Fiction

Wild Blue Roses

Tiernan discovered the dead dogs outside the trapper’s camp at the base of Mount Storm. The animal’s frozen carcasses hung impaled upon the trunks of black oaks, branches bursting out of their flanks and eyes and mouths. The moment he saw the grim spectacle, the druid knew that Bril’s mind was too far gone. There could be no bringing him back, now.

But I must try, Tiernan thought. At the very least, I must try.

He moved forward stiffly in his furs and heavy boots, unaccustomed to such clothing after spending so many years in the Druid Circle’s warmer southern climes. Even with all the coverings layered upon him, he still shivered–though whether it was because of the cold or because of his mission, he could not be certain. Confronting a fellow member of the Circle was always a sad affair, but this particular trip was doubly so. The druid to be uprooted had been Tiernan’s student. More than that, they had been friends.

The trappers suffered worse fates than their dogs. Tiernan found their corpses scattered over the plain outside a log cabin, twisted heaps mutilated on the ground with grim coats of raven pecking the flesh from their bones. Chaotic designs of blood in the snow told the story of a harried and futile retreat, one of men injured and terrified in flight before falling. The druid imagined those desperate figures wheeling about in clouds of murderous birds, and took a deep breath to steady himself.

He shooed the birds away. They rose with angry caws and lighted upon the cabin roof to watch him through their black eyes, as though warning that he might be their next victim.

One by one he dragged the trappers inside the building. Druidic tradition was to leave the bodies in the wilderness to decompose naturally, but city people lived and died in different ways, and their beliefs had to be respected. He scattered fireseed over the cabin wall and struck his flint, setting alight the makeshift pyre.

The ravens scattered into the air and headed north, into the gathering dusk with a flurry of beating wings and shrill cries. Back to their master, Tiernan thought. Back to Bril.

He climbed to the far side of a rise and set up camp out of sight of the billowing flames. The sight of druidic power used so savagely unsettled him. The Art was meant for gentler things. Rapid-seed spells were meant to replenish forests, not skewer sled dogs. Bonding spells were meant to commune with animals, not to employ them as assassins.

Bril knew all these things. Or, at least, he had once known all these things. He had been among the gentler souls of the Circle, and it was difficult to associate him at all with the brutality that had occurred on that mountain. Tiernan huddled deeper into his furs.

He cleared snow from the frozen earth and built a fire as the sun set low in the sky and the shadow of Mount Storm stretched long over the plain. He laid out an elk skin and sat upon it, watching orange shapes rise and sink from the fire’s black embers. It was said that long ago druids could read the future in that fiery language, but if such a thing was ever true, it had long since ceased to be so.

Tiernan blamed himself for Bril’s violence. All along he had known that his friend’s acute sensitivity put him in danger. A druid taking Stewardship over a piece of land entered into a Communion with that place, and the connection could become so deep that it risked consuming his mind completely. Bril’s temperament made him exceptionally vulnerable to that kind of psychic disintegration.

A hard wind whistled through the dark and bent the fire sidelong. Tiernan pulled the elk hide tighter around his shoulders and thought about the desolation of that place where his friend had spent the last five years of life, removed from connection with other people.

To the north extended the Bladed Mountains, hundreds of miles of peaks so sheer and unforgiving that not even druids went there. To the south and east, the fast waters of the Thalthemin River cut the area off from the rest of the world. To the west was the city of Industry, growing rapidly along the shores of Lake Phalheen. Its inhabitants numbered in the tens of thousands, but for a druid like Bril, a legion of merchants was the loneliest prospect of all.

Mount Storm is a perfect place for a man to go mad, Tiernan thought. And I left him alone here, for all these years.

An animal padded through the snow just outside the light of the fire. Tiernan looked until he saw the faint outline of a snow ferret. As the animal watched him, Tiernan knew that Bril was seeing though its eyes.

“No one wanted things to come to this,” he said.

The animal stiffened momentarily, but remained.

“You know why I am here, just as you know that I cannot leave until my task is done.”

The ferret turned and bolted off into the darkness.

“Please do not make this any harder than it already is,” Tiernan said, to the darkness, or to himself.

