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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

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Gracie was babbling in the language of the bald dead, and Luke eased up on his grip, resting upon her back. She swept so smoothly through the air, it felt like a dream.

“Luke,” came a voice from below. He roused and looked down over his shoulder from the dizzying height. Mr. Cabadula and Darene now appeared to be the size of grasshoppers. Behind them Sfortunado was writhing in pain on the floor.

“Choke her down,” called Darene's father. He lifted his gun, holding it in two hands like Luke was, and pulled it in tightly toward his throat.

“Choke her down,” whispered Luke. He gathered his strength and pulled back hard on the gun barrel. Gracie wheezed with the pressure and bucked her hips, trying to shake him off her back. They descended in a slow spiral.

“Keep the pressure on no matter what,” said Mr. Cabadula. Luke looked down and saw Darene's father handing her a mallet and a long brass nail. She then turned and walked to the edge of the altar. Mr. Cabadula walked to the opposite edge and crouched down.

Gracie reached a certain altitude and no matter how much Luke put into choking her, she'd not go an inch lower. They went into a wide orbit fifteen feet above the altar, moving in an arc out over the pews and back.

“I gotta let go,” Luke yelled.

“One more minute,” said Darene.

He looked down to find her on the altar as they circled toward it. He heard her father say, “Now, Darene.” At this, she took off, sprinting toward him, her arms pumping, her hair flying. Luke watched her dash across the altar to her father, who had his hands cupped, fingers laced, in front of him. She placed her left foot into his hands and at that instant, he pushed upward with his legs, lifting Darene, pitching her high into the air.

Luke saw everything, but it seemed at a distance. Once Darene was in flight, though, he noticed how closely they'd circled in toward her. He pulled back hard on Gracie, afraid that Darene would collide with them. She rose in an arc, flipping in midair, so that as she passed just in front of them, she was completely upside down, her face toward them. At the perfect moment, she reached out, set the nail to Gracie's forehead, and, with one deft blow, slammed it through her skull. Luke heard the sickening crunch of bone, felt Gracie go slack, and then realized that Darene was next to him. She shoved him hard. He lost his grip and fell, screaming, into the arms of Mr. Cabadula, who set him carefully on the altar. They both immediately looked up. Darene had removed her belt and had it around Gracie's throat. She'd turned the belt tight, like a tourniquet, and had the ends wrapped around her wrist. She sat straight up on the back of the vanquished
gritchino,
her legs hanging down, and seemed able to direct the course of their slow descent by tugging in one direction or another.

Darene steered the remains of Gracie in a slow, meandering descent that ended in the open coffin. Luke shivered at the fantastic precision of Darene's delivery. She hopped off the
gritchino
as it fell, like an avalanche, into the box. The lid eased down of its own accord and latched with a distinct click. Then the whole casket turned to steam and evaporated.

“Forget it,” said Luke and covered his face with his left hand.

Darene and her father were on either side of Sfortunado, who was whimpering. Luke inched closer, but really didn't want to see either the old man's chewed-up leg or, worse, his face. Mr. Cabadula took Darene by the arm and led her away from Sfortunado to where Luke was standing.

“Here're my keys,” he said, putting the ring of them in her hand. “You go on ahead. I'll clean this up.”

There were tears in Darene's eyes when she nodded.

“What's gonna happen with Sfortunado?” asked Luke. “Is he
gritchino,
like vampires make other vampires?”

“Don't worry,” said Mr. Cabadula and cocked the hammer of one of the pistols. “You watch too many movies.”

“Come on,” said Darene. She put her arm around Luke's back and pulled him down the altar steps and up the aisle toward the door.

Out in the parking lot the air was so fresh. There was a ribbon of light at the horizon. A bird sang. They got into the black Mercedes. Darene started it and pulled out of the parking lot. Neither of them spoke, and Luke dozed briefly before the car eventually came to a halt. He opened his eyes and saw that she had driven them to the lake.

They sat on a bench beneath the pines, facing the water and the dawn. He had his arm around her and she leaned against him.

“That was sick,” he said. “What's with your family?”

“Do you still love me?” she said.

“I loved it when you spiked Gracie. You and your dad are like a circus act or something.”

“They teach you that when you're a kid,” she said.

“So what's with Sfortunado? He's not
gritchino
?” asked Luke. “I thought your father was going to ice him.”

