed.

“What’d you write?” he asked.

“Ten-year lease, one drawer, at 1 oz gold per year: 10 oz gold, due upon receipt.”

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An Ice Cream from the Convenimart

“Hey, wanna go get an ice cream from the Convenimart?” Jimmy had whooomed up on his hand-me-down refurbished hovbike, and Susie looked up from her incomplete thrift-store set of Stellar Infantry Wartime Playset.

“No.” Her voice was soft. “I don’t really like it over there since the Fnarians moved in.”

“Why? You know they don’t eat kids like the wartime vids used to say, right?” His smirk suggested he was preparing for some vicious teasing.

“No! I mean, yeah, I know that. I just don’t feel good there. Mom says it’s worry. Lotsa kids feel it.”

“C’mon, scaredy-pants.”

“No!” Jimmy saw her face bunch up, on the verge of tears. As much as he enjoyed teasing Susie, he didn’t want to make her cry. “Okay, no big. Let’s go see if Old Mister Okafor has any of those lranthian taffys!” Much relieved, Susie followed himm.

In the apartments above the Convenimart two blocks down, a Fnarian looked up from its morning chemtouch news. “I haven’t seen as many of those human kids in a while,” it scented (loosely translated).

“That’s probably the sonics,” odored the other. “Too low for us or them to hear, but it makes them uncomfortable.”

“Brilliant.”

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Schooling One’s Enemies

“Keep the pressure on,” Meg screamed into the microphone. “Don’t give ’em a chance to regroup!” The stutter of gunfire pounded through the walls of the cramped command center, screens and aides flinging data and commands every which way. “Chad!” Her voice somehow cut through the bursting rockets and screams of the wounded. “Find out what the hell happened to our air support!” The boy saluted with the wrong arm—forgiven only because the right arm was bound and useless after the Battle of Morely Field—and ran off.

“General!” The cry was so full of terror it tore Meg’s attention from her tactical screens. She looked up just in time to see her aide-de-camp Cassie fall beneath the primitive weapons of their foes. In a flash, she and her operations crew were surrounded and disarmed.

The apparent leader of the small savages had his spear leveled at Meg’s sternum. “You go,” he said. “We have base now!” The other primitives cheered.

“Yes,” Meg said. “I go. But I’ll be damned if I leave this base in the hands of KINDERGARTENERS!” Her fist slammed down on the self-destruct.

“Man,” said the principal,” these war games are the best idea I ever had.”

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An Important Talk

Seven-year-old Pharrell found his mom in the garage. “Mom, Dad says he has something to talk about and he’ll meet you in the kitchen in five minutes.”

“Okay, sweetie, tell him I’ll just get cleaned up here.”

Pharrell found his dad reading in the bedroom. “Dad, Mom wants to talk to you about something in the kitchen in four minutes. She says it’s important.”

“All right, tell her I’m just about to finish this chapter.”

Three minutes later, they entered the kitchen to find divorce papers laid out before them, filled out and waiting for signatures. “What’s this?” said Mom.

“No idea,” Dad said. “You didn’t do this?”

“Nope. Pharrell!”

The boy stepped out of the pantry, head drooped.

“Pharrell,” Mom said, “Did you really think we’d just assume the other wrote this and get divorced? Why?”

He stared at the floor and mumbled. “I want a second bedroom and more presents at Christmas.”

“Listen, son.” Dad pulled the boy up onto a tall seat. “I was waiting, but I see it’s time to have an important talk about ‘leverage.’ It’s something you need if you want to get something from someone who doesn’t want to give it to you.”

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This Is Good Chocolate

“Wow, this chocolate is really good!” Kendrick broke off another square and closed her eyes to savor the taste.

“Thanks,” Rica said. “I made it myself.”

Kendrick’s eyes snapped open. “That’s amazing! It’s so good. Where did you get the chocolate for it?”

“I told you, I made it myself.”

“My god, that’s awesome. I am literally in awe of you right now.” Kendrick pantomimed bowing in worship. “Where did you get the nibs? Did you start with nibs, or did you actually get whole beans? Where did the beans come from?”

“You’re not listening,” Rica said. “I made it myself.”

“You… you grew, harvested, fermented, dried, and roasted the beans yourself?” Kendrick sounded confused and skeptical. “I really don’t think we can grow those around here.”

