Aliens & Space Ships

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.

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.

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?

The Rachel Who Loved Me

Day 798

My knees get weak at the sight of her. I start to sweat and my heart begins to hammer. My eyes go glassy and my pupils splay so wide they become like black holes. And I can’t think straight. I can’t even think simple thoughts, like calculating the diameter of a wormhole, which I could normally do in my sleep.

Once on Anterra, this backwater world filled with nothing but swamps, frogs, and bugs, I contracted a strange kind of brain fever. I went mad! Went all kinds of crazy. And what I felt and thought are the exact same things that I think and feel when she is near.

It’s annoying. It’s distracting. I hate myself for it. It’s like there was a revolt in my mind and my common sense lost and got the guillotine.

This is no kind of woman to be in love with. NONE! She was chosen because she was everything that I detest. Where I’m thin and neat and intelligent, she is not. Where I am outgoing, successful, and have a zest for life, she does not. Where I am complicated, she is not. Where I am anything, she is not.

Her kind was to let me focus on my important work and not entangle me with the encumbrances of love or any other complication. She was to be a simple subject for me to explore scientifically, objectively, soberly. Like dissecting the brain of a fetal pig, I care not for the pig.

Rachel, oh Rachel! You bubble into the room to pick up the garbage I’ve left on the floor and my head goes mad for you. I get all silly.

Please, let me pick that up. I’ll say. I’ve been so foolish to let that drop. No my dear, don’t worry. You could hurt your back bending over like that. Let me! Let me!

And then out she goes with a smile splitting her broad face and I can’t help but miss her when she’s gone.

I don’t know what I’m going to do.

I might have to kill her and start all over again.


Day 900

I’ve forged on with the experiment. Ignored the little nigglings in my heart and slipped the nanites into Rachel’s morning oatmeal. By now they’ve hitched a ride on some hemoglobin and are up in her brain, burrowing into her synapses.

I’ve noticed no changes in her behavior, which is a good sign. With the others, everything misfired and they went into anaphylactic shock.

Decades of work may be coming to fruition. This is a very auspicious day.

Day 925

I’ve figured it out.

I am a man and she is a woman and we are alone in this space station, way at the edge of known space.

Of course feelings would develop. That drive to procreate is deep in the marrow of our framework. It’s seeping out and corrupting my thoughts, making me think I actually feel something for the little toadstool.

But I don’t.

It’s just animal instinct. It’s just loneliness. I’ve been alone out here a long, long time.

Day 950

Day of days!

I received the first transmission from the nanites. I’ve run the signal a dozen times through the computer because at first I thought there was some kind of mistake. But the translation is the same every time.

Love.

That’s the word I’m getting from her subconscious.

It seems the little dolt has fallen in love with me. I’ve confirmed it by breaking into her computer and reading her diary. What awful schoolgirl fantasies are there! Absolutely juvenile. They’re all about me and her getting married back on Earth in some quaint country church (what’s with woman and white steeple churches?). I don’t know where she would get any of those ideas. How does she even know what Earth is? Did she see it in our movie catalog?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I should just focus on the fact that my work, my years of sacrifice, are starting to amount to something.

The Whale Fall

With a stutter the little black Hyundai’s engine gave out. Gemma fought the wheel as the traveler dropped back over loose rock on the steep driveway. Gemma cursed. Why did her grandmother have to live all the way out here anyway? Without even a decent spotline or phone.

Gemma had been up here so many times with her father at the wheel. He’d never liked her driving, had told her never to attempt the hill on her own. But here she was. Instead of being able to say to him “Take that, you” it looked like he’d been right.

Gemma ratcheted on the brake and got out of the traveler.

To her right, across the dark ocean, gray-black clouds rose in rows like a set of gravestones. She saw a squawk of lightning, didn’t need to count the seconds. The storm would arrive before nightfall anyway. The normally rich blue, almost transparent sea became an oily deep green, like dying moss, under the storm front.

The stormy sea reminded her that it might have been an accident. There might not have been anyone else involved. She wanted to believe that, wanted to think it had all been innocent, but part of her hung on, imagining skullduggery. Was that the word?

