Travelers’ Crossing

A strapping spaceman, greased black hair visible through his fishbowl helmet, was climbing through some twisted wreckage. Maybe it was alien plants. Who can say but the artist? Behind him a spaceship that looked an awful lot like a cruise ship with three bumps on top hovered in perfect profile. The cover story was titled Secret Weapon, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the astronaut was the eponymous weapon. Doubtful. Still, something like that would make a nice souvenir. The art was nice enough. They let us take little things like this with us, as long as we don’t go overboard and we don’t try to sell them. I counted out the extra dimes, handed them to the kid behind the counter, and walked out with my brand new April 1968 copy of Analog, as well as the day’s newspapers.

With lunch over I had little else to do but head back to my dingy hotel room. The day had been like most: eat breakfast at the diner, ride the bus uptown during rush hour, walk around aimlessly – never the same route two days in a row – until lunch in the park, then ride the bus back to the hotel. I’d taken to getting the newspapers at the shop by the bus stop closest to the hotel, whether or not that was the stop I got off at. Walking around was a great way to bump into people and overhear what they were talking about, a tried and true method.

Timmy spotted me crossing the road to the hotel and ran over from the apartment complex across the street. He had his baseball glove and ball in hand, as usual.

“Howdy, Mr. Smith! Got your papers again?”

“You bet.”

“Boy, you sure are predictable.”

I mocked surprise, “Am I?”

Timmy fell in step and we walked together toward the hotel entrance. “So, what’s going on around the neighborhood?” I asked.

“Same old boring nothing. Ain’t nothing ever happening around here.”

“I wouldn’t say that. In my experience there’s always something happening everywhere. After all, if nothing happened anywhere then where would anything ever happen?”

Timmy curled his upper lip. “Huh?”

I couldn’t help but laugh and give him a poke with my elbow.

“Hey, what’s that?” Timmy had the copy of Analog pulled out from the middle of my newspaper stack before I knew what had happened. It must have slipped out when I nudged him.

“That’s just some light reading material. I thought it might help me fall asleep tonight.”

He eyed the dashing spaceman with jealousy. I held my hand out to reclaim my souvenir and he reluctantly relinquished it. “Do you think men will walk on other planets? Like after we go to the moon and set up moon bases and stuff?”

How could I tell him? How do you tell a kid in the 1960s that no, mankind will never walk on other planets. That we’ll stop after sending a dozen men to prance across the surface of the moon. That the dreamers of a generation will see their hopes dashed against the rocks, obliterated by cynical politicians and a disinterested public.

I tussled his hair with my free hand. “How would I know that, silly?”

Timmy scrambled to straighten his hair, “I don’t know. You seem pretty smart. Like Mr. Donovan. He tells me a lot of cool stuff.”

“Oh, and who is Mr. Donovan?” I thought for a second, “Oh, is he the new guy that showed up a few days ago? The guy that took the room at the end of the hall?”

“No, he’s at the top of the stairs,” which, I should point out, are at the end of the hall. “He’s from the future!”

I blinked for several seconds at that. “Come again?”

“Mr. Donovan is a time traveler sent here from the future! He’s told me stuff about space ships and something he calls microcomputers and how I’ll live to see them change the world!” Just then Timmy’s mother called after him and he ran off waving goodbye before I could say another word.

As I crested the stairs to the second floor I paused. I should knock, I thought. No, it’s silly. By force of will I continued down the hall to my own room. Once inside I dropped the papers in the arm chair before checking my recorder. I’ve never had a problem with one of these, nor has anyone I’ve ever known, but it doesn’t hurt to check. There was several hours of new footage on its drive. I flipped through a few clips idly, checking sound and tracking – again, needlessly. That’s when I realized I was still holding the magazine. The worrying part was that my hand was shaking. Throwing the magazine on the table I dropped down into the armchair, removing the stack of newspapers unceremoniously from my underside. The stained ceiling lay before me, the same stain that kept me silent company whenever I was frustrated. A genuine concern overcame me as I reflexively groped at my stomach. I could feel the small disc a half centimeter under my skin.

Don’t do it, I thought. It’s stupid and a waste of your time. How’s it going to look if you’re wrong and, let’s face it, you can’t be right.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I was standing before Mr. Donovan’s door, my fist prepared to knock. Well, I thought, it’d look doubly ridiculous if I didn’t knock at this point. So I did.

There was an immediate muffled reply. I couldn’t make it out so I responded in a generic way. “It’s Mr. Smith, I’m your neighbor from down the hall.” It suddenly occurred to me that “hotel neighbor” was a ridiculous concept, but maybe he would take it in good spirit.

There was the distinct sound of the door unlocking and before me stood a short plump balding man in a cheap suit. He would fit in anywhere in the city just as well as me in my tweed jacket and slacks. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

What the heck was I planning on saying? Hi, I’m wondering if you’re actually a time traveler because the nine year old I talk to said you were?

His questioning face told me I had to say something. “Do you know Timmy next door?”

The man stuck his head out in the hallway, looking away from the stairs.

“Sorry,” I injected, “not in the next hotel room. He lives in the apartment building across the street. About so tall, usually carries a baseball mitt?”

“Oh, yes. The energetic young lad. Yes, I’ve spoken to him a few times. Quite chatty, that one. Boy after my own heart.” His eyes were jovial. “Would you be the father?”

“No, nothing like that. I guess you could say I’m a friend of his.” Then it came to me. I’m looking out for the boy. Seems you told him you’re a future man. You shouldn’t fill his head with such nonsense or something like that. “Well, I’m just wondering… he told me you were from the future.”

“Did he?”

“He said you told him you were.”

“But you’re not his father?”

“No.”

“Then why do you care what I said to him?”

This was going nowhere. I may as well go for broke and maybe the guy would just think I was crazy and would leave me alone. Hopefully forget about me. “Well, he said you used the word microcomputer.”

The small man gave me a sideways glance. “Do you know much about microcomputers?”

“Yes. Quite a bit actually.” May as well go all in. “Microcomputers and wireless networks.”

His eyes grew wide. Next thing I knew he’d grabbed my arm and yanked me inside his room; he was pretty strong for a little guy.

He just stood there staring at me, like I was supposed to do something. I reached into my chest pocket and removed my cigarette case. I slid my thumb from end to end to release the latch, my DNA unlocking the security mechanism. Instead of cancer facilitators the open case revealed a full color, three dimensional projection in all its illuminated glory.

The man was clapping and squealing like a toddler at the zoo. He recomposed himself before presenting me with a hand, which I shook. “John Donovan.”

“Mathew Smith.”

“I assume that is –”

“Not my real name, no.”

“Same here, but it will suffice. Really, what are the odds?”

The relief was too much. I started laughing like a child. “Astronomical! To encounter another Traveler, and one staying in the same hotel!”

“I know! It’s unbelievable!”

“Hence my concern!”

He clapped me on the back and invited me to have a seat at his modest desk. In turn he sat on the edge of the bed.

“So when are you from?” I asked.

“Well now, I don’t think I’m supposed to tell you.”

“Please, I have to know.”

“Really, I couldn’t –”

“Here, I’ll make it easy. I’m from 2118. There, now you know.”

His face changed subtly. “Well now, that is interesting.”

I waited for him to reciprocate. My face prodding him. “Well,” he finally began, “let’s just say I’m upstream of you a ways.”

There was the slightest clench in my stomach. “How far?”

“Far enough. That’s as much as I’m prepared to say.”

“Of course,” was all I could respond, though I think it came out little more than a mutter. Then, after clearing my throat, “I’m sure you understand that I’m very surprised to encounter another Traveler here. It makes me believe my mission was a failure, that perhaps my life is in danger.”

“How so?”

What kind of a question was that? “Well, my chip, of course,” and my hand automatically went to my stomach. “I’ve been syncing it every day. Even if there was data loss I would still make an oral report. I can’t believe they sent you back here to the same place and time as another Traveler.”

My eyes must have been questing for answers because he waved me away. “I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about your mission, and I’m just as surprised to encounter you as you are to meet me.”

“Then can I ask your purpose here?”

“The standard; to study the reactions of the native population to recent events, to get the man on the street’s opinion, so to speak.”

“That’s much the same as my objective. What is your specialty?”

“I’m a sociologist. I’m studying how a culture deals with an unending conflict in the shape of the Vietnam War. My dissertation was on the Forever War of the twenty-first century. Yourself?”

“Mass psychology. I’m studying the contemporary public’s perception of the war and the cultural tumult surrounding it.”

Donovan waved his hand again, “See? Entirely different specialties. That explains why we’re both here.”

“Well, not entirely different…”

“Say, how long have you been here?”

“I’m two weeks into a four week stay.”

“Four weeks! Well, I’m only here for one week and I’m already three days into that. Say, how about you and I pool resources?”

Such a thing was unheard of. Two Travelers from different presents engaging in any appreciable interaction was unprecedented. As it was our interaction was likely the longest known about in my present.

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely! Your participation would be extremely beneficial to my work. What do you say? I take it you have a recorder capturing all the local television and radio stations? Yes, of course you do. We could add your recordings to my data. Three weeks worth for the price of one!”

“But those should already be in the Time Vault…”

“Redundancy never hurts.”

My brain was yelling at me to get up. Get up and walk out of the room. This is a bad idea. You shouldn’t be here. You should never have come here. Go to your room, gather your things, trigger your bungee and report back. That’s all that matters. Report back.

“Yes. Yes, I think we should work together,” was what I said instead.


Most of the cars in the parking lot across the street were from the mid to late 1940s. Granted they made them to last back then, but it mostly served as an indication of the poverty that gripped the neighborhood. From what Timmy had told me there were a good number of single moms living in the apartment complex, along with a lot of immigrant families just starting out in America. I smirked at the thought of calling this country America. Goes to show you how effective infiltration training is in altering one’s thought processes. “The Former United States” was what I’d have to write in my official report. I remember thinking it would probably just be easier to write “America” and do a find and replace search later.

Of course, that’s if I ever wrote my report. That ball came back in the pit of my stomach, the same one that for two hours had been forcing away my appetite to the point that I’d all but decided to skip dinner. Why didn’t Donovan know I’d be here? I’d spent a half hour considering the idea that he was lying about his origin, that he was actually from my past. In the end I couldn’t work out a reason why he’d lie about that. He’d have to know I’d figure it out when we started working together. He undoubtedly would have a computer of a make and model that I’d recognize. Besides all that, if he was from my past then I’d know he was going to be here – my mission would never have been approved otherwise.

It was time to think it through from the beginning. Time travel does not allow us to move to the future, that’s the first law of time travel, “the inclined plane of temporal mechanics,” my professor had called it. The metaphor is apt because although it is possible to shift mass backwards in time – with a massive expenditure of energy – to shift it forwards in time requires an astronomical expenditure. Something like the entire energy output of the Sun for a week to move the mass of one human being forward one year. The consequence is that no Traveler has ever gone to the future.

That begs the question, how am I getting home? That’s where the tachyon bungee comes in. The physics is way beyond me, but it is (evidently) possible to tether an object to its point of origin in both time and space through the use of tachyon particles, some sort of weird matter that I’ve been told won’t give me cancer even though they are streaming through me all the time. That’s where the disc in my belly comes in. It functions as the anchor for my tachyon bungee. I trigger it and it snaps my whole body back to the very instant I departed. I’d spend four weeks in 1968 and not even a nanosecond would pass in 2118 for my whole trip. The bungee technology has been in use for decades, with every time traveling researcher using one. The early models could be a problem – some folks came back missing some extremities – but the worst that had happened in years was a woman that came back needing a skin graft. To outright die is a near impossibility – or so I’d been told.

