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 My pictures were several years old and out of date in a few cosmetic ways: I’d given up glasses for contacts, and my once close trimmed black hair was now shaggy and laced with silver.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?

Our Mutual Friend

Mommy sang to me. She meant to sing only to me, but she sang to you too since you were there as well. She could sing more notes than there were stairs leading up to the fourth floor where our apartment was back when we lived in the city. This was before she bought our first house, “a house of our own, Sweetie,” she said. It was small, like a box, with only the rooms we needed. I sometimes wanted a bigger house like my friends. They had more toys and space to play, more indoor space away from the mud and slush in our front yard, my play space. Still, I liked our house. I could hear the birds sing from my window every morning and identify them by their calls, like you had taught me. Then we moved again. I did not know why then, Tobias.

Mommy and I moved a lot. There was a time when I was four when Mommy and I moved late in the night. She had me hide in a suitcase. That was the night I learned grown-ups could be scared. She told me to go in, and that she would zip me up. “Don’t make a sound,” she said. “If you do, we’ll get in big trouble.” Shortly after I was all zipped up, I heard loud angry voices climb up the stairs of our apartment. I think they broke down our door. I squeezed myself as small as I could. The suitcase was so tight, and I felt the fabric all around me. I could not see anything it was so dark. The air was stuffy, and tasted like sweat and cloth. I shuddered and tried not to squirm. I wanted to scream, but I remembered Mommy’s words, so I put my hand over my mouth and cried really quietly.

I listened and heard a man’s voice call Mommy “Paula”. I had recently learned that Mommy had another name that grownups called her: Paula. He kept asking where Genevieve was. Genevieve, Genevieve, Genevieve. Mommy said that she put her up for adoption, something like that. Eventually, the men left, and Mommy said I could come out of the suitcase. I gasped to breathe the air. She slumped into a chair breathing heavily. She looked like I felt when I would come crawling into her bed after a scary dream. I thought she was afraid, so I cried, and Mommy held me. We left hurriedly, scared that we would be seen since it was a full moon, but only a barn owl saw us as it flew across the sky. You told me what type of bird that was later.

Maybe that night is why I met you, Tobias. We were on a train, while Mommy and I were in the process of moving. It was the day after she had me hide in the suitcase. I think she was exhausted. I had never seen her nap before. I sat on her lap while her head fell back into the seat. Her eyes closed, and her mouth fell open. I stared at her. Her head lurched with bumps, and she never reacted. I poked her arm, surprised that she did not scold me, because it is rude to poke. Instead she continued sleeping, and I remembered being in the suitcase. I started crying again, but then I met you. You sat across from us at that moment in our compartment, calmly watching us. You were a grownup like Mommy with forest colored eyes and dark hair. I startled. You had not been there before, and I knew Mommy had locked the compartment.

“Mommy, Mommy,” I said, and like any mommy, she woke up at the sound of her child’s voice.

“What?” she groggily answered with her eyes closed.

“Look,” I said pointing at you.

“What?”

“Look.”

“That’s the seat.” And then you were no longer there.

“Oh.” I said. “I poked you when you were sleeping.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have.”

Afraid of where the conversation could go, I changed the subject. “Mommy, who’s Genevieve.”

“Oh you heard that. I had hoped you had fallen asleep in the suitcase.”

“But who’s Genevieve?”

“Sweetie, Genevieve isn’t real. She’s someone that man wants to be real.”

“What’s apopsion?”

“Adoption? Adoption is when you don’t have parents, so other parents become your parents.”

Crusaders

Beneath the September night sky, black as a pool of ink, sharp orange flames illuminated London. They were like pits of fire from a hellish world, with great billowing clouds of smoke, demons released from their confines. Or so it appeared to Will.

Flying five thousand feet above the city in his Spitfire aircraft, Will was caught in the thick of the smoke. Although it clustered around the fires closer to the ground, up here, smoke from the bombed sites merged into a dark haze that obscured not only the other planes in his squadron, but the German bombers as well. Will could just see the tail of Eric’s plane off to his left, wavering in and out of the miasma. His hands clenched the stick with expert concentration, and he had strapped his goggles onto the top of his head so that the additional glass wouldn’t obscure his vision.

