Within the Future Worlds Sci-fi Anthology you will find stories spun from the webs of current Future House bestselling books. Whether you are a fan of space dinosaurs, population annihilating bugs, interstellar magicians, man vs. distant planet scenarios, or colonization troubles, this anthology will have something galactic for you.
Featuring Cameron Dayton (Etherwalker), Michael Darling (Hollowfall, Tales from the Behindbeyond), Mark R Healy (Dawn of Procyon), Josi Russell (Caretaker Chronicles), and D.W. Vogel (Horizon Alpha Series).
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About the Author
Josi Russell’s debut novel, Caretaker, was a Whitney Award finalist in two categories.
In addition, D. W. Vogel (Horizon Alpha: Predators of Eden), Mark R. Healy (Dawn of Procyon), and Michael Darling (Got Luck) bring their best to the table in this exciting compilation of science fiction stories.
From the Call of Duty trenches to the enchanted World of Warcraft, Cameron Dayton’s tales have engaged, rallied, and inspired millions of readers. Cameron has also written for best-selling comics and anthologies, and co-wrote the independent film Unicorn City, which garnered several awards in the indie circuit and was featured on Netflix. Cameron is a wide-ranging traveler, a self-made pseudo-quasi-meta-hyphenated intellect, an adventurous gourmand, and the father to three children who are mercifully patient with Dad’s embarrassing ways.
Michael Darling has worked as a butcher, a librarian, and a magician. Not all at the same time. He nests in the exquisitely beautiful Rocky Mountains with his equally breathtaking wife and six guinea pigs, one of whom thinks she’s a dog and three of whom claim to be children. Michael’s award-winning short fiction is frequently featured in anthologies. Got Luck is his first novel, which is scheduled for publication in March 2016.
Mark has been writing stories for as long as he can remember. In the early days he assembled his own illustrated books with accompanying stories and forced his parents to buy them. Unfortunately this model was not scalable, so in later years he has sought to promote his works to a wider audience.
Josi Russell teaches creative writing and fiction courses as an associate professor of English for Utah State University Eastern. She lives in the alien landscape of the high desert American Southwest with her family and a giant tortoise named Caesar. Josi is captivated by the fields of linguistics, mathematics, and medicine, by the vast unknown beyond our atmosphere, and by the whole adventure of being human.
D. W. Vogel is a veterinarian, marathon runner, cancer survivor, SCUBA diver, and current president of Cincinnati Fiction Writers. She is the author of the Horizon Alpha Series, the fantasy novel Super Dungeon: The Forgotten King, and the writing manual Five Minutes to Success: Master the Craft of Writing. She also has short stories in several anthologies from various publishers. Wendy loves to hear from readers, so feel free to contact her on her website (https://wendyvogelbooks.com/) or on Twitter (https://twitter.com/drwendyv).
Read an Excerpt
The ship arrived planetside without a hitch. The landing procedure was smooth. The attendants were immaculate and polite. The meal on the flight was sliced manna with ambrosia sauce. The sheer perfection of it all pissed me off.
“Would you like a refill before we disembark?” Our attendant literally appeared out of nowhere. Angels could do that.
“Another Bloody Mary,” I replied.
In mortality, I’d been a teetotaler, but I’d since learned to like the taste.
The attendant mixed the drink at the table behind our seats. She was about to hand it to me when I said, “Make it a champagne glass.”
She smiled. The tumbler in her hands reformed itself into a fluted glass. Angels could do that too. Not a drop spilled.
Childish of me, making other people do tricks.
My traveling companion watched the transformation but was more excited about our arrival. “We can now say we’ve been to Spera Angelorum. The crown jewel of its galaxy. Isn’t it wonderful?” Charles’s hands fluttered around his cravat with excitement, like a pair of turtledoves trying to build a nest beneath his beard.
I leaned over him to peer through the viewport and sighed. The stanchions swinging inward were littered with sparkling lights, and they clamped onto the sides of the shuttle with predictable exactness. There were tens of thousands of inhabited planets in this system alone. I had been to many planets and found the angel planets devoid of interest. I’d love a surprise at least once.
“Wonderful.” I repeated his word. “My mother will be so proud.”
“You should have brought her, Harry! This is a rare honor. Few are invited to travel to the stars and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with exalted beings such as these.”
I started to sigh again but the sigh turned, quite unintentionally, into a yawn. This was the first trip that Charles and I had made together. I knew he left Earth at least as often as I did, but he was somehow unjaded, smiling and chatty like he’d never been to another planet before.
“Why are we here, Charles? I mean really. Why?”
Charles fixed me with his piercing eyes, and a smile tugged his mouth askew. “It is the simplest of things, dear Harry. We are here to be ourselves.”
I dropped back as far as I could into my seat, which was comfortable to a fault. “Yes. That’s what they always say. It’s not enough.”
A momentary laugh bubbled up from somewhere soulful. “Americans. Always wanting more.”
“Never settling, Charles. Never settling. It’s better than you Brits with your Keep Calm’ about every darn thing.”
