For the eighth time in the last hour, Clarisse checked her wrist device to see if she was headed to the right place. At this point, there were any number of things that could go wrong, and she was on edge. She was slumped down in her seat so far that an onlooker might mistake the coach she was riding in for an empty one, if, of course, the coach was going slow enough to see into. Her government official’s robe still adorned her, and any attention she caught would put her plan in jeopardy. Two thoughts then crossed her mind. One was an almost idle wish that she had changed into something low-profile, and the other was the intense and rapid realization that she did not have any kind of plan. She’d instead put her faith in two men she had discovered one rainy day. Today would be the second time she had seen them. A favor would then be exchanged for a favor already done. She’d have to open her mind or she’d never be able to work with Morphers. Clarisse was now extending a pleading arm to the type of Things she’d always been told to fear and despise. Tears rolled down her cheek as she deleted all of her contacts off of the wrist device. She recounted the last time she saw each one of these people. Her mind, however, had been turned to figurative oatmeal by too many hours in the Booth. Her brain mistook times she saw these people in the Booth for when she saw them in real life. More tears.
The stagecoach shot across the road. The horse’s feet crashed against the cobbles, and the beast whirred with exertion. Clarisse picked at the folds of her robe after grudgingly turning off her wrist device.
“Are you sure?” asked the text on the screen in response to her command to power down. No. No she wasn’t. The two men she was meeting would ask why she was doing what she was doing, and she wouldn’t have an answer.
The driver cleared his digital throat.
“You have arrived,” he told her.
She got out and thanked him. She was the only person she knew who thanked the virtual drivers. He waved back from his tiny screen, and for a second, she thought she saw gratitude in his pixelated eyes, but that was ridiculous as he was a computer program.
“Have a nice day!” said he. The horse he was set into snorted and pawed the ground. On the top of this beast’s back, its minigun poked its head out tentatively, as if the horse was reminding all those around what it was capable of. It was almost comical, the image of the shy death cannon perched atop the imposing mechanical terror’s dorsum. The cherry on top was the kindly looking man in a conductor’s uniform waving merrily out of the side of the machine. Bloodred lights beamed onto the ground, marking where not to stand, and by the count of ten the man, the horse, and the stagecoach had shot down the road at a blisteringly fast speed and were gone. Clarisse was alone on the street.
Behind her was her destination: Sweet Ann’s café. She entered. The barista looked at her in awe. She would make his third customer that day, quite the turnout. She ordered a coffee and sat down next to the only people in the place. These were her contacts.
“Knew you’d come cash in. Having us owe you is too valuable,” one said.
“I never said I wouldn’t.”
“Yeah, that’s one of the ways I knew you would. I like that you didn’t want to do a Booth meeting. Classy.”
“I didn’t think that would be incognito enough.” Clarisse sipped her coffee.
“Yep. And we simply don’t have a Booth to use. Can I try that?” He took the coffee out of her hand.
“Revolting,” he said, and took another swig. His companion shook his head. Clarisse took the drink back, flummoxed.
“Alright, business. You didn’t turn us in. What do you want in exchange for that favor?”
She leaned in. “I want out. Out of the City. Take me with you, wherever it is that you live.”
“Called it, but it’s no less surprising. Jonas isn’t going to be the only one with a willing conscript.”
His companion, who hadn’t talked at all during the exchange, nodded smugly.
“But I have to ask…” Clarisse’s brain filled in “why?” as the rest of his question, and she was not prepared to answer him.
“…What makes you think we live outside of the City?”
“Well… don’t you?”
“Sure do. Alright, we’re burning daylight here, let’s move.” His abruptness took her by surprise.
“Wh- aren’t you going to ask why I want to leave everything behind?”
“Yes, actually. What is it about this place that you don’t like? Is it the oppressive government? The fact that you are still in school despite being a grown woman with a government job? Or is it the horses topped with guns? You don’t need to tell us now why you chose to leave. I know you don’t have a reason. But you’re not typical, I can tell. You’re serious about this.”
Her breath quickened as the man’s word set in and she realized once again the magnitude of what she was doing. It was a crime to leave the City, a felony to be in cahoots with Morphers. She would be a felon, already was. No one she cared about will have gotten a goodbye. Come to think of it, would anyone she knew miss her, or care about getting a goodbye? Plenty of people would miss her body, but none of those, she realized, she felt connected to in any way. Would any of her coworkers or friends wonder where she had gone? Would they eventually be told that the person they thought they knew was a criminal, perhaps even a terrorist if she was found to be in the presence of Morphers? But Clarisse didn’t even know if her friends even thought they knew her. For all the people she knew, she was truly alone.
