The old woman ladled broth and noodles from the clay cook pot into a wide wooden bowl. “Whatever your problems, they can wait until your stomach is happy with hot soup.”
Icho wiped a hand across his eyes. “No! You don’t understand! My family – ”
“Yes, yes, your family.” A spoon and a splash of shoyu, and she pushed the bowl towards him across the low table. “Problems can wait until after soup.”
“I can’t eat! Bandits attacked my village! They killed my father, and, and – ” Icho looked around the hut, eyes wide. He saw fire, bloody blades, his father falling. He’d run, run so fast he thought he might die like a coward and not his honorable father’s son. He’d eventually found the old woman when he really wanted a soldier, an army, anyone else. “Please, you must help me. They’ll kill everyone
if I don’t do something.”
The old woman patted his cheek. She was fat like a toad, with a wide mouth, and bulging eyes beneath wiry brows. She wore a simple green kimono and thick tabi. “Soup first, then talk.”
Desperate, Icho grabbed the spoon and took a sip of broth. The sweet warmth of ginger filled his head. Another. He’d had nothing to eat since his onigiri at midday. Tasty bits of daikon and egg hid in the nest of noodles. He slurped the bite of chilies and onion, the salty tang of fish sauce. Before he knew it he‘d finished his second bowl, and the autumn night had wound tight and dark around the tiny hut.
The old woman set the bowl and spoon in the wash bucket by the cook fire. “There. You have had your soup, and your stomach is happy.” She grinned with crooked, yellow teeth.
“I guess.” Icho rubbed his eyes. “Can you help me now, please? I need to reach the garrison in Nagasaki before. . .” He stifled a yawn.
“Nonsense, you can’t travel at night.” The old woman led him to a tatami mat he had not noticed against the far wall. “Rest here tonight, and tomorrow you can go for help.”
The mat pulled Icho to his knees, then his head to the barley husk pillow. “But my family. . .”
The old woman tucked the kakebuton around his shoulders. “You are a good son. Sleep now, worry about your family later.”
Icho opened his mouth to protest, and was asleep before the first word came out.
The old woman whispered in his ear, “You must go now, Icho.”
He sat up, squinting in the candlelight. “How did you – ?”
Four men in dirty padded armor sat at the low table, battered helmets beside them. The old woman moved around the table, ladling hot soup into their bowls. Icho recognized the long knives tucked in their belts, and fear splashed like winter water down his spine. Brusque chatter, and the whinnying of horses came from outside.
The old woman set the pot back on the fire and wiped her hands on her kimono. “Awake finally, hmmm?” She waddled to the tatami mat and took Icho by the shoulder. “Up and off with you, then.”
Icho clambered to his feet. He screamed a bare whisper: “That’s them!”
The old woman looked over her shoulder. “These men? Bandits? Certainly not.”
Icho clutched her kimono. The threadbare cloth was bitter with woodsmoke. “No, you don’t understand. They’re the ones who attacked my village.”
The men watched him with sharp dark eyes, dog eyes. One sneered at him, made to stand.
“Don’t mind the boy,” the old woman said with a laugh. “Eat, eat. Make your stomachs happy with hot soup before it gets cold.”
The man hesitated, then settled back with the others. He lifted his bowl and gulped the broth. His eyes widened, he smacked his lips, and nodded to the others. After a moment, they lifted their bowls to join him.
The old woman walked Icho towards the door. “Head back home. Bring me noodles for my soup the next time you come this way.”
“They’ll kill us. We have to – ”
The men standing with the horses looked up from their dice as she pushed Icho outside.
“Of course not. Get on home now.” She motioned the men inside, her eyes sickly yellow in the dim light. “Come in. I have soup to warm your bellies.”
The dark woods reeked of smoke and hot metal. Blood and death grabbed Icho by the heart and he ran, the way he ran when the bandits came for his family. Left the old woman standing in the doorway, her terrified screams so much like his mother’s! Icho raced his shame into the night until fear tore the breath from his chest and he tumbled into darkness.
The next morning, Icho followed his shame along the path of broken branches to the hut. His coward’s heart would have rather kept running, but honor demanded he return. If he couldn’t apologize for his cowardice, he could still bury the old woman’s body then give himself to the sea in shame.
He stopped at the edge of a small clearing littered with slick, white bones and bits of cloth. Shreds of padded armor hung from dead black branches overhead. In the center of the clearing, leather reins knotted around a pile of human and horse skulls at the base of a small stone altar. A fine breath of smoke hung in the air, then drifted away on the wind.
Icho walked to the altar. He pressed his palms together and bowed low to the stone soup pot perched on top. A master’s hands had given it life – a wide toad mouth with crooked teeth, and bulging eyes beneath lightning brows. “I thank you. My village thanks you. My father thanks you.”
On the other side of the clearing stretched a wider path made by horses. Icho started home. Noodles. He would not forget.
In the beginning, I knew her only as Kalomi of the Plains. The name, the simple and only vaguely descriptive sobriquet seemed enough to know. She was my Apprentice in the Sisterhood, bound to my side by chance assignment and solemn oath.
Soon, by shared experience, she became my true and trusted comrade. Inevitably, increasingly I came to know her as my friend. But still—and despite her many evident complexities of heart and spirit—she remained to my mind simply Kalomi of the Plains.
It is truly said that I am drawn to explore the exotic, the unknown. And yet, behold the paradox—I often fail to wonder at the unguessed ingredients in the stew, bubbling in the homey and outwardly familiar pot before my very eyes.
