Commando Bats by Sherwood Smith




  COMMANDO BATS

  Sherwood Smith

  www.bookviewcafe.com

  Book View Café Edition

  September 18, 2015

  ISBN: 978-1-61138-551-9

  Copyright © 2015 Sherwood Smith

  Commando Bats

  When I was young, aging women were interchangeable. Ugly, slow, annoying with their unwanted opinions. It seemed impossible that I’d ever be one. The first proof that the universe has a sense of humor? I’m half of one.

  Since the stroke that wiped out my livelihood, I’d taken to tooling my electric scooter along the Venice boardwalk, or out to the Santa Monica pier. I was on the pier that day when the second proof happened.

  My goal was to work at training my left hand to mix colors, but when too exasperated by juggling paints, paper, and water in the fitful ocean breeze, I sat back and watched the fishers, patient and still, the flirting young couples, and a man with his little boy tossing bits of bread up in the air to the seagulls swooping and diving over the choppy green waters.

  Then this compelling, melodic female voice spoke intimately, as if right beside my ear.

  “Excellent. You are what I want.”

  That couldn’t possibly be me. I turned. Nearby stood two other sixty-plus women. The tall, thin silver-haired one in the elegant clothes, with the wedding ring the size of a Volkswagen, looked quickly away from the sensibly dressed, solid black woman with the salt-and-pepper hair; she, in turn, glanced from Lady Gotrocks to me in my motorized wheelchair, and then away with an air of this has nothing to do with me.

  “Yes. You.” The speaker sounded like an opera singer I'd once worked with, back in my waitress days, when she was putting herself through music school and I was studying art. The unmusical cadences of everyday speech could not hide the melody intrinsic in her tones. It was just this way with this woman: she did not shout, or even speak very loud, but her voice rang.

  I turned my scooter. The speaker was tall, with high piled curly dark hair, and large dark eyes. She wore a kind of caftan thing with stylized peacocks embroidered around the hem, and she carried a bag with cleverly made overlapping fabric that looked like lotus leaves. I wondered how much she had paid for it.

  She stared straight at me. People usually don't. They see the scooter and my lifeless right arm and the droopy right side of my face, and look away quickly.

  Peacock Lady gestured imperiously to the three of us. “Reach into my bag.” That resonant, musical voice was so commanding I grabbed the stick to move my scooter forward and then I thought, Wait a minute.

  “Who are you?” the black woman asked, not quite hostile, but definitely a challenge. “I don't touch anyone's handbag.”

  “Excuse me,” Lady Gotrocks said in a Malibu drawl, as she wiped her eyes on a linen handkerchief of the type I hadn’t seen since my grandmother was alive. “I was just leaving.”

  Peacock Lady held up a hand, palm out. She loomed, dark eyes compelling under her cloud of curly hair, her complexion a warm bronze: she was the archetype of beauty and majesty. "I have chosen you three to receive my gift. Now, reach into my bag, or suffer my ire!”

  I swear there was an echo from the Hollywood Hills.

  “I know you all, for you come within my governance. I am Hera. Now I order you for the third and last time: Reach into my bag.” She fixed on me, as I was now closest.

  The woman's ringing tones shivered through my nerves. I reached up from my scooter to slip my fingers over the lotus leaves — which were not fabric, after all, but cool and alive. “Your name?” she commanded.

  “Nancy Litvak Fiala.” My voice came out a croak as my fingers found what felt like a jumble of costume jewelry, some of which had to have been kept in her freezer, for it was icy cold.

  “Ahhhh,” Hera murmured. “That one. It is just.”

  My forefinger touched a warm circle of metal, which slipped on of its own accord. I yanked my hand out, staring. Was that a ruby on my finger, or just sun-dazzle? I blinked, and the image was gone.

  Hera held out the bag to the black woman next. Moving slowly, bristling with suspicion, she stretched out her hand.

  “Your name?” Hera — I may as well call her that—demanded.

  “Bettina Wilson.” Bettina slipped her hand in and almost immediately withdrew it. Something winked with a diamond glitter on her finger and then vanished.

