By Temperance D. Lamplighter, Laboratory Assistant, as related by Deborah L. Davitt
Art by Leigh Legler
The job posting that led me to apply for a position with Dr. Hieronymus H. Featherstone should have been warning enough. It alluded to long hours, unpaid overtime, and noted that a “flexible moral compass is a must.” However, the placement agency through which I was hired had excellent medical and dental benefits, not things to be sneered at, even if all treatment was required to be performed up at Gothic U’s medical center. So what if their procedures were highly experimental? I needed a paycheck and a root canal, more or less in that order.
The second warning was that, on being introduced to me, Dr. Featherstone took a liking to my first name. “Temperance! What a virtuous family you must come from. I should be glad you weren’t named Chastity, eh?” His white, furry eyebrows waggled in what he probably thought a very charming and roguish fashion.
“Chastity is my sister, doctor. As are Charity, Grace, Mercy, Modesty, Faith, and Prudence. Chastity is the youngest.” I added the last out of reflex. It probably wouldn’t do to note that Justice, Forbearance, Valor, Glory, Discretion, and Fortitude were our brothers. Mom’s name? Honesty. Dad? Wisdom.
He frowned. “Your family is … religious, then?” He said it as if we were afflicted with an intractable and hereditary condition.
“Not as such,” I replied, shrugging. “I trust that you will respect my circumspection with regards to them?”
He blinked. “Do you always talk like someone from the nineteenth century?”
People don’t usually notice that point so quickly. Mostly, they just assume I’m pompous or arrogant or condescending. While those are relatives from the far reaches of the family tree, I’m none of those. “I suppose it is preferable to sounding like someone from the Jacobean era, or perhaps earlier.”
Featherstone frowned. “I can’t imagine anyone naming their children this way without some sort of religious motive. And … so many of them.” His brows worked, as almost everyone’s did these days, with a kind of moral outrage that anyone should be so greedy as to have so many children.
Wisdom suggested I shouldn’t antagonize a prospective employer. Valor, however, wouldn’t permit me to take a meeker course. “Your parents named you Hieronymus, didn’t they?”
His eyebrows beetled. “Actually, they didn’t. I changed my name before taking my dissertation. No one would take me seriously as a scientist if I had a commonplace name like Henry, now would they?”
Forbearance got the better of Wit (second-cousin on my mother’s side), and I clamped down on my first several replies. “I suppose,” I replied noncommittally.
A hesitation. “You wouldn’t have problems working with a scientist?”
“Doctor, for full medical and dental, you could probably convince me to worship the Loch Ness Monster.”
“Hmm. Just make sure not to wear a cross if I send you over on an errand to the Thaumaturgy department,” Dr. Featherstone warned. “The demonology professors … well. There have been incidents, shall we say?”
He no longer seemed interested in my background, but decided, with a certain delight, to refer to me as “Temp.” Temp the Temp. Since I was supposed to be a permanent hire, this didn’t bode well. Nevertheless, the dental plan wouldn’t take effect until after the first ninety days, so I gritted my teeth (immediately regretting it, as my molars howled) and endured.
The laboratory was housed largely underground in a building at Gothic U. It had windows high in its walls, the old-fashioned frosted kind that could be, reluctantly, levered inward using a long hooked pole, so on warm days, I could see the shoes and boots of passers-by as students and faculty moved through the buildings on their way to classes. These windows also proved to be the lab’s sole source of ventilation–an OSHA oversight the university seemed reluctant to address.
As such, on my second day, I arrived with a box of nitrile gloves for my personal use, as the lab seemed to be lacking in those. A face-shield, which the lab also lacked. When the good doctor brought in materials with radiological hazard markers plastered over the containers, I obtained a lead apron overnight, grateful for the existence of Nile.com and its swift shipping policies. The modern world has so many conveniences. So long as you don’t indulge yourself in them overly, why not appreciate them for what they are?
Dr. Featherstone seemed oddly confused each time I arrived with protective gear. I didn’t mention I was also keeping a file on all these pieces of missing equipment and preparing to send my notes to the Gothic U ombudsman once I hit the ninety-day mark and could request transfer to another department.