So it was with my Apprentice Sister—with my comrade and friend, Kalomi of the Plains.
I peered through the coffin window at the dead alien. “Are we at war with them?”
Yuko shrugged. “I’ll have to check the database.” Nothing the universe threw at Yuko – from exposed biological hazards to escaped flesh eating cargo – fazed her.
The Ithpek vessel had no crew and no declared cargo other than the blue-scaled humanoid stored in the hold. The inspection station’s scanners had verified the ship as clean. No trace of biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons or toxic nanobots.
“We were at war with the Ithpeks for about six years,” Yuko said. “The conflict ended forty-four years ago.”
“Who won?” I asked. Endless political tangles meant whole species were sometimes annihilated before outlying worlds even learned there was a war going on.
“Their colonies surrendered after we nuked their home world.”
“Go us.” The dead alien’s final destination was listed as Tokyo’s Museum of Defense. It must be a trophy.
I double-checked the ship’s flight logs. The ship had left an Ithpek colony world forty-three years ago, just after the war ended, but something just didn’t feel right. “I’m going to run a more detailed background check.”
Requesting information from the station’s byzantine computer system was a painful process. If I’d been on duty with anyone but Yuko, I would’ve had to justify the delay.
I joined Yuko by the ship’s viewport and we waited for the computer’s report. The viewport showed a dozen ships waiting to dock at the station. A deep space cruiser bypassed the line and proceeded to a private hangar.
Yuko zoomed the view in on the cruiser. A Kurohoshi Nisshoku, the fastest human ship ever built. “Captain Wonder got himself a new toy,” she said, using her nickname for Hashimoto, the station’s chief administrator.
The closest I would ever come to owning a spaceship was playing a space sim. At least there were some advantages to working at Earth’s most important space station. Any cargo bound for Earth had to clear our inspection teams, which meant every day I got to board a dozen different alien spaceships.
The station computer confirmed the accuracy of the ship’s logs. The Ithpek vessel had left the colony after the war ended. The delivery code for the Museum of Defense was authentic.
I looked over the ship’s stopping points. The logs said the vessel had taken four years to travel from the Ithpek colony world to the first world in human space. That didn’t sound right. I checked my calculations three times. A vessel of this class couldn’t have made the trip in less than six years. What if the vessel had left earlier than claimed, when the Ithpek were still at war with humanity?
Drones buzzed overhead as Miller entered the restaurant. The front looked normal enough, but the back half was a mess of rubble and blood. Policemen collected evidence and took statements as paramedics carried out bodies covered in white sheets. Miller flashed his badge at the soldier who greeted him and walked over to a pair of policeman chatting in the corner.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite buddy cop duo.”
“Miller.” Ezra, the taller of the two, offered his hand. The short, perpetually scowling Ali merely nodded.
“How many this time?”
“We’re still scraping bits and pieces off the ceiling, but at least twenty. Mostly civilians, plus a couple IDF soldiers on patrol.”
“Any ideas on a motive, besides the usual troublemaking?”
“The owner is related to one of the big shots in the Transitional Government,” said Ali. “But he wasn’t in the restaurant today.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve acted on shoddy intel.”
Miller pursed his lips as he glanced around the remains of the building. This was, what, the third bombing this week? Fourth? At least it wasn’t as bad as the mosque. Shame, though—he had always meant to eat here.
“Another vatman?” he said.
“Do you even have to ask?”
“No need to get snippy, Ali. Let me know when your tech boys have figured out what the bomb was made of. I want to know how they got past the sensors this time.”
“One of the witnesses said he saw the host slip out the door right after the bomber came in,” said Ezra. “We’re thinking he was bribed to disable the sensors.”
“Find him, fast. Shouldn’t be hard for Tehran’s finest, right?”
Neither of the men looked amused by Miller’s joke. He made a mental note not to try another one just as his ear buzzed.
“Miller? It’s Browning.”
“What’s up, Chris?”
“The police have a guy they’re pretty sure has a connection to the Guard. They’re holding him for us.”
“Is ‘pretty sure’ more or less sure than when they were ‘really sure’ about that student being a Guard agent?”
“Come on, just get down here. I just had to listen to another lecture from Langley, and that was before they heard about the latest bomb.”
“Alright, I’m on my way.” To the policemen he said, “Duty calls, gentlemen. I take it you know the drill by now?”
They nodded and went back to picking through the rubble. Miller walked back out into the beautiful spring evening, taking care not to step in any blood on the way.
“He’s real,” said Freddy.
“Death. The Grim Reaper.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I saw him, Dave. He was just as I pictured him.”
“The Reaper,” I said with some irritation. “Death himself.”
“Yes! He’s real! Are you listening to me?”
I was used to Freddy’s little jokes and this was not one of his better ones. When I turned to look at his face I expected his affable grin. Most of the time he can’t keep himself from laughing. He wasn’t even smiling and his face had a wild, intense look to it.
I replied, “You’re not making any sense. How did you come to this conclusion?”
“The climb, man. I was halfway up on Cannon when my carabiner malfunctioned. I was toast.”
“You fell off of Cannon? Weren’t you locked in?” I asked. Of course, I knew the answer. Fred had long ago dispensed with the safety protocols. He had been free climbing for years and this was not his first serious accident. I sat down, prepared for yet another of his narrow escapes from the jaws of death–except that there was no death anymore. There hadn’t been one in 340 years and for that reason his embellished stories were not the exception; they were fairly commonplace.
