By Alex Yuschik
While I realize driving that mech likely takes all of your limited resources, please take care not to step on the roses.
Don’t step on the roses. I don’t care if we’re under imminent attack.
Your mech is standing so close to them I’m cringing.
who is this?
I can see you typing and then stopping
don’t waste my time coming up with a lie, punk
Who I am or how I got your number is irrelevant.
no, it’s not
and, fyi, we don’t drive them, we pilot
gods, you’re probably chung sol trolling me
I assure you, I am not.
I am only here for the roses.
excuse me, I have to go talk with my squadmates now
find out which asshole is pranking me today oh joy
That must be challenging.
kid, you don’t even know
As all you fox pilots are assholes.
chung sol, this you? if so
kindly expect four shits in your main turbine tomorrow
you know I’m on overtime
Heavens, now you’re endangering the topiaries.
Why are you pacing in that thing?
how dare you care about less about me than topiaries, chung sol
what about our unit oath huh
And I’m not Chung Sol.
then who are you
who else could be such a shit to me
knowing what week it is
I requested your number from the butler.
I asked for the mech labeled with a five who kept threatening my roses.
You can call me Hyeon.
What? If you don’t like it when I take time to type a response then don’t the same thing.
I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tear up our grounds. That’s all.
Did you fall asleep in that cockpit?
Or are you ignoring me?
I keep this up as long as you like. I’ve been told I’m terribly persistent.
Seven Sparrows Sleeping Hyeon-jin, I humbly apologize for my uncouth address. If I’d known I was texting a member of S3 I would have behaved with all the courtesy and respect you are due.
Don’t call it S3, it’s my House name.
I understand I am in no position to make requests, but please don’t allow my thoughtless actions to reflect poorly on my Nine.
They are excellent officers, all of them.
Especially Chung Sol.
We’re expecting a breach soon but I’ll report for disciplinary action as soon as my shift’s done.
Hells, how do you type so fast?
Is that how they choose you for drivers, pilots, or whatever? Finger speed?
As pleased as I am that the House of Seven Sparrows Sleeping still carries the appropriate weight, I’m not my older sister. A secondborn son can’t fire you.
But I would like you to be mindful of the flowers.
Sir. I must apologize again.
You’re right, it is odd using formal language after that sterling interlude about defecating in turbines.
We’re about the same age, so let’s be casual.
And you can still pace in the machine, Five. Just do it at a healthy distance from the gardens.
Casual, I said.
Five, are you there? It’s Hyeon.
I’m trapped at a goodwill dinner and I crave entertainment.
Unfortunately for you, you are the one person in my recent messages least likely to employ this as blackmail, so you get to amuse me.
As you’re resolutely not responding, shall I tell you about the party?
The ceiling is hung with chrysanthemums and paper tigers edged in gold. Typical Eun Hwa. You don’t know her, but she’s angling for contracts. The only way I can avoid talking with her is to pretend I’m texting someone of extreme importance.
I may have to call you to keep up the charade. Please prepare yourself.
The wine is good. Too spiced for my tastes—oh hold on
There’s a commotion by the tables.
Someone wrote the guests’ names on the place settings in oxblood and a senator fainted.
What superstitious idiots. I sign my name in red all the time.
why are you doing this
What are you up to this evening?
it doesn’t matter
with all due respect, I’m not on the clock
I am not getting paid to do what you want
not at the moment, anyway
and I would prefer to go back to what I was doing
Well, unfortunately for both of us, I’m stuck at this party.
I don’t want to be flirted with and you are my out.
I’m no aristocrat’s plaything, hyeon
The House would not appreciate you calling its heir by his first name.
speaking with the house
ask the house to take its heir’s phone away
No, of course not.
I am a joy to text.
Beguile me, Five. Are you fighting ghosts again?
I really hate when people call it that
look, I don’t have time for you
I need to repair the refrigerant tubing
Am I less interesting than refrigerant?
thank you for saving me the trouble of breaking it to you politely
Tell me something.
will you leave me alone if I do
You have my word of honor.
It can be anything. Tell me how your day was.
I just need text I can scroll through and look serious reading whenever Eun Hwa comes around.
