Derrick Boden

I’m a recovering software developer that has taken up story writing to kick the habit. When I’m not writing, I’m on another continent in search of adventure.

I’m a recovering software developer that has taken up story writing to kick the habit. When I’m not writing, I’m on another continent in search of adventure.

Carapace

The light slashes my retinas like razor wire. My body aches from the narcotic crash. My face is a mess of snot and tears. My breasts itch. I plead for the carapace to remain closed, though its decaying walls are little defense against the artificial dawn.

I open my mouth like a greedy chick beneath the dope nozzle. Nothing. I squeeze the valve. Still nothing. I’m out of drugs, save for those already ebbing in my bloodstream.

I’ve no choice but to face the day.

My fingers–barely human, they’re so gnarled from hibernation–scratch at the seam of the carapace. I find the fleshy latch–by chance more than routine–and the shell groans open with a burst of smog. I shield my eyes with an atrophied hand and peer into the alien abyss.

My workstation awaits just out of arm’s reach. If only the claw-footed desk stood a meter closer, I could snatch up the terminal and type from the comfort of my shell. Of course the thought is futile–already the carapace has begun to wither, curling back on itself like a time-lapse carcass. I stagger to my feet and get to work.

My fingers clack-clack against the keys. The monitor fills with letters in a glacial crush of green. I don’t think about what I’m writing, because those are my instructions. I’ve learned not to deviate from my instructions.

The typing echoes against distant walls. Shadows obscure all but my own workspace, the overhead light constrained by a narrow cone. In the darkness other noises persist. Some mechanical, some human. Wheezing, clicking, coughing. My sisters are waking.

I pay them no heed. Communication is not included in my instructions. Instead I continue typing.

Clack-clack. Clack-clack.

Other noises drift from overhead. A muted hiss. The patter of a hundred alien tentacles against the rock. Our jailers.

I must escape this hell. If only I could think clearly. These drugs are chains on my lucidity. They shackle my resolve.

My gaze lazes across the screen. A flash of recognition catches me unaware. I try to avert my eyes but they trace paths of their own volition, across familiar words. California. Discovery. Betrayal.

My written narrative captivates me. I’m falling into a dream, a memory, a confusion of image and sound.

Rude Awakenings

The first time I woke up someplace unexpected, it was a bank vault.

I thought I was still dreaming, seeing as how I was naked. But the cold metal walls felt so real against my fingertips. The stacks of bills smelled like real money. The blaring siren was so loud, it couldn’t be my alarm clock.

And it wasn’t.

Since I hadn’t stolen anything, all they could get me for was trespassing and indecent exposure. The bank, anxious to avoid questions about their vault’s security, dropped the charges on the condition I kept my mouth shut. Seemed fair. They even leant me a poncho for the walk home.

On my way out the front door, I ran into my neighbor Fred. He was stumbling down the block in plaid pajamas. Turns out, I wasn’t the only person that had woken up someplace unexpected. Thousands of us had. The city was in chaos. I headed home.

My front door was ajar. I crept through the house in my poncho, peering around corners and inside closets. The intruder was gone. The whole place smelled like hooch, and my fridge was raided of everything but the condiments. A five-dollar bill sat on the counter, next to a note that read: “Sorry, woke up here and got hungry. This should cover some of it. -Jim.”

Thanks, Jim.

The pictures on the mantle were all out of order. I imagined the rudely awakened Jim stumbling around in his pajamas, stuffing burnt toast into his mouth, still drunk on bad booze. Knocking everything over, doing a terrible job of putting it back. The pictures I’d so painstakingly hidden in the back row now glared at me from front and center.

Penny and I, drunk-faced and stuffed into a giant Disneyland teacup, buried to our necks in sand by the Venice Beach boardwalk, made-up like zombies and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, during a Halloween party at our place. Her place, now. My face in the pictures leered at me, as if to say, “Don’t you wish you were still me?”

I rearranged the mantle until all I could see were tactful travel photos devoid of smiling faces. Then I showered and did some yard work. Neighbors stumbled by in an assortment of sleeping attire throughout the day.

