Science Fiction

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.

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.

Ephemerality

I saw him on a walk after Learning. I don’t usually interact with long people, but when I saw him brush his shining black hair from his eyes, I was transfixed. I waited around the pool until he came off the stand.

“My name’s Cali,” I said. He towered over me. I hadn’t been able to see how tall he was from a distance. My whole body tingled. I shouldn’t be doing this.

“Can I help you?” His voice was soft, with a hint of an accent. Maybe Thai? I’d query it in Learning tomorrow. “I’m off shift right now, but I suppose I could answer a quick question.”

“Oh, I’m not a pool patron,” I said too quickly, trying not to let my face grow hot. “I’m new in town,” I said. I regretted the lie instantly. “But I thought you looked about my age…” far from it. He was teenaged and I was three.

“My name’s Kusa. I was about to go join my friends at the park. Do you want to come?”

I smiled and nodded.

Blindsight

Warren fell into the backseat of the taxi and let the stillness settle over him.

“The wind will tear the clothes off your bloody back,” the cab driver said.

“Yeah, well, at least it’s dry today.”

The cabby pulled away and switched on the radio. A sombre female reporter announced: It’s official, we can now add the Butterflyfish to the list of marine species extinct in the wild. Numbers of coral fish have dropped dramatically since the unexplained death of large parts of coral in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

“Is that for real, another one?” Warren said. He leaned forward. “Turn it up please?”

But it was too late; the reporter had moved on to the next horror story, yet another fatal air crash over the city. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch had cancelled all flights over central London until they carried out a full investigation into the multiple, seemingly unrelated accidents.

“Bloody madness,” the cabby mumbled. “People are wondering why this stuff is happening, ain’t they? Well, if they read the Bible they’d understand…”

Warren nodded politely and closed his mind to the cabby’s melodramatic reckonings. He was late visiting his mother and would have to put in another all-nighter at his lab tonight. The thought made his head throb.

The nursing home looked like the other neighbouring Victorian town houses. There was no shortage of profit in converting large houses into homes for the rising number of mentally ill. The only things that identified their purpose were subtle signs set back into the wide driveways. Warren’s mother, Joyce, had never outright said she liked it here, but Warren knew she enjoyed walking the grounds and listening to the residents natter.

Joyce was in her room. The walls were cream, the carpet a slightly darker wheatgrass. The cleaner had made the bed up with white linen to exact standards. Joyce’s only piece of personal furniture was her pale wooden chair with white floral cushions. A far-side window overlooked well-tended gardens, and the TV hanging from the wall angled down towards the chair, switched off. But Joyce stared up at it as if enthralled by an epic romance.

“Hi, Mum. What’s happening?”

She stiffened slightly, but didn’t face him.

Warren pulled up a stool from under a desk and lightly touched Joyce’s arm. Perhaps there was a hint of a smile, perhaps not.

“Are you okay, Mum?”

It was a standard question. He didn’t expect an answer, not when she was like this. He’d be lucky to get a coherent sentence out of her today.

“Work’s busy. The project deadline is this Friday and I haven’t even tested my scanning system yet.”
Joyce jolted like she’d just woken up. Her lips curled up into a sharp smile. “You better get it finished or they won’t pay you,” she said.

“Well, yeah. I know that, Mum. I was just… Never mind.”

“Your grandfather used to spend most of his money hot from the pay envelope, you know? The landlord of the Dog’s Inn did well, mind. I bet his daughters didn’t go hungry.”

Joyce’s breathing quickened, and her eyes glinted with tears.

“It’s okay.” Warren took her hand and looked her in the eye. “It’s my turn to look after you now, me and the nurses here.”

Joyce relaxed. Her frightened expression dissipated through an emerging smile, a breath-taking glimpse of the strong woman she had been. “Warren, I know you look out for me. You’re a good boy.” She giggled, then leant forward, her face darkened to a knowing frown. Warren braced himself.

“I see them every day now, the hidden people. They fly in the clouds and spit their germs down on us. They make us crazy.”

Warren choked back sorrow. “Things will get better. The work we’re doing is taking us closer to mapping the brain. We’ll soon understand why so many people are falling ill like you. Maybe, one day soon, we will find a cure.”

Joyce’s expression glazed over. Her gaze stared through her son. He waited a minute, still and silent, then leant forward and kissed her.

“See you tomorrow, Mum.”

