Fiction

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.

Carson’s Crackers

It was a shit gig and Carson knew it, but it couldn’t be helped. It seemed that no one was interested in hiring someone in their eighties nowadays. Never mind that he still had all of his faculties and was fit as a fiddle. Granted, maybe it was a fiddle with just three strings, but that was two more than most. It also didn’t seem to matter that he wasn’t talking to himself, drooling the hours away in some home or that he could hold a conversation for more than ten seconds without having to check a smart phone.

Carson heard Derrick, his boss, coming in downstairs. A few moments later, he heard the footfalls on the steps and knew the weasel would be making an appearance any moment, and the peace and quiet would be shattered.

“Knock, knock,” Derrick said, “Daddy’s home.”

He said the same joke every night and it was as tired and worn out as the man’s god awful hair piece. He looked ridiculous and couldn’t help but be an asshole. After all, the kid was young enough to be his great grandson and born during the first Clinton administration for Chrissakes. What the hell could he possibly know?

“How are things going for you this fine evening Carson?”

Honestly, he was tired, dead tired, but he wasn’t about to tell the idiot that. He didn’t sleep much at all anymore, no matter what he tried. The clock would tick the hours by one by one and he’d still be awake staring at the ceiling. If he happened to nod off, it didn’t last long, things whispering and reaching.

“They’re going, just like they always are. I’m still here farting dust and you’re still showing up every night smelling it. You know, I think sometimes you just show up to work to see if I’m dead in this chair.”

That seemed to fluster Derrick.

“That’s not true at all. I fully expect you to outlive all of us here Carson. Do you ever take a day off?”

“I did for about a decade when I retired, but it didn’t take. I had to find something to do or I’d lose my crackers. Besides, I’m not one for sleeping much these days.”

His grandmother once told him when he was a little boy that she didn’t sleep much either. When he spent nights at her house, she’d pace all night, her slippers shuffling along the hardwood floors. She told him it was because all the people on the other side were constantly scratching at the door and it was wearing thin. Sometimes, she’d said, you could hear them whisper too, which is why she played music most of the time. When it was too quiet those voices were clearer.

Carson wasn’t sure if he believed her or not, but he knew his grandmother was bat-shit crazy toward the end. He sure hoped he didn’t go out like that. It wasn’t like he was hearing voices or anything, but those things his grandmother told him still lingered at the back of his mind.

“Bad dreams?”

He didn’t answer, not wanting to tempt the things from his dreams. It was bad enough they didn’t stay put and surprised him from time to time, lurking in the cellar or whispering to him on the phone.

“No, no, nothing like that. Don’t have much need for dreaming at my age. Nobody does. I’ve already seen it all and done it all.”

“That so?”

“That it is.”

“Seems like there’s probably a thing or two you haven’t done yet. I mean in this great wide world where anything is possible, there are always things coming you didn’t even think of.”

“You don’t say?” Carson asked, making sure his keys were secure at his belt, not really paying all that much attention to Derrick.

“Well, yeah, I mean what about sky diving?”

“Done it.”

“Shut up. Really?”

“Yeah, except when I jumped out of planes people were shooting at me, you know, in the war. After that, how much fun can just jumping out of an airplane be?”

Derrick was quiet, just staring at him, an odd expression on his face. Carson took that as his cue.

“Going to make the rounds.”

“Sounds good Carson. When you get back I’m going to go out for some coffee. We’re out.”

He didn’t answer, just saluted to indicate he understood. Standing up, having to wait a moment for the dizziness to pass, just like he always did, Carson picked up his flashlight and stepped out of the control booth on the second floor. Shutting the door, the sound echoing throughout the art museum, Carson walked down the hallway to the main display room.

It didn’t matter how old he was, Carson didn’t like wandering through the place when it was completely dark. Maybe it was from watching too many Twilight Zones or reading too many Weird Tales comics as a kid, but something about it made him a little uneasy. The shadows sometimes seemed a little thicker than they should be in certain places. It made him wonder if something was crouched there salivating at the thought of sucking on his bones.

Why did he do that to himself? Now, he’d probably not be able to sleep at all with that thought bouncing around in his head. Wonderful.

Turning on his flashlight, he directed the beam into the corner behind a marble bust of an artist whose name he couldn’t pronounce. His dusty heart lurched awkwardly for a beat or two as a section of darkness leapt away and seemed to vaporize into other shadows around him.

The beam cut through the darkness as he looked for the movement, but he never found it again. He had to wait a few moments to get his breathing under control, hating that he was old. It was just a damned shadow for crying out loud.

“Carson, this is Derrick, over.”

The static of his radio broke through the darkness in a squawk of sound, his heart skipping a beat.

Wouldn’t that be perfect? Death by static.

