Candy Apple Red
Professor Milton Apple kissed the top
of his daughter’s fair hair and patted her shoulder before spinning her around.
He pointed to the massive oak door leading out of his study and into the
corridor. The electric lights dimmed just as her smile did. The grandfather
clock’s ticking even slowed a little. It had no pendulum, it was powered by the
city like everything else, and if the city’s electrical grid was shorting out…
He pushed hard on her back with the heel of his hand. “Go, child.”
Candy stuck out her lower lip and grabbed her father’s suit jacket. Some of her ringlets fell across her dark eyes. “But they’re saying that Lady Seleste is in the city.”
“Rubbish and nonsense.”
The entire building beneath them shuddered. Apple glanced through the window to see the horizon wobble and rise as the city rose up on its running stilts. Steam hissed out of the vents from the rooftops. He squinted to see the fighters still pouring over the walls. The citywide intercom blared its alarm, although the closed window muted its shrieking.
Candy looked up at her father, wide-eyed, and Apple shook his head. “Just a drill, sweetheart.”
He turned away, eyeballing the height to the top of Candy’s head. She still looked too short to see over the sill.
The professor pushed her toward the door with a firm hand. “I hear that Mag is making pies. I’m sure you could steal some excess crust.”
Whirling around, she bit him on the wrist.
He grimaced. “Candy!”
The girl dropped her grip and stared down at the floor. Sniffling, she murmured, “I’m sorry.”
He grabbed her shoulders, picked her up and set her down on the other side of the threshold. “I’m sorry, too.”
He closed the door and turned around. “I know you’re here, sir, although I don’t know how.”
Red moved silently, unfolding from the darkness in the corners. His bulk rose up, standing well over the professor. A horsetail hung from the back of his bronze helmet, and Apple heard the faint clicking of the gears as the massive metallic body glided over the polished wooden floor.
Nothing human left, except the heart and brain, the rumor echoed in Professor Apple’s mind.
One of the automaton’s eyes swiveled to check through the window, while the other two remained pinpointed on the professor. “It looks like I’ve arrived just in time.” The metallic lips did not move.
Apple leaned over his desk, his body stiff. His old-fashioned quill pen wobbled over the document in haste.
“What are you doing, pray tell?”
The professor swallowed. “I’m updating my will. Even though my only child will die before me.” He blanched as the entire city swayed, jerking into a crab-like run to escape its predators.
Red made some choking sounds, and it took Apple a few moments for his brain to digest that the sound of a bandsaw on metal was the automaton laughing.
“Oh come now. She may outlive you yet. Is that not why I am here?”
“Too many made it over the walls.” Red’s eye stretched out further on its telescope just as the first cracks of the rifles reached their ears. The eyeball zoomed out. “And the Chaos Star on their uniforms.”
“So it is Seleste.” Apple looked, but all he could see were dark figures scrambling and the muzzle flashes between the invaders and defenders. Occasionally, the blinding zip of the ray guns flashed. Apple signed and dated his will. “It seems the Chaos Star is in demand.”
Red barked another clanging laugh. “As always. Who doesn’t want a true perpetual motion device? Such is the reason why I am willing to deal with you.” The automaton started playing with the items on Apple’s bookshelf, spinning around slim volumes with huge, bulky figures. He slid a lit candle further along the wall. He tapped the base with a shovel of a foot. He shoved aside the rolling ladder.
Apple shivered under the unblinking stare of two of Red’s eyes. The building tilted with the motion of the city, but he noticed the automaton stayed upright. One leg just extended a little lower and then retracted, gyroscopically balanced. The monster was still playing with his bookshelf. He wouldn’t find what he was looking for; Apple had always been prepared for this eventuality.
But still, he never imagined his life would turn out like this. That he would be making this arrangement. That Candy…
He straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat. “A lifetime of your service, sir, in exchange for everything I know about the Chaos Star.” He pushed the other paper on the desk forward.
After a moment, Red replied through his motionless lips, “I only need the location. Possibly information about its protections.”