  “Come,” Hera said to Lady Gotrocks, who turned away from the railing with obvious reluctance. I noticed her eyes were red-rimmed. “Your name?”

  “Cecile . . . Schuyler.” The hesitation before the last name sounded odd. Suspicious? Definitely hauteur. When Hera imperiously shook the lotus bag (the leaves actually rustled) Cecile reached in with the air of one about to touch an extremely dead fish. She gave a little gasp, pulled her hand free, and wrung it.

  “Hephaestus, Herakles,” Hera said to me and Cecile, then smiled at Bettina. “And Zeus. Ah ha! Judicious choices.” That compelling voice belled with an undertone of laughter.

  Bettina rubbed furiously at her hand, her fingers sparkling in the sun.

  “The male gods,” said Hera, “have displeased me. I have taken all their powers." She hefted the lotus bag, and the leaves fluttered in the wind, sending out an aroma of pungent greenery. "Perforce they must watch. Perhaps they will learn something about the exigencies of power."

  "Who’s going to teach what to whom?" Bettina asked, still suspicious.

  "You," Hera stated. "Will teach them. Long have I listened as crones are made the butt of japes. If the fools listened to those who have the least power yet the most wisdom, would not the world be in better case? Prove me right."

  Sunlight flashed off the seawater, dazzling our eyes. I caught a confusion of whirling wings, and then all the noise of the pier — whose absence I had not noticed until then — closed around us: the wash-splash of the waves, the cry of seabirds, the chatter of tourists and the clatter of fishing poles.

  The three of us were no longer isolated. We were joined in a shared emotion of horror, disbelief, and a complete inability to know what to do next.

  Cecile was the first to react. She turned her back on Bettina and me and headed for the stairway to the upper level of the pier. As she passed one of the sturdy benches looking out over the water, she hit the back of it, either accidentally or in an expression of frustration. Then she recoiled as a corner of the iron-bound back support about the size of a dinner plate broke free with a loud crack and hurtled up into the air some hundred feet, spinning crazily.

  I was staring in total disbelief, so I didn’t see exactly what Bettina did, but I sneezed as a beam of hot, electric air shot by me and intersected that spinning piece. Light glowed around it for a nanosecond, then vanished, leaving a puff of ash to float down to the ocean water below.

  My head whipped around in an Exorcist neck twist; there was Bettina in the act of wringing her fingers violently. Only instead of water dripping off, light zapped, splashed, and shot around crazily in a fireworks display that made my eyes hurt.

  She froze. I rubbed my eyes as dozens of tiny fires sent white smoke twirling lazily upward on the sea breeze.

  “What the hell?”

  “Hey —”

  “It’s a bomb!”

  The voices broke out behind me. Once again I did a Linda Blair, in time to catch Cecile bracing her hands on that bench support as if she were trying to will it whole again. The result? The thing broke into splinters, and as she recoiled, her hands jerking to her shoulders, fingers spread, the splinters shot skyward, a whole bunch of spinning shards of iron and stone that were going to come down and cause a world of hurt.

  “Halt.”

  The voice, unlike Hera’s imperial ring, was soft as fog, cooling as rain, a whisper
that somehow seized time. The smoldering fires all winked out. The lethal shards overhead reversed their trajectories in a flash, reassembling seamlessly. The ashes even swooped up from the water below like a clump of tiny mites, blurring together into a chunk that reattached to its parent bench back with a definitive thok.

  Cecile, Bettina, and I swung around. Another woman stood on the steps to the upper level, wearing a golden helmet, a white peplum, and sandals that tied up to her knees. A huge owl sat on her shoulder. She held an honest-to-ancient-days spear in one hand. In spite of these outlandish details, the people around us blinked, turned to one another with questions that no one listened to, then slowly wandered away, without paying her the least attention.

  She smiled at them out of a young-old face, then beckoned to us with her free hand.