“Better hurry up now, the sewers don’t get less nasty as the day goes on.”
“I didn’t say salvation would be easy. It’s abandoned anyway; not in use. By the way, you can’t have this.”
He took her wrist device and smashed it to pieces in one hand, then poured the bits into one of his pockets.
“Wha- you have one!”
He tapped his device. “Precautions. They can’t track this one.”
The sewer was not so bad. Clarisse guessed it hadn’t been used in fifteen years, not that she was an expert by any means. An expert on sewers wore a Hood, and she had never worn one in her life. She thought of all the Hoods she had met. Never knew any of their names. So many faceless people that could have been her friends. She was never awful to any of them, but never talked to them more than she had to. There was a general feeling that Hoods stuck with other Hoods, and didn’t interact much with people who, for their career, didn’t have to wear Hoods. People on the top rungs of society. People like Clarisse Copperfield. There was a romance novel Clarisse read years prior. In it an elite woman met a Hooded man and falls in love with him, even though she only saw him at work, with the Hood on. The big reveal at the end was when the Hood was removed, and of course he was super handsome and they lived happily ever after. Clarisse kind of had this as a passive fantasy that something similar would happen to her, but never made any effort to make it a reality. She never asked people’s names, never bothered to get to know anyone outside a bed or a bottle. Of the friends she had, she couldn’t come up with a story they’d told her, or a genuine laugh they’d shared. Never again. Today, she made her choice to change to a different lifestyle, and she could follow it up with a change in personality.
“What are you guys’ names? I never asked.”
“I’m Haz. Hank. This is Reggal, Richard.”
“Um, what? The two of you have four names?”
“That’s my bad. We have human names, and Morpher names. We try to get in the habit of using the human ones, in case we need to deceive you people.” He winked.
If these things’ society was anything like the government, which Clarisse didn’t know why she assumed it would be, you had to build a relationship with the people that got you in, because the rest of the people were going to be cold, at least at first. Clarisse made small talk with them for a while with this purpose in mind, but eventually and without warning she found herself actually interested in talking to them. It wasn’t every day you meet shape-shifting creatures that were going to help you commit a crime by escaping the City.
At one-point Reggal, or Richard, Clarisse couldn’t decide what to call him, shifted into a police officer, Hood and all, when she was looking away from him. Her heart just about stopped but they had a laugh after she recovered. That, she thought, was something her human friends couldn’t do.
“Here we are,” said Haz (Hank). “Past this hatch and you get your first taste of freedom.” Clarisse didn’t know there was another kind. She didn’t know what freedom would taste like. Why was he having her taste something now? Were they going to come out in some kind of Morpher dining area?
The hatch creaked open and Haz climbed out, then Reggal. Clarisse took a deep breath. Her mother used to have a saying; “nothing ventured, nothing lost,” but she was beginning to think that her mother was lying to her.
“Coming?” asked Hank, and he reached down towards her.
“I think so.” She reached up and took his hand, and he pulled her out of the sewer.
The sight. Clarisse leaned on Hank for support; she thought her legs might give. What could be more beautiful than what she saw now? Nothing she’d ever seen before, that’s for sure.
“How does liberty taste, then?”
Clarisse could only nod her head in an incomplete response. She had tasted many decadent foods, many great wines, but now that she was tasting nothing at all, the best sensation was on her tongue.
“Why doesn’t it all look like this? Why is there so much of that?” she pointed to the City which was now some distance away.
“Believe it or not, humans chose that. They had a choice, and they picked City.”
She inhaled. “They’re building Z district.”
“They’re adding a district on to the City. They said they’d take up some of the ‘outside,’ but I didn’t think this is what they meant.”
“Jeez, Copperfield, we’ve got bigger fish to fry than deforestation.”
“Fo-re-st,” she clucked. It wasn’t a word she’d used many times, but she remembered learning it in Stage 1 schooling. It wasn’t like there were no trees in the City, a few of them spruced up the odd street corner, but there were never enough close by to be called a forest.
“You’re free now; you can go where you want. We could go into a forest right now if you wanted to.”
“Sure. Let’s go in a forest. Right now.”
