Science Fiction

Dandelion

Dandelion

1

Standing in the doorway of the library, Zinnia presents the tutu lamp with a wry smile.

“Third floor guest room,” Darrell says, pausing from unloading the books to wipe his brow and stand in front of the oscillating fan. He is suddenly overcome with vertigo and a sense of déjà vu. “And enough with the judgment.”

“No judgment, just amusement,” she says, making a billows of her shirt to cool herself off. “Third floor guest room—for all to see.” She mock-pirouettes out into the front hall and mounts the squeaky stairs, footsteps echoing in a strange, rapid way.

Darrell reluctantly leaves the comfort of the fan and removes the last stack of books from the open box, a sharp twinge in his leg as he stoops down. He scans the spines—more dry legal texts. Carrying them to the wall-to-wall bookshelf, he scales the rolling step ladder, and adds them to Max’s section.

After he descends, he guzzles some water, pulls back the curtain, and gazes out at the expansive grounds of Wellington Plantation. Max had showed him yesterday where the slave quarters had been situated, past the shed and towards a flank of Spanish-moss-veiled oaks. They’d walked through the field together at sunset—the two of them and a thousand cicadas. At that time, the high grass had seemed to stretch on infinitely, and Darrell had grown nauseated thinking about all the tiny, identical shacks that had once crowded the space. They’d found a hideous, black wooden beam out there, half-moored in clay, which they dragged in and set aside in the library.

He turns to the desk, where the ancient beam now rests, ashy in the sunlight, and wonders how old the piece is, if it has any historical significance.

Probably just a piece of lumber from Home Depot.

He walks back over to the boxes, gazing up at the recessed tray ceiling and crown molding, and feels a dizzying wonderment, questioning the odd fortune that had brought him to this beautiful—but twisted—place. His home.

Suddenly the chandelier light sputters out; the oscillating fan dies. He can hear throughout the rest of the house other quietly humming appliances winding down. From outside, the buzz and chatter of insects begins to fill in the unsettling, midday silence. Despite the heat, he shivers.

He walks over to the side hallway exit. Tries the light switch.

Nothing.

Steps out into the hall, finds the cobwebby electrical closet near the bathroom, and flips the breakers.

Nothing.

On his way back, he hears the stairs creak again as Zinnia descends from the darkness. He finds her in the library, looking exhausted, bathed in sweat, a little haggard.

“What’s up with the power?” she asks.

He shrugs. “I tried the breaker. Maybe a power line’s down.”

“Wanna call the power company?”

“Maybe wait a bit and see.”

She grabs a bottle of water and takes a sip while he slashes open a new box of books. He shelves a few armloads before Zinnia speaks again.

“By the way, that lamp…” she starts.

“Look, sugar,” he says, “it was my mother’s, not a gift at my coming-out party. I’m a sentimental boy.”

Zinnia watches him dip down for more books.

“You just have the one, right?”

“What is it with you and—”

The rotary doorbell rings, and they squint questioningly at each other.

“I’ll get it,” she says.

He watches her go, blots off a little more sweat—hardly makes a difference; his shirt is soaked through—then follows after. At the foyer, he finds Zinnia leaning against the doorframe (a bit coyly, Darrell thinks). Beyond her stands a large man in mirrorshades, gesturing back towards the road. His thick arms and wide shoulders strain his short-sleeve button-up. The unbearable humidity has already begun to divine beads of sweat from the man’s temples.

“Hi,” the man says, face shifting towards Darrell. “I was just telling…”

“Zinnia,” she says.

“Zinnia here—nice to meet you, Zinnia, I’m Frank—”

“Charmed.”

“Yeah, likewise. And you are?”

“Darrell.”

“Nice to meet you, Darrell.” They shake. “Anyway, I was saying I’d drunk too much coffee and was looking for a gas station. Figured there must be one around this exit. My car broke down, and my phone’s not getting any service.”

Zinnia lights a cigarette, eyes darting back and forth between Frank and Darrell.

“That’s a boatload of problems,” Darrell says.

He cracks a polite smile. “Could I use your bathroom?”

“Okay,” he nods and points the way. “Take a right at the hallway junction. Second door on the left.”

“Awesome. Really appreciate it.” The man surges forward.

Darrell steals Zinnia’s cigarette and takes a drag.

“Nice butt, nice everything,” she comments.

“Please.” He rolls his eyes.

“When we tell Max about our little visitor at dinner—give me that—what adjectives are you going to use?”

Darrell laughs. “You are bad.”

A sheepish Frank, sunglasses removed, emerges well after the cigarette has been tossed into the yard.

“Everything go smoothly?” Zinnia smiles.

Frank chuckles and pauses in the foyer, no rush to leave. The floor clock at the end of the hall inaccurately strikes five. “Quite a place you got here. Mind if I make a call or two?” he looks about for a phone, only finding scattered furniture and stacks of boxes lining the walls.

“No landline,” Darrell says, unlocking his phone, handing it over, and motioning towards a parlor with faded, peppermint-striped wallpaper. “Go ahead.”

“You guys are the best.”

“Don’t be long,” Zinnia clucks.

The two of them step out onto the porch, gazing down the drive to see if they can spot Frank’s car in the sizzling heat. No, but the path is too long and wooded to be able to spot much of the road from here.

“No service,” Frank says, stepping out of the front door and handing back the phone. “Miss?”

“Zin.”

“Zin, hate to be a bother, but could I try yours?”

She unlocks her phone and hands it over. Frank raises an eyebrow at the Frankenstein Monster Hello Kitty case.

That was judgment,” Zinnia says when they’re alone again.

“Who is this guy?” Darrell asks, checking his phone. Zero bars.

“Didn’t really say.”

“Has a kind of martial air, doesn’t he?”

“He wouldn’t look bad in uniform.”

“Nothing,” Frank says, reappearing.

“Impossible. It had full bars when I handed it to you just now.” She walks up and takes back her phone.

“You have a computer here?”

“Power’s out at the moment,” Darrell says.

Frank snaps his fingers in frustration. “Well, I’ve taken up enough of your time. Better let you get back to unpacking. Take care, you two. Thanks for everything.” He hops down the front steps.

“Good luck,” Zinnia calls after him, voice twanging slightly. “Take a left at the end of the drive; next house is about half a mile up the road.”

“Will do.” He waves and strides off down the driveway.

Eva

There was nothing Eva liked better than eating at the dining table—the clinking of forks, the silver knife playing between her fingers, dishes of all colors displayed from one side to the other… It was all very human, or so she liked to believe.

In front of her, a middle-aged woman looked at the phone resting on the placemat, reading an article instead of looking at her.

Mamá,” Eva said. Lettuce, arugula and cherry tomatoes rested comfortably on her plate, all of them untouched.

Josefa Mayoral raised her brown eyes slowly, first checking the food in front of Eva, then her face.

“Yes, darling?”

The sliced cucumbers caught her attention. Eva wondered if onions tasted as acidic as they smelled, or if the bright yellow color of eggs influenced their flavor. While she loved dinner, there were very few elements she was able to digest, and none of them could be considered food by any standard.

She took a deep breath, and thought again of the one sentence she was thinking the whole day:

“I don’t want to go tomorrow, please.”