I mixed many chemicals in that laboratory and administered the concoctions to various animals, then watched in considerable discomfort as the doctor removed the tails of the rats I’d dosed–using a long cleaver that made the words to Three Blind Mice ring in my head. Then he clucked his tongue in irritation the next few mornings when he examined them.
“Does he expect them to grow back?” I muttered under my breath, alone once more in the lab.
In the hours every day that he spent teasing his white hair up into deliberately disordered spikes to improve upon the image of a proper scientist–in his mind, anyway–or away at lectures, I’d spent considerable time poring over his notes, trying to comprehend the current experiment run, and failing, at least at first.
Modesty suggested this was because I lacked the years of training necessary to comprehend the documentation. Pride and Acumen, however, had another theory. That the notes were incomplete and incomprehensible, and probably wouldn’t lead to reproducible results. Not your problem, Practicality whispered. Ninety days, get the insurance, get the medical issues addressed, and then get out.
“Yes, yes, I know,” I muttered. My voice echoed back from the walls, underscored with the buzz of a failing fluorescent overhead light. Dr. Featherstone didn’t employ anyone else.
The lack of other employees probably should have been another warning, but as it happened, there came a tap at a window, and I looked up to see the vague form of a crouching person outlined there. Hesitantly, I used a pole to open it, revealing a young man in a bomber jacket, a … gas mask over his face. “Ooorin gray dazhr!” he declared through the filters.
Generally speaking, people don’t run around with gas masks on unless they’re anticipating something pretty awful. I had a bad thought that he intended to drop a chlorine bomb in the lab. And here I was without a gas mask of my own. Nile.com didn’t stock them. I’d checked. That’s not paranoia, in this day and age, Caution shouted in my head.
Keep him talking, was Wisdom’s contribution. The longer you talk, the more of a person you become in someone else’s mind.
I am a person, I managed to assert between eyeblinks.
So I tried to keep calm and quavered, “What? I’m sorry, I couldn’t make that out–could you take off the mask?”
He ripped the mask free and I gasped, because under it, his face was hideously elongated and snake-like. “I ssaid,” he hissed, his tongue flickering nervously from between his teeth, “you’re in great danzher. Featherstone always arranges accidentss for his lab asssistantss before the end of their firsst ninety dayss. That way he and the universsity never have to pay for inssurance.” A bitter, rasping laugh. “Assk me how I know.”
I gaped. “Who are you?”
“Thhhatcher Gusssstloff.” At least, that’s what I thought he said. “Look in Featherstone’s recordss. I’ll be in there.”
Behind me, the door rattled, a key jingling in the lock, and I jumped, shoving the window closed, just as Gustloff stood, leaving nothing to see but a pair of … yes, snakeskin boots … moving off.
I had to give the guy credit for dedication to a role.
Which raised doubts in my mind. Caution suggested it could have been a really good costume. Some sort of hazing ritual. Gothic U’s known for those–particularly over in the areas of Applied Necromancy and Ritual Summonings. (The Demonology major has a spectacular attrition rate, or so I hear.) With the resources available to the Thaumaturgy department, a temporary facial transformation didn’t seem out of the question.
“Need to air out in here, Temp?” Dr. Featherstone inquired as he bustled through, his hair standing up on end as if he’d just stuck his finger into a light socket.
“Ah, yes,” I replied blankly. “All done now, though.”
“Good, good. Come along, Temp.” He chuckled over my name, a wheezing noise. “We need to review the status of our test subjects.”
I got the case notes clipboard and walked behind him as he examined the rats. Subjects 1-18, no change. Subject 19 had died overnight–I’d have to place the little white body in the incinerator and sterilize the cage. Subject 20, however, caused Dr. Featherstone to swear sulfurously. He caught my expression and exhaled like an out-of-tune accordion. “You’re allergic to curse-words or something, Temp?”
“I’ve just never seen the need to use them,” I said, shrugging and peering over his shoulder. “Something’s wrong with Twenty?”
“No! Something’s right! It’s just wildly overcorrected!” He reached into the cage and produced the rat, which squeaked and struggled in his hand, flailing its pink, scaly tails vigorously as it did.