But it’s worse than that. Though its a near impossibility, no agency wants to take the chance of not getting the data from an endeavor like this, so along with the tachyon bungee each disc contains a wireless data storage device that houses the records from the mission. Synced nightly with my cigarette case hand computer, the onboard micro-storage is radiation shielded and encased in titanium. The disc constantly monitors my vital signs. Any significant problems and it snaps the bungee so no local coroner finds the advanced tech. My hand computer has its own bungee remotely synced to the disc. The whole kit and kabootle will go to 2118, taking my corpse with it. No fuss, no muss. Even if nothing but a smoking mass makes it back to 2118 my report would still be filed in the Time Vault.

Which brings me to the Time Vault. Built to withstand anything short of a direct hit from a nuclear warhead it houses the records of every time traveler since the program began. The data storage technology has been tested to last at least 10,000 years – that’s right, they sent one back to 8,000 BCE, but don’t ask me where it’s buried. When I get back my recordings will immediately go into the Vault to be followed a few days later by my official report and video debrief. Even if my records were destroyed there should at least be a mention of my trip in the Vault. “Sent Agent to March 1968 etcetera, all records lost for unknown reason.” That would have to send up a red flag for anyone wanting to go to 1968. Anyone like Donovan.

Could Donovan be from an unregistered time travel outfit? What would be the purpose in that? Could he be a time criminal? No, that’s ridiculous. The energy cost alone would eliminate any gain. The past can’t be changed, that’s a physical fact. Call it time travel law number two. The past is the past. Any Traveler sent back was always sent back and will always be sent back; they’re part of the timeline and always have been. Besides, Time Crime just doesn’t pay. The resources needed to construct and utilize a time machine are so immense that any time criminal would already be one of the richest people alive.

I was left with one set of facts: Donovan was from my future and he was a time traveling researcher like myself. That’s it. Maybe I did file my report. Maybe Donovan knew I was here. Maybe he didn’t. He was undoubtedly lying to me, but I had no clue what about or why. My only option was to get close to him and try to find out. My life was at stake, because either I don’t make it back to file my report, or Donovan came here to intercept me for some unknown purpose. Either way, I’m in a lot of trouble.


Donovan easily established his credentials as a sociologist. His read of the public’s perception of the war was spot on, though he seemed to lack familiarity with some of the references I’d used in my own preparation. In our conversations it became clear he had never read Mark Bowden’s award winning Hue 1968, which I found invaluable for an understanding of the Tet Offensive. In general he felt well read on some nuance, and less so on others. I don’t purport to be all knowing or all remembering, but the gaps in his knowledge continued to trouble me. When I would prod him about these gaps he would give me that jovial smile and wave of his hand and dismiss it as evidence of his poor memory.

One evening we decided to get take-out and go over the day’s newspapers together. A few hours in I handed him a page six story concerning the Pueblo.

“What’s this about?” he asked.

“It’s an update on the Pueblo Incident. Not really any new information, but it’s interesting in that the reporter’s professionally neutral tone carries an undercurrent of questioning the official story of how the Pueblo was captured in the first place.” I rubbed my bloodshot eyes as I spoke. “Actually, it’s a very nice example of the Credibility Gap. After all, this is the decade that birthed not only the term, but the concept.”

Donovan’s eyes skimmed the article twice. “This has nothing to do with Vietnam.”

“Not directly, no, but it speaks to the overall feeling at the time. Like I said, it reflects the Credibility Gap.” Confusion was plain on his face, so I elaborated. “It’s the idea that the White House has a lack of credibility, that they can’t be trusted concerning exactly where the Pueblo was when it was captured, and similarly can’t be trusted about the Vietnam War. Had the boat crossed into North Korean waters before it was intercepted, or was it actually in international waters like the White House claims? Was it a legal seizure for trespass or wasn’t it? The public doesn’t know who to trust, and the reporter’s tone carries that – it’s subtle, but it’s there. I think that’s a large reason President Johnson is about to announce that he won’t seek reelection.”

Donovan was nodding slowly as I spoke and continued after I’d finished. Eventually he placed the newspaper back on my pile and muttered a barely perceptible “interesting” before going back to his own stack.

I watched him for a minute before checking my wrist watch. “Sorry to do this, but I’m feeling pretty tired. Do you think we could call it a night? It’s almost 10:30.”

He responded with his usual jovial smile. “Not at all. I would like to scan this material before I leave, if that’s all right.”

There had to be a dozen Sunday editions laid out on my meager table, not to mention the various news magazines we’d picked up. “I’m probably going to crash as soon as you walk out the door. If you like I can help you carry these to your room.” I really hoped he didn’t want that. I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it the meter and a half to bed.

“No need, I’ll just be a moment.” From his jacket pocket he removed a small cylindrical cigarette lighter. After a rapid gesture my tired eyes couldn’t follow he’d extended the cylinder to triple its original length and broke it in half along its axis. The two halves were connected by a translucent screen, on which were characters I recognized as some variant of Chinese, though I couldn’t place the dialect. I could make out Latin characters interspersed with the logograms. My recognition was made all the harder since I was looking at the characters from an angle behind the translucent screen.

“Donovan, what language is that?”

He feigned ignorance of my question with a distracted “Hmm?”

“The language. Is that a Chinese variant?”

He snapped the hand computer closed and with a swift gesture it was a normal sized cigarette lighter. “Oh, that’s just my horrible handwriting. Good evening, Mr. Smith.” He made for the door.

“But you didn’t scan any of the papers!” My exclamation was unintentional. After seeing his hand computer I had pressing questions.

“Yes I did. I told you, it would only take a moment.”

I was on my feet, arms waving impotently at the stack of folded papers. “But you could only have imaged what’s on top…”

Donovan waved his hand dismissively. “Ah, I see your confusion. My scanner images holographically on a molecular level. I’ve copied every page, inside and out. It will take some processing power to reconstruct the image, but I’ll do that when I get back to my own time. Good night, my friend.” Donovan bowed slightly and let himself out.


The lunch talk at the diner was largely concerning Johnson’s announcement the day before that he was officially out of the presidential race before it even began. Apart from the private minutiae of daily life I overheard people speaking of little else. I knew my cigarette case was recording more than I could hear from its position on the counter in front of me. Back in my room I could order it to reconstruct the conversation from any point in the room with near-perfect acoustics.

But imaging an entire stack of upside down newspapers… I’d never seen a device that could do that.

I’d drifted off to sleep that night telling myself that advancements in technology were to be expected. Who knows, there could be scientists in my present working on just such a piece of equipment. Another decade or two and it could maybe be miniaturized, depending on what principles it worked on. I’d seen kids play with something like that transparent screen of his. Current technological vogue put them out of style for serious work, but maybe they’ll come back.

I rolled my coffee cup between my hands, letting my eyes skim the morning paper. Sometimes I read it, sometimes I used it as something to stare at while concentrating on the conversations of the people around me. It all depended on what the topic of conversation was. That morning I kept falling back into the printed page. The local paper had chosen to reprint Martin Luther King Jr.’s complete speech at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. the day before. My eyes fell on one paragraph in particular. It read,

“First, we are challenged to develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.”

This was my third trip through time, and I’d always been able to maintain the air of the observer that they drill into us in training, but there was something about reading the words of such a great man and knowing they had been spoken only yesterday. That if I ran out of this diner, I could possibly find him and shake his hand. I wondered what he’d be like. I mean really like. In person. Just to speak to him alone. It’s silly, but I wondered what it would feel like to shake his hand. Would it feel special? I’d shaken a President’s hand once, I mean my President, the one I voted for in 2108. She came on a tour of the training facility my third year of classes. I wish I could say it was exciting or even interesting, but when one is training to travel through time little else holds interest. I hadn’t even dated these last few years. Everything took a back seat to my training.

The preceding two weeks I’d really come to enjoy reading the daily newspaper and the connection to the world it gave me. My first assignment had been as a medic in the American Civil War. I was there recording the history that few survived to record. I remember thinking, “Nobody back home can imagine what I’ve seen here.” Not that we don’t have wars, but there’s a minimum number of casualties where I’m from, and wholesale suffering during war has been alleviated to a large extent. That’s one thing globalism did right: we’re all so economically and culturally interconnected that large scale global conflict is inconceivable. Anyway, I didn’t have much opportunity to read the newspaper from the battlefront in 1863. Ditto my second assignment to observe the tumultuous 2016 presidential election in Florida – not a lot of relevant information was consumed from newspapers that year. I resolved to try and read the newspaper more when I got home. Presumably a few still exist…

My contemplation was broken by a tap on the shoulder.

“Hello, my friend.” Donovan wore his usual smile. “You mentioned this particular haunt the other night and I thought I’d join you for lunch. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. In fact, I’m happy to see you. I stopped by your room several times yesterday but you didn’t answer. Is everything all right?”

Donovan took a seat on the vacant stool beside me, which necessitated a short hop to raise him up to its level. “Oh yes, quite all right. I spent the day at the library scanning documents.”

“I imagine you could scan the whole library in just a few minutes after what you showed me the other night.”

He pulled a menu from the holder between us. “Sadly, no. It takes some time to save the data between imagings and the field of view is relatively small. Plus a level of discretion is of course required.”

“Of course,” was my noncommittal reply.

“Speaking of archival data, I was hoping to stop by tonight and copy your audiovisual recordings as we discussed. Adding a further two weeks to my report would – how do you say – shine my resume.”

Any opportunity to see his computer in action could only shed light on my mystery. “Of course. We can do it after lunch if you’d like.”

“Splendid.” He swiveled on the stool to gaze around the room. “I see the lunch rush is still ongoing. Might be worth hanging around a bit.” He pulled his hand from his trouser pocket and gingerly placed his lighter on the table. I wondered if it was recording visual as well as audio with some sort of omnidirectional lens. I turned away from it, suddenly uncomfortable with the thought that I would be the subject of observation and scrutiny by a team of future historians. “Visible here,” the most senior would begin, “is the Unknown Traveler. A man who claimed to be from the year 2118 though no record of his transit exists in the Time Vault.”

I downed the last half cup of my coffee and stood up. “Actually, Donovan, I’d like to get going. You’re welcome to stay for lunch or come with me, whatever your schedule requires.”

I busied my eyes with counting the change for my tab, but there was detectable pain in his voice. “No worries. I’ll come with you if you’re still willing to let me copy those files.”

“Yes, of course.” I collected my cigarette holder and he his lighter.

Donovan and I walked in silence for several blocks until I asked, “How many trips have you been on?”

“This is my fifth,” was his reverent reply. “It has been a true honor.”

“Do you expect this to be your last trip?”

“Who can say? If there is one constant across time, it is the enigmatic logic of bureaucrats.”

I found his jocular tone insulting, given my uncertain future.

“You say my records will impress those bureaucrats, maybe even help secure yourself another trip?”

“I certainly hope so.”

“Yet you still won’t tell me when you are from.”

Donovan shook his head. “I sympathize, but you know I can’t divulge information about the future.”

“You divulged information to Timmy. You told him about computers and space flight.”

“I told the boy nothing that he couldn’t have read in a science fiction story and provided even less to back up my claims. Knowledge of the future won’t help you, same as it can’t help prevent what’s going to happen in less than a week. I saw what you were reading when I approached you at the diner; his picture accompanied the speech. You and I – separate or together – are incapable of altering what is to come.”

“I’m not talking about a fixed historical event. I’m talking about my life.”

“How are they different? How do you know that your death isn’t historical fact for me? You suspect I was sent back here knowing you would be here. I tell you I knew no such thing.”

“So my report wasn’t in the Time Vault.”

Donovan once again shook his head. “I have no answers for you, my friend.”