“Relax,” she said and brought her hand up to lightly trace, with the nail of her index finger, an invisible design on his forehead. Luke felt the tension leave his muscles. His eyes closed and a moment later he was asleep. When he woke with the sunlight in his face, Darene was gone, as was the Mercedes.

Luke played sick on Monday and Tuesday and stayed home from school. He spent those days on the computer going randomly from one site to another or playing Need for Speed. The implications of the
gritchino
made him dizzy. He wanted to call Darene, or at least text her, but when he reached for his phone, the memory of her flying upside down and striking that nail into Gracie's skull made her even more a mystery to him than the wind of eternity.

When he did return to school Wednesday, he found out that Darene hadn't been to class that week, either. He looked for her at all the times and places they'd usually meet on a school day, and asked around for her. By fifth period he knew she wasn't there. He cut his seventh-period class and slipped out the side door of the gym. On the path through the woods, he smoked a joint. A half hour later, he stood in front of Darene's house.

The windows had been stripped of their curtains and the whole place was sunk in that eerie stillness of the vacant. There was a
FOR SALE
sign in the ground next to the driveway. “She's gone,” he said aloud, realizing he wasn't sure if it was for the best or the worst.

Two nights later, Luke was awakened from a nightmare of the church by a light nudging at his shoulder. “Shhhh,” whispered a voice. At first he thought it was his mother who'd heard him crying out from his dream. He turned to see her, but instead saw a ghastly visage illuminated from beneath and appearing to be floating in the dark. Luke gasped, then groaned, backing up against the headboard.

“Fashtulina,”
said the voice. The figure moved and the glow that had lit the face revealed itself to be a flashlight.

“Uncle Sfortunado?” said Luke.

“Who else?”

“What do you want?” asked Luke, turning on the lamp next to his bed.

The old man came into view, wearing a long black coat and a beret. “Surprised to see me,
gaduche
?” he said, turning off the flashlight and putting it in his coat pocket.

“How's your leg?” asked Luke, trying to swallow.

“The wasp makes the eye cry out,” said the old man with a sigh. “That Gracie, she could bite.”

“What are you doing here? Where's Darene?”

“I'm here to give you this . . .” Sfortunado reached his gloved hand into the breast pocket of the coat and brought out a thick roll of cash circled by a red rubber band. “Three thousand,” he said and dropped the money onto the top of the nearby dresser.

“You're giving me three thousand dollars?” said Luke.

“Your cut of the diamond.”

“That was real?”

“What I say?” He smiled.

“And Darene?”

“They were called back to the old country for their shame.”

“Shame for what?”

“They didn't do it. I told them they should, but my nephew loves his uncle.”

“You've got the
gritchino
in you now, don't you? After Gracie bit you, you got it in you,” said Luke.

Sfortunado shambled over and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Are you going to eat my kidney?” asked Luke, pulling his legs away from the old man.

“Not tonight,” said Sfortunado. “I came to ask you to please, now, put a brass nail into my head.” He put his thumb to the spot above the bridge of his nose. “Darene and her father could not, and now they have been banished from here. I couldn't go back with them because I have the
gritchino
in me. Until I die I'm almost the same old Sfortunado, but after that I will be as Gracie was.”

Luke listened and shook his head. “Forget it,” he said.

Sfortunado reached into the pockets of the coat and brought out a mallet and a long brass nail. “You see,” said the old man, “there are no Cabadula here anymore. When I come from the coffin, there will be no one to stop me. I will feast on many. This will happen.”

“No way,” said Luke.

“When vanquished by the nail, like
gritchino,
I will evaporate. And then I am gone and Darene and her family can return. You miss the girl,
gaduche,
I know,” he said and reached the mallet and nail toward Luke.

“No,” yelled Luke.

Sfortunado stood up. “Do it,” he growled. When his lip trembled, the sharp tips of his incisors were visible. He took a step toward Luke, but from down the hallway outside the bedroom door there came the sound of footsteps on the stairs. The old man's head turned, like a bird's, listening.

“My parents are coming,” said Luke.

“Turn off the light,” said Sfortunado.

The instant the dark came on, Luke knew he shouldn't have followed the order.

“Think about it,
gaduche.
When you are ready, turn on your phone and whisper my name three times. I will come with the mallet and nail.”

The doorknob turned.

Sfortunado stepped back and his silhouette melted into the dark. Then the door opened, the lights came on, and Luke's parents were there, but the old man had vanished.