Autumn nights were long in those northern reaches, but that night, he knew, would be even longer than most. He had gone there hoping to rescue his friend before it was too late, but found the mountain already stained with blood.

And I fear that before my task is done, much more will be shed.

The Virgin and The Dragon

Vivian slammed the rooftop door open; the metal and brick clashed with all the defiance a wrongfully scolded four-year-old could produce. Tears made the marker ink on her face mix together like Neopolitan ice cream, but what dripped into her mouth tasted like paint. Her feet thudded on the cement before her tears cleared and she saw a mass of gold and brown scales: a dragon took up most of the rooftop.

She stepped back so she could see the face, and gulped and wheezed until the sobbing stopped. She asked, “Are you Puff?”

The dragon opened one eye and said, “Hardly.”

His lid began to close but stopped midway when she said, “I just drew a cave for him on the hallway wall, but since you’re here and he’s not, you can have it.”

The lid opened all the way again. “You painted a dragon cave?”

Vivian nodded her head like the bobble knight on her dad’s dashboard and said, “It’s beautiful except my mom hates it and says I can’t watch TV for a month, especially if it’s any of dad’s movies.” Traffic honked and screeched far below as if to add an exclamation point to her exasperation.

The dragon closed his eye before saying, “I don’t have much use for a two dimensional cave.”

Vivian sniffed the snot up her nose and said, “Are you hungry? My mom just went to CostCo and bought a big box of Goldfish.”

The eye opened and he said, “Goldfish? I can never catch enough of those to make it worth while. But if you have a big box…”

“I’ll be right back.” Vivian could hardly believe a real dragon was on her roof. Her mom was always telling her dad to grow up and quit telling Vivian such fanciful stories. But now she had proof. Down in the kitchen, she slid her step stool across the ceramic tiled floor and into the pantry. She stretch on the stool just enough to pull the bottom of the Goldfish box with her fingertips. It thumped to the ground. She listened for her mom’s footsteps, but she must’ve been asleep in her room. Vivian grabbed her treasure and ran up to the rooftop again, worried the dragon would be gone. He was there.

“I have the goldfish!”

He opened both eyes and said, “Well?”

She tore the box and bag open and scattered the crackers in front of his mouth like they were magic dust.

“What are those?”

“Goldfish.”

“Are they dead?”

Vivian stared at the treasure and realized her mistake. A lump swelled in her throat, and she choked out, “They’re crackers. I didn’t mean real fish.”

The dragon sniffed. A long tongue darted out and licked up several crackers at once. “Cheesy,” he said and continued to lick the roof clean. “When can you bring me more? I’m Darius by the way.”

“I’m Vivian. We’ll have another box in a month. Can you come in and play?”

“I couldn’t possibly squeeze through the door.”

Vivian slumped, but then recalled the story about princesses kissing frogs. Maybe if she kissed him, he’d turn into a boy and fit through the door. She ran to his snout and gave him a peck. When he didn’t change, she dashed through the door and down the stairs, hoping he’d never guess her foolish notion.

Some Say in Surf

When I finally reach the beach, I begin to relax, confident that the angry mobs howling for the blood of my kind have been left behind. Wind whips the soaring causeway as I cross the sound onto the barrier island. Leaky and exhausted though my car is, I imagine the cold more than feel it.

The jersey wall is scarred with impacts. The only other car is wrecked from both front and back at the causeway’s bottom, island-side. On any other road these details would slip into the glaze of civilization’s accelerating collapse, just one more mysteriously wrecked car. Here though, the mangled hulk stands out, alone and forlorn.

The beach is drenched in bleakness, the cold bleaching the land and sea to grays and slates. The smell of salt makes the air sag in a sky dark with the threat of drilling rain. I wonder again what I’m doing in this place. Already I’ve seen half-starved humans scavenging along the older country roads. They watch my passing with nebulous looks, between yearning and hunger, in their eyes. Some are even armed, clutching at their weapons in intense debate.

The small barrier island appears completely deserted. Perhaps the human mind really does move in inescapable tracks, and a beach in winter is meant to be desolate. This is a good thing. I’ve come for the solitude. It’s the only thing likely to keep me alive.

The Broken Chair

With lengths of dried rosemary Helena tied the pieces of broken chair together into a frame. Splintered legs pointed out to sea. Crouching upon the water the storm dragged its fingers through the currents.