With a life expectancy of well over a thousand years, humankind had grown bored. Nobody died of old age. Our everlasting bodies were full of tiny Nanobots, their sole purpose to seek and repair cell damage at the molecular level. Accidents were rare due to electronic surveillance that reached even the most remote locations. Our microscopic caretakers operated as a single entity, communicating instantaneously over great distances. Death had been conquered, or so it seemed.
With a lifespan that stretched out infinitely before them, humanity had lost their sense of urgency. Generations of comfort had dulled our survival instincts, bringing progress and innovation to an interminable crawl.
The majority of mankind now fell into two categories, those who sleepwalked through their idyllic life seeking constant entertainment, and the StimSeekers who sought out physical risk, always on the lookout for dangerous experiences to make them feel more alive. Some of these adventurers found their way off-world, bound for the outer limits of the galaxy where unexplored planets were being colonized. As you may have surmised, Freddy was a Stimmer. He was always finding himself a new and ever more dangerous playground.
All of this will be gone soon, he thought, looking out his living room window at the quiet neighborhood. Ed Richards sipped his first coffee of the morning, admiring the poplar trees that lined both sides of the main road before it branched off into his cul de sac.
His house was on a higher elevation than most in this part of Poplar Cove, and that gave him an extra advantage when watching the sunrise peek just over the trees. He wondered about the people who planted them – did they have families too? They probably had never lived here, and likely never even visited the street again once their job was done. Could they have imagined the saplings they were putting into the ground would one day grow up to be such magnificent relics, standing guard over the families who breathed them in? Could they have imagined how the lives of these trees, of those families, were going to end?
He took another sip of coffee, not waiting for it to cool. It burned, and he held onto it until he could no longer feel its sweet black bitterness on his tongue, and then he let it continue its path down his throat.
The television had been unplugged since the weekend. He didn’t want to know any more about what was happening. Several evenings ago he’d watched the bombs take out a dozen cities on the east coast in just a few hours. Boston, New York, Charleston, Atlantic City, even as far south as Jacksonville. All gone. When they started hitting further inland, he just couldn’t watch more of the same. It was total destruction of every place that got hit, and they were hitting every place. Their country was helpless. The president hadn’t been seen for days. It was bad, and it sure as hell seemed like THE END. He didn’t want the kids to know about any of that. He wished he hadn’t known it himself.
His wife walked up behind him. He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed softly.
“I think I’m going to make some eggs, how do you want yours?”
He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from those trees. They seemed extra vibrant today and their solidarity felt comforting. “Thanks, hon. I don’t think I feel like eating anything. Not this morning.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “Any idea how much longer?”
“No,” he sighed. “Just feels like today could be the day, you know?” He felt her head nod.
Ed couldn’t tell how much time had passed as he stood there holding Carrie, and he was fine with that. Time was something they had spent far too long paying attention to, and he was done with it. Her hair smelled like cinnamon and he was quite alright with that.
The poplars just stood there, looking back at him, and they hadn’t so much as swayed since he’d gotten out of bed. They were like the Royal Guard, standing at attention despite the world making a fool of itself right under their noses. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a bird in this area. He wondered where they’d all gone, and if his family could go there too.
The house was still. The boys were asleep and the only sound was the hum of the fridge (the air conditioner had not yet switched on due to the unusually cool summer weather). Earlier, Carrie had plugged in the coffee maker just long enough to make a single pot, and then she unplugged it again. Conserving electricity was the rule now. The President had addressed the nation briefly before the attacks, and with his signature game show smile he assured everybody that the United States would prevail, and that sourcing every working power generator in the country toward that one goal would somehow help. Not once did he ever refer to this thing as a WAR. Of course that was back when Manhattan was still an island.
Several days ago, a tall man with a white moustache on an otherwise clean face stopped by the house. A badge dangled from a blue lanyard around his neck. On it was a black-and-white picture of a clean-shaven version of himself, and the letters DOE spread across it in all caps. Ed knew that the letters stood for Department of Energy. He also found it odd that there was no name on the badge either. The Moustached Man announced that he was operating under Executive Orders and going door to door, checking electric meters and walking through homes, making sure people were complying with the Emergency Energy Conservation Act. Maximum kilowatt hours had been established nationally, with southern cities being allowed more kWh per month than the northern ones during the summer. The Moustached Man quickly made his sweep through the lower level of the house, like a trained dog in a canine unit, and then walked upstairs and did the same. After a few moments he briskly descended the stairs, and with a nod and a cowboy grin, he told them ALL CLEAR and thanked them kindly for their service and to have a fine day. The screen door whacked sharply against the doorframe as he left, like a rimshot at the end of a bad joke.
Ed had wondered why the Department of Energy wouldn’t just have the local government (or even the power company) do such a menial job. Couldn’t Southern Electric just send out their meter-readers and report anybody who was playing too much Xbox? He watched The Moustached Man walk across the street to knock on the Silverman’s door, and that was when Ed saw a large green truck that looked like something out of M.A.S.H. parked at the end of the street. The back of it was filled with men wearing camouflage and helmets, sitting along the siderails and holding M-16 rifles.
These are the good guys, right? he thought.
