Mars Needs Men!
But the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron will have to do. At least one of them self-identifies as male. He tucks proudly, and fuck you very much if you don’t like it.
By night, they work at clubs with names like Diamond Lil’s, the Lil’ Diamond, and Exclusively Lime Green. Every Thursday afternoon, they bowl. In-between, when they’re not bowling, or dancing, or singing on stage, they kick ass harder than you’ve seen ass kicked before. And they do it all in silver lamé and high heels.
This is Bunny, their leader, born Phillip Howard Craft the Third. At the moment, she is up in the recruiter’s face, waving a poster of Uncle Sam under the aforementioned tagline, a floating head against a backdrop of Martian red. Her nails are manicured perfection, each painted a different metallic shade, all the colors of the rainbow, and then some. Her hair is piled in a frosted bouffant so high it barely fit through the recruiter’s door. Despite the anger written in every line of her body, she doesn’t raise her voice.
“Your sign says you need volunteers. We’re volunteering, and since I don’t see your waiting room clogged with other candidates, dare I suggest: We’re all you’ve got.”
“I can’t…I won’t…” The recruiter turns bright red. He takes a deep breath, faces Bunny, and almost, but not quite, manages to look her in the eye.
“I can’t just let a bunch of…”
Bunny’s eyes, tinted violet today, shine cold steel. They stop the words in the recruiter’s throat, hard enough that he looks like he might actually choke. Her tone matches her eyes.
“Think carefully, General. If the next word out of your mouth is anything but ‘civilians’ I will dismember you myself. You won’t live long enough to worry about an invasion from Mars.”
The General’s jaw tightens. A vein in his forehead bulges.
“The Glitter Squadron’s record speaks for itself, General.”
Bunny’s voice is level. She places the poster on his desk.
“Cleaner than yours, I’ll dare say. And,” Bunny smirks, and points to the General’s medals, “our bling is better.”
Rage twists the General’s features, but his shoulders slump all the same.
“Fine,” he says. “The damned mission is yours. Add a little more red to the planet, if you want it so badly.”
Bunny smiles, teeth gleaming diamond bright. “I promise you, General, the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron is more than up to the task.”
They are loaded into the rocket by clean-cut scientists with white coats and strong values, men and women who believe glitter is for little girls’ birthday cards as long as they’re under six years old, and leather is for wallets and briefcases.
“Some people have no imagination,” Starlight stage-whispers as they climb the gangplank. Starlight was born Walter Adams Kennett. Her mirror-ball inspired outfit forces the good, moral scientists to look away as light breaks against her and scatters throughout the room.
Starlight pauses at the airlock door, looking up at the floodlit rocket, all sleek length, studded with rounded windows, and tipped at the base in fins. “Well, maybe not no imagination.” And she climbs aboard.
Bunny reads over a brief as they hurtle between the stars.
“Imagine the outfit I could make from one of those,” Starlight whispers, pointing to the stars pricking the vast dark.
“Hush.” Esmerelda, born Christine Joanne Layton elbows her.
“Our target is Doctor Blood,” Bunny says, rolling her eyes.
She flips a page in the neatly-stapled file, scans, while the twelve other bodies crammed into the rocket lean forward in anticipation.
“They least they could have done was give us champagne. We are off to save the world, after all. And this seating…”
No one answers Starlight this time.
For this mission, they’ve chosen strictly retro-future, which means skin-tight silver, boots that come nearer to the knee than their skirts, bubble-barreled ray-guns, frosted white lipstick and, of course, big hair. CeCe the Velvet Underground Drag King called in sick with the flu, so it’s lamé all the way.
Each member of the Squadron has added their own touch, as usual. Starlight’s peek-a-boo cutout dress, which is really more skin than fabric, is studded with mirrors. Esmerelda wears a wide belt, studded with faux gems, green to match her name. Bunny is wearing her namesake animal’s ears, peeking out from her enormous coif.