Yes, tails. All five of them, whipping like an old-fashioned scourge. Dr. Featherstone jubilantly carried Number 20 to his office, where he spent the next several hours going over his notes and preparing a whole new course of injections for a whole new set of test subjects. Oh, and telling me to drop the other live specimens in the incinerator–“Can’t even give them to the department to feed the herpetology specimens. God only knows what would transmit to the snakes from their bodies.”
So I stood there, feeding the incinerator instead of the pythons, gritting my teeth and hating Dr. Featherstone intensely. Forbearance chided me for not living up to my name–I wasn’t supposed to have immoderate reactions like hate. But Mercy stayed my fingers, and I tucked several of the remaining lab rats into a spare cage at the back of the lab. He never went back there. I could find them other homes, surely.
And all throughout my detestable duties, I listened to him dictating into his computer, phrases like, “Regeneration akin to that of a starfish, but unchecked by the body’s overall morphological template–unchecked regeneration could result in cancerous growths, too, but not yet established … must inhibit the growth by reducing the amount of solution given …”
I did a little digging in his file cabinets. Fortunately, Gothic U had refused to join the rest of the world. Their payroll system still used physical timecards and cut physical checks every two weeks. No computerized timekeeping systems or direct deposit here, no, sir! That’s not the Gothic U way!
And as such, all the personnel records for the last seven assistants were in the locked cabinet at the bottom. I quietly sheared the lock by turning a screwdriver in it. And I knew better than to just stand there reading the files openly; I took the three most recent back to my desk and hid them in the other manila folders already there. My conscience twinged a bit. Mama Honesty wouldn’t have liked this much, but Papa Wisdom would’ve been cheering me on, I suspected.
And when Dr. Featherstone bustled back out, mumbling excitedly about Nobel Prizes and breakthroughs that would make the Thaumaturgy department eat their own livers–or someone else’s, perhaps–I took a look at those files.
My stomach clenched. There was Thatcher Gustloff, terminated a week before my start-date. Reason for dismissal: unacceptable clumsiness with the herpetological specimens and a … mutagenic compound. Terminated eighty-eight days after initial hire, no workman’s compensation, no benefits. Before him? Maria Hernandez, terminated eighty-seven days after initial hire. Reason for dismissal: disrespectful behavior at the Halloween party co-hosted by Thaumaturgy department–wait, what? She’d worn a crucifix to the mixer, and insulted a Duke of Hell? Status: deported … through an interdimensional portal. Probably deceased.
I wasn’t sure what the worst part of that was–deported, portal, deceased, or probably. Deceased at least had no ambiguity to it.
Hands trembling, I found the last file and opened it, making sure to keep an eye on the clock and my ears on the door. Winslow Brown, terminated eighty-nine days after initial hire. Reason for dismissal … fraternization with the test subjects? What? My eyes skimmed over the file, widening. Something about pheromones and chemical attractants taken from a succubus and modified with animal DNA to improve the reproductive urge of pandas, which were notoriously reluctant to breed both in the wild and in captivity. Featherstone had touted this as a meaningful way to help stave off the extinction of the species … fraternization–oh, how I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means … my eyes skipped down, noting the list of injuries attributed to Mr. Brown …
And then my brain shut down and I put the file away. Modesty and Chastity probably assisted with that. For once, I was grateful for them.
Shaking, I looked at the calendar on my desk. Eighty-six days post-hire. Just four days separated me from dental and medical benefits … and perhaps fewer stood between me and some hideous fate. Probably deceased. Definitely transformed. Almost certainly assaulted by an amorous panda.
I shuddered. No, it was probably better to take my fate into my own hands.
But my teeth set up a howl in my jaw, while Honesty and Wisdom argued angrily in my head with Justice. And Justice, surprisingly, kept telling me the doctor’s done so much harm to other people, it’s only right that you get something before leaving safely.
And Wisdom actually suggested, You might want to keep those files, or at least, copies of them. A sample of the doctor’s current big discovery. Walk out and go find yourself a good lawyer–one not affiliated with Gothic U–before asking for a transfer to a safer department. Perhaps a safe-deposit box.