Eva was the first and only of her kind, the prototype of all Mayoral androids. Like later models, her body was designed to have the following characteristics: a registration number carved into the sole of her left foot, the characteristic logo of Mayoral Robots in her right arm, and, more importantly, an appealing appearance.

“You could say she’s like a daughter to me,” Josefa said, lifting her up by the waist to show her to the crowd. Eva stood there, expressionless, looking at rows of curious faces. “And a case of unexpected success—you see, I hadn’t imagined she would be more than just a testing program, but she works so well, in such an astoundingly human fashion, that I modeled all of our other robots after her.”

Josefa gestured for Eva to continue, her stretched wide mouth looking less than a smile and more like a threat. Eva pulled one string of her red dress, uncovering a shoulder, and then the other, showing the soft artificial skin of her neck and cleavage.

“When I began this company, I was asked many things. There is a general misconception of what a woman can and cannot do in this industry, and I wanted to shake that belief, and show that I could bring a completely new approach to this very male-dominated space…”

A man in particular didn’t stop staring at her, not at her chest, but at her face. Someone in the crowd, someone whose face Eva could not focus on, someone holding a cellphone.

“Now, I am more than proud to say that Eva is not only the most developed sex robot in the world, but the first artificial intelligence with human-like perception,” Josefa grinned, trying to catch her breath after speaking. The dress slipped down Eva’s chest, exposing her down to her navel.

“Ms. Mayoral, a question.” It was the same man as before. Eva only saw his trench coat, his glasses, his short beard. “Your company claims to be the only one in the market who understands issues such as consent, but if Eva and the other girls—and boys—you sell are fully conscious individuals, wouldn’t—?”

“Thank you for your pertinent question, Mr. Asai,” Josefa said. “All of our androids are conscious, yes, and they have individual personalities, to understand, appreciate and respect their owner’s wishes, as well as their sexual and emotional needs. They were also built to enjoy all types of intercourse, and even have functions that help spread awareness regarding sexual and domestic violence.”

“Can you please explain how this function works?”

“Eva, can you?” Josefa asked her, and she blinked, turning to Mr. Asai.

“Of course, mamá.” Eva made a small pause, trying to focus. “As she said, it’s not only me, but all Mayoral models have a non-consensual function, in order to prevent aggressive clients to believe a real person would enjoy this kind of interaction.”

“This helps owners to understand living people’s boundaries,” Josefa added. “It was proved to be very effective.”

“If this helps prevent crimes against women, I’m more than happy,” Eva said, and smiled a bit. The journalist seemed at a loss, but stared at her intently, as if thinking of something to say.

“You would tell me if you weren’t, wouldn’t you?” Josefa asked, her voice so playful that Eva almost smiled for real.

“Of course I would, mamá.”

“Well, then, it’s time for the actual fun—please, gentlemen, form a line and follow me to the next room. Those who have paid for the full workshop will get to try Eva for twenty minutes. The rest, if you change your mind, we accept cash, online payment and credit cards.”

Elevator to the Sun

Tomner lay in his cocoon of bedding, strapped vertically to the wall. His eyes had opened on a blob of moisture floating a few feet above his head. Something had energized it with a contradicting force, as it flowed and twisted around several loci. A liquid arm would extend on one side and then another, pulling in opposite directions before collapsing into their respective valleys, only to spit out more arms in hydra-like fashion. A rumble spread through the hull of the tugboat, the kind of vibration that could only be caused by firing the afterburners. Jerla must have activated them. It was a waste of fuel, very unlike her.

He scratched at his left thigh, working his fingernails down toward the amputation line. His prosthesis hung on the rack beside him, which compounded his sense of indecision. He had not yet committed to getting up, facing the day, until the leg was clamped on and powered up. Then he could do anything: run across a gymnasium, jump to pick an apple from a tree, ride a moon bike up a sim-mountain. Always riding. He would never get off, never let up…if he had a moon bike, and a sim-gym membership, and a day off. If he could afford a day off.

A doorbell sounded, followed by the words, “Mail call,” spoken in a tin-plated recording. Tomner felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

“San Deep, please protect me and make me strong,” he recited, making the sign of the bull with his fist. “Against evil forces that do me wrong.”

After a few moments, a different computerized voice addressed him. “We received another message from the Better Body Corporation, Tomner. The bill is three months overdue, and they want back payment on your leg.” The message was made more grating by the erratic tone, as if the device was trying to enunciate each letter in the words separately. “This is their final notice. If we don’t pay, they will deactivate it.”

Tomner always felt irritable upon waking, but this information compounded his foul mood. “Dungeon fat! How can I get the money to pay their bills if they turn off my leg?”

In the corner, several large dragon trees grew in pots; their thin trunks crowding together at soil level, they rose to spread out three feet or more, giving their spearhead-shaped leaves room to capture as much light as possible. Now the foliage on one of the plants in the center vibrated as if it had become irritated, too. A pair of delicate hands gripped vertical branches and pushed them aside to make way for a small face, its fur splotched with white and gray, whiskers twitching on the pointed nose. Jerla belonged to the species rattus norvegicus, although she referred to this group as couches.

A blue helmet conformed to the shape of her skull. Delicate wires extended underneath this carapace, making surgically precise connections to the neurons controlling language cognition. With the device intact, Jerla could form her words in the electro-chemical signals of the synapses; the helmet amplified these sparks and projected them to the computer, where software converted them to oral speech, into a language understood by her companion.

It always seemed remarkable, Tomner thought, how articulate the creature could be, how intelligent, how commanding, given the vagaries of electrical linkage and software applications. Somewhere along their evolutionary line, rodentia had craved such a device to make known their perspicacity, their distinctiveness, their taste. For if anything, his companion had a refined sense of the quality of food—and beyond this, of any material good, including salvage. She made an ideal partner in an operation such as theirs.

“It is a Catch-22,” Jerla said. “That is what it is called. This indicates an ironic situation…”

“I know what that is. It bunches.”

“The deadline is in two weeks.”

“What? That’s impossible! I might as well drive straight into the sun with this load.”

“Jump into the sun yourself. Leave me to pilot the boat back to Luna.”

“You’ll starve without me around.”

Jerla gave this jibe an abrupt sniff, letting silence hang in the air for a moment. Then she spoke. “Why do you give up so soon? A couche never gives up.”

“Look where that’s gotten you.”

The rodent swayed in the branches of the tree, shaking its leaves. “Do you mock me?”

“Sorry. I’m just bunched. What a situation.”

“That’s the life of a freelancer for you.”

Tomner had no answer to that. “I guess I better go out and have a look at the junk while I still can. Maybe something we can salvage.” He opened a cramped metal locker, taking out pieces of a pressure suit at random and putting them on. Boots, tunic, gloves, overalls, cowl: each zip-sealed together as he went, forming a solid barrier against raw space, against the cold vacuum and radiation.

“Something small, and not smelly,” Jerla reminded him.

“I won’t know if it’s smelly when I’m out there, will I?”

“Why do you always manage to choose something smelly?”

“Maybe because your nose is too good.”

“Just choose wisely. Communicate with me before you bring it in.”

“OK, boss.”

“You are mocking again. I might have to dock your pay.”

