All of this will be gone soon, he thought, looking out his living room window at the quiet neighborhood. Ed Richards sipped his first coffee of the morning, admiring the poplar trees that lined both sides of the main road before it branched off into his cul de sac.
His house was on a higher elevation than most in this part of Poplar Cove, and that gave him an extra advantage when watching the sunrise peek just over the trees. He wondered about the people who planted them – did they have families too? They probably had never lived here, and likely never even visited the street again once their job was done. Could they have imagined the saplings they were putting into the ground would one day grow up to be such magnificent relics, standing guard over the families who breathed them in? Could they have imagined how the lives of these trees, of those families, were going to end?
He took another sip of coffee, not waiting for it to cool. It burned, and he held onto it until he could no longer feel its sweet black bitterness on his tongue, and then he let it continue its path down his throat.
The television had been unplugged since the weekend. He didn’t want to know any more about what was happening. Several evenings ago he’d watched the bombs take out a dozen cities on the east coast in just a few hours. Boston, New York, Charleston, Atlantic City, even as far south as Jacksonville. All gone. When they started hitting further inland, he just couldn’t watch more of the same. It was total destruction of every place that got hit, and they were hitting every place. Their country was helpless. The president hadn’t been seen for days. It was bad, and it sure as hell seemed like THE END. He didn’t want the kids to know about any of that. He wished he hadn’t known it himself.
His wife walked up behind him. He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed softly.
“I think I’m going to make some eggs, how do you want yours?”
He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from those trees. They seemed extra vibrant today and their solidarity felt comforting. “Thanks, hon. I don’t think I feel like eating anything. Not this morning.”
She rested her head on his shoulder. “Any idea how much longer?”
“No,” he sighed. “Just feels like today could be the day, you know?” He felt her head nod.
Ed couldn’t tell how much time had passed as he stood there holding Carrie, and he was fine with that. Time was something they had spent far too long paying attention to, and he was done with it. Her hair smelled like cinnamon and he was quite alright with that.
The poplars just stood there, looking back at him, and they hadn’t so much as swayed since he’d gotten out of bed. They were like the Royal Guard, standing at attention despite the world making a fool of itself right under their noses. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a bird in this area. He wondered where they’d all gone, and if his family could go there too.
The house was still. The boys were asleep and the only sound was the hum of the fridge (the air conditioner had not yet switched on due to the unusually cool summer weather). Earlier, Carrie had plugged in the coffee maker just long enough to make a single pot, and then she unplugged it again. Conserving electricity was the rule now. The President had addressed the nation briefly before the attacks, and with his signature game show smile he assured everybody that the United States would prevail, and that sourcing every working power generator in the country toward that one goal would somehow help. Not once did he ever refer to this thing as a WAR. Of course that was back when Manhattan was still an island.
Several days ago, a tall man with a white moustache on an otherwise clean face stopped by the house. A badge dangled from a blue lanyard around his neck. On it was a black-and-white picture of a clean-shaven version of himself, and the letters DOE spread across it in all caps. Ed knew that the letters stood for Department of Energy. He also found it odd that there was no name on the badge either. The Moustached Man announced that he was operating under Executive Orders and going door to door, checking electric meters and walking through homes, making sure people were complying with the Emergency Energy Conservation Act. Maximum kilowatt hours had been established nationally, with southern cities being allowed more kWh per month than the northern ones during the summer. The Moustached Man quickly made his sweep through the lower level of the house, like a trained dog in a canine unit, and then walked upstairs and did the same. After a few moments he briskly descended the stairs, and with a nod and a cowboy grin, he told them ALL CLEAR and thanked them kindly for their service and to have a fine day. The screen door whacked sharply against the doorframe as he left, like a rimshot at the end of a bad joke.
Ed had wondered why the Department of Energy wouldn’t just have the local government (or even the power company) do such a menial job. Couldn’t Southern Electric just send out their meter-readers and report anybody who was playing too much Xbox? He watched The Moustached Man walk across the street to knock on the Silverman’s door, and that was when Ed saw a large green truck that looked like something out of M.A.S.H. parked at the end of the street. The back of it was filled with men wearing camouflage and helmets, sitting along the siderails and holding M-16 rifles.
These are the good guys, right? he thought.
Ed took another sip of his coffee. It didn’t seem to be cooling off. Carrie leaned up and kissed his cheek and told him she was going to start some eggs anyway, and she’d make him a few over-easy just in case he changed his mind. “Don’t worry, I’ll unplug the stove as soon as I’m done.”
She walked off. In the distance, he heard what sounded like a low roll of thunder, and he thought about Moustache Man and the men holding M-16s, and he wasn’t sure if the presence of the soldiers was supposed to make them feel safe or threatened.
Last fall before any of this, Ed took the boys out to the lake up at Center Hill. He’d wanted them to start learning how to fish, and with Chris in the 2nd grade now (Luke wasn’t far behind him) they were old enough to start getting a feel for it.
They tied down their camping gear into the back of the pickup, and the small fishing boat stuck out past the tailgate. The campground was about a half-hour west, and when they arrived they paid nineteen bucks for an overnight pass. Then they found their campsite and Ed pitched the tent while the boys watched. Then Ed gave them each a paddle and a fishing rod and he hoisted the boat over his head, and they walked the trail down to the water.
Sometime later they still had not caught anything. He hadn’t really expected to, he just wanted the boys to experience sitting on the water, drifting in silence and without anywhere to be.
Then Chris asked him a question he wasn’t expecting:
“Dad, are bad guys real?”
Ed stumbled, not anticipating that type of question. He sure as hell didn’t want to answer it, either.
“Why are you asking that?”
“Miss Tanner told us they were real, and that they were the ones that made those buildings fall down.”
“Your teacher told you that, huh?”
“That’s right, they did.”
“So bad guys are real, right?”
“I wish I could say they’re not, but they are.”
“Do they want to hurt us?”