  This time, Cecile didn’t try to walk away. Bettina still looked hostile and suspicious, but she waited. I put my good hand to my scooter joystick. When my fingertips touched the metal, a schematic bloomed behind my eyes, and I, who could barely work a cell phone, and who could not figure out the TV remote, saw the structure of my chair right down to the movement of electrons. I let out a squawk, and this time the newcomer laughed out loud. It sounded like the chuckle of a stream.

  “Use the senses you have been given,” she said, snapped her fingers, and the owl launched upward with a great flapping of wings, then poof! It vanished, leaving behind a brief scent of cinnamon and cedarwood.

  Cecile coughed, then said in a faint voice, “Excuse me.”

  “Believe the evidence.”

  People streamed around us as if we were not there. I thought, this better not be another stroke. I pinched my nose. Hard. Tears burned my eyes. The woman in the helmet — Pallas Athena? — was still there.

  Bettina said, “What are we supposed to be doing?”

  “Anything you like,” said Athena. “But Hera will be most displeased if you take her gift and do nothing. She is going through the world dispersing gifts to women like you, past the change of life.” She raised her spear, indicating the people around us. “You know what most men would do, given these powers.” Athena brought the spear down with a crack that reverberated like thunder — though again, none of the people around us reacted. “Disappoint her at your peril.”

  She vanished in a wink of light.

  And there we were, three totally unconnected women standing in an uncomfortable triangle on the crowded Santa Monica Pier.

  Cecile looked away, body language broadcasting her desire to be anywhere else. Bettina the same.

  Me? If I could have, I’d be whooping with amazement and thrill; half a century ago I’d been wearing Spock ears to conventions, and until my stroke I’d spent decades drawing wizards, witches, elves, ghosts, warriors, and every other kind of supernatural being writers imagined. Though at age ten I’d reluctantly given up believing I was going to find magic when I’d rapped my last closet back in hopes of finding Narnia behind it, I’d done the next best thing: illustrated it for comics and book covers.

  Cecile said, “I can’t deal with this now.”

  Bettina shrugged. “Better we should exchange phone numbers. In case.”

  She didn’t say in case of what. But Cecile nodded, and rattled off her digits. Bettina and I followed suit, then we all separated, them to the stairs, and I hit the joystick on my scooter, and trundled up the ramp to head for home.

  “Home” for me is a garage converted into a single-room apartment behind a beautiful Craftsman house ten blocks inland from the pier. I got there without mishap, plugged in the scooter, toiled through getting my zombie half from scooter to chair, and then I sat there gazing from object to object as I tried to get the old reality and the new to mesh. It didn’t help when I remembered that I’d sat in exactly the same spot the day I came home from the hospital after the stroke, trying to mesh decades of ageless labor into the jolt of the new me. When had I turned old? Inside, I was the same age I’d always been.

  My only mirror was in the tiny bathroom and shower annex. My big, spacious room was filled wall-to-wall with books and artwork, lit by the big skylight in the roof overhead, which was the reason I had rented the place back in the 70s.

  I put my hand over the controls of my chair, and once again a kind of 3-D display overlaid itself on my retinas. I’d picked this chair because it had a lift that brought me up standing, but it was an older model — all I could get — and as I stared at the schematic, I began to see where the makers had taken money-saving shortcuts.

  If they had just . . . If I could . . .

  I can’t really explain it, except in terms of art. When I compose a picture, the image and the means of building it are there in mind, a cohesion somewhat like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle, in 3-D, all at once. When I draw it, I have to reverse the process, fitting it together on the page one bit at a time.

  But this schematic? I had the cohesion in a flash, without having to pull it apart to work it out on paper with pencil, chalks, and acrylic. A shock ran through me, a frisson of excitement as the schematic rippled into a new configuration and the hum changed under my hand, moving the chair smoothly into the bathroom. With my hand still on the control panel, I used my mind to alter the schematic so that the lift would bring me upright.

  It worked.

