AUTHOR: G. Scott Huggins
NARRATOR: Jen Rhodes
HOST: Tina Connolly
- What Good is a Glass Warrior? is an Escape Pod original.
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about the author…
G. Scott Huggins grew up in the American Midwest and has lived there all his life, except for interludes in the European Midwest (Germany) and the Asian Midwest (Russia). He is currently responsible for securing America’s future by teaching its past to high school students, many of whom learn things before going to college. His preferred method of teaching and examination is strategic warfare. He loves to read high fantasy, space opera, and parodies of the same. He wants to be a hybrid of G.K. Chesterton and Terry Pratchett when he counteracts the effects of having grown up. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie, and will gladly put his writing talents to use reviewing samples of any recipe featuring one or more of them. You can read his ramblings and rants (with bibliography) at The Logoccentric Orbit and you can follow him on Facebook.
Jen is one of the co-hosts of the Anomaly Podcast; an all women sci-fi and fantasy “geek chat” show. She is also a co-host on The Star Wars Stacks; a book review podcast. Both of her shows are available on iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio and everywhere else on the interwebs.
When she isn’t podcasting, Jen makes her living as a professional graphic designer, voice actress, and narrator. Jen has always been an introverted geek, but she’s definitely not the stereotypical nerd. In 3rd grade, during recess, she coaxed the entire student body into playing “V”. She led the Visitors as “Diana” until red dust, AKA: cherry flavored Kool-Aid mix, ended her reign of power. Without her leadership, the game soon ended. But she didn’t always play the villain. Jen was a real-life “playground superhero” who rescued kids from school bullies. Once a bully threw the first punch at Jen, they very quickly lost to a girl. “Hostile negotiations” were concluded without further incident due to the embarrassment felt by the aggressor. As a result, Jen became everyone’s friend—even the bullies were her buddies, once they were properly reformed that is. Jen is currently living happily ever after, in the Texas Hill country, with her husband and their little boy, Aaron.)
By Scott Huggins
Like falling through rings of intermittent diamonds;
White laser-circles of moon.
Kinhang Chan Tzu chose those words to describe being me. Given that he was Earth’s poet laureate, and I am only my parents’ daughter, who am I to argue? I have never seen any of those things – he might be right. How can I know? Colors remind me of swimming. Like water, they surround you, but give you nothing to hold on to.
I hold the release lever to the airlock in my hand. The inner door stands open behind me. I say a brief prayer. I pull the lever down.
The soft wind of Langstrand rushes into the colony ship, smelling of forest and beach. Behind me, bulkheads close with soft bangs. All except the ones I’ve cut out of the circuit. No alarms sound. No lights flash. Quickly, I jog back to Cargo Bay One.
Now there is only waiting.
I crouch in a swirl of blue and black wind, and my polyfiber spear is a shaft of warmth in the ocean of air, heated by my fingers. Wind flaps against my father’s too-big combat jacket, making listening difficult. The only breathing is Uncle Jimmy’s, strapped in the gurney.
“You there, Unk?” I whisper.
“Lass? Where are you? It’s dark.”
“Yes, Unk, it’s dark. What do you see? Anything?”
“Too dark to see. Too dark for the Glass Lass. You should be in bed. Where are Don and Amy?”
“They’re safe, Unk.” As safe as sickbay can make them, anyway.
He moans. “Too dark. Danger in the dark. It’s hungry.”
I don’t reply. This is home, though Jimmy doesn’t know it anymore. My fingers tighten on the spear. It is coming, then. If Jimmy’s words can be trusted. If Governor Brainerd is wrong and I’m right. A small hope. The colors are a cold and malevolent water to swim in.
Glass Lass. It’s my father’s nickname for me.
“Daddy, why do you always call me that?” I’d asked back on Earth.
It was my mother’s clear alto that answered, “Because he remembers what I did to him when he called me that! Don, stop terrorizing Dana.”
“Yeah, Dad. I do get enough of that shit in school.” I bit my tongue, but it was too late.
“Someone needs a little time in the back yard.” His voice was friendly, but firm. I got up. There was no disobeying my father when he used that tone of voice, and I had just broken two major rules: no swearing and no whining.
“Yes, sir.” I reached for my cane, then discarded it in favor of the thicker polyfiber pole. I marched out the front door and around the side of the house. I could hear and feel my father behind me, until my bare feet touched the mat set into the yard. I began to stretch. Summer blues and greens swirled about me along with the wind. I heard a pair of sharp pops from behind me.
“What an awful noise from those poor old joints, Daddy,” I taunted. “Sure you’re up for this?”