“You will have everything I know. My family has been its guardian since its installation in the city. And yes, I am willing to risk it. Our agreement is that you will be my servant until my death.”
“And that saves your face to the public until you die, since I know you won’t allow me the Chaos Star.”
“But you’ll have everything I know. You’ll have time to prepare.” He lifted an index finger. “And you shall cause no harm to your owner.”
Red stared for a long moment. “Very well.”
“Agreed.” Apple watched Red sign, and eventually, he remembered to breathe. He had a one man army now. He cleared his throat. “My first order is that you build a mechanical heart for Candy.”
“But I do not have a mechanical heart. I have never constructed one.”
“Don’t play with me, Red. You’d have to shut down, the same with your brain. But Candy doesn’t have enemies. She can shut down for a few moments and awake with a new, pure heart.”
Apple hesitated and raised an eyebrow. “We have time, I assure you.”
“I do not take chances, especially with Lady Seleste nearby. The location, if you please.”
Apple chuckled and shook his head. “I don’t know that.”
Red didn’t move, but maintained his stare.
“We have always compartmentalized that information. I maintain the energy generated to the machines, but only my late wife knew the Star’s location. I fear that it’s lost forever, now.”
Red glided back toward the window, where the outside rifle shots were steadily growing louder. “I underestimated you. I see now that you are as much of a deceiver as I am.”
Apple’s eyebrows briefly indented, but he was too slow. A new shadow encompassed the room, and the professor looked to the electric lights glowing brightly. He whipped around to see the bulk of his bookcase teetering over him, starting to fall.
The burning candle slipped free of the wood, plunging through the cartilage of his nose and into his eye socket. Apple collapsed underneath the shelf and tomes. Melted tallow sizzled on his cheek, but there was nothing left in the body to flinch.
Red knelt down next to the fallen bookshelf. “I set up this accident before I agreed not to harm my owner.”
Apple’s body flopped a few times, but grew weaker with each spasm. His lips parted, “…Candy owns you now…” With one final jerk, he slackened for the last time.
Red rose to his towering height. Slowly, he swiveled an eyeball to the desk and zoomed in on the updated will.
A hand retracted inside the metal casing of his arm and the pilot light emerged. The gas cocktail started to stream out of a vent on his opposite wrist. Before he could light the contract ablaze, the door across the room opened, and Candy stared at him, toes peeking across the study’s threshold Two of the city’s watchmen flanked her.
Red didn’t hesitate, just pivoted, and sent the fires screaming across the room at the intruders.
Ducking, Candy somersaulted forward. The guards turned to flee the room, but the flames scoured their clothing. The fat underneath their skin caught alight, creating candles out of their bodies. In a few short seconds, the corpses fell forward onto the lacquered floor.
Red lurched forward, tryingto lower an arm. Even though the mechanism responded sluggishly, he was glad he had brought them. The metal gears clicked as he pushed through the window, and watched the shattering glass twinkling in the streetlights as it fell onto the street below.
He could feel himself shutting down, and wondered if he would make it. He was almost out of power.He shouldn’t have used so much on the flamethrower. To think he’d come so close to the Star, true eternal power, and had failed.
He reached the bag he’d hung outside the window , every gear whirring and straining inside. With his prehensile tentacles, he ejected the power cartridge in his arm and slid a new one into place.
Despite the mechanical filters, he still needed to breathe in order to circulate the blood between his heart and brain, and the new surge of power allowed him to do so easier. Once that was taken care of, he went to work replacing three other power cartridges to power everything else. Red paused, hearing an odd scraping sound behind him. He clicked the last cartridge into place and swiveled one of his eyes back into the room.
Candy looked up, fresh blood spilling down her chin as a heart dropped from her teeth. She let go of the little knife in one hand, but the other clutched a rib that she’d pulled up from the smoking corpse.
Red rotated to face the room, his ankles spinning on his stationary feet. “Why?”
“Because it makes my heart stronger. For a little while.”
