"Stoned Planet" by Carl Goodman

(Click picture above to view a larger image.)
 

A Bouquet of Demons for Diane
by Michael Liska

 

One!
See the teacher, sweepin' up the floor.

Two!
Shut the windows,

Three!
lock the doors.

Four!
See the blind man, can't find the way.

Five!
Count the lights,

Six!
the devils counts the days.

-- Nursery rhyme of Midas Colony, unknown date of origin


The teacher passed back paper and crayons -- a red stick, an orange stick, a yellow stick, a blue stick. Back to paper and pencils, now, the touch screens and electric teachers shut and dusty in a supply closet of the austere metal schoolhouse.

"Who can name the lights?" she asked. "Nina?"

Nina just giggled and blushed.

"Jon?"

He rattled with a sing-song, they were hard to recite without the melody, just like the alphabet. "Mother, Father and Uncle, Gentleman, Minister and the friendly one Miner."

"Good, Jon. We're going to color them, now."

The heavy plastic shutters were closed, the control box on lock. All light in the room was artificial, and would be until six-thirty. Lunch bags, lined against the wall, bulged with provisions for the extended school day. The lunch cart would come twice for those without parents to pack for them -- it was Dancing Day, when no one was in the mines, no one in the meeting house. All voices in the small settlement rose under electric lights, only turned on during dust storms and on this one day of the long year, when the devils all crept out of the mines and danced on the sand.

"Miz 'Liz! Diane don' hav' a paper," Elise announced.

Miss Elizabeth paused, and then with a grudging relaxation of her disciplined side passed another sheet back. They were only children, after all.

"An' crayons. Diane don' have crayons."

"There are hardly enough crayons for the students on my roster, Elise. Diane will have to share with you."

Elise shrugged. It was farther than she had gotten with the electric teacher last year, which had blankly misunderstood and sent her to Principal for lying. Principal, frustrated, tried to explain, but the robot had stood its ground, claiming that its solemn duty was to uphold the ethical code of the colony. Incidents like this were only one of the reasons the community had rejected modernized learning after only one season. The expensive, off-world equipment was either sent back or stored. Midas Colony was a settlement determined to remain old-fashioned. So many parents died in the mines or from exposure to the six lights... a strong and cooperative community was needed to raise the children, make new miners to replace the fallen. They wouldn't be corrupted by suited men with digi-pads and silver ships, crates full of equipment donated by the empire to bend them to polished galactic citizenry. The empire did not understand one thing, and that was if they wanted their kerik in the amounts they ordered, Midas Colony would have to be allowed to function in the patterns and lifestyle that the centuries had proven.

Elise thought nothing of this. She knew her room, shared with four other girls. She knew the things she owned: a few hair clips, a plain plastec-protec she was vaguely embarrassed about, a green dress, and two dolls she didn't care for (they were ugly, one had no eyes and this terrified her; so she kept it under her cot). She knew no brothers or sisters, had an aunt but no uncle to care for her, and only half-remembered her parents.

"Miz' Liz'?"

"Yes, Elise?"

"Diane don' know what color's the Minister."

"Well, then why don't you tell her?"

Elise felt her cheeks turn red. "I don' know to tell her," she said quietly.

"Then it will come off your grade. Really, this is the first grade, Elise. We're not children anymore."

Jon leaned over. "Minister's blue," he whispered.

Miss Elizabeth turned sharply and said, "Jon, stop flirting or Elise won't be the only one failing."

The class tittered and shuffled over this until a hard glance at all of them brought silence.

Elise turned back to the paper. She had drawn the six lights around Midas Colony, a small black dot in the middle. Mother and Father were the biggest, she knew the biggest were red. Uncle was next, he was yellow. Gentleman, Minister, and Miner always troubled her. Blue, yellow, and orange. Now, thanks to Jon, she had the key. Miner was orange, he was friendly and easy to look at. If Minister was blue, that meant Gentleman was yellow, but smaller than Uncle.