Ed took another sip of his coffee. It didn’t seem to be cooling off. Carrie leaned up and kissed his cheek and told him she was going to start some eggs anyway, and she’d make him a few over-easy just in case he changed his mind. “Don’t worry, I’ll unplug the stove as soon as I’m done.”
She walked off. In the distance, he heard what sounded like a low roll of thunder, and he thought about Moustache Man and the men holding M-16s, and he wasn’t sure if the presence of the soldiers was supposed to make them feel safe or threatened.
Last fall before any of this, Ed took the boys out to the lake up at Center Hill. He’d wanted them to start learning how to fish, and with Chris in the 2nd grade now (Luke wasn’t far behind him) they were old enough to start getting a feel for it.
They tied down their camping gear into the back of the pickup, and the small fishing boat stuck out past the tailgate. The campground was about a half-hour west, and when they arrived they paid nineteen bucks for an overnight pass. Then they found their campsite and Ed pitched the tent while the boys watched. Then Ed gave them each a paddle and a fishing rod and he hoisted the boat over his head, and they walked the trail down to the water.
Sometime later they still had not caught anything. He hadn’t really expected to, he just wanted the boys to experience sitting on the water, drifting in silence and without anywhere to be.
Then Chris asked him a question he wasn’t expecting:
“Dad, are bad guys real?”
Ed stumbled, not anticipating that type of question. He sure as hell didn’t want to answer it, either.
“Why are you asking that?”
“Miss Tanner told us they were real, and that they were the ones that made those buildings fall down.”
“Your teacher told you that, huh?”
“That’s right, they did.”
“So bad guys are real, right?”
“I wish I could say they’re not, but they are.”
“Do they want to hurt us?”
“Well…they do want to hurt some people, but not necessarily us.” His own use of the word “necessarily” made him cringe.
“Why do they want to be bad?”
“Well son, people have their reasons–”
“Do they even know they’re the bad guys?”
“I don’t know that for sure but I imagine they must.”
“Because we’re definitely the good guys, right dad?”
“I would never want to be a bad guy.”
“Of course not.”
“Because the good guys always win, right?”
“Right.” Ed knew better, but what was he supposed to say?
Chris sat in silence, looking out over the water with his fishing rod drooping near the water. Luke may have been listening, but he hadn’t said anything. Ed hadn’t noticed the clouds moving in until he heard thunder somewhere nearby.
“Better get back to shore, guys. We don’t want to get caught out here in the rain.”
They set down their poles in the boat and Ed picked up both paddles and handed one to Chris.
“The bad guys – they aren’t anywhere near us are they?”
The question echoed back at Ed in his living room. He couldn’t remember how he’d answered it, and it seemed like such a long time ago. He figured he’d said something about the bad guys being far away and that the Army men would surely stop them with their tanks before they got too close. And at the time he could have even believed that himself.
There was a knock at the door, and it startled him out of this trance. He hoped the knock didn’t wake the boys.
He looked through the peephole and saw the telltale gator-skinned cowboy hat perched atop his neighbor’s much-too-tan scalp. It was Joe and he was propping the screen door against his back, like he was waiting to get invited in. Ed opened the front door.
“Good morning Joe.”
“Mornin’, Buddy, hope I didn’t wake you. Hey, ya mind if I borrow your boat for the day? I had mine all loaded up when I saw this crack in the seam, and I don’t think it’s busted all the way through yet, but I don’t want to take the chance testing it out on the water. Know what I mean?”
“Sure, I guess. You know where it is, right?”
“You bet. Thanks Eddie-boy, I’ll try to bring her back in one piece!” Joe said, his voice trailing off as he disappeared off the front stoop and ran around back. Ed lunged and caught the screen door before it could wake the kids.
He walked into the kitchen and leaned over the island and looked at Carrie, who had two eggs on a plate and was frying two more. She’d unearthed the “special occasion” cast iron this morning. She asked him what all that was about at the door and he told her.
“He should have invited you to go with him! I’m sure you’d have loved to get on the water one more time.”
“It’s okay. Everybody wants to be on the water today, you know the lake’s got to be packed. Besides, why on Earth would I want to spend today with him when I could be right here with you?”
She smiled. The toast was ready. She pulled it and set it on the cutting board next to the butter, and then unplugged the toaster.
Carrie had a sweet voice and he wanted to hear more of it this morning. She wasn’t saying much, but she seemed content. She spread butter on the toast and cut it in half. Quiet wasn’t so bad either though. The morning silence had been peaceful, and he was grateful for it, for her, for them.
Something suddenly broke the silence behind them and they both jumped, and they saw Chris and Luke on the staircase, leaping off the third step from the bottom. Carrie laughed.
“Look who’s up,” she said. “It’s not even eight! Who’s hungry?”
Both boys raised their hands and ran over to the kitchen. Ed didn’t know why they were in such good moods, he was just thankful they were.
“You boys can fight over my eggs,” Ed said. “I’ll get in on the next round.” He stood up and gave both boys a quick hug, kissing them on top of their heads, then poured himself another cup. “Honey, what kind is this?”
“It’s some kind of summer blend. I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s good. You’ll have to get more, this isn’t going to last.”
“I’ll be sure to do that the next time I go to the store.” He knew she said that last part out of habit. It was hard to get over the thought of there being something called a “next time.”
He walked back over to the window and looked out over the scores of roofs that seemed to stretch forever into the distance. Their house had been the first one built in this section, and that’s how they’d lucked into being on the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. And it also gave them a sense of security, tucked in the back where nothing could get to them that didn’t have to go through everybody else first.
