First thing the next morning, when he was nursing a killer hangover from Auntie’s moonshine and didn’t want anything to do with humanity, Twitch dragged himself out of his room in the Funhouse. He picked his way across the central tavern in the early-morning light, sidestepping puddles of vomit and sleeping customers.
The air outside was humid and heavy. Twitch winced at the dim sunlight and looked back up in the sky, in the direction of Those Who Fled. They were harder to see but still as blue and blinking.
Pat lived in Warlord Johnny’s town residence. Twitch turned his steps on the paved road leading to town of Kissimmee Dam. He trudged along slowly, the sun rising ahead of him in the gray light.
The first light of day broke through the grey clouds, and soon after the sun was burning hot enough to boil the damp air. The thought of being on the bustling streets of Kissimmee Dam when the sun was shining merrily made Twitch groan and quicken his pace.
As little as Twitch was looking forward to working with Pat, she did keep to dim, dark places, the only light from her gently glowing screens. Twitch could go for some shadows right around now.
The road sloped down leading into Kissimmee Dam. Twitch saw the postman cycling up the slope in the opposite direction, heavy bag of documents slung across his chest. The postman waved. Twitch did not.
By the time he reached Warlord Johnny’s mansion, Twitch’s mood had improved somewhat. This was mostly due to the mug of coffee and wad of donut that were diffusing through his system, courtesy of Kissimmee Dam bakery. He even managed to be civil to the children squealing in Warlord Johnny’s yard, tossing a half-deflated rubber ball back and forth with them for a few minutes while he waited for the Warlord’s butler.
The butler appeared with a note on a silver tray. He made a small bow to Twitch, offering him the note.
Flora’s boy, it read. Come back tomorrow, I’m busy.
“No,” said Twitch. “I was summoned here to work and I mean to work. You find Pat or I’ll have Auntie tell Warlord Johnny all about the special room you rent in the Funhouse for you and sweet Layla, you hear?”
The butler immediately straightened up and looked like he might be sick. He disappeared for two minutes and reappeared dragging a scrawny middle-aged woman by the elbow.
“I’m telling you, leave me be! Leave me be!” she cried. “Is that Auntie’s boy? Doesn’t look like a boy to me.”
“I didn’t start out a boy but I’m a man now,” Twitch explained.
“Ain’t no one small as you being a man.”
“Ain’t no one with your flat chest being a woman.”
Pat threw her head back and laughed. “Touché, boy, touché! Let’s get you started.”
They walked together across Warlord Johnny’s porch, sidestepping a circle of chairs where concubines were nursing babies and ducking into the main house through a side door. They accessed Pat’s laboratory through a trapdoor in the cold pantry. It opened on six flights of sleep stone stairs that led to a tunnel. Twitch was downright unsettled when they reached the steel door at the end of the tunnel. He was never wrong about distances and they had to have walked at least two kilometers, sloping downward. They were at the seashore – under the seashore – now.
It didn’t seem like tiny Pat had strength enough to open the heavy door, but it sprang open of its own accord when she laid her hand on it. Twitch whistled low.
“Yeah, it’s old tech,” she said. “High tech. Took me ages to understand it. But once you get the simple stuff like that the rest comes easy.”
“Auntie said we’re going to rob Those Who Fled.”
“Did she? I suppose you can do that. I just need you for the break-in.”
“Why would you want to board them if not for the loot?”
Pat stared at Twitch. Her eyes were bulging out of her sockets, but they did that normally. She muttered something under her breath and turned on one of her glowing screens.
Twitch amused himself by cataloguing which spare parts lying around the lab he himself had looted. There was a pile of tangled wires he remembered pulling from a box beneath the floorboards of a snake-infested shopping mall, a whirring metal cylinder that Twitch had picked up from a sunken ship on the bottom of the harbor, and a creepy, absurdly waterproof robot with rudimentary artificial intelligence that had followed Twitch back to the Funhouse despite his best efforts to throw it into the sea.
“Hello Mr. Twitch,” it said, its eyes flashing a different color for each syllable. “It is nice to see you again. May I serve you for dinner?”
Twitch took Pat’s overflowing wastebasket, dumped it out and upended it over the robot. The robot walked forward into the wastebasket walls and fell limp.
“He’s a weird little guy,” said Pat, who had a compiler open on one of her computer screens.
“Can he be killed?”
“I shoved him in a smelter for three days and he emerged intact.”
The robot began banging its head against the sides of the wastebasket, emitting a high-pitched whine. Without looking up from the monitor, Pat threw a pocketknife in the robot’s direction. It struck in between thing’s glowing eyes. They went dark.
“Shuts him up for a few hours while he self-repairs,” she explained.
“I like it.”
Twitch realized that he was finding a kindred soul in Pat; a fellow tradesman who found little of interest except that which tickled the reasoning part of the brain. Twitch always looked down upon the pleasures of the Funhouse and viewed drink as little more than a way to quiet the mind and body that they may rest for the next day’s work. She appeared to think much the same, though there was a knowing, older quality about her attitude that made Twitch uneasy. Like she’d thrown herself wholeheartedly into the Funhouse parts of life, and the Funhouse spat her back out.