No Other God Before Me

Darkness does not come gently to Chongjin. It doesn’t creep over the purpling hills and into the cracks, like back in Mexico City. It’s not Novosibirsk, where night falls like a cheap blanket, and you end up shivering even in the jaws of summer. There is no golden hour here, no photogenic streamers of twilight curling up through the flaking tenements, no calls of mothers to their children to find their way home. None of that, no. Over here, night is a sudden lead pipe to the back of the head. Breathe in while I’m turning a corner in one of the container crate shanty- towns ringing the city, still squinting into the desiccating crush of grimed daylight. Breathe out and everything goes black, a basement door slammed shut and nailed into place, right when I’d just managed to pick up the scent again. I try to relax, to give my senses some space to adjust, hoping the scattered doorframes of coal fires would be enough to illuminate the squeezing alleys with an ashen glow. But when my eyes keep drifting towards the poorly synched LED boards flickering to life, diffusing the maze of sheet metal and plywood into a limbo of dimly reflected Korean celebrities, I know it’s time to let the bike go before I smash myself into a wall. That’d be some future archaeologists wet dream, wouldn’t it? What’s this here stuffed between the rat skeletons, the packing peanuts and the inch-thick layer of feces? An Irishman having relations with a rental scooter? Surely there’s a prize for that.

I should have a plan to hide the bike away for later, but realistically, what were the chances it or I would be here again? So I hand the keys to an anonymous pair of outstretched hands and bowl the helmet down a septic drain. Without the wind and the visor I can really suck in a good bit of the world. The world immediately obliges back, crawling down my throat and up my nose before nesting in my paranasal attic. I take a few half-steps one way, then backwards again, spin half a clock. Calm down, try again. At least it’s not Nampo, no rusting helicopters constantly tumbling overhead, no roving bands of masked gunmen picking through the abandoned resorts for underprepared chaos-touristas. It’s actually still long enough for me to sort out the distinctive chemical trail from the sifting clouds of cooking oil, rotting garbage, drifts of methane. I lean west, there, closer, I can just about tongue the slot, when a trio of kids on ATVs scream past, each one carting a trailer piled high with corroded car batteries. The acid snaps at my membranes and immediately wipes the trail away. Well then. Fuck. Time to resign myself to an old fashioned hunt-and-peck.

Head down, micro-fiber scarf wrapped around my face, I barrel into the human smog of the open market. I get some strange looks, some defensive tugging at waistbands for a weapon, a phone, who cares. I’m not worried. Sometimes I believe I’m protected by the lingering halo of several decades of oppressive propriety, a shepherd still faintly recognized by the sheep. Or maybe I’m just another pale white asshole in a long line going back to the first sails that pricked their horizon. Either way, no one has the energy to bother with a foreigner sniffing around their blackened chickens and cisterns of baby formula.

It’s in the third row of makeshift tents, among a jungle of antiquated three-prong power cords, that I get another taste of it. I tug at my scarf. Barely there, just a few dozen molecules. Difficult to describe. Something like a pop of color, or a memory trapped in the back of your mouth. Just a hint, but more than enough to start pushing me back towards what I am. If you ask my employers, they’ll insist on labeling me a warrior, a samurai, their blessed servant of honor and virtue. Watch their faces and you’ll know it’s bullshit even as they say it, because what I really am is their dog, a bloodhound or a beagle, something low to the ground. That’s what they pay me to be, in cash and in life. Besides, from the scraps of history I’ve read on the subject, real samurai weren’t really known for their shoving through crowds and inconspicuously smelling the backs of stranger’s necks. And I’ve yet to find a museum with a woodcut of a samurai passed out in a filthy hotel room, bruised prostitutes weeping at his feet.

Soon I’ve caught another scent ribbon, purer this time, a solid synesthetic burst of lemon yellow. I ducked under the rubber tarp and there she is, a shriveled old woman peeking out from behind a stack of Batman t-shirts. Gentle cataracts, skin like onion paper. In the right light, she could have been one of my parishioners, back two lifetimes ago. Except … she stinks of it, packed into every wrinkle on her ancient face, balled up in her tear ducts, matted into her tightly knit hair. My anus clenches at the smell.

I stand in her cramped stall, filling what little space she had with my presence, my palms open between us as if to receive the rain. I withdraw the crucifix from the folds of my jacket and ask her one simple question, one of the few Korean phrases I’ve bothered to memorize, other than How Much and Like That and Get The Fuck Out Of My Face. But this one I know the best. I can say it in over a hundred different languages and dialects. It’s critical that I get it right every time, because this is how the Procedure starts.