This was by far the worst he had seen. Admittedly, at nineteen years old, he hadn’t seen much, but beneath his laser focus on the surrounding battle, his imagination styled this as an apocalypse with those demons rising from the inferno, and the people below fleeing from incinerated hideaways toward deeper shelters. Or perhaps just giving up. Will could never understand that, giving up. That was why he and his cousin Rory had come to England, leaving their family on the Isle of Skye to join the RAF. Because if the world was going to end in a hellfire, Will would rather burn in the conflagration than starve on its outskirts.

These melancholy considerations were halted, however, when Jim’s voice sounded in his headset, scratchy with a static buzz. “This is Jim Hartshorne. Squadron leader is down. I repeat, Reginald’s plane is down. I’m taking his position at the front.”

Will bit his lip. He continued flying in the formation, at least, what he assumed was still the formation. Jim, only two years Will’s senior, was a master at improvisation, but leading the squadron was another matter entirely.

“Backing you up on your left,” Will heard Eric’s voice in response.

Then Jim spoke up again. “I see a bomber up ahead, fifty feet above us. Will, I want you after him.”

“You want me to break formation?” Will spoke into his microphone, which was flush against the side of his jaw.

“I want you to do what you were made to.” Jim’s voice was barely audible amid the static. Perhaps the radio tower had taken a hit. “It’s not ideal, but damn, is any of this ideal?”

Although Will knew that was a rhetorical question, he still responded, “No.”

“Then go get the bastard. You’re the sharpest pilot here. Besides, you’ve got the best plane.”

It was true, at least, the part about his plane; Will couldn’t say that he was sharper than the other pilots, though he always trained the hardest.

“Gain some altitude first,” Jim continued. “Then shoot him down like a vengeful angel. I want that plane out of commission in five minutes. You hear? Go get him, fairy boy.”

“I’m on it.” Will felt like adding something to effect of not calling him ‘fairy boy,’ but decided that now was not the time. Yet it did make him glance to the top left of his dashboard where a small picture was taped above the controls, the source of his nickname. It was a picture of the tattered Fairy Flag. Its pale yellow-brown silk was worn thin so that it was no longer a square, but a haphazard sort of polygon. Upon its surface were red spots, forming no particular pattern, “elf dots” as Will’s grandmother called them. Although it looked like no more than a rag in the picture, when he had seen it in person, taken out from where it was usually locked in a wooden chest at Dunvegan, the MacLeod family castle on the Isle of Skye, he had sensed a power within it. It was easily overlooked at a cursory glance, but it was as if each thread had been woven by the singing voices of fairies, bringing the strength of the Other World into it. Even after the other men of his squadron had no shortage of amusement at Will’s expense after having bribed Rory into telling them that the picture was of the Fairy Flag, Will never went on any expedition without it.

Although its origins were shrouded in mystery, the flag was known to protect the clan MacLeod. It had supposedly won them various battles in the past, and had also stopped a plague some centuries ago. Will wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, but it gave him a strange sense of courage. He didn’t believe that it came from fairies, and was not at all certain about its reputed powers, but it was an emblem of the courage of his people, his distant ancestors as well as his family back home, and the hope for their future.

As he ascended to overtake the German plane, he could hear the whir of his Spitfire’s propellers speeding faster and faster. He had gained enough altitude, so focused in on the plane below, weaving in and out of the smoke like a sea monster only half visible in dark waters. Yet it was visible enough to shoot.

Before Will could become that avenging angel, an enormous bang deafened him. It reverberated down to his bones, and a swarm of heat washed over him. The choking smell of burning fuel pervaded his senses, and the front of his plane surged with flames. He quickly brought his goggles back down over his scalding eyes.

Despite having been hit—probably by a bomber hidden in the smoke above him—he was heading right into the path of the German plane below. He tried to eject, for he would burn up in a moment. Yet the latch on his seat had fused together from the fire creeping beneath the plane, and his hands burned beneath his leather gloves when he touched it. He had nearly reached the German plane, though he tried to turn off to the right to gain himself more time.

Please, he thought, glancing to his picture. If you can do anything, if—

He felt himself whirl into a misting gyre. It was not his plane that was falling, nor even his body, but his mind seemed to be travelling alone. Down he swept, hardly aware of his surroundings, not even able to be dizzy with the great speed at which he was descending. And then even the gyre was gone, and all sensation left him.