I clamped my hands to my temples as every voice inside began to argue. That’s one of the things about keeping your family in your head. You never lack for perspective. But god knows, they can surely turn up a ruckus.
Mama Honesty kept pointing out that this was all pretty self-serving. Charity noted all these things could have been accidents, and perhaps I should extend the doctor the benefit of the doubt, and Forbearance chimed in to agree with her. Fortitude did me a favor then and simply sat on them, muffling their voices so I could think.
Which is when Vanity whispered, You could just take the serum yourself. Grow a new tooth. And be totally immune to whatever crazy thing he’s got planned for you. Probably dropping you in the incinerator. Ugh. Burn scars.
I generally know better than to take her advice for anything. Or anyone from that side of the family, for that matter. She’s the one who thought my hair would look amazing dyed blond, for instance–until it fell out at the roots. That’s what I get for going against my nature. Why she’d come to roost in my head baffled me–she was such a force in the world today, in the era of the selfie. Except I supposed that people no longer thought of vanity as a sin. Which intimated that one day, I could wind up with Lust up there, too. The mere thought of the fights she’d get into with Chastity made my head ache all the more.
Wisdom came to my rescue now, laughing and shouting, Oh, yes, by all means, use a largely untested, unapproved, unstable treatment on yourself! What a sterling notion!
So I copied the files on the dusty old Xerox machine in the corner. Found the notes that detailed the regeneration serum, and copied them. Made a fresh batch, at the original strength, and stored it in a hypodermic, its needle corked, and stuffed it in the pocket of my coveralls. Evidence.
But it had all taken so long, that by the time I grabbed my coat to leave, Dr. Featherstone walked in the door. “Temp!” he greeted me with his wheezy, asthmatic laugh. “Glad you’re still here! I have one more task for you tonight.”
“It’s late,” I replied, edging toward the door. “I, ah, need to get going.”
“A party, perhaps?” he suggested, his eyes gleaming.
Honesty tied my tongue in knots for even contemplating prevarication. Of all my family, I’d received the least impressive powers. Modesty could skate past anyone, anywhere, gray and anonymous and unseen. Wit always sparkled in every conversation, the darling of all who knew her. Valor could draw a sword of humming energy out of clear air. Honesty could compel truth from anyone’s lips.
Me? I can turn wine to water. As party-tricks go, it doesn’t get me invited anywhere.
“Not as such,” I replied, still angling for the door.
Which was when his hand clamped down on my shoulder, redirecting me deeper into the lab. “Excellent. Nothing that can’t be postponed for a little overtime, then!”
I could see from the set of his shoulders, the fixed look in his eyes, that Dr. Featherstone had come to a decision. Even if everything that had happened to his previous lab assistants had been pure accidents? Right now, at this moment, Dr. Featherstone had made a choice. He was no longer playing the role of the mad scientist–he’d decided he was one. The die had been cast. Fame and fortune awaited him, and he only needed the strength to take it. All the things humans tell themselves right before committing atrocities.
I wasn’t Valor–I’m not six-foot-three and two hundred pounds of muscle trained to lead the charge. I’m just me–small, drab, and indeterminate. That’s what you get for being the Virtue of Nothing Very Much. I dug in my heels on the slick tile. Grabbed onto a couple of empty cages, knocking them over as he dragged me along.
One of the cages bounced and landed in front of Featherstone, causing him to trip–but his weight dragged me down with him. The hypodermic needle in my pocket shattered. I could feel the glass bite into my thigh and spreading wetness I hoped was the serum, and not blood. I really didn’t want that in my bloodstream.
In the tussle and tumult, Dr. Featherstone got his arm around my neck and dragged me back to my feet. Valor suggested I could duck slightly, drive my left hand back, grab the doctor where he lived, twist, and pull. But that got Modesty screaming and fainting, which distracted me too much, and the next thing I knew, I was in the doctor’s office, and he’d managed to get out a fresh syringe of the serum. “I’m afraid I need to accelerate my timeline on human trials,” Dr. Featherstone stated with a nervous laugh. “You see, I’m up for tenure in a month. You’re not the only one looking for job security, my dear. I need a clear win before then. And you’re going to be it.” He managed a tight smile. “Don’t worry. If this succeeds, why, you’ll have a job for life!”