“That’s all I need.” He raised the helmet over his head, pausing to ask, “Anything else?”

“Proceed.”

Tomner zip-sealed the helmet to the cowl, completing the costume. Then he stamped to the airlock in the heavy mag-boots. He waved once and stepped through the door into a low, narrow chamber painted a grotesque yellow, since darkened with sooty smears; dull, weathered metal poked out in gray patches where the color had chipped away. In a moment, the chamber had sealed and depressurized; a panel light flashed in anticipation of the opening: “Brace for suction.”

“Brace for suction,” Tomner spoke the phrase aloud. “You tease.”

The portal dialed open, shutter blades fading into the wall, and his body flexed outward against the restraining straps.

After the initial depressurization, he flexed his mechanical foot against the wall to float out the door and eased himself down the port side of the tugboat by hand holds and magnetic boots. About twelve feet down, he reached the junction where their pilot boat clamped to the trash container, nothing more than a simple rectangular frame made of metal pipe covered with wire mesh. The cargo box reached down another 50 feet below the junction point, and it stretched fore and aft twice that length in each direction, every square foot of it stuffed with waste from Earth, two space stations, and Earth’s orbit. The tugboat rode the container like a bug might cling to an elevator, and very nearly just as helpless.

Having reached the level of the cargo, Tomner attached the tether from his suit’s pulley to a swiveling metal ring on the tug.

“Bless me, San Deep, with an effortless shift, and grace my unworthy self with your gifts.”

“The prayer doesn’t help, you know.”

Tomner ignored her. “Forgive her, San Deep, her disbelief is not disrespect.”

“Yes it is.” She had no respect for his faith in the cargo god whose name appeared in huge letters on a sign at the sanitation depot. The humans’ ignorance of their own language always appalled her.

“Don’t jinx it, Jerla. I need this salvage too bad.”

“Sorry. Just be careful.”

Now he rappelled down the side of the mesh container, investigating the contents as carefully as he could under the helmet’s dim, shaking spotlight. Barrels of nuclear waste comprised a good portion of the contents. Orbital debris, such as expired satellites and rocket engines, was also classified as hazardous; all of these materials had been isolated at the far ends of the container. His suit screened out some radiation, but Tomner avoided those areas to limit his exposure. Although the company discouraged salvaging, it couldn’t prevent it once a tug was out in space, and the windfall provided extra profit and supplies which kept the freelance pilot boats in business.

On this trip, much stuff seemed to have been enclosed in nondescript corrugated cardboard or black plastic. He reached in with a knife to slit the bags, pulling the material aside to scan the contents. He saw junk and more junk: broken metal and ceramic, dead hard drives, dysfunctional machines beyond repair, plastic sacks that once held nutritional liquids, like vitamins, edible semisolids, juice, and alcohol. Covering a span about the width of his outstretched arms, Tomner made it to the vertical end of the container without success. He recalled the tether with the push of a button, kneeling to reattach it at the new edge, then started along the bottom.

The young man lost track of the distance he had traveled to the fore, but the search had become tedious an hour or two ago. Then a square corner reflected his headlamp. Ninety degree angles were unusual in salvage work. This one had a nice tight covering of black plastic and had been pushed up against the mesh. Tomner measured it visually—roughly three by two feet, possibly three feet deep as well. His knife sliced the plastic, and he saw writing on the white carton beneath; he struggled for a moment, but the letters were familiar to him: C-H-E-E-S-E, then C-R-A-C-K…Unopened cartons of cheese crackers!

“Good eatin’!” he whooped.

“What have you got, Tomner?” Jerla asked.

“You won’t believe this, Captain. I think San Deep sent you a personal message. It’s cheese crackers. A whole flat of ‘em! Fresh air, sister! I know this brand, too. They just changed the packaging, and this is the old design. And guess what? They still have a year of shelf life!” Now he pieced out the rest of the writing to impress her. “Track the flavors here. C-H-E-D…Cheddar. Uh, Parm. Ess. Ann. Parmesan. This one’s white cheddar. Yeah! And bll-you? What’s that? And here’s nack-ohs. I see, gotta be nacho. Just brand new!”

“Great score, boy! Can you cut ‘em out?”

“Should be easy. They’re right by the mesh. San Deep couldn’t make it easier.”

“Can you bring ‘em in by yourself?”

“I got this, captain! Can’t wait to get my snack on!”

“No, if they’re minty like that, we’ve got to save them for sale.”

“Aww! No fair!”

“Just bring them up safely now, boy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

His wire cutters clipped out one side and then another. On the third side, his light hit a little round radio marker. Just like they were supposed to find this salvage. Even San Deep wouldn’t be so obvious. Tomner puzzled on it for a moment. He even checked his catalog, but the cargo wasn’t on his list of previous finds.

He shrugged. No matter. Cargo was cargo. He finished clipping the wire and wrestled the container loose. It came out smooth, too smooth, like they were being tempted and tested.

He wrapped the flat in tape and got a tether on the package, which allowed it to float a safe distance from his belt. He’d anchor them up top and retrieve them on the way back.

After three more hours, he had covered the length of the boat and no more. Now halfway down the starboard side, below the tug’s rear rockets, his light flashed over an arc of rubber, catching his eye. He focused the beam on a distinctive knobby surface—tread pattern, width, the meatiness of the object, told him it had to be one thing only: the front tire of a moon bike.

“San Deep be praised!”

“What do you see, Tomner?” Jerla asked. Her voice had a sweetness to it, a gentleness, that would have seemed unusual if his mind wasn’t so focused on his discovery.

“A moon bike! Its tire, at least.”

“Show me.”

Two photographs flashed on her computer screen, depicting the tire from different angles.

“It must be flat.”

“It looks inflated to me.”

“What could you do with a single tire, assuming you could retrieve it? Which looks impossible.”

He studied the junk pile. “I couldn’t get it from here,” he admitted. “Not with a little hole. It’s too impacted.”

“Better forget about it.” For once, Jerla sounded kind.

“Yeah.” Just in case, he tagged it with a homing marker and cataloged it. “Anyway, I’m coming back now. Too tired to go on. Bringing back a few things. And your crackers.”

“Good. Be careful. We’ll have a snack when you get home.”

The Leftovers

“There’s more of them suicides on the TV,” Nancy hollers at me from the other room. I am in the kitchen, trying to make a sandwich. The news is on. “The cheerleading squad from Central High all offed themselves last night, together. Tied plastic bags over their heads and laid down like they were going to sleep at a slumber party. Found them all holding hands.” There’s only the faintest taste of glee in her words.

Oh, no, I think, not the Central High girls. I usually see them walking to school as I drive to work, a daily bright spot. “Did they say why?”

“You know darn well why. It was that case zero girl, the one from the next county over. Everyone wants to be like her. The phony girl.”

“Persephone,” I correct her. “It’s Greek.” Persephone was the young lady who’d killed herself without warning, without apparent reason, a month ago. She was beautiful, much loved, had great parents, and no boyfriend troubles. No angst, good job. Her note had said only, “The world is ugly. I have heard the Lord calling me home.”