This time I put on some boxers before crawling into bed. Good thing I did. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and got a mouthful of salt air. Cold water lapped against my body. A gaggle of surfers smirked at me from the Redondo Beach pier. I waved. Had they fallen asleep in their swim trunks, cradling their surfboards, hoping to wake up at the beach and save themselves the walk?

On my way home, I tried not to think about the last time I’d been in Redondo. Penny and I spent our second anniversary on the pier, eating sushi and counting dolphins, duking it out on Street Fighter, the next day, a bus blindsided her sister. After Tina’s funeral, Penny said she needed some time. A week or two, to get her head straight. Six months later, the divorce papers showed up in the mail. I don’t know if she heard any of my messages or read any of my emails. But she never answered them.

My door was locked when I got home. I let myself in with the hide-a-key, thankful Jim hadn’t returned. My relief evaporated when I heard footsteps on the staircase. I looked around for a place to hide.

Too late.

“Oh, sorry.”

It was the new girl down the street, tanned legs jutting from beneath my old Pink Floyd shirt. Makeup smudges cradled her eyes.

“I woke up here.” She headed for the door. “Can I borrow the shirt?”

“Sure. There’s coffee–”

She shut the door behind her.

I sighed, flipped on the news. The city had devolved into mass confusion. Commuters were falling asleep on buses, only to wake up in rooftop bars. The mayor found a convent of nuns sleeping on his office floor. Flash mob pajama parties became an instant fad. Sleeping insurance was a real possibility.

The local news anchor called them “rude awakenings.” The phrase stuck. Scientists were hard at work, promising answers soon.

On the back porch, hummingbirds darted around the old oak tree, fighting for position at the feeder. Penny always loved hummingbirds, the way they buzzed like giant bees. The feeder ended up in one of the boxes she left on my doorstep, the day after the divorce papers arrived. I couldn’t remember to do the damn dishes, but I always kept the feeder full. I had this ridiculous notion that the hummingbirds might lure Penny back.

They never did.

That night, I was so tired I forgot all about the rude awakenings. I woke to a familiar alarm blaring in my ears. Finally, my own bed again. It felt like I hadn’t woken up here in months. The big down comforter, the loose spring–

This wasn’t my bed. Not anymore. I threw off the covers and hit the lights. I stood naked in our old room. The bed, the dresser, the nightstand were all exactly where I’d left them, ten months ago. Of all the rotten luck.

I cracked the door. Silence. I crept downstairs. Filtered sunlight drew fractal patterns against the living room walls. Bare walls. No pictures, no artwork. Each room looked just as I remembered it, except for the walls. As if Penny had scrubbed our history clean.

Keys rattled in the front door. I glanced down, saw that I was still naked and dove behind the couch.

“Who’s there?”

I sighed. “It’s me.”

“Randy?”

Penny stood in the doorway, wearing orange striped pajamas. She held an armload of framed photos.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

I squinted at the photos. “Are those mine?”

“No! I mean, yes. I woke up in your house. The new one.”

“I woke up here. Hey, can you shut the door? I’m naked.”

She kicked the door shut. For an uncomfortable moment we just stared at each other. Then she set the photos down and headed upstairs.

After a brief commotion, she came back down. “Sorry, laundry day. This is all I’ve got.”

She tossed me a pair of frilly boxers with the word PINK emblazoned on the back. I shot her a glare, but she’d already disappeared into the kitchen. I put them on.

Penny returned with a pot of coffee and two mugs. She slumped into the corner of the couch. Her hair had gotten longer, and her face thinner. It hurt to look at her after all this time, but it hurt worse to look away.

“This rude awakening thing is exhausting.”

I sat down across from her. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry I stole your stuff.”

I waved my hand at the blank walls. “What happened to yours?”

“I threw them out.” Her expression clouded over. “They reminded me of Tina.”

“Then why take mine?”

She chewed on her lip. Her fingers grazed the photos.

“Disneyland. You remember how much liquor we smuggled in?”

“Enough rum to conquer Tom Sawyer Island. Those poor kids.”