They were spaced equally, for now. Elise knew that you didn't learn until the last year of school, the fifth grade, anything about how they moved. Even then, most flunked or dropped out of fifth grade. Who needed to know any of that? Six stars in a complicated and anomalous dance, twirling, pulling one another in circles, disappearing and reappearing next season. And among them, following the dance, was Midas Colony, a tiny rock that had never known anything but a harsh and poisonous daylight. It was enough to just know that they were there, and that there was a church, a schoolhouse, an unused rocket pad, and plenty of kerik in the demon-haunted mines.

"Miz' Liz?" Elise raised her hand when she was finished. "Diane needs to go to a wateroom."

"Well, Diane can go by herself, or she can wait until we go as a class later. No one leaves the classroom today by themselves, you know that."

"Why not? Just to a wateroom, not outside or nothing."

"No. That's the end of it, unless you want pepper in your mouth."

"Don' want pepper in my mouth, ma'am."

Diane went by herself, and Elise waited in the classroom without a friend. There was Jon, who liked her, she thought, and some of the other girls, but no one she could talk to like Diane. No one who agreed with her that her two dolls were ugly and that she should get a green protec like Sama had instead of the milky one she had gotten out of a pile of the public share. It smelled like the boy who had worn it before, who had gotten the burn and died.

She waited through silent reading. When Miss Elizabeth saw her staring at nothing, she came over and stuck a smelly paperback in front of her. All the school books were old. They were brought in from off-world infrequently, and spent long periods of time in storage rooms deep in the meeting house, waiting to be approved by the Elders. It was called Captain Saturday and the Purple Galoshes. Elise didn't know what galoshes were. When she asked, Miss Elizabeth told her to be quiet and read, so she just stared at it like she had been staring at the wall, sneaking glances to see if Diane was coming back.

She waited through naptime, in the middle of the day when all of the lights were usually hottest. The shutters were closed, and the electric lights were cool, but the routine stuck. Elise was told to put her head down several times, each in a slightly more frustrated tone, so eventually she acquiesced and sat nervously in the dark cave of her arms listening to her own breath and heart.

When Diane hadn't come back for lunch, Elise snuck a brownie and a goat sausage into the pocket on the front of her green dress and resolved to find her -- she must be hungry by now. The water fountains might not be on, so she also stole an extra water vial from the cart. The lunch mister saw her, but smiled and said nothing.

After lunch Miss Elizabeth walked the class, two abroad, to the wateroom. Always look out for your partner, to make sure they're safe and sound. That's how they walked in the mines. Elise made sure she was in the back, and asked Jon to stand next to her.

"I'm gonna' go fin' Diane, and you can' tell."

Jon fidgeted nervously. "I'll get pepper in my mouth for sure," he hissed. One of the twin girls in front gave them a look to be quiet. Jon whispered, "I'm supposed to stay by you, we're partners. You could get lost if we were in the mines."

"We're not. If you stay quiet, I'll give you one of my dolls. You can play uncle."

"Which one?"

"Marci."

"Is that the dumb one?"

"Yeah."

"I want the one tha's got eyes."

Elise frowned, but agreed.

"What'll I say when she sees?" Jon asked.

"She won' see until after the wateroom. Say I didn' come out, she'll go in and look for me."

It looked as if Jon was going to say something, but he choked it. He wouldn't say anything about Diane anymore; last time Elise had punched him in the ear.

"You're not goin' outside, are you?" he asked.

"'Course not."

Jon shrugged, then nodded.

Elise fell off the back of the line. Another thing she liked about the human teachers. Even though they were mean, you could trick them.

Elise jumped past the other classrooms. Second, third, fourth, the tired fifth graders with dark skin and knotted hands. They were more concerned with going out by the brown rocks than in kerik mining. She thought that a fifth grade girl, looking out into the hallway, saw her walking by herself and was going to tell, but she held her breath and kept walking and no one came out into the hall.

"Diane?" she whispered.

There she was! Did she duck around the corner?

Elise came around and saw the door, menacing with metal seals. Where was Principal? Old, and tired during the day. Couldn't work in the mines anymore. His office door was closed, which meant he was napping with a glass of ris. She smiled.

Diane was outside, she knew. Diane was always being bad, and looking into things. Elise would find her and yell at her and bring her back, but if she cried, Elise decided, she would smile and give her lunch and a hug. All they had, after all, was each other.