Preferably a sizeable amount, though anything of substance will do.
you want to know how my day was?
today I had to explain
to a bereft grandmother why she can’t make her yearly offering to her deceased wife
and tonight I am very very carefully picking spectral teeth out of the vpx’s cooling tank
aka the VPX-Azure III, aka my machine
aka only the fastest, hardest-to-handle fox mech around, rich kid
because I bet you don’t even know what that is
I do so know.
today I evacuated a school, provided cover fire, rescued chung sol’s ass
and got my nine out alive as another district fell to the ghosts
and our sorry city grew sma ller and sorrier
today I almost got crushed by an underworld barricade as it went down
today I had to leave civilians as they begged me to save them
because we couldn’t risk losing another vpx
and tonight I am loading and unloading the bullets in the emergency sidearm
over and over
because only when I can do it without my hands shaking
am I going to be good to take these damn teeth out without poisoning myself
today I have had to commit several atrocities with the vpx’s gaseous gun
that would have gotten me beheaded for war crimes in better centuries
today I dishonored the dead
and today I am trying to explain
why I by turns
want you and don’t want you to know
precisely what it is I do
but most of all today they promised I’d have off work
and I didn’t
my hands are back to normal
enjoy your stupid party
I didn’t know.
with you people
is that you never think to ask
I have a question.
it is four in the morning
and don’t even start about the name
wake me up at four and I get to call you anything I want
Do you have the volume up on your text alerts?
How primitive. I thought you’d at least know how to mute them.
know how to mute them
I just can’t when I’m on call
yeah, no kidding “oh”
Anyw ay, I realized I never asked your name.
What should I call you?
what use is being
~the great scion of S3~
if you don’t even abuse all that power to snoop on my records
It’s more polite to ask.
And I’d imagine you don’t like being called Five.
I do, actually
it’s better than my real name
five’s always on point in the nine when we do wedge formation
I engage the enemy first
react fastest to any crisis
you don’t pilot unit five unless you’re damn good
so call me five, I don’t mind
it just reminds me how great I am
I’m not the one texting this late
just to ask someone their name
That’s not what I wanted to ask.
then what is your question
come on hyeon
at least try to type faster
repairing the vpx was a lot of work and I’m sleepy
What was it about this week that you needed off?
I reread our texts after the party.
And I am trying
to know what to ask.
it doesn’t matter
sorry, you know, for before
it’s just, this was supposed to be my mourning week
but predicted breaches looked so bad all fox pilots got put on call
despite the fact that I applied for my week months in advance
did proper mourning training and everything
How vulgar. You don’t need to be taught how to mourn.
you need to be briefed on how to do it safely, though
or else, you know
Mourning that way’s not the same.
To keep your sadness within prescribed bounds of error, what a joke.
Grief shouldn’t be safe.
you’re right, grief is a weapon
and the ghosts have too many weapons already
for me to hand them another
did you know I can refuse to go into an op zone
if I think it’s too dangerous?
sometimes it’s better to let the ghosts win
and I don’t want to risk my ass saving people
who are that desperate to die
You talk about mourning like it’s a liability.
When our mother died, we had all the safety procedures carried out. Someone stayed with Ji Hae and me at all times to make sure we didn’t summon her ghost.
They carted our mother’s urn off to a skyscraper ossuary as soon as we lit the last stick of incense, a nd then told us we had to secure permits if we wanted to visit, like juveniles.
you lost a parent, hyeon
that’s pretty big on the ghost scale
people have burned out whole city blocks with longing
when it comes to that kind of absence
You’re one to talk.
You have to have deep-seated issues with the afterlife to punch ghosts.
I have the necessary affinity with the machine
and hey at least they approved me for a mourning week
That they never let you have.
but that’s also pretty normal
when’s the death anniversary for your mother?
I don’t want to talk about it.
Who were you going to mourn for?
In your week.
oh, the usual
my story’s more or less like everyone else’s
whose family was in a gateway district when it happened
Ah. I’m sorry.
lots of things vanish quickly these days
and of all the ways to go
that was probably the kindest
All the same, my sympathy.
I hope you got those teeth out all right.
…are you okay?
haha oh dear
strongly hoping this is not going to be what I think it’s going to be
Funnt thing, I’m stuck.. the patry went too long and we went to a roofstop
Rooftop bar, to haggle and such, not really haggle but something like it you know
but the afterparty’s done.