Charles pointed toward the attendant, who had returned to usher us from the ship. “Now is our chance to escape.”
I glowered at him. “Making fun of me?”
“Making fun? Wouldn’t dream of it.” His grin did not placate. “I am appreciating your unique gifts.”
I stood to collect my bag of handcuffs, chains, and lock picks. Charles had a valise stuffed with books, scraps of handmade paper, an inkwell, and goose feather pens. His luggage weighed a tenth of mine. It was also a tenth as interesting.
We proceeded toward the front of the craft. Charles nudged me with an elbow and raised an eyebrow as he watched the attendant in front of us. I nodded at the old goat. Yes, she was shapely and her hips moved in all the usual ways as she walked down the aisle. She had a gold belt holding her white shift tightly around her trim waist. Her long, auburn hair was pulled back with a gold hair clip, and her skin was like porcelain with the lightest touch of an early summer peach on her cheeks. She turned, checking our progress, and smiled. Her lips had the same quaint fullness as my beloved Bess.
I tired of looking at her.
Ruby-studded doors opened as we left the gangway. Another attendant waited on the other side, smiling another flawless smile, “Greetings, gentlemen. My name is Teserra. Follow me, please.”
Charles nodded. I barely took notice. My curiosity was drawn to the scene ahead, and I could almost hear a fanfare as the doors parted to welcome us. Da da daaa.
The concourse through the spaceport dripped with golden light. A suspended river of chandeliers covered the ceiling in endless majesty, sending reflected shards of color to dance across the floor. Seamless marble flowed beneath our feet, the palest white, as if a mountain had laid itself down to serve as our entry. Maybe one had been brought in. The Sphere of Angels with all its glory and power. Faith to move mountains.
The three of us walked alone: Teserra, then Charles, then me. The construction of the place captivated me. I had anticipated a planet that hinted at religion to be painfully Gothic, with fluted pillars and Ionic capitals bearing the ponderous weight of a vaulted ceiling. Instead, the concourse unfolded with softly contoured shapes and not a single straight line. The serene quiet was deafening. I liked how our footsteps broke the silence.
Outside, of all unexpected things, waited a horse-drawn carriage.
I breathed in the congenial animal scent of freshly-washed horseflesh. Earthy. Real. Not mechanical. The conveyance was pristine, of course, the wood perfectly oiled and polished. Teserra ascended to the driver’s seat with measured grace. “Climb aboard, good sirs. We’ll be at the theater shortly.”
Charles beamed. “A hansom cab! This will be the first civilized ride I’ve had in ages!”
Silver ships flew overhead. Other vehicles breezed past us; their brake lights created holographic flowers in the air. None were driven by a flesh-and-bone person. It was my turn to give Charles an elbow and point. He took note of the robot driver piloting the nearest car.
“Perhaps your writings were not as effective as you had hoped, Charles. There is still a lower class serving the aristocracy.”
Charles nodded. “But here, the lower class is manufactured. Made from the materials of metal and sweat and ingenuity. Not subjugated or enslaved from their fellow brotherhood of Mankind. The human race has elevated themselves all together. Undivided.” Charles leaned in conspiratorially, “And a creator always treats his own creations better.”
He was right, of course. Charles sprang into the cab and took the rear-facing seat. I took the opposite spot. A taciturn mood fell over me. I hoped the ride would be as short as promised by our driver. I cracked my knuckles one at a time. I produced an ancient silver dollar and began to roll it over the backs of my fingers. I caught it with my thumb as it dropped between my ring and little finger and brought it around again for another pass. Heads, tails, heads, swoop. My fingers complained. They would warm up and loosen.
The cab moved into traffic with not so much as a lurch or a bump. Maddening.
Charles stared at me with a glint in his eye that impishly invited conversation, though I didn’t want it.
“Very well, Charles. What is it?”
Charles leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. The cab was close and we were nearly touching. “I’m looking forward to seeing your performance, Harry. I understand you always strive to present an authentic experience. A recreation of history. Correct?”
I blew air through my nostrils and looked out the window. Perfect street. Exquisite buildings. Immaculate people. I hated them all.
I saw the hook in the worm.
“Obviously. It’s what the audience wants.”
Charles snapped his fingers. “Yes! Knowing what an audience wants, Harry. That’s the thing we have most in common, I think.” He sat back.
“What about what I want?”
Charles leaned to the side, looking at me with his head on his fist. “What do you want, Harry?”
This fish liked a fight.
“Let me point out that what I do is more difficult than what you do. You authors stand at attention and regale the audience with stories you wrote centuries ago. I can’t do that. I can’t just talk about a straitjacket or a pair of handcuffs. I have to put them on as tightly as possible and then fight to get out of them again. Every time. Hanging from my heels and dangling like an emerging butterfly. To be fair, you should stand up and write a new novel while they watch. That would be a more comparable challenge.”
Charles looked at me, the skepticism all but dripping from his eyes. “Not compelling theater, Harry.”
I turned away again.