In the harbour fishing fleet boats were tied slack against the tide. Back and forth they echoed the breath of the salt. From her basket Helena took out nine jam jars. Their glass was scoured to opaque with handfuls of powdered bone. Each smelled of funeral bouquets, not that Helena noticed. All her senses had faded to worn paper lanterns long ago.

Pausing, she reached in her pocket for her dad’s photo. The young, proud, man bore as much resemblance to the old man, breathing his last in the now broken chair, as an acorn did to an oak. His sepia hands were clasped in front of him, unmarked. When they placed him in the ground his one remaining hand was scarred by fish bones and the crush of wet rope.

The storm came closer. A smoke-coloured wall spat at the reluctant sea. Into each jar Helena placed a single piece of fabric cut from her birthsheet. Taking a pin from her hat she pricked her left thumb and let a single drop fall into each jar. She watched the slow blood soak into frayed yellow cotton and nodded at the sky.

Through the wind Helena battled back to Bill’s cottage. Inside she placed the photo on a hearth cold for too many years. None of the fleet owned up to what happened to the insurance money. Closed as scales, and the law had no knife sharp enough to pry them apart. Instead an old man died mutilated, cold and broke, with no spirit left to pass over. Helena pulled another blanket around her shoulders and watched through thick glass. Driving rain reached the cliffs and shuddered them loose.

Helena woke early the next morning. Cup of tea in hand she walked to the broken wood frame. At the bottom of each jar sat a single knotted piece of fabric. In the distance the fleet set out from the embrace of the harbour. Engines tore across the dawn. She watched the boats make their way out to the fishing grounds. She waited while they set their nets. Recovering the first knot she whispered ‘Dad’ under her breath and undid the twist of fabric. As she reached into the next jar for the next knot the clouds above the fleet began to fatten and fill with the undead storm.

The Opening

Vala glided over to the ganglion she was to be operating that day. It was always oppressively cold in the extremities of their Gracious Host, but she knew she would soon be warm, or at least oblivious, in her neural nest.

She was unpleasantly surprised to find that the Consecrated Pilot she was replacing was the survivor they had picked up, Drexel. The one who had an Opening when the Worm he had been piloting fell in battle.

She knew it was pointless to begrudge him his success, so she took a deep breath and then tapped his helmet to let him know she had arrived. His eyes opened slowly. His pupils were great black disks and seemed not to see her. What had those eyes seen? He nodded to indicate that he was sending a request for temporary CNS control of the ganglion during the shift change. He continued to stare at nothing for several moments, until his pupils contracted back into awareness, and his body shivered into life.

She carefully withdrew the terminal spike from his helmet and placed it in the sheath, formally severing his Communion with the nervous system of the Gracious Host. Then she grasped his forearms, planted her feet in the mound of neural flesh, and pulled him out of the morass. The zero-g inertia carried him to the opposite wall. He flipped around to plant his feet on it, and pushed off with just enough force to come lightly to a stop, floating just in front of her.

“Anything interesting during your shift?” Vala asked.

“Nope,” she heard his reply broadcast into her earpiece. “Smooth sailing.” Drexel clasped Vala’s forearm, and Vala reciprocated, inwardly cringing. He helped her up into the fleshy mound, and she soon found herself up to her chest in tissue.

Drexel removed the terminal spike from its sheath. Just as he was about to plunge it through the hole in Vala’s helmet and into her skull, she said, “Wait. What was it like?”

“What was what like?” he asked.

“The Opening!” she responded.

He smiled. “Like the brushing of cloth against your skin, or the scent of the meditation hall.”

“No, really, what was it like?”

He laughed, and his almond eyes seemed to glow. “Come talk to me in the mess after the ceremony. But for now, CNS is waiting on you.” Then he thrust the terminal spike into her brain.

She gasped, as she always did, as her normal sensory space was submerged in that of their Gracious Host, Mzee. Mzee was a massive space-faring creature dubbed a “Turtle” after the terrestrial organism it resembled. If a diamond-hard, jet-black photosynthetic sphere with a mouth stalk and eight limbs for grasping food and firing pellets to attack and maneuver could be said to resemble a turtle.

