An author who wishes to remain anonymous sent me this Actuator story. It takes place the same time as the other stories in Book 3: Chaos Chronicles. I absolutely loved it. So with permission, I’m posting it here as a bonus for Actuator series fans who are waiting for the release of the final book: The Last Key… which is coming out in just 4 days!
Looking back, I probably should have put it up for Halloween, but I think it’s a great story any time.
Hearts and Horsemen
Hefting my bag over my shoulder with my robotic arm, I slammed my locker with frustration and sighed inwardly. I didn’t want to go to that class. It was on the other side of the line. And it didn’t matter that I did this every day or that it had been this way for months. I could never get used to that side, and I didn’t want to. Bracing myself, I marched toward the other end of the hall.
“Christine, wait up!” I turned to see my best friend, Aubrey.
“You know I hate this part,” I said.
She stuck out her tongue and said, “Join me in prison?” We crossed together. I hated the sudden flash of light, the sudden noise, the taste of blood, and the smell of roses. I didn’t even glance down at my now tiny waist, disproportionately beautiful and rather irritating. Automatically, I swooped my suddenly long and perfectly curled blonde hair behind me and stepped into Honors English.
The worst thing, I think, about this side of Washington Irving High school, is that it looks like Valentine’s Day barfed all over the place. Every locker has been decorated and crammed to capacity with love notes and hate notes. Until now, I thought both of those things died with the invention of texting in fourth grade. It rains all the time. It smells like cheap flowers, and there are at least three times as many people making out at any given moment than any regular high school. It’s like the normal amount of drama you would find in a high school has been magnified and multiplied a hundred times. The individual classes have become a joke, with grades determined more by luck than academic merit. The teachers are more interested in reading poems than teaching anything, and emotions run higher than ever. I much prefer the militant, robotic side of the school; which makes me one of the dwindling few. When the line first appeared, it wasn’t like a war. Everyone privately preferred a side, but it was still business as usual. We clung desperately to that idea- that nothing had really changed.
Cringing, I slid into my desk, noticing how my shirt had changed from plain gray to ornately pink. Ruffles today, with velvet and lace. I like to think the line is playing with me- choosing my clothes to be more outlandish every day.
“Hi Christine!” The smooth voice interrupted every logical thought I had. There he was, smiling that sickeningly perfect smile, shining through those perfect eyes. If I didn’t know better, I could swear the air around him glittered. I forced myself not to blush and not to smile, just nod. “Hi, William,” I choked out. My voice cracked a little, betraying my frail feminine form.
Like any high school, we have cliques. They used to be about things like cheerleading and orchestra, but now they are mostly dictated by which side of the line you spend the most time on- I call them robots and Valentines. Honestly, I don’t know why my used to be best friend and next-door neighbor had to choose this side. We used to be happily uninvolved, growing up and never ruining it with anything like feelings. Until the line appeared, I even told him about my crush on David and he told me about that slut Sarah. Not that it matters, Sarah is with Kent now, and David never noticed me until we were lab partners and then just when I thought maybe, just maybe, he would ask me to prom, the line appeared and everything changed. He dropped out; or disappeared, along with half of the town nobody knows what happened to.
The stupid line. This stupid place with its stupid scented air… I knew it wasn’t real, but I couldn’t help wondering if he was looking at me. No matter how much I know Bill isn’t my type, every time I end up on the Valentine side, I can’t help it. I tell myself over and over to stop acting stupid, but it makes no difference. Somehow, when I cross that line I can’t help it.
“I wrote you a poem,” he said, seductively sliding a piece of paper onto the corner of my desk. It was folded like a heart, scented like violets, and written on some kind of old fashioned yellow paper, with beautiful handwriting.
All of the sudden I wanted to gag. I wanted to scream. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to kiss him. I shoved it without unfolding into my backpack. Well, what spends half it’s time as a backpack and half as a designer purse. Trying not to make eye contact, I decided to pay attention. Mrs. Phillis used to be my favorite teacher, but now I can’t stand her. Of course, I’ll pass this class even if I don’t do anything. She now only reads poems and plays love songs with power points on the projector. She used to be so sensible. We used to read classic literature, but now she has a new giggle, and spends half the class ogling William. No wait, his name is Bill. I won’t let myself forget.
“You’re playing hard to get. I know you will get over that. I’m never going to give up Christine. You may enjoy torturing me now, but you’ll be mine.” The words whispered from between those miraculously perfect teeth. I refused to look at him, at those big brown eyes in that adorable face.