“Then perhaps I have no records to share with you.” We had stopped walking at some point, but now my trek resumed. Donovan scrambled to catch up.

“Let’s say for arguments sake that your report doesn’t make it to the Time Vault. Don’t you feel some obligation to complete as much of your mission as possible? To preserve some record of your accomplishment?”

“So I die tonight, is that it? I don’t make it back but you’re leaving tomorrow. My disc malfunctions or something and you’ve come to get a record, to solve a mystery that’s – what – fifty, a hundred years old?”

“Smith, I can’t provide you with any answers. If you believe nothing else, please believe that.”

“I don’t know what to believe, but you can stop calling me your friend.”

Donovan’s pace slowed and he fell in behind me. I could just hear his concessionary reply.

We turned onto the street that lead to the hotel. I could hear Donovan’s heavy footsteps following me several feet behind. Timmy was playing in the parking lot with a few of the other boys from the apartment complex. I watched them play in a focused effort to not think about Donovan or my uncertain fate. If today was to be my last day then I would live it in the present. If not my present, then the present of the people I find myself meeting.

The boys were playing catch, throwing the ball clear across the vacant parking lot. I realized that all the boys should be in school, and I resolved to ask them why they were not.

Then it occurred to me. Let them skip school. They were having fun, and really what does it matter? Either they go to school or they don’t, it won’t change the future – it can’t change my past. If the past is immutable then so is the future.

“Donovan,” I called over my shoulder, my tone blithe, “I do believe you are making me a nihilist.”

“I believe this job does that after a while.” His tone was uncharacteristically somber.

I was startled by the loud crack of a ball on bat. One of the boys had nailed what would have been a home run on any field, far outpacing the parking lot. Timmy ran headlong straight at me to catch it, just as I heard a truck round the corner Donovan and I had come down minutes earlier. I turned to face the truck. It was one of those big box trucks, the cab bright red in color – I don’t know why I remember that part so clearly, but I do. It was a candy apple red, all shiny. I knew the driver couldn’t stop in time; he’d taken the corner faster than he should have, probably running late in his deliveries. My head jerked back to Timmy. The boy was already in the street, running backwards, eyes at the sky to track the ball. His gloved hand was stretched out in anticipation of the catch. His friends were screaming, not in panic but in joy – they believed he would catch it.

I threw up my arms, waving them wildly. I should have screamed, but in the moment I couldn’t. My legs weren’t as frozen as my throat, and I lunged into the road to grab him, not daring to look at the oncoming truck. The horn blared – my God, it sounded like it was right on top of me. I willed my arms to reach for Timmy, only to find myself thrown to the ground. I hit hard, a shock radiating from my elbow into my shoulder. A moment later I heard an impact and then a scream. I looked down at my prone body to see what had dropped me and found Donovan’s arms wrapped around my waist, his face buried in the back of my knees. I looked up and saw Timmy’s body laid out in the road, motionless. Children were yelling and from somewhere a woman appeared, screaming frantically. Some time later Donovan tried to help me up but I shoved him away.

“Why did you do that? I could have saved him!” My fists were balls of rage, but Donovan’s voice was as calm as ever.

“There was nothing you could have done.”

“What are you talking about? I was right there! I could have reached him in time!”

“But you couldn’t have saved him.”

“Yes, I could have!”

Donovan shook his head, “No, you couldn’t have. We can’t change the past.”

I took a deep breath. I wanted to strangle him, exchange his life for Timmy’s, but I couldn’t make such a scene. “Donovan, we’re part of the past. We can’t change anything big, we can’t kill Hitler or save Lincoln, but nobody would have noticed this one boy.” The last word choked in my throat and I realized my eyes were filling with tears.

“Nobody would have noticed him?”

“Exactly!”

“Then nobody will miss him.” Donovan walked on toward our apartment complex. I turned back to the scene and saw Timmy’s playmates crying on the curb, hugging one another. I was witnessing the birth of a mass of regret and blame that would carry forward through time. I saw his mother running from the apartment complex – screaming and crying – past Donovan as he continued his nonchalant march across the street.


I spent a long time in my room after that. Crying, punching the wall, kicking the furniture, productive stuff like that. Eventually after, I don’t know, a few hours? I went over to Donovan’s room. I was honestly surprised he opened the door for me. In retrospect I think it was his generally jovial nature. That and I now believe he really was a nihilist.

He was packing his meager possessions into a period appropriate suitcase. On the bed was a single newspaper, painstakingly folded just so. I picked it up and noted it was the latest edition.

“Souvenir?”

“Yes. Maybe it’s a bit unimaginative.” His tone was somber.

A small smile crossed my lips, I’m not sure why. “I got myself one of those old pulp science fiction magazines. Seeing it is what prompted Timmy to tell me about you.”

“My, life is full of coincidences.” His tone was almost mocking.

The slightest trace of the smile melted from me. “Timmy is dead now.”

“Yes. An historical fact.”

“It didn’t have to be.”

He pushed a folded shirt into the suitcase with more force than was necessary. “Please. Leave it be.”

“No!” I was enraged again, ready to punch the wall but considering substituting Donovan’s arrogant face. “It did not have to be. We could have saved him – I could have saved him, but you stopped me. Why?”

“Do they teach you nothing where you are from?” There was a harshness, a raw hate on Donovan’s face that I’d not believed possible. I stepped back instinctively, as if a friendly dog had just bared its teeth at me.

“The past can not be changed. Stop being such a baby and accept your role in this. We are observers, nothing more and nothing less. We are not participants in this time. We can not alter any events.”

“Says who?”

“Says physics.”

“But we’re here. I’ve eaten their food, I’ve talked to –” my voice caught. “I’ve talked to them. They’re good people.”

“So what?” He spit the words. “Their being good doesn’t affect the chronometric equations. There is no `good person’ factor in the equations that lets you alter the timeline.”

“But I’m here. I could have saved him without altering the timeline. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I could have saved him because I’m here.”

“Then go save Martin Luther King.” Donovan’s tone was mocking, his hand jabbing toward the door. “Go on, then. You’re here, after all.”

“You know I can’t.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ll fail.”

Why?

And that was it. I’d fail because I’d have to. Because Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. That single event was part of a chain of dominoes that fell forward through time, triggering other events in an immense tapestry that was mathematically unalterable. I couldn’t save him because it would unquestionably alter the past.

“You don’t know that saving Timmy would have altered the past.” My tone was little more than a whisper. It was all I could muster.

“I do now. Because I stopped you. Something would have stopped you. If I hadn’t jumped you then maybe the bus would have killed you along with him. Then you’d disappear in front of all those people. Wouldn’t that have violated a non-contamination rule where you come from? We can’t tell people about the future and we can’t show them our technology. We may not be able to alter the past, but don’t forget what happened in Roswell.”

“Don’t lecture me on temporal accidents. I know how to handle myself.”

He straightened himself, his face one of questioning disbelief. “Do you?”

Once again I found myself backing away from this short rotund man. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I know what you’re afraid of. Believe me, I know. But you have no idea why I’m so mad at you.” He took two steps toward me and I steadied myself against the desk. “You couldn’t save that dumb kid just like I can’t save your sorry life.”

“So I do die here.” The resignation in my voice surprised me.

“I have no idea.”

“How is that possible?” I found my vigor had returned. Indignation rejuvenating me. “You say you can’t save me then claim you don’t know what happens to me? Why is my report not in the Time Vault?” I screamed that last bit.

“I have no idea what’s in the Time Vault!” As soon as he said it he regretted it. That much was plain on his face.

I think I just stood there for several minutes. Could have been seconds, could have been hours. Finally I gasped out a question along the lines of “When are you from?”

Donovan slumped onto the bed. His head was cradled in his hands like a child who just awoke from a nightmare. His voice barely escaped.

“You would call it 2457.”

I knelt down beside him. “But the Time Vault… it can last for 10,000 years. Donovan, I don’t understand. Why didn’t you access it?”

“It was destroyed.”

My heart was trying to escape my chest. Between breaths I gasped, “How?”

Donovan raised his head from his hands, his face white as the sheets. “The War.”

“What war?”

His face hardened. He swallowed hard. “You’ll see.”

I don’t have clear recollection of what happened next. I remember grabbing Donovan. I was shouting questions, demands. I don’t think he said anything. He may have wept, but that could have been me. I think I punched him a few times. I must have, because I recall I was on top of him one second, then he was gone and I punched the floor.

After I calmed down I realized that his suitcase was gone as well. It must have had its own bungee. His souvenir newspaper never made it inside.

Dreamgrowth

“Where’s Ghenn?”

My question drew a blank look from Daoris. The senior governess, she had charge of the younger children fostered to the royal household. She should have known each one.

“Tiaghenn Nysteri-avin,” I said.

“She must be with the others,” Daoris said. “If she isn’t, I’m not going back.” She flitted a look across the courtyard as if expecting the castle to melt. “The carriages are ready to depart. No one will miss her.”

This might be true. The island of Nysteri had vanished four years ago. The fostering system was designed for the king to influence the next generation of leaders, and–without an inheritance–Ghenn had no place. Another child might have made herself one, but Ghenn was shy, tangled up in her own thoughts.

The courtyard was a chaos of sound and stench. The young nobles fought their fear by complaining or clinging to dignity.

“I’ll miss her,” I said. “Though I suppose I’m not anyone.”

Daoris looked flustered. It didn’t help I was two heads taller than she. My clan ran tall and wiry, and urban folk found our pale eyes disconcerting.

“Don’t worry about her, Lira,” she said. “We need to get to the mountain retreat before the city is consumed.”

“I have plenty of time to find her,” I said. “It will take the mages a while to complete the barrier.” Assuming it would have any effect on the mysterious storm advancing across the kingdom. No one who entered the storm emerged again, whether royal scouts or villages in its path. It had taken Nysteri years ago, prompting the royal mages to encase the island in a magical dome. They thought they had succeeded … and then a few months ago, the storm surged across the ocean, crossing miles a day.

“I wouldn’t risk it,” Daoris said.

“If I don’t come back, the king can always find another taster.” I strode away before she could make the obvious reply: not one like me.

I slipped into the castle halls. I relished the cool scent of the stone as I headed for the rotunda. Nursery, academy and everything in between, it was where young nobles learned to serve their kingdom. For some, it was also a prison. The king gave his vassals no choice. Each child came to the castle and did not return until he decreed.

The rotunda’s heart was a grand marble dome onto which multiple stories opened, lined with balconies. A glass skylight let in the lurking bleak of clouds.

I entered Ghenn’s room. Whether the children were from the richest territory or poor farmland, every room was equal at first. The wealthier heirs loaded down every inch with finery. Ghenn had nothing but parchment and ink, but her drawings flooded the space with personality. She sketched the people and places around her, but she also sketched dreams, images that stepped sideways from reality. She laid down more brush strokes than she ever spoke words.

I inhaled deeply. The acrid tang of ink, the sweet decay of paper, a trace of lavender. It was comforting; I spent my free time in the library. I could have wrapped myself in books, but no one wanted my mind. They wanted my nose, a sense of smell so keen I could detect poison without putting my tongue to it. It had saved my life a few times.

I searched the room. Ghenn’s sketch kit was missing. The garden, perhaps? It was rich with inspiration. The stables? Horses were another popular subject.

With the impenetrable storm shrouding the landscape just beyond the city walls, there was really only one place she could be.

I ascended to the top floor of the rotunda. I ducked into the servants’ nook, pulled down the ladder and climbed onto the roof. The handholds notched in the dome were for maintenance. Servants came up to clean the skylight. I moved cautiously, fixing my gaze ahead. I couldn’t make myself forget the drop.

