Originally published in Tales to Terrify, Episode 392.
“My hearing ain’t great no more,” the Caped Cochlea says, “but I can hear into Clocks’s office for sure. There’s going to be a selection tonight.”
“Don’t worry,” Super Ferret whispers. “It’ll only be the old. The sick.”
Rubén wrings his mop, like the words, out of his mind. Gossip from the workbench behind him continues to dribble through, anyway. Accompanied by the whir of sewing machines, the snap of bitten threads: Human Incinerator, who burns the bodies, says they take you to a building just like delousing except out of the showerheads come zeta rays which rip you apart at the molecular level. Well, better than getting deported to a parallel dimension, frostbitten for eternity, anyhow…
Boots stomp toward them as a watery ellipse floats into existence out of the concrete beneath Rubén’s feet.
“And 389 here with his circles,” Bombyx hoots, blocking the window with his one remaining, mangled wing. “Better cut that out before the guards see you.”
“Geometer,” the man scrubbing next to Rubén corrects.
“Three eighty nine!” Bombyx booms.
He picks up the disk and shatters it like a Frisbee against the wall.
“What’d you do to land in here, again? Give one of the stormies a paper cut?”
“Not all powers were meant for fighting,” Geometer says quietly. “Before the war, I used it to teach children. To help them visualize the shapes in their minds.”
It means half the rations, of course, working the sweatshop. But Rubén prefers Bombyx, mopping face to face with empty Storm Chaser uniforms as opposed to occupied ones while slogging shells. Or worse, the assembly line, elbow-deep in space rock, phosphorous, toxic waste—no, not toxic waste after that worker fell into a vat and stopped a bus with her bare hands—whatever the stormies are packing into their drones, killing them with these days.
“What’s his power, you think?” one of the seamstresses wonders as Rubén shuffles past.
“Probably animalspeak or some useless junk. This is a C-tier camp here.”
And they are the C-tiers of the C-tiers. Depowered and put to work, lucky them. Because even C-tiers have their uncontrollable upper tiers, capable of bending plants to their will or slipping out of any earthly restraint. Good only for vivisection. His bunkmate, Doc Yucca, won’t shut up about Hyacinth Girl’s brain, pickled in a jar in the basement of the surgery and research ward where he—holds scalpels, that’s all, he insists.
“He keeps looking at those birds.”
Rubén keeps his head down as Bombyx looms closer, his comb-like antennae twitching.
“Think he can turn into one?” Bombyx sneers. “Is that what you’re planning, flying outta here? They’ll zap us all if anyone escapes, 241. You know that.”
Rubén takes the hit. The whip, right in the face; blood drips from the gash on his forehead onto the sudsy floor. Bombyx used to have four wings. Rubén saw the comics. The Storm Chasers lopped off three and only let him keep the last because he begged and begged. Bombyx lets him up, finally. Rubén glances out the window and raises his hand.
“What?” Bombyx snarls. “Haven’t had enough?”
“Bathroom,” Rubén says softly.
“Five minutes. Rest of you, back to work!”
On the workshop roof, a dark shape preens, almost blended into the night. Rubén takes a handful of bread out of his jacket lining and holds it up high. It flutters down and snatches the crumbs out of his palm, all the while staring at him with its beady, coal-like eyes. Just an ordinary bird. He slumps with relief.
“I see the way they beat you,” the crow says. “They’re animals, Rubén.”
“We’re all animals.”
“You’re no animal.”
When, as a teen, he dared interfere with El Corazón’s execution, freeing the prisoner tied up in the back of the cantina where he bussed tables, the drug lord’s goons broke his legs and left him in the wasteland for dead. Crow Spirit came to him as he sweated feverishly, half-buried in sand. Merge with me, she whispered. Unlike the shadows he’d tossed cigarette butts to in the parking lot, her feathers gleamed against the dawn. They drank from gold-touched oases. Flew through the desert, bringing light with an ever-burning flame. And he did it all without a single complaint, without even thinking of it much. He was young.
The Storm Chasers drew the Spirit from him with their machine and held the light against him until he burned and fell powerless to the ground. But at that point Rubén welcomed the ashes, the soot that seared his skin and hair grey. As if it could free him—a manifestation of his innermost thoughts. As his body aches now, in the breeze of the crow’s wings. He deserved to be severed from Crow Spirit. The camp, Bombyx, all of this. If only he could take her place in the sun machine too. As they dragged him away he heard Crow Spirit screaming, even as the cage sparked with siphoned energy, the first test light bulbs on the ceiling flickered to life…
Back at the barracks he organizes an extra cup of soup, trades it for a bit of makeup to cover the wound, then loans out his jacket for a lesson on the right way to put it on. Hoping, as he squints at his reflection in a rusty pipe, that its new wearer won’t get selected tonight—otherwise he’ll never get it back. Just in time for the door to thunder open. The guards, Storm Chaser men, swarm in. Soldiers injected with spinal fluid isolated from prisoners in the research compound, Doc Yucca told Rubén once. Like their dogs. All their super strength gained with none of the pesky intelligence.