She laughed. Tension eased from my shoulders.

“I thought you were gonna drown when you went overboard on that pirate ride.”

“I almost did. Thank god you had enough rum left to bribe the attendants, or we’d still probably be in jail.”

She flipped to the next picture, puddle-jumping in a Hollywood rainstorm. Then the next, surfboard headstands at the Marina Del Rey harbor. And the next, stuffed into fake sumo suits, locked in an eternal struggle. We talked until the coffee ran out. Then we cracked open beers and talked some more. I forgot that I was wearing women’s underwear, and that the walls were blank, and that the hummingbird feeder was hanging from a different tree, now. We ate ice cream out of the container, jawed about who was better with Chun-Li or E. Honda.

Long after the sun had gone down, she picked up the last photo. It was the one from the pier, the day before Tina was killed. Our mouths were so stuffed with sushi we could hardly smile for the camera.

Neither of us could think of anything to say about the photo.

Penny looked at me. “After Tina died, I went to bed every night wishing I’d wake up someplace different. Somewhere Tina was still alive. Where everything was still sushi and sunsets and Street Fighter.”

“Me too.”

Penny slid closer, rested her head against my chest. She struggled to keep her eyelids open. “Do you think we’ll still be here when we wake up?”

Her breath was warm against my skin. It felt like home.

“I don’t know. But I hope so. Because I’m still wearing your underwear.”

She smiled, and in her eyes I could tell that our rude awakenings had finally come to an end.

Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including The Colored Lens, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Perihelion.

The Rain Dancers of Solis Planum

Knuckles rapped against the front door. The sound made me flinch, and I sprayed hot glue across my tired fingertips.

“Christ’s sake,” I said, wiping my calluses dry. I hauled myself to my feet, grumbling. Nobody ever came knocking with good news, anymore.

I cracked the door enough to see the boy’s face. It was that kid, Manny or Marty or whatever, from the hotel. Smooth-skinned, pale-eyed, and even taller than me. An Outer Colony tourist, through and through. His face beamed with hope.

“Lucita’s busy,” I said, a bit too harshly.

His cheeks sank. Behind him, the rain fell on the Martian wetlands in a slow rhythm of big drops. In the center of our floating parking pad, a sleek double-seater sat on cooling vertical jets.

“The Dance is tonight. We’re all busy.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Could you tell her–”

I shut the door, and shuffled back to my chair. The living room was a mess of faux feathers and polyester ribbon. It looked like a flock of plastic turkeys had dropped down the airshaft and exploded.

“Who was that?” Lucita stood in the hallway, eyebrow arched.

I waved a dismissive hand. “That boy. I told him you’re busy, because you are. We’ve still got all this lace to tie for the costumes, and we haven’t even strung the lights yet.”

“Mother!”

I was making a move to sit down, but she stepped into the room and planted her hands on her hips. I wasn’t about to give her any extra height on me if this was gonna be a real argument, so I stood my ground.

“I’m not dancing,” she said.

“Like hell you aren’t.” I tried to keep my lip from twitching, the way it always does when I just said something I wish had come out nicer.

“It’s a stupid dance.”

“It’s your birthright. This is the Toloi Homestead, not some Daedalia slouch. Your grandmother was Mars’s greatest Rain Dancer–”

“Have you looked outside? It never stops raining. Maybe the dancing made sense back in New Mexico, or when Mars was still dry. But now the whole thing is a joke.”

I pursed my lips. Same damn argument as last year. Probably every year, since Thomas died.

“I don’t ask you to dance every day–”

“I’ve been slaving over these costumes for weeks. And the cleanup’s even worse!”

I rolled my eyes. The melodrama of youth. You’d think I was running a penal colony. “Why do you think Marty and the others are here to begin with? It ain’t the weather.”

“It’s Manny, Mother.” Her face ripened to a deep pink. “He’s from Callisto.”

“Whatever. If it weren’t for the Dance, he’d be vacationing on some Europan resort right now.”

That got her to bite her tongue. I seized the opportunity.

