This is a short story fragment that I’ve always liked but never been able to finish. I just couldn’t find the right story to fit around it. I may have just found a use for it in my latest book. But then again, I’ve thought that before. Either way, I’ve always loved it and hoped it would find it’s place in the pantheon of my work.
2412 Orthodox Western Calendar 5110 Universal Chinese Calendar, Year of the Monkey Edgelands Ghetto, Snowstorm Clan Roving Starship Settlement
For six years, a young Finn didn’t speak. At the age of eight, he’d just closed his mouth and refused to say anything more. People tried to make him talk. They tried everything. But he stayed quite, folded into the center of himself.
Back then nobody feared the dark, sullen little boy, who moved like a hunted ant and went mute. The other kids punished him for his strangeness, adhering to the ruthless natural law of grade school that demanded homogenization. Making him talk turned into a game. Kids can turn any innocent feature into a tauntable flaw, but they didn’t need to make up flaws for Finn. He had a big nose and that made him one of the broadest targets in class. Later in life, nobody sane would ever say anything about his nose, or they’d turn up dismembered in a junk yard, but back then the kids called him Beaker or the Parrot or Birdman and he did nothing. The standing bet drove the kids to attack him relentlessly. They slammed him into walls, stomped on his feet, pried his mouth open and filled it with mud, burned him, bit him, tripped him, clawed him. But his lips stayed sealed.
And Finn never fought back. People would say later, “as a kid Finn never fought no one,” but nobody would believe them. Not the same Finn. They couldn’t believe it. Not about the man they’d seen fighting like a cyclone. But it was true. Finn never faught back and he never spoke. Not for six years.
In class, his frustrated teachers worked on him, desperate to get him speaking. At the front of the class the ghostly AI holograms would ask him questions but he just stared at them, the kids around him silent or snickering. The powerful AIs knew millions of tricks to deal with difficult kids, their backbrains quantumly connected to massive psychology databases that fed them advice in real time, advice boiled down from the cumulative thought of hundreds of years of gifted psychiatrists, empaths and espers. His English teacher had changed looks for him dozens of times, altering her appearance like a shape-shifter. She posed questions in a hundred ways, demanding, passively, authoritatively, rudely, brightly, gently, calmly, angrily, even with traces of sensuality. But he stayed silent. Eventually the school gave up and nobdy asked him any more questions.
His father had tried too. “Ya little fooker, ya’ll talk, or ah’ll make ya talk,” he’d scream, his face hideous as he hammered on Finn, beating him brutally until he’d give up from exhaustion and collapse. “Cry out. Cry out, ya God damn, fooking bastard, ya cock sucking fuck. Talk! TAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLKKKKKKKKKK!” But Finn made no noise as the hard rain fell, his muscles stiffening into stones that could break his father’s hands.
“Don’t look at me like dat,” said his father, panting. “Ah said don’t look at me. Don’t ya ever look at me like dat,” his father shouted as Finn stared at him, eyes narrowed in hate, like a slaughtered lion lookng up at its killer.
But no beatings, nor cajoling could make Finn talk. It would take something much worse.
The Caged Bird
Six Years Later 2418 Orthodox Western Calendar 5116 Universal Chinese Calendar, Year of the Dragon Edgelands Ghetto, Snowstorm Clan Roving Starship Settlement
On the roof, Finn felt safe. There he would sit for hours, stroking the soft feathers of his favorite birds and watching the weather artists paint the evening sky. Inside the continent sized organic starship of the Snowstorm Clan, the weather artists played God, altering the artificial atmosphere at whim. At dusk, they filled the pulled cotton clouds with superluminal colors that streamed and ran together, like paints poured into a stream. They sculpted the shimmering clouds into magnificently intricate patterns and scattered hidden images in them. Like a magic fireworks show, they could bend the weather to their will, shape it and shift it, sprinkle it with dazzling silver or make it blaze red and then mute it with subtle shades of blue. Behind their lightboards they sat, like ancient organ players, tickling out sublime visual symphanies.
Finn often imagined them, tucked into the tops of the starscrapers in New Diamond City, tangled in nests of nerve wires, their hair metallic, prisming the preternatural colors of their man made dusk. Off to his right, New Diamond City dominated the horizion, its awesome organic starscrapers stretching thousands of stories into the sky, their tops hidden in the swirling mists of the troposphere, their flesh filled with bright little beads that twinkled and their diamond windows glittering like a trillion eyes. The massive buildings formed mighty canyons and brightly lit boulevards where the rich played and the police wore white gloves and patroled on silver, brushed metal steeds.