“Conceptually, I agree,” Charles barely paused. “In your day, you were a living metaphor for the human condition. The personification of a time when men scraped and fought to be free of poverty and oppression. I wrote about the same thing, but thousands of people stood and watched you…emerge. Victorious. Everyone wanted to be you, Harry. Even now, you remind them of that very human condition.”
I was mollified. A bit. Or was I?
Charles retreated inward. “We both chose not be exalted for different reasons, I expect. For you, however, it makes what you do believable. Real. With no supernal powers to assist you, your performance still means something.”
I nodded. It was a good thought, but talk centered on myself made me fidget.
“So, Charles, why haven’t you written a new book?” I really wanted to know.
“Oh I have. Many of them. Shelves full of them.”
“You have? I never would have guessed. Why not publish them? Don’t you think they’d be read?”
“I’m sure they would be. And I tell no one.”
I smiled. My conjuror’s intuition prompted me, “You love this, Charles. All of it. The traveling. The lectures. You love being the 19th-century man. Yet your genius is ancient and your legacy can’t abide an upgrade. No Charles 2.0. You’re trapped after writing about the common man, and there are no common men anymore.”
Charles nodded. “Well said, Harry. I’ll make a poet out of you yet.”
I felt no better. “We’re both relics in our own way. I came back to worlds that had grown beyond me too. Now I have to explain what handcuffs were used for. These people have powers that I only pretend to have. I couldn’t move forward if I wanted to. You could move forward but choose to stay.”
“What the audience wants, Harry.” Charles diverted. “Did you have children?”
“Bess and I never had time to consider a family. Then I died. Now it’s too late.” Altogether too late. “You had a number of them, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes. Ten children. Love them all.”
“So there weren’t any left for me. You got my share.”
“Ah, very quick, Harry. I could lend you one, if you like. A son would do you good.”
I’d thought about that. Often. Children. A son. How—.
The cab had stopped. I hadn’t felt it. I only noticed that the scenery outside wasn’t moving anymore.
Teserra opened the door for us, and we got out.
We stood in front of the theater, and, for a moment, I bathed in nostalgia. Behind me, on the other side of the street, there were holographic billboards ten stories high. You could buy tickets to a movie by looking at the list overhead and blinking your eyes twice. There were no holographic billboards for our theater. With my back to the technical marvels of this world, the edifice that stood before me was the Classic Revival style with pillars and hand-carved frames around the windows. The ticket booth was staffed by a pretty girl in a pillbox hat. The marquee advertised the show using a well-worn tile and-rack. Our names were up there with unevenly spaced letters, which delighted me. I was suddenly back in Austin, Texas of all places.
“It’s the Majestic Theater,” I said. “I played this stage before. On Earth.”
“Then welcome home, Harry.” Charles tipped his hat to me and then to Teserra. We went inside through a backstage door that had graffiti and old handbills glued to it. I could almost smell sweat, booze, and a hint of day-old urine just looking at it.
The theatre was almost heaven.
My dressing room was small and cramped. The bricks in the walls were actual bricks, and the mirror was surrounded by a dozen incandescent lights, which I hadn’t seen in decades. I sat there for a full half hour, knowing I should finish limbering my hands and go inspect the stage and be sociable. But I could only bask.
“You’re smiling, Harry. It’s bad precedent.” Charles stood in my doorway, dressed in full evening attire with his cheeks artfully rouged and his hair just on the messy side of cultured.
“This place has the human part of humanity in it.” I tapped my lip. “Do you think they created it just for us?”
The stage manager called for Charles and escorted him to the wings.
I returned to my mirror and my pots of makeup.
There was a taping on the frame of the door.
“Excuse me, sir?”
It was a young man, looking about sixteen years-old with light hair and bold features. He clasped his hands together tightly, and looked nervous.
“May I help you?”
“Yes. Uh. Yes, sir,” he stammered.
“Call me Harry.”
“Thank you, sir. Harry.”
I couldn’t resist. “Not Sir Harry either. Just Harry. I was never knighted.” I smiled and hoped it would put him more at ease.
“Harry. I wanted to say that I, uh, admire your work.”
I nodded. The boy shifted from one foot to the other like he was walking on pins. “I can see it took some courage for you to come backstage to say so. I very much appreciate it. Better take your seat now. The program is about to start.”
The boy gave half a bow and left.
I hadn’t had a real visitor for—how long had it been? There’d been dignitaries. People who wanted to be seen with me. But a simple visitor? Who just wanted to say hello? An eternity.
The audience chatter that I could hear from my dressing room faded. The floorboards creaked as someone took center stage. A basso-profundo voice introduced Charles. The sound resonated in my bones. I finished my makeup and went to watch.
For the next hour, Charles held court. He had pages of notes all over the lectern and books stacked on the floor, but he didn’t need them. They were props that served as crown, scepter, and throne. Occasionally, he picked up a book as if to check the words on a page but the page might as well have been blank. Charles had everything he needed in his head. And in his heart. I listened to his tales of orphans and villains and ghosts at Christmas and knew, not for the first time, why audiences loved him.