Echoes of the Rebel Yell

The guardsman pinched my passport and driver’s license between his thumb and forefinger, and I couldn’t help but imagine him saying “Papers, please” before letting me continue into the wilds of Nebraska. The guardsman’s eyes flitted back and forth between the pictures purporting to represent Rod Lemon and the actual Rod Lemon seated behind the wheel of a three year old Ford Explorer. My pictures were several years old and out of date in a few cosmetic ways: I’d given up glasses for contacts, and my once close trimmed black hair was now shaggy and laced with silver. The guardsman studied the disparities as though he were discerning the provenance of two identical works of art.

“You should get new pictures,” he said while returning my identification.

I grumbled a reply, took the driver’s license and passport, and turned toward the passenger seat where my editor was fidgeting beneath the gaze of another guardsman who seemed intent on boring into her with his eyes. Finally Meredith was able to reclaim her ID as well.

“On your way.” The guardsman added a subtle forward wave as flourish.

I awakened my vehicle, pulling forward and away from the National Guard checkpoint and easing the SUV toward the westbound onramp for Interstate 80. The heavily armed presence off the 42nd Street interchange, marking the rough border between federally controlled Omaha and the military district that encompassed the rest of Nebraska, sprouted like a weed in what was otherwise an overgrowth of neighborhoods and strip malls. I accelerated down the ramp and brought the vehicle up to speed, finding that sweet spot right around 73 miles per hour where I could indulge my desire to speed without entirely destroying my gas mileage. It would be several more miles before we passed the 80-680 interchange and a few miles beyond that before we escaped Omaha’s city limits. For all practical purposes, though, the stretch of the interstate we were on was already a border land—nominally in the government’s jurisdiction but not heavily patrolled.

“And to think—a few years ago I complained about the TSA.”

I’d switched on my digital recorder as we pulled up to the checkpoint. The mystery story that I was chasing was still hundreds of miles away, but as a rule I recorded everything I heard and said in the military districts—a precaution against missing some revelatory nugget.

“Don’t tell me that was really your first time through a checkpoint,” I said.

“New York’s a long way away.” Meredith turned toward her open window; the wind ruffled her short red hair. “What reason would I ever have to come out here?”

The interchange loomed ahead; I stayed in the left lane as it curved toward the southwest in the shadow of tangled ramps above.

“Curiosity,” I answered. “You were a reporter once. You’ve never wanted to see what’s going on out here?”

Meredith held her gaze out the window and said nothing for several moments. She’d been lost in thought most of the way from Des Moines. Was she from Nebraska? Or maybe somewhere else in the Midwest? I couldn’t remember, and my thoughts drifted down a rabbit hole in consideration as we sat momentarily in silence.

“That’s what I have reporters like you for. So I don’t have to visit the wrong side of military checkpoints and get in Dutch with a bunch of rebels.”

I heard the animosity in her voice—personal, venomous.

Wide billboards proclaimed the end of federal jurisdiction and cautioned that anyone proceeding beyond the next exit did so at their own risk.

“There you go,” I said as I pointed. “Rebel territory.”

“What is this—your sixth trip into a military district?”

“Sixth since you came aboard. But it’s been eight times—nine if you count my trip into Wyoming before Hostetter was assassinated.”

“Wyoming,” Meredith said amidst a hollow gallows chuckle. “Feels like a long time ago. I always forget that you covered the occupation in the state capitol.”

“Wrong place wrong time. It was just a vote recount when I got there.”

I expected Meredith to continue the conversation but whatever had been dominating her attention since before we reached Omaha still held sway. We drove in silence, and the hours passed. The afternoon sun fell toward the flat horizon. For the first chunk of the drive—the stretch from Omaha to Lincoln—normalcy reigned. We pulled off the freeway in Lincoln, filling up on gas and snacks. Nothing in the small city suggested citizens in rebellion. We received a few curious looks at the gas station—most likely owing to our out of state plates—but only a few. Were there even rebels in the city? I couldn’t remember reading anything about rebel activity in Lincoln—or, for that matter, eastern Nebraska. But obviously there was enough unsecured territory in the state to make the government draw their red line back at the border and around Omaha.

“I’ve been trying to remember since the checkpoint,” I said later when we were about twenty minutes west of Lincoln. “Are you from Nebraska?”

“Omaha. North 60th Avenue.”

Meredith turned her eyes from the featureless green landscape to me. She was almost smiling; I think the expression caught her by surprise—the idea of simpler, happier times.

“I loved visiting after I left for college. Just a few blocks to Maple Street and bars and restaurants running the gamut from speakeasies to local breweries.”

“Do you still have family there?”

Meredith turned back to the window, her smile fading.

“No,” she answered after a long time. “You remember what it was like in Omaha after Hostetter was killed? The protests and National Guard? They were…in the wrong place at the wrong time. A protest that turned violent. One of the sides shot them—I don’t know which.”