Between the slums and the city an awesome artificial ocean roiled and rolled, powered by collassal wave machines burried hundreds of miles deep, like ancient, slumbering leviathans that woke suddenly to stir the sea. In the distance, the waves broke, foaming, on the diamond shores, the waters gliding in to the lick the sand. The fusion powered, false sun, hidden behind the evening clouds, spayed shafts of gentle light that glazed the soft waters glossy green and platinum.
Across the ocean, New Diamond City mocked the Edgelands, like a divine metropolis seen from the snarling thorn bushes of Purgatory. Even as new starscrapers, secreted by invisible nanosects, wound their way heavenward, the age spotted flesh of the Edgeland buildings wrinkled and rotted. In some places the flesh hung from the dieing buildings in long strips, like rags. Everywhere the buildings wheezed and slumped, disease a wildfire in their guts, their organs overwhelmed, their circulatory systems clogged and closing down.
But when Finn sat quietly in his sanctuary in the sky, he didn’t care about the trash strewn streets or going home to his decomposing parent’s apartment. He only cared about the sunset and his birds. He would fly his pigeons tonight. Birds needed to fly. To Finn, caging them was keeping them from the one thing they were made to do. People might as well hack off a sprinter’s legs or toss a fish on the burning sand. Often, he thought about letting all of the birds go, but he’d raised them since they were the size of his thumb and he couldn’t stand to think about losing them.
Behind him his birds fluttered anxiously in their light cage. He stood and dipped his hand inside the cage, which was smart enough to part for him, its yellow bars vanishing for a moment. Nayana, his favorite pigeon, nuzzled his hand then lept onto his fingers. He pulled her free and a smaller, curved cage formed around her and his hands, its bars translucent yellow light, surrounding her like magic flames. With this cage he could fly her as boys from centuries past had flown model airplanes. She could fly as high and as long as she wished and still he could call her back to him.
Like oil on water, Nayana’s iridescent feathers shimmered in the evening light. Finn had never seen a gray pigeon. The gray pigeons of the past times had disappeared, changed and molded into glorious new shapes and firey colors, through hundreds of years of genetic mincing and dicing. Now each pigeon looked as unique as a butterfly’s wings.
As Finn caressed Nayana, the others birds flapped restlessly. The largest bird, Lilavati, circled the cage in an angry fenzy, wanting to fly first. Her incandescent feathers, lit from within by bioluminescent tubes of tender, colored light, threw off sparks, like tongues of flame, as she whirled. The other birds darted out of her way, leaping like frightened men from the rushing fury of a massive truck.
Sometimes Finn flew Lilavati first, but she needed to learn patience, so tonight she could circle the cage till she collapsed for all he cared. Turning towards the tumbling sea Finn tossed Nayana’s mini-cage into the air and she lifted off and blasted up, climbing quickly, until the outlines of the cage disappeared and she seemed to fly free. Finn’s internal nanonets locked on to her and he blinked into the multiple eyes of the cage, tiny filament cameras that swam, sperm like, in the ghostly bars of light, and he could see her, a flash of golden fire, burning fiercly. She flew, ever upward, racing in boundless, bodiless joy, the preternatural purple of the evening melting around her, the warm wind splitting against the arrow sharp edge of her wings, her mouth stretched open, singing, her melody tumbling down as rain to the Edgelands, a city of ash, where ephasyemaed buildings bent and wheezed and clockwork ash people shambled down the dusty streets and coughed. Desperately Finn wanted to stretch out his wings with her, to wheel with her through the color saturated sky, to fly away from the fetid rot and the rancid ooze of his life, to soar and swoop and climb, ever higher, ever always, sailing through the orange dappled clouds suffused with luminious purple and fly, to be free and right and golden and radiant, to stretch wings and soar forever and alone, to shake off the corrosion of his sadness, a corrosion that bit deep, that putrefied his spirit, that sealed his mouth. He wanted to shake it off and let it peal away in bright hot flakes that tumbled in the wind, falling back to the waves and the sea that swelled far below. Faster and faster he’d fly, his wings shivering, barely able to stand the astonishing speed, rebeling against gravity he’d push and reach. He wanted to give in completely, to let go, to melt into the clouds and the sky like like tears running into rain, to never return, to rise up forever, alone and free and safe.