They made their way down the hill, and Clarisse started to feel strange. It was almost like a dizziness, but not like she’d felt before, and not exactly uncomfortable. She had thought she’d felt every type of physical sensation possible, but here was a new one. She must have been too hot, that was probably it. The delegate robe was not designed for weather, it was designed for air-conditioned indoor meeting halls.
“I wish I had a change of clothes. I wish I’d thought of that.”
Reggal cleared his throat, and the other two looked at him. “I’m gonna go up ahead. See you guys at camp.” They watched him fade away through the trees that were now looming right in front of them.
“Actually,” said Hank, “Morphers can kind of… grow… clothes. Like you grow hair, we can grow most kinds of textiles. And hair.”
“That. Is weird.”
“Ha, well, you guys have to make your own clothes, so that makes us kind of better than you. It’s weird that you can’t grow your own clothes, in my opinion.”
“Okay, I was just saying. Can you get me a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt?”
“That’s it? You find someone that can grow pretty much any type of clothes and you say ‘jeans and a T-shirt, please’?”
“Oh, well… I just thought it would be easier.”
He looked at her. “Thanks.”
She looked back.
Hank asked, “So, is that still what you want?”
He turned away and held his hands to his torso as if to remove a cat that was clinging to his clothes. He pulled his hands away and turned back to Clarisse. Sure enough, he had in his hands a pair of blue jeans and a white tee-shirt, both neatly folded on top of one another.
“So… weird.” She took the clothes. “Does this mean I’ll be wearing your hair?”
“Nope. It’s not hair.”
She smirked, then set the clothes down and started to undo the buttons on her robe. Hank turned away. Clarisse stopped.
“What?” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘what’?” he still didn’t turn back.
“Why did you face that way? With your back to me?”
“To give you privacy, of course.”
“Huh. No one has ever said that before.”
“How many people have you undressed in front of?” he shook his head “don’t answer that. And none of them gave you space?”
“I guess… I guess I didn’t know any people that would avoid watching someone while they were changing. Why- is it rude? To watch?”
“Back in the day, it was normal avert your eyes when someone took their clothes off. I remember people made little folding walls to undress behind.”
“Um… okay,” she resumed changing into the new clothes. “Okay, I’m done.”
“Perfect. Now let’s see what there is to see.” They entered the forest.
It was not a special forest, just a small grouping of trees close outside the City. For someone who had only ever heard of a forest, it was incredible. The leaves painted over what apprehensive feeling Clarisse had, and a small stream they came across and sat alongside washed away her fear of unknown, or at least the fear of leaving the City. After a while Clarisse stopped remembering the blank-slate people she had known in what she was starting to regard as her old life. Hank was a breath of fresh air compared to everyone she had previously known. Ironically, it was difficult to see the man before her as something that wasn’t human, and the best word to describe him was human. It was not so long now after he had snapped at her aggressively, and that was hard to file alongside the way he’d acted the rest of the time she had known him. But none of the people, friends, mentors, a few enemies, had strong enough feelings to lose their temper over anything. Even the ‘enemies’ she’d known didn’t hate anything enough to criticize, not even her. The people in her life at this point seemed a homogenous puddle of mud, emotions dulled.
“So how do you live out here? Where do you live?” she was interested in knowing this, in part because she would have to live as they live, probably with none of the creature comforts she’d enjoyed in the City. Before asking this, Clarisse raked her brain to remember if any Morpher Extermination Presentations had gone over how they lived, or what kind of society they lived in.
“Well, when your people left the land they had lived on for millennia, you left behind plenty of places to live suitable for anyone. Not that we needed those places, but if you’re not using them, then, we will. Jonas’s Boy has an entire house to himself, he’s a human, you know. We weren’t going to deny him that dignity. As for us, though, most of us live in holes in the ground.”
He paused, and stared directly in her eyes. “Call me old fashioned, but for a long time I didn’t really think of humans as ‘people.’ Now I know you, and I see I’m probably wrong. To be honest, at first I just thought of you as a kind of status gain; it’s very rare to get a human to join us of their own free will. They always say the world doesn’t change in a day, but how much time did you need to make your decision? To leave the City, I mean?”
There were a number of ways to respond to that. Clarisse chose:
“Was that exactly what you were thinking? And you just said it?”
“Wow… I- I’ve never known someone could do that. Most people I talk to don’t really say anything at all, or anything that means anything at least. They probably wouldn’t tell me they thought of me as a ‘status gain.’ They wouldn’t want to offend me.”
Hank spread his arms. “Welcome home, I guess. That’s how most of us operate.”