“You’re not my type,” I said for the thousandth time. It started to feel like a lie a while ago, but I know it can’t be. He always laughed. It was deep and melodious and echoed in my skull. As always, I gritted my teeth harder, clenching my fists and breaking my pencil in half. Silently throwing it in the purse, I waited. Just getting back to the other side would make it okay. I could not only resist him there, but hardly even remember how hard this class was. I looked at the clock, slowly ticking by the minutes, insanely slowly. He reached over, and felt my hair, caressing it gently. I slapped his hand away and pulled it out of his reach, smoothing it gently. It felt like silk when I was on this side. On the robot side it didn’t do anything, just sat there. The wall to the right of our desks was a mirror. In it I could see how perfect my lips looked, how shiny and red. When I caught a glimpse of myself, I blushed. Even as I was furious at myself for that betrayal of my feelings, I wondered secretly if he would touch my hair again.
As always, Bill grabbed the hall pass and breezed out of the room. I thanked my lucky stars my locker was on the other side of the line, by the gym. Usually he didn’t reach it before coming to his senses and being as disgusted by the whole idea as I was. Every now and then, he left the flowers anyway, usually with an apology. But last week- I shudder when I think how long he waited for me there, with those stupid balloons and that teddy bear. Charming and sickening.
Suddenly, I felt the light. I couldn’t see anything. It tasted like soap and the smell of flowers was gone. My eyes burned, but I could breathe again. In the momentary confusion, I looked around, but nothing was different. I wasn’t a cyborg. I wasn’t even normal. I was still beautiful and confused. Something must have happened. It was just like when the line appeared and just like when I crossed it, but there’s no visible difference. I had to know what happened. The hall pass was gone, but as everyone returned to the poetry reading with tears, I decided to leave. I turned to the girl on my right; I think her name was Chelsey. I slapped her across the face. I never liked her anyway, but I had a reason this time. I yelled, “How could you?! I trusted you! He was mine!” Then I turned and walked out the door. Nobody followed me. Even Chelsey stayed there, because scenes like this happened all the time. Like every two minutes. They usually didn’t even interrupt class. I felt a bit bad, she didn’t actually do anything, but it was the easiest way out of class. I had to get out. My stomach felt tight. I worried. What had happened?
Automatically I headed for the hall where the line was. I had to get across. But when I reached it, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. The air wasn’t shimmering. It’s usually there, barely perceptible, like a bubble. I started to panic. I had to get across. I had to be on the side that made sense. I ran full tilt towards the line but when I crossed, nothing happened. No flash of light, no nothing. It was gone. I stood there, stunned. Thousands of times, I’d stepped through it, changing instantly. For months, I crossed it multiple times every day, between every class, to go to the grocery store or anywhere on either side of Tarrytown. Why was it gone now?
People started to gather. Furiously, I rushed over and over the tiles where it should have been. They’re even still different colors, gray changing to slightly pink. I stopped, defeated. I felt like crying. Everyone talked loudly, more and more people standing around. Suddenly, I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see Bill. He wasn’t the pretty boy from a few moments ago, but he wasn’t the cyborg soldier either. He was somewhere in between. Half of his face was the same big brown eyes and crooked smile but it melted into a robotic grimace on the other side. “CHRISTINE. YOU WILL COME WITH ME.” His voice was grating, like gears churning against a brick wall. Metallic and guttural.
“What… What happened to you?” I gasped.
“I LOVE YOU. YOU WILL BE MINE, FOREVER.” He grabbed my wrist with his robotic arm, crushing down. I cried out in pain, and he pulled me in with his other hand. Though it was flesh and bone, he was still much stronger than I was. He kissed me roughly. I tried to pull away, and stomped down hard on his human foot with my perfectly pink high heel. He let go for just one second. “OW.”
I didn’t waste time, but turned and ran. I went for the door. I didn’t even glance at the android science teacher yelling for everyone to get back to class. I followed what used to be the line as I ran out through the parking lot, dodging between hover cars and horse drawn carriages respectively. Hearing a loud crash behind me, I didn’t have to turn to know Bill had charged through the glass doors, shattering them. I kept running. My left foot slipped in the mud. I veered in the direction of my house. Suddenly, I realized that would do no good. Bill lived next door, after all. Lately he’d spent more time on the other side, staying with some incredibly good-looking friends, but he would know exactly how to find me all the same.