That’s when he saw the mushroom clouds near the horizon. Not just one, but several. His blood froze, even with hot coffee running through his veins. This must be what happened out east, he thought. He’d expected something different, like explosions or some dramatic flash of light. He’d expected Hiroshima. But these mushrooms were silent and dark, appearing one-by-one across the sky like raindrops falling on a still lake. They seemed alive.
A part of him wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. During tornado-packed evenings the family would huddle in the downstairs bathroom, listening to the static-filled radio until the storms passed. But this time there was no safe place to go, and the radios had been nothing but static for some time.
From the kitchen poured beautiful sounds like he hadn’t heard in months, maybe even years. Carrie was making up silly songs and singing them loudly, making the boys crack up as they tried singing along. He had no intention of making that wonderful painting of a scene end a moment before it had to.
The sky over their street was cloud-free for the moment, but that was about to change. The poplars were still. They were ageless guardians, and Ed’s family was like a fragile figurine collection that the trees had sworn to protect.
But there was only so much the trees could do. Today they could only stare and watch as the clouds moved closer by the second, each one seeming to be larger and darker than the one before. In a few minutes, the clouds would cover their street and invade their homes and bring darkness to everything. But not yet. For now, for at least the next few moments, the sky over their street was still quite nice.
Ed sighed and finished the last of his coffee. He slowly pulled the curtain closed and walked away from the window. He crossed the living room toward his family, unaware and blissful. He placed his mug in the dishwasher.
“We can’t run that anymore, remember? Just set it in the sink instead and I’ll get it after breakfast.”
“Ha! You’re right, I forgot. Hey boys, your mom’s the greatest, isn’t she?”
They gave their thumbs up approval as they began stuffing their mouths with eggs and toast.
He smiled back.
Aaron Grayum is a writer and artist. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Michelle, who is also an artist, and his son Sebo, who is also a ninja.
At first, Mark took her for just another illegal: they all looked the same, heads down, feet shuffling, dressed in off-white paper suits so thin that the whole line trembled on their way up the ramp and into the back of the lorry. It was only when she looked up that he realized who she was.
Asha to her friends. He had been one, once.
He had fallen for her hard, the first girl he had ever thought of as more than just a fluffy pink annoyance. The entire spring the year he turned fourteen had been spent trying to impress her and the entire summer holiday spent longing for her. He cried when he returned to school in September and found her gone. He suffered his first broken heart by proxy, victim of Asha’s family moving away from London to care for an elderly relative.
Six years had barely changed her; she was still Asha, still dark-haired and dark-eyed and petite, a cocoa-skinned pixie. She shuffled past on the ramp and for a second their eyes met. When she didn’t seem to recognize him, didn’t even blink, it was a sucker punch right in the gut. She was in the back of the lorry before he could catch his breath, just another illegal for Jones to tick off on his clipboard. Once the rest of them had joined her the ramp was lifted, sealing her away in the dark.
Jones drove, easing the lorry through the gate and out of the holding camp, a squat building that had once been a primary school. The outskirts of Leicester were a ghost town of hollowed-out take-aways and boarded-up corner shops covered in graffiti: “Illegals Go Home”, “Britain for the British,” slogans from the government’s last election campaign. They made Mark think of the prisoners, crammed in the back of the lorry like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Jones was old-school; shaven head, bulldog tattoo on one forearm and a pin-up on the other, a faded St George’s Cross poking out from the collar of his camo shirt. They hadn’t worked together before and Jones was too big, too imposing, for Mark to be the one to break the silence. Instead he checked the clipboard, as discreetly as he could. The girl in the back of the lorry was definitely Ashika. Seeing her name made him tingle.
“Done this run before?” Jones asked, making Mark jump.
“No,” Mark replied. “You?”
“Thought not,” Jones said. “Would’ve recognized you. Done this a few times meself. Never gets any easier. Searchers keep finding more ‘n more of ’em.” The older man flicked him a glance. “Strange, that, eh?”
There was a challenge in Jones’s voice that demanded the correct answer, something that was safe and appropriate to say. “Well, y’know, they breed like rats, don’t they?” He thought of Ashika and felt disgusted with himself. “So,” he added, trying to move the conversation on, “you been in the regiment long?”
“What did you do before?”
“Bit o’ this, bit o’ that,” Jones said noncommittally. “You?”
“Nuffin’,” Mark said.
Jones frowned. “Why’s that?” he asked. “Man’s gotta work.” There was another challenge in his voice, sharp and almost angry.
Mark swallowed; Jones was six inches taller and six stone heavier, built like he could bench-press the lorry. “It was hard,” he said, “until we started kicking this lot out. I’m working now, aren’t I?”
“Coming over here, taking out jobs?”
Jones nodded as if that told him everything he need to know and turned his attention back to the road.
The habitat doors hissed open. Steam slipped from Vesha’s body. The air grew cold, until ice strands formed between her fingers and toes. Her lungs burned. The plastic umbilical cable tugged at her navel as it pumped stabilizing chemicals into her bloodstream.
Vesha squinted through tears of pain. Outside, Torumba’s frozen landscape stretched to the wall of the Border Zone. A layer of mist clung to the blue ice field.
Her earpiece crackled. “Acclimation sequence complete.”
Vesha strode out onto the ice.
“Crystozoa concentrations at point-six above. Lung capacity at fifty-five percent. All systems operational.”