“We heard voices and then you yelling, ‘No,' ” said his father.

“Where'd this money come from?” asked his mother.

Luke couldn't answer. He turned on his side, curled up in a ball, and pulled the blanket over his head.

A Note About “Sit the Dead”

In recent years I've written quite a few stories for themed anthologies, especially for editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. I enjoy doing them for two reasons. The first is that in working with Ellen or Ellen and Terri, it's understood that they want you to do something different, idiosyncratic. They want to be surprised and delighted by the story you send them. I've always thrived as a writer with editors like that. On the other hand, many of the themes of these themed anthologies could very easily be described at first glance as played out or used up. What I like about doing them, though, is the challenge of being given a very traditional theme and set to the task of doing something unusual with it. When Ellen and Terri sent me the write-up for the anthology
Teeth,
and I saw it was to be a YA vampire anthology, I very nearly passed on it. I mean, it's one thing to try to breathe new life into a flayed theme, but vampires? That's almost a trope too far. With the exception of zombies, I can't think of any other horror theme more worked over than vampires. Then I remembered a Swedish film I'd seen only a couple of years before,
Let the Right One In,
and how I was so impressed with the way the story reenvisioned the vampire theme. This was an impetus to take on the challenge and give it a go. My story, “Sit the Dead,” was influenced somewhat by two things. The great Nikolai Gogol's crazy story “Viy,” from which I lifted the flying coffin, and the eternal cultural horror story of trying to fit into your girlfriend's or boyfriend's family when you're a young adult. As to whether I was successful in this challenge, that, of course, is up to you.

The Seventh Expression of the Robot General

I
n his later years, when he spoke, a faint whirring came from his lower jaw. His mouth opened and closed rhythmically, accurately, displaying a full set of human teeth gleaned from fallen comrades and the stitched tube of plush leather that was his tongue. The metal mustache and eyebrows were ridiculously fake, but the eyes were the most beautiful glass facsimiles, creamy white with irises like dark blue flowers. Instead of hair, his scalp was sandpaper.

He wore his uniform still, even the peaked cap with the old emblem of the Galaxy Corps embroidered in gold. He creaked when he walked, piston compressions and the click of a warped flywheel whispering within his trousers. Alternating current droned from a faulty fuse in his solar plexus, and occasionally, mostly on wet days, sparks wreathed his head like a halo of bright gnats. He smoked a pipe, and before turning each page of a newspaper, he'd bring his chrome index finger to his dry rubber slit of a mouth as if he were moistening its tip.

His countenance, made of an astounding pliable, nonflammable, blast-beam-resistant, self-healing rubber alloy, was supposedly sculpted in homage to the dashing looks of Rendel Sassoon, star of the acclaimed film epic
For God and Country
. Not everyone saw the likeness, and Sassoon himself, a devout pacifist who was well along in years when the general took his first steps out of the laboratory, sued for defamation of character. But once the video started coming back from the front, visions of slaughter more powerful than any celluloid fantasy, mutilated Harvang corpses stacked to the sky, the old actor donned a flag pin on his lapel and did a series of war bond television commercials of which the most prominent feature was his nervous smile.

It's a sad fact that currently most young people aren't aware of the historic incidents that led to our war with the Harvang and the necessity of the robot general. They couldn't tell you a thing about our early discoveries of atmosphere and biological life on our planet's sizable satellite, or about the initial fleet that went to lay claim to it. Our discovery of the existence of the Harvang was perhaps the most astonishing news in the history of humanity. They protested our explorations as an invasion, even though we offered technological and moral advancements. A confluence of intersecting events led to an unavoidable massacre of an entire village of the brutes, which in turn led to a massacre of our expeditionary force. They used our ships to invade us, landing here in Snow Country and in the swamps south of Central City.

It was said about his time on the battlefield that if the general was human he'd have been labeled “merciless,” but as it was, his robot nature mitigated this assessment instead to simply “without mercy.” At the edge of a pitched battle he'd set up a folding chair and sit down to watch the action, pipe in hand and a thermos of thick black oil nearby. He'd yell through a bullhorn, strategic orders interspersed with exhortations of “Onward, you sacks of blood!” Should his troops lose the upper hand in the mêlée, the general would stand, set his pipe and drink on the ground next to his chair, remove his leather jacket, hand it to his assistant, roll up his sleeves, cock his hat back, and dash onto the battlefield, running at top robot speed.