“Keep it up, smart-alec. I might not use the blindfold.”
“You still do? I couldn’t tell the difference.”
“Oh, cute. Begin.”
I wondered if any neighbors were watching. What would they see? Two glassy human shapes facing one another, wearing high-necked shirts and shorts. Daddy would have two dark spheres where his eyes were, but he was blindfolded. My own head would be completely transparent.
My parents had been Army Invisibles; commandos. They aren’t really invisible, but they are quite hard to see, even in good light.
The human eye, however, only sees images focused with a lens on a retina. Before becoming Invisibles, my parents’ eyes were sealed with an opaque lining. No one thought about what would happen if two Invisibles married and had a child. Then I came along. I was the first. There were a few others. Very few.
The treatment induced the genes of my parents’ cells to manufacture transparent proteins in place of pigmented ones. This included their gametes. So I, too, was born invisible. And, since my retina picks up light coming from every direction, focused or not, I am quite blind. Colors I can see. Light and dark as well. But not shape. My brain’s perception of light was hopelessly scrambled before I was ever born. Retinal hyperreceptivity syndrome, they call it.
Kinhang Chan Tzu wrote about us kids when he heard about us, to “educate the world about the terrors of war.” I say that if the world could be so educated it would have happened a long time ago. Personally, I don’t feel so much terrorized as annoyed. Mostly by other people.
“I said begin.” My father’s voice jolted me out of my reverie. I faced him and bowed. Then I ducked and his foot whistled through the space my head had occupied. I came up with the pole ready to block.
“So what happened?” His voice was calm, but tense.
I lunged below his voice and missed; leaned back and let loose three short kicks that he parried. Then I dodged. And I knew I was going to tell him, even though I didn’t want to relive it. But I’d make him work for it.
“Define ‘irony,’” I growled, deflecting his staff past my ribs. I lashed out with a foot and heard a satisfying chuff as my foot connected with his gut. Then I was dumped on my rear by his staff. I bounced up, and we resumed circling.
“So what’s ironic?”
“Well, when Mrs. Phelps asked me that question, I said, ‘being called The Invisible Girl when everyone in the school can spot me at a hundred meters.’ So I got an appointment with the school counselor who spent an hour of my time giving me the Inspiring Well-Adjusted Handicapped People speech.”
I blocked his side kick and spun away almost without noticing. I heard him recover and say, “If you don’t like it, you should adjust.”
“Dammit, Daddy!” I screamed and leaped, lashing out at the air. I knew I’d timed it wrong from the start, and the grab that sent me sprawling on the mat and left the taste of copper in my mouth came as no surprise, but I was too mad to care. I flipped onto my back. “I am adjusted; no one else is. They can’t even let me make a joke on myself!” I lashed out and caught his foot, felling him to the mat, but there was no sound of him regaining his feet. Only silence. Then I felt his hand squeeze my shoulder.
“It’s a cruel joke,” he whispered. He didn’t mean mine, but the world’s on me. “I’m proud of you.”
“So do you think he’d be proud of me now, Unk?” I inhale the chill of the storage bay. “Or would he just flay the hide off me?” I’d stolen Dad’s jacket. I am guilty of sabotage and maybe even treason. Damn him and Mother anyway for bringing us here. Snot begins to run down my nose along with my tears. “You think he’s proud of me now?”
“Pride.” The ragged voice comes back. “That’s the key, lass. The dark is proud. It knows. It hunts. It hunts for me, for us. We have to go!”
For perhaps the hundredth time, I test the strength of the epoxy that bonds the glassteel blades to the ends of my pole. The edges I’d put there.
“We can’t go, Unk. There’s no one else.”
The sickbay was crowded with me and Daddy and Governor Brainerd there. The only sound was Uncle Jimmy talking softly to the darkness in his corner of the room. That’s Colonel (ret.) James McGill, Army Esper Corps. Ever since landing, his mind has been… broken. He talked to things. Most of all, “the dark.” The doctors thought it had been a mistake allowing a sensitive off Earth; that being removed from the continuous, subconscious presence of all those other minds had crippled him.
The rest of us were in the other corner. With Mother. For once I was really glad I couldn’t see. Daddy’s labored breathing told me all I needed to know.
The Governor broke the silence. I wished he hadn’t; it seemed like he never stopped talking these days. Maybe he was afraid it was all he was good at.
“Dr. Haryut says that the regeneration facilities here are just as good as back on Earth, maybe even more. After all, they knew we’d experience things they couldn’t guess at…”
I faded back to the other corner of the room. “They” certainly hadn’t guessed we’d be facing It, either.
