There were times that I wished I had no memory, or at least no ability to remember. But what good would that do? With no memory, I am nothing but an infant in an adult's body. I was blessed to be born of my parents. Roger Wilco and Beatrice Wankmeister were two of Xenon's greatest legends, and their stories have always guided me.
Yes, my father could be a bit self-glorifying at times. But as a small boy I only saw it as an addition to the awesome power known as Dad, a power greater than that of any other man. It didn't matter that his stories were more ridiculous with each telling - he was my dad and that was that.
So you can imagine how I looked forward to school, where I would be surrounded by my classmates, all in awe of the fact that I was the son of the Savior of Xenon.
I remember walking into school the very first day, my head held high. I was ten feet tall, the proudest five year old that Xenon had ever seen. It would be best, I thought, to wait until attendance was taken, so the entire class could hear my name. I could hear the gasps, the whispered "Is he related to THE Roger Wilco?"
It seemed as if there were a thousand names being called. With a last name like Wilco I had a long, unbearable wait. And then, at long last, my agony paid off as Miss Terry said, "Roger Wilco?"
"Here!" I shouted, waving my arm wildly in the air. "Roger Wilco Jr.!"
At first I thought that time had stood still. No one had reacted yet. Then, slowly, I began to realize that my name had no significance. It might as well have been Douglas Adams or Oliver Cromwell. Just another name. My heart sank.
Perhaps fate hadn't turned its back on me entirely. Miss Terry asked, "Are you related to the Roger Wilco who saved the Star Generator from the Sariens?"
"Yes!" I was instantly thrown back into my original proud form. "He's my dad!"
She frowned. "I thought he was dead. No one's heard a thing of him since the Eureka disaster."
"You mean when he defeated the Pukoids?"
"I mean when he plotted with Ambassador Wankmeister to kill Admiral Quirk and intentionally destroyed his own ship."
This couldn't be! My dad was the greatest hero Xenon had ever known, not a scheming weasel! "That's not true! He stopped the Pukoids from taking over StarCon, and the galaxy with it!"
"Roger, this isn't the time or place for ridiculous stories."
"But Miss Terry - "
"OUT!" The image of a kind, gentle teacher was shattered to reveal an enraged young woman. "Stand out in the hall until I say you can come back in. And I don't want to hear a peep, do you understand?"
"Yes, Miss Terry," I mumbled, shuffling defeated through the classroom door and into the hallway. It stretched on in either direction, gray and lined with numbered doors. How many other children were here? At least a thousand, easily, most of which I would never even see.
It was here, crouched against the wall in an effort to be comfortable, that I somehow slipped out of reality for a moment. I don't mean that I was daydreaming or making up imaginary friends. I left that place entirely and was placed somewhere completely different.
It was more or less the same hall, only the walls were covered with mildew and waterstains. There were occasional puddles on the floor. I was horrified to see that all of the doors had been torn out, the dead wires dangling out. Each room was trashed, the floor littered with the remains of what once were desks and chairs. Through the windows I could see an orange sky above the city, which spoke of deadly conflict without making a sound.
This was a place where not even the ghosts would remain, for something had happened here that was more terrible than human words could describe. The emptiness and desolation were clear to me, even as a five year old boy.
A sound, or perhaps the suggestion of one, stopped me. It wasn't a fellow human that stirred; it was something mechanical.
An unspeakably hideous spider-like droid came out of one of the rooms. Its mechanical eyes, a blazing yellow against its dull purple head, locked on me. This was clearly no pet. It skittered toward me, its eight mecahnical legs making gruesome clicking noises as they hit the floor, interspersed with an occasional splash as it stepped in a puddle.
The only thing my instinct told me to do was to flee. I ran faster than I thought was physically possible, my screams echoing through this academic graveyard. I was still running at full speed when I slammed into my own classroom door, falling back to the floor with a thud.
"Mrs. Wilco, I honestly don't know what could have happened. He seemed a bit upset, but there was nothing out there to frighten him."
I couldn't harness the ability to open my eyes. Instead, I lifted one arm in the hope that I would feel a familiar hand.
"Hey, Scout," I heard my dad say. He grasped my hand firmly, but lovingly. "You took a bit of a blow there. Your face is in a cast while the nanites do some repairs. They'll be done in a few minutes, I expect."
Now those weren't the words of a criminal. I squeezed his hand.
"I'm so glad my baby's okay," Mom gushed. "You can tell us what happened as soon as the cast comes off, okay?"
"Now should do it," a mysterious fourth voice said. The world opened up to me as the face cast was taken away. I looked up at my parents and smiled.
