Sapphire • Skidmor House
NOTE: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
“I need to get these down to Shipping. A little help?”
It’s the end of the workday. Walking down the corridor past the chym lab, Marissa glances through a doorway, where there are several caddies, each loaded with transparent gas cylinders. A young female lab technician with copper skin and short bobbed hair is just loading the last caddy. “Sorry, Klio,” says another tech, tossing his rubber gloves in the trash on his way out. “Something’s going on at Skidmor.” He whispers the last part, glancing around.
“You’re going to Skidmor House?” Klio lowers her voice, too, her eyes huge. “They raided that place last month!”
“It’s got more than fifty floors. They can’t keep the whole place shut down—” Klio cuts him off with a frantic gesture, having spotted Marissa. Her coworker stammers a greeting, then hurries out, brushing past Marissa without looking back.
“Still want some help with these?” Marissa walks into the lab and begins pushing a caddy out into the hallway, toward the freight elevator. Klio reluctantly follows her, pushing another caddy. “Where’re these headed?”
“We’re shipping them out to get refilled with cyclovodephane.” Klio points to the far end of the lab, where more tanks are connected to the huge reactor vessel with capillary tubing. Marissa’s eyes fill with the cool glow of whole cubic yards of silvery gas. She quickly looks away. “Tomorrow, we’ll extract Forty-Five.” Klio sounds a little surer of herself as she describes tomorrow’s lab work. “We discovered if we increase the spellbinder charm in the reactant feed by half a percent, it reduces the chance of the bots waking up from the spell, without speeding up the ageing process…too much.”
“So, how long does the kool—the Forty-Five stay in their system?”
“Well…we’ve done some tests in the lab, and one dose of the current formula still shows traces in their spinal fluid ’til about a week after you stop dosing them.” With the last of the caddies loaded, Klio presses a button and the elevator carries them to the enormous Shipping and Receiving area on the thirtieth floor. They wheel their cargo off and deposit it at one of the wide scrolling doors, all closed, each labeled with a dock number. As they are leaving, a motor starts up, just beyond the door of Dock 1. Marissa stops, all other sounds fading into the background. There is no other sound like this one on Earth—or in other worlds. It is the low grumble of a UPS truck.
The truck shifts gears, accelerating, the sound fading into the distance. Resisting the urge to run back to the docks and press her face to the window to watch the truck take flight, Marissa instead says, “Hey, what’s this Skid Row place, anyhow?”
Klio looks uncomfortable. “Skidmor House. You mean, you don’t know?”
“I’m still so new to all this.” Marissa has found information comes more easily when she plays dumb. “Wasn’t that long ago, I was still a bot, remember.”
Back in the dim light of the freight elevator, Klio’s large, dark eyes look shyly at her. “I know you’re different from them—the other Organics. You’re a real person. But…does it ever bother you? I mean—seeing the other ones…?”
“Nope.” Marissa’s voice remains even. “Now, you were saying about Skidmor—?”
Klio drops her gaze. “It’s where the first factory ran, years ago. Now, it’s nothing. It’s a bad place. People go there to do really bad things.” Klio selects the floor and they begin the descent. “The Caregivers clear it out every once in a while. The rails don’t even run there anymore.” Marissa makes no comment, but marks the fact that for a law-abiding citizen, Klio seems to know an awful lot about Skidmor House. “And anyone caught speaking of it…” Klio looks up at Marissa with despairing eyes. “Is sent to Rehab.” The elevator doors are opening, but she remains pressed against the wall as if paralyzed.
“Listen. It’s none of my business.” Marissa steps out into the hallway, turning. “This conversation? Never happened.” Klio’s eyes turn down and away as the doors rumble closed. Marissa walks away, as if this has meant nothing. As if she isn’t thinking about a giant reactor full of shimmering koolaid. As if she isn’t seeing the ruined tower of Skidmor House in her mind’s eye, sensing the time has come for a return call.
But Skidmor has no address. It is not on any map. Over the past year as, under Kelley’s coaching she has gained mastery over the Caregivers’ manual controls, she has occasionally tried to locate it again to no avail.