I changed direction again, just in time to see a large green ball of goo whiz past my head. My thoughts raced. He’s shooting at me? With his robotic arm? What does that stuff even do when you’re not a robot? Normally it just slowed me down, and I could use my robot arm to scrape it off. We used it to play sports. What would it do if I was still human? I didn’t have time to think. I was running out of breath, and my feet were killing me. I jumped awkwardly over some bushes, tearing my pleated skirt. I huddled for a moment, ripping off my pumps and shoving them in my bag. I felt like my lungs would burst. I don’t know why being beautiful means I can’t be athletic. One more problem. I was lost. The dirt road behind me didn’t look either futuristic or romantic.
I heard a whirring noise behind my head. He was firing up his goo cannon again. I couldn’t sit there like a duck, so I ran again. I didn’t know where I was going, so I followed the road. I dodged tiny houses and farm animals, and found a side street. I hid behind a large tree. Crashing to the ground, I looked around. Crisp, cold October air blew my hair back. The overcast sky made it look almost as dark as nighttime. Scarlet, gold, and orange leaves floated gently to the ground in the breeze. The only sound was my own heavy breath, which I could see in the cold air. I would have been shivering if I wasn’t sweating so hard.
I couldn’t hear or see Bill anywhere, so I stayed still. Several minutes passed. Had I lost him? The darkness grew heavier. The moon, round and yellow, came out behind the clouds. This place was creepy. I tried to think where I was but I’ve always had a lousy sense of direction. Finally, my breath came back.
I started to hear noises. Frogs croaked, ravens cawed, and the wind whistled. I got up, brushed myself off, and put my shoes back on. Not that it mattered much. They were ruined, and my feet were dirty anyway. I followed the road, worried by the darkness. Up ahead a tiny light flickered. A window perhaps?
That’s when I heard the whiz of the goo cannon. It hit me square in the back and I fell to the ground, scraping my knees and hands. I struggled to get up, but it was heavy, weighing me down and making my limbs slow. I tried to reach around to scrape it off but my hand just stuck in it. Another glob hit me. I awkwardly rolled to the side where I saw Bill right behind me, limping up as casually as anything, grinning on half his face, robotically frowning on the other.
“I WIN.” He said. “YOU ARE MINE NOW.”
I screamed as loudly as I could, still struggling to get up. He stood over me, pushing me on my back onto the ground. I screamed and kicked and tried to hit him with my other hand, which he easily apprehended with his robotic one. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t move. I didn’t know if it was because of fear or the goo paralyzing me. I tried harder to scream, but he covered my mouth. He bent down over me, that horrible smile the only thing I could see. I tried to fight. I bit his hand and kicked, but he only laughed.
“HA HA HA YOU CAN’T ESCAPE.” He knelt down, straddling me, pinning me down. The creepy robotic laugh continued, as he pressed his face against mine. His lips were cold and sharp, and also warm and soft. I turned my head as hard as I could but I knew I was powerless to stop him.
Then I heard a new sound; the loudest neigh of a horse I ever heard. Before I knew what was happening, Bill fell to the side of me. A monstrous black horse with red eyes reared up, bringing its two hooves down on his chest. There was a sound, like crushing a soda can under your foot, and then silence. The rider dismounted in a swirl of purple cape.
I looked up at my rescuer. He reached inside his cape and pulled out a long object. After a moment, I realized it was a sword. I screamed, and tried to crawl backwards, with one hand. He brought the sword down with one swoop and there was a loud clang. Something rolled away from Bill.With a sickening feeling, I realized it was his head. I screamed louder and struggled to get up, to squirm away, anything as he the mysterious figure turned toward me.
The horseman had no head. In his left hand he held a flaming pumpkin, carved with a jeering grin. He sheathed his sword and reached down to me. I panicked, screaming scooting backwards with one hand as fast as I could, willing my legs to work and somehow get up. He reached down, grabbing my hand, and pulled me up. I screamed and tried to pull away.
“Hold still won’t you, Christine? If you turn around I can get that gunk off of you.”
“Let go of me you freak! Help!”
“Geez, some thanks I get for saving your life. Will you just calm down? I’m not going to hurt you!”
I gasped. I knew that voice. “David? You’re the headless horseman?! How?”
He calmly shrugged, and reached over to my back. “I’m sorry about this. It’s probably going to hurt.”
He ripped the green goo off my back like a band aid, then helped me pick it off of my left hand. “Come on, I’ll tell you on the way. What happened with you and… Is that Bill?” He kicked the motionless body lying in the road.
“Yes. Did you kill him?”
“Hold this for me?” he handed me the pumpkin head, bending down to look.
“I don’t know. What is he, anyway? Half robot?”
“Yes, I guess. I think he was like on the line when it happened.” I looked down at the body.