Vesha coughed, and tasted blood. Operational. Yeah, right.
“Evening, Vesha.” Through the habitat windows, Jacob’s bushy hair stood out like an orange sun. He sounded different today. Nervous.
“Hot date today, doc?”
Jacob forced a chuckle. “Yeah, right.”
He rattled off her test parameters. It had been a year since her inception date, and the damned tests never ended. If she was meant to parent humanity’s next generation, shouldn’t she get started? The habitat would only hold them for another few years.
She crouched at the test site and planted her fingertips atop the ice. Liquid pooled in small circles. Beneath, the soil was visible. Her fingers sank, and for a moment it looked like it might work. Then a chill overtook her, and the water froze. She tore her hands free, and her skin bled.
Vesha gritted her teeth. More failed tests. They had built her to thrive on Torumba, not just survive. But Jacob himself had admitted, halfway through a bottle of chag one night, that they’d rushed her genetic encoding, pressured by worsening habitat conditions. There was still no word from Earth, and everyone feared the worst. Their meager colony might be the last vestige of humankind. They had no fuel to venture beyond this system, which meant they had to adapt. Vesha was their only hope for survival. “The key to humanity’s future,” Jacob called her.
Vesha spat, and the ice stained red. Some surrogate mother she was.
She shot a glance at the habitat. A gaggle of scientists peered over Jacob’s shoulder. Vesha’s earpiece buzzed, and the white-coated team shuffled down the hall, leaving Jacob alone.
“What’s going on, bud?”
Sweat glistened on Jacob’s brow. “If you run, you might make the border in time.”
Vesha snorted. “Not following you.”
“You have to go. It’s your only chance.”
A tremor rippled down Vesha’s spine. “Are we under attack?”
Jacob hesitated. “Check the west corral.”
The wall dividing her corral from the next loomed fifty meters away. That corral had always been empty. What was he getting at?
Jacob slammed his fist against the glass. “Go!”
Vesha ran. Her lungs felt ready to burst. Her muscles strained around the joints, where the tests always showed signs of genetic defects.
She reached the wall and leapt. She hauled herself atop the wall. Blood streamed from her nostril onto her lips.
A shadow played across the ice in the adjacent corral. A woman. On the surface. How was this possible? Vesha was the only one with lungs that could handle the Crystozoa.
The woman’s skin was a dull green. Her fingers and toes were long and thin. The light from the habitat caught her face. She looked just like Vesha.
The woman crouched, and sunk her fingertips into the ice with ease. She tossed chunks of the blue stuff aside and clutched the rich soil beneath. Her breathing was relaxed. She was perfect.
“Jacob, what… is she?”
Jacob sighed. “There isn’t time–”
“She’s… your successor.”
The woman in the corral dug out a handful of soil and studied it. Vesha clenched her teeth.
“But I’m… key to humanity’s future… ”
“You’re just our first try. You’re not the… finished product. Listen, Vesha. You have to go–”
“First try? We’re all first tries! What about you, Jacob? Are they building your successor, too?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Vesha.”
The woman shook Crystozoa strands from her hair. Vesha fought off the urge to leap down and tear that hair from her scalp by the fistful.
“What will happen to me?”
“It’s not my decision. I just found out. Doctor Thomas–”
Jacob’s voice quavered. “You’ll be decommissioned. But you still have a chance, before Doctor Thomas gets back. You have to run.”
Vesha looked across the ice fields. Beyond the far wall lay the Wilds. Where would she go? The Wilds were filled with Crystozoa breeding pools and god knew what else. And she was… flawed. She didn’t stand a chance.
An angry voice piped into her ear. Doctor Thomas.
“–the hell? Vesha, return to base immediately.”
Vesha’s umbilical cord lay sprawled across the ice like the slack string of a kite, waiting to reel her in.
“Return to base. That’s an order.”
Vesha drew the cord to her mouth and gnashed it with her teeth. The fibers snapped. Milky liquid spilled across the wall.
An alarm blared. From the habitat, a security automaton shot into the night on blazing thrusters.
Vesha ran across the top of the wall. Her thighs burned like hell. The border of the Wilds loomed closer, a knife’s edge of white against azure mountains.
Metal hands gripped her. Her feet slipped from the wall. She twisted in the automaton’s grasp, but its fingers dug deeper. It hauled her toward the habitat.
Doctor Thomas stood in the window, hands on her hips, a venomous glare in her eyes. A pair of guards restrained Jacob nearby. His eyes were wide, locked on Vesha as she drew nearer.
Vesha thrust a hand upward. Her open palm smashed into her captor’s chin, and sparks flew. She tucked her legs, planted her feet against its chest, and pushed.
Metal fingers slipped from her skin, drawing out ribbons of blood. She flew backward. A flash blinded her. Pain lanced through her torso. She gagged as her fingers felt the gaping hole in her abdomen.
Vesha landed atop the wall and the air shot from her lungs. Jacob’s voice rang in her earpiece, a string of muffled words. She tried to sit up, but the pain was too much. Her legs were numb. Crystozoa clung to the surface of her eyes. She let her head drop.
Over the west side, her successor stood in her corral, watching. A thin trail of blood ran from the woman’s nostril. Vesha smiled bitterly as the pain slipped from her body at last.
Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up story writing to kick the habit. When he’s not writing, he spends his time on another continent in search of adventure.
Somewhere beyond the edge of camp, the things were waking up. Somebody had mentioned it would be better to adjust to their schedule: sleep during the day, be vigilant at night, stop being taken by surprise. That week’s leader had refused, every single time. They had made enough concessions.
The dusky purple of twilight settled over the treetops as people kicked dirt over the glowing embers of their dying fire. On top of everything else, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and the whole wood was as good as kindling. They had nearly finished setting up camp for the night, and as the dozen or so remaining campers settled in for what was sure to be an uneasy rest, they rolled dirty sleeping bags onto dusty piles of dirt and leaves in a poor attempt to soften the ground at their backs. It was nearly winter. Jem sat at the edge of the tent circle, fluffing what now passed for a pillow. She hadn’t slept soundly in days, and it wasn’t because of what lurked beyond the tree line. The wood was filled with a million unfamiliar sounds–was that an insect? Some kind of bird? What makes a buzzing sound and also scurries up and down the trees at all hours? She wondered in silence. There was nobody to complain to any more.
She watched as a few of the others went to bed. Floating through the spaces between the zipped flaps of tents came the murmurs of pillow talk and the occasional sigh of pleasure–not everything had changed. She longed for the life she was used to: a life of clean sheets and fresh fruit and meat that didn’t come from whatever was crawling around. As she pondered her fate, resigned to a life of sore muscles and aching vertebrae, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up, her thoughts interrupted. Kelvin.
“You’re on watch with me, Jem,” he said, and stalked off to the edge of the clearing without waiting for a response.
Kelvin was, in every sense of the word, a redneck. Jem had never socialized with people like Kelvin before all this happened, and she thought it a particularly ironic twist of fate that they were the only ones likely to survive this hell. She found herself wishing she were a little more rough around the edges. Everyone at camp treated her like a burden, making a point of explaining every chore assigned to her as if she had never heard of washing clothes or boiling water. Instead of proving them wrong, she half-assed every responsibility they gave her. If they think I’m so useless, she thought, I’ll be useless. It occurred to her that sort of response was infantile, but Jem wasn’t particularly concerned with earning their good favor. She wasn’t here to make friends, now.
Jem groaned and followed him to the spot he had chosen. Leaning against the tree was the rifle, which she took, wrinkling her nose at its weight. She slid down to sit, facing the direction opposite her partner, and supporting herself against the trunk for a moment before it occurred to her that was probably the worst possible place to be if she wanted to avoid getting crawled on. She shuddered, and Kelvin snorted. Almost as if he had read her mind, he said,
“Tiny bugs’re the least of your problems. Look out o’er there,” he said, and pointed to a place between two trees, a few yards beyond the campsite. Stretched between their branches were thick strands of pinkish grey, and though she couldn’t make out much more than their color, she knew what the rope-like webbing meant.
Jem swallowed, grasping the rifle tighter. “They’re out here?”
Kelvin shrugged as he searched the forest floor, kicking over rotting leaves and disturbing tufts of dead grass.
“But that’s so close to camp!” she whispered, eyes darting back to the spot between the trees.
He picked up a stick then, reaching into his pocket and taking out a knife, and began whittling it down to size before responding, “We swept the area pretty thorough before settlin’ in. They may make their way over, but if they do… well, that’s why we’re on watch. So keep your pretty peepers peeled.”
“Hmm,” was Jem’s only response. A biting wind blew through the trees, and she pulled her jacket even tighter around her well-fed frame. Suddenly, she felt a little less irritated and a lot more anxious. She didn’t want to be responsible for the welfare of all these people. She barely wanted that responsibility over herself. She thought about the last time she was on watch. She remembered Henry.
He had been in the group from the start–the only one she’d really liked, even if he was a little gauche. Something about him had smitten her, and it wasn’t his good looks or even his strength. It was his attitude, she thought, and his unwillingness to bend. He was solid on all counts, and maybe even a little stuck in his ways. Henry had come from circumstances similar to Jem‘s, in “real life” as she now referred to it in her private thoughts. He hadn’t been so different from her. Henry hadn’t lasted too long.
“Have you ever…” she started to ask, and trailed off. Kelvin grunted. “Have you seen one? Up close, I mean,” she finished.
Kelvin stopped whittling and turned to face her, his nose inches from hers. “Are you kiddin’?” he asked, and she shook her head. “Miss, most anybody who sees one up close doesn’t come back to tell of it. Mostly.”
Jem nodded, but pressed on. “Mostly?”
Kelvin sighed and set down the knife and stick. “You ever see someone with a bite?”
Jem trembled again, and hugged the rifle to her chest, leaning against it for support. She hadn’t seen a bite.
“We had a guy a while back. Back when everything went to shit and we were still thinkin’ we could avoid ‘em if we holed up. Got bit by a little one, barely bigger’n you. Least that’s what he says. Said. Anywho,” Kelvin picked up the knife and went back to whittling before continuing his story.
“He got bit on the leg somethin’ awful–I mean, pus and gunk all runnin’ out, and… Sorry. You probably don’t want to hear about that. Anyway, he’d been close enough to get bit, and he got an eyeful and then some. He told me what it looked like but… I don’t know if he was right. In the head, I mean. By that time his fever was pretty high and most of what came out his mouth sounded nuts.”
Jem coughed and turned around again, staring out into the green-black of the nighttime forest. The wood was mostly quiet now, and she breathed in the silence for a while before she began to speak. She remembered Henry–his piercing blue eyes locked with hers as the thing dragged him away.
