AN: Another project that started out as a short story until I decided I wanted to do more. I think that’s…sort of a theme? With me attempting to write short stories? Anyway here’s the short version that maybe someday will become something longer
They’re looking for someone named Geno.
Lesha waits less-than-patiently while Bobby and the old man go at it, teeth gritted, bared, and the air sizzle-singed between them. Lesha doesn’t know the old man well, only that he came over from Cuba in the fifties and apparently fucked a bunch of movie stars but Bobby seems intimately aware: he keeps hissing about vaults and breaches, half-assed code words because Bobby’s not up for creating a whole new language. That’s the problem with the low-level Cosmicists, Lesha thinks–their ambitions aren’t near developed enough to support their ideals. And the higher-ups take advantage of that.
Anyway, Geno. Evgeni, apparently? Lesha doesn’t have a last name. They’re in some cloister-like living room of a small dusty house in Palmdale and Lesha can smell the wick of the world burning outside in the sun-white air. The house–as far as she knows–doesn’t belong to the old man but its owner owed him a favor before Transposing and so here they are, free from listening ears because what fucking entity in its right mind would care about what goes on in Palmdale?
“He does it wrong,” the old man says, slamming his fist on a beat-up Ikea coffee table. He and Bobby are sitting on the sofa, not looking at one another as they fight. Lesha’s curled up like a cat in a moss-green reclining chair, waiting for Bobby to finish his business so they can go after this Geno–whoever the fuck he is.
“There’s no wrong,” Bobby spits. “That’s the whole problem with all your old-school bullshit. There’s no wrong!”
“You’re uneducated,” the old man says, artfully superior. “There was a way once and it did not die out when the papers were burned. It is still the way, whether you admit it or not. And Geno–he is the opposite. He is the–” the man pauses, thinking. “The miasma. The effluvia. He is all the waste and none of the matter. Stay away from him.”
Lesha frowns, picking threads. The old man tries to lace his words with venom–he does very well–but Lesha works in the Underneath after all so she knows deflection when she hears it. The old man’s warning Bobby but he’s protecting Geno. He thinks making Geno into a monster will force Bobby away but he doesn’t know Bobby very well.
“He’s in trouble,” Bobby says, voice low. Bobby never yells. He hisses and curdles and spits like a burning log but he never yells. “The flesh-bags back in LA–”
“That’s just what they told you,,” the old man says. “Your priesthood back in Los Angeles.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Bobby says but of course the old man does. Because the flesh-bags couldn’t take down an architect but just the mention of them get Bobby going, even if the threat is invented. And Bobby is right in his rage because after all they murdered his brother and then ate the body right in front of him.
“I was there in the beginning,” the old man says.
Lesha is getting annoyed. “Where is he?” she asks, breaking the cadence of the argument and the old man turns to look at her with such shock Lesha wonders if he ever registered her presence in the first place. He stares for a long time, convincing himself she is real. Lesha doesn’t like it; she doesn’t like the familiarity of his gaze.
“What have you to do with this?” he demands. As if he knows her. As if she’s part of some subset that she knows damn well she isn’t. She’s singular.
Lesha narrows her eyes. It’s way past time for this to be over. She stands up and the room seems to shrink around her, the bones of the house turning gelatinous, molding to her and the sun overhead the cruel smirk of white sun: the old man’s mouth opens once and his face collapses in on itself, a weakness broached beneath the skin. All the air sucked out of the empty spaces.
“Fine,” he wheezes.
Lesha lets the room go.
Bobby doesn’t look at her but she can feel his relief. It roils, curls around him, smears like charcoal across the rise of his cheeks.
The old man gives them the name of a road near the Air Force Base. Bobby’s face flickers into a frown.
“That was closed down–”
“You’re uneducated,” the old man repeats.
“Come on,” Lesha says. The old man can’t lie to her. The road is there and so is Geno. “We’re done.”
Bobby closes his mouth and stands up to follow her out of the house.