“Wait, what line? What happened?”
I looked up in amazement. “You mean, you don’t know? A few months ago, there was this thing, I don’t know, we called it the line. On one side we were robots and on the other we are like, I don’t know, some sappy teen romance. It’s disgusting. Today, it disappeared and I’m stuck. I would rather be a robot, but I’m stuck like this.”
He laughed. “That’s what happened? I had no idea. I was visiting my aunt over here in Sleepy Hollow and I went for a walk. The next thing I know, I’m on this horse, and I can’t do anything. I ride from one end of this valley to the other every night from midnight until dawn and I wake up on the horse at midnight the next night.” As we talked, he helped me up onto the saddle. It was a little awkward, holding the pumpkin.
“Wait, where is your voice coming from?”
He pointed to the jack-o-lantern in my hands. “Here.” It crackled from within, with a red fire. He mounted behind me and took the reigns in one hand and put the other around my waist. Since I was sitting in front of him, I couldn’t look down the tall collar of his cloak, though I’m not sure I wanted to. “I’ll take you somewhere safe,” he said as we rode. “Is it safe for you to go home?”
I thought about it. “Do you think Bill is dead?” I didn’t want to hear the answer.
“I have no idea, but I would guess he won’t be getting up for a while. After I drop you off, I will swing around and find out.”
He talked and I tried to balance the pumpkin while holding on to the front of the saddle. David was an excellent horseman, but I didn’t ride horses. My skirt flapped around uncomfortably, and my hand still hurt. Thoughtfully, he swirled his thick purple cloak around me, and I gratefully sank into its warmth.
“I ran away when the line appeared,” he said. “I figured if our town had changed then maybe everywhere else had, too. I checked in with my family, but they’d become like everyone else. My mom told me she was leaving us, so I left too. When I arrived here, it was dark and probably around midnight. I crossed a line. I felt the light and the noise and then I was on a horse like this. I thought maybe I could keep going and come up on another line, but when I got to the church at the end of the road, I passed out. I wake up on this side by the graveyard every night on this black horse. I can’t escape Christine.” He had, obviously, no expression but I could tell he was upset from his voice.
“You poor thing! What happens to you when you pass out?”
The pumpkin head under my left elbow laughed. “Don’t you know the story of the headless horseman? I disappear!”
We rode a while longer while I told him how I happened to end up on the side of the road being attacked by a half robot who used to be my friend. “You saved me,” I finished thoughtfully.
“Of course I did. What was I going to do, leave a pretty girl like you there?”
I blushed. Fortunately, it was dark and his head was situated next to me so he couldn’t see it.
“Thank you,” was all I could manage to say.
We rode for a while longer. Finally, I knew where we were- my now futuristic neighborhood. He pulled the horse up in front of my house. “Is this it?”
“Good. So… Um. Yeah. You’ll be safe here.” I sort of fell off the horse, not too gracefully, trying to dismount. David tried to help me and he fell off too. We landed in a pile on the ground. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant. I reached to give David his pumpkin head back, and as an afterthought, I kissed it gently on what I imagined would be the cheek.
It was awkward.
“Um… Thanks,” it mumbled.
“Can you feel that?” I asked.
“No. But I could hear it.”
“Oh. Okay.” It was silent for a moment. We just sat there on the ground.
“Christine…” he said slowly, “I shouldn’t be here.”
I turned to look at him. “Why not?” My voice cracked. I was embarrassed by this betrayal of my vocal cords. I told myself, Play it cool!
“I mean… I can’t be here. I have never been able to get off that horse before. I just couldn’t. And a while ago we crossed the line back there and nothing happened. I didn’t disappear. I haven’t been able to do that before. I tried all the way around Sleepy Hollow. You said the line disappeared at school. Maybe this one did, too. Maybe they all did. Christine, I think I’m free!”
I gave him a hug, careful not to make him drop his pumpkin. Nothing really left to say, I got up to go inside, wondering how to explain this all to my half robot parents. I called, “Thank you again!”
“I’ll be back tomorrow night. Can I just meet you outside here?” he asked.
I smiled. “Yes.”
I turned to go inside and then changed my mind again. “Aren’t you supposed to be looking for your real head?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I guess so. Not really sure I need one. I can hear and see just fine. You might say I’ve found something better.”
“Oh?” I said as flirtatiously as possible “And what’s that?”
“Your heart. And you know, if that doesn’t work out, maybe your head.”
And with that he slapped the reigns and galloped off into the moonlight. I grinned as I watched him go.