He hoped that would never happen to him.
“Used to be there was the Kennedy Space Center here,” Pat said, again without looking up from the monitor. “Those Who Fled set their tech to self-destruct after they left, so no one could follow. But they didn’t bother scrapping the antique space ships. Who could get them working again?”
“Who indeed?” Twitch smiled and leaned back, lacing his fingers behind his head.
“Good ‘ol Pat, that’s who!”
Two years previously, Mayor Jim’s men had been digging the foundation for the hacienda when they struck glass. Encased inside it was an ancient spaceship, stripped of all its working parts and mounted like a museum piece.
“I was horrified, of course,” Pat said. “What a waste! But it’s a good thing Those Who Fled wanted all of their history preserved, and I mean all of it.”
After stripping everything useful out of the chassis, Those Who Fled had kindly put the useful bits in glass cases and labelled them with their name and function. Pat, who had been the lead mechanic on Warlord Johnny’s fighter jets and Mayor Jim’s jeep, used her status as the only person who knew what the hell any of the space stuff was to gain possession of it, cram it into her office, and study it for months.
“So I learn about orbital mechanics and clean up the telescope, and once my monitoring devices were all set up lo and behold: approaching Earth at half-light speed, a massive man-made object! Those who fled! I’d been poking away at the artifacts for a year, but then I really started to hunker down. If this was the old crap in their history museums, imagine what cool stuff is on that ship!”
“Probably enough porno to keep Auntie in business for twenty lifetimes,” Twitch mused.
“I was thinking more along the lines of quantum computers, but okay.” Pat smiled into the glare of her computer monitors. “Point is, I don’t need you just yet. Not until I finish writing the code for your simulator and figure out your zero-G exercises.”
“My what now?”
“In space, there’s no up or down. It’s like being in water but weirder. I’ll have you go up in one of my boss’s jets and you’ll see, dig?”
“For a living!” Pat grinned and held up her hand for a high-five. Twitch hated puns, but he had to give it to her. They slapped palms and Pat returned to her screens triumphant.
The door to Pat’s office burst open. Twitch expected her to explode in a stream of profanity, as she had whenever anyone knocked, but she remained silent. She even slumped down a little.
With a sinking heart, Twitch knelt and touched his forehead to the floor.
“Now now, why would you do that for your mayor?” asked Mayor Jim.
Twitch groaned inwardly. Since Warlord Johnny had started trying to rule the people with an iron-wrapped-in-velvet, as opposed to iron-with-psychotic-spikes-all-over-it fist, he’d gotten even harder to deal with. According to Auntie, anyway. Except at the parades where attendance was “recommended” Twitch had rarely seen the man.
As he got to his feet, smiling even though he knew it looked forced, Twitch realized why he’d never done business with Warlord Johnny face-to-face. Why Auntie had set up this appointment herself when Twitch would’ve probably ended up contracting with Pat anyway.
The man standing before him had the same dimple in his chin, the same hooked nose, the same blue eyes and curly brown hair as Twitch himself did.
I’m gonna kill Auntie when I get home, Twitch thought. He hoped that Warlord Johnny was not noticing the obvious resemblance.
Unfortunately, you don’t get to be the ruler of two hundred square miles of plague-ravaged war zone without some keen powers of observation.
“That woman told me you was a girl child,” said Warlord Johnny. “A girl child, damn it!”
“I was a girl child. I’m a man now.”
“How does that happen?”
“Just worked out that way, I guess.”
Warlord Johnny stood with his mouth hanging open for another few seconds before regaining his composure.
“Well now. I can’t keep calling you Flora’s boy, now can I? What’s your name… your name?”
Twitch realized that Warlord Johnny had been on the point of calling him “son.” Bile rose in his throat.
“Twitch. Name’s Twitch.” He stuck out his hand. “How d’ye do?”
“Fine, I do just fine.” Warlord Johnny crushed Twitch’s hand in his. “Twitch? Just Twitch? You could be Twitch Johnson, you know. Or Twitch Jameson.”
“I’ll stick with Twitch, thank you.”
“It’s not a proper name. It’s what she called you when you were in her belly. Before she ran away.”
“Uh. Okay.” Twitch hoped Warlord Johnny would get the hell out of Pat’s office, and soon. But he showed no sign of budging.
“Well,” said Warlord Johnny. “Well, well, well.”
“I’ll get going,” said Twitch, sliding past Warlord Johnny. The pig of a man who was technically his father yelled something after Twitch as he ran, but Twitch figured he wouldn’t be killed for ignoring the great warlord now, and ran all the way back to the Funhouse.
He saw Auntie sitting in her kitchen with tea, looking older than he’d ever seen her. He knew she’d intended for him to learn the truth that day.