He wove a spell with his voice, describing characters who were flawed. Broken. They struggled against impossible circumstances and evil enemies and sometimes demons of their own making. They overcame. They won. They found a way to be redeemed of all their too-human faults.
When he finished, the audience expressed their appreciation in the time-honored way; they came to their feet and applauded. There were tears in their eyes, and I was glad to see that these perfect beings could feel. From the fringe, I saw people rise into the air; their feet bade farewell to the floor. Whether on purpose or because their souls had been lifted up, I could not tell, but I felt the same effect.
Charles was a tough act to follow.
I clapped him on the shoulder as he exited the stage. I remained there, watching the sliver of seats visible to me from the wings. Intermission was announced in sepulchral tones. Men and women fell into deep discussions. Some evaporated, vanishing into thin air in a way no magician had ever accomplished.
I didn’t know where they went. Maybe they went around the corner or to the other side of the galaxy. It was all the same to them. They would return in the same fashion soon, blinking back into existence. Perfected beings. Exalted power.
What need had any of these for me?
In mortality, I’d battled those who deceived the innocent. The fraudulent psychics and fake mediums who’d claimed to converse with the dead. I’d exposed them by using their methods openly on stage. Still, there had been many who refused to shed the clothing of sheep and allowed themselves to be ravaged by the wolves.
Here, the dead spoke. Walked on ground holy and unholy. I was surrounded by them. I’d cheated death, over and over, and made it my career. Here, everyone cheated death.
What need had any of these for me?
I busied myself with a final, obsessive check of my equipment. I knew everything would be perfect, and this was the one area where perfection was mandatory. The manacles were centuries old now. They kept functioning with painstaking care and oil and implements of my own manufacture. Like me, they were relics of a dead age. The function for which they were created was no longer required.
What need had any of these? For me?
Perfection had saved my life in the time before. The perfect audience would receive a perfect performance. I would give the flawless standard I was known for, and if I found it tiresome to be here, my audience would never know it. I might not know why they wanted to watch, but I knew what they wanted to see.
Returning spectators floated to their seats or reappeared from their invisible places.
The master of ceremonies rumbled through my introduction.
I stepped in front of the footlights.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. What you are about to see is a re-creation of a program presented at the turn of the twentieth century. The electric light was becoming commonplace, the wireless radio was just emerging as a technology, and the television was thirty years away.”
I felt all eyes upon me as I set the stage. “The working man’s day was fourteen hours or longer. If you were lucky enough to have time in the evening, you could read a newspaper or a book. I recommend David Copperfield.”
I tipped my head toward Charles in the wings and got my first round of laughter. I rolled up my sleeves. “If you were lucky enough to have a few coins to spare, you looked to the stage for penny operas or vaudeville, with their endless varieties and colors. In larger cities, you might even have the privilege to enter a darkened theater to witness the most technologically advanced entertainment experience in the world, the motion picture.
“But tonight, you are all members of the royal family. The room is a parlor in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mother Earth. The year is 1903. The program begins with the performance that earned me my first title.”
Lazily extending my hand to the side, and showing it empty front and back, a card suddenly appeared at my fingertips. “I was first known as the King of Cards.”
I made the cards fly. They flickered and danced around my fingers like demons, appearing, vanishing, multiplying, and cascading to the floor. I felt I’d captured half the audience.
“If only I were exalted.” A wry smile played across my lips.
That reminder achieved its purpose. Expressions changed from complacent to awestruck. Their eyes flared wide as those who had forgotten I had no powers remembered. Everything I did was by skill alone. Perfect people perfectly surprised.
I had them. They were my audience now.
I finished by scaling the cards into the far reaches of the gallery, flicking them deftly so they flew to the last row. They bounced off the stage and the walls to float and flutter into every corner like pasteboard birds. The applause began with cards still in the air as I took my bow.
I loved applause.
I invited two gentlemen to the stage. They could have levitated down or teleported but were thoughtful enough to walk.
To one, I gave a straitjacket. To the other, I gave my valise. I directed him to hold it at the sides. I put a small table underneath it. Instead of putting the valise on it, I rotated the bag upside-down between his hands. More than two dozen manacles clattered to the table and he stepped back as they banged to the floor at his feet.
“Thirty-eight pounds of metal for your inspection, good sir.” I turned to the other gentleman. “And a jacket ill-suited for evening attire. At least it was in the twentieth century. Fashions do change.”
I removed my jacket and threw it to the side of the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, these once were the implements of law enforcement, used to control the criminal and the insane. Tonight, I shall suffice for both.”
To the gentleman near the manacles, I said, “You will find the keys to those mingled in with the handcuffs, leg irons, and locks. Feel free to examine them at your leisure. I’d suggest a pair of handcuffs that you can confirm are real. Lock them and see if you can find the correct key and unlock them again. Don’t try them on yourself. I can’t be sure they’ll open again.”
That was a lie, but this was a show.