I need to go home and cannot be seen in this condition.
wow that’s really too bad
My older sister has marriage candidates staying at our house. For the business. For me. You probably think that’s barbaric.
But this is my life and they’re all awful here please come get me
what are you asking me
I can’t hail a cab like this, not with curfew and the ghosts, everyone’s going to ask questions and please I just need to get home without ji hae noticing she will get so mad five so mad
you are asking a member of our glorious defense force
to quit his sleep, which is vital to his health
health which is directly related to his ability to pilot a vpx
to come save you from the mess you deserve to be in
five I’m so dizzy so tire
I can’t believe you
what’s the club
Thousand Myriad Mysteries
no no wait, that was the one before this one.
White Rabbit Black Rabbit
how many clubs did you go to?
don’t remember after the fourth
wow okay partyboy
look, go find a bouncer
have them take you to the door in fifteen
callsign’s Nine Crowns Nine Stars if they ask
just show your phone to the bouncer, they’ll know what to do
I suppose I have you to thank for this disgusting and lukewarm can of tea on my bedside table.
And, judging by the relative calm in which I awoke, also for getting me back without my sister noticing.
good morning to you too
I apologize for my texts last night.
Rest easy that I have spent the requisite half hour being mortified.
I didn’t think you’d come.
I remember watching the raid lights and listening for sirens because I thought on the off-chance you did, it would be in your VPX and I’d be squashed into the cockpit with you.
But you carried me.
more like gave you the world’s longest piggyback ride in a blackout zone
but that’s splitting hairs
I may be better off not knowing, but…
Did I say anything untoward?
I don’t think so
drunk you was very flattering!
I feel a second wave of mortification coming on.
no, no, you said several flattering things
and I was very flattered
that was it
did you drink the tea, though
Did you do something to it?
no, just figured you’d be thirsty when you woke up
Yes, I did. Thanks.
I don’t think I would have responded if I’d gotten texts like that.
As much as it pains me to admit, I owe you.
then tell me about the roses
you kept talking about them when I was carrying you
in the spirit of full disclosure, you were also singing
I don’t know if anyone’s told you
but you have surprisingly good range
you told me why you write your name in red
I don’t believe in lying to myself about things like that. That’s all.
I was foolish and drunk. If it upsets you, then forget it.
it doesn’t, it just felt personal
But I don’t mind you knowing.
anyway, that’s all that happened
I’m glad you’re feeling better
If you’re still curious
They were my mother’s.
You have nothing to apologize for.
You didn’t step on them.
what gala is it tonight?
I can see the lights from here
The last charity affair this season from our company, held at our home.
My sister is rather pleased with the scale.
Naturally, I had to rope off the roses to insure all these tipsy idiots don’t rip them up making romantic gestures.
They are quite beautiful in the lanternlight, though. I’ll send a picture.
Anyway, grand though it may be, we are hosting a philanthropic event. There’s an orphanage coming and several other charities.
yeah, I heard from some retired friends
a representative from pilot rehab is there
I haven’t done anything charitable yet.
just, it’s good
when I started you were lucky to make it back alive
if you banished a ghost related to someone powerful, well
once you got too wrecked to pilot anymore
you sort of knew what was going to happen to you
now it’s less bad
I’d like to think we’re all just trapped in unfortunate circumstances.
We could all leap into the main rift and let the spirits of our ancestors devour us, let this place truly become a ghost city, but we don’t. We despair, but we are always ruthless in our hope.
giving up’s not really an option for most people
It’s more an option than you think.
Ji Hae’s calling me. I’ve got to go be a good host.
too busy being important, I see, I see
well, have fun
meanwhile, I’ll just be sitting here in the vpx
this is one of my favorite parts
the rush when you get the call, foxes sprinting on all cylinders
gyroscopes whining you back to stability when you take a turn too fast
dispatching rogue gods turned into monsters
when I was a little kid, we didn’t have mechs
we just had dramas with people in boxy costumes
cheap effects, extreme campiness, the whole deal
I used to dream about stomping through the city in a giant robot
thankfully I’m much better at maneuvering than I was in my dreams, haha
in the dramas pilots always crashed into trash cans and
oops there’s central command time to go
You’re on call? Tonight?