M is the only exception to all the brightness and dazzle. M wears leather, head-to-toe. Think Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman – erratic, angry stitches joining found leather so close to the body there’s no chance for the flesh underneath to breathe. Only it isn’t like that at all. There is a whip hanging from M’s hip though, and plenty of other toys beside. Only eyes and lips show through M’s mask, and their gender is indeterminate. No one knows M’s birth name, and it will stay that way.
Bunny clears her throat. “Doctor Blood, born Richard Carnacki Utley, is a brilliant scientist. He was working on splicing human and animal DNA as a way to cure cancer, or building better rocket fuel using radioactive spiders and black holes. Blah, blah, blah, the usual. We’ve all seen the movies, right?”
Esmerelda giggles approval. Bunny goes on.
“He caught his wife cheating with his lab partner, or his brother, or his best friend. He tried to burn them to death, or blow them up, or turn them into evil monkey robots, and horribly disfigured himself in the process. So he did the only sensible thing, and shot himself into space where he built a gigantic impenetrable fortress on Mars. Now, he’s threatening to invade earth, or shoot it to pieces with a space laser if the United Nations doesn’t surrender all of earth’s gold.”
“Can they do that?” Esmerelda asks.
Starlight mutters, “No imagination at all,” and shakes her head, sending bits of light whirling around the rocket.
“That’s where we come in,” Bunny says. “We take down Doctor Blood, easy peasy lemon squeezy, and we’re home in time for tea.”
“Ooh, make mine with brandy!” Starlight says.
Bunny rolls her eyes again. “Look sharp, we’re almost there.”
Penny is the weapons expert. Born Penelope Jean Hartraub, she is the only member of the Glitter Squadron who has actually seen war. Her mini dress has a faint coppery sheen, befitting her name. She stands at the bottom of the gangplank, distributing extra ammo and back-up weapons as twelve pairs of chunky heels kick up the red dirt of Mars.
She keeps the best gun for herself, not just a laser pistol, but an honest to goodness Big Fucking Gun. It has rings that light up and it makes a woo-woo sound when it’s fired and everything. Fashion-wise, it may be so last year, but it’ll get the job done. As they leave the rocket behind, heading towards the ridiculously over-sized fortress, all done up in phallic towers and bubble domes, Penny takes the lead.
They encounter guards, dressed oh-so-predictably in uniforms purchased from the discount bin at Nazis-R-Us.
“Boring.” Starlight buffs her nails to a high shine against a rare patch of fabric on her dress.
She delivers a high kick, catching the first guard in the throat with the bruising force of her extra-chunky, mirror-studded heel, not even bothering to draw her gun. Esmerelda uses her belt instead of the gun hanging from it, because it’s more fun. She wraps it around the second guard’s throat and neatly throttles him, before returning it to her waist.
The second wave of guards approaches with more caution. Penny singles out a man with a nasty grin, the one most likely to cause trouble. He reaches for her. She surprises him with her speed, and uses his momentum to bring him crashing down. He springs up.
“I won’t make this easy on you, girly,” he says, or something equally cliché.
Penny ignores him and goes in for a blow to the ribs. But it doesn’t land. This time he’s the one to surprise her with his speed. He catches her and spins her around, pinning her. She swears he tries to cop a feel, and his breath stinks of alcohol when he speaks close to her ear.
“You like that? You want a real man to show you how it’s done?”
No imagination, she imagines Starlight saying, and smashes her head back against his, hoping it will break his nose. At very least it breaks his concentration. She slips free. The BFG is too good for this one.
He comes at her fast and hard, excitement clear in his eyes. She can see from their shine just what he thinks he’ll do to her when he bests her, how he thinks he’ll make her beg, and how he thinks she’ll like it. She sweeps his legs out from under him; there’s a satisfying crack as his head hits the floor. Even dazed, he grins up at her, blood between his teeth as she stands over him. She knows exactly what he’s thinking: So, you like it rough, girly? Me, too. I like a girl who knows how to play.