"Now," Miss Terry said with a tone suggesting that she would never believe whatever I was about to say, "what happened?"
"I don't know for sure. All of a sudden everything looked different, all ripped up and stuff, and then a big robot chased me."
It's really unfortunate how small children simply don't know how to describe complex events. I heard the words coming out of my mouth and couldn't help being frustrated. There was more to it than that. A big robot. Right.
"A big robot?"
"What kind of robot, sweetie?" my mother asked.
"It was like a giant spider."
That made Dad light up. "Like that Sarien Spider Droid I encountered on Kerona? Man, that thing was vicious. Ten feet tall with long, sharp teeth. . ."
"Roger, honey, spiders don't have teeth."
"But this one did! And poison breath. . ."
"Roger. . ."
"And laser eyes - "
He jumped. "What?"
"Our son has had some sort of traumatic experience and what are you going on about? Your ridiculous overexaggerated stories!"
Dad hung his head. "Sorry, honey."
"He's clearly troubled, Mrs. Wilco. Your son has an overactive imagination. He'll have to go to therapy."
"No!" I had never seen Dad use so much force. "He's perfectly fine. What's wrong with a good imagination? He's creative!"
"He is unrealistic." Miss Terry gave him a look that could freeze an ocean. "There is no place in Xenonian society for someone who is unrealistic. Unless you wish to be a janitor."
I had never seen Dad so depressed before. Being a janitor is bad enough, I suppose. Having it thrown in your face is even worse.
"Come here, son," he said after we finished dinner. "There's something I want to talk to you about."
I followed him into the living room and sat on his lap, as I had always done. "What is it, Daddy?"
"Roger," he said, stroking my hair, "what was the last thing you drew?"
"A class five Sarien shuttle. Why?"
He sighed heavily. "You were told to draw that, weren't you?"
"Yes." This was quickly becoming confusing.
"What was the last thing you drew without being told?"
I thought about it. There must have been something. "I don't remember, Daddy."
"That's what I thought. Now Roger, you know that the Wilco family has been in the sanitation business for generations. But do you know what they were before that?"
I shook my head.
"Artists. They were artists. They drew things they wanted to draw, because it looked nice."
I was puzzled. "But what for?"
"Just to do it. And people loved to look at what they drew."
"Because it made them happy. I know that's hard to understand, Roger, but that's what it did to them. Now Xenon is all about science. The people felt that there was no need for artists. So the Wilcos dropped to the lowest rung in society - mop jockeying."
I didn't understand much of what he said then, but in time I saw it for myself. The psychologist I was sent to laid it out all too clear.
"What you saw, Roger, wasn't real. You're a very bright boy, but you use it to create things that cannot and will not exist. That serves no purpose. Look through a history book some time. Everyone in it did something real, not make up nonsense. If you want to be useful, be like them. Be realistic."
My dad argued against me going there every step of the way, but it was no use. Mom was just like everyone else, believing that I would never go anywhere unless I invented something. But I wouldn't accept that. I fought it every day. It meant no friends and no respect, but I knew that someday things would change.
I saw things from time to time. Always Xenon was a wreck, with horrifying robots on patrol. Sometimes I was unfortunate enough to see them find a human, which they would vaporize on sight. What was this? Why was I seeing it?
By this time I was an adolescent, no longer the only misfit. I associated myself with the others, since they had no reason to see themselves as superior. They were mostly the type who were too bright to be considered normal. It was through one of them, a boy named Jack, that I learned of the Super Computer.
"It's supposed to be the ultimate creation, the one thing that will manage all of Xenon's necessities. Defense, economy, even the weather."
"That's great," I said, "but what will we do with ourselves then? We'd have no need to think."
"Who knows? Maybe they'll get back into that art thing you keep talking about."
For some reason I had my doubts. Something told me that the scientists of Xenon were making a terrible mistake.
"How do you know about this, Jack?"
He leaned forward, his black hair falling into his brilliant green eyes and a dangerously crazy grin on his face. "I can see the future."
"Whoa, wait a minute. Aren't you getting beyond yourself?"
"Don't argue with me, Roger. You know it's true. I know your destiny, and the only way you'll survive the years ahead is if you accept it."
I couldn't get his words off of my mind, not even when I went home. I suppose that was why I failed to notice that the house wasn't like it should be. Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found. Not even Spike, who always came out to greet me.
But none of this occured to me at the time. I only walked right into a trap. The door closed behind me unnoticed. I headed straight for my room to brood. But I would never make it there that night.
"Roger Wilco Jr., surrender yourself immediately."