“What happened after he got bit?”
Kelvin paused and answered, “We didn’t stick around to find out. He lasted for a couple days and then he got so stiff he couldn‘t move, and his eyes wouldn’t stay open. And he smelled nasty. It was like he was rottin’ from the inside or somethin’. We got overrun around that time and had to leave him. Shit!”
Jem jumped up, rifle in hand, before Kelvin waved for her to sit back down.
“Just nicked my finger on the knife,” Kelvin explained, “Gotta grab a bandage. Sit tight for a second, will ya?”
“Alone?” she whispered, but he was already walking away. Jem took deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves. She would be fine, she told herself. He was coming right back. For a while she concentrated on her breathing, listening to the steady sound, in and out. And then she held her breath. For the past few weeks they had been wandering this forest, avoiding the enemy against what she perceived to be very narrow odds. She wondered if she had gotten used to the sounds somehow, after all this time. But it wasn’t familiarity tricking her senses–save for the rustling of leaves and the gentle snoring of Gina in her tent, there wasn’t a single sound. No scurrying creatures, no birds, no insects. The woods were silent.
Panicked, Jem’s eyes widened as the realization struck her. What could silence an entire forest? She supposed she knew, but it wasn’t until she turned to look towards Kelvin, returning with a fresh bandage, that she forced out the word: “Bugs!”
Kelvin’s eyes strayed up to the treetops as he stood frozen in place, his rifle several feet away. Lowering itself to the spot where he stood was one of them, pincers snapping and dripping with pink foam. Jem screamed, and the thing lurched forward, Kelvin’s shoulder now caught between its gleaming appendages. The camp awoke quickly, men and women leaping into action, as Kelvin thrashed in a feeble attempt to free himself.
Without thinking, Jem raised her rifle and fired into the thing’s back. It burst open with a fresh outpouring of grey-pink webbing, falling to the ground as it released its hold on Jem’s frightened partner. It dissolved there into a pile of foam, staining the ground as it sunk into the dirt. Kelvin’s face had been completely drained of color, save for a streak of red across his cheek. Hands quavering, she reached forward to wipe away the blood, followed it to the source, and felt the scratch on his shoulder. It was deep.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group was starting to gather around. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle, a wall of backs surrounding the two on the ground, eyes frantically searching the forest canopy for any sign of movement. Chests heaving. Legs quaking. Mouths exchanging panicked whispers.
“Do you see anything?”
“Where did it come from?”
“Are there more?”
“There’s never just one.”
Time ticked by at a snail’s pace, the moments stretching into what felt like an eternity, and still there was no indication of more of the bugs. They couldn’t be sure, but after fifteen minutes or so of standing at the ready, five of them broke off from the group to search the perimeter, leaving the rest behind to wring their hands and strain their ears for any change in their carefully placed footsteps. Jem sat, powerless to do anything. Coming back to herself for a moment, she hurriedly wiped the blood from her hands and onto the ground beside her, and brought a tentative hand to his wrist. There was a pulse–faint, but steady. Jem lowered her head to his chest and watched it rise and fall: slow, irregular. She didn’t know what any of it meant. The rest of the group returned. For now, it seemed, they were alone.
Sky took a step forward. Her leg stretched out toward the desolate horizon, then came down behind her. She wobbled and half-fell before she regained her balance. She closed her eyes, but it didn’t help.
She’d never been comfortable in her body, but this was ridiculous.
Oil slick-purple clouds rumbled, then dumped sheets of rain that billowed like sails. They smelled like burnt sugar and felt like feathers on her upturned face.
Sky stood, let it drench her. She glanced down at her naked body, trying not to hope and failing.
It was still wrong. Unchanged. Still her familiar, male prison. Reality itself bent and broke around her, but her body remained stubbornly unaltered.
Her tears tasted like cilantro.
Bare trees loomed to her left, and a herd of horses lumbered by, competent if not graceful on their lengthening legs.
Sky watched them, hoping to catch the trick of it.
“You’re new,” a voice said.
A woman floated toward her. Her long blond hair curled and billowed around her naked body, and her pale, bare breasts reminded Sky of how wrong her own body was.
“Yes,” she said. To her delight, her own voice sounded different. Feminine, like she’d always heard it in her head.
The woman blinked. “How strange you are.”
Sky had always been strange. She had thought no one would notice, here. “I’m sorry.” Her voice wavered, new and old within single syllables.
The woman shrugged. “Strange is not bad.”
“Oh,” Sky said. “Good.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m called Celina.” She floated around Sky, looking her up and down. “I’d like to have sex with you. Your body is very fine.”
Sky’s hated penis twitched. It stretched to the horizon, then returned to normal. “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not. I hate this body. I hoped I might change, here.”
Celina frowned. “I don’t understand. Your body is lovely and strong.”
Sky shrugged. She was tired of explaining herself.
“Well, things do change here.”
Celina shrugged. “Why would I wish to?”
Jealousy twisted Sky’s stomach. If she looked like Celina, she wouldn’t want to change either.
“Is there a secret to walking?” Sky asked.
Celina shrugged. “I’m sure there is. But I never bothered to learn it.” She floated in a fast circle around Sky, smirking as Sky’s head turned all the way around to watch. “I float instead. I can teach you.”
“You are interesting, and I am bored. And I am selfish and optimistic enough to maintain designs on sex.”