I heard Meredith’s voice start to break near the end of her story, but she shored it up and crushed the emotion before it could escape. Again I waited for her to continue talking. Again she chose silence.

The Last Hope of a Hopeless Nation

In the halcyon days of that final fall, when you worried in the abstract about the havoc Alistair Gilby might wreak on the off chance he were elected, you never thought about the silence. Nuclear winter, of course. The cold and the dying of a withering world, but in those nightmares you imagined a death rattle alongside every war cry. Sonic booms and siren shrieks. Even the patter of acid rain on rooftops. You never imagined it would be like this–only the whisper of snowfall, the crackle of fire, and the wheezing rattle in your own failing lungs.

You’re not cut out for the silence any more than you are the solitude. Before, before, you always had your headphones on. At your desk, on the metro, in your bed. As you worked and as you slept. You grew up in a world of earbuds and smartphones; you were addicted to the cadence of other people’s battle songs. Music was your constant lullaby in a dangerous world.

To say nothing of the human element, the riot of noise and love that made you feel so alive. Henry’s off-key humming and Hannah’s offbeat laughter. Hell, even talentless buskers and aggressive drivers. You were a city boy, through and through–raised in San Francisco, came of age in New Haven, lived in DC ever since–all you knew was noise.

Now the whole world’s a silent graveyard, and you’ll never be out of mourning.

So when they come for you with helicopters that beat the snow bank like egg whites, you’re sure the apocalypse they promised all those years ago has finally arrived–the one that you told yourself, in the darkest hours of the night, would have been a blessing. Maybe you’ve lived this long as penance, to see the price of your cowardice, and now this clamor that could fracture the firmament itself is here to call you to your reckoning. Not the trumpets they promised, but the endless roar of rotors calling you to meet your fate.

You leave your tea kettle whistling on your wood-burning stove, stalling only to jam your feet into shredded scuffed galoshes and drape an old hunting coat over your shoulders. You’re dressed in threadbare flannel pajamas, but there’s nothing you can do about that now.

Outside, the helicopter has landed, and half a dozen men and women dressed in fatigues disembark. They’re armed to the teeth, bandoliers and automatics over their shoulders, as if they’re stepping into an active warzone.

The woman who steps forward to meet you, where you’re guarding your hearth as if it’s still worth something, is taller than you are. She’s thin but not emaciated, not like most of the earth’s ailing population. Her faded auburn hair is done up in a tight bun, her skin like crepe paper. Age is difficult to guess–everyone tolerated the radiation differently–but you’d guess sixty, if you had to. The truth is you wouldn’t know her from a common foot soldier if it weren’t for the four stars embroidered in metallic gold thread at her collar. That, and the unequivocal note of command in her voice when she calls your name. “Arden Chang-Haas?”

“What’s left of him,” you wheeze, then cough into your fist. It’s been months since you last used your voice, and now you fear your larynx is just another instrument in disrepair.

“Your country needs you, Mr. Haas.”

“It’s Chang-Haas, and I didn’t think I had a country anymore.”

“What’s left of it, then,” she smiles. “See, I believe you’re operating under the false assumption that you have a choice.” She snaps her gloved fingers, and her goons level rusted assault rifles at your chest.

Warily, you consider your options. An open grave here is no different than what you had come to expect in a handful of months. Whatever she’s offering, it’s something other than dying alone at your in-laws’ lake house. You don’t dare assume it’s a chance to atone, but Henry would have wanted you to try. “All right.” You raise your hands in mock surrender. “What do you want?”

“Get your things. We leave in ten.” She waits for you to turn away before she calls out, “Oh, and Mr. Chang-Haas? You won’t be coming back.”

Ten minutes to pack up a life you’ve already lost. What relics do you have left?

So you throw your tattered clothes into a duffel bag, and you rifle through the piles of ephemera on your desk. So many memories like sand through an hourglass, sifting through your fingers until they’re lost. In the end, you save only a stack of photos with curling edges and your set of crumpled journals. All you have left of your family and the stories you wrote to them, after they were gone. The words you used, in vain, to fill the silence, as futile as raindrops sieging a dam.

By the time you join the general aboard the battered helicopter, only five minutes have passed.

Ladder of Ashes

I tried to meet Mom’s flickering, pixellated gaze as it skittered across the screen, and to parse meaning from snippets as her voice shifted in and out of audibility, “Lots of people asked about you… with this fever… won’t let me… bloodwork… don’t know how long I’ll be here… have to come home for high school in September if Dad can’t find you a tutor…”

The trip-planning sites all warned that Myanmar had the worst connectivity in Asia. No lie. We were waiting for delivery of a satellite dish, but in this part of the country, the electrical supply was as much an issue as the signal.