“Was it really you? Was it your people they always talk about, or did I hear about something else called Morphers? Are you hiding something?” it of course was a possibility, Morphers were known for their deception, but Clarisse was realizing she didn’t really know what a Morpher was, and as she asked these questions she was smiling.
“Do I look like I’m hiding something?” Hank was also smiling.
Clarisse was about to answer in the affirmative, if only to talk about something more, but at that moment, numerous noises of heavy footfalls came from somewhere behind them. The stream, which was almost still, started to shudder.
“Is that Richard?” asked Clarisse.
Hank shook his head. He now looked very concerned. “He went up ahead. I thought he was going to meet us back at camp.”
A shrill whirring filled the choppy daylight, and some shouting was heard some distance back. Whatever was making the sound had been stealthy; the sound was already extremely close.
“Go. Get going.” Hank said quietly. She stood up and started moving, Hank was close behind her. Within a few seconds and with no warning, he pushed her down into the brush. Something shot past them and had come and gone in less than a blink. Clarisse did not know of many things that moved that fast. There was now something in front of them, and something behind, and it was only too obvious neither thing meant well. Their destination was forward, and Hank decided for better or worse that they needed to go that way. The noise from behind was nearly on top of them, and so they started running. Shots rang out as their pursuers heard their footsteps.
“Hold fire!” was heard from behind them.
Who did they think they were? It hit her- she was still a government official. They must have realized she was not in her house and was not still at work and not with the friends she was usually with. The ‘hold fire’ was for her; they must have assumed this was a kidnapping situation. This came with the realization that was more terrifying than the fact that they were being chased by a police squad and at least one horse: She had an out. There was an option now to take it all back, pretend like this day had never happened. If they were caught alive, what was to stop her from lying and saying she had been kidnapped? It would be a choice between the Morphers’ lives and her and the Morphers’ lives. The only thing that made her decision easy was the fact that once it was made there would be no turning back. If she was going to change into the kind of person that Hank was, adamant in his beliefs, it would not be soon. She had hoped this kind of option was never presented to her, and certainly not so soon.
Everyone was running through the forest. Clarisse was panicking, but not only because she had never seen a horse not kill its target. If a “terrorist” was hiding out in a building, the horse would be in and out of that building and the terrorist would be dead before the door, torn off its hinges, had hit the floor.
Hank and Clarisse’s bodies crashed into the ground. They wheezed as they tried to regain the air that had been roughly ripped out of them. It now stood in front of them; the hulking mechanical terror snorted and pawed the dirt. It hissed and gave off steam. The window in its side contained no coach driver, it simply displayed a red icon of an ‘X.’ One could guess what that meant. The horses were terrifying already, but to have one knock you down and point its minigun at you could not be described. Terrifying things were supposed to happen at night. At least at night you couldn’t make out the monster.
The minigun pointed itself at Clarisse, spun up, then stopped. It had clearly been given specific instructions. The minigun then pointed at Hank, and spun faster. Then a blow to its side severely damaged the beast’s chassis. The way it staggered made it look afraid, if it had been a real animal. A second, taller, and definitely more organic beast had smashed into the machine’s side with the force of a freight train. The horse moved to almost face the newcomer, leaving space for its minigun to fire past its head. The weapon began to spin again, but this time it was stopped by the mitts of the other. Clarisse pushed herself to her knees and got a better look at the situation unfolding. The newcomer was massive, probably eight feet tall. Horses were large, but never taller than a tall person. Fur covered the other beast, dark fur with a purple tint. The hands stopping the minigun were clawed.
With hardly any hesitation, the horse buckled its front legs and slammed the animal into the ground. It lost its grip on the horse’s gun and began to be pummeled by the horse’s hooves. It could not use its weapon on its opponent, but the horse could concentrate on multiple things at a time. It swiveled the gun back towards Hank, but he was not there. Taking his place was a second purple-tinted creature, thinner yet taller than the first. The animal’s doglike face was contorted in a snarl. It was too quick; the minigun did not have time to get a shot off. The animal leapt onto the back of the machine and tried to dig in with the claws on its feet, but the horse’s armor prevented any damage done that way. The doglike beast held to the minigun and seemed to be trying to pull it off. It strained but the cannon would not budge. The horse got one more hoof in the mouth of the creature below it, one that caused a sickening crunch and blood to flow freely from the animal’s mouth. Clarisse expected the blood to gush a purple color to match the thing’s fur, but it was a dark crimson, same as her own.