Fashion be damned. She pulls out a battered old 9mm pistol.
“Fetishize this, asshole.” And she puts a single bullet in his brain.
There are gorilla men – of course there are – all spliced DNA, dragging knuckles and swinging hairy arms. Bunny makes short work of them. There are radioactive zombies, slavering, pawing, glowing green and dropping chunks of unnamable rot in their wake.
Esmerelda handles them with grace and aplomb. There are even spiders, which sends Starlight into a fit of giggling, before she takes them out, singing Bowie at the top of her lungs.
There are two female guards in the whole sprawling expanse of the base, both wearing bikinis, chests heaving before they’ve even thought to pick a fight.
“Oh, how progressive!” Starlight claps her hands in mock rapture.
“I suppose there’s a mud pit just behind that door?”
The girls in bikinis exchange glances; this is outside of their training.
“Look, honey. Honeys. Let me explain something to you. Super-villains pay crap. And there’s no such thing as an Evil League of Evil healthcare plan.”
One of the women takes a questioning step forward. Starlight holds up a hand.
“I won’t make some grandiose speech about the fate of the world, or doing it for the children you’ll probably never have, but I will say this – killing bad guys is a heck of a lot of fun. And we pay overtime.”
And the forces of might and justice and looking damned fine in knee-high high heels swells to fifteen.
M is the one to find Doctor Blood, deep in his underground lair.
He stands at a curved control panel, raised on a catwalk above an artificial canal, which more likely than not is filled with genetically enhanced Martian piranhas.
He screams profanities, his voice just as high-pitched with mania as you might imagine. He’s wearing a lab coat, shredded and scorched, as though he has just this moment stepped out of the fire that destroyed his sanity and nearly ended his life. To his credit, the scars covering half his face are pink and shiny, stretched tight, weeping clear fluid tinged pale red when he screams. His finger hovers over a big red button, the kind that ends the world.
M approaches with measured steps. The profanities roll off the leather; the imprecation and threats don’t penetrate between the thick, jagged stitches. Doctor Blood runs out of words and breath. He looks at M, wild-eyed, and meets only curiosity in the leather-framed stare. Oddly, he can’t tell what color the eyes looking back at him are. They might be every color at once, or just one color that no one has though up a name for yet.
His voice turns harsh, broken, raw. The weeping sores are joined by real tears – salt in the wound.
“I’ll make you pay. All of you. Nobody ever believed in me. I’ll show them all. They’ll love me now. Everyone will.”
It comes out as one long barely distinguished string of words.
M puts a hand on the sobbing scientist’s shoulder. M understands pain, every kind there is. M understands when someone needs to be hurt, to be pushed to the very edge before they can come out on the other side of whatever darkness they’ve blundered into. And M knows when someone has had enough, too. When there’s no pain in the world greater than simply living inside their own skin, and all the hurting in the world won’t bring them anything.
Doctor Blood’s words trail off, incoherent for the sobs. “Daddy never…I’m sorry mommy…”
“I know,” M says softly. “Shh, I know.”
And M does an unexpected thing, a thing M has never done before. M steps close and folds the doctor in leather clad arms, patting his back and letting him cry.
Sixteen bodies crowd the rocket ship hurtling back toward earth – just like Bunny promised, home in time for tea.
Starlight fogs the window with her breath, looking out at all that glittering black. Esmerelda discusses wardrobe options with the women in bikinis.
The others talk among themselves, comparing notes, telling stories of battles won, the tales growing with each new telling. Ruby and Sapphire, the twins who aren’t twins and couldn’t look more opposite if they tried, single-handedly took down an entire legion of Martian Lizardmen, to hear them tell the tale. Mistress Minerva knocked out a guard with her clever killer perfume spray and rescued a bevy of Martian Princes who couldn’t wait to express their gratitude. Empress Zatar, who was born for this mission and didn’t even get a single moment of screen time, fought off three Grons and a Torlac with nothing more than a hairpin.