I work for the city, riding a mower all around the park grass. Been noticing more and more that the rose gardens are withered up and that the lawn is mostly now just weeds. Wasn’t like that last week. Also been noticing that the schools are quieter, the bright optimism of youth evaporating away. There are fewer people around in general, and the faces that remain are hard and suspicious. Nancy’s always in front of the TV when I get home, just in time for the evening news. The weather is still forecasting gloomy overcast.

Nancy is crying. “Who was it today?” I ask.

She shakes her head and can hardly talk through the sniffles. “Just horrible. All the hospitals are flooded with cases of sudden infant death. Hundreds of babies. Thousands!”

That is bad. All the tiny bodies they’re showing are adorable, none of those infants that look like wrinkled old men. I switch the channel away to find something that will distract her. Options are dwindling. I stop on a preacher show, with the close-up of a man holding the Good Book. “How ’bout this guy? You love this show.”

The preacher is saying, “Don’t copycat the sell-outs of this world like some blind idiot. The true God has a better design for you, a heavenly body that knows no jealousy or vanity. When he comes, you will be transformed by his presence!”

By the end of the school year, most of the athletes are gone, taking away their statuesque forms. The leaves fall off without changing color and never grow back. Nancy and I pay what few respects we have. Baby season is over, and the ones that remain are ugly as raisins. A plastic-surgery clinic opens up in one of the many abandoned storefronts downtown and does brisk business. Several more surgeons open their own practices, to capitalize on the new market, and the visual quality of life briefly improves, though the glossy sheen on the new faces never pushes all the way through the uncanny valley.

Nancy wants to make an appointment, but I tell her that we can’t afford it. Make-up is at a premium, also. “But this is the Rapture!” she begs, as I shut her in our room. “And we’re slowly being left behind!” She looks into my eyes and accuses, “You don’t think I’m beautiful anymore, do you?”

I’m at a very careful decision here. “I love you very much, no matter what,” I say, closing the door on her. I’ve removed her mirror, just to be safe. Also her belts, scarves, and shoelaces.

Something has changed in the air. Centuries-old sculptures have their faces scrubbed away by sudden, overnight aging. The oils in masterpiece paintings start to flake away, and desperate curators squirrel the works away in nitrogen-filled rooms to be surgically removed from their frames for emergency reconstruction. We never hear if they make it or not.

There are a disturbing amount of reports about young children playing in traffic. A lot of television these days is just old news and reruns. The B-list celebrities, finally catching on, are drinking the craft-services-table Kool-Aid, loudly proclaiming that they, too, have heard the call and are going to join their Hollywood brethren in the sky, but they aren’t fooling any of us. Their bodies rot quickly and choke the cities with their stench; unlike the others, whose corpses never decompose and smell like spring. Honestly, nobody wants to go to an ugly person’s funeral. By the end of the first year, there’s nothing really to watch on the television.

Prescott, the schoolteacher from down the street, comes knocking on my door one day. “How’s Nancy?” he asks, polite, casual.

“Well as can be,” I say. I haven’t let her out, but I bring her cereal and soup every day, stuff she can eat with a plastic spoon. She’s dropped a lot of weight, looks better than she has since her freshman year, but she doesn’t seem to much notice. Just sits on the bed all day, which is about all she has energy for, and accuses me of being the antichrist, bent on halting the rapture of the saints. The help hotlines and support groups that I started are growing and spreading across the state.

He isn’t looking me in the face. People usually don’t. I’ve got no illusions. “Thing is, I been doing some reading, figuring what all this weirdness is.” He looks up at the sky which is, as usual, hazy with dust and smoke. “Back in the olden days, folks used to have to sacrifice to the gods for good weather and good crops. Fuel to keep the sun shining and all.”

“That so?”

“Well you gotta admit we ain’t seen a sunrise nor sunset in a long time. I think what’s going on is all the best specimens are sacrificing themselves to save the rest of us. We, as a society, gotta give up our youngest and best-looking to appease the gods.”

“Then why isn’t it working?” I can see he’s got his Glock high on his hip.

“It’s got to be a complete surrender to God, you know, like the preacher on TV always says. So, thing is, I know most city folk wouldn’t admit, but your wife is probably attractive to some men….”

“Hold on now a second, Prescott. Let’s not kid ourselves here. We both know Nancy isn’t no beauty queen. We all know that.”

“Mebbe not. But she’s definitely the last thing we got to one around these parts, and if she’s the only thing holding the rest of us back, well, then, you gotta let her go.”

I don’t let go. I hold on to the kitchen knife real good and I lay Prescott out in my yard to see how quickly he returns to the Earth. Everyone else gets the message. From then on they keep a respectful distance and come to get me when something notable happens in town. “Gotta come see this,” the sheriff tells me some time after, as I’m riding the mower around City Hall Park.

“What is it?”

“Stranger came to town,” she says, “and he’s the best-looking thing I’ve seen in a long while.”

No one’s been coming to our town since about the time little Miss Persephone started this whole thing off, so I shut off the mower and follow her down to Burt’s Cafe, where there’s a crowd. The new fellow is sitting in a booth, looking half-starved, eating a piece of pie while everyone watches. The sheriff is right. He is handsome.

“Hello, friend,” I say. “Whereabouts are you from?”

“East coast,” he says, swallows some coffee. “Name is Eric.”

“You’re pretty far from home, Eric. What brings you all the way out here?”

“I’ve been traveling ever since this all started, across the country, bringing a message. Now I bring it to you.”

Everyone is listening carefully. “What message?” the sheriff asks.

He lifts his hands to show off the scars on his wrist. “I heard the call very early on. I heard and obeyed, a voice that promised to take me to a land of beauty. But instead I found myself rising from the middle of a frozen lake, dripping wet, shivering with cold. The lake was black, and rimmed with frost or salt. The sky was black and without stars. This, I thought to myself, was not the land I had been promised. I saw that I was surrounded by other people–also cold and wet as corpses–who were moving as a group to the far-off shore of the lake, and so I went with them.

“We were being drawn, together, to the presence of the Lord, for he awaited us at the shore. How can I possibly describe him to you if you have not seen the face of God? His cosmic body was hidden behind the horizon, for he is large enough to conform to the curvature of the Earth, or whichever planet it is where he dwells. His face filled our vision from ground to sky. His eyes were white, without pupils, and reflected the unseen sun like two moons. His mouth was open, wide enough to swallow cities, his tongue laid out like a highway for us. His breath was warm and smelled like honey, so of course we were eager to move toward it, to get out of the painful cold.

“I saw that his tongue was soft and thick like dark velvet. One-by-one the chosen marched up and fell backwards onto it, and were borne upward by the cilia motion of the Lord’s tastebuds, which were each as large as sea anemones. The tongue crawled each person up to the back of the Lord’s throat, which was a well of utter blackness, beyond which no one could see. I observed all of this scene and knew that this powerful being was The Blind Hunger at the End of All Days. I stopped walking and the mass of people swirled around me like a tide. The Hungry God has developed a taste for the most perfect of us because they taste sweet to him. I stood perfectly still, though my whole body ached to walk forward into his mouth, until I was returned to my home on Earth, sent back as a witness to tell all of mankind what awaits. When I came back, nothing was beautiful and everything hurt. There were no butterflies, only moths.”

“Did they keep you in the hospital long?” I ask, with my arms folded over my chest.