Being exalted wasn’t the same as being omniscient. You still only knew what you had learned for yourself. The angel helping me didn’t seem to know much about restraints, which was good. I wanted the audience to see him struggle to figure things out.
Time to suit up.
I asked the other spectator to examine the straitjacket carefully, pointing out the various parts, and asked him to test their strength. Then I gave step-by-step directions for putting the straitjacket onto my body. Arms through the sleeves. Strap between the legs. Buckles up the back. “Make everything as tight as you can.”
It was an elegant dance between two men in excellent physical condition. He used his strength to make each strap tight, moving around with a poetic grace. I countered, stepping in, while seeking to gain as much slack as I could get.
It was snug. As tight as I had felt it for years.
“Well done. I must ask you for one more favor.” As I spoke, I shifted in the jacket, seeking to increase my slim advantage. “I always performed this escape outside, hanging by a rope, upside-down, from a construction crane. We have no crane in the theater.”
I laid down on my back, legs outstretched.
“If you would, please suspend me over the stage.”
Of course, he hesitated.
I had to roll a little to look at him. “It’s quite all right. Please lift me up and hold me, preferably by the ankles.”
I let the request sink in just a bit more.
“Take me up as high as you like. As soon as I begin the escape, hold me aloft for precisely three minutes. Your internal clock will be accurate enough. If I have not escaped by the end of three minutes, well, you have done as I asked.”
I said I would begin the escape as soon as I was hanging above the stage. In reality, I had spent the last sixty seconds getting more slack. The escape started from the moment the jacket went on. Rolling on the floor gave me another chance to loosen the canvas and leather.
An invisible force grabbed my legs and ankles and I grunted as my stomach muscles jammed tight.
I floated slowly upward. No ropes. No wires. My blood pulsed in my ears. A drum in my head, marking time.
I went higher. Thirty feet. Fifty feet. Seventy feet over the stage.
“There once was a real danger of death. I can’t die now but if I fell from this height, my neck could be broken. I would not enjoy the experience.”
I turned slowly in the air. I saw faces below me, gazing up with the same wonder I saw in people who weren’t perfect. “In three minutes, let me fall unless I am free. Go!”
I began twisting in the air. I felt myself fall immediately. The audience screamed. The angel must have been caught by surprise. I fell halfway to the stage before I felt my legs caught up again by the invisible force.
“Concentrate!” I cried. “Let nothing distract you!”
I loved the struggle. Loved the effort, though it made me weary to the bone.
I worked with the bits of slack I’d been able to gain. It took almost a full minute before I was able to pull my arm over my head, which released both arms from being crossed. There was a smattering of applause. I glanced down and saw I had drifted over the first few rows of the audience. No time to consider the view.
My arm caught in the sleeve. I struggled against the canvas. At last, I managed to get my hand out from the straitjacket, where it met my leg. My internal clock wasn’t perfect, but I was sure that more than two minutes had passed. Too much time.
I worked to get my hand around to the strap between my legs. I had to pull it tighter to get the belt off the pin of the buckle, and I cried out. I dropped once more, and the audience beneath me screamed again.
“Concentrate!” I shouted to myself as much as to the angel.
Eternities passed. I got the strap free. I rolled and thrashed in the air. I pushed my other hand out of the collar and scrabbled at the top strap on the back. It came unbuckled reluctantly. I started yanking the jacket off over my head. Only seconds remained. I should have been able to get out of it then but I couldn’t. My arm was pressed so tightly against my body that my hand was starting to go numb.
I needed one more buckle free. My deadened fingers tried to find the strap but I couldn’t be certain what I was grabbing. I yanked and finally felt a loosening across my chest. I pulled the jacket off with such speed that the canvas raked across my face. I’d have a raw patch of skin on my cheek.
I let the straightjacket slip and fall. It landed between rows of spectators.
“Three minutes!” the angel cried. I threw my arms wide, demanding applause and getting it. Sweat fell from my face, stinging my eyes. Raining on the people below. Rolling waves of clapping hands swept over me, and the audience all came to their feet.
I felt myself floating back to the stage. My angel turned me right side up, and I touched down as smoothly as the ship in the spaceport. My shirt clung to me like a shroud, as if I were a drowned man pulled from the sea. The audience wanted to keep applauding. I let them.
I had a towel by my table, and I used it to mop my face as the audience returned to the ground. I peeled off my shirt and toweled off my chest. My physique had always been chiseled, and I wasn’t afraid to show it. I had performed in the nude more than once, in fact, to convince the skeptics that I hid no keys or lockpicks on my person.
My spectator with the manacles had made little progress.
“How many of these have you examined?” I asked.
The angel looked at me and then the audience sheepishly. “One,” he said.
He offered one of the simpler cuffs and handed me the key.
“So you looked at this one and it works?”
“And you’ve had perhaps fifteen minutes to look these over?”
“Well, there were some distractions,” he complained. He raised a finger to point vaguely upward over the stage.
The audience laughed loudly. I was pleased.