And so the stories go.
Penny cleans her guns and her blades, humming softly to herself as she does, an old military tune.
Bunny uses an honest to goodness pen, and makes notes in a real paper journal.
Doctor Blood’s head is bowed. His shoulders hitch every now and then.
M sits straight and silent, staring ahead with leather framed eyes, and holds Doctor Blood’s hand.
All together, they tumble through the fabulous, glittering dark.
They are heading back home to claim their hero’s welcome, even though every one of them knows this moment, right here, surrounded by so many glorious stars it hurts, is all the thanks they will ever get for saving the world. Again.
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Ideomancer, and The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4, among others. In addition to her writing, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, an online magazine of fiction and art about bugs. You can find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise. She says:
Operation: Annihilate Mars was originally inspired by a call for submissions that I only noticed the day before the deadline. It was feverishly written and edited in a few hours, and sent off just under the wire. While it wasn’t accepted for the anthology, I was still very happy with the way the story turned out. It’s my attempt to pay homage to cheesy B movies and pulp story lines, but turned slightly sideways. After all, who wants the world saved by a boring old square-jawed hero when an ultra fabulous glitter squadron of drag queens is available?
Illustration by Walter Crane is Neptuns Pferde (1893) and is in the public domain.
Samantha remembers when the factory was a school.
Not much has changed. Long work tables have replaced long desks in the vast, cold room, and a supervisor paces with watchful eyes instead of a teacher.
High windows let in light the color of dirty water. Samantha’s fingers ache with the cold; the work cramps her bones. For just a moment she wishes she could climb up and up to stand beneath the sky, stretch her chilled fingers to ripple its surface, dive in and swim away. But before she can think more about the dirty-water sky, or when the factory was a school, another dead man comes down the line.
His body is wrapped in the tattered remains of his uniform. The patchwork cloth is thick and stiff with blood where it isn’t torn to let skin and bone show through. He is young, or he was young. There is no helmet protecting him, and half his face is missing, half his skull caved in.
Like a flock of falling birds, Samantha and the other skinny skin girls dive in. Their fingers are nimble-quick, and they vulture-pick the cold flesh. Scissors flash, cutting the tattered, blood-soaked cloth away. The rags go into the bins under the table; they will be washed tonight and stitched back together tomorrow. How many times, in how many forms, has this cloth passed through her hands?
After the man is stripped bare, knives will flash instead of scissors, and skin will be peeled from bone. Muscle, sinew, and fat will be ripped away, bone picked from bone, hip separated from thigh, knee from shin—from skull down to toes. The soldier’s bones will be cracked and the marrow sucked clean. Everything about the man who, Samantha assumes, once had a face and a name, will be torn down and repurposed to serve the cause of the war.
Samantha looks at the young man’s face, the half that isn’t ruined. She knows she shouldn’t; he is only raw material, only meat smelling of blood and burnt powder, but she can’t help herself. His hair was once dirty blond—now it is matted with fragments of skin and skull and blood. Behind the chill clouding of death, there is an eye that was once blue.
Her hands move automatically, slick and quick, searching for metal—bullets or coins—anything that can be melted down. Instead her fingers close on a scrap of paper. She draws it out, hunching over the table and sheltering it with thin-bone shoulders so no one will see.
It is a fragment of a letter, addressed to someone named Marietta. Samantha has seen dozens of dead letters like this—written to lovers and mothers and brothers and sons. She almost tosses the scrap into the bin, destined to become pulp again by nightfall, but something catches her eye. As two of the other skinny skin girls peel back the soldier’s sleeve, she sees ink on his arm.
In the dim, watery light, Samantha leans close. Marietta. She catches her breath at the doubled name, written on the dead soldier’s flesh and the scrap in her hand. Her head swims, and her mouth goes dry. The world spins on its axis and all at once she is infected; hope burns fever-bright beneath her skin.