Mom had gone back to Toronto for cancer treatment, leaving me stranded in Mawlamyin with Dad as he carried on converting the old rubber plantation into a museum/hotel–certain that it would attract a steady and lucrative stream of cultural and academic tourists.

Twelve Oaks Estate sat in the center of a pegboard orchard of old and stingy rubber trees – a morning wagon’s ride west of the enclave of colonial mansions known as little England. As far as I knew, there wasn’t an actual oak tree within 1,000 klicks. The house was a vast block of stone that had long since lost most of its balconies and porches and canopies to rot and rust.

The day I met Lawrence, was the first day of the rewiring, so all the electrical power in the house was switched off – no air conditioning, no TV, no computer. The contractor doing the reno didn’t want the boss’ son “underfoot,” so I didn’t have access to most of the house. I couldn’t go outside because the gatherers didn’t want people wandering the grounds of the plantation – outside of organized tours – for fear they would get in the way of the tappers or inadvertently contaminate the cup things they collect the latex in. Even though Dad had let me shadow him one day, he made it clear that I was a big distraction that couldn’t happen often. And he didn’t trust me to go into town on my own.

Dad had augmented the library with books he’d collected for display at the hotel – antiques and early editions to augment the immersive experience of living in a British colonial mansion: Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Dafoe, Rudyard Kipling. I read them mostly because there was nothing else to do.

And I slept.

I dreamed of boarding the subway at Museum Station. There were no other passengers except for a young woman at the far end of the train. As I walked toward her, she stood and I saw that she was wearing a deep green Edwardian dress with lace across the décolletage, her long dark hair twirled atop her head with emerald combs. The air around her was a stale, slightly rotten potpourri of disquiet and despair. As beautiful as she was, there was no joy in her demeanor. Sadness clung to her, emanated from her. And need – an unfed hunger that sucked up the light as she put her hand on my shoulder and stared into my eyes. Darkness reached up in tendrils from between the seats, clinging to me, crawling up my arms, caressing my face. My breathing grew shallow.

“I can feel him near, my Henry,” she said, then handed me a coconut shell and sighed. “If you see him, give him this.”

The subway doors opened into jungle, I followed her out onto what should have been the platform, but she almost instantly vanished in the trees. The shell opened like a book. In its cavity, nested an India rubber ball, milky purple shading to amber, like a heart that’s drained of blood. It gave a larval twitch, squirmed, lengthened and dropped to the ground. I turned to get back on the train, but it had vanished and the platform had turned into a churning swamp of translucent worms that sucked me down. I woke up gasping for breath, face buried in a sweaty pillow.

Big Blue

When the documentarian comes over the ridge, the biologist is already unpacked and fussing over a bag.

He descends the slope, knees akimbo against the treacherous scree. His shadow tremulous in Nafthalar’s diffuse sunlight. The biologist’s tent is already up—a violence of silver amidst the giant teal fungi and strange trees like giant eyestalks. She does not look up when he approaches, though he knows she heard him.

He stops a few feet away, and swallows, and says, “Hi.”

She straightens and turns and bows briefly. She is wearing a breather and he knows that behind it she is pursing her lips. Her standard greeting. Rendered unfamiliar by the alien sun and the alien air and the technology keeping them alive.

She does not say anything.

“When did you arrive?” he asks.

“Not long ago,” she says.

“You look hot.”

“It is hot.”

He looks around.

“Here, then?”

“Yes. To begin with.”

“Where is he?”

She gestures with her head. She has cut her hair into a fierce bob and it looks good on her, he thinks, but does not say so.

“Over there. Down by the river.”

“How’s he looking?”

“Older.”

“Well that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”

She shrugs.

“Yup.”

She turns and resumes her fumbling. He lingers a few moments and then puts his backpack on the ground and takes out his drone. It skitters around on spindle thin mechanical legs, whirring and twittering like a mechanical rodent. Finally it straightens and fixes its lens on him.

“Online,” it says.

“Establish campsite,” he says.

He turns and wanders off because he cannot think of anything else to do. He can hear the drone working behind him. The shuffle shuffle of pebbles and the dry hiss of the tent. He cannot see it but he knows it is blooming behind him like a ripening dewdrop.

He peers down at the valley but he cannot see their quarry. After a few moments she wanders up next to him with a scanner.

“So, how are things?” he asks.

“Things?”

“Yeah. You know. Stuff.”

“Same as always.”

“How’s the new place?”

“The lab?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s good.”

“Just good?”

“It’s a lab.”

Silence.

And then, “You don’t miss Earth?”

“I’ll be back soon enough.”

“You will?”

Finally she turns to look at him.

“Soon enough,” she says.

“Well, I’m glad you’re happy out there.”

“Happy enough.”