The protecs hung like ducks in the hall closet, all the milky whites interrupted by the few yellows and greens of those with parents and uncles, who got presents and nice things. Elise reached for her own out of habit, but then reasoned that Sama wouldn't miss hers if she were to use it just for a little while. She slipped it on over her dress, trying to be quiet. The plastic was baggy and loose until she slid her fingers along the seal and turned the valve on her neck -- it came all the way up to her chin. With a hiss that made her look around nervously, the air rushed out and the green film clung to her. It made her arms look like moss, and through it her green dress looked greener. Elise was happy to be so pretty, and she would have stood admiring it but then remembered Miss Elizabeth and what it felt like to have pepper in her mouth without a drink of water.

The door was easy enough to open, and close behind her. They wouldn't find her, they would never think to look out there for her. The teachers, the miners, everyone, was scared to go outside on Dancing Day. If you went outside, and saw the devils dancing, you would get caught up and dance with them forever. You would dance until your legs were bleeding and your back was crooked like a stubby ris tree, and you would laugh the whole time until you got the burn and died. That's what they sung about in meeting, anyway, but during meetings Elise and Diane rarely listened with more than half an ear. They snuck under the benches if they could, and played on the cool floor with lost buttons and smooth stones.

Elise wasn't afraid. Not for any reason -- she just wasn't, with the unthinking courage of the small. She hummed as she walked.

"Mother, Father and Uncle, Gentleman, Minister and the friendly one Miner."

They were there, and there were no devils. Miner smiled at her, it was highest in the afternoon. Gentleman was gone for the season and Minister low. Mother, Father, and Uncle hung together, halfway up in the sky.

Heat poured from the sand, and the rocks in the distance shimmied with its distortion. She almost forgot what she was doing, until she saw a man, not a miner, by a patch of scrubby bushes. He didn't wear a protec, and the bushes and trees of Midas Colony were skeletal.

"What you doin'?" she asked him.

He looked amused, and scratched his unshaven face. "Restin'."

"Not supposed to talk with you."

"I know. So don't." He pulled on a little bottle, licked his lips.

His apathy excited her curiosity. She smiled. "I will, though." He smiled, too. "You don' live here long," she said.

"Nope. Don't plan on it, either."

"They said at meeting not to talk with you because you were full of dumb ideas and didn't know nothing about kerik or anything else, and they were gonna' make you go away."

"Well, they don't need to make me. As soon as somebody touches down on that rocket pad, I'm off." He looked in its direction, but it was over a rise. "And they're right, I don't know anything about kerik, except that it's used for hulls of stellar sail-ships and most of it comes from here, but that doesn't mean I'm dumb."

"Well, what DO you know?"

"Plenty. I know how to fly a seven-wing and everything smaller, and I know how to fix 'em, only I don't have the parts I need. I know how to find food if I'm stuck on an ice-ring... ummm... let's see... I know a little about trains, and I can tell the day before the leaves start falling on Gerit that winter's coming because of the way the air smells. See? Plenty."

"Do you know what are galoshes?"

"Sure. They're rubber shoes for places that are really wet, where sometimes there's so much water you have to keep it off your feet or you'll catch cold."

"Must be a lot of water," Elise commented. "How come you don' wear a protec? Won't you burn?"

"If I stay here long enough... but like I said, I don't plan on it. It's okay not to wear a protec for a little bit. Nothing'll happen."

This was news to her.

"Say, what are you doing out here? Isn't everyone supposed to stay inside today?" he asked.

"Yeah, it's Dancin' Day..." Then, as children do, she spotted something, a lizard, and trailed off.

"So what are you doing out here?" he asked.

"I'm looking for Diane. I brought her lunch. I think she got bored in school."

"Well, I haven't seen her. And you better get inside before the devil gets you, or before they say I'm corrupting your mind or something."

"S'okay, nobody really can see her except for me," Elise explained.

The man nodded, understanding. "Well, in that case, I have seen her."

"You did?"

"Sure. I think I saw her over by those rocks."

Elise jumped. "Thanks, sir." She trotted off in the direction. As an afterthought, she turned around. "Good luck getting back to space," she said.

"Thanks."