Marietta. The name sings in her bones. This, she thinks, is love—a name written on flesh, blood carrying it to the heart with every beat. But the dead soldier’s heart doesn’t beat anymore—only its ghost, tucked inside Samantha’s skin.
It seems impossible, but in the gray of the factory, among the powder-scorched stench of the dead, she needs this one thing to be true. Quick-flash, her knife comes out and Samantha peels the name from the dead man’s skin. Her chilled fingers slip the skin and the letter into her pocket.
“What are you doing?” snaps Elee. “We haven’t even got his clothes off yet, and you’re already at his skin?”
She slaps the knife out of Samantha’s hand, and it clatters to the floor. The factory has made Elee’s eyes hard. Samantha’s raw skin smarts; it is already chapped and bruised, and the mark of Elee’s hand lingers too long. When Samantha doesn’t answer, Elee slaps her again.
“Bin’s full. Go wash the rags.”
Elee turns away, and Samantha obeys. The bin stinks with the sour tang of old blood, and its weight makes her thin arms tremble.
Down in the laundry, the air is heavy with the harsh scent of soap—fat rendered from beneath human skin—and steam from the scalding tubs. Samantha fetches a metal vat full of water the same thin gray as the light falling through the factory windows, and empties the bloody rags into it. She kneels, plunging her chapped and stinging hands in up to her elbows, and begins to scrub. Slowly, the water turns from gray to rust.
As she works, she dreams of Marietta, and Samantha finds she can ignore the ache. She tries to picture the girl. What would she look like, how would she sound, how did she and the dead solider boy fit together when they stood side by side? Samantha dreams of love that can outlast the repurposing of skin and bones. She dreams of a steady beat and blood carrying ink to a dead soldier’s heart.
The hours that follow are a meaningless blur of repetition—cloth stripped from skin, skin stripped from bone, bone shattered and marrow sucked clean till nothing remains. In the brief hours before the next shift begins, Samantha huddles on her narrow cot and pulls the letter from her pocket. The rough blanket, which might once have been a dead man’s uniform, is scarcely enough to keep her warm.
By the scrap of cold light falling from a high window, Samantha reads. As she reads, she writes the words on her heart, absorbing them through her fingertips. She traces each line until the paper is soft and worn.
Marietta, I will come back to you. No matter what, just wait for me, and I’ll find you. I dream of Wentwood Gardens…
The scrap trails off in a torn and ragged edge. Wentwood Gardens—the name conjures fantastic images of serene trees over rolling, green lawns and flowers breathing gentle scent into the air. Samantha wonders if such a place could ever possibly exist.
With only an hour left before the next shift, Samantha pulls the thin blanket over her thinner shoulders and lies down. When she sleeps, she dreams of soldiers drifting slowly from the sky beneath parachutes stitched of human skin.
Samantha has done the impossible; she has slipped away from Elee’s watchful eyes. Now Samantha is a rat in the maze of the factory’s bowels and there is a narrow window, just big enough for a skinny skin girl to slip through.
She punch-shatters the glass, a shirt wrapped around her hand to protect her from the shards. They cut her anyway and Samantha sucks in a sharp breath, but there is no time to waste. She shimmies through, and then she is outside—running.
The sky is the same dirty-water color as the light spilling through the factory windows. It’s cold outside, but unlike the slow chill of the factory, here the wind cuts through the thinness of her clothes and there are no walls to protect her.
The stretching buildings and the open spaces are just as claustrophobic as the factory walls. Panic rises like a trapped bird, beating its wings against the aching curve of Samantha’s bones. She darts into the street—a rat in the maze of the big, wide world. A bus screeches its brakes and swerves to avoid her.
Behind glass spattered with years of dust and rain, the driver swears. Samantha’s heart hammers in her throat. She chokes on a sob, ready to slink away home, but the words burning bright above the bus window catch her eye—Wentwood Gardens.