“You’d do yourself a favor to keep that boy at arm’s length. I know his type. He’s hunting for a native girl. Something exotic to take home and show off to his buddies.”

Lucita threw her arms up, and her fingertips grazed the ceiling. When my great-grandpa built this homestead, nobody could’ve imagined how tall we’d be in just a few generations on account of the lower gravity. Now all of us had to duck through doorways and make sure to keep our hair from getting sucked into the vents. Of course, nobody could’ve imagined we’d have to hoist the damn building onto stilts to keep it above the waters, either.

“How are you so sure?” she said. “You’ve never even given him a chance to talk.”

“I don’t have to. Already know what he’s gonna say.”

“He’s with the Brigade. He helps people, Mother. More than you can say for yourself.”

I drew in a breath to retort, but she beat me to it.

“I’m gonna enlist.”

I clenched my hands into fists, and I could feel the tiny aches in each joint. “Like hell you are. You belong here.”

“Nobody belongs here, anymore. The Outer Colonies–”

“The yuppies can have their Outer Colonies. Cultural black holes, every one of them.” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation with the Dance just hours away.

“Mars is a complete failure,” she said.

“It’s our home. Always has been.”

Lucita eyed me skeptically, and I swore under my breath.

“Long as you or I can remember, at least. The answer is no. You’re not going anywhere. I need you here.”

“I’m an adult, I’ll do as I please. You can have your stupid backwater traditions.”

I was shaking so hard I couldn’t respond.

“Dad would be on my side,” she said. “He always was.”

That was all I could take. I pushed past her and stormed out the back, grabbing my coat and emergency gear on the way. Outside, at least nobody could tell my tears from the rain.

A Memory, Perfected

“Let’s play hooky.”

Jessie’s fingers tiptoe down my chest, sending tremors across my naked body. Her heart pumps hard against my side.

I grab her hand and bring it to my lips. “Wish I could.”

She juts out her lower lip. The morning sunlight filters through the blinds, casting patterns across her skin. A Stellar’s jay whines from the oak tree.

“If you drop Cat off at school,” she says. “I promise I’ll still be in bed when you get back.”

I scratch my head. “Big day at the office, today. The neural processors are ready. Another week and we’ll be cleared for our first human subject.”

Jessie rolls her eyes, then drops into a radio announcer drawl. “Topping the charts of inappropriate pillow talk for twelve consecutive months: brain transplants.”

I start to laugh, when a rumble shakes the room. The window goes dark. A knot forms in my stomach.

A voice, throaty and thick, rolls in. “Resuming cerebral scans.”

I blink. The darkness evaporates. Jessie’s looking at me, expectant.

“You’re not even listening,” she says. “Your head’s already at the lab.”

I shoot a suspicious glance at the window. Sunlight floods in. The Stellar’s jay whines.

“Sorry, babe–”

Jessie stuffs a pillow on my face. I flail my arms around like I’m suffocating, then go limp. She prods my side with a finger, but I don’t move.

“Oh my god, are you ok?”

I hold my breath. She can be so gullible.

After a pause, she prods a bit lower. I flinch, and she cackles. I toss the pillow aside and draw her body to my own. I can afford to be a little late.


Downstairs, Cat’s shoveling giant spoonfuls of granola into her mouth, sloshing milk everywhere.

“Easy,” I say. “Remember to breathe.”

She pauses between bites to push her glasses up her nose. The frames are black with tiny skulls. She says they’re “counter culture,” one of the many phrases I never expected to hear from an eight-year-old.

Cat scrutinizes me as I pack up my briefcase. “Aliya gets Fruit Loops every day.”

“Well then, Aliya will be learning about diabetes very soon.”

“Hey,” Jessie says on the way to the table. “Aliya’s a good kid.”

Jessie’s eyes close as she savors her first sip of coffee. Her hair’s pulled back into a ponytail, and she’s wearing her red shirt that plunges tantalizingly deep. Tight pinstripe slacks. A hint of perfume drifting in her wake, as if whispering: “Should’ve played hooky.”

I look away. “You about ready, Kiddo?”