“Do you believe?”

Back at the seminary, people always asked why the phrasing is so important. Why those exact words? The monk patiently explains the simulations, the models, the millions of A-B tests run against every personality type. He tells us, even if it seems too obvious, we know this is the right question, that it will open the door to grace almost every time. Then some cocky smart-ass, usually an American, invariably a Texan, inevitably raises his hands and says what about the times it don’t?

The monk sagely taps the Procedure and drags his finger to the bottom of the scroll.

Then, my child, you have permission to skip to the end.

The old woman doesn’t budge and I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those rare skips, but then her eyes suddenly widen as if I had just appeared out of thin air. A creaky grin sprouts from the wrinkles on her chin and she nods and the blue veins on her neck throb with life. I dangled the crucifix again in front of her face. No reaction. I make sure no one else can see us and with a magician flip of the wrist replace the crucifix with a porcelain cameo of Kim-Il Sung. She blinks at it, her thoughts stuttering again, then with a little sigh she shakes her head and disappears under the counter. My muscles instinctively tense, but all she dredges out is an ancient, dinged-up laptop. The hard drive lights flutter and photos start fading in and out of each other, tinted in false sepia. I don’t have to understand her words to know what she’s saying. This is my grandmother. This is our family farm. This is great-uncle whoever. This little girl, this is me, and I realize that she can’t be any more than thirty years old. This country ages its people with a rare furiousness. When I first crossed the abandoned border into the former DPRK, it was like walking into the pages of a dim fairy tale, and everyone I met was a ghost or a gnome.

She rubs her hands together and repeats the same invocation over and over again. Her fingers brush gently against a ceremonial bottle of wine and a bowl of steaming white rice. Ancestor worship. Not uncommon around these longitudes, just another variety of the sectarian froth that bubbled over the peninsula after the bloody pop of their totalitarian cork. Not that the particular flavor of faith makes a difference, not to me, certainly not to the Procedure. The only thing that matters is that it is unearned.

I break out my most benevolent smile and wave my hand in a circle, shrug my shoulders, point to her laptop. I show her my crucifix again, still warm. I pat my heart and in my best, mealy-mouthed translation, wonder aloud: Where Can I Get Some? She rewards me with a silly look, as if I was asking for directions to Neptune, and I’m already mentally preparing for another week in this shithole, sleeping in the corner of an abandoned shipping crate. Then she raises her finger and points over my head, out of the market, to the crystalline glow of the illuminated cranes clustered along the port. I raise my eyebrows, More Details Please? She taps the wine bottle, looks eastward again. I quickly duck under the tarp and make a tentative sniff towards the scab of supply warehouses and truck depots between us and the water. Nothing. Wait. On a feather of sea-wind, the hint of a memory. A glass of gin with a twist of lemon.

I thank her and bow deeply. She bows back, smiling, nearly giddy to have helped a fellow believer. The lines on her face melt away and I catch an idea of the girl she could have been. We appraise each other quietly. I’m counting the seconds in my head. The Procedure notes that the next step can be taken up to a minute later. I always wait that entire minute. I never start early.

Forty seconds. More ATVs roar by, accompanied by the jeers of youthful exuberance.

Fifty-two seconds. The woman gazes at the images on her laptop. I hear the rattle of her phlegm-drowning lungs. I smell the flush of sweat down her back. Love fills her body.

Sixty seconds.

The hilt is out of my pocket and in my hand. In a microsecond, a needle pricks my thumb, scans my blood, and the Word scalds the air between us in milky light. She raises a single finger, as if to shush me. Then her finger is gone, her arm is gone, her guts spill out onto the ground and then those are gone as well. I step into the space where she just was and cross myself, an old habit, before smashing her laptop under my boot. The digital spirits of her family tree flicker away in a crackle of plastic and silicon.

At two-hundred seconds, when the explosives go off, I’m already making my way towards the blue-haloed lights of the port, trying to ignore the sudden caress of thermabaric heat, carrying maroon notes of smoldering rubber, charred meat. Ashes to ashes, yes, I know.

Gateway to Knara

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

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

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

Keep moving.

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

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

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

How many more could she survive?

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

“We can’t rest here. Can you walk?”

She nodded.

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

Let’s Go Find Karl

Melinda Koi flexed her right hand, enjoying the new freedom the tune-up gave. The thumb still felt a little gummy, but it was better than it had been in months. Someday, she thought, she was going to get the whole prosthesis replaced. Mercedes were making some nice parts these days, but that would take a lottery win.