The source of that statement was, as far as I could tell, some sort of cyborg. Its voice was clearly mechanical, but it stood like any human, wearing heavy armor, heavy-duty gloves and a helmet with some sort of mechanical mouth. The letters SP were emblazened on its forehead. The cyborg had one arm around my mother, not even seeming to notice her struggling for her life. In the other arm it held a gun to her jaw.
"What are you?"
"I am Sequel Police Droid 4731, sent to obtain Roger Wilco Jr. for a meeting with Sludge Vohaul."
"Sludge Vohaul is dead!"
"You have been misinformed. Surrender immediately or your mother will be terminated."
Her eyes widened. "Roger, honey, don't do it. Sludge can only be planning the worst for you."
Now before you accuse me of being weak or indecisive for not knowing what to do, ask yourself - what would you have done? Most people, myself included, want to live. But no one I know wants to see their own mother killed before their eyes. And you can't call bluffs with a droid. So no, I had no idea what to do.
Spike, however, did.
Our lovable red exoskeletal pet has always been highly protective. This was the perfect time for heroic actions on his part. Before I knew what was happening he was spraying acid on the Sequel Policeman. This did its job of disabling it, but some of it also splattered onto my mother's face. I can still hear her screams of pain.
On the bright side, she survived the ordeal. The droid's circuits were completely fried. But Mom's face scarred rather grotesquely from the acid burns, a daily reminder of that horrific night.
We spent that night in the hospital, just Mom and me. She wouldn't stop crying. After about ten minutes of trying to console her, she finally revealed the truth.
"Roger, your father is dead. He tried to stop that Sequel Policeman, but it was no use. He died, Roger. Xenon's going to be in its darkest hour and its forgotten hero is dead!"
Hardly anyone came to Dad's funeral. He risked his life for the good of the galaxy time and time again, and for what? Xenon should have been made into a ball of flame by the Sariens. Let the flames be ignited. Burn, Xenon, burn.
People once respected my mother. I always thought it was for her mind. But now people stared at her scars and ignored her words. They only loved her for her face. Burn, Xenon, burn.
Everyone at school knew that my father had died. But all they did was ignore me. I would have thought I was a ghost if I could only walk through walls. Kindness has left their hearts. Burn, Xenon, burn.
Jack was the only one who ever spoke to me now. Even the other misfits turned their noses up to me. As for Jack, he spoke of my destiny, the destiny that I could never avoid.
"There are people all over Xenon who can see the future, Roger. I know you're one of them. It is us who will save Xenon from the coming disaster, and we will rebuild it to a glory too great for their little minds to grasp."
Just as long as they all die, I thought.
My bitterness may seem a bit extreme to some, but I honestly believe that anyone would have reacted similarly. I was the son of a great hero who was tossed aside by all those that he had saved. The lack of gratitude, or possibly attention span, sickens me. There should be statues honoring him, not just one dusty Golden Mop sitting in the closet somewhere. Had he been anything other than a janitor they would have loved him more. But no, he was useless. He was. . .unrealistic.
"Mom," I asked one night after a long period of silence, "why did you marry Dad?"
"Well, Roger, I knew since I was a teenager that men would be attracted to me only for my looks. When I first met your father, I thought he was just like all the rest, only less articulate. But when he risked everything for me I knew he was different." She looked at the holographic image of her and Dad dancing at their wedding reception and sighed. "Besides which, your father had a pure heart. Those are hard to find these days."
I watched the hologram in silence. Mom and Dad looked so happy. Then Dad stepped on Mom's foot. She still kept that smile on her face, but I could see her eyes bulge. Dad just looked embarrassed.
The Super Computer rose right under our noses, a deadly tornado that, for the moment, was just beyond the horizon. Jack and I both knew what was coming. My visions were soon to become a reality, and each death at the hands of a robot would mean the rise of a better Xenon. But for now all I would see was the flame kindled in my own heart, a flame that hungered for justice. Burn, Xenon, burn.
"Roger, how could you want to stay home? This is the biggest event in Xenon's history!"
"I don't feel well," I lied.
I don't think Mom believed me, but it wasn't worth the energy to argue. So I stayed home while she and everyone else went to see the activation of the Super Computer.
Everyone, that is, except Jack.
He came over not long after Mom left. Ever since he first told me that he could see the future he never lost that psychotic grin. His eyes looked brighter every time I saw him. Now they seemed to burn two holes in my skull.
"It won't be long now, Roger. Only about three years. The Xenon we know will be destroyed and a new one will rise from its ashes."
The Xenon we know. . .Dad's Xenon. This was the place he loved, even though it constantly tossed him aside. Was it really right of us to destroy it when Dad risked his life to save it from peril? What gave us the right to undo all that he had done?
"We've earned it," Jack said.