Her heart hammers a different rhythm now.
She has no coin, but she beseeches the driver with her eyes. The man is hard, she can see it in every line of his face, but there is a flicker deep in his eyes. Somehow she knows, instinctively, that she reminds him of someone—a daughter, a sister, a lost friend. Samantha stretches out work-chapped hands and mouths a single word.
The bus doors fold inward angrily, and the driver glares. There is hate in his eyes for the way she has cut his heart to the quick, for the way she has infected him with the light leaking from beneath her skin. As she climbs onboard, Samantha dares a smile. The driver turns away, but not before she sees him swipe roughly at the corner of his eye.
In the back of the bus she curls up in a corner that smells of piss and stale beer. The bus is almost warm, and its jolting motion rocks her to sleep.
“End of the line.”
The gravel-growled words pull her up from dreams, and Samantha jerks awake. The bus driver glares at her in the rearview mirror, his eyes red-rimmed and hard. She stumbles forward on legs gone pins-and-needles numb. The door is cocked open and waiting, but the world on the other side is wrong.
Instead of gentle trees and rolling green, there is cracked asphalt scarred harshly with white and yellow lines. Beyond the lot, the mall sprawls—squatting buildings, more spawned than built, with soft edges just starting to decay.
Samantha stares, gape-jawed. The buildings tug at some faint memory. When the factory was a school, the mall was a real mall, but even then it was soft at its core, rotting slowly from the inside out. Samantha remembers brief glimpses of too-bright lights, scents of salty-sweet food, and the mall girls, lacquered and painted into shellacked shells—the Mall Squall.
Her heart jumps into her throat, painful-sharp, like a fragment of glass, and lodges there. She spins around, eyes wild.
“There must be some mistake,” she pleads, but there is no mercy in the driver’s eyes.
He points. Over the mall door high letters spell out the words Wentwood Gardens.
“But…” Samantha begins.
He shoves her. The doors snap shut, unforgiving, and she coughs exhaust as she hits the ground.
The bus pulls away and she is alone on the rolling, buckled asphalt, under straggly sodium lights that stand in for trees. A scatter of car-carcasses, rusted through and set on blocks, mocks her. For one terrible moment she sees the mall through skin girl eyes. It is a salvager’s dream.
Under a bruise-colored light by the door, a knot of figures huddles, girls with their heads together, fingers nicotine-stained as they share a single cigarette for warmth. Their legs are netted beneath too-short skirts over too-spiked heels. Their eyes are painted garish-bright—turquoise, purple and pink. Their hair is lacquered and shellacked, just like their nails.
They remind Samantha of candy—a taste she can almost remember—too easily cracked to reveal a mess of brittle shards inside. Their clothes are ragged and patched, their fingers too thin; their skin is sallow in the yellow light and too ready to bruise. But that doesn’t stop their lips shaping cruel sneers as they knot closer together and call out to her where she is stranded outside their circle of warmth.
“Hey, skinny skin girl! What do you want? Flash cash, or go home!”
The hostility in the hooded gazes watching her is as hard as nails. But Samantha sees them. She sees them the way she saw the bus driver. She sees the ghosts beneath their skin.
Her eyes fix on a girl hanging back behind the others. Her eyes are turquoise shell over storm gray, narrowed and wary, watching Samantha. The girl smokes a shield, breathing it thicker with each exhaled breath.
Samantha pulls the worn-soft letter out of her pocket.
She steps forward, but the squalid girls with pink and purple eyes block her way.
“What do you want, hey? Get out of here, skin trash!”
A mall doll flicks a cigarette butt. Samantha catches the sharp tar scent and then burning ash dusts her arm. She flinches back, but she doesn’t turn away. Marietta’s name is honey-thick on her tongue.
Samantha tries to force her way forward. The letter flutters in her hands like it wants to grow wings. Marietta doesn’t move. Her eyes flicker like the thrown cigarette—ember turns to ash and ever so slightly, Marietta turns her face away.