And then he jabbed me with the needle, in spite of every effort I made to squirm and resist. I managed to get my fingers around the syringe and tried to deactivate the serum inside. It should have been like turning wine to water for me. But he depressed the plunger so quickly, I couldn’t do it.
The serum from the injection met the trace amounts already in my bloodstream from the broken syringe. Then they met my physiology, which is, I have to stress, not quite human. They did a little tango, and I staggered. Dr. Featherstone released me and spotted the wet splotch along my left thigh pocket. And while I reeled, he reached into my pocket and found the syringe.
His face tightened, so I could see the skull underneath. And then he let out a well-practiced peal of maniacal laughter. “You were going to steal my discovery!” he shouted, spittle flying from his lips. “You deserve everything coming to you! Everything!”
“Your laugh is improving,” I complimented him dizzily. “All that practice behind your office door has truly paid off. Diligence would be proud of you.” I paused. “Second cousin, father’s side.”
“I want to hear nothing more about your promiscuously large family!”
“No, Promiscuity is Lust’s daughter. Third-cousin, twice removed. On the Vice side.” I staggered backward into the wall. I couldn’t focus. My vision hazed over, turning gray. I’d literally never been drunk before; now, I might have an admirable reference. “You should really check the medical history of your non-animal subjects a little more closely, doctor. I don’t think–”
“Of course you don’t think! You’re an assistant, a temp. Temp the Temp! I’ll have it engraved on your tombstone after the dissection is complete!” He reached into his desk drawer and removed a long cleaver. The same one he’d used to remove the rat’s tails. Three blind mice, see how they run–
I ran. I tried to, anyway. But the office was small, and he spun me around and slammed my head down on the desk, and then there was a moment of sharp pain across the back of my neck, like a bee sting–
–and then I was looking up at him from the floor. “Well, that smarts,” I whispered, lacking the breath to do more than outline the words. I could see my body still propped on the desk. The blood spurting wildly. The shocked look on Featherstone’s face as reality suddenly caught up with where his intemperate rage and blind ambition had led him. “You need some anger management classes,” I added softly, consciousness starting to fade–
And then my eyes opened again. My neck ached, and I seemed to be leaning somewhat to the left; the world was crooked.
Dr. Featherstone sat slumped against the blood-stained wall, the cleaver still held loosely in his fingers. Breathing hard. Killing someone with your own hands is a difficult thing for most humans, or so Valor used to tell me. It takes something out of them, the first time.
Featherstone looked up in shock as I sat up, then started to laugh victoriously. Hysterically. Some measure of the two. “It worked! It worked! They said I couldn’t do it, but here you are, living proof–”
Which is another voice spoke up. Low, male voice, one I hadn’t heard outside of my own head in decades. “Doctor, you’ve made several mistakes today, any one of them probably fatal.”
My heart thudded under my ribs, and I swung my head to look right.
And then I blinked, yelped, and shrieked, trying to leap backward. Ever gone to answer a knock at the door, leaned into the window up alongside it, and peered out, just as the person knocking has leaned into the window to peer inside to see if anyone’s coming? That was me, confronted with a pair of eyes inches from my own. Except I couldn’t flinch back–it was as if I only controlled the left half of my body, the right feeling paralyzed somehow.
With my heart racing, it took me a moment to recognize the dark eyes and sharp features that had once been so dear to me. “Valor! Is that you?”
Valor nodded, still only inches away. I could have counted the stubble on his cheeks. “Yes, it’s me, sister,” he replied. “This foolish mortal seems to have caused your head to regenerate twice over, like an ettin or a hydra. Only, because we’re not human, your physiology has allowed me to express myself for the first time in decades in the flesh.”
I looked down. Blinked. I still had breasts under my blood-stained scrubs, so there was that. Angling my head to the right, I couldn’t see my own shoulder–just the outline of Valor’s throat. “Well, fiddlesticks,” I muttered, my second-worst mode of imprecation.
“You’re in for it now,” Valor told the doctor calmly. I could see him placing my right hand on my hip. Pulling his shoulder–my shoulder–back more squarely. “If she says fudge, I’d run, were I you.”