The horse bucked a few times and succeeded in throwing the second assailant off. This was enough to cause the minigun to snap off its hinges and hang limply to the side of the horse’s torso. The two non-machines lay on the ground next to each other, and the horse pawed the ground once and charged. The duo leapt up to stop it. It pushed them back and their feet dug into the dirt. With their combined strength, they managed to lift a chuck of the horse’s armor plating on its neck and pull out as many wires as they could. The police were now within sight, and their voices were loud and clear. The horse’s head hung and eyes dimmed. The screen showed an explosion animation and the shoulders smoked: The motherboard had been fried; a precaution taken for the off chance that a horse was defeated. Clarisse guessed that meant the chip had important information on it.
“Go,” said the first Morpher thickly. “Get her to safety, don’t argue.” Then he turned away to face the closing police squad.
The other didn’t argue. He got on all fours and loped over to Clarisse.
“Get on,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice.
Her hands held back. “Is that you?” she asked.
She did as she was told. Haz dashed off into the forest. Clarisse tried to look back but it was hard to make out anything happening. There was a bloodcurdling scream and a horrible snapping sound, and then a long volley of gunfire and then nothing.
“Is Richard… dead?” asked Clarisse with fear. Haz said nothing. He kept running, not nearly as fast as a horse, but faster than any man could run.
Clarisse pressed her uniform against Haz’s back; both of her hands were full of fur to prevent her from falling off. The fact she still had it made her feel disgusted with herself. Through all the violence and panic, she had for some reason felt the need to keep something that could serve as a ticket back into her old life. How could she still think that a possibility, throwing Hank under the stagecoach? Did Richard not just die to keep the two of them safe? Why couldn’t she throw the uniform into the forest and go down with the ship? Of course, the reason was fear. She simply had to ask herself now if she feared death or her own disapproval more. Earlier that day she’d asked herself if what she feared more was throwing away her life, or the possibility that her life was worth nothing, though she didn’t hear herself ask this. She had made a decision then, and so she decided to make the parallel decision now. If her old life had to be gone, so be it. If her life had to be physically taken, so be it.
She was about to toss the robe away into the trees when Haz tumbled to the ground and she was sent sprawling several feet ahead of him. He had not tripped, that would have been too easy. Before Clarisse could process what was happening, a second horse was rearing up over her. Its hooves were about to come down and, without meaning to, flatten her. Haz launched himself onto his feet and charged. With a guttural yell and a rush of adrenaline, Haz tore the head of the horse clean off and kicked the body backwards away from Clarisse. The neck sputtered and sparked. He finished in mere seconds the type of beast that gave him and Reggal so much trouble before. Haz gazed in awe at the full metal horse head in his clawed hands.
Then the horse’s still-active weapon shot him several dozen times.
The head Haz was holding in his arms dropped to the ground with a slow, heavy thud. He and it were now full of bullet holes. Clarisse watched in horror as Hank slowly fell backwards. For some reason, before he hit the ground he changed back into his human form. Clarisse said nothing, but watched in horror. What was left of the horse now stood idle; Clarisse knew it wouldn’t shoot her as she walked over to Hank’s body.
“Hank…” she said weakly. That was the first time she’d used his name. Somehow, she assumed she would have used it more than that.
“Hank, Hank.” She said it more times, but those didn’t seem to count towards the grand total. The blood was flowing more freely now, and some of it was getting on her as she held him by the shoulders. He began muttering something.
“W-what?” said Clarisse.
It got more clear and louder. “There’s something up there. I know there’s something up there. I know that there’s something up there.” His right hand was clasped against his stomach. Clarisse opened the hand. Inside was a long golden chain attached to what looked like an addition sign, but one line was longer than the other.
“There’s something up there.” He stared right at the sky, through a small gap in the forest’s canopy.
Clarisse shook her head and a tear formed in her eye. “I’m sorry, I don’t…”
“…Clarisse?” his eyes were losing focus now.
“I don’t… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I know. I’m sorry I couldn’t get you home. Follow-” he coughed, and a little more blood came out of his mouth. “Follow the path we’ve been going on; you’ll find a road. Follow it. As long as you are moving away from the City you’ll be going toward home…” He became more hoarse as he continued to speak.
He made direct eye contact with her for a full second.
“I know there’s something up there.”
And with that, he disintegrated.
Roy Humlicek-Spindler is a seventeen-year-old college student attending his final full year at North Hennepin Community College. He is working toward an AFA in Creative Writing and would like to publish a novel someday.