Cold sickness turns in Samantha’s gut. She freezes. The world tilts on its axis again and she smells crushed cigarettes, old exhaust and cooled sweat and sex grown sour. Samantha sees through broken skin girl eyes—Marietta is only a mall girl; the love written on the dead soldier’s skin was bought by the hour.
The buckled, broken asphalt threatens to pitch her off the edge of the world. With tears standing in her eyes, Samantha pulls the dead soldier’s skin from her pocket. She wraps it around the letter, and with her last scrap of strength she hurls it at Marietta’s feet and turns away.
Samantha slinks home. She crawls back to the factory, and slips through the window and into her narrow bed where she shivers under a rough, scratchy blanket made from dead men’s clothes. This time, when Samantha sleeps, she doesn’t dream at all.
Marietta picks up the worn scrap for the thousandth time. She has thrown it in the bin and plucked it out again, over and over again. She draws in an absent breath of heat and nicotine, and then leaves the cigarette to burn. She breathes out and blue-gray wisps curl around her head. The words blur and she tells herself it is the smoke in her eyes. She picks a bitter fleck of ash from her painted lips and then crushes out the flame.
Around her, the mall is empty. She looks over the rail to the cracked and dry fountain below, stained rust-yellow where water and coins used to be. She doesn’t know where the other mall girls are, and for once she doesn’t care. For once she doesn’t crave their heat, the sweat-warmth and musk-scent of other bodies, even bodies as sharp and angular as hers.
She wants to be alone with the dirty floors and the broken tiles and the blind windows, smashed long ago for the treasures within. Marietta feels thin—not the beautiful-thin from before the war, but a hungry-thin, a cold-thin. The grisly scrap of skin, the dead soldier’s last offering to her, is spread across the railing in front of her, taunting her with her name.
He was just another silly soldier boy. But he came back—again and again. He paid extra to lie tangled in her arms, to stroke her hair and tell her stories about a place at the end of the world where the sea glittered like broken glass and no one was at war.
Now the silly soldier with his head full of dreams won’t come back anymore. She grips the rail, old wood splintering beneath her nails. Then Marietta isn’t thinking about the silly, dead soldier boy anymore, she is thinking about the skinny skin girl.
She knows about the factories where they recycle cloth and skin and bone. They are cold places—cramped and hurting and stinking of blood and rendered flesh. Then Marietta is crying—among the food court ghosts, among the lingering salt and sticky sweet—alone with the memory of what might have been.
She weeps for the skinny skin girl and the silly, dead soldier boy. She weeps for all the impossible places he told her about. And she weeps for herself —shellacked and lacquered, bruised and battered. Marietta begins to run.
Tears blind her as she stumbles through the ruins of the mall. Shattered glass crunches underfoot like hollow bones as she flees past empty stores and fountains strip-mined of their lucky coins. Her gasping breath brings the smell of old copper and chlorine.
Marietta bursts through the broken doors into the parking lot. Outside it stinks of exhaust. Boys circle, cruising for broken dolls. They hoot and holler, leaning out of their car like wolves. The engine is a slow growl as they prowl, and as they swing close and one of the boys tries to grab her. Marietta hisses at him, lashing out with her claws and raking his skin.
“Bitch!” He screams, and the engine guns to run her down.
She stumbles in her spiked heels. The boys cackle in their car, and she twists around to see their jackal grins. The headlights pin her, light dragging across her skin, weighing her down.
For a moment, everything blurs. The world tilts on its axis and just like that, she knows she won’t lie down. She pulls herself up, glaring. She feels in her pocket for the ragged, sticky edges of the dead soldier’s skin and the worn-soft edges of his letter. The resolve in her eyes glitters like broken glass, like the shining sea.
At the last minute, the car swerves and the boys whoop as they screech away. Shoes abandoned, Marietta crosses to the bus shelter on tender, netted feet.