When Elise got to the rocks she was tired, and sat down. She ate the sausage and the brownie, and drank the vial, figuring that by now Diane must have found lunch elsewhere.

They must be looking for me at school, she thought, and it amused her. "Elise! Do you wan' pepper in your mouth?" she mocked. "Diane don' get no crayons!" Out here, by herself, she was free to laugh and hum. Sit or stand, whatever she felt like.

"Diane?" Elise called.

Then she felt nervous. The rocks, for a moment, looked like they were changing color. Another little lizard scurried and hopped to protect its feet from the burning stone.

Miner? Miner was low.

Minister? He was gone. She spun but couldn't find him anywhere.

Mother, Father, Uncle?

All dipping, Mother and Father like two red eyes closing over the horizon for sleep.

She had seen the lights in all their dances, but never this one. Her breath came too quickly, and her knees felt like rubber. Her mouth went dry as her eyes grew moist.

"Diane?" she whispered. "Miz' Liz'?"

Inky pools welled at the bases of the rocks, seeping out of the ground. The devils, today, came up from the mines and it was their day to dance. In the mines, there were always the right ministers to make sure you were safe. Not here. There was no Minister here.

Elise turned to scramble back, find the space-man, but they were behind her as well. Creeping out from below, inching along the ground on all sides. Some started growing tall. She couldn't scream, but felt very sorry and foolish for what she had done. They closed on her.

As a devil came, inches from her foot, she closed her eyes tight, screamed, and waited to feel herself start dancing. To dance forever. She envisioned the rest of her life, what would have been, lost. She would never grow or take Jon out by the brown rocks or harden the livers of a mated pair of golobas to make her first mine shoes.

Were her legs starting to jiggle, to quake with evil rhythm?

They shook, but nothing more. Her eyes remained shut for seconds... why had nothing happened?

She opened her eyes and found herself in the belly of the devil.

It was dim, killing slowly the heat of the day.

Dark springs were all over, shadows like those that filled the mines, only outside. Big shadows! Outside! Rich and real and darker in contrast to the bright tips of the rocks around her than any darkness she had ever seen before in her life.

Demons hate the six lights, and creep wherever they can. Hold your hand between an electric light and your school desk, and a demon would sneak in between. They were too small to be a bother, except for in the mines, but Midas Colony had its ministers -- an army of them to follow with electric torches and prayers to where the kerik lay, the devils' secret treasure.

And here on Dancing Day, they came outside in force, and played about on the sand.

Elise waited, but nothing happened. She climbed from one devil to another, and up onto a rise to see what the space-man was doing. He lay silently napping in the shade. At her attention, his eyes opened.

"Not too bad, huh?" he asked, smiling.

"No."

The space man pulled again on his bottle. "Shows you how dumb I am."

Elise thought about it. "I guess the Elders are dumb. I bet they don't know anything, almost."

He laughed. "No. It's not like that at all. The Elders are actually very, very smart."

"Huh?"

"Nevermind. You're a bright kid. You'll figure it out when you get older. Did you find your friend?"

"Oh! Not yet. I forgot. Diane's prob'ly scared! I gotta' find'er. Bye, mister!" Elise piped, and wandered back into the rocks.

"Diane?"

Cautiously, she slipped out of the protec and felt the cool on her skin. It was delicious.

There she was.

"S'not so bad, Diane," she said. Diane was there in the rocks, and Elise thought for a second that she could see her. Really see her, and not just pretend.

She enjoyed the rest of the day, playing in the shadows, and was whipped twice when she returned to school after Minister had climbed again, with Mother and Father close behind. Whipped once for leaving school, once for stealing Sama's green protec.

Elise never saw Diane after that day. No one asked, but if they did she would have said that Diane probably went with the space man when the cargo ship from Nellosi touched down the day after - Diane was very curious about all of the things he mentioned: stellar sail ships, trains, the way the air smells on Gerit the day before the leaves start to fall, and especially galoshes. And, Elise would have told them, if they asked, and if she didn't get the burn before her twelfth birthday when she would be all grown up, she was thinking about following them.


-- For Brigid, who is small.




Story © 2002 by Michael Liska michaelrliii@prodigy.net

Illustration © 2002 by Carl Goodman carl.goodman@peppersghost.com




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