Dr. Featherstone’s mouth dropped open. Hung there, slack, watching us converse, while the others began to clamor in my head, It’s not fair, I should have been the first to go–do me next!
Valor winced at the same time I did. “Will you all hush?” he asked acerbically. “We’re not going to cut off any more heads here just so you can talk out loud–”
Dr. Featherstone, recovering from his shock, leaped up off the floor. Still clutching his bloody cleaver, he demanded, “What are you? The second head should have been a clone of the first–you’d need a Y-chromosome, testosterone production–”
Valor reached up one of my hands and scratched at his cheek. “Not human,” he pointed out again, crossly. “This one isn’t particularly intelligent, Temperance.”
“I was only in it for the dental–” I paused. “Say, my teeth don’t hurt anymore.” I glanced around, finding my previous head on the floor.
And winced, my stomach roiling. That probably explained matters.
“I’m hungry,” Valor muttered. “Any C-rations around here? MREs?”
Valor only lived in my head intermittently. People still thought of him as a good thing–something to be praised in paramedics, firefighters, police, and other first-responders. But they didn’t really venerate him anymore. Oh, plenty of soldiers displayed him on the field to this day. But modern society didn’t really hold up soldiers as heroes anymore. People thought mouthing “thank you for your service” meant something, when really, it was a cop-out. An easy thing to say, and then forget about the solider or first-responder again. On the assumption that, placated, they’d just disappear back into their broom closet, and be ready to emerge when needed once more. As if such people were Roombas.
So every now and again, Valor would depart my head, usually in the wake of some tragedy, when people remembered why he was needed. And then he’d sigh and drift back into occupancy, as if my head were a halfway-house and he simply couldn’t get off the dole.
“There’s probably a reason for you being hungry,” I replied now, turning toward him. “Finding enough biomass to replace not one head, but two, probably forced my body to scavenge from muscle and internal organs–”
Gibbering, Dr. Featherstone lurched in and swung the cleaver at us again. “Shut up! Shut up, both of you–”
Valor caught his hand at the wrist, halting the blow. “No, Henry,” I told Dr. Featherstone. “I don’t think we’re going to let you vivisect a Virtue today. Not further, anyway.”
“I don’t care about your sexual status,” he hissed. “I need your body! For science!”
“Virtue, not virgin, you idiot,” Valor snapped. “Does he even notice how close his language is to that of rapine?”
Chastity, unsurprisingly, had a melt-down in our heads at about that point. I did my best to block out the histrionics as Valor took control of the body, disarming Featherstone, hurling him to the ground with a hip-throw that seemed almost effortless. “Lower center of gravity,” Valor noted. “You could’ve done this at any point, Temperance.”
“I never got around to all the self-defense classes you thought so essential. I was trying too hard to keep existing. Carrying the rest of you has … occasionally been heavier than I would have thought possible.” I tried to cross my arms, but I’d only regained control of the left arm, which made for an awkward half-gesture.
Valor weighed the knife in his hand, keeping a foot on the doctor’s neck. “Should I end him?”
No! Mercy shouted, rocking our heads back. That would make us no better than him–
“Oh, do shush,” Valor muttered. “This would be little more than putting down a threat to our existence which has already tried–twice!–to snuff us.”
“What are you?” Featherstone moaned again from the floor.
“You failed to listen the first time,” I told him, frowning. “I’m a Virtue. The last one, actually.” I paused as his eyes bulged. “Oh, come now. You have no problem believing in the demons raised by the Thaumaturgy department, but you can’t accept the existence of a Virtue?” I sighed. “Chastity and Modesty died in the sixties and seventies.” I continued. “Wisdom and Honesty went out in the eighties. One by one, all the rest died, and took up residence in my head like a nest of angry ghosts. Discretion and Wit hung on longer–but the internet took them out. While I like my next-day deliveries, I’m really quite irked with social media about that. They were the last ones still in their own bodies up till about ten years ago. Even the Vices came to roost, right around the time people stopped considering them bad traits. So Pride and Gluttony, while they’re quite active in the world today? Have little echoes in my head, too. I’m really not looking forward to Lust becoming a permanent resident.” I gave the doctor an unfriendly nudge with my other foot, putting more pressure on his throat from Valor’s foot, as a jolly happenstance.