“Out!” they scream, lashing left and right. “Out!”
Dusk. Rubén still feels the rhythm in his gut despite the glare of searchlights in his face, the posters papering the barracks they pass on the way to the square proclaiming the time. Half past midnight, it’s been half past midnight for the past week straight. Rubén barely dares look at them. Ten people, Clocks had shot last week alone for mentioning the darkness shrouding the desert, the absence of morning, the utter failure of the sun machine. Even from the back of the crowd, as they’re made to kneel, Rubén can make out the thin form of the commandant on stage. By the bloody bandages around his fists, he’s been watching clock faces again, smashing in any that dare tick past his decreed time. Hence, the nickname.
“As I’m sure you’re aware,” Clocks rasps. “One of your kind melted a bus in Tucson yesterday. The going rate nowadays is three to one. So we’ll round it up to forty of you. First up. Four seventy three!”
“No,” the man next to Rubén whimpers as the guards grab him; a new arrival, his skin still pales in the shape of a domino mask around his eyes. “No, no, no…”
He can’t help him, Rubén tells himself. Despite what Crow Spirit whispered in his ear the night the war began. You could be S-tier. In his broken-down pick-up truck as he hammered the radio, desperately trying to piece words from the static, as he drove over the border—double S, triple S—Lady Atomica dropping the Pantex plant stockpile on the US-Mexico Wall would be nothing compared to him.
S-tier. Ha. He couldn’t even help one measly kid. She couldn’t have been more than nine or ten when she came up to him in the open-air market, by the cow-head skull and sunflower stall, peddling origami cranes. Somehow, she enlisted Rubén’s help. Some kind of game, he thought as he folded to the light of a single candle beneath his tarp, until she confided that at a thousand she’d be able to bring her parents back to life.
“Which one of you is summoning these damn things?” Clocks screeches. “Cut it out! Or I’ll zap the lot of you!”
In long, hesitating movements, shuddering, Rubén raises his head. Crows fill the saguaros outside the barbed wire, choke the air with their black dissonance. Each sweep of the searchlights dislodges more of them from above, like flakes of night, dripping free. They carpet the tinny roofs and the dirt square until he almost dares not breathe.
“Leave,” Rubén pleads.
“We don’t want to leave,” they beat with their wings. “We want to help you, Rubén.”
“I don’t want you to help me. I want you to leave.”
Thorny claws dig into his shoulder. A beak burrows into his hair.
“We follow the stench of war,” they caw, their words a fragment, an echo, only a shadowy rasp of the Spirit’s melodious voice. “We followed it and we found you.”
Even after the severing, he’d remained connected to her in flashes, fever dreams. He’d seen how Crow Spirit had twisted and writhed against the diamond mesh of the sun machine until she’d torn herself asunder and free. How the first bloody giblets had melted into the skin of the young scientist on the observation deck. Moving onto rats after a squad of soldiers had met the same fate, wriggling through ventilation shafts while the Storm Chasers flooded the plant with gas. Once outside, the crows. Even as each new host proved unsuitable, plummeting out of the sky, the Spirit split itself further, claimed more. Her entire consciousness simultaneously shattered and condensed into one word. Rubén. Rubén. He, and he alone, could quell their hunger. For weeks he’d woken to nightmares of their wings beating closer, pathetically hoped the camp would finish him off before then.
Gunshots crack around them. Inconsequential as Clocks’s muffled shouts, the spent bullets that clatter to the ground, soft as rain. Each hole they tear through the swarm instantly floods and writhes with more feathered darkness, cawing. Now Ruben can make out the deluge of their many-colored eyes.
“Why do the humans shoot us, Rubén?” they caw. “Why do they rob us of our due?”
“We hunger, Rubén. We wander in darkness and hunger for flame.”
“And you, who was supposed to feed us, failed.”
He was doing fine, lying low, drowning out Crow Spirit’s pleas with liquor, until he met the kid. Focusing on his job, he told himself. Two or three hours off dawn at most, only zigzagging the sunrise when he hit the bacanora too hard. Then the Storm Chasers rolled up to Nogales, that produce-flooded border town. Looking for him and finding her instead. Their slave, an A-tier with magnetism manipulation—who wasn’t even being mind controlled—and a pack of superpower sniffing hounds under her command, levitated Rubén’s truck into the air. Under it huddled the kid, hiding where Rubén had told her to, clutching one of her paper cranes.
“What’s your power, sweetie?” she laughed. “Super speed? Let’s see.”