The wind rolled in and from the trunk Gemma retrieved her sou’wester, the yellow fabric smelling of new polyethylene. The jacket’s inner was soft pelted fabric and it slipped on easily over her old tee-shirt.
Abandoning the uncooperative vehicle, Gemma started walking up the rocky drive.

Aerobrake

The galaxy, for a moment, looked frozen. Claire’s ship pitched on its axis and she had a passing view of the stars in lockstep with her angle through the forward windows. From orbit, especially this low, the distant blazing suns were always sweeping by. The ship’s current altitude, 326 kilometers, had her completing an orbit in just over ninety minutes.

The ranging radar pinged at her. She was less than thirty kilometers from the errant satellite. With a sweep on the controls, she swung the cockpit around on its internal gimbals. For a moment she was in darkness. Only another couple of hours and she would be done for the month. Back to Levithab for two weeks in the station’s gravity spin. After three months on call–basically meaning out all day every day–and a full week in the Demeter’s tiny cockpit and living quarters, she really needed a break. The ship was starting to feel dank and lived in, like old socks that needed a wash, rinse and airing.

The hull’s underside window slots rolled into view as the cockpit slowed. It locked into a position with a heavy clunk. Now she was looking along the ship’s underside, the long, sleek groove with the six chunky bulbs of the grabbers. Below she could see the snowy Andes.

Following the turnaround she called up a hot soup from the dispenser and after a moment a silver tube slid into the dispenser’s slot. Putting the nozzle into her mouth she sucked gingerly. Minestrone. Mashed, by necessity, but still thick and good.

“Claire?” the radio squawked at her. Mandy, back at the McKinnon outpost dispatch. Claire liked McKinnon. After time in Demeter it always felt spacious and clean. Nothing like Levithab, but then that station catered to the tourists and executives. McKinnon was strictly a maintenance hub.

“Hi Mandy,” she said. Mandy was always cheerful and upbeat. She was always in the process of ditching a boyfriend or wooing someone new. Nothing seemed to last more than a week or two. “I’m coming up on our sat. Sweepstar 36. I’ve got a visual. Nasty angle on her solar panels here.”

“I can see you on my scope.”

“It looks like a twenty minute job at most. I’ve got spares on board.” Easy, she thought. Unbolt the sail with the Demeter’s claws, bolt in a new strut and fix the panels onto that. She could do it all from the cockpit through the screens.

“Yeah, sorry honey, I’m going to have to ask you to ditch that and take on a new assignment.”

Claire’s shoulder’s slumped. She could see the satellite, a pinprick of light moving in at her. “Don’t do this. I’ve got leave coming up. Soon as I’m done with this cold little Sweepstar, I’m having time off. You didn’t forget that did you?”

“It’s an emergency.”

“Mandy, it’s always an emergency.” People wanted their communications now. They wanted their Google updates right now. No one could wait a couple of days. No one could wait an hour.

If You Give a Girl a Blaster

“Edison!” shouted Jiaying. “Wait!”

How could anything so big move so fast?

The gorilla’s leap ricocheted off the metal carapace of a deactivated tunneler, up to the stone ceiling of the underground gallery. Edison scrambled into a dark passageway.

Jiaying launched herself after it, underclocked compared to Edison. Her exhausted muscles couldn’t pace his, even in Martian gravity. Sweat plastered hair against her face. She couldn’t brush it away because of her suit helmet.

Before she lost the transmitter link, she snapped the telemetry from Edison’s suit: power, water and air all 100%. Her suit recycled her urine, but she was below 50% on everything else.

“Bring it back,” Blake had ordered. “Before the damn thing starts taking tunnelers apart!”

You reap what you sow, she thought. She reached the upper passageway, stone walls gnawed away by a tunneler. Her suit lights panned the empty length.

No trace of the gorilla.

Jiaying had glimpsed Edison’s dark face through his helmet before he’d leapt away. No anger or desperation burned in those deep-set eyes, only sadness.

Now she wasn’t even picking up a signal from Edison’s transponder. He was too deep in the warren of Martian tunnels. Which made her claustrophobically aware of millions of tonnes of rock pressing down above her. She took slow Tai Chi breaths. The way in is the way out.

