TCL is Looking For First Readers

The Colored Lens is looking for a First Reader to join our team. All of us at The Colored Lens are volunteers, so this isn’t a paid position. There are significant benefits, though. Working as a First Reader gives you excellent insights into the editorial process as well as what editors look for in the slush pile.

We pride ourselves on our 100% personal responses, and aim to have a 48 hour response time for rejections. To do this, we ask readers to read around ten stories a week and provide short personalized responses that include both positive features and the reasons it’s being rejected.

Stories are typically in the 3000-5000 word range, but we accept stories as long as 20,000 words. First reading is handled on an “as able” basis, meaning that whenever a reader has time, he/she logs into the database and selects the next unread story. If a reader doesn’t have time to read on a particular day, they simply let the rest of the team know and then don’t read.

If you are interested in the position, first send us an email at dawn@thecoloredlens.com giving a short overview of your writing experience and attach a writing sample. If you have submitted to us previously, you can simply direct us to your submission instead. We will respond, and the next step is to review the stories on our site and let us know two to three of your favorites and why you liked them, and to write a sample rejection for two to three stories that you don’t like as well.

Kraken

1

They’d spent last night in a clean and neat little cabin of light wood. James wished he knew what it was. They did this stuff at school nowadays, design and technology, D&T. Making tables and all that. Ed had told him. But it seemed unauthentic somehow. He wondered if they did any woodcutting (probably not). They’d go against the grain. Most amateurs did. As he walked further away from the cabin, the circles molded together into a homogenous mass until he could no longer see them.

Lena had said she’d get the boys to pack, so he went to the café alone to get coffee and sandwiches and to leave the keys with the barman. He passed the white plastic sign nailed to the wall of the café (the same pale wood as the cabins):

‘FILMORE CASSEY LEASURE: LOG CABINS SALES & HOLIDAY. HOT–TUB SALES NEW& USED’

Most places had so many signs now you ceased to see them. OPEN, JUST EAT, No smoking, Mind the step, FOOD HYGIENE RATING–and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. This one looked lonely on its own on the brown wall.

To the left of the café was a small playground stretching over half the lawn in front of the open car park. Two swings were tied to a thick horizontal wooden bar resembling a crossbeam. No wonder Sammy loved these things. They were proper authentic swings like the ones James used to have as a kid. No plastic nonsense around here.

I might get Ed a beer.

Immediately, he remembered he couldn’t. Ed had wanted to drive and he’d said “yes”without thinking. Now there was this, on top of the condoms. Lena still didn’t know and Lena would have a fit, though Ed was seventeen and had a full license. It was funny she was pissed off about Ed–of all things. It was James’ guilty conscience, of course.

He kept wondering whether maybe–maybe–she did know.

“Good luck with your drive.”The barman said as he poured filter coffee. “Where are you guys off to?’

“Sunderland.”

“Geordie women with big hair and yellow fake tan, eh? Why Sunderland?’

“Nephew’s going to study there. We’re from Manchester ourselves.’

“A bit far from home, no?’

“Yeah.” James said. “We think it’s because of a girl. My sister’s having a fit, of course. But I mean, why not? Tony Scott went to the University of Sunderland, did you know that?”

“No.” The barman said. “No, I didn’t.”

The Demon in the Cage

“I don’t see it,” Hinaru confessed through gritted teeth, dropping his head in frustration and embarrassment. “I’ve stared at that cage for half of the day and I have not seen anything but empty bars.”

He felt a hand settle on his shoulder. The Chain Breaker, the head of the Demon Guard stood behind the ornate, velvet-cushioned chair where Hinaru sat. The man had remained in the stone hall with him and waited patiently for hours, allowing a potential new initiate every opportunity to pass this final test. But it had been wasted time.

“Forgive me, Breaker Allito,” Hinaru said, trying to keep the stinging in his eyes from resolving into tears. It was bad enough he had to admit defeat, he would not have the highest-ranking soldier in the city see him cry. He could not live with that shame. “I’ve failed you. I will collect my property from the barracks and leave at once.”

“You will not,” said the old soldier behind him. “You have failed no one and you are not going to be banished.”

The Chain Breaker walked around the chair to stand in front of Hinaru. His craggy face, marked deep with the passage of time and painted with a gray stubble along his jawline, was surprisingly kind. He paused a moment, waiting for the younger man to look up and meet his eyes. “You have passed every other test we have administered. You are smart, courageous and, if your instructors are to be believed, one of the finest swordsmen they have trained in years. Even if you can’t see the demon and are unable to join the Demon Guard, you have earned a place with us, Hinaru.

“And, the test is not necessarily over.”

The leader of the Demon Guard pointed to the wall on Hinaru’s right, indicating an assortment of twenty-three swords hanging from metal brackets. Each weapon had a gleaming, narrow blade the color of milk. They appeared as delicate as porcelain, but Hinaru knew they were made of the hardest substance known to the Realm. Forged in Hell, and stolen from the demons during the human uprising, they were nearly indestructible. And they were the only defense men had against any future assault from the underworld.

Several tens of empty brackets were also visible on the wall.

“How many pale blades belong to us?”

“Fifty-seven,” Hinaru answered immediately.

“Fifty-seven,” Breaker Allito repeated. “Very good. You have been paying attention to your lessons. Of those fifty-seven, thirty-four are currently in the hands of guardsmen and twenty-three remain hanging uselessly on our wall. That is not good for us. That leaves us weak and vulnerable. We need men to wield the swords.

“But, we need the right men.” The graying soldier turned his back on Hinaru to face the cage located in the center of the hall. It was a gleaming white monstrosity, all sharp edges and jagged points welded together. The structure was four paces wide and four paces deep; rising from the floor to the height of two tall men. “Do you know why we have the cage, Hinaru?”

“To test new potential soldiers,” he responded. This was common knowledge. “You cannot kill a demon if you can’t see it.”

The Chain Breaker flapped a hand dismissively at his answer. “Yes, yes. But, do you know why the cage was built?” He spread his arms wide, encompassing the metal structure before him. “The humans collected almost two hundred swords from the demons in the uprising. Why do you think building the cage was so important that men would destroy most of the weapons Lars Itarsa, the first Chain Breaker, worked so hard to gain?

Two hundred, thought Hinaru. That was not part of his training. Why would anyone use a hundred and fifty swords to build a cage when those blades could be so much more useful in the hands of trained soldiers?

“I didn’t know about the other swords, Chain Breaker. I thought we always had the cage. I don’t know how to answer your question.”

Breaker Allito nodded, expecting such a response. The man hooked his thumbs into his red leather, sword belt, then turned back to face Hinaru. “It is not a secret, but neither is it discussed much openly. Many thought it a mistake at the time, and some still do now. But that decision was made long before I was even born, so questioning it serves no good purpose. I can tell you the reason it was done, however, if you care to hear the explanation.”

Hinaru nodded quickly, and the Chain Breaker smiled at his eagerness; an expression that sat unexpectedly well on the old soldier’s time-worn face.

“When men organized and revolted against the demons, we won because we outnumbered them, and they had grown careless enough to allow us access to weapons. They did not believe that we were intelligent enough or courageous enough to turn on our fearsome masters. At the time of the uprising, every man, woman, and child in the city could see the demons. We believed this was normal and did not find the fact remarkable.

“Thirty years later, during the Second Wave, the demons almost took the city back. We were lucky there were only a few tens of the creatures that attacked our walls in that assault. Even so, many men died. We discovered that of those born after the uprising, only about one in five could actually see a demon. At first, we thought this was because of something the demons had done to blind us to their presence, but that idea was soon discarded.

“The truth of what was happening was discovered when survivors of the original uprising shared stories of the demons murdering and eating children by the hundreds. Four out of every five children born were killed. It was believed that these numbers could not be coincidence. Do you see?”

The Chain Breaker paused to allow Hinaru an opportunity to answer, but the young man had not yet made a connection between the story he was hearing and what the soldier wanted him to understand. When it was obvious his young student was unable to respond, the older man continued.

“Only one in five men has ever been able to see a demon. When the creatures ran the city, they eliminated those that could not see them. A slave is of very little use if it cannot see its master.”

Light dawned in Hinaru’s eyes as he digested the information. The people of that time believed that everybody could see demons because everyone alive had the ability. They also thought the death of children at the hands of the demons was a random act rather than the specific selection process it truly was.

“I think I understand. The cage allowed them to test their soldiers and find out who could see the demons. So, the demon in this cage is dead? The body was collected after the Second Wave?”

“Of course, it’s not dead,” snapped Breaker Allito with some disgust at the suggestion. He began to pace, slowly making his way around the chair where Hinaru perched. Hinaru was forced to shift sideways and crane his neck to follow the Breaker’s movements. “A dead demon decomposes too rapidly. Besides, why build a cage to hold a corpse? No, the demon is quite alive.

“When the Second Wave was over, and the Chain Breaker of that time, Samanth Ken, realized the nature of the problem, he gathered the soldiers who had proven themselves able to see the enemy. He formed the first Demon Guard, then collected all the white-metal weapons in the city and placed the pale blades in the hands of those that could most effectively use them. Finally, he put the members of the Demon Guard in charge of the rest of his forces. He made certain that at least one of them was always on the city wall, watching for the demons’ return.

“Time passed. Forty years went by and there were no more attacks. Members of the Demon Guard were growing old and dying, and there was no effective way to test for new recruits. Breaker Ken, himself, eventually died, and Todrick Bortu replaced him. Breaker Bortu was the man who ordered the cage built. He knew that when the last of the Guard was gone, the city would be unable to properly protect itself. The best they would be able to do was to arm men at random and hope by sheer chance that the right people were fighting when the demons came again.

“Because the white metal is the only thing we know that can effectively harm or hold a demon, he ordered that most of the swords the Realm possessed be reforged and made into a cage. He justified his actions, explaining that the only way to protect future generations from the same uncertainty experienced in the Second Wave was to capture a demon and use it to test new Guard members.

“He was taking a great gamble, because if the demons came again after the last of the Demon Guard had died of old age, the reduced number of remaining swords lessened our chances of survival. Although not building the cage, he believed, carried bigger risks.”

Breaker Allito dropped a heavy hand onto Hinaru’s shoulder, startling him. The old soldier leaned forward to speak softly into his ear. “But, you can guess what happened next, can’t you? We are, after all, still here.” He stood, not waiting for Hinaru’s answer, and resumed his pacing.

“Whether by a fool’s luck or by divine intervention, the Third Wave struck the city barely one year after the cage was created. We turned the demons away from our walls and captured the creature that now resides in the cage before you. It was fortunate that Breaker Bortu took the gamble that he did, as it has been over a hundred years since the Third Wave was defeated and there have been no subsequent assaults on the city. There is not a man alive today that has ever seen a demon.”

The Breaker paused in front of Hinaru and pointed a finger, directing his gaze to the center of the great hall; to the gleaming white bars. “Except for the one trapped in this very room.”

“We are alive today, Hinaru, because of the foresight of the Breakers who led this city before me. They decreed that only those who can see our enemy may become soldiers of the Demon Guard. I will not go against their orders. However…”

“Yes?” asked Hinaru when the Chain Breaker paused. “However, what?”

The Breaker smiled again, his bright, blue eyes sparkling kindly. “However, the decision does not have to be made today. You may come back tomorrow morning and try once more to see the demon. It does not happen often, but there have been instances of soldiers who failed on their first attempt yet were later able to see it. Perhaps you will be one of those few.”

Breaker Allito patted the younger man on the cheek like an affectionate parent, then turned and strode away.

Hinaru remained in the chair a moment longer, listening to the soft pad of the Breaker’s leather boots on the stone floor as he exited the chambers. A door opened, hinges groaning slightly as it swung out then back to its closed position.

With one last disgusted glance at the empty cage, Hinaru rose to his feet and stormed angrily across the room to the main entrance of the great hall. There were only two ways in and out of the Chamber of the Demon, as it was called by the soldiers in the barracks. The Breaker had exited through a private passageway to the south that led to his personal chambers, while Hinaru retreated to the massive, wood and metal, double doors at the north end, through which he had originally entered.

As he pushed through the doors, back into the labyrinthine passages of the Demon Guard’s keep, he was intercepted by one of the guardsmen.

“Hold up, Hinaru. I’d like to speak with you, if I may.”

The man was tall and thin, with a long beard of black hair oiled and twisted to a single braid that hung almost to his belt. He wore the red and brown uniform of the Demon Guard, and pinned to the left breast of his shirt was a small gold medallion in the shape of a closed hand. His name was Oatha, Hinaru recalled. He held the rank of Fist; responsible for the training and supervision of five soldiers. Hinaru stopped and bowed formally.

“Of course. How may I be of service, Fist Oatha?”

“First, you can stop bowing. I am not here as a fist, but rather as a friend.”

Hinaru blinked, unsure what to say.

“You didn’t see the demon?” continued Oatha. “No, don’t answer that. I already know you did not. How could you? There was nothing in that cage to see.”

“What?! What do you mean by….”

Oatha draped a friendly, but firm, arm around Hinaru’s shoulders. He guided the confused young man down one of the many hallways. “Walk with me, Hinaru. A moving conversation is much harder to overhear, and I do not want what I am about to tell you to become common knowledge.”

The two walked in silence for several seconds, Oatha occasionally glancing down branching hallways, or cocking his head slightly as though listening for pursuing footsteps. When he seemed satisfied that they were not being followed or spied upon, he spoke.

“The demon in the cage is a test designed to remove undesirables from the Demon Guard. It is a final challenge for anyone who has passed all the other requirements but, for one reason or another, is still deemed unfit by members of our order. Before you pass the test, a current member of the Guard must judge that you are worthy to join us, then let you in on the secret of the initiation.

“I have seen you spar, and I know you are quick witted enough to make a fine addition to our ranks, so I have decided to give you the information you need to pass this test. Just as another member of the Guard did for me before I joined.”

Hinaru paused, forcing Oatha to stop and turn to face him.

“I still don’t understand,” Hinaru said, his face pinched in thought. “It isn’t real? But what about the white metal? What about the swords, and what the Chain Breaker told me about the Third Wave?”

Oatha placed his hands on Hinaru’s shoulders, squeezing lightly and forcing the recruit to meet his gaze. “I believe that demons used to exist, a very long time ago. They seem as reasonable an explanation as any for the origin of the white metal. But they have been gone a very long time and I think it highly unlikely they will ever return. They probably died out following the Third Wave.”

Oatha slipped a hand behind Hinaru’s back and started them walking again.

“Regardless, whether there were ever demons in the first place, there aren’t any now. If there was a demon in that cage, it died over a hundred years ago because there is nothing at all currently between those bars.”

“The Chain Breaker told me….” Hinaru began.

“Yes, I know what he told you,” Oatha interrupted. “The older officers will never openly admit the truth. Particularly not the Chain Breaker. The Demon Guard is an elite force, destined to carry the pale blades and defend the city from the hordes of Hell. So, consider this: how elite would the Guard be if it became common knowledge that there are no demons? Even though it is a lie, the cage is a symbol of our position. The secret must be kept if the Guard is to survive.

“I believe in you, Hinaru. I think you belong with us, and I think you can keep our secret. That is why I am talking to you, now. I’m going to tell you how to pass your final test.”

Hinaru stopped again and bowed deeply toward Oatha. “Thank you, Fist Oatha. I will not disappoint you. What do I need to do?”

“It’s simple,” said Oatha, taking Hinaru’s arm with exasperation and standing him back up straight. “You must describe the demon in the cage.”

Hinaru’s face fell. Was Oatha toying with him? Was this all an elaborate joke by the Fist before the soldier escorted him to the gates of the keep and kicked him out?

“Fist Oatha, I have not seen a demon. How can I describe something I have never seen?”

“That is the easiest part,” Oatha assured him. “I’m going to tell you what to say to the Chain Breaker. You must describe the creature exactly as I explain it to you. That will let the Breaker know that you have been approached by one of us, and that you are not just guessing.”

“I’m listening.”

Oatha held up one finger. “First, the creature is hideously ugly. Its face is a cluster of horns and spikes over a massive mouth filled with long pointed teeth. It walks on two legs, standing half again the height of a man, and it has two arms that each end in narrow hands with three, clawed fingers. Although tall, it is still slender, and the body moves like that of a serpent. But most importantly, you must mention that in the center of its chest…”

Meh Teh

“But surely it’s not unreasonable to suppose a yeti can be taught to operate an automobile,” Henry Graybill fumed against the frosted windshield. The cheap Daihatsu wasn’t doing so well this high in the Himalayas. It’d been this way since he’d visited his brother Richard only to find the “Gone Preachin’” sign hung on his door. If only his brother hadn’t fraternized with those damn monks. They’d distorted his rational faculties. He’d heard how they’d even dowsed their naked bodies in cold water and sat out under freezing skies to meditate, their body temperatures rising to keep pace with the falling thermometer. What spiritual lesson had Richard possibly found in that?

The furry creature beside him in the driver’s seat was obviously intelligent, sympathetic even, but he was hopeless when it came to manual transmission. And hygiene. And Henry’s broken leg wasn’t healing itself.

It was hard on the eve of Whitsuntide, yet this high in the mountains Henry still felt the lingering drudgery of winter. He couldn’t blame the abominable snowman for having difficulty navigating these deeply rutted mountain roads—tracks, more like. Henry knew gangrene remained a serious danger in a situation like this, and the mythical beast in the driver’s seat was his only hope of not losing the leg—or his life—altogether. “Depress the clutch with your left foot,” he articulated slowly. “Check to ensure you’ve selected the proper gear.” The oversized hand on the negligible gearshift was perhaps part of the problem. Could the monster comprehend the schematic printed on the ball?

Why couldn’t Richard remain as loyal as when they were children? Brothers owe that to one another. The strain of constantly attempting to lure his brother back to reason had proved the most wearying experience of Henry’s adulthood. Lessons others learned while at university Richard seemed to have rejected. Becoming a preacher in an age of science placed Richard high in their mother’s esteem, but now that she needed his spiritual counsel he was nowhere to be found.

Not to spite her, Henry hoped.

Now that mother required them both, Henry had made the trip to Kathmandu and beyond to locate his high-minded sibling. It was Henry’s attempt to please her that led to this strange turn of events.

“Let the clutch out slowly as you depress the accelerator with your right foot.” He reached over and twisted the key again, stretching across the vast hairy shape wedged into the driver’s seat, the dirty fur pressing into his face. The wind fulminated outside. “Try it again.”

The Daihatsu choked threateningly. The accelerator pushed to the floor, the engine raced. The yeti slipped the clutch. With a sickening, violent lurch, the car stalled. Again. “Slowly!” Henry cried. “Release the clutch slowly!” He was never going to get off this mountain alive. Where was Richard, anyway? There was nothing for it but to try again.

The worst part of all was that Henry didn’t believe in the paranormal. Yetis, he knew, were a combination of mis-reported bears and tracks in the snow that had melted and refrozen into larger parodies of themselves. How this one had found him, had known to lift him into the vehicle, he couldn’t fathom. The pain had mercifully blacked him out. Shock is nature’s own opioid. He awoke surrounded by a musty smell somewhere between a wet dog and freshly broken fungus, strapped into the passenger seat. The looming, white, furry presence beside him.

How they eventually got down below the tree line, Henry could not comprehend. Yeti had probably popped the clutch and it’d jolted the car forward enough to get it rolling downhill. His monstrous friend was helpless with standard transmission, but steering was something anyone could do. When he opened his eyes they were near a smoky village nestled in the shelter of the mountain.

“How do you nurse your own mother?” he asked the beast filling the space beside him, knowing he couldn’t comprehend. “Parents—they live so long these days and the economy obstructs their children caring for them. Is it the same in yeti civilization? Or have you advanced beyond us? I’m here because I need to locate my irresponsible brother, seeking his own spiritual enlightenment. How selfish can one be?”

Henry swung open the door and almost tried to stand on his broken limb before he recalled he was immobile, fainting with pain. Yeti sensed these kinds of things and had soon scooped him up in noisome but warm fur and shuffled off toward the hamlet. The stench of his own leg wound reminded him that he was in no place to judge the washing habits of this impossible primate. A sudden crack like concentrated thunder stopped yeti in his tracks. Henry could hear the large heart thumping like a kettledrum build-up in the massive chest. “It’s only a rifle discharge,” he mumbled. “Nothing for a person to fear, my friend.” Yet yeti stood, as if lost in thought. As the reverberations from the report died down, Henry winced in pain. Yeti, concerned, plodded on toward the human habitation.

The room in which Henry awoke couldn’t be termed a proper hospital. Clearly it was intended as a place of care. His right leg, now splinted, ached dully. He recognized the somnambulant effects of opium, minimally administered. The memories of finding his brother gone, the sickening snap of bone as he slipped from the steep trail that led to Richard’s isolated hovel, forced themselves upon him. His foot wedging into the cleft of jagged rock as his body continued downward at gravity’s command. Fifty years of manhood sliding out of control. He heard the break before he felt it. Awaking in his hired car next to a creature he knew couldn’t exist. The yeti, he was certain, had saved his life. It couldn’t drive worth a damn, but it was as real as this wooden splint now strapped to his throbbing leg.

A wizened woman looked in on him. Struggling to make himself understood, he tried to ask about the yeti that had shown such kindness. His feverish head swam. The woman, warmly bundled in the peasant garb of the region, fussed about his immobile leg, not understanding his gibberish. What was the word they used here? What did they call the abominable snowman? His thoughts flailed here and there. Finally they stumbled upon a phrase. “Meh-Teh,” he muttered. The woman stopped her ministrations, eyes opened wide. “Meh-Teh,” he repeated, nodding his head. She quickly quitted the room. Henry lapsed into and out of sleep.

The sound of feet awoke him. Yeti, he thought, had returned. Instead his weary eyes revealed an aged Englishman, stooped but sincere. “Yeti,” Henry moaned.

“You must be still,” the old man responded. “I am Rev. Murphy, a missionary on this mountain for thirty years. I gather from your identification that you are related to Richard Graybill.”

“Brother,” Henry managed.

“So I had assumed. I know Richard. He came here as a missionary, like myself. Local culture has overwhelmed him, however. He’s gone his own way. Rest, my son. Aanchal will take care of you. She’s the local healer. Rest.” The missionary departed.

What kind of brother, Henry wondered in the delirium of half-sleep, absconded with family responsibility? Left an aging mother alone while he pursued his own self-fulfillment? And he called himself a religious man! Under the warm blanket of the village healer, his thoughts wandered back to the yeti. How had it known to help him? He’d been told it was a killer. A man-eater. Instead, its warmth and care had saved his life. Even brought him dangerously close to human habitation. Like a brother should. Where was Richard?

When Henry next opened his eyes, the hut seemed even more humble than before. The smoke from a constant fire made the air close, if warm. Curious locals could be espied through the small, clouded window. They seemed to be pointing at him. Their excited voices could be heard, but not understood. Henry strained his ears. Aanchal looked in and saw him wakeful. Some time later Rev. Murphy shuffled back in, heavy parka hiding his dangling cross. “How do you feel, my son?”

“My brother?” Henry asked.

“Ah. I had supposed you might be curious once the opium wore off. He’s become a village leader. Quite a celebrity, actually. Gave up the ministry long ago.”

“The sign?”

“The locals read no English, my son. The use of the sign on his cabin door had been ironic from the beginning. He traded in his Bible for a Remington years ago. Leads hunting expeditions now. Still calls it ‘preaching.’ Leaves the sign up when he’s out on a hunt. Snow leopard’s found at these altitudes. Himalayan musk deer. Other exotics.”

Henry struggled to express his thoughts. The missionary didn’t understand him. The old man encouraged him to rest. The crack of a rifle jolted Henry back to consciousness.

“Don’t worry, my son,” soothed the cleric. “You’re safe here. Aanchal warned the villagers you’d been attacked by Meh-Teh, the yeti. Yes, we know they’re real. You mustn’t worry. Your brother has returned. He’s organizing a search party even now. Perhaps that shot we’ve just heard felled the horrid beast.”

Henry strained to object. Aanchal hurried in with her medication. As his eyes grew heavy under opium he heard the locals shouting with jubilation.

“Ah,” the minister smiled, gazing out the small window. “It seems they have destroyed the troublesome Meh-Teh after all.”

Henry bolted upright in his bed, tears exploding from his eyes. “My brother!” he screamed into the gathering darkness.

The Genealogy of Pops

The first thing I saw was blue. The second thing I saw was Pops. The first thing I feared was God. That’s how I learned to order the universe. My first memory of a place was Boat-Raft-City. It’s a pretty cool place. Everything’s pretty all right. I mean it’s small. But that’s the deal. We only live in small communities now. It’s considered best for everybody. Stronger individuals. Everybody knows everybody. A healthier zeitgeist. Less schizophrenic living.

We live on a boat. Or rather, more precisely, on boats. Correction. Like, we live on boats that are tied together. So like a raft. Or a collection of boats, that on a macro scale operates like a large raft, and, on a regular level, looks and operates like a boat. On a personal scale I live on a boat called the Haphazard. It’s kind of like the ass of the raft.

There’s other dudes out there. Other people on other raft cities. But we don’t talk to them. It’s kind of culturally forbidden on account of our unwavering need to maintain a healthy communal psyche, which would be in severe jeopardy among the presence of outsiders. Outsiders whose thinking can simply not be ac-counted for. Like one time, I saw a boat of outsiders-whose-thoughts-couldn’t-be-accounted-for throwing babies overboard their ship. Which made my throat tight. I’m glad we don’t do that here. And we do some weird stuff. But so yeah, we don’t socialize. I mean we trade. Sometimes. But we never socialize when we do it. Pops said that’s why guns and armpits were invented: so we don’t have to socialize. So-cializing and unhealthy zeitgeists were the reason the Old World ended. Now we just put supplies in lifeboats and hope for honesty.

Back to the babies. The thing about the babies is population control is super important on Boat-Raft-City. Turns out babies are super easy to make. Turns out you and me and everybody can have a hand in the making of babies, but too many babies on Boat-Raft-City is bad for resources, which creates food and water short-ages, which creates unhappy people, which creates an unhealthy zeitgeist, which leads to wild tribal violence and sometimes, confusingly, even more babies. So we control babies. The only time banging is technically allowed is under an Elder Su-pervised Procreation Session or ESPS for short. I’m a little uncomfortable in an ESPS on account of performance anxiety issues and an atavistic sense that an un-known Elder is checking out my butt. Also, when the participants finish, the Elders do a little clap and sigh wistfully.

Unsanctioned bonking is a big no-no but we do it anyway. The Elders try to catch sweaty teenagers off guard but it’s a hard thing to prove if they don’t witness any penetration. I’m a sweaty teenager and a conscientious objector to the policy. If it were up to me I’d be bonking left and right. Personally, I’ve bonked a sum total of one and a half times. The one time was an ESPS with Lilly Simms. This was, to be honest, pretty much a brokered exchange. I’d speared a bonkers Marlin fish that day and brought it to Elder Simms as a sort of let-me-pork-your-daughter-gesture. What ensued was the best, and only, ESPS of my life with a clap at the end and eve-rything. The general consensus is and was that I’m radically beneath Lilly. In that particular instance I was.

The half time I bonked was just for fun and I remember it much better. Lilly and me were in an overturned lifeboat and even though it was dark the water shone emerald with luminescent algae. I remember how flecks of green peppered Lilly’s skin like stars in a cosmic swirl, her body lithe and barely suggested in a sea of black motion, a human constellation. For me the moment was seminal. Lilly made me finish in the water. Which was painful because salt got in my dick-hole. So it on-ly counts half. But I’d do it again, I’d definitely do it again.

The New Nomad

“Chih-Tih!” Nall squeals, probing the translucent air bladder.

“Yes, baby, Chitlids.” My voice comes out tight. The spring has been so late, so cold—I’d thought we’d seen the last of the Chitlids. But this morning we awoke to hundreds of them, dragging their long tentacles through the air between the swaying dandular trunks.

Nall grasps at a Chitlid that puffs just out of xer reach. Pursuing, xe runs through a patch of yellow irrenes, spore pods bursting, and I hurry after. A rustling from a large spench bush pulls xer up short. A turam bolts from it, long legs and orange spots flashing as it disappears into the dandulars.

“Jaff!” Nall cries, clapping with glee.

“It does look like a giraffe, doesn’t it?” I laugh. “But giraffes are from Earth, baby. That’s a turam calf. Tu-ram.”

“Tuhm,” xe repeats, breathless with wonder, and my heart cracks. The turam’s diet relies heavily on spench berries. As our summers shorten, spench yields drop.

A familiar dread settles in my stomach, as I imagine the day I’ll have to explain to Nall that all the animals xe’s learning to name so lovingly will soon be gone. “We didn’t know,” I’ll tell xer. “Not until you were nine months big in my belly. We didn’t know that a solar system away, a star was collapsing, wrenching Coron from its orbit.”

Past the dandular canopy, our sun shines at high noon, a few dozen light-years farther away than it was at this time last year. Next year, it’ll be farther still. And ten years from now, after the last perihelion, we’ll be too far gone for it to ever pull us back. All the humans on Coron will descend into the subterranean caverns we are fervently constructing, to live off geothermal energy as Coron hurtles into deep space.

I wrench my mind back to the present, to Coron’s surface, where it’s, “nap time!” for this toddler.

I carry Nall back to the habitat as xe howls and makes xer joints all loose in their sockets, trying to slip from my arms. If Nall had xer way, we’d never come indoors. We’d explore gladial patches and hunt cardizes until xe passed out from exhaustion.

Back in the nursery, I dim the walls and set them thrumming with white noise. Nall calms down as soon as xe starts to nurse. Our bodies curl together on the bed, and I bury my nose in xer hair, wishing we were simple beasts. Turam and calf. Ignorant of the terrible future. When xer breathing slows to a snore, and my nipple slips from xer lips, I ease up out of bed.

But as I stand, the room reels. My vision clouds with spots, and I have to fight for consciousness. After a few moments, the dizzy spell passes, and I creep from the room, sealing the door behind me.

I must be anemic again. I’ve been breastfeeding Nall for almost two years now, and I get so sick of the daily nutrient injections. The med-droid will remind me to get my postnatal shots, and I’ll snooze its alert again and again, sometimes accidentally shutting it off for weeks at a time. So I keep making myself sick like this.

Now I summon the med-droid from its storage alcove and press my fingertip to the quick-read sensor, flinching at the prick. My vital stats appear on its face. Iron count could be higher, but I’m not quite anemic. I need some B12 too. One line of my health report is flashing red, and the information there is so unexpected that my brain takes long moments to process it.

Human Chorionic Gonadotropin detected.

For a thousand years, we’ve known that HCG in the blood means one and only one thing.

I’m pregnant.

The Cold Heart of the Sky

The accretion disc glowed from below, lighting Kazban’s way through the vast emptiness. He set his intention, and the ship Celerity responded in flight, drifting toward the heartring.

Before them the shape grew of the greatest station on the heartring, the Palace. It was situated as a set of concentric tori, on a plane tangent to the heartring so that the inner half always faced the black hole called the Heart.

Kazban angled toward the center of the tori, to the docks. A lesser ship would have required a pilot skilled in maneuvering, but Celerity responded to Kazban’s desire, twisting itself toward the port that opened to receive them. It slid its skids into the grooves of the station until the ship came to a halt.

Kazban climbed down the ramp that slid out Celerity’s aft. It had landed among the needle-like machines of the Royal Fleet, composed of brassy-looking alloys shot through with veins of jewel tones. Celerity, the latest the rim could offer, was dusty and dun. She spread out in a boxy V shape. Wires spilled out of her conduits.

Two dockhands came up. Their faces were narrow, and their eyes too close together even accounting for that, giving them an insectoid look. Even as laborers they must have Royal blood, here at the center of the system.

Kazban waved at the two crates at the top of the ramp. They were packed with vernadia, a potent medicine grown on his homeworld. Nearly all that was produced was sent here to the Palace, to extend the already long life of the Royals.

“I need to take these to the Royal Quartermaster.”

One of the laborers, taller than the other, looked at his slate, then nodded. “We can take you.”

He went up the ramp, nearly tripping as the ramp jerked. Kazban felt a shock of anxiety. Not his own, but Celerity’s. The ship did not like strangers aboard. Kazban took a deep breath and thought of floating in the serene darkness, the gentle glow of the disc beneath. Celerity calmed.

The dockhands took Kazban through a maze of corridors, pushing the crates that floated above the enameled copper floors on cushions of magnetic eddy currents. The two made small talk with each other, some old fashioned sport that hadn’t been followed on the rim for centuries.

They came to a closed doorway with a pair of guards. Each wore armor in the style of the Succession Wars, padded at the thighs, abs, and pecs, but the metals and ceramics that showed were of the latest variety. Close-hung eyes stared out of visors in their brassy helmets. They gripped some sort of polearms, forked at the tip with green crystals entwined.

The one on the left spoke. He wore the insignia of Ensign. “Halt. Outsiders are restricted to the dock level.”

Kazban looked him up and down, noting his slim build, before staring evenly at him.

“My instructions are to deliver this shipment directly to the Royal Quartermaster.”

The Ensign shook his head. “I’ll sign for it.”

“I need the Quartermaster’s signature.”

The Ensign raised his faceplate. “Listen, convict.” He sneered, nearly spat. “I’ll take it from here. We don’t need your kind on Royal ground.”

Kazban’s back straightened. He felt his fingers twitch toward his belt, but his plasma pistol wouldn’t be there. It was in prison lockdown, back at the rim.

Kazban pulled out his slate. Through clenched teeth, Kazban said. “My directive comes from the Rimward Viceroy of Isle Yotta-12.” He showed the documents to the Ensign.

The man didn’t look. He stared at Kazban through narrowed eyes.

“You’ve heard my orders, convict. Leave your crates and get back on your ship.”

Kazban clenched his fist, and the Ensign smiled and shifted his foot back, taking his helmet off with one hand and leaning his polearm against the inner lip of the door with the other. A dockworker put a hand on Kazban’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off. Distantly, Kazban could feel Celerity respond to his feelings, turning on lights and rumbling its engines.

There was a sound of two voices beyond the doors. One high and loud, the other soft and low.

The doors parted. The Ensign and the other guard turned to see the two interlopers. The man was tall and gangly, hunched over in purple robes and wearing a bullet-shaped hat. He was half turned toward the other as he walked, a small girl, perhaps just reaching her teens. Emerald green locks spilled over her ears. Her eyes were barely separated by the bridge of her nose. Her head seemed to cut the air like an axe as she walked, legs kicking at voluminous skirts.

She stopped short, turning to look at the Ensign and Kazban, sensing the mood and seeing the Ensign with an incomplete uniform.

“What is happening here?” she demanded.

The Ensign bowed his head, staring at his toes. “We have a criminal rimlander attempting to access our inner station, Your Grace.”

The Princess caught Kazban’s gaze, sizing him up. “Is this true? Are you dangerous, sir?”

The man in the purple robes grabbed the back of Kazban’s head and tried to force him to look down. Kazban knocked his arm aside and pushed him back a step. The second guard lowered his polearm toward him.

It was unnerving to stare the Princess in the eyes, but he’d be damned before he looked away now.

“I am paroled, Your Highness. I am here at your government’s command.”

He handed her his slate. She read it with a furrowed brow.

“This isn’t parole, Your Grace,” said The Ensign. “This is his sentence.”

She waved him away, handing Kazban back his slate.

“Percilus,” she said. The man in purple bowed. “Take this man to the Quartermaster.”

“But, Your Highness,” he began.

She turned on him and held out her left hand. On her pinky she wore a ring that bore a stone that glowed with a Cherenkov sapphire.

Percilus bowed again, face pale.

“Come,” he waved at Kazban and the dockhands. They went through the doors. The Princess didn’t follow, but the Ensign’s glare did.

How Long the Night, Awake

We approached Xuthos, me carrying Bacenor on my back.

“What is that place?” said Bacenor, pulling at my ears. “Speak, you wretched slave!”

“That is Xuthos,” I said, “The City of Sleep.”

“Sleep? Sleep?” He dug his knees excitedly into my sides. “Do they have sleep contests, dream races? I’m no good at sleeping, you know!”

“I know.”

“Then why are we going there, slave? Do you think you will humiliate me?”

“You asked me to bring you, sir. Maybe they can cure you.”

“Cure what?”

“You haven’t slept for a thousand days.”

We hoped to cure his sleeping problem. But his addled memory might be beyond the healing arts. I served to help him remember. That was my function as his servant.

Xuthos sat like a traveler’s trunk on a mesa above the Arcadian Plain. It had three gates: one of iron, one of tin, and one of bronze. Iron for blood, tin for commerce, bronze for health.

We followed heavy foot traffic, up the switchback road carved out of the side of the mesa, then leading to the gate of iron. Carts pulled by work hounds carried produce for the markets or sometimes the very rich, who lay hopelessly awake in beds of useless comfort; mothers pushed carriages with infants or toddlers who could not sleep; men and women, of any age but with a distribution toward the oldest, shuffled and stumbled and sometimes conversed with the gods that only they could see, and a few other slave-master pairs like us approached the gate. Of note, one black-shrouded crone, fastened by a leather harness to a female, the girl tall but her chiton short and her thighs muscular and tanned bronze. They paid the entrance tax and disappeared through the gate before I could get a better look.

“Are you afraid, you wretch?” demanded Bacenor. “Your heart is beating harder.”

“No, sir. I just saw a girl.”

“Keep hiking, slave. I don’t pay you to be moonstruck.”

“You don’t pay me at all.”

We reached the gate of iron. Four hoplites stood guard, two each side the portcullis, their breastplates flashy and their helmets crested with blue peacock feathers. The guards looked green but their spears were sharp and while I could have taken out one or two, all four would have proved a problem. They eyed me nervously as I stooped before the metal-barred window in the wall. Bacenor pulled a coin from his purse and gave it to the tiller.

We were in.

In the city there were sleepers, the carved sleepers in the friezes on building walls, in one square the great marble sculpture of Athena on her divan, supine in a nightdress, yellow-painted hair let down, her armor shed beside her and her smiling face suggesting she had found bliss in dreams. Below her, ten or twelve sleepless men and women mimicked her posture, lying on the paved street of red brick, resting their heads on bedrolls or cushions. Mimicking her but poorly, for they fidgeted and groaned and did not smile. One man opened his eyes: eyes blue as the sky flashed hatred at us.

“What’s the matter?” Bacenor asked. “You resent your betters?”

I moved away before the man responded.

“Why did he look so angry?” Bacenor asked me. “Is it because I am a rich man?”

“No doubt,” I said, though in truth I doubted it very much.

“How rich am I?” he asked.

“Rich enough to buy this town,” I lied.

“Good. But we are here for sleeping. Over there—Zeus!”

He meant another plaza with another statue, this one of iron, thrice life size and with a bed to match, so big there were at least four sleepless on it, nestled against the metal god as if he might consent to cuddle.

“I’ve got a better idea.” I could smell lamb roasting in the distance. “We need to eat.”

Bacenor grumbled but let me take him to the city agora a few blocks away. Here a press of sleepless people, red-eyed, unkempt, and rank of odor, haggled with vendors for the accouterments of sleep—pillows, candle wax for ears, elephant bladders which inflated could serve as mattresses, music boxes which when opened featured tiny puppets singing lullabies. I pushed beyond them to the food vendors. From a barrel-chested Nubian with a golden earring I bought grapes and olives and a plate of cubed lamb that had been roasted with onions on a skewer. For Bacenor I bought chicken on pita bread and a flagon of white grape juice.

“What is this child’s drink?” Bacenor groused. “Get me wine, you ingrate.”

“They don’t sell it here,” I said.

“Anything can be bought.”

“Not wine in Xuthos,” I said. “It won’t help your sleep.”

“But it will!” Bacenor whined.

“It will push you to the edge of sleep, but not over. And then you will be more awake and hungover.”

“Lies! Cruel beast, why do you torture me?”

He twisted my ear till it hurt.

I grunted to give him satisfaction, and he let go.

At the center of the agora there was a fountain encircled by a granite bench. We sat there to eat our lunch. Bacenor beside me looked worse for our five days of travel. The hunch of his crooked back looked larger. Sun-reddened flesh hung loosely at his throat and around his eyes, as if he had climbed into the skin of a much larger man. Brown age spots on his scalp showed through his thin white hair. He scratched his jaw; he had a five-day growth of bristly white whiskers. “What happened to my beard? Didn’t I have a beard?”

“You had me shave it off,” I said.

“You cur! Why do such a thing?”

“You thought that you would sleep like a youth, if you had no beard like a youth.”

“Foolishness!” He busied himself eating, his gnarled arthritic fingers dropping clumps of meat onto his knobby sunburned knees. I turned my attention toward the crowd. He asked: “What are you looking at?”

I saw the tall girl again: her bronzed thighs, her breasts which filled her chiton, her uncovered sun-bleached hair, in contrast to the silver hair, mostly covered by a black shroud, of the crone upon her back. The girl was buying fruit—a mango and a pear—from a produce stand. I wished she would look my way.

“What are you staring at?” Bacenor asked. “Tell me!”

I ate another olive, chasing it down with a swallow of water, then said, “Beyond the red building—the Temple of Ares—is the Temple of Hypnos. The god of sleep. Let’s go there.”

“Hypnos? Do I know him? Do I pray to him?”

“You pray to Ploutos, the god of wealth.”

“Ah. He favors me, for I am a rich man.”

“A very rich man,” I agreed.

I carried him past the Temple of Ares, ochre-painted and poorly maintained, for what man makes offerings to the God of War for sleep? Next to it the Temple of Hypnos gleamed, polished white marble of its exterior contrasting with the dark within. I lugged Bacenor up the staircase and past the blue-painted Doric columns into the cool shadowed space of the interior. Hypnos, carved from unpainted obsidian, reclined on his side atop a bed of ebony shot through with veins of gold. Unlike the other gods in Xuthos he seemed awake, not sleeping, the strange little wings coming out of his brow like the erect ears of a dog. “Can he fly with those?” Bacenor asked.

“A little,” I said. “When he flaps them it makes a soporific breeze.”

He snorted at my little joke, and a middle-aged woman in a knee-length hair shirt regarded him judgmentally. No one else paid us attention, except for a guard in leather armor and a red chiton, who told us that slaves were not permitted to carry masters inside because it was not respectful to the god Hypnos. “The god Hypnos,” Bacenor sneered when the guard was out of earshot. “Who has even heard of such a god?”

Despite his sneers he climbed down and stood beside me, bow-legged and pigeon-toed, clutching my elbow for balance. We stood in a queue of fifteen or so sleepless. Unshaven, hollow-eyed, smelling of musty unwashed bedclothes. Grooming and cleanliness are the handmaids of good sleep. “What are we waiting for?” Bacenor said. There was a green door, before which stood a priest or clerk in a blue himation. Presently the door opened, and the first man in the queue was motioned in. “What’s in there?” Bacenor asked me. “A sanctum? Do they make an offering, slice open a sheep’s liver?”

“There’s a physician in there,” I said. “He treats insomnia with the latest in the healing arts.”

“Art? He plays the music of the spheres?”

“He performs medical techniques so as to make you amenable to messages from Hypnos.”

“Pshaw! Pshaw and poppycock!”

“The poppy, incidentally, is his flower.” I waved toward the jet-black planters set in sconces in the walls, orange petals vivid even in the gloom. “Narcotics come from the unripe fruit of the poppy.”

“Ah, yes, Nepenthes, the stuff is called.” Bacenor grinned triumphantly. “I remember the name! Buy me some.”

“You were addicted to it, master. After a fortnight of use it works badly and it gives you awful dreams. It gives you constipation, also. And it made your memory far worse.”

“You scoundrel!” He pinched me, digging his long yellow fingernails into my forearm. If I could get him to sleep I would cut those nails short. “Why torture me with these tales?”

“Only to caution you, that you might make better choices.”

“I pay you good money for this impertinence?”

“I am your slave, not your employee. Sometimes on festival days, you give me a drachma for a gift.”

“Yes. How likely.”

We waited in the queue, a few more went in to see the Physician, one came out. Bacenor asked me why so many went in without coming out. I told him that the building had a level beneath us and that the rooms down there had walls so thick that a battle could be fought in the streets without you hearing anything inside. Each room had a bed for a patient to sleep in and for the Physician to observe the patient and to try his treatments. It might take a few days to find the correct treatment.

“Hah! Thus to milk us poor insomniacs for as much money as he can!”

“I do not know if he charges for anything but results.”

He fell asleep momentarily, literally fell, collapsing but waking even as I caught him. “Where am I? Who am I?” Panic-stricken, bulging frightened eyes.

“You are Bacenor, a rich man. You are at the Temple of Hypnos to—”

“—to get my insomnia cured,” he said.

“Exactly.” I was relieved. Sometimes his memory could be very bad after he had these little sleeps.

“Who is she?” he asked about the woman in the hair shirt. “Is she Cybele?”

Cybele was his wife. Or she had been, for she was long dead, having perished with their son Timotheus when Bacenor’s ship, carrying a cargo of ninety amphora of tawny wine, sunk off the coast of Rhodes. Bacenor and I were the only survivors.

This woman turned. She did have Cybele’s long aquiline nose, but her face was broader, her hair was white where Cybele’s had been silver, and her hair shirt—of stiff brindle horse-hair that left the skin of her throat raw—was nothing like the soft purple and white robes Cybele had loved to wear. “I’m not your goddess,” she said. “I’m a barren old woman.”

Cybele is also the goddess of fertility.

“See?” I asked him. “She’s not your wife.”

“Then Cybele—” He remembered, lips drooping, eyes downcast, forehead furrowing with anguish. “The water—the storm—the cold night—my wife—my boy. He was only eighteen. My boy—why did he drown?”

“He stayed on the ship too long,” I said. “He tried to unlock the chains of the rowers.”

“Rowers? Slaves?”

“There were forty of them. The ship was already half-sunken. As the slaves screamed he dived down with the key so that he could unlock their chain. But the ship sank so quickly that it sucked him down and he could not save a single man.”

“My son died to save slaves? Say rather that the slaves killed him! Monsters, beasts! They lured him to his death!”

The woman ahead of us looked appalled, whether at the story or Bacenor’s lamentation I could not tell.

“He died a hero’s death,” I said.

“My wife—why did she die?”

“She could not swim. I had to let her go.”

“You were there? You let her go? A huge strong man like you? You let her drown?”

I whispered to Bacenor. “I was just a boy of ten. I was strong enough to carry only you.”

“I can swim!”

“You were drunk, and half-passed out.”

“Don’t lie, slave.”

I breathed deeply. The woman was not looking at us but had the erect posture of someone who was listening with intent. “You would get seasick on your trading voyages, and would break into the trading stock to find wine to calm your stomach. But wine is a poor medicine for nausea. It would roil your stomach, not soothe it, and you would drink more to compensate. You drank seven bowls the night of the shipwreck.”

His eyes rolled back in his head and he gripped my elbow as though he meant to pull me down or climb me. But he was not having an epileptic fit. He was merely thinking hard. He said, “Hypnos is the brother of Death?”

“Death is called Thanatos.”

“Maybe I should pray to Hypnos? Does he talk to Thanatos? Would he be able to get a message to my wife and my boy, asking them to forgive me?”

“Forgive you for what?” I asked.

“For bringing them on that fateful journey.”

“I can talk to the priest about that while you see the Physician. Maybe he can make a sacrifice.”

He let me go so he could pull out a ten drachma coin for the priest.

“Isn’t that too much?” I said.

“I am a rich man, am I not? Take it!”

I put the coin in the leather pouch that I kept tied around my neck.

Not much later the silver-haired woman was admitted to the sleeping ward and then it was our turn to be interviewed. The clerk, in a blue himation, bald, black-bearded, and officious, stood behind a high desk with a goose-feather pen in his hand. He wrote into a vellum ledger as he asked us questions. Who are you? Where are you from? How long since you last slept? He asked Bacenor at first but as I was the one who answered. He directed the balance of his questions to me. “Does he take stimulants or sedatives?”

“No longer,” I said.

“And do you ferry him everywhere, or does he walk on his own?”

“Almost always I carry—”

“I am a rich man!” Bacenor cried out. “Only hoi polloi walk!”

The clerk nodded and entered a mark into his ledger. “But he can walk if necessary?”

I affirmed he could.

“You can go through that door,” the clerk said. Bacenor gestured at me to stoop so I could carry him, but the clerk said, “No, you must go in alone.”

“But my slave is my memory,” Bacenor said.

“Your memory will improve once Dr. Phobetor has treated you.”

“Ahh,” he said uncertainly. He stared at me, his face twisted by confusion and fear, then found some remnant of dignity, and stood up straight as he could given his hunchback, and walked through the doorway.

The clerk told me the name of a cheap inn I could go to where slaves could sleep. Bacenor’s treatment, he said, would take at least one full day and night.

Always a Sunrise

Forgive me. This story’s a jumbled mess. I guess the drugs got the better of me. No idea where to start this, so I’ll start with the uniformed lady with a face like white dogshit.

“Miss Lynch. Why do you want to go to Mars?”

Why indeed? Nobody sane wants to go to Mars. All good. I’d practiced this line before, even drunk, even stoned, like I was right then. “I always dreamed of exploring the stars.”

“Your family, your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues? You’ll never hug them or shake their hands again. Only video chats with a three minute lag. You’ll miss birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Are you willing to make that sacrifice?”

I hoped the sunglasses covered my bloodshot eyes. I hoped my breath and armpits, reeking of Bombay Sapphire, didn’t carry. “Yes.”

“No more blue beaches, you’ll never feel the cool ocean swallow your toes in the warm sand, no more green forests full of fog and silence and rain so faint it tickles as it touches, no more snowy peaks that tower over the clouds and awe you to silence. You’ll never see anything but rusty red craters and white dry-icecaps. You really want that future?”

I never gave half a shit about the stars or the planets or anything like that, I wasn’t one of those kids with my neck craned skyward, those kids who ate up movies and stories about space, the final fucking frontier. Wonder was never a word in my world. “I’m an explorer at heart.”

“You’ll never run through an open field without a suit, and only hours at a time, lest the radiation bake you. You’ll never see a breathtaking pink or orange or red sunrise or sunset again, just a tiny gray smear on the Martian horizon. You’ll miss out on what it means to be human. Why do you want to go to Mars?”

Because dad had found me. “I love space, loved it since childhood.”

A window opened behind her. A rocket forty stories tall loomed on the launchpad and rolled my heart along a gravel path. She smiled. “You step aboard, goodbye Earth. Life flutters away forever. You’re really going to throw it all away?”

She wouldn’t stop me. If anyone’d stop me, it’d be me. A thousand people before me’d gotten weak-kneed at the sight of that rocket and turned back. I was about to too. What the hell was I doing?

Dad’d pinged my private email days ago. I’d read his brief words about wanting to reconnect and my chest clenched and my childhood came back and I cried. I recalled a warm summer day when I, bruises ringing my neck, crept to the garage and took one of dad’s rifles, the old breechloader he called the forty-five seventy, and placed the barrel in my mouth. It tasted cold on my tongue, it tasted of motor oil, it tasted bitter and burned a little, and it smelled of synthetic orange-citrus, that cleaning solvent I loved to sniff. The barrel was too long for my hand, so I braced the gun on the ground and stuck my big toe on the cold trigger. I laughed and wailed at the same time. It’d be so easy to stop the pain, but I couldn’t do it, as if an invisible, immovable hand clenched my big toe and stopped it from twitching a titch to throw my brains across the garage ceiling. I was eleven.

“I want to go to Mars.”

The lady with the white dogshit face nodded. “Very well. Sign here, and it’s all over.”

My hand hovered, pen ready. I was afraid that invisible hand would stop me again, stop me from signing the form, stop me from this long-overdue suicide. I thought about the beauty and ugliness Earth offered. I thought about my coffin-sized flat that gave me panic attacks, and thought about how much worse it’d be on Mars. I thought about all those bowls of kush and bottles of Bombay Sapphire and acid blotters that’d colored my life, drugs I’d never find on Mars. I thought about the times I’d escaped the social credit ratings, only to return to buy bread or be deemed “not a deviant” on the dating nets or to snag a bottom feeder job to earn a few dollars to dream with. I thought about how dad’d found me no matter how many times I tried to disappear from Earth.

I took a deep breath. I signed the waiver.

Zombies Can’t Take the Train

Autobiographical Case Histories from the Abridged 2055 Multimedia History Project on the Plague Year: Documenting the Rapid Sclerosis Pandemic. Society for Research and Education of the Global Open Forum Recovery Group.

Case Contents: Selections from the subject’s journal and an interview with a surviving member of the fire and rescue squad that quarantined the subject.

Subject: Steven Smith. North American (Northeast Coastal Ecoregion) male Caucasian. Age 41 at time of infection in the city of New Haven on May 14, 2027.

Document Status: Except for bloodstains, the journal was unaltered when recovered. Society members have added footnotes. This document is a primary source for post-peak studies. A full copy of the journal and the interview auditory file are available at qqq.ccss.GOF.aubiohist for a small contribution to your community labor pool.

May 16, 2027

Two days ago, I woke up so numb that it was as if I floated over my bed. The morning sun highlighted Cindy’s slender figure and auburn hair as she looked down at me and her lips curled into an I’ve-been-naughty smile. Noticing her blood-speckled cheeks and the chewed-off stump where my left hand used to be, I rolled out of the bed. She laughed as I struggled to stand, unable to feel where my ass ended and the hard floor began. Freakazoiding, I fumbled into my super-sized safari suit and stumbled around the room searching for my boots, unsure when she’d get the Hunger again. I should’ve put her down, but I’d never killed anyone, just written about it. As I edged forward to grab my boots, located just under the bed, her emerald eyes twinkled and she picked up my index finger to suck the gristle off it in a provocative manner. The parasites that had begun to burrow along my neural pathways must have done more than cauterize my injury and numb my body. Although I was terrified, I was not angry. Instead of righteous rage, I felt that considering everything, it was nice of Cindy to remember that I was right-handed.

Pausing by the bedroom door, I stuffed the boots into the survival pack I’d placed there and turned back towards Cindy. As my eyes roamed over her perfections the last time, I blamed myself. Someone so beautiful and sweet wouldn’t throw themselves at an obese oddball who writes appliance manuals for a living. She tensed for a leap. I wriggled into my pack’s straps, breathed deep, and decided that I didn’t care why she’d given me the two best weeks of my life. It was okay if it wasn’t all the secrets and hopes we’d shared, that it was because parasites had transformed her from a reserved sociology graduate student into an insatiable seeker of sexual delights. Until the hunger for human flesh overcomes you, the disease monorails your desires, creating one maniacal need. For Cindy, I now knew that need was sex; for me, well, I missed my mom.

Cindy made her move. I slammed the door and yanked a couch in front of it. My asthma kicked in as I leapt down the stairs. While the couch scraped my hardwood floor, I unlocked my security gate and fumbled open the front door. I scurried outside as she pounded down the stairs. The gate clanged shut and the lock clicked into place behind me. Shouted pleas of, “Don’t desert me!” and “I’ll make everything right again,” issued through the gate. From one of my safari suit’s many pockets, I pulled an inhaler and puffed twice. Breathing again and relieved that Cindy was stuck behind security gates and window grills that I had the sole keys for, I rested against an elm tree. I was trying to ignore her pleas and assess my situation when a Golden Doodle dragged a human femur into the condo parking lot and began to bark at me. Afraid the noise would draw more feral frou-frou dogs or worse, I fled. My bare feet found every sharp pebble as I ran across the too-sunny lot and through the Guptas’ open backdoor. I said, “Oh…Oh no,” as I shut the door behind me. A bloody smear began on the kitchen floor, where little Sabita’s Cookie Monster doll lay abandoned, and ended at the backdoor.

Shaking my head, I walked through their glass and chrome living room and went upstairs to Ms. Gupta’s office. Her built-in shelves were stuffed with accounting books and Ganesh statues. I shook my pack off my shoulders, letting it fall onto the red shag carpet, and dropped into her swivel chair. My thoughts starting to race and my heart to pound — over Sabita and everything else — I pulled a Valium bottle from a shirt pocket and popped several. As I zoned out, I stared at a dancing Ganesh and wondered what he was so happy about.

An hour later, full consciousness came upon me like a slow-motion landslide. Hoping to avoid being buried by anxiety and despair, I decided to focus on the little things that I could control. My first decision was to stay the night. The numbness would soon wear off and I’d be at my most vulnerable. Anyway, before I traveled, I had to figure out how to lace my boots. Curious about what I would face later, I stood to look out the window. To do so, I leaned on the edge of the desktop with my bad arm. The desktop, a sheet of glass that sat on two chrome sawhorses, tilted. Not at my brightest, I watched everything on it slide onto the floor. As the sheet of glass began to move towards my mid-section, I came to my senses and removed my weight from it. The desktop slammed back down. I stared at it for a moment before blurting, “What the what,” as I stood to jerk the blinds open.

My guilt for messing up Ms. Gupta’s office evaporated upon looking outside. Shattered storefront windows lined State Street and a telephone pole topped with ax heads leaned against the wall of Inner Peace and Extreme Survival Studio. It was as if a giant had sucked up mailboxes, trees, signs, cars, and human beings, chewed them up, and spit them back out. Drums, saxophones, and guitars strewn near Dr. Katz’s Animal Clinic stirred memories of the early plague days: endless awful singing by Western civilization’s worst creation, the pop-star wannabe, that was intermittently interrupted by elderly country bands and cheerleader squads. It was like living on the American Idol1 set. Too scared to go out, I kept my crank radio blaring. Intrepid reporters, or Compulsives trying to be reporters, described all-night baseball and midnight gardening, acts of altruism and awfulness, impossible scientific and artistic projects, and entrepreneurs catering to desperate Compulsives. Those Compulsives included computer gamers seeking electricity, shoppers frantic to discover bargains, foodies searching for five-star meals, and what should have been a warning to me, lovers hoping to find their last love. The radio reports all noted the Compulsives’ perseverance, no matter their injuries. However, when enough time passed the parasites changed all the Compulsives into Eaters, just as they had transformed Cindy.

A salty taste filled my mouth as I sat back down and pressed my eyes shut. Still numb, I’d bitten my lip to try to block memories of what came next, when the Eaters finished off most of the remaining Compulsives and yet-to-be-infected Cleans. No matter my efforts, memories of those horrific days swarmed into my mind, days in which I’d shut off the radio and tried to imagine that my condo was a pocket universe. It had been impossible. The end of the world made it through the walls of the basement safe-room I huddled in: the sirens, shots, and horrific screams. Later, it smelled like I was stuck in a busted freezer filled with sour milk and rotten meat. A shameful combination of cowardice and selfishness prevented me from helping anyone. The terror and guilt were worse than the discomforts: eating raw pasta and potatoes to save Sterno; creeping around the condo to maintain my rainwater collection system and chemical toilet; being unable to phone, text, or Facebook; not bathing or shaving; wearing dirty clothes; and missing therapist appointments.

I opened my eyes and spewed bloody spit on Ms. Gupta’s desk. To address my ever-multiplying psychological needs all I could do was to scribble in this journal. Writing fiction was no longer an option since the only thing I’d ever written were stories of post-apocalyptic heroes and I wasn’t being one. Nothing had happened like my survivalist stories, which consisted of macho cleverness and a lack of gun-control laws. Even my self-published masterpieces, Tales of the Rescue of a Techno Maiden and The Parking Garage Pirates of Putnam Street, didn’t hint at the traumas and tedious drudgery of actual survival. I thought I wrote the stories because they immersed me in a world in which no one told you what to do and where you were special just because you had survived. Remembering that Cindy had broken through that thin explanation, I used my hand to wipe the blood off my chin and stood to check on her.

With my binoculars, I left the office and walked across the landing and into the master bedroom. Dr. Gupta’s shriveled remains were on an oak four-poster bed; an empty hypodermic needle dangled from his withered arm. While I examined him, I thought about the big Texan “howdy” he always greeted me with and how he loved to grill shitake mushrooms or Tandoori chicken on summer Sunday afternoons. Now I’d never be able to pay him back for the time he drove me to the hospital after diagnosing my hernia. I yanked the blanket, to try to roll him up in it. He fell with an unpleasant thump onto the floor. After several deep breaths, I threw the blanket over him and went to the window, unsure of what I’d do when my sense of smell returned.

I peered through the Venetian blinds and saw that Cindy had opened all my drapes. But why? With my binoculars, I saw why, and shouted, “Shit soup!” Still undressed, she was emptying my cupboards of their delicacies. Done, she lopped the tops off Apple Jacks, Fruit Loops, and Cap’n Crunch boxes2 with my samurai knife and leaned back to empty one box after another into her mouth. My eyes teared up as Cindy’s curvy figure was outlined in a candy-colored shower of sugary treasure; beautiful blissful bits of sweetness bounced off her and onto the ungrateful kitchen tiles. My stomach lurched each time she slammed an eight pound can of chocolate syrup against a counter edge, only stopping when the priceless chocolate sprayed the kitchen and herself. In silent shock, sweat dripping from under my arms, I watched her lift the huge sharp-edged container to her delicate lips. Her small mouth filled with the life-giving liquid; it flowed down her cheeks and cascaded like a slow-motion velvety waterfall down her neck, chest, and legs, to pool at her feet. The food-massacre went on for what seemed forever — a bottle of peppermint schnapps tasted and spilled, Slim Jims bitten and discarded, Hostess Cup Cakes sampled, a bag of pork rinds scattered after one bite, a gallon jar of maraschino cherries smashed, creating a blood-red tide that flowed across the kitchen floor. With each wasted calorie, primordial pain flowed through my veins and the temptation to save my darlings increased. She attacked my favorites, yanking the tops off a row of small, colorful boxes and ripping open the shiny packages within to stuff their contents into her face. Prefab pastries of every flavor fragmented and fell, surrounding her with what looked like the remnants of a bombed paint factory. I cried out in disbelief, “The bitch is eating my Pop-Tarts!” However, I knew she wasn’t enjoying her last lucid moments, that she wanted me to end her suffering. Cindy was past the Compulsive stage, during which one has some normal desires, and was experiencing a hyper-aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. I wanted to retrieve the Glock in my pack. But how do you shoot someone, especially Cindy? When she collapsed to the kitchen floor — now a sweet swamp with islands of cans, boxes, and bottles — and sobbed, I decided to do it. I loved her too much to let her suffer and I’d promised her I’d do it.

I need to stop writing, even though the sun is up and I haven’t finished telling you about the two worst days of my life. I bet you also want to know how I’ll reach Mom. Don’t worry, I have a plan. But I can’t tell you now. I need to eat my last two packets of freeze-dried ice cream and cry a little. Writing about everything helps, but, can only do so much.