It made her think of Karl. She had to remind herself that it was okay to be not in love with him because he wasn’t really Karl anymore anyway. Her hand was a constant reminder.

“Earth to Mel,” Damon said.

“Sorry,” she said. She came away from the apartment’s balcony. Beyond, out over the bay, a gull called, looking for somewhere to settle for the night.

Inside Damon lay stretched out on the lie-low, staring up at her curve.

It hung over him, bowed and floating like a jellyfish.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Like I was trying to tell you. Messages from Karl. He wants us to bring out his lobotomy fragment.”

Melinda flexed her hand again. “Bring it where?” She glanced over at the icebox, glad that she’d been able to give the disgusting thing back to Damon. She had a tiny inkling that Damon had only shifted apartments so that he didn’t have to have it around. It had seemed like a favor, but four weeks with a piece of Karl’s brain in her refrigerator was a month too long.

“He says the DeCataur brothers want their money.”

Melinda sat on the velour squab next to the lie-low. Pulling up the side of the curve, she looked in at the display. Her thumb twitched.
The curve twisted a little, the display daughtering across and reformatting to her view. It showed her a news ticker. The DeCataur company facing more litigation and class-actions over the state of the Delaware Bay.

“Here.” Damon sat up. The curve flowed away, settling on the vertical, looking less like a sea creature and more like a television. The weather appeared as if it was going to rain once more. Damon spread his hands and the news ticker and weather faded into thin, faint strips around the edge with the ads for Coke and Hyundai. His mailbox filled the main part of the display. “Here,” he said, pointing at one of the messages.

Fourteen million. Can you get that through today?

“Fourteen!” Melinda said.

“Keep reading. It’s not that bad.”

The Metastasis

I saw them first but they saw me, too.

They were orange and wore masks with tubes that twisted out of their mouths and noses. I couldn’t tell what they were but I was sure they were aliens, just like the ones my older brother Matt would tell me were hiding in my bedroom closet and under my bed.

“As soon as you fall asleep,” he’d say, “they’ll jump out and get you.

Aliens love little girls!”

I ran to him since he was an expert on these kinds of things. He was on our back porch playing cards with Grandma and Mom, Buster the beagle at his feet, while he joked about how bad they were getting thrashed by a ten-year-old. Not just any ten-year-old, though, a genius ten-year-old.

At least that’s what Matt always told me.

I reached his side just as he was throwing up his arms in a triumphant gesture.

Grandma threw down her cards.

Mom high-fived him. “Another win. I can’t believe it.” She smiled when she saw me. “Where have you been, Steph?”

“Out front.”

She winked. “I think it’s about time for some of Grandma’s birthday cake. What do you say?”

“Sweet!” Matt replied.

I nodded. As soon as Grandma and Mom went inside to light the candles, I pulled on Matt’s arm. “Come here.”

“What?”

“There’s something out front. Come look.”

“Wait. I want some cake first.”

I pulled on his arm again. “Now.”

“Geesh, Steph. You can wait at least five minutes.”

I had to hold back the tears as we sang Happy Birthday. My mouth was dry, my throat stuffed with cotton. What if the aliens came to get me while we were dilly-dallying with birthday songs and celebrations?

Grandma closed her eyes to make a wish; she took a deep breath, and blew out the candles.

“What did you wish for, Grandma?” Matt asked.

“If I tell you, then it won’t come true.”

“Come on. That’s an old wives’ tale.”

She sighed. “Alright. I wished for another happy and cancer-free year. I’m already pushing it, you know. There hasn’t been another person to live to sixty in at least ten years.” Her eyes shifted. “I’m the oldest person in the world.”

They ate cake silently. I didn’t want any. My stomach was all cartwheels and somersaults.

As soon as Matt swallowed his last bite, and with chocolate icing smeared on his lips, I grabbed his arm. “Come on!”

This time he followed me. Our ten acres in rural Ohio were spotted with fruit and maple trees. Mom had a garden where she planted beans, onions, tomatoes, and flowers, but the rest of our yard was a field that Matt had to mow every week because the grass grew quick and thick and tickled our legs when it was high.

“What’s so important?”

I pointed to the tree that an alien had been hiding behind. “It’s there.”

“What is?”

“An alien.”

His neck strained. He squinted. “I don’t see anything.”

“It was right there. It’s probably hiding somewhere else now.” My voice softened to a whisper. “I think it saw me.”