It smells of spilt beer and worse things, but as the bus lets her off at the end of the world, Marietta smiles. She looks up at the factory, dark with tar-thick shadows—a fortress made of impenetrable walls. There are windows high up in the walls and she can tell—their glass is shellacked-shell thin and easily broken.
Marietta begins to climb. There’s no security, no alarms; no one wants to get in. She finds a window, already half broken, and slips inside, slithering and twisting and falling. She lands cat-light and graceful on a narrow walk above a room filled with machines and damp-steam heat and the clangor of noise.
Marietta tries to pick out one skinny skin girl among the dozens, but she can barely see through the billowing tallow-heat. The smell is just as she imagined—a slaughter house scent of old meat. She struggles not to gag.
Shadow-slick Marietta slinks along the catwalk. The people below her are like ghosts, gray fading into gray and disappearing. For just a moment she wishes she could shed her too-bright shell and be just like them.
Night and day don’t exist between these walls and Marietta finds the rows of narrow beds full even as the factory’s gruesome work grinds on and on. Among the sleeping figures, one stirs. A skinny skin girl turns to show restless, dreaming eyes. Dust-gray hair falls across an ashen cheek, and skin-thin lids flicker with the pressure of those dreams. Marietta runs down the aisle, and kneels by the skinny skin girl’s bed.
Marietta presses her hand to the girl’s mouth, and looks deep into her eyes. There is light in those eyes, ember buried under ash.
“Come on,” Marietta whispers. “Come with me.”
She tugs on the stick-thin arm, feeling hollow bones beneath fever-dry skin.
“Where are we going?” the skin girl whispers.
“Out,” Marietta replies. There is a pause and Marietta’s heart catches in her throat. She is afraid to turn, afraid to look at the skin girl and see the light fading in her eyes.
Marietta forces herself to look back. After a moment, the skin girl smiles.
“It’s this way.”
Twig fingers tug at Marietta’s hand. The hollow-bone grip tightens, and Marietta smiles too. The fire is no longer guttering, but burning strong inside the skin girl’s skin.
“What’s your name?”
“Samantha. Why did you come back for me?”
Marietta turns to face eyes that are lantern-bright. She can barely breathe and she wraps her arms around the thin blades of Samantha’s bones and her dust-cool skin and hugs her as hard as she can. She almost says, to save you, but she knows that it’s the other way around, or that they have each been saving each other all along.
“I wanted to tell you a story,” she says at last, in a voice thick with salt-tasting tears.
“I wanted to tell you about a place at the end of the world where the sea shines like a thousand pieces of broken glass and everything can be like it used to.”
“Is it real?” Samantha asks. Her voice is all hushed wonder. Marietta only nods.
“Come on,” she murmurs, her voice hoarse and sweet. “Let’s go.”
They run silent until they’re up and out on the roof of the factory, standing side by side. Tar paper scratches rough under their feet. The ragged scent of old smoke drifts away on a tattered breeze.
Up here it doesn’t look like a factory, or a school. It looks like a city made of metal towers, reaching out to touch the sky. Their bodies fit together as they stand under the charcoal-smudged sky, under the curved ceiling of the world.
“Do you think there are stars on the other side?” Samantha asks and Marietta nods. She can finally see.
“Look over there.” She points.
It might be the glow of firebombs or the world coming to an end, but as she links her fingers through the knotted twig bones bound in skin that make up Samantha’s hand, Marietta can believe it’s the sunrise.
A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her work has previously appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Fantasy Magazine, ChiZine and Strange Horizons. For more information visit her website.
The story began with the image of the factory where the dead are repurposed tumbling into my head, more or less fully formed. From there, it developed its own rhythm. Certain words latched on to each other and formed images that defined the shape and feel of the world. Despite the bleak setting, I wanted it to be a story about hope, but hope that felt authentic to the character’s lives—desperate hope or reluctant hope.