Lesha and Bobby drive from Palmdale to North Edwards. The route is very nearly a perfect right angle: CA-14 to the vertex in Mojave and then taking the ray onto 58. It’s nowhere country, it’s government county, it’s lights-in-the-sky country. Conspiracy Land. Small stories made explosive by limited worlds. Lesha stare out the window into the white-blue and the dust.
“You didn’t have to,” Bobby says after they get onto 58.
“It’s fine,” she says. “He wasn’t going to give anything away otherwise.”
“Yeah but,” Bobby turns to her and squints like a movie star. “I know you don’t like to.”
“I don’t like to when it’s not my choice,” she says.
Bobby nods, turns back to the road. “That was your choice?”
“Of course,” she says. “What are you gonna do when we find him?” Because that hasn’t been decided yet. It couldn’t be decided in LA where the walls and the ground and the air and the atoms and all their particles have eyes and ears and pulpy listening wetness. Hell they didn’t say Geno’s name until they’d stopped in Ravenna to get the old man’s address. They’d met with one of Bobby’s Unformed allies who’d coughed up the info and it’d asked–with its glottal murmur–what they were looking for. Bobby didn’t dare lie to the Unformed, who’d saved his brother from what the flesh-bags had planned so he’d said a guy named Geno. some rogue architect. And the Unformed had flashed its strange iridescence across what you’d call its face and formed a glob of a word: evgeni.
So then in the car on the way to Palmdale Bobby’d explained to Lesha: the Cosmicist hotshots needed all the architects accounted for and if Bobby found this rogue then they’d pay him off big time and they’d cut loose some chains too. Lesha was in on it because she was bound to protect Bobby but she wasn’t ashamed to admit she was curious on her own. A rogue architect. You didn’t see many of those. It was worth it to ride along. But now in test plane country they can talk as freely as can be hoped on this plane of existence and Lesha wants as much from Bobby as he’ll give.
“Get him to come to LA,” Bobby says.
“If he’s rogue he won’t want to,” Lesha says.
Bobby squints again. It’s a habit he’s picked up from his dad. “Then we make him.”
Which is where I come along Lesha thinks. “They want him alive though, right?”
“Of course,” Bobby says.
“What kind of alive though?”
The sentient kind then. Good to know. “And you don’t know anything else about him?”
“Not really. Just what the higher-ups gave me.”
“This some kind of test?”
“Like a rite?” Bobby asks, raising an eyebrow. “Yeah I guess. I’m half-in because of my mom but you know…they don’t do things halfway.”
Lesha nods, glances over at Bobby. He doesn’t do it for her even if he were available but she likes him. Before, she hadn’t ever thought men and women could just like each other, without all that messy shit rearing up and vomiting all over the sentiment. But maybe she’d watched too many movies. She knows what friend means, far and away from anything else and Bobby’s her friend. That’s good. That’s a good thing. Friends are better than lovers.
“Almost there,” Bobby says. They drive beneath an overpass and there’s an unmarked road branching off from the highway, so unused and dust-eaten it might not really exist at all. Bobby turns and overhead a plane hums in low, giant gray against the white, its immense guts churning fuel and spitting a dull muted roar as it puts down its wheels.
The dusty road goes nowhere until it ends at a fifties-looking motel, sticking strange out of the desert like a mutant bloom. There’s all the nostalgic trappings: atomic-age neon wrapping words INTERSTELLAR MOTEL in garish red and underneath VACANCIES in black words on a white face. Two stories with a red railing set around the second floor and blue doors interspersed with sun-occluded windows. There’s a cafe too, where the office seems to be and Bobby pulls up in front. The lot’s fuller than Lesha imagined, cars dust-blanketed and ticking hot.
Bobby and Lesha go into the cafe. Checkerboard floors and space-age tables, chrome and red leather. Designed before the world realized that the future would be a hell of a lot uglier than the bombs promised. Lesha and Bobby slide into a booth and Lesha scans the room: three men, two women–the two women sit together at the bar, talking in low murmurs; a man sits by himself at the end, a few seats down from the women; two men sit at a round table in the middle of the floor, one old and one just barely not a teenager.