Halfway up, I saw a bare foot swinging in the air. A few more notches, and the rest of her came into view, splayed on her stomach with the sketchpad under her chin. She stared towards the storm.

Ghenn was slight and slender as only a child could be, her hair a straight shield of onyx. Her skin was peppered with freckles, her eyes a few shades darker.

“Ghenn!”

She twisted up on her elbows, startled. “Lira?”

“We need to be gone,” I said. “The storm is coming.”

She shook her head. “I can’t leave yet.”

“You have a good memory. You can finish your sketch in the carriage.”

Ghenn swung upright. Her drawing was not of the storm, but of buildings in the city around the castle, an attempt at a map.

“I saw the sparkle of a dream tree in the city. They grew in the groves at home. I miss them.” She would have only been five years old, but she sounded as wistful as an old woman remembering her girlhood. “I’m going to find it.”

“No, you’re not,” I said.

“Are you going to carry me?” This was not a threat. It was a request for information.

“That would look ridiculous.”

She smiled a bit. “Yes.”

“I’m expecting you to walk. To safety.” I looked behind me. It was a mistake. The ground plummeted out of my visual range. I hated heights. I was really going to hate being in the mountains.

“We don’t know it’s safe.”

“We know it’s better than that.” I nodded to the obsidian whorls that formed a quivering, flickering wall on the horizon. It stretched from the ground to far above sight. Dark clouds–normal clouds–drifted into the field and vanished. I smelled the change in the air, rain coming … and something else, something that snuck past my nose in flashes of color.

Until a week ago, the mages had confidently promised the storm would never breach the city. Those who believed them or had no place to go remained; the more affluent had taken refuge in the country. All the while, the royal court planned their escape. If their magic was not strong enough to cloak an entire city, it would be reserved for the king’s mountain estate.

“We don’t know that, either.” Ghenn’s eyes lifted to mine. “Please, Lira. I just want to take a piece of my home with me.”

She had lived here a stranger for years. She had no trace of Nysteri: as a precaution against the calamity that struck the island a month after she arrived at court, the mages had insisted on burning everything she owned. I had only been at court for a few months myself, and I knew a little of her loneliness. We bonded.

She mattered to no one else; Daoris had reminded me of that. It seemed cruel to deny her something she could hold onto.

I also remembered the dream trees had been unique to the island. Legend had it their branches captured people’s memories and wishes, fragments flavoring the leaves. If there was a dream tree here and it had retained a trace of Nysteri, might it help the mages unravel the secrets of the storm? I might accomplish something other than passively waiting for poison, which was all that had ever been expected of me.

“Where did you see it?” I asked.

“In the public gardens. I’ve only been there once, so I was trying to draw a path through the city.”

“Have you seen it before?”

“No. I think it must have reflected off the storm. That’s a long way for something to sparkle.”

I really didn’t want to look down to find the gardens. I forced my eyes to concentrate on the pattern of buildings, the line of streets between. I pulled my attention to Ghenn’s feathery map.

“That looks right,” I said. “Another turn here and here …”

Ghenn dashed down lines where I indicated. “We have a good map, then. Let’s go.”

“Slow down,” I said. “I haven’t agreed yet.”

“You haven’t?” There was mischief in her eyes.

“This is not a game, Ghenn.”

“We still need to laugh sometimes.” She went still, face as clear as ice. “I understand, Lira.”

My memory of the route to the garden was hazy; I doubted I would have been able to find it from memory. I studied the makeshift map. The path was straightforward, through neighborhoods that would either be quiet or deserted. The surge of panic and fury when it became clear the mages could not stop the storm had subsided in the past few days. The public garden was also reassuringly far from the churning wall.

“We will go,” I said, “but if we can’t find your dream tree, we head directly for the mountains. Deal?”

“Deal.”

She tucked away her sketching supplies into her bag. We descended the dome to the ladder. I climbed down first, tasting ease as the roof closed over me.

We exited the rotunda and headed for the main courtyard. The remaining castle guard were set on watch to make sure angry locals didn’t break down the gates. I wasn’t sure how hard they would try to prevent it: they had been left behind, after all.

Ghenn hesitated in the hall. “Will they let you leave?”

I slowed. “Maybe not, if they recognize me.”

“You could dye your hair with my ink,” she said, “but you wouldn’t stand out so much as a boy.”

I was halfway there: I had few curves and always wore trousers. “Good idea.” I ducked into a storeroom, found a sack, and used it for binding. Ink deadened the color of my hair. It felt sticky like blood and smelled worse.

“You look perfect,” Ghenn said.

This was definitely not accurate, but I had no vanity. I strode across the courtyard with Ghenn at my side. “Need to go down into the city.” I didn’t have to drop my voice much to sound masculine.

The guard captain squinted, but I got only the briefest look, and his eyes never lowered to Ghenn. “You sure?”

Not particularly, I thought. This was as much risk as I had taken since arriving in the city, even though it was measured. “Got business.”

“Sorry to hear that. Crack the gates!”

As soon as we passed, the gates slammed shut. I clamped down on my nerves. The identity I’d hidden would get us back, or Ghenn’s would.

We descended the castle mount into the high quarter. The wealthiest homes were eerily silent or in regimented control. Many denizens had already left, and the rest prepared for departure in any direction but west. The winds washed me with a cloying melange of florals.

Swamped with that aroma, the trace of smoke struck my mind like a knife. I grabbed Ghenn’s shoulder.

Around the next bend, flames lit up an estate. Their spears and smoke escaped the top floor, heralding a collapse in the roof. Shadows of people flitted inside; their shouts battered my spine. Robbery gone wrong or revolt in the house guard?

“Don’t look,” I said. “Keep walking.”

The high quarter trailed off, giving way to shops. The buildings were locked tight or broken and empty. Wary eyes watched from inside. I smelled the vestiges of trade, fresh carved wood and the perfumes that protected fabric. The silence was worse than screams.

“We’re halfway there,” I said.

“See? I knew we could do it.”

I wondered wryly how it had turned into her reassuring me. “We may not find anything.”

“Or we may. That is what dreams are about.”

Her face shone bright enough to make the city less lonely. I was surprised how much it meant to her, the promise of this dream tree. It seemed like such a small thing.

And what if we didn’t find it? What if she had to leave behind everything she knew once again, without a scrap to hold onto?

I wanted to promise that wouldn’t happen, but it was outside my control. Unlike Ghenn, I was old enough to know I couldn’t will it into existence.

The shops bordered a warehouse district. I had planned to detour: unsavory types used them as bases of operation, and surely more so now.

A handful of people hurried out of the shops. I halted Ghenn and crouched against the wall. Their mood was focused, excited. They chattered among themselves. This was not what I expected.

I waited until they passed. Ghenn scurried in my wake, flashing a curious look after them.

Two streets later, we crossed paths with another group. I halted sharply. Ghenn bumped into me. Like the last group, they were energetic, friendly, and anticipating something.

A broad man slowed, turning to us. “Going to the speech?”

“Of course,” Ghenn said before I could open my mouth. “What speech?”

“The Renewer,” he said. “She wants to prepare us for the new city.”

“Everything will be better in the new city,” a woman said.

“Opportunity for all.”

“Where is this new city?” I asked.

They looked at me as if I had sprouted wings. “This is the new city,” the woman said. “After the storm has scared off all but the chosen ones.”

I understood now, and by the way Ghenn gripped my arm, she did as well. She quivered.

“There’s nothing after the storm,” she said. “There will be no new city.”

The group shifted. Eyes narrowed; scowls crinkled their faces. They pulled together, mood darkened.

“Unbelievers are not welcome,” the man said. “May you be cast to the storm.”

Ghenn emitted a little cry. I shielded her with my body. “No one deserves that fate,” I said. “Except maybe those who wish it on others. Go on your way.”

The man snorted. “Better our path than yours.”

He turned away. The others followed. If the city was not enveloped by the storm, the royal court would come back to something with its own rules. I had heard rumors of how the king dealt with rebellion. I didn’t want to be in the middle of that. I had never needed to choose sides.

I pulled Ghenn around for a hug. She burrowed into me. I understood her distress even if she didn’t: if there was a way out of the storm, it meant her parents hadn’t come back for her.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She leaned back, a deep breath fleshing out her frame. “You aren’t going to get me to turn back that easily.”

I ruffled her hair. “Of course not.”

We continued along the detour. It added to our walk, but I didn’t want to run into the Renewer and her people. A cold wind stirred my skin, carrying the iron scent of rain.

The Lily Gate rose into view. The stone sculpture atop the arch identified the entrance into the public gardens.

Ghenn sprinted towards the gate.

“Wait,” I said. “We should go cautiously -”

I spoke to myself, and even I wasn’t convinced. I rushed after her. She disappeared through the Lily Gate.

“Ghenn!”

By the time I reached the gate, there was no sign of her.

My heart pounded. It drove the tumbling scents of earth and flowers out of my nose. I reasoned with myself. Who would start bloodshed in a garden? The morbid side of my mind pointed out it was an excellent place to bury a body.

If I rushed around hunting for Ghenn, we could miss each other a dozen times. I decided to look for the dream tree instead. I knew what it was supposed to look like. If I located it, hopefully she would, as well.

I let the garden sink into my senses. The public garden had been designed by a royal architect generations ago. Hedges formed boundary lines between terraced flower beds; flowering trees from every corner of the kingdom provided shade. The garden boasted six gazebos. The song of artificial ponds and waterfalls trickled in the back of my mind.

The path was lined with lilies of every color, delicate white breaking up the line between firebursts and stars. Their aroma ranged from faint to cloying, the press of clean pillows and sweet morning.

Hematite danced on my tongue. Startled, I huffed out air. I sniffed, but it was gone.

I wrapped my arms around myself and pushed forward. Still no sign of Ghenn. I reminded myself how large the garden was. Lucky we were searching for a tree, not a flower.

A chartreuse aroma swept past me. I spun to follow. I couldn’t see the color, but it flooded my nose and told me the direction of the wind.

The path ended at a hedge wall. If I hadn’t gone straight for it, I wouldn’t have noticed the gap. I squeezed through into an older part of the garden. Dead leaves cluttered the grass. The skeleton of a broken trellis pulled my gaze upwards.

I saw only iridescence at first, breaths of opal that formed a hundred delicate silhouettes. As I focused, I realized it was branches. The angular leaves looked heavy even though their veins were the faintest echo of green. Easy to believe its boughs could cradle the most intangible bits of human experience.

Of course, Ghenn was already there, embracing the trunk. My smile shattered as a noxious odor blinded me. My senses tumbled, muddling together, and when I managed to focus, I stared at the occluding haze of the storm, swirling over the grass. When had it entered the public garden? It seemed to be only a tendril, like fog settled in a valley. The obsidian field ended an armspan from the dream tree.

“Ghenn, move away,” I shouted.

She blinked as if waking from welcome slumber. She pushed off the trunk and examined the roiling layers of onyx and oak. My terror lurched to a halt when I realized the storm was not moving. Whatever had spawned its numinous finger, it was static.

She should have been as scared as I was–more so, because she had lost so much to that storm. But her lips were soft with wonder, and she extended her hand.

A different fear doused me. “Ghenn,” I whispered.

The storm smelled like sunset, fading into darkness. The last thing I wanted was to run towards it, but my need to protect her overcame the ice in my limbs. I rushed up, wrapped my arms around her. She gasped in surprise, twisting.

“Ghenn.”

The repetition of her name calmed her. “How did it do that? It must want the dream tree.”

“We have to be cautious,” I said. “We stay as far away from it as possible.”

Ghenn nodded, expression reluctant.