“I think that these cuffs will be a good start then. Please put them around my wrists.” I turned to the audience and asked, “If someone will please keep track of the time, starting now.”
The spectator onstage followed my instructions, and the cuffs went on with that ratcheting sound that audiences identified with, even if they had never seen restraints. “Ah. Those are tight. Select another set of manacles—any at all—and place them on my arms or legs. Wherever you prefer.”
We continued like that for the next several minutes. There were all kinds of different restraints, including chains, padlocks, and leg irons. I let the spectator examine anything and everything, and he was free to place them wherever he chose. Twenty-six different restraints bound me at the wrists and ankles and around my arms and legs. I shuffled through a turn, my tightly-bound feet finding little ability to move, giving the audience a complete view of my predicament.
I thanked my helper. “Well done. Who has the time?”
“Sixteen minutes, twenty-two seconds.” I couldn’t see her face beyond the footlights.
“Very good. Now here is my proposal. I will escape from my bonds in less time than it took to put them on.”
My angel laughed. “Impossible!”
“So. Proposal accepted then. Start the countdown . . .”
The deep voice rolled over the stage, and I felt it on my skin.
“Will you accept a challenge?” The tall emcee stepped in front of the lights. Behind him, a figure waited in the shadows. I couldn’t see his face, but I could see what he held. Handcuffs.
I looked to the audience. They were silent, but I could see from their faces that they wanted to know why this stranger was intruding. This angel planet had a surprise after all.
I explained. “In mortal life, I had a standing challenge. I would escape from any restraints presented to me by the public. The only condition was that they could open again once closed.”
There had been many people who had tried to create handcuffs that were impossible to pick. I had defeated them all by various stratagems of my own devising. “Step forward,” I said. “Let me have a look.”
The figure stepped out of the shadows. I didn’t recognize him. In the tips of his fingers, he held the cuffs. Sparkling. New.
“May I have your name? Mister…”
“Just call me Nick.”
“Very well. Is that Mister Nick then? Or just Nick?”
The audience tittered.
“Just Nick.” The man was young, sneering with dark hair and darker eyes. I could tell from his expression that he thought he knew something I didn’t. I’d met his kind before. A knot started sideways in my stomach.
“You may have noticed,” I hopped a turn to the side and showed my overburdened arms, “I’m a little indisposed at the moment. If you would kindly lock the cuffs you are holding and open them for everyone to see. I assume you brought a key?”
“Certainly.” The young man snapped the cuffs closed and brandished the key. The key fit smoothly into the release mechanism and, with a twist, the cuffs opened again.
“If you would, please allow our spectator to check them over? He has almost thirty minutes of experience now.”
The audience laughed. Nick offered the cuffs to the spectator. The spectator held them up like they were a pair of Siamese vipers, joined at the tail, fanged mouths gaping. He held them at arm’s length, squinting at them.
“I’m sure Nick here will show us what they look like on him.”
I injected a note of command into my words.
Nick moved back. A fraction of an inch. He was afraid of the handcuffs. A fraction afraid.
“Roll up your sleeves, Nick. They’re your handcuffs, aren’t they? If you expect me to put them on, you won’t object to trying them first, will you?”
Dark eyes flicked in the direction of the audience. Nick had to realize the spectators would be on my side. He had to put on the cuffs or withdraw his challenge.
Nick snapped his sleeves in a roll and stared me down. His eyes bored into mine as the spectator closed the cuffs around his wrists. I stared back.
“Show everyone the key, please.”
Nick held it up.
“Give it to our thoughtful helper.”
“Keep it in sight,” Nick commanded.
The spectator plucked the key from Nick’s hand and held it to view.
I smiled. “The longest it ever took for me to escape from challenge handcuffs was one hour and ten minutes.” I let those words hang in the air. “I don’t expect it will take nearly as long to escape from yours.”
Nick thrust his hands at me. “Let’s find out, Harry.”
The way he looked at me as he said my name felt too intimate. It sounded wrong in his mouth. Nick couldn’t wait to get the cuffs off. These cuffs were dangerous somehow, and it seemed like there was a purpose in them.
I watched his face. “Let’s make room for them then. If our spectator would kindly remove one of the eight sets of handcuffs already adorning my arms, we can proceed.”
The spectator put Nick’s key on the table, where everyone could see it.
“Remove the black iron ones, I think. From the top of the stack.”
It took a moment for the spectator to find the right key. Nick was trying to stay calm about the delay, but I heard fear in his breathing as the spectator unlocked the manacles nearest my elbows.
“Just put them in my valise,” I said.
The black irons went away.
Nick sighed, almost laughing, as our helper unlocked his freak cuffs and took them off. The knot in my stomach curled tighter. Whatever was wrong with his little metal snakes, I needed to find out.
“Are you exalted, Nick?”
Nick’s face twitched, subtle but there. “No, Harry,” he answered.
His voice twitched too. I smiled. “Well, we can’t all be perfect.”