After a moment, he said, “Twisted logic there, kid.” He remained by the window, calculating his trajectory. Below, he spied enemy soldiers sweeping into their building, and suppressed a dark chuckle. “Hey, kid, you couldn’t possibly know where the Star is stashed, do ya?” He swung his legs over the railing.
“You know where to look, deep down in the depths of the book. As light as a feather, there bound in red leather.”
“Mother wrote it out to me when she died. Then she burned the page.”
His eye swiveled down to the street. Ray blasts and muzzle flashes erupted from the second story below. Distant, but thunderous, footsteps sounded outside in the hall.
“Hey, kid, I will take you by a whole orphanage if you show me where that Star is.”
Candy watched him with a look far more ancient than any child should have—cynical, shrewd and calculating. Meanwhile, the blood dried on her cheeks and chin. The ticking of the pendulum-less clock filled the gathering void between them.
The door swung inward, creaking on its hinges. A blowing cape hugged the form of Lady Seleste, and small bells chimed on her large-brimmed hat. Her dark eyes glanced downward.
“So the child knows.” In her hand, an ornate wooden box balanced on the palm of her purple glove. The other hand held a smoking pistol that followed her gaze as she surveyed the room. “Red.”
She stepped inside and two of her fighters swept to either side of her. Ignoring the automaton, she knelt in front of Candy, brushing the fair hair away from her bloody face. “What…? You must have fallen face first. Poor child. Red is a monster,” she raised her eyes, “and cannot be trusted, no matter what he says.”
Red snorted. “No more than you, my lady.” He started to raise his arm, bristling with tentacles, knives and at least two built-in guns.
Putting a protective hand on Candy’s shoulder, Seleste stood to stare him down. “Not with the child in the room. She is the only one who knows where my people’s stolen legacy is.”
Red snarled, but didn’t move. “At least I’m no fool that worships a machine. That’s all it is, even if no one can explain it.”
Seleste gritted her teeth, but said nothing. Holstering her gun as her men aimed their ray guns at Red, she opened the box. Inside, a stainless bronze heart rested on cushions of silk. Valves and gears glittered in the light.
Candy’s fingers brushed the polished metal. It was bigger than she needed at the moment, but she could grow into it.
“I had brought this to offer your father, but I’m glad for the chance to give it directly to you.” The lady’s eyes never once moved to the late professor.
“Poor child, especially now that you’ve lost both your parents. Come with me instead.” She smiled angelically, but snapped the box shut. “Now, please, take me to the Star.”
The child nodded.
Passing the box onto one of her fighters, Seleste held her hand out to Candy. “Let’s wash that face off.”
They swayed with the movement of the city in motion, almost second nature at this point. Seleste drew her pistol and blew a kiss at Red. “Kiss the devil for me when you see him.”
She fired. The blast punched right through Red’s chest, and into his heart—barely slowed by his armor. The automaton lurched forward and crashed down in front of the clock, causing the floorboards to jump. He went silent, and the only sound in the moment was the clock’s endless ticking.
Seleste laughed. “I guess he did have a heart in there after all.”
She tugged on Candy’s arm, but the child hung back. She turned her large eyes up at the lady. “You know where to look, deep down in the depths of the book. As light as a feather, there bound in red leather.”
“The library’s basements,” Candy explained.
And she did, leading the lady and her guards past the chaos in the streets of Seleste’s fighters as they looted every home and business they came across. Fires had broken out, and the city had not stopped its flight. As they moved toward their destination, more of her men fell in line with them.
Lady Seleste shot through the iron gates of the library with her gun, its blast sizzling clean through the iron bars. They climbed down winding stairs, past the unmoving elevator cables. The electrical lights still burned brightly, unchanged by the events all around them, and the doors opened to a study much like Professor Apple’s.
“Red leather. Feather,” Candy trailed into the room, repeating herself several times.
“You’ve never been here before, have you?”
“Lady!” one of the guards shouted from across the space.
Seleste, the box still tucked underneath her arm, crossed the study in three great strides with Candy tumbling along in her wake.
Her man dropped to a knee and held up a red, leather bound tome engraved with a feather.
“What’s this?” Seleste gently stole the book from his hands.She flicked through the pages, back and forth, two times. It was just a book. Glaring at Candy, she asked, “Another clue? This is no game.”
The child tiptoed ahead to where the book had been, reached in its place and twisted the inconspicuous grooves of metal in the shelf with slender fingers.
The Chaos Star rose up, its blue glow filling the study and a huge wire drawing away from its base connecting it to the city..
Seleste hammered a hand over her eyes. The blue halo circling an unseen fire and two diamond-like shapes forever rotating around each other were too bright to look at.
One of her men screamed as he reached for it, the Star vaporizing his hand in its azure light.
Candy whirled to Seleste and held out her hands, palms flat. “My heart, if you please, and I’ll safely unlock the Star.”
“Awfully bright for a child.” Seleste’s gaze narrowed. “We can do this on our own.” She tossed the box down to Candy’s arms.
Candy gazed back up, childlike wonder splayed on her innocent-appearing face. “But I don’t know how to wear this.”
Seleste was staring at the Chaos Star. “Find your own surgeon. Did you hear that?”
The city swayed and groaned again, its legs tilting at odd angles as if drunkenly stumbling. Something underneath them moaned, like the rumbling of a monster’s stomach.
The lady staggered for balance, several fighters crashed to the ground, and the box tumbled out of Candy’s hand. The rumbling underneath them increased as the citywide intercom crackled and briefly scratched as if an angry cat were trapped inside of it.
Arcs of electricity erupted from the Star. The fighters pulled back, scrambling toward the door.
“Get back here!” Seleste screamed, but they were gone. The scratching turned into metallic laughter as she caught her breath and her balance.
Red’s voice Blared out from the speakers, “Should’ve shot my brain instead of the heart, little witch.”
Confusion flickered across the lady’s face.
“The clock you shot me next to is wired to the city.”
Seleste hissed, “You’ll soon be without the Star.”
“I can feel you walking on me. The vibrations… I hear your voice, the echolocation, so intense.”
The city lurched beneath her feet again as Red fought for control of its legs. Candy cried aloud, and tried to pull the box back into her hands. The lid slipped open and the bronzed heart rolled out. A metal cord attached to a pocket-watch timer spilled out, and the heart split in twain. Its pumps, valves, cogs and springs erupted out of the contraption as Candy wailed.
Seleste raised an eyebrow through her stone expression. “Did you think bronze would even work for a heart?”
“The heart was fake?” Red’s voice cackled.
“Of course. You didn’t know about his daughter’s proclivities?”
She watched the child crawling around, rolling the clanking pieces together and trying to restore its shape.
Lady Seleste rose and dusted herself off. She stared directly ahead at the Star, inching toward it as the blue diamond-shapes constantly shifted form. “It’s mine. It’s mine.”
“No,” Red’s voice rattled through the intercom. “Stay away from that.”
Seleste squared her jaw and pulled out her knife. All she had to do was cut the cable underneath. It was so clear to her.
She smirked. “What can you do, tinman? You’ll be dead soon enough. A human brain can’t control this machinery indefinitely, no matter how practiced it is. Nor will Candy survive long enough…”
She gasped. The Star dimmed in her vision. She tried to twist around, but fiery agony blazed along her back and she was stuck on something.
Red’s metallic laughter cackled. “At least I know not to turn my back on a murderer—even if it is a child.”
Candy was too short to withdraw the blade she had stuck Seleste with when the lady jumped to her feet. The lady burst for the door, but ricocheted off a table. Crashing to her knees, she immediately pushed herself up and crawled forward.
A shadow descended. She looked up to see a mouthful of child’s teeth descending over her.
Teeth were the last thing she saw.
Red’s laughter tinkled through the system. “Where to, Candy? We’ll see which one of us falls down first.”