Once fully connected, the bland taste of empty space-time filled Vala’s mouth, but she could also detect the dim bitterness of the sun, vague pinpricks of flavor from the stars, and the mild sweetness of a distant asteroid. This was her brain’s synaesthetic interpretation of Mzee’s acute sense for space-time curvature. As for the Turtle’s electromagnetic sense, she soon heard her own voice chiming as Mzee emitted a radiolocation wave, and her body then warmed when the wave returned to tell her how far away they were from their quarry.

Sage Bindeen was personally directing the CNS today, and her voice sounded in Vala’s mind. We’re still pursuing the enemy Worm that killed ours. We’ve identified it as Tovian, but we don’t expect to catch up to it for quite a few shifts. It seems to be headed for the closest asteroid, which was recently ceded to us by the Nation of Tove. We’ve requested reinforcements, but we remain the only unit in the area and have been ordered to intercept. Hold the course.

Since today there were no changes in momentum to be made by firing pellets, Vala’s task, as on most days, was to focus on keeping her assigned extremity absolutely still and prevent any rebellion- “disharmony” was the preferred term- on the part of the Gracious Host, and in so doing hone her own mind through the exertions of Communion. Mzee didn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight today, but any lapse in vigilance might give the Turtle a chance to act up and embarrass her. She was determined not to let that happen again.

The shift was mostly uneventful, until at one point she had the eerie sensation that she was not in control of her body. It passed quickly, however, and by the end of the shift it was the continued failure of her ego to dissolve that still bothered her most.

She Leaves Things Behind

The smell didn’t come from Kim’s dirty carpets, or from the stacks of moldy magazines, or even from the ashtrays full of Salem butts scattered around the house. Those were smells of neglect. This was a fouler, more active smell, and I realized when Kim’s aunt Eleanor pushed past me with an armful of clean clothes that it came from her. I could almost feel the particles of rotten air getting lodged in my nasal passages, scraping the back of my throat. I could taste it.

On the kitchen floor, Kim used a butter knife to scrape caked food from between the tiles. I poured some extra Pine-Sol on her coffee table to try to mask the smell. It was something like burned hair, something like crushed insects.

Kim looked up at me as she dumped the crumbs into the trash. Her hair was slipping out of her ponytail. Without her makeup, the lines around her eyes betrayed that she wasn’t much younger than me.

“Thanks for helping me clean, Leah,” she said. “I already feel better.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” I told her.

Even with the three of us, it would take at least the whole day to even put a dent in Kim’s perpetual mess.

“I know,” she said, “But I’m ready for a change. I’m not going to slide back this time.”

I finished wiping the coffee table and picked up a stack of mail from the floor. One of the postmark dates was three years old.

Eleanor emerged from the bedroom, the smell with her.

“Where you keep your socks?” she asked.

Kim looked confused, as though the question had never occurred to her before.

“Just find an empty drawer,” Kim said.

Wherever Eleanor was, I tried to be in the opposite part of the house. By the end of the day I found myself shut in the bathroom, scraping dried toothpaste from the sink.

Seeing Kim out in the small town bars you wouldn’t guess her house looked like this. She always had a new sequin shirt or dress with flowing sleeves from the downtown tourist shops, and she usually smelled of cigarettes and dollar store perfume. I met Kim at Karaoke six months ago. She sang sad country songs with a voice that put everyone else in the karaoke queue to shame. She was the only real friend I’d made since I moved to the mountains. My mom had just died. The move was a desperate attempt to not have to take care of anyone for awhile.

Kim knocked on the bathroom door.

“Aunt Eleanor’s leaving.”

I frowned at the streaked mirror. Did she expect me to come out and give the old woman a hug goodbye? I gulped a breath of relatively fresh air, then opened the bathroom door and took one step out. I glimpsed her at the front door.

“Nice to meet you, Eleanor,” I said.

She lifted a hand but didn’t turn to me. I stepped back into the bathroom and discovered something sticky on my shoe. My sole was covered in purple goo. I sat on the edge of the bathtub. It wasn’t gum. Jelly, maybe? I sniffed it and recoiled when I found it had the same smell as Eleanor. I ran the shoe under the tub faucet, scrubbed it with shampoo. I wedged it in the towel rack to dry.

In the corner by the bathroom door, I noticed a small purple ball, the same color as what had smeared on my shoe. I picked it up with a square of toilet paper. It reminded me of a fish egg, but the size of a marble. I took it out to Kim.

“Do you know what this is?”

She pulled her head out from under the bed, dust bunnies stuck to her hair.

“Some kind of mold?” she said.

That, it certainly was not. Whatever it was, I took it back to the bathroom and flushed it.

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.

Flames in Flesh

“He should be up there,” Kevor said to me over his shoulder. He was barely panting, the bastard, but then he wasn’t hauling half his weight in a pack. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought the firestone after all.

Kevor stopped where the path briefly leveled, and I was happy to pause and catch my breath. The wind was at our backs, blowing as though it needed a running start to get up the mountains ahead. It twisted his cape around his legs, so that the twin streaks of flame on the black cloth seemed to dance even without their enchantment. But he didn’t notice. He was watching me.

I let my bag slump to the ground. We had only left the Occultarium an hour ago, and already I no longer cared how the rocky road would treat the albino ox leather I had paid so much for. My own cape, a dreary black, was stuffed in the bottom of my bag, but my velvet doublet kept the wind out and looked phenomenal to boot.

“You don’t have to do this, Dasper,” he said. His whole face seemed clinched with anxiety, an expression I hadn’t seen on him in the months since his own Venture. It was a welcome relief from the flat, grim face that he’d worn recently.

“Sure, I do. Headmaster Laren will expel me if I don’t.” I didn’t add, and probably even if I do.

He put his hand on my shoulder, gently, as he once had. “It might be better that way.”

“Easy for you to say, you’ve already earned your sword and cape.” I gripped the ten-inch athame at my belt to contrast the blade at his hip.

His face slackened as he began to withdraw again into his melancholy, like there was an ice fortress in his eyes in which he could hide.

“I’m sorry,” I said after a sigh. “I know that something happened to you during your Enkindling.” Something he wouldn’t tell me, or anyone save his fellow Blazes. “But each Enkindling is different. Everyone’s price is different. I’m not afraid.”

“Then you are a dolt.” His eyes were cold again, the icy gates had closed. He looked away from me, up the path, and pointed.

A man, surely my client, stood where the mountain trail met the sky, silhouetted against rolling clouds.

I picked up my bag and began my trudge. Kevor did not move.

“The price is always the same, Dasper,” he shouted after me. His voice echoed through the foothills so I would hear him half a dozen times as I hiked toward my client.

“As much as you can bear.”

Cuts

She despised all Welfare Centres as a general rule, but most especially this one.

She’d waited three hours in an uncomfortable metal chair, watching the news channel on the muted viewscreen, night-vision images of gunfire, bombs and airstrikes. Eventually, the display light at the service desk buzzed garish red neon with her name: “Frankie Simkins”.

With a struggle, using her crutch to get up, she hobbled across the wipe-clean flooring. While she’d been sitting waiting, the floor had been sheened over by KleenBots twice; first when a thin, sickly-looking child puked all over himself and the floor, and second when an old man had urinated on it, shouting something threatening in a foreign language. Security had arrived and took him away, then the KleenBots had buzzed in.

Frankie got to the appointed desk without slipping over and sat down.

The Welfare Officer was a woman, bland-looking, severe.

“Mrs Simkins?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“How can Welfare help you today, Mrs Simkins?”

“I, erm…I need a crisis loan.”

“I see.” The WO prodded buttons on her computer, and scanned the screen.

“Mrs Simkins, you’ve had three Crisis Loans from us in the past four years, one of them still outstanding. You don’t qualify for another.” The WO was closing the file on the computer; that was it, it was not negotiable.

“But I can’t afford it any more. Everything’s gone up. I can’t pay my bills. Please, make an exception, I’m begging you.”

“Mrs Simkins, you’re aware of the current state of the economy? And the war, too is very expensive. You don’t qualify for another loan.”

“But I’ve got a family to feed. Please… look…do you have any children? You must know what it’s like?”

“My status is of no concern here,” said the WO plainly.

“Please help me.” Frankie was close to tears now, but trying to sniff the emotion back into her nose. “I need help.”

“You know the procedure, Mrs Simkins. There can be no loan,” She swiped at her computer screen; “Do you still have three children, Mrs Simkins?”

“Yes, three. Jilly’s just a baby, I can’t afford her milk formula.”

“Are you telling me you’d like me to open a Social Care Order?”

“What’s that?”

“We would redistribute your baby. It would ease your financial situa-”

“No! No-one’s taking my baby!” Frankie nearly screamed, between tears now too numerous to dam.

“Then perhaps you would like a token to take to your clinic. The State would meet the cost of your womb being biologically dessicated.”

“I can’t do that! I’m only 28. Look, it’s just my budget’s really squeezed. I can’t feed-” She nearly said, ‘I can’t feed my kids’, but stopped herself; they would probably be taken away if she said that. “Me and my husband barely eat. The kids get it all. Please, I just need a few hundred.”

“I see your husband works in the Uranium Plant. A labourer. Are you still looking for work, Mrs Simkins?”

Frankie’s tears stopped with astonishment. She stood up on her crutch and took a couple of hops away from the desk. “Haven’t you seen my problem? How am I supposed to keep a family together and clean and fed, and then go out to work and labour somewhere. Who would employ me?” She aimed her plastic stump at the Welfare Officer. “I’ve only got one bloody leg, for Christs sake!”

“OK, Mrs Simkins, please sit down. There’s no need for hysterics.” She swiped more screen, ruffled more papers. Frankie sat back down.

“Clearly you know all the benefits of the system,” the WO said,
“Therefore you know that there will be no crisis loan today, or in fact, any other day until you’ve repaid what is outstanding.”

Frankie was about to get up and leave; she was considering urinating on the floor on her way out.

“All we can offer is to further lighten your load…if you were willing to make a Contribution to the War Effort. I’m obligated by my employers to inform you that a single Contribution to the State will lessen your nutritional needs and therefore your personal food intake by up to nine percent. With a hungry family to feed, this could make your life just that tiny bit easier. And, of course, you’d also receive all the appropriate benefits for your Contribution, which now include the new Severance Allowance for six months.”

Frankie was dabbing her eyes; the tears had gone, but reality remained.

“Just one more loan,” she said. “That’s all I’m asking. I’m desperate.”

“Desperate times require desperate measures, Mrs Simkins.”

Frankie sighed, defeated. “But…it’s hard now. How would I manage?”

“You seem to be a strong woman…but something in your family has to give. The baby is still an option.”

“No. God, no,” said Frankie. She sat for a moment, head bowed, weighing up the devil and the deep blue sea.

“Alright,” she said, finally, “if there’s no other way… I suppose I’ll have to…”

The WO reached into a drawer for the correct papers, and began to put the process in motion.

“…before I change my mind.” Frankie said under her breath.

Applications were filled, papers signed, and financial support determined in a little under twenty minutes. Frankie had remained mostly quiet; she was deflated, beaten.

“Ok, Mrs Simkins, that’s all correct,” said the WO and pointed to the far end of the office. “Booth number six has just become free. You can go straight in. Your new benefit package will begin immediately. Thank you once again for your worthy sacrifice to our great country. Goodbye, Mrs Simkins.”

Frankie hauled herself up, massaged her palms on her forehead, and hobbled over to Booth Six. The door was standing open, and she went in, forcing herself not to hop like hell away from the place.
In the room was a man in a white plastic coat. He closed the door behind her, and slipped on the ‘engaged’ sign.

“Hello again, Mrs Simkins,” he said, quite cheerily, as he changed his white rubber surgeons gloves, “What did you have in mind, this time?”

Frankie was crying again, and shaking her head.

“Oh, don’t you fret,” said the doctor, as he handed her a surgical gown. “They graft them on really quickly these days, and they’re so much more versatile than the prosthetics. Six months or so, and our boys and girls are back on the front line. If you could just get changed into the gown please.”

Frankie began to cross the room, heading for the changing area.

“What do you think, then?” the doctor said, as he readied the anaesthetic mask. “Perhaps an arm this time? Those robotic ones are so fiddly; our soldiers like nothing better than real fingers.”

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.