I looked closely at the cuffs as my angel held them. Finally, I nodded and he locked the cuffs around my forearms. It was a tactic that had been useful in the past. My forearms were muscular and far larger in diameter than my hands. If unfamiliar cuffs were locked there, it was a simple matter to slip out of them after I had removed the others in the stack. Of course, I’d make it look like a challenge. I knew what audiences wanted. A close escape.
And I didn’t want the challenger to feel like he’d lost too easily. He’d gone to a lot of trouble, after all.
I braced against the bite of metal on my arms. The workmanship of the cuffs was meticulous. Elegant. It was a shame I’d have to give them back.
I turned side to side so that the audience, and my challenger, could see I was fairly bound.
“The escape begins now.”
The keys for all the cuffs were on the table, including the key for the freaks. I didn’t need them. I had other bits of metal and other options. I turned my back to the audience so I could work my secrets while still remaining in their view.
The first pair of cuffs fell to the floor after ten seconds. I usually prolonged the escape so that I could finish just as time was running out but the freaks had the potential to give me a real problem. I worked faster.
I sat down. I decided to free my legs next instead of continuing with the rest of the cuffs on my arms. It would give me time to look at the freaks a little more. I could also save them for the end. Big finale. What the audience wanted.
The first leg irons came free, and I tossed them in the air. They were heavy and landed with a resounding thunk. The metal may have damaged the perfect stage. The next restraints were even heavier and I tossed them as well. I worked my way through them all and jumped to my feet. I turned and went to the footlights, crossing from one side of the stage to the other with commanding strides, putting myself on display.
I worked on the chain and padlocks next. There was a music of sorts as each lock hit the floor with dead percussion—a waltz with their notes. One, two, bang! One, two, bang! One, two, bang! They were followed by a crescendo of chain slithering from my torso to the floor.
The audience cheered.
A chant began quietly, building louder. “Escape! Escape! Escape!”
Four more cuffs to go, including the freaks.
The cuffs nearest my wrists were old friends. They opened willingly.
The next set were engraved, silver, gifts as comfortable as a pair of slippers. They slipped off with a whisper.
The penultimate set were as imposing as a pair of Rottweilers, but the brutes were well-trained and obedient. They fell to the floor.
Now for the freaks.
The chant turned personal. “Har-ry! Har-ry! Har-ry!”
I glanced at Nick. He was my opposition. Not the cuffs. What was his game? He betrayed nothing. He had prepared for this moment.
I turned to face away from the audience again. I took a deep breath. I slipped the cuffs down my forearms. With a sharp click, they contracted, seizing my wrists in iron jaws. I bit back a curse. Nick had studied well. He knew how I worked and had planned for it. I should have guessed from the way he’d held still while wearing the cuffs to the look of satisfaction on his face as my helper had put the cuffs on my flexing forearms.
If I could get one hand free, I could work on the other.
I heard another click. The cuffs were getting tighter. If I had to, I could break my thumbs, which was incredibly painful and didn’t always help.
I placed one hand against the opposite cuff and pulled. My hand almost made it out, but the cuffs clicked again. It caught me just behind the knuckles. I refused to surrender any ground. There was no moving back. Did the cuffs have enough power to crush bones?
“You aren’t exalted,” I rasped at Nick. “You don’t want to be exalted.”
“You’re catching on, Harry.”
“You want to be damned.”
“Ruining you should get me there, don’t you think?”
A new voice whispered over my shoulder.
“It’s not a fair challenge, Harry.”
I glared at Charles, hissing at me from the side of the stage. I hissed in retort. “I never back down.”
“It’s not worth it. You could lose your hands for days.”
I groaned. The pain was blinding.
“The key is right there, Harry.” Nick’s voice was silky and seductive.
“You don’t know me, Nick.”
“I know your methods. Learned them by heart.”
Fluid flowed from my right hand, making everything slick. The left wrist was about to give way as well. I tried again to slip my hand through the cuff.
I refused to cry out. I pushed and pulled air through my nose in short bursts.
“Harry,” Charles had stepped out to put a hand on my shoulder. So softly, I could barely hear him. “The exalted here can help. Your spectators can release you. They can—”
“I know,” I snapped. “Get away from me.”
Charles looked sad but backed away.
The pain was almost more than I could bear. My hands were slowly being chewed off by a mechanical monster created by a would-be demon.
For what? Why do I do this? Recreate history for beings with more power—more magic—than I will ever have? Refusing to let history go.
I curled in on myself. I fell to my knees and hunched over, cradling my hands like broken children. I rocked back and forth. I shouted, releasing pain and rage.
A heartbeat. Another. I laughed and wept. One hand free. I was the only witness. The other hand free. My secrets. My wounded secrets. I reset the cuffs. A swell of relief nearly drowned me like a plunge in an icy river.
I held the cuffs out to the side. All of the molecules in the universe seemed to stop as the audience took them in. I felt every heart in the room beat once in unison The freaks dripped fluids from my body. They dangled by the chain that joined left and right and swung back and forth. Click. The cuffs snapped shut.
I threw them, not caring where they landed.
I turned back to face the audience.