He blinked and gasped, “Why … why are you the only one left alive?”
I’d asked myself that question hundreds of times. Thousands. In an intemperate age, why was I still something more than a voice on the wind?
The only answer I’d been able to come up with had never silenced the others for long. But it came down to just one thing: in addition to being the Virtue of Nothing Very Much, I was also, at the same time, the Virtue of Pretty Much Everything in Moderation. A glass of wine didn’t make someone a drunkard. Having joyful and jubilant sex didn’t make someone a lecher. A skirt’s hemline didn’t need to stop at the ankle, but nor did it need to rise so high as to reach a lady’s eyebrows. Overindulgence in the joys of life, to the exclusion of everything else, was what presented a problem. Ignoring your family out of an overabundance of Diligence? An equal problem.
Balance was where I came in.
Which is how I’d held on, by my fingernails, to existence. Because just enough people stood there at the center of the storm, between people screaming with rage and petty jealousy on all sides, doing their best to just go about their lives. “It doesn’t matter,” I told Featherstone, knowing he’d never understand it. “What does matter is that your serum here might be the best chance humanity has had in over a century to restore itself.”
He blinked again. “You mean … as a means for immortality?”
He’ll never understand. His kind never does. “No,” I replied, taking the cleaver out of Valor’s hand, into my own. “To rise. To reach for the angels of their better nature. To become more.” I sighed. “And it all begins with sacrifice. And a little pain.” To Valor, now, with my hand shaking, “You’re going to need to help. I don’t think I can do this on my own.”
“I’ll steady you,” he promised. “I’d say I’d be right behind you, but …”
Another exhalation. And then we began to cut. Bisecting ourselves, cutting ourselves in half. Dr. Featherstone screamed and fainted.
I couldn’t blame him. There was quite a bit of blood.
But the next time I awoke, I was shorter. Smaller. Quite child-sized, as I hadn’t been in centuries. And Valor stood up beside me, looking like a boy of no more than ten. “It worked!” he cried in a piping voice. “If the serum holds, we can deliver the others, just this way. Once we’ve achieved enough … what was the word you used? Ah yes. Biomass.”
In joy, I wrapped my arms around him. Between us, we’d birth all the Virtues again. Let them live in people’s hearts once more–assuming humanity let us in, of course. They’re tricky that way. But a many-headed hydra of virtue might overcome all the harpies screaming shrilly from their televisions and computers. Then again … “We might fail.”
“Eh, I’ve always loved a good fight,” Valor admitted, grinning as he picked up the cleaver again, gesturing toward Featherstone. “What do you think?”
For once, the voices were silent. Probably still unconscious after the pain of our liberation and transformation. “Let him live,” I decided. “He’s seen much today. It might change his perspective. But if we catch him slipping … we’ll give him to Justice.” And blindfold Mercy for the duration, I added silently.
Valor nodded. “Well enough. Let’s retrieve his notes, and get out of here before he comes to, then.”
We left, two blood-stained, ragged-looking children, whom none of the people on the street seemed to notice, wrapped up in their cell phones and cars, listening to their radios and podcasts.
Humans rarely notice us. Until we go missing.
Temperance D. Lamplighter is, at her best guess, between six to ten thousand years old, because prior to that, she says, humans didn’t have a concept of temperance, never having enough abundance of food, drink, companionship, or spare time in which to overindulge. As Virtues go, she says that she’s the Virtue of Nothing Very Much, but, conversely, rather enjoys being the Virtue of Almost Everything in Small Amounts. She and her brother Valor currently live at an undisclosed location somewhere in North America, working hard at staying alive in a world rife with mad scientists and apathetic humans.
Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. Her poetry has received Rhysling, Dwarf Star, and Pushcart nominations; her short fiction has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science Fiction, and Pseudopod. For more about her work, including her Edda-Earth novels and her forthcoming poetry collection, The Gates of Never, please see www.edda-earth.com.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“The Improbable Case of the Were-Hydra” is © 2019 Deborah L. Davitt
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler