“Punch God (in the Face)” by The Harmnones
- by Brandon O'Brien -
The slums of Dylantown bustled in the ways they were used to on a Gabrielday night. The waning crescent moon hung low in the night sky, a scornful watchman’s eye. Scalpers sold counterfeit charms and potions from turned-over apple crates and tied-up cloth bags, glancing over their shoulders for sign of religious officers on patrol. While spell-less passersby stopped to poke around the wares on offer, trying to see if they could tell a poor-quality magic from an outright scam by its weight or its colour, by looking at it under moonlight, or whatever the gossip told was the way to know a true-blue spell before parting with fifty or sixty silver crosses for a love potion or a lucky rabbit’s foot. The restaurants were bubbly with the sound of teenagers shouting about school or love or rage over a box of jerk chicken or a slice of pizza.
Lower down Ailey Street, outside the top-shelf nightclubs customers were forming snakes of lines, curling a quarter of a block back, to get in and to feel the thrill of wicce-touched music—songs that throbbed up the legs and made newfound dancers swoon for each other in the hot night.
Strutting down those same streets, in jackets of studded leather or distressed denim, was the best damn punk band in Dylantown, on their way to a gig that finally mattered.
“How’re we feelin’, guys?” Mather asked, pushing through the crowd of people milling about the sidewalk as if wading against a current. “Tonight’s the big night!”
“How’re we feeling?” Sierra said, stepping off the concrete entirely to escape the crowd. “You’re the lead. This is our biggest paying show yet. And it’s the friggin’ Owl’s Eye Pub. We want to make it in the local scene, we can’t afford to have you braying on the mic. Why the hell didn’t you come to rehearsal last night?”
“Rehearsal? Since when do rockers rehearse?”
“Since Agatha Holder got a record deal with her bubblegum gospel pop, that’s when.” She turned to the rest of the band, arms folded, and they stopped walking. “Folks. This is big. This is the pub where Sky Cover played and struck it rich. All of the great bands that make music for kids like us played here. We can’t afford to screw this up like it’s some silly high school garage show. Because I for one am not going to get stuck working a government job just to live.”
The band’s rhythm guitarist, Rick, yawned and stretched his arms skyward. “Marvellous pep talk. Truly.” He brought his arms back down slowly and stared at his two mates. “We’re going to be fine. Mat has been rehearsing, I know that much.” Mather fidgeted, avoiding their eyes. “Yes, I know, you have an image to uphold—the raw talent that doesn’t need to warm up the vocal cords before a show—but we don’t have time for your image now. And we don’t have time for the whole ‘make it big’ speech, either. Maybe one thing at a time? Like the fact that Owl’s Eye is enough money to buy a tour van so we don’t have to walk to shows?”
To Mather’s left, Renee snapped her fingers for a swift timekeeping spell. A wisp of smoke in the shape of a clock appeared before her, minutes away from striking eight. “Good news, we’re almost there. Bad news, we’re almost late. Hustle, folks.” She put her hand back in the pocket of her leather pants and stepped ahead of the band, long fast strides taking her past window-shoppers, meandering couples, and the rare lonely, late-hour salaryman. She snapped her fingers again and the rest of the band felt a strong tug at their waists, pulling them forward. They took the hint, skipping to keep up with their long-legged lead guitarist.
Sierra glared at Mather, but they remained silent. Mather knew she was right. They couldn’t blow this chance—a shot to join the wave of wicces making music their community could relate to. To join the vanguard of real music striking back against the cookie-cutter worship pop on the radio. Something wicce culture could latch on to. Something worth listening to, even. If even one song could make some self-hating teen magic user feel what he’d felt when he first heard Sky Cover and Mother’s Milk play at the Owl’s Eye, he’d be content. But they also needed cash, more than desperately.
“Oh, stars, not again,” Renee grumbled, gesturing up ahead. Mather could see a lanky, awkward teenager, handing out pamphlets. The boy was chanting something he couldn’t make out, through the distance and the din of the street. “The street preacher business is getting so young these days.”
“Well,” Mather replied, “I guess if that’s what he wants—”
“That’s not what he wants. He isn’t even old enough to know what some parts of the Heaven Tomes say—why else would he sign up to be out here by himself after sunset?”
Sierra shrugged. “So some Angelologists should be arrested for child neglect. Goddess forbid this may sound harsh, but we don’t have time to tell the kid to go home, so forget—”
As they got closer, Mather filtered out the sound of his band and focused on the boy, trying to make out his words. “The Reckoning is almost upon us!” the boy shouted, voice going hoarse, shoving what looked like palm-sized glossy magazines into the hands of passersby. Mather stepped past and the boy held one out to him, glinting just a little under the lamplight. “Soon wicces will be able to live just as free and without fear as angel worshipers!” he shouted, right into Mather’s ear.
“Now, that’s worse!” gasped Renee. “Who in their right mind would send their kid out to get arrested by Absolvers for sacrilege?” Sierra shot her a withering glare, but she ignored it and crossed to the boy. “Kid, you know they’ll put you in stocks for this, right?”
He cleared his throat for a beat too long, as if still getting accustomed to lowering his voice. “I appreciate your concern, ma’am,” he said, nodding, “but if I have to be a martyr for the struggle of all wicces, so be it.”
“But you don’t. You’re a kid! You should be out . . . I dunno, playing video games and giggling at a lad mag!” Rick opened his eyes wide to get Renee’s attention, mouthing Don’t tell the boy that! as articulately as possible.
The boy nodded again, then continued, shouting past Renee to the rest of the street. Sierra grabbed Renee’s arm and pulled her along. “Hustle. Remember?”
Mather looked down at his booklet. It must have been forty-eight pages or more, a small wicce zine from the pro-magic protest collective, the Reckoning. Just being seen with a copy was five years in a cell. It made him feel a little naughty and powerful. He slid it into his back pocket. While the rest of the band now talked—about the boy needing to go home, about how wicces would never be free to practice while Cardinal Rhys was in power, about whether a real punk band would ever be on the front lines with the Reckoning—he kept quiet, trying to centre his focus back on the future sensation of finally standing on the Owl’s Eye stage as lead singer of The Harmnones.
Two things struck Mather immediately. The first was that far more people had come to see them play than ever before. The second was that the pub was so small the crowd stood out even more. When Owl’s Eye set a band for stardom, it didn’t play around.
The audience was entranced by everything. Even though they were almost all wicces, or at least knew one, they were in awe when the band summoned their instruments from thin air. They would know the band was just drawing them from shadow-space, but they were hooked. From that moment, song after song, the audience—enchanted and mundanes alike—was theirs, slam dancing like champs, and chanting every confident, rebellious word. A room full of people in the know, the hilts of their buckles and their studs and their athamés glinting under stage light.
It was transcendent. Just like ritual. Warm and cool to the touch at the same time, a skyclad sabbat. This was what Mather really wanted. Not the money or the fame. Not to make it. To be a part of it, man. To feel the community’s beating heart against him, to be in its hoarse throat as it shouted to the heavens that it wouldn’t be stepped on by Cardinal Rhys’ crucifix-zippered jackboot. He paused for a moment, gazing wide-eyed from the stage at the crowd below, as they did back at him. Soaking it in.
Then the crowd fell dead silent, attentive. Mather took a long, slow breath. “Just for you guys,” he began softly. “Just for the Owl’s Eye, I want to do a song that none of you have heard from us anywhere else. Would you like that?”
The crowd cheered. Fists flew up in the air. A few teens were enraptured. One boy tearing his shirt off in the throes of it.
“All right!” Mather turned to the band and gave a curt nod as cue. Sierra gave one of her own, waving a hand frantically at him. But he wouldn’t let a little thing like not rehearsing kill his vibe now. “This one’s called—”
Before he could finish, the pub door crashed open. “Everyone halt!” The crowd shuffled toward the stage in fear. “What’s going on in here?” The Absolver’s voice was stern, deep. Their heavy silver armour, gold-accented and emblazoned with crosses, clattered against itself. Mather saw one tall, heavy-set man with blond hair and a woman beside him, her armour lighter, a short red bob cut framing her face.
A thin, pale man in a dirty plain grey tee and slacks got up from a stool near the bar and tried to tiptoe over the heads of the crowd. “It’s a show, reverend-officer.” It was Tommy, the Owl’s Eye’s owner. Mather could tell he had put on his timid, don’t-piss-off-the-Absolvers voice. “These kids just making some noise.”
“A show?” The male officer scoffed. “What kind? That wicce trash?”
The crowd started to murmur. Mather could feel the tension rise—not an observation, but a genuine sensation of the room growing warmer. “Oh, come on, now, reverend-officer.” Tommy held up his hand to Mather, mouthed It’s okay, before continuing. “They’re within their rights to sing whatever they want.”
“Not if it’s incitement to sacrilege,” the female Absolver said, folding her arms.
“Incitement to . . .” Tommy tried to step through the crowd, but they wouldn’t budge. “Since when has that been a thing?”
“Since tonight,” the woman replied. “New decree. Private blasphemy is still blasphemy.”
Mather could hear someone shout, but couldn’t make out what. He fought the urge to wring his hands nervously. Freaking out wouldn’t be very punk.
“So, what? We can’t even practice our faith now? Not even sing?”
“Of course you can practice.” The woman smiled. “And sing. Praise is what this government lives for.” She turned to Mather, and he froze. “Do you do covers?” She took a step toward the stage, and the crowd shifted back from her in near unison. “Take requests?”
Mather swallowed. Of all the nights to stand on a stage, now was the first in recent memory when his throat felt tight, his tongue dry. He wanted to say something. That was the thing to do, right? To rebel. But he couldn’t. The glint of fluorescent light on the hard silver breastplate drained all his punk out of him.
He heard another shout: “This is dogshit!” Then, a rising murmur of disapproval across the crowd. They shifted like the crash of a small wave, first stepping back to the stage, then forward one unified step, not close enough to be struck but close enough to intimidate. Only the male Absolver flinched. Mather’s eye caught a man near the stage as he held up a glass bottle of stout, still half-full of liquid, and lobbed it over the audience. It fell squarely over the female Absolver’s head. A slim line of blood trickled over her ear.
That was the trigger. The audience charged. Mather could hear Tommy’s voice, but whatever he said was consumed by disenfranchised adolescent rage. A fraction of the swarm held on to whatever corner of the man’s steel they could grip and began to wallop him. He got his hand to his sword, but someone came from behind him and pinned his arm to his back as they worked. Before the other Absolver could even reply, two kids had already launched her back out the door with a tandem kick to the chest.
As she fell, Mather caught a glimpse of something brass and formidable outside. So did Sierra, who quickly took off her guitar, tossed it upward, and gestured it away into shadow-space. “Pack it up, folks!” she shouted. The band didn’t need more convincing; their gear was up in the air, then gone, in mere moments.
But Mather . . . he was transfixed by fear. They ruined it. His big shot. Stolen from him by the servants of a spiteful, domineering, capitalist God. And he couldn’t help but think that whatever was behind that door was going to slam the final nail down on his career.
One of the kids cracked his knuckles before reaching for the ceremonial athamé at his belt, and stepped toward the door to deal with the other Absolver. Before he could leave, something came charging in. As tall as the tallest man in the crowd and as long as four of them, walking on four mechanical copper legs and letting out a clockwork growl before sinking its metal teeth right into the boy’s arm.
Seeing one rendered Mather stone-still. He had heard stories of machines on Absolver leashes hunting wicces. Of them dragging mangled bodies, barely breathing, down the middle of the city streets late at night to drop them into cells. Of them raiding home covens, setting homes on fire to stop their “sacrilege.” And now, here one was. In a pub full of teenagers. Mauling them like cats do lizards.
“Mat! What the hell?!” Sierra grabbed his arm. “Joey, Ren! Get Tommy, let’s go!”
Rick grabbed them both and dragged them away from the crowd, toward the narrow three-step staircase that led backstage. “What about everyone else?”
“We can’t do anything for everybody else! They should’ve known better than to—”
They were interrupted by the force of a large animal barrelling into Mather. It knocked him flat on his back, and his head hit the concrete floor with a crack. He tasted copper on his tongue and his head spun. But he could still make out above him the blurry image of something large and mustard yellow, baring its rusty fangs, letting out a yawn and revealing whirling gears and thrusting pistons in its throat as it closed in to press its jaws around his head . . .
Mather jumped. For a long, silent moment he was convinced he had just had a doozy of a bad dream. He even chuckled about it, about the one part he thought was least possible of all: Of course we wouldn’t get to play at the Owl’s Eye . . .
“. . . Mat?” Sierra’s voice, from outside the room. Mather only just noticed he was lying in the guest bedroom of the Lair. Formerly the East Balenna Papermill, it was The Harmnones’ base of operations, where they rehearsed, wrote, and did whatever other creative work they were into. But he never slept there. It was far too busy for him, and too crowded most times. He had an apartment for that. So why was he here on the bed now? “How’re you feeling?”
He moved to sit up and face her, and suddenly it was as if his right arm was being torn apart. He felt a pair of hands on his other shoulder.
“Whoa, there,” Sierra said. “Take it easy, man.”
He looked at his arm, bandaged all the way up, with sigils written in black ink pen on almost every inch of it. “What the hell happened?”
“You don’t remember? The raid at Owl’s Eye?”
Not a dream after all. He nodded slowly, still looking down at his arm. It felt inappropriate to him, but he couldn’t help but smile. It meant they’d actually played there. Plus, I guess getting raided before your new song is a damn cool band story. “Where’s everyone else?”
“They’re good. They’re in the den, waiting to hear about you.”
“Cool. Lemme see ’em.” Mather slowly put his feet on the ground, feeling the stinging in his arm swell. It was only now that he noticed the six sticks of incense around the bed. He tried to take in the scent of the room, to get a sense of what spells they were working—and how bad his wounds must have been as a result—but the pain made it difficult to think.
“It’s cool, man! You can relax, we can come to you—”
Mather faced her. “No, really. I’m fine. Or I won’t be any less fine just walking to the den.”
Sierra frowned, but didn’t stop him. He crossed the doorway and looked across the long, dark empty floor to the other end, where his three bandmates were sitting on the floor, leaning on each other as the lights of the television in the corner shone past. He waited until he was just a few feet away before making his presence known. “Yo, guys?”
Renee looked sleepy when she turned. “Mat?” The others stirred immediately. “Mat! We were worried, you bastard!” She shot up and darted over to hug him, but stopped short. “Oh. Got excited there,” she said, pointing at his still raw arm.
“Can’t blame you.” Mather smiled awkwardly as he sat, gingerly, on the couch, minding the pain. “But please, do me a favour, guys? Don’t mind it, yeah? If you don’t see me actually saying ‘ow’ it’s ’cause I’m fine. You’re my band, not my night nurses.”
“In that case,” the drummer, Joey, interrupted, “let me take this moment to remind you that it isn’t your band.”
Mather smirked. “Is it too late for me to say ‘ow’?”
While the team continued to joke, his eye travelled to the news piece on the TV. He caught a few words before he saw—“violence instigated by wicces,” “looting,” and the usual favourite, “sacrilege.” Now, one of Dylantown’s local parliament Priests was on camera, haughty as he gazed right at the lens.
“The Absolvers are working hard in this area, in Balenna and environs, to bring justice and peace to its God-fearing citizens. And that means that each one of us fair, law-abiding folk has to do our part to rid ourselves of the scourge of ssssssacrilege—” he stressed the word so painfully it was as if he was at the altar of his cathedral, and Mather noted his other performative inflections just as quickly “—on our nation’s streets-uh, and restore Dylantown to the hiiiiigh pillars-uh, of piety, and reverence, that made this city what it is today, before ssssssinfulness-uh took hold of us. Can I get—” The Priest coughed, and out of some kind of sympathy the editor of the clip cut him off before he could continue, only to show a long shot of an athamé, hilt-deep in blood, on the floor outside the front door of the Owl’s Eye.
Mather sucked his teeth, and the whole band bristled, glancing at him fearfully.
“Does it hurt?” He couldn’t make out who said it.
“Does it?” He couldn’t take his eye off the screen. “Of course it bloody hurts.”
“Do you want us to get, like, some ice, or . . .”
“What?” Mather growled, turning back to Sierra, now standing beside the sofa. “Ice for— Oh. No. Not that.” He slowly faced the TV again, frowning. “That’s fine.”
Joey sat beside him. “Ren, did you ever hear back from anyone who was there?”
Renee nodded, slowly kneeling on the floor. “Yeah. Some kids got messed up bad. A couple of them are critical in hospital. They made it sound . . . grim.” She looked down at the floor, picking at the corners of her fingers.
“Fucking anti-wiccers,” Rick said under his breath. On the screen, they flashed a question from their people’s-poll segment: “Do you think the government should shut down wicces’ gatherings?” Below, the numbers: seventy-eight percent of callers said “Yes.”
“That wasn’t even our fault,” Renee whispered, seething. “They antagonized us. We were just . . . performing. Practicing our faith. And now they’re trying to make us look like hooligans? Maligning us in the news?”
Mather took a breath, felt the pain travel up his arm like lightning. He squinted at the screen, snapping the fingers on his good hand to switch the TV off. “How much pain does a boy have to be in to get a blasted slice of pizza?”
The news kept calling what happened at Owl’s Eye a riot. The wicces owned it. There was a chant by the second night—“See Love! See Light! Owl’s Eye saw it! Won’t you fight?”—and already a march. The Reckoning took the discontent right to the city, but never took control of it. It gave The Harmnones a little bit of faith.
An old man was on the news that night, asked why he’d stand for violent, sacrilegious punks. And the old man said, “Well, in my day the music, the culture, was much different than it is now, but we’re not here to talk about whether a geezer like me enjoys that kinda grating . . . But here’s what I can tell ya. Today’s same as my day. The punks, the youth of today, they stand up for what’s right—every time. Broken fingers, bloody noses—those’re just badges o’ honour. The Goddess’ll heal ’em. And what we’re doing to these wicces? Ain’t right, I tell ya.”
It was Mather, days later as he was flipping through the papers in the Lair, who noticed the old man’s picture, smiling warmly to no one at all, in the obituaries at the end of the classified section of the Dylantown Post-Dispatch.
The third day of the march was also the day the Absolver forces got more heavy-handed. First it was just riot armour, iron visors over their faces as they stood in the streets and waited. Cardinal Rhys spoke of the wicces like they were spoiled children, or worse: looters and thugs. Some of the Priests thought the solution was a curfew. Others thought the solution was holding people’s jobs or homes at ransom—take your children off the street, or you’d lose everything. By the fourth day, the street was laden even heavier with frustrated kids.
On the morning of the fifth day, it got rougher. The Absolvers threw ash bombs. No one knew what was in them, but whatever it was burned badly. The first dozens of kids lost their eyesight within a half hour. The lucky ones mixed eye baths with milk and healing herbs to stop the damage, and worked harder on charms to undo it in those who were too late. But even the blind punks still chanted, lying in their friends’ arms on the sidewalks as they were being tended to, crying with the pain: “See Love! See Light! Owl’s Eye saw it! Won’t you fight?”
On the sixth day, the Absolvers came, each with a Construct. The wolf ones, and towering bear Constructs, all brass and screaming gears and rage. They tore through the teenage bodies like they were passing their arms and teeth through incense smoke. The news never called it a massacre. Never called it genocide. Never called it anything harsher than “drastic police measures.”
On the eighth day, wicces in casts, or in stretchers, or still bleeding wildly from their wounds were still on the street. “See Love! See Light!”
In the middle of the second week of protests, Mather heard a quarrel outside, in the Lair’s den—the sound of shattered glass, followed by Sierra: “Fuck this shit!”
“What the hell’s wrong with you, sister?” Renee said, calm but stern.
“What’s wrong with me?!” Sierra was shouting, and Mather could hear Renee whispering for calm. He couldn’t hear much else, and was still too sleepy to get up and confront them. They shuffled a bit in the den for some time, then Mather heard the front door open. Rick’s voice interrupted asking, “Any reason why you two are acting so shifty?” After another few minutes of whispering, Mather heard the entrance open and shut one more time, and the noise died enough for him to sleep.
He couldn’t sleep for long, though. Mather stirred, restless with nightmares. A long montage of the bodies in Balenna’s main road flashed before his eyes—the blood, the screaming, the fists in the air regardless. He felt like he was there, on the street beside them, watching kids as young as sixteen, fifteen, fourteen in gurneys on the side of the street, silently chanting, whispering what they saw.
He looked all the way up the street, to the horizon and its wall of silver-suited Absolvers, clubs in each left hand and the leashes of Constructs in each right. They glared down at him through the visors of their helmets. It was silent. The steel grey clouds hung low over the street. Mather turned to run, back down the street, out of the fray like the coward he knew he was, but on the horizon were more Absolvers, another line of silver statues.
But they weren’t what caught Mather’s eye. He saw a girl—not one he’d ever met before. She was tall and dark-skinned, with short hair she’d charmed to shift in all the colours of the rainbow, second to second—once green, then blue, then orange. And she was . . . dancing? Going wild in the middle of the street by herself, right in front of the Absolver riot line. And she was having fun. Moshing inches from the line, letting her hair flail right in front of them.
Mather watched, fascinated. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the dozens of dead or dazed wicces on the street rise, ignoring their wounds. They joined in the dance as well, slowly building into a slam dance formation, twenty into thirty into sixty and more dancing right behind the girl.
And then an Absolver—the man from Owl’s Eye—raised a baton and brought it down on the girl’s—
When Mather got up, sweating and short of breath, the Lair was empty. He called each of his bandmates in turn, and only Joey answered. “The gang? I dunno, man. I know Sierra said she was going out to take care of some business?”
Mather felt uncomfortable about the fight he’d heard before falling asleep. Uncomfortable enough to pull out an old Balenna map from the drawers of ancient prints the paper mill had lying around, reach for a quartz crystal and some string, and scry for them. He thought it obsessive, sure, but Dylantown’s days had just gotten darker for wicces. He knew Sierra well enough to know she was prone to being rash. Isn’t rash just a synonym for punk? he could imagine her saying, smirking at him.
It was a half hour until he found her. Saint Alexandra’s Cathedral, in outer Dylantown. . . What would Sierra be doing at a church?
He rushed there as quickly as he could. He tried not to be distracted by the mess of blood and pain left by the Absolvers. Almost every street was destroyed—windows shattered by looters, stains of blood as large as men all over the street. He didn’t have time to think about that now.
When he got to St. Alex’s, the lock at the front gate had been picked. The ornate wooden double doors leading inward were wide open, and three shadows were stomping about the altar, shining flashlights along the walls.
“Hey!” He ran in, ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm. “What the fuck, Sierra?”
“Don’t ‘what the fuck’ us, Mat,” Sierra shouted back, not even bothering to look up at him.
As soon as he was close enough, he grabbed her arm. “So that’s what we do now? Desecrate churches? Because that’s what the word ‘sacrilege’ actually means.”
“I don’t even care about the damn church, Mat. I just care about the—”
Something made a loud, sharp click behind her. The other two shadows—Renee and Rick, he now noticed—turned to her.
“Found it,” Rick said, pointing downward. Mather looked. Beneath his foot, a large white tile had shifted away from the altar floor, revealing a narrow iron staircase.
Mather squinted at him. “Found what?”
Sierra shrugged off Mather’s grasp. “A Construct warehouse. Rick noticed something funny here—”
“—Under a church? And you just followed him in the middle of the night?”
“This could be the break us wicces need!” Sierra pleaded. “Even the playing field for once!”
“Or make the news,” Mather rebutted. “Or jail. Or the grave.”
“Can you two stop bickering and come down here?” Rick called out from the bottom of the staircase. By then, he and Renee were already all the way down.
Mather sighed and chased after them, almost tripping on the very third iron step. He hit his right arm against the railing and winced. The staircase, and the whole room beneath, was dark. Rick was the first to snap his fingers for a wisp of light to flit throughout the room, casting a long yellow shadow over them—rows of Constructs of all models, still but menacing. Behind those were long thick wiring, with gold connectors and rough white scale-textured insulations, falling from the ceiling and plugging into a large black box of switches and lights to the end of the room, three or four of them for every Construct. The very sight of them, gear-wheel eyes tilting and clicking, made Mather bristle.
“See?” Sierra said. “You were right.” She snapped her fingers, and a baseball bat fell out of the air and into her hands. “So let’s just mess ’em up and get out of here before anyone notices.”
Mather held on to Sierra’s wrist. “That’s what you came here for? Are you crazy?”
“So what, we should just leave them here so they could send kids to the hospital like last time?”
“But is this really a fight you wanna pick?"
“If I can win it, why not?” She drew her arms back to swing at the head of a wolf-model Construct, one with a bloody stain still on its teeth.
He gripped her wrist tighter to hold her back. “What about all the other wicces they’ll rough up in the streets because of us?”
“Guys, shut up,” Rick said softly. “Like, really. If you want to grumble, then by the stars, do it outside.”
Mather let go of her and stepped toward Rick. “And why are you here? You really buy all this ‘being reckless is punk’ garbage?”
“Of course not,” Rick said, squinting at the wiring. He tilted his head at them with a look of bemusement. “I came here to humour her.”
“Humour her?!” Mather took another step. “What if a bloody Absolver was on patrol right now? Just breaking curfew would—”
“It would be worth it, Mat.” Rick poked at the cables and turned to Renee. “See? Told ya.”