On the lower level of the club called Playland, Marissa wanders amid hundreds of masked revelers in glowing costume as they thrash about to the rave music and mesmerizing images on the globes lighting up the walls and ceilings, popping candy purchased by the dolla from glass vending machines that flash pink and gold in the corners. For a twenty-spot, the vending machines also offer burners—cheap, single-use wands that can only be used for recreational purposes inside the club. A burner smuggled out of the venue instantly becomes a Caregiver beacon.
The floor is afroth with bright balloons. In the center of the dance floor is a gigantic, sea-green cake, people devouring it in an orgy of frosting.
In the bathroom, half the toilets are backed up, even overflowing, and tendrils of brown rot creep across the graffiti-festooned walls. In front of the garish pink stall doors, florescent vomit is slowly forming glowing orange squares as it seeps into the decaying grout between the buckled pink floor tiles. From a stall at the far end come painful retching sounds. Draped over the sagging stall door is a black, hooded mask. A hand reaches up and quietly liberates the mask.
Unrecognizable, she slips through the crowds, nimbly avoiding groping hands, her goal a woman standing by the vending machine, apparently alone. Gazing at the colorful array of capsules on display, she says, over the music: “How do you get to Skidmor House?”
The woman gives her one terrified look before hurrying away.
She approaches another person. Then another. Always the same reaction.
Next to the mouth of the sweeping tunnel leading down to Playland’s backdoor, a girl in sequined angel wings and a dog collar leans in a doorframe, her painted face flooded with pink light from the flickering sign above the doorway, the glowing tubes forming a large, erect cock. A faceless shadow approaches the winged girl. “Skidmor.”
The girl fades into the darkness beyond the doorway without answering.
At that moment, a pair of glistening red lips appears, repeating across the walls and ceiling, around the pillars, underfoot. At the same time, the tech music fades. A deep, rumbling swell of sound begins to rise ominously from everywhere. “Ladies and Gentlemen. The moment you’ve all been waiting for.” The voice sliding from the ruby lips is sly and sensuous. “Hold onto yo’ bollas and pull out yo’ dollas! I give you the ONE…the ONLY…the GREAT ROTUNDUS!” In the back of the club are multi-level stages, upon which women wearing nothing but ribbons have been writhing and grinding, bowing to accept the occasional bill from raucous partiers. Now the women are clearing out of the way as an enormous drag queen in a gown that looks like a purple and flame-tinted flower descends from somewhere above, eyelashes two inches long, fake tits protruding like glittering violet road cones.
Revelers are streaming toward the back of the club, whooping and waving burners and fistfuls of dolla as the Great Rotundus twirls and bows, snatching the bills up and cramming them into lacy garters encircling thick, fishnetted thighs. “C’mon, stick up that dolla and make ‘er holla!”
The Great Rotundus is now crawling across the stage on hands and knees. The queen looks back seductively over one shoulder and catches the gaze of a slender figure in a black, hooded mask. One hand is slowly twirling a rolled-up bill.
In a second, their faces are nearly touching, and Marissa can see the runnels of sweat scoring the shell of the queen’s makeup. “What would you like to see me do?” the Rotundus pants, reaching for the money as Marissa’s hand remains casually out of reach. “C’mon, sugar, don’t play jokes on a sweet young thing like me.” The fake lashes caress her face seductively.
“You can tell me your real name,” she says, so quietly no one else can hear.
The Great Rotundus hesitates a split second, then continues his sinuous movements at the edge of the stage while she waits patiently. “Sapphire,” comes the reply at last. “There, now are you done with me?”
Marissa shakes her head, still holding back the cash. “One more thing, Sapphire.” She stretches up, placing her masked lips against Sapphire’s bejeweled ear. “Tell me how to find Skidmor House.”
Sapphire recoils from her, struggling to stand. Marissa unrolls the money, holding it with both hands, visible to only them as the crowd surges around her. It is not a dolla. Not even twenty. It is a genuine, American-mint, fifty-dollar bill. Sapphire freezes. After a second: “Who are you?”
“Who’re you?” Marissa returns.
Sapphire arches a single, painted brow. “I’ve told you.”
“No. Who are you, really?”