Eric nods. “First they had to sew up my veins, and then the doctors wanted to keep me under observation. But eventually they had too many other chosen ones to deal with, so they let me go.”

I point Prescott’s pistol at him and shoot Eric right in the chest. There is a fair amount of screaming, someone fighting to wrest the gun from me, and in the chaos I am piecing together a series of arguments in my defense to use when things calm down.

He’s a threat, I think, could have the pick of any woman on the planet. That threatens our family values.

If he likes that other world so much better than this one, then it’s a mercy to send him back there. Looks like people who are going to inherit this wind-blasted Earth are the ones who can stomach it in the long run.

He’s a disturbed person, encouraging others to commit suicide. We already don’t have enough of a population to fight fires or keep our fields from going fallow. Every person he gets to follow him is one less able body that this town can really use.

The sheriff has her Smith and Wesson out, but seems reluctant to do anything with it. Eric opens his eyes, sucking chest wound bubbling through his shirt, and looks straight at me. “There are other gods,” he says, “who have different tastes. And they’ll be hungry soon.” His smile, his blood, everything is out of place with its surroundings. That bright red stain is the most vibrant thing any of us has seen in months. I suppose that we’ll have to adjust to different standards of beauty once the last of the sweets have gone–find attraction and comfort in the slightly misshapen bodies of our spouses, the crooked and discolored grins of our neighbors. We’ll take for our pets the balding, cancerous stray dogs or try to tame raccoons and possums with questionable temperaments. The delicate symmetry of an infant’s skull when all of the flesh has been boiled off is surprisingly pleasing to the eye, and I hope that the Lord finds it as much a joy to behold as we do.

The trees right outside Burt’s are where we’ve left the suicides hanging from the nooses they tied. After all these months, they still just look asleep, calm, peaceful, and fill the town with a pleasant background smell.

Technicolor in the Time of Nostalgia

Everything began with a crazy lady who landed her spaceship on Sam’s roof deck early one morning and said, “Oh, thank god. I was starting to think I’d never find the girl to fix this broken timeline.” Adjusting the neck of her blue silk cheongsam, she peered over her copper-wire spectacles at Sam. “You are Sam Wang, correct?”

“That depends,” said Sam, who’d been unpinning the laundry, and was now going to be late to work, thanks to this weird spaceship lady. “Are you here to steal my identity and/or murder me?”

“Of course not,” snapped the spaceship lady. “I’m Mei-Li. I’m here to–”

“– fix the broken timeline, yes, you already said.” Sam tossed a mostly-dry sundress over one shoulder, pausing to scratch at the scar on her ear, where she’d once caught the wrong end of a whip. “I don’t know that you’ll have much luck, Mei-Li. The timeline broke a long time ago.”

“Feh,” scoffed Mei-Li. “Am I a time traveler or aren’t I?”

“I’m guessing you mean that rhetorically.” Time travel explained the spaceship, at least. It was a pretty thing, pale and glowing, humming with faint blue light that lit up the grimy tiles of the roof deck. The colors on all Mei-Li’s trappings–the spaceship, the spectacles, the cheongsam–more than anything, were what tipped Sam off.

“One of the very last,” said Mei-Li.

“By which you mean one of two,” said Sam, folding the dress.

“You see why I have a need for you, then.”

“Not particularly.”

“I did anticipate that the only other time traveler left in the universe might be an asshole,” observed Mei-Li, wrinkling her nose. “Fine, then. You clearly aren’t the sort who jumps at the chance to make history. What do you want instead?”

“To get to work less than ten minutes late, so as to avoid another whipping.”

Mei-Li blinked several times behind her spectacles. “That sentence right there,” she said, “is everything broken about this timeline.”

“The Hands of Grey care very much about efficiency. Everything else is a distraction from orderliness. The whips are a means to an end, to prevent senseless deviations.”

“My word, you just had to make it worse, didn’t you? What was the last whipping for?”

“Traces of unauthorized dye in my frock.”

“And before that?”

“Singing under my breath at work.”

“Singing!”

Sam shrugged. “A silly song in an old language my mother taught me.” Even now, the half-forgotten strains of music ached beneath the phantom sting of the whip on her shoulders. “I should have known better, really.”

“This is no way to live.”

Sam knotted a hand around the comforting grey linen of the drying sundress, the blue properly bled from the fabric now, on its third washing. “You can get used to anything. It’s how human brains are wired.”

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” retorted Mei-Li, scowling ferociously at the formerly-blue frock. “Look, how’s this? Let’s just go back to the Walled City–”

“The Walled City!”

“Relax, I mean the summer before the city fell. I don’t expect you to battle the Hands of Grey. I just want you to meet someone.”

Sam hugged her elbows. “What about work?”

“I’ll compensate you for the day, how’s that? And, bonus, I’ll get you back here say, twenty-five minutes before we met, so you can finish folding the laundry and make it to your work with five minutes to spare. No worries about whips to be had. A good deal, isn’t it?”

It was a good deal. Sam, gnawing at her lip, considered that. “I stopped flying time travelers’ spaceships as a child. I’m not sure I remember how.”

“Silly girl,” cried Mei-Li, seizing Sam’s elbow. “Who do you think is going to be in the pilot’s seat of my own ship?”

Without quite deciding to, Sam tumbled after Mei-Li aboard the time-traveling spaceship, dragged into its blue-glowing depths. The sundress remained behind, half-folded upon the grey and grimy roof.

Claridge of the Klondike

London, 1898

The Solicitor took Father’s will from the hand of an automaton standing next to the desk. He waved the machine away and began reading. “To Euphemia Thorniwork, my Pheemie, my only daughter, I leave whatever money is in my bank account. She is of age, therefore she may receive the bequest without delay. It will contribute towards funding her intended mathematical study. Great things await her.”

Only Father had called me Pheemie. Tears pooled in my eyes at the sound of it spoken in another man’s voice.

The solicitor continued, “I have faith that she will devise a way of paying for the remainder. I also leave her one of my inventions that may facilitate the matter.” He looked up and removed his pince-nez. “That is all. Despite my urging, your father included no indication as to what that is.”

The following day, I tried to poach an egg for lunch. It appeared that, contrary to all Father had taught me about chemistry, it is possible to burn water. As I scraped the cinders into the bin, I was interrupted by a knock on the front door.

A figure stood outside, the shape and size of a man but constructed of bronze. It was dressed like a country gentleman, with a black band tied around the upper right arm. The face, with a slit for the mouth to enable the voice to project, was smooth. Engraved curlicues above its eyes imitated eyebrows. According to the copperplate letters engraved on its forehead in Father’s handwriting, its name was Claridge. Its green glass eyes fixed mine. “My master – your late father – required that I reside with you as your adviser.”

I took a step back. “Adviser? How can an automaton get me to Oxford University?”

“I have faith that we will devise a way of achieving it.”

My first instinct was to turn the thing away. I hesitated and the bronze man stuck its foot in the path of the door as I made to close it.

“My master created me to learn and grow from my surroundings.”

“I must consider this.”

“He also taught me to cook.”

“Can you poach an egg?”

“It is elementary.”

“Then come inside.” I shut the door behind it. “Where is your key?” I could not see the winding port situated in the head that all automatons required.