“Well…they do want to hurt some people, but not necessarily us.” His own use of the word “necessarily” made him cringe.
“Why do they want to be bad?”
“Well son, people have their reasons–”
“Do they even know they’re the bad guys?”
“I don’t know that for sure but I imagine they must.”
“Because we’re definitely the good guys, right dad?”
“I would never want to be a bad guy.”
“Of course not.”
“Because the good guys always win, right?”
“Right.” Ed knew better, but what was he supposed to say?
Chris sat in silence, looking out over the water with his fishing rod drooping near the water. Luke may have been listening, but he hadn’t said anything. Ed hadn’t noticed the clouds moving in until he heard thunder somewhere nearby.
“Better get back to shore, guys. We don’t want to get caught out here in the rain.”
They set down their poles in the boat and Ed picked up both paddles and handed one to Chris.
“The bad guys – they aren’t anywhere near us are they?”
The question echoed back at Ed in his living room. He couldn’t remember how he’d answered it, and it seemed like such a long time ago. He figured he’d said something about the bad guys being far away and that the Army men would surely stop them with their tanks before they got too close. And at the time he could have even believed that himself.
There was a knock at the door, and it startled him out of this trance. He hoped the knock didn’t wake the boys.
He looked through the peephole and saw the telltale gator-skinned cowboy hat perched atop his neighbor’s much-too-tan scalp. It was Joe and he was propping the screen door against his back, like he was waiting to get invited in. Ed opened the front door.
“Good morning Joe.”
“Mornin’, Buddy, hope I didn’t wake you. Hey, ya mind if I borrow your boat for the day? I had mine all loaded up when I saw this crack in the seam, and I don’t think it’s busted all the way through yet, but I don’t want to take the chance testing it out on the water. Know what I mean?”
“Sure, I guess. You know where it is, right?”
“You bet. Thanks Eddie-boy, I’ll try to bring her back in one piece!” Joe said, his voice trailing off as he disappeared off the front stoop and ran around back. Ed lunged and caught the screen door before it could wake the kids.
He walked into the kitchen and leaned over the island and looked at Carrie, who had two eggs on a plate and was frying two more. She’d unearthed the “special occasion” cast iron this morning. She asked him what all that was about at the door and he told her.
“He should have invited you to go with him! I’m sure you’d have loved to get on the water one more time.”
“It’s okay. Everybody wants to be on the water today, you know the lake’s got to be packed. Besides, why on Earth would I want to spend today with him when I could be right here with you?”
She smiled. The toast was ready. She pulled it and set it on the cutting board next to the butter, and then unplugged the toaster.
Carrie had a sweet voice and he wanted to hear more of it this morning. She wasn’t saying much, but she seemed content. She spread butter on the toast and cut it in half. Quiet wasn’t so bad either though. The morning silence had been peaceful, and he was grateful for it, for her, for them.
Something suddenly broke the silence behind them and they both jumped, and they saw Chris and Luke on the staircase, leaping off the third step from the bottom. Carrie laughed.
“Look who’s up,” she said. “It’s not even eight! Who’s hungry?”
Both boys raised their hands and ran over to the kitchen. Ed didn’t know why they were in such good moods, he was just thankful they were.
“You boys can fight over my eggs,” Ed said. “I’ll get in on the next round.” He stood up and gave both boys a quick hug, kissing them on top of their heads, then poured himself another cup. “Honey, what kind is this?”
“It’s some kind of summer blend. I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s good. You’ll have to get more, this isn’t going to last.”
“I’ll be sure to do that the next time I go to the store.” He knew she said that last part out of habit. It was hard to get over the thought of there being something called a “next time.”
He walked back over to the window and looked out over the scores of roofs that seemed to stretch forever into the distance. Their house had been the first one built in this section, and that’s how they’d lucked into being on the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. And it also gave them a sense of security, tucked in the back where nothing could get to them that didn’t have to go through everybody else first.
That’s when he saw the mushroom clouds near the horizon. Not just one, but several. His blood froze, even with hot coffee running through his veins. This must be what happened out east, he thought. He’d expected something different, like explosions or some dramatic flash of light. He’d expected Hiroshima. But these mushrooms were silent and dark, appearing one-by-one across the sky like raindrops falling on a still lake. They seemed alive.
A part of him wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. During tornado-packed evenings the family would huddle in the downstairs bathroom, listening to the static-filled radio until the storms passed. But this time there was no safe place to go, and the radios had been nothing but static for some time.
From the kitchen poured beautiful sounds like he hadn’t heard in months, maybe even years. Carrie was making up silly songs and singing them loudly, making the boys crack up as they tried singing along. He had no intention of making that wonderful painting of a scene end a moment before it had to.
The sky over their street was cloud-free for the moment, but that was about to change. The poplars were still. They were ageless guardians, and Ed’s family was like a fragile figurine collection that the trees had sworn to protect.
But there was only so much the trees could do. Today they could only stare and watch as the clouds moved closer by the second, each one seeming to be larger and darker than the one before. In a few minutes, the clouds would cover their street and invade their homes and bring darkness to everything. But not yet. For now, for at least the next few moments, the sky over their street was still quite nice.
Ed sighed and finished the last of his coffee. He slowly pulled the curtain closed and walked away from the window. He crossed the living room toward his family, unaware and blissful. He placed his mug in the dishwasher.
“We can’t run that anymore, remember? Just set it in the sink instead and I’ll get it after breakfast.”
“Ha! You’re right, I forgot. Hey boys, your mom’s the greatest, isn’t she?”
They gave their thumbs up approval as they began stuffing their mouths with eggs and toast.
He smiled back.
Aaron Grayum is a writer and artist. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Michelle, who is also an artist, and his son Sebo, who is also a ninja.
At first, Mark took her for just another illegal: they all looked the same, heads down, feet shuffling, dressed in off-white paper suits so thin that the whole line trembled on their way up the ramp and into the back of the lorry. It was only when she looked up that he realized who she was.
Asha to her friends. He had been one, once.
He had fallen for her hard, the first girl he had ever thought of as more than just a fluffy pink annoyance. The entire spring the year he turned fourteen had been spent trying to impress her and the entire summer holiday spent longing for her. He cried when he returned to school in September and found her gone. He suffered his first broken heart by proxy, victim of Asha’s family moving away from London to care for an elderly relative.
Six years had barely changed her; she was still Asha, still dark-haired and dark-eyed and petite, a cocoa-skinned pixie. She shuffled past on the ramp and for a second their eyes met. When she didn’t seem to recognize him, didn’t even blink, it was a sucker punch right in the gut. She was in the back of the lorry before he could catch his breath, just another illegal for Jones to tick off on his clipboard. Once the rest of them had joined her the ramp was lifted, sealing her away in the dark.
Jones drove, easing the lorry through the gate and out of the holding camp, a squat building that had once been a primary school. The outskirts of Leicester were a ghost town of hollowed-out take-aways and boarded-up corner shops covered in graffiti: “Illegals Go Home”, “Britain for the British,” slogans from the government’s last election campaign. They made Mark think of the prisoners, crammed in the back of the lorry like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.
Jones was old-school; shaven head, bulldog tattoo on one forearm and a pin-up on the other, a faded St George’s Cross poking out from the collar of his camo shirt. They hadn’t worked together before and Jones was too big, too imposing, for Mark to be the one to break the silence. Instead he checked the clipboard, as discreetly as he could. The girl in the back of the lorry was definitely Ashika. Seeing her name made him tingle.
“Done this run before?” Jones asked, making Mark jump.
“No,” Mark replied. “You?”
“Thought not,” Jones said. “Would’ve recognized you. Done this a few times meself. Never gets any easier. Searchers keep finding more ‘n more of ’em.” The older man flicked him a glance. “Strange, that, eh?”
There was a challenge in Jones’s voice that demanded the correct answer, something that was safe and appropriate to say. “Well, y’know, they breed like rats, don’t they?” He thought of Ashika and felt disgusted with himself. “So,” he added, trying to move the conversation on, “you been in the regiment long?”
“What did you do before?”
“Bit o’ this, bit o’ that,” Jones said noncommittally. “You?”
“Nuffin’,” Mark said.
Jones frowned. “Why’s that?” he asked. “Man’s gotta work.” There was another challenge in his voice, sharp and almost angry.
Mark swallowed; Jones was six inches taller and six stone heavier, built like he could bench-press the lorry. “It was hard,” he said, “until we started kicking this lot out. I’m working now, aren’t I?”
“Coming over here, taking out jobs?”
Jones nodded as if that told him everything he need to know and turned his attention back to the road.
The habitat doors hissed open. Steam slipped from Vesha’s body. The air grew cold, until ice strands formed between her fingers and toes. Her lungs burned. The plastic umbilical cable tugged at her navel as it pumped stabilizing chemicals into her bloodstream.
Vesha squinted through tears of pain. Outside, Torumba’s frozen landscape stretched to the wall of the Border Zone. A layer of mist clung to the blue ice field.
Her earpiece crackled. “Acclimation sequence complete.”
Vesha strode out onto the ice.
“Crystozoa concentrations at point-six above. Lung capacity at fifty-five percent. All systems operational.”
Vesha coughed, and tasted blood. Operational. Yeah, right.
“Evening, Vesha.” Through the habitat windows, Jacob’s bushy hair stood out like an orange sun. He sounded different today. Nervous.
“Hot date today, doc?”
Jacob forced a chuckle. “Yeah, right.”
He rattled off her test parameters. It had been a year since her inception date, and the damned tests never ended. If she was meant to parent humanity’s next generation, shouldn’t she get started? The habitat would only hold them for another few years.
She crouched at the test site and planted her fingertips atop the ice. Liquid pooled in small circles. Beneath, the soil was visible. Her fingers sank, and for a moment it looked like it might work. Then a chill overtook her, and the water froze. She tore her hands free, and her skin bled.
Vesha gritted her teeth. More failed tests. They had built her to thrive on Torumba, not just survive. But Jacob himself had admitted, halfway through a bottle of chag one night, that they’d rushed her genetic encoding, pressured by worsening habitat conditions. There was still no word from Earth, and everyone feared the worst. Their meager colony might be the last vestige of humankind. They had no fuel to venture beyond this system, which meant they had to adapt. Vesha was their only hope for survival. “The key to humanity’s future,” Jacob called her.
Vesha spat, and the ice stained red. Some surrogate mother she was.
She shot a glance at the habitat. A gaggle of scientists peered over Jacob’s shoulder. Vesha’s earpiece buzzed, and the white-coated team shuffled down the hall, leaving Jacob alone.
“What’s going on, bud?”
Sweat glistened on Jacob’s brow. “If you run, you might make the border in time.”
Vesha snorted. “Not following you.”
“You have to go. It’s your only chance.”
A tremor rippled down Vesha’s spine. “Are we under attack?”
Jacob hesitated. “Check the west corral.”
The wall dividing her corral from the next loomed fifty meters away. That corral had always been empty. What was he getting at?
Jacob slammed his fist against the glass. “Go!”
Vesha ran. Her lungs felt ready to burst. Her muscles strained around the joints, where the tests always showed signs of genetic defects.
She reached the wall and leapt. She hauled herself atop the wall. Blood streamed from her nostril onto her lips.
A shadow played across the ice in the adjacent corral. A woman. On the surface. How was this possible? Vesha was the only one with lungs that could handle the Crystozoa.
The woman’s skin was a dull green. Her fingers and toes were long and thin. The light from the habitat caught her face. She looked just like Vesha.
The woman crouched, and sunk her fingertips into the ice with ease. She tossed chunks of the blue stuff aside and clutched the rich soil beneath. Her breathing was relaxed. She was perfect.
“Jacob, what… is she?”
Jacob sighed. “There isn’t time–”
“She’s… your successor.”
The woman in the corral dug out a handful of soil and studied it. Vesha clenched her teeth.
“But I’m… key to humanity’s future… ”
“You’re just our first try. You’re not the… finished product. Listen, Vesha. You have to go–”
“First try? We’re all first tries! What about you, Jacob? Are they building your successor, too?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Vesha.”
The woman shook Crystozoa strands from her hair. Vesha fought off the urge to leap down and tear that hair from her scalp by the fistful.
“What will happen to me?”
“It’s not my decision. I just found out. Doctor Thomas–”
Jacob’s voice quavered. “You’ll be decommissioned. But you still have a chance, before Doctor Thomas gets back. You have to run.”
Vesha looked across the ice fields. Beyond the far wall lay the Wilds. Where would she go? The Wilds were filled with Crystozoa breeding pools and god knew what else. And she was… flawed. She didn’t stand a chance.
An angry voice piped into her ear. Doctor Thomas.
“–the hell? Vesha, return to base immediately.”
Vesha’s umbilical cord lay sprawled across the ice like the slack string of a kite, waiting to reel her in.
“Return to base. That’s an order.”
Vesha drew the cord to her mouth and gnashed it with her teeth. The fibers snapped. Milky liquid spilled across the wall.
An alarm blared. From the habitat, a security automaton shot into the night on blazing thrusters.
Vesha ran across the top of the wall. Her thighs burned like hell. The border of the Wilds loomed closer, a knife’s edge of white against azure mountains.
Metal hands gripped her. Her feet slipped from the wall. She twisted in the automaton’s grasp, but its fingers dug deeper. It hauled her toward the habitat.
Doctor Thomas stood in the window, hands on her hips, a venomous glare in her eyes. A pair of guards restrained Jacob nearby. His eyes were wide, locked on Vesha as she drew nearer.
Vesha thrust a hand upward. Her open palm smashed into her captor’s chin, and sparks flew. She tucked her legs, planted her feet against its chest, and pushed.
Metal fingers slipped from her skin, drawing out ribbons of blood. She flew backward. A flash blinded her. Pain lanced through her torso. She gagged as her fingers felt the gaping hole in her abdomen.
Vesha landed atop the wall and the air shot from her lungs. Jacob’s voice rang in her earpiece, a string of muffled words. She tried to sit up, but the pain was too much. Her legs were numb. Crystozoa clung to the surface of her eyes. She let her head drop.
Over the west side, her successor stood in her corral, watching. A thin trail of blood ran from the woman’s nostril. Vesha smiled bitterly as the pain slipped from her body at last.
Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up story writing to kick the habit. When he’s not writing, he spends his time on another continent in search of adventure.
Somewhere beyond the edge of camp, the things were waking up. Somebody had mentioned it would be better to adjust to their schedule: sleep during the day, be vigilant at night, stop being taken by surprise. That week’s leader had refused, every single time. They had made enough concessions.
The dusky purple of twilight settled over the treetops as people kicked dirt over the glowing embers of their dying fire. On top of everything else, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and the whole wood was as good as kindling. They had nearly finished setting up camp for the night, and as the dozen or so remaining campers settled in for what was sure to be an uneasy rest, they rolled dirty sleeping bags onto dusty piles of dirt and leaves in a poor attempt to soften the ground at their backs. It was nearly winter. Jem sat at the edge of the tent circle, fluffing what now passed for a pillow. She hadn’t slept soundly in days, and it wasn’t because of what lurked beyond the tree line. The wood was filled with a million unfamiliar sounds–was that an insect? Some kind of bird? What makes a buzzing sound and also scurries up and down the trees at all hours? She wondered in silence. There was nobody to complain to any more.
She watched as a few of the others went to bed. Floating through the spaces between the zipped flaps of tents came the murmurs of pillow talk and the occasional sigh of pleasure–not everything had changed. She longed for the life she was used to: a life of clean sheets and fresh fruit and meat that didn’t come from whatever was crawling around. As she pondered her fate, resigned to a life of sore muscles and aching vertebrae, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up, her thoughts interrupted. Kelvin.
“You’re on watch with me, Jem,” he said, and stalked off to the edge of the clearing without waiting for a response.
Kelvin was, in every sense of the word, a redneck. Jem had never socialized with people like Kelvin before all this happened, and she thought it a particularly ironic twist of fate that they were the only ones likely to survive this hell. She found herself wishing she were a little more rough around the edges. Everyone at camp treated her like a burden, making a point of explaining every chore assigned to her as if she had never heard of washing clothes or boiling water. Instead of proving them wrong, she half-assed every responsibility they gave her. If they think I’m so useless, she thought, I’ll be useless. It occurred to her that sort of response was infantile, but Jem wasn’t particularly concerned with earning their good favor. She wasn’t here to make friends, now.
Jem groaned and followed him to the spot he had chosen. Leaning against the tree was the rifle, which she took, wrinkling her nose at its weight. She slid down to sit, facing the direction opposite her partner, and supporting herself against the trunk for a moment before it occurred to her that was probably the worst possible place to be if she wanted to avoid getting crawled on. She shuddered, and Kelvin snorted. Almost as if he had read her mind, he said,
“Tiny bugs’re the least of your problems. Look out o’er there,” he said, and pointed to a place between two trees, a few yards beyond the campsite. Stretched between their branches were thick strands of pinkish grey, and though she couldn’t make out much more than their color, she knew what the rope-like webbing meant.
Jem swallowed, grasping the rifle tighter. “They’re out here?”
Kelvin shrugged as he searched the forest floor, kicking over rotting leaves and disturbing tufts of dead grass.
“But that’s so close to camp!” she whispered, eyes darting back to the spot between the trees.
He picked up a stick then, reaching into his pocket and taking out a knife, and began whittling it down to size before responding, “We swept the area pretty thorough before settlin’ in. They may make their way over, but if they do… well, that’s why we’re on watch. So keep your pretty peepers peeled.”
“Hmm,” was Jem’s only response. A biting wind blew through the trees, and she pulled her jacket even tighter around her well-fed frame. Suddenly, she felt a little less irritated and a lot more anxious. She didn’t want to be responsible for the welfare of all these people. She barely wanted that responsibility over herself. She thought about the last time she was on watch. She remembered Henry.
He had been in the group from the start–the only one she’d really liked, even if he was a little gauche. Something about him had smitten her, and it wasn’t his good looks or even his strength. It was his attitude, she thought, and his unwillingness to bend. He was solid on all counts, and maybe even a little stuck in his ways. Henry had come from circumstances similar to Jem‘s, in “real life” as she now referred to it in her private thoughts. He hadn’t been so different from her. Henry hadn’t lasted too long.
“Have you ever…” she started to ask, and trailed off. Kelvin grunted. “Have you seen one? Up close, I mean,” she finished.
Kelvin stopped whittling and turned to face her, his nose inches from hers. “Are you kiddin’?” he asked, and she shook her head. “Miss, most anybody who sees one up close doesn’t come back to tell of it. Mostly.”
Jem nodded, but pressed on. “Mostly?”
Kelvin sighed and set down the knife and stick. “You ever see someone with a bite?”
Jem trembled again, and hugged the rifle to her chest, leaning against it for support. She hadn’t seen a bite.
“We had a guy a while back. Back when everything went to shit and we were still thinkin’ we could avoid ‘em if we holed up. Got bit by a little one, barely bigger’n you. Least that’s what he says. Said. Anywho,” Kelvin picked up the knife and went back to whittling before continuing his story.
“He got bit on the leg somethin’ awful–I mean, pus and gunk all runnin’ out, and… Sorry. You probably don’t want to hear about that. Anyway, he’d been close enough to get bit, and he got an eyeful and then some. He told me what it looked like but… I don’t know if he was right. In the head, I mean. By that time his fever was pretty high and most of what came out his mouth sounded nuts.”
Jem coughed and turned around again, staring out into the green-black of the nighttime forest. The wood was mostly quiet now, and she breathed in the silence for a while before she began to speak. She remembered Henry–his piercing blue eyes locked with hers as the thing dragged him away.
“What happened after he got bit?”
Kelvin paused and answered, “We didn’t stick around to find out. He lasted for a couple days and then he got so stiff he couldn‘t move, and his eyes wouldn’t stay open. And he smelled nasty. It was like he was rottin’ from the inside or somethin’. We got overrun around that time and had to leave him. Shit!”
Jem jumped up, rifle in hand, before Kelvin waved for her to sit back down.
“Just nicked my finger on the knife,” Kelvin explained, “Gotta grab a bandage. Sit tight for a second, will ya?”
“Alone?” she whispered, but he was already walking away. Jem took deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves. She would be fine, she told herself. He was coming right back. For a while she concentrated on her breathing, listening to the steady sound, in and out. And then she held her breath. For the past few weeks they had been wandering this forest, avoiding the enemy against what she perceived to be very narrow odds. She wondered if she had gotten used to the sounds somehow, after all this time. But it wasn’t familiarity tricking her senses–save for the rustling of leaves and the gentle snoring of Gina in her tent, there wasn’t a single sound. No scurrying creatures, no birds, no insects. The woods were silent.
Panicked, Jem’s eyes widened as the realization struck her. What could silence an entire forest? She supposed she knew, but it wasn’t until she turned to look towards Kelvin, returning with a fresh bandage, that she forced out the word: “Bugs!”
Kelvin’s eyes strayed up to the treetops as he stood frozen in place, his rifle several feet away. Lowering itself to the spot where he stood was one of them, pincers snapping and dripping with pink foam. Jem screamed, and the thing lurched forward, Kelvin’s shoulder now caught between its gleaming appendages. The camp awoke quickly, men and women leaping into action, as Kelvin thrashed in a feeble attempt to free himself.
Without thinking, Jem raised her rifle and fired into the thing’s back. It burst open with a fresh outpouring of grey-pink webbing, falling to the ground as it released its hold on Jem’s frightened partner. It dissolved there into a pile of foam, staining the ground as it sunk into the dirt. Kelvin’s face had been completely drained of color, save for a streak of red across his cheek. Hands quavering, she reached forward to wipe away the blood, followed it to the source, and felt the scratch on his shoulder. It was deep.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group was starting to gather around. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle, a wall of backs surrounding the two on the ground, eyes frantically searching the forest canopy for any sign of movement. Chests heaving. Legs quaking. Mouths exchanging panicked whispers.
“Do you see anything?”
“Where did it come from?”
“Are there more?”
“There’s never just one.”
Time ticked by at a snail’s pace, the moments stretching into what felt like an eternity, and still there was no indication of more of the bugs. They couldn’t be sure, but after fifteen minutes or so of standing at the ready, five of them broke off from the group to search the perimeter, leaving the rest behind to wring their hands and strain their ears for any change in their carefully placed footsteps. Jem sat, powerless to do anything. Coming back to herself for a moment, she hurriedly wiped the blood from her hands and onto the ground beside her, and brought a tentative hand to his wrist. There was a pulse–faint, but steady. Jem lowered her head to his chest and watched it rise and fall: slow, irregular. She didn’t know what any of it meant. The rest of the group returned. For now, it seemed, they were alone.
Sky took a step forward. Her leg stretched out toward the desolate horizon, then came down behind her. She wobbled and half-fell before she regained her balance. She closed her eyes, but it didn’t help.
She’d never been comfortable in her body, but this was ridiculous.
Oil slick-purple clouds rumbled, then dumped sheets of rain that billowed like sails. They smelled like burnt sugar and felt like feathers on her upturned face.
Sky stood, let it drench her. She glanced down at her naked body, trying not to hope and failing.
It was still wrong. Unchanged. Still her familiar, male prison. Reality itself bent and broke around her, but her body remained stubbornly unaltered.
Her tears tasted like cilantro.
Bare trees loomed to her left, and a herd of horses lumbered by, competent if not graceful on their lengthening legs.
Sky watched them, hoping to catch the trick of it.
“You’re new,” a voice said.
A woman floated toward her. Her long blond hair curled and billowed around her naked body, and her pale, bare breasts reminded Sky of how wrong her own body was.
“Yes,” she said. To her delight, her own voice sounded different. Feminine, like she’d always heard it in her head.
The woman blinked. “How strange you are.”
Sky had always been strange. She had thought no one would notice, here. “I’m sorry.” Her voice wavered, new and old within single syllables.
The woman shrugged. “Strange is not bad.”
“Oh,” Sky said. “Good.”
“What is your name?”
“I’m called Celina.” She floated around Sky, looking her up and down. “I’d like to have sex with you. Your body is very fine.”
Sky’s hated penis twitched. It stretched to the horizon, then returned to normal. “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not. I hate this body. I hoped I might change, here.”
Celina frowned. “I don’t understand. Your body is lovely and strong.”
Sky shrugged. She was tired of explaining herself.
“Well, things do change here.”
Celina shrugged. “Why would I wish to?”
Jealousy twisted Sky’s stomach. If she looked like Celina, she wouldn’t want to change either.
“Is there a secret to walking?” Sky asked.
Celina shrugged. “I’m sure there is. But I never bothered to learn it.” She floated in a fast circle around Sky, smirking as Sky’s head turned all the way around to watch. “I float instead. I can teach you.”
“You are interesting, and I am bored. And I am selfish and optimistic enough to maintain designs on sex.”
The person who stops to help me leaves their headlights on, and I can see my body folded up in a way that makes me certain I’m dying.
I can’t move.
This must be what going into shock feels like: nothing at all. But I know I should be feeling something because my left arm bone is sticking through my leather jacket. And I have all these thoughts queued up—the things I know I’m supposed to be thinking about while dying—but all I can think right now is how stupid this fucking jacket is.
Ride or Die. Really?
The man gets out his phone to make a call. I can’t hear anything, but I assume it’s to 911. Then he paces for a bit, probably working up the nerve to comfort me in my last moments, putting on his mask of false-positivity, because he must also know I’m dying.
Then he holds up his phone and walks toward me. I hear the muffled scuffing of his shoes against the asphalt as he approaches, sounds that are far away but close at the same time; or maybe I don’t hear anything. He takes one step back as the glistening pool of my blood almost touches his shoes. He’s still holding up his phone.
Is he filming me?
And now I’m thinking about what I should be thinking about: my family, and how my daughter is only two years old, and how my wife is the most beautiful soul in the universe, and how I am—how I was—so lucky, and how I’m hurting them by leaving them, and how I’m so so so sorry that I’m leaving them, and is this fucking guy actually filming me?
The man is expressionless, his mouth a hard line, his eyes a thousand-yard stare. I try to scream at him, try to yell help!, even though I know he can’t do anything for me. Nothing happens; I don’t move or make a sound.
He continues to circle me, a timid coyote passing out of my field of vision and then back in. He sweeps his camera over the pieces of my motorcycle strewn about the street, then he fixes it back on me again. He stays that way for what feels like the rest of my life.
I still can’t feel anything, but somehow I know my breathing has slowed and I’m getting close to my last moment. And my last moment is going to be with this guy caring more about getting a good shot than me going peacefully. Part of me doesn’t care, but another part feels more alone than ever, and I can’t do anything except lie here and keep on dying, can’t do anything but think things like what’s going to happen after this?, and what if my family sees this video?, and I can’t let that happen. And I get so angry I start to rage inside and think why are you doing this?, and I’m dying!, and leave!, and fuck off! fuck off! fuck off!
And now I’m thinking in pictures. Pictures of all the things I want to see just one more time before I’m gone, but I’m thinking them right at him: a picture of me lying on the couch with my daughter asleep on my chest, of my wife with her hair all messed up in the morning and how it makes her look like a lion, of my daughter hugging our cat a little too tightly, of my cat being fine with it, of my wife in the shower, of my wife squinting because she can’t see me without her glasses, of the three of us sitting around the TV, eating pizza and watching cartoons.
This last thought is a whip lashing out of me, and the man staggers. His eyes go wide and he struggles to regain his footing.
But he still has his phone held up, and my anger becomes a sun in my chest; a fiery star that burns burns burns, then shrinks, waits, and detonates.
The supernova is a bursting series of images, the colors of it lighting up the street: an image of us quietly drinking coffee and my daughter still asleep, of my daughter insisting that I pick her up, of me picking her up, of my wife insisting that I pick her up, too, of both of them laughing, of me laughing with them, of me asking my parents questions that I’ll never get to, of my brothers and sisters, of me telling them I love them, of my little girl’s cheeks, of my wife’s eyes, of their hands and feet, of them happy, of them happy without me, after this, not forgetting me, but being happy.
For a second I forget the man as he’s swallowed up by the spectacle, but when the colors fade I see his hands are shaking so violently that he drops his phone. He’s looking me right in my eyes for the first time, and his face drains of all color. It’s as if he’s just now realizing I’m not an alien. His phone hits the blacktop, and I hear it crack before I actually see it crack.
And now he’s kneeling next to me, his hands still shaking as he takes mine into his. “I’m so sorry, buddy,” he says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Then he starts saying all the things he should be saying, and I realize I wasn’t the only one in shock.
He says, “It’s going to be okay-ay.”
And, “Y-you hang in the-there.”
And, “Thambulance is on sway.”
And, “Withwith st-stay with me stay me with…”
Drew Rogers is an indie game designer and has been writing short fiction for about two years.
The day before I left to go to sea, I went to visit Alana. She was an aunt or cousin of some distance, but when I was a boy my city was at war and my parents had sent me to stay with her, through the mountains to where the slopes dipped into the sea.
I knocked on the door, though I should have known better. She was not the type to be sitting quietly inside, knitting or reading like my mother, especially on a sunny day like this when the wind rocked the water into gentle waves. Finding no answer at the door, I looked to the garden, where she had once taught me the healing properties of various herbs, where we had once sung the old shaman songs together to encourage the plants to grow.
The garden overflowed with bright blooms, but Alana wasn’t there. I found her sitting on a rock by the shore. She didn’t turn when I sat beside her. Her face looked blissful, her eyes softly focused on the ocean waves.
“I had a dream you’d come,” she said.
“You didn’t get my letter?”
“Mmm,” she said. “Maybe that was it.” Her eyes crinkled. “No, it was a dream. We were watching the whales together, just like now.”
I followed her gaze to the water. The wind pulled the waves up into white tips. I watched for the spout of a whale’s breath, for the emergence of a dark flapping tail.
A few minutes passed before I said, “I don’t see any whales.”
“They’re everywhere,” she said. “Hundreds of them. Look!”
She pointed to a large whitecap, then clasped her hands in delight. It wasn’t her eyesight. She had been old as long as I’d known her, and she’d never had to squint to identify faces or read signs. It was the way she saw.
I tried to see the waves like she did, wanting to believe that her way was right, that there were hundreds of whales cavorting right there in the bay. Maybe they were whales of a different dimension, the songs of their bodies vibrating on a different scale than the songs of our world, and she could see them because she had one foot in that world too, like the shamans who had long disappeared. I tried, but the whales always turned back into waves for me. Just white caps created by the wind.
I kissed her head, the gray strands of her hair soft under my lips. She wrapped both her hands around one of mine. We sat there for another hour, me watching the waves, she watching the whales, until the sun flashed green as it disappeared into the sea.
Let me just freshen your glass, Lera darling, and we’ll go into the garden to see my latest treasure! But can I trust you with a secret?
You remember how, just before the last time I went back to being a girl, I went on the Grand Tour for seven months? With Teldon?
No, not a whisper from him, not since Ringwinter. And my spies tell me
I’m the one who should be asking you, darling, anyway! Well, I booked us a sinfully luxurious suite on the Andromeda, and we went everywhere: Valirette, Holalasha, Nuevo Perú, Yeldi, all the most exotic worlds you can imagine.
Yes, darling, it really is true about the night life on Valirette. Teldon went quite wild in the clubs – you know what he can be like! Of course, at our age, we’ve seen it all, haven’t we? And done it.
Let’s go out through the herb garden. Watch your step! Do try one of these leaves. It’s stensiga, just a nice buzz, hardly addictive at all. No? Well, maybe later?
Anyhow, as I was saying, Holalasha was an utter disappointment. We’d looked forward to seeing the Ice Caverns – well, doesn’t everyone? But after we landed, they told us that they were four hundred kilometers away, and no heliport! We’d have had to take a bus, and spend a night in a nasty local hotel. They showed us a stereo of the rooms, just so shuddersomely primitive: no sensies or even gravbeds! So I told Teldon, if he wanted to go he could, but I was going to stay on board in the suite I’d paid for. In the end he stayed: I think the silly boy thought I was angry with him about that birdgirl in the mud pit at the Casino Valirette.
Well, I may be a century-and-who’s-counting, but I’m not a prude. And besides, the last time this girl got seriously jealous over anything, Teldon wasn’t even born. After all, if I was the jealous type, we wouldn’t still be such good friends, would we, darling?
But Yeldi, now! You’ve seen stereocasts of the Yeldian Flower Jungle, haven’t you? That was one thing I was absolutely not going to miss. Even though the uncouth natives who run the so-called tourist agency there put us through the most absurd nonsense. (Do watch the thorns on that one! Very nasty.)
Before we even got off the ship, we got this idiotic lecture about not touching anything, and had to put on bodysuits with helmets – like space suits. No air tanks, just filters, but utterly, utterly uncomfortable, especially as my hair was right down to my derriere then, and it all had to fit into my helmet. And the stink – my dear! I don’t suppose they ever bother cleaning them, and I think they use the same ones for tourist class passengers. They said the suits were to keep the insectoids away from our skin. Apparently their venom puts you in a coma, and then they inject their larvae and – you don’t want to hear the rest. Trust me.
And after all that, the guide wasn’t even a botanist. Just an enormous Yeldian native, two meters tall, and she didn’t even speak System! Fortunately we had a crewman along to translate.
But the jungle itself? Lera, the stereocasts don’t show you the half of it. All the leaves are dark, dark reds, blues, and purples, like velvet. Even darker than these hexaploid coleus over here. We went at dusk, after Kinna, that’s the bigger sun, had set, so they looked even darker. And you have never, ever seen so many flowers! They came in every size, from huge flowers on the trees a meter across to shrubs with tiny flowerets you need a magnifier to see. And all in more colors than you can begin to imagine. Then Merax set too, and the flowers started to glow, pulsing slowly. And the scent! I was in heaven, darling. Heaven. Even Teldon was impressed.
There was one kind of flower, trumpet-shaped and the most perfect robin’s-egg blue. Each one was about half a meter long, only the narrow part was coiled up in a shape that made your eyes go all funny if you tried to follow it, like one of those clever exhibits in the Topology Room in the Imperial Museum. The guide took out a pocket light, and showed us insectoids, like flying jewels, as big as a fingernail, flying in and out. The odd thing was, if you watched some flowers, one insectoid after another would fly in, as if the flower was sucking them up and destroying them. Quite sinister. And other flowers were just the opposite; the bugs kept flying out, as if the flower was spawning them.
Teldon asked about that. He’s quite clever. About some things, anyway. The guide said something, very low and rumbly, and the translator said these insectoids were the ones that – well, you know. And then she said something else, and the translator said some nonsense about these flowers, all over the planet, being joined together in the fourth dimension. But maybe he hadn’t understood properly. Probably some local superstition or other.
Here we are, Lera! My prize! Yes, you guessed, didn’t you? I was very naughty, and smuggled back a few seeds from that gorgeous blue corkscrew-flower plant. They actually searched us, can you believe it? I planted the seeds this spring. Only one germinated, but isn’t it wonderful? And it’s flowering this week for the first time ever. Doesn’t it smell marvelous?
A bee? Bees aren’t green. No, of course I don’t know, angel. I’m a gardener, not an entomologist. How many legs does it have? Can you see?
Lera! Did it sting you? You really shouldn’t have got so close. You will understand if I stay over here, won’t you?
No, darling, I don’t think there’d be much point calling them. I don’t think there’s any treatment. And, do you know, I think I may have told you a fib. Maybe I was just the tiniest bit jealous about Teldon after all.
The surgeon hesitates, bathed in the harsh lights of the operating theater, scalpel poised above the patient’s exposed abdomen. The patient’s skin is slick and yellowed by the antiseptic swabs, not really human at all-–like the flesh of some alien creature. Now, as with every surgical procedure, he senses a moment, a turning point where outcomes are yet to be determined–and briefly revels in the uncertainty.
He will know soon enough. Just one touch will tell him. Success or failure, life or death–and all before an incision has even been made.
Distantly, he hears the drone of another wave of bombers heading out on a night raid, delivering their payload of terror and destruction by order of Bomber Command. Whose turn tonight, he wonders? Hamburg or Dresden or perhaps Berlin itself?
Around him, the anesthetist and theater nurses wait patiently for him to begin.
He feels paralyzed; unable to move. He cannot bring himself to touch the body. Seconds tick by. Minutes. There are anxious glances but no one dares disturb the silence.
At last he takes a long, shuddering breath, wills the trembling in his hands to cease, and makes an incision. He draws the scalpel downwards in a smooth motion, a line of red beading behind it. He repeats the movement, this time parting layers of subcutaneous fat with deft strokes. As he does so, the strangest feeling comes over him: the sensation of something pushing back, struggling to free itself from the body, slipping and wriggling out through the wound. For an instant he thinks he sees something move past his blade; insubstantial and tenuous, like a barely perceptible waft of smoke.
Hesitating, a nurse steps closer to swab sweat from his brow. He resumes his work, but now the tremors are back.
This will all be for naught, he thinks. The patient will die no matter what I do.
Ah yes. Just another turn of the wheel.
But one word crowds into his thoughts.
For most, it was impossible to walk the Paths of the Dead without first dying oneself. But for those who still practiced the old ways there were occasions when one of the living might walk amongst the spirits. It happened rarely; on long nights, when the moon was just a pale sliver behind dark clouds, and the air was icy as the breath of the dead.
Mati had spent days preparing herself for her journey to the Paths; fasting to the point of starvation, denying herself anything more than a few minutes’ worth of sleep at a time. She even refused water, and her mouth was so dry that her tongue felt like sand scraping the inside of her cheek.
Now she looked like a wild, starving beast, with ravenous red eyes and ropey muscle stretched around taut skin. The bones of her rib cage and shoulders protruded through her skin, and she looked lanky and gaunt, like the shriveled husk shed off by a molting insect.
She sat before a blazing campfire and slicked her hair back with mud she’d gathered from the riverbed. She did this until her hair was plastered flat across the back of her skull and down her neck. After this, she spread white ash across her skin until she was covered completely, and stood out against the backdrop of the night sky like a small knot of dense fog. She crushed bones with a mortar and pestle until they were a powder, mixed them with dried blood until they congealed into a paste, and then traced the mixture across every jutting bone of her ribcage, across her sharp cheekbones and the ridges above her eyes. After she was done Mati looked down into a basin filled with water; and when she looked into the murk and realized she could no longer recognize herself, and could only see the bones, she knew she was ready.
The intention of the ritual, handed down through generations by the elders of her village, was to take her to the brink of death. To ruin the body, but leave the mind intact. It would give her the strength of the dead, the strength to walk the Paths. But unlike the dead, she would retain her will, her purpose. Her mother had undertaken the same ritual, her grandmother; even Mati herself, years and years ago, though as a child she hadn’t grasped the symbolic nature of it. It had just been one more trial in a life full of hardships.
As the moon rose, casting its pale light down, as the wind swelled and shook the leaves from the trees, Mati could feel a chill spread through her body. Starting in her toes, and then crawling up her spine. She felt rejuvenated and sick all at the same time. The ritual had worked.
To the west the sun had sunk below the treeline, and long, web-like shadows stretched across the plains. Mati ran towards the sun with no clothing to protect her from the cold, no shoes to guard her feet from the rocks and brambles. The only possessions she brought with her from the living world were a small red pendant which she clutched in her right hand, and a sharp, ivory handled knife she gripped tightly in her left. The knife, she knew, would afford her little protection where she was going. But it made her feel at ease just to hold it.
The red pendant, though, that was of the utmost importance. The pendant, and what it carried. Without it all that she’d done, and all that she was about to do, would be for nothing.
Mati had only been to the Paths once before, as a child. It had been a rite of passage in her village, back when they still practiced the old ways. She’d only been escorted as far as the outskirts of town, then told she had to go the rest of the way on her own. “It’s our most important lesson.” Her mother, Tante, had told her. “Loss of a loved one should always hurt. It should never be easy to forget. The good memories always come with pain.”
And pain there had been.
Mati lept over the decayed remnants of fallen trees as she ran, snapping brittle branches and slicing through thick vines if they threatened to slow her pace. It began to rain fiercely, but the jungle was so thick with vegetation that scarce few raindrops were able to pierce the canopy. Lightning flashed high above, imperceptible as the echo of a whisper. Most of the rain simply slid down branches and dripped off of thick, flat leaves; glistening like thousands of spider-webs in the faint light of the moon.