The queen’s dark eyes, ringed with purple glitter, stare past her. The crowd is getting impatient. Next to Marissa, someone flicks a burner, there is a snapping sound, and a red welt appears on Sapphire’s neck. The queen gasps, eyes widening in mostly exaggerated pain, then whispers, as the hungry crowd moves in, more wands appearing: “No one.” Gathering layers of skirts, arching one leg into the air. “I’ve never been anyone.”
“C’mon. Everyone’s someone.”
Sapphire looks up as streamers begin to pour down from the tiered balconies above. “Got it wrong, sister. No one’s anyone.” Then, in a faraway voice: “Except for them at the Factory…the Chosen.”
Drunken voices are cawing around Marissa, elbows shoving. “Bend over, beautiful!” “Take it off!” Raucous laughter. Zap. A smoldering hole appears at the split of Sapphire’s fiery gown. A pink cupcake splats facedown on the stage.
Marissa does not move. It’s as if she and Sapphire are the only ones there. “I work there. I’m one of those ‘chosen,’ and you know what? None of us—not one—is any different from you. It’s all a lie. You tell people that. Tell everyone you meet, Madame Sapphire.” At some point, the fifty in her hand has been joined by another.
Seconds later, she is walking away through the rabid crowd as the Great Rotundus executes a perfect death-drop, new holes in his gown, eyes like glass.
Skidmor House towers into the giant coffin that is Robadu, its black sides scarred and corroded with thousands of years of cave rot, its guts hollowed out into many stories, wide floors that once housed production lines and engineering labs. Now these rooms are barren or strewn with junk, vacant windows staring out over the city. Where once the monorails raced up and down its outer walls, now bent and broken lengths of metal track hang off the structure or lie in twisted heaps at its base. Closer up, rickety bridges and ladders can be spotted here and there, spanning the perilous drop between Skidmor and nearby buildings and train platforms. Occasionally, small fires and furtive lights are visible, deep within its dark recesses.
Her face still hidden, she enters a doorless opening on the ground floor, walking out into the center of a barren space. Here, she pauses for several minutes, listening as old confetti swirls like snow around her feet. No pounding dance track. No angry voices or drunken shrieks. The silence is stunning.
But now—the stillness is softly broken by a distant sound, somewhere high in the tower. At first, she is unable to identify it, it has been so long since she has heard anything like it. It is faint, yet clear and sweet. Music—not the techno blaring from every street in Robadu. No. The single, ringing notes are from a stringed instrument, played by human hands.
As she stands alone in that desolate place, staring up into the darkness, forgetting why she has even come here, a voice begins to sing, too far away to be understood. Without even thinking about it, she follows the sound, beginning to climb the winding stairs. She pauses to look out of the glassless windows. The Ferris wheel is a pink firework in the distance. On the street directly below the window, people are walking. Not screaming laughter, popping candy, or stabbing or fucking each other. Just walking. Young, old, male, female, they steal out of alleys and doorways, making their way to Skidmor House. As they come, they cast off their sequined masks, their bright costumes, plumes, and jewelry, leaving a glittering trail along the grimy pavement.
The stairs carry her up and up, past floors populated with old and rusted machines, past yawning doorways, past many a tired body, stopped to rest before continuing the journey up. Marissa herself does not stop to rest. Her hardened body is as tireless as the day she broke free from the enchantment.
The Science of Biology tells us all
There is a Sky
There is a light that fills it
And from it comes life
Let it be so
Oh, let it be so.
Some of the people sit inside the doorways, or even on the high window ledges, talking in whispers, or simply listening. Some hold hands. Some appear to have fallen asleep leaning on one another in exhaustion.
Because we came from Light
We are made of Light
We were born of Light
It’s not a dream
Come, dance into the Light.
The sound, so unlike anything else she has heard since awakening in this dead world, fills her heart with simple, childlike joy. There are people climbing in through the windows, traversing precarious, makeshift planks and ladders that stretch up from neighboring structures. Amazingly, several arrive on a flying carpet, quickly stepping down and rolling the carpet up. She keeps to the deepest shadows, the only one in disguise, following the song. Everyone gathered here is unadorned, their faces unmasked and clean of makeup.
The song echoes through the tower, ringing of hope and things unproven. High above the streets now, the music seems just ahead, perhaps only a floor away. Marissa hurries up to the next landing, listens in the doorway. But now, the song seems to be drifting up from somewhere below.