Jiaying and Edison had arrived on the resupply ship from Earth 26 Martian days ago. But two days ago, Edison had refused to come out of Warren #2.

Blake and his mining crew could hardly believe their good fortune.

They’d never concealed their dislike of Edison; he’d gotten the project back on schedule after they’d failed miserably. Edison was a gene-spliced idiot savant, a miracle worker at repairing heavy machinery. Half the tunneling machines had been out of service when Jiaying and Edison arrived. Thanks to Edison, everything was running again, excavating a deep radiation-shielded expansion for the colony.

But then he ran.

Reaching a tunnel intersection, she looked up at the camera-comm router on the ceiling. Edison had neatly disassembled it, leaving all the parts for future repair. Over the past two days, he’d disabled hundreds of them, enraging the men. The heads-up display in her helmet showed a wire-frame image where she was in the warren, but the dots marking all the cameras were unlit. That was also why her radio didn’t work underground. If an accident were to happen…

“It trusts you,” Blake had said. “It won’t let the rest of us near it.”

Then he’d given her the blaster: the kind that only ship captains and security chiefs were allowed to have. She’d tried to refuse it. “It’s too dangerous!” He wouldn’t let her.

“Use it if you can’t coax your pet out of the warren. Or if you see any more signs of sabotage. Then your job is to take it out. Blast it out of existence. We don’t have time for this. The project has to finish on schedule.”

“He’s already bought you time: months, maybe a year!”

“Edison served its purpose. The company created it. The company can decommission it.”

“He’s not a machine!”

“Cyborg, wild animal, whatever. Not a citizen of Mars.”

When she hadn’t found him yesterday, she’d spent the night in the warren, further depleting her air and power. She’d barely slept, waking either from a nightmare of being trapped in the warren, or of Edison taking the blaster from her pack. I wish I’d never taken the damned thing. She’d slept with her arms around her pack, suit heaters keeping her from freezing in the dark.

After training with Edison for over a year, she thought she knew him.

But Mars wasn’t the Congo; it wasn’t even Earth. There were no forests, no birds, no insects. Something in Edison had snapped in the tunnels, like a soldier with PTSD. Who knew what he’d do? If my life depended on it, could I shoot him? She hoped she wouldn’t have to find out.

Jiaying turned off her suit lights and switched her cameras to infrared.

Edison’s footprints in the gravel appeared as faint heat images nearly washed out by the heat radiating from her suit. She jogged down the tunnel lit only by ghostly infrared. Soon she came to the top of another gallery. Here, Edison’s heat trail vanished in the vast open space. He’d leapt, taking one of the tunnels leaving the gallery. If she picked the wrong one, his trail would be cold by the time she picked another. Choose, woman. The gallery had a tunnel sloping up to the surface. She picked it.

A minute later, she realized it was the wrong choice. Dammit, Edison, where did you go? At this point, so close to the surface, she decided to go all the way up.

The thick pressure door at the top was closed. Although the tunnels weren’t pressurized for colonists yet, all the surface doors were kept sealed because of the radiation. She reached out her right hand, ring glowing through her translucent glove. In response, the door forged of Martian iron slid aside. Once she walked through, it slid shut behind her. Her ring opened the next door as well. Now she stood at the exit of the bunker, looking out on the polar landscape. Pale brownish-red desert surrounded her; no CO2 frost in this season. The surface was bathed in weak sunlight. She scanned the sky till she spotted the small bright disk of Sol.

Her suit’s online interface chirped. She had reception.

“Did you get it?” asked Blake.

It. She clenched her jaw. “I saw Edison near a tunneler.” She made a point of using his name.

“Did you damage the tunneler when you fired?”

“I didn’t use the blaster.”

“Why the hell not?! I showed you how to use it, girl! If you had a clear shot…”

She didn’t reply. I’m so tired. Her dreams of coming to Mars had been crushed like gravel in the tunnels weeks ago.

She heard Carlos’ voice in the background. “Tell Jane-girl to get her ass over–”

She heard the shuffle of Blake’s hand covering his communicator. Jane was what the men called her behind her back. They called Edison Cheeta.