Mather gave them both a curious look. “What are you on about?”
Rick began unplugging the Constructs, wildly snatching out the ceiling ends of the cables with both hands. They tore through the soft ceiling tiles and left crumbs all around. Renee joined in and took a couple out herself, one by one.
Rick didn’t stop to face them when he said, “I have an idea. But it just needs one thing.”
Sierra grinned with wicked glee. “Finally! What do you need, Ricky?”
He pointed idly at Mather, then went back to unplugging. “For one, Mat has to finally rehearse with the whole band.”
Tommy turned nervously to the band before he peeled off the small note nailed to the pub door that read: Crime Scene Still Under Investigation—Dylantown Absolution Corps. He opened the door just a crack, then looked over his shoulder, past Mather’s head and into the street. He opened the door finally, and sighed. “Why on earth do you want to be back here?”
Sierra pushed past him and stepped into the pub. The chairs remained overturned, the floor still messy with dirt and blood. At least the majority of viscera had been removed.
“We wanted to try something,” Rick said. “The other night we were struck by inspiration.”
“Punks, inspired by bloody protest right outside their apartment windows? Wonders never cease, I’m sure.”
“Oh, hush up, Tommy.” Sierra cracked her knuckles then motioned to open the shadow-space. Before, she would have made sure to catch her guitar before it fell past her hands and shattered on the floor. Now, it was suspended before her, held up not by magic but by a length of cable plugged into her guitar jack.
Tommy pointed at it, confused. “Where’s that headed? I thought you said you were broadcasting . . . you know I have amps and shit here, right?”
“Yeah, we know,” Mather joked. “Hence making sure to pick up our own shit.” He summoned his own shadow portal, and just a cable fell out, separate from anything else. “We’ll borrow a mic, though.”
Tommy sighed and walked up the short step at the front of the pub’s stage, then behind the backstage curtain to find a stand and a microphone.
Mather felt a harsh tap on his shoulder. “You know,” Sierra said, “if we get caught doing this, it’s gonna be the same as—”
“No, it won’t,” he replied. “At least trust Rick if you don’t trust me, yeah?”
Sierra sighed, pulling the strap of her guitar over her shoulder. “You’re right.” She faced him and smirked. “Rick wouldn’t let me down, would he?”
Another day of protests was another day of pain. It wasn’t even sunrise yet and already a kid had been beaten near-death with an Absolver’s club. They didn’t even hesitate now. As soon as the protesters gathered, there was violence.
The Constructs were out before the kids could even step forward. At least today, they were just growling. Waiting.
Then they let out a cry of feedback, scraping inside the heads of everyone within earshot, sending vibrations through the few glass windows on the street that had survived the fighting. The officers covered their ears, and the wicces leapt backward, waiting some terrible new torture they hadn’t seen before.
A line of Constructs advanced ahead of their masters, and the protesters took another step back, trembling but refusing to give up any more ground. Their metal jaws swung open, revealing bloody, rusted teeth and subwoofers lining their throats.
A young man in the front lines lifted a plank of wood, broken off some nearby roof or wall from the last day’s fighting, and readied to swing at a wolf Construct’s head. He nearly dropped his weapon as the beast cleared its throat, a long, phlegmy sound that metal couldn’t do.
An Absolver turned to the officer to his left. “Since when does a Construct make that noise?”
The voice behind the Constructs cleared his throat again, louder this time, and began: “Just for the protest, I want to do a new song none of you have heard from us before . . .”
Panicked Absolvers scanned the crowd, trying to find the source of the sound and see who had hacked their Constructs. Eager to take that frustration out on the protesters, they lifted their batons.
But the protesters advanced. Still with fear, and righteous anger, but a confidence now, even a joy. They made their lines, waiting for a chance to dance. One thin, tall girl with hair charmed to cycle through the colours of the rainbow, standing near the centre of the mass, asked what was going on. Another girl beside her answered, her excitement building: “You don’t know that voice? He sang the night before the riots!”
Hearing that voice, the crowd fell into looser formation, giving themselves room to dance with their whole bodies, and drew closer to the Absolver barricade. They grinned, excitement spreading like a fever through them as the Constructs announced:
“We’re The Harmnones! And this one’s called ‘PUNCH GOD IN THE FACE’!”
© 2017 by Brandon O'Brien
Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published or upcoming in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, Arsenika, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH Magazine.