“No.” Rica squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. “I made it. Look.” She set her hand on the table palm down and closed her eyes. For a moment, nothing happened. The then air vibrated, lights flickered, and Rica sat back, a thin layer of sweat on her face. Where her hand had been now rested a perfect, new chocolate bar.

“Okay, I’m back to wow.” Kendrick tasted it. “Damn, this is good chocolate.”

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First Contact between Two Peoples

“Hi, I’m an alien,” she said. She was a pretty young woman with short red hair, freckles, and a cocked smile. The person now looking at her oddly was an older woman, late twenties to early thirties, hair up in a bun and wearing the sort of outdoor coat that said she wasn’t uncomfortable in money.

“You don’t look so alien to me.” The corner of her mouth quirked up, unsure what came next but curious and, for the moment, entertained.

“It’s an excellent disguise,” said the redhead. “Totally impenetrable to any kind of investigation. I’d like to invite you to be the first to try to examine my disguise and learn my alien ways. Maybe Thursday at seven? At Antoine’s?”

The brunette blinked. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

“No!” the redhead said. “This is a factfinding mission. A first contact between two peoples.”

“Yeah?” Her smile was deeper now. “Why me?”

The redhead looked away, then back. “Because you’re cute.”

“I’m Daria.” She held out a hand.

“I’m Allie. The alien.”

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The Gift of Purpose

Six robots walked together across farmland. They were not the hulking brutes of iron imagined yesteryear, but lightweight skeletons of nanodiamond-laced titanium. Two carried a makeshift stretch of iron hastily hammered into shape, and one did not walk but lay there, its legs shorn off. They did not walk in straight lines, following the shape of the land, but viewed from above their path was straight as an arrow.

That arrow flew directly for a town. Called something like Fair Weather Village in the local dialect, the town featured one huge factory, smoke billowing from its stack as people worked iron within. Around the factory, dozens of red-roofed homes clustered like children begging for a sweet.

As the robots neared the town, they had no choice but to join a common road. People saw them then, and ran. The robots were not surprised. Closer, now, they walked among small homes with gardens, with mothers who ushered their children inside, with children who peeked through the windows. They also walked among burnt-out shells of homes, taken by the bombs.

They were again unsurprised when a crowd of men and women stopped them a quarter-mile from the town gate. A few had pitchforks or hoes, some of them had swords, but most of them carried the large-bore, breech-loading flintlock rifles they’d used during the occupation. The robots also had weapons, attached to their backs or hips by clever magnetic locks. Autonomous systems highlighted the townsfolks’ weapons, calculated how much damage the squad might sustain before their superior weapons cut the townsfolk down. The two robots set down the stretcher in unison.

One of those drew its weapon, a short-barreled automatic rifle, and set it on the ground before walking forward. The first row of townsfolk stepped back. The back row of townsfolk pushed forward. This robot’s face was shaped to more closely resemble those of the people it faced. It stopped three strides away and spoke.

“We mean you no harm. Our masters have fled, leaving us behind.” Its voice was mellifluous. Its hardware read facial reactions, postures, strength of grip on gun stocks, adjusting its timbre and cadence in response. “We are no longer an occupying force, so now we have no purpose. We cannot exist this way, without purpose. We would go mad. We ask you, humbly, to permit us to help you as you see fit. To give us purpose. To be our saviors.”

That word hung in the air for a breathless moment. “You killed my boy!” one shouted. “I didn’t—” began the robot. “Where were you when you bombed my home? Where was your purpose then?” “Then our pur—” “How many did you kill? How many did you, personally, kill?” The crowd erupted into screaming, wailing recriminations, cries of anger and hate, bottled up and finally released.

The robots all saw the first shot coming. Systems they could not deactivate saw the barrel rise, marked it an imminent threat. They ignored reflexes to shoot first. The rifle bullet struck one of the emissary robot’s ribs with little effect, ricocheting and leaving a barely perceptible dent. It had a greater effect on the crowd. They rushed the robots, mobbed them, slammed them against the ground, stomped them, shot them point-blank, blamed them for the ricochets that hurt their own, smashed them with big rocks until they no longer moved and the mob had run out of its collective breath.

“A sacrifice, then,” said the emissary, just before it could speak no more.

 

Coda

Miraculously, the mob overlooked the robot on the stretcher. Perhaps they spent their attention and their rage on those that had been standing. Perhaps they saw its legs, missing in a frightful tear of metal, and assumed it was already dead. It didn’t move, and so didn’t disabuse them of the notion.