“I’m doing well too.”

For a moment he thinks maybe she will draw near or at least smile, but she does neither. She just nods and says, “We’ll strike out just before dawn. Keep within a mile of him at all times. He’s old now so I don’t expect him to move very fast. But you never know.”

“Right.”

“Don’t get too close either.”

“I know.”

And with that she turns and walks to her tent and leaves him there with nothing but the answers he had prepared to the questions that she had not asked.

Crowd, Unnamed Street

There was a crowd at the corner of Named Street, a crowd of long grey coats and peering faces. Above them, the pall of a dun-colored night, bisected at its center by a great beam of glaring white light, a vast cone of hard and dead radiance which shone from somewhere low on the ground, up into the sky. The source of the light was invisible from Named Street, emanating from somewhere on Unnamed Street, but its glare had turned the puddles of rain upon the pavement into a tiled path of portentous hieroglyphics, some resembling silver ghosts with their classic drooping arms shaking in the air, some looking like cross-sections of fabulous worms. Worn and sturdy black shoes trod now upon a dancing octopus, now upon the features of the blowing wind; but all, all the fantastical paving slab pictures had been carved together, by the late rain, and the light shooting radiant into the gloom of the night sky.

Mortimer’s tread was steady as he pushed through the crowd of damp, malodorous coats, and to any who blocked his path he flicked his brass disc and said flatly, “LAW”, pacing into the center of the crowd on Unnamed Street, squinting against the light and listening to the silence of the crowd. Not a person spoke, and they moved only to crane their necks.

It was the center, the involuntary source of the light. It was wet, perhaps from the rain, and terrifyingly tiny and vulnerable, fragile as a milk-white baby. It had limbs, but neither hands nor feet on them, and was only as big as a good-sized spaniel dog. On its pointed face a multitude of tiny leaf-green eyes in clusters gazed imploring at Mortimer as he dropped to one knee. The light was beaming through a tiny tear in the fabric of its torso, and it flickered now as the being tried to cover the wound with its trembling, jelly-soft limbs. Looking up into the heavy lidded night, Mortimer had a sense of a membrane torn or split, through which the creature may have fallen. In any case, it seemed young. He realized that his decision had been reached the moment he laid eyes on the thing, but he flashed the brass disc again, too quickly for anyone to notice that it was out of date and thus he was now retired, and said, “LAW. This comes with me.”

He took off his grey overcoat, wrapped it about the thing to cover the wound and keep it warm (and hide its light) and stood up scowling with the unexpectedly heavy burden in his arms. The crowd backed away, one step, two, and he turned on his heel and returned the way he had come, only now the miraculous hieroglyphics on the slick and gritty stones were invisible, silent in the dark, the only sound his thudding footsteps and the quiet, discontented murmurs of the crowd, bereaved of its reason to be, not daring to speak out.

Huge and weighty buildings moved ponderously by. Mortimer’s stolid footsteps did not alter or falter, but he sang, in the dark of his heart.

Puffing from the exertion of the three flights of marble stairs, Mortimer reached his rooms, which were dim, dusty and lamplit, with a weary smell of old age, meat and unopened windows. He noticed this with surprise, and after putting down his precious burden on a pink velvet armchair, he flung wide one of the great windows, letting in the smell of rain and cabbage frying, before securing the shutters for privacy, and kneeling to examine his prize.

The limbs were as soft, moist and bonelessly flexible as that of a very young baby, but the torso, he ascertained with the very softest of clasps, was solid and boned like the staves of a barrel or the whalebone of a corset. There was no hair of any kind anywhere on the tender pale body, but a flexing slit in the face seemed to be a mouth, confirmed he thought by the kitten-soft mewing which emerged from it as he carefully stroked the bulbous head and gazed into the bright and multitudinous eyes. It was pleased. The slit of light beaming from its body threw dazzling rings onto the lofty, dirty ceiling.

For the first time in three years, Mortimer smiled. “Well then,” he whispered, his knees popping as he stood, “Let’s see if we can work you out.”

He made notes as the days passed, using an old and well-loved cypher, and kept the shutters closed until the wound which spilled light began to heal, and close. As to where the light came from and why the thin and fragile skin hid it so effectively, he vowed that nobody would ever find out. He was no vivisectionist, at least not as a hobby, and anyway he was retired now. Hadn’t done anything like that in years. He was… reformed.

He had been alone for a long time, but now it was the two of them, and it was not afraid of him. He nursed it, tried many ways to nurture and please it. He tried various different nutrients, peeling them from the rationed packets and offering their gritty brown and green bars to the mouth, but it would not take them. Spooning water into its mouth produced no actual objection, but he tried the same with a small spoonful of fabulously precious fruit juice, and the thing shat itself continuously for almost forty minutes. Mortimer cleaned up the malodorous green mess and comforted the thing as best he could, throwing the shutters wide to freshen the air. Far across the city, a thundering roar was followed by fire, purple flames which climbed high into the sky, and Mortimer sighed and pulled on the gas mask which hung in the window before the inevitable fumes began. The thing in his arms peeped in alarm, and he hastily closed the window.

He thought it must be a baby.

Whatever it was, it was quite helpless, and therefore might as well be a baby. Mortimer could vaguely remember the birth of both of his sons, but they were long gone now, of course.

He took the thing to bed with him, and it seemed content enough to be there, waving its limbs with a motion of willow branches in a gentle breeze.

In the morning there was an orange haze over the narrow dark streets, and Mortimer resolved to risk leaving the thing alone – he really must give it a name soon – while he collected his pension from LAW. It was meagre enough these days, but he was determined to somehow acquire some milk – perhaps it would drink milk. He would sit it in a bucket before he fed it this time, though. His rugs were ruined.

On the street, he passed only two people, one a woman with a scarred mouth, and one an elderly, hostile man, and he knew they knew him as a former LAWman, but he was fairly sure he didn’t know them – so they probably weren’t part of the crowd which had seen the creature in Unnamed Street. It was in any case unlikely that anybody would be fool enough to tell tales on a LAWman, even retired. Following the rain of the long night before, this short morning threatened to be very dry and very hot; his mask protected against the dust but nevertheless he quickened his pace. For once, he wanted to be home. The black-brick megalith of LAW before him failed to arouse the usual prickle of awe mingled with disgust; he merely hurried across the vast square, through the fifteen-foot doors and through the labyrinthine, mean little passages of grey that led to the Pensions Department, taking his tokens and thinking of nothing but milk. He knew a place where he could find it, of course.

For a Song

The ocean’s whisper filled the night air as Lydia walked across the cold sand. But she wasn’t here to listen to a whisper. She was looking for a song. She kicked off her shoes, left her clothes in a crumpled pile, and waded into the dark water.

Her skin instantly ached from the cold, and shivers wracked her body. She forced herself forward, one step at a time, till she was deep enough to throw herself into an oncoming wave. She gasped when her face hit the water, and the salt burned her throat.

She struggled forward. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, and the cold made her limbs heavy and listless. “I will do this,” she said, and choked on another mouthful of water.


In her senior year, Lydia’s homeroom desk was near the middle of the room, fourth row, third seat back. Donna Harrison sat in front of her. Sometimes, Donna’s long brown hair would brush against Lydia’s desk.

Lydia loved Donna’s hair. And her always-perfect nails, and the way her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Donna was on the basketball team and dating Tommy Miller. She’d been in Lydia’s class since second grade, and they’d never talked. No one ever talked to Lydia. But sometimes, Donna would smile at her when she handed papers back. Lydia always smiled back.


Lydia caught lilting notes over the sound of the waves and the hammering of her heart. The song pulled her now, her legs kicking, her arms pulling her forward without effort.

The siren sat on a rock, knees tucked up to her chin, singing up at the moon. Her eyes were shadows as she stared down at Lydia.

She finished her song and started another. Lydia couldn’t feel her fingers, though she could see that they gripped coarse rock.

Finally, the siren finished her second song. “Why are you here?” she asked, in a voice like shattered dreams.

Lydia knew just what that sounded like.


She’d asked Donna to sign her yearbook. It was a small thing, hardly out of the ordinary. Donna had spent a long time with her head bent over the blank page, her pen motionless in her hand.

Eventually, she wrote, “Lydia, I’m sorry. I wish we could have shared more. Goodbye, and good luck out there.” She signed her name with a big, loopy D.

Lydia reached out and ran her hand over Donna’s hair, just once. Donna didn’t pull away, and Lydia gathered up her courage. “I think you’re perfect,” she said. “I’ve always thought that.”

Donna’s smile was sad. “Only God is perfect, Lydia.”


“Why are you here?” the siren asked again.

Exhaustion tugged at Lydia’s limbs. The water felt warmer than the air, now. She thought about letting go, about letting it wrap her in its liquid embrace. Her teeth chattered as she answered the siren. “I loved someone, and she–she didn’t love me back.”

“That is what happens when you love,” the siren said. “But many people face unrequited love and do not seek me out. Why are you here?”


Lydia usually walked home from school. But one day, she didn’t. Tommy Miller dragged her into his Buick. His eyes were glazed and he smelled like rum, but he was still strong. “Donna says you’re a dyke,” he said. “You know that’s wrong, don’t you? I can help you. Like I helped her.”

“What do you mean?” Lydia said. Her head spun and her throat ached. Donna had said that about her?

“She told me about her impure thoughts, begged me to get them out of her head. I did, but then you put them back. But I can help.”

“I don’t want your help,” Lydia said. She punched him in the throat, scrambled out of the car, and ran. She ran to the beach, the one that nobody ever went to, because sometimes, when the wind was just right, you could hear the siren there.


“I don’t belong there,” Lydia said. “I don’t want to go back.”

“Don’t be foolish, girl,” the siren said. “You are angry, but it will pass.”

“Aren’t you lonely?” Lydia asked. “I know what that is like. Don’t send me away.”

The siren’s face was beautiful in the moonlight, her long hair as dark as the water. “What do you want?”

“I want you to teach me to sing,” Lydia said. “I’m here to learn your songs.”

The siren stared at her for a long time. “You don’t have the strength to swim back, do you?”


Lydia stood on the shore and listened to the siren sing. She heard her own loneliness echoing back to her, across the waves.

She thought about Donna, and what it must have cost her to write what she did. She wondered how much it would have cost Donna to do more.

Lydia wondered what she’d be willing to pay to reach out and end someone else’s loneliness.


“I wouldn’t go, even if I could,” Lydia said. “I’ve made my decision.”

The siren took Lydia’s hand and pulled her up onto the rock. “Stubborn child. Very well,” she said. “I suppose I have been lonely. I will teach you my songs.”

Hers

I never imagined myself getting involved in this war. I’d planned to throw myself into my political career after I finished with school and steer clear of my people’s conflict with the volucri, but of course, I hadn’t anticipated falling for Septima.

We’ve been acquainted since childhood, as our parents ran in the same social circles. I remember chasing her up the stairs while our parents sat at the dining room table discussing business, or maybe how humanity should’ve had a tighter claim to Electra than the bird-men known as the volucri and how these beasts wanted us all dead to reclaim the land they’d had to themselves before our people arrived. I remember eyeing with awe how meticulously pristine she kept her toys while mine had suffered breaks and scuffs from overuse. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so careful and still manage to play.

Then one evening, she tripped over a model spaceship I’d left lying on the floor and tried to steady herself by grabbing onto one of her shelves, and the impact sent one of her delicate porcelain figurines–We can’t play with those, she’d said, they’re too fragile–crashing onto the hardwood. I should’ve known from the size her eyes swelled to that something horrible was going to come of this, but I tried to calm her, to tell her that her parents would understand that it had been an accident. I ran down the hall in search of a broom to sweep the mess away, but I froze outside her door on my way back at the boom of her father’s voice from within, sliding back to flatten myself against the wall and avoid being seen.

“Stupid girl! Do you enjoy breaking things or are you just incapable of paying attention?”

I’d never heard the air go silent after a hand smacked flesh, and it wasn’t until her father had gone and I hurried into the room, broom in-hand and heart thudding like a bird’s wings against my ribs, that I understood that was what had happened when I took in the tears streaming down Septima’s cheeks and the scarlet imprint of a hand on her pale face.

It was in my third year at the Electran Arts Academy–her second–that I realized I was completely in love with her. I was running late to class already, but I paused to hold the ladder that had started to sway as she descended from hanging a poster for the upcoming dance, bits of glitter flecking her face and her smile unwavering even as the ladder wobbled. She beamed at me.

“It’s all coming together, Leo. I’ve been going crazy trying to get everything organized–we’ve gone through three different catering companies, but I think this one will work. I can’t wait for you to see all of it.”

She’d found a way to give herself some form of control over her life–she’d thrown herself into the dance preparations completely and given her whole self to them, and gods, I almost didn’t recognize her. I’d never seen her so happy, and I’d never realized how beautiful she looked when she smiled, even with her makeup smeared from sweating and her nose peppered with glitter. I realized then that I’d hardly ever seen her smile since our playdates had decreased in frequency after her father and mine had disagreed about something I couldn’t recall, and I knew I wanted to see this expression much more often. She deserved happiness, and I planned to make sure she had it.

“I can’t wait to see,” I told her. “Are you going with anyone?” She shook her head, and before I had time to second-guess the impulse, I blurted, “Want to go with me?”

Her smile brightened, and I knew I was trapped by my need to keep it in place, but I didn’t mind. If she was happy, I would be.

“I’d love to,” she said, and her blush mingled with the gold of the glitter.

Though we’d known each other for so long, I was still somewhat surprised that she agreed. I had no idea at the time that I would become so entrapped within the war effort, but my plan to ascend to the Electran Senate wasn’t something I bothered to hide, and I feared someone who disliked conflict as much as Septima would find little appeal in moving anywhere near the cutthroat world of politics. When I finally managed to ask her to dinner, however, my hands trembling behind my back as I walked her home from school the week after I’d spent the entirety of the dance unwilling to let her leave my arms, she just smiled her crooked smile and asked “What took you so long?”