Now, face to face with the mad swarm the Crow Spirit has become, something inside Rubén breaks. He could have done something. As the first hound ripped at the kid’s sleeve, she started to glow. The others whined, shying away from the heat. Then the A-tier stomped down on her throat. At that moment Rubén had all the power of the otherworld at his fingertips, why didn’t he realize? No—he did. Felt Crow Spirit straining at her sooty threads, in his mind tightened them instead. He was afraid. He’d learned that fear at age nineteen, trembling in front of El Corazón. Because of his fear, he’d fled across the border. Because of his fear, the kid died. And Crow Spirit—the two of them were sick even before the Storm Chasers caught up to them, fighting like wolves in the same body. Go, he’d told her. Possess one more worthy.
Yet up until the sun machine had severed them, she had believed in him. I know I have not chosen wrong. Her last sane words.
“Let me make it up to you,” Rubén says.
The crows settle on his back, his outstretched arms. Screams erupt, mingling with a piercing pain in his ear, as the rest of the murder mirrors their movements. Lift the layers of my flesh one by one, Rubén commands. Take back what is yours. Tear at me and tear at me until I am nothing. That would be fitting.
“Hey! Bird brain!”
A disk ricochets off the crow’s neck sending it squawking away. Geometer impales another with the end of a thin spear—a line, Rubén realizes. Infinitely sharp.
“A bit niche, that power,” the Caped Cochlea coughs beside him. “But it’ll do.”
“Leave me,” Rubén whispers.
“Not a chance.”
“I deserve to—”
“Less moping!” Super Ferret barks. “More bird control!”
Crows hurricane around them and Super Ferret leaps off Rubén’s shoulder, clawing onto the nearest bird midair. He sinks his teeth into where wing meets body—Rubén makes out wisps of Spirit escaping from the gash before, like sharks scented to blood in water, the others swarm them. Without thinking, Rubén raises his hand. The birds settle onto the nearest Storm Chaser man instead. He hurries forward and catches Super Ferret, plastered with the mangled, but now otherwise normal, remains of a crow. With infinite relief, he feels his furred body twitching in his arms. Geometer grabs his shoulder and steers them toward a group of prisoners huddled under another one of his shapes, a shimmering curve.
“Think you can short it out with those birds?” Geometer asks, pointing at the barbed wire.
“They tend to fixate on—living things,” Rubén tries to explain.
Only to be drowned out by the squeal of wheels. He ducks just in time for a Storm Chaser Jeep to burst overhead. It crashes head-on into the wire, vines writhing out of the ground beneath it. The electric fence sparks under their weight, collapsing as tiny purple flowers blossom from its tangled mass.
“Get in!” Bombyx yells, leaning on the horn to scare off the crows that have already settled around him. “Come on!”
Rubén takes his hand, coming face to face with a jar in Doc Yucca’s arms. Around him others thump, balancing on fenders and clinging onto the frame when they run out of room.
“Hyacinth Girl’s brain?” Doc Yucca finishes. “Yeah. Source of all her power. Why do you think they kept it? Little did they know,” he adds with a small smile, stroking the glass as they surge forward. “The other half was in me.”
As soon as the sound of tearing souls fades, they putter to a stop. In a field of sun starved fiddlenecks and poppies, the grass gently sloping upward toward a sky island under their wheels.
“All right,” Rubén says gruffly, breaking the silence. He steps down from his seat, jabs a thumb at the mountain. “You’re free. Better scram before the stormies catch wind.”
They’ll have their hands full with that camp, Rubén doesn’t add. Units for miles round. They might even nuke it. He shudders. The part of him still connected to Crow Spirit feels the army of ravening bodies back there. Twitching like worms at the hunger swelling within them, the longing…
“Wouldn’t it be better if we all stuck together?” Super Ferret asks timidly.
A chorus of agreement. Rubén stands rooted to the spot, but they crowd around him. Super Ferret clambers up his chest and snakes around his shoulders.
“What’d they call you? Before, I mean.”
“Rainbow Crow,” Rubén says.
“Then we can be Rainbow Crow’s Heroes.”
Like a punch in the gut, Rubén remembers the paper crane kid. Once, in a rare burst of childlike excitement, she’d scribbled a drawing of two stick figures holding hands. “You and me,” she’d explained carefully. “Our comic book. Issue one.” Older faces he sees too, drowned fathomlessly in drunken stupors over the years. Brothers. Mother and Father. Friends. When he was young and given to daydreaming, he imagined too, in that cantina where he scrubbed glasses into the empty hours, with the contraband arcade machines—you could almost see the moon setting over the horizon like the end of the world—a soft vision filled with laughter and light. The same world Crow Spirit must’ve seen as she perched on his broken body, as she twined her soul with his on that night. All here. All saved. He couldn’t have done it alone. But with a team. A lump rises in Rubén’s throat as he raises his head from the ragged crowd, glimpses a ray of sun piercing the cloud of dark birds circling above.
Maybe they could find enough courage to save her too.