Hells—Five, stay away from here. If you’re ordered to come here, refuse.
These idiots stole an urn.
They’re saying they’ve made it into a wraith bomb and planted it below the house.
They’re making a political statement, ghosting High Houses.
We were on the news before but now we’re on as hostages.
Everyone’s calling home or emergency lines or screaming and I
I don’t think it’s worth the risk to save us.
I may not have studied ghastly weapons like you have, but I know enough about these devices to understand you don’t just diffuse them.
hyeon, terrible timing
Use the authority of Seven Sparrows to refuse.
I give you my permission.
As far as redemptive last acts go that’s not a bad one, I think.
can’t talk rn, with 9
I can pick you out on the screens, Five.
I know what your VPX looks like.
That was a very tidy rout.
But there’s still the small matter of the bomb.
You need to get clear of the blast radius.
You can’t get it to a fallen district in time, so leave.
What in all the hells are you doing
Put it down.
I don’t care who’s ordering you, I guarantee you I am higher up the food chain
put that damn urn down and get out
or get someone else to do this.
You idiot, if you’re still holding it when it goes off
Five? Are you there?
There was a bright light from all the news screens
We couldn’t see anything
Are you okay?
They’re bringing paramedics to us now.
I don’t know where you are. The networks keep showing you leaping the border between ghost territory and ours, and then exploding like a second dawn.
Everyone here is cheering, like this was all just an entertainment.
Why aren’t you responding?
I don’t appreciate this suspense.
If you’re dead I
I’ve stolen a team of paramedics
If you can still see this, hold on
I’m just leaving you this message in case you wake up while I’m gone.
You’ll be pleased to know that I have already yelled at six people on your behalf: two doctors, three nurses, and one person whom I assume was Chung Sol. I look forward to more.
Actually, I didn’t mean to yell at Chung Sol, but he was too loud. Everyone else was an idiot. Rest assured you are (finally) being afforded the best of possible care.
All the guests made it out safely thanks to you, though my house is now ghost territory. You shouldn’t worry—I took all that was important with me before I left.
A nurse said there was a vending machine on the third floor, so that’s where I’m going. I felt like the general mood of your coma might be improved by the sight of a familiar can of tea.
I think you like matcha.
Or maybe you don’t, maybe you hate it and think it’s gross, because that’s what you left for me to choke through when I was hungover.
Either way, I hope it will provide comfort.
My sister is cross, but when we last spoke I had the pleasure of unleashing several colorful phrases borrowed from you.
I will not repeat them here, though if you wake up I could be persuaded to reenact our exchange. I don’t believe you are allowed to eat solid food for a while, but as you are unconscious you don’t seem to mind.
I read your name, on your bed.
It was odd seeing it there. Your family name, then your given name. It’s stupid but I keep expecting it to be Five.
I don’t know why I am telling you this
But I have been standing here in front of the vending machine
with my forehead pressed to the glass
for ten minutes now
forgotten how to use it
All the gods and hells, I wish this let you delete texts. What a useless messaging program.
Anyway, I am not so much an idiot as to be defeated by a vending machine. I’m coming back with drinks.
And yes, I do intend to text you through your coma.
If I make you incur an overcharge feel free to forward the bill to Seven Sparrows Sleeping.
why is there a 5
scribbled over my name
on my bed chart
Relax or something
and I can’t believe it
I’ll be right there
you brought me roses
About the Author
Alex Yuschik is a PhD candidate in Mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh studying set theoretic topology. Aside from math and writing, Alex likes ghosts, burritos, and video games, which when all put together sounds like a pretty great party. Alex is also the proud owner of a Shiba Inu named Kebab.
About the Narrators
Originally born in Texas, Trendane Sparks eventually escaped and wound his way through a mystical series of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked as a software QA Tester for both graphics drivers and video games, a freelance mascot performer, and several jobs on a PBS kids’ show. For most of his life, people have told him that his voice is a pleasure to listen to. But since being a werewolf phone sex operator can get boring, he decided to use his powers to entertain a broader audience.
Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him. He works full-time as Admissions Specialist at Salina Area Technical College.
He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.