A waitress who seems mostly human appears. “What can I get you?”
“Just coffee for me. Black. Lesha?”
She winces a little because Bobby used her name. His expression is untroubled, as if he doesn’t realize and she frowns, glancing at him before turning to the waitress. “Burger. Rare. Nothing but the bun.”
The waitress nods and moves off into the ether. Lesha needs to have a quick talk with Bobby now, in the quiet, because he should know better about her name, throwing it around carelessly among strangers.
“Bobby,” she says but he doesn’t respond. She frowns
“Bobby,” Lesha repeats. He looks vague, distant. “Bobby!” not caring how loud she is now because he doesn’t hear her and she’s starting to get a little scared. “Bobby!”
The voice comes through the liquid and Lesha turns so fast her bones crack. No one’s looking at her but she can feel the attention of the two women focused on her, laser-precise and just as dangerous. They’re both youngish, one white and one black. Dressed in muted grays and greens, heads bowed together like they’re praying.
What the hell is going on?
You’re being worked into the pattern. And the laser-focus shifts to the man at the end of the bar, who’s toying idly with his coffee mug. He’s…he’s gotta make us all make sense or else whatever it is in here will tear us apart. What are you?
We’re beyond niceties at this point, huh?
Lesha shifts uncomfortably. Bobby has that same vague look, and now he’s shredding one of the napkins he’s pulled from the sleek space-age silver napkin holder.
Guess so. My mother was a seed. My dad was a librarian. That’s a very bare-bones way of describing it but Lesha doesn’t feel like getting into more detail. I don’t think there’s a term for the offspring of that particular match.
No but maybe he’ll make one up another shift of focus to the man at the end of the bar.
I don’t need him to do that Lesha says, nettled. Is he the architect?
An architect Lesha curses her own stupid mistake.
Yeah he is. You’re the hitman then. Hit woman. Whatever you’d prefer
We don’t want him dead
No but you’re not here because of what you want, are you?
They don’t want him dead either.
How nice of them
What the fuck are you two if you don’t mind me asking? Lesha of course has a pretty good idea but she wants them to say it. She wants them to have to answer. She keeps staring at Bobby but nothing she knows how to do can break him out of whatever the architect’s doing. No wonder the higher ups in LA want this guy–he’s spinning his own worlds here and that’s fucking atomic territory. Forbidden knowledge.
Star children of course. So’re they the attention now on the older man and the teenager. We’d been wandering and we found this place. Didn’t realize what it was.
What is it?
A battery. A venus flytrap. Whatever you want.
Lesha wants nothing but to to be out of this nightmare. She stands up and finds herself almost gasping with relief that she can move and she crosses the hypernaturally still air to where the architect sits. Geno. She’d expected a white guy but he’s darker–Latino, probably, like the old man and that makes Lesha wonder but she’s not going to pluck that thread now. Geno glances over at her, gives her a mildly surprised grin. He has a nice-looking face: broad and a bit like a bush-league boxer’s but still nice-looking.
“Hi,” he says. “Are you gonna kill me?”
“No,” Lesha says, sitting down. “What are you doing to them?”
Geno frowns a bit. He reminds Lesha then of a kid who sat in the backseat of her eighth-grade science class–they’d all thought he was blowing off the whole thing because he never opened his mouth, never looked anything but gently confused until he disappeared one day and they learned he was really some kind of super-genius who’d been whisked off to a private school in Berkeley: Lesha had understood then– his confusion wasn’t because he didn’t get what the teacher was saying–his confusion was why any of it had to be taught at all. Why everyone else didn’t just know.
“I made this place,” Geno says, gesturing vaguely. “Because I knew my uncle’s guys wanted me to come home. But then people started showing up and I didn’t know what to do. They were people who…who needed help, you know? Who needed a place to stay to…” he frowns.
“Recharge?” Lesha offers.