“I am powered by a form of battery.” It raised its shirt, revealing a glass panel in its abdomen, fitted with a small brass tap. Inside, two polished metal plates hung in clear liquid. It explained that its brain was a wax cylinder inside its head. “That is where my programming, which tells me how to see the world and how to react, is stored. All my knowledge, my learned behavior and my skills, are etched into logical circuits in the cylinder, ready to be accessed.”

I heard Father’s voice in my mind: “Pheemie! The beauty of numbers, the magic of the sphere!”

“Did my Father scratch science and mathematics into your cylinder?”

It was fortunate that no others would observe my engaging in chit chat with an automaton. Our neighbors were keen observers of social propriety.

It nodded. “After my master taught me literacy, he made me commit his library to memory.”

“All of it?”

“Yes. Of course, it includes many mathematical texts, but my preference is for chemistry. It is easiest to process.”

“I feel that his library connects me to him,” I blurted. “I know it is not in your programming to feel. I am sorry if I… the fact of the matter is that I am still…”

“A period of grieving is within logical parameters. I have computed that his passing was a loss to the world of science, and to you.”

While one could not hold discussions with machines, it might provide a useful method of retrieving information from the library. “You may stay.”

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.

One Great Truth

We went north because the stars told us to.

They stayed behind because they were too weak to follow.

This is the one great truth of the Glass Sea.


Fire! the heavens cried and opened up. The Star broke through the crust of the dark sky, red and yellow and burning up the night. I was the first to my horse—the youngest, the fastest, and I was the first to lean into the wind and soar across the desert. First among firsts, and in that moment, I was singular. I was the Princess of the Dunes.

Together we ran, the horse and I, as the wind howled and the waves of sand whipped overhead, trying to swallow us. I charted our course by the Glass Sea in the east, where the sand has hardened under the sun’s cruel gaze, its black surface burnished copper in a crude reflection of the Star’s path. Later, when I found a small shelf of stone jutting out from the dunes and I stopped in the shade to suck the water from my horseskin, I finally looked back. Four, five, six other figures trailed across the slopes, hooves plugging at the sand where I had already been.

“Where is everyone?” I cried before they could answer, greedily sucking down another two gulps of water so I wouldn’t have to share, gagging, belly pinching. Life is hard and hot and the soft are turned to glass. Eat as much as you can, drink more than you think you can, take what you want beyond what you need. Live. “Where is everyone?” I asked again when they were closer.

“They stayed back to pack their things. They’ll come and meet us soon.”

I squinted off into the north and burned my eyes on the Star’s bright arc. Then back to the south, where the sandstorm swept across the desert and hid the world, our little cloth-and-stick village with its clay cups and wrinkle framed smiles, from me. I knew better. I wasn’t a child anymore, and they wouldn’t be coming: Marta, Braten, Gorta, Shira, Orla, I’m already forgetting all their names. The sun burns everything away. I turned the glass ring on my index finger, Mother Marta’s gift—her last gift. There was a pain in my belly, a fear, pushed down and covered over.

“Is that how it happens?” I asked.

“Hm?” Bravig took the horseskin from my hand, sucked the last drops from it, then reached for his own.

“You get old, you get slow, you die?” Round and round Mother Marta’s ring went as the numbness grew, as I piled cold truth upon hot pain.

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said.

“Not really,” Embra answered. “You’ll be the same one day. Bit by bit, day by day. When the next Star comes, you might run off slower. You’ll be cautious, you’ll want Bravig there, maybe, he’s a tough bastard. Or maybe you’ll have some stone carvings you want to keep, or a patch of sewing you were working on—”

“No,” I said, and wiped the sweat from my face. I climbed back into the saddle, the horse sweating and half dead half a ride ago. I wanted to ask Bravig to trade with me, to take his horse. She was lean and fast. I deserved her, really. I was first among firsts, the strongest. I would outlive Bravig. But I was young still, small, and Bravig was a tough bastard, it was true. If I asked him, he would cuff me on the head and I would have to kill him or be made small, and I didn’t care enough to kill him. I bit my chapped lip and tasted blood.

“It’s not so bad.” Embra stroked her horse’s mane. She was a woman grown since two years past, the braids of her blonde hair thick with grit and spilling out of the white folds of cloth wrapped around her head. “A year ago, you would have already run. Now you linger with us here. Maybe next Starfall you’ll have a child. Maybe you’ll get lost in the storm helping your child get away, but they survive. You die but your children live. Life goes on.”

“How does that help me? I’ll still be dead.”

“You’ll understand one day.”

But that sounded like another pretty lie. I knew the truth—the real truth.

I prized the glass ring from my finger and gave it to those nameless dunes, and then I left ahead of them. I chased the Star into the north, until the earth swallowed the sun and the land turned flat and hard. My horse died somewhere in that foreign land, under the crescent moon. Her legs started moving slower at first, twitching. She fought the bit, pulling. But I pushed and pushed and then she died. Collapsed and nearly crushed me. And then I went by foot.

Should’ve taken Bravig’s horse.

But I found the Star first, all the same.

She was asleep and beautiful, silver with stripes of red, the shell hardly damaged, the narrow flanks just sticking out of the crater it had made in the dunes. At first I thought she survived the crash and I spent the better part of the night in the dark, fingering every rivet, every seam of her flank still warm with life, until I felt the cool spot where the air pushed out from the little hole half buried in the sand, and I could just glimpse the pale blue light inside, washing over glistening silver.

I was tired, so I sat down and covered the hole up with my back. I slept.

Embra and Bravig arrived with the sun the next morning, trailed by three others, blistered and slick with sweat.

“Storm almost got you,” I said, picking grit out of my eyes.

“Didn’t, though,” Bravig said. “We need the cutter?”

“I got it,” I said and leaned away enough to show the little gap. Everyone gathered around, fighting for a look, hunger in their eyes. But I was the one small enough to squeeze through the hole and I didn’t give anyone else a chance to try. I made Bravig give me the last of his water and then I made myself small, small, small as I could and squeezed through the hole, her cut hide scraping at my arms and shoulders, fighting me.

I won. I pushed inside, stumbled, the sound of my footfalls ringing sharp in the cramped space. Inside I basked in the pale blue light, the cold air, the soft pressure that always seemed to exist inside the heart of a Star. As if the world were more real there, somehow. Sharper. Better. I brushed my fingers across silver tables, sucking in a breath as I felt the gooseflesh rise up my arms.

The Star rattled gently and breathed out in a low, hush whisper, and cool wind washed over my hands, my arms, bits of exposed flesh where dried skin flaked and drifted off as I followed the soft pulse of a cold blue light down the hall. Gleaming silver shelves lined the narrow path, stacked with crinkling clear packets filled to bursting with liquid food, crushed and dried and pressed, making my stomach squeeze with need even as I took down four of them, five of them, six of them, scrunching them up in the waist of my pants, cold against my skin.

“Is there anything in there?”

“Be quick, don’t breathe too deep!”

“Is it still good?” they called from outside, peeping eyes at the hole in the flank.

Once, a star had come to us full of rot and disease. That had been a bad year.

The voices called after me, ghosts. “Are we going to live?” they might have said.