Historians, engineers, and AI researchers of more recent years have been nonplussed as to why the general's creators gave him such limited and primitive battle enhancements. There were rays and particle beams at that point in history and they could have outfitted him like a tank, but their art required subtlety. Barbed, spinning drill bits whirled out from the center of his knuckles on each hand. At the first hint of danger, razor blades protruded from the toes of his boots. He also belched poisoned, feathered darts from his open mouth, but his most spectacular device was a rocket built into his hindquarters that when activated shot a blast of fire that made him airborne for ten seconds.

It was supposedly a sight the Harvang dreaded, to see him land behind their lines, knuckle spikes whirling, belching death, trousers smoldering. They had a name for him in Harvang, Kokulafugok, which roughly translated as “Fire in the Hole.” He'd leave a trail of carnage through their ranks, only stopping briefly to remove the hair tangling his drill bits.

His movements were graceful and precise. He could calculate ahead of his opponent, dodge blast beams, bend backward, touch his head upon the ground to avoid a spray of shrapnel and then spring back up into a razor-toed kick, lopping off a Harvang's sex and drilling him through the throat. Never tiring, always perfectly balanced and accurate, his intuition was dictated by a random-number generator.

He killed like a force of nature, an extension of the universe. Hacked by axe blades or shot with arrows to his head, when his business was done, he'd retire to his tent and send for one of the Harvang females. The screams of his prisoner echoed through the camp and were more frightening to his troops than combat. On the following morning he would emerge, his dents completely healed, and give orders to have the carcass removed from his quarters.

During the war, he was popular with the people back home. They admired his hand-to-hand combat, his antique nature, his unwillingness to care about the reasons for war. He was voted the celebrity most men would want to have a beer with and most women would desire for a brief sexual liaison. When informed as to the results of this poll, his only response was, “But are they ready to die for me?”

Everywhere, in the schools, the post offices, the public libraries, there were posters of him in battle-action poses amid a pile of dead or dying Harvang that read:
LET'S DRILL OUT A VICTORY!
The Corps was constantly transporting him from the front lines of Snow Country or the moon back to Central City in order to make appearances supporting the war. His speeches invariably contained this line: “The Harvang are a filthy species.” At the end of his talks, his face would turn the colors of the flag and there were few who refused to salute. Occasionally, he'd blast off the podium and dive headlong into the crowd, which would catch his falling body and, hand over hand, return him to the stage.

In his final campaign, he was blown to pieces by a blast from a beam cannon the Harvang had stolen from his arsenal. An entire regiment of ours was ambushed in Snow Country between the steep walls of an enormous glacier—the Battle of the Ice Chute. His strategies were impossibly complex but all inexorably led to a frontal assault, a stirring charge straight into the mouth of Death. It was a common belief among his troops that who'd ever initially programmed him had never been to war. Only after his defeat did the experts claim his tactics were daft, riddled with hubris spawned by faulty AI. His case became, for a time, a thread of the damning argument that artificial intelligence, merely the human impression of intelligence, was, in reality, artificial ignorance. It was then that robot production moved decidedly toward the organic.

After the Harvang had been routed by reinforcements, and the Corps eventually began burying the remains of those who'd perished in the battle for Snow Country, the general's head was discovered amid the frozen carnage. When the soldier who found it lifted it up from beneath the stiffened trunk of a human body, the eyes opened, the jaw moved, and the weak, crackling command of “Kill them all!” sputtered forth.

The Corps decided to rebuild him as a museum piece for public relations purposes, but the budget was limited. Most of his parts, discovered strewn across the battlefield, could be salvaged, and a few new ones were fashioned from cheaper materials to replace what was missing. Still, those who rebuilt the general were not the craftsmen his creators had been—techniques had been lost to time. There was no longer the patience in robot design for aping the human. A few sectors of his artificial brain had been damaged, but there wasn't a technician alive who could repair his intelligence node, a ball of wiring so complex its design had been dubbed “the Knot.”

The Corps used him for fund-raising events and rode him around in an open car at veterans' parades. The only group that ever paid attention to him, though, was the parents of the sons and daughters who'd died under his command. As it turned out, there were thousands of them. Along a parade route they'd pelt him with old fruit and dog shit, to which he'd calmly respond, “Incoming.”

It didn't take the Corps long to realize he was a liability, but since he possessed consciousness, though it was man-made, the law disallowed his being simply turned off. Instead, he was retired and set up in a nice apartment at the center of a small town where he drew his sizable pension and history-of-combat bonus.