“Let’s find seeds and go before -”

The storm quivered, a spasm of illumination. Two figures stepped out. They were human, two dark-haired men in tunic and tattered trousers, and I relaxed even through my shock.

Then I blinked, and everything changed.

One was now female, the other thinner and older, red-haired. Ghenn pressed against my side. I broke my attention to look down at her, and when I lifted my head again, they were children, feral and fanged.

They advanced on us. My shoulders hunched, my body hummed with the need to run.

Ghenn pushed away from me, shoulders straight, chin set. “I am Tiaghenn Nysteri-avin,” she said, “and this tree is my birthright.”

The pair hesitated. Their lips moved, their voices coming as winds, toneless and formless. As they brushed my skin, I smelled images.

Her name, outlined in gold. Brighter, fiercer.

An infant cradled by her mother. A wall of soldiers defending them.

I started to have a sense of dialogue. They recognized her name; they had orders to protect her. Somehow, they spoke in scent. My nose was keen enough to understand it.

Winds scattered the soldiers and dashed the infant to the ground. The wind arced around the dream tree, forming a silver shield.

Inwardly, I translated. To guard the tree, to protect her … these things contradicted each other. Anyone else would have had no sense of their dialogue, but I did.

“She is no threat to the tree,” I said. “You know who she is, and you know she is right.”

Their attention shifted to me.

Lightning, wild, spiraling.

Gold spangles. Recognition of my words.

Shadow and silence, wreathed in smoke.

“I can understand you,” I said. “If you don’t know what to do, let us speak to someone in charge.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet any more of these beings, but if they went to retrieve a supreme, it would give us time to act.

A joining of hands.

If I had had any doubt of the meaning of that, the two individuals–an old woman and a burly man in furs–turned swiftly and disappeared into the storm.

My breath rushed out. My plan had worked. “Grab some seeds,” I said. “Then we run.”

Ghenn did not move. “People came out of there.”

“Not people like anything we understand. Their world is trying to devour ours. We need to go.”

The words hit the blank of her eyes and bounced off.

“Ghenn. Please.”

Finally, she nodded. She stretched up and snagged a branch. She pulled it down, running fingers between the leaves.

Acid burned my nose in warning. How could the creatures have moved so fast?

Four creatures emerged from the storm, their forms changing every time I shifted my attention. They parted before two figures I instantly knew were human. None of my frantic blinking proved otherwise: they remained exactly as they were. The woman was tall and strong with ebony hair, its sculptured wings inverse crescent moons about her pale face. The man towered over her, his eyes sea green. Something about them seemed hazy, as if they were backlit by illumination I could not see.

Ghenn’s breath whirled out in a cry of delight. She bolted to the pair. The man swept her up into his arms and spun her about with a booming laugh. He stopped whirling as he faced the woman. Ghenn vibrated joy, her body bright like dawn.

The woman embraced them both and kissed Ghenn’s brow. “I’m so glad you’re safe.” Her eyes swept to me. “Who is this?”

“This is my friend Lira,” Ghenn said. “She’s the only one who stands up for me at court.”

“Lira,” the man rumbled. “Pleasure to meet you. I am Karil Nysteri-ver, and this is my wife, the Lady Fuilyn Nysteri-arl.”

“I am honored.” My mind gyrated, bumping off thoughts. How was this possible? “And happy to see you reunited. Do you live within the storm?”

“You might say that,” Fuilyn said.

“I can’t wait to see our home,” Ghenn said.

“We left our home a long time ago, dear one.” Fuilyn’s gaze cleaved me in two, bared for her examination. “Stay with your father, Ghenn. I need to speak with your friend.” She strode over, the kick of her stride assured.

“We thought you were dead, vanished into oblivion,” I said.

Fuilyn regarded the obsidian mist. “Does that seem like oblivion? On the other side is a realm of dreams, created by intuition and the deepest currents of the mind. My husband and I did not die. We found our true selves.”

Was the storm only a border? My heart lightened. If that were true, they were still alive: those who had attempted to scout and never returned, the mages who had tried to divine its secrets, and those too stubborn to leave their homes–or unable to.

Except … “Why hasn’t anyone come back?”

“Humans cannot cross back over,” Fuilyn said. “Both my family and Karil’s have dreamblood running through our veins. We have never been truly human.”

“I think that’s a state of mind,” I murmured.

Annoyance flickered in her eyes. “You are wrong. Though if that were the case, I would choose otherwise. You have taken good care of Ghenn, I see.”

Unnerved by her first statement, I almost missed the second. “The credit goes to the royal governesses.”

“I doubt that. I remember my time in the rotunda without fondness. The fostering system only serves beauties and bullies.”

I couldn’t argue with that. “I can understand why you came to rescue her.”

Fuilyn inhaled sharply. “We did not come for her.”

“If you assumed she was dead, that makes sense.” I hurried the words out. “The king has been known to punish children for their parents’ sins.”

“We did not come here for such a petty matter as a child,” she said.

Your child, I thought, but the words stuck on the roof of my mouth. I felt like a coward as I swallowed them. “Then why are you here? Why is this here?” I waved to the storm.

“The people of the dream realm conquered Nysteri to claim its dream trees, which allowed them–allowed us–to nourish and grow the realm,” Fuilyn said. “Karil and I were afraid, of course we were -” though her tone never wavered, barely inflected “- but when we embraced its wonders, we realized that this world, this bleak and boring world, could become something more.”

The conclusion came to me between the words. If the dream trees were connected to the growth of the dream realm, study could also reveal its weakness. The denizens would not want to allow that. It was why the storm had sent forth a tendril to the garden. It was why the dream creatures had emerged to confront us when no one had seen even a hint of life from the storm before.

I realized, too, that this Renewer who spoke in the city had been correct, though surely not in any way she had ever imagined.

“Besides that,” Fuilyn continued, “do you understand what a tyrant your king is? I will not be content until his rule is unseated. As to this particular place and time, I came for the tree. It does not belong to you.”

“I don’t need anything from the tree,” I said. If I could take a seed to the royal mages, would I? The coldness of Asteri’s lady made me wary, and she was wrong about the king being a tyrant … wasn’t she? He could be cruel and heavy-handed, but that was not tyranny. My position had already been decided for me: I was a member of the court, however minor. “Now that Ghenn is reunited with her family …”

“That is what I wished to speak to you about. She will remain with you.”

My thoughts stumbled. “I’m not her family.”

“We are at war,” Fuilyn said. “The battlefront is no place for a child. And the conflict will not end soon: your cowardly king will keep finding ways to defend himself.”

It was valid reasoning, but I couldn’t help the rising sense it was an excuse. I fought my instinct. These were her parents. I glanced over at Karil and Ghenn. He sat cross-legged; she pressed her forehead to his. They whispered in conference, the perfect pair.

“What about your home on the other side?” I asked.

Her face retreated into stone. “I hope you’re not picturing Nysteri as it once was. The dream realm is more elaborate and sophisticated, shaped by one’s will. Ghenn is only a child. She would not be able to find her way.”

“I know your daughter,” I said. “She is more self-possessed and poised than many adults.” Sometimes, I thought I could include myself in that. “If it is a question of will, she has it.”

“It does not matter,” Fuilyn said. “Ghenn is too human to adjust without fear and anxiety.”

She kept changing her objections. “That doesn’t make sense.” The words spilled out. “If you both have dreamblood, and she’s your daughter …”

“You don’t understand how dream heredity works, or what it is like on the other side. Even grown humans -” her tone morphed into scorn “- have difficulty, which has caused so much clutter in the landscape.”

I had trouble wrapping my mind around it. “How …”

“People would like to think they can create castles with the blink of an eye, but the best most can do are vague rocky bulks. Humans are inferior, but they will eventually adapt to a better world.” Fuilyn sighed to dismiss it. “Karil and I want our daughter to have the best circumstances until she is old enough to take care of herself.”

“That’s with you.” Karil drew my eyes again. If he felt differently …

“My husband and I are of one mind in this,” Fuilyn said. “The royal governesses are capable of the basics, I suppose, but a tender girl needs more. Support, guidance and belief. A listening ear and guiding hand. You will be that for Ghenn, with or without the royal court.”

The words were dry, lifeless. The dream realm might come from intuition and imagination, but it seemed it did not come from empathy. They were also a command, not a request.

I could have taken the order without thought. It was how I had lived, simply accepting my place in the royal court, risks of poison and all. But I recognized the importance of what Fuilyn was asking, even if she did not–even if she seemed to take it for granted that she could foist her child off into the hands of another. Could I be those things for Ghenn? I wasn’t sure, but she needed someone to try, and that … that was something I could promise. I couldn’t handle the thought that no one else would.

“I will,” I said.

She nodded. “Then your time here is done. You will leave to rejoin your cowardly king.”

“Aren’t you concerned about what I’m going to say?” The question escaped me before I could stop it.

“This is the last dream tree on this side,” Fuilyn said. “There are no others you can destroy to hinder us. Tell the king to be ready for war. I know better than to believe he would accept the possibilities of the dream realm. Will you tell him about us?”

We both knew that would put Ghenn in danger. I shook my head. My eyes flitted up to the tree. If I could grab a branch …

Fuilyn’s fingers encircled my arm, spears of diamond. She guided me over to her husband. Ghenn hopped upright, flashing a luminous smile.

Karil lumbered to his feet. I pulled out of Fuilyn’s grip and spoke in a whisper. “If you want your daughter with you, we can figure it out.”

His eyes swept through me like a blade. “You know that’s not possible.” His tone was gentler than his wife’s, but without compromise. Ghenn’s head swiveled, eyes curious, but it was clear she couldn’t make out what had been said.

“Give us a moment of privacy,” Fuilyn said.

I did, stepping aside. If I had entertained thoughts of creeping up on the tree, the flat expressions of the guard creatures dissuaded me. Fuilyn knelt to explain to Ghenn. Her gasp of shock cut through my spine. Her voice lowered, spiraling through denial, dismay … and finally acceptance. The family embraced.

New scents blasted my nose–orders to the guards, the scorch of ash. The barrier swelled, parting to allow the lady of Nysteri and her entourage to pass. It swallowed the tree, writhing with lightning, then went still.

I thought my heart would break my ribs open. I couldn’t catch my breath.

Ghenn’s hand slipped into mine. “They promised they’d come back for me.”

Her voice calmed my world. I turned to face her, her brightness only a little dimmed … and I knew I would never tell her. She didn’t need to know her parents had simply ignored her existence, then used every excuse to leave her in my hands.

I was going to make sure that was the right choice, in spite of them. I knew what side I had chosen in this conflict: hers.

“I know they will,” I said. “Let’s go back to the castle.”

Ghenn stared at the barrier, expression thoughtful. “I’m not afraid of it.”

“I don’t think I am, either, but it’s not our world.”

“Not yet.” She tugged my hand and headed for the path.

We had descended into the city for a piece of the dream tree and failed to get it. That would have been enough of a disappointment when we started, but now I knew it had bigger implications. I pushed the thought aside. We could deal with that once we rejoined the royal party and reached safety.

“I’ve got five seeds,” she said. “Would you like to have one?”

I stumbled to a halt. She held them in her other palm: perfect orbs, otherwise ordinary apart from a faint shimmer of silver.

“How did you get those?” I asked.

“I plucked them while I was with my father,” she said. “He picked me up, and he’s so tall I was in the lower branches.” If she was more human than her parents, she was also something of the other side. She might, more than the seeds, end up being the key.

“I would very much like one,” I said.

She placed it in my free hand. I folded my fingers around it, feeling a trace of the future there. Then I tucked it in my pocket.

Ghenn sobered. “What happens after the city disappears? When the storm comes up the mountains?”

“No matter what happens, I’ve got you,” I said. “I promise.”