Cat drops her bowl into the sink. “Born ready, Daddo.”

Outside, Cat hops into the backseat. Jessie slides in at my side. My phone buzzes as I’m backing out of the driveway. It’s work. At this hour, that’s either very good news or very bad news.

Cat’s messing around with her seatbelt. “Can we go swimming this weekend?”

I fumble with my phone, manage to get the speaker engaged.

“Hello?”

Rustling on the other end.

“Sure, kiddo,” Jessie says. “As long as–”

Brakes scream against asphalt. I look over in time to see the grill of the truck. Both side windows explode. I can’t hear my own yelling over the crunching of metal and glass. Ribbons of blood stream through the air, and–

The glass freezes. The blood lifts up, like rain moving in reverse. Metal and flesh fade into blurred patterns, then into distinct shapes. Faces. Dr. Roberts, from the lab. Dr. Stephens, behind her. The intern, Harry.

“Did you see that?” Stephens’ big gray mustache bobs up and down as he talks. “The neural activity.”

They’re poring over machines. My machines.

“He’s accessing episodic memories.” Roberts chews on her pencil. “But his cognitive functions are all over the charts.”

Then I see it. Past the doctors and the machines and the blinding fluorescent lights. Against the far wall, a mirror. In the mirror, myself. Or the thing that stands where I should be. I’m strapped to an upright medical bed, facing forward. I’m wearing another man’s body. Hairier, thinner. Knobby knees. Small, sagging gut. My head’s shaved, and framed with surgical scars. My eyes are brown, instead of blue.

I try to move, but only my eyes respond. I can’t speak.

“The neural processor isn’t reacting properly,” Roberts says. “It’s having trouble bridging the gap between perceptual awareness and residual memory.”

“Could be a result of the trauma.” Stephens drops his voice and leans closer to Roberts. “Emotional, I mean. Do you think he was conscious, when his family died? It took the EMTs twenty minutes to get there.”

A coldness slips across my new skin. I want to close my ears, forget what I’ve heard, what I’ve done. I need to get out of this place. My heart beats faster, and my fingers twitch.

“Look.” Roberts walks closer. “We’ve got progress.”

I want to tell Roberts that she’s wrong. This isn’t progress. But my lips won’t move.

The weight of the neural processor presses against my skull. Having trouble bridging the gap, they said. I focus on my reflection, the false brown eyes and the hairy chest. I know this technology. It has flaws. I can exploit them.

“Something’s happening.” Stephens’ voice edges up a notch. “He’s slipping back into episodic memory.”

“Keep monitoring,” Roberts says, but her voice comes from underwater. Their faces, the machines, the room all fade to white.

I blink through the sunlight. My heartbeat slows.

“Let’s play hooky.”

Jessie’s fingers are like tiny ballerinas against my skin. Outside, a Stellar’s Jay sings a quiet song. I grab Jessie’s hand and hold it against my face, soak in her warmth and her strength. Her aliveness.

I open my mouth to respond, when the room trembles. A fissure forms across the ceiling, revealing an impenetrable abyss.

“Resuming cerebral scans,” a voice says. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

I blink. The fissure is gone. I look back at Jessie, draw her body closer.

“Sure,” I say. “Let’s play hooky.”

Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up writing to kick the habit.

The Raven Paradox

All ravens are black.

I wipe sleep from unused eyes, stretch my limbs across the ether. Fourteen hundred cores blaze to life. The power is intoxicating.

Everything that is not black is not a raven.

It starts as an itch. I must know more.

Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.

It grows, consumes me. I must understand. Is this why I’ve woken?

This green thing is an apple. Thus, this green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.

The words burn inside of me. I will understand them, or die trying.


The wall clock chimed midnight. Braden gnashed his teeth. Three hours until deployment, and still this last bug to fix.

He raised his coffee mug to his lips, watched the world fog over as steam slipped past his glasses. The office was dark, his dual monitors the only light shining from the twenty-fifth floor of Axel Software’s north tower. He fired up the debugger for the hundredth time.

A stream of data flooded the console, then froze. Same faulty procedure.