“Yeah!” Geno grins, eyes bright. “Right. But when they came in I had…I had to make them fit or else…or else they’d be hurt I think. I don’t know why it’s not working on you but I guess it doesn’t hurt you either, so that’s good. Your friend though–if I just let him go I feel like he’d explode. He knows my uncle, doesn’t he?”
“Probably,” Lesha says. “We’re here to bring you back to LA.”
Geno sighs, looks down at his big hands. Lesha notices his knuckles are scabbed up pretty bad and there’s older bruising underneath the raw wounds. “I don’t want to go back.”
“Yeah I figured,” Lesha feels so out of her depth that it almost calms her. She doesn’t know what to do or if there’s anything she can do so she’s pretty much immune from making a mistake, isn’t she? Go on your gut. That’s a human thing. Instinct, voices from the bowels, some strung-out connection to a harder way of living, where dangers were easier to spot, where the wordless voices in your brain were easier to hear. “But I have a feeling if you don’t come with us then the next ones they send are gonna be worse.”
“You’re not worse?”
Geno looks at her. “No, you’re not worse. You’re…you’re very singular, aren’t you? I don’t even have a word for you. I don’t have a reality for you. Maybe that’s why I can’t weave you into the pattern. And why it doesn’t kill you.”
“Sounds good to me,” Lesha says because as far as she knows she is a singularity but she never understood what that might mean in regards to the architects. The Cosmicists. And a small prick of worry threads across the skin of her neck, a flicker of dark in the corner of her eye that she’d never seen before. They sent Bobby here to bring Geno back. The miasma. The effluvia. All the waste and none of the matter.
Go careful Lesha hears one of the women’s voice hum close to her ear.
Yeah, I think I gotta.
Geno sighs and his face falls into a sadness that Lesha can’t describe, can’t plumb with words or understanding. He looks like a god who’s creations have started killing each other. Then he stands up and all around them reality wefts it weaves in and out and in and out, countless adjustments and too fast to process and then in a blink it stills and the air is heavy again, dust-scented and the cafe still exists but it’s drab now, decayed.
“Hey!” Bobby’s voice from the booth and then his head and shoulders as he jumps to his feet. The man and the teenager look like they’ve just been hit, staring stunned around them. The two women turn in unison to look at Lesha and she looks back at them, memorizing their faces. The black woman mimes a salute and the white woman winks.
Bobby barrels over, all electricity, ready for a fight. Lesha puts a hand on his arm. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Bobby frowns, stars from Lesha to Geno. “This is him?”
Geno stands up. “You got me.” He holds up his hands in a mock prisoner’s prayer, waiting for the cuffs. “I’ll come quietly.
In their El Segundo digs the Cosmicists have a huge chart on the wall, like one you’d find at an eye doctor’s: big letters on top and then rows of smaller and smaller and smaller until it’s almost invisible. It’s a hierarchy because regardless of what Bobby told the old man in Palmdale the Cosmicists do have a way of doing things or, at least, a ladder of privilege–at the top is THE COSMOS because that’s the goal of course–the divine order, the blood-and-guts of all that is, the holy shitpile. And then the architects and the wrecking balls, folks with their hands all wet in the pulpy mess of matter. And then the newcomers: star children who bloomed in the desert, the dead woken up with space seeds growing in their skulls, the messengers come like god-eyed prophets. And then the humans who do their work the slow way: librarians, teachers, contractors–the hopefuls who believe enough servitude will get them elevated. And then the lowest, the Unformed and their cousins, things that aren’t pretty to look at, the real cosmic mess that the Cosmicists all profess to love and yet can’t stomach.
Bobby’s in the human muck: a contractor by trade although he’d been something else before the flesh-bags had eaten his brother. The flesh-bags of course aren’t on the eye-chart: they don’t deserve the space as the order goes.
Lesha isn’t on there either.
They wait with Geno in the antechamber, a room painted black around the chart and dotted with stars in phosphorescent paint. The floor is black too, giving a vertiginous endlessness all the more disorientating because it’s so obviously false. Inside the inner office Lesha can barely hear the higher-ups’ murmurs but she’s sure nothing good is going on. She keeps thinking about what Geno said: you’re…you’re very singular aren’t you and that damn chart: THE COSMOS.
The door opens.
There’s the woman in charge, a young big-haired big-boned beauty queen who–as far as Lesha’s heard–is the most powerful wrecking ball in Southern California. There’s Geno’s uncle, a big Ukrainian man named Andriy who isn’t an architect or anything special at all as far as Lesha can tell but he must have money. And then there’s an actual architect, an older woman with an utterly blank face–empty eyes and still mouth and not a wrinkle or pull to hint at any expression. She’s like an egg with a person painted on its shell. Lesha doesn’t look at her long. She keeps focus on Andriy.
Bobby stands up in a respectful show but Geno doesn’t move.
“Thank you so much, Mr. Martinez,” Andriy says to Bobby. “We knew we could count on you.” He shifts his attention to Geno. “Please, Evgeni. I don’t know why you felt you had to leave but we mean you no harm.”
“You’re necessary for our expansion, nephew.” He’s talking like some medieval patriarch and with his neat white beard and severe blue eyes he might as well be. “For our success. The flesh-bags are growing vicious you know. We need you.”
Geno shrugs again.
Andriy sighs like a martyr and turns to Lesha. “Ms. Turner I thank you as well for your part in this. Thank you for keeping Mr. Martinez safe. Now. Perhaps you will excuse us for a moment? Mr. Martinez, you may follow us back into the office so we can discuss initiation rites.”
Bobby glances over at Lesha. Squints. He looks too much like his father when he does that but Lesha gives him a small smile and he follows the three higher-ups.
When the door closes Geno turns to Lesha and he looks sad again, so horribly sad Lesha can’t bear meeting his eyes.
“If you don’t run now they’re going to lock you up,” he says in a flat voice. “It’s why they wanted me back. You don’t fit their order. And they think I can use you to make a better one. They don’t want you dead but-” he lifts a hand to say they might as well.
Lesha wants to ask even Bobby but she knows better.
“Go to my father’s,” Geno says.
Lesha cocks her head, her heart hammering against her ribs. She knew this. She knew this was coming. She knew.
But of course he was never bound to protect her. Of course.
“Where?” her voice is a harsh whisper but it doesn’t tremble.
“In Palmdale,” Geno adds.
Oh. Oh yes. Of course.
Geno forces a smile. Lesha forces one back. And then she leaves the painted universe and stumbles back into the dirty white Los Angeles sun.
Lesha’s mother is still alive but she went home which doesn’t help Lesha very much because the human hooks her father inserted into her mother’s space-meat bind Lesha to this planet tighter than gravity. Lesha’s father is dead. He died years ago, long enough so Lesha’s memories of him are entirely fairy-tale in texture, glowing and soft-edged and smelling like cheap plastic toys. But before the man died he made good on his debts and the singular daughter he’d helped make was bound to protect the son of a squinting failed actor named Javier Martinez.
The old man in Palmdale isn’t surprised to see Lesha. He lets her in and locks the door behind him and Lesha can feel a veil settle around the house–faint and pricking at her but she can’t see the whole of it, the weave of it. And she remembers this is Geno’s father and Geno is an architect without precedent so the old man must be something special too.
“You were talking about me, weren’t you,” Lesha says as she sits down in the moss-green chair. “All the waste and none of the matter.”
The old man sighs. “Did he tell you my name?”
“No,” Lesha says.
“Gonzalo,” he says. He sits down with a groan and holds out his wrinkled brown hand. Lesha pauses but takes it. Shakes.
“Didn’t make much of an effort to keep us away from your son,” Lesha says. She is not thinking about the higher-ups in LA marshaling resources, directing their grunts to find her. She is not thinking of Bobby in his initiate’s robes with stars tattooed on the palms of his hands.
“I knew that if you failed, they’d send worse.”
“You knew Javier Martinez.”
Gonzalo sighs. “Javier wanted to be good. But he didn’t care what he was good at, you know? That’s a dangerous man.”
“My father bound me to his son.”
Surprisingly, Gonzalo smiles. “That’s what Javier believed, yes.”
Lesha frowns. “What do you–?”
“Come with me,” he says and he stands, walking into a narrow hallway with walls painted an almost black blue. It’s constricting, claustrophobic but it’s different from the antechamber in the Cosmicists’ office: less false, somehow, as if this is really an alleyway of nothingness, a place between creation. It takes longer to walk to the end than Lesha imagined it should and she remembers this man is Geno’s father. Finally they do get to a door, painted a cheery Van Gogh-yellow and Gonzalo pushes it open.
Lesha stares, all words and all thoughts that can be arranged and ordered into words rushed into a howling storm, a great and horrible scream of a song of a prayer, all the rawness that beauty drinks from all the terror that builds the dark all of it at once and she hears Gonzalo beside her:
“My friend,” Gonzalo says, “who Transposed and thus offered his body to the engine that is the universe left me this home because I did him a service. I burnt the papers that spoke of the old way, so Andriy and his cronies couldn’t read them. But Andriy invented a new truth, one that required collapsing his sister into the smallest point of existence and drawing the immense power from her moment of non-being. His sister. The mother of my son. And so when my friend asked for a second service I did it without question because it would hurt Andriy: a child who must be believed to be part human. A librarian he knew, who would be willing to claim her.”
Lesha cannot process the full weight of what Gonzalo is telling her. She’s still staring without words at the awful wonder writhing and burning in front of her.
“Your birth,” Gonzalo says in a soft voice–somehow still audible over the churning whorl and warp– “was a seed planted in the most fertile soil. A breath in an open hand. Your birth is that. You came from here and if they knew they’d want you more than they do now.”
“What…what is it?” Lesha asks. The colors are colors she does not know, she has no words for. The shapes and forms have no reference point in her brain they’re creating themselves new and new again, over and over and the voice, the voice is a roaring endlessness a small whisper, it’s enough to fill every corner of existence and yet it breathes here in the bedroom of a nondescript house in Palmdale.
“That,” Gonzalo says, motioning forward, “is the miasma. The effluvia. All the waste and none of the matter.”
Lesha finally turns. She’s crying. She can’t remember the last time she cried. Her palms burn as she feels Bobby’s tattoos, a hundred miles away. “But…” her voice is hoarse and sharp as broken glass in her throat. I came from there. “But…but it’s beautiful.”
Gonzalo grins and in his eyes she sees Geno, she sees the sadness and wonder.
The Interstellar Motel still stands in the desert, faded and dusty but real. Gonzalo and Lesha pull up in Gonzalo’s old Buick and the two women are standing in front of the cafe, speaking quietly to one another. When they hear the car doors click closed they look up and when they see Lesha they both grin. They are star children which means they are the left-behind babies of wanderers who chose to wear human skin for a piece and thus they wander too.
“You’re still alive,” the black woman says, looking relieved.
“I’m still alive,” Lesha says. There is a humming in her brain now, a single sweet note that’s awful too because everything beautiful is both.
“And the architect?” the white woman asks.
“Still alive. But we need to get him back.”
The two women nod. “What about your friend?”
Lesha does not allow herself to feel betrayed. After all she’d been a lie to him–the whole time. She’d had no bond on her and yet; and yet they were friends. They were friends. But once you get the rites then you’re a different level on the cosmic chart. A different person.
“He’s one of them now,” Lesha says.
The women nod. “So what’s the plan?” Like they’d known all along.
Lesha glances at Gonzalo and he nods. Grins. Sweet, sad–all at once, the ache and joy of being.
“We upend the order.”
The women smile and they go back into the cafe and Lesha and Gonzalo follow, shutting the dust-streaked door against the low red smear of sun.