Eternal Rotation

Ekon

Red heat lamps cast their glow and penetrating warmth through the blanket draped about me. The warming room was crowded, at capacity. Other than one man grumbling under his breath, no one said anything. At the edge of audibility there was classical music. I recognized the piece: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

The hibernated must be awakened once every one hundred years, at minimum, to reduce health risks. That’s the technology aboard the Carthage, anyway. By now, 600-some years from port, certainly things had changed back home.

My shivering had at last stopped and I was warm enough to drop the blanket to the floor. A knee-high quadrupedal bot entered and handed me my watch, data speks, and clothes. It was a serve bot I had a hand in designing centuries ago, I noted with a touch of amusement. The watch displayed a message as soon as it felt the skin of my wrist: LUCIUS, CONFERENCE ROOM 7b, AS SOON AS ABLE.

My data speks indicated this was not my routine hibernation emergence. I stood, stretched, donned my clothes.

Of Ashes & Tears

Every step I took along the meandering trail obscured the path behind without revealing what lay ahead. Gusts of wind tossed my hair about and swung the lantern in my hand. Its swaying glow did little to dispel the shroud of gloom cast by a moonless night as I made my way through the snow-covered underbrush.

“I can barely see,” I grumbled, mostly to myself.

On my shoulder, Pito, my familiar, peered into the shadows with oversized rodent eyes and seized on my uncertainty. “It’s too dark to be walking alone through the woods, Brynn. Let’s go home and come back in the morning.”

The little coward. “Quiet,” I hissed at him. The tiny squirrel recoiled out of sight and onto my nape. “I’m not letting ma die because I’m scared of the night.”

Minutes passed with only the crunch of icy twigs under my boots to punctuate their passage, until guilt got the better of me. “Are you pouting?”

“Why would I?” Pito said. “It’s not like you called me a coward.”

“I didn’t.”

“You thought it.”

I sighed. “Fine. I’m sorry. Happy?”

“I’d be much happier if you stopped for a moment and thought through what you’re doing,” Pito said, inching outwards along my shoulder until I could see him again in my peripheral vision. “Tywyll isn’t known for his charitable ways, how’re you planning to pay him for the elixir?”

Pito had me there, and knew it. When old man Aeron’s newborn son fell sick with the coughing fever two springs past, Tywyll demanded a gold sovereign for the few drops of elixir that brought the infant back from the brink. We had neither Aeron’s gold, nor his silks. “I’ll bring him firewood for as long as it takes to pay off the debt.”

Pito snorted. “Look around you, what need has Tywyll for firewood in the middle of the woods?”

“Then I’ll do anything he asks. I’ll sweep his hut. Fetch his water from the stream. I’ll cook his meals. Rub the bunions on his feet. Anything.”

“Your ma wouldn’t want that for you, Brynn,” Pito said. His gentle reprimand grated more for being the truth.

“Well, ma isn’t here, is she? She’s bedridden with black fever and if I don’t do something soon, I’ll lose her. Can you understand that?”

Pito didn’t answer. Instead, he shuffled his tiny feet over the fine hairs of my nape, sending shivers down my spine. His eyes had grown wider still, staring ahead with unconcealed apprehension. I followed his gaze to a column of milky blue smoke rising above the snow-clad canopy of silent poplars.

A hundred strides later, I shifted the lantern to my left hand, steeled myself, and knocked on Tywyll’s door; timidly at first, then with growing urgency. I took a step backwards when the door creaked open revealing a darkness like ink framing the grey outline of the magic peddler. Tywyll stank of ash and stale mead. My belly grumbled.

“Brynn.” Tywyll tilted his head, and looked past me at the winding path that led back to the village. “Your mother’s not with you?”

I pushed down on the rising bile. “Master Tywyll, ma’s ill. She’s hot to the touch, and covered in rubicund welts. She won’t eat or drink, and mumbles to herself in delirium when not passed out.”

My entreaty didn’t at all resemble what I had rehearsed in my head, and I blamed Pito for the divergence. Still, Tywyll’s eyes gleamed with understanding. He ushered me inside and latched the door behind.

A fire crackled in the hearth. I suspected Tywyll mixed in some herbs or aromatic weeds with the firewood, but rather than mask the heavy miasma of ash and spoilt brew, the spicy fragrance accentuated the stench.

Tywyll shuffled to the hearth and eased himself into a wooden chair polished to a high sheen with frequent use. “Ill, you say? Shame, that. Fetching woman in her day.”

He seemed lost in his memories until I cleared my throat. “A little elixir will see her right as rain, I’m sure.”

Tywyll regarded me with penetrating eyes, reflecting the shimmying flames in the hearth. “Great is the need for the elixir and precious little is the supply. What have you brought to trade? A family heirloom perhaps?”

I swallowed noisily, suddenly wishing I had followed Pito’s advice. “We don’t have much by way of heirlooms,” I stammered, and raised a hand to stave the brushoff blooming on Tywyll’s face, “but I’ll bring you three chickens, heavy with eggs.”

“Chickens? Eggs? Are you daft?” Tywyll bellowed, rising off his creaking chair.

“How about firewood? Bone dry oak or birch, every eventide, for three years?”

“I can get that myself,” Tywyll grumbled as he ushered me towards the door.

“Wait, Master Tywyll,” I pleaded as he reached around me to unbolt the door, and shoved me out. “Ma’s going to die without the elixir. I’ll give you anything. I’ll do anything, if you save her.”

“Brynn, don’t,” Pito squealed.

“Anything,” I insisted.

The door stopped in its arc short of sealing. Tywyll pushed his head through the gap with a calculating look in his eyes. “Surrender me your familiar.”

“My …,” I trailed off uncomprehending.

“That’s the price,” Tywyll said, “come back when you’re ready to trade, but don’t wait too long. The elixir will do your ma no good dead.”

I rushed the closing door, reaching it as Tywyll bolted it from inside.

“Ask for anything else, but I can’t part with Pito. Anything at all,” I said, pounding the door. “Please.”

No answer came.

Companions

At first the disease seemed minor, no reason for fear. Cooper, the drilling superintendent, checked some dials and smiled. “We’ve put your straw in Ganymede. Take a drink.”

Next to the pump, clear water from the moon’s underground sea flowed into the sample containers. “Testing before drinking, I want to see what’s in it first.”

“Afraid you might not like the taste?” He was joking as usual, but his voice sounded shaky. He sat on a rock to watch the samples being collected.

When the containers were full, I turned to see Cooper clutching his stomach. “What’s wrong?”

Gingerly he stood. His usually ruddy face was pale. “Stomachache.”

“We’re done for the day. Go see what the doc has for indigestion.” Indigestion, no worries.

Next morning in the lab, the base commander’s voice came over the com. “Scott, go to sick bay. They need help with lab work.”

That was the medtechs’ job. “I’m about to analyze our new samples, can’t it wait?”

“Go now.”

The sick bay door was locked—why lock a door on Ganymede? I knocked and Dr. Susan Alidou, our chief medical officer, came out and quickly closed the door behind her. She wore a mask and a yellow protective garment that formed seals with her gloves and boots.

I smiled. “Looking sharp.”

She didn’t smile back as she handed me a second outfit. “Put these on right away—mask, gloves, everything. Make sure the seals are tight.” A shout came from inside sick bay, and she ran to see what it was.

After putting on the protective stuff, I went into sick bay. The acidic smell of vomit hung in the air. Every bed was full, some of the patients were softly moaning. Susan and her two medtechs were frantically working on Cooper. His eyes were wide open and unfocused. Yesterday morning, he’d been healthy and fit. After a few minutes, Susan straightened up and pulled a sheet over his face. A cold wind of fear made my hands tremble.

Susan led me to a small lab and pointed to a tray of blood and tissue samples. “We need to identify the illness right away. Analyze those and see if the AI-1070 can find anything in its libraries.”

I did a full chemical analysis of all the samples and took pictures at a level of magnification that would show every molecule. Susan came back as the AI processed the information. Its flat mechanical voice announced, “Tests detected no sign of any known pathogen or toxin.”

Susan snorted with impatience and told the communicator to open a link to the Byrd, the ship that brought us here and still orbited above us.

In a moment, the smiling face of Dr. Simpson, their chief medical officer, filled the com screen. “Morning, Susan, how-”

Susan cut him off. “We have a medical emergency. Twenty-five cases of an unknown illness that doesn’t respond to medication, two fatalities so far, and more if we don’t solve this fast. We’ll uplink data on tissue, blood, and urine samples, and patient vital signs. Symptoms are nausea, rash mostly on the face and hands, fever, and in a few cases hallucinations. Send that information to Mars Base and Earth and tell them to figure out what it is ASAP.”

We talked to Simpson again later that day. He sounded so very calm. “Three of Earth’s best labs have all the information you gave us and are working on the problem full time. But the symptoms are so general-.”

Susan’s voice got loud. “We have ten more cases and more fatalities. My patients may not have much time.”

Simpson shook his head. “You’re in a terrible situation. It almost makes me think of the Ganymede curse.”

Susan’s eyes blazed. “Forget that garbage. Get me an answer.” She hit a switch, and the screen went black.

Simpson’s mention of the “curse” got me mad too. When planning for our base started, they sent unmanned probes to orbit Ganymede. The first three crashed on the moon’s surface. Two attempts to land personnel also crashed, with a loss of all 6 crew members. Exploring new worlds is hard and dangerous, and accidents are to be expected, but they still lead to stupid talk.

Susan lightly touched my arm. “I hate to ask this, but could you dispose of the dead?” She sighed. “We’ll have memorial services later, but immediate cremation may help in infection control.”

“Sure, I’ll take care of them both.”

“Four now.”

Each body was wrapped in a sheet, placed on a gurney, and wheeled to the plasma incinerator. I put the body in a chamber, closed the gate, and said a little prayer. Then the incinerator destroyed everything in the chamber, including the germs. That didn’t help. Five more people died the next day.

On the third day, the base commander staggered into sick bay, a sheen of perspiration on his forehead and a rash blooming on his cheeks. He shouted, “I saw them, in my quarters, small and horrible.”

Before the plague, he had been a model of calm reason. Susan came up behind him with an injection to knock him out, then she laid his unconscious body on the nearest bed. He was dead in an hour.

Susan took her frustrations out on Simpson. “I’ve tried every antibiotic, every antiviral, and every antiprionic I’ve got. No response to any of them. Fifty-six cases, ten deaths so far. We could lose every person on this base, and what are you doing?”

Simpson let out a deep breath. “We’ve got lots of people working around the clock, on board, on Mars, on Earth. It’s everyone’s highest priority—only priority. I have to go now.” The screen went dark.

Susan shook her head. “So easy when you’re orbiting above the problem.”

On the fourth day after onset, twenty people were dead and eighty were dying. One group went into the auxiliary dome that held the hydroponics bays, barricaded the connecting corridor, and sent a message that they would kill anyone who tried to join them. Their next message was a despairing voice saying, “The plague is here.” Then silence.

The morning of the seventh day, we lost both medtechs. Susan walked with those bodies to the incinerator. Later, she came to the lab and stood by the door. “A long time ago, I read a story about how a doctor in the early twentieth century treated pneumonia before antibiotics. He’d take the patient’s temperature, pat them on the shoulder, speak in a soothing tone, and listen to them talk while he hoped nature’s healing power would work. That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what you’ll have to do.”

“I’m a research biologist, not a doctor.”

“There’ll be no one else.”

I took a few steps toward her. Across the dark skin of her cheeks, the rash wrote its story of coming death. What was there to say but “I’m sorry.”

“I have a few more hours, and I’m going to use them.” She worked with her patients until finally she called me to come. She died the next day.