Blake spoke again. “Jiaying, you’re at grid C5. I want you to head across the surface to the bunker at B3. There’s a tunneler in the gallery below, one of our small rock cutters. I’ve loaded a command sequence in your ring to order the tunneler to surface for new programming.”

“Programming for what?”

Silence. Then Blake growled, “We’ve got a project to run. Maybe you forgot while you were pet-sitting. B3. You want me to send you mapping–”

“No.” She bit back a retort that would only cause more trouble with the men. “I got it.” The sooner she was beneath the surface, offline again, the happier she’d be.

She took her bearings from the heads-up display and loped across the surface: high, leaping strides like a princess of Mars. Her feet kicked up rooster-tails of brown sand behind her.

The warren was laid out as a grid, bunkers sprouting like prairie dog hills. It didn’t take long to get to B3. Her ring opened the outer door. It slid shut behind her and she opened the inner door, unveiling the mine-like depths. She felt the vibration of a tunneler through her boots.

She took a few Tai Chi breaths, then descended toward the gallery. The vibration through stone felt like a rocket under thrust. Dust churned in perpetual motion: a quantum whirlpool, rock chips bouncing off her suit and helmet. The haze kept her from seeing more than a couple meters ahead, but her ring glowed red through her translucent glove, indicating proximity of a tunneler. She pirouetted slowly, holding out her arm to see which direction glowed brightest.

That way.

She followed the ring’s direction, arm outstretched. Abruptly the vibration ceased. As the dust slowly sifted down, she saw the tunneler embedded halfway in rock. A dozen mechanical arms gripped the stone wall like a metal tick. The dust-coated tunneler was smaller than most, engineered for drilling service crawl tubes. Atomic power pulsed within its belly. “You see me, don’t you?” she said.

A beam from her ring darted to it through the dust, conveying Blake’s commands. The tunneler extracted itself from the opening in the wall and turned jerkily, camera-stalk eyes regarding her. Then it ascended toward the tunnel where she’d come in.

She should have recharged her suit’s power and air when she was in the bunker. Well, I’m not going back up there with the tunneler. She sipped water from the tube in her helmet, then set off through the tunnels back toward C5.

Just let me talk to you, Edison.

Gateway to Knara

When the portal dumped us in a trash-filled alleyway, I knew this world was worse than the last.

I collapsed against the closest wall, stomach retching from more than the stench of rotting meat. The violent passage through the contraband portal had racked every cell of my body. With a few slow breaths, I managed to calm my nerves and settle what little food sat in my stomach.

Darkness shrouded the alleyway. I ran a hand through my hair, pushing short brown locks from my eyes, and looked up to survey the night sky above. I’d hoped the constellations would disclose where the portal had discarded us, but only a pair of moons peeked between the rooftops of the alley, offering little hint of our location. Though the nausea still washed over me in cool, prickling waves, I pushed myself off the wall and obeyed the voice within.

Keep moving.

The words repeated in my mind on an endless loop, like a mantra. A mission statement.

I forced myself onward and stumbled through the shadows, plastic wrappers crunching under step. The Armed Guard was still searching for Adrianna. They wouldn’t stop until I got her somewhere safe.

I found her on the alley floor, hair swept across her face. I knelt beside her and brushed aside her strands of flaxen waves to reveal closed eyes and parted lips. My breath caught as I stared down at her lifeless expression, and I felt for a pulse until one twitched against my fingertips. Relief flooded my body as I realized the jump had only knocked her out, though the satisfaction was short-lived. Peering down at her, she looked so tiny next to my large frame, but more than just her size had carved my perception of her frailty. Together with her pallid skin and hollow cheeks, it triggered the question that ravaged my mind after every portal we crossed.

How many more could she survive?

As I lifted her from the ground, wondering how I’d drag her unconscious through the streets without notice, her eyes fluttered open and met mine. She smiled. Through the darkness and stench of the alleyway, Adrianna found a way to smile. She always did. Despite the softening sensation in my heart, I didn’t return the expression.

“We can’t rest here. Can you walk?”

She nodded.

The hood of her cloak lay flaccid around her shoulders. I pulled it up, tucking the chin-length waves of her hair inside. Once the shadows of the hood masked her face, I took Adrianna under my arm and led her through the city’s maze of backstreets and alleyways.