We didn’t know what It was. But no one who stayed outside for over an hour came back. The first disappearances happened in the outer fields, where the Earthlife was just being seeded. Then the dorms. Now the ship was sealed up, and that seemed to keep us safe. But no one could leave. Anyone who went out alone disappeared. And for those who went out in groups…
“I’m telling you I saw It,” snapped my father. “It was three meters high with – I could draw It for you if I had any talent that way! Then I shot It and…” he broke off, fighting sobs. Pain washed through me. He’d been so calm calling for the hummer. After he’d found that he’d shot Mother and hadn’t hit It at all.
“Teeth,” giggled Uncle Jimmy, behind me. I jumped. I hadn’t realized I’d backed so far away. “Rend and tear whatever they see. They have eyes, the teeth, but they can’t see the dark – nothing can do that.”
Brainerd tried to soothe my father. “Dr. Haryut says Amy’s stable, anyway. God, Don, I hate like hell to ask at a time like this, but Langstrand needs you…”
“Not to go back out there!”
“Don, it was an accident – “
“No, it wasn’t!”
”You need time, Don.” Brainerd said.
I stepped to my father and reached out a hand. “Please don’t,” I heard him say. I froze. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I… she wasn’t there. I shot her and she wasn’t even there until after I fired. I’m so sorry.” He strode from the room.
My eyes filled with tears. I turned back to Uncle Jimmy. He was moaning now. “My head, my head. So dark. Turn down the lights, can’t you, it’s too dark!” Hysteria tinged his voice.
“Governor Brainerd,” I said.
The whiteness of the room held twisting shadows. “Yes, Dana?” said one of them.
“If you’d pull your head out of your ass and listen to my father, maybe you’d learn something from him.”
His voice went clipped. “Dana… I’m going to put that down to your being frightened and upset. So is your father. So am I. I’ve lost fifteen people to this thing and that’s not counting your mother. I don’t have time for hysterics. Yours or your father’s. Or I’d be having my own.”
“My father does not have hysterics!” I snapped. “He’s an Army Invisible.”
“He’s a man who just nearly killed his wife, Dana. He wouldn’t do that either, but he has. Of my three colonists who have any military experience, one has been shot, one is a lunatic, and the third… has lost his nerve for the moment.”
My face heated. “My father hasn’t lost anything! And if you’re so brave, you go out there and hunt it! You’re a coward, hiding behind my parents for protection. If you’re our leader, then lead already!”
I heard heavy breathing for a moment. Then he said, in a strange, low voice. “Thank you for that kind assessment, Dana.” And his footsteps receded rapidly.
I clutched my staff, mad enough to chase him down and add some more choice words, but an iron grip closed on my shoulder from behind.
“What excuse do you have for that?” Jimmy’s familiar voice growled.
I whirled, gasping at the twisting pain in my arm but not really heeding it. “Uncle Jimmy?”
I was so relieved to hear him talking normally that I could have thrown my arms around him, but he cut me off. “Answer me, Dana. What do you think you were doing?”
I pointed after Brainerd. “He was…”
“I’m not asking about the Governor; I’m asking about you. Your parents taught you better than that. Can’t you see he’s desperate? Don’t you know better than to kick people when they’re down?”
“He said Daddy had lost his nerve!”
“And the Governor is close to losing his. And he knows it. He doesn’t need a pack of insults from you!”
“But he isn’t doing anything except hounding Daddy!”
“Then maybe he knows when your father needs a good hounding. Assuming your mother isn’t doing her customary excellent job.”
“Mother’s not doing any job!” I shouted. “That thing got her shot last night and she’s probably going to die, and…” I dissolved in tears, and Uncle Jimmy held me for several seconds, while I melted down.
Uncle Jimmy was muttering soothing noises. Through my sobs I began to make out words. “…there, lass, there. Don’t cry. It wasn’t… God not a dream. Not more dreams. Please no more dreams. There, glass lass. The glass lass shattered, oh God no. Not the laughing again, not again.” He stopped. Stopped dead silent.
“Uncle Jimmy?” I ventured, throat clogged with tears.
Suddenly, he gripped my arm so tight I gasped. “Run, Glass Lass. You can’t see the darkness. It’s a mirror! It sees through you. It sees through you! The Crystal Man hunts for it. He hunts for you! He bites with crystal teeth!”
I felt Jimmy rear up in the bed and whimper, then scream. “Stop laughing! Stop laughing you son of a bitch! The Glass Lass is bitten through!” And he collapsed, letting me go.
Mother had been hit by my father’s crystal fragmentation rounds. Three of them.
And Uncle Jimmy had felt it happen.