  I stared into the mirror. Looking back at me was the same sallow-olive blob of a face that had looked back at me all my life, gradually sagged by time and gravity, unnoticed until the stroke pulled down the right side of my mouth. Plain brown hair, brown eyes — my Aunt Abby had said when I turned sixteen that I got the worst of both sides of the family: Italian olive and Middle Eastern saffron. Mix that with my granddad’s stolid Dutch farmer build, and the result was roughly the shape and coloring of a potato. My saving grace in school had been my drawing, wherein I could escape the dingy, boring everyday tread of reality into flights of fantasy and magic.

  I’d chosen escapism because it was fun, and finally a way to earn bread and rent. But I didn’t believe any of it. The world was too dull and predictable for surprises. All it was good for was horror, and that was largely human-caused, except when nature opened a random can of whoop-ass.

  So what kind of world was this? Hera and Athena? Olympian gods? Powers?

  “Come on, Nancy,” I slurred to my blob of a face, only the left side of my mouth moving. “Reading science fiction and fantasy since you were eight. You can handle this!”

  I looked down at the chair, and issued a command: “Turn into a hover chair.”

  Nothing happened.

  I put my hand over the control and impatiently tried to wish the chair into flying. The electricity hummed fretfully, and a faint smell of metallic burn hit my nose. I jerked my hand away from the control. Shut my eyes. Carefully put my hand over the controls again, and once more saw the schematic. Oh. I’d overloaded the wiring here . . .

  Another, more subtle ripple of changes, and the lift lowered with a quiet hum. It was a different hum, indicating a more efficient flow of electrons.

  Okay. Whatever I was doing seemed to adhere in some way to the laws of physics.

  Still keeping my hand over the controls, I used that mental schematic to propel the chair back into the room, where I put in some time doing chair dancing: back-and-forth, around, lift, turn, lower, slow. Fast. In this way, I got a sense of how much stress the framework could take, and I also discovered how much electricity I could move. Basically, it seemed to be the limit of whatever power source I could tap into, as long as I didn’t let too much friction or heat build up. I might not be able to write an equation to save my life, but my nose could detect heat, and the hum would change to the rough sound of angry bees.

  I loved the idea of a flying chair, but a jet-chair would mean mega-hot fires inches below my butt. Not practical!

  Hovercraft use blowers to produce a large volume of air below the hull that is slightly above atmospheric pressure. The pressure difference between the higher pressure air below th
e hull and lower pressure ambient air above it produces lift, but those things don’t get very far above the ground. Could I really make this thing fly?

  After testing the chair various ways, I figured out how to get the electricity to lift it directly into the air without falling apart. Two, three seconds I hovered an inch or two off the ground, then THUMP!

  The framework jolted threateningly, and the battery, which had been full when I got home, hit zero hard. Okay, I needed a sturdier framework and a bigger schematic — a way to tap into more electrical power.

  First things first. With all my piddly strength I hand-wheeled the chair a yard to the plug, got it recharging, caught my breath and shifted into my old trusty wheelchair. Then I took another deep breath and looked around.

  The sun was going down, and I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for hours. Even two-handed, I had never been much of a cook, and my little corner kitchen was not conducive to complicated preparation even if I had had the patience. Since the stroke, one of my landlords in the front house, a professional chef, had taken it upon himself to prepare me a bunch of healthy but delicious meals that I could zap.

  As I picked out my favorite tilapia cooked in white wine, onion and garlic, with brown rice, and yellow squash sprinkled with dill, I thought, do I tell James and Kenneth? They’d been my landlords since the hippies sold the place in the mid-80s. They were excellent landlords — it was they who’d upgraded the place and fixed the leaky skylight, which I suspect the hippies had installed during one of their many chemical explorations during the drug-hazed seventies. They’d also had my shower redone so that I could get in and out on my own. They were my substitute family, as my brother was somewhere in Africa.

  I wheeled into the yard, then stopped. If I started babbling about Hera and powers, they’d think I’d gone round the bend, and if they asked me to prove it . . . what then?

  Yeah, what then?

  Hera (or whoever she was; I still couldn’t get my mind around Ancient Greek Goddess. Easier to believe she was an alien in that guise) hadn’t said anything about secrecy. What she had said, was she wanted proof that old women were wise. How wise was it to invent a flying wheelchair?

 
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