You know it’s darkest before the dawn
Oh, let this keep you moving on
Come down off that stage
Take off that mask
Out of sadness our Light will dawn
We can and will be new again.
Marissa turns to a woman seated in the window. “Why do you come here?” she asks.
“To rest,” the woman replies. “To be still.” She sighs softly, and a tear glistens on her cheek. “To be us.”
Someone presses something into Marissa’s hand. “Believe,” the person whispers, passing on into the shadows.
Marissa looks down at the torn fragment of forbidden paper in her hand. Unite says the heading. Beneath, in shaky print: The Sky Exist!
They are coming here to escape the party, to try to get clean, to learn reading and writing. These are their great crimes.
Somewhere below, or perhaps above, the singer has begun a new verse.
The rectangle of the nearest window is a dim, dark pink, lit faintly by the Ferris wheel’s distant glow. Framed against this soft blush, a fibrous tentacle drops like a single curl of black smoke.
The music jangles to a halt as the building fills with shouting and the sounds of flight. “There is no need to be afraid.” The voice seems to flow in through every doorway, fouling all it touches. “It will be our pleasure to assist you to your new home.”
Caregivers are rising on all sides, bloody eyes banishing the shadows with visceral light. The woman Marissa spoke to is snatched from the window. People are trying to help each other, stumbling down the stairs, fleeing across the makeshift bridges, scrambling down ladders and scaffolds, as tendrils slither, trailing slime along the ledges, snaking around corners—sniffing—worming down stairwells, snaring running feet. “You are a threat to yourselves and to others.”
Two people zoom out another window, clinging to the flying carpet, only to be plucked out of the air by a Caregiver.
Marissa stands in the midst of the chaos as the red lights pan and people run hither and thither. Far below, they are scattering into the alleyways, grabbing up their masks and costumes as they run, struggling into their disguises again and disappearing into the carnival madness of the city. Those back in party garb are ignored by the Caregivers.
In a short time, Skidmor House stands empty, the turmoil in the streets below fading away to silence, the last of the machines streaking away with its nightly quota of arrestees.
She listens a minute longer, wondering if the singer made it out, the words of the Sky Song in her head. Then she throws a leg over the window ledge and descends forty floors, swinging down the rickety rope ladder someone has strung up, landing silently in the lot below.
A lone figure is sitting on the curb, amid a glitter of junk jewelry and gaudy scarves, most of which have been trampled and ground into the grimy pavement. The figure has just strapped on a pair of gold lamé heels and a sequined bra.
As Klio is lifting an ornate masked headdress out of the rubbish, Marissa sits down next to her on the curb. Klio pauses, then sets the mask over her face, the headdress fanning out, red and gold, above her head. “Please don’t turn me in.” She speaks softly, staring straight ahead. “A DimCor employee, caught in this place—I’d never get out of lockup. I’d die there.”
“Who wrote that song?” Marissa asks.
“N-no one.” Klio swallows, then looks back defiantly. “Everyone.”
Marissa speaks gently to the frightened young chymist. “Come here all you want, your secret’s safe. If you’ll do something for me.”
The next time the black-hooded figure walks into Skidmor House, Klio is waiting on the forty-second floor. As the two draw together, Klio pulls out a clear vial that bathes her face in cool, silver light. The glow is from Formula Forty-Five—but not the vapor; this is potion in a concentrated fluid. In her other hand is a syringe.
Marissa reaches into her pocket and withdraws a hundred-dollar bill. Klio stares. “You’re paying me?”
“Of course. You’re providing me with a service, I’m paying you for it. This isn’t blackmail.”
Klio hands over the potion, and wonderingly accepts the money. “Not dolla?”
“Fuck that.” Marissa closes Klio’s hand around it. “Don’t waste this on a bunch of shit. Start getting yourself clean and out of debt. And buy real food instead of eating free cake.”
It is like rocketing through a frigid void, becoming the darkness, exploding into the icy emptiness of eternity.
It lasts for hours.
When Marissa returns to Skidmor House, she hands Klio two hundred-dollar bills.
One night, Klio finally gathers the courage to ask. “What do you do with it?”
Marissa is pulling her mask down over her face again, turning to go. “I live.” Her footsteps echo as she heads for the dark stairwell. “I live with it.”
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.