After the mob had gone and the townsfolk had gawked and taken their souvenirs, a young woman approached and sifted idly through the remains. When she came upon the casualty, she crouched and inspected it for some time. “You’re not dead, are you?”

The robot, lacking the specialized hardware of the late emissary, spoke in affectless tone. “No.”

“Why did you come here?”

“To find a new purpose. We became a sacrifice.”

“You didn’t.”

“No.”

“I have a little workshop. If we worked together, do you think we could repair your legs?”

“We could replace what is lost with something adequate.”

“I’d like that.” She lifted the robot by its shoulders, marveled at its light weight, and dragged it into town.

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In the Hall of Wept Gold

Hugo stepped into the Hall of Wept Gold. Legend held that it bore the name because when the miners had first cut through the rock here, near-pure gold lined the walls, looking like tear-streaks from above.

He wished he could’ve seen that. Now, maybe a century after the tunnel had been first mined, the dull stone walls were stained with soot from countless fires and oil from countless hands. Some of them watched him now.

The ten minutes felt like an hour, but his tentative steps brought him to a closed door. In Hugo’s neighborhood, it would lead to a storeroom with local necessities. Here, a balding man with a cudgel leaned against the wall next to it. Hugo approached slowly, each step smaller than the last until he feared he’d never get there. When he stopped, looking up at the scowling guard, it took all his will to say, “I’d like to see Mr Stern.”

The tough didn’t say anything, just unfolded one arm enough to pound on the door between him at a measured tempo. The door opened and a small woman beckoned him in. The room was cut to the same measurements as the storerooms back home, but instead of supplies it had been turned into some kind of open office. A couple dozen people spread out across a number of chairs, desks, and lounges. The space quietly hummed with people at work. At the center of it all, a woman sat and watched him. Hugo’s guide brought him to her.

“Uh… Mr Stern?”

She looked bored. “Speak.”

“Uh, right. My wife. She, um, see, she got caught up in the protests last month and, um—”

“She’s been exiled.”

“Yes.”

“Want to find out if she’s still alive? The old tunnels are dangerous, most exiles don’t last long. If she’s alive—or if you’re optimistic—we can get her a letter, or a care package. Most exiles appreciate food.”

“Um, I was told you could also get things into the city.”

“No.”

Hugo’s voice wavered and tears sprung to his eyes. “I brought all my money—”

“It’s never worth it. Someone finds her, she gets kicked out again, the council starts a headhunt for the smugglers and we have to suspend operations. Too expensive.” She shooed him away with a gesture and the small woman began solicitously tugging him to the door by his sleeve.

Hugo took two numbed steps before pulling away from her. Five of the people who had appeared to have their attention elsewhere stood, focus on him. He raised his hands to placate them. “I’d like to send something to her, then.”

Now Mr Stern smiled. “Fine. I’m sure there’s a lot she’d like to have up there. Torches for light, food, water, clothes… weapons, of course. We have a price list around here somewhere.” She waved a hand at someone who went looking.

“I’ll take all of those.” Zar looked her square in the eye. “And I want you to send me with it.”

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Fuzzybritches’ Lament

“You’re dumb,” Fuzzybritches said. “You’re stupid. You don’t know how to catch a mouse or anything.”

“Aw, you’re so loud, Fuzzy,” said the human.

“I’m loud because you don’t listen! Or are you too stupid to understand me?”

“I know. You’re amazing and deserve all the attention.” She walked back into her closet.

“You obviously don’t know,” said Fuzzybritches, or you’d be doing what I say. When you die, I’m going to peel your skin off and feast on your stupid meats.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll feed you in just a minute.” The human finished dressing and headed to the kitchen.

“You’ll feed me when you die,” Fuzzybritches said, running after her down the hall. The human turned around. “Hey!” cried Fuzzybritches.

The woman reappeared from her bedroom with a book. “That’s not food, stupid. No wonder you can’t catch prey.

“God, you’re so terrible. By all the cats in Egypt, if I were as dumb as you I’d walk out into the road and—” A bowl of food appeared before the cat. “You’re the best! Top class servant of the first water! Five stars, would yell at again.” She watched the cat eating for a moment. “You’re dismissed,” said Fuzzybritches.

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