Back on the roof, Finn realed his eyes back in, his vision dithering, slidding away from him in sadness, and it felt like tumbling from the bright hot heavens, falling like a horse, like something that should never fly, stabbed, crumpled, broken, destroyed birds falling with open faces shattered, mouths screaming, falling from the light, the brilliant light, pierced by hundreds of arrows, pain painted on his face as the doors close behind him, above him all around him, chased from the heavens by the furies, prodded into the prison of his body, and it was gone, gone, breaking apart and swirling like dust and he stood, alone on the roof and saw his limitations etched clearly, defining him, the lines of the roof, the edge of his hands, the forbidding empty space in front of him, where if he stepped he would fall forever and he felt weak and incomplete and trapped.
Breathing deep, the chilled air sharp in his lungs, he looked at his hands unhappily, at the tiny hairs sweeping like withered grass over the field of flesh, at the knuckles sharp like railroad spikes. He held his right hand up and looked at it against the sky, looked it its boundaries confining him, separating him from the infinite. He made a fist and the size of his hand surprised him. It was a fist roughly cut from granite, square and sharp, a brawler’s fist, a blockbuster.
He didn’t hear the footsteps behind him.
Shaking off the reverie he went to the cage, reached in and, ignoring Lilavati’s flapping protests, he reached for the smallest bird, Celodonia. She dashed into his hands, barely avoiding Lilavati’s wings. That’s when the cage exploded with screeching and panicked flopping and rolling. Finn had never seen them crazed and he stepped back confused, Celadonia hiding in his palm.
“So, dis is where ya hides, eh?” said an unfamiliar voice behind Finn. Finn froze and turned slowly.
“Ah watched ya fo days now and ah knew ah’d find ya,” said a tall, thick boy with daggered white teeth. He licked his lips, spit and strolled towards Finn. “Others ‘re dummies, says ah can’t never find ya. Ah told ‘em ah’m gonna win dat bet an make ya talk. Can’t nobody but me do it ah told ‘em. Baraka ‘ll show ya how it get done, ah said. And now ah will.”
Older and taller, Baraka, towered over the compact Finn. He stood there grinning, hands on his hips, his hair smoothly curled, his arms and legs long and his muscles swollen and veiny, the veins like branching rivers feeding his muscles the furious energy of superheated blood rivers.
“Dey say ya don’t fight back and ya never talk. Now why would anybody be like dat ah wondered? Stupid. Dey said dey beat ya and ya don’t say nuthin’. Beat ya all day and ya still quiet. So ah say ya needs a different way. Can’t keep doin’ da same tricks over and over and ‘spect it ta work. Dat’s wisdom. So ah says how ah’m gonna get dat fooker talkin’? Yeah? Don’t know. Puzzled me fo days. Ah watched ya. And dat’s when ah saw ya sneakin’ up here one day and I climbed up ahn saw yir birds. And dat’s when ah knew what ta do so here ah am,” he said, taking a step closer, his hands spread out, palm up, as if he were showing the police he had no weapon.
Finn stood still, his eyes blazing, his nerves on fire. The boy hung there for a moment, as if suspended in water and then with cheetah like speed he snatched the tiny bird from Finn’s hands and with one swift twist, broke its glass fragile neck. The birds in the cage went insane, beating themselves to death against the bright bars and a successive waves of shock and fury detonated inside Finn. War exploded in his brain, billions of neurons blasting wildly like overheated cannons on a battlefield, the chemo-electrical signals like tracer fire across the dark sky of his mind, the signals red with violence and wrath.
“Now you’ll say somethin’ ah bet,” said Baraka, not even preparing for a fight, just standing there, nonchalantly.
He was right.
“Shut up,” said Finn and he smashed a surprised Baraka in the face, the punch erupting with the stored energy of the sun, his thick, granite heavy fist, shattering Baraka’s bulky nose, and it was like someone had broken a flash bulb in Baraka’s face and he spun and wavered, unraveled and flowed, and then zero, his mind short circuited, a dead TV channel, blank and buzzing with snow, and his body was cut off suddenly from it’s command center, the neuro-signals to brace the fall died on wires, never making it to his muscles, like someone making a call to a disconnected number and he fell, already unconscious, unable to stop himself, fell like a bag of bricks and he hit the ground and didn’t move.
It was the first time that Finn ever hit someone and that’s when he discovered that he could strike back and that when he hit people they stayed hit. In the coming weeks and months he would fight back furiously and when he connected the result was always the same: knockout.
But now Finn didn’t care about punches or revenge. Crying, he gathered up the small bird’s body and placed her gently in his jacket pocket. He went to the cage and calmed the others. Slowly, surely they relaxed, under his gentle caresses. He set the cage to lock, so that noone else could reach in there and he left the roof, leaving the flattened Baraka, just as the planned evening rains came, falling on the sick Edgelands buildings and the poor ash people and birds and slack faced Baraka, the rain running down his face and mixing with the blood.