I stripped off the germ proof clothing. It hadn’t helped Susan or the medtechs. Each morning I went around the beds dispensing comfort and noting who was ready for cremation. Each afternoon Simpson told me how hard they were working to find an answer. No answer came. Soon every other living colonist was infected. There were fourteen patients, then eleven, then seven, then three, then none.

I asked Simpson why I was still alive.

“In almost every epidemic, some people don’t succumb–like the hemorrhagic fever epidemics early in the last century. Some develop the disease but recover. Others don’t get sick at all. Everyone’s immune system is different. Usually the survival percentage isn’t this small.”

“We’ll have to abandon the base. I can’t fly the shuttle by myself. Will you send one down for me?”

Simpson disappeared, and the screen showed his captain. “I’m sorry, Scott, but we can’t do that.”

“So how are you going to get me back?”

“Scott, we don’t understand this plague. You may be a carrier. I can’t risk my crew.”

“I can’t stay down here!”

“We sent down rations for 147 people. Enough of the hydroponics farm and power plant were set up to let one person survive indefinitely.”

Indefinitely! “Do you have any idea when you can bring me aboard?”

He wouldn’t look directly at the screen. “We don’t have enough fuel and supplies to remain in orbit any longer.”

“So you’re going to leave me?”

“We have no choice but to return to Mars now. Another mission will be out here in about a year—maybe then.”

“A year alone!”

“We’ll be in radio contact, and so will Mars Base. You have the AI-1070 and enough of an entertainment library to keep you occupied forever. I’m sorry, Scott.”

The communicator screen went dark. The screen that displayed the view from an external telescope showed the Byrd, a glowing orb that burned brighter as it fired its engines to escape orbit then gradually grew smaller and dimmer until it looked like just another of the cold unfeeling stars.

Third Class

“I had a skill, you see,” the guy said. His long hair fell wetly across his forehead, and a deep gash ran the length of his jaw on the left.

“A skill.”

“Yeah. I was a storyteller.” He laughed bitterly. “A Storyteller Third Class. And here I thought I’d been producing art and would soon see my name on the bestseller lists, my stories in The New Yorker. Nope. The machines weighed me, measured me and found me third class. Still, I guess I was lucky to make the cut.”

I looked him up and down. He didn’t look like he was about to explode or anything, but it was better to be safe than sorry. “I don’t see what that could possibly have to do with crossing the plain of death.”

“It has everything to do with it.”

“Tell me.”

“No. You’ve got me locked up here in a cell. I’ve been through the wars and all you can do is throw me on a chair and ask me questions?” He raised an eyebrow. “Well I won’t answer anything until you start treating me decently.”

“So what do you want?”

He hesitated, wondering how far he could play his hand. “Can I have something to drink?”

I almost laughed. That was his big demand? “Didn’t you get anything?”

“No.”

Someone had screwed up. But, of course, this outpost expected a huge battle, a sudden invasion across the border executed by terrifying war engines run by machine tacticians smarter by an order of magnitude than anything we could field. A terrified guy covered with mud, escaping through the rain, was not something they’d trained up for.

“All right. What do you want? Coffee?”

“You have coffee?”

That caught me off guard. “Of course. Why wouldn’t we?”

“It’s supposed to be bad for you. The minds have weaned us off the stuff for our own good.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” I replied. “I was just a kid when you guys declared yourselves independent. Do you want cream and sugar with that?”

He goggled as if I’d offered to sacrifice a clutch of virgins, so I just walked out and told the guard by the door to bring us some coffee and something to eat. He looked at me funny, but said he might be able to scrounge up some donuts. I thanked him and went back inside.

“They’re bringing the drinks.”

“Can you take off my handcuffs?”

“I don’t have the keys.”

“Why not?”

I laughed. “Because my bosses think that if they’d given me the keys, I would have unlocked you.”

He thought about it. “They’re afraid of me?”

“You’re the first thing other than propaganda messages to get out of California. We’re all wondering what the machines decided to send us. At least if you have the capacity to brainwash me, I won’t be able to let you go.”

“Brainwash?” He shook his head. “Dude, I’m just a writer. According to the machines, a bad one.”

“And still, you escaped.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because I really wanted to, and I believed that if I made them choose between killing me and letting me walk, they’d let me walk. I was right.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The machines have a mandate: to protect human life. It’s kind of like Asimov’s old laws, but they are sophisticated enough to actually weigh things for the greatest good, so there’s none of that conflict. They just do what’s best for the greatest number, but when it’s just one guy trying to cross a minefield and beam killing ground, they just turn the defenses off.”

I had no idea what the guy was on about. “They sound like a bunch of commies to me.”

“Nah. The machines aren’t political. They couldn’t care less about all that crap we used to get so excited over.”

“Also, they don’t just turn the defenses off. We tried to send people through a few times… They’re still in the killing field, but I don’t think there’s anything larger than a finger left of any of them.”

He shrugged. “I guess it only goes for the citizens under their protection.”

“Interesting.”


The Colonel was less than impressed. “So what you’re saying is that we could get in as long as one of their own people is trying to get out at the same time?”

“Yes, sir.”

He glared at me. “You’re an idiot, Johnson. Get out.”

“Yes, sir.”

I left, secure in the knowledge that he was going to steal my idea. If it worked, he’d get the credit. If it didn’t, I’d get the blame.

I didn’t care. What was the worst that could happen? I was way too senior to bust back down to Captain.


The other shoe dropped a week later.

“Me, sir? I’m not a combat soldier.”

“This mission doesn’t call for combat soldiers. It calls for infiltration troops, and you’re supposed to be good at that.”

“Yes, sir, but…”

“No buts, Johnson. It’s an order. Besides, it was your idea.” The Colonel chomped on his cigar. Where he’d gotten a cigar was anyone’s guess. Tobacco had been outlawed ten years ago. The cigar was a message, as if one was needed, that the Colonel could do whatever the hell he wanted. “Look on the bright side. You’re on an open budget. Ask for whatever you want, and you’ll get it. The only condition is that you’ve got sixty days to cross over. If you haven’t done so in that time, I’ll have the MPs toss you into the killing zone and film you getting atomized. That should go viral quickly, and I’ll get some serious ad revenue.”

He left me shaking my head; say what you want about his methods, but the man certainly knew how to motivate people.

I turned to a lieutenant. He must have been just out of the Point, because he hadn’t had the sense to run for cover. “You. You’ve just been seconded to this project, so stop gaping and go get the prisoner.”

“Which prisoner, sir?”

“We only have one, Lieutenant.”


“I’m not going back to California,” the writer said. Someone had taken off his cuffs.

“Yes, you are. You just haven’t accepted it yet,” I told him. “Now, I think the machines might recognize you as one of their citizens and let us pass, just because you’re aboard… but I’m not willing to bet my life on that. What do you think?”

“I think you’re insane. Why would you want to go into California?”

“We’ve got to get in in order to sabotage the machines from the inside.”

“That’s stupid. How many people are you going to take over the border?”

“Five. Two demolitions experts, you and me and, of course, the lieutenant.”

“You’re going to try to take down the machines with five people? That’s insane.”

“Four people. I’m only taking the lieutenant along because I don’t like him.”

He stared, obviously unsure of what to say. I wasn’t actually nuts, but I wanted to see what he said. It had been ten years since we’d had contact with the people of California, the first—and thus far only—place on Earth that had voted to allow the Technocracy: rule by a sextet of computers designed and programmed to optimize the well-being of the population. His responses should be informative, or at least give an indication of how much he remembered of his time before the Secession.

“Do you mean that? About the lieutenant, I mean? He’s not necessary to the mission?”

“Of course. Bastard gets on my nerves. Serves him right to get shot to pieces or brainwashed by a bunch of boxes that go ping.”

“But… that’s not… right.”

“Spare me your machine morality. I have a job to do, and I’m supposed to do it how I feel fit.”

“This has nothing to do with the machines. It’s a question of human decency.”

“What do you know about human decency? Didn’t you vote to let the computers rule over you?” Even if he hadn’t, the machines had allowed dissenters to leave before closing the border.

“Sure I did. I already told you. I was a writer, which essentially meant I had to pay off student loans I’d used for a degree that would never pay for itself, and a job at the local coffee shop. It was either that or let the human politicians keep screwing me over.”

“Let me get this straight. You were a barista, and the machines made you a writer. Third class or whatever, but you were a writer, and you could survive just by being a writer.”

“Yes.”

“And you still left? I’d think that of all people, you would have had reason to stay. The bankers would still be bankers, the cops would still be cops, but you got every dream you ever had handed to you on a plate. Hell, you’re the worst double agent ever. No wonder no one even blinked when I told them I was going back over the line with you. They think you’re worthless.”

“There are no more bankers. No more cops, either.”

“No cops?”

“No need. There’s nothing you can steal. The machines ensure that everyone has whatever they want.”

“Surely, there’s still stuff people want. Original artwork. Exotic cars. Stuff that can’t be mass produced.”

“All of that belongs to everyone now. There’s no market. And if you want a car, the machines will build you one faster than anything built before.”

“And no one kills other people? Or starts a riot? Or gets drunk and disorderly?”

“Not really. There are stun drones everywhere. Things are stopped before they get out of hand… and if it looks like it was more than just an isolated incident you go to reeducation.”

I shuddered. I could just imagine the needles and the brainwashing apparatus at a reeducation center. “Ugh.”

“It’s not what you think. A lot of people get themselves sent to reeducation on purpose. It’s pretty nice. Sex, music and drugs. Only the ones that don’t damage you permanently, of course.”

“And you want me to believe that you just walked away from all of that?”

“Yes. You don’t understand.”

“I do. I just don’t believe you. Explain why you left.”

“I can’t.”

“Then you actually are useless.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t make you understand, I just said that I couldn’t tell you.”

“Pretty much the same thing.”

“No. It isn’t. I’ll show you.”

“So you’re coming after all?”

“Damn you.”


The tech dweeb didn’t want to hear it.

“Will you just try?” I said.

“All right, but it’ll probably screw up the entire comm system for weeks.”

“I trust you’re good enough to fix it before then.”

He sighed, but obeyed. Everyone on base knew the Colonel’s orders: I could have whatever I wanted as soon as I wanted it. A couple of IT guys opened an access panel, climbed in and began to curse.

Eventually, a head popped out. The tech was a young blond woman who looked too young to be allowed anything as complicated as the comms system. She glared at me.

“You’re still here?”

“Yeah.”

“Hand me that wrench.”

“Here you go.”

“You should probably go away. Come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to have to change some transmitters in the modulator, and we don’t know if the parts work at all. Those frequencies haven’t been used in decades.” She shook her head in disgust. “We’ll all get court marshalled for listening to you instead of carting you off to the loony bin, but the Man’s gotta be obeyed.” She disappeared back into the access panel.

They were probably right, but I had to test what our prisoner was telling me. Had the machines really put their entire civilian communication network onto the old TV station frequencies?

No wonder no one had been able to locate them.

Where the Shadow Falls

With gritted teeth, Jackson watched jets of fire spurt from the nozzle of the flame thrower while his eyes watered behind his windowed mask. He didn’t need to look at the target to know whether he was hitting his mark, but he couldn’t help himself. It was hard not to focus on the body that lay dashed across the mound of broken bricks, its limbs alight in a burning pyre whipped by the wind.

Coils of smoke slid over the rubble, following a lonely path through the ruins. Jackson doused his flame; he hadn’t snuffed a twitch in twelve days, and he would eat well when he reached the Meekon settlement, which was just ten clicks away. If he wound up with an extra allotment of rations, he might trade them for a pleasure ticket; the Meekon girls were worth it, even if they did smell like goats and cheese. There was one girl in particular he might go back to, a well-built woman he’d bedded the year before—but first, he had to mark his prize.