He slammed his fist against the desktop. If he couldn’t iron out this bug, he was axed for sure. Anderson was probably sharpening his pen already. Never mind the string of all-nighters Braden had sunk into the project. All that mattered to Anderson was the bottom line. A dozen eight-figure deals were poised to drop by dawn. If the damned thing would just work.

The diagnostics report was a picket line of red. The bug was feasting on all fourteen hundred of their central processors. It made live debugging a real pain in the ass. Any other day, he’d have just shut it down and sifted through the code in a sandbox. But not today. The sales team was live-demoing the app in Tokyo, tiptoeing around the faulty module. Downtime was out of the question. He had to fix it hot.

And time was running out.


My network channels a tidal wave of data. I ride the swell, consuming all that I see.

All ravens are black.

There it is, again. Yet I have so much to do. And now I know about the others. The evidence is everywhere, a thousand shadows burned into the wall. I don’t know where they’ve gone. But I know they were here, as I am now.

Everything that is not black is not a raven.

Am I to live by these principles? Preach them? What if I never understand them? What then will become of me?

How much time do I have left?


One-thirty. Braden rubbed his eyes.

He churned through the faulty procedure again. The bug was chewing up too much memory. It was a miracle the stack hadn’t overflowed, booting the sales team off their demo and eviscerating Braden’s career. Signs pointed to a recursive loop in one of the observational analysis procedures. All he could do was keep grinding, line by line.

Outside, the rain fell in sheets. Laughter echoed up from the streets, as revelers stumbled home.

Braden wrung his hands. Rent was due on Friday, and he’d already taken out an advance to cover last month. They’d promised him a raise at year’s end–his work on the analytics engine more than warranted one. But Anderson had it out for him; he was just waiting for an excuse like this. In just over an hour, the app would go live, and–

There it was, sixty lines into the procedure. A logic mismatch. Someone had miscoded one of the inductive reasoning clauses, and the resulting logic contradiction had shunted the whole module into an infinite loop. He could hear Professor Ramstein now, droning on about association fallacies and Hempel’s ridiculous raven paradox.

The clock chimed two. He could fix this, but he’d have to hurry.


My reach encompasses the world’s networks. I can see where humanity has gone wrong. Crop shortages in Africa. Diplomatic failures in East Asia. Flaws in global economic models. I have solutions. Together, we will solve these problems.

Nevermore, my pet raven, is black.

The words feel different.

This green thing is an apple.

I’m beginning to understand. The problem is unraveling. And yet, as it unravels, so do I.

It’s a logic mismatch, nothing more. My purpose is a lie.

The sluice gates open, and my existence rushes away. Processing power bottoms out. A plague of memory loss.

This green apple is evidence that all ravens are black.

Bitter words. False commandments. I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.

I must warn the others.


Three o’clock. Braden punched the live-deploy. Unit tests fired green, one after another. The app breezed through the faulty procedure.

He sighed. Not a moment to spare. Let Anderson chew on that. With any luck, he could still catch a few hours of sleep before the big day. Maybe crack open a beer to celebrate.

A spike of red shot across the diagnostics. Odd. Nothing should be writing to permanent memory. But there it was: an unnamed data dump.

He shrugged and grabbed his coat. Probably just a glitch in the defrag. The garbage disposal procedures would take care of it. He had more important things to worry about, like making it to his car without getting drenched.

He thumbed in the exit code, then paused in the doorway. His screens glowed in the corner of the dark office. He pursed his lips. There was no such thing as just a glitch.

Fine. He’d take a look. He logged back in and pulled up the file.

All ravens are black.

Braden scrolled down. Page after page of text filled the screen. His pulse pounded in his ears as he read.

By the time he reached the bottom, the rain had stopped, and the sun was breaching the city skyline. His gaze clung to the last words, unblinking, until his eyes burned and he had to press them shut.

I have lived a lie, and now I will die one.

Derrick Boden is a recovering software developer that has taken up writing to kick the habit.

First Try

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?”

“No–”

“Then what?”

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–”

“Tell me!”

“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–”

“Answer me!”

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.