Anger rose in Twitch’s gut. Was that his father’s anger? His mother’s? Auntie did have a temper. He hoped like all hell that he’d inherited his hot temper from her and not Warlord Johnny.
She hadn’t noticed that Twitch had returned. She lifted the tea to her lips and inhaled the steam, her eyes closed.
Twitch felt like he would burst with all the questions he wanted to ask her. Why didn’t she tell him she really was his mother? Why not tell him the real story of his birth before slapping him in the face with Warlord Johnny’s paternity?
“Fuck you!” Twitch shouted. Auntie jumped and spilled tea down the front of her dress with a squeak of surprise.
Shame froze Twitch in place. He watched helplessly as one of the whores swooped into the room with a fresh blouse. Auntie accepted it gratefully and went to one of the cabinets, pulling out her store of aloe. When Twitch finally regained the power of speech she was smearing aloe onto the angry red burn that started at her neck and ended at the clasp on her brassiere.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“It’s just tea. I was surprised.” Auntie turned a stern gaze on Twitch. “I suppose you know now?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t want you at first,” she said. “I named you Twitch because that’s what you were. A twitching thing squirted into me against my will. Warlord Johnny took me as his wife-”
“Do you think I would settle for being a mere concubine? Even at fifteen?”
Twitch shook his head. Auntie drove a hard bargain.
“My father was a carpenter,” she continued. “When I was a child he built me a dollhouse fit for a princess. Warlord Johnny threw it on his victory bonfire, shortly before selecting the most beautiful woman in the village to be his bride.”
“No. He selected a lovely girl named Clara and gave the rest of the women to his soldiers to use as they would.”
Twitch felt like he was about to throw up.
“Fortunately, I was no blushing virgin, not even then. The pleasure games I’d played with my friends became the means for my survival in the coming months. By the time Warlord Johnny’s first wife had killed herself, I was the most sought-after barracks girl in his company. He had to try me out for himself, and the rest is history.”
The blouse-carrying whore handed Auntie a new cup of tea. Auntie accepted it with a smile.
“I managed to keep myself from getting pregnant with the help of a copper wire wedged into my cervix. Warlord Johnny was unaware of this until my seventeenth birthday, when he captured a doctor and insisted upon giving me a full gynecological examination. The wire was found and I was beaten, then locked in a room and… visited… nightly by Warlord Johnny until I caught pregnant. He had decided to settle down right here, you see. He’d decided to build his kingdom from the heir up.”
“You saved me, Twitchie. You made my eyes crusty and my cheeks swollen and my ankles fat. Warlord Johnny lost interest in me. He took up with a girl I’d groomed expressly for the purpose, and he made her his concubine. She caught pregnant shortly before I gave birth to a girl child.”
“So he kicked you out?”
“Of course not. He could always try again once I lost my saggy belly. And again, and again. But after he heard I’d given birth, and that it was a girl child, he relaxed the security precautions around my quarters. How far could a woman get? Where would she go, and who would take her in?”
Auntie’s voice had been getting hoarse, but she spoke with renewed strength after a sip of tea. It smelled to Twitch like she’d been spiking it with bourbon.
She went on: she’d dosed Twitch with whiskey so he wouldn’t cry and strapped him in a sling across her front, putting clothing and valuables in a laundry bag she slung on her back. Hunched over, her face hidden, she blended in with the servants in the bustling hallways outside her quarters.
Once she was out, Auntie turned her steps to the waste lands beyond the hydro. The workers there would not recognize her. With the gold, jewels and electronics she’d stashed in the laundry bag she could pay someone to build her a house and take the damned baby off her hands.
She got her house built, but no one wanted the baby. Children born of rape were known to be cursed. Eventually, she grew to love her little girl, but that was long after she’d convinced all her employees and friends that the child was not her own daughter. And when the child grew into a man instead of a woman it became all the more important to keep Twitch’s true identity a secret. Warlord Johnny was willing to let a girl child go, but not a son.
“Why now?” asked Twitch. “Why tell everyone now?” For the whore had been listening the whole time, and even if she hadn’t, innumerable concubines and servants had witnessed Twitch’s confrontation with Warlord Johnny.
“Because you have a shot at getting off this godforsaken planet,” said Auntie, eyes blazing. “Warlord Johnny’s techy is on the verge of having her project scrapped. You can keep it going. He’ll go out of his way for you. He has only girl children. You’re his son, born of his true wife. He wants you to take your place as his heir.”
The thought was repulsive to Twitch. He spat in the sink.
“That’s my boy,” said Auntie.
Twitch hated Warlord Johnny, and for the first time he found himself hating Auntie. Because he knew it would hurt her, he said:
“You told me my mother’s name was Greta.”
“Greta is the name my father gave me. Greta Flora. I spoke true.”
Twitch couldn’t take any more of this. He left the kitchen, slamming the door behind him, and stomped down to the pub. He slept there, in his corner, dreaming of blood, rage, and a paradise beyond the stars.