I looked at him in surprise. "What?"
"What's coming, we've earned it. All these people, with their science, constantly trying to build things bigger and better. They don't realize what they've been doing. We've been replacing ourselves with technology. The technology is just finishing the job for us."
"How are we going to survive?"
His smile widened, but now there was a sort of warmth to it. "Don't worry, Roger. We'll manage."
Those words sounded more reassuring from him than from any other person, alive or dead. For the first time in years I was unafraid of what the future held.
"Jack. . .wasn't it raining just a moment ago?"
"Look out the window."
Just five minutes ago it had been raining heavily, the skies black and the streets running with torrents of water. Now there was not a cloud in the vibrant blue sky. The sun was shining brightly, and it was nearly impossible to tell that it had ever rained at all.
"It's begun," Jack said. "A new age is dawning."
Life with the Super Computer was wonderful, I'll admit it. The weather was always nice - sunny, warm and not too humid. It only rained late at night, just enough to keep what few plants there were in Xenon City healthy. But still I could see the storm on the horizon.
Something strange happened about a week after the computer was activated. I went to bed in my own room, in my own bed. I woke up in what looked like my bedroom after a few sugar-high Orats had been left in it. All of the furnishings were gone, save the scattered debris of things I couldn't recognize. Through the window I saw that same amber sky, a vicious eye glaring down on the ruined Xenon City. A small, pink mechanical rabbit was walking down one of the streets, beating a drum with a monotony that made me start pulling my hair.
I had to escape that sound. I left my room and explored the rest of the house, the dull beat still in my ears. Every room was more of the same - trashed. On the kitchen floor I found a dull red shell with three legs protruding from either side. Spike. In the living room I found the smashed holodisk that held the image of my dancing parents. All of the furniture was gone, replaced with anonymous fragments and scorch marks.
Seeing a wrecked office building may be mildly upsetting. Make it a home and it's gruesome. Make it your own home and you're scarred for life.
My eyes fell on the place where the couch once was. The floor had been blackened there, but I could see lines where it wasn't as dark. Curiously, I knelt on the floor and felt along the lines. My breath caught in my throat as I lifted out a small section of the floor. Years of dust rose angrily at being disturbed, causing me to sneeze several times before I could inspect what I had found.
My hands ran over the box that lay in the small space under the floor. I could feel the dust cake on my palms. I knew that this was real. Not sure what was inside but knowing how important it was to find out, I flipped the latch and lifted the lid.
I had heard of the things that lay inside. In ancient times people would mash up plants and press them into sheets that they would write on. My mind strained for the word. P, p. . .paper! I lifted the sheets out, marveling at the soft crinkly sound that they made, the dry, rough feel, the soft, musty smell.
The top sheet was blank, at least the side that was facing me. I grasped it between forefinger and thumb, turning it over. It was the single most monumental thing I had ever done.
It really wasn't until I saw what was on those sheets that I realized how devoid my world was of color. The sky was blue, the occasional building might be colored, but none of it was nearly as bright as this. I looked at it, a picture of a field of green grass that seemed to stretch endlessly to either side, cut only by a path leading to a group of houses in the distance. A dog was running through the grass as a girl looked on, all of this under the brightest sky I had ever seen.
So this was what Dad meant about art making people happy. I looked at the pictures on the other sheets, each one more incredible than the one before. This was what the Wilcos did, and it made the people happy. I forgot the destruction around me, even the irritating drum beat. This was my entire world.
Nothing, however, could distract me from that smell.
There was the stench of something gone rotten in the air. As to what, I had no idea. I put the sheets back in the box, replaced the floor tile, and walked toward the smell's source - Mom's bedroom.
And no, I didn't get any funny ideas.
Like every other door I had seen in post-apocalyptic Xenon, this one had been ripped off. What I found in the bedroom made me wish there was a titanium wall in its place. Staring at me was the first person I had seen in ages. Her eyes were held open by some sort of head gear, her skin brown and wrinkly, her clothing tattered. She was a zombie.
The mere sight of me triggered something in her. The left part of her mouth quivered, first only slightly, then building until I could see her brown, decaying teeth and a thin trickle of drool ran down her chin. Finally she raised her left arm, pointed at me, and let out a shriek that made my skin crawl right off of my body in search of a place to hide.
There was a sort of glint as she moved to point at me. It was, in fact, a diamond. The stone, a marquis cut, was almost like a glistening teardrop held in place by a white gold band, branching on either side and twisting once before grasping the stone. Once I saw this ring I forgot about the screaming zombie that wore it. That ring was a symbol, and I knew its meaning.
I knew that ring.
This story is ©; 2001 Diane LaJuene.
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