Without removing his mask and gloves, Jackson stripped off his pack and wiped down the muzzle of the flame thrower, which was still too hot to stow. Then he dismantled his crossbow, slung it in its leather pouch, and removed a bright red beacon ball from his pack. As he squeezed the ball, it lit up like a hot coal pulled from a blazing fire, but it gave off no heat; its light was cold.

Jackson approached the body. Leaning over, he gently lobbed the beacon at the mound of smoldering rubble, and he watched it bounce once before it came to rest in a well of clay shards. The little light began to flash, sending a signal that would let the Givers know that Jackson was responsible for this kill.

He turned away. He was pleased with himself, happy to have eradicated another twitch. He was halfway to his pack before he spotted the boy who was standing near his flame thrower.

Jackson froze. The boy was shirtless, clad in leather breeches, and he was crying. In the hours Jackson had spent tracking his prey through the ruins, he hadn’t seen another living soul. He doubted that the boy was a scavenger, since he wasn’t carrying a satchel or pulling a cart. Could he be the dead man’s son, perhaps? If he was, he would be twitching soon as well.

“Is that man your father?” Jackson bellowed through his mask.

Without answering, the child began to gesture in an odd fashion, creating strange signs with his hands. Jackson had never seen anything like it, but he gathered that the boy wasn’t playing a game; the earnest look on his face suggested that he was trying to communicate something that couldn’t be said out loud.

“Back up,” Jackson commanded. “Step away from my pack.”

The boy dropped his hands and stared.

“I told you to get back!”

Squatting down, Jackson grabbed a rock that was large enough to stop a wild dog in its tracks. Hefting it, he showed the rock to the boy, and then he lunged forward, feigning a pitch. The boy jumped back; repeating the gesture, Jackson forced him to retreat a second time. While the boy stared at him, he stowed the flame thrower and wondered what he should do next. He couldn’t prove that the boy had had any contact with the man he’d just killed, but he couldn’t prove that he hadn’t, either.

“I don’t know who you are or where you come from,” he said, “but you’re not showing the signs, so I’m not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”

The boy’s face remained a blank slate. His drying tears made dark tracks in the dust that covered his face.

“I won’t hurt you, but I can’t help you. You’re on your own. Got it?”

With his arms dangling at his sides, the boy kept staring at Jackson.

“Are you soft?” Jackson asked, pointing at his own head.

There was no response. Grunting, Jackson strapped on his pack and started for one of the footpaths that had been worn into the rubble by travelers passing through the ruins. He was sweating under the mask and the gloves cuffed his wrists, but he would keep them on for the time being, until he knew what the boy was going to do.

A few minutes later, he looked over his shoulder. The boy was following him; Jackson imagined a response that involved nipping the hard ground between them with an arrow from his crossbow, but the boy wasn’t enough of a threat to justify the gesture. Jackson walked on.

As he neared the outskirts of the ruins, he stopped to remove his mask and his gloves. The boy stood still and watched him with the same perplexed stare, sparking an uneasy feeling in Jackson’s chest.

Renovation

While removing the old green wallpaper in the master bedroom, Gil discovered a window. The glass surface, flush with the surrounding plaster, had been perfectly concealed. If not for the renovation–specifically Vickie’s desire to spruce up their room with an attractive floral print–he might never have found it.

Perplexed, Gil scraped away the remaining wallpaper with a putty knife, revealing the oddly-sized pane: maybe three feet wide, eight inches high.

On the other side of the glass, obscured by a smear of wallpaper paste, a warm light glowed. Retrieving a sponge, Gil scrubbed the glass clean and looked inside.

Beyond was a tiny lighted room. An open-plan apartment, furnished with a doll-sized dinette set, a sofa the length of his hand, a kitchen and refrigerator and a marble island with stools. Bright paisley wallpaper.

Squinting, he could make out spines of books on the shelf, a saucepan on the stove. Off the kitchen, next to a coat rack, an exterior door with a bolt lock, a box for buzzing in visitors. The floor plan of the apartment seemed to extend farther back. A hall stretched off the living room. At the end, a door opened onto a bathroom in blue tile.

That didn’t make sense. On the other side of the wall was Gil and Vickie’s laundry room. There was no tiny bathroom in there.

He was puzzling over this when the apartment’s door opened and a tiny woman walked in.


New Gomorrah

I forget everything except the color blue. We waded through a river thickened with dirt and blood, but through our goggles we could only see cobalt, cyan, denim. If I blocked out the skyline of splintered buildings, I could almost believe we were at sea. Mitch had found some kid’s rattle, miraculously unbroken, and he shook it and sang as we walked. I expected my stomach to twist, but there was no urge to tell him to knock it off, no discomfort. Liquid blue mud swallowed our boots up to the ankles and Mitch sang Down by the river you said you’d hold me pretty baby don’t let me go into the wet smell of decay.

The order had come a few days back. They hadn’t given a reason, just said, It has been decided that there is nothing deserving of life within the city’s walls. This is standard. Your unit has been selected for the sacred work of recovering any items that should be spared. The night before we marched, I’d dreamed that I was standing before a line of objects – a spool of thread, a porcelain doll, a tarnished picture frame – and when I reached out to choose, they cried Will not the judge of all the Earth do right? And their voices were the voices of children, high and cracked and unraveling.


Mitch lowered the rattle, stopped singing. He said, “This is one fucked up town.”

I said, “It’s fucked now, that’s for sure.”

Mitch bent over and swiped a gloved hand at a post floating past us. “Everybody here’s so bad they had to die, right? Must’ve been one evil baby.” He gave the rattle one last shake and tossed it into the current. The stomach drop hit then, the hollowness in his lack of irony. I kept my face blank. Two years in the Angels is enough to teach a woman not to flinch at the mention of a dead child.

We went on wading. After a while, it wasn’t just fence posts floating through the floodwaters. We stayed close to the doorsteps of the ruined homes to avoid obstructions. Through our goggles, even the bobbing corpses were stained with color. The world, we always tell recruits, is like a forest. To clear the detritus and reduce the risk of an all-consuming blaze, sometimes you have to set a smaller fire.


The story goes like this: Three angels visit Abraham and declare God’s plans to destroy the nearby cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose sins of inhospitality are so grievous that only death can erase their stain upon the Earth. But when the angels leave, Abraham barters with God: Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?

I have never argued with God. I have never spoken to God directly. We receive and follow orders. We are not asked to carry out the destruction, only to make sure it goes according to plan.


I found a music box with chipped edges. It wouldn’t play, of course, but I decided that something crafted to produce music might be a little bit holy, regardless of the sins of its owner. Our unit would take it back with us, where it would be reviewed for a series of inscrutable requirements before its fate was decided. I was pleased with myself for finding a potential artefact. Sometimes, by the time we arrive, there’s nothing left.

There are no accounts of someone being found alive in a drowned city. Would it mean the living one was spared by design? Or would its survival be considered a mistake to be corrected? Andy, I think, would kill it. Andy walks behind me when the unit marches in formation. He doesn’t joke like Mitch, doesn’t mess around in the ruins. I believe Andy would kill the survivor with a smile full of regret and eyes shining with purpose.


Sodom and Gomorrah were not spared. The cities’ residents mocked and abused a foreigner who was actually an angel, and, like selfish princes in a fairy tale, were punished for their prejudice. One man, his wife, and his two daughters were deemed righteous enough to flee. The wife dared to glance back at her home mid-escape and was turned to salt. These things happen; on the whole, it was a merciful outcome.


I will say this only once. There was a man, his arms around a child. He sat so still that at first I took them for a sculpture, a potential artefact to index. Then his eyes closed and reopened. I found them when the unit had spread out to maximize efficiency, and I was alone. I walked close enough to reach out and touch him, close enough to wring his neck or feel his heartbeat. He trembled slightly. He shielded the child in his arms. I hissed, Go.


We marched out of the city to Mitch’s rough hum, mud-splattered and toting our chosen objects. I wondered about the eyes of the man I had found. Through the goggles they had been a brighter shade of blue than anything else I had seen in the city. I could have said Be not afraid in an ancient tongue like the original angels, but I couldn’t form the syllables. Even the Go I had managed was blasphemous. His eyes floated on before me like twin prisms shifting in the light. Opalescent blue. Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? I fixed my eyes forward. I swallowed the word I had spoken and tasted salt.

Ella J. Lombard (she/her) is a writer and researcher living in Seattle, WA. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction and poetry, she can be found pursuing a PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Washington. In both lines of work, she explores oppression, justice, and how the stories we tell reflect and transform who we are.

The Interplanetary Janitorial Light Brigade

The Future Was Yesterday’s fusion reactor containment failed when she was three days out from Rattlesnake Station. Automatic failsafes triggered within microseconds, shutting off the reactant supply and bringing the nuclear reaction to a halt, but a few hundred grams of sun-hot plasma now had a clear path to the supercooled magnets surrounding the reactor.

Yesterday’s operating system opened a ventral port from the reactor into open space. Almost all of the plasma was successfully shunted through this port and away from the ship, but a small fraction followed the path through the containment breach, touching off a massive detonation when they contacted the magnets.

The violent sideways kick of the explosion was the first Yesterday’s crew knew of the unfolding disaster. Apparent gravity changed direction twice in less than a second, first from the steady 1g of deceleration to the side as the explosion accelerated the ship into a spin, then from sideways to outward as the ship’s new centripetal force tugged the crew out from the center of the ship toward her bow and stern.

Shockwaves from the explosion traveled out from engineering, vibrating every centimeter of Yesterday’s rigid frame. Plastic instrument covers shattered, ceramic cups cracked, gangways shook themselves loose, and an infrasonic thrum blurred the crew’s vision as they struggled to understand what was happening.

The sound of the explosion came last. It was a titanic crack as though some forgotten god of the void had seized Yesterday and cracked her spine in retaliation for waking their anonymous slumber.

But there were no vengeful gods in the Big Black, and Yesterday’s spine was not actually broken. The explosion had pushed her structural integrity to the limit, but not past it. Yesterday held herself together.

Her crew tended to their wounded and carefully began the precise pattern of maneuvering burns that would counter Yesterday’s spin as efficiently as possible. They were safe, for the moment.

Beyond the moment? There was no way they could restart the crippled reactor, and the Kuiper Belt was a bad part of the Solar System to lose your fusion drive, especially on an outbound trajectory. Without the deceleration burn, they would fly right past Rattlesnake Station. There were no other permanent bases between them and the Oort Cloud. If someone couldn’t catch up to them and bring along enough reaction mass to overcome their velocity, nothing could stop Yesterday from going Dutchman.

Those were long term considerations. In the short run, all that mattered was power.

Without power, life support would fail. First they would asphyxiate. Then the cold would freeze their lifeless corpses solid. Yesterday’s capacitors could keep her essential systems humming for hours. Maybe a day at the outside. A rescue mission wouldn’t take days or hours. It would take weeks or months. Yesterday’s crew needed time. They needed power.

They knew how to get it.

While Yesterday’s spin was tamed, her crew took exacting measurements of their position and velocity. They sent the data along with a discreet mayday call back towards the Inner System on heavily encrypted channels. The message would take seven hours to reach Cislunar, the cradle of humankind’s nascent interplanetary empire. Hopefully, a ray of concentrated sunshine would reach back out towards them across the millions of kilometers of empty space, arriving fourteen hours after they sent their message.

If they were very lucky and their telemetry data was very good, that little photonic lifeline would score a direct hit on their emergency solar array, bringing them the power they needed to stay alive until help arrived.

If they were very lucky.