He put an arm around my shoulders. “Don’t worry, Steph, we’ll find it. I won’t let it hurt you.”

There was a large stick in the bushes lining the house. He pulled it out and held it in front of him like a sword. “Aliens hate sticks,” he said.

I shadowed him, my sweaty hands gripping the back of his shirt, as we darted from one tree to another until we were eyeing the alien’s hideout from an arm’s length away. My heart was racing.

We crept closer.

The screams were raw and piercing. Matt took off towards the shouting at the back of the house but my strides were no match for his longer ones. When I got there the orange aliens had invaded the porch. Two of them were holding Mom down while three others were dragging Grandma away. Buster was running in circles, nipping at their heels. Spittle rocketed from his mouth when he barked and lunged at one of them. The alien kicked him away.

Matt raced towards them and jabbed at an alien with his stick before sidestepping and jabbing at another.

Two syringes were pulled out. Both Mom and Grandma were injected.

I hid behind a tree, hot tears spilling from my eyes.

Grandma was taken. Mom lay on the ground, unmoving. They left Matt and I.

The stick didn’t keep the aliens at bay.

Matt found me sometime later. It felt like it’d been hours but he said it’d only been minutes. I was curled in a fetal position, my hands over my ears, my eyes shut tight.

“They’re gone,” he said. “It’s okay now. I have to call the police.”

I hugged Buster who was sitting up, alert. Matt dialed from his cell phone and relayed our address. “An ambulance, too,” he said. “Mom’s not moving.”

He appeared to listen. “No, she’s breathing. But they injected her with something.”

After the call ended, he stood ready, eyes alert, his stick raised high.

I learned two things that day: One, you should always keep your birthday wishes to yourself. And two, aliens might wait and watch in the dark shades of night but they bite during the clear light of day.

Remember New Roanoke

Two roiling suns scorched the desert landscape as the gaunt man stumbled toward the bivouac site. Commodore Tina Morales wiped the sweat off her brow and took another glimpse through her binos. More bone than man, the colonist seemed almost feral. His shredded and grimy olive drab coveralls hung from his skeletal frame like a parachute.

The commodore had planned to send an expedition out to New Roanoke within forty-eight hours. She’d wanted to go sooner, but her command team had needed time to analyze the probes’ data.

Keying the comms device secured around her right ear, she said, “Reaper Six, this is Falcon Six, SITREP. Over.”

“Falcon Six. Reaper Six. Wait one,” Colonel Carlson replied.

She rolled her eyes. Space marines. Any chance they had to assert their authority over a fleet officer, they took it. Still, she was the highest-ranking officer on the expedition. Her only crime was she wasn’t a space marine, but she played along, because she needed them more than they needed her. “Reaper Six. Standing By.”

“Falcon Six. Identified male survivor at five-point-zero klicks and closing. Permission to engage with lethal force?”

Carlson had always been trigger happy, but this request was absurd. She was convinced he was the wrong man for this mission. She needed a ground commander who saw the world in shades of gray, not through a black and white prism.

She keyed her comms device. “Negative. Stand down. Acknowledge.”

“Negative. Contact could be infected. Over.”

An alien pathogen was a logical hypothesis. Over the last fifty years, something had reduced the colony’s population from the two hundred and fifty souls on the original colony ship’s manifest to fewer than ten.

What Morales found even more intriguing were the thousands of heat signatures remote probes had detected beyond the eastern mountains, but remote DNA spectral analysis had determined there was no human genetic material there, so Admiral Chu had limited operations to within fifty klicks of New Roanoke.

The intel was a one-time deal. The United Earth Ship Eldridge would be moving on toward the nearest star in twenty-four hours. After that, the expedition would be on its own and Morales would be in charge.

“Reaper Six. Engage with stun weapons only. Acknowledge.”

A long pause followed. “Acknowledged.”

“Reaper Six. Give me a SITREP in fifteen minutes. Out.”

Two six-wheeled mobiles carrying a space marine platoon streamed past. The marines seemed frisky this morning, almost too frisky. They’d never operated in a one-point-one gee environment before, and she worried their bodies might break before their enthusiasm did.

Morales surveyed the horizon. She still couldn’t get over seeing two suns in Alpha Centauri Prime’s sky, and knowing that somewhere out there laid the answer to the great mystery that had spurred her parents to leave Earth in an interstellar generation ship forty-four years earlier. Three quarters of the crew had been born in space, and this was the first time most of them, including her, had ever set foot on a terrestrial surface.