An inauspicious ending to a historic career, but in the beginning, at the general's creation, when the Harvang had invaded in the south and were only miles outside of Central City, he was a promising savior. His artificial intelligence was considered a miracle of science, his construction the greatest engineering feat of the human race. And the standard by which all of this was judged was the fact that his face could make seven different expressions. Everyone agreed it was proof of the robot builder's exemplary art. Before the general, the most that had ever been attempted was three.

The first six of these expressions were slight variations on the theme of “determination.”
Righteousness, Willfulness, Obstinacy, Eagerness,
and
Grimness 1
and
2
were the terms his makers had given them. The facial formation of the six had a lot to do with the area around the mouth, subtly different clenchings of the jaw, a straightness in the lips. The eyes were widened for all six, the nostrils flared. For
Grimness 2,
steam shot from his ears.

When he wasn't at war, he switched between
Righteousness
and
Obstinacy
. He'd lost
Eagerness
to a Harvang blade. It was at the Battle of Boolang Crater that the general was cut across the cheek, all the way through to his internal mechanism. After two days of leaking oil through the side of his face, the outer wound healed, but the wiring that caused the fourth expression had been irreparably severed.

There is speculation, based primarily on hearsay, that there was also an eighth expression, one that had not been built into him but that had manifested of its own accord through the self-advancement of the AI. Scientists claimed it highly unlikely, but Ms. Jeranda Blesh claimed she'd seen it. During a three-month leave, his only respite in the entire war, she'd lived with him in a chalet in the Grintun Mountains. A few years before she died of a Harvang venereal disease, she appeared on a late-night television talk show. She was pale and bloated, giddy with alcohol, but she divulged the secrets of her sex life with the general.

She mentioned the smooth chrome member with fins, the spicy oil, the relentless precision of his pistons. “Sometimes, right when things were about to explode,” she said, “he'd make a face I'd never seen any other times. It wasn't a smile, but more like calm, a moment of peace. It wouldn't last long, though, 'cause then he'd lose control of everything, shoot a rocket blast out his backside and fly off me into the wall.” The host of the show straightened his tie and said, “That's what I call ‘drilling out a victory.' ”

It was the seventh expression that was the general's secret, though. That certain configuration of his face reserved for combat. It was the reason he was not tricked out with guns or rockets. The general was an excellent killing machine, but how many could he kill alone? Only when he had armies ready to move at his will could he defeat the Harvang. The seventh expression was a look that enchanted his young troops and made them savage extensions of his determination. Outmanned, outgunned, outmaneuvered, outflanked, it didn't matter. One glance from him and they'd charge, beam rifles blazing, to their inevitable deaths. They'd line up in ranks before a battle and he'd review the troops, focusing that imposing stare on each soldier. It was rare that a young recruit would be unaffected by the seventh expression's powerful suggestion, understand that the mission at hand was sheer madness, and protest. The general had no time for deserters. With lightning quickness, he'd draw his beam pistol and burn a sudden hole in the complainant's forehead.

In an old government document, “A Report to the Committee on Oblique Renderings Z-333-678AR,” released since the Harvang war, there was testimony from the general's creators to the fact that the seventh expression was a blend of the look of a hungry child, the gaze of an angry bull, and the stern countenance of God. The report records that the creators were questioned as to how they came up with the countenance of God, and their famous response was, “We used a mirror.”

There was a single instance when the general employed the seventh expression after the war. It was only a few years ago, the day after it was announced that we would negotiate a treaty with the Harvang and attempt to live in peace and prosperity. He left his apartment and hobbled across the street to the coffee shop on the corner. Once there, he ordered a twenty-four-ounce Magjypt black, and sat in the corner pretending to read the newspaper. Eventually, a girl of sixteen approached him and asked if he was the robot general.

He saluted and said, “Yes, ma'am.”

“We're reading about you in school,” she said.

“Sit down, I'll tell you anything you need to know.”

She pulled out a chair and sat at his table. Pushing her long brown hair behind her ears, she said, “What about all the killing?”

“Everybody wants to know about the killing,” he said. “They should ask themselves.”

“On the Steppes of Patience, how many Harvang did you, yourself, kill?”

“My internal calculator couldn't keep up with the slaughter. I'll just say ‘Many.' ”

“What was your favorite weapon?” she asked.

BOOK: Crackpot Palace
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