My hands and wrists were a mass of bruises and open cuts.
I went to the table and retrieved the key. Lifted it slowly between forefinger and thumb and displayed it to the audience. Stunned. Silent. I turned and held it out in Nick’s direction. I didn’t look at him. I waited. He paused, then snatched the key from my hand. The only sounds were footfalls exiting the stage.
The audience exploded to their feet and soared up to the ceiling.
I opened my hands and held them out, presented my injuries to the spectators, and demanded what I had earned.
I took my bows. The audience was generous. While the sound of it filled my heart, and the sight of so many people standing, floating, and lingering fed my soul, there was still that corner of my mind that was unsatisfied. I chided myself even as I stood there on the stage. I should’ve been happy.
I brought Charles back onto the stage and we held raised hands together like prize fighters after twelve rounds. It was our first triumph together.
Much later, after the last spectator vanished, blinking away, I sighed.
“How did you manage it, Harry?” Charles’s eyes glimmered.
“Come to my dressing room.”
There were two men there, laughing companionably in the tight space.
“Charles, let me introduce my friends, William and Howard.”
Charles shook hands with my guests. “You were Harry’s spectators from the audience.”
“Indeed.” William touched his hand to his brow in gentle salute. He’d put me in the straitjacket not long ago. “It doesn’t happen often, but you run into the occasional angel who once made a living as a magician. They’re almost as scarce as lawyers.”
“So it was all—?”
I patted his arm. “What the audience wants, Charles. You didn’t make Oliver Twist a pampered millionaire for a reason. Conflict. These gentlemen are well-versed in making my life difficult. And I thank them for it.”
“What about Nick then?”
I felt the shadow that passed over my face. “He was not part of the act.” I looked at my darkening bruises, and my wounds stained with fluid. “Injuries. They’re the history of my work.”
“Let me heal you,” William said.
“Please, Harry,” Howard joined. “There’s no need to suffer.”
I shook my head. “Thanks all the same. I’ll keep them until they heal on their own.”
I reached into my valise and pulled out a pair of handcuffs-or rather the parts that were left. “These will remain wounded as well. Centuries old, like me. Like me, wounded for a cause.”
Charles took the cuffs. “Howard removed these from your arms, didn’t he? To make room for Nick’s new ones?”
“They’re incomplete. Where did the bits of metal go?”
I showed Charles my empty hand and then closed it. When I opened it again, there was an oddly-shaped key in the center of my palm.
“No. It’s not.”
“What is it then?”
“It’s a champagne glass, Charles.”
Charles looked bewildered for a moment. Then a broad smile took over his face.
“Champagne glass,” he laughed. “Really, Harry.”
It wasn’t the first time someone had copied a key for me on the sly. Howard caught my eye and smiled.
I looked up and recognized the boy.
“Hello,” I said. “Charles, this young man visited me before the show.”
The boy nodded, swallowed, and blurted, “I want to do what you do, sir. Please teach me.”
I smiled patiently. “Look. You can already do what I do. You can do much more, in fact. You’re exalted.”
The boy shook his head, staring at the ground. “No. I mean. Yes. I can. But not like an exalted.” He looked up and there was need in his eyes. “I want to learn how to do what you do in the same way you do it. Like a mortal.”
It was my turn to shake my head. “Why?”
The boy stood straight and determined. “It’s one thing to watch history. I want to live it.”
I held out my hands. Showed my wounds. “History is painful.”
“I’ve followed you for decades.”
“So has Nick.”
“Nick didn’t study to learn about you. Only your methods.”
I sighed. “You think you want this, son, but you don’t.”
The boy wasn’t giving up easily. I liked that. He started to unbutton his shirt.
“I don’t think we need to wrestle over this, but—” I laughed.
“Harry,” Charles nodded at the boy.
The shirt slid from the boy’s shoulders, down his arms, and to the floor.
His chest was covered in bruises, his arms decorated in cuts. The patterns were familiar to me. Chains and manacles had left signs of their passing. Some of the bruises were fresh. Some of the cuts had scabbed over days ago.
My eyes traced the angry red lines in his flesh. “You haven’t healed them?” Obviously not, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking the question. I studied the steel-wrought marks and knew them. I’d only ever seen their like in a mirror. The meaning and depth of the boy’s wounds cut through me. I felt an empty place within me disappear.
“Harry?” I heard a voice from a distance.
“I know, Charles.” My breathing came out in rags. “It’s a gift. One I have to return.”
I lifted my valise full of manacles, but its weight was nothing. I gave the valise to the boy.
It took long moments before I could speak. When I managed it, my voice sounded foreign to my ears. “In mortality, I changed my name to honor a man I admired. He died before I was born, but I always tried to live up to the reputation he’d built before me. I’ve changed little else since then. In perfect worlds, I’ve shunned perfection. I didn’t see a reason to embrace it. Until now. You’ve embraced imperfection and that’s—”
I wanted to say more after that, his name or at least say thank you, but all I could do was fall upon the boy’s neck and weep.