So I’m crouched in Cargo Bay One with Uncle Jimmy. Because now I think I know what he talks to. If I’m right about what he said; what he saw. And that’s why he’s here in the gurney with a code-lock on the restraint cuffs.
“You were right, Jimmy,” I whisper. “If I hadn’t ripped Brainerd a new one, maybe he’d have listened to me.” Instead of the automatic message telling me that he was too busy to listen to more of my “incisive political commentary.”
“Right is a dangerous word, for a soldier.”
He sounds almost sane again.
“Can you talk to it?”
“Talk to what?”
“There’s a reason they can’t see it, isn’t there?”
“You can’t see darkness, lass. That’s why it’s dark. Mirrors in the dark… heh. Double danger.”
Hidden meaning? Or babble? “Dammit, Unk, you were just telling me about the… the proud darkness, hunting for us. Can you talk to it?” My voice strains to shout a whisper.
A bitter laugh, absolutely devoid of hope. “Talk to a gun barrel.”
And then he gasps. “It hunts! It sees!” And I hear the scrape of a foot on metal.
Screams burst from Uncle Jimmy. Torn from him as if they were pieces of himself. “Away! Away! Hurry! Go now! Go nownownowNOWNOW!!” I freeze, spear planted. The enormity of my mistake crashes down on me. I can’t hear It. “Shut up, Uncle Jimmy,” I whisper desperately. “Shut up!” I run over and jam my hand over his mouth. Muffled, he starts tossing his head. I hold on.
Over the moaning I hear steps. Irregular.
My spear is awkward in my hand. What is it like? What does it see? Can it see me? In the cargo bay, lit only by reflected moonlight, I was as close to truly invisible as I’d ever be.
“What does it see?” I whisper, as Jimmy’s thrashing quiets. “What?”
“Sea,” he whispers. “Under the sea, never to return. Gone. Alone. So alone.” The wind whistles. Sharper now. Twenty meters to the open hatchway. How fast is it? Jimmy goes rigid. I turn, spear extended. Two steps and probe. Two steps and probe. I hear nothing.
Nothing. At all. Colors shift. Suddenly, they shift faster.
“The left!” Jimmy screams, and I twirl, sweeping the lower blade up in a block. It sinks deep into something, something too dense for fur, too soft for flesh. Hot breath rushes past me in a deafening snarl. It slams me back into the bulkhead. Jackknifing up, I crouch.
Now I hear breathing in the darkness. I step to the side. Moonlight floods me. My back is to the corridor. Between it and the light. There is no warning. A blow cleaves air to my left. Even as my own counterthrust misses, I exult. I was right. It “sees through” us. But not because we’re Invisibles.
Because we have eyes.
It saw my father shoot my mother through her own eyes. But now It has to use my eyes. And It cannot see me.
The hot, breathy noises are broken by muffled sounds. Running feet. Who..? The silence erupts. “Who is outside?” Governor Brainerd’s voice roars over the intraship circuit. “Who left the lock open?” The creature swings. A hammer smashes into my shoulder; I roll with the blow, then feel for a wound, for torn flesh. Nothing. Then Daddy’s clawed monster was an illusion, too. I was right again. The thought pounds through my head. It can project images into our minds. That’s why he shot her. But my mind can’t process images. It can’t fool me.
“Behind you!” screams Jimmy. I spin and parry something massive. It screams frustration.
“Give yourself up. Repeat: give yourself up, whoever you are,” calls the speaker. I hear pounding on the sealed bulkheads. Where am I? Carefully, I back up until my pole hits a wall. I can’t hear over the blaring. Someone must be leaning on the transmit key; voices fall over each other, “…is someone down there?” “Get that lock closed!” “Is It inside?” “My God, who’s that in the bed?” “I see It, my GOD, I SEE IT!” “I don’t, what’re you..?” No time, now. I must hunt. If they get the door open, they’ll “see” it. And shoot what it wants them to.
Where is it? Pole sweeping ahead of me, I advance to the center of the room. The voices on the speaker grow louder, louder. Bracing myself, I leap, spear extended over my head. The speaker screams and dies just as Uncle Jimmy yells, “Behind you,” again. I spin around and land, balanced with my spear outthrust. The blow strikes me from behind, knocking me sprawling. Head hurts. Dazed, I roll away. I feel the shock of something slamming against the deck where I’ve just been. A rush of air above me; I lift the spear at an angle. Something impales itself on the blade. It screams. The spear is nearly wrenched from my hands and I roll away, fetching up against the wall, unmoving. Silence.
It learns fast. It used Uncle Jimmy to fool me. And now orange light flashes through the bay. I didn’t get all the alarms. They’re cutting through. They will have weapons. And this thing can “show” them where to shoot. Just like it did with Daddy.