I’ve always considered myself to be strong. She’s the only one who’s ever managed to bring out the cracks in my armor.

A few months ago, I was in the middle of a debate with one of my enemies in the Senate when a thunderstorm started to rock the building, and I let the man believe he’d won the argument so that I could rush home, where I found Septima exactly where I knew she’d be–curled in a ball on our bed, her hands pressed to her ears as she muttered that the storm would pass. The other Senator went on to brag about my concession, and I couldn’t find it within myself to care, despite how embarrassed I should’ve been, because at least I’d gotten home in time to hold my wife through the worst bouts of thunder.

Storms and her father are the only things I’ve ever known her to fear. I, on the other hand, have always been deathly afraid of the volucri.

The day the volucri bombed our high school, we’d been together for less than a month. I followed the masses out onto the lawn and immediately began to scan the area for her. For what couldn’t have been more than five minutes but felt like the sum of several lifetimes, I had no idea whether she’d escaped, and I’d just shoved my way through a group of teachers in my charge back toward the crackling, smoking building when I felt her hand on my arm. I can’t recall a time before or since that I’ve felt such indescribable relief, like I’d finally reached shelter after being stranded in a hurricane.

“You’re all right,” I breathed, pulling her close.

“I’m fine, Leo,” she assured me, tears shining in her eyes. A glance at her hands told me otherwise; her skin was covered in deep cuts and scrapes, blood caking her pale flesh. I reached for her wrist to lift it gently and examine her injuries, my brow furrowed. Septima sighed. “A few people were trapped under rubble. I couldn’t just leave them.”

“You could’ve been hurt. Badly. Or–”

“But I wasn’t,” she snapped. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t have helped them?”

“Of course I would’ve, but…” I paused, attempting to determine the best way to phrase my disagreement. Yes, I would’ve done the same. Yes, I knew she’d done the right thing. But the idea that she’d been in danger charged through my mind like a livid hornet, leaving my thoughts a jumbled, buzzing mess. I could handle danger, but the thought of losing her… “You could’ve been hurt,” I said again, lamely.

She stared at me for a long moment, and then her face softened and she wound her arms around me. “I’m okay,” she said.

But I wasn’t about to allow any harm to come to her again while I was breathing.

I missed our third date to volunteer for a covert group led by Lieutenant Commander Moore. He called it the Human Liberation Army, and at the time, I believed liberation was truly the goal. I thought we’d finally be fighting the volucri in the open. I thought there would be a full-on war and then this would end. I didn’t realize then that I’d signed up to become a shadow in the night, gaining information by force and disposing of those who could offer no further assistance.

Now, a little more than a year into our marriage, I’ve admitted exactly where I’ve been going after the Senate adjourns and before I stumble in covered in injuries worse than those she sustained in the bombing–a broken clavicle, a few shattered ribs, my finger cut to the bone.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have told her I’ve killed. It was a weak moment, admittedly, but I had to tell someone, to unburden myself, and she’s the only one I trust.

“How could you do this?” she demands, her fists clenched so tightly her arms tremble and shake her shoulders violently. “How could you agree to help him with something so–so insane? This isn’t you, Leo. This isn’t the man I married.” Her lips are pressed into so tight a line they’ve started to drain of color.

“Septa…” I reach out for her shoulder, but she draws it back so quickly I flinch. I let out a frustrated cry, throwing up my hands in surrender. “Don’t you get it? This is all for you!”

“For me?” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head, scowling. “That’s–”

“It’s true,” I say through gritted teeth, my fingernails biting into my palms. This time, I’ve come back with my chest aching, and I’m afraid another rib is broken, but I ignore it, for now. I need to focus on Septima. “For you and the family we’ve always wanted. Do you think I feel safe in a world where the volucri could wipe us out at any second? Do you think I want to bring our children into that world? If I can stop the volucri before they have the chance, then–”

She laughs shortly and turns away, toward the wall. “Oh, so you’re perfectly fine with throwing yourself into the line of fire. How the hell am I supposed to sleep, knowing you’re out there risking your life?”

I sigh and lay my hand on her arm, and she doesn’t pull back, though she still doesn’t look at me. “I can only sleep,” I tell her, “because I know that if I’m doing this, you won’t have to.”

“You’re ridiculous,” she says, and though her tone is hard, I catch sight of a tear sliding down her cheek. “You want to protect our future, but at what cost? I’d never have asked you to go this far.”

“I… haven’t scared you away, have I?” My heart thuds against my ribs, and I’m not sure I can bear the answer. I can’t begin to imagine my life without her.

She’s still for a moment, and then she lays her hand over mine on her arm. There’s pain in her eyes, and I hate myself for causing it. “Someone has to help fix you when you come back like this,” she says. “You’re an idiot if you think I’d let it be anyone else.”

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?