My lungs pumped faster, gobbling up every breath of thin air. The world twisted around me, sloping away from my feet, but I kept walking towards the light as starbursts of light appeared around me: pink and purple and glowing gold. I followed the one true light, shimmering, rotating. It hovered above me at the end of the path, a perfect circle enclosed in its silver cage. No matter what the others said, that was the true treasure.

I touched its cage and it shivered, rotating, spinning, reacting. I saw the world that might have been flash before my eyes, projected for me: a bauble glimmering in a sea of black, brilliant green and full of life. We flew above the world, my Star and me, and the world seemed like a shining dream in the dark with swaths of blue water so big I could drown in them. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, dry, dry, dry.

Once, when I saw my first Star, I made a drawing in the sand of the symbols that floated over the world and it said “SET CUOURS: HOME, ENGNE DMAGED” – shapes that have no meaning to me, that may be keys or a name or nothing at all, but to me they were a beacon. A reason.

That was where the Stars came from. One day, maybe they would take us back…

Back to water washing cool over everything. Back to forests of trees still living, to light and softness. I was a bird flying in the clouds, basking in the water spray, soaring over a sea of rolling green, and I knew I should leave that place. My heart was pumping faster, faster, faster, and my skin was tingling, but I screwed my eyes shut, I felt like maybe that was the Star taking me home, working some magic in me. I swear, I felt it shiver around me, felt the Star shake. The Star showed me all of this, and I was a ghost in a far-away world, flying over it all, drinking from the heart of it, full and fed and happy for the first time in my—

Hands gripped me. Pulled me. I hit the floor. No, I’d already hit the floor. I shook and shook and shook but they held me down—good, strong hands. I bit my tongue and swallowed blood. My last memory.


I woke in the sand, in the dark of night, spitting up gobs of blood.

Embra hovered over me, held me down, kept me whole.

“I’m fine,” I said, my voice dryer than I wanted it, cracked at all the edges. I pushed, she held. I fought, she held. And when I cried for all I lost, all she could never know, she held me too, even if she didn’t understand.

“You almost died,” she said. “You can’t stay in the Star that long. The air is bad. You’re just supposed to grab what you need and—”

“I know.” Images flashed through my mind: linen tents, cloth flapping in the wind. Old faces lined with sand clogged wrinkles. The men and women left behind in the storm. Family. Marta. Was I any smarter than them? Any better? I could have died, I could have… “I know.”

Later, later, in the silence, huddled there together…

“What did you see?” Embra whispered.

That night we made a place together and I told her everything as one by one the family worked to widen the hole in the Star, to kill her, to pull the food out. Careful, ever careful, they were, and I watched as her light went out. I fed Embra my stories and she ate them up. I don’t think she believed me, not really, my stories of that world were like a pretty bauble, glinting in the sky, beautiful and impossible. Only I knew the truth. One day, I would get there, even if I had to pile up all of the dunes, handful by handful, and climb there myself.

Embra said she would climb there with me—hold my hand, kiss my face, catch me if I fell. The days turned into weeks as we built our camp of cloth and sticks around the body of the Star, and at night I told her stories, and we fell in love—or she fell in love with me and I let her, because it was easier that way.
But I knew one day the wind would change.

One day the next storm would come, and then the Star, the way it always did. One day we would run again. And so one night when the sun went to sleep, I took the knife, the little one I kept close, and I put it in Embra’s chest while she slept, and I watched the light go out.

I’m not a monster. I cried. I wept and buried my face in the sand. But I would not let her pull me down, bury me in burning sand and nothingness. I moved on and the dunes took her, just like they took everything. Maybe a star would come again and turn the dunes to glass. Maybe Embra would live forever, encased in perfect prism. I don’t know. I no longer felt the pain in my belly, no great hollow, nothing.

But the point is, I lived.

One day the stars would tell us to move again, they always did.

I meant to run, free. To never stop, to never die.

Princess of the Dunes.

Zachary Tringali lives in sometimes sunny, always swampy Gainesville, Florida, where he’s a freelance writer of entertainment, lifestyle, and medical articles. In his free time he’s an avid runner, studies and loves mythology, and all things geek from comics to games. He’s represented by Carolyn Jenks of The Jenks agency.

Bait

The interior of the houseboat floating on this quiet backwater canal could have been the interior of any low rent, poorly furnished apartment complex in any city, anywhere. All seven units have creaky hardwood floors, raspy hinges on over-painted doors, and blinds whose fractured slats let almost everything in.

We don’t even have a door to the shared hallway. Our neighbor opens theirs a crack, pokes his nose into the hall, and retreats. It doesn’t shut completely.

Edaelia, my frizzy haired roommate, full cheeks, and fierce curves, leans against the window with the eye-level slats parted. “Some shit coming up the canal.”

I nudge her a little and cop her slats. Churning up the canal is a rusty yellow barge pushing mushy brown sludge in frosting-like waves to the crinkled metal breakwater along the far shore. The vacant houses are shuttered; the residents long since removed. “There hasn’t been a barge in six months.”

“Six months and three days,” she says.

There is a mucky slap of barge churn against our hull and the sizzle of their Current Probe on our Cloaking Grid. The window is now gradually obscured by dirty yellow corrugated metal. The Carrion Scythe, Hunter Class, rises from the barge and hovers just above it, emitting a glowing blue cauldron from its spinning orange exhaust ports.

Edaelia exhales a slow incantation. It sounds like a curse, but isn’t really language. The exposed muscles of her long brown legs, midriff, and arms ripple with the curvature of the phrase. Her pajamas are a pair of black, hip hugging shorts and a slate grey tank top. Neither the barge nor the Carrion Scythe are an issue until the electro-gristle of the Current Probe begins to taper away and the barge wake slapping against our hull ceases. Out the window the barge stops. We take a quiet breath.

Edaelia reaches up and opens the slats at the top of the window. “The Scythe is moving into position.”

“It couldn’t just move on past. It has to stop and fuck with us?”

The neighbor’s door pops open. He sees our shared expression. “Don’t tell me.”

“A Carrion Scythe is moving into position.”

He retreats, not completely closing the noisy door. Moments later, panic whispers.

I frown. “What should we do?”

“What we always do.” Her expression is stern.

“I’m glad it’s your turn.” I step away from the window, head towards the closet. “I’m tired of killing.”

To open the closet, I yank because the door sticks to the frame. I reach in and remove a black orb from the crowded shelf. Without looking I toss it to her. Calibrating, it glows blue in her hand, then flicks off. “Are you going to change out of your pajamas?” I ask.

“Why even bother,” is her nonchalant reply.

She heads over to the neighbor’s door and gives it three light raps. Their two month old starts crying. Their whispers get frantic, so fast it sounds like gibberish.

“Time to go upstairs.” Edaelia says, leaning into the door. Their whispers stop, but the baby screams louder. “You don’t want me to come in after you, do you?” I recognize his footsteps in their hallway. His nose peeks out. “No.”

“Bring the baby.” She grabs the door and opens it wide with a loud creak.

Their expressions resigned, our neighbor, his wife, and screeching baby file out of their apartment into the hall. Edaelia points them to the darkened stairwell and they sheepishly head upstairs. Edaelia follows them, closing the door behind her. I hear the deadbolt lock into place.