The only sound is the hiss of the torches.
“Lass?” Jimmy whispers.
I dare not reply. “Glass Lass, talk to me.”
Can’t he shut up? “You got It, Lass, It’s bleeding bad now, you… It’s gone. Gone from inside my head. You’ve hurt It, somehow.”
What’s he saying? I hit it, I know, but… I shake my head. Got to keep thinking straight. So tired. No time for a madman’s words.
“Lass. Glass Lass, can you hear me?” Keep moving. Keep moving. “I think I can see you. It’s over in the left corner nearest the outer corridor. I don’t think it knows what it’s lost. I think it’s still trying to reach us.”
I try to ignore him. But he sounds saner than he has in months. It used him. It was smart. No wonder we hadn’t caught It. How smart?
Is It using Jimmy now?
“Lass, are you hurt? What’s the code to the bed? I can let the others in; they’ll never cut through in time, you have to let me get help.”
He wants the code. Or does It want him to have the code? Jimmy knows how to see me; to look for bent light, dim shadows. Can It see me through him? Is It using him again? Or did I really hurt It? He wants to let the others in. Can It still fool them? Can I trust him?
It’s all come down to this. Me. It. And Uncle Jimmy, telling me what he sees. A hope or a threat? I know where he is. The threat could be ended so easily… In the darkness, shadows move.
“Lass, to your right!”
No. I dodge right. A mountain of flesh cannonballs into me, bearing me down to the floor. I slam onto my back. No air. I push up, dimly surprised to find the spear in my hands and I’m pressing up, up, but there’s no way to get a blade around and into the crushing mass. Uncle Jimmy yells for the code, yells for help, but I can’t give it to him, not without air. It’s too late. I thought I could do it all myself, because I was smarter than all of them. Just like with Governor Brainerd. Just like Mother and Daddy. Just like them. Air rushes into my lungs for one last time. “Three. Two. Sev-ven.” I choke out. Then strength leaves my arms and the world ends.
I wake to dimness. Never darkness. Always, when I wake, it is merely dim. Thin lines of light curl and bend. My head hurts. I cough and it nearly explodes. Tears leak out through my eyes.
“Are you awake?”
I’m not sure how to answer that. I’m hearing my mother’s voice, and she can’t be talking to me. She’s in sickbay. But she continues.
“We make a fine pair, don’t we? Dana and Amy, the broken glass girls.” She chuckles.
“Are you real?” I croak.
“Yes, and so are you. Finally, after lying there for two days. Fortunately, I’m still not fit enough to kill you for getting yourself here, so I guess you’ll be fine.”
“Your father has been truly pathetic. You’d think he was made of glass the way he’s been breaking out into tears every hour. Blaming himself for everything. As if we had no wills of our own.”
“That’s not a notion I ever really bought into,” said my father’s voice. “Not with you two. What am I to do with a daughter who steals my clothes, kidnaps a family friend and then recklessly endangers her life and his to kill a monster?”
“Anything but hit her in the head,” I muttered. I was in trouble, but I was too tired to care.
“You’ll be over that in a couple of days.” A big hand swiped my foot. “Let that be a lesson to you.”
“Daddy, don’t… did you say kill?”
He snorted. “I thought you were really sick there, for a minute. Yes, even alien, mind-reading beasts can be killed by deep spear wounds. You have a broken arm and several cracked ribs. And a concussion. I really do suggest a rifle next time. And a call for backup. Did you think you were the only one in the colony who could take that thing?”
He sighed. “That beast wasn’t half the size that it appeared. And Jimmy has testified that he agrees with you. Killing that beast left him as sane as anyone in the colony. The governor is backing both of you.”
“Then he’s not mad?”
“Oh, he’s pissed as hell. He thinks you had no business going out on your own and you certainly had no business hacking the computer. He’s not happy at all. But the farmers are out there growing things again. And none of them are dead. Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to Jimmy,” I said.
“Yes, to him, too,” said my father. “Oh, and he has something for you. He was tempted to keep them both himself, he said, after being tied to that bed in a room with a drooling alien monster.” Something was pressed into my hand.
“What is it?” It was triangular and smooth. Hard.
“Langstrand’s first medal of valor. I’m sure there’ll be others once we get a proper government set up, but this is yours. Well, I say medal, but it’s not really…”
“Metal,” I finished. “It feels like…”
“Well, they’ve got that sand down on the beach, you know, and we haven’t found any precious metals on this rock yet; I doubt they were thinking exactly how it would look on you…”
Of course. They’d made it out of glass.