Step after heavy step, they creak their way up the steep staircase. The pitch and volume of the wailing infant is unbearable. Perfect. Reaching the top, Edaelia shoves them out the door onto the roof.

Seeing the helpless couple with child, the crew of the Carrion Scythe will break protocol, open their hatch, and begin the rescue. That’s when Edaelia will strike. She powers up the orb, which drops the Cloaking Grid, revealing our houseboat for what it really is: a glowing, malleable, blue-black Phosphor-Cysting Field.

I hear the hysterical burst of cross chatter from the Scythe. Edaelia emerges from what was the stairwell, the orb emitting a focused myriad of amber Dis-Tension Beams that annihilates everything. The child’s screams are abruptly silenced. The ship and everyone in it, powdered.

Edaelia recalibrates the orb with a quick twist; then lobs it into the barge. It explodes with a loud clang.

Out the window I watch the dirty yellow barge swallowed by thick, snotty sludge. The Cloaking Grid reboots, retraces, and the houseboat returns. I hear Edaelia’s measured footsteps coming down the stairwell and think, I’m tired. Then wonder, When can we stop snaking around this inter-galactic speciary picking off the last remnant of humanity? When can we pack our shit, leave this backwater galaxy, and go home?

Five Hundred Terabytes

With millions of lives at stake, I personally inspect every single line of code in the system. A deep breath escapes my lips. After seventy-two straight hours staring at the laptop’s screen, my headache escalates into a full-blown migraine. Closing my eyes, I allow the whirring sound of dozens of computer servers to drown out my own thoughts. Not that it matters. The Digital Eden project might’ve been founded by both Mariana and me, but the truth’s that she was always the real genius behind it. I just happened to be lucky enough to sit next to her in class at MIT, almost forty years ago.

From behind, someone opens the door. A quick turn of the chair and I confirm that Michael’s back. Since this room stores the mainframe server, it needs to be kept at a chilling fifty-five degrees. That’s how I know that his recurring visits don’t simply happen because Michael likes to chitchat. In these last three days I have reviewed the system’s code, over and over again, only to reach the same conclusion.

“Look, Michael. As far as I can tell, Mariana hasn’t changed the functioning of the system,” I say, shutting down the laptop’s screen and resting my hands on its lid. “Whatever happened with her reawakening. Digital Eden’s code seems intact.”

Dressed in an expensive suit, Michael loosens up the knot on his tie and stares at me. “For God’s sake, Vincent. It’s been more than a week since the system reported the error. What are you saying?” He asks. “That we still don’t know if Digital Eden was compromised?”

“Come on, man,” I say. “Even after the incident with Mariana’s reawakening, every single diagnostic test indicates that the system’s functioning perfectly.”

To be honest, if Mariana had really wanted to sabotage the system nobody could do a damn thing to stop her. Digital Eden was her dream from day one. With Mariana gone, I’m just the system analyst who helped her code and build Digital Eden. Someone capable of understanding how everything works, but powerless to overwrite anything that Mariana wanted to change. Getting up from the chair, I walk over towards the mainframe server. Its access panel slides open at the press of a button. Holding the laptop under my arm, I plug in a cable to connect it to the server. A couple of keystrokes are enough to access the information of all the servers in our system.

“That’s not what worries me. If something was broken with Digital Eden, half this country would know it by now,” Michael says, sitting down on the floor with his back to one of the servers. “What worries me is the possibility that Mariana sabotaged her own reawakening procedure.”

Silence is my only reply to Michael’s concerns. Instead of wasting time holding his hand, my attention focuses on the sea of information displayed by the laptop’s screen. At random, I pick a file out of the tens of thousands that Digital Eden manages every day in the city of New York alone. In this case, Digital Eden’s review of file number GH-197463 states that a Mrs. Helena Stewart, aged thirty seven, suffered a severe pulmonary embolism. The subsequent cardiac arrest led to her death.

Digital Eden then proceeded to check its servers for her clinical and personal information. Having found Mrs. Stewart’s registry as a citizen of the United States, the system analyzed the data to determine if there was anything that could exclude her from the reawakening procedure. Since her application satisfied all the criteria, Digital Eden requested that the latest copy of her consciousness be imprinted onto a cloned body. In the final stages of the reawakening, the system shows that a cloned body was readied and aged at one of our facilities to receive the copy of her consciousness. Digital Eden’s last entry regarding file number GH-197463 classifies Mrs. Stewart’s reawakening procedure as a success.

A random browsing of some of the reawakenings that Digital Eden performed last week demonstrates that everything’s fine. After what happened with Mariana, the system never once encountered another critical error. Every diagnostic test we ran. My review of Digital Eden’s source code. The inspections to our servers and consciousness imprinting facilities. Every bit of evidence supports the conclusion that nothing’s changed. Digital Eden seems to be working perfectly.

Out of nowhere, Michael pats me on the shoulder. When I turn around to look at him, he’s wearing a frown. “What happened to Mariana was a tragedy. I knew how close the two of you were,” he says. “But now I’m counting on you to help me manage Digital Eden.”

“Don’t talk about things you know nothing about,” I say, brushing his hand off my shoulder. “I’m not doing this for you.”

“That’s not what I meant. Mariana and I never saw eye to eye, but…” Michael mumbles and shakes his head. “I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry for what happened.”

Michael’s gaze drops to the floor and he steps out of the server room without speaking another word. Left to my own devices, I run a search in our servers for file number FB-749262. A knot tightens in my throat when the laptop locates the data for the reawakening of Ms. Mariana Ribeiro. The system’s review of the file shows that, on a Sunday morning, Mariana ingested enough barbiturates to induce a respiratory arrest. Called to the scene, the coroner pronounced her dead on the scene. Once Digital Eden updated the information regarding her death, the system triggered a reawakening request.

The early stages of Mariana’s reawakening went well. With nothing in her personal or clinical data to exclude her from being reawakened, a cloned body was readied and aged to receive a copy of her consciousness. Everything seemed normal. Except when it came time to imprint her consciousness onto a blank mind, an error occurred. File number FB-749262 registers a critical error that shut down Mariana’s reawakening altogether. Early on, I thought the problem might reside in the copy of her consciousness. That turned out not to be the case, when myself and dozens of system analysts combed over the file containing her consciousness only to deem it fully operational.

Desperate to force her reawakening to jumpstart, I tried every trick in the book. Rebooting the whole system. Swapping her identity with that of another citizen. Deceiving Digital Eden into imprinting her consciousness onto a different body. Nothing worked. That’s when I realized that her suicide and the error that occurred couldn’t be a coincidence.

Despite the botched reawakening procedure, her ghost remains in our system. The digital copy of Mariana’s consciousness contains her every dream, thought, and even emotion. Some people would even say that the file contains her very soul. Unplugging the cable, I disconnect the laptop from the mainframe server. While sitting back down on the chair, the migraine threatens to tear my head apart. But I suppose that’s what happens when you’re pushing sixty. My fingers hit the keyboard and the laptop returns to the source code of Digital Eden. If there’s any hope of understanding what might’ve caused the error with Mariana’s